After a few years away from racing in the Yorkshire Dales, I, along with a friend, entered the Fellsman Hike (www.fellsman.org.uk) after an ill-advised rowing contest. Prep wasn’t great, with 3 weeks off running with a dodgy hip that prevented me walking at all for at least a day and no runs over 12 miles since LIAD in October. A race entry is a race entry however, and with the hip in reasonably good shape after a lot of stretching and foam rolling, I rocked up in Threshfield for kit check on Friday night.
I RV’d with Steve and his wife Elly going through their first kit check, and dug out some spare waterproof trousers to satisfy the strict requirements. With signed chit in hand, it was home to pack my race vest and grab a few hours of sleep before hitching a ride to Ingleton with Dad. Chit swapped for the traditional Fellsman Tally, felltrack RFID watch and race number.
In no time at all, we were heading off the field via the side gate and up the hill towards Ingleborough. As soon as we hit the track, Steve pulled away and I knew it would be a hard slog to stay anywhere near him. He kept me in sight up past Crina Bottom, checking over his shoulder every few minutes, before waiting at the summit shelter. Although capable of a much faster pace, he seemed happy to both keep me company and not burn out too early, especially as he was nursing a calf injury.
The steep descent of Ingleborough passed quickly, along the flat, a cheeky chocolate digestive grabbed from the table at the Hill Inn and we were off up Whernside. Steve pulled away on the climb, but we managed a quick exchange on the out and back; his calf was giving him some gip on the descent, but we made it to Kingsdale for some flapjack and a water top up. While it was cool, the sun was out and I was worried about not drinking enough.
The steep climb to Gragareth saw Steve pull away as planned, and the second out and back saw us high five with a ‘have a good day’; I didn’t expect to see him again, but was pleased he’d be picking up some speed. The long springy stretch to Great Coum didn’t pass as swiftly as I had hoped; having planned to run the whole way, it turned to a walk/jog along the flat, with my head down. The descent in to Dent bore the incentive of sausage rolls at the bottom; I took one to go, crammed a load of satsuma slices in my mouth and set off along the road – 90 seconds in and out, overtaking at least ten people who had passed me on the descent.
Blea Moor arrived sooner than expected, turning up towards Stonehouse. The sight of the check point in the distance brought the thought of more food, but unfortunately I spotted Steve ahead of me down the hill; he had twanged his bad calf in a bog, and didn’t want to risk a long term injury by pushing on too far. We exchanged a few words before I bimbled on down the hill. I was sad he was dropping, but chuffed he would beat the marathon distance, completing his first ultra distance. Once through the awesome giant bird garden, I ran down the road to Stonehouse for a resupply.
The steep track up to Great Knoutberry saw my first real low point, which lasted until Redshaw. The offer of a hotdog AND malt loaf with jam and cheese proved too much to resist! Again, I grabbed to go, setting off with food in one hand, poles in the other. A balls-deep fall in a bog shortly after resulted in a hotdog filled with malt loaf jam and cheese…which I discovered to be not only edible but thoroughly delicious! This proved to provide the morale I needed to make the almost entirely solo trip over Great Dodd towards Fleet Moss.
In sight of the checkpoint but confronted by walls and peat troughs on all sides, I dug out the map to work out how best to cover the last kay to more food. Luckily, a pair of runners emerged from the peat, and I followed their lead in to the control. I had missed the grouping cutoff by a good ten minutes, so I was faced with a wait after stuffing a quick bit of food down my face and getting my hoody, headtorch, hat and gloves out in preparation for the run through the night. As the first on the list, I knew I’d have at least 3 others joining me until daybreak. For the uninitiated, successful Fellsman grouping is a fine art; in theory, you are all the same pace, having reached the same point after 11 hours of running, but inevitably someone starts to slow, testing the patience of the rest of the group. I’ve been in both camps, and learned a lot from each experience. I could feel the next runners preparing to leave assessing me as I did the same to them; little did I know how lucky I would get (or how unlucky they would get!).
Upon introductions, our group turned out to be Kate and Neil (the pair I had followed earlier), with multiple Fellsman finishes each, Edwin (an 8-time finisher) and Peter (a Fellsman virgin but 2018 Spine runner – respect). Another key to a successful grouping is finding folk who know where they’re going. I’ll be honest, despite two past finishes and a lot of time with my head in the map in the last few months, I was incredibly lazy (in nav terms) for the rest of the race, and let the others do the work. We set off across Fleet Moss towards Middle Tongue, with Kate trotting along setting a comfortable pace and me firmly in the middle of the conga where I couldn’t get dropped. Neil’s well-annotated map, Edwin’s check navving and Peter’s swift GPS skills got us to the very cold marshals at the check point in fairly swift order, just as darkness fell.
I’d spent the last ten minutes firmly in my head, which is never a pleasant place to be, but the chance to cheer the marshal up with a bag of trail mix (ok, mostly haribo, jelly beans and tums) meant also stuffing my own face and cheering up at the same time. The sugar (and some good team nav and a full moon) got us straight in to Hell’s Gap, then down the road to Cray. I got a couple of marmite sandwiches down me before digging out my second hat, extra mitts and waterproof jacket and getting ready to go. I always say I don’t get cold, but at this point, I was pretty cold.
Well fed and looked after, we set off again. I knew that my lack of fitness makes climbs a slow prospect, and was worried about slowing down the group. Kate and Peter took the lead, setting a pace that I couldn’t quite match, but not so far out of reach that I dropped off completely. Edwin dropped in to back marker to make sure I didn’t drop off or get too demoralised. Had I been in better shape, it felt like it would have been the perfect group. The cloud-covered summit of Buckden Pike came quicker than expected; a quick check of the grouping card and tallies punched and we were off. Kate asked if anyone wanted a mint: awesome! But no, it was ‘does anyone want to mince?’ i.e. jog/shuffle a bit. Too late, I’d already said yes. Unfortunately a day of compensating for a dodgy right hip had led to my left quad, hip and glute starting to seize up in succession, depending whether we were climbing, descending or trying to jog, so I couldn’t sustain it for long. Again, feeling a burden, I took the opportunity to shovel in more food and drink every time we stopped for those with maps/gps in hand to discuss route choice, with the aim of picking my pace up a little. Collective patience was endless however, and we made it to Park Rash for the final stretch.
The group behind us had been closing for some time, and they left the warmth of the Park Rash tent shortly behind us. Further struggles with my daft leg, compounded by cloud, wind and snow, meant they caught us shortly after we checked in with the freezing marshals on the summit of Great Whernside. I could feel the frustration at not being able to go faster and race them, but some more strong nav from Neil et al got us in to Capplestone Gate, and on the beacon-marked path in to Yarnbury. My wish to have a steady bimble in by myself seemed to align with the collective wish for a sprint finish down the last two miles of road. With a heartfelt thank you for their support for the last 9 or so hours, I watched them speed downhill towards Grassington. A twenty-minute mile pace down the road was about all I could muster, but it was enough to get me up the hill to the finish just shy of 21 hours. 2.5 hours outside my fastest time, but happy nonetheless with the majority of the day.
With another Fellsman done and just enough time to grab my Buff from the finish team and stumble on to the bus to the car park without food or goodbyes, I had a bit of a moment. The awesome marshals, officials and runners throughout the day, and the epic team of Yorkshire-dwellers who had carried me through the long night stretch without a grumble reminded me what an awesome sport we enjoy, alongside random but amazing people. Then a wave of pain shot through my leg and I mostly worried I wouldn’t be able to get out of the minibus and in to my car to drive home.
I still can’t fully explain why the frock so many people do something quite so stupid and fantastic as ultra running, but there’ll be another 500 folk on the start line again next year, at this epic classic event.