Fell Running – Back to Running’s Roots

Running is a pure sport. No equipment is needed, just you and Mother Nature. And in this sense there are some forms of running and racing that are more pure than others, and I may have just found the purest of them all. Fell running. Away from the corporate sponsors, custom medals, free technical t-shirts, celebrity starters, fan-fare, mass starts and hefty price tags; away and into unthinkable beauty and awe, pure and wild running, humble and hard racing, danger and exhilaration, beer and flapjacks, and the friendliest runners you will ever meet. If you want a challenge, a real challenge, where you challenge Mother Nature herself, then fell running is for you.

My first race. My neck strained as I looked to the top of the peak I was soon to ascend and almost vertically descend. Jim my road running training buddy and I looked at each other grinning as we absorbed the amazing surroundings of Pen Y Fan, and the monumental task ahead of us. The race was only 3.5 miles.

Half a mile in and my lungs are screaming, crying, begging for more air. My legs, hip flexors and core muscles feel like I am doing tuck jumps not running, and what feels like genuine muscle failure is kicking in. How is this possible? We have only just started! I pride myself on being a strong and robust runner, but I feel utterly weak and pathetic. This race has instantly humbled me.  The main ascent was up a narrow rocky path, after a steep grass starting straight, and as I half run/walk and lift my knees ever higher as the ascent steepens I can, for a second or two, look in awe at the landscape panning out either side of me. But only for a second or two.

Half way and I’m at the summit! The relief. The flat of the summit is a huge welcome and the exhilaration of what I have just achieved starts to creep in through the raging lactic inferno. A huge grin stretches across my face (exacerbated by being ahead of Jim) as I approach the summit marshal who records the summit time, “turn left and straight down mate”. I look at him for a second. He is being serious. The route to the left looks vertical. Not steep, vertical. Thankfully my brain is too oxygen depleted to question and my legs too tired to break my running. I begin to cautiously descend.

Half way down the descent and it is now clear that the ascent was the easy bit, a warm up even. Half way down the descent and my legs feel like they have been trampled by a stampede of horses. This isn’t running, this is a controlled free fall. And not that controlled. Without warning a silver haired flash rushes past me – a gentleman comfortably in his sixties has just gone past me like I am stationary. My cautious mood changes, I can’t have that. There is only one way – I embrace the fall. I lean forward, let my legs turn and let the mountain take me. The pain numbs and I’m flying, my pace has rocketed and I’m back with the silver flash. I’m wild, free and racing down a mountain faster than I have ever run. For the next few minutes I run the most exhilarating mile of my life, grinning, almost laughing at the absurdity but also purity of this race. A wild, unrelenting, unforgiving, humbling and intoxicating race. Fear mixed with wild freedom. Pain mixed with childish joy! And what awaited me at the end? A bottle of ale, a flapjack, and the most friendly post-race jolly I ever been to. All are equals here, from the first athlete across the line to the last.

If you want to go back to running’s roots, away from the commercialisation, away from the ‘toughest race in the world’ hyperbole, and back to running for the sheer joy of running, on the toughest terrain this harsh island has to offer, with some of the most fearless and friendly runners you will ever meet, then enter a fell race. They’re about £8.

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