The Fellsman 2024

A new obsession is born. The Fellsman. https://fellsman.org.uk/

The Background

I first heard about this event very early in my own trail and ultra running journey. A few people I knew in the Southwest community had done it and on the 2018 Cheviot Goat someone talked about it as well. Every account was the same:

You HAVE to do The Fellsman!

A little research into the event and I completely shied away from it. There was self-navigation over remote terrain. You were grouped during the night. And even if you were within the cut offs there was a risk of being disqualified if you were too slow to be matched or if your group fell apart. Well, I thought that had my name written all over it…too slow to be grouped…and I felt I would probably just hold people up. Back then I put the Fellsman to rest thinking this event was too hard for me.

During the last few years the race came back onto my radar. Growing as a hill runner, gaining more experience in navigation and moving over rough terrain gave me the confidence to consider a Fellsman attempt. The decisive factor was that the event introduced tracking and the night grouping fell away. This eliminated the risk of being “not-groupable”. The last hurdle was just to find the year when to sign up. 2023 provided a nerve-wrecking twist when the call came out that there were not enough sign ups and the event might have to be cancelled…FOREVER. I decided to make The Fellsman a priority for 2024.

The race (the short version)

There were moments during the race when I very firmly told myself I needed to get it done and then I would never – EVER – have to come back.

The week after the finish I could not stop thinking about it. I pulled the race map out again and again, studied different sections and pondered about the lines I took. I reflected on my mistakes and considered what I would do differently next time. Next time…hahaha, that did not take long!

The race (the long version)

Pre-race preparation

Actually, I do not need to write too much about the race details as our own Andrew Fullwood has written a smashing report about his finish in 2019 (https://westerlandsccc.co.uk/the-fellsman). Yes, you still need to carry five long-sleeve tops and it is likely that you want them all and maybe wonder why you did not pack that sixth!

There was a lot of information sent out before the race. A LOT! To the extent that I would call it a bit overwhelming. There is no official route as such but since this was the 60th year of the event, I doubted that I needed to reinvent the wheel and that the best lines between checkpoints had probably been established. I found a gpx track online and downloaded it to have the option to check myself. There were also several “Points to observe”, areas where we were not allowed to go, but I must admit all the information about the “route” did not really make much sense until AFTER the event. However, the race locations and times were communicated very clearly. I took Friday off work and had a very easy journey south to Threshfield. I arrived at the designated race car park late afternoon, took the first shuttle bus to race HQ and pitched my tent.

I talked with a few people and got the impression that it was quite hard to finish a Fellsman attempt. This fed into an underlying feeling that I had been too cocky about this event. I did not expect it to be easy but did not think it would be too bad. Had I underestimated it? I was getting a little unsettled about it all.

Registration opened at 19:00, an orderly queue had formed by 18:45 and I got in line. The whole process took about an hour. My friend Geoff Partridge arrived at the same time as I got in line and we waited together, chatting away, passing the time very quickly.

I had dinner booked, which was supposed to be between 20:00 and 22:00, but was delayed until 21:00. Some people were freaking out. There was definitely a nervous vibe in the air. I got my stuff ready, then went back for my plate of pasta and afterwards to bed.

I slept ok.  The night was pretty cold with ice on the tent when I got up in the morning, but I have had worse.

Race day

My alarm went off at 04:45. Breakfast was a bowl of porridge and a coffee. The bus left Theshfield for Ingleton at 6:15. Everything went really smoothly, no problems. It was a lovely morning, if very chilly.

We arrived at Ingleton by 7:00 and got our race number, the tracker, the timing wrist band that goes “weeeeee” at each checkpoint and the famous tally you get hole-punched. Race start was supposed to be 08:30 but was delayed until 08:55. It seemed to be a bit of a theme.

The race followed the Pennine Journey route out of Ingleton to the top of Ingleborough. By 9:00 the sun managed to warm us in the valley, but the wind on the higher ground was biting. The long line of runners worked their way up the first steep climb in good spirits greeting day hikers along the way. I got the first indication that I was not feeling quite right, my heartrate seemed to be going through the roof, and I tried to relax and settle into the ascent. I was wondering if I should take my poles out of my bag, but I had a bee in my bonnet about trying to run The Fellsman without them. The descent was equally steep and a bit technical. I took it easy to avoid any injuries. The main goal for this race was to complete it, to have fun and not break anything before Cape Wrath – either myself of equipment!

The route headed over Raven Scar towards Chapel-le-Dale. I had come over this area during another race once, the Yorkshire Three Peaks by Rangers Ultras (an event I recommend) and had admired the beauty of the area. Ingleborough is a hill you can easily spend a whole day exploring.

Near Chapel-le-Dale I turned towards Whernside and the second climb of the day. My heartrate spiked up once again.

“Get your poles out!”…“No, I feel like crap, the poles won’t change that!”…“Well, now you are just being stubborn and for no good reason!”…thus I kept bickering with myself throughout the climb.

On Whernside we had a short out and back to the trig and I crossed over with Geoff. He said he would probably drop at the next checkpoint due to issues with his knee. When you feel terrible in a race, you do not want to see someone else retiring. They make the escape route look so appealing! I said all the things you are supposed to say in this situation: “Don’t make any hasty decisions!”, “You have enough time!”, “You can do it!” but in hindsight he made 100% the correct choice there. The Fellsman is not a race you want to tackle with a dicky knee.

The descend off Whenside to Kingshead was long and smooth. I think there were some steeper and quite wet parts as well. To be honest, at that stage I was still too preoccupied with feeling rotten and I did not really care what I was running over. Kingshead was the first bigger checkpoint and food station. I did not want to stop for long, but I wanted to sort a few things out and get them right: I needed a toilet break, tighten up shoelaces and I wanted to get my poles out, I had given in! I ate something and had a cup of coke. I told myself there was no point in rushing through the aid station if I was leaving in a mess, so I made sure I did everything I could to make me feel comfortable.

The climb up Gragareth looked horrendously steep on the map and a few fellow runners assured me this was indeed THE WORST! Maybe it was the soft reset that I managed to do at the checkpoint, maybe it was the coke or maybe the poles but I completely relaxed into the motions of climbing and started to feel like I had energy. It was steep and tough, for sure, but not worse than what we had done before. Reaching the top, 13 miles into the race, I finally felt like myself again and from then on, I just kept feeling better and better.

So, what caused the rough start?

Option 1 was to blame my period which had arrived bang on time on race morning not wanting to miss out on the adventure.

Option 2 was that I was still a bit anaemic from my blood donation a week and a half prior.

I later wondered about Option 3 which was that I had maybe started under-fuelled. The week leading up to the race had been insanely busy at work and I had not been eating very well. Then, during the cold night in the tent, I might have burned quite a bit of energy. I thought I had eaten enough in the morning and I was surprised that my stomach grumbled at the start. For the first couple of hours I kept being really hungry.

It might have been a combination of all three, or something completely different, fact was I kept stuffing snacks into my mouth from the get-go and by mile 13 I might have finally caught up with my deficit. I felt I had been given a new lease on life.

After Gragareth the route followed a long, runnable ridge north to the next two checkpoints, Great Coum and Flinter Gill, which were just wee tents on the moor. Navigation up to this point was super easy as visibility was great and there were plenty of other people to follow. I descended into the village Dent, the next food checkpoint, and seemingly the first location of carnage as some runners were lying on the grass wrapped in foil blankets. The field of runners thinned out from here, some people pressed on, some stayed longer for a second or third cheese roll and some retired.

I refilled my water bottles, scoffed a cheese roll, melon and orange and was off again. The climb out of the village was a long slog and I still felt quite slow but not as drained as before. I skirted around the northern slope of Whernside on my way to the next checkpoint up on Blea Moor. There was a soggy little valley I had to traverse and for the first time I had to decide on a line myself. I saw tiny figures all the way on Blea Moor but otherwise no one was around. I made a choice and found a trot that led me all the way across. Go me! By the time I reached Blea Moor I was getting chilly, it was late afternoon and the temperature had dropped, but I was due to descend to Stonehouse checkpoint and decided to hold off with an extra layer until then.

Stonehouse was a food check point and there was also a mid-race kit check. Annoying you might think, but convenient for me as it encouraged me to change my socks having unpacked everything and my feet were very grateful for that.

From Stonehouse the route headed up to Great Knoutberry Hill, mainly along a good gravel track. It was a nice evening. I estimated that I had a couple more hours of daylight and it did not look like rain, despite the forecast. At the start one runner had suggested you should aim to get to Fleet Moss checkpoint before dark, but I thought I probably did not make it that far. After a short out and back to the top of Knoutberry the route headed south to Redshaw, then east passed Snaizeholm and over the Cam Road to Dodd Fell. I was hoping to get there for nightfall.

On the Cam High Road I blew a kiss down towards Horton for all Spine runners who had slogged up here and I followed the Pennine Way a short stretch before cutting up to the top of Dodd Fell. By now it was dark, I had my headtorch out and the clag had come down on the fell. Visibility = zero! And for the first time ever, my GPS lied to me!

The Fellsman map put the next checkpoint on the top of Dodd Fell. The track that I had downloaded seemed to skirt somewhat around but not over the spot that the GPS marked as the top. “No stress! I just cut directly up to the top”.  When I got to the “GPS top” I could dimly see through the clag that there was higher ground still ahead. The situation got more confusing when headtorches appeared on various sides on the hill…so who was coming from and who was going to the checkpoint? The checkpoints had red flashing beacons during the night, but the runners had red flashing lights on their backpacks. Mayhem! I looked at the map again but had no idea where in relation to the real top I was. The low visibility made this hard work and I got some doubts if I could manage the night navigation. “Well, I am definitely stressed now!” But misery loves company and I bumped into two other lost runners. “Where is the checkpoint? This is WILD!” We decided to head towards some other lights together. This was a small group coming from the checkpoint which was just a little bit further along. Panic over and the checkpoint volunteers had a giggle about us. I could see why the race had grouped people before the introduction of tracking!

Together we descended Dodd Fell towards Fleet Moss, the next food checkpoint. A lot of the night sections is a blur in my memory. Two people of our little gang crawled through a small gap where a wall had collapsed. That looked bonkers but turned out to be the correct thing to do. One guy and I decided to stick to our own guns and followed a trot first in the correct direction, but then veered off too far and ended up also crawling through another wall gap.

At Fleet Moss I realised that the track I had downloaded was the pre-2019 version directing us across Middle Tongue, the part of the route that we were no longer allowed to take, due to landowner issues. I felt like an idiot for making that mistake but did not worry too much about the track as the next section was following the road. That would be easy navigation and the climb up to Hell Gap I hoped I would manage on a compass bearing. At this point a bit of natural grouping seemed to happen. Stories were exchanged how everyone had messed up their line off Dodd Fell and two younger lads, another lady and I – all Fellsman virgins – found reassurance in the presence of two veterans – one guy on his 15th Fellsman and one of his 30th Fellsman! Both took us under their wings without any grumbles.

The altered route dropped from the Fleet Moss checkpoint at about 580m down to Deepdale at 280m. In the valley you could either follow the road or cross over the river on to the Dales Way to the next checkpoint. At Yockenthwaite the route climbed back up to Chapel Moor and Hell Gap checkpoints at 560m. That’s landowner issue for you! In the olden days you contoured around the 500m mark, I believe.

The climb to Chapel Moor and Hell Gap was rough, but to be honest my memory of this section is also very hazy. There seemed to be people scattered all over the hill side. Our grouping seemed quite fluent and I remember falling into pace with different people and then finding my original group again.

I reached Cray just after 02:00. I mainly remember that I was feeling cold and even colder when I came out of the checkpoint tent. This was a low point in terms of motivation, and I felt a bit nauseous. It was not too bad, but I noticed signs of things going south.

A quick self-check: “Hey, what’s up?”…“I am not feeling so great. It’s so cold.”…“You have been going for a long time. You are working hard. It is cold. You need to eat more. Eat! Don’t be picky. Just eat!” At least I was being my own friend and not grumpy, that always helps in the wee hours of the night. I ate and started to feel better again.

Leaving Cray one volunteer assured me that the climb up Buckden Pike was quite steep but Great Whernside would be more gradual. Two more big climbs and we were home! I could also swear that she said that the path up Great Whernside was great, but I probably misheard, and she said – or meant – Buckden Pike. Because there was a nice path up Buckden. The climb up Great Whenside was first super boggy, then horribly eroded which made me think “if the lady regards this as a great path I do not want to see where she usually roams around”.

Coming off Buckden Pike I fell into pace with three blokes, one of which led us ahead full of confidence because he said he did a recce of this bit. We followed our fearless leader along a high wall and electric fence into the worst bog. I saw a runner at the other side of the fence/ wall and I thought “poor fellow, being on the wrong side sucks, there is no option to cross”. Shortly afterwards our leading man announced that he did not think he had actually been here before and besides, his watch battery had died and he had no clue. I checked my GPS and saw that WE were wrong. WE were the poor fellows that needed to be on the other side of the fence and wall! DAMN! The other two lads had been trotting a little bit behind, arrived and simply said they thought we were not on the right path but did not make any further suggestions regarding the situation.

For a short moment we all just stood in the mire staring at each other. I wondered if I would get into trouble if I throttled three people in a bog but I was mainly just annoyed with myself having followed this dude without double checking. No one seemed to take the lead so I said “Follow me, lads! I will get us to Top Mere checkpoint. It won’t be pretty, but I’ll get us there!” We carried on until we found a stile (lucky really), managed to jump the wall and fence without getting electrocuted and beelined it to the checkpoint. By now there was a hint of morning light in the sky.

From Top Mere I followed the easiest path ever to Park Rash, one of the last food checkpoints. I blitzed through there, I was done and wanted to get to Threshfield. I was also feeling well again and still had enough food and water.

The climb up Great Whernside was a slog and it started to rain. The checkpoint on top had packed up, apparently that team had to deal with an incident, and we were advised to simply follow the route and then “get punched” twice at the next checkpoint.

On the note of getting your tally punched…at the start you got this little disc with all the checkpoints on and at each checkpoint (25 in total) they punched a hole into it. This obviously invited for endless jokes about punching. At CP 3 I told the volunteers “I never worked so hard to get punched” and they all laughed and laughed and laughed in that pained way when you do not actually want to laugh but you cannot help yourself. They probably had heard that exact joke 200 times before that day. I felt a bit sorry for them.

On the decent off Great Whernside I was ready to throw some toys out of the pram. On the lower section I had to cross another stretch of terrible bog. I wondered if I had fallen asleep and was trapped in a nightmare running the Fellsman. Before the race I had laughed at the thought of the Yorkshire Dales bogs! Haha! What can they do to me…I have been through the bogs of Scotland and the Cheviots!

I bow my head humbled and with great respect. The bogs of the Yorkshire Dales are some of the finest, most soul-sucking bogs I have ever had the pleasure trudging through. They can be very proud of themselves!

Capplestone Gate checkpoint came and went. I remember a lovely volunteer who was worried her tent might blow away. It looked like it might, too.

The last stretch to Yarnbury checkpoint was easy, I got the initial line wrong, but then found the gravel track. From Yarnbury it was about 2 miles along a road to Grassington and Threshfield.

I came through the finish after around 24 hours, 23 hours and 51 minutes to be exact. I did not really know what time to expect but thought a similar time as Cheviot Goat was probably realistic. I had a pretty broad bracket of 20 to 24 hours but hoped for a finish closer to the 20 hours mark…if only for the sake of having more time to sleep afterwards. The volunteers at the finish line congratulated me and said it was not that common to finish a first attempt. Maybe they were just being nice, but I felt quite proud of my achievement.

Overall, I am happy with how it all went. I looked after myself well, especially at times when things were a bit ropey. My feet were a little trenchy at the end but I had no blisters. I probably would have benefited from one more sock change.

I hiked most of the route. I would have liked to run more to satisfy my runner-pride, but adventures unfold in their own way. I see my first Fellsman as a learning experience. Maybe I will manage more running at my next Fellsman.

Things to take away from this:

  • Practice more night nav, claggy, low visibility nav!
  • Do not believe everything your GPS tells you.
  • Don’t just download the first gpx track you find.
  • Pack lots of spare batteries when it is cold. A kind fellow runner gave me an extra set when I had run out.
  • You want five layers!
  • Plan more time after the race, especially when you might finish in the morning (true for Fellsman, Cheviot Goat & Lakeland 100). You do not get much – if any – sleep and it is unlikely to be quality sleep. Travelling home is neither very safe, nor fun, nor can it help with recovery much.
  • You HAVE to do the Fellsman (again)!
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