Last year I ran the Highland Fling in Scotland and really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it so much that I was going to run it again this year. That was until I noticed that this year it clashed with the Fellsman. Normally it wouldn’t clash, but the Fellsman was a couple of weeks earlier due to land use issues.
The Fellsman is a 60 mile race in the Yorkshire Dales. It goes over many of the major peaks and requires much use of a map and compass. More of a fell race than a trail race. This is a race that I really wanted to do, so there was no real issue working out which race to do. Especially as I want to experience many races and not get caught in the loop of repeating the same races year after year.
This was a historic race too. This edition in fact, was the 50th. Should be special. I knew that this was a tough race as it had 5500m of ascent squeezed into it and the footing would be pretty bad in places with lots of grass hummocks to twist your ankle on and plenty of boggy sections to sink in. Hardly a race for speed! In fact, the past two years had been won by Jez Bragg, with last year being the course record in 10:02.
The week preceding the event, I spent buying the obligatory maps and marking them up with the cp’s and routes. It looked pretty tricky so would entail lots of concentration seeing as I wouldn’t have recced it. If the weather came down it would be really hard! This is why I had no issue with the fairly strict and extensive kit list. Runners (myself included sometimes!) are so obsessed with carrying as little weight as possible that they will not carry that extra layer or spare batteries etc. We need to be told sometimes.
Lou and I had hired a car for this one and had booked a B&B in Kettlewell just up the road from the finish in Threshfield. We left straight from work as usual and made our way up country. I’m really enjoying my trips up North for my running. I have seen so much yet there is enough left to keep me busy for a lifetime. Running has demonstrated to me what an incredibly beautiful country it is we live in and how fortunate we are to be surrounded by it. I had only been to the Yorkshire Dales the once before when I took part in my first fell race, so was really excited about doing some decent mileage and hopefully, weather permitting, getting to see a load more.
Quite surprisingly for a Friday afternoon with lots of rain, the journey was fairly straightforward with just around two hours of slow moving traffic. We arrived at the B&B in the stunning village of Kettlewell overshadowed by the bulk of Great Whernside just after 2000. We checked in and dropped some kit off in our lovely little room before jumping back in the car and making our way back to Threshfield where I had to register and get my kit checked. Thankfully I only had to queue for 10 minutes before having a quick but thorough check that I had everything on the list. Once the chap had finished checking me, I was handed my form to exchange the next morning for my race tally. Now we drove back to sleepy Kettlewell. We had been gifted a stunning sunset with a most glorious sky over the wonderfully green Dales. Even though the weather had been very wet over the week, the forecast had doggedly stuck with being dry on the Saturday. We had left lots of very heavy rain behind us in Bristol and the roads here were dry!
Back at the B&B, Lou relaxed while I got into full faff mode for the day ahead. I had two OS maps that covered the whole of the route. The first one I folded in preparation for the morning, while stuffing the other one deep in my pack ready for when I ran off the first one. I got a text from Matt Neale, who I’d met at the Trans Gran Canaria, and lives just down the road working as a park ranger, asking me if I’d like to be in his team as they were one man short. “Yes, why not” I responded. We’d meet up at the start in the morning. It would be handy if I could tag along with Matt I though, as he’d know the course really well and our speeds are fairly similar. It would save a great deal of time if I didn’t have to constantly refer to the maps.
After a decent sleep, we got up and I showered. It looked beautiful out, though the clouds were racing past at an incredible pace signifying strong winds. We passed over the tops of most of the highest points in the North York Moors so we would be facing the brunt of whatever would be around. We had an amazing breakfast before getting on our way to the start at Ingleton. We took the scenic route which probably added 10 minutes to the journey but it was definitely worth it. Once we had arrived I only had to pick up my tally. For the uninitiated, a tally is a card that you get hole punched with a unique punch at each check point to prove you’d been there. Similar to orienteering. The problem with this was that we had to queue for ages for this and we were very exposed in the wind here which was really quite strong. I’m not too sure why we couldn’t have collected our tally at the bag check the night before. Never mind. I was going to be out in this all day so I’d might as well get used to it. Next thing I know, I get a tap on the shoulder, I turn around and there is Mark Collinson. He had done this one before but wasn’t in the best of shape as he’d been struggling with sciatica. It was good to see him again, and it would be good to see him in a few months time for the Hardmoors110 too as we are both down for that. I put on my waterproof jacket as we spoke to keep the wind off me as I was really starting to chill. Finally I collected my tally and hung it around my neck, before jumping in the car with Lou and Mark to warm up a bit and pin our numbers on.
We only had a few more minutes though as we needed to be at the start area which was a sports field for the briefing. There were nearly 500 participants, not all runners as some will walk the whole route which is a massive challenge in itself. One that will take you all the way through the night! I hunted around and eventually found Matt and said Hi. We had the briefing and then we all turned around and were off. I was very happy to finally be running and generating some heat. I knew that the first thing we tackled was the long climb up Ingleborough so there would be no problem with warming up! As we came off a short section of road and begun the climb in earnest, the field slowly begun to string out as everyone slipped into their own rhythm. I was pushing pretty hard as I felt pretty good. Within 20 minutes I could feel the slight discomfort of irritation on the back of my right heal. I was expecting to be running for a minimum of 12 hrs with wet feet which meant I’ll more than likely get a blister on the rubbing heal. Oh well, I’m sure there will be other forms of discomfort to keep me entertained also.
As the climb continued the gradient increased and so the distance from the front to the back increased. This would of course continue all day till there would be points when you would finally be alone, or as good as.The footpath we were following was good. The wind was pretty blustery but no issue here. I was intrigued to see how powerful it would be up on top with no shelter. I was starting to get the feeling that the wind could really add to the already challenging course. As the top of the climb got closer the climb really got very steep and was making me work really hard. I was now sweating. Then the wind steadily got stronger as I reached the top, till it was showing its full force directly into my face. Wow its strength was incredible! We had pretty much clear skies all around so the 360 degree view was something else which I would love to return for to spend more time admiring, but not today. I ran across to the first cp where the crew were busily punching a steady stream of runners tallys. The wind was too strong to hang about so I got my tally stamped and ran off to begin the descent down out of the wind.
The descent was as long, maybe longer than the ascent, and after the steep first section which couldn’t be done with any real speed, well, not by me anyway, the gradient eased off and we were running along a flagstone path. This was fairly fast but was wet and made me a little edgy about slipping. I don’t need to be taking any risks really. All I wanted was a good, hard day in the hills, not a broken leg. My heal felt fine on the downhills at the moment. After much descending, in which I seemed to have lost Matt who was just behind on the climb, I came to the next cp at Hill Inn. I got stamped before grabbing a big lump of homemade flapjack which went down well and very quickly as I ran away towards the next climb. The next climb was the monstrous Whernside.
Because the date had changed from the normal, the Fellsman now clashed with the classic fell race, The Three Peaks. The Fellsman is a non-marked course, but this year seeing as they share some parts of the mountains we were following parts of the marked three peaks race. Very strange. The climb up Whernside begun like Ingleborough, steady, before ramping up at the end. I was beginning to feel like I was finding my stride now. We were very sheltered from the wind here so I was heating up quite a bit. Again, the heal was rubbing, but nothing to start crying about just yet. After a steep little scramble up to the ridge, I followed the path up for another 10 minutes or so. This was mostly runnable. Here though I was again being severely battered by the wind again. It kept blowing me off of my line. I could feel the chill factor creeping in a little here too. I would be glad to get back down out of the wind again. I was beginning to see a pattern forming here, climb up to a cp and get hot, then get a taste of the hurricane winds on top, before heading down into the valley for some respite from the wind. Repeat this for 13-16 hours and there you have the 2012 Fellsman!
After getting stamped at the top, I quickly turned and started running back where I’d come. I now was passing all those behind me. Matt and Mark weren’t too far behind. We shouted something to each other but it was swallowed up by the howling wind. I was expecting Matt to catch me up at some point, but for now I was happy finding my rhythm. As I descended the rocky path I was caught up by a chap called Chris (?) who I had chatted with a little going up Ingleborough. We ran together as we soon passed the point where the runners behind were meeting the path we were on. Thing were spreading out a fair bit now, with just occasional glimpses of runners up ahead. We now were off of the stony path and were running parallel with a dry stone wall on grassy and boggy moorland. I knew that we followed the wall for a while before turning right and heading down to the next cp at Kingsdale. Soon Chris spotted the point that we went over the wall and begun a long descent that was pretty tough on the ankles because of the tussocks of grass. Once we reached the bottom we followed a river for a little before cutting up through a boggy area to the road cp. I got clipped and grabbed some cake and walked off up the next climb. This was Gragareth, and it proved to be a real steep one in places, making you concerned that you would tear your achilles away from the heal!
I made a slightly wrong turn forcing me to scale a rather precarious wall to put me back on track, before hitting another really steep climb again. I apologised to my calfs and Achilles as I powered upwards. Sheltered again for now! Eventually it levelled out a bit and the wind begun to grow as I was obviously nearing the top. I climbed over a wall and was hit again by the tremendous wind. We had to run 500 metres out to the top to the cp then turn back and continue along the top for a while. I got blown to the cp, got clipped turned and the realised that the wind was in my face, making the going twice as difficult! It was pretty boggy up here and my feet were soaked by this stage. I passed Matt again who was not far at all behind, maybe a little closer than up Whernside. The wall we were following was thankfully giving us a little shelter from the wind, but there was plenty of bog hopping going on and many times I was sinking up to my shins to varying levels. This carried on for a little while and I overtook a few other runners who were walking now, till the path led us away from the wall and we were hit exceptionally hard from the wind. This wasn’t much fun! I knew that it would only last for a few more minutes before we were again sheltered. My eyes were stinging from the wind drying them out so much. It was painful, but nothing to be concerned about. After a stiff hill climb I was again following a wall which I climbed over at the top to reach the two chaps in a dome tent that were the cp. I got clipped and ran on down the hill.
Now, I went a little wrong here and followed along the ridge when I should have gone straight down. I reached a wall and realised my error and backtracked till I saw runners picking their way down the side of the mountain, some faster than others. I had a choice here, I could keep backtracking along the ridge till I got to the point they were descending from or I could cut diagonally across the steep mountainside. I stopped for a minute to scan the ground I’d be covering. I decided to take the short cut! I’m not to sure whether this was the best idea as I was scrambling over a boulder field within a few minutes, but once negotiated, I was soon back on track, hurtling down the mountain with everyone else.
The descent wasn’t amazingly long, but it seemed like it because of the difficult footing and the steep angle making it pretty tough. My quads were feeling the effects of the day already. Once in Dent the path levelled out and I was then at the next cp. I think I grabbed a cold sausage roll here and stuffed some biscuits in my mouth, and staggered off while eating. I knew this was going to be a hard day, and considering the small distance covered so far, I knew that this race was going to live up to my expectations. There was a mile or two of road now, before heading up a long drag of a climb where I power walked as hard as possible and overtook about 5 others. Once over the shoulder of the hill, I climbed up a grassy, boggy slope that eventually brought me to the Blea Moor cp.
A side note about the cp’s. The cp’s at a road crossing were your usual tented are with tables of food. Always a pleasure to enter and feel the warmth and shelter from the relentless battering of the wind. Many of the cp’s though, were of course on top of mountains with no road access. They consisted of two people in a storm proof dome tent. They were not always very easy to find, and they could supply you with nothing, but even though the weather was really challenging, it was always a pleasure to find a cp. Not for the obvious reason, but because the people manning it would always be in such high spirits. It would wash off on you if you felt a little low. The smallest of human contact has the profoundest of impacts at these times.
From Blea Moor, I now begun a fairly fast descent that took me through some woodland before spilling me out onto a road. I turned and followed this as I knew that this would bring me to the next cp at Stonehouse farm. A chap caught me up at this section and told me that he’d be dropping out here as he had cramps. I told him to ask me at the cp for some of my Elete water as I had plenty, and it has saved me a couple of time now, once in Spartathlon. As soon as I entered the tent, there was Matt eating a bowl of pasta. He must have got in front when I went wrong. I said hi, before getting my own bowl. Matt was soon done with his. He asked if I was coming, I crammed my pasta down, then felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the chap who was cramping. I quickly got the small bottle out and he drank some down making a funny face like he’d just downed a shot of whiskey. I took the bottle back off him and Matt and I left the tent into the sunny sheltered valley. Within a few hundred metres we were back off the road on a decent trail heading back up, passing under the Artengill viaduct. There was a group of three just ahead of us that contained Nicky Spinks, who we were slowly gaining on. We both were keeping a good fast walk going as we chatted away. I’m not sure why, but I really felt confident that we would end up running this together.
We saw ahead people running down from the left, crossing the path ahead and continuing into the distance. We would be turning left towards the top of Great Knoutberry Hill, the next cp. It again wasn’t too steep and I was looking forward to the descent which should be pretty quick. After, we turned and begun the quick descent, which I couldn’t take full advantage of as my legs were a little stiff. There was still a long way to go so I needed to be careful. After we crossed the path we had left only 20 minutes earlier, we were then running across the pathless open moorland again. I was now putting all my faith in Matts local knowledge, and it was straight away being put to the test as there was no landmark to head for, but soon we came over a brow and could see the next road cp. Matt probably was a little stronger than me in this terrain. I just don’t get to run much off piste stuff like this, whereas this was Matts bread and butter. He was solid.
We stocked up on water and left fairly quickly walking while eating. There was much bog hopping for the next section and I could really feel the blister now. It wasn’t too painful, but I knew it could be troublesome if it were to burst. I pushed the thought from my mind. The next cp came and went quickly, and soon we were at the Dodd Fell cp. The wind had not eased all day, and was really getting irritating. I was seeing every second that I was sheltered from it as a godsend, knowing full well shortly after I’d be right back into it. It was pretty much always a headwind too, which not only made forward momentum more difficult, but as mentioned before made my eyes sting. As the hour of darkness approached, the temperature slowly begun to drop. I was warm enough, but we were moving well and generating plenty of heat. If we had to slow through injury or tiredness I could sense the danger. We would be hypothermic within minutes. The end would be run in the dark and was threatening to be very cold.
We were now heading towards the Middle Tongue cp. I had heard many stories about the infamous Middle Tongue. It was supposed to be difficult to navigate to. Fortunately Matt was sure of his route finding as we got to a corner in the wall and located a sheep trod. We followed it all the way around and soon enough we were there! Excellent. Not sure how long this would have taken me by myself. After more fine route selection by Matt we hit a track and there was the next cp. We quickly got our tallys stamped before doubling back down the hill towards the next cp which was close. We were close to the time here where they will hold you and group you.
This is a rule I haven’t encountered before. After a certain time at road cp’s you will get grouped into at least four people. This is so that it will be safer in the dark. The groups must stay together at all times. You can get split at the last cp as it is all road to the end from there.
When we got to the cp, we rushed in, got stamped and rushed out. We must have missed grouping here by minutes. We were sure to be grouped at the next cp. We were given some respite from the wind as we climbed up to Buckden Pike. A quick stamp from some more cheerful crew before beginning the descent down to Cam head. The temperature was really dropping now, and the wind was cutting through me. My hands were suffering a bit, and my legs were a bit chilly. My face was numb. I was looking forward to getting to the next road cp!
As we approached it, I could see the bulk of Great Whernside ahead. This was the final mountain to scale and Christ it looked intimidating. We were around 200 metres below the top, and the wind was very powerful down here. It would be absolutely freezing up there! We got in the tent, and I immediately got my waterproof trousers on and got my massive ski gloves on. I even pulled my fleece hat on. I was tired and it was getting colder. There was no chance I’d be overheating with that wind cutting through everything. We got sorted into a group and departed. I enjoyed the climb which was really steep, as it warmed me up a little. Then as we got near the top, I turned on my headtorch and the wind began to batter us for the final time, giving us everything it had now. We stuck together well and the other two lads seemed fine with the pace. Once we had all got clipped at the wind battered cp, we moved off and begun the descent which would lead to Yarnbury, the final cp. It was around here that my blister finally gave in and burst. I could suddenly feel the raw flesh rubbing with each stride. Thank god I was near the end!
One of the chaps with us begun to struggle here. He fell a few times and slowed dramatically. We stuck with him and offered him some jelly babies. He wasn’t having a great time, but we finally made it to the final cp. We got de-grouped and then the three of us accelerated away down the road. We could smell the end. It was only around 2 miles from here, but it was a hard 2 miles as I was pretty exhausted now and was dreaming of a wind free, warm environment.
After 13:43 we arrived together, the three of us at the finish area in the school. I handed my tally in and was very happy to see Lou standing to come and greet me. I sat down in a heap. I went to remove my glasses to wipe the steam from them, then remembered that I haven’t worn glasses for year! I had steamy vision! A few of the guys at the end told me they had the same and that it’ll be gone by the morning. I learnt it was just from dry eyes. A little disconcerting though at first!
The next morning, I learnt that the race had been called off at around 0100ish. It took them around 6hrs to ferry everyone down off the moors. The reason was the cold. This was the first time in the races 50 year history that this has happened which shows just how hard it was out there. I have to say that I’m very happy that I finished.
That was on the Saturday. The DOMS I suffered the following days was pretty impressive! On the Tuesday, the JOGLE race was passing through Bristol, and I’d promised the remaining runner, Rainer Koch from Germany that I would run with him. When I do Trans-Europe, the route takes me through his home town where he said he will run with me. I was exceptionally sore in the morning and the whole of the day, but I managed to do the 45 miles with him to Taunton where the stage ended. It was great to meet and run with Rainer, who in my mind is one of the finest athletes in the world. He made JOGLE look completely effortless! I can’t even begin to understand how that is possible. He doesn’t even race. He just runs with a metronomic pace that never falters. Truly incredible! He’s also a really nice chap.
The next day I felt much better than before the run with Rainer! Awesome.
Right, I’ll get this posted as I have a few more that need to get written. Blog backlog!