The Fellsman ⚒

This is possibly the first race I have started which I actually felt prepared for. Mentally I was in a good place; I knew it was going to be the hardest run I’d ever done; I knew the weather was potentially going to be horrendous; I knew it was going to be a long hard slog.

Physically, with the exception of the odd difficult week, training had gone well since I started at the end of December; Hardmoors 55 was a confidence boost at which I’d felt great throughout until my back went. Plus the weather there had toughened me up.

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Where to start?

I was sharing an Airbnb cottage with mates Dan and Chris and we all arrived there early evening on Friday. I imagine the scene that ensued will be familiar to everyone; despite going over kit 100 times in the preceding weeks, we all set about emptying our bags and going through our kit again. Chris cooked us supper; much to my alarm….

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…. but it turned out to be delicious. While dinner cooked we set off to Threshfield to register and have our kit checked.

We arrived at registration, which was at the finish in the local school, and started with being told all the later buses in the morning, taking runners to the start, were full so we were allocated the 6am bus. Ugh. We then approached the kit check with some trepidation, as it was taken very seriously.

Unlike at other races where a spot check is taken, absolutely everything was inspected and checked. I had a mild moment of panic when my Custom design OS Map I’d had done for the Fellsman was queried by one of my inspectors for not being Explorer OL2, OL30 or the specific Fellsman one you could buy. Thankfully, however, the other one said as it was an OS map with the whole route on it, it was good to go.

We all passed our tests and skipped off back to the cottage for some food and an early night. Ha!

Shepherds pie wolfed, we then had to repack our packs with all the gear. And add those last bits like battery packs. Another dither over whether to pack that extra gilet…. in my case the answer should always be yes. Eventually, I think we went to bed around 11.30pm, having set my alarm for 4am.

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No run is complete without the usual salute.

Why on earth 4am? Because I need to snooze at least once before I get up. I need time to faff in the mornings. I need time to make tea. I need time to contemplate whether or not I can go to the loo at that hour, usually not. And we had to drive to the Fellsman car park and get a shuttle bus to the finish in time to catch the bus to the start.

We left the house at 5.15am, and set off in search of the car park. Turned out to be in a quarry outside of the village. I bagged a sneaky spot by the gate and as luck would have it a mini bus turned up straight away. Oh and do I need to tell you it was raining? No. The 2019 Race Weather Fairy has clearly buggered off on holiday.

We got to the finish about 15 minutes before our bus. People were drifting in looking a bit pie-eyed and wandering around. Breakfast could be had if you’d ordered and paid for it but we had chosen not to. I had been very organised the night before and made myself a peanut butter sandwich for this time; eating before I left was simply too early for me. Sadly I lacked the wherewithal to bring it with me.

The bus arrived, we all trooped on. Dan and I sat together and Chris sat across the aisle, with a Fellsman veteran next to him, and Chris wasted no time asking for tips. I drifted off to sleep listening to the man giving instructions about which side of the wall to stick to…… go up the left side of that gully…… I hope Chris is taking notes…..

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A dull photo, but it shows the terrain well that we had for the majority of the race.

The start in Ingleton was in the Community Centre and the huge hall quickly filled up with runners, all in various stages of dress. Looking outside, the sky was fairly bright but it was raining so we agreed to start the run wearing full waterproofs. Jamie found us – another Twitter mate long known but never met so it was great to meet him.

With echos of Hardmoors, we troop outside for the start in the rain and much to our amusement, as the field slowly started across the playing fields, it immediately split into two groups.  I didn’t expect to use the nav on my watch so quickly but we decided to go with the majority who branched left.  From the moment we left the playing fields we went up and didn’t stop until we reached the Ingleborough trig 3 miles later.  It was to be the easiest ascent of them all.

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Descending Ingleborough, with Ribblehead Viaduct in the far distance top right

A friend Lio was crewing for the 3 Peaks which was also being run that weekend and said he’d hop over to run a few miles with us. I met him coming down from Ingleborough as I was on the way up. Chris and Dan were already slightly ahead of me so I spent the next few miles chatting to Lio and learning a great deal about descending from this amazing runner from the Alps. We caught up to Dan for a bit, and jogged together through Chapel le Dale and started the next ascent to Whernside, where I lost Dan again. Lio stayed with me until the trig and peeled off back to his car and crewing duties.

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Me, Dan and Lio. Photo credit: SportSunday

I turned back on myself and started the run back down Whernside wondering where the boys were. The plan had always been to run this together. But I was reluctant and stubborn enough not to be lured faster than the pace I felt was sensible given what was ahead of us. I realised I wasn’t going to catch them up and they weren’t waiting for me anywhere so I started to mentally prepare myself to continue this journey alone.

The next climb was Gragareth.  The steepest and nastiest climb I have ever done but only the first of many such climbs and the poles finally came out and were appreciated going up this muddy gradient.

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Looking back down the climb to Gragareth

You’ll notice a familiar theme through most of the photos; fog/cloud/rain/murk with bog/grass/steep gradient.  We really had all the weather throughout the day but mostly it was simply wet.  Even after the dry weather we’ve been having, my feet disappeared into bog up to my knees several times.  No, the poles don’t help here.

I made good time running along the ridge from Gragareth to Great Coum.  Although the ground was very wet up here, I seemed able to skim along the top without great issue and seemingly made up a fair bit of ground as I found the boys waiting at the next big checkpoint at Dent, 20 miles in. Tongue lashing given, I quickly forgot my ire as my relief took over at finding the boys, not only because I wanted to be with them but it also meant I wouldn’t be grouped alone with strangers for the night section later.

On we went, along a short road section, before the start of another long climb to Blea Moor and then down to the next food checkpoint at Stonehouse, about 27 miles in.  We had just arrived in the tent and sat down when a huge hail storm hit.  Several people were hanging onto the tent while the clowns fed and watered us.  I had two bowls of the best pasta ever here.

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I didn’t dare ask for more from this clown

Onwards we went, again another monster climb up to Great Knoutberry Hill, a particularly disheartening out and back where the trig never seemed to get any closer. My legs were pretty dead now and we noticed at the top how there appeared to be clear skies over to the left of us and clear skies over to the right of us but ahead, in the direction we were going, was still black and menacing clouds. Hey ho.

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Photo credit: Dan Thompson. 

We started the descent and found a good route around the bog down to the next major checkpoint at Redshaw. After another thorough dousing Dan started fantasizing about the next checkpoint being a village hall; where we could change into our dry clothes for the night in warmth and comfort. Where there’d be a loo (something I’d eaten wasn’t sitting right in my tummy).

Of course it was another damp but warm tent, albeit with the cheerful volunteers manning it. We spent a long time here, and it was also where we were to be grouped for the night as dark was falling quickly.

One of the interesting aspects of The Fellsman is that, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to cross the moors at night alone (too many werewolves?). So groups of 4+ are made at various checkpoints depending on the time of day and when you happen to turn up. You must stick together until dawn, when the next major checkpoint after sun-up allows you to disband.

We changed into warm, dry clothes and when we were ready Chris told the CP manager and he grouped us with 4 other people and we became a party of 7, with Chris in charge of the group listing, which had to be checked off at each CP over the night to ensure we stuck together.

So, with these random strangers who set off ahead, we went back outside into the cold wet evening, straight into the longest stretch of cold wet bog we had experienced. I was slightly irritated I’d just changed into my warm dry socks but I didn’t regret the change and as is the best way, just shrugged and walked through most of it.

Our new team mates seemed to know what they were doing navigation wise. They had various means of navigating, as we did, but they seemed keen to be ahead and I occasionally put in my two pennies worth when there was a debate over direction. It was a system that was to work fairly well throughout the night. By this stage I was tired and fairly withdrawn so wasn’t really up to chatting with strangers and I hope they didn’t think I was too aloof.

The next climb was Dodd Fell and we went straight up into a heavy mist as full dark came upon us. I took the lead for a change, and we headed down off the hill. Eventually, after a bit of confusion and scrambling over a couple of walls, we were on track for Fleet Moss checkpoint. Another good stop, resting and eating, we moved on to the next bit that our team mates were moaning about but Chris, Dan and I were actually looking forward to – a road section!

Everyone was muttering about the huge change to the route that prevented us crossing the moor and forcing us down the road before cutting back up to the moor, presumably around someone’s land who didn’t want us on it. It seems to me that saved us a lot of time – it was a good few miles to the next checkpoint and doing that straight across the moor would surely have taken us a lot longer.

Apart from the steep descent that had my quads screaming again, it was bliss to be on a firm surface and getting some forward momentum.  Although we wanted to trot earlier, it was clear to us none of the others was interested in running so we didn’t suggest a trot along the road at the bottom.

The next instructions were to go back up to the moor, via a route that was to be strictly adhered to and which had our team mates struggling for the first time to find the elusive checkpoint on Middle Tongue.

This is the 3rd occasion I’ve gone through the night (running that is, not clubbing) and as on the previous two occasions, I hit the wall at about 1am. It is particularly hard to fight the urge to sleep when you are also climbing a slope that looks like a wall in front of you, and some complete strangers are clearly leading you astray and off course. When they stopped again, Chris sat down and told me to stop and rest too for a minute.

I gazed around blankly then got my map out and checked myself to see where we were and if the others were looking for the right coordinates. Chris reckoned we needed to be further east and he was right. We went back on ourselves slightly, crested another rise and bingo, there was the tent, lurking with the volunteers not getting out but punching our tallys through a gap in the zip because it was so cold.

We turned and saw a sudden horde of headtorches approaching up the hill so we cracked on towards the next CP at Hell Gap. Progress is slow; we are still walking directly across moorland so the poles had been superglued to my hands for hours now. However tough the going is, because your speed is so slow you really don’t retain any body warmth and it turned out Dan was starting to suffer.  To my surprise and sadness he said he would drop at the next CP; he was simply too cold and his quads were shot.

Having got past Fleet Moss and heading towards Hell Gap, I really felt we were on the homestretch; in fact we were merely in the last 1/3 and there was still a long way to go. Unfortunately the CP at Hell Gap was only a man in a truck trying to stay warm under a duvet (!) so Dan had to push on, luckily only another mile down the road to a proper CP with tent and food.

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Dan getting warm at last

I was very sorry to see Dan stop. He’s a great mate and good company on a long haul. But I know what it’s like – once you are that cold there is no coming back. Having taken on more food and drink (I’m just drinking tea and eating the odd biscuit now) we set off again.

One of our team mates immediately announced he had a tip from someone at the crew stop and instead of following the path down the road, we went straight across into a wet boggy field. Two of them went ahead to scout which way and the rest of us trudged wearily across yet more bog (will my feet ever dry up?).

We were in a random field, climbing ridiculously steep slopes; then we had to clamber over huge dry stone walls with wire across the top and I watched enviously as headtorches bobbed along the nice dry road below us.  We continued to clamber up and up, searching for Buckden Pike, the next peak to summit.

I was suddenly aware of a huge drop to my right. Don’t look don’t look don’t look and to my relief we crested that particular climb to see Buckden Pike ahead of us.  Was that light the first hint of dawn behind us?

To our collective horror, the drop that had been on our right curved round in front of us and a huge cut lay between us and Buckden.  There was no way we could get down and back up the other side and a quick check of my map showed the original path lay on the other side of the gap.  I cursed and just as I was about to round on the navigator, one of the others suddenly whooped and showed us the valley head was just to the left of us.

Huge relief all round and we trooped round the amazing natural feature and on to join the original path up to Buckden Pike. I was feeling good again so led the way up to the summit, another mountain accomplished.

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Buckden Pike just before dawn

So, just Great Whernside to go; surely we were only a couple of hours away from the end now? I had absolutely no knowledge of the area at all. I had only visited once before to run with friends from Malham, so I had no concept of where we were in relation to the start or finish. The tracking card I usually make (see above) to carry had crumpled to nothing in the wet so I was literally going on the gpx from my watch or map reading and had no clue anymore as to the distances to the next checkpoint, or even the finish.

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Finally! Sunshine

We made it to Top Mere (a complete blank – can’t remember that one at all!!), then down to the checkpoint at Park Rash where the night grouping was disbanded at last. The other team bid us farewell and went off, leaving Chris and I to finish together. It was here it dawned on me that we still had 10 miles to go – which could easily take us another 3-4 hours.

Strangely that didn’t perturb me particularly. I was tired but unsurprised and it was just time to get up and keep going. It helped greatly to know I had nowhere to go on Sunday so it didn’t matter how long it would take us – we’d passed the last cut off easily and no matter what now we would finish.

Chris and I started the climb to Great Whernside – the usual heavy bog at the base, then the steep climb up the side of this monster. Sunday had decided to be benevolent towards us and the day was sunny, albeit still windy and chilly. It was lovely to see it out and see the stunning views. I really hadn’t expected the vastness of the landscape that was so reminiscent of the Lakes; those huge glacier-carved valleys are truly stunning and I was happy to stop and rest and take it all in every now and again.

 I had pulled a little ahead of Chris towards the top of Great Whernside where there were great boulders lying around all over the place so I lay down briefly on one, soaking up the warmth of the sun.  Chris arrived and pulled me up and on we went, finding the CP, getting the clip and of course visiting the trig before turning for home.

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Happy to make the last summit of Great Whernside

The descent off Great Whernside was the most dispiriting; whether because it was literally miles of bog or because I was just exhausted beyond belief I’m not sure. But it took forever, down and down, Chris now navigating. One of the defining memories I’ll have of this place is the scale of the walls. Every single one of them, without exception, was at least 5ft high. Did this used to be Troll country? Why on earth were these walls so big? We passed stone wall after stone wall, counting them to find the right one to turn down.

At last, we leave the moorland behind and start crossing livestock fields, which then turned into a track. My feet were killing me at this stage – little toes squashed and angry from all the uneven terrain and although I’d put on blister plasters at Park Rash, everything was screaming again.

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I think this was somewhere near Top Mere

There were still a few miles to go so I stopped briefly and downed a couple of neurofen and 3 Pro-Plus.  Chris, going through his own pain and down patch, was then subjected to my sudden annoying cheerfulness and verbal dissection of the stock fencing we were going past – sorry Chris!

We hit the road, the last checkpoint (24 of them!!), and started down the final part of our journey. Chris was grumbling about the never ending road and the steepness of the descent, but although my quads were painful too, I was hitting that high of knowing we were at the end – we had done it! Or it might have been the Pro-Plus. Whatever. I was so so happy.

I texted Dan. When he dropped it was agreed he would take my car back to the cottage to sleep and wash then come back to collect us. Dan was waiting for us just outside the school – it was so lovely to see him.

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We did it!!!

We staggered in like the walking dead. I’m still feeling a little spaced, Chris is clearly shattered, Dan is running around after us as if he hadn’t just gone through the night himself. We were given Fellsman buffs and our tally discs were taken off us to be checked and sent to us later.

I am really the most proud of finishing this race above all others. It was one of those occasions when everything actually came together and worked and more importantly my head and back were in the right place. Plus its reputation as a tough route is warranted – many of you will love this race and I would definitely recommend it.

Did the poles help my back? I’m sure they did. But I’m also sure the long checkpoints helped too. Sitting down and resting always helps. At the end of Hardmoors, when my back had been at its absolute worst for 10 miles, cramping and stopping me regularly with pain, after sitting down for 10-15 minutes I was able to walk back down the road without any pain at all.

Dare I say Hardmoors looks like a parkrun to me now – all those flagstone paths are so easy to run on! I’m not good at running across moorland – I don’t like it and don’t want to so don’t be put off by our slow time.  This was always going to be a long hike for me and many of you would complete it much quicker.

The Fellsman encapsulated everything I hate the most. But that’s why I did it. If I can go for that long in that terrain and hate it, it should set me up for doing a similar distance and elevation but in a stunning location I want to be in. So I go forward feeling great about Lavaredo and Scafell.  They’re both huge challenges in their own right, but at least I can say I’ve set myself up in the best way I can for them.

 

 

My last Will and Testament before Fellsman

The Fellsman is in 9 days. At some point during the 20 hours thereafter I may well die.

This race was one of the first on my list to do when I ventured, innocently, into the world of ultras. Gazing around me in wonder, I heard about a notorious race across the Yorkshire Dales that only the most hardy consider and thought YES! I’ll do that. Sounds nice.

Travel forward in time and experience, to when Chris Randall asked if I fancied running it with him and Dan Thompson. Good mates that I’d ended up finishing SDW50 with last year (or, more accurately, they found me wandering on the trail and dragged my sorry arse home).

I considered and decided it would be a good training run for Lavaredo. How so, I hear you say. Well, they might be very different terrains but in terms of elevation, difficulty underfoot and time on feet, the Fellsman should set me up well. In fact I’m rather hoping after the bog hopping slog of Fellsman, Lavaredo will be a joy by comparison.

I’ve only started really focusing on the Fellsman since Hardmoors. And it’s only really been in the last few weeks as the lads and I discuss and prepare for the race, that I realise how hard it’s going to be.

It might “only” be just over 60 miles, but it has 11,000ft of elevation as it climbs some iconic hills in the Yorkshire Dales and, of course, there are the moors.

I know exactly why the American lads were warned “don’t stray off the path” in the film American Werewolf in London and it had nothing to do with werewolves.

I am starting to suspect the terrain may well be very similar to that of the Trotternish Ridge of Skye. And one where my friend Emma advised me to embrace and learn to love the 30 minute mile. Dear god. Some of you may remember Skye nearly killed me. The Fellsman definitely has the potential to finish me off.

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However, I have added a new weapon to my arsenal. Poles. Yes. I have actually bought poles. And I like them. And the more I research the race the more I believe they may actually save me. And save my back.

I have enjoyed going over the map and plotting the route.  There are some major changes to this year’s race and there’s nothing more I love doing than pouring over a map, trying to visualise the terrain.

Although technically you must navigate yourself from checkpoint to checkpoint, there are only a certain number of ways one can go from A to B via bog so there are gpx files available and comparing those to the notes from the Race, and a bit of healthy competitiveness between me and Chris over who plots the best route (obviously me) and I’m pretty confident we won’t get lost*.

I even ordered my own custom OS map so that I could get the whole route on one map instead of two.

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Putting all my gear together has been interesting. The mandatory kit list is long. 5 long sleeve tops!! An emergency foil poncho hoodie as well as a bivvy bag?! 3 pairs of trousers?!

And somewhere it is advised a 16l -20l pack is optimal. After putting everything together in a ridiculously huge pile, I realised my largest race vest is 12l. Damn.

I have an 18l Osprey pack which I use for day trips and walks with C. That will have to do. It’s nothing like a race vest however; no pockets at the front. I’ve bought some bungee cord to make up loops for the poles.

I took it out for a run for the first time the other day. Holy shit it was heavy and bulky.

Those poles really do have their work cut out.

So, if you never hear from me again after next Saturday you’ll know why. I’ll have stepped onto the moor and immediately sunk into it without trace.

*Disclaimer; written after 2 glasses of wine so ridiculously optimistic at the time of writing