Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Runfurther series race 5 of 12. The 48th Fellsman. 08-09/05/2010. The view from the other side.

Still with dodgy knee and now woefully unfit, my registration was replaced by voluntary duties. At the beginning of the week when I saw the ominous forecast of low cloud, rain and biting winds, I was almost thankful I wasn’t running. However by the time the weekend arrived, the forecast had changed to dry and sunny, with just the cold wind remaining. The rain had bugg’red off down south where it belongs, to leave the Yorkshire Moors in a state of once-in-a-lifetime dryness for The 48th Fellsman.

A drive up to Threshfield on Friday was followed by three bus journeys to Ingleton. I was accompanied by novice Stuart Blofeld, with whom I was supposed to be running but now I was just showing the ropes. He had my route maps and notes, perfected since 2003, to help him round in my absence. We had enough time for a walk up to the last checkpoint at Yarnbury to give Stuart a point of reference to aim for in the dark early on Sunday morning. The sun was shining and everywhere was bone dry, but the NE wind was strong, cold and very drying.

Tea ‘n’ Tiffin in the Naked Man CafĂ© in sunny Settle was pleasant as we waited for our third and final bus to Ingleton. This one was a school bus. The same bus driver as last year was driving – a real character who knows how to handle the pupils, not that they needed handling. Like last year they were quiet and perfectly well behaved – amazing considering it was Friday and they had the weekend in front of them. They were kept pacified by their electronic gadgetry.

In Ingleton we had another wander, from the start at the leisure centre on the outward leg up the track towards Ingleborough. We climbed to the top of the first rise, where the track was laid out before us and disappearing around the hill in the near distance that was hiding Ingleborough. The wind was still keen. The turnaround back to Ingleton provided views I’ve never seen before. It had been a good day of checking out the beginning and end of the route, a few easy miles in the legs. After a good meal of fish & chips followed by a pint at the pub, it was time to retire.

Saturday dawned cool and dry. We wandered up to get registration out of the way before breakfast and so I could introduce myself to Juliette, Headquarters Controller, who would be providing me with my job for up to the next 24 hours. The crowd outside was large by the time we were ready to receive the ‘Hikers’ for registration and kit check. There was a lot of setting up to do but many hands made light work. Stuart was one of the first through and ready just in time for 7am breakfast back at the B & B. An hour later the queue was stretching around the building. Inside, the hall was heaving and full of friends to chat with. Time raced by towards the 09:00 start. A runner asked if there was anyone who could drive his car back to Threshfield. Since I was going to get a lift with the staff, I said I could. A minute later, another runner made the same request. He was just too late.

Suzanne Carter, new Event Organiser and mother to a new-born baby, gave an excellent speech and called for a minute’s silence for previous Hiker Tracy Dryden, who tragically was stabbed to death in March.

At 09:05 the siren was sounded and they were off across the playing field, avoiding the cricket pitch as instructed and as guarded by the ground keepers.

I drove the car safely back to Threshfield without incident. It was a sporty little number with a rather fierce clutch, which I soon got the hang of. By the time I arrived back at Threshfield, the wind had really got up again. I imagined what it must have been like on the tops for the Hikers. It was not long before the sun came out and it became a beautiful day, but I was stuck indoors in the control centre behind the kitchen, with the crackle of the radio and the sound of the Catering Officer keeping her kitchen in order (we couldn't survive without you, Shona and crew).

In addition to the many comings and goings from/to the checkpoints, the control room contained four fixed teams:

1. Radio communications people, who have their major relay station at Kidhow Gate, before the left turn and climb up Dodd Fell. Reception seemed less good than I would have expected, but they always seemed to manage.

2. Data communications people who used specially set-up Wi-Fi links via mobile phones (I think) to receive hiker numbers and times digitally to their computer, which was running specialised software to process and display it. This was a new system being trialled, which removed a heavy burden from the radio operators, who no longer had to read out lists manually. It removed possible communication errors and freed up the radio communications for logistics, emergencies, supplies and bus coordination. First two teams seen here.

3. Old-fashioned paper-and-hook people who received regular print-outs from the data comms people. They wrote down the times on colour-coded paper notelets and hung them on one of nearly 500 hooks. It might have been old-fashioned and labour intensive but it gave an instant visual indication of Hiker progress: a succession of different coloured paper notes of progressively decreasing size, such that earlier information always remained visible. Non-starters were easily identified by their tally hanging back to front on the hook, while finishers were identified by their sweaty tally hanging on the hook the right way round.

4. Data entry people whose data were used for final timings, the results list and certificate printing. This was Dawn's and my job – a very important one because it is our face to the outside world, the only result the Hikers get to see and who worked so hard to achieve. Our data source was the print-outs after the paper-and-hook people had finished with them, or the finishers' dockets from the finishing desk. The software, specially developed by a whiz kid for The Fellsman, was intuitive and a pleasure to use. However, there was one small bug, which will be revealed later.

The apparent duplication of effort was necessary while new methods were trialled. It would be foolish to put all eggs in the new basket and run the risk of catastrophe if it should fail. The old method ran in parallel for security. I liked the old method. Its information was big, colourful and easy to take in.

Near the beginning, as I scanned through the list of starters to note the numbers of names I recognised and whose progress I wanted to follow, I noticed a few spelling mistakes. They were soon corrected. We couldn't have certificates and results lists with people's names spelled wrongly.

There was worse. I could not see the name of someone who I knew was out there. The only way we were able to track him down in the list was to check addresses. Luckily I had an idea of where he lived. As soon as I saw his address I recognised it and we were able to correct his surname, where his middle name had been entered in error.

This brings us to the bug. The corrections required a re-initialisation to take effect. This caused every entrant to revert to novice status. My first job was therefore to go through the entire entrant list resetting those who were not novices to their rightful status. Once that was completed, we were ready to rumble.

Computers were linked via a hub. Dawn and I used one of two computers that accessed the same software, but only one was connected to the printer for printing certificates. As the lists came in, I enjoyed monitoring my friends' progress and comparing it with my times of last year.

At something past 7pm, word came through that the first runner had just passed through Yarnbury. We were excited at the prospect of receiving our first customer, the first of the 400 who were being monitored with love and care around the route. I grabbed my camera and went down the road to await his arrival. Duncan Harris soon appeared, loping up the hill towards the school. A couple of young helpers ran down the road to meet him and run back to the finish with him. He finished in 11 hours and was immediately collared by the Grough photographer for 'a word'. It sounded ominous but he only wanted an interview.

Dawn and I now had our first finisher's docket to enter a completion time into the computer. A quick calculation told us that the resulting time was not correct. Timekeepers were using real time, not Fellsman time, which by our reckoning at the start was running exactly 5 minutes late. We had to change an entry to correct the timing error in one go. The assumed time of 09:00:00 at Ingleton had to be the route to success. Once changed to 09:05:00, everything fell into place. We wouldn't hear the last of it if we tried to diddle everyone out of five minutes.

Work intensity increased as the Hike progressed and data came in from more checkpoints. We were kept fed and watered by a fantastic kitchen crew. Youngsters came in regularly to ask if we would like a drink or something to eat. We were never left wanting, even when we could not leave our stations. My dinner of baked potato, chilli and cheese with salad went down a real treat. Here's the day's menu for the workers.

Dawn had grabbed a sleep sometime during Saturday but I had been on the go since 05:30. I finally had to call it a day and retire at 03:00 on Sunday for a sleep. Three hours later I was up again. On my way back to duty I saw Wouter Hamelinck, Belgian ultra runner extraordinaire who gets to his international events by public transport and fold-up bicycle. I first met him at the Lakeland 100 last year – what a great bloke.

Wouter had a problem. His bike had a puncture, the local garage didn’t open until 10:00 and he had to be at Skipton station for 10:00 to catch a train. His only hope was to get a lift to Skipton. I offered to ask around. It was not long before I found a willing volunteer who was just getting ready to leave. What a result. Thank you sir! Aren’t ultra runners a great bunch? I introduced the lucky passenger to his new lift, to a look of immense relief, and continued back to my duties.

By now Dawn was ready for sleep and it was my turn to relieve her. Certificate printing and arranging in Hiker number order was going strong under the control of Juliette’s mum. I continued the entry of the finisher’s data so she had something to print. The hook board had been transformed by finishers' tallies. Checkpoint progress lists continued to pour in for me to enter into the database.

Later I was able to sneak out for the presentation and a chat with some of the lucky finishers. After the presentation, Stuart and I wandered up to the tea room in Grassington for a bite (what amazing cappuccino and chocolate cake). On the way there we cheered several Fellsman Hikers as they approached the finish sporting their sun tans. Their lower limbs were unbelievably clean considering they had just done “The Fellsman”. On our return we walked back with Number 43. She received a much bigger cheer than the front runners get. I should think so too, after being out there for nearly 28 hours through a bitterly cold night.

I returned to the control room to wish everyone goodbye and was surprised to receive a volunteer's certificate. What a nice gesture. This event is so well organised in all respects. Everything is covered, both front line for the participants and behind the scenes for the volunteers. I have seen this event improve and modernise since I first did it in 2003, yet such is the keenness to please, they ask every year for suggestions for improvements so they can be even better. The Fellsman is an iconic and challenging event of immense pedigree that just gets better.

I really enjoyed my volunteering and got a lot of satisfaction out of doing my best for our customers. I enjoyed working with Dawn too. Thank-you, Dawn. I think we made a great team. I might see you next year, possibly as participants if I can get repaired.

The event filled to capacity for the first time in many years. The reserve list worked well, as did the offer of chance entries on the day. Everyone who turned up on the day got a place and there were more to spare. The 400 who set off fell well short of the 450 quota, thanks to some who failed to turn up and had not made their place available to others by giving advance warning of their non-attendance.

Mark Hartell finished second in a little over 11 hours, while Nicky Spinks came in 8th overall with a record female finishing time, which I did not note; sorry. What a fantastic result though.

Well done to Stuart, who finished in 16:48 or thereabouts. He found himself as chief navigator through the night, with no experience of the route or terrain, unaccustomed to navigating by compass and running in his own little pool of light with someone else’s route notes. No pressure there, then. Apparently it went like clockwork and he never went wrong. I love it when a plan comes together, don’t you?

All the behind-the-scenes pictures are here.


  1. great account Nick and certainly comes across that you had just as much fun behind the scenes as you do running. its amazing to see how much goes on behind the scenes. You just don't realise whilst you're running round. The hook board is brilliant. Hope they never get rid of it!

  2. A fantastic insight into all the great work that makes the event possible. Interesting balance of old and new technology.

  3. Interesting to hear what goes on behind the scenes. The feeding aspect of it seems an interesting attraction.
    After the Fellsman we spoke about the possibility of regenerating cartilidge with you being very sceptical and me suggesting it was possible and that I would get you some info on it. Well, I can't find anything of substance. A few bits and pieces almost as asides in discussion of wider topics but nothing very comprehensive or convincing. All I can say is that about 10-15 years ago my wife had quite severe cartilidge problems with very noticeable crepitus. She found some info at that stage and bought an exercise bike and used it daily with an almost zero resistance setting. Much gentler than an actua; bike would be. Her knees got better and she has no problems now which is fortunate because on Thursday we head off to montenegro for three weeks for some quite serious walking in the mountains. So, anecdotal evidence only I am afraid.

    Dick S.

  4. Nick,
    What an awesome description of our weekend without much sleep! Saves me writing about it, I can just point people to this site instead... :) This race is definitely on my calendar for next year, so see you there. Be patient with your knee, and you'll get back on track, I know it!

  5. Hi Nick,

    Do you still have the Walsh Spirit Peak s10 for sale?