Fell Running 101

Downhill

James Edgar swore he would never get into fell running, but now he’s hooked and he wants to get you hooked too.

“You will never catch me doing that”

My friend Paul had given me Richard Askwith’s famous book “Feet in the Clouds” to read fifteen years ago when I was a road and cross-country runner. He thought I would enjoy Askwith’s exploration of British mountain running history and he was right; it is a fascinating book and I ate it up. However, I gave it back to him with a cursory statement that it was all very interesting, but that you would have to be crazy to actually do fell running. I mean, the Lake District mountains that are the heart of the British mountain running scene are strewn with rocks that would surely break your ankles, descents that are so steep it is painful to walk down them and scree that will send you sliding just for looking at it. How on earth would you run on that?

However, seven years later I found myself on the Lake District mountains for the first time on my own, on a glorious autumn day. I set out in hiking boots to climb Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. Reaching the top on such a clear day was remarkably easy so I decided to continue on. And as I started to head down the mountain via the lower promontories of Broad and Ill Crag, the fact that it was a bit painful walking downhill made me break into a jog. Suddenly it was less painful. Further down the mountain was a broad open path swinging round towards the valley between the Scafell massif and Great Gable and I discovered I could run down with no problem. I arrived at the bottom exhilarated and with both ankles intact.

That day the experience inspired me to the top of another three mountains. I was bitten by the bug and discovered how quickly you could cover mountain ground using running fitness. It was the beginning of a journey that took me deep into the world of fell running, and the best running experiences I have ever had. However, I remember how difficult it all seemed when I started, so I have taken a look back at how I learnt to tackle the challenges. I would never say I have mastered fell running (it is far too complex and challenging to say that), but having completed the challenging Bob Graham Round (with the help of numerous Serpies) I have certainly got a lot of experience to learn from.

Learn from friends

After that initial solitary experience, it was a rare occurrence that I was on my own in the fells again. That is because I am a social animal, but even if you are not you should try to get company to head out on the fells. Partly this is because it is a lot safer (and more fun) that way, but also because there is a lot to learn and the quickest way to do so is from those with experience. If you have (or make) friends with experience then you can get the best of all worlds. I learnt a lot of what I know from Serpie trail and fell running guru Alan Hall, including navigating through thick fog and how to tackle winter conditions in the mountains. Without Alan I doubt I would have ever had the skills and bravery to take on the Bob Graham Round. In addition to Alan’s guidance and company, I learnt from many others and some particular memories stick out that illustrate this well.

Running down a mountain is not easy; you have to constantly balance how much to look at your feet to avoid tripping on rocks versus how much to look ahead to plan your route, at the same time as constantly reassessing how much you can let gravity do the work versus holding back to keep your speed under control. And if you didn’t grow up in the mountains, the chances are you won’t be very good at it to begin with – I certainly wasn’t, particularly when there was rock that might slide out from under me. My biggest revelation in how to run downhill came from following a good friend, Wes, down Great Gable. It was a path made of small stones, all of which felt like they would slip out from under you. I started tentatively, thinking there was no quicker way down. But Wes soon came past me just letting gravity do the work and trusting that although the stones would move, they would soon gather under his feet and support him. The key thing was that he was relaxing and concentrating on his balance; there was no need to “run”, he was more bounding down the hillside and just adapting to each new piece of ground. I started to copy him, and soon found I could do the same. I learnt from Wes the importance of concentrating on balance and not on running.

Another challenge that I needed to overcome was fear of going in to the mountains at night and in the fog. The former is optional for fell runners, the latter is an occupational hazard. Again, it was two of my friends, this time from school days, Mike and Paul, who taught me how to approach this scary prospect. Mountains in fog can be dangerous places, and in the dark will be downright deadly if you don’t know what you are doing. Mike and Paul are experienced mountain guys and we had planned a night recce up Skiddaw, near Keswick. The fact it was foggy put me off, but they had enough experience to know that it would be fine. We headed off into the night and up on the mountain we could only see about twenty metres around us. This, perversely, made things less scary as we could only deal with what we could see. I remember in particular seeing two small bright eyes in the gloom ahead of us, that suddenly took off and landed farther down the path. This happened again and again, and we finally worked out that it was an owl who seemed to be tracking these interlopers to its night-time territory. The reduction of our world to just the space that could be lit by our headtorches was wonderfully calming and after that run I knew that I could take on mountains in difficult conditions.

Fell running isn’t about your feet

Sometimes it is important to focus on staying on your feet. However, sometimes the exact opposite is true – unlike normal running your hands and your bum should be playing a full part in getting you downhill as fast as possible. This was perfectly illustrated when for a Serpie stag-do a group of us headed to the traditional Grasmere Sports show and fell race. The race is only 1.6 miles long but packs in a demanding 270m of climb in that short distance. After the lung-busting climb to the top, I remember one Serpie ahead of me trying to stay on his feet as we turned the corner to start the descent at a precipitous angle. Another Serpie was just behind him, but instead of trying to run down, he got on his bum and scooted down. This was by far the best strategy, the guy on his bum was soon past the one on his feet.

As well as not being too proud not to sit on your bum, get those hands working. On rocky descents there are all sorts of handy rocks that can form good pivot points or handholds and get you down fast. As I started to understand this I wished I had paid more attention in school gymnastics; the ability to swing your legs underneath you as you supported your upper body was actually useful.

Running downhill is also all about balance, as is crossing rocky terrain. If you slip it is more likely to be down to where you had put your centre of gravity than the shoes you have on your feet. I really saw the impact of this as I realised a spin-off benefit that I was getting from learning to climb, taught by my friend Mike. I thought I was learning to climb because there is one small but important bit of climbing on the Bob Graham Round, but as I learnt I realised I was understanding something else very important. Climbing is not all about upper body strength, in fact it is a lot about using your legs and getting your centre of gravity right so that you can get your strongest muscles in to the action. Thinking about how you are holding yourself and keeping your balance is crucial to running downhill. In cross-country races I now marvel at how much thought people put in to what length of spikes they have in their shoes, but they don’t go out and practice how to control their balance as they run downhill.

So, forget about your feet, and concentrate on using all of your body and improving your ABC’s: Agility, Balance and Coordination.

Stretch yourself one challenge at a time

Finally, I also learnt how important it is to stretch yourself, but to do it one challenge at a time. I ignored this at times and got bitten, such as when I attempted to climb Blencathra for the first time. I had never climbed it before, and there was deep snow on the ground but neither of these things dissuaded me from trying to climb the mountain on my own. Even worse, I took it on when there was only 90 minutes left before dusk.

I got tempted because I had had great fun tackling two other mountains and was feeling fit and strong. I looked up at this snowy climb ahead of me, lit spectacularly by the descending sun. The safe course of action was to back away, come back to fight another day. But it was just one more climb and then I could head back down into Keswick and to a waiting fireplace and mulled wine. The sunny slope and clear skies acted as a siren call, and I convinced myself I could just bound up it, and happily down the other side. I made the decision to go.

The weather started to worsen as I climbed with mist rolling in, and I found I was a lot more tired than I thought with the snow sapping my energy. I was making slow progress, but I kept going, I’d started so I’d finish.

I was getting caught in two minds though as I got close to the top but with the mist obscuring how close. Part of me was saying, keep at it, you decided to go for it, and you’ll be ok – it’s the quickest way home now anyway. Ten minutes climbing, turn right, and start heading downhill. My more conservative part was pointing out calmly and insistently that there was only an hour of light left, I was only 90% sure of where I was and that being on the top of a snowy, misty, dark mountain on my own whilst suffering from big energy dips could get seriously dangerous.

I’d pushed myself up this hill knowing this was a risk, but now the danger was real I found my spirit failing – I had good kit, a fully charged phone and several people who knew what I was planning. But my desire to be safe was winning. I pushed myself on a few times but each time soon stopped, stuck to the floor by my fears again.

I turned and scarpered down the hill.

Turned out even that wasn’t very safe; I found what I thought was the right path only to follow it along to an unexpected edge as dusk fell. The edge towered over the valley below where I expected to see a road. But all I could see was a scene from Lord of the Rings; steep climbs down to a plain criss-crossed by fields obscured by dark and clouds. I couldn’t see any lights or anything which looked like a road. “Where the hell am I?” It was fantastically atmospheric, right by what I subsequently worked out was Sharp Edge. But I had now got myself in exactly the position I tried to avoid. A small part of me wanted to panic, but I had the presence of mind and experience to keep  calm and use the compass to orientate myself. Soon enough I worked out where I was, found the road and a safe way down. I was a relieved, if chastened, man in the pub that evening.

I had bitten off too much in one go. The best way to stretch yourself is do one new thing at a time; learn downhill in good weather, navigate in the fog on a mountain you know, or deal with snow in the mountains alongside other people. Then put it all together when you have done each bit separately.

Hills without the Clouds

A great example of this is the Isle of Wight fell races; a series of three races over two days that make up the South of England fell racing championships. There is a Serpie trip to these most years. They are challenging races, especially because most people do all three, and they allow you to try out downhill running (and uphill trudging). However, they also allow you to experiment with some of the skills of fell running whilst removing the need for navigating and dealing with mountain conditions. They are a fantastic introduction to a sport that holds a wealth of experiences and satisfaction – and you will meet a lot of people with fell running experience to learn from too. Combine experience from these with trips to the mountains with experienced friends and you might soon find the fell running bug has bitten you too.

James Edgar is looking forward to gaining a parkrun pram PB in a few months time and interested in any tips for keeping fit when a new baby arrives on the scene.