I wonder what Victorian tea pedlar Isaac Holden would have made of the sport of fell-running? He criss-crossed the North Pennines fells on foot to sell his tea and probably kept up a good pace while covering many miles. But to do it for fun, for the challenge and for the camaraderie? Not for all the tea in China.
The word that came to mind while I was marshalling a fell race at Allenheads was ‘respect’. Watching the mud-spattered men and women running across very rough terrain, uphill and downhill, I worried for their limbs and lungs and was in awe of their determination.
The event is an annual race raising money for the charity Natural Ability, which helps people who have learning disabilities to learn, work and live independently in the rural environment. My marshalling position was about 1.3 miles from the start of the race, at a junction of tracks near Dodd Reservoir. Unlike the runners, I needed to stop for breath three times just on the uphill walk to my position.
I could see the bright yellow high-viz jackets of other marshalls dotted across the landscape, positioned at key points on the route, and I was glad of my own high-viz layer as extra protection against the wind as I sat down to wait for the race. All around me were wonderful views across Allendale Common.
Then I spotted a line of runners across the valley and jumped up to get ready for their arrival. By the time they reached me they’d descended one side of a valley and run up the other side.
Astonishingly, as the leader passed me, he said ‘thank you’. Then others followed, many of them breathing heavily from the ascent, and they too said ‘thank you marshall’. I was amazed that people who needed every single cubic inch of oxygen in their lungs could spare a little for courteous thanks to the many volunteers who had given up their Sunday morning to help with the event. Even more respect to the fell-running fraternity.
My job was to direct the runners to take a right turn and join a stony downhill track.
The 5.5 mile circuit is a ‘Category A’ run, which means it averages no less than 250 feet for every mile of climb, and no more than 20% of total distance on road. After marshalling it last year I decided to walk the route (see blog posting of January 22nd 2017) and it’s a great walk, but must be incredibly tough to run.
The final runner to pass me was the sweeper, checking that everyone was safely ahead of him. That meant the marshalls could leave their posts, gather in the signposts and head home.
I was able to get back to Allenheads in time to see some of the runners cross the finishing line, and found it hard to believe they had covered such a challenging course so quickly.
The winner was Darwin Douglas from Edinburgh University Hares and Hounds Running Club, taking part in his first fell race. His time was 41:39. The first woman to finish was Ruth Oldham from Gosforth Harriers with a time of 50:33.
Last year they’d run in pouring rain, this year stayed fine but with strong winds. As they finished each runner was given a goody bag containing sweets, energy gel, socks, a water bottle, a magazine and vouchers for running kit. They also received a tee shirt and limitless bottles of water, but their main reward must have been a huge sense of achievement.