Richard and Ben tackle the Fellsman
On the last weekend of April, Ben Arkell and Richard Cronin ran The Fellsman – a tough 60 miler
taking in most of the peaks in the Yorkshire Dales. 24 checkpoints but no marked route – or even
any tracks at all in places – and a course card that you clip holes into; it was almost like
orienteering, but with lots of food!
The best laid plans never work on the day: a late departure from South Wales on the Friday
afternoon meant a late arrival in the car park – just missing the bus to the accommodation at the school and a long, well – 15 minutes, wait for the next one. Get there and straight into the kit check queue at 9.59pm, comfortably ahead of the 10pm cut off and the rushing about getting everything signed off, then determining just how much kit you could then cut out, then making camp in the sports hall was anything but relaxing or restful ahead of the very long day ahead! To make things worse the extractor fan in the hall was faulty and so loud that it, along with nerves, kept me awake all night.
But tomorrow was another day. Up at 4.30 for breakfast, final prep and on the coach at 5.45 for the 40 mile drive to the start point in Ingleton. A difficult ride, trying to ignore just how far we were from the school given the return on foot was going to be “the long way”. The start point was in a village hall and was soon full with nearly 400 other participants – some looking quick, most having done the route many times before and keen to give their advice to us as novices. It wasn’t long until our time was up – after a safety briefing alerting us to a severe weather warning for “sunburn” it was 8.35 and we were off! A fantastic sight of several hundred people sprinting across the cricket pitch and all converging on the narrow 1-person wide gate on the far side. How far do you keep up this running for? 250 yards later and most were walking! We had no idea how to pace for this sort of distance – my aim was to prevent my heart rate getting too high – and it was clear by the foothills of Ingleborough that I was far more fatigued than I had thought. Managed to keep up the running for most of the way up and got clear of many others who had slowed down – and kept Ben behind me all the way. One checkpoint down! 23 to go… Or 55 miles, gulp.
After 600m ascent the next section was all downhill on hard tracks and rocks. Traditionally my
weakness I was helped by lots of people in front being even slower on the steep, backing people up and forcing them to cut down the scree to get around. Ben was soon past me and out of sight – but I was still moving well and only just behind at Hill Inn checkpoint. A couple of firsts for the run here – the first go at using the electronic RFiD timing system which was fairly difficult, and the first food station! Biscuits and juice. Appreciating my poor form from fatigue, I tried to make the food stops as short as possible and skipped the drink here as I still had most of a bottle and left for the next big climb with Ben less than 50m in front.
Whernside was next – our second (and final) Yorkshire Three Peak hill, and passed through lots of infrastructure, supporters and orienteering controls/SI punches relating to the Yorkshire Three Peaks race that was coming through shortly behind (a mere 22 miles – we look down on them as lightweights!) – and then the climb got very steep, slow walk plodding. Many people had bonked and we passed several who didn’t look like they were going to finish. On the ridge – a tedious 1k dogleg on rough rock that was incredibly slow up but mercifully fast and easy back down. A good chance to see where you were relative to everyone else – and to take in the fantastic views! Looking down on the Ribblehead viaduct to one side, with the sea in the distance on the other. Once off the ridge it was time to say goodbye to paths and trails for a couple of hours and go cross-country! Off the ridge on one of the nicest steep descents I’ve ever run and within a couple of minutes across the river (well, expanse of rocks that would usually be a river) and into flapjack checkpoint 4 – Kingsdale.
My timing at the food station didn’t quite work out so well as got there just as the juice ran out and had to wait – my water ran out before the top of Whernside and was thirsty, and the next food station was 8 miles later. Soon going, on the climb up to Gragareth, eating the flapjack whilst walking. No fear of running here – steep! Seen flatter brick walls. Exhausted – no pace in legs to do anything but plod, but back with Ben and our slow pace was still annihilating everyone else around us – passed 10? 15? on the way up. One mile covered in 26 minutes – thank goodness it was fairly dry! Gave some cheerful encouragement to others on the climb – “Only 80k left to go!” which didn’t go down too well, but by this point we had covered over 1,500m ascent and most of the up-and-down section.
A long, long ridge run followed – undulating and very sunny. It should have made for great running
but I hadn’t recovered from the climb and was struggling with the bogs – and it’s normally far worse
than this! With Ben getting further ahead next tactic to hold on was to get the route right at cut
corners, so not far back at Great Coum, but lost time with a poor route off the other side – should
have cut more sharply left to avoid steep and boulder field. The “track” down to Flinters Gill wasn’t
great running. Overtook another runner – who retired shortly after. Rocky tracks from here down
into Dent were hard on the knees and I had to slow down – overtaken by a few. Really struggling and so pleased to see the food tent just after the village.
Refilled bottle, picked up some sausage rolls and biscuits and walked out again eating on the move.
Back with Ben again but clearly he was going stronger and as we began the long climb without shade back up Whernside I began to fade away. This was the first challenging navigation point as to get to the next checkpoint on Blea Moor we had to leave a distinct track and go across the rough for a couple of miles up to the next hill. With the visibility so good it wasn’t so hard this year and I
managed a very “aggressive” cut – a near enough perfect straight line from Dent to Blea Moor that
got me back the time I was losing to being slow. Just behind Ben on the final climb up, passed
another group who had got lost, and a guy who had stopped for a sleep next to a marsh. It was a
tough leg, 500m ascent in 9km with no shade but it was rewarding. Got to see a steam train go past
on the Settle & Carlisle line which I guess is something special! But it came at a cost and I was out of water and beginning to struggle. A perfect line out from the checkpoint (the huge tunnel shaft is a bit of a clue…) got me ahead of Ben and the guy he was now with but as we hit the road at the bottom I knew I wasn’t right at all, ruined, and barely able to run on the gentle downhill tarmac.
Got through the marathon point in just over 6 hours – only another 4 miles to half way!
Made it to Stonehouse and never have I ever been more glad to see a Viking – he sat me down, gave
me a bowl of pasta, lots of biscuits, and cake. I’d deteriorated so quickly I was doubting if I could go any further and think I’d run too low on fluids – drank at least 2 litres here before refilling. Left to get
moving sooner than I should have, and now re-evaluating my goal to now be to just get around
rather than race Ben – he was at least 4 minutes ahead and that gap was only likely to get bigger! It
was a tough climb out and up to Great Knoutberry. 400m climb in 3km, but once at the top the big
hills would all be over. Not soon enough – slow plod up runnable track, then fields for the dogleg for
last 150m climb. Ben passed the other way commenting “you look terrible” and “just keep going” –
and I did, with a detour to avoid some thigh deep bog. A great feeling to leave the checkpoint, and
be going downhill – even managed a bit of running again; lots of people still coming up but I didn’t
have enough energy spare to encourage them. Soon back onto the flat, bog, and the running stopped. One group passed and I did short bursts of jogging to keep close with them, and followed
their line through Arten Gill and down into Redshaw.
I had been anticipating this food stop for some time and was glad of the next 2L of squash, cakes,
oranges, and stocked up on biscuits and sausage rolls for the next uphill plod. It was another
superfast pitstop of 2 mins and had leapfrogged the group that overtook me. Some positivity, as I
was still going – so knew I would be able to make it to the finish now. The Snaizeholme checkpoint
was only 1km away, and I had seen it from the last descent, but underestimated how hard the
section would be – wet underfoot and just steep enough to feel like a hard walk, and it went on and
on, and beyond the checkpoint for another 100m climb after, some steep banks and continually soft
underfoot. Still walking, but worried I was pushing too hard and maintaining the gap to those in
front; could that be Ben walking about 4 mins ahead? Oh, he’s started jogging… The climb did
eventually flatten out and I was back to occasional bursts of “running” but mostly still walk – a
shame given the brief treat of tarmac road. With nobody in sight either in front or behind, took a
direct line from the gate to top of Dodd Fell. It was heathery and hard work but not significantly
slower than my track pace; had I been running more than I would have stuck on the road for longer.
From here on thoughts turned to the bean stew at the next checkpoint rather than how to get there
– and was presented with soft ground, bog and fairly big valley to cross. Could just about see two
walkers in amongst some hillocks in the distance and aimed for them – maybe not the best route…
Land access restrictions meant there was a compulsory route into Fleet Moss checkpoint from the
south (Ben please note) – unfortunately to get to it by my route involved either climbing a 10ft high
wall, or a precarious high fence in a stream – I took the latter. Made it in one piece, found the food
tent and surprised Ben to have caught him up by walking (and without any trespassing short cuts!)
The next stage of the race is the part I was most worried about. Fleet Moss to Cray was about 8
miles, mostly boggy (although quite dry today) and required route choice and navigation. I didn’t
want to do this on my own! Quick pit stop and left with Ben, losing a bit of time where he ran on and
I didn’t, gaining a few friends on the way. At Hazle Bank Gill, the trod we were following went north
– but I had planned a route that followed that taken by a friend (Gary Davies) who ran it previously –
I carried on east, crossing the stream, then the wall, and stuck to the bearing through the fields. To
my left, Ben and co – now with a big group of faster people who had got lost(!) had found a trod
along the top edge and were running along it, with us all converging on the same point at the same
time. My route didn’t save any time, but I was walking almost all of it. Now in a big (and faster)
group, I was steadily putting in more effort to keep up, generally at the back and able to benefit
from short cuts depending on where those at the front went! The group split roughly in two at High
Pasture – left hand route cut a corner (800m) and saved 30m ascent – but crossed a forbidden wall
twice and entered into land that we did not have permission to go in. I took the harder right-hand
route, tried to be clever on cutting the next right-hand corner but didn’t do a very good job of it.
Terrain was rough but progress was reasonably good to get to the stile onto Yockenthwaite Moor.
Route choice, and other people in my favour here as everyone in front followed the trod by the wall,
whereas I took to the “terrain” to cut the distance – I had stopped trying to run again by now – and
was still in the pack. Middle Tongue took a long time to come; despite the lack of running, energy
and his double “cheating” still only 30s or so behind Ben.
Then it got hard. Cray Moss is unpleasant, boggy, rough – really slow going. If it was a normal, wet,
year then this would have been miserable. Actually, it was still miserable. Tiredness set in and it was
starting to get darker – I have new found respect for all the slower competitors who had to do this in
torchlight! I took a fairly straight route, as did almost everyone else in front – but was advised to stay
low and hug the wall where it was runnable. I wasn’t running so ignored that and regretted. Hells
Gap checkpoint appeared eventually, the red flashing beacon being set up for the night as I arrived.
The mile-long steep downhill road to Cray checkpoint was the end of me – my knees were in pain,
the “race” was over. Here I realised and accepted that there would be no more running tonight.
Arrived at Cray in time to see Ben leave after a very short pause to get away from me – the last time
our paths crossed; he had got into a faster “group” and had a challenge to hold on for the final 20
miles in the dark.
I was exhausted and cold. The temperature dropped on the slow section to Hells Gap and I didn’t
stop for a jacket. Knowing I had lost to Ben, I took advantage of the tent to add extra layers, hat,
gloves and head-torch, and have two mugs full of hot vegetable soup to warm up. As it was going
dark, everyone was grouped into 4+ – with my inability to run, and being in a strong position (arrived
about 50 th of 400!) I had to wait for around 15 minutes for a group of people that were slow enough for me to go with without ruining their race. Between the other three in the group, they had
completed this 12 times and knew where they were going – which was helpful in choosing the route
for the big climb out from Cray – up Buckden Pike – and on the long pathless descent to Top Mere.
The terrain was so vague heading down that I was very glad the others knew where to go –
challenging navigation. Torches came on at 9.20 (near enough pitch black) which allowed other
groups behind us to follow – 4 passed us between Cray and Top Mere (still running) and a further
two later on.
Starting to near the end, starting to wish it was over – feeling the cold, and nothing to see in the
dark. Long runnable track to Park Rash (we were walking) – and the last food station before the end.
I would have preferred not to stop – rather just fill up with drink and take cake and biscuits to eat on
the way but was outvoted. We spent 20 minutes sat in the tent; I got cold and my legs seized up. The last big climb started straight away – steep up to Great Whernside, fairly easy for a hill runner at walking pace and I actually had to wait for the rest of the group! Now the hard work really was done and only negligible climb until the finish. Just a simple case of follow the fence down to the corner, go straight across the tussocks and path into Capplestone Gate checkpoint – simple!? Or not. We got down to the fence corner ok, most of the way through the tussocks ok, then two of the group decided to turn back uphill (despite us having seen the checkpoint beacon below us) head back the way we came and be adamant they were correct! 10 mins later and they realised their mistake and we were back on our way again 🙂
As we neared Capplestone Gate could see lines of flashing red beacons marking the route through
the fields on to Yarnbury, and this section felt like a lovely bit to run through – just frustrating at
walking pace! It took far longer to cover than expected and was looking at the clock to see when I
thought we might finish, and where I thought Ben was as I had suggested at Cray we should be
about 30 mins behind based on my pace. From Yarnbury our quartet was officially “de-grouped” for
the 3 miles of road back to the school, so whilst the others ran on ahead I tried to make back time
too by alternating walking and running for 30 paces each. It was painful – but it was over more
quickly! Weave through the drunks in Grassington, cross the river and just a small hill to go! In the
front door and finish – I could walk no more. No energy even to eat the complimentary finishers’
jacket potato and chilli, I’ve never felt so tired.
My end time of 16:32 (90 th place) was apparently good – but I would stress 30 mins of that time was caused by waiting for my group and another 10-15 mins waiting at Cray for a suitable group. With the conditions so good this year I suspect it would be hard to better – even without injury. Ben finished with less hold ups in 15:31 (49 th ), and kindly waited to see me back and help me walk.
This was one of the best, and best organised, “races” I have ever done – and the cheeriness of all the volunteers was infectious. I would recommend this to anyone who likes being out in the hills and might even do this again once I’ve forgotten about all the pain!