Monday, 11 May 2009

Vasque series race 5 - 47th Fellsman 61mi. Sat 09/05/2009

The Fellsman
(Could alternatively be described as the Ten Peaks Fell Race.)
Date: Saturday 9th May 2009;
Time: somewhere between 2 and 3pm;
Place: around Blea Moor.
Negative thoughts were surging through my head. “This is brutal, life threatening. I can't carry on like this. I'll never survive the next stage under these conditions, let alone another 40 miles to the end. My Grand Slam attempt is in tatters. I'll have to retire at Stonehouse.”
I was in adrenaline-fuelled survival mode, running across tussocky → waterlogged → rocky terrain that I would normally walk across, in a desperate bid to keep warm. I could feel the hail, driven on the violent gale, trying to embed itself into my legs through my feather-light Montane running trousers. The sound of it on my coat hood was deafening. The wind even felt as though it was blowing through my waterproof and wind proof (with taped seams) coat to chill me still further. I felt as though I was running on dead stumps, my feet were so numb with cold. As I ran up to the tented checkpoint at Blea Moor trig point I could feel my jaw locking up as the involuntary shivering reflex began to kick in. I got my tally clipped by the hardy marshal, who shouted my number - “Four seven” - to a small opening in the dome tent by his feet. Without delay I was off running north along the ridge, crabbing sideways while leaning against the icy blast from my left, to descend to the railway tunnel ventilation shaft and the sanctuary of the woods just beyond. I stumbled clumsily down the muddy path through the trees, cold and weakened.

As I relaxed in my B&B in Ingleton on Friday evening, content with a full belly of fish and double-chips, I had seen the future and it was not good. The forecasters had predicted a slow-moving weather front over us that would bring rain for most of the event, just for us. The rest of the country would enjoy warm sunshine. Typical. Oh deep joy. However, by the 9am start on Saturday the rain still hadn't arrived, though the cloud could be interpreted as ominous by the more pessimistic. I set off uncharacteristically with covered legs to avoid the inconvenience of having to put trousers on later. I wouldn't normally bother with leg covering but the moors and hill-tops, where we would be spending most of our time, would be cold and windy and this is a long, tough, exposed event whose rules stipulate that we must wear leg covering at night anyway.

I liked the optimism of most of the runners, who were exposing varying amounts of arm and leg appropriate to the conditions at the start. As we climbed towards the first peak – Ingleborough – unsurprisingly I began to overheat. I rolled my sleeves up. I soon rolled them down again when I reached the summit and felt the strength of the cold wind. Shower proof top zipped up, unzipped, sleeves up, sleeves down; Buff around neck, over head, around wrist – this continued as my temperature regulation regime over the next summits of Whernside, Gragareth and Great Coum.

The descent to Checkpoint 8, Dent (19mi.) brought the first substantial food. I luxuriated in a cup of baked beans (an unusual drink) and a sausage roll. I was 26 minutes up on my previous fastest time at this point. My overweight rucksack, heavier than ever before on this event and weighed down by the essential kit requirements plus personal pick-me-ups like gels, malt loaf, fig rolls, cereal bars, Ensure Plus, electrolytes and a litre of Coke (that life-giving elixir for the ultra runner), can't have proved too burdensome, though at the start Jez was concerned that I might have packed the kitchen sink by mistake.

I was soon refuelled and off on the long haul towards Blea Moor. We had enjoyed five bonus hours without rain, apart from a brief shower on the descent from Whernside. We had even glimpsed the sun from time to time. That was about to change. The wind was blowing ever stronger as I climbed the track. It started to rain. “Just another shower”, I told myself. The rain became heavier and the wind stronger. I looked behind me and saw the view had disappeared into a wall of precipitation, and no end was in sight. My lightweight shower proof top was no longer sufficient and I would shortly be veering left off-path across the long, exposed section, without any shelter, to Blea Moor summit. I seized the opportunity to shelter behind the last available stone wall to change to my heavier, weatherproof coat before re-emerging into the storm.

I had made another three minutes on the climb to Blea Moor to build up a 29-minute advantage, and that included the stop for the coat change. I had run for my life. That would take its toll later on.

I emerged from the woods into a farmyard of free-range birds. Two turkeys were putting on a display. I shuffled down the road towards Checkpoint 10, Stonehouse (27mi.), still trying to get warm, and noticed that the rain had stopped. The sun was trying to show itself and some patches of blue sky were appearing. That would prove to be the last of the rain. A forecast day's worth of rain had been squeezed into an hour-long violent onslaught. The wind had been strong enough to destroy the marquee tents at the lower level checkpoints with refreshment facilities. The marshals did a valiant job in cobbling some sort of shelter together to allow them to continue to provide their invaluable service for we crazy Hikers.

The scene at Stonehouse was a sorry sight, the tents crammed with Hikers in various states of distress and disbelief at what we had just experienced. There were several retirements. The tomato pasta was in great demand. My Montane trousers were clinging very damply to my legs and hampering my warming process. The addition of a dry pair of leggings between them and me provided a nice warm combination to keep me going through the cold and windy, though mercifully dry, remaining 33 miles. My Grand Slam attempt might just be alive again.

I set off on the next stage towards the 6th summit, Great Knoutberry, soon catching up with Stef French. We plodded up the track together, both happy for a companion to chat with. However, my previous exertions had left me spent. I had assumed that the pasta and Coke I had just consumed would soon work their magic and restore energy to the legs for the slog up Great Knoutberry, but it wasn't happening. I watched Stef disappear to the checkpoint at the trig point and reappear to pass me on the way down as I continued my weak trudge upwards. I sat down at the top to eat a fig roll and finish my bottle of Coke to force something into the legs for the run back down and across to Redshaw.

Through Stonehouse, Great Knoutberry, Redshaw and Snaizeholme Fell I lost 19 of the 29 minutes I had gained up to Blea Moor, but through Dodd Fell, Fleet Moss, Middle Tongue, Stake Moss, Cray and beyond into the night, things began to pick up and I clawed back time ever faster. The weather continued to improve. The wind, though remaining cold (everyone had a permanent shiny top lip), began to drop and the sky cleared to give us usable light until 10pm. Navigation went like clockwork and I arrived at Checkpoint 18, Cray (44mi.) at just gone 9pm with daylight to spare. My camera finally succumbed to the dampness here and stopped taking any further photographs.

The customary Cray luxury was absent this year – no tent city, no heated tent. The wind had demolished the usual big tent as people sat inside. The volunteers had managed to rebuild their checkpoint using an animal-transporting trailer borrowed from the local friendly farmer and a gate to form the frame for another makeshift tent. The necessarily limited menu was served up on tables, al fresco. Thank goodness the rain never came back and the wind dropped sufficiently to not blow the sandwiches off the table!

Obligatory grouping into a minimum of four took place here. I was grouped with five others – Andrew and Amanda Heading, Mark Pearce and another lady and gent (sorry, I can't remember names or work out who you were, even after the results have been published). We climbed to Checkpoint 19 at the top of Buckden Pike in the last remnants of daylight before having to switch on our head torches. We formed a perfect group. Our paces were well matched and navigation went like a dream. As we romped on towards Checkpoint 20, Top Mere (48mi.), appearing on the horizon we saw the full moon – a giant, dim red globe shining through and adding an eerie red glow to bands of cloud. Above our heads, stars shone brightly.

The approach to Checkpoint 21, Park Rash, across wide open pastures is deceiving. On the long approach it remains out of sight until you are very close, when you are suddenly greeted by a glowing tented oasis in the middle of nowhere. Once inside I had never seen such a brightly lit tent. A generator hummed outside to power copious fluorescent lighting. As we six sat snugly inside the shrunken tent (necessarily modified after the earlier storm) drinking our soup and eating our Marmite sandwiches, a marshal came in with a laminated list in his hand and a surprise kit check on his mind. We were already wearing most of what he asked for, apart from the first aid kit and emergency rations that SHALL NOT BE TOUCHED without disqualification.

I continued to make big advances on my previous times as we climbed to the 10th and final peak (Great Whernside, CP22) then descended, again with perfect navigation, to Capplestone Gate (CP23). The route to Yarnbury was magical – picked out to the horizon by flashing beacons to guide the way along the paths and tracks across fields. At Yarnbury, the 24th and final checkpoint with 2.1 road miles to go, we were de grouped, after which it was 'every man for himself'. I never do well here and always get left behind. I shuffled my way to the finish, getting cheered by a drunken couple (it was just past 2am) staggering their way in the opposite direction to Grassington, to arrive at the school in Threshfield in 17:10. I'd knocked 1hr 34mins off my previous fastest time on my 5th completion of The Fellsman. Our group of six congratulated one another on a job very well done.

I spent the next ten hours variously drinking tea, acquiring the gastronomic delights prepared by the catering staff in the kitchen and eating them in the machine shop-cum-dining room, chatting with fellow Hikers, trying to sleep on the hall floor, getting a £5 leg massage from Karen and attending the presentation of prizes from the comfort of my sleeping bag. Massage and presentation excepted, I did all of them more than once. Much more.

The caterers deserve special mention. We could not do this without them.

With the exception of that hour-long period mid-afternoon, which must have been as traumatic for the volunteers as it was for the participants, the 47th Fellsman was a very rewarding experience filled with friendship and camaraderie. It filled almost to capacity for the first time in many years. Congratulations to all who completed this extreme ultra fell event, commiserations to those who did not and many thanks to the organisers and volunteers who make it possible every year. We participants cannot fail to notice what a massive organisational undertaking it is.

Jez Bragg continued his runaway (pun intended) successful year with a win in 10hrs 50mins, 1hr 31mins ahead of second place finisher Andy Rankin. To achieve that time as a novice must rank as a record in itself. I have described Jez in a previous post as a machine. I have just upgraded him to 'animal' status. Sarah Rowell took the women's prize with a time of 13hrs 45mins.

There's a really evocative report with pictures on Grough.

5 down, 7 to go. Let's hope I can recover in time for the Marlborough Downs Challenge next weekend, after which it will be a nice long rest until Osmotherley Phoenix on the 4th July. Yeah right.

Pictures are here. Thanks to Alan Greenwood for the loan of his camera for the last two due to my camera still feeling rather damp.


  1. Good write up Nick just getting round to doing mine. Nice to met you on Saturday well done.

  2. Wow you were quick Karl; I'm still tweaking it. Don't forget to check back.
    It was good to meet you too. How did you do? (My memory for faces can be terrible, but it wasn't you I saw walking back down the track to the start, was it?)

  3. Karl, I've just seen your comment on Karen's blog. It obviously wasn't you. I feel sorry for whoever it was.

  4. Brilliant report Nick. You've really captured the atmosphere, pain and pleasure of the run.

    I wish I could write like you


  5. Thanks Mark. Are you the Mark in our group? If so it was a pleasure to navigate with you and to reach such satisfying consensus on route choice. If you're the other Mark it was a pleasure to meet you again, and well done :-)

  6. sounds a doddle nick :0
    love the prologue!
    well done!

  7. Thanks Nick for the kind comment on the FRA forum. Enjoyed reading your blog. Welldone on the fellsman.

    Iain (bobert)

  8. Great account Nick. Blea Moor WAS very grim. Thanks for the picture which I have borrowed!