The Fellrunner’s Conundrum

What do we aim to achieve when starting out on a fell race?  Why do it?  I’m not going to win.  Top half would be good, right?  Perhaps if I beat THAT guy who looks about my size.  Oh, he’s actually quite fast so maybe not.  Ok, I’ll focus on that F60 who looks like she knows what it’s all about.  Mmm, turns out she’s fairly spritely up those climbs.  So, it’s more of personal thing; even intrinsic. Man versus nature if you like.  Well, nature almost won at the Inov8 High Cup Nick Fell Race.

Race preparation for a fell race is key.  Timing it just right between registration (usually on the day) and stripping off extra layers just before the gun.  Yes, so is porridge, fruit juice and organic blueberries blah-blah-blah… but getting in the right frame of mind, preparedness, calm and focused – this is key.  I arrived late.  Ended warming up on the mile between where I parked (abandoned) the car and registration at the village hall.  Cocky, perhaps, I knew the roads and layout of Dufton village having spent a week’s holiday there in the summer of 2013.  Not the best when stood on the start line (well, about 30 yards back) you’re still sorting laces and affixing the race number to one’s vest.

And here’s the strange thing.  When competing in fell races around the South/ West Pennines I normally know at least one other runner and recognise most other club vest colours.  Up there, in the Eden Fells, there colours and clubs I’d never seen before; some didn’t even have club names on the front – proper fellrunning clubs, some might say.  I felt alien.  An outsider if you will.  This was emphasised a mile through the village as the field of runners stretched apart on the first climb up a tarmac section of the Pennine Way.  A spectator shouted words of encouragement to passing vests, “C’mon Keswick… brilliant Borrowdale… excellent stuff Carnethy…” Then, with something of a confused look and more drawn out words of disbelief, ” Great running, Pudsey?

The fell race could be summarised in mile sections as follows: tarmac – muddy footpath – bog – bog with beck – rocky with scramble – grass footpath – rocky path/ track – grazing field – track.  The gradient is runnable for first 3 miles then – for most – an uncomfortable slog up The Nick followed by a quick descent.  I’d barely got to the scramble (halfway point) and unknown to me the winner was taking the applause back in Dufton village centre.

My legs were tested over the opening bog sections.  And, just when I thought man was getting the upper hand over nature, I arrived at a beck. Beck n. gentle flow of water; stream.  This was a torrent of dark, menacing water topped with glass-like froth. I watched as a lady who’d best be described as ah-erm a ‘gym bunny’ waded in, almost waist deep, and exhorted a high-pitched yelp that caused nearby sheep to flee.  Yes, the water was cold, but the greater challenge – as always in beck crossings during a race – is to navigate one’s feet between and around the black stones on the beck floor; much like steering a battleship through a minefield.  The black, cold water lapped around my thighs and thankfully I won this small battle.

Next up was sever bog that sapped all muscle strength.  And here was the titular conundrum.  Fell running takes place in the most awe-inspiring locations.  But due to the technical nature of the pursuit there is often little scope to lift one’s head to enjoy the setting.  In the valley of High Cup Nick it is imperative to stop, pause and look up, around and behind.  This is one of the most amazing sights in England.  High, sloping natural walls rise up several hundred metres on either side.  Then, rising up ahead, The Nick looks like an impenetrable wall of rock and almost catches your breath, “How the hell do we get up that?!”  So, I wobbled my jelly legs over the consecutive boulder fields that act as natural barriers towards The Nick; I lost so many places to others here as I couldn’t adapt to the slippy rock in my Mudclaws.  Then, the scramble was as much adopting rock climbing techniques as the fierce wind from behind pinning every runner to the rock face.  The wind direction did create an amazing sight with a waterfall that sprayed upwards!

A brief pause and stretch at the top – there were marshals and mountain rescue first aiders stood at a 45 degree angle – then I turned into the wind and headed for home.  At first mother nature won this battle as after the climb I had no leg power to force through the elements.  Soon, I noticed I was reeling in some other runners and this gave me some motivation.  Before long my strong descending (disengage brain and let gravity take over) took me past at least half a dozen runners.  A brief glance at the Eden Valley and attempt to locate Dufton village. My Garmin was registering sub 7 minute miles here.  Nature still had a few jabs with a couple of sharp toe-stubs on rock and then sapped ALL remaining energy over the soggy pasture fields above the village.  The finish was soon in sight and some hot soup and a crusty roll.

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Wild? Absolutely crazy!  Amazing fell race with technical features, unique scenery and the opportunity to really apply the man versus nature test.

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