WHAT IS FELL RUNNING?
For some people the term “fell running” still conjures up images of stringy old men in short shorts and tatty vests running up and down hillsides sporting tiny bum-bags. But the publication of the book Feet in the Clouds dispelled some of the myths around the sport. Today, as off road running becomes more popular, fell running is gaining interest amongst runners seeking a new challenge; so what is fell running all about?
“Fell” is a northern English term meaning hill or mountain. Lakeland shepherds worked these fells every day and in doing so developed high levels of fitness, navigational skills and the ability to withstand harsh weather conditions. In the 1800s organised events such as the Grasmere Games began to take place where local shepherds would compete against each other in races across the fells and thus the sport of fell running was born. Today the sport is enjoyed by a wider cross section of people, still predominantly male, but with some outstanding female runners setting records particularly in ultra distance rounds such as the Bob Graham. Juniors can also compete in their own races.
The Fell Runners Association (FRA) administers the sport in affiliation with UK Athletics. There are hundreds of fell running clubs (or clubs that have a fell running section) throughout England, Wales, Scotland (where it is referred to as hill running) and Ireland. Rules tend to be fairly straightforward, mainly covering safety requirements such as the equipment to be carried and route to be followed. Races take place all year round, although there are more during the summer months, and they are categorised by length, terrain and rate of ascent. Unlike road runners, fell runners tend not to stick to the same distance; for example a short race of 4 miles might be followed the next weekend by a long race of over 20 miles.
Although prizes are awarded at races, fell running is still very much an amateur sport and it is unusual to win more than a bottle of wine, a voucher from a running shop or even produce from the local butcher or greengrocer! But it is this feature that many runners find attractive and prevents the sport from becoming elitist. Unlike cycling or triathlon there is no advantage to be gained by being able to afford better kit so everyone on the start line has an equal chance. Fell running is one of the few sports where you can stand on the start line next to the best in Britain and chat with them in the bar afterwards too!
Some short summer races require little more than a pair of shorts, a tee shirt and running shoes with a decent grip. However, longer races and those which take place over high, remote hills require a more extensive kit list. This will always include waterproofs (even in summer), map, compass, whistle, hat, gloves and some emergency food. Runners tend to carry this in a bum-bag or running rucksack.
Specialist shoes with aggressive studs are required for most races, the most popular brands being Inov-8 and Salomon.
Trail Running vs Fell Running
Trail running is often confused with fell running. Trail running routes tend to be on well-marked paths and trails meaning that the runner follows signs and markers rather than navigating with map and compass. Also, in the UK, trail races are more likely to follow low level routes whereas fell races visit the summits. Trail running terrain is also less demanding, covering well defined rocky paths rather than rough, wet moorland and path-less hillsides often found on fell races. However there is a certain amount of overlap between the disciplines and some races in the FRA calendar could actually be classed as trail races.
Fell races span a wide range of difficulty. One winter race might involve running more than 20 miles ascending over 2000 feet and requiring accurate navigation across open moorland. Another might be a summer evening’s 4 mile blast from a country pub, up the nearest hill and back down, all the time following a well-marked route. Obviously one requires a high level of fitness and navigational skill whilst the other is suited to a beginner. The FRA website has a calendar of races and indicates the distance, ascent and technical difficulty of each one. The website also lists running clubs that are affiliated to the FRA so that you can find your local club. You don’t need to be a member of a club to do a fell race. However joining a club is a good way of meeting like-minded runners, sharing lifts to races, getting valuable advice from experienced runners and training with other members.
A good place to start is at a summer fete which will often have a junior race and other family entertainment such as sheepdog trials, a tractor show and a beer tent! So you don’t have to be a stringy old man to give it a go.
Find out more:
Fell Running Guide (coaching, training plans, introductory courses, navigation skills) www.fellrunningguide.co.uk
Fell Runners Association (information about; races, running clubs, results) www.fellrunner.org.uk
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Inov-8 Mudclaw 300