'We will come back stronger': Gawthorpe World Coal Carrying Championship organisers pay tribute to NHS on the day the event is cancelled for the first time

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Every Easter Monday for the past 56 years the Union Flag has flown proudly atop the Maypole on the village green in Gawthorpe.

The pavements, pubs and clubs of the former pit village swarm with spectators as the community comes together to cheer on the men and women brave (or foolhardy) enough to take part in the World Coal Carrying Championships.

The unique event was established after an argument between three men in the 1960s.

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Men carrying coal sacks weighing 50kg and women carrying 20kg sacks do battle in fiercely contested races along a 1.1 kilometre route through the village, near Wakefield.

Susan Hall on her way to winning the 1973 women's raceSusan Hall on her way to winning the 1973 women's race
Susan Hall on her way to winning the 1973 women's race | other

Over the decades it has captured the attention of media across globe and has seen entrants travel from far and wide in the hope of becoming a world champion.

Today, for the first time since the inaugural day race in 1964, Gawthorpe's annual springtime jamboree will not go ahead.

Those pavements, pubs and clubs must remain deserted as the race becomes one of the countless casualties of Covid-19.

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An NHS flag will instead fly from the Maypole in honour of the frontline medical staff fighting to save lives.

George Crossland, one of the oldest competitors to have completed the coal race.George Crossland, one of the oldest competitors to have completed the coal race.
George Crossland, one of the oldest competitors to have completed the coal race. | other

Duncan Smith, coal race director and life-long Gawthorpe resident, said: "It will be a sad day for everyone connected with the race.

"Many of the competitors have spent months training in all weathers for the challenge and raising funds for charity.

"It will be frustrating not to see such hard work being rewarded.

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"I've been contacted by people saying they are just going to run around the garden with a sack of coal to mark the day.

"Before the lockdown restrictions got tighter, a few said they would come and run the course alone. But we don't anyone to do that.

"We all need to stay at home. This year we will fly the NHS flag in solidarity and do our bit.

"We will all come back together stronger next year."

Duncan said the 220 places for the men's, women's and veteran races were filling up fast at the time the decision was taken to cancel the event

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Favourite for the men's title was Driffield pig farmer Andrew Corrigan, who was aiming to lift the trophy for the third year in a row.

Duncan added: "We even had the double World Wife Carrying champion coming over from Lithuania to try to win it.

"It was a big disappointment for him when we had to tell him to stay at home."

The original idea for the coal race was formed, as with many bright ideas, down the pub.

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It came after a dispute between three local men - Reggie Sedgwisk, Amos Clapham and Lewis Hartley - in the Beehive Inn.

Amos Clapham was the local coal merchant and he threw down the challenge of racing with a sack of coal.

Duncan said: "When the first race was held the following year not one of those three turned up to take part!

"People used to just rock up in their working gear back in those days but it has got much more competitive over the years.

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"It is started off with just the one race for the men but has got bigger and bigger

"We have seven adult races in total now.

"With social media it has taken off even more in recent years. Since the 50th event, word has just spread far and wide.

"People are attracted by the quirkiness of it and the physical challenge for a variety of reasons

"It has grown into this really big community event with lots of money being raised for charity

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"Each year it's a bit like a big family coming back together.

"You see a lot of the same people and you get to know them. You see a real camaraderie between the people competing.

"The community is routed in mills and mining.

"It is a very Yorkshire thing."

Duncan said the winning times for the male and female races became quicker as entrants travelled from further afield to take part in the race.

Fell runners, particularly from the Lake District and Huddersfield area, have always fared well over the years.

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He said: "It may look like it, but It's not really a weight lifting event.

"You need lungs and legs. But it's about coping with a crushing weight so you can still get air into your lungs.

"A lot of it is about balance and technique with that sack. It's constantly moving the longer you run and get tired - the coal doesn't behave.

"I've had a go at the race three times myself over the years so I know how tough it is."

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Duncan, race director since 2008, has had a fascination with the event since watching the first races as a child,

He said: "There are some old photographs of me standing watching in places I should not have been.

"I've always been taken with it. The highlights are when you see multiple winners coming back year after year and winning.

"You shouldn't be biased but you can't helping routing for them sometimes.

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"It's always great to see the crowds cheer home the last runner every bit as loudly as the winner.

"But it's best of all when when you see someone from the village winning it.

"Last year Danielle Sidebottom won the women's race. She's a teacher at the local school

"I could really feel myself welling up with emotion."

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