Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Fellsman race report

The Fellsman Returns...

This was an epic race of all proportions made even tougher by the worst conditions in the event's 50 year history. I say this on the grounds that this year was the first time they have ever had to abandon the race whilst many were still out on the course. More on this later....
I met up with Nick Ham (my Fellsman buddy!) on the Friday in Ingleton where we enjoyed two dinners! Fish and chip supper and pizza at the local italian restaurant with my parents who had driven up with me to support me out on the course. Fuelled to the brim and after a Black Sheep Ale to aid a good nights sleep we retired to our 17c guest house.
It was a very calm still evening. How that was to change! Half way through the night you could here the wind battering the windows of the bathroom. By the time we were standing on the start line at a low level the wind was unbelievably strong. And you knew that higher up it was gonna be a lot LOT worst. This made kit choice very easy though. I opted for my heavier weight TNF wind/water proof jacket which I wore from the start and left out my lightweight jacket that would offer less protection against the elements.
As always the race starts with very little fanfare. Just a nice warming speech from Suzanne Carter to get runners and hikers on their way as they enter the 'twilight zone'. My mum and dad were taken by surprise as they were still right in the middle of the pack as everyone got underway and were almost unwittingly swept along by the 500 strong pack.
For this race report I'm not going to recount every section and checkpoint as there were 24 of them! My 2010 goes into more detail if you are interested (although it is a long one nevertheless! :-) I set off at what I thought was an average pace but by the climb up to CP3 at the top of Whernside (2419') I realised that I was going a little faster than was probably wise. For company alongside me was Nicky Spinks who was last years female winner in 13hrs (and this years winner too). A time way beyond my capabilities. I had 15 hours in mind this year but that was before the true horror of the conditions were evident. The full on head and side winds were so strong that you were using half your energy just to stay upright and not be blown off the hillside! I'm not kidding. I can't overstate just how strong the wind was. The only other time I've experienced wind like it is in the Wind Tunnel at my company BRE which can blast you with up to 200mph winds! And as time went on it was more and more apparent that this was a matter of survival of the fittest over anything else. Time was quite frankly irrelevant.
Nicky Spinks and those she was running with were soon infront and moving a lot quicker than me. The 1000ft climb from Kingsdale up to CP5 (Gragareth 2058') was HUGE. You cover this ascent in just 1 mile which goes straight up! I remember it well from 2010 but this doesn't make it any easier. I nibbled on some flapjack and pushed on up taking a well earned breather every now and then.
From CP5 to CP7 (Flintergill 1150') the going was much better and flatter along the ridgeline but also much wetter too. The ground was marshy in places and the sealskinz socks were working very well at first in keeping the water out. This was however before the water and mud came above the sock line rendering them pretty much useless as the water got in and there was no escape. This section was a slog as my energy levels and speed dropped. I was paying for my early enhausaism, but I looked forward to and focused on getting to Dent (CP8) which was the first major food stop and lowest point on the route at 570'.
After the long stoney descent into Dent my mum and dad were there to cheer me in. I refuelled well on beans, sausage rolls, hot cheese rolls, tea and choc digestives. Yummy. I felt a hundred times better after that little lot and prepared for the longest section from Dent up to Blea Moor (1756'). I changed my water logged socks to the injinjis which would at least let the water out again. In 2010 this next section was a real slog in the heat but this time around it was far cooler and went very well without a hitch. There were also many more runners around this time which allowed me to follow and take a direct line to CP9 positioned at the top of Blea Moor. To get there however required a hike through ankle/calve deep water and marsh land. Once your feet are wet they're wet so it became less of an issue after a while. Get use to it and man up Blofeld!
The section down to Stonehouse (CP10) which is the next major food stop is beautiful and downhill! I thoroughly enjoyed it. The pasta and tea went down a treat and I was soon on my way. It was at this point with the sun out that the blue wig that I had been sporting since the start and had remarkably stayed on despite the gale force winds had to go in favour of a white cap to keep the sun off my face. Many spectators remarked on the wig which kept me smiling. Many thought I was running for charity (I wasn't) but to keep things amusing I made up a story about running to save the blue squirrel!
After Stonehouse (840') I put my powerhike to maximum effect to reach the top of Great Knountberry (2203') in good time. I was now pacing myself much better on both the uphills and the flats and had regained my confidence and was feeling strong. The food definitely played a major part in this. The section down to CP12 at Redshaw was swift and very enjoyable as were the ones that followed. I had found my groove and was moving well eating up the miles, and the food on offer.
Up to this point I still had no reason to consult my maps or route description penned masterfully by Nick Ham. This was invaluable in getting me around in 2010, but a mix of following those in front and knowing the route this time around meant that navigation was not an issue. This was however until Fleet Moss (CP15) where I took too long to refuel and missed the opportunity to head off with others that I had been running with prior. My first and only big mistake on the whole event. Once ready I preceeded on my own from Fleet Moss to Middle Tongue. A long 4.5m section. I didn't give it a second thought and ran along the fence line up and over the peat hags. It was slow going. I made several navigational errors on this section where I ended up heading too far left and climbed higher than I needed to, when I should of stayed to the right and lower down to pick up a quad bike track which would have taken me straight towards the next CP. Instead I had to contend with some horrible terrain that was tough mentally and physically. I reckon I added a good 1/2hr to my time on this section from mincing around eating jam sandwiches instead of getting out and sticking with others who knew the way. Of course if I had also consulted my map and route description far earlier than I did on this section then this would have also helped. Note to self: unless you KNOW the way don't guess cos its unlikely to be the right way or save you time.
I finally found the new Middle Tongue CP which had been shifted slightly further South due to land owner permissions not being granted across the original route. The next section was equally tough to navigate made worst by the continuing stupidly strong winds and the first of two snow bizzards that were horozontal. THAT's how cold it was getting by this stage with the wind chill factor sending it below freezing. Conditions were definitely deterioating so all I could think was to keep moving as fast as I could which would help to stay warm and keep spirits high.
I stumbled across CP17 (Hell Gap) through better navigation (although tough terrain) and from there it was a short downhill section to Cray which was the next major refuelling point and also Grouping point for the night stage. Basically beyond this point you HAD to stick with those in your group (4 minimum) to CP24 at Yarnbury. If you didn't you were in danger of being disqualified. The condition of many runners at Cray wasn't good with many going no further due to exposure and illness. It resembled a scene from a war film with bodies wrapped in body bags! In this case foil body bags shivering vigourously. After some warm spaggetti hoops and warm creamed rice pudding (both tasted SO good!) I got changed into my night gear adding an extra long sleeve base layer and wind/water proof bottoms to go over the tights. On with the head torch too as night descended and our group of 6 was off into the dark windy cold night and straight up Buckden Pike. A climb just shy of 1000ft! But we were use to this by now .
It was soon apparent however that all was not well in the camp. One member of the group Mark was not moving well and feeling sick. In hindsight he should have headed back down to Cray and bailed (something he was quite keen to do) but the group convinced him to battle on to the next CP with road access at Park Rash which was another 4 miles. This doesn't sound far but on this terrain and with the worsening conditions this was definitely the wrong decision putting Mark at more risk whilst slowing the group down considerably. On a plus point though Michael - another member of the group, had run the Fellsman 6 times before and was faultless on the navigational side which makes the night section far easier and more enjoyable as you're able to relax and run instead of worrying about what way to go.
We made it to Park Rash (CP21 of 24) with just over 10 miles left to go. Mark did well to make it this far and bailed here. At the same time several others from other teams all fighting for warmth in the small tent were also worst for wear and called it a day. Subsequently the 5 remaining in our group were grouped with 3 others as they couldn't leave without making up the minimum 4. So we headed out of CP21 as 8 strong and set off to into the fog and started the notorious ascent up Great Whernside (2310'). We were all I think feeling strong and no one was holding up the group as we ran where we could still fighting THAT WIND and hiked the uphills. The 2 volunteer marshalls at the top of Great Whernside were holed up in a tent squeezed between two giant boulders offering a little more protection. We heard later that one competitor had a bad fall up here and broke a foot requiring rescue by air ambulance. Flying in these conditions requires some insane commitment to the job so hats off to them for that.
Descending Great Whernside felt for the first time like the end was in sight. I could visualise what remained and thoroughly enjoyed the last eight miles with the wind on our backs and a 1000ft descent which made the going far easier.
Before long we were heading into Yarnbury. The mood in the camp was high and we had all made light work of the night section all things considered. What remained was whether I could get a PB but to do so I would have to sprint the final section to Grassington. All down hill and on road i thought it would be easy but those final two miles were very hard on the feet. Nevertheless I didn't give up and made it to the school with just one minute to spare. finishing in 16h:47m.
what a race! I be back next year for more....


  1. BRILLIANT Stu....what is it about us and hypothermia in races :-)

    Well done in such tough conditions, I am in awe.

  2. Terrific Stuff Stu, many congratulations on a great round and super report ... you've convinced me to have a pop next year!!!

  3. Wow, just read this, 2+ months late. Well done on a superb time in such tough conditions. Nice account too.

  4. Hi! looking forward to your report for 2013! Hope the poles and Hokas made it through the night to the finish line :-). Beer in Cham is still on offer for you and Nick this August!

    1. Hi Rachael you found me!! Yes just posted 2013 report and so happened to find your comment here by pure chance as was linking this 2012 report. How did you do???