Although I cannot profess to be a regular fell runner (although I love to run when the knees allow) I really enjoy long distance walking so the Fellsman, that veritable 61 mile challenge, has beckoned on more than one occasion....
Given a chance I am to be found happily hiking in Scotland, either on the TGO Challenge, up Munros and Corbetts, or enjoying the hillier landscapes of Northern England. Occasionally I go further south depending on my inclination to fight the traffic! But the Dales are my current home so the Fellsman has become a must.
In fact the Fellsman has beckoned twice before this year having first heard of the event in 2010. Living in the Dales one would expect to have found out about this fabulous hike earlier but somehow it had eluded my radar despite having occasion to bump into the Scouting fraternity. However, 2011’s attempt was thwarted; a friend’s knee injury had us so far behind that, despite bidding farewell and then pounding it from Dent alone - catching up with the folk that I had seen ascending Blea Moor as I left the corner of the Bridleway at Great Wold – I was to miss the grouping as only three of us wished to continue from Stonehouse. I am so used to walking independently that I had nearly forgotten the four in a group rule for the night section so was heartily disappointed, especially as a group had just left Stonehouse minutes before. To say I was frustrated was an understatement! I had dressed up warm in my Paramo waterproofs ready for a long cool night (it had been blowing a steady cold wind all day but was pretty dry underfoot) but it proved to be a long cool wait for the minibus instead. It was also a lesson. If you are not running you need to walk the first half at a fairly fast pace, at around 6km an hour despite the hills, and to get well ahead of the published grouping times, if you want to ensure there are enough people to group with. This is important for walkers as there are not so many, most run or walk and jog.
In 2012 I came back more determined than ever that this was a hike that needed doing. Note I say hike, not run – I could no more run 61 miles (silly knee) than swim the Channel (no excuse, just don’t like swimming enough!) but walking is a different matter … and this event used to be called the ‘Fellsman Hike’ which suits me fine, even though the majority taking part are now svelte fell runners. To ensure a chance of being grouped two pals and myself set off as a three. Sadly by The Hill Inn one friend had to drop out but this meant Sue – a fellow TGO Challenger – and I could press on and we soon met up with another lass who joined us atop Gragareth. And having missed out on Flapjacks at Kingsdale we were now in a hurry to grab some nosh and a cuppa at Dent.
Crossing terrain in the Dales is where the Salomon Speedcross shoes excel – whether walking, jogging or running they are very comfortable mile after mile be it grass, track, mud, heathery moor or even tarmac for short spurts. I use Superfeet insoles in my Speedcross shoes as well as Sealskinz socks and Inov-8 debris gaiters and find this a great combination for walking the miles; they saw my feet do the Lyke Wake walk in much more comfort than I had expected and this was proving true for the Fellsman too. Even so, a cuppa at Dent was welcome although, disaster, there was shortage of veggi pasties!
At Stonehouse there were a number of folk where we were grouped to carry on for the night section. It had been a lovely afternoon walking over Blea Moor and the evening light going up Great Knoutberry was glorious before descending into the dusk and an increasingly bitter cold wind to Redshaw. Fingertips were suddenly numb despite two pairs of gloves and the temperatures plummeted. Dressed in lighter gear – Montane Trail running tights, Icebreaker layers, lightweight waterproofs - and with a smaller 15L pack I felt less cluttered and felt we could all keep up a reasonable walking pace, which would see us through to the end. Black Diamond Contour Elliptic Shock Compact Trekking Poles – for those knees on the downhills – were also a necessity! But it was cold.
And then the weather decided to get really grumpy (no pics of that)! By the time we were approaching the top of Dodd Fell it was blowing a Hooley and there was horizontal snow smacking straight into our eyeballs. Oh for some goggles or bike glasses. In fact a motorcycle helmet would have been quite cosy! Perhaps too heavy. A friend in the other group had lost her sight to wind blindness and could see nothing whilst her husband valiantly led her over the tussocks and bog to Fleet Moss. Our group went across on a different bearing slightly above them and hit a different set of peat hags which had us wasting valuable time. But we all hit Fleet Moss with the full intention of being able to carry on. Ahead the torches of those who had just left the checkpoint flickered on. Hot soup swallowed we were then given the bad news – the event might have to be cancelled due to the weather and we would have to wait until this was confirmed. A shivering hour later with more hot soup to try and stay warm we were told that the event was now officially being closed – too many folk were getting caught out by the unusually cold conditions and particularly the wind chill. The organisers could not risk further problems in the bitter weather and were ensuring all folk were either brought back in or stopped at their next road checkpoint to await buses to take them down. It was a fair call and one that was beyond our control – but meant I had now been thwarted twice! Incidentally, having too much Lentil soup was a bad idea but it tasted jolly good at the time!
Roll in 2013. After the bitter winds and chilly snows of 2012 participants of the 2013 Fellsman may have been slightly alarmed when another dusting of snow covered the tops on Friday evening. Sue and I were slightly more alarmed by the plethora of long well-muscled legs in tights that looked set to do a male version of Swan Lake. There were very few women. Were we in the right event? Our legs seemed a bit short. Maybe we were just the chicks [signets] that would bring up the rear. But hey, we’ve worn just running tights too, it’s just today felt soooo cold! I glanced down at my Paramos feeling cosy but overdressed (I had actually sneaked some 2xu compression tights on underneath in case I wanted to knock off a layer) and noted Sue was already wearing tights of sorts – at least Lowe Alpine Fleece leggings – so that was okay then.
I had also borrowed a Salomon Sky 30 rucksack from Steve (The Boss) as being roomy and light – 860g for a 30L pack - I knew it would comfortably fit my Paramo jacket, walking poles when not needed and camera whereas my OMM 15L would not. It looked quite large when stood next to all the runners with their small but very functional running packs, but we were WALKING.
Our biggest worry was that we had both just been quite poorly each with some horrible lurgi. Sue had a bad chest and the bug had had me lying down most of the Wednesday before. The onset had been just after Easter so we were feeling a tad jaded. The fact Sue had made the effort to come all the way from her Newtonmore Hostel had encouraged us to get our bottoms out of bed that morning and mind over matter certainly helps (or adrenaline?). And we had agreed to give it a go. But we knew if we needed to pull for any reason due to ill health we would as otherwise it was not fair on either the organisers or ourselves. The start was cold and once more sad as again a minute’s silence was held - as has happened for the last three years - for Ron Powell one of the Fellsman's early organisers who has been involved with the event for years and more recently ran the radios at Dent. And then Jonathan Carter, this year’s organiser, gave the word and we were off!
The well-toned runners with legs nearly as long as I am tall (it seemed) were soon off into the distance but we kept up with the walker’s march up Ingleborough on the first leg until our first mishap – a lady knocked Sue onto the Limestone by mistake which had Sue bent over in agony with a very large bump on her shin. Luckily there was no blood but it was one heck of a bang and obviously quite sore so we hobbled up the final steep section with a few choice words. Barely pausing at the summit we slowly (knees!) descended and made our way to the Hill Inn.
Our initial ascent of Whernside was unimpeded but we soon met the first runner on the Three Peaks Race descending the steep steps. It had to be this year’s winner Joe Symonds, who runs for Salomon, and he was streets ahead of everyone else; an excellent runner. We then met very few other runners until back on the main summit path (as Fellsman walkers use the diagonal cut-off to keep out of the runners’ way). However, it was on this next bit that I realised we were really struggling. Time wise we were getting on for twenty minutes behind last year and it was now that Sue suddenly stopped half way up. Sue NEVER stops going up Whernside unless there is some extremely rare wildlife (unlikely), rubbish to pick up or a disaster. I have seen her steam up so many times I nearly went straight into her. Asking her what was wrong she said - not in these words – it was her chest. She was struggling to get her breath after having this lurgi and was evidently incredibly frustrated. We decided to potter on at a more leisurely pace although we knew this did not bode well. We bumped into a few Three Peakers en route.
A friend of Sue’s, Steve, from the Kendal running club also doing the Fellsman but coming down as we went up!
And then on summiting we pottered down to Kingsdale under the carefully taped barbed wire. At this point we knew we were well behind but sunk our teeth into a welcome flapjack and cuppa all the same. Another pair of ladies were also there and one had decided she really wasn’t up to carrying on although her friend was obviously raring to go. Sue was really not sure, she wasn’t feeling great and seriously wondered about stopping. The lady not continuing asked if I would be willing to leave Sue and go on with her friend. I said Sue had come a long way and I would rather we did whatever we were going to do together so if the other lady wanted to dash on that was okay. Sue and I deliberated and I suggested that maybe we just walked on at manageable pace to see where we got to during the day, not to worry too much. If we made it for groupings and were up to it then so be it, if not then so be it. So off we pottered. Sue’s frustration at catching this bug was palpable but we did what we do best, keep going! We both have great stamina even if we are not always fast and I knew we would continue whilst we felt up to doing so.
And so Gragareth, Great Coum, Flinter Gill and Dent came and went. And we plodded on. Now into lovely early evening light on the way to Blea Moor, we were now an hour behind last year.
We met up with another walker, Pete, who was also going much slower than usual. He had done 20+ Fellsman so was an old hand. He admitted that we were rather behind where we ought to be to make Park Rash in good time. The other lady and lads we had been keeping up with earlier were now a good ½ hour ahead.
So at the top of Blea Moor I phoned home - perhaps they had better not lock us out, we might be coming back to bed!
And then as dusk approached we made it to Stonehouse. Sue had had enough and I knew that although I felt okay now that having been so ill earlier in the week the long night might stump me anyway. More to the point we were three and we were not sure who else was behind. And we were LATE! Too late for the timings we felt happy with. Last Year we had reached Redshaw at dusk. Asked if we wanted to carry on we had to be honest and for the first time said ‘No!’. Well fed by the Stonehouse Cowboys (and Indian) we waited for an hour for the next walker, definitely too late to continue now!
And we were cold so as soon as possible we bundled into the minibus, Sue snuggly wrapped in a blanket. She was very glad of her Paramo jacket. At Redshaw we met up with the other bus we had passed as we entered Stonehouse. In it were the lads we had been following earlier in the day who had passed us in said bus and waited all this time! So it was a sad end and everyone looked damp and tired. But we reckoned that Stonehouse was not a bad place to reach considering our bugs. And we had had a great day out. So to 2014. We have to nail it next time, surely! Be in Dent early is what I say! Whether the lady who went ahead of us made it we do not know, but we do know Sue’s friends from Kendal, one of whom had had the wind blindness last year, did. So well done them! And this year's winner, Adam Perry, with a time of 10 hrs 34 minutes, makes you realise just how fit and fast the serious fell runners are. Amazing!