Nos Galan: A Day in the Life
In this exhibition, you will experience a day in the life of a competitor in Nos Galan, the annual road race event which takes place in the village of Mountain Ash. Through objects belonging to the Cynon Valley Museum’s collection, you can learn of the history, structure, and traditions of this fantastic local event.
What is Nos Galan?
Nos Galan Races (Rasys Nos Galan) is an annual five kilometre (3.1 miles) road running event held on New Year’s Eve in Mountain Ash, The Cynon Valley.
The event was founded in 1958 by local runner and athlete, Bernard Baldwin. Today, it is organised by the Rhondda Cynon Taf Council and the Nos Galan Committee.
The race celebrates the life and legend of Griffith Morgan, known as Guto Nyth Bran. Guto became known for his outstanding running capabilities and there were many stories shared about his speed and strength.
Every year the local community and beyond take part to commemorate Guto’s impressive career and to also celebrate and enjoy the New Year festivities.
The Legend of Guto
Griffith Morgan was born in Llwyncelyn, Porth, in 1700. He discovered his running talents whilst herding sheep on his family farm. It was said that he could chase a wild hares and foxes and catch them with his bare hands.
Soon rumours emerged that Guto could run to Pontypridd (7 miles) and back before the kettle had boiled. Another legend boasts that he ran so fast, he could blow a candle out and be in bed before it went dark.
Soon after, Sian, or ‘Sian from the shop’ as she was known, saw Guto’s potential and became his manager. In his first official race, he competed against an unbeaten English Captain on a 4 mile course starting from Hirwaun Common. Guto was glorious and won a £400 cash prize.
However, this glory did not stop and the more he ran the harder it was to find competition for him. Eventually, Guto decided to retire just before his 30th birthday.
7 years later, in 1737, a new runner ‘Prince’ appeared on the scene. Guto’s manager (and wife) Sian persuaded Guto to run against him. The race was a distance of 12 miles, between Newport and Bedwas and boasted a 100 Guineas reward (the equivalent to £150,000 in modern times).
During the race, the younger runner Prince was steadily winning. However, in the final part of the course, which was a steady incline, Guto began an explosive sprint, passed Prince and over the finish line.
Unfortunately, Guto was not able to reveal in his success due to an ‘over congratulatory back-slap’ which caused him to collapse and die in his wife’s arms. His body was laid to rest at St Gwynno Church, Llanwynno. Over a century after his death, a gravestone was erected in this place in the honour of the athlete.
Guto’s legend lives on due its popularisation by poets and authors, such as I.D. Hooson who wrote The Ballad of Guto Nyth Bran.
A Day in the Life
The Nos Galan road races began in 1958, it is likely during this time that the event mainly attracted a local audience. However, as the race grew in exposure and popularity, it began to attract runners from all over Great Britain.
In the 1960’s, the event reached its peak, attracting over 1,000 runners and was also covered by BBC Grandstand. In 2009, over 800 runners attended the event, bringing 10,000 people into Mountain Ash. Similarly, the 2017 race attracted over 1,700 runners, and 10,000 spectators.
One of the objects in our collection, a car sticker, highlights this aspect of the event. People would travel to Mountain Ash from far and wide to participate in the festivities.
In its first year, the race consisted of a 100-yard sprint in Oxford Street and a 4 mile race.
The 4-mile course starts on Oxford Street, next to the statue of Guto Nyth Bran, and follows onto Commercial Street. It then bends round onto Duffryn Street, and bends left onto Napier Street. From there the course follows onto Ivor Street and round back onto Oxford Street by the Guto statue. This course is completed twice in order to finish.
The men and women compete in separate races.
As part of the tradition, the race would end at midnight so that competitors would ‘run into’ the New Year. In later years extra events and races were added, such as the Men and Women’s Mile, Kids Fun Run and Junior group races.
The format of the race has changed several times throughout the years. In recent years, the race has consisted of three circuits, starting in Henry Street and ending in Oxford Street.
This year (2020), the event has adapted to the global pandemic, Covid-19, by becoming a ‘virtual’ race. This means the race can be completed on one or several days throughout December, in small, social distanced groups. The evidence of competitors completing the race can then be shared on social media and with the Nos Galan Committee.
The Structure of the Event
One of our objects entitled ‘Instructions to Runners’ gives an idea of the structure of the event in 1966.
Firstly, the runners would report to the Nos Galan Reception Centre which was held in St. Teilo’s Hall, Mountain Ash.
The runners for the Men’s Mile and Men’s 100 yards races were to collect their race numbers at Abergorki Colliery. Alternatively, the runners for the Women’s Mile were to collect their numbers from private homes, such as number 26 or 27 Penrhiwceiber Road, starting from 7pm.
At 4pm, the first race began, the Men’s Mile. The next race after that was the Women’s Mile race, starting at at 8pm. The Men’s 100 yards race began at 9pm. The main and final race, the Men’s 4 miles began at 11.46pm.
The instructions document also reveal that a ‘get together’ occurred after the last race, starting at 1am. The late timings of the event also meant that many competitors or spectators would arrange overnight accommodation.
Changes to the event
Despite their popularity the races were halted in 1973 due to concerns expressed by the police regarding the undue delay to traffic.
Nos Galan was resurrected in 1984, when a reduced field of 14 runners ran a 1 mile (1.6 km) race.
When the race returned, it brought with it new traditions as well as new rules, such as an earlier race time of 8:30pm. This followed the guidelines concern noise pollution and traffic and also allowed for families and children to be involved.
It became tradition before the race to lay a wreath on the grave of Guto Nyth Brân in Llanwynno graveyard. Then a torch is lit and carried to the nearby town of Mountain Ash, to the race start line.
When the Nos Galan Road Races was resurrected in 1984, a new tradition was brought with it. Before the race began, three mystery runners, representing the present, past and future of athletics, carried the Nos Galan Road Races Torch.
From then on, each year a famous sports personality, the Mystery Runner, lays a wreath at the grave of Guto Nyth Bran in Llanwonno Churchyard.
They then run to Mountain Ash carrying a flaming torch, lighting the Nos Galan Beacon on their arrival at the town as a signal for the start of the senior, elite races.
In the first year of the races, Tom Richards, Olympic silver-medallist was the first mystery runner. Thereafter, many famous sporting personalities have been given the honour, including Ann Packer (the first woman to carry the torch in 1965), David Hemery, David Bedford OBE, Kirsty Wade and Jamie Baulsh. In more recent years, mystery runners have included Welsh Rugby player Alun Wyn Jones and Rugby Union referee Nigel Owens OBE.
After more than 50 years, there have been some impressive records created by the competitors. These include:
The Men’s Four miles: 1971 Tony Simmons, 17mins 41secs
Men and Women’s Mile: 1973 David Black, 4mins 0.8secs, 1970 Margaret Bacham, 4mins 47secs
Men and Women’s 100 yards: 1988 Nigel Walker, 9.58secs, 1990 Lisa Armstrong, 11.10secs
Men and Women’s 1.5 miles: 1990 Tom Buckner, Havant AC, 5mins 50secs, 1992 Justin Swift-Smith, Westbury Harriers, 5mins 50secs, 1993 Heidi Moulder, Westbury Harriers, 6mins 42secs
Men and Women’s 5km: 2016 Kristian Jones, Swansea Harriers, 14min 11 sec, 2016 Charlotte Arter, Cardiff AAC, 16 min
Also, this year (2020), the Nos Galan Road Races were officially declared the best 5K race in Wales at the 2020 UK Running Awards.
There are bigger events, but there is still nothing to compare to the Nos Galan races.
Life on the Run by Stan Eldon, 2015
In recent years, a Memorial Cup is presented to the Male and Female winners of the race.
The Memorial Cups are presented in memory of Bernard Baldwin, the genius behind the creation of the races. Bernard Baldwin was born in Barry. As a young man, Bernard became an established cross-country runner. He served as a trainee gunner with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. In 1943, he was a part of the Welsh Amateur Athletics Associations (AAA) and the British Olympic Association (Wales). In 1950 he moved to Mountain Ash. In 1958, he founded the Nos Galan races, in memory of legendary Welsh runner, Guto Nyth Bran. It became a tradition in Mountain Ash every year since on New Year’s Eve.
The women’s Memorial Board is in memory of Lillian Board, a British athlete and winner of the races in 1965. At 21 years old, she had won the 400m Silver medal winner at the 1968 Olympic Games (Mexico City) and two Gold medals at the 1969 European Championships (Athens). Sadly, her life was cut short in 1970, when she died of cancer.
After the race, competitors are rewarded with a Nos Galan goody bag, which includes a programme and a T-shirt.
Then the planning begins again, ready for the event to take place the next year!
Are you interested?
If you liked this exhibition, click here to check out the Nos Galan website. You can find more information about the history of the event, race records and winners.
You can also discover more about this years event and the opportunity to get involved in the future!