I'd always meant to run in a fell race, but had been rather put off by tales of hardship and suffering. You know the kind of thing - being lost in the mist miles from anywhere, stumbling over dangerous crags and gashing crucial parts of your anatomy. I'd also assumed that fell runners were a hardy breed of superfit speed merchants. Consqeuently up until September this year my racing experience was confined to the scenic roads of Leeds, York, Bradford and Doncaster.
I bit the bullet with the Withins Skyline - not too long or too high or too isolated (I was told) and a bigish field so I shouldn't come last. Dragging along another fell running neophyte (new member Les Beck) I pitched up on a wild and windy moor just beyond Haworth one Saturday morning. I survived (unlike my shoes) to run another day, with the observation that fell races are not as daunting as expected, but are still very different from road races;
a) they're cheaper - a lot cheaper. Only £2 for this one.
b) you get a transparent plastic bag to wrap your race number in before it is pinned on. This suggested to me that the organisers thought I was going to get wet. They were right.
c) fell runners wear football boots without any socks. At least that's what it looked like to me. I understand why now - my trail shoes are fine for gambolling through Bluebell woods but they just don't cut it in the mud and heather. Maybe I need a pair of Walshes. The lack of socks doesn't make much difference when you've just run along a stream (and yes, I did mean along - not over or across or through).
d) Fell runners like to be insulted before a race. A strange man in a hat came up to the start line and berated us all with incomprehensible instructions about the 'stoop'. A few late comers were subjected to personal abuse. I didn't like to ask what the 'stoop' was.
e) Fell runners like queuing. Having just tried really hard to overtake a few runners and put a few more yards between us I turned a corner to find a queue waiting to cross a style. All that extra effort wasted - but nobody else seemed to mind.
f) Fell runners pull their competitors out of sticky holes. Dave Ibbotson was very obliging when I was mid thigh deep in an evil looking bog. Apparently I was still sinking when he got to me.
g) The views are fabulous. In the middle of nowhere with nobody else but 100 garishly dressed runners in an orderly line stretching out in front of you as far as the eye can see. It certainly beats running along Kirkstall road.
h) I have never progressed as rapidly in any race as when I sped along a stream bed on my backside with my legs up in the air. It probably looked rather professional from a distance. Up close it was terrifying. Fortunately there were no strategically placed rocks...
i) At road races the finish is usually denoted by a big sign saying 'Finish', perhaps a clock, a funnel and some spectators. At this fell race the finish was a 5 bar gate. And it was shut. My attempts to climb over it during a sprint finish (actually it was a 'desperate wheezing finish' but never mind) must have been comical. I suppose I should have been grateful that there wasn't any barbed wire over the top.
j) At road races everybody is obsessed by their time. Here nobody seemed to know what they'd done. I can see the difference in emphasis - what is your PB for 7.32 miles?
k) No tee shirt at the end (of course that's no great loss) and no cup of ice cold orange squash. Instead you get a cup of tepid coffee, a small crunchie bar and some home made cake. Very civilised. The picture at the end of the race shows me grinning idiotically, so I must have enjoyed it. I might even do it again.
Over the last few years I've suffered from a series of not serious but niggling injuries as a result of orienteering/fell running/mountain marathoning. In an attempt to break out of the cycle of run a bit-injury-recovery-run a bit etc, this year I resolved to diversify my sporting activity in a series of "Ace Races".
"Ace Races" are multi stage races held over two days and involve a mix of orienteering, mountain biking, night navigation, canoeing and trail or fell running. Most stages are between 2 and 5 hours long. Each "Ace Race" comprises 4 or 5 stages so that competition is over about 14 to 18 hours, although each race has its own idiosyncracities.
First up was Ludlow in March. 6 hours MTB, 2 hours night navigation, 6 hours trail running (no fells near Ludlow). A strong start on the mountain biking saw me collecting a goodly number of points in the first three hours. However, a spot of backside tobogganing on a greasy stretch of tarmac meant a broken gear shift and having to use my bike like a child's scooter to get back to Base. You can get quite a way in 3 hours on a bike even allowing for zigzagging about to collect controls, however 2Ĺ hours later I was back at base without incurring time penalties for being late. Night navigation was up next and the overriding impression I got from this event (and subsequently the others) is that mountain bikers can't navigate in the dark. Of the sixty pairs/individuals taking part, only about ten of us scored good points on this stage, most picking up only a few controls. Rolling hills form the backdrop to Ludlow and in six hours it's possible to cover quite a few and still be home in time for tea. Another good score on the trail running meant I finished third overall in my first Ace Race and had got the bug for the rest of the series.
Next was Dolgellau in July for a continuous 24 hour comprising orienteering, mountain biking and canoeing. A bit of explanation to this one. Three stages opened at 10am on Saturday - orienteering, canoeing and mountain biking1. Each stage had to be attempted (obtain one control) but in any order. Canoeing closed at 6pm and orienteering and mountain biking at 9pm. An overnight mountain biking "star-score" (I'll explain if you want to know) opened at 8pm and ran through to 6am Sunday. At 5am mountain biking2 opened and ran through to the end of the event at 10am Sunday. You could transition between stages at any time whilst they were open. I opted for orienteering, canoeing, mountain biking1 in that order to give my legs a rest in the middle of the day and because orienteering was easier to clear than mountain biking (each Ace Race stage has a maximum score of 500 points). Several of what proved to be the leading competitors did the same and quite a pack of us proceeded on a very similar route round the orienteering course. 4 hours later I had my 500 points and headed for Trawsfynedd reservoir for a paddle. Ace Races use inflatable canoes - they look like a yellow lilo with two very large bananas attached and competitors have to inflate their own. They are however very buoyant and another 4 hours later I had 500 points from the canoeing stage. By this time the weather was deteriorating rapidly and a lightning storm rolling up the valley. Unable to see anything due to heavy rain I picked my way gingerly around a few mountain bike controls in Coed-y-Brenin and headed for an early transition into the night stage. Simultaneous thunder and lightning directly overhead made me wonder why I was enjoying riding around a rainsoaked, rapidly darkening forest on a very efficient lighting conductor but then again, why not? Unfortunately, the lightning had blacked out the valley and Ace Base was without power. Safety prevailed and the event was halted until 6am when the night stage would run through to midday. This made for some excellent high speed mountain biking in the early morning mist. By midday there were some very tired but enthused competitors, and one quagmire of an event field - I picked up second place overall.
Forest of Dean in August. 4 hours orienteering, 4 hours MTB, 2 hours night navigation, 15km canoe, 15 km trail run. After a good orienteer I promptly threw up during the half hour between it finishing and the MTB starting. 4 hours MTB on no energy is not a good idea and I suffered for it. Common sense should have dictated retire from the event, however I was effectively leading the race series and the series prize was a very nice goretex jacket so out on the night navigation I went (after throwing up again after the MTB). The following day I paddled my canoe and then jogged the 15km run to collect a reasonable number of points and despite everything I came 6th in the event, but more importantly had a very large lead going into the final event.
Coniston September. 2 hours orienteering, 5 hours MTB, 2 hours night navigation, 2 hours canoeing, 15km fell run. Good scores on the orienteering and mountain biking put me in third place overall. Heading for another good score on the night navigation I went over on my foot 3km from Base and had to hobble home. Despite this I was still in third place and although I appeared to have a nasty ligament strain in my foot which meant I couldn't do the fell run, I had effectively won the series. Still, damaged feet don't stop arms paddling a canoe therefore 2 hours were enjoyed paddling around Coniston Water before watching my fellow competitors depart for a wind swept fell run comfortable in the knowledge that the series victory was mine.
After a week of hobbling around on my "ligament strain" I started to suspect otherwise so I went to casualty at LGI. Upshot is I'm now in plaster for four weeks having broken a bone in my foot.
If I haven't put you off for life, fancy trying an Ace Race and want to know more then feel free to get in touch. Alternatively, take a look at the Ace Races web site where you will find race reports and photos on all the races this year and last. Despite everything I'll definitely be doing more and next year I think I'll stick to niggling injuries.
Helen Johnson, pictured on the cover of 'The FellRunner' as "England's find of the year", was rewarded for some great runs in the English Fell Running Championships races this year with overall third place in the series. This also gave her 9th place in the British Fell Championships.
Emma Barclay was 13th. Ilkley's Ladies were 6th team.
After finishing 20th overall and first English lady at the World Mountain Trophy event in Malaysia, Harriers' Helen Johnson went on to 5th place in the gruelling Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon, inside the old course record.
Neil Taylor was 59th in the men's race.
We arrived in Austria to be greeted by real summer temperatures of around 30ļC. On our first day in the resort we reccied the course and discovered there were absolutely no flat sections or any downhill sections. Not a step. The route took a fairly steep line, winding round the mountain to finish on the summit plateau at the top of a rather rocky final ascent, just above the top cable car station of a Ďredí ski run.
On race day the temperature in the village at the start was 30ļC. The ladies race started at 11am and the menís race at 12am. One consolation was that there were three water stations en route! The route started on the road and quickly turned onto a track which climbed steeply on for a good 20 minutes, through forest. Then we traversed a grassy, very steep slope and meandered round into woodland. Some very pleasant shade for a few minutes before another track and more climbing. The final steep section lead up to the top forest track and for about 2km there was a chance for any more speedy runners to pick up the pace. For the rest of us it was a case of hanging on knowing that round the corner the final climb would soon emerge. The finish could not be missed and cowbells were ringing loudly by now.
It was quite an experience being in a race of such a high quality field. Never before have I run
uphill for so long. The views from the top were amazing. We even had a lift down by cable car and
were able to enjoy lunch on the summit. All kit was taken to the finish area, London Marathon
style, so we were able to wait and watch the menís finish. They didnít seem to be much further
behind us. We had one English team member finish in a medal position, Richard Findlow, and
Angela Mudge of Scotland was 2nd (Silver) in the ladies race.
- Helen Johnson
Women 9km, 1100m climb, uphill only
Teams of 4: 1 France, 5 Scotland, 6 England, 12 Wales