I knew it was going to be tough, after all I’ve competed and successfully finished it on 4 previous occasions and following each one of them I’d vowed never to repeat the experience. But, as usual, the memory of the pain and mental trauma somehow disappears after a few days of completing it – ‘it’ being the Fellsman Challange. The event brochure provided by the organisers describes ‘it’ as “a high level traverse covering more than 60 miles over very hard rugged moorland climbing over 11000 feet in the Yorkshire Dales”
So, it’s 8.30am, Saturday 25th April 2014. Dressed and equipped for the part, KIM sack packed, fell shoes, Prymarni psychedelic tights and waterproof jacket on, (the brochure suggests brightly coloured clothing – I took this literally!), we set off, steady away, towards the top of Ingleborough, one of the famous Yorkshire ‘Three Peaks’. With half a mile to the cloud shrouded summit, I guess out of around 400 starters, I was grouped about halfway through the field, my initial pace being gentle. Fellow Saltwellians Richard Townsend was about 10 in front of me, Phil Bellamy about 30 in front and Chris Kennedy was out of sight in the mist. John Finnigan was just a few places behind. The local weather websites predicted showers with mist and low cloud on the tops early doors and for once the forecasters were right! Ingleborough summit is a baron plateau and the wind buffeted trig point (and first checkpoint) was situated about one hundred yards from the lip. After ‘checking in’ and with a matter of urgency, everyone swiftly made their way to the well defined path which took us off the top, and down the other side of the hill. Initially the route was very rocky, slippy and steep but eventually it broke into a welcome, friendlier gradient, still slippy though. Halfway down (by this time I’d caught Richard) we passed Chris. He was hobbling down to the next checkpoint with the intention of retiring from the race after falling, becoming a victim of the unrelenting, indiscriminate, treacherous path above. We later learnt that he had fractured his kneecap!
With the Hill Inn checkpoint (no. 2) in the bag and a cup of hot, sweet, sugary tea in one hand and custard cream in the other, Richard and I ‘power-walked’ (so as not to spill any of the precious tea) towards the foot of the second climb, Whernside, another one of the ‘Three Peaks’. The power-walk soon turned into a sorry shuffle as we started to ascend. With the wind still blowing fiercely we hit the Whernside ridge, took a right turn and started the half a mile or so climb up to the summit. On our way up, competitors passed us running in the opposite direction. They had visited the checkpoint and were on their way down to the next one. Very soon we were the ones running the opposite way, heading towards Kingdale, checkpoint 3.
Kingdale was a bit like a Grand Prix pitstop. Run in, kit checked, refuelled, then straight out carrying another cuppa. Despite the previous 13 miles in my legs, at this point I still felt quite fresh. Strong legs were a necessity for the next stretch, a slow drag up a hill called Gragareth, then a relatively speedy, flat, marshy run to Great Comb, a ‘single man in a one-man tent’ checkpoint, then down into Dent. Dent, the first major ‘feeding’ checkpoint, provided a welcome stop. Richard and I took advantage of the sausage rolls and baked beans on offer and rested for about 10 minutes. The weather now was changing, the rain had stopped and the sun was trying to break through. (The weather had changed, the terrain and climbing hadn’t!)
The next 3 hours for me proved to be sheer hell. The climb ahead (up to Blea Moor) was unrelenting, going on for ever. Here I experienced my first dark moment where I questioned whether I could complete another 30 plus miles, climb a further 4 or 5 thousand feet and be on my feet for at least another 10 or 11 hours. To drop out or not to drop out – that was the question! The two voices chirping in my head, one trying to convince me to drop out because I was too old, cold and tired, and the other saying “if you drop out, what about all that sponsor money? ” Despite the sausage rolls and tea, it felt as though I was running on empty both physically and mentally. I didn’t drop out however and successfully reached the next foody checkpoint at 4:11pm. We’d been travelling now for nearly 8 hours, but had only covered 28 miles! It was ‘Stonehouse’ and the food on offer was labelled in the ‘brochure’ as pasta shells, tomato sauce with grated cheese. In fact it was tinned tomatoes, a ladle of pasta with a sprinkling of cheese. Mine was inedible, my fault – I added too much salt!
Sweet tea (in cup) in hand, we started the long uphill march to Great Knoutberry, passing under the famous Settle to Carlisle railway viaduct en-route. On this stretch, Richard left me and by the time I’d reached Great Knoutberry summit, he was a good 30 minutes in front. It was here where the demons manifested themselves again. Questions such as ” how am I going to navigate across the bog of Fleet Moss by myself? I’m crap at map reading!” and “what happens if I get grouped with a bunch of fast people when it gets dark? – I’ll not be able to keep up!”.
This event has an excellent safety record, mainly because the organisers evaluate and address every potential risk. When darkness falls, those who are still running/walking are grouped into teams of no less than 4 people and are expected to remain in that group until they are officially ‘released’, usually at Yarnbury, the final checkpoint, or when the sun comes up, whichever occurred first! Failing to comply results in automatic disqualification.
It was always my intention to get grouped with Richard if I could possibly catch him up (as his map reading and compass skills are infinitively better than mine). I hit the Fleet Moss checkpoint at around 7.30pm and as I was arriving, he was just about to head off having been grouped with 3 others. Taking pity on the broken, wrecked shell of a man, they agreed to let me turn their group into a 5 man team from a four.
The Fleet Moss section is infamous and renown in ‘Fellsman’ circles for its level of difficulty and true to form, the next 5 miles was a slow trudge across wet, squelchy terrain comprising of peat hags and bog. When darkness hit, the head torches came out. The unrelenting marsh took no prisoners, up and down, in and out of the hags. Taking over 2 hours to get across, I remember thinking to myself that that was the hard bit done. Oh how wrong I was!
The next 8 hours saw little running. Navigating our way in the dark across the wet tussocky terrain was challenging to say the least especially as the beams of pale light from our head torches were of little help and next to useless. The light showed us where the bog was, it didn’t tell us anything about its depth and invariably I found myself up to my thighs on more than one occasion!
Buckden Pike, Great Whernside, Capplestone Gate and Yarnbury were 4 of the final 6 checkpoints and I can remember each one of them vividly, all for different reasons. My memory of Buckden Pike was seeing the silhouette of a group ahead against a torch illuminated backdrop, leaning at what looked like an angle of 45 degrees into the steep incline. We were that group 10 minutes later and it hurt! Next, Great Whernside checkpoint because it felt like we were scaling Everest and it seemed to take an eternity to find. Following Great Whernside, the route down to Capplestone Gate sticks in the mind. Although it was only about a mile down the hill – it was a mile of thick, deep, smelly downhill mire. By this point, my quads had just about seized and were solid with no give. The only way I could get down the hill without experiencing excruciating pain, was to do it backwards, slowly! Our route from Capplestone Gate to Yarnbury was relatively easy to follow as it was marked by flashing beacons every 800 yards or so. Reaching Yarnbury meant that there were only a further 2 miles to cover, all on road – the home straight. Some competitors chose to run the last 2 miles – we opted to cover the remaining distance adopting an exaggerated shuffle.
Approximately 20 hours and 45 minutes after we’d started, we both handed our tallies over to the two officials at the finish desk. The time was 5’ish in the morning, dark was becoming light (in more ways than one) and the blackbirds were singing. We’d finished in joint 192nd place out of 383 starters. We didn’t care – we’d finished! Next – shower then 3 hour kip then breakfast.
Phil Bellamy finished in 92nd place at 1:30am posting a fantastic time of 17 hours. John Finnigan appeared at 9.30am, finishing after being on his feet for 25 hours – both fantastic achievements. Chris Kennedy ended up in A&E in Durham at 2.30pm on Sunday afternoon.
So, the big question remains – shall I enter next year? Of course I will! Anyone wish to join me? It’s easy-peasy. Bring it on.