‘Boggy foggy madness’ – Fellsman Race Report 2014

What an amazing event and a truly epic experience. I’ve been meaning to blog about races I’ve entered for a while but just not got round to it. So… where to start? My first attempt at the Fellsman – a 61 mile ultra run held over some of the most inhospitable mountain and moorland terrain in the Yorkshire Dales. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for  when I entered the race several months before as part of my preparations for the Sur les Traces de la Ducs de Savoie (TDS) – an even longer race I have qualified for in the French Alps this August!

Heading across the moors and up into the clouds
The Fellsman has a long history, having been run for over 50 years. The route is a large horseshoe shape stretching from Ingleton to Threshfield mostly across private land involving multiple long climbs (over 3000m in total) and navigation across large tracts of featureless terrain, largely off any sort of trail. Factor in the length of the course, the weather and the prospect of a long time out on the fells at night and you have a real challenge on your hands. This event has a fearsome reputation (which I found out after I had entered!) and this is not undeserved. This was my fifth ultra and although I had completed a race of the same distance and a race with the same climb this was the first time with both of these elements combined.
The Fellsman route (http://www.fellsman.org.uk/)


The Event Weekend

I travelled up with a friend and fellow entrant Stephen McAllister on the Friday. After a five hour journey we arrived in Threshfield at 7pm for registration and joined a long queue for the obligatory kit check. Once completed it was time for a pasta supper from the event kitchen, then a final bit of kit-faffing before settling down to spend the night with 100+ other competitors on the floor of a school sports hall. A 5am alarm woke me on the Saturday morning ready for a breakfast of porridge and bread before our scheduled shuttle bus departure at 06:30. Once at the start in Ingleton we were quickly checked in and then found somewhere to sit inside to keep out of the rain which had been falling for most of the night. A slight feeling of trepidation of what lay ahead was mixed with excitement as at the start of any race. Recognising a few of the sport’s top guys and some previous race winners I knew that, as always, this wasn’t about winning or even about position for me. It was about completing the challenge I had set myself, experiencing the event and getting out there in the mountains. The course record incredibly stands at less than ten hours but I was setting myself a seemingly more realistic rough target of twenty hours, approx. 3mph over the course. With the start time set at 8.30am this meant that I was in for a long day and night with a target finish time of 4.30am!

Just before the start
The Race
A few announcements and we were off. About 400 guys and girls in a variety of bright coloured waterproofs running across the wet playing field towards the first gate, followed soon after by a hefty climb to one of the highest points on the route, 724m high Ingleborough and the first of 24 checkpoints dotted across the fells towards the finish. The checkpoints are all compulsory and split into hill-top and roadside checkpoints, with the latter providing a variety of hot and cold food and drinks to keep the runners fuelled up. After Ingleborough came a very tricky technical steep descent on the rocky side of the fell. I saw one guy take quite a nasty tumble but luckily he seemed to be ok and carried on. After the first roadside checkpoint at Hill Inn I got into a rhythm and found my pace passing beautiful scenery including the famous Ribblehead Viaduct. A few miles later my pace was spoilt somewhat by the incredibly steep slog up Gragareth which I had been warned about.
The short, sharp shock of Gragareth
Once that was dealt with and after 20 miles came the very welcome sight of the roadside checkpoint in the village of Dent which offered hot food. Mmm, hot sausage rolls. On reflection four was probably one too many and they sat heavy on my stomach for the next hour or so. They were good though! By my calculations at this point I was on roughly 15 hour pace. Oh how things can change!
Turning right to head east the route then took in some featureless moorland before going through a wooded area and on to the next major checkpoint at Stone House. My favoured dish here was a tasty bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and grated cheese. Blea Moor and Redshaw dealt with and time was pressing on.
Heading down to Stone House
Night Falls
Fleet Moss was the next major checkpoint at the 37 mile mark and anyone arriving after 19:30 at this point was put into a compulsory group of at least four people to face the most difficult terrain in a group rather than the potential nightmare for the organisers of a lone hiker lost in the wilderness. A bit of quick thinking meant that I had managed to get myself grouped with a good group of four, one of whom was familiar with the route. I had avoided being grouped with a party of three chinless wonders who I had instantly felt the need to avoid, having seen their hapless navigation and heard their irritating waffle earlier. Result! Leaving Fleet Moss around 7.45pm and just as the sun began to go down everyone noticed the marked drop in temperature, not helped by twenty minutes in a warm marquee with hot stew and other treats on offer, so extra layers were added. I had heard that things get tough on this course at night so was really pleased when our unanimously appointed team leader who had completed the race before led the way faultlessly for the next eight miles or so as darkness fell and our pace slowed dramatically. Head torches were switched on and zips fully fastened to lessen the impact of the cold wind which had hampered us all day. Suddenly it seemed a lot worse and we were all thankful to the guy leading us across the endless field of peat hags, tussocks and energy-sapping bogs which played with us. Go on, take a step but how deep am I? Ankle deep? Knee deep? Even deeper??? Our cold, quiet trudge continued and our spirits collectively fell as we realised how slow our pace had become across Fleet Moss to the next major checkpoint at Cray. Our delight at reaching the checkpoint was short-lived as one of our group declared he had had enough and was retiring. This meant we would have to be re-grouped, as it happened into a group of nine! This, I felt, would not be to our advantage. The larger the group, the slower the progress, also more chance of one of the group sustaining an injury across the nightmare bogs and huge peat hags that would only get worse as the night wore on. Fortunately the nine of us seemed reasonably well matched and no-one had any intention of running at this stage. We were all content with slowing to a purposeful trudge for the next big climb up Buckden Pike knowing that we still had over sixteen miles to go. It was 11pm by this stage and the weather had really closed in. Thick misty drizzle with virtually zero visibility was accompanied by an incessant chilly wind. I knew any hope of a particular time had gone but despite plenty of thoughts about quitting there was no way this was going to beat me – I’m way too stubborn for that. Retiring would plague me for ages and make me question why I bothered to enter if I was going to give up when the going got tough. Dig deep and get over it. This was a game of mental toughness, the aching legs and muscles didn’t matter now and I was used to it by then! One rough night out on the fells in return for a massive sense of achievement and memories – deal! Plus if I completed it this time I’d never have to put myself through it again!
Yet another gate
From Bad To Worse
The next few checkpoints were duly collected, slowly but without incident, other than at CP 21 Park Rash where I tried to eat my own body weight in cocktail sausages! Believe it or not this is when things got really tough! Shortly after 4am our navigator lost the plot, or rather he didn’t, he just made a small navigational error, unsurprising after 20 hours on the go! We weren’t quite where we thought we were, perhaps only 500m away from the checkpoint. In zero visibility, high on the fells and at the speed we were travelling this was a problem. We searched aimlessly for the elusive checkpoint for over half an hour eventually almost becoming separated, with one group on higher ground than the other, disagreeing about the direction we should take. Sensing disaster I stepped up to the plate and felt I had to take charge as I knew standing still much longer would result in one (and then soon after nine!) cold potentially hypothermic people on a remote fell with little chance of imminent rescue. My GPS was telling me it was 500m south of our location. Shouting up to the rest of the group in the most commanding voice I could muster I reasoned that someone had to make a decision and everyone needed to follow me and I would lead them directly to the checkpoint. With my heart in my mouth I led the quiet group in the direction of the blue arrow towards the little green dot! After what seemed an age appeared the familiar sight of a red rotating beacon visible from a few metres away. We were back on track! Huge sense of relief and thank goodness for my trusty Garmin which I quietly kissed in the darkness soon after!
Final Stages
After CP23 it gradually began to get light, the mist brightening shade by shade until it became foggy daylight again. Things got a little easier for the last six miles and the compulsory grouping was lifted at the final checkpoint allowing everyone to cover the final two miles at their own pace. I managed a slow jog and finished at around 6.30am in just under 22 hours. Plenty had finished in front of me but there were still over 100 yet to finish behind me.

The coveted Fellsman finisher certificate
After the race
After the finish I somehow managed to peel wet, mud-soaked compression layers off and had a token 2 minute shower followed by an hour of sleep before the presentations took place. Incredibly, the joint winners completed the course in around 10 hours 30 minutes and must have arrived just before sunset! For me, a mentally testing, very long and often unpleasant night on the fells had turned into a huge sense of relief at completing the challenge. Thank goodness I wouldn’t have to do it again. Although… if I made slightly better progress early in the day I’m sure I could go sub-twenty. Couldn’t I???

Mid-race selfie


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