Reflections on fell running (and potatoes) from an up-the-duff expat

Since moving to the UK from her native Australia, Cicerone’s Verity Russo has embraced fell running – but the potato is yet to win her over.

Back in the early days, before I knew what Jaffa Cakes were or who Billy Bland was, I googled ‘fell’. The first thing to come up was the definition ‘past of fall’. You can imagine the confusion bubbling up in my Australian brain. What kind of perplexing – and presumably knee grazing – running was this?

Turns out there’s nothing perplexing about it at all; fell comes from the Old Norse, fjall, ‘mountain’ and that’s exactly what the sport of fell running entails: running up – and down – and then back up again (and down again – and up again) – hills or mountains.

The trusty ol’ internet tells me that fell racing dates back to the 11th century.

Scotland’s King Malcolm (the third one, I believe) wanted a swift, sure-footed messenger, owing to the lack of email and Amazon Prime.

In the years since, it has transformed from an old-school communication method to an actual sport.

verity feet
I'm not in Melbourne anymore

From my relatively brief experience, people appear to partake not because they seek fame or fortune; they just like being out on the hills, being part of a friendly community and challenging themselves against the terrain, each other and, often, the elements. To add to the incentive, races are waaaay more sensibly priced than road races or more commercial events, and the entry fee inevitably includes pie and peas at the pub after.

Hailing from the remarkably flat suburbs of Melbourne, I find the British fells nothing short of enchanting. In terms of running terrain, the seaside ‘burbs back home offer sand, concrete paths or park trails. But that’s about it. There’s no right to roam or access land, there’s nothing higher than a glorified mound, there’s no fell ponies and there’s no scree.

When I first moved over to the UK, my (English) boyfriend, who was a dab hand at the sport as a youngster, insisted that if I was to even consider fell running, I needed to: 1. Overcome my vendetta against the potato; 2. Invest in a pair of Walshes; and 3. Practice, practice, practice. Coming from a bloke who pretty much only eats oven chips and gravy, I took the first piece of advice with a grain of salt. Figuratively. I did take the second on board and attempted the third, still too terrified to sign up to a race.

The potato

So, the potato theory? Mark reckons there’s no better way to carb load for a fell race or run than with potato. Sod rice, he says. And noodles. And bread. And pasta. Potatoes, he says, are your go-to.

I hate potatoes. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. I am disinterested. I will tolerate them in roast form. And baked, if there’s enough delicious topping to mask the dullness of the vessel itself. Its sweet tuber cousin, however, has my full support and this, I will eat willingly. But Mark, ever loyal to the ‘true’ potato, insists this cousin is a mere imposter and not worth the stomach space.

Potato debates persisting, I carried on with points two and three until pregnancy pulled the plug on my ability to move at any reasonable (or comfortable) pace. And then parenthood! Which completely re-defined my definition of difficulty relating to point three. Caring for a very small human and training is a juggling act, to say the least. I stole slices of each day where I could.

Last summer, with the small human a little less small, I bit the bullet and had a crack at a race. Then another. And another. Oh, and another. Turns out fell running is quite addictive.

Those months and months of trepidation were wasted months – racing is exponentially more fun (and less scary) than I anticipated.

Hannah wall
Running is fun!

On hold – for now

I remain perplexed as to how you pee on a long course route (there’s no trees on the fells, everyone will see you!) or how everyone seems so fast and sure footed on the descents. And I’m still not sure about the role of potatoes in all of it. Personally, I reckon rice does the trick perfectly well.

Fast forward through autumn and winter – my belly protrudes yet again, so much that I can’t see my toes. My running has slowed significantly. At 25 weeks’ gestation, I waddle at a feeble pace, constantly in awe of the remarkable Jasmin Paris, who did a fell race 10 days before giving birth. Incred!

I’m running epically slow at the moment (even on the flat!) – I wouldn’t dare to enter a race. But this is my journey, and there’s no point comparing. And anyway, this ‘down’ time is not wasted time. I’m using it to critique the apparent ‘true’ potato. In all its forms of ‘glory’, which, according to the oven-chips-and-gravy crew (the now toddler has embraced his father’s enthusiasm for the starchy tuber), are mashed, chip form, roasted, baked and boiled. In that order. I remain sceptical.

If all goes well, by the time summer makes the shift to autumn, I should be able to don my Walshes without needing assistance to tie my laces and venture slowly back onto the fells. Even if it means getting up at the crack of dawn to train, when the oven-chips-and-gravy-crew are curled up in bed, dreaming their potatoey dreams with the newest member (honorary, until they’re old enough to actually eat potatoes) snuggled up beside them.

And until then? Plod on, right? As well as a human incubator can. Diligently do pelvic floor exercises. Make a list of future races to get excited about. Stare up at the fells in anticipation.

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