Monday, 30 April 2012

The Fellsman 61mi. / >11,700'. 28-29/04/2012.

Race 3 of 12 in the 2012 Runfurther series.

The Gragareth marshal is always so cheerful. Like!

This tough and rugged 61-mile fell race with over 11,700 feet of ascent that climbs most of the peaks in a large horseshoe route between Ingleton and Threshfield is sponsored by The North Face, this being the second year of sponsorship. This newfound prestige status added to its being part of the Runfurther Ultra Running Championships ensured that some elite talent was there to compete. The entry limit of 500 was filled, with a waiting list on top of that. (The fact that it was the event's 50th anniversary may have had something to do with its popularity this year as well.) It was the biggest ever field in its history. That's pretty amazing when, in 2003 when I first ran it, entries were so low that the event's viability was being called into question. This would be my 6th running of the event formerly known as the Fellsman Hike because, in the old days everyone hiked it with big heavy boots. These days, lean, mean, technically attired runners are to the fore, so it's now known simply as "The Fellsman".

The 50th Fellsman will go down in history. I'll cut to the chase. For the time ever, with many retirements through hypothermia, vomiting, sprains and one airlifted to hospital, the decision was taken to abandon the event at 01:41 on Sunday for the safety of participants and the staff due to extreme cold and wind chill. Having got through the final roadside checkpoint (Park Rash) with Kevin, Mike and Paul (the three other members of my night group) before the abandonment and been able to get a finish time, I can attest to the extreme conditions throughout. The decision by event organiser Suzanne Carter was absolutely the right one, and it also meant that everyone was off the hills safe and warm before the rain came. That was the bonus.

If it wasn't for the low temperature and gale it would have been a beautiful day and night, with sunshine by day, clear views and no cloud to plague the tops; but THAT WIND. It was already strong at lower altitudes by Saturday morning. It was gale force on the tops. It built up from there through the day and into the night.

Then there was the temperature. It was a beautiful warm spring day in the valleys if you could find complete shelter from the wind, but low ambient temperature combined with extreme wind chill made it challenging anywhere else. It could only get colder as dusk approached. Night-time was something else again.

Climbing to Ingleborough.

We ran (or attempted to run) into the North Easterly gale for the majority of the day and night. If it wasn't head on it was side on. There was no escaping it; it was incessant. At high or low altitude, we staggered around like drunkards, constantly correcting to regain control and get back on the course the next footstep was supposed to take. Well into the night on the final peak (Great Whernside) it was imposible to stand up. To avoid getting blown over it became necessary to 'run' across the bouldery terrain while crouching, crabbing sideways and leaning into the gale. When a gust still blew us violently off course we had to stop instantly to regain control, readopt the intended direction of travel and start again very carefully. The checkpoint officials' tent was tucked down in a hollow between boulders beside the trig point, but even so it was getting blown violently. It remained firmly zipped closed with no sign of visible entry until they heard us call out to get our tallies punched. The temperature was below freezing and the mud and water were turning hard and crunchy under our feet. My water bottle nozzle froze. My eyeballs burned in the icy blast, and that was with the protection of spectacles. People without glasses or with contact lenses fared far worse. Times like these reinforce the strict kit and grouping rules on this event. They are necessary for the safety of all. Even with those kit rules, the fact that so many were forced to retire attests to the severity of the conditions.

Naturally, everyone's times were slower than usual. Even Jez was around an hour slower than his record time of last year, which is proof of the tough conditions. He still won though. Well done Jez. Nicky Spinks was the female winner, to add yet another tough win to her long list. Ultra-running studs, the both of them.

My night-time grouping with Kevin, Mike and Paul could not have been better, with great camaraderie as always. They stayed strong, keeping up a strong walk / shuffle and occasional jog to the end (and they let me do the navigating, which was nigh on perfect even though I say so myself). Dawn was just beginning to break and the first blackbirds were beginning to sing as we descended into Grassington and finally out of THAT WIND. We collapsed onto the chairs at the finish and were immediately offered cups of tea by waitress service to begin the recovery process. What an event, what support, what organisation. The care and attention to detail shine through and we appreciate it so much. Thank you Suzanne and your army of willing, cheerful unpaid volunteers.

Our time of a little over 19:30 was very pleasing, when earlier as I'd been haemorrhaging time checkpoint by checkpoint, a sub-20 finish was beginning to look unachievable.

Because I finished the event later than usual and the abandonment meant that the orgainsers were ready to 'shut up shop' earlier than usual, I only managed 40 fitful winks before having to depart (too much talking to be done, which takes top priority of course). Luckily I made the car journey home safely without incident (to find the wheelie bins blown around the garden), after which I enjoyed 6 hours' sound sleep.

The killer turkey on the descent to Stonehouse.

Artengill Viaduct built in 1875.

From the top of Great Knoutberry.

First peak Ingleborough is still visible from Snaizeholme Fell.

As an interesting aside, all decency and decorum fall by the wayside on a challenging Ultra as all efforts are directed towards surviving the here and now and ensuring that you get to the finish in one piece:
- Burping, farting, grunting, groaning, sniffing and coughing (there seemed to be a lot of coughing) as you try to ingest that next gel to keep the engine fuelled while trying to run, hoping the slight nausea is because you want to burp and nothing more sinister.
- Cold wind that makes your eyes constantly water, rendering vision useless for that next technical descent off Ingleborough. Your eyes' drainage channels ensure that your nose streams constantly. A top lip that is constantly wet and having to be wiped for a day and a night can become quite sore. I became accustomed to the sight of the spray in my headtorch beam as I blew the drainage product from my top lip.
- Snot rocketing (more accurately, salt spraying) when constant sniffing and leaving shiny deposits on your gloves is no longer enough.
- Strong icy winds are perfect snot harvesters; they manufacture it for you then suck it out of you by the Bernoulli effect.
- I won't mention having a pee against a wall. Trying to find it with thickly gloved hands through multiple layers of life-maintaining technical attire was one thing, taking care to aim downwind was another, but having turbulence from the gale atomise it into thousands of droplets, some of which find their way back onto your face is a third thing I did not need. I think the saying is E-e-e-w-w.

Because so many were unable to get a finish time I don't see how Runfurther points can be awarded for this one. Only to award them to those who were quick enough to get a finish time before the abandonment will deny those who were not, while on the other hand it would be unfair to deny those hard-earned points, especially to winners Jez and Nicky. I'm sure the Runfurther team will sort something out that's fair.

Photographs are now uploaded! I'm afraid snapping stopped at dusk in the interests of survival.

Grough wrote a good report that really brings it home.

SportSunday were out taking their usual excellent crop of photographs.


  1. Loved the description of the call of nature.

    Well done, Nick.

  2. Well done for beating the 'cut off' Nick. Would have been unfair to lose out on the grand slam so early on. Only saw you the once, coming down Whernside. Was expecting you to catch me at some point but I hardly stopped at the cp's this time so I suppose that helped.
    Pleasing to see your write up so soon, just fired up google and it was there on the google reader.
    It was certainly an epic and when we've all thawed out we will all be proud to have been part of it. Cheers Simon

  3. Well done Nick. Great write up too.

    I think they can award points. As normal to thse who competed and then for those who were made to stop- base a time on where they were eg Cray and taken 15 hours + ???? etc
    Seems the fairest way and in some respects helps those who were stopped more as their times would probably have slowed, not likey to have quickened anyway


  4. Well done on the completion Nick. First report on the race that I've managed to find, we'd already heard the rumours that it was a tough deal this year.

  5. Well done on completing Nick. I spoke to you at Fleet Moss, as I arrived just before you were grouped and leaving. I think therefore that my group was not far behind you at Park Rash as we arrived at about 1:45 and were stopped. I was very disappointed, but when reading your blog and seeing that the last 9-10 miles were obviously far tougher than the previous 40, it is also obvious that the organisers prevented a far worse outcome by stopping people when they did.

    While I would be disappointed not to have this recorded as a finish in the Runfurther lists (I want my hat!); I can see that those actually completing the full race achieved something special. Maybe Karen's suggestion of an extrapolated time, but with a sliding scale of deductions, e.g stopped at Park Rash -100 points, stopped at Cray -200 points etc.

    Will be back next year anyway; it can't be any worse can it?


    1. Simon, it can't possibly be worse. Come back next year and you'll complete (even if it's raining).

  6. Completely missed you, probably dew to the wind! Well done, my feet are still glowing.

    1. Roger, just discovered your comment lurking in spam (how very dare they). I didn't realise you were there.

      I have a better explanation for our missing each other: you're just too quick and I'm too slow. :-)

  7. Richard, Adam, if you know you're hardcore ;-) ;-)

    Simon W, I never saw you. How did you do?

    Karen, you'll sort it I'm sure. Let me know if you need any advice! ;-)

    Andy, that's Google for you. The tendrils are entrenched by now. You wouldn't believe the tenuous links that come my way.

    simonf, it seems that our team just about squeaked through. The call to abandon went out at 01:41 and you got pulled at 01:45? I have no idea when we went through because I wasn't taking note (for the first time ever).

  8. Excellent review of an awesome event, witty, down to earth and to the point.

    This was my first Fellsman and I completed in about 16h 20m. The wind really was incessant all day and particularly ferocious over Buckden Pike and Great Whernside, bringing the temperature well below zero.

    I thought the organisation was impeccable and all of the marshals, checkpoint staff, mess tent guys and all concerned were absolutely amazing. The food was flippin' good too!

  9. Spot on glyderau about the organisation and support, and well done with such an impressive time.

    It was that alright, sbrt.

  10. Wow, well done Nick. I was in the area having run the Three Peaks Race on Sat and I stayed over in Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Conditions were wild on the tops during our 'sprint' and got so much worse as the evening drew in. Huge applause to the marshals who manned those summit check points.

  11. Steve, 'the staff' deserve the biggest accolades. They are truly amazing.

  12. Hi Nick, just catching up on "You"and enjoyed the blog as usual, good to see you work your way through some SAS selection type conditions, well done! out with Tibialis posterior dysfunction at the mo, slow way back but getting there!



  13. Pat, hope to see you again at a race this year. Keep me posted.