(Observer Sport Monthly, 6 February 2005)
Why would any intelligent person risk injury and even death to take up fell running? Because, says Richard Askwith, it offers rare freedom and escape from the chains of urban life.
I SWORE I would never do this again. One always does; but never have I made such a vow with such fervour. After last year’s race, I was still limping weeks later, still struggling to keep food down, still imagining splinters of bone in my bruised ankles. I even wrote it down, for the avoidance of doubt: ‘I will never, ever, do that again.’
Yet here I am, 12 months older, scrambling up a slimy scree slope steeper than a London Underground escalator, icy mist clinging to my sweat-sodden vest, feverishly studying my compass as the last recognisable landmark sinks into the gloom behind – and trying to ignore the fact that, the harder I thrust myself upward, the faster the stones crumble and slide beneath me. The heap of sharp-edged rocks stretches upwards for thousands of feet, much of it smothered in storm cloud. Though my legs are already limp, I know that, compared with the bone-threatening descent to come, I’m still on the easy bit.
This is the annual ordeal known as the Ben Nevis race: one of the crueller manifestations of the cruel and obscure sport known as fell running. The obscurity is readily explained: fell running – that is, running on mountains – is imprudent to the point of idiocy. The Ben Nevis race, for example, not only requires you to climb and descend – at speed – the 4,406ft peak of Britain’s biggest mountain. It requires you to do so on rough, steep, largely trackless terrain that it’s hard even to walk on safely.
Nor are the hazards merely underfoot. Conditions at the top of a mountain such as the Ben can turn Arctic in an instant and often do, inflicting life-threatening hypothermia and disorientation on exhausted runners. Previous races have seen people made temporarily blind by the cold, or helicoptered off in dozens by the mountain rescue; in 1957, a runner got lost and died. I know of four other such deaths in fell races in the past 25 years alone. These events test not just athleticism but survival skills.
There are probably fewer than 5,000 people in Britain who participate to any degree in fell running. Perhaps 2,000 of these do so regularly and maybe 200 do so well enough to contend for championships and prizes. Most of us are just recreational runners, many (like me) long past our peak; but the elite merit comparison to the best track and road runners in the world. There is not, however, a full-time athlete among them. This is sport as it used to be, fitted in around day jobs.
Between us we fill the fields of more than 400 formal races a year, from 10-minute sprints to all-day epics of 50 miles or more, in Cumbria, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Shropshire, Wales and Scotland. Many of us spend less time racing than we do running informally in the mountains.
There is great camaraderie in our little world and much ignorance about us among those outside it. Most Britons have never heard of our sport. Those who have generally find the idea baffling. How, they wonder, can rational people expose themselves to so much struggle and risk? Answer: because it’s fun. Sprinting down steep, rough slopes is neither easy nor sensible. But when you get it right, the buzz is addictive. The ability to cover long distances on trackless hills at speed, irrespective of weather, confers on you a great freedom. The degree of absorption required is intense: you must focus utterly on your environment, near and far, or face catastrophe. In so doing, you lose yourself; and, later, rediscover yourself refreshed.
I’ve been in love with the sport for a decade and a half. I’m 44 now, have never won anything and never will. But I’ve long since lost count of the exhilarating hours I’ve spent doing it – and, the more I spend, the more I see the sport as a lifeline to sanity.
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CHARGES THAT FELL RUNNING is ‘mad’ are as likely as not to emanate from people who consider it normal to run round in circles on a track, or to run every day on a treadmill in a gym, sustained only by rivalry, narcissism or focus on the conquest of pain. Fell running is relaxed – and sane – by comparison, because it looks outwards.
Actually, I sometimes train in gyms myself, when work brings me to London and there are no mountains to be had. As I thrash away on step machine or exercise bike, fellow gym-users gaze in disbelief at the pools of sweat that form around me. They don’t realise that in my head I am miles away, bounding from rock to rock.
Sometimes I focus on the difficulties of the fells: if I don’t keep going at this, my legs will collapse beneath me when I go to the mountains for real next weekend. Other times I think about the sport’s great heroes: Joss Naylor, for example, the indestructible Wasdale shepherd who once climbed all 214 peaks in Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells in a single week; or Kenny Stuart, the delicate but fearless Keswick gardener whose many belief- defying records, including 1hr 25min 34sec for Ben Nevis, remain largely unchallenged 20 years after his graceful prime.
More often, though, I am simply lost in memories of long days in the hills, savouring the freedom of high wildernesses and the euphoria of crazy descents.
Conversely, when I am hobbling grimly from wet rock to wet rock I sometimes boost my spirits by imagining myself back in London. I think of that prison-like gym, of the grey office nearby, of the self-obsessed getters and spenders jostling on the pavements between and the whole ant heap of faddish acquisition and ambition that surrounds them. Would I really rather be there? Then I shrug and feel the chains of urban slavery slip from my shoulders in my sweat.
Yet I can’t honestly pretend that there isn’t any lunacy involved in fell running. Turning at the top of the Ben and flinging myself back down its wet slopes, I repeat to myself the sport’s holiest mantra: ‘Brakes off, brain off.’ Coming down a rough mountainside can do you all sorts of damage if you try to stay in control. Go for it, and you have a fighting chance of getting down in one piece, with the added bonus of a respectable time.
I have become reasonably good at this over the years, although you wouldn’t know it if you watched me. The heroes of fell running aren’t just better athletes than me. They’re braver, tougher and more heroic. That’s the sport’s great appeal. Its hall of fame echoes with the names of men and women who disengaged their brains more completely than the rest: Ernest Dalzell, whose sub-three-minute descent of Burnsall Fell in 1910 was still provoking arguments 70 years later; or Tom Conchie, whose high-speed descents of the Coniston Gullies in the 1920s later included a ‘thrilling leap, something like a 16ft sheer drop, taken at top speed’. This is a sport that celebrates courage above all. This is why it also treasures incidents and details at which others would merely wince: the time Duncan MacIntyre collapsed 100 yards from the finish while leading the 1942 Ben Nevis race; or when Carol Greenwood’s left heel burst open while she was setting the (still unbroken) record for Snowdon.
Even the challenges we set ourselves are, when you think about them, gratuitous: the Lakeland 24-hour record, for example – arguably the most prestigious in the sport, and, since 1997, widely considered unbreakable. That was when Mark Hartell, an IT project manager from Staffordshire, climbed 77 of Cumbria’s highest peaks in a single day. Incredible? Certainly. Heroic? Undoubtedly. But what neither he nor anyone else has yet succeeded in explaining is why such a painful feat should be worth achieving.
Perhaps we are mad: masochistic obsessives who have lost sight of ordinary human priorities. Yet my fellow fell runners have always struck me as peculiarly sane and balanced, especially compared with the over-competitive elites of track and road.
This strikes me again when, after 2hr, 14min and 1sec, I finally shuffle across the Ben Nevis finishing line. I’m in 170th place (out of 364) and 44 minutes behind the winner: to call me an also-ran would be flattery. None the less, I’m stuffed. It’s all I can do to veer out of the other runners’ way before flinging myself to the ground, moaning.
But within minutes the pain is swept away by a surge of euphoria: it’s over; I’m still in one piece; I’ve done it. All around me, similar waves of euphoria are breaking over a whole field full of pale, bloodied, bedraggled runners. Never mind who’s won: we have all beaten the mountain, and ourselves.