Wednesday, 29 April 2015

I gambled and paid the price.....

The 53rd Fellsman. Sat 25 – Sun 26/04/2015.

I had been studying the forecast avidly in the 2 weeks leading up to The Fellsman. I knew the early summer we'd been enjoying would come to an end right on cue just to 'keep it real' Fellsman stylie, but the last forecast I saw before heading up to Threshfield on Friday afternoon suggested a big improvement with much less rain than originally predicted. It all seemed to be coming true by Saturday morning. The temperature was milder than in previous years and what little rain there had been on Friday night was little more than dampness in the air now. The dry ground would only be dampened.

With a string of recent PBs under my belt (5 in 9 days, the latest being on the Thursday evening) I harboured thoughts of making this the 6th in 11 days. I was so confident of my fitness I’d not kept my ambitious thoughts to myself (first mistake). In the interests of athletic performance (not wanting to burn up) I elected to leave my waterproof jacket and trousers in my rucksack (2nd mistake) and set off with lightweight windproof top whose only waterproofness was that offered by the waterproofing wash I’d given it. It would shrug off the wind and some light rain, which was all I was expecting. I wore no waterproof trousers and only wore leggings to avoid having to faff around putting them on at grouping time.

We were sent on our way at 08:30 from the sports field in Ingleton to begin the first climb up Ingleborough. We were soon in the cloud. The light rain or drizzle blew across in fits and starts but it wasn't too cold. When we finally summited on Ingleborough, the cloud was so thick we couldn't see the checkpoint. I followed my nose based on memory of the previous eight times. A checkpoint marshal materialised out of the murk waving his arms wildly to draw us in.

The wind blew and it was decidedly inhospitable as I stumbled onwards, making sure to keep the drop-off to my left. I was struggling to see where I was going and taking it very carefully over the rock-strewn terrain. I was reminded that the old back-up glasses I was wearing (the latest ones had broken a couple of weeks earlier) hold onto the water droplets far too well. The cloud, as well as obscuring our view in the atmosphere also deposited itself with wind assistance onto my lenses to obscure my view even further. As I stumbled clumsily like an old 'un with dodgy knees (well, I am and I have, but I was half blind now as well), fellow fell-runner, 'barefoot' Aleks Kashefi caught up. He had special dispensation from the authorities (Fellsman committee) to run without footwear.


Yes, without shoes.

Or socks.

Aleks was running The Fellsman barefoot (or minimally shod in the skimpy sandals he was wearing at that moment) as part of his training for his sponsored LEJOG in August, but he had to take proper shoes with him as well, just in case, like. ;-) He'd signed a special waiver and everything. That was a real privilege considering the strict kit rules that apply to this event (rightly so). I commend the organisers for their flexibility and understanding. I know Aleks really appreciates this unique privilege. He left me standing as he skipped down the other side of Ingleborough, full of the joys of running barefoot. I could tell by the involuntary whoops of joy he couldn't hold in. It was something special to witness.

Aleks descends Ingleborough.

CP2 at Hill Inn was passed through (cue the first electronic scan whizz-sound, which tickles my childish sense of humour every time). We were informed that the grouping time at Fleet Moss had been brought forward an hour to 18:30. Wonderful. There go my plans for getting through before grouping. Perhaps the forecast really is bad for later. Jonathan had warned us at race briefing about the forecast plummeting temperatures. I was ready for it: I had my best waterproof rolled up in my rucksack for when it does get bad.

The first heavier, thankfully fleeting, bursts of rain hit as we climbed Whernside. The second SportSunday photographer had to uncover her camera from protection to grab quick shots before sheltering it again.

Looking back while waiting to get clipped at Whernside summit.

Gaining the ridge on Whernside brought more cloud-enshrouded windblown drizzle misery. I trudged up to CP3 as faster runners came back down on their way to Kingsdale. It wasn't that mild now. I was half blinded again by my obscured glasses, which became a problem for the second technical descent. The old doddering recommenced while other runners without compromised vision sailed past me. We queued to climb the temporary ladder stile (now aluminium and no doubt much lighter to drag up there) before winding our way down the green pastures, descending out of the cloud as we did so. I could see where I was going again and put a bit of a spurt on down the soft, easy-going terrain. It became less chilly out of the wind. It was brightening a little and I envisaged an end to the intermittent rain that had been blowing in.

Crossing the dried-up riverbed to Kingsdale.

We crossed the dried-up rocky riverbed (first time I've ever seen it like that) on our way to CP4 at Kingsdale. The rain had stopped and I was comfortably warm (if not dry), so I didn't mind the fact that the latest influx had temporarily caused them to run out of tea. I just grabbed a magic home-made flapjack and continued up the third climb, making do with my water to wash it down. As I climbed I heard a "Hiya Nick" as someone caught up with me. Charlie Johnson! What are you doing here? You should be miles ahead. In the cloud he'd descended with others in the wrong direction off Ingleborough so had a lot of ground to make up.

The brightening on the descent to Kingsdale became a darkening as we climbed back into the cloud. Worse than that, the rain was starting again, the wind was rising and the temperature was dropping as we climbed the precipitous slopes of Gragareth. CP5 at the summit had been relocated to within the shelter of the walls. Not having to do the out-and-back to the trig point saved a few minutes. Once queued for tally punching by the tented torso it was over the stile and right to begin the long, undulating run to Great Coum. This is where the wheels began to fall off.

Climbing Gragareth as the rain returned.

Getting clipped by the 'tented torso' at the relocated Gragareth checkpoint.

The weather came in with a vengeance with wind and driving rain. The temperature was plummeting and the omnipresent cloud prevented any view, save for the bogs at our feet. The ground, which had been bone dry little more than 12 hours earlier, already had its bogs and mud rejuvenated to normal Fellsman standards. We stumbled and sank along the wall line. I was struggling to run/walk and my mind was becoming dulled, with one overriding priority: keep moving, keep warm.

I'd been chasing another runner with green jacket all the way to Great Coum without quite being able to catch up. He ran past the point where we climb over the wall to the checkpoint. I called him back as I climbed over.

CP6, Great Coum, clipped and off. Set compass to N and run blind to survive. I was getting clumsier and slower as I got colder. Check compass: N. Need to keep to the right of Shivery Hole but can't see a thing in the cloud. Climb down the rocky bit. Keep shuffling, need to get to sanctuary. Suddenly the ground dropped off into a gully just to my left. Spot on! Keep going to hit the wall. I was alone in a world of mental and physical haze. Others just behind me had gone too far to the left and were out of sight somewhere in the murk, but I knew where I was going even though my brain and body were shutting down. My knee was complaining bitterly, further hampering downward progress. It’s made worse by a cold body that’s suffering.

I followed the wall downwards through the bogs, emerging once more from the cloud to eventually reach the dilapidated footbridge that’s on the point of total collapse now. The other runners caught up with me at CP7, Flinter Gill. As they disappeared ahead I continued the survival shuffle down the tracks towards Dent. The rockier tracks could only be walked, such was my depleted, bumbling clumsiness.

I entered CP8 via the back entrance once again and descended the field, almost certain that a retirement was imminent. I was utterly debilitated physically and mentally through cold and wet. I was directed to the campground toilet where I could change out of my wet clothing. Off came the windproof top, sodden long-sleeved base-layer and sodden leggings. On went long-sleeved T-shirt, waterproof trousers and the proper waterproof jacket I should have been wearing from the outset. I was shivering and bordering on hypothermic. The forecast as I understood it had not come to pass. The rain was still pouring. Who knew how much longer it would last? I knew it was forecast to get even colder. I was already frozen and with only one spare dry top and no dry leggings, I decided in the interests of personal safety and not inconveniencing the organisers with an emergency to call it a day.

I grabbed a sausage roll and cup of tea and went to the communications tent to beg for a dry spot to wait for the bus of shame. I was welcomed with open arms by a caring matronly sort who chopped off my tally without ceremony to use as evidence against me and sat me down behind the operations desk next to another victim of the elements in the corner who was already swathed in blankets. I got swathed as well – they even broke out the space blankets – and got fed fairy cakes and tea. That became necessary after I splashed it all over with the involuntary shaking. As I languished, more victims piled in, including another fellow fell-runner Barny Crawshaw. Like Charlie he’d also descended off Ingleborough in the wrong direction and lost a lot of time. We were at the depths of the climactic misery in Dent. At that point, barely 24 hours after summer-like temperatures and bone-dry conditions, it was snowing a little higher up on the hills. My memories of The Fellsman are that the sun always shines in Dent and the climb to Blea Moor is the hottest part of the day. That image has been tarnished a little.

As I sat and observed the slick operations of the Fellsman machine from a third angle (1st and 2nd being ‘doing it’ and volunteering), I pondered on my 9th Fellsman and first DNF, all because of an error of judgement on starting attire. I’d fancied myself for a PB and wanted to run efficiently without burning up. Instead I froze, slowed and bailed. I gambled and paid the price, but I lived to see another race. I began to think of the upside and looked forward to witnessing the winning performances before nightfall.

Dent CP from the bus of shame.

The bus journey from Dent back to Threshfield was very long (the longest of all of them). We passed the Stone House checkpoint on the way. With nowhere to straighten my leg my right knee groaned with dull pain, forcing me to a quad-tensed standing position for long periods to get relief. I assume patella tendonitis is my problem.

Back at Threshfield I wandered up to Grassington with Barny and Duncan (another retiree at Dent) in time for the first arrivals. Adam Perry ran home for a third consecutive win in 10:23, Jez Bragg came a close second in 10:44, Konrad Rawlik came an even closer third in 10:57 and Jasmin Paris smashed the women’s record in fourth with 11:09. It was magnificent to witness, and I could not have done so had I still been on my way from Fleet Moss to Yockenthwaite Moor.

Winner Adam Perry descends through Grassington.

2nd Jez Bragg descends through Grassington.

3rd Konrad Rawlik has finished.

4th Jasmin Paris approaches the school (just look at that running form after 61 tough miles!).

My complete Flickr album is here.


  1. You've summed it up perfectly Nick, I've been reflecting on my kit choice for the past couple of days. Should have opted for a heavier jacket and put my trousers on.

    Oh well, at least we still got a jacket potato at the end!

  2. Your report reads so well Nick. You clearly got many positives from the day and yet more valuable ultra running experience, i guess these things are such enjoyable challenges because the chance of a DNF is so real. See you at Marlborough :-)

  3. Welcome back to the blogoshere Nick.
    All the best

  4. And you were in such a positive frame of mind at the start of the race, looking forward to it - "Yes". Next year you will have a much easier initial target - get past Dent!
    Nigel Aston

  5. Too true, Nigel. I've been itching to get back ever since.

    Thanks Steve. Question is, can I keep it up (the blogging)?

    Thanks Henry. Good to see you there, and well done on completing your first Fellsman. Tough, isn't it?

    Barny, see you same place, same time next year?

  6. I'll be there Nick - it's made me realise that you learn much more from a DNF than an F!

    I would still prefer the latter though....

  7. Well written Nick and thanks for a raw account of what happens when a kit choice proves incorrect. I was up on Great Shunner Fell the weekend after and there were deep drifts of snow up there still .... Good luck on the next outing and belated congrats on the string of PB runs ... see you soon. Best Wishes Mike

  8. Thanks Mike! Long time no see. Hope you're well and see you soon on an event somewhere.