Why everyone should try a fell race this spring
Even main stream road running events are now copying the pasty and squash format in an attempt to offer some of that northern hospitality and soul, which remains unique to the world of fell running. It’s still to be found at the purist end of the sporting spectrum, without a doubt.
Unless you happen to live in the mountains or in the northern rural heartlands however, the reality of a drive north up the M4, M1 or M5, may well require some self-examination before you embark on your first fell race. Vertiginous landscapes and endless horizons can cause more than mere first time flyer flutters and may lead you to question your own decision making faculties!
You will need to embrace the unseen elements such as the bogs, the long winding paths which disappear well before the summit, stream hopping, river wading, style vaulting, gnarly, rocky booby traps, sometimes scree, sometimes tufty clumps, which require a mountaineer’s precision to negotiate. Then there’s the unpredictability of mountain weather, which has its own microclimate. Sounds Ideal? Probably you’ll find yourself a new life long love affair.
Part of the pleasure to be found in fell races is their elemental simplicity. And the fact that the organisers are very conscious of their impact on the environment and so try to keep numbers down.
There are no junk miles in fell running and no gimmicks in the races, just tough and tougher miles. But there is a lot more to keep the mind and body engaged, and time will soon begin to lose its meaning. If your running has jaded to grey like the pavements you tread, fell running is a sure fire way to re galvanise you and reignite your love of the sport.
Where do fell races take place?
Follow the National Parks and you’ll start seeing them on the FRA radar. A quick glance at the Fell Running Association website will provide some pointers. The Peak District, Lake District (possibly the capital of the sport), Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland, Snowdonia and the Cairngorms. It’s also worth noting what fell terrain actually is. It generally involves mountain and hill running, over upland, mountain peaks and moorland.
Many fell races work around a village fete or country fayre between the sheepdog trials. Others exist in their own right and more recently there’s a skyline race series, for more experienced adventurers and mountaineers.
The more low key events often start and finish at a country pub or sports field, with numbers of anything between 30 and 300 runners Entry fees are rarely more than £7 and proceeds often go towards charities. They may well also have junior races and have a real family feel. Another bonus for first timers.
Except for the most straight forward short races, most organisers now ask for an element of self-navigation. So you’ll need to be familiar with a compass and a map, which you can usually buy from a Peter Bland mobile store, if you happened to be within 100 miles of Cumbria.
What are the rules?
Recent tragedies in mountain fell races have meant that organisers are now very sensitive to people dropping out of their race and not informing a marshal that they have done so before heading home. Mountain Rescue may well be called out at considerable expense and spend the rest of the weekend searching for you, long after you plumped yourself down on the sofa with a beer in your hand.
Many events will have mandatory kit regulations. Be prepared to have the contents of your rucksack checked before the start. If you don’t meet essential equipment requirements, you may well be disqualified or forbidden to start, regardless of how far you have travelled.
Consult the online FRA glossary, which relates to the amount of experience you should ideally have for that particular race. ER means Experience Required, NS is Navigational Skills Required, LK means Local Knowledge is an advantage, while PM means the course is Partially Marked.
Some fell races require you to punch a card at each of the checkpoints along the way, while others require you to swipe a dibber, which you collect along with your number at registration, even after you have registered online through SiE.
‘Best Practice Kit’ is the mandatory minimum for certain categories of races: AL, AM and BL races (see categories below). Organisers may also require this to be carried at other categories of event. This comprises: Waterproof whole body cover, hat, gloves, map of the route, compass, whistle, emergency food. Your waterproof whole body cover must have taped seams and an attached hood.
Be prepared for organisers to carry out kit inspections before you are allowed to register, or at any time during the race. Occasionally they can relax the kit list, but it’s not worth second guessing them. Even if you don’t think this kit list is necessary, a runner who is forced to retire on a mountain side in January because of injury or tiredness, is very susceptible to hypothermia.
How can I train for a fell race?
To prepare for a fell race you’ll need to work on your technique to handle the unnerving descents. Make sure you watch where you place your feet and try leaning into the descent. This might go against your natural reflexes, but will actually reduce the strain placed on your muscles.
You’ll need to practice rock hopping and dealing with unstable terrain, which means improving your balance as well as fitness through cross fitness, cycling or hill-walking or climbing for example. This will also strengthen your ankles and sinewy connective tissues.
How hard are fell races?
Look at the banding attached to each race and you’ll see it starts with a letter A which means technically hard, B which means medium and C which is a technically straight forward race with a minimum of incline. These letters are succeeded by an L M or S, which stands for Long, Medium or Short.
- A Category races average no less than 250ft for every mile of climb, and no more than 20% of total distance on road
- B Categories average no less than 125ft for every mile of climb, and no more than 30% of total distance on road
- C Categories average no less than 100ft for every mile of climb, and no more than 40% of total distance on road
- Short (S) courses are under six miles (9.6K) in length.
- Medium (M) are between six and 12 miles (19.3K) in length.
- Long (L) courses are more than 12 miles in length.
Thus, a race listed as “AM” will be steep but of medium length. Most fixtures will also include a reference to their total distance and elevation -8m/600′ refers to an eight-mile race climbing 600ft for example.
If you fancy trying your hand at an intro to fell running, the Burnsall Classic which takes place in August in Skipton, is a sprint by fell running standards, albeit one that takes a route one uphill 274m and back down, over 1.5miles.
If you don’t live anywhere near the north of England however, it may be easier to justify the journey by entering a longer but still manageable distance, like the Kinder Downfall in the Peak District. This is just under 10 miles and a B category in terms of climb.
Then there are the monsters. The fell races, which will really have you digging deep in to the bowels of your determination. Such races include Borrowdale, Langdale horseshoe, Ennerdale and Duddon, to name just a few of the AL monsters.
Whatever you decide to do, bring a friend along, even in the capacity of supporter or journey friend. It’s always easier to nurse a bad experience with someone who actually understands why you would want to do this!