The Fellsman 2015 – 61 miles
The Fellsman is a 61-mile point-to-point, self-navigated traverse of the Yorkshire Dales on tough, high moorland. It is organised by a team of tireless and enthusiastic volunteers and has been on my radar for a long time – not least because, being a bit daunted by the whole thing, I had never got around to entering. After the frustration of not being able to run during the first half of 2014 because of injury, and with the weekend clear, the opportunity to take part in 2015 was a privilege I could not ignore. Especially as world famous party legend Andrew WK endorsed the event on twitter the night before:
So, after another week of giving personal training in north London, I registered in Threshfield on Friday evening. My kit, like everyone else’s, was subject to a demanding inspection. To give you an idea, all competitors are expected to carry, as a minimum:
· Full leg cover, waterproof trousers, waterproof shell with hood, waterproof over-trousers, base layer, three long sleeved tops, a warm hat and gloves
· First aid kit, minimum contents: 1 crepe bandage, 4 safety pins, 1 wound dressing, 6 adhesive dressings
· LED head torch, spare set of alkaline batteries
· Whistle, mug and spoon/fork
· Maps, compass and knowledge of how to use it
· 300g emergency rations
· Survival bag
It might sound a lot, but conditions on the tops change fast and having the equipment to survive is essential. Only when you have convinced the organisers that you are carrying this kit are you allowed to run. Then you are given your tally. The tally is clipped at each checkpoint. You need 24 clips to complete the event.
Glorious sunshine in Yorkshire in preceding days meant that a deep area of low pressure and an active weather front were approaching northern England on Friday night. Heavy low cloud and persistent rain greeted us at race HQ in Ingleton on Saturday morning. After catching up with some friendly faces and spending ages trying to pin my race number to my bag with old safety pins, the race was underway.
Immediately. the ascent to 2300ft and the top of Ingleborough began. As we climbed the wind got stronger and the rain heavier. It was manageable, but definitely strong enough for me to cross my fingers that it would not go on all day. At the summit the wind blew us straight over the top with my legs having to do very little work. The descent on the north face was steep and so fast was the descent that the experience oscillated between enjoyable and hair-raising approximately every two seconds.
On to Whernside, the biggest ascent of the day. Again the upward trek was tough. Conditions on the top were poor and the descent suitably stimulating. At this point we went west across Kingsdale valley towards Gragareth. This was uncharted territory for me and I was pleased that my compass took me directly to the Kingsdale checkpoint. The ascent up Gragareth was, I think, the longest and steepest of the day. Lots of lactic acid and a lot of rain made this a gruelling slog. A large forehead cracker of a rock hurtled towards me at one point, but I managed to take a decent left-handed slip catch before it did any harm. No one saw this . . . but it did happen.
We ran along Gragareth’s summit in thick cloud and heavy rain, into Cumbria, up onto Great Coum and then to Towns Fell. Next, a hard steep descent into Dent. At the Dent checkpoint we were fed hot food, tea and coffee. Only at this point did I realise I was absolutely saturated. Within 30 seconds I was shivering and full of anxieties about the rest of the day. There was a lot of teeth chattering and kit changing going on round about, but I decided to save my dry layers, get my clip, get moving and warm up that way. Running uphill out of Dent soon achieved this. I also met Liam, with whom I ended up running for the rest of the race.
This next stretch was a traverse along the Dent valley wall up towards Blea Moor. It began to snow. We kept moving at a sensible pace; intermittent snow showers had much less of an effect on my core temperature than the persistent rain had done earlier. Liam’s daughter had laminated the route bearings for him on some strip cards, so when it came to navigation he had us on the right course even before I’d found our position. The snow flurries cleared, and views back towards Ingleborough and Whernside were agreeable.
If you like your races to come with a lot of ascent, the siting of checkpoints as far below the summits as possible gives excellent value. This theme was sustained as we headed down through verdant farmland into a Stonehouse checkpoint where the trademark enthusiastic volunteers were doling out hot pasta.
We pressed on: up past the impressive Artengill Viaduct, forward to an out-and-back up to Great Knoutberry Hill, 2200ft above sea level. We clipped our tallies and trundled back down over increasingly difficult moorland, towards Redshaw. Here was a surprise. I am directing a play in the summer and at the remote checkpoint there was Ben, a member of the company. We had the sort of abbreviated catch-up you do when you are eating a sandwich in a rush, just over 30 miles into a 61 mile race, and said farewell. It was a real pleasure and psychological boost to see a friendly face when I least expected it.
Liam and I moved out of Widdale up to Snaizeholme and then onto Dodd Fell. Apart from a few hundred metres on the Pennine Way this was mainly run in ankle- to calf- (occasionally thigh-) deep blanket bog. There are few moments in life where you actively seek to step into deep cold muddy water while fully clothed, but the sensation of regular mini ice baths whilst on the hoof was, in its own way, quite refreshing. We navigated between us to the top of Dodd Fell. I was feeling grateful that I had met somebody as pleasant as Liam to spend the day with. We had not planned to stick together, but we got on well and as neither of us was threatening to speed up at any point it made sense to stick together.
For safety reasons the Fellsman requires competitors to group into fours at night. The rationale is this: if one member of the group is injured two can go for help while the fourth waits with the casualty. The policy also makes sense in terms of navigation and morale. Upon arrival at Fleet Moss we ate again; then Liam and I grouped with a Dutch geologist called Joris who had been trekking nearby all day, and a 59-year-old gentleman from Essex called Steve. We introduced ourselves. Joris, Liam and I could barely contain our delight when Steve told us this was his 19th Fellsman (he is looking to do his 20th when he is 60 and then retire). As Joris and I were novices, and Liam had one previous completion, we were reassured to have a seasoned veteran like Steve in our team.
The cloud base had been lifting. As we moved out of Fleet Moss we were treated to late sunshine and long views. The stretch across this moorland had looked like tricky to me, but Steve led us effortlessly across Cowen Brow and around Deepdale Haw, pointing out landmark features in the landscape as we got to know each other and enjoyed the fine evening. At Middle Tongue, 42 miles in, we again clipped our tallies. We now had 16 of the requisite 24 needed for a successful Fellsman completion.
Twilight. Our head-torches came out. We moved on to the sinisterly-named Hell Gap. Either the ground was getting tougher or I was getting weaker but I must have rolled one or other of my ankles twenty times on this stretch. The moorland offered big spongy tussocks or ankle-deep water and the occasional loose limestone on which to run, and that was it. This would not have been easy when you were fresh. After 40 plus miles it was a trial. Temperature fell, ground frosted over.
We descended to Cray checkpoint and braced ourselves for the final big ascents on Buckden Pike and Great Whernside. Steve had a big crash at this point and was sick. We tried to make sure he got some more energy in, but nausea prevented him from being able to consume much. The checkpoint staff were attentive and after a ten-minute pause we established that Steve was good to go. We steeled ourselves for the Buckden Pike assault. The canopy of stars that opened out above us went some way to alleviate the exhaustion and soreness we were all experiencing.
It was great to see packets of runners spread through the darkness, each identifiable by four bright lights looking like electronic glow worms dotted in the night sky. On the top we went past the memorial to a Polish aircrew whose Wellington bomber had flown into the top of Buckden Pike during a blizzard in 1942. Reflecting on our very different reasons for being there, we ambled across the top and then down to Top Mere and Park Rash. Steve apologised for slowing us down, but his expert navigation meant that if anything he had speeded us up and we were not having any of it. Together, Joris, Liam, Steve and I clipped holes 20 and 21 in our tallies and made for the last big ascent of the day.
I had heard several people talking about the peat bogs on Great Whernside and how far they had sunk into them. It seemed like one-upmanship was going on as to who had gone deepest. After the fourth immersion up to my thighs in these frost covered swamps, I decided my judgement had been rash. The difficulty of the ascent of Great Whernside was somewhat eased by the knowledge that it was the final climb of the day. As a team we got up there, made our way across the bogs and lethal frost-covered stiles, and descended to Capplestone Gate and Yarnbury. All of us took turns to flag and move slower than the others but we kept together throughout, making sure that nobody ever fell out of sight. We had chatted a lot earlier on. As the night drew on we quietened and became more resolved as we ground out the final ten miles, speaking only to take it in turns to check that others were all alright.
Upon receiving our penultimate clip at Yarnbury we were de-grouped. After some nice words and handshakes, Liam and I ran the final two miles into Threshfield ahead of Joris and Steve, to get ourselves a sub-19-hour finish. We finished joint 135th out of 370 starters, with 91 entrants not finishing the event and 1 disqualification.
Taking all into account – the weather, navigation, terrain, accumulated ascent, distance – after the Hardmoors 110 I think this was the hardest race in which I have taken part. But if you offset that against the camaraderie, the glorious locations and the event volunteers, you have got yourself an absolutely brilliant event. And if you have ever thought about doing it yourself, say, in 2016, then get involved.