A fell race – in the dark – marked by glow-sticks – ending with a pie. You’d be mad not to, right? Or if you’re a normal person, you’d be mad to!
I’m not a normal person, but unfortunately for my boyfriend he is. More unfortunately for him he loves me and so his fear of me doing this alone just out-weighed his fear of doing it with me. We live in an age of health-and-safety madness, you even can’t catch a bus without a forty-page risk assessment. But fell running exists outside this world: to register for this race they didn’t need your name or emergency contact details, just your choice of pie.
When I signed up I was super excited, it sounded pretty awesome (glow sticks!). But I have to say as it got closer I did start to get nervous; also everyone I mentioned it to thought I was insane. On the day of the race I realised FRA (fell runners association) kit required full waterproofs, which Tom didn’t have. He was hoping this was his ticket out, but luckily I managed to squeeze him into an old pair of my lambing ones. So, two pairs of ladies waterproofs packed, we set off with me reassuring Tom how super cool it was going to be. It soon got very dark, and weather started to turn. As we got closer I couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of the car because of the fog and rain. Needless to say we were feeling confident.
We arrived just in time for the race briefing. There were a few questions about the route which were answered something like “oh you know it, just past the old tree and take a right at the usual rock” to a sea of knowing nods from local runners, “oh yes of course”. It made total sense. Ok, so we just needed not to be last and we could follow everyone else. We all gathered in our head-torches and reflective gear, and I started to feel excited; it was like being part of a running Christmas display.
Suddenly there was a rapid countdown, while I fumbled to start my Garmin in my gloves, and we were off. We headed up a muddy lane and as I looked up I could see the field opening up into a beautiful stream of head-lights bobbing up and down.
The visibility was actually quite good with the combined effort of everyone’s head-torches and my pre-race nerves started to ease off. After a mile or so we headed into a wooded section where the path narrowed and we began to climb. The path had a lot of rocks and tree branches so you had to concentrate pretty hard. And Tom announced that he couldn’t see anything at all. At this point quite a large drop had developed on our left side (in which he doesn’t have any vision anyway) so I panicked and we stopped, moving to the right to let the people behind us go. Turns out running in the rain with glasses is a bad idea: the fronts get covered with rain, and the inside steams up. And he couldn’t see a thing without them on.
I had the better head-torch so once we were through the woods we swapped, and I saw (quite literally) why Tom couldn’t see anything. His was absolutely crap. Luckily I’d brought a chest-torch as a back-up so I put this on and we cracked on, taking care to run side-by-side with me pointing out any life-threatening hazards. The climb began in earnest as we started clambering up rocks towards the top. The air turned from wet British drizzle to the cool ice of something totally different, and patches of snow appeared. Although it was a bit daunting I absolutely loved it; there’s not many people that have climbed up a rocky fell in the pitch black with snow and ice. I took a moment to really absorb where I was and what I was doing (I’ve been practicing mindfulness) and tried to express that to Tom. But he was busy not falling off the side.
When we got to the top I expected it to get easier, but it didn’t. We had to cross a long section that although flat, was made up of large rock faces surrounded by either bog or water. We realised that we’d fallen completely behind the group and were completely alone. And almost certainly last, which was a flaw in our navigation plan. In the briefing they said the route would be marked with 50 glow sticks, and 25 marshalls. This sounded like a lot at the time. But in the pitch black, alone on top of a misty, snowy, icey, boggy mountain, one 15cm glow stick every 321 metres was not so much. Eventually the tail walkers caught up with us, they kept their distance, but they did let us know that there was a 400m drop not that far away on the right-hand side.
We gingerly rock-hopped towards a tiny little blue glow-stick at the end where we found a nice marshall. The nice marshall informed us it was just downhill from here – what a relief! Until I saw what he meant by downhill. That 400m drop I mentioned a second ago, yeah, basically just head straight down there and you’ll be back in no time. There was no other way home, and we really wanted to go home, so we set off. It went like this: “are you ok?” (me), “….yep” (angry/petrified Tom); “do you still love me?” (me), “…….…” (silence, Tom); “I’m really sorry” (me). Repeat every minute or so.
I usually enjoy half falling down-hill on fell runs but knowing that Tom was behind me doing the same thing with almost no vision at all, wasn’t so fun. But somehow we made it down in-tact and hit a beautiful tarmac road – at which point Tom got his own back by running off without me. I’ll never moan about boring roads ever again, I can’t explain the joy of putting your foot down and knowing it’s going to stay there! We sprinted away and before we knew it we’d crossed the finish. Aside from one poor lady who twisted her ankle (to my knowledge the only injury of the evening) we finished in joint last place in 1:20:57. But we were alive so it’s all good.
The race was approximately 5 miles long, with the winner finishing in an unbelievable 35:31. Due to our extreme slowness, one of my major concerns (apart from dropping off the side of the mountain or dying in some other manner) was that they’d have run out of pie, or that ours would be cold and miserable by the time we reached it. We got back to the shop to find it full of clean, clothed – seemingly showered and blow-dried – runners who looked like they had been back for hours. We found the pie ladies who served us up two enormous slices of delicious, still-hot, pie. Best pie ever.
So it was definitely an experience! It took me a few days to reflect on what an amazing thing it was to have got all the way up there in the pitch-black. I felt like an Everest explorer clambering up those rocks, feeling the air turn icy, and the constant stream of dotty little head-torches above was an incredible sight. But it was also a hard lesson in the realities of fell running and how quickly something can turn from an adventure, to very frightening. Moral of the story: be prepared. I was at the edge of my comfort zone, but ultimately I had a decent pair of trail shoes, a brilliant head torch, and good vision. But finding yourself half-way up a mountain at night and realising your head torch doesn’t work, you can’t see, and your shoes are slippy, is a completely different story. Also, as fun as running in the dark is, I think running up a giant rock for two miles is kind of better when you can see the view at the top.
Anyway, we both survived with all our limbs, Tom has forgiven me, and I even caught him looking at fell running shoes on the drive home. That means he loved it, right?