“Text me when you’ve finished, so I know you’ve not had a heart attack,” says my mum, as I give her a call and mention my plans for Sunday afternoon.
On the face of it, I can see why running a fell race seems like a really odd – and potentially heart-wrecking – way to spend your Sunday mid-morning. I mean, most people actively try and avoid hills when they run. As far as I can tell Ilkley Moor Fell Race has been designed to cram as many ups as possible into five miles, and somehow not that many downs.
It’s not like I went into it completely naively. Back in early August one of our club runs turned into a recce of the course. Lining up to race I couldn’t really remember that much of it. But I could remember a lot of climbing and a lot of bracken.
The whole fell running thing is still quite new to me. I’ve spent plenty of time legging it up and down the hills of the Meanwood Valley Trail and Leeds Country Way, but only joined North Leeds in July and am very much still finding my climbing (and my pegging it downhill without worrying I’m going to fall over) legs.
The fell racing thing is brand new. So much that I ask a few anxious questions on Facebook before. “How early should I turn up?” “Where do I park?” That kind of stuff.
The mandatory kit thing sends me in a bit of a spiral. “Kids, do either of you have a whistle?” (I found one woven into my hydration pack and cut it off.) The printer jams and I need a copy of the map (which then spends the entire race tucked in a pocket slowly soaking up sweat). Hang on did the FRA guidelines really say “fatalities”?!
It turns out the whole thing is thankfully pretty low-key. A van and some caution tape make up the registration point (as well as the spot where post-run result print-offs will tell me the pleasant news that I finished 42nd). Groups of people jog up and down the hill to warm up.
We gradually make our way to the start. We’re warned of overgrown paths but compared to the positively jungle-like recce we’d done the month before, this time it was like running along a motorway. The one thing I’d heard repeatedly was that the race starts with a bit of a bottleneck. But despite knowing this, I lack the necessary guile to shimmy and sneak my way forward from the off. Eventually though, over-taking opportunities present themselves and I’m happily inching my way forwards.
A lot of race reports I’ve read talk about specific climbs or descents. I can’t do that here because a) I’m new to these places, so I don’t know the names of most of the hills, rocks and way-markers; and b) the exertion required means a lot of it all seems quite fuzzy even if I did.
What I do know is that racing up and down hills is pretty different from taking a club run up and down the very same hills. What I hadn’t really considered was that the aforementioned club run recce had included a fair amount of standing, waiting and catching my breath at the top of each hill. The race – obviously – didn’t. Well, not once we’d got started anyway.
As we hit the first proper climb, I start to feel disgruntled at the line of racers walking upwards, and am impatient to keep going at a pace. I’m less than halfway up before I realise I was being foolish. By the third and fourth big climbs I’m positively grateful each time the person ahead slows down and grimace as they pick up pace and I feel the need to keep up.
I see a few people trip, fall, and swear loudly. Most quickly pick themselves up and keep going. A few take a while longer. I’m pleased to see their fellow runners stop and check they’re ok.
I – more than once – wonder why I decided to do this. I glance at my watch. Not yet halfway. I start to feel a stitch. I never get stitches. My heart is really thumping. My mum was joking about the heart attack. Right?
At some point – around mile three – the big climbs stop. “I’m pretty sure this is the last one,” I say to the runner just behind me, hoping I’m right.
I am. And it does get easier from there. By this point the pack has thinned out and I find myself trailing behind clubmate Garry, and this is pretty much where I remain for the last two miles or so.
The final descents feel positively blissful after so much climbing. Though I can’t quite activate “brakes off, brain off” mode yet – and as I try to control my descent I see Garry vanish into the distance – having gravity on my side, and the space to open up the legs and run, feels amazing.
My finish is non-dramatic. Not close enough to chase anyone down, no-one close enough to chase me down. The finish itself is as low-key as the start. A few claps, some electronic thingies to run over and make beep (for the timing chip), a bottle of water and some post-race chat and more clapping for those still finishing.
And there I am, first fell race done, feeling utterly exhausted, and very pleased with myself.
My thoughts turn to other races I’ve seen club-mates do on Strava. Races that go further, climb higher. How do they do it? I begin to wonder. And then I realise that just two months ago, the idea of running a race like this would have felt barely possible. So the only way to find out how they do it is to try it myself.
But first, I have to text my mum. “I survived”, I write to her, as I climb into the car to drive home.