Jack Fairbrother did the Fellsman as part of his training for the 2022 Lakeland 100. Here's his report

I completed the Fellsman just before 05:30 last Sunday morning having set off at 08:30 am Saturday morning. It was quite an adventure!

Here's the website if you'd like to find out more about the race.

TLDR: it was tough and unique but I had a great time.

For a long detailed summary, read on…

I first heard of the event when reading ‘Feet in the clouds’ - an absolute classic book about a southerner who falls in love with running in the fells (mountains) of northern England and Scotland (WARNING! If you read this book you may become obsessed with something called the Bob Graham Round, but that’s a story for another day!)

So, what is The Fellsman? Essentially it’s a 60ish mile fell race across the Yorkshire Dales taking in an apparent 11,000ft of ascent (more on that later) over very hard rugged moorland. The event very rarely follows footpaths and uses a traditional fell race format - you have to visit 25 checkpoints in order, but there are no designated routes between them, it is up to your navigational ability with a map and compass to find your way across the fells in the most efficient manner (without falling off a mountain or getting swallowed by a bog!). The event has been running since 1962 and has somewhat of a cult following, especially in Yorkshire. In previous years once darkness fell you were forced to wait at a checkpoint and be placed into groups which you must stay in (for safety reasons) until dawn where your group would be disbanded at the next checkpoint. This year the grouping rules were removed as each entrant would be fitted with a GPS tracker. As a first time runner at the event, I was a little nervous to hear this as I had quite liked the idea of forced company in bad conditions but I’m a firm believer that your learn from being a bit uncomfortable so didn’t dwell on this.

As some of you will know, I’m attempting the Lakeland 100 this July and The Fellsman seemed a good “tune up” race. I figured if I could get round this I’d be in good shape for 105 miles a couple of months later. So I entered the event and then didn’t really think much more about it for quite some time. The thing is, as the race got closer and I started doing a bit of prep and research I started feeling a touch intimidated! I read a few folks’ race reports online and saw tales of hours spent running in circles in low visibility trying to find checkpoints. When I saw the kit list required you to carry 5x long sleeve tops including a down jacket/fleece, full waterproofs and 3x thermal base layers AS A MINIMUM I wondered what on earth I’d signed myself up for…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve stood on the start-line of an event and felt nervous, but Saturday morning as I found myself in a field in Ingleton with 315 fell runners, hikers and orienteers, all of who seemed to have way more kit than me and did not look in the slightest bit nervous, I was absolutely bricking it!

I’d passed kit check (which was extremely thorough) on Friday night so Saturday morning I arrived on the start line with half my running wardrobe stuffed into my race vest, had a GPS tracker taped to my pack and was handed my Fellsman Tally - a disc which you hang around your neck and get stamped at each checkpoint. If at any checkpoint you don’t have your tally stamped, you’re disqualified.

After a quick race briefing, the race started in the most understated fashion… The race director just said “off you go then” and off we went! What happened next however was a little different... The field scattered into three distinct groups, each heading to a different exit from the field, each choosing a different route through the village and onto the path of the first fell of the day - Ingleborough. I took a punt on the group turning right and it seemed to pay off as a few minutes later when the groups rejoined each other I noticed we were quite near the front of the pack.

Judging your pace correctly in an ultra is tough, but I’ve learned over the years to ask myself early on “will I be able to run at this pace in 10 hours’ time?” If the answer is no, I slow down until the answer is yes. After a few minutes on the trail to Ingleborough checking my pace was sustainable, I noticed that I seemed to be moving backwards through the field - I was being passed by a lot of people and had to fight the competitive urge to speed up. This was my first indication that the standard of entrants in The Fellsman was a lot higher than anything I’ve done before.

Other than this pride-denting reality check, the climb to the summit was uneventful and I tried to settle into the groove and enjoy the clear skies and sunshine. A short while later we reached the summit, had our tally’s stamped and headed over the top of the mountain to make our descent. Here again the runners dispersed, taking different lines down the fellside and flying off into the distance like northern mountain goats whilst I gingerly made my way down what I judged to be the best path.

I reached checkpoint 2, reached for my tally and my heart sank as it was no longer around my neck. I searched my pack but knowing that I hadn’t put the tally there and was devastated that my race was over before it had chance to begin. After a few minutes of unpacking everything in my pack in desperation, a runner appeared “are you number 42?, you dropped this on the descent” with my tally in hand! I’ve never been so relieved in a race! I thanked the runner greatly, got the tally stamped and zipped it securely in my pack where it would remain for the rest of the race - lesson learned!

The day was heating up and no matter how much I drank I could feel myself getting dehydrated. I reminded myself of Trish’s wise words to me before the race “just treat it like a long day out in the hills, not a race” and I slowed down. On the approach to the second mountain of the day (Whernside) I fell into conversation with another runner. Neither of us had ran the race before and as we chatted something in my brain told me there was something familiar about this Cornish man. We realised after a few minutes that we had ran together before - on a recce run of the Bob Graham Round in the Lake District! It never ceases to amaze me what a small world the trail running community is!

The Whernside ascent is rather steep but passed quickly as Andy and I caught up and discussed our running plans for the rest of the year. Before we knew it we were at the next checkpoint, tallys stamped (and mine firmly replaced in my pack!) and time for a long tough descent off the mountain. Andy set off ahead of me and I resisted the urge to stay with him, determined to run at my own pace - the goal today was to finish and it was going to be a long day. What followed was a long tough descent down steep, boggy, tussocky fell with no defined path - ankle rolling territory! My feet were soaked through within seconds and I concentrated hard on the run down to try to stay on my feet and avoid injury. All went well but I could feel slight hotspots forming on my big toes.

I reached the checkpoint and saw that Andy was there ahead of me. Thinking about the long game I decided to spend a few minutes here to address my feet issue before they became racestopping and to get as much fluid down me as possible - it was a very hot day and I was started to feel the dehydration come on stronger - I was also starting to understand just how tough this race was going to be. I untaped my big toes, applied a liberal amount of footglide and necked half the aid station’s supply of orange squash. At this stage there were already competitors dropping out of the race - another sign of just how tough this event is.

I chucked a few bourbons into a ziplock bag for the road and headed out of the checkpoint, to find Andy was there waiting for me - he was finding it tough too and wanted the company if I didn’t mind. I gladly accepted the offer as I find sometimes time passes much faster when chatting and I wanted a second set of eyes for the challenging navigation ahead.

The rest of the afternoon passed quite nicely - the terrain was super tough but I was feeling relatively good and my efforts to force fluids in were started to pay off as I felt myself rehydrating. Andy and I navigated well together, double checking our bearings and feeling strong as we struck up onto Blea Moor perfectly in line with the checkpoint. Other highlights included hot dogs with crispy onions at a checkpoint and a general mass consumption of ginger nuts! Coming off Blea Moor we chatted to a fell runner who had recce’d this section and offered to show us what he considered the fastest line down. We accepted and were pleased to see we’d overtaken runners and gained a good few minutes vs our original intended route. This is definitely a race which rewards knowledge of the course and navigation skills above pure fitness.

Around 1730 the rain and wind arrived. It was the “very heavy, sideways” type and it stayed with us for the next 12 hours! I actually didn’t mind too much at this point as I had been struggling with the heat and it gave me a chance to put my new waterproof jacket through it’s paces - if it wasn’t going to work I wanted to know now rather than in the Lakeland 100. Andy and I continued on together for the next few hours, chatting all things running and life and keeping each other going. I was experiencing some knee pain and he had some chafing and I don’t think either of us fancied running alone in our current states.

Around 2130 we caught up with another entrant as we approached Middle Fell. It was getting dark now - almost head torch time and both Andy and I were nervous about the navigation at night in the increasingly awful weather conditions. We chatted to Gary, who was local, running The Fellsman for the 15th time and knew these hills like the back of his hand. He offered us to tag along, but expressed he would go at his pace, wasn’t going to run a step, and wouldn’t be speeding up or slowing down, which all seemed perfectly reasonable to us. We accepted Gary’s offer and he proceeded to lead us up the grassy, boggy mountainside finding every sheep trod imaginable. We summited perfectly in line with the checkpoint tent both convinced the climb would have taken us 30 minutes longer without Gary leading the way and finding all of the slightly easier ground.

I should mention at this point that whilst there are 25 checkpoints on the course, only 1 in 3 or 4 are aid stations with food, water and seats. The rest consist simply of two volunteers, huddled in a tent at the top of a mountain, waiting in the freezing cold and wet to stamp your tally. The marshalling, volunteering and sense of community at this event is first class and a testament to the running community. There is a light beacon outside each tent which is visible from across the fell in clear conditions, or 5/10 meters away in bad weather!

We got our tallys stamped and Gary took a bearing to the next checkpoint. We switched our headtorches on and trudged across the mountain top. The conditions worsened with the wind picking up and visibility dropped to a few meters even with decent head torches . Whilst my legs felt strong considering i’d be on my feet for 15 or so hours, I was glad to be in a group - it would be easy to get lost in these conditions and that was not an exciting prospect. When Gary had mentioned not running another step I had weighed up the pros and cons of staying with him - I felt I had more running in me but decided that strong navigation and the comfort of a group was more important than pushing on at this point. I had made the correct decision, as it was now impossible to run anyway - the conditions were so bad we could barely see each other beyond 2 meters or so and it turns out that Gary’s “walking pace” was in some instances the same as our running pace! Gary is a mountain goat. When I grow up I want to be like Gary.

We trudged on over the next few summits in increasingly bad weather and all agreed that at the next aid station we would take some time to change into dry clothes and put on extra layers. I was aware that I was becoming seriously cold and so was glad when we arrived at the heated tent to get out of my soaked layers and wrap up warm for the rest of the night stint! I had realised that the mandatory kit for this event was entirely appropriate and left the aid station wearing almost everything I had bought with me. To give an idea of conditions, I usually run quite hot, and left in 2 layers of trousers, 4 tops, a wooly hat and two pairs of gloves! I was at no point in the night anything more than “warmish”.

Gary led us brilliantly over the next few mountains and we all chipped in where we could with navigation support. I was confident now that I should finish the race, barring any disasters, and whilst I was very cold and tired, my legs felt pretty good all things considered. I felt happy that my training over the past few months was paying off. Conditions continued to worsen and again I was glad to be in a group. Sideways rain, thick fog, -4 temperatures and boggy pathless mountains are challenging conditions and we had to work hard not to lose each other in the clag - it was just on the edge of “this feels adventurous” and “if this goes wrong it’s going to go very wrong”.

We arrived at another aid station some hours later to find more competitors dropping out, mostly due to hypothermia symptoms! We downed warm soup and tea and were asked by another runner, Terry, if he could join us setting off as he wasn’t confident alone. Our party of four left the checkpoint in good spirits. All things considered we had suffered no navigation challenges, were moving well and only had one mountain left to climb before we began the final 5 mile descent to the finish. Gary informed us that Great Whernside (the final summit) wasn’t too bad from a climbing or navigation perspective and so all of our thoughts naturally drifted towards a warm bed. The climb was punchy but after what felt like hours we came across the beacon light of the checkpoint, had our tallys stamped and set off on the home stretch! Job (nearly) done!

Or so we thought…

What followed was utterly morale crushing. The conditions were horrific and at 3am, after 18 hours on the fells we had became increasingly tired and got very disorientated trying to find our way off the hill. We found ourselves walking in circles, stumbling into waist-high bogs and losing each other in the fog. We frequently had to shout to stay together as our headtorches simply lit up the fog a meter in front of us. It was brutal and I’m not sure how well i’d have fared had I been alone (but a part of me also loved the sense of adventure at the time, and even more so now looking back). I’m not really sure how, but eventually we found our way to a fence and used it to ‘handrail’ our way off the mountain.

We followed jeep tracks and sheep trods through the lower-ground moors, eventually seeing the lights of the final checkpoint appearing over a hill. We had our tallys stamped for the penultimate time and set off towards the finish in Threshfield. Gary encouraged me, Andy and Terry to run it in to the finish and leave him to walk the remaining miles, but whilst my legs had been feeling OK throughout the night and I felt that I could move faster, it just didn’t seem right to sprint off now after he’d no doubt saved us hours with his course knowledge. We agreed to walk it in together.

As we made our way into Thresfield, the birds started singing and the morning light meant we should switch off our headtorches at 5am. As we approached the town, Gary led us on one final shortcut through some alleyways in the village and we arrived together at 05:19 - 20 hours and 49 minutes after we had set off. We all shook hands and proudly accepted our finisher pin badges (old school!)

I phoned Emma, ready with my most polite voice to wake her up and ask for her to collect me (she had been staying at a nearby camping pod):

“Morning, I’ve finished, would you be OK to pick me up when you’re ready”

“I know, I’ve been up all night following your GPS tracker!” she replied in a very spritely manner (I think her happiness that I was alive outweighed her lack of sleep!)

Adventure over! Fellsman Complete!

??some stats:

- I travelled 62.94 miles

- Climbed 13,186 ft

- Burned 9270 calories

- 304 entrants started the event

- 124 finished

- I placed 85th

- 0 blisters

- 2 very manky feet (think worlds longest, muddiest bath!)

Next up - Lakeland 100!

Ps Shoutout to Emma Fairbrother for being the worlds most accommodating and caring wife!

 

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Last updated 03-Jul-2022.

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