2018 The Fellsman - Simon Robertson
The Fellsman is a ~61 mile Ultra-marathon taking in lots of hills in a big arch between Ingleton and Grassington. When I did the Fellsman last year, it was my first Ultra-marathon, it was my big focus for the year and I trained solidly for four months, many long runs and many miles clocked up on my feet. This year was different, I'd only managed two long runs all year, and one of those was a section-route recce on the Tuesday before the race. And I'd had a stiff right Achilles for about 10 days, from marching into Wetherby with my four year-old on my shoulders whilst wearing sandals a few weeks back. It seemed to ease with stretching though, but it was a worry!
The race starts in Ingleton, where I met Martin Thomerson, who I ran the last half of the race with last year and we agreed we'd start running together and see how it went. Since last year Martin has run sub 3-hour marathons, completed the UTMB and been running loads. I explained that I have not and our paces might be different this year. Martin said we should be OK, he'd recently done the Manchester and London marathons and was starting with tired legs. So expectations set, we said we'd try and move at the same pace as last year, and hope to gain time in the final third when last year we were held-up.
We went outside for the final race briefing and we're off and running up ingleborough. I was huffing and puffing, but then I always do, but moving OK, and my tight right Achilles eased off. The top of this first climb was in cloud as we hit the summit, but we got there together in about 50 minutes, so off down the other side of the hill towards Whernside. The decent from Ingleborough is technical, lots of steep stony drops, I was moving OK, my right Achilles was coping really well. I started to relax, the sun came out as we were in the valley, through the Hill Inn check-point and onto Whernside. A long slog of a climb, but never too steep. Martin and I hit the ridge-path together, then there's a little out-and-back from this path to the summit, so faster runners whizz merrily down as we power up to the top, quickly through the check-point and then it's our turn to bound downhill past folk still ascending. The route goes 'off-piste' at this point, over a temporary stile over a wall and drops into Kingdale, this section can be slow and boggy, but we're lucky, despite the recent wet weather, the ground is springy not soggy and we make good time down the hill and across the two streams to the valley road.
From the Kingdale valley it's about 2 hours to the next road-side check-point with food and water supplies, so I stock-up with water, grab flap-jack and head up hill. I end up scrambling up on all fours at points on this climb, quads burning. Gragareth is very steep for about 1km. At the top there's a out and back to the summit on our left, then a long gradual climb up to Great Coum. My legs are feeling OK, Martin and I are both moving well and the ground on the summit is firm, so we trot along at a reasonable pace.
Along with the 20 items of mandatory kit for the event, I'm carrying a can of rum and coke in my back-pack, because earlier this year, when out riding my bike around Ecup I had 3 punctures on the same ride, and a kind fella stopped and gave me a lift to his house and gave me two spare tubes. And although I hadn't recalled his name, he told me he marshalled on the Fellsman, on the hill above Dent, so as a token of my gratitude, I'd resolved to get him a drink. But, at Great Coum (the first hill above Dent), one of the marshals was about 20 years older than my helper and the other was a woman. Hmm, maybe he's on the hill the other side of Dent. Anyway, it was a useful distraction from my aching legs, and so we pressed on and dropped into Dent, getting there just after 1pm.
Dent is a very picturesque village and the check-point here is always lively, with plenty of marshalls, but with a fast schedule in mind Martin and I grab fresh water supplies, lovely hot sausage-rolls and head straight back out towards Blea Moor. I started to struggle on the rocky road up onto Blea Moor. Unfortunately I'd expected this section as partly steep, partly runnable, and in mis-remembering it found the half-an-hour on steep stoney path a right grind. Also at this point my stomach was feeling a little queasy. Once the route leaves the stoney path, there's an open boggy moorland section to get across, this year it was wet, plenty on strength sapping knee-deep strides through the mud. At least the sun came out as got to the check-point. Neither of the marshals here were my bike-hero from a few month ago either, so I slung the rum and coke back in my back-pack and we turned to run down to Stonehouse. I was hoping real food, not just energy gels available in Stonehouse would settle my tum. We got to Stonehouse about 3pm. I gave my rum and coke to a random marshal, fed-up of carrying the extra weight! I grabbed water and pasta and strode out heading for Great Knoutberry, it's a steep up-hill slog for 50 minutes from Stonehouse, the first half-an-hour on a path, so we marched up, me forcing pasta into my mouth.
The last 20 mins of the Great Knoutberry climb is another slippy, boggy moorland section and it's an out-and-back bit too, so as we slog up, there are folks skipping down who are 30 minutes ahead of us. I puffed and panted up the final section and Martin was looking strong and pulling away a bit, but we re-grouped at the top. Having just walked for 50 minutes, it was good to try and move faster again on the decent and then cross another bit of moorland to Redshaw. Redshaw serve hotdogs, Mmm, probably the most welcome and enjoyable hotdog I've ever had. And Redshaw marks 30 miles, so we're now half-way. Martin and I caught up with Maria and Bridget on the way into Redshaw, and we were more efficient through the check-point, but they caught up with us again after the ground beneath me squelched and I half-disappeared into a bog. With my left leg fully submerged I needed Martin's help to get out. For the next few hours Maria, Bridget, Martin and I kept pretty much together as a four. I found it quite helpful, as I could just focus on breathing and moving my feet as Maria and Martin chatted and kept spirits up.
And so the four of us trotted through Snaizeholme, Dodd Fell and to Fleet Moss and although I wasn't feeling as strong as I did at this point last year, Martin and I were 30 minutes ahead of last years schedule. I'd recce'ed a very runnable route across Fleet Moss during the past week, so went quickly through the check-point and off onto the moorland which has deserves it's reputation as the hardest part of the course to navigate. Maria and Bridget caught us again and we tracked across the Moor, picking a really good route and although my legs were painful, the fact we never had to stop to navigate meant we gained good time getting to the mid-moor check-point. From there the four of us didn't agree whether to follow the crowd heading for a lower route, or follow my recce'ed route further up the hill. So we compromised and went in the middle of the two, missing both paths and bashed though the tussocks! We made it to the fence-line which leads to the Hells Gap check-point, but by this point my legs were leaden. Maria and Bridget pulled away, and then Martin pulled 40 yards ahead too. Martin and I re-grouped at Hells Gap, and we tried to catch Maria and Bridget as we headed to Cray. We got to Cray about 8:45, just over 12 hours in, 45 miles done and it was dusk. At dusk in the Fellsman you are 'grouped' and run the night-time section as a team. With Maria and Bridget wanting to push for a fast finish, they headed out quickly, and Martin and I were grouped with Rick, Fiona and Colin.
I'd picked a good line up the next hill, Buckden Pike and although it's steep and my legs held the team back a bit, we made fairly good time up this penultimate big climb. The sun disappeared as we pounded our way up, and it was noticeably colder on the summit, we got our tally's stamped and moved onward. The next section is easy if you know the route, so I went to the front of the group and lead us nicely down to a path marked with blue-topped wooden posts, then we turned left towards Top Mere. We lost the path at this point, not sure how, so we followed a wall for about a mile, where it was tricky under foot, but at least we knew where we were. My legs improved a bit as we marched the up hills and did the 'ultra-shuffle' on the flats approaching Park Rash. Here it started to rain, so we were all glad to get into the check-point tent, it was just gone 11pm. We all layered up with water-proofs, enjoyed the hot-chocolate, the cake and the heater. But after a 15 minute rest, when we headed out into the cold, dark, wet night and found our legs had stiffened, it made the next 20 minutes tough. The base of the climb up Great Whernside is vague and we occasionally veered off until we hit the 15 minutes of steep climbing. We were in the cloud now, so progress was slow, so we followed the summit fence along, looking out for the check-point which is further along than anyone thought, but eventually, just after midnight, we saw it's red-flashing light, we all got clipped headed off for the long final decent.
There's still 2.5 hours of walking, running, slipping and sliding from the top of the last peak to the finish line in the Upper Wharfedale School in Threshfield, but Rick, Fiona, Colin , Martin and myself made a good team, we kept good pace together and kept each others spirits up. We got officially de-grouped 2 miles from the end, and Rick, Fiona and Colin managed to jog on slightly faster than Martin and I, but we finished just gone 2.30am, 18 hours 8 minutes after we set off. We took a few photos, collected our finishers buffs and then all said our good-byes at the end of our epic adventure. I was really pleased to finish quicker than last year, since I knew I was under-prepared by comparison. But just by doing a few more tricky bits of the route in the light and then getting into a good group I had finished 1 hour 20 minutes quicker. I finished 77th out of 341 starters.
The Fellsman really is an unique challenge, 61 miles, mainly off-road, some off-path, supported, fed and watered by an army of volunteers (mostly from Keighley Scouts), over the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. I'll be doing it again next year. It's an amazing event to have on our doorsteps, next year, why not join me?
Here's a record of this years run on Strava: www.strava.com/activities/1540021896