A rough guide to fell running

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What is fell running and how is it different to cross country and trail running? Is there a clear distinction between fell running and mountain running?

Fell running is traditionally a British sport that shares many of the same characteristics as other forms of off-road running; cross country, trail and mountain. However, it is unique in the sense that races are so unpredictable in terms of the weather and terrain. You have to be a much stronger and hardier athlete to cope with the environment. Speed isn’t necessarily the key, but rather strength and resilience. Experience and mountain-craft also play a huge part. You need to be able to find the best lines, because often you are running on a vague trod (or not!) between two checkpoints. There isn’t always a clear path and it’s usually safer to trust a compass rather than other people in a race!

The video below shows footage from a typical Lakeland fell race (Blackcombe 2017 – courtesy of Lee Procter and inov-8).

In comparison, cross country has significantly less climbing, and is contested on runnable terrain in more controlled environments. It’s much easier to predict a winner as there are fewer factors to consider and usually no chance of anyone getting lost! (Although I should confess to getting lost at least once OK twice in a cross country race!!!)

In the UK, trail running is similar to fell running, but again there is significantly less climbing and the trails/paths are more obvious to navigate and easier to run on.

Mountain running is perhaps the closest discipline to fell running. Both have similar types of gradients (up and down) with the only difference being the terrain (see pic below). The fells are more difficult to navigate during a race, with fewer obvious paths and tracks to follow over much wetter, boggier and softer ground. I would also say that mountain runners are typically faster athletes than fell runners as pace plays a more crucial role in races.

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What makes it so special from your perspective?

Fell running is a very unique and specialist sport. It has taken me to places that I would never have imagined I’d ever visit. I’ve seen glorious sunrises, breath-taking sunsets, stunning views and beautiful wildlife. I’ve also been fortunate enough to run with the legends of the sport and shared precious moments with like-minded friends that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

One thing that I love, across all its forms, is that the ‘superstars’ are a different breed of elite. There’s no arrogance or bravado. It makes a refreshing change given what you see happening in other sports. It accepts athletes of all abilities and encourages them to take part. The fact that it’s not elitist means you’re just as likely to share a post-race pint with the winner as you are with the person who finishes last.

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What are the key attributes from a physical perspective?

Fell running is like a drug, it’s seriously addictive. You’re not just competing against other people in the race, you’re battling against both the elements and the terrain. It’s seriously hard, both physically and mentally. There are no short cuts and no easy races. You have to learn to embrace the pain and push your body to the extreme. Your legs need to be strong enough to cope with the steep, challenging climbs and handle hair-raising descents at breakneck speed. It’s one hell of a tough sport but extremely rewarding.

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What does it give you that road running doesn’t?

Fell running couldn’t be more different to road running. The latter is a far more commercial sport. It’s also more expensive to compete and there is significantly less risk of getting lost, injured or being fatally exposed to the natural elements.

For me, I find road running too predictable, boring and safe. I like the challenge of the environment, competing against the mountain rather than the clock.

Within fell running there is also a greater feeling of camaraderie. My biggest rivals might run for different clubs but in reality we’re all part of the same team. A secret society of friends who all share a love and passion for the outdoors. It genuinely feels like you’re part of one big family and that to me is what makes our sport is so unique and special.

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How accessible is the sport to beginners and how do you get started?

Fell running encourages athletes of all abilities to take part and it’s really easy to get involved. It’s also very cheap compared to road running. A typical race costs around £5 and you can win anything from a bottle of wine, to vouchers for your local running shop. One of my most memorable prizes was a 4 pack of toilet roll, for finishing in 2nd place in the Blackstone Edge fell race! Proof in itself that fell runners compete for the love of the sport and certainly not for the money!

I ‘fell’ into the sport by complete accident (excuse the pun). After trying my hand at cross country, it wasn’t long before I was searching for another, bigger adrenalin rush. Someone I know suggested I do a fell race. It began with a steep uphill climb and finished with a wild and crazy descent. My body was working at its full capacity during the entire race, my lungs were on fire and my heart rate was off the scale! But despite the pain, the hurt and the jelly legs, it was a feeling I’ll never forget. I felt alive and free, enjoying the finest natural high in the world.

To try a fell race for yourself, check out the Fellrunner website for the full fixture list. There are also lots of fell running clubs throughout the UK and anyone can become a member.

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Explain the tactical and mental skills required – such as picking the best line, the importance of a recce beforehand etc.

Like any sport, preparation is the key to success. Races are won and lost by seconds, so it’s important to recce routes and choose the best lines. Knowing which direction to run definitely helps, but the weather is so unpredictable that no route ever looks the same on race day! I always recce my important races and train specifically for those key events because I don’t like to leave anything to chance. The more confident I am about a route and my own ability, the more chance I have of winning on race day.

Having experience helps to make you a better fell runner. You need to know how to race, judge your efforts correctly, know which lines to take and most importantly, learn how to navigate safely across dangerous and challenging terrain. Fell running is extremely tactical and unlike other sports the best athlete doesn’t always win. It pays to run smart.

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The gear required – how specialised does the footwear need to be for those starting out? What are the other key bits of kit?

X-TALON 212                                         X-TALON 225

In theory, you don’t need much kit to get started. However, if you want to improve and make marginal gains then you need to use the best equipment on the market. Shoes, for example, are the most important kit you’ll need in order to perform well. Comfort, grip and weight are essential when choosing the right footwear. I use the inov-8 X-TALON precision fit range for fell running because they’re light and provide excellent grip over the roughest terrain. The X-TALON 212 are my favourite for training and the X-TALON 225 are my preferred choice for racing.

ROCLITE 290                                         MUDCLAW 300

I use a range of specific footwear for all types of running. I favour the ROCLITE 290 for the trails and the MUDCLAW 300 for extreme fell. It’s important to wear the right shoes as they will give you the extra confidence you need on that particular terrain. Check out the video below to see exactly what I’m talking about (courtesy of Andy Jackson and inov-8).

Nothing claws through mud like the MUDCLAW 300! Read more about them here.

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inov-8 LS hooded merino base layer

In terms of apparel, the best piece of advice I can give is to wear merino.

I wax lyrical about the super powers of merino – it’s simply the best. When it comes to base layers there is no better alternative. I even wear merino underpants. However, by far the best bit of running clothing I own is the inov-8 long sleeved hooded merino base layer. Yes, it’s expensive gear, but it’s worth every penny.

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Given all of which, what makes the perfect fell runner?

 My fell running hero and teammate, Karl Gray, once told me…

‘To be the best fell runner you have to climb like a mountain goat, run like the wind on the flat and descend like a demon’.

He’s absolutely right. The perfect fell runner is someone who can do it all, over every distance. To win the English Fell Championship you have to be able to compete on all types of terrain, from anything between 3 – 25 miles and in all types of weather conditions throughout the duration of the season (February to October). It’s a tough ask. But then again, athletes don’t come any tougher than fell runners – we’re a different breed altogether.

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All photography by Dave McFarlane (courtesy of inov-8).

Related blogs: HOW I ‘FELL’ IN LOVE WITH RUNNINGRUNNING TIPS: 10 WAYS TO BEAT THE MUD

Kit: inov-8 MUDCLAW 300 | inov-8 LS hooded merino | inov-8 3QTR tights | inov-8 Stormshell jacket | inov-8 race ultra skull | inov-8 merino sock mid | inov-8 race ultra mitt

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The Hebden

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THE HEBDEN IS ESSENTIALLY THE CALDER VALLEY’S GREATEST HITS

The Hebden, is an LDWA event for both walkers and runners, with a choice of competing on either the 15 or 21 mile route. Such is its appeal, I’ve raced it for the last six consecutive years and I’m not about to give up anytime soon. Technically speaking, it’s not actually a race, it’s a long distance walking challenge that also allows runners to compete. It’s a low-key event and there are no prizes or medals at stake. Nobody really cares if you win, least of all the organisers. It’s purely for enjoyment, a chance to share an experience on the hills with other like-minded people and the reward of completing a long distance challenge in often tough and wintry conditions. The Hebden is essentially the Calder Valley’s greatest hits – a stunning collection of the very best views and landmarks that the local area has to offer. From the beautiful woodland paths of Hardcastle Crags to the imperious Stoodley Pike Monument, which dominates the moors of the Upper Calder Valley. This is a race that has it all and it’s easy to see why it’s become such an iconic and popular event amongst the running community.

I first ran The Hebden in 2011 by complete chance because that particular year it was included in our Calder Valley club championship. At the time there was a strong feeling of animosity between some members of the club because many were concerned we would be ruining a walking event by turning it into a race. I could understand their point but I strongly disagreed. Mainly because the organisers, Alan Greenwood and Carole Engel, were extremely welcoming and very happy that we’d chosen their event as one of our long distance counters. There was, and still is, no reason why the route cannot be shared and enjoyed by both runners and walkers alike.

Pictured above: The walkers and runners all gather in the church hall to register and fuel up before the race (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham).

Quite often before a race begins there is a tense atmosphere with people full of nervous energy. However, at the Hebden everyone is calm and relaxed, chatting about the route and enjoying the plethora of food and drink that’s on offer. I usually eat a light breakfast at home because I know that when I get to the church hall for registration, I can have as much coffee and toast as I like before the race gets underway. I particularly enjoy being mothered by the wonderful Carole and her army of helpers. They cannot do enough to make you feel welcome and looked after. The kitchen is a hive of activity, with a constant stream of happy, smiling people queuing patiently as they wait to be served. The food and hospitality are reason enough to compete in this fantastic event.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPictured above: Chatting with Alan before the start of the race (Photo courtesy of Nick Ham)

I look forward to this race because it never fails to disappoint. Alan is an excellent race organiser – always in control, unflappable in a crisis and genuinely just a really great bloke. He always sends me an annual race reminder so I don’t forget to enter, and he regularly updates me on how the money raised from entry fees has helped to improve the paths and tracks on the route and around the valley. His team puts a tremendous amount of work into the race and the upkeep of the local area. Part of the reason I like to support this event is to help raise its profile and encourage more of this positive action to happen.

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Pictured above: A basic map of the route (anti-clockwise) with the start and finish indicated by the green dot.

This year is much like any other. I’m running with my training partners, Karl ‘The Legend’ Gray and Gavin ‘Mad Legs’ Mulholland, and we’ve all signed a peace treaty by agreeing to race together. We’ll obviously run hard but this is essentially a training exercise and our journey will be filled with good conversation and quality banter. I’m pretty relieved to be honest, as I no longer have to worry about being dropped by either of them – Karl’s impressive training schedule is usually a pre-race concern. I’m also relieved that I’ve managed to get to the start line on time. A few years ago I actually missed the beginning of the race because I was queuing for the toilet. When I came outside everyone had already set off and it took me at least 2 miles to catch up with the leaders!

“I’M DREAMING ABOUT GIANT SLABS OF TIFFIN AND MONSTER SLICES OF CAKE

The route circumnavigates the picturesque market town of Hebden Bridge, which lies at the heart of the Calder Valley. It begins with a fast run out on a woodland track parallel to the railway line, before competitors turn and face the challenging climb of Brearley Lane. A few moments later this effort is duly rewarded with spectacular views and much of the route can be seen across the valley.

Pictured above: The climb to Old Town (L) (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham) and arriving at the first checkpoint in Old Town with Joe Crossfield & Gav Mulholland in 2014 (R) (Photo courtesy of Geoff Matthews)

I find it difficult to hold back during the first few miles of the Hebden because I get carried away with setting a fast pace. I have to force myself to slow down so that I have something left in the tank during the final stages. I glance behind and Karl gives me ‘that look’. His diesel engine takes a bit longer to warm up than mine (usually about 10 miles) so I take my foot off the gas a little. He doesn’t need to say anything. I know the legend well enough by now. A raised eyebrow speaks volumes. Instead, my thoughts turn to the first checkpoint at Old Town. I’m dreaming about giant slabs of tiffin and monster slices of cake. Forget everything I’ve already mentioned about this race, the food stations on the way round are THE best bit! There isn’t a single event on my calendar that has this many opportunities to eat DURING a race! I know that Gav is just as excited as me, and when we reach Old Town I grab the biggest piece of tiffin I can find. I don’t have a problem with eating and running at the same time because they are both my two favourite things in life – don’t ever let it be said that men cannot multi-task. If Shaun Godsman was here now he’d be in heaven. In fact he’d probably just sit here all day and finish off the rest of the cake before the next runner arrives.

10714054064_0a0c76aac3_c.jpgPictured above: The Wadsworth War Memorial above Midgehole (Photo credit)

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Pictured above: The view to Stoodley Pike with Heptonstall Church in the foreground (Photo credit)

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve run on this route, but what amazes me is how different it always looks when I do. I always see something new that I’ve never noticed before. For example, it took me 4 years to spot the Wadsworth War Memorial above Midgehole. It looks like a mini version of Stoodley Pike, except it doesn’t stand as prominently on the horizon because it’s well hidden by the trees. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never seen it before, although you may struggle to find it! The view across the valley to Heptonstall and Stoodley Pike is also a treat, although today I don’t really have time to appreciate it.

8272066059_aeec9e14e8_b.jpgPictured above: Gibson Mill (Photo credit)

The route continues beneath the monument as it joins the Calderdale Way (leg 4 in reverse). Descending towards Midgehole is both fast and technical but once you hit the road then it’s a long runnable slog to Gibson Mill, through Hardcastle Crags. I always know that if I reach the mill in sub 50 minutes then I’m running well. I glance at my watch – 49 minutes. We’re bang on target. That means we can spend a bit more time stopping for food at the next checkpoint as a reward 😉

“THIS IS A MAGICAL PART OF THE CALDER VALLEY. A SECRET SANCTUARY OF FLORA AND FAUNA THAT EXUDES TRANQUILITY AND CALM

Upon reaching Gibson Mill we opt for the stepping-stones instead of the bridge as they’re not covered in ice or submerged underwater. A couple of years ago (after the floods) we didn’t have the luxury of choice, it was either swim or take the bridge!

30119948953_bd1560a876_b.jpgPictured above: The stepping stones at Gibson Mill (Photo credit: Paul Norris)

After crossing the stream it’s another long climb through the woods before we reach Heptonstall. Unfortunately, the route doesn’t take us past the church or through the charming cobbled streets of the main village, but I’d seriously recommend a visit if you’ve never been before.

The good news for me is that I know there’s another checkpoint at the top of the climb and it usually has lots of jelly babies. When we arrive I’m not disappointed. Both my mouth and bumbag are quickly refilled.

5649663467_f7bc1195f9_b.jpgPictured above: The church of St Thomas in Heptonstall (Photo credit)

From here we continue to follow the Calderdale Way (in reverse) until we reach Blackshaw Head, before descending back down the valley towards Burnley road. This downhill section of the course, through Jumble Hole Clough, is my favourite by far. I always feel like I’ve accidentally stumbled onto the set of The Hobbit and I’m being chased through the woods by an army of Orcs. This area forms the old boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire. So if I do happen to spot any Orcs then they’ll probably arrive from Tod’Mordor’- the dark side of the valley 😉 Perhaps these feelings are heightened further because my tiny companions look just like hairy hobbits, especially Gav, who could easily be used as a body double for Bilbo Baggins. Jokes aside, this is a magical part of the Calder Valley. A secret sanctuary of flora and fauna which exudes tranquility and calm.

14760013922_54b6b9f65f_bPictured above: The remains of Old Staups Mill, Jumble Hole Clough (Photo credit)

My favourite descent is swiftly met by my favourite checkpoint. It’s like an Aladdin’s cave stacked full of sugary and savoury treats. There’s so much choice that we have to stop for couple of minutes just to make sure we don’t miss out on anything delicious. I’m offered a coffee on arrival and I’m very, VERY tempted to say yes but decide it won’t be the easiest thing to drink on the steep climb towards Stoodley Pike. Instead I grab a beef pate sandwich and another monster slab of tiffin (rocket fuel!). I chuckle to myself as I spot a pile of beef dripping sandwiches and wonder how many other races in the world offer this kind of food halfway round!?! I’m just waiting for the year that Gav (the herbivore) eats one by mistake!

Pictured above: My favourite checkpoint near Callis Bridge (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham)

The climb to Stoodley is the longest and steepest ascent in the race but today Gav is making it look easy. I exchange glances with Karl and we wonder if he’s on performance enhancing drugs or whether he really did eat a beef dripping sandwich by mistake. Either way he’s got far too much energy so I put him back on his lead, just in case he tries to run off and leave us. Besides, in another 2 minutes the KGB (Karl, Gav & Ben) will need to be camera ready for SportSunday so we can pose for team photos. It feels a bit like Groundhog Day because every year the lovely Laura and David Bradshaw stand in the same place taking images. The only difference being the weather, and today we’ve been very fortunate.

HEB 1_0002 (1).jpgPictured above: With the legend Karl Gray (C) and Mad Legs Mulholland (R) (Photo courtesy of SportSunday)

“THERE IS NOWHERE TO HIDE ON THE KILLER STEPS. IT’S DEATH OR GLORY

Although the route doesn’t travel directly past Stoodley Pike, Calder Valley’s most famous landmark dominates the skyline from start to finish. Very rarely does it disappear from sight and it looks impressive from every angle. The monument is almost within touching distance as we reach the summit of the climb but we immediately turn left and head in the opposite direction towards Erringden Moor. A few years ago we got lost in the mist whilst crossing the moor but thankfully there’s no chance of that happening today. Gav leads the way and within minutes we begin to quickly descend through Broadhead Clough towards checkpoint 4. This marks the point where the 21 mile route leaves the 15. In the past I’ve been sorely tempted to switch direction and just complete the shorter race. However, today I’m feeling good and another piece of tiffin helps persuade me to carry on.

4703293289_6e90bd9c21_b.jpgPictured above: Stoodley Pike standing tall and proud. The Hebden route can be seen in the top right hand corner of the image (Photo credit)

In my opinion, the climb out of Turvin Clough to the top of the valley is the crux of the race. After 15 miles, it separates the men from the boys. My legs feel heavy and I’m beginning to tire. Unfortunately for me there is nowhere to hide on the ‘killer steps’ – it’s death or glory. Survival mode kicks in and I’m forced to dig deep. I know once this climb is over I can make it to the finish. It’s a huge mental achievement. Gav skips up them effortlessly and I just try and hang on to the back of him. I can hear Karl behind me trying to do the same. Surprisingly, at the top I actually feel ok. In fact, I’ve not only survived them but I’ve somehow discovered a second wind. I decide it’s a good time to give Gav a taste of his own medicine so I push the pace to the next checkpoint. I think it’s the thought of more tiffin that spurs me on.

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Pictured above: The ‘killer’ steps (Photo courtesy of Brian Fisher)

The route briefly rejoins the Calderdale Way (Leg 1) before descending sharply down towards Cragg Vale. Then, just before we hit the main road we turn once more, back uphill to Hollin Hey Wood and the final ascent. Now, as much as I hate the killer steps, they don’t even begin to compare with how I feel about this climb. It absolutely fills me with dread. I can’t EVER remember enjoying it and I ALWAYS struggle to run up it without wanting to stop. But not today. Today I’m determined to put my demons to rest as I prepare to launch one final attack. I take a deep breath and give it everything I’ve got left in the tank. It’s very rare that I ever run faster than Gav on a climb so I must be going well. You can imagine my relief and excitement as I sprint the final few steps to reach the top. It’s only taken me 6 YEARS to finally conquer it! Thank God it’s all downhill from here.

I check my watch as we begin to descend and I know we’re on for a sub-3 hour finish. I’m happy with that. We cross the line in 2:56, just 3 minutes outside of the record. Not bad considering all the time we spent pausing for food.

Strava | Photos 1 | Photos 2 | Results

The only way to finish a good run at the Hebden is to eat, shower and then eat some more. So I kick off the post-race celebrations with pie and peas (Yorkshire style), mint sauce on top and not a slice of beetroot in sight (take note Lancastrians). Apologies to Caroline Harding who has to witness me eating inhaling it in less than 20 seconds. After a (very) brief pause it’s straight on to the rhubarb crumble, countless mugs of tea and finally, all washed down with some glasses of mulled wine. I think at this point you can safely say I’ve got my money’s worth from the entry fee. Unfortunately the quality of the showers aren’t quite on par with the standard of the refreshments. I can confirm that the cold water does nothing to help revive Gav’s #PRP!

IMG_2510.JPGPictured above: The amusing race report in the Halifax Courier

kgb.jpgPictured above: The KGB (From L to R – in that order) with the wonderful Carole Engel (post-race).

So there you have it – the full Hebden experience. If you, like me, are a fan of running, eating, and spending a day on the hills with other like-minded people, then this is the event for you. But be warned – this race sells out quickly and there are only a limited amount of places available for both the 15 and 21 mile challenges. Keep an eye on SiEntries for the 2018 edition of the Hebden and other LDWA events.

Finally, I’d like to extend my sincerest thanks and appreciation to Alan, Carole and their amazing team for all their hard work and organisation. Without you it wouldn’t happen and it certainly wouldn’t be the same. See you again next year!

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