For the last few years the Leek Half Marathon has been the benchmark by which the gradient of all other races is set, the standard that all other half marathons are held up against. When asked the question “is it hilly?” you always consider Leek before replying. Is the Coventry Half hilly? It is but it’s no Leek Half. Is the Wyre Forest Half hilly? It is but it’s no Leek Half. Is the Potters Arf hilly? It is but it’s no Leek Half. You get the idea. With 1220 feet of up hill running and 1210 feet of downhill you know it’s going to be a roller coaster of a half marathon and you’ll know that whatever gradient a race may throw at you in the future it’s nothing compared to this.
You know what to expect when all the suggested car parks are at the bottom of a hill making the walk to the start the first of a series of serious inclines. Inspecting the first half mile as a warm up you are met with a nice long descent away from the start line in Brough Park bringing smiles to runners faces, smiles that rapidly turn to frowns as they are brought back down to earth by the thought that they will have to finish up the same incline.
With the overdressed Leek Town Crier sending us on our way we tackled the same hill at race pace, some with the reckless abandon of the unknown hills to come, others a little more warily knowing what’s in store. Within a mile you start to climb along country lanes, passing the Abbey Inn and following the undulating road past Tittesworth Reservoir before turning right through the 4 mile point and onwards before reaching the Buxton Road. Running in the gutter alongside traffic cones the road drops away in front of you at a comfortable gradient, you can relax and let gravity do some of the work but then looking up you realise how steep the road becomes once you reach the trough and start to climb again, the sort of incline on which many cyclists out for the day run out of gears, an incline to turns the quads to jelly. Mercifully the course takes a left turn at Upper Hulme but only to find a different hill and the thighs are soon the consistency of Rowntrees Strawberry as you cover the best part of two miles of climbing past the evocatively named Hen Cloud and alongside The Roaches before plummeting, and it’s a definite plummet, towards 8 miles. The course reaches familiar territory once again at Meerbrook, taking the field past the reservoir and up and down back towards the finish. All that is left is that final thigh mashing, lung burning climb to the finish, a climb that makes a respectable time less respectable leaving all but the very best spent.
And the very best was Ryan Holroyd, the City of Stoke athlete running away from the field to claim victory in 1.17.30. Daniel Soltys of Stone Master Marathoners claimed 2nd place in 1.19.44 and Derby Triathlon Club’s, Chris Nicoll, took 3rd place in 1.22.00. In the ladies race it was a win for Gemma Barnett of Vale Royal AC in 1.34.56 from Chorlton Runners, Raquel Gutierrez, who finished in 1.37.46 and Jennifer Rich, the Steel City Strider stopping the clock in 1.39.15.
As races go you’d struggle to find a race as tough but the toughness of the race is rewarded with some fantastic scenery. Running across The Roaches you are compensated with a spectacular view of the Staffordshire countryside, fields stretched out like bed sheets in the valley like an Ordnance Survey map come to life, but then you spot the reservoir in the distance and realise you still have to get there and it seems an awfully long way. The Leek half is tough but with its rewards and once you’ve raced it no race will ever be the same.