Growing up in Ambleside, the Lake District in the 1980’s, meant summers of galas, country shows and village sports days. At each of these would be a series of fell races for all ages, under 12’s and up – taking part in these was my introduction to running. As is the case now, I never threatened to win any of the races I entered but taking part and completing the challenge was what mattered.
In recent years, regular trips back to the Lakes and a new lease of my running life have whet my appetite once again for these ultimate off-road races.
Fell races are graded by distance (Short, Medium, Long) and difficulty A, B & C. ‘A’ being the steepest, toughest routes. My recent experience of this branch of running has been to try a couple of ‘AS’ events, where I was completing about 1.5 miles in approximately 22 minutes – the winners, by the way, knock almost 10 minutes off my time.
This year my trip ‘back home’ coincided with Ambleside sports, the home of the Rydal Round – a gruelling course of 9 miles (or more), including 3000ft of climbing and graded ‘AM’. The temptation to give it a go was too much for me to resist. To put this into perspective, the 14 mile Charnwood Hills race, Leicestershire’s only officially registered fell race, is graded ‘CL’ and includes 1200ft of ascent.
With limited access to hills, let alone fells, in Leicestershire; training for this event wasn’t easy. I, of course, did Beacon Hill, which registers 300ft of climb over 1 mile but in reality I was going into the Rydal Round totally untrained.
Additional preparation for my challenge included gathering my kit. Fell Running Association rules dictate that in certain races, all competitors must carry survival kit including; full waterproof body cover, hat gloves, map, compass, whistle and food. Running on the fells in sunshine and clear visibility is hard enough but if the cloud and rain descends whilst at altitude, runners must be able to find their way and be sure to take the right path down the mountain – a wrong turn could result in going down the wrong side of the fell and a very long run home.
So race day came and I was lucky, it was a glorious and rare sunny day in the Lakes. Nervously, I made my way to the start line and was comforted to see a few familiar faces; my cousin – winner of many cups and trophies as a junior back in the 80’s and still challenging at the front of the pack on days like today. There was no way that I was going to keep up with him!
But another friend was there; last time I ran in the same race as him it was the 2014 London marathon and we both clocked very similar times on that occasion, maybe he would be my bench mark and a possible buddy for today. A quick chat dismissed this optimism – when I asked if he’d run this course before his replay was, “yeah, probably about 40 times”.
After a quick start line briefing from the race organiser, we were off – approximately 100 of us.
The first mile or so was fairly flat and went the same way as most races that I run: that is my head telling my legs not to go off too quickly and my legs not listening. So the first mile was completed in under 8 minutes and 200ft had been climbed. Then it hit me like a brick wall! The 2nd mile would see a climb of over 1000ft and take me over 25 minutes. A steep zig-zagging path led me to Nab Scar and the on to Heron Pike. My run became a walk, my calves started to burn and my thoughts turned to ‘Why’?
Of course I knew how to answer those thoughts. A brief pause every now and then, not only allowed me to catch my breath but gave me the opportunity to lift my head and see exactly why I was doing this. The view was spectacular! The sports field, where the race began was a speck on the valley floor, the lake in the distance was glistening as it reflected the sun light and all around me were the green rugged fells, looking so inviting – and the higher I climbed, the more I could see.
Following that initial, sudden ascent things eased slightly. The constant climbing was replaced by sections of gentler slopes, where my walk could occasionally transform into a jog and I could lift my head and look around me for longer periods. At first each period of jogging lasted for as little as a few seconds, before I was forced back into a walk but eventually I managed to get into a rhythm.
After about an hour of running, 3.5 miles and 1800ft of climbing I had a welcome boost when I came across my support party – Michelle, Mia & Evie, not forgetting Gracie the dog. They had walked ahead of the race to cheer me on. Two other things stick in my mind from around this point; it was when I was caught up by a small group of runners distinctive in that they were much older than many of the runners in this event, illustrating that fell running is not just for the young and that experience can often triumph over enthusiasm. I also started to become concious of a sore rubbing on the back of both heels – Blisters! But in fairness they only hurt on the uphill sections, the pain subsided when running on the flat or downhill and so, I kept reassuring myself, I’d be okay going down the fell.
In fell racing, there is not always a specific route to follow, there may be checkpoints to reach, but how you get between each checkpoint is up to each individual runner and can be where a runner with a bit of local knowledge can save a few seconds and with it some precious energy. I suffered from this heading towards Great Rigg; hoping we were getting close to the summit, I ‘followed’ a Keswick runner, from the group of veterans, on the direct path towards the next peak. Part way through this climb I noticed that a lady in an Ambleside vest had come from behind and was taking a different path – slightly longer and lower than mine. By the time I decided to abandon my uphill route the Ambleside lady was 40-50m ahead and speeding up.
I finally reached the top of Fairfield after 1 hour 25 minutes. The wind blew and the landscape was bleak but the view back down the valley was breathtaking! At this point I was still full of optimism and satisfaction. I was still close to the group of veteran runners, who I was sure I could overtake on the descent and I could see at least 5-10 runners behind me. And of course, it was all downhill from here!
A rocky downhill section followed where I caught and overtook several runners but before I knew it we were back on the ascent – one final push was required to reach the summit of Hart Crag. At this point I passed a group of walkers who spotted my Leicester Roadhoggs vest and cheered me on, suggesting that I think of the current slope as run up Beacon Hill, I had to laugh and reply that I had used that tactic a lot further down the hillside.
It was at about this time that my troubles really began. Whether it was down to over exertion, poor preparation or bad use of energy gels I’m still not sure, but my stomach started churn and the faster I went, the more it told me to slow down. On top of this my legs felt heavy and the pain from my blisters was replaced by aching thighs. It was going to be a long way down and the route down seemed to be more populated by walkers and so it was all I could do to grimace as groups of well wishers urged me on.
When I did finally reach the sports field and the finish line, the clock had ticked on to 2 hours 36 minutes – an hour behind my cousin who was already on his 2nd pint! I fell to the floor with the satisfaction that I had completed one of the toughest 10 miles races imaginable. I vowed to return one day, to be better prepared for the climb and to get under 2 hours.