British Fell and Hill Relay Championships 2021

Tebay, Saturday, October 16, 2021

Nick Latham

Waiting in the pen to start leg 2

If you’ve ever driven down the M6, you may have passed through a section of high fells just south of Tebay village. If you were blessed with good weather, you might have been able to see the tops of them. If you’re wired the same way as me, you may even have thought “I wish I could run up there”.

Well, like a magic genie, Geoff popped up in a puff of smoke and granted that wish for the lucky “Tebay Twelve”, entering two Striders teams in the 2021 British Fell Relay Championships, hosted by Helm Hill Runners.

Each team has six people running over four legs and this year’s courses & our entrants were:

  • Leg 1: 5.9km, 430m – solo:  Ellen Powell, Lindsay McEwan
  • Leg 2: 10km, 700m – pair, navigation:  Tricia Everett & Nina Mason, Geoff Davis & me
  • Leg 3: 10.3km, 940m – pair:  Susan Davis & Susan Scott, James Garland & Stuart Scott
  • Leg 4: 5.3km, 370m – solo:  Tamsin Imber, Mark Warner

Apart from the navigation leg, all of the routes were fully flagged and route maps were on the website in advance. For the navigation leg, the idea is that competitors have to make route choices on the move, so they aren’t flagged and apart from approximate distance and climb – plus the general location – they don’t know what they’re in for in advance. 

My preparation hadn’t been perfect. The best training for fell running is, er, fell running. I had been running strongly after some good volume through the year but I hadn’t been able to get as much sustained hill time as I would have liked in recent months. Still, I had managed a couple of recent long runs on the Cleveland hills and I ran well in the Cross Country at Druridge the Sunday before, so I went in feeling as well prepared as I could be.

Ellen and Tamsin very kindly drove a car full of team-mates to Tebay in plenty of time for a 45 minute walk to the event field, where we found the Scotts and the Davises at the club tent that Stuart had transported over and set up.  The whole event put me in mind of large orienteering events I used to go to in my teens.  There can’t be many sports where you find hundreds of competitors trekking nearly 3 miles along tracks and (at times, dubious) paths just to reach the event centre of a British Championship.

We had plenty of time to get our bearings (pun intended) and check the layout of the start, changeover and finish.  I was totally guilty of fanboying, spotting big names like Jasmine Paris and Nicky Spinks and getting excited to be running in the same event as legends like them!

The Race starts

We watched the mass start of the first leg as the crowd charged off up the field, Ellen and Lindsay visible in their Striders buffs.  Before long, we could see the string of runners snaking up the hill on the other side of the valley.

Geoff and I both have good backgrounds in navigation, but he was happy to let me lead the way, so he would take the electronic “dibber” to record our visit at each of the checkpoints. The tricky part for us was judging when to go through the kit check and warm up in time for our runners returning while not getting too cold waiting.  We seemed to reach the decision at the same time and were soon through the efficient kit check and into the holding pen.

Ellen heads to the finish

After a gentle warm-up, we were left with an anxious wait near the changeover. Suddenly, Ellen appeared in a fantastic time, tagging Nina & Trish. Lindsay wasn’t far behind, we moved up to the barrier, he tagged us and we were charging off down the field.

There was a flagged section along the road and then, about 600m in, we turned left up onto the fell through a farmer’s field.  Here we found a group of eager young helpers who were handing out the leg 2 maps – our first sight of our course. The path immediately kicked up and soon we were walking up the first steep section of climb. This gave me a chance to look at the map and spot where we would have some route options.  Leg 1 was going to have no real choice, so we ploughed on up the steep ascent, which was a procession to checkpoint 1.

We caught Nina and Trisha coming out of the checkpoint and had to make an immediate choice – go straight over Hare Shaw or contour around to save some climb.  We took the latter option and I could hear Tricia and Nina behind us, so I knew they had made the same choice. The trick was finding a trod – a narrow, unmarked path – which made the going a little easier underfoot.

Lindsay descends © Olga Wood

As we came around the hill, I noticed that if we took the direct line we would have essentially the same climb as contouring round but was shorter, so I picked a line directly towards the checkpoint. We conveniently also avoided the worst of the (unmarked) marsh in the valley. The climb up from the stream was steep but no worse than we would have had on the longer route.

Checkpoint 3 was on an obvious straight-line route, virtually flat and following another trod, which gave us a rare opportunity to pick up some sustained speed. Immediately coming out of 4 was a steep climb alongside the stream (walking, hands on knees), a bearing across the flat(ish) top (stumbling run) and down into another valley (free-fall using gravity) to a sheepfold and checkpoint 4; it didn’t seem as though anyone else found a different route, judging by those around us. Checkpoint 5 was north down the valley – another chance to get some pace – before angling left diagonally up across the flank of Rispa Pike to the summit.

Nick and Geoff on the descent © Olga Wood

If the organisers want to test the runners’ decision making, they’re bound to put in a leg with options late in the race after a steep climb, catching you when you’re fatigued.  From 5 to 6 was our second real route choice, again straight across the valley and up-and-over Hare Shaw, or contour around. We decided to go around avoiding about 40 to 50 metres of climb, but at the cost of adding about a quarter of a mile. By this point, my hip flexors were pretty much shot after all the climbs. I fell flat on my face 3 times as I struggled to pick my feet up over the tussocks: luckily it was a soft, marshy landing. Geoff very graciously let me pick myself up and catch up without mentioning it, apart from to ask if I was OK. I was also struggling to do more than walk on any incline, even the gentler ones, but I knew from the feel of my legs that I could still move well enough on the flat and downhill. As soon as we crested the col, I opened up my stride and made up some distance.  Downhills are my favourites!

From checkpoint 6, the route was flagged back to the finish. We dibbed quickly and pushed up the short climb from the stream junction as fast as we could. Once on the flat top we were both able to open up again and overtook three pairs on the descent.  At one point, I heard our chief supporter (Jan) shouting encouragement on the descent but I was too busy watching my feet to look up.

Stuart and James © Olga Wood

We kept our momentum on the flat of the road and we pushed as hard as we could back to the field. “You tag them”, Geoff called to me so I pulled away to try to make up a second or two. Of course, the marshals wanted both of us there but Geoff was only a few strides behind. Suddenly it was over and Stuart and James were away on leg 3. All that was left was for me to find where I’d left my lungs.

I went straight back to the tent and got some warm clothes on to avoid cooling down too quickly before searching out some food. Tricia and Nina were back shortly after us, so Susan and Susan were released on the third leg too. I didn’t see them come in as I was somewhere between dry kecks and scran but when we caught up with each other we exchanged notes on the course. They’d started the same way as us on both legs 2 and 6. Where we cut off early on leg 2, they continued round the head of the valley. Conversely, they cut across more directly from 5 to 6. Which was better? Even after scouring the leg splits in the results, the truth is, we’ll never really know! You have to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and be tuned into how you feel; you can only make the choice in front of you at the time.

Team Susan

We were waiting by the run-in when Stuart and James came charging in and Mark breezed off down the field. Stuart was absolutely buzzing, like Tigger had eaten Kanga’s secret stash of Harribos. I think he’d enjoyed it a bit, because that’s what he kept telling us! The edge came off a bit as he cooled down. Watching other pairs come back in, he started muttering “Susan’s going to hate that, she’s going to kill me”. In fairness, Susan didn’t kill him, but she was cursing that he hadn’t suggested she take any water. She had wondered part way round whether licking the grass would work.

Mark Warner finishes

Mark had zoomed in about 5 minutes earlier, wrapping up the race for the men’s team. Tamsin was also off on the course, so everyone else sorted out what they needed to (food, kit, clothes etc), returned to the funnel to cheer on runners coming in and to watch for Tamsin. At some point, the prize-giving started but we stayed put. Before long, we spotted Tamsin coming along the road and into the field, beaming. She got the biggest cheer of the day from the Striders support.

Tamsin finishes

In the final results, our teams came 19th in Men’s Vet 40 and 29th in the Open Women’s race.

Here are some of my tips for anyone who hasn’t run in an event like this before:

  1. The courses are steep, but most people are walking the steep climbs.
  2. The navigation isn’t especially difficult. As the organisers pointed out, it’s a fell race, not an orienteering event. The navigation is more about choosing the best route for your pairing. You do have to be able to read a map, though!
  3. You don’t have to have fell racing experience to run in an event like this. It can help, obviously, but experience of walking on the fells, orienteering, XC and simply running up hills are all valuable.

This was a brilliantly organised event, very worthy of a British Championships. The event information was extremely detailed, almost to a fault. Every runner got some hot food (veggie bean chilli and pitta, very tasty). The facilities were great; there were plenty of toilets including 2 in the warm up pen, Pete Bland had a mobile shop selling kit, there was a coffee stall, a mobile bar and the local school was selling cakes to raise funds. We had a base for the day in the club tent. What made it really stand out though was that the camaraderie, support and team spirit was fabulous.

I can’t wait for next year! I’ve already joined the Fell Runners Association and I’m off to find some more races to enter.

Results

Pos.TimeTeamCat.Cat. Pos.Lap 1Lap 2Lap 3Lap 4
103:11:28Carnethy Men AOpen Men100:34:3101:01:1101:06:5300:28:53
1503:29:16Calder Valley V40Vet 40 Men100:35:1801:11:0001:11:0900:31:49
5203:57:01Helm Hill WomenOpen Women100:42:0401:21:3701:18:1100:35:09
11104:36:37Elvet Striders MenVet 40 Men1900:45:06
Lindsay McEwan
01:34:33
Nick Latham,
Geoff Davis
01:39:12
Stuart Scott,
James Garland
00:37:46
Mark Warner
18305:26:17Elvet Striders WomenOpen Women2900:43:38
Ellen Powell
01:39:18
Tricia Everett,
Nina Mason
02:19:24
Susan Davis,
Susan Scott
00:43:57
Tamsin Imber

227 teams took part.

Full results can be found at SPORTident

Event homepage: Helm Hill Runners

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