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Paul's Road to the Fellsman

POSTED BY PAUL BROWN ON 2 MAY 2012  •  PHOTO GALLERY →

The first time I ever heard of the Fellsman was about a month after I joined TAC during a regular Monday training session. I vividly recall running in the dark around Bents alongside Peter Stobbs who, with characteristic aplomb, mentioned that he might ‘squeeze in’ the Fellsman that May. When I enquired what it was, I was gobsmacked anyone could even conceive running over 60 miles of fells!

Two years later and another experienced and influential Trawden runner, a certain Jim Garside, somehow persuaded me to enter the 50th Fellsman. Even though I wasn’t drunk at the time and I fully understood what it was all about, for some illogical reason I agreed. That was almost six months ago and from then till the big day it constantly prayed on my mind.

Although I have a fair amount of fell miles under my belt, including three full Yorkshireman Marathons and Three Peaks races, I tend to do much more road running and had never gone beyond 26.2 miles. My training before 2012 probably averaged no more than 25 miles per week. Obviously this wouldn’t do for the Fellsman, so I upped my mileage to 40-50 weekly miles this year taking in plenty of hilly routes, though it was all still on Tarmac.

I was in a slightly awkward position training-wise, as my first priority for the year was to try to get under three hours in the Blackpool Marathon in early March. Once this was out of the way, I could concentrate more on the Fellsman. Jim, Peter, Tony and Matt were all managing to get out on the fells for frequent 20-mile runs and recce parts of the course, but I never had a chance to hook up with them.

Four weeks before the Fellsman, I really needed to find out if I could run a lot further than marathon distance. I decided that running the entire Pendle Way (which turned out to be over 47 miles) would be a decent challenge. I picked a beautiful sunny day, donned my fell shoes for the first time this year, and headed off to distances unknown. Thankfully, I managed to get around without any problems (though I took it easy) and knew I would be physically capable of going a bit further.

The week leading up the main event I was really feeling the nerves. I bought a few last minute essentials for the stringent Fellsman kit requirements including lightweight waterproof clothing (thanks for the tip-off Jim), gloves, socks, spare batteries, etc. I was really worried that the weather would throw its worst at us, but when the forecast promised a generally dry day, my relief came in floods and I was almost looking forward to it!

The night before the race I ventured up to Threshfield for the kit check. Jim, Tony and Peter were all ahead of me in the lengthy queue but all came away unscathed. I had triple-checked my gear and was feeling fine until the scrutineer said one of my OS maps didn’t cover the full route. I couldn’t believe it then realised I’d packed my oldest single-sided Yorkshire Dales map rather than my newer double-sided version. Thankfully we had all been presented with a complementary special edition Harvey’s 50th Fellsman map whilst queuing which dug me out of a hole!

I was still feeling anxious when I got home after kit check and didn’t get to sleep until at least 2.00am. Before I knew it my alarm woke me up at 5.45 and after a hearty bowl of porridge and mug of strong coffee, Jim and Jenny picked me up at 7.15. It was a bright and promising morning though quite cold. We had a good banter in the car but on reaching Ingleton it was clear there would be at least one weather-related issue that could prove problematic: the wind. Even in the Community Centre car park there was a penetrating stiff breeze, so goodness knows what it would be like on the fell tops!

Matt had reluctantly though wisely chose not to run as he was still recovering from his nasty injury on the Heptonstall fell race the month before, but had wished the rest of us well. So four of us - Jim, Peter, Tony and me - toed the line in the starting field. After months of mental anguish it was finally here, a voyage into the unknown for all of us bar Pete. After a few announcements which were largely carried away on the wind, without much ado and while everyone was still standing around in random groups, the organiser said “Right, off you go then!” so we all jogged off and were underway!

I initially ran with Jim as we started up Ingleborough, chatting about what was to come and potential pacing plans. I’d overanalysed everything as usual and produced a sheet of paper with all the distances and ascents between checkpoints together with split times for speeds of 4, 4.5 and 5 mph. We seemed to be sticking to a sedate pace when Jim announced we were averaging 5 mph over the first couple of uphill miles. Because I knew most of the climbing was over the first half of the route and I’d never done such a distance over tricky terrain, I immediately felt the need to slow down. Meanwhile Tony was only just ahead so Jim tagged alongside him, with Peter a little further in front.

From high on Ingleborough I gazed back to see hundreds of runners and walkers strung out over the best part of a mile, snaking up the fellside. By the time we crested the windswept summit plateau the other guys had opened up a reasonable gap, but I knew I had to stick to my game plan. Just 3.5 miles into the Fellsman and I was running solo, though there were still plenty of other folk about.

I gingerly made my way down the steep descent to Humphrey Bottom, memories of my last face-crunching fall racing down Ingleborough still fresh in my mind. Once on the paving and duck-boarding I opened my stride and soon reached Hill Inn. As I tucked into a handful of biscuits, I was taken by surprise as Jenny popped up and took a couple of snaps.

The leaden skies cleared a little as I started the long walk up Whernside, and despite the constant breeze it warmed up nicely. The Fellsman path took a diagonal from the base of the steepest section to the ridge line. Along the top runners who had already checked in at the summit were constantly passing by. Among these were Pete followed a couple of minutes later by Tony and Jim, who shouted, “You’ll soon catch us on the descent!” I checked my watch and by the time I’d hit the top and got back to where they’d passed me I was eight minutes behind. No chance of reeling them in but I didn’t let it bother me.

A nice fast drop into Kingsdale brought CP4 and some delicious homemade flapjacks. I wolfed one down and bagged another for later in the day. Then came a mile-long slog up Gragareth. Anyone who has run the Three Peaks will be all too familiar with the gruelling climb up the face of Whernside. Well this line up Gragareth is a carbon copy! Thankfully I got chatting with a chap from Holmfirth Harriers which helped take our minds off the relentless ascent.

Once again the ferocious wind kicked in as we crossed the ridge wall and headed to the trig point. I pulled away from my fleeting running buddy as we trekked over Green Hill to Great Coum. Much of the ground hereabouts was generally grassy and flat with some good running, but parts were fairly squelchy and at one point I disappeared up to my knees in an innocuous-looking bog. Brushing sphagnum from my legs I carried on unscathed.

From Great Coum, 16 miles and just over a quarter of the way in, the sun-dappled view over Dentdale to the Howgills and Lakeland Fells was breathtaking. As I stopped to clip in at CP6 and have a slug of water, a fellow runner nearby was talking to his friend and seemed ready to pack it all in, although they both gamely headed off ahead of me over the tiring tussocky terrain down to Flinters Gill.

Once past CP7 a green lane wended its way towards Dent. However I was soon pulled up short to find a lady attending to the failing runner I had just seen, who was lying on the floor clutching a painfully cramped up calf. Several other runners stopped to see if he was okay, so I carried on until I reached a gate where his companion was waiting. I let him know about his fallen comrade and he thanked me before heading back to find him.

A steep and stony drop along a wide path brought me into Dent village, which was strangely calm and basking in glorious warm sunshine. The checkpoint here was crammed with food so I grabbed a sausage roll, cup of beans, thick slice of bread and handful of raisins. I must have spent almost 15 minutes there and was reluctant to leave, but knew the only way was onward!

A mile on road brought me to a bridleway leading up towards Blea Moor. This reduced me to a walk again and seemed to go on interminably, but at last I crested a false summit before dropping into a wide and desolate trough with Blea Moor summit beyond. By now the Fellsman runners were really spread out. I followed a group of six northwards off Blea Moor, but they had obviously chosen a poor line of descent as they were too far right. When I spotted the Settle-Carlisle line emerging from the tunnel, I skirted left and the others followed. Running through the tussocks I managed to fall full length but thankfully no damage done.

Dropping steeply down through shadowy pine trees I felt completely isolated with nobody else in sight, but at least it was sheltered at valley level. I passed through a farm sporting turkeys and a moustachioed man before reaching a road that brought me to Stonehouse (CP10), where I was very surprised to see Jim’s dad and son along with Tony!

As I grabbed a tray of tomato pasta and slices of cake, I learned Tony had been suffering from bad leg cramps for the last 15 miles. He had been at Stonehouse for quite a while and Jim’s dad was doing his best to encourage him to continue. Once I’d refuelled I told Tony we’d press on together and see how he went: it was only 4.4 miles to Redshaw, the next roadside checkpoint. Unfortunately, just a few hundred metres up the road Tony’s cramps kicked in again. His legs were shaking like jelly and we both agreed he should head back and call it a day.

I felt sorry for Tony as he’d been really geared up for the Fellsman, and to drop out almost halfway must have been agonising for him. Despite the circumstances, seeing a few familiar faces after 24 miles and over five hours on my tod gave me a little mental boost. The subsequent climb up Great Knoutberry and fast descent over to Redshaw were good, and my reward was a heavenly hot dog with lashings of sauce and onions. I scoffed it on the hoof as I wanted to hang on to the coattails of a string of runners who were leaving the tent as I arrived.

Past Snaizeholme and pushing on to Dodd Fell, I was beginning to go over things a bit too much in my mind. I still had at least 27 miles to go and knew the Fleet Moss to Middle Tongue section would be a real slog from what people had told me. Then there was the prospect of running the last 16 miles over Buckden and Great Whernside in the dark. Not great confidence building material.

I reached the edge of Fleet Moss (CP15) at 6.30pm. I munched a jam butty and a few biscuits and made up my second bottle of electrolyte-fuelled water. I tried to drink my first brew of the day but couldn’t be bothered so chucked most of it. Battening down the hatches, I emerged with a couple of other hoary characters and headed into the breach once more. One of the chaps with me asked if I was going straight across or around the imminent mile of peat hags. I said I’d never done it before and wasn’t sure which was better, but he suggested skirting the south side, so another bloke and I went in tow.

There were 4.5 miles of peat, rough grass, bogs and acres of tussocks from Fleet Moss to Middle Tongue. My impromptu “leader” seemed to take a slightly circuitous course and wasn’t up to anything beyond a fast walk, even over ground that was technically quite runnable. I was thinking of pushing past until a completely unanticipated blizzard manifested itself about half a mile from the checkpoint. Horizontal snow and hail obscured the previously panoramic vistas and reduced visibility to a few hundred metres.

Once past Middle Tongue the skies cleared but it felt seriously chilly, a situation not helped by our slow progress. However, with no one else anywhere in sight I was reluctant to break ranks purely on safety grounds. It would have been all too easy to twist an ankle and be stranded hereabouts, and without any kind of distinct line or path, it was certainly feasible that no other people would choose the same route we had.

The past seven miles had mentally been the toughest of my day so far. I’d been on my feet for almost 12 hours (I didn’t sit down at any of the 24 checkpoints) and essentially running alone for 42 miles. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the night sections and additional four or five hours to come. I didn’t know what would happen with the mandatory grouping at Cray, but knew I didn’t really want to be lumped with my silent and slow companions of the past seven miles.

Thankfully we finally reached Hell Gap (CP17) at about 8.40pm as dusk was closing in. There was a mile drop to Cray on a good track and I took full advantage. I put in a rapid seven-minute mile and caught another solitary runner just before the checkpoint. Whipping out my tally for the marshal, I immediately asked how the grouping worked. He just pointed to the small mess tent beyond saying, “Someone in there will sort you out.”

As I made my way towards the tent and more hot food, I heard a voice nearby shout “Paul!” I turned to see Jim geared up and almost ready to go. I just couldn’t believe it! I thought Jim and Pete were literally miles ahead at this stage, it never even crossed my mind that I would ever catch them. My spirits soared immediately, I went from feeling despondent to exhilarated in a heartbeat!

Jim was keen to get going and I wasn’t fussed for a long stop. I nipped into the tent, where Peter was sat down, and downed a cup of spaghetti hoops and two custard creams. I scrabbled for my head torch, swigged some water and was good to go. The three of us were reunited at last and set off along with another chap up Buckden Pike.

Despite the darkness, cold, wind, steep climbing and prospect of another 16 miles and four hours of running, I felt elated. I was back with the pack and knew Peter and Jim had run the final stages in the dark on a recce. I’ll always be glad I chose to fly down from Hell Gap as I only caught them by a matter of seconds!

A lot of the rest of the route blurred into one. Our world soon consisted of small pools of light across the tops of Buckden Pike and Great Whernside, which were enveloped in cloud and battered by ferocious winds that must have brought the temperature down to well below zero. Occasional light hail, snow and rain whipped against our waterproofs and we all felt the cold. It was an unnatural and almost alien environment.

The descents were mostly off-track over boggy, muddy or tussocky ground. The climbs were pretty stiff and energy-sapping. At lower levels the cloud largely cleared but the cold and wind was no less brutal. A half-moon and starlit sky offered some distraction but none of us felt like standing and stargazing, we still had to get home.

We had an unexpected and very welcome sight at Park Rash (CP21) the last main road crossing. Tony and Andrea were there to greet and cheer us on. We all shared a laugh or two in the food tent as Peter and Jim struggled to swig some tea and I couldn’t get enough bread and cake. We didn’t want to hang about, so were soon back outside for the final ten miles.

Great Whernside had large patches of snow and a very rocky top, and we had to tread carefully to avoid any mishaps. Pete was doing a sterling job leading the way as we faultlessly tracked to GPS waypoints in pitch blackness. Finally we reached the penultimate checkpoint at Capplestone Gate. From there we skirted an intake wall and passed a few other groups as we followed a series of flashing orange beacons to Yarnbury.

We were de-grouped here but obviously wanted to finish together - Team TAC to the end! This plan almost came unstuck straight away though as I dashed into the marshal’s tent in search of yet more cake, only to emerge to find the other guys had gone! The last few miles were on road so I soon caught them up and we headed down through Grassington to civilisation at last. Jim was really suffering with blisters and sore ankles but he still managed to run the last few hundred metres with us to the finish in Threshfield. After 61 miles, 16h 24m and 11,000 ft it was all over and we could call ourselves true Fellsmen!

This is an absolutely epic event in every sense! It was impeccably organised and we are indebted to the hardy summit marshals, tireless mess tent staff and all the other volunteers who made it possible. The checkpoint grub was fantastic too! It was a totally amazing adventure and unforgettable experience, though I’m certain once is enough for me...

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