The Fellsman is quirky little race that has evolved from a Long Distance Walkers Association event that raises funds for the Scouts. It has some unique kit requirements and rules to keep you safe as you make your way across the fells in giant horseshoe starting in Ingleton and ending in Threshfield. Covering 61 miles and 11000ft this year there was a diversion which added a couple of miles and a bit more climbing.
I was lucky to get a lift down from Graeme Cumming of the Cosmic Hill Bashers who had completed and DNF’d the race before. Having never run the race before it was good to get some advice and insight from Graeme on the way down. He also knew his way round the organisational elements of checking in, kit check, bedding down in the sports hall (he came prepared with an inflatable mattress), etc. so his help and encouragement were invaluable. Thanks Graeme.
First up on Friday night was check-in and kit-check. The Fellsman uses a unique round plastic tally that has to be punched at every checkpoint and after passing the thorough kit-check on Friday night – five long sleeve tops, two pairs of trousers, emergency bivvy bag, foil poncho, 300g of emergency food…the list goes on – you get a slip that you can exchange for your tally on Saturday morning.
We found a place to sleep n the gym and sorted out kit for the morning then I thought I better phone home. Strangely the only place I could get a signal was in a local hostelry so I slipped a muscle relaxant down my neck while I phoned home. Then it was time for a wee bit of dinner before bedding down in the gym for a kip. It was going to be an early call with the bus to the start leaving at 6.30am.
A nice bowl of porridge and a bacon roll before the bus, and we were off to Ingleton. Gathering in the community centre in Ingleton final decisions about what layers to wear are complicated by the overcast dull weather with cloud on the tops promising rain but it’s not too cold so I opt for shorts, one layer and a waterproof – which worked for most of the day. Finally, it’s time to start and we all file out having the first hole punched in the tally before assembling on a playing field ready for the start.
The loose assembly of runners on the playing field are urged to stay dry, look after each other and enjoy the race before being set off up Ingleborough, the first hill of the day. Up and over Ingleborough with a steep rocky descent, bit of drizzle and clag it was a nice way to get going. Nice to know too that one of the biggest climbs of the day was over and done with earlier. From Checkpoint 2 at the Hill Inn we head up Whernside following the well trod path to the summit and passing marshals for the Three Peaks Fell Race that would descend over the same ground later. Another big climb ticked off.
At the top of Whernside the first hail shower of the day briefly stung my legs but we were soon down a bit and making good progress along the ridge then over a stile and down to the next checkpoint before a steep climb back up into the weather and the Gragareth checkpoint where you can’t help but admire the checkpoint marshals huddled in tents sheltering from the wind, rain and hail but ever cheerful and encouraging (even the ones you’ll meet in the middle of the night). Tally stamped and it’s a nice run along the ridge to Great Coum and down to Flinter Gill, another two holes punched in the tally. From here you follow a track down to Dent where hot food was on offer.
After descending a steep track made up of horrible loose cobbles a wee boy called Jack appeared and he was keen to lead us on a short cut to the checkpoint, sausage rolls and beans. Jack would pop up again around the course usefully opening gates and cheering us on – he tells us it’s his twelfth Fellsman and he plans to run it when he’s 18 – he may well win.
A nice lunch after 18 miles topped off with a slice of melon and a cup of tea as I left the checkpoint heading along a road towards Blea Moor. The miles, the climbs and the checkpoints were going by smoothly, and even with a sharp drop in temperature and a sustained hail shower, fortunately on my back, I was soon past halfway.
I arrived at the Fleet Moss checkpoint, 38 miles, expecting to be grouped but at this point I was more concerned with getting warm after the hail storm and a long slow slog across the peat hags and bogs to get here. A warm welcoming cup of tea to thaw the hands and warm up while I got an extra layer on, it was 7:15pm and it would be dark before the next big checkpoint at Cray. I was keen to get moving and warm up, the diversion was ahead and we would drop down into a valley out of the weather. Then a marshal announced that grouping would start in five minutes so if you wanted to carry on yourself you needed to get moving, not wanting to be anti-social I shot out the door just in time.
It didn’t take long to warm up and ironically I fell in with two other runners as we went down the road, our group stayed together through the extra checkpoint at Yockenthwaite, back up onto the moors of Middle Tongue and together we took a good line from there to Hell Gap. This was probably the hardest bit of navigation all day and as the light faded lights on the hill sewed confusion, we felt sure we had missed the checkpoint. But we hadn’t gone too far just too slow and eventually met the wall that would lead us into the checkpoint. Walls are your friends in the Yorkshire Dales, a great aid to navigation.
The descent to Cray was more straightforward and we were making good time again. It was inevitable that we would be grouped at the checkpoint and after being there just a few minutes, a cup of tea and slice of cake, we were told we could tag on to a group just getting set to leave or wait until more runners arrived. Two of our three decided to keep going but one wanted to add more layers and take a longer break. So we set out up Buckden Pike in a group of seven; groups have to be at least four and you must stay together or be disqualified.
Any how the decision to keep moving was a good one with the group moving well up the hill and a runner with good local knowledge taking the best lines off the hill but at the next checkpoint it all went a bit wrong. Someone in the group cramped-up and someone else bonked. We were slow going out for the last 10 or 11 miles. We were slow up Great Whernside and other groups started to catch us as, but the sky was clear and the stars were out in force. When they say at a race briefing that you should help out other runners no one questions it and the Fellsman makes that assumption a reality, it was clear that some people in the group were frustrated by the slow pace (it really doesn’t help when people pull away from the group the wait impatiently, having a rest, until the rest catch up) but mostly it was about support and encouragement.
The Yanbury checkpoint is about two miles from the finish and this is where you get degrouped. It is also where you leave the open hillsides behind and swap them for two miles of tarmac downhill, with the chance of finishing under 21 hours a run was mustered but after all that time on soft ground it was hard on the feet. Through a sleepy Grassington, over a bridge and up a wee hill to Threshfield and the finish.
Tally stamped and removed for verification you are handed a buff and offered a seat. Fellsman Finished!
A warm shower and a few hours sleep in the gym before being chauffeured up the road- thanks again Graeme. My first goal had been to finish, I’d hoped to be quicker but grouping can slow you down; bogs, peat hags and hail can slow you down too. This is a race that challenges you in so many ways, so if you like a long run in the hills this is a grand ay out. See you there next year Westies?