A crash course in fell running

Hindsight is everything. Photo credit: Stephen Wilson

For my fell running debut, I wanted to make an entrance.

Instead, I settled for a crash landing.

My introduction began innocuously enough, with a surprise invitation from Inov-8 to join them in the Lake District for a whirlwind weekend of running through fells. Being Canadian and used to large-scale mountains, I barely knew what a fell was (is it a mountain? A hill? What exactly do the Brits define as a mountain anyway?), but I was ready to throw myself into this new venture. 

There were seven of us, from all over the world. We were the lucky winners of Inov-8's "Get a Grip" competition, which brought together runners from a variety of backgrounds with the goal of introducing us to the sport that was so ingrained in the Northern UK culture (and almost nowhere else). Our mission for the weekend: get a crash course in fell running technique and race the Skiddaw Classic, which featured a ten mile run up and down Skiddaw, one of the highest fells in the Lake District.

We arrived in Keswick on the Friday (pronounced Kessick with no "w", don't ask me why), a motley crew of bleary-eyed and jet-lagged travellers. Even through our fatigue, though, we could see that there was a certain kind of magic to this moody land. The town lay nestled among what seemed like an endless horizon of rolling fells of varying heights and steepness, partly shrouded in cloud, which only added to the mystery. Just how high were those peaks anyways? I suspected we would find out shortly.

Runners L-R: Adel Matanovic, Alex Garcia. Photo credit: Hilary Matheson

The day after our arrival saw us all up early and ready to tackle some fells. Our itinerary for the day included a "masterclass" (the polite way of saying crash course) in fell running techniques with accomplished runners Ben Mounsey and Mary Wilkinson. After getting kitted out at Inov-8's HQ (which is literally perched in the heart of the fell running district), we took to the fells with more enthusiasm than finesse. 

I quickly learned the first of several fell running lessons:  Don't even think about walking.  

We started off with what would become familiar quickly: ascending. As we climbed the faint game trails that seemed to go right up the steepest part of the ridges (the Brits call that taking the most efficient route), I yearned for the lung-saving switchbacks I was accustomed to. And as I watched Mary and Ben run uphill past me without seeming out of breath at all, I realized that fell runners don't slow to a power hike until the grade is nearly vertical. 

Once I established that my lungs were woefully unprepared to cope with this unfamiliar approach to hills, we switched focus to tackle downhill techniques. I soon learned my next fell running lesson: there is no such thing as a braking system. The best way to tackle the downhill is to throw yourself down the hill in the most expedient manner possible (read: fastest, with the least amount of care for one's noggin possible). And somehow, miraculously, they mostly stay upright. The image that came to mind as I watched Ben navigate the pockmarked terrain with ease was that of a rock skipping over a lake. If you get it going fast enough, it takes longer for it to sink. But at least in my case, sink it does, eventually.

Photo credit: James Carnegie

The Race

Speaking of sinking, on Sunday we tackled Skiddaw. At 3,054 feet, it's the sixth highest fell in England. While that may not be that big by my Canadian standards, it still qualifies as a properly steep mountain, especially when one is dragging oneself up only to hurtle oneself down again at (as Ben would say) "a bit of a pace". That's what's also known as an understatement.

There's a great sense of community at these fell races, which is probably what has made this niche sport so enduring. Families dropped off baked goods and cucumber sandwiches at the start line, creating an informal pot luck for hungry and muddy runners to enjoy post-race. Lean, weather-hardened men and women wear singlets and split shorts, despite the mandatory gear requirements that include carrying a waterproof jacket and pants. I shivered next to them in long sleeves and tights.

With a low key "Go!" we were off at a startlingly fast pace, and I knew within two minutes that my ultra-running conditioned body (ie. capable of slow gears only) wasn't going to be any good on this course. The route followed a well established and steep game trail up the ridge crest to the summit. Five miles straight uphill from the middle of town, and then five miles back the way you came. Even I can do the math on that one and realize that ten miles at the pace we were running was going to feel about as painful as 100 miles at my normal ultra shuffle pace. 

As the grade quickly got steeper, I was passed by a steady stream of local runners who were probably 25 years older than me - all somehow still running uphill long after I had switched to hiking with my hands on my quads. Mental note to self: must improve my uphill game. 

Split shorts and side stitches. Photo credit: James Carnegie

The top third of the mountain had been playing coy all morning, hidden in a menacing looking cloud. Sure enough, once we hit the cloud line the temperature plummeted, and I realized why we had been asked to carry such beefy emergency gear during a summer race. It was both cold and disorienting, and the wind was strong enough that I struggled to stand upright. In that moment, I realized how quickly a jaunt in the fells could go sideways if given a little bit of side eye from Mother Nature. 

I reached the top of Skiddaw with little fanfare and if it hadn't been for the shivering volunteers and a lonely cairn to mark the summit, I wouldn't have even know where I was - I could barely see my hand in front of my face through the fog and cloud. All I knew was that I wanted to get off of the top of the damn mountain as quickly as possible, and it seemed like a good time to test out the fell running brakeless descent technique.

Downhill trail running in Vancouver usually involves playing cautious ping pong off of roots and rocks, so it was a treat to be able to open up my legs, trust my Inov-8 shoes to do their thing, and just let go. I whooped and hollered as I flew down the hill, exchanging cheers and high-fives with my fellow teammates as I went. The world merged into an exhilarating whirl of grass, gravel and sky, until I was suddenly jolted out of this euphoric state of flow by a rude realization: my legs were moving faster than my reflexes could control. Lacking the Road Runner's control at high speeds, I ended up like Wile E. Coyote; though fortunately I landed in a ditch, not at the bottom of a cliff.

Luckily, I actually bounced right out of my fall and back onto my feet with very little consequence aside from a bruised ego. I remember yelling at a concerned farmer who had watched my impressive fall in shock, "at least no one caught that on camera!!" as I flew by, unaware that I'd been busted by local race photographer Stephen Wilson, who just happened to be stationed at the precise corner where I decided to wipe out. 

Thankfully the rest of the race unfolded without additional displays of my klutziness. Before I knew it I was collapsing on the grass at the finish line, then happily partaking in an eclectic pot luck and comparing war wounds with my fellow teammates and racers.  Every other finisher seemed to be bleeding from at least one part of their body, and I realized that the ability to ignore pain is fundamental to one's success as a fell runner.

Full disclosure: I'm still not quite sure whether fells are hills or mountains. All I know is that they are steep going up, and scary coming down. We were each given a copy of Richard Askwith's fell running masterpiece "Feet in the Clouds" upon our arrival in Keswick, and I've been delving into stories of local legends and epic feats in recent weeks. Challenges such as the infamous Bob Graham Round, in which a runner covers 42 Lake District Peaks in 24 hours, have now made it onto my personal adventure bucket list, and I have no doubt that I'll be back in the fells soon, ready to tackle new adventures (and hopefully to stay upright for a little longer). Until then, I'll keep aspiring to what Askwith deems a key component of successful fell running: "a disregard for pain and danger that verges on lunacy."

Team Inov-8 "Get a Grip", having no fun at all. Photo credit: James Carnegie



Hilary Matheson