The Fellsman is an entirely self-navigated sixty-one-mile yomp over wide open country. Where other races have trails, roads and ‘vert’ the Fellsman has bogs, six-foot stone walls and, well, fells.
Unlike the endless churn of money-harvesting ‘toughest foot race in the solar system’ events, this unassuming odyssey is so tough that nobody thinks to tell you. The closest you might get to that kind of gratification is if one of its army of volunteers tells you that ‘the next section’s looking a bit tricky’. By which they mean there’s a thousand-foot climb with zero visibility. And snow. After eighteen months off ultra-marathons, what better way to reintroduce myself to the genre.
So it was that after another week of personal training in north London I headed up to Harrogate by train and an old friend gave me a lift up to the infamous Friday night kit-check at the finish in Threshfield. The Fellsman’s kit list is extensive, requiring everything from a whistle, through five long sleeved tops to a spork. And if the time queuing to be checked is anything to go by it is rigorously policed. By the end of the queue, you knew which checker you’d be spending the longest with – in this instance, the bloke who was counting safety pins and examining seams on waterproofs.
Verified, fed, slept, fed again, nervous and excited, I arrived at the start in Ingleton and received the splendid circular tally into which twenty four different shapes needed punching over the sixty-one miles and eleven thousand feet of hills. I enjoyed the heated seat in my mum’s car until the last possible moment, then joined the eight thirty start that released four hundred enthusiasts onto hills.
The most straightforward part of the day is arguably over the early back-to-back thousand-foot slogs up Ingleton, Whernside and Gragareth. Other than the steepest hands-on quads uphills and arse-over-tit downhills, the ground is runable and gets you nice and warmed up. My only gripe was an ancient issue in my odd-shaped left foot, where my third metatarsal protrudes more than its neighbours and takes a hammering on hard uneven ground. I had a chat with the articulate voice in my head and we agreed that I would withdraw if it got any worse. But after a few plunges into soggy ground, the cold seemed to stablise the problem. I began to savour the spectacular views, and the fun descent into Cumbria from Great Coum to Dent.
Refuelled by a checkpoint-issue cheese and onion pasty and beans, after a stretch of runable ground, the trek up to the Blea Moor checkpoint offered plenty of opportunity to freshen up your lower limbs in icy bogs, followed by a delicious descent into the beautiful village of Stonehouse. I suspect the pasta I ate here was metabolized long before the interminable Great Knoutberry climb came to an end, but a surfeit of views at the top compensated for the deficit of calories. I’d been running off and on with a very nice chap called Colin, and after Redshaw, we began moving together. Complete with a thigh-level immersion into the peaty earth, Snaizeholme and Dodd Fell came and went. We hit Fleet Moss at seven.
At this point, twilight approaching, competitors are grouped for safety reasons. Colin and I were accordingly joined by Steve and Brian. Together we tackled the notorious stretch to Middle Tongue and Hell Gap. The ground here is at its roughest and the terrain is difficult to navigate, However, relying heavily on Colin’s excellent navigation skills we picked some good lines, and only a had to scale a couple of large stone walls. With the sunset behind and the full moon ahead, the evening became quite special. We tried to drink it in before darkness settled and the temperature fell.
Our headtorches were on by the time we met the Hell Gap marshal, who warned us that visibility on Buckden Pike was being measured on a ruler and any groups not arriving together would be disqualified. Keeping this in mind we headed into Cray checkpoint where our group was further swelled by Leigh and Kyle. I like to spend as little time in checkpoints as possible, but the grouping system means it becomes a team game and our six-man squad variously layered up, got fed and got warm. I was happy to wait, but not moving left me very cold; after twenty-five minutes, I was shivering enough to insist that we get going.
I was cold enough to be looking forward to the ascent up Buckden Pike, knowing that another thousand feet ascent in the legs will always good for body temperature. However, after getting our tallies clipped at the top, frequent discussion about which of the two GPS units being used by members of our group was best to follow meant that there was plenty of opportunity to get cold again while negotiations were completed.
After meandering our way to Top Mere, then Park Rash, we began the final assault on Great Whernside. At the top, visibility was again measured in inches, accompanied by snow flurries and a protracted discussion about which side of a fence to follow. Answer: It didn’t matter. Nonetheless, the comically unrunnable ground coming off Great Whernside was offset by knowledge that the next nine miles were all downhill; if we could traverse the ankle rolling tussocks and trainer-hungry quagmires en route to Capplestone Gate, the thing was in the bag. The group came to life again as the finish became a tangible reality, and we chatted cheerfully into Yarnbury where we were de-grouped and and began the final push. Sharing our thoughts on the merits of GPS units, Colin and I had a contented walk into Thresfield, finishing in slightly over twenty hours. It was 5 am, and the very welcome sight of my wife marked the end of almost a full day of running, walking and wading. As I got into the car and sank back into the heated seat sixty-one miles away from where I’d left it, mum pointed out that a lift would have been much easier. But probably not as much fun.
Thank you to everyone involved in making The Fellsman happen. Other than the hundred mile races I’ve completed, I can’t think of a harder, or better-organized race than this. In a world where ultra-marathons have hit critical mass, The Fellsman remains one of the best.