Lake District fell running - the lure of the fells
Kingsley Jones lives in Ambleside and is the author of Cicerone's ‘Trail and Fell Running in the Lake District’. The project has been a personal journey and has taken years to come to fruition. The choice of route line is so subjective that each runner has a different relationship with the sport. Here he explains why the Lakeland fells have been luring runners for more than 150 years.
In the pitch black of the night, my head torch illuminates the raindrops like white shards, as they slash across the beam of light. I pull my hood up against the wind, which immediately plucks it down again with a squall gust. With each footstep I feel the spongy wet ground of the fellside below by feet. I run onwards, and finally I see the intake wall appear out of the mist. It’s a relief, as the last 10 minutes of running have been in the dark on a descending traverse down the mountainside on an estimated bearing. I know the wall leads down to the stile, I can then run down the lane, and the twinkling lights of Ambleside below will guide me home. The weather is particularly vile and cold, but I feel a warmth inside. It’s not just from the running, battling against the adversity of the conditions, or the post exercise endorphins.
There’s a comfort and connection that nurtures me while running in the fells of the Lake District. It’s a bond that binds us, a familiarity that I seek solace in, and a lure that is as strong as any addiction.
Fell running is a very personal sport. To the outsider who encounters a fell race, it’s seems a wild cacophony of sounds, brightly coloured running vests, and a sea of flailing limbs. There’s an obvious camaraderie of runners chatting to each other, nodding acknowledgement as a faster person passes them, and groupings to support and challenge each other. That vibrant, inclusive, noisy melee isn’t what fell running means to the runners. Ignore the races for a moment, and think of all the evening training runs in the dark after work, or the lonely hours running across the fells. It’s in these quiet moments, when we have the fells to ourselves, that we build our relationship with the mountains.
For me this is where fell running provides a greater connection to the fells than walking on them. We don’t always follow the tracks worn by thousands of pairs of boots, as we select pure running lines that interpret the subtle contours of the fell sides to take the fastest or most enjoyable route.
The Lake District fells may not have the stark granite spires of the Mont Blanc massif, or the huge mountain faces of the Himalayas or the Andes, but the old weathered Cumbrian mountains exude a majesty and history that make them more quietly stunning and fascinating.
It’s a landscape that draws you in, with the next fell beckoning you to run its slopes, until the lure of a cosy pub beckons you back into the valley. Cumbria is the spiritual home of fell running, with the Guide’s Race in each of the village fairs and sports days. These were first recorded in the 19th century, and one of the oldest events occurs each August in Grasmere.
Keswick hotelier Bob Graham made a round of 42 fell tops within 24 hours in 1932, and this circuit has become a test piece for all fell runners. Bob Graham took 23hr 39min, but the men’s record now stands at 13hr 53min, set by Billy Bland in 1982. Jasmin Paris set the women’s record at 15hr 24min by in 2016. Local legend Joss Naylor ran an incredible round, with 72 peaks, in 23hr 20min in 1975. Another milestone was set in 2016 when Nicky Spinks completed a incredible double Bob Graham Round in 45hr 30min, and in so doing she beat Roger Baumeister’s 1979 record by over an hour. In 2014, Steve Birkinshaw ran all the 214 Wainwright peaks in an incredible 6 days, 13 hours, and in so doing he took the record previously set by Joss Naylor in 1987.
The stuff of legend
In 1970 the Fell Runners Association (FRA) was established, and there are now over 400 races each year in its calendar. Many records in fell running have stood for an incredible length of time, such as Kenny Stuart’s 18min 56sec record for the Wansfell race, set back in 1983. These names are the stuff of legend, but these times and records don’t paint the full picture of why we run in the mountains, and what they mean to us.
In the Lake District the sport of mountain running has branched into three fields: trail running, fell running and sky running. My interpretation of the differences are that trail running is following bridleways and single track paths, fell running is taking the fastest running line across the mountains on open fellsides or tracks when available, and sky running is on steeper and harder terrain where some scrambling may be required. Think of a Venn diagram, and you’ll find considerable overlap between each of the disciplines, which has caused many a friendly argument in a pub discussion of the finer details and definitions of mountain running!
One of the main draws of trail and fell running is that you move fast and unencumbered, in comparison to the average trekker or climber, and that opens up new horizons in what you can achieve. Mountain running brings a sense of liberation that is rarely felt – even while fell walking or mountaineering. Climber Yvon Chouinard’s mantra of “the more you know, the less you need”, applies directly to fell running, too. Some walkers stare in bewilderment as runners come flailing past, comparatively wearing next to nothing, whilst the hill walkers are liberally coated in GoreTex, and straining under laden rucksacks. Sound travels well in the mountains, and I’ve frequently heard comments while passing. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no rift between runners and walkers. Each considers the other slightly mad, yet there’s a strong mutual respect. The words of Chouinard ring in my ears, as I select my line across the fells. Rather than be dictated to by a particular track, which can be a blinkered approach, I raise my head and look for the signs of where the wind is blowing, which ground seems drier, where greasy rocks cover the ground, and I assess the best way of crossing the fells. My decision is based on tens of influences, not following a track because it is there. So there’s a mental aspect to fell running, and it cannot fail to open your mind to study the mountain and conditions. Bridges may not be in the best location to cross the becks and ghylls, and so stream crossings are a regular occurrence. Don’t take up fell running if you value keeping your feet dry!
In the Lake District, fell running is a way of life. The races are the beating heart of the sporting calendar in many of its villages.
What still marks the region out is that despite its long history of running races, there’s a great abiding amateur spirit. Many local fell races are organised by the local running club. In these races there are no medals or race t-shirts, and no prize money either. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, there are big organised trail races such as the Lakeland 100 and Lakes in a Day, with all the glitz of a European event. Fell running is more than the organised events though. It’s a way of exploring the mountains, keeping fit, and spending time alone or with friends.
The Inuit-Aleut languages are famed for their descriptive words for the many type of snow, but in Cumbria we aren’t too far behind for rain. Often it’s mizzling (drizzle), and more often than not you’ll be soaked to the skin by yal watter (downpour). Without the rain, there’d be no lakes in the Lake District, so you can’t let it put you off. Psychologists might question the drive to go out on frequent rainy days. We get good days too, but there’s a subliminal enjoyment of earning the good days by surviving the bad, and always dreaming of the ext perfect day with views stretching across the whole national park, with the Yorkshire Dales on one horizon and the Isle of Man on the other.
There’s a statistic that 95% of visitors to the Lake District venture no further than an average of 400m from their cars. Personally, that figure delights me, and fuels my anti-social urges to lace up my shoes and venture 401m from the car park, then on a little more, and a bit after that. Whilst some of the paths of the Lake District are busy and eroded, especially over weekends and bank holidays, a fell runner can always escape the crowds and find real wilderness.
There is a great local respect for fell runners in the Lake District, as it is a sport that brings local communities together. You’ll always get an approving nod or a doffed hat from passing runners or supportive locals. In the Chamonix valley, the tourist office has recently started marketing the area as the ‘Vallee du Trail’. The Lake District has been celebrating fell races since the first Grasmere Sports in 1868, so has a 167-year head start on our fellow European runners. The weight of history, the knowledge of the long-standing records, and the roll call of legendary names, all add to the sense of being that fell running provides.
What marks it out even more locally, is the age range of runners and how it crosses the generations. The juniors of running clubs start in Year 1 at school, while seniors are well into the third veterans category. While the winners are usually in their 20s and 30s, fell running is a sport that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. It’s the lack of impact on the body, compared with road running, and the cross training benefits of undulating soft ground, which enable fell running to be a sport you can continue as long as you wish.
Grandparents can run with grandchildren, and there are not many sports where that is possible.
To me there’s no doubt that fell running is a craft, and I hope to enjoy learning and improving it until the day I die. Whilst my times will slow, I can enjoy the growth of the craft each day I run in the fells. The feeling of challenge, familiarity, exploration, intrigue and wellbeing when you set foot on the fells is electric, and you are rewarded with every step. On some days you are surrounded by views of unimaginable beauty, and on the inclement days there’s equal rewards to be taken from the solitude, route finding, and having the fells to yourself.
The lure of the fells is strong. Of course it is, or we wouldn’t keep doing it, but the lure isn’t just about the beautiful scenery, but how much more the fells give us. I didn’t lightly use the word addictive at the start of this article. I’m typing this sitting in a cafe in Chamonix in the French Alps, on a day off from guiding. I’m surrounded by beautiful snow-clad peaks, and writing this makes me yearn for lacing up my muddy fell running shoes, the smell of rotting bracken, feeling the water ooze into my socks after only a few steps, and the rain hitting my face. I could wish for no more. I’m homesick for the fells!
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