Last week I did something a bit mental. Having never run off-road before I entered for a 16 mile fell race. In the half-hour following this moment of madness, my google search history looked something like this: “what is a fell” (mountain with grass on), and after opening up the directions of the route which seemed to consist of bizarre co-ordinates, “what is an ordnance survey map”. Having received lots of encouragement from the trail and fell runners of Twitter to try something different it seemed that I might have got carried away! To put two things into context: 1) I live in an entirely flat area and avoid hills like the plague (they ruin my average pace on Strava), and 2) I have absolutely no sense of direction at all. I regularly get lost on my way home from work. What could go wrong?
After some research it seemed like the main difference between trail and fell running is that trail races usually follow a distinct route whereas fell races is generally off-the-beaten track and have an element of navigation. An ideal start for a road runner with no sense of direction!I thought it was sensible to email the race organisers and explain my situation just in case it was a really, really bad idea, but they were very positive and reassured me that I’d be “just fine” – apparently people usually just follow the person in front (this is ok as long you’re not last by some distance!). So excuses used up, it was time to plan my first training route. Having got into this mess via Twitter I decided to send a message out to the runners of the peak district for suggestions of beginner routes. The response was amazing with lots of fantastic routes and even some offers of guided runs! I was starting to feel really excited about my big solo fell running adventure. Whilst the run community of Twitter couldn’t have been more supportive, the response closer to home was slightly less so..
Obviously I ignored this message and got on with planning my debut. Several people had suggested Hathersage as a relatively safe place to run from and after some internet searching I came across a fantastic blog called Mud Chalk & Gears which had some recommended routes that you were able to download into an app called ‘Viewranger’ which would supposedly act as a kind of sat-nav; this was starting to get more up my street. I selected a 4 mile circular route in Hathersage which you can view and download here. There was a very real possibility of getting extremely lost so I went big on my supplies and stuffed my running pack with 2L of iced water, three energy bars, a gel, two satsumas, a spare top, and my camera: seemed like enough for 4 miles! It was a 90 minute drive from my house in Nottingham, and I started to get a little nervous in the last 5 miles as the impressive terrain of the Peak District crept into view, and the radio signal disappeared. This was going to be quite different from running along the embankment in the city.
I used the app to navigate to the start of the mapped route and parked my car in a lay-by with some lovely Swaledale ewes to keep it company, and I set off. It was absolutely magnificent. Obviously I ran straight off in completely the wrong direction so after noticing the arrow was pointing backwards I turned around, and I set off again! The first mile was pretty flat and although the ground was uneven I was able to keep a pretty good pace until the first climb where it suddenly all turned very rocky and I was doing more of a frog-leap from rock to rock. This was great – I felt like a real adventurer!
The only problem I had during the run was that everywhere was so beautiful I had to stop every few minutes to get my giant camera out to take photos! I kept promising myself that this would be the last photo, and then I’d come around a bend to the next incredible view and I just couldn’t help myself. I guess I’ll have to get used to this, but at least I have some great mementoes of my first ever fell run. I did pause my watch when I was photo-making, so feel like a bit of a cheat as my heartrate did recover during these sections, but otherwise I kept it running. I scrambled down the first downhill section feeling like a compete tourist – slipping in my road shoes and trying not to drop my precious phone/satnav! I don’t think I’ve got the seasoned fell runner look nailed quite yet but the elderly group of walkers I met seemed impressed.
The next miles was a steady gradient uphill, with some very steep rock climbs. There was no path at all in this section but the arrow on my app helped me to climb the massive rocks in vaguely the right direction. There were a few moments where I felt a bit anxious and questioned whether I was going where I was meant to (and if anyone would ever find me if I fell!), but each time I surfaced at the top of another climb to find the next unbelievable view. Whilst fell-running via smartphone isn’t exactly the real deal, this method meant I was able to head straight out on a route that strayed away from the main paths and gave me the confidence to tackle some very real terrain. The next challenge was crossing a small river with a hairy uphill struggle complete with sinking bog, bush, rocks – and lacking any discernible path. The route was circular and at the top of this sesction I was able to look across the valley (I don’t know if that’s the right term, but I like it) and see where I’d come from which was amazing.
The final mile was very up and down, but there was very discernible path – this was the easiest part and I enjoyed putting my phone in my pocket and running with confidence. At various points I was rewarded with a view of my car in the distance. Not quite as good a view as some of the others, but I was delighted that it seemed like I would come out of my adventure triumphant! As I neared the finish I realised that the car I’d been aiming for was not in fact my car. But this worked out well as the extra section to my actual car rounded my run up to exactly 4 miles which meant no running up and down the lay-by!
I found a bench, stopped my watch, and looked back at where I’d been. I’d done it! All on my own. And it had felt like a real adventure. I’d planned it myself, packed my bag, driven over an hour to a place I’d never been before and I’d run 4 miles off-track up rocks, across streams, and down slippy trails and I didn’t get lost, much. More importantly I loved every second of it. I re-found the joy of running, away from the pavements and the PBs.
So how am I feeling about the 16 mile fell race? I feel excited, and it does seem like a possibility. But I’d definitely under-estimated what the pace would actually feel like. The last placed runner at last years event finished in 4:26:15, roughly a 16min/mile pace. A 16 minute mile to a flat road runner like me seemed like a breeze. I can walk quicker than that so surely the addition of any running at all would make this more than achievable. I hadn’t quite realised that the walk sections would be walked because they could not be run (and not as a break), and that your average pace will have to take into account the 45 min/mile pace of clambering up rock faces, and the 0 min/pile pace of staring at the next set of rock faces wondering if it is even possible. And that’s without my photo-taking breaks!
But it is a goal, and even if I don’t quite get there I think I’m going to have a lot of fun trying. Here’s to the next adventure, and the world’s newest beginner fell/trail runner!
Photo credits: I nabbed a passer-by to take a photo of me running, and used the timer to take the final one. I really did go on my own, promise!