The Fellsman… Last year this race chewed me up and spat me out after 17 hours wind-blind, hypothermic and with mild frostbite in my hands, (see blog: The Fellsman – Where DNF stands for Did Nothing Fatal). I swore for a long time that I’d never do it again, it remained in my memory as the hardest thing I’d ever done – even after the 100-milers I completed in 2012.
Then Christmas rolled-around and I started building up my 2013 race portfolio, included in this are two 100-milers, the Endurancelife UTSW 100 and The Bear 100, both which feature massive amounts of ascent and tricky climbs and descents. I started building up my training race portfolio with 40-50 mile races – then there was a gap which needed filling. Staring me in the face, there was The Fellsman! A year had passed, my ultra experience in the mountains must have improved, I was going to go back and confront my demons – let The Fellsman know it hadn’t won.
The initial training had gone really well, I felt I was running and recovering well – several ultras featuring 8-9,000′ of ascent were easily completed so by the time The Fellsman finally arrived I was confident I’d be able to give it a good bash.
I drove the 250 miles up to Threshfield on the Friday afternoon which took nearly 7 hours, arriving in time for the obligatory, ruthless kit check by the Keighley Scouts. The mandatory kit had been ‘upgraded’ after last year to include 5 tops and waterproof gloves so it was a bit of a squeeze to get it all into my pack, it was also a bit heavier than I’d have liked – but still positively anorexic compared to what some of the runners were sporting. The hikers especially looked like they were packed to go on a week’s holiday.
Once given the all-clear I headed to the sports hall to bed-down with a hundred-or-so other Fellsman and women. Bagging a spot near the door and toilets I settled-in and met my new sleeping partners, exchanging tales of last year and other ultras. I stayed-up chatting to a chap until around 10:30pm when it was time to try and get some sleep. My earplugs managed to block out the snoring and other bodily noises and I got a few hours sleep until around 5am when people started stirring.
As the Fellsman is a point-to-point race you get bussed-out to the start for 9am, I’d opted for the later 07:30 bus so had a few hours to kill before the bus turned up. My normal low-carb ultra breakfast of avocado and ham drew a few comments from the porridge eating masses! Eventually 07:30 came and still no bus, one of the organisers told us the bus had got ‘lost’ but we’d get there on time. In the end it turned up and we were off to Ingleton, I always chuckle on these “one way” trips at a comment a someone once made that “it was like an evil school trip, where the teachers drive you out into the middle of nowhere and you have to make your own way home!”
It was chilly in Threshfield with a slight frost when we set off, as we got closer to Ingleton the imposing lump that is Ingleborough and the first climb of the Fellsman came into view… The clag, (that’s cloud to us southerners) was touching the summit and there seemed to be a substantial layer of snow dusting the final couple of hundred feet. Welcome to England at the end of April? Honestly… It could have been worse, a couple of weeks earlier there were massive drifts – but still, snow at the end of April?
The bus dropped us off at around 8:40 and we shivered in the queue to pick up our number and “tally” which is a plastic disc with the 24 checkpoints on, this gets “clipped” at each checkpoint to ensure you’ve visited each one. As with standard fell running, how you get between each checkpoint is up to you and there are several routes of varying difficulty depending on your experience and navigation skills! This year, for the first time an electronic chip was added to the back of the tally to provide recording of splits between the major checkpoints! Well done the scouts, first Facebook, now chip timing? Whatever will you give us in 2014.
Due to the late arrival of the bus we were 5 minutes late starting from the field outside the community centre. Jez Bragg wasn’t running this year, he’d obviously heard I was out for payback – either that or understandably knackered after running 3,054km across New Zealand recently – poor excuse Jez!
So, off we went… Out of Ingleton and on the 2,000′ climb up the lump that is Ingleborough. Right from the start my legs were tired, less than half a mile in before we hit the trail I was worried that this was going to be a long day at the office. Stupidly though, I kept a good pace up the first couple of miles up to the start of the snow line on Ingleborough. We hit freezing point a few hundred feet below the summit and the climb up to the checkpoint was as long and arduous as I remembered, once at the top the wind and cold was bitter as we headed across the summit to start the descent.
I’d remembered the descent off Ingleborough as dicey, but nothing like this! It starts off rocky and then goes vertical for a while. This, coupled with a slippery covering of ice and snow made it lethal. Some bloke recklessly came down too fast overtaking and nearly took down a group of people including some hikers coming up – idiot. Once the rock climbing was over a long drag on stepped flagstones and duck boards took us down to the first ‘roadside’ checkpoint which has food. I was still OK on some cold sausages I’d bought so grabbed a cup of water and carried on.
We ran past the “Three Peaks” fell race HQ which was taking place on the same day and also takes in two of the same summits on the way up to Whernside. While not as bad as Ingleborough, the ascent up Whernside isn’t to be taken lightly and it goes on bit once you hit the ridge to the CP, depressingly you have to go up there and then come back down – so you get to see the runners enjoying the descent as you, (or I was) are huffing and puffing up to the trig!Once at the top it’s a nice descent down to the next roadside CP, but this was where it started going wrong for me. My co-ordination went which made a tricky descent difficult and I just lost the will to live. The terrain got quite boggy and slippery which wouldn’t normally be a problem, but I just couldn’t concentrate. At this point, and with the insanity of the next climb of Gragareth looming I was almost certain I was going to drop out. However, getting to the next checkpoint I told myself to eat like it was going out of fashion, get to the top of Gragareth and then onto Dent. I’d been going for 3 hours on nearly zero carbs – plus, I’d not had my usual caffeine fix, no wonder I was failing! Normally I’m not working this hard, this early in an ultra.
Gragareth is an insane hill, the steepest terrain I’ve ever climbed. It’s short, but brutal and it must have taken me over an hour to do the 1.5 miles or so to the top. I got there though and remembered the checkpoint team who call you Mr / Mrs & your number, so I was Mr 359. I was also in 201st place which wasn’t far off what I seem to remember from last year. I took 3 proplus tabs and set off towards the peat bogs which loomed ahead.
It took a few minutes, but the combination of flapjack and caffeine started working its magic and by the time I got to the next CP at Great Coumb I was back on top of the world and enjoying myself again. Amazing how you can turn around like that? An entertaining descent off Great Coumb and through Flinter Gill took me into Dent, the first major roadside CP of the day. My low-carb, gluten-free ideals went out of the window as I grabbed a sausage roll sandwich and cup of tea with extra sugar before stomping off up the road towards the next big climb.
Out of Dent on the road then off on the trail up towards Blea Moor the sun came out and it started warming up, I stopped to get rid of my waterproof jacket, base layer and waterproof gloves. After stuffing it all back into my pack and continuing I went to check my little Garmin eTrex which was in a backpack pocket only to find it was missing…. I need that for the dark bits so turned around and went back down the trail. fortunately after 5 minutes or-so I came across a group who’d picked it up – thanks lads!
Up until now I’d been running on my own, but now started chatting to a chap who was on a similar pace to me and we carried on a conversation for a good hour-or-so across to Blea Moor which is a long old slog across bogs and hills! I lost him somewhere on the descent off Blea Moor towards the forests and the Stonehouse Turkey!
I’d been waiting to see the Stonehouse Turkey all day! He is impressive, absolutely massive and a Fellsman legend. I wasn’t disappointed, there he was in all his glory, chaperoned by a proud owner who told me his name was “Blue” when I asked! It made my day…
I jogged down the road and into the next roadside CP at Stonehouse with a chap but only lingered long enough to refill my water, grab a handful of chocolate digestives and a slice of cake. I knew it was a long slog up to Great Knoutberry so could eat en-route. This is where my shoes disintegrated last year, so it was a particular landmark for me. It’s a long climb and another out-and-back to the checkpoint then a fairly easy run into the next roadside CP at Redshaw.
Shortly after leaving Redshaw I meet up with Brian who I click with and we resolve to get through to Fleet Moss before the”grouping” at 7pm, this is a Fellsman rule which states that you must be “grouped” into 4-or more in the dark, (basically – after 7pm) it’s going to be close but we run-walk across the moors, over hills, through peat bogs and across Dodd Fell while chatting about all sorts of stuff. With a few minutes to 7pm we see the crest of the tent over a hill and manage to slip in at 6:55pm, just inside. Brian knows someone at the CP and is chatting to them, but I just refill my water, grab some more digestives and a couple of hot dogs, bid him farewell and head off again. It’s now a race against the dark!
Fleet Moss is a nasty bit of work, I find myself tailing a couple of lads who are soon turned into a trio when they catch another chap. I start thinking – and I make four, could this be my group? Eventually I catch them and Gareth, Ian and Kevin seem like people I could spend a night with on the Yorkshire Dales. There’s not a lot of running going on now – we’re about 40 miles in and the consensus opinion seems to be that it’s going to be a walk into the finish. Fine by me! We gather quite a group before we hit Cray and spend quite a long time at this CP eating, adding layers, switching on headlamps etc… I think I have three portions of soup and a couple of sandwiches… carb overload!
We get grouped and Brian, (from earlier) and Colin are added to our group. Gareth and Ian get out their poles for the final section and I realise I know these two. A year earlier at the two-day, 66-mile Pilgrim Challenge I got lost at the end of the 2nd day with these lads! I mention it to them and yes, it’s true…! Small world and some more conversation fuel to see us through the night, I also learn that they did the UTSW100 last year which is more to talk about through the dark hours.
We leave Cray at 10pm for the penultimate climb up Buckden Pike. It’s a long, nasty climb and the temperature has dropped well below freezing now. We struggle to the top, taking a breather every now and again – but the end is in sight and there’s only one, (major) climb left. There’ll be no more running now – it’s a power-hike through the last 18 miles.
The time passes quickly, once you’re in the depths of an ultra the hours really do just slip by, and if you have company they fly! Conversation flows easily between the group – they’re a top bunch of lads, I couldn’t have asked to be grouped with better. I’ve often said that I’ve yet to meet a real tosser during an ultra, someone you’d want to run away from, I guess it’s just the sort of people we are!
Walking takes a long time compared to running, so we’re glad to get to Park Rash which promises hot chocolate. It’s now well below zero and my hands have stopped working – even with gloves and mittens on. I put on another base layer as I know I won’t be moving that quickly. After shovelling down a cocktail sausage sandwich we psych ourselves up for the final climb up Great Whernside which I’d imagine is challenging in warm daylight – however, I’ve only done it in freezing dark so wouldn’t know.
Kevin expertly navigates us to the CP at the top which I missed last year, another long slog through tussocks and peat bogs, (which thankfully are frozen solid on the higher ground) takes us to the final hill CP at Capplestone Gate. It’s nearly all over now as we descend to the final roadside CP at Yarnbury.
Our team of 6 collectively deceide we’re not stopping at Yarnbury and are going to push on the final 2 miles to the finish. It’s all downhill, on tarmac and we might even, (gasp) jog into the finish. There’s a downhill stretch out of Yarnbury and we try out our running legs – it’s around 3am and a good 7 hours since we did any running. Lots of ‘ow’, ‘aargh – my quads’ and various expletives are shared with the sleeping residents of Threshfield as we head towards home and through the now alien landscape of streetlights and civilisation.
Eventually the school at Threshfield appears and we jog into the finish, relief pours over everyone – especially for those members of the group who have attempted and failed to complete the Fellsman before. It’s been a fantastic team effort, nearly 8 hours of hiking through the night has been tough – but a pleasure.
In and around the showers is like a scene out of a zombie movie! My feet are shredded and painful, and I’ve had some major rubbing on my achilles which has left them raw. After a shower I climb into my sleeping bag and grab a few hours sleep. Aside from the 3 proplus I took at noon and the cups of tea I’ve been off the caffeine so manage to sleep OK, but eventually have to get up at around 6:30am, pack, say my goodbyes to a couple of people and hit the road.
We finished in around 18hrs 20min which is over an hour slower than I did last year in worse conditions. BUT I nailed myself into the ground last year, whereas this year I feel OK so I’m happy with the result. The added bonus of having a fantastic group made the tough night section enjoyable too.
So, The Fellsman is still the toughest, meanest, baddest race I’ve ever done! Chatting to people around the course it’s apparent I’m not alone in this, I talked to people who’ve done the Lakeland 100, UTMB, Bob Graham round etc and the consensus opinion was that The Fellsman tops them all!
Will I be back next year – maybe!
Disclaimer: I took loads of photos today but it appears my camera has malfunctioned so have lost the images. I have taken the images from the Fellsman Facebook page and some from Nick Ham’s previous Fellsman blogs!