Sunday Times, 20 June 2004

REVIEW OF ‘FEET IN THE CLOUDS’ BY FRANK GRAHAM

“Feet In The Clouds: A Tale of Fellrunning and Obsession”,
by Richard Askwith (Aurum Press, £16.99)

It sounds as dull as dishwater — man hikes over various mountains, sees sheep and streams that contrast starkly with his day job as associate editor at The Independent. A dirge of a ramble that would have been better off never seeing the light of day, thus avoiding embarrassment for our earnest, naive, journalist.

But Richard Askwith comes up with a minor masterpiece that will surely find itself among the William Hill contenders when the Book Of The Year hsonour is dished out. Admittedly, it is essentially about men running up and down mountains. But Askwith brings the men and the mountains to life, focusing on the indomitable spirit that drives otherwise sane people to drag their bodies mile after mile in pursuit of an obsession that few of us could comprehend.

Askwith joins the fell hell brigade to report on a full season of races. A 40-odd-year-old, overweight 13-stoner, our hero admits he was not endowed with the ideal fell-runner’s make-up. Those legends of the peaks were traditionally around 10st, with a lifetime of hard toil on the land behind them, rather than the traditional journalist’s legacy of hard drinking and late nights.

But Askwith sets himself a personal mission: to achieve a Bob Graham Round. Not, as you might imagine, an expensive treat at the bar, but a stab at completing 42 peaks in 24 hours. Three attempts, three failures, until the penny drops: success comes only when there is ‘mental peace over the physical pain’.

It is surprising how big a deal fell-running is in rural areas, with the whole community turning out to watch and give the runners encouragement. Pain is common: ‘My thighs protest each time I lift a leg; my body screams each time I put a foot down.’

But it is mixed with joy — otherwise why would they do it again and again? Runners need a certain skill to stay on their feet while cascading down mountainsides littered with boulders, pebbles, holes and wet grass. You could even plunge off an unseen cliff if the mist gets too heavy.

Askwith takes us behind the scenes, into the land of legends, running ghosts who will forever haunt the fells, such as Joss Naylor, who ran 72 peaks in 24 hours after having half of his back removed; Kenny Stuart, the gardener who ‘seemed to float over scree as if it was Axminster’, and the mischievous Billy Bland, who tells our man not to worry about the Bob Graham. After all, it is ‘just a walk’. Having completed the nightmare in 13 hours 53 minutes in 1982 — still a record — Bland is entitled to his five minutes of joviality. This book sheds bright light on these and other off-the-wall characters and the demons that drive them on. It is the story of a little Britain rooted in the past that not only still exists, but also has a strong, stubborn, beating heart.

© Times Newspapers Ltd 2004

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