Albert Einstein almost certainly never uttered the above cliche which is commonly attributed to him, and he almost certainly never ran an ultramarathon, at least I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have 3 Fellsman finishes to his name.
This morning, at around 02:00 after 17.5 hours I staggered into the finish of my 3rd Fellsman along with 4 people who were complete strangers to me a few hours earlier but now were my brothers in arms. And that is almost exactly how my last 2 Fellsman finished too – today I had expected a different result, but let’s back up a bit.
I love The Fellsman having completed it in 2012 and 2013, both times this race tried to kill me with the hills, bogs and arctic conditions – I even ended up with frostnip in 2012 which my South Wales doctor just couldn’t comprehend. This year after an exceptionally dry and mild spring things were looking good for decent weather and drier conditions. Word came out that the bogs were firm and relatively dry, the weather had been glorious for weeks, my suntan was coming along nicely – yes, this year was going to different, fast and furious. As the event drew nearer the Met Office forecast started to change, it looked like the weather was going to turn on Friday evening and deteriorate into Saturday. Surely not?
The drive up on Friday from South Wales was arduous but I arrived at around 18:00 to a calm and clear Threshfield. I’d decided to camp this year instead of braving the sports hall noise and heat so set up my little tent and then headed off to the legendary kit check. Ruthless and efficient as always, the kit check was sorted and I caught up with Sharon from Mud Crew and we headed off to the pub for a drink or-two, (diet Coke for Sharon – beer for me) and some food.
I retired at around 22:00 for a disturbed night of sleep, waking up at 03:00 having a minor claustrophobia-induced panic attack by the new tiny bivvy tent I had. I nearly packed it all up then and drove home, but walked around the block and managed to grab another couple of hours sleep before it was time to head to the start on the bus. It was cold and wet at the start, the organisers warned us the weather was closing in and going to be really cold, down to -5c with windchill so we needed to look out for ourselves – and each other, (thank you Jerry Springer). I quickly caught up with Sharon and a few friends and then we were off from Ingleton.
I’d heard about a sneaky, (but legal) shortcut at the start so watched out for other runners heading towards the right, sure enough a few lads peeled off so I followed them. Running hard, the short cut took us onto the course ahead of the main pack and I was in the top 10 for about, oh 15 seconds before Jez Bragg et al powered past me up the hill and I was reduced to a walk.
So, here we go – Ingleborough again… Right away I realised I hadn’t packed my climbing legs and suffered on the uphills, losing a lot of time on those sections all day. The weather closed-in, wind, rain, hail and fog – it was pretty nasty. I enjoyed the descent off Ingleborough this time having got some really good, grippy fell shoes. My main objective was to get to the top of Gragareth – the 3rd big climb of the day and suffered through the wind, snow and rain to get there.
The weather hadn’t abated so after Gragareth the next 7 miles was terrible, really cold, wet and windy. Everyone was suffering, the terrain was soaked and as boggy as I’ve ever seen it – so much for drier conditions. I’d lost all feeling in my hands and was getting really cold, I was seriously considering jacking it all in at the 20-mile point at Dent. It was going to be another 12 hours of this torture. But I had a good descent into Dent, grabbed some hot food, (a legendary cheese and onion slice) changed some clothes and got out of there as soon as possible. I later heard loads of people dropped at Dent and I’m really not surprised.
On the way out of Dent I leapfrogged a chap a few times on the road section before we had a bit a conversation, it turned out we’d informally met the previous night and Stu is a friend of Sharon. An invisible bond formed and we started chatting and falling into a similar pace. This was great, it took my mind off the pain and negative internal chatter. It was Stu’s first Fellsman so I could talk about the route. The weather was clearing too, at least it had stopped raining so we started making steady progress. I was still really struggling on the uphills but making up good time on the flats and downs. After 10-or-so miles I broached the subject that we might want to run together until he end, Stu was thinking the same thing… How do you ask a complete stranger you would like to spend the night with them up on the Yorkshire Dales?
The grouping rule had been bought forward to 18:30 so we’d be needing to find at least another 2 pilgrims to join us after that. At Fleet Moss we just missed the 18:30 cut-off so needed some new friends. A quick shout of “2 ready to go” found us introduced to Nick who was on his own and Russ & Jeff who were mates running together. I casually mentioned Stu and I were planning to be fairly disciplined, do a bit of running when we could and minimise time at the remaining Checkpoints. The lads seemed to be up for that so we set off. Immediately it was obvious we’d made the right decision, Jeff and Russ were familiar with the route and Russ was a 7x Fellsman veteran. Conversation flowed easily and was good natured and humorous. We worked really well as a group, moving efficiently over the tough terrain and minimising time at the checkpoints. I think all of us had our low points, I know I did and the lads all pulled together supporting each other.
The sun came out at about 19:00 and we were treated to the most incredible sunset with red ribbons of cloud blanketing the fells. That turned into a cold and clear night with a crescent moon and thousands of stars and planets. The two big climbs of Buckden Pike and Great Whernside were particular low points for me, I was climbing like an Everest mountaineer, stopping to catch my breath every few steps but relentless forward progress got me through. We passed loads of other groups and made-up loads of places. I don’t think any other groups passed us in the 25 miles or-so that we were together.
At the last CP you’re allowed to “degroup” and run solo, but I suggested that like my previous Fellsmen experiences we stick together and cross the finish line together 2 miles down the road – everyone agreed. So, about 25 minutes later we all finished then headed off for some food and finally all got naked in the showers – I’m not making this stuff up you know! The moaning and groaning that came out from each shower cubicle as hot water hit chafing points was funny – until it came to my turn! Like ships that pass in the night, we bade each other a gentlemanly farewell after cleaning ourselves up a bit, (I think the ingrained mud may take a few days to subside)
And so, that was my 3rd Fellsman done and dusted. I’d expected a different result – but in the end it was very similar to my previous finishes. And you know what Mr Einstein – if that’s insanity then book me into the nearest asylum because I love it…
See you next year Fellsman.