Monday, 10 May 2010

The Fellsman

I had the option this past weekend of either attending our black tie running club dinner complete with award presentation for my stag success or a 61 mile trek across the toughest terrain that the Yorkshire Dales has to offer. Naturally I chose the latter.

So what of the Fellsman? Well where do I start... this was without doubt the toughest test I have encountered to date. The painful blister on my right foot is a testiment to this fact. The Fellsman is difficult to describe in a few or even many many words and nor can photos as I didnt take any (although my parents did who provided me with fantastic support out on course).

This is a course that includes 11,000ft of climbing cross 10 major peaks in the dales; a course that includes mile after mile of rough track, rocks, barren moorlands, peat bogs and very occasionally runnable flats. If you werent climbing up you were flying down at a speed that the terrain allowed, and on the flats (there were some) you could enjoy the light relief whilst not pushing too hard as you could be punished on the next inevitable climb. This event really did have everything including an astonishing array of food served up on the course by hundreds of checkpoint volunteers. We really were spoilt out there. The Americans refer to such events as 'linear picnics'. Not too far from the truth I suppose but it must be earnt and oh boy did you earn it on the Fellsman! Every baked bean, custard cream, sausage roll, cup of tea, soup, flap jack and rice pudding! All washed down with litres and litres of energy drink. Its a miracle I was able to move at all on that little lot.

So to the race. Well at 16 hours and 48 minutes it was a long one. My longest event (by time) by a considerable margin and my first experience of night running too. Things all kicked off in the picture perfect yorkshire village of Ingleton. The first leg was a real taste of what was to come for the next 17 hours. A gradual but steepening 3.5 mile climb up to the peak of ingleborough at 2375ft. It took 45 minutes to get to the top and I can truly say I thoroughly enjoyed every one of those minutes. The views on what was a perfect clear day were breathtaking but unfortunately i didnt hang around to take any photos as there was no time to waste. Afterall what would be the point of exerting yourself up the first climb of the day only to be passed by loads of other runners as i play the tourist. For this reason the camera stayed in the bottom of my bag.

The next part was simply insane. A serious decent of over 1300ft down the other side of ?Ingleborough. Things suddenly became very real indeed. There was a steep staircase zig zagging up but the preferred option from watching others was taking the direct route straight down the mountainside. A careful balance of speed and lightfootedness was required. And my prize for making it to checkpoint 2 was seeing and hearing my parents cheer me on. A great surprise and a nice boost. With my maps and directions still in my bag (as I thought I could count on following others very early on in the race) I got a surprise when I didnt immediately see which way I had to go - left or right. I chose left on a hunch and went off down the road quickly spotting other runners around the corner that turned into a farm yard before (yes you guessed it) the next climb. This went to the top of Whernside at 2419ft. Itwas a tough climb that whilst starting off gradually became a hands on knees job with several false summits to boot. The thing about this race so far was that much of it simply wasnt runnable and because of this it was less a race and more a test of stamina and determination. And this pattern continued checkpoint after checkpoint... Run wherever the terrain allowed, powerwalk the climbs with the arms pumping and blast down the decents.

The weather gods smiled on us with the much predicted rain clouds staying at bay and the only real test weather wise being the strong winds on the peaks.

My first navigational error occurred coming down the long gradual decent from checkpoint 3. With the maps still in my backpak I followed 5 or so runners ahead of me. But they (and I following) overshot the required right turn over a temporary stile which I didnt see and had to track back across a rough pasture with large tussocks to get to the next check point with my parents somewhat surprised asking why i had come from the opposite direction to the other runners. Oh well a 10-15 minute detour but the flapjack at checkpoint 4 was a great pick me up and much needed for the next 1000ft climb up from Kingsdale to Gragareth.

With 24 checkpoints on the course I'm going to fast forward to the most memorable moments from here on in (He says). And most of these revolve around the checkpoint food! The first major hot food was served up at Dent (CP8) - warm sausage rolls and beans and a chance to use my collapsable mug :-) It tasted so good and whilst I probably spent far longer at this checkpoint than I normally would it was heaven so I didnt care.
Dent was 20 miles into the race (1/3 complete) so there was still a lot to do. The next leg required me to use my compass for the first time as there were a few bearings to keep on track to successfully make it across, down and up and over a large open trackless moorland. I did it with military precision (by my standards) and made it to Blea Moor. Hooray. From here it was a steady 3 mile decent including a forest which was a nice change of scenery and down to Stonehouse for lunch!

But first was a secret kit check to ensure runners had everything on the mandatory kit list. Gulp! I passed the check and was soon tucking into pasta and sauce which my parents joined me for too.
The climb up from stonehouse was long and grinding and not before i had to return to the stonehouse checkpoint, 5 minutes after leaving to pick up my water bottle which i had forgotten... Doh. I was still feeling strong though and my powerwalk up to the top of Great Knountberry (CP11 - 2203ft) allowed me to pass a few runners\hikers onroute. This was roughly half way into the event with still just over 31 miles to go.

The decent down to CP12 was a blast where my parents met me once again. The tea was very nice (despite the residue of baked beans) and was warming as it was getting ever colder by now. I actually turned down the hot dogs here as the pasta had given me my fill (although I could have done with the hotdogs at Cray - note to organisers!).

I going to fast forward now to CP15 and Fleetmoss. This part of the route was on the paper at least, the tricky bit, as it spans across a large open peat bog however the prolonged dry spell meant that whereas in previous years runners would be up to their knees waded through the stuff we were able to bound through with a spring in the stride merely skimming across the surface. Glorious. The navigational element again went very well with a perfect series of lines across this 4.7 mile stretch. This part was also made even better with good company from another runner. Richard was an experienced runner and chatting about all things 'ultra' makes the time fly by.

Unfortunately my new found nav skills soon deserted me as I suggested another direct line towards the next CP in the hope of picking up a 4x4 track (apparently marked by posts). This wasnt to be found though and the tough terrain led to a slightly annoying slog to get back on track. Fast forward to Cray (CP18 and 45 miles in) and things were getting dark. This is where we were grouped into at least fours whom we were to stay together with for the rest of the race (for safety reasons). Breaking up a group on route would lead to disqualification. So after a feast of cocktail sausages, cheese, jam sandwiches and tea, Richard and I together with 5 others were grouped together. We made our way in the rapidly disappearing daylight up Buckden Pike with our headtorches shining in the star lit night. A 1000ft climb to the top which was a slow but steady slog. We had a really good group for company which really helps in the night stage and makes the miles go a lot faster than they otherwise might.

The dark meant that navigation would play an even bigger part than during the day. Whilst we didnt have the luxury of any seasoned fellsman vets in our group we did have my rather comprehensive route notes provided by a good ultra friend Nick Ham who has previously run the fellsman 5 times. Due to injury he couldnt compete this year but Nick could may as well been leading the group, such was the detail and preciseness of his notes. Thanks Nick! Still I had a bit of pressure on me to get it right, and translate the description onto the 6ft of land that I could see around me lit by the headtorch. But it went well very without error and time went very quickly during the night for me. It was now just a case of what time we could complete the fellsman in.

I had always had it in the back of my mind that i wanted to do it in under 17hrs but the speed of the group meant that this was looking quite unlikely although i had no precise way of knowing as i wasnt paying that close attention to the time. As it was though we came down the final trail element of the course and on to a track that led up to some beacons that had been put out by the organisers. These led all the way to the last checkpoint which was just 2 miles from the finish. Still feeling suprisingly fresh after 57+ miles in the legs i urged the group to pick up the pace as i knew 17 hrs was close. We did so and made CP24 with around 16hrs30 on the clock. The group was allowed to degroup at this stage. So all feelings aside I wanted to really go for it in the final 2 mile dash along and down into Grassington and up to the school at Thresfield for the finish.

And with that 3 of the 7 made a break including me and went for it. On route one guy had a change of heart and decided to hang back for the others which left me and Richard steaming ahead. It felt great and after 60 miles to be doing sub 8 minute miling was a nice vote of confidence on the fitness. And so it was that Richard and I made it with 16h.48m on the clock (1.45am approx on Sunday morning). There was no fanfare. Just an extreme sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at what we had achieved. And with that it was a nice hot shower, cup of tea, a bowl of cornflakes and time for bed.


  1. Great write up Stu! Sounds like a brilliant event. Might have to put it on shortlist for next year.

    One thing I am concerned about myself is the navigation required for Lakeland 50. I have no idea :-) Of course I will have the road book, map, compass and GPS but still not had much time to familiarie myself with the route. Need to try and get up there again for a recce using 2009 roadbook.

    What events are up next on the schedule?

  2. Excellent write-up, Stu. I'm so glad your night navigation went well. Well done.
    It was truly a memorable weekend, a once-in-a-lifetime experience with those dry conditions.
    My report is not far off now. Photos are already uploaded.

  3. Great write up brings back some happy memories of the Fellsman a true mountain challenge well done. Under 17 hrs on your first attempt is excellent going. I'm sure I'll be back next year hopefully with similar conditions !

  4. It was my second year at the Fellsman as one of the rescue bus drivers, and once again the endurance and camaraderie of the runners amazed and inspired me. Congratulations on completing the run, and even more so in the time you achieved. Hope to see you again next year - I'll pass your comments about the hot dogs to the Cray team!