The Fellsman has redefined what I understand about running. I have run ‘properly’ since I was a teenager, from the middle distance races I ran as a schoolboy and the road half-marathons and marathons of my 20s, to the gradual transition to fell, hill, mountain and trail, and now, ultras. Over the years, I’ve often described training or races as ‘hard’. How little I knew! I have a new definition for hard – the Fellsman.
Not only hard, but the hardest. The 2012 edition of the Fellsman – a 61-mile horseshoe from Ingleton to Threshfield in the Yorkshire Dales – was even more bruising, battering and exhausting than any in its previous 49 years. Almost unbelievably, the event was abandoned mid-race for the first time in its history. It all started with a runner being airlifted off Whernside with a broken bone. Then 16 competitors were being sick at one checkpoint. Another 20 were hypothermic, according to another report. Meanwhile, one poor soul was pulled from the race at 55 miles suffering with wind-blindness some five hours after the race had been called off. The race organiser was in tears as she announced to runners on Sunday morning that the rumours were true – the event was off.
That decision was taken at 1.40am on Sunday, almost three hours – mercifully – after I was back in Threshfield, having completed my first Fellsman in 12 hours, 54 minutes. Moments later I was slumped in a chair, dazed, elated, sporting a fine 1000-mile stare, contemplating the magnitude of it all, while hundreds of people were still battling a horrible north-east wind, plummeting temperatures and darkness. Jez Bragg, the race winner, had already tweeted that this Fellsman had been ‘the hardest race of his life’. And this is a guy who has won the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc and come fourth in the Western States 100.
It’s a cliché, I know, but it all started so well. Shortly after 9am on Saturday we were sent on our way from Ingleton, fresh-legged and hopeful. I ran to the summit of Ingleborough – one of the Yorkshire 3 Peaks – with the leading pack, matching Jez stride for stride. This wouldn’t last, of course. Cresting the summit, a wall of wind met us, as we darted over the plateau. I cupped my eyes fearing the ferocity of it would strip the contact lenses from my pupils.
Down Ingleborough and up Whernside, I was flying. Then, after trailing a group of racers who were attempting to chase down then leader Konrad Rawlik off Whernside, they vanished. I had badly overshot the descent; two walkers confirmed they hadn’t seen any runners in front of me. I propelled myself across a wall, glimpsed the red jackets of two runners as dots in the glen, and threw myself downhill to rejoin the race.
I had lost no more than five minutes, but I was furious with myself. I ran – rashly, aggressively – with fury, desperate to catch the guys who I had led off Whernside. I would pay for my efforts. Once on the Gragareth-Green Hill-Great Coum stretch I felt feeble. I fell three times, once while clambering over a fence, causing my left leg to cramp, and twice more into bogs. I tucked in behind Duncan Steen, who was running his second Fellsman, and he led me to the summit of Great Coum, from where we descended to Dent having run close to 20 miles.
I felt a little better after eating, but I still trotted out of the village with a cheese and onion roll and an apple in one hand, three chocolate biscuits in the other. Duncan had left no more than a minute earlier, but I wouldn’t catch him for miles. We eventually reunited on the bleak summit of Blea Moor. On the pretty road to Stonehouse, we were now a marathon into our 61-mile race. I was plagued by demons and I verbalised my anxieties. ‘I’ve still got to run further than I have ever run before – on top of a marathon,’ I moaned. My mental thoughts were darker still. It seemed impossible that I would get through this.
Ascending Great Knoutberry, I fell thigh-deep into another bog, a genuine man-eating one, while we watched the top-10 runners – except Jez – spin past on their way back down. Still running side by side, Duncan and I slipped through the 30-mile mark, then 33 – the distance of my longest run before today, and eventually to Fleet Moss checkpoint. I was dreading the next leg across the moor, famed for its peat hags and general confusion. Instead – as we set out across Fleet Moss – I felt profoundly emotional, like I could burst into tears. We were soon joined by Mark Hartell – the Mark Hartell, 11-time winner of the Fellsman, and the three of us steered a careful course across Fleet Moss. Mark, at times, seemed to be on autopilot; there was no need of a map. To him, these fells are old friends.
From Cray – where spaghetti hoops and rice pudding were consumed – we set off up Buckden Pike, some 250 metres of climbing that I didn’t need following 40-plus miles. After feeling strong on the ascent, I instantly felt weak on the tussocky descent. I began to fade, this time in a fashion that felt more terminal. The thought of running for another three hours on top of the nine I had just completed was hideous. That is, I would learn, the psychological challenge of the Fellsman. I felt very sorry for myself as I trundled along. The cold too seemed to grip me for the first time, making me shiver despite my layers. I had been slowing for some time, but the extent of my slowdown accelerated on the way to Park Rash. Mark disappeared into the distance; Duncan took out 200 metres on me.
It didn’t matter, though. It was after 7pm. We would all be grouped at Park Rash for the final stint over Great Whernside. More fool them for running ahead, I thought. They’ll have to wait for me. But Mark was nowhere to be seen when I arrived. Nor can I remember what Duncan was doing, but we mumbled some words about the prospect of being grouped. Then one of the people marshalling the checkpoint told us that if we cleared off in two minutes, we would not be grouped (or words to that effect). We didn’t need to be asked twice. Grabbing a handful of custard creams and cocktail sausages, we abandoned the tent and marched towards Great Whernside, marvelling at our luck.
Not that that made life easier in any way. Everything ached: my arms, back, stomach, chest. My ankles throbbed; my right knee was twinging; my feet were sore; my eyelids drooped. The Bob Graham Round, I thought. No way. Not in a million years. This is destroying me. Even talking was an effort. Duncan and I didn’t say much. We were running up Great Whernside together in a blustery dusk but we had retreated into our own worlds of survival. At one point I remember thinking I had better eat something and stuffed a custard cream in my mouth. I bit once but the cold meant I couldn’t chew. I opened my mouth and allowed the wind to blow away the crumbs like dust.
It was dreadful on top of Great Whernside. The wind was howling and cold. I’ll never forget the frantic thrumming of my jacket hood as we left the summit. We trudged on, knowing that every step would bring us closer to salvation, but still that salvation didn’t seem a reality. The journey to the penultimate checkpoint, Capplestone Gate, was interminable. The brief high of reaching this – the 55-mile mark – was checked by the thought of a further 6 miles to go. We had, effectively, a 10k to do – something I could do in 35 minutes on a good day. A mere sub-65 minute 10k on this occasion would bring us home in under 13 hours.
Something forced us on, into the night. Even when Duncan fell awkwardly over a metal fence, he simply got up and started running again. No complaining. Our pace was inexorably slowing, but there was no collapse, no bonk. Run, run, run – that’s all we knew to do. I entered a trance-like state, oblivious to why I should keep going, but keep going I would nonetheless.
Yarnbury. Wonderful Yarnbury. Mile 59. I suddenly felt rejuvenated. I set off down the road, as if I was running the last two miles of a fast 10k, enthralled by the bright lights of Grassington below. I felt like I was flying, sprinting downhill, flashing past pubs and an Indian restaurant. The speed and ease of these miles was utterly incongruous to the previous 59. The finish – a school foyer – was similarly incongruous to the epicness of the Fellsman, yet the finish is the finish, and – appropriately – after one final climb I stumbled through the door of Upper Wharfedale School.
Sitting on that chair, I quickly decided I hated the whole ordeal. Never again. Once was enough. Duncan arrived three minutes later; he looked like he was thinking the same thing. Memory is an unfaithful mistress, however; within minutes my mind was blocking out the worst. The sheer horror was becoming hazy. It didn’t seem quite so bad, I reckoned. Finally prising myself off the seat, I tucked my stinking trainers under an arm and proudly hobbled to the showers to wash away 61 miles worth of Yorkshire muck.