It's five years since my first Fellsman and maiden ultra race. In the intervening period I've done the Osmotherley Phoenix, Haworth Hobble, Lakeland 50 twice, Old County Tops and last year the Lakeland 100, not to mention another 28 marathons. So this time around I wasn't too nervous at the prospect of running 61 miles climbing 11,000ft over the Yorkshire Dales.
Another mitigating factor was that, alongside clubmates Mick Dobson and Nick Cook, I'm contemplating a crack at the Bob Graham Round this summer, which bizarrely relegated the Fellsman to a training run ahead of this somewhat stiffer challenge taking in 42 summits in the decidedly lumpier Lake District!
Mick joined me for the Fellsman with TAC runners Chris Campbell and Andy Haworth also toeing the start line. The weather on the day couldn't have been better, no rain forecast, little if any wind, almost constant cloud cover to keep the temperature down, plus it was about as dry underfoot as it's ever likely to be given generally low rainfall during April.
We were immediately grateful to fellow Humbug Chris Crabtree, who generously ferried us up to the start at Ingleton in his lovely Hope Tech van (although he admitted the cider at Trawden Beer Festival was at least partly responsible for his magnanimity!). As we drove up the Settle bypass the Campbells breezed past giving us a beep as they went by!
Rather than go out of our way to Grassington the night before, we decided to just get up to the start early doors for kit check. This proved a good move as we both waltzed through, it probably took longer to squeeze all the stuff in our backpacks afterwards than have the endless list of things verified. A waterproof jacket and pants, down jacket/fleece, two extra long-sleeved tops, long bottoms, head torch, emergency food, survival bag, map, compass, whistle, first aid kit (with crepe bandage, wound dressing, six plasters and four safety pins!), spoon, mug and the infamous hooded foil poncho all had to fit into my small back pack - and it was barely a fit (thank goodness my wife lent me a stuff sack)!
As any long-distance runner knows, Vaseline is essential. I headed off to the loo with a tub plus pre-race banana to looks of horror from my fellow team mates who wondered what the heck I was going to do! Banana safely deposited, I returned to the community hall packed with runners buzzing with anticipation and a smattering of dread, to give my kit a final once over and don my number and tally. Mrs Campbell was on hand with a boiled egg for us all - go to work on an egg they say, well today was sure to be hard work!
I spotted a few friendly faces around the start field. Andy Armstrong from Clayton, hubby of our Deborah, who immediately photobombed me - I asked if he had a time in mind but he didn't, I said I'd just like to finish the same day! Adrienne and Nick also from Clayton, stalwarts of long ultra events. Steve Turland of Ilkley Harriers, our Fionnuala's partner. And also a chap called Mike Burke who I'd met on the West Pennine Moors Double Marathon earlier this year. All were ready and in good spirits.
After a race briefing involving a mock lost gear auction and an unprecedented amber weather warning for sun, we were underway...just as I realised my GPS watch was in "indoor mode" and not tracking satellites! Bugger!
Half the field headed out the traditional way past the Wheatsheaf pub, while the rest skipped up a slope and through some tennis courts (a marginally shorter option noted for future reference). It isn't until you're amidst the masses streaming up the road towards the track and first climb to Ingleborough that you realise just how many like-minded foolhardy individuals enter this event!
INGLETON TO DENT
Mick, Chris and I stayed more or less together as we ran, jogged and picked our way to the summit, Mick a little ahead and pushing the pace. CP1 dibbed and the first proper clip in the legendary circular plastic tally made. Then came the horrible steep rocky drop off Ingleborough; I hate this section with a passion. People were taking all kinds of lines down the slope, I opted to get on the grass as soon as possible, but it still felt like an eternity to reach the slabs at the base where Chris and especially Mick were long gone. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm an absolute fairy when it comes to descending!
I managed to reel in Chris by the time we reached the limestone and flat run in to Hill Inn, and Mick was waiting for us at the checkpoint. As we grabbed a handful of custard creams, Andy sneaked up behind us with a shout of "Fancy meeting you here?" So we all pressed on, four Humbugs together, passing Deborah Stevenson ringing a cowbell in support as we headed up the reverse Three Peaks route to Whernside.
The long climb seemed to pass quickly with plenty of chat and banter between us (posing for a Sport Sunday pic along the way) and we topped out at CP3 bang on schedule two hours in, the highest point of the route and summit of North Yorkshire. Then came a long and steady descent to Kingsdale and some relief for the legs. Here we passed a chap with a monstrous rucksack who was nevertheless moving well when I quipped "That's one hefty pack!" He said he didn't do a lot of fell running and therefore didn't have much lightweight gear, plus his wife was adamant he carried everything he needed, consequently his bag weighed in at over eight kilos - mine was more like four which was heavy enough!
We crossed a tall and wobbly metal ladder stile as we started the descent proper, having to choose our footing carefully at the bottom to avoid stepping in a sheep carcass! The usually wide and flowing Kingsdale Beck was completely dry so we hopped across the riverbed to reach the next checkpoint and some very welcome homemade flapjack. A quick refill of our bottles and we were off - I dropped a salt tablet in mine, mindful I'd been sweating a fair bit already with our decent pace.
Another long climb, steepening significantly in the latter stages, brought us to the long summit ridge between Gragareth and Great Coum. The first of these is a quick out and back before a dampish trot along the wide ridgeline. We opted for the marginally drier right-hand side but as this involved some wall-jumping, it really wasn't much quicker. We passed over the unmarked top of Green Hill, highest point in Lancashire and second county top of the day, before scuttling over the "Three Counties" boulder marking the convergence of Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Cumbria, then on up to CP6 at the top of Great Coum.
Andy had dropped a little off our relentless pace here and as we headed down to Flinters Gill over tussocky and occasionally boggy ground, we could no longer see his distinctive red top following behind. A final steep and stony plunge brought us to the quaint village of Dent and its much-anticipated checkpoint where hot sausage rolls, cheese rolls and cups of baked beans awaited - heaven! Chris's good lady Sandra and his pal Dan were here to greet us and issue a warning to slow down, we were just over four hours in and still running at sub-14 hour pace!
DENT TO FLEET MOSS
As we prepared to leave Andy pulled in, he'd been struggling with cramp in his calves. I wished him well as we departed along undulating country lanes before forking off for the long slog up to Blea Moor. Here our pace slackened, it's a real drag as you plod relentlessly upwards then, just when you think you've reached the top, you have to descend a wide and boggy trough before another climb up to the top.
Even though it's the lowest summit on the route, Blea Moor makes up for it with some sheer stubborn and gritty terrain! We got a good line off though, coming steeply down through woodland and alongside the rail line before emerging on a road - blessed Tarmac! - for a mile or so to Stonehouse and CP10. Dan had his Land Rover parked in the river as we went by, a publicity shot if there ever was one!
Tomato pasta with a miserly sprinkling of cheese was washed down with some seriously refreshing lime cordial as we took five ahead of the long ascent of Great Knoutberry. My legs were starting to feel it now with the majority of the climbing done (they still hadn't fully recovered from the battering they took on the Teenager with Altitude the previous Saturday) but we were only just approaching the half way mark. Although still well up on our schedule there was only one way the pace was going from now on - ever slower.
After an the trudge over Knoutberry it's always a boost to reach Redshaw checkpoint, even more so as Sandra and co were there again to cheer us on. Then there are the awesome hot-dogs (believe me, you develop a serious craving for processed meat by this stage), cheese chunks, soup and other nibbles. You're also just over half way so know there are fewer miles left then you've already covered, plus your tally is now satisfyingly half filled. Chris had to withdraw here last year so it was an extra positive milestone for him too.
Unfortunately, some of the most energy-sapping terrain lies ahead. First of all there's a tussocky and usually damp traipse around Snaizeholme and up to Dodd Fell, then the prospect of Fleet Moss, seven miles of relentless lumps, bumps, peat hags and bogs. As we headed off we could tell immediately the ground was far drier than it normally is, certainly an added bonus as muscle fatigue started to show its hand.
We soon reached CP13 where the hardy and marvellous marshals were being very civilised sharing a cheeseboard outside their tents! Chris's friend Ralph Baines and his running buddy Barry Awan caught us on the climb to Dodd Fell (they'd been ahead all the way but we'd leapfrogged them at Redshaw) and the five of us stuck together to Fleet Moss. We took a bit of a dodgy line coming off Dodd Fell, merging with a good number of other runners along the way, and had some awkward wall-climbing to contend with.
Chris, always one for setting off too fast (and we certainly had this time) and also known for his minor wobbles, was feeling a little worse for wear and urged me and Mick to press on without him. Then as we hit the checkpoint disaster struck - Chris reached for his tally only to find a snapped string! It must have snagged on one of the walls we'd crossed which could have been anywhere over the past mile or so.
Losing your tally means automatic disqualification...or so we thought. Chris immediately mentioned it to the marshals who told him not to worry as they had some spare temporary tallies. Sandra was once again by his side as he took a little time to gather himself together and told us to go. It was great to have Chell here too, she'd driven all the way up from Colne to see us for a matter of minutes.
FLEET MOSS TO CRAY
We grabbed a cheese bap and I took another salt tablet on board, then we donned our jackets as the temperature was dropping and a breeze was picking up. We pressed on with Fellsman veterans Ralph and Barry over Fleet Moss (a.k.a. Mordor). It inevitably feels like and endless slog over Fleet Moss and, despite choosing some good and largely runnable dry lines, it felt as though we were taking rather a circuitous route. This was largely a trick of the mind yet it made the miles seem even slower.
Just before Middle Tongue nature called and despite drinking plenty I was shocked to see my pee looked almost radioactive! I shrugged it off as a tiny shrew dashed through the dry stone wall right next to me - nothing I could do about it, we just needed to get out of this godforsaken desolate place. We finally hit CP16 at Middle Tongue, the four of us on our own amidst the moors.
Barry gave us a choice of a low line where we'd need to climb back up to Hell Gap checkpoint, or a more direct line of which he absolved himself from any blame! We opted for the direct route and it was soon clear why Barry had washed his hands of it, it was another relentless mile or two over horrible peat hags and other unrunnable lumpy stuff. I was convinced we were too high and needed to veer right, a theory that seemed to bear up as another solitary runner could be seen off to our right.
Nevertheless, super-fit Barry was too far ahead to shout back and the four of us were very strung out, so there was no choice but to carry on as we were. As it happened we needn't have worried, the checkpoint eventually came into sight and we were on a beeline towards it. As we hopped over the fence to dib in, Sandra and Dan were there yet again and, as I turned to watch Mick arrive I couldn't believe my eyes! The other lone runner had converged on us after taking a better line and it was none other than our Chris back on form!
We were elated to be reunited and knew the five of us would be officially grouped for the rest of the race just down the hill at Cray. Happy days! Chris still didn't have a tally, the guys at Fleet Moss couldn't lay their hands on the spares, yet they had let him go on just telling him to mention he didn't have one at subsequent checkpoints. No bother then!
Sandra ran down to Cray and CP18 with us and we arrived feeling a tad tired but in high spirits. As we dibbed in and headed straight into the tent for some more sustenance, Chris told the chap in charge about his tally. As he sat down the worst thing happened, the marshal came over and said with what seemed like a smirk "I have some bad news for you, you're disqualified."
None of us could take it in. Was this some kind of twisted joke? To add insult to injury he disappeared outside to answer his phone as soon as he'd delivered the news. When he came back in he confirmed Chris was being pulled out. Understandably we were all gutted, none more so than Chris, who had to take five away from everyone in case he punched someone's lights out.
Rules are rules, no tally and you're disqualified as stated in the handbook, but why had he been allowed to continue at Fleet Moss? No one in their right mind would voluntarily run that section just for the sake of it, and now he was 45 miles in and feeling fit only to be told he couldn’t carry on with the rest of us. To say it was unfair and against the grain just doesn't cut the mustard.
Mick and I went over to try and console him but he was rightly devastated. There was nothing any of us could do and despite everyone's protestations that was it. We had to go and leave our pal behind. It was difficult to desert him but even more heart-wrenching for Chris to watch us head off over the fields towards Buckden Pike.
CRAY TO YARNBURY
We didn't say much as we climbed. At least it was still daylight, the last time I did the Fellsman in 2012 night was falling and I was elated and adrenalin-fuelled having just caught up with Jim and Pete after 43 miles on my own. Now I was feeling a bit drained but happy we "only" had two climbs and 16 miles to go.
Running off the top of Buckden it was time for another wee (still luminous orange) then we maintained a good pace past the memorial, and as we started to drop we could see Park Rash - the final road crossing - tantalisingly in the distance. But before that we had to swing right and descend to a track to reach CP20 at Tor Mere Top.
None of us could remember exactly where to cross the ridge wall but with it still being light, I spotted the path we needed as Barry pressed on ahead. There was a bit of a gap in the wall where another wall joined, the only safe place to hop over given there was an accompanying electric fence. I shouted to Barry to say we were crossing over and immediately hollered again as he prepared to grab hold of the electric fence! Thankfully he heard me and came back to climb over with us at the gap.
At Tor Mere Top Ralph and Barry readied their head torches as it was getting pretty gloomy. But Mick didn't want to hang around and started walking off even though we were right next to the checkpoint within sight of the marshals, who could easily DQ us for having a split group. My nerves were jangling after what had happened to Chris, so I was glad to trot on with Barry and reform our group ASAP.
We just about reached Park Rash without lighting up. Inside the tent it was rather stuffy with two gas heaters pumping out and hot drinks on the go. My three companions had to don their long legwear now (I'd been in mine since the off), another rule supposedly coming into play when grouped although the marshal at Cray who'd pulled Chris hadn't enforced it. As the rest got dressed, I grabbed my head torch, buff, gloves and large-scale maps of the final section from my pack, the first time I'd delved into it since we set off.
Not wanting to linger too long, we headed back into the breach where the temperature drop was quite noticeable. It also seemed much darker now even though we'd only been in the tent a few minutes, probably down to our eyes growing accustomed to the brighter light within. Head torches on, we commenced our final climb up Great Whernside. This was a good pull up with a very steep section near the top, followed by a fairly level stretch hugging the ridgeline toward the glowing summit checkpoint in the distance. It seemed miles away and like a huge lit-up marquee...but the darkness was playing tricks on me. We reached it far faster than I'd bargained for and the "marquee" was a mere reflective strip on the uniform of the marshal in attendance!
Using a new fence as a handrail, we ventured off the top and were soon heading down, down, down then across an eerily dry stretch of notorious bog-land towards Cappelstone Gate. Having stayed on my feet all the way round, I ended up taking a tumble here and almost ended up grounded like a tortoise on its back!
A red light picking out the penultimate checkpoint in the darkness appeared a good way off but it was once closer than I reckoned. I also noticed the grass looked almost illusory in the light of my torch, seeming blurry with a strange parallax effect - I'm certain I wasn't hallucinating though!
It's always a relief to reach the line of beacons (interspersed with flags this year) lighting the way to Yarnbury as you know the end is near and you're almost off the fells once and for all. Heavy legs meant we weren't taking full advantage of the improved terrain as rougher ground gradually gave way to grass and eventually bridleway, but once the glowing tent came into view - again nearer than it felt - Mick pulled us into port and we were officially de-grouped.
Bidding our thanks to Barry and Ralph for a good few hours' company and running together, we turned for home down the final road section - more blessed Tarmac! Mick glanced at his watch "We've got 15 minutes to get sub-15. What do you think?" Not happening, I thought, admitting "Maybe with fresh legs!"
However we picked up the pace and soon left our erstwhile companions and the last checkpoint behind, our tallies only wanting for a final clip at the finish. I could see the sodium glow of a town in the distance yet couldn't believe we had that far to go, it looked a good four or five miles away. The road started to drop at a steeper gradient and we gathered speed, Mick shouting "I hate these sprint finishes with you!" Well he'd dragged me round 60 miles, the least I could do was return the favour for the last one!
Then as we turned a corner Grassington loomed close to our right and my relief was palpable. With a rush of adrenaline I pounded down the road emerging into the village in minutes with Mick close behind simply saying between breaths "The pubs are open!" (I'd previously said I'd love to one day finish the Fellsman, Lakeland 50 or 100 before the pubs shut!) Unfortunately I couldn't take advantage this time as we weren't home and hosed.
Flying out of Grassington and over the bridge, we had one last energy-sapping pull uphill to Threshfield. Mick's strong climbing kicked in again and as he moved ahead I shouted "Is that it?" referencing a bright light in front and to the right. "No," came the reply but seconds later "It's there!" Sure enough the school was finally in our sights and we pushed on with all we had left.
As we rounded the last corner Chell and Gel were outside with Gel saying "I'm sure that's Paul...and Mick?!" and I replied to confirm her suspicions as we turned in to the school grounds. Frustratingly we went for the wrong door initially before Chell put us right and we veered around the side. Mick pushed me through the doors and I handed over my tally, Mick right behind me. It was all over!
The staff at the finish didn't let us rest though, they immediately wanted to know which one of our tallies had been scanned first, so Mick pointed to me. Apparently the clock had ticked over to the next minute in the seconds between us being individually dibbed out! So we still weren't sure if we'd both made it down the hill fast enough.
We sidled off to grab a bowl of chilli and cheese with bread and came back out to the foyer to eat with Gel and Chell. Ralph and Barry landed a couple of minutes later as we joked with the volunteers. Ralph had been having trouble with one of his eyes, hampering his progress over the last few miles, but being a stoic chap he hadn't mentioned it.
Not wanted to hang about too long, we changed our tops and jumped in the car. Mick produced a very welcome hip flask of single malt which we sipped in the back seat as we chatted about the whole event, so the journey home seemed to take no time at all.
The next day I totted up my Garmin traces and came out with a time of 14:58:42 - job done in my book! And a couple of days later when the official results emerged they confirmed we'd come in at 14:58 and 14:59 - gold target achieved! Andy Haworth had managed to battle through to finish in 16:50, a massive PB from last year, and coincidentally he'd been grouped and run in with my mate Mike Burke.
The Fellsman is one legendary event and a tremendous though tough day (or two) out. It wouldn't happen without countless hours of time and effort on the part of the organisers, Keighley Scouts, and many dozens of volunteers and marshals - so a huge thank you to them all! The only fly in the ointment is what happened to Chris, it would have been fantastic to all finish together.
I capped off my previous report by saying I was certain once was enough, well it took me five years to rethink but I'm certainly glad I've done it again.
Oh yes, I also solved the fluorescent pee mystery. Apparently in my haste packing that morning, the salt tablets I'd picked up were actually vitamin C tablets - it's a wonder I'm still alive!
This one was for Jim...