The Fellsman – 29th/30th April 2017
How to describe the Fellsman? On the face of it, the Fellsman is like many other races; ultra-distance, being approximately 62 miles, largely unmarked, with lots of hills. But it has something else, a sense of history that make it that little bit different and a little bit special. It has evolved from being the Fellsman Hike, a long distance Scouting event which was first organised in 1966, to a modern day ultra but still with Scout groups continuing to support many of the checkpoints. Now it attracts more runners than walkers and the organisers strive to balance the needs of both communities.
Five Swaledalers started the race. Neil Bowmer, Ian Oldham, Mike Rosher, Stuart Clarkson and myself managed to get to the start line on time, with all of the correct mandatory kit, our hallowed tallies (due to be hole punched at each checkpoint) and our hopes and dreams of completing the 55th Fellsman. The pre-race briefing included a Met Office warning for sunburn, which produced a laugh, and then we were off, across the playing fields and up the track to Ingleborough. Mike, Stu and I took it easy to start, whilst Neil and Ian raced off, not to be seen again until the following day. Stu then steadily moved ahead on the steep ascent but I resisted the temptation to keep up. I had a plan; to hike the ascents and to run only when gravity assisted, in other words, downhill. I hoped this would not only give my legs the longevity they would need to complete the distance, but also help with my ultra -distance stomach problems that I just can’t seem to alleviate. It was sickness that caused my withdrawal at 45 miles at the previous year’s Fellsman, so I was determined to not over exert myself early on.
After gaining our first tally punch on the summit, we felt like we were really on our way. The descent from Ingleborough is quite technical to begin with and since this is where Mike fell the previous year, we picked our way down carefully before enjoying a good run down to the Hill Inn checkpoint . It was then a stiff pull up Whernside, but there was plenty to distract us; marshals setting up for the Three Peaks Fell Race which would be coming through in a couple of hours, lots of Three Peak Challenge walkers to wish good luck to and photographers out on the course. As soon as we were off the summit and heading into Kingdale however, the circus was over and it was just Fellsman competitors running over rough, tussocky grass down into the valley. Sarah was at the Kingdale checkpoint to punch our tallies and point us in the direction of tea and flapjack, but I stuck to my own snacks and water.
The ascent of Gragareth was very steep but thankfully short-lived. The prize was being greeted by Helen Inglis and Alan on the summit checkpoint, which was a lovely boost. The next section, along a ridge to Great Coum was a wonderful high level tramp, with fabulous views out to the Lake District and Morecambe Bay. The weather remained fine throughout the day, overcast but light winds and warm enough to run in a base layer and long sleeved technical t shirt even on the hill tops, quite a surprise on the Fellsman. I found a great line off Great Coum which was good fun, rather than skirting round to follow the wall and then we were soon down at the Dent checkpoint. Although there was hot food on offer I couldn’t help mentioning how lovely the melon looked in a marshal’s personal lunch box and before I knew it there was a piece in my hand. Now that’s the spirit of the Fellsman!
It’s a real trudge out of Dent, half way back up Whernside, it was just a case of putting the head down and sticking with it. We could see a helicopter landing on Great Knoutberry Fell, across the valley which was worrying as this was on the route of the Fellsman. It turned out that a gyro-copter, whose pilot was watching the Fellsman, had crashed on the summit. Thankfully they only suffered relatively minor injuries, but I’m sure it was a shock for all concerned. We still had the summit of Blea Moor to get to, across a bleak and boggy valley. At this point I had pulled ahead of Mike and I was running with a chap called Richard. We then caught up with a runner called Jon that I recognised from my time marshalling on the Northern Traverse who was running with his friends, and it was soon apparent that the five of us would make a good team.
The fancy dress volunteers at the Stonehouse checkpoint served up pasta, tomatoes and cheese and I surprised myself by being able to eat some. Our group, with a new member James, soon set off up the steep track, under the Arten Gill Viaduct and onto the shoulder of Great Knoutberry. Once over the intake wall we took to the fell, which was not half as boggy as usual so we made good progress up to the summit checkpoint. As the route reverses back down the same way we had fun doing high fives with the competitors still heading to the summit. From here it was a pleasant run down to the Redshaw checkpoint, where Sarah’s smiling face was waiting for me. I managed a small cup of soup and bread and then it was time to set off again, with the hope of getting to Fleet Moss before darkness fell. It was only about a mile and a half over rough ground to the Snaizeholme checkpoint, then up on to Dodd Fell to meet the marshals braving the elements. The temperature was falling and the wind was getting up so it seemed a chilly place to be. We were soon off and headed to the Fleet Moss checkpoint, but unfortunately it was really busy and we had to queue for a couple of minutes just to get inside!
As darkness approaches everyone is required to form a group of at least 4 people. The group must stay together until given the go ahead by a marshal to disband after dawn. This was easy for us as we had already formed a group of similar ability and speed, but for some it’s a bit of a lottery. I was a bit worried as I felt the first hint of sickness, so I took a gel and crossed my fingers. Stu left the checkpoint with a group of 4 about 10 minutes before us. It was a real team effort getting from Fleet Moss to Hells Gap. Navigationally this is the toughest section of the race, especially in the dark and it is also really rough underfoot, straight across the wild fell. We found the checkpoint at Middle Tongue without difficulty, but struggled across Yockenthwaite Moor, eventually ending up 500m above the gate we were looking for. This was easily rectified by following the fence downhill, so our back up strategy worked, it was just time consuming. The final stony track down to Cray was quite difficult for Dave, one of the group members, who had developed blisters on his feet, so we walked rather than ran.
Cray checkpoint, at 45 miles in, is the most popular spot for competitors to retire. Threshfield is just a half hour journey in the sweep bus and would whisk you away from the thought of another 17 miles and two big hills in the dark. Unfortunately one of our group, James, succumbed, but not me this year! I was feeling quite sick but managed to force a biscuit down. I have heard that one of the best ways to get through a bad spell is to help someone else get through theirs and I think there is truth in this. I took up the back marker spot in the group as two members were struggling, one with his feet and one with his knees and encouraged them on. I also had a period of dry retching but luckily the wind had got up and covered up the hideous noises I was making! I felt a lot better after this and was moving well up Buckden Pike. Once the Polish War memorial has been passed there are route choices to be made. I took a back seat on the navigating this time and concentrated on keeping going. Once we had passed Top Mere checkpoint however, Jon was feeling very tired and was falling asleep on his feet so I led all the way to Park Rash, following a good footpath.
Food was no longer an option for me at Park Rash, I realised all I could do was try to keep gels down on the last section. I also knew that once I set off, that was it, unless there was an emergency, we were going to finish. The wind had got stronger and the temperature had dropped, but in Fellsman terms it was still quite a benign night. More dry retching on the ascent of Great Whernside made me feel better and I realised I had conquered another bad spell. The group slowed down a bit due to injuries and it brought it home to me that just about everyone has something that either hurts or makes them feel bad during an ultra, so my feelings of sickness were no different. I just had to get on with it!
The sky to the east slowly turned from black to dark purple and I heard a curlew call. The realisation that dawn was not far away gave us a new lease of life. There is something magical about moving through the night into the new day. Due to cloud cover we never got a proper sunrise but nothing could dampen our spirits as we moved past the Capplestone Gate checkpoint, not even the strong head wind that had haunted us for the last few hours. The track down to Yarnbury was long, but finally the house came into view, then the final checkpoint. Just two miles of road separated us from the finish line. We were officially de-grouped at Yarnbury, but that made no difference to our little team. We had been together for more than half of the race and weren’t about to split up now. After being hugged by Sarah who was waiting to greet us, we limped down into Grassington. Stu passed us at a trot just as we crossed the River Wharfe, then it was the final pull up to the school at Threshfield.
I had very mixed emotions as we crossed the finish line; relief that we could stop, joy that I had completed such a big challenge but strangely also disappointment that it was all over! Neil, Sarah and Stu were there to congratulate me, then it was strictly business getting showered and a little bit of food down my neck. We were really pleased to see Mike Rosher cross the finish line and celebrated with him before the drive home.
Many thanks to the army of volunteers (including our very own Sarah, Helen and Alan) who make the Fellsman happen. The set-up is a cut above the norm and the camaraderie amongst competitors is amazing. At £40 it is excellent value and is highly recommended.
Results: Neil Bowmer 16.27. Ian Oldham 17.31, Stuart Clarkson 22.39, Ros Blackmore 22.43, Mike Rosher 24.27. Chris Perry won the race in 11.21 and Emma Hopkinson was the first female in 14.45. 374 competitors started the race and 291 finished, with 83 retiremements.
LOTS MORE PHOTOS TO FOLLOW SOON