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Falling for Fell Running

June 03, 1991
June 03, 1991

Table of Contents
June 3, 1991

On The Scene
Focus
Spotlight
First Person
Perspective
Indianapolis 500
NBA Playoffs
Stanley Cup Final
Texas Rangers
Oil Can Boyd
Baseball
Stern
Reporter-At-Large
Point After

Falling for Fell Running

A visiting Yank discovers the rigors and joys of running up and down hills in Wordsworth's magical Lake District

fell 1. A hill, mountain. obscure except in proper names of hills in the north-west of England.
—The Oxford English Dictionary

This is an article from the June 3, 1991 issue Original Layout

Bet you didn't know that. I didn't. Here's another:

fell running, an endurance test for both distance runners and mountaineers, deriving its name from the hills of northern England where it is mainly contested.... Courses, either "out-and-back" or circuitous, may vary in distance from 2 to over 40 miles, but may not have any formal route. For example, one Scottish challenge is won by the competitor who scales the largest number of peaks in 24 hours. In tests of such extreme severity, the over-all speed may not exceed a layman's walking pace and, in the event of fog or mist on the upland sections, a map or compass are often used as in orienteering. Fell runners have not infrequently lapsed into unconsciousness and occasional fatalities have been reported.
—The Oxford Companion to Sports & Games

I didn't know all that, either—not before I was in London for a while and heard about "the fells up north" and "these loony bahrstuds who run up and down the fells." This seemed worth investigating, and I quickly learned that the forever home of fell running—the Athens, so to speak, of this ancient sport—is a village named Grasmere, in the heart of England's Lake District.

I ventured to Grasmere. It's a place where you need dial only three numbers to place a local call. When considering it geographically you might say it's north of Rydal—if Rydal weren't even smaller than Grasmere. And so you ignore Rydal altogether and say it's just north of Ambleside, a veritable metropolis. Five numbers are required for a phone call in Ambleside, a teeming hub of 3,800 souls.

Grasmere owes its place in literary history to the poet William Wordsworth. He lived in Dove Cottage from 1799 to 1813, and once called Grasmere "The loveliest spot that man hath ever found." One look at this quaint and quiet place and you know that the poet got it right.

At the Wordsworth museum I found that the curator, Dr. Terry McCormick, 43, was an exemplar of his village: a dabbler in both poetry and fell running. "I'm an easygoing, middle-of-the-road sort of runner," McCormick said, as he sat in his small office above the museum. "I just rather fell into the sport." McCormick, an amiable but serious man, didn't wink at his pun, but continued placidly. "I was a pretty keen runner as a boy at boarding school. I made the County Games. In 1986 my wife and I moved to Grasmere and, well, I'll tell you—you go out in any direction here, and soon it's uphill. There's nowhere else to run but up the fells. I became a fell runner because I came to Grasmere, simple as that.

"If you want a taste of fell running, there's a fine race being staged this weekend in Rydal. You should go."

This was serendipity indeed. The 25th annual Fairfield Horseshoe Fell Race coincided with my Lake District sojourn. This was true luck, or so I figured at the time.

Fred Rogerson of Windemere (a bigger town than Ambleside, even) calls the Fairfield "a classic," and he should know. He's the chairman of the Bob Graham 24-Hour Club, which is the supreme honorary society of English fell runners. At 1 a.m. on June 13, 1932, Bob Graham, a 42-year-old teetotaler who ran a guesthouse in nearby Keswick, set out to see if he could run up and down the region's 42 fells in 24 hours. He did them all—32,000 feet of ascent, 130 miles of running and walking. Nowadays a runner must complete the Bob Graham Round in a single day to gain admittance to the Bob Graham club. Only 500-odd have done so.

"We'll have 420 running here today," said Rogerson, watching cars arrive at the start area of the Horseshoe race. "That's a lot. There are 250 races a year now in Britain, but this one, the Horseshoe, is a true classic."

In the valley that lies between Nab Scar and Low Pike there was the usual bustle that attends the beginning of any race. It seemed a miniature, rusticated version of Staten Island before the New York City Marathon or Hopkinton, Mass., before Boston. One hour before the official start of the race at 1 p.m., people milled about congenially. Runners were sipping tea. Dogs were chasing sticks. Kids were teasing the sheep despite the numerous signs that read LAMBING SEASON—PLEASE DON'T BOTHER THE SHEEP.

A center of activity was the red van belonging to Pete Bland. I drifted over. Bland and his brother Dennis were peddling T-shirts, light gloves, hats, soft-cleated running shoes and other gear useful for this sport.

"It's a perfect day for a fell race," said Pete. "The clouds will keep it cool, but it shouldn't be too cold on the ridge. And the haze is high enough. No one should get lost. You won't need a compass. Most people won't even carry a bum bag today—they'll need no extra gear."

Pete started fell running 35 years ago when he was still at Windemere Grammar School. A modest man in his 40's, trim and white-haired, Bland was a local champion in the 1970s, but says he hasn't "got the faintest idea" how many races he has entered or won. How many hillsides has he run up? "All of them, I suppose," he said shyly. But he wouldn't be running today. "No, not this one," he said. "I've got to mind the shop. And also, I've got a bad knee." One probably suffers bad knees and ankles often in fell running, I suggested. "Yes, there are many twists on the rocks," he confirmed. "I've taken a few stitches on the head, too, because you do take tumbles."

Dennis Bland, 30, has been fell running for 20 years but, unlike his big brother, hasn't won a race in ages. "I did win one once," he said as he limbered up alongside the van, preparing to compete. "I was an under-12, and at Ambleside they had a junior race, a mile up to the flag and a mile back. I won that one, but I've been shut out since." Nevertheless, he has retained his love for fell running and is, in fact, a preeminent historian of the sport.

"Fell running was a Victorian sport," Dennis explained. "There was no one person who devised it. It was called guide racing, either because they set flags along the course, or because the earliest fell runners had to have guides lead them around the race. It's never really had a fashion, like marathoning in the States. Still, it's been continuously popular right on through."

When Pete Bland suggested I enter the Horseshoe, I had very real doubts. I asked Dennis to preview what such an experience might be like. He paused in his exercise and gazed up at the hills.

"It's a fast start, downhill, then they make you turn and it's right up a rock wall. Straight up. They send you over two summits and when you reach Fairfield's, you're on the ridge, you're in the horseshoe. They send you along, up Hart Crag, down a bit, then up Dove Crag. Then it's fast running on the way back down. You're nearly back at the finish, and then they send you up a hill at the end, which is rather cruel as you've been nine miles and you've got no legs left.

"It's about a medium fell race."

I swallowed hard, shrugged, paid the two-pound entry fee and got a number. I was told we were to start from below Rydal Mount, the manor house Wordsworth lived in after he moved from Dove Cottage. Wordsworth, by the way, was a great perambulator, the equal of Dickens. His fellow Grasmere literary lion, Thomas De Quincey, once estimated Wordsworth's lifetime pedestrian travel at 170,000 miles. The poet often found inspiration on high, traipsing into these hillsides, composing his poetry and reciting it aloud.

'Tis the sense of majesty and beauty and repose A blended holyness of earth and sky

There would be majesty and beauty perhaps, but no repose in this afternoon's pursuits. This I knew, as I stood at the back of the pack, waiting for the starter to drop the restraining ribbon.

Suddenly he did.

The race organizers, like the children, apparently held little regard for lambing season, as the first downhill loop was through a sheep field. One requirement of an official fell race Category A, as designated by Britain's Fell Runners Association, is that the course should not include more than 20% of its length "on road." The Horseshoe met this criterion easily; none of its distance was on road. It was over rocky cliffs, mountain ridges and sheep fields.

Bounding through the meadow, I got a first impression of fell running. It was rugged, even when the going was relatively easy. There was a tendency to slip and slide. One poor runner stumbled in his first few steps and found himself up to his elbows in mud and sheep droppings, as the cleats of a dozen others heaped more upon him. It seemed the lowest jock-world ignominy imaginable.

At the bottom of the sheep slope we banked left around a large oak. As we headed back up through the meadow, the front-runners really dug in. The pack spread out much more quickly than it would have in a regular road race.

Half a mile into the Horseshoe I was breathing heavily. I realized that the casual jogging I had been doing around the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park had hardly prepared me for running up sheep fields, much less mountains.

"Then they make you turn, and it's right up a rock wall," Dennis had said. "Straight up." It sure was. I looked up from the base of this considerable cliff and thought, I can't run that. I was right—I couldn't—but this was O.K. No one else could run it, either. When the climb became too severely pitched, the runners broke stride and began power-hiking up the hill. Even the leaders, whom we could espy way up ahead, did this. No one's a wimp for walking in a fell race.

Four hundred people grunting up a mountainside make a disturbing noise. There was precious little conversation on this stretch of the Horseshoe. Everyone was focused on the summit of Nab Scar and, once that was attained, on the summit of Great Rigg and, subsequent to that, on Fairfield's summit. "This first bit, she's a bitch," said an old guy as he passed me by. I smiled, unable to respond in a vocal manner. The race was 30 minutes old and I was drenched in sweat and my thighs were already starting to ache.

...and when I sought repose
On the brown earth my limbs from very heat
Could find no rest....

In a race of any distance I don't need to be persuaded to start slowly. Ordinarily, this is good strategy for a runner like me. I'm able to get loose and then pick off a few fellow runners who imprudently had sped off at the outset.

In the fell run I started slowly, of course. I'm still happy about that. But I picked off next to nobody in the home stretch. In fact, although I felt O.K. throughout the event, I was gunned down by three or four runners on the final descents. But we'll get to that later. The point is, British fell runners know what they're about. They don't enter these races casually. They've put in their miles in the hills, they've developed technique and they do not quit. That old guy who zipped past me was a runner, genus Fell, which is sui generis in the extreme. It's a species of runner you just don't find on our side of the pond.

We pushed on, over Great Rigg. Fairfield came into view. It was a steep climb to this 2,863-foot peak, and when it was scaled it would mark the completion of the 2,400-foot ascent that is the meat of the Horseshoe race. Twenty-four hundred feet is a substantial vertical climb. The statistics on the Lake District mountains are deceiving, because these rises are situated so close to the sea. On paper, they seem piddling things—3,000-footers—but when a mountain starts close to ground zero, that's a good-sized bulge. What we were doing on these minimounts was the equivalent of running up one of New Hampshire's White Mountains or one of Vermont's Greens.

Near the top of Fairfield the breeze freshened, and my heavy, soaked T-shirt grew cold. I was worried for a moment about the chill, and then I popped over the top and all such concerns vanished. Gaining a mountain summit is always a moving experience, but charging up a mountain and, in a final thrust, suddenly finding yourself in the wide open air, well, that's almost indescribable. A poet spends a lifetime trying to describe precisely such things.

'Tis the sense of majesty and beauty and repose
A blended holyness of earth and sky

That bit of verse would certainly apply once again. Or, rather:

Hung o'er a cloud, above the steep that rears,
Its edge all flame, the broad'ning sun appears;

That really happened up there. Its edge all flame, the broad'ning sun did appear, if only for a second. It happened at the precise moment I summited. It was glorious. And it spurred me out of my laggard's pace and into a jog, as I chased the line of runners along the ridge.

It was gorgeous up there—the subtle canyoning of these fells, falling to the pond-spotted valley that now seemed quite far below us. It was chilling. A cliff dropped off steeply to our right, plunging precipitously to the meadow from which we had climbed.

The ridge running was certainly the highlight of my Horseshoe experience. We scrambled nimbly over the shale-coated track and were rewarded with the most extraordinary scenery. It was hard to stay focused on the fact that we were competing, not merely recreating. Robin Bergstrand, who won the race in 72 minutes while I was still on the ridge, would tell me later, "Even for the people at the front, the setting is an integral part of the event. To a certain extent you must look only at the track in front of you or you'll kill yourself. But you can still appreciate where you are. It's not like running in a city center, is it?"

At the checkpoint on Dove Crag's summit we turned and headed down, toward home. Runners are forever choosing the high road or the low road across a mountain meadow as the quickest route from A to B. Races are decided by such strategies; Bergstrand had sealed his win this day by choosing the left side of a rock wall on the final descent while the next guy went right. All you must do in a fell race to stay on course is find the flags and be seen at the checkpoints. How you go about this is your business.

After the Dove Crag pivot, the idea that a runner could indeed be lost and forgotten up here was made most apparent. Running through high-mountain grasslands I realized that our part of the pack had, by now, spread itself very thin and that, if I didn't concentrate, I would lose sight of the person 100 yards ahead. On a foggy day this prospect would have been disconcerting at the least, but today it was only of fleeting concern. The visibility was good, and a runner who disappeared down the slope could soon be spotted again. I jogged on at ease. The ground was soft, and the legs still had a little spring left in them. This was relaxed Hyde Park-type running, albeit at 2,800 feet.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd....

This crowd was the pack ahead of me. With the running now being done on my kind of turf—a level playing field, sort of—I seemed to be gaining on them.

And then we reached the rocks.

"Most Alpine runners seem to think these races only go up," Bergstrand would tell me later. "On the continent, they race up mountains. Same in the States, at Pikes Peak and at the other big trail races. But mountain running in Britain is unique because we've always assumed that the race goes up and down. And the down can be much the hardest part. It's certainly the most dangerous."

There were steep drops off High Pike, and I negotiated them carefully on rubbery legs that wouldn't always put my feet where I told them to. As I picked my way down the slope, the pack pulled away again, and a couple of runners from behind bounded past me. "I think the best of fell runners could run past mountain sheep on those rocks," race director Tony Walker, a 24-year fell veteran, told me later. "They hardly seem to touch each rock. They just skip down. They fly."

I did not fly. I, to the contrary, planted each foot firmly, not wanting to suffer the broken ankle, twisted knee or concussed skull that are, as Pete Bland had said, staples of the sport. The difference between those hopping past and me, lumbering downward, was the difference between a fell runner and a fallen one.

Finally, having conquered—well, having got by—"Her rocky sheepwalks, and her woodland bounds," I arrived at the blessed meadows of the vale.

...I would call thee beautiful; for mild,
And soft, and gay, and beautiful thou art,
Dear valley, having in thy face a smile....

The legs were completely shot, but the spirits soared as we trailing runners plunged on down, past the wall where Bergstrand had put the race away precisely an hour before.

And down the valley, and, a circuit made
In wantonness of heart, through rough and smooth
We scampered homeward....

With whispers of "Well doon, mate" in our ears, we even found the strength to run up the last uphill stretch.

For victors and vanquished alike there was water, tea and cheese-and-onion pie. As we fortified ourselves, I sought out Bergstrand, who had also won in 1986, when he was 20. I wanted to learn what made a modern-day fell runner tick.

"Well, I'm not sure," he said. "I started cross-country running when I was 10, and that might have led to it."

I suggested that cross-country is to fell running as a drizzle is to a typhoon. He laughed and said, "Well, that's true. It is a whole different thing, I suppose. It's easier for me to figure out the reasons you don't do it than the reasons you do. You don't do it for the money. You don't do it for fame. You don't do it so you can tell people what you've done, because if I told someone I'd just run a nine-mile race in 72 minutes, they wouldn't be too very impressed, would they?

"I guess you do it for the hills. Running in the hills has always been done here, because it's something unique and beautiful to do. To have these scores of lovely hills and not to run in them—well, that would be even stranger, wouldn't it?"

For the power of hills is on thee,
As was witnessed through thine eye....

Sleep well, Mr. Wordsworth. And farewell to the lofty fells of your lovely Lake District.

ILLUSTRATIONTERRY WIDENERWordsworth once called Grasmere "The loveliest spot that man hath ever found."ILLUSTRATIONTERRY WIDENERNumerous signs in the valley read "Lambing season—please don't bother the sheep."ILLUSTRATIONTERRY WIDENER"Hung o'er a cloud, above the steep that rears, Its edge all flame, the broad'ning sun appears."ILLUSTRATIONTERRY WIDENER"The legs were completely shot, but the spirits soared as we plunged on down."