This year, this prestigious event in the fell-running calendar was held on the little-known (to me at least) Barbon and Middleton fells, a very compact but no less hilly venue between Sedbergh and Kirby Lonsdale. Conditions-wise, wind was to be the main feature of the day but at least in Durham it remained a generally pleasant day; over the Pennines there was no sun to be had and the weather deteriorated persistently as the day wore on, leaving later runners to contend with driving rain and mist.
The event was well organised as always, this time by Dallam Running Club and Howgill Harriers, and the first runners representing the 213 registered teams were marshalled together on a wind-blown field at the foot of Middleton Fell for a 10 o’clock start. Elvet Striders were able to field two teams: Team ‘A’ comprised Sally Hughes (Leg 1), Mike Hughes & Paul Evans (Leg 2), Camilla Lauren Maatta & Scott Watson (Leg 3) and Jan Young (Leg 4); Team ‘B’ was Mike Bennett (Leg 1), Kerry Lister & Nigel Heppell (Leg 2), Anita Clementson & Phil Owen (Leg 3) and John Metson (Leg 4). Of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that ‘Mudman & Mudwoman’, Geoff and Sue Davis (running for that ‘other’ club on this occasion) were there first thing with tent erected and waiting to receive guests!
As I mentioned before, this is a prestigious event that always attracts the very best fell runners in the country to compete for their clubs, consequently the course is ‘challenging’ to say the least. Legs 1 & 4 were for single runners and were effectively the same course run the opposite way round. Leg 2 was a longer course for pairs and Leg 3 was a navigational course for pairs.
There are many (many) words to follow and it is a shame that the consistent efforts of those dependable runners who are relied on to make up the core of any team often fail to get a fair crack of the whip commendations-wise, but the day – quite rightly – belonged to two ladies for whom this was a real baptism of fire. Sally Hughes must have been the youngest competitor at the event and had only ever (to the best of my knowledge) previously done one fell-race – Simonside Show – and compared to this, it doesn’t really count. By her own account she had a tough run, with the vagaries of the fells playing their part but she kept her head and her spirit and finished in proper fell-running style!
Twelve hours earlier, Kerry Lister had been drinking champagne and recounting her York Marathon adventures the previous weekend. When Jon Ayres was forced to pull out, a desperate email plea went out for a replacement and it was Kerry who stepped up – despite never having done a fell race in her life – only to be given the hardest leg of the race! Admittedly she was well paired with Nigel who, I think she has already agreed, calmly guided and encouraged her to achieve a never-to-be-forgotten and quite extraordinary athletic milestone.
For my own part, Camilla and I enjoyed (I hope she agrees) a very satisfying run on Leg 3 which, because we left with the mass start, required almost no navigational input with the exception perhaps of keeping an eye out for any small advantage that might be gained. However, with good visibility and a chain of runners stretching for half a mile, that hope was a faint one. Squally rain showers driven by high winds were possibly the most significant impediment to our progress (disregarding a few steep hills of course!) but if you’re not intending to pitch a tent in it at the end of the day it just adds to the experience! Roll on next year!
…And Mike Hughes (Team A/Leg 2 – with Paul Evans)
Paul and I waited eagerly for the return of the Leg 1 single runners; you could see them coming down from the fell in the field opposite and hurriedly dibbing at the last point before making the last effort to the finish where a firm tag on the hand was needed to set the pairs away for the second leg. Many had come in by now and we had seen some really fast pairs run off up the slope towards the right turn to Eskholme Pike, picking off some of the pairs in a very short time. Then she appeared, safe and running well, our Sally, able to run the first leg as it was the only leg permitted for an under 18. She strode down the fields with her lanky relaxed gate and was soon running towards us. I held my arms out for a proud embrace and we were off, charging up the hill after the others, although none in sight just yet.
We climbed steadily and I was soon quite breathless, don’t know if it was the wind that seemed to take my air or trying to keep pace with Paul, down a steep gully and up the other side. It was mostly runnable but the climb to the first check point brought me to a walk. As we climbed we caught up with Nigel and Kerry. At the same time were greeted by an ex-strider who was out on her own, her name I can’t recall but many of you will – a very pleasant French lady who invited a bus load of striders to her wedding in France many years ago.
After a brief chat we pressed on, Paul offering for me to lead and set pace but I thought we’d be faster if I let him lead and I tried to keep up, that seemed to work. We decided to run to the base of the next hill and then stride to the next check point, Paul saving us time by getting to the check point a good few strides ahead of me and then we were straight off after the nod from the marshals when we were a pair again.
The view of the runners strung out ahead to CP3 and Castle Knott ahead was quite something. We had picked a few more off by now and I seemed to be getting my “second wind”. I knew we were looking for a right “out and back” after that to pick up CP4, from the contours on the map it looked steep but maybe not too far. As we traversed round it came into view. I laughed, that’s mad I thought, it was way down in the valley, really steep, and as soon as you hit the check point you had to come straight back up of course and even further to the wall corner for CP5, mentally tough as well anything else.
We descended rapidly, passing a few more and were soon out the other side of the gully and attacking the hill. I looked up to the top of the hill, I only looked the once, head down and get on with it, this was seriously painful. It was rough heather scrub, the heather compressing as you stepped on it which sapped what little energy my legs had, you couldn’t stand really, the best technique seems to be climb it on all fours, grabbing the heather as you went and as much pulling yourself up with your arms and pushing with your legs which felt like they would burst.
Paul was getting away from me but I managed to gain on others. Eventually the top came and I joined Paul who was able to stop and take in the view back, I didn’t and we were off again, returning to soft grass and probably the easiest run of the day to CP5 on Calf top and the turn left down Middleton Fell. We were going well, we were heading home, the ground was soft, deep, moss and undulating as we descended and traversed.
We ran quickly, I was twisting and turning, at one point my body was facing forward but my legs were still running sideways after stumbling on a rocky outcrop, I was starting to feel exhausted and didn’t have the energy to correct with the forward momentum of the decent but managed to keep upright. We caught up with a couple of NFR runners (Steph Scott and Katherine Davis). We were heading back in the direction of the event field, I guess maybe only 2-3 miles to go, when there were shouts of “wrong way”.
Confusion ensued, there seemed to be runners everywhere all of a sudden, some going on ahead, some running back, some way down in the valley bottom going the other way (turns out some were also the Leg 3 navigators). A quick glance at the map, damn, where were we, we had just arrived at a deep gully with a stream, we realised on the map that that had to be the unnamed watershed down into Luge Gill to the West of CP6.
We descended a little further and back over the gully, it looked runnable for the traverse along a wall to find the gill we needed – Wrestle Gill – but we were soon in deep bracken and slowing down. We could see runners further up the hill so traversed and climbed, followed the stream up the gully and eventually came to the check point, blisters starting to shout by then.
Check point dibbed and we were off, how much time we had lost I don’t know, 10-15 minutes maybe, so we pushed on trying to claw that time back. Could we make it back in time for the cut off, yes, you could see the tents down in the fields about a mile away. Someone said “ten minutes to cut off”, press on, Paul looking back, he had that look in his eyes and I knew this was going to be the last hard push, eyeballs out -it’s all going to be over soon.
We were soon running across the fields and back into the main field, we thought we had made it in time, we looked around but soon heard the jovial commentator announce over his tannoy “it’s no good looking rounds lads, they’ve gone, you’ve missed them”…..still, a brilliant run and great to have Paul encouraging me by making it look so easy!
…And Jan Young (Team A/Leg 4)
Sunday’s race renewed my passion for the fells, testing my resilience, after a summer in the doldrums. No navigation needed for solo leg 4, switch brain off and follow red flags, peering through mist and blinding rain, to find cairn checkpoints and marshalls huddled as low as possible, finding respite from Howgills howling wind. Recommend pie eating or backpack rocks, to add weight, as got blown sideways…… a lot.
Brilliant commentary from announcer: “They call it fell running because you fall down lot.” “They say it’s hell up there; you wait till leg 4.” He was at it all day, entertaining and enthusiastic. Hot food served all day, cake, hot drinks and beer. Shared Striders’ tent and cakes with NFR, all supportive.
Striders of the day: Sally, already very fit, whose confidence in her ability is rocketing – she must have been the youngest competitor? And ‘I’ll try it Kerry’ – from the York Marathon to challenging terrain on the Middleton and Barbon fells. No problem!
…And Nigel Heppell (Team B/Leg 2 – with Kerry Lister)
A last minute drop-out meant a new recruit and a re-jigging of teams, such that I took Kerry out as my partner for Leg 2, which happened to be the longest leg (9 miles apparently). Excellent company, enthusiasm and unflagging good spirits but it was definitely a baptism of fire (or should that be wind and hail? – easily blowing 60mph on the tops – and turbulent too) for Kerry.
Part of our route went half-way down this – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-oIkNu9MwA&feature=youtu.be – and then straight back up, all the way into the clouds that were covering Calf Top.
Quoting from the organiser’s website: “There is only the one annual race currently touching upon the Middleton and Barbon fells event area; it involves a lung bursting, calf straining, dash to Calf Top from the washtubs in Barbondale and back and has one of the steepest ascents and descents of the Kendal Winter League series. There are sore backsides in store for runners looking to overtake and losing their footing on the run in to the finish.”
We did complete our leg successfully albeit taking a bit longer than most, well, ok, all; but at least we got all the checkpoints; 10 teams failed to do that. Heard some rumours that Mountain Rescue were about to be summoned! I had the satisfaction of doing some actual navigation because there was no one else in sight to follow – it’s an ill wind …
…And Kerry Lister (Team B/Leg 2 – with Nigel Heppell)
The story starts on Saturday night, approximately 1030pm, checking my emails I saw a plea from Paul Evans for anyone willing to be a last minute stand-in for the fell racing championships. Ah well I though, better than sitting on the back of a motorbike all day…. off went the email, with 3 caveats – don’t be cross at how slow I am, I am very poor at navigation and please can I run with someone else. Hastily packing my little rucksack with the ‘essential kit’ and laying out my flat momma off to bed for an insanely early Sunday morning.
Next thing I know I’m getting into a car with 3 likely lads (Paul Evans, Nigel Heppell and John Metson) and off to Middleston Fell we go. At this point I really don’t know what Ive gotten myself into. Arriving in good time for our team captain to register the 2 teams we have fielded, I being to get a bit worried, lots of racing snake type fell runners, I pop to the portaloo then try to find the Strider tent which Sue and Geoff have erected for the Striders nd NFR teams to share. Me being me, with absolutely no sense of direction (admittedly not ideal for a fell run), it takes me some time to find the tent.
Numbers allocated and pinned on: I’m running Leg 2 with Nigel in team number 73. Mike Bennett was our Leg 1 runner, Flip Owen and Anita Clementson our navigation Leg 3 and John Metson our number 4.
Then it was off to find the Young Farmers’ tent for a very reasonably priced bacon bun and coffee (£3!). Nigel and I had a quick recce of the map(ashamedly all I know about maps is the closer together the lines are, the steeper the hill/gradient, and my goodness those lines around checkpoint 4 were very, very, close together!).
Leg 1, ready to go – Mike Bennett and Sally Hughes were looking resplendent in purple as they lined up with the elite fell runners – then they were off! Estimating a return time of around 40 minutes it was off for our kit check.
I had brought everything I needed except whistle and compass, so after our illustrious team captain provided me with a compass and a new whistle was purchased from Pete Bland (my first ever Pete Bland store purchase – I think that makes me a fell runner now!) I went to show my gear to the checkers. She was suitably impressed with my woolly bee hat (complete with antennae) but strangely made no comment on my ‘pac-a-mac’ cagoule.
After a last, nervous, loo visit, Nigel and I dibbed into the starting pen, to await Mike’s return. When he appeared over the hill, his long, loping, stride seemed to devour the ground beneath him, then, with a quick tag of the hand, we were off. Giggling like a girl (well I am one I suppose) it wasn’t long before my marathon tired legs and unaccustomed lungs started to protest, Nigel coached me with top fell runner tips as we climbed and climbed and climbed.
And as the pairs passed us (lots of them) the head start Mike had provided us with was soon gone and Paul and Mike Hughes were soon upon us, passing us with a cheery wave, smile and ‘well done’. My lungs were bursting by now, my calves were screaming but I was still smiling.
At last checkpoint 1! I’d like to tell you more about the route but to be honest it just seemed like a lot of ups and ‘jocks heeds’ to use Sue Davis’ phrase. Looking forward to the descent to checkpoint 4 we ploughed on, and when it came it looked like a cliff edge – I’d never gone down anything so steep without an abseil rope! I started the very slow creep down Barbondale, giggling maniacally with hysteria and joy, busying my brain with thinking of what I was going to put in this race report.
I managed to make it almost to the checkpoint (in record slow time) before slipping onto my bottom – no damage done. Nigel ‘the dibber’ did the dibbing and then it was the horror of ‘the Ascent’. Now I had seen an alleged quote for Dean Kamazes: ‘run when you can, walk when you have to, crawl if you must, just never give up’.
This was the time to invoke all of these methods of transport: on my hands and knees I became acquainted with much sheep poo, my back felt like it was breaking, my calves felt like they would pop, then the wind came – only about 60 mph (estimated by Nigel) in big ‘whooshy’ noisy gusts.
I must say I was scared and wondered numerous times why I was doing this but at the same time I felt elated. Wow, what an experience to be here, a running novice competing (well that’s maybe a bit strong) in the National Fell Running Championships in an awesome landscape with weather as I had never experienced it.
Up and up we went, Nigel keeping the conversation going, waiting patiently for me and pointing out the way. Then, all of a sudden, we were at the top – well, only a little way to go before the actual ‘Calf Top’ – a ‘Marilyn’ as my guide informed me. We were now in the clouds and about to start the descent(I was fully expecting to find ten black toenails and big blisters on my feet when I eventually took my shoes off).
On our way from CP 5 to 6 we came across a team of Congleton girls who had been to CP 6 but couldn’t find CP 7. We dubbed them the ‘Congleton Panickers’ as they were genuinely scared and lost. Nigel sorted them out and pointed them in the right direction (what a gent; I had dabbled with the idea of sending them the wrong way to gain a place ‘mwah-ha-ha’!). The lovely ‘holder of the dibber’ at CP 6 saw us coming and met us a little way up the hill and we were soon off to find CP 7 and ‘The Finish’, which seemed like it would never come.
Eventually there it was, after 3 hours 40 minutes (yes, you read that correctly) and approx 9 miles covered with an elevation gain of 772 metres, Nigel dibbed his last dib. We had missed the cut-off point (no sh*t Sherlock) and Leg 3 runners had already set off, but we had made it. Nigel looked like he’d had a gentle walk around the park; I was exhausted, elated and emotional.
Arriving back at the Striders tent, it emerged that the organisers had been five minutes away from calling mountain rescue, as we’d taken so long, and no-one had heard from us, even though we’d dibbed at every CP and had been practically followed by the marshalls from CP 6 all the way back (obviously the mobile signal is not the best in this setting – maybe they need radios next time…..).
Two cups of hot, sweet, tea later, Flip and Anita returned from their leg. Flip kindly donated his meal ticket and a beer to me. Happy, dry, fed and watered and sitting at the back of the tent as the weather closed in, we awaited John Metson’s return. Then the tent came down and we were off home.
Although we were time last on our leg, we managed (due to Nigel’s skill) to get all seven checkpoints dibbed, a feat which ten teams didn’t, which means we weren’t officially last on our leg! And overall there were six teams below us. Outstanding work I’d say.
So the question is: is this novice a fell runner? The answer: I’d sure like to be! I have never been so scared, astounded by my capability, in awe of the support and kindness of my fellow runners or proud of my achievement as I was on Sunday 19th October 2014.
I urge everyone and anyone to try fell running – maybe pick your first one a bit more carefully – but as Scott Watson said on FB: “maybe the race will choose you!”
…And Anita Clementson (Team B/Leg 3 – with Phil Owen)
It was a mass start at 1315 for Leg 3 runners should your Leg 2 team mates not be back and approximately 20 teams were set off. As this was the navigation route, they were pulling no punches at the nationals with no chance to prepare beforehand and maps were given out a short distance after the race start as you were climbing the first hill.
Phil took charge of the map whilst I did my best to keep up and not lose sight of the runners ahead (very quickly disappearing into the distance). We dodged a few very fast fell runners who were making their descent (this is what it’s all about, rubbing shoulders with the best fell runners in the country!).
The terrain was both wonderful and brutal. There was no room for wimps out there on the Middleton Fells. It did feel quite bleak when the winds caught you on the highest points – no-man’s land – feeling the elements and feeling alive!
Long before the final descent, the booming voice of ‘Mr Commentator’ could be heard in the distance (I want some of what he was on). We were disappointed to lose a checkpoint; a simple error and we were too busy looking for the runner ahead (I was no help whatsoever). We ran right near it too looking back on the map.
Thanks to Phil, for being a great teammate (luckily he was happy to take it easy at my pace whilst keeping an eye on an injury) and thanks to Paul for pulling this off – Team Elvet will be back!