I’ve had a pretty good year so far. I planned to train for, and then run a proper Lakes AL. From January to June I put the hours and miles in, culminating with the Ennerdale fell race at the start of June. My little training chart — compiled by a mystical computer algorithm — had a lovely upward trending squiggle. And I do love a bit of data-based reassurance. I was running well and completed my goal (albeit with a performance slightly dampened by a cold) so I promptly took a few weeks off.
My little squiggle took a downward turn, but with my desires sated, that wasn’t a concern. Training and rest must be balanced carefully if you want the scales of performance to tip in your favour, after all. But then Kentmere Horseshoe appeared on the horizon. It had been my first Lakes race the previous year and I was keen to see if I’d actually improved since then. It’s a cracking race; long and steep enough to put you to work, but not so serious as to scare you off.
A work stint in Carlisle gave me the perfect base for a bit of fitness rebuilding. I managed to make some quick hits on Scafell, Skiddaw, the Buttermere Sailbeck, and Striding Edge, to name a few, and my squiggle ascended accordingly. I was primed for Kentmere. The race brought some testing conditions, which resulted in countless route variations (or detours, depending on who you ask) but it was a fantastic day nonetheless. Placing further up the field than before, I was happy with my improvements and started to plan out the rest of the summer’s races.
I returned to my local training ground — the Otley Chevin — with great fervour, stomping up the track with great intention. Cresting the top of the climb with a newfound momentum, and pulling round the corner, my foot somehow didn’t quite land underneath me and with an horrific crunch I stumbled to the floor in a pile of curses and pain. The summer’s racing plan almost visibly evaporated before me.
A dog walker enquired if I needed assistance but I declined, either from denial or embarrassment, I’m still not sure which. I hobbled back down the track to the car. Surely it can’t be so bad if I can walk on it?
Once again the squiggle tumbles, this time for two months. Eight weeks of holidays, stag dos and weddings later, I’ve ridden that downward squiggle like a party rollercoaster. Kilograms gained, fitness lost. I might as well take up tiddlywinks.
And then up pops a little message from Dom.
“Can you run in the Fell Relays?”
Which brings me to the bit I actually meant to write about: The British Fell Relay Championships. They are organised by Ambleside AC and held in Grasmere, and NLFR fielded four teams, no mean feat for a small club. Shrouded in darkness, we piled onto the bus on a dreary Saturday morning. I was to be running the first leg, a hearty five mile romp with 2400ft of climb. I avoided looking at the route in advance, choosing to remain in blissful ignorance; I knew it was going to hurt and that was sufficient. Either good fortune or foresight had me on a fully flagged route, something I was definitely happy about upon our arrival at a very claggy Grasmere.
The marquee was absolutely buzzing with teams from all around the country getting down to their pre-race rituals. Reassuringly, everyone seemed to be juggling dibbers, numbers and maps, with expressions of less than total comprehension. This is the cottage sport of fell running not the Olympics, after all.
Soon enough the time rolls round to switch into race gear. I do the classic awkward shuffle into my shorts and vest, trying to use my hoody to shield my sliver of dignity. I head for a quick trot up the hill to get some blood back into my legs. They feel as rubbish as you’d expect after a few hours on a coach. It was a bit of a shock. Even walking the hill felt pretty hard going, and it’s only about 200m from the start. Not the greatest omen, but with the swirling fog and tense atmosphere, today wasn’t a day to let superstitious thoughts get the better of me. I trundled back down to the start with 20 minutes to go, launch prep commenced final ablutions, a quick scoosh of caffeine-charged energy gel, a swill of water, a kiss to my partner, and a saunter to the pen. The sight of a familiar face – Bill from Chorley – helped break the tension. We laughed at the ridiculousness of our nerves; it’s only a run up a hill anyway. I make the slight error of not jostling my way to the front, but before I had time to adjust position, we were off!
Races always set off fast, and so should you [really? —ed]. I don’t. Well, not fast enough anyway. The first steep climb was as unpleasant as expected but it turned into a speedy bit of track soon enough and the pace shot off. It felt great to be smashing along the winding path as it slowly gained in incline. Steady and fast for just over a mile, and I felt a touch regretful for not pushing harder for position at the start, now locked into the locomotion of runners snaking their way up the path, pace dictated by your allotment in line. This is what cross-country must feel like. The path steepened again, my heart was pounding and lungs pumping, but a cursory glance at my watch told me there was less than a mile to go. A mile to the top of the climb that is, the only marker that matters for a gravity-burdened plodder like myself.
Checkpoint one at Grisedale Hause passed, dibber sweatily fumbled into the reader, and steeply up to Sandal Seat we went. Now we were less than half a mile from the summit, but the angle and terrain were unquestionably fell rather than cross country now, my hands pumping down on my thighs (if I’ve got to lug these bloody arms up with me I might as well use them), sweat pouring from my face even in the cold, claggy air. The summit was crested with another clumsy thrust of my dibber into its target, and the sweet relief of a downward trajectory began.
The grass was slick in the wet, and the lack of pronounced tread on my shoes promptly makd this clear, traction being variable at best. Either way, I’m definitely a downer rather than an upper, so I threw myself into the descent with the regular reckless abandon. Arms wind-milling, I kicked my legs into long strides, as if I was trying to launch a football the full length of a pitch. I interspersed the long leaps with the occasional tap left or right, trying to keep the unwieldy vessel on its winding course. Questionable as the technique appears to be, I kept passing runners, so I continued, my body shaking and praying that my legs weren’t about to crumble. Even a minuscule miscalculation would send me Klinsmanning down the fell. That was brought clearly into focus when I passed a downed runner, head bandaged, surrounded by co-competitors who had come to his aid.
We rambled through the final checkpoint, and the surrounding runners and I all audibly groaned as we realised there was still some uphill left. Climbs — no matter how insignificant — always seem an order of magnitude worse when they’re near the end (a pertinent issue with The Tour of Pendle approaching). But with some heart-pounding stomps, we were up and over and on our way back along the fast track. The final steep descent, the same one that caused such concern at the start — continued to deliver, as I completely lost all grip, engaging in a full bum slide manoeuvre. Definitely not the Olympics. Still, back on my feet, and a final romp back through the starting field. Arms flailing as I dived into the pen, passing the invisible baton to my 2nd leg team-mates.
In my anoxic state, I clambered through the barrier, completely disorientated, and totally oblivious to the finishing pen and mandatory kit check to my left. It seems reasonable proof that I was trying hard at least, or that I’m an idiot, both plausible options. Redirected by the marshal, like a bouncer gently guiding an intoxicated patron, I emptied the contents of my race vest and thus validated my stint, with all the correct accessories, and we were done.
Back in warm and dry clothes, gleefully tucking into a polystyrene box full of chicken, rice and peas, I was very cheery man.
Over the day, the runners from the remaining legs returned, some jubilant, others glad to be passing the baton, sharing stories of the day’s trials and tribulations. A fantastic achievement by all, on a course with no easy legs, and conditions to match.