Whilst extreme events and ultra marathons are these days so very popular, years ago they tended to be few and far between where only those who were considered to be either superhuman or shall we say, ‘off the wall’, took part. 

Times really have changed and whilst there are now so many more extreme events, the formats of such races have also changed. Even those which have stood the test of time such as the famous London to Brighton 53-mile road race is now a 100km trail race. 

However, one old classic race with a difference which still exists in its original format is The World Coal Carrying Championships where competitors race over 1,013 metres uphill whilst carrying a sack of coal weighing in at 50kg for the men and 20kg for the women. 

My good friend Chris Mackie – ex paratrooper (1 Para) prior to becoming a Physical Training Instructor for the RAF (Coltishall and Marham) and Royal New Zealand Air Force told me back in 1996 that he had entered the race and how it was his dream to win what really is a prestigious title in his hometown of Gawthorpe in West Yorkshire. 

Eastern Daily Press: A young Chris Mackie third from left training with the Parachute Regiment

“My first recollection of the race was somewhere around the mid 1970s when I was about six or seven years of age,” he said. “I remember walking to the start from my house on a cold Easter Monday morning with my dad who was telling me all about the history of the event. There was already a cycle race in progress which used to precede the coal race. However, the next thing I knew I was seeing runners appear out of the mist looking like gladiators with large bags of coal on their shoulders. The huge crowd of spectators were screaming and cheering them on. That was it and the seed was planted whilst telling my dad that one day I would win this race.” 

His training had gone well and not only was he looking to win but also confident that he could break the record of four minutes, six seconds, which at the time was held by the current champion David Jones of Huddersfield. 

The starter’s gun fired and away the 30-strong field charged whilst loudly being cheered on by the usual huge crowd. 

Despite tucking in behind Jones, with just 100 metres to go, his legs all but folded whilst also losing vision.  

“Just make it to the finish line,” he told himself and he did before falling to the floor whilst desperately trying to suck in air. 

David Jones had of course defended his title with Chris having to settle for the bronze medal having been passed by another race specialist in John Hunter from Scarborough during those agonising last few metres. 

One year later (1997) he was back again, taking the runner’s up spot behind David Jones, and whilst victory still eluded him, his fixation on becoming the champion was now stronger than ever. 

However, and then after spending a further 12 months where every training session was done with the Coal Race in mind, whilst in the lead with just 50 metres to go, he dropped the sack off his shoulders resulting in him finishing in fourth place. 

Further disappointment was also to follow after developing a hernia which needed surgery and despite trying to get back into his running afterwards, each time he tried he broke down. 

At the time he thought it was the end of his running days but come 2004 he decided to go out for a run just to test himself. Despite feeling sluggish, all was fine and after a couple of more such runs, the dream of becoming the World Coal Carrying Champion was once again re-ignited. 

“What do you think about having another crack at the Coal Race?” he said to me over the phone. My reply: “Yes, why not, let’s do it!” and the training commenced. 

After several weeks and months of rebuilding his aerobic fitness, it was then a case of working more specifically with hill reps and 800/1,500 metre type training. Sometimes carrying weight and other times without it. Put it this way he got close to running 800 metres in two minutes flat (without weight) so we knew he was ready. 

So, come Easter Monday, 2005, there he was toeing the start line once again and whilst he was now aged 36, the training results were obvious that he was in great shape. 

Old adversary and race stalwart John Hunter noticed him and said: “What are you doing here?”  

“I thought I would give it one more try,” Chris replied. 

The pressure was also on John to create a new record of having the most race victories to his name. 

Nevertheless, Chris took off right from the gun and with the crowds cheering the runners on with their usual excited enthusiasm, he gave it his absolute all whilst powering his way up the final hill (Benny Harrop Hill) all the way to the finish line on the village green where he threw his sack of coal down on the ground shouting out ‘I have done it!’  

“I kept telling myself that John was right behind and ready to pounce which gave me the extra strength to keep going. Call it running scared if you like,” he said. 

Later that year, as the official world champion, Chris travelled up to Kelty in Scotland for the Scottish Coal Running Championships where he also took victory. 

Chris now lives in Kaua’i in Hawaii with his wife Elli and 10-year-old daughter Gracie. 

He has always kept himself fit particularly having trained for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for the last nine years where he is now very close to receiving his black belt. However, he has also recently taken up running again after a 15-year break and after reading Dean Karnazes’ book ‘The Road to Sparta,’ his dream is to train for and hopefully one day run in the 153-mile Spartathlon. 

Eastern Daily Press: Chris Mackie former World Coal Carrying Champion and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu expert.

Whilst there may not be too many people outside of Yorkshire who know all about this amazing old race, it is clearly a big part of the annual calendar’s events in that part of the country. 

For those who might want to know a bit more about the history of The World Coal Carrying Championships held in Gawthorpe – well it all came about in 1963 after two men were arguing as to who was the fittest in the local Beehive Inn.  

With one of the men being a coal merchant, it was suggested that they both race with a sack of coal weighing 50kg on their shoulders from the Royal Oak Pub to the Maypole situated on the village green; and hence The World Coal Carrying Championships was born with the first official race being held one year later in 1964. 

A few other facts being the race takes place each year on Easter Monday; John Hunter and Terry Lyons both hold the record for number of race wins (8) and David Jones still holds the course record. 

Chris Mackie is one of only two people from Gawthorpe to win the race and the ladies race record currently stands at 4:25 set by Catherine Foley in 2011 with Janine Burns holding the record for most victories (11).  

Oh and one other stat of interest, double Olympic Gold medallist James Cracknell and tv presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle both took part in 2008 where superman Cracknell said it was one of the toughest things he has ever done. 

As always – have a great running weekend… and just remember childhood dreams really can come true – just ask Chris Mackie.