Fell Running – A Beginner’s Guide

Paul Evans

Firstly, a disclaimer: I am not a particularly adept fell runner, nor as experienced as I intend to become; however, this guide should cover the basics for all Striders who are ready to try something a bit different from the training-London-Great North cycle. Any corrections are most welcome.

What is it?

Without going into the FRA (Fell Running Association) definitions, it is a sport in which runners race each other around a course over hilly terrain. Whilst downhill-only races exist, they tend to be the preserve of the French and Italians, so all UK fell races either start and finish in the same place, having ascended and descended various hills or, in a few cases, start at the bottom of the hill and are then a race to the top. Hills aside, mud, streams, moorland and woods are all optional extras and short stretches of road are usually a necessary evil (usually at the start and finish).

As for ascents and distances, these vary. Each FRA-registered race is classified by average ascent as below:

  • A – greater than 250ft ascent per mile
  • B – 125-250ft ascent per mile
  • C – not less than 100ft ascent per mile

… and by distance, as follows:

  • L – race 12 miles or greater in length
  • M – race between 6-11.9 miles in length
  • S – race less than 6 miles in length

So, for example, a race of 10 miles with 3000ft of ascent is classed as AM, whilst a race of 12m/2000ft would be BL. It is worth noting that the FRA calendar also includes races in relay format.

Where do I find a fell race?

Every year the FRA produces a handbook listing all races for the forthcoming calendar year, with any late amendments or additions being noted on the FRA website. This gives the bare details of each race, including entry details, miles/ft, course records, incentives (free food/T-shirt etc.) and other pertinent details (whether the course is partially-marked, if car-sharing is required, if recces are possible etc.). Additionally, there are races that are organised by local organisations or the LDWA that are not FRA events but that are, to all intents and purposes, fell races and which attract fell runners in their droves – the Grindleford Gallop and Swaledale Marathon spring to mind. Also, there’s a list of fell races popular with Striders here. Most such races take place in the following hotspots of the sport:

  • North Pennines/Northumberland. Bleak moorland scenery that is nevertheless rather attractive. Often difficult underfoot, thanks to large expanses of tussock-filled ground and the ability of much of the earth to hold water. The lack of standout peaks can make navigation a bit more tricky than the likes of Snowdonia or Cumbria. Races seem to often attract low numbers, making prize-winning more likely than in some other areas. Very good list of upcoming races via the “Whats On” section of the NFR website and more listed on the DFR website calendar.
  • North York Moors. Mostly runnable climbs and a lot of soaked woodland in two massive series of races, Summer and Winter, organised by the Esk Valley club. Roseberry Topping seems to feature a lot.
  • Derbyshire. God’s own county (or at least my favourite). Many races in both White and Dark Peaks. Short(ish) but steep climbs, mud, moorland and unexpectedly lush valleys are to be expected.
  • Cumbria. Probably the most race-heavy area of the lot, covering all distances, including the Lakeland Classic series. Many of these races are towards the more brutal end of the spectrum, with murderous climbs onto bleak fells, rapidly-changeable weather and the very real potential to fall off something big if you can’t navigate. Rewarding, but not for the novice.
  • The South Pennines. This area covers both S/W Yorkshire and E Lancashire. Expect runnable climbs, bad weather and bleak moorland. Pack some Bronte for the train.
  • Snowdonia. Like Cumbria but further away [*] and many of the peaks covered in even more shattered rock.
  • Brecon Beacons. The army’s backyard for a reason; the hills are smaller, grassier and more runnable than Snowdonia but this area is still fairly cheeky and is one of the wettest parts of the UK.
  • Scotland. For the most part, see ‘Cumbria’. A few more gentle races around the Pentlands also exist. It’s called ‘Hill Running’ up there, and there’s a very full programme of races on the SHR website calendar.

* This is from Catterick Garrison’s copy of “Essential Geography for Squaddies”. Ed.

What do I need?

For some of the shorter races over easy terrain, there is no carried kit requirement. However, the standard minimum kit list is as follows:

  • Windproof trousers and top
  • Whistle
  • Map
  • Compass
  • Gloves
  • Hat

Additionally, some races will stipulate that emergency food and waterproofs (in place of windproofs) must be carried. This will all go into your bumbag or rucksack and can actually be surprisingly light. However, before even getting to this point you need to have got hold of a decent pair of fell shoes, as road flats are simply not adequate for gripping much fell terrain, particularly wet descents – anything made by Walsh or Inov-8 will save your bottom unnecessary bruises. You may also wish to ‘invest’ in a Camelbak-type water-carrier (although this is extra weight to be carried), suncream to prevent the burns that you only notice when you’ve stopped running or wrap-around sunglasses/gold chains if you fancy taking the 100m-sprinter look to the countryside.

Who does it?

Fell running is a rural sport that also attracts runners from the large towns and cities bordering the fells. As such, expect wiry individuals of all ages (junior races start at under-8s and the Vet70 category is often hotly-contested) and a good few less-wiry people to make up the rest of the field. Expect many of them to come accompanied by their families, complete with Labradors and Collies, and expect a gaudy display of running vests from clubs you never knew existed.

Why bother?

I personally love the sport, but realise that it can be a bit of a tough one to sell to most runners. However, fell running offers a few things that ordinary runners simply cannot get from road-running:

  • Scenery. Whether the moors of West Yorkshire in the snow or Swaledale on a blazing June morning, the landscapes rarely fail to provoke some emotion, be it awe, joy or trepidation.
  • Excitement. I have yet to feel the same adrenaline rush from any road race as I have got from even the shorter, more gentle races. Running downhill just does that.
  • Placement. Fields are often small, so top 10 finishes or placing in your category are definite possibilities. This can equate to prizes, albeit often cake, and being listed in the results section of the Fellrunner magazine, which is sent to all FRA members.
  • Egalitarianism. There are not many sports in which you line up against national champions, knowing that, if you have a good day and they make a navigational error or just run badly, you can beat them.
  • Greed. Many races start and finish at a good pub, many with food included in the entry fee. This makes for a fairly sociable sport.
  • Knees. They last longer if you stay off the concrete.
  • Entry fees. Note to Brendan Foster: 6 miles of running does not HAVE to cost £25, nor 13 miles £40+; that’s just what you can get away with charging. Most race fees vary between £2 and £10, often with food included and sometimes with a t-shirt, beer or a mug. This is a very low-cost sport to enter.
Conclusion

I’m not going to lie, fell running really isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but more people would enjoy it than have tried it and there exists a handful of Striders who genuinely understand the appeal – as a rough idea, anyone who enjoys the Harrier League might want to think about it. If you’re at all tempted, please talk to one of us and see if there’s anything coming up that might be about right for you to try out.