Fell Running: A Quick Guide (Part 1)

A guide to the sport of fell running and its history.

By on October 29, 2012 | Comments

WARNING: the activities described in this book are dangerous and may result in injury or death. Don’t try them. Go to a gym instead, or stay at home and watch television.

 – Foreword, Feet in the Clouds, Richard Askwith

The world of fell running has featured but occasionally in these pages in recent times; or to be more accurate, you have read about a couple of the ways that we here in the UK enjoy ourselves in our native hills and mountains.

Specifically, back in December 2011 I wrote a piece about the Bob Graham Round, a classic English long distance mountain test piece.

And in August this year, Kevin Carr penned a fine piece on the mountain marathon-style event that has gathered many devotees on these shores since 1968.

Bryon asked me to put some material together on the sport, hence this first in a series of articles. I thought the best place to start would be with a brief historical canter through the origins of fell running and then to move out from there, and see where matters took me!

[Part 2 of this fell running guide looks at fell running shoes, equipment, and weather as well as the event types that make up fell running, including Rounds and Mountain Marathons. ]

loch aber

This is fell running!
(Photo: Ian Charters)

The main, but not exclusive, focus is on matters English (fell running). The same broad approach exists in Wales (also fell running), Scotland (hill running) and in Northern Ireland (mountain running).

But before we start, here is a quick quote from a US resident who, whilst he has English roots, now hails from Fort Collins, Colorado. (Yes Nick, I heard “Toosday” and “alititood” in that recent iRF interview!) Nick Clark’s take on our sport, after just brief contact with it, was as follows:

For those in the US not familiar with the uniquely British activity known as fell running, then you should be thinking steep rugged hills on low lying terrain, likelihood of crap weather and nasty underfoot conditions, trails optional with maps and compasses very much required. To describe it as the British equivalent of US trail running would be misleading, as it is more of an orienteering, mountain running hybrid than it is a trail running experience in the traditional sense of defined and well-flagged courses.

Hopefully, by the time we get to the end of this journey, you can judge how accurate Nick’s assessment was!

History of Guides Racing

History records the first mountain race in the UK as having taken place in 1064 in Scotland. Yes, 1064! King Malcolm Canmore wanted to appoint a running footman to deliver his despatches and to select the best candidate, organised a race to the summit of 1,764 foot Craig Choinnich above Braemar. The sources record two brothers called MacGregor as having been in the field, and the younger brother was first to return and received “a handsome sword and baldric in addition to a purseful of gold.”

(For those whose knowledge of British history isn’t what it should be, a baldric is a belt, sometimes richly ornamented, worn diagonally from shoulder to hip, supporting a sword. You can’t complain about the prizes even in those days!)

Let’s run forward a touch to the 1850s when the sport of guides racing took shape. There is a record of some athletic endeavour at Grasmere Sports in the Lake District. By 1868, a formal guides’ race was taking place. These races were named “guides” races most likely because the competitors were almost exclusively the local men who guided tourists onto the local fells and mountains.

These races flourished in the Lake District and in the adjoining Yorkshire Dales. Often connected to a local show, fete or existing sports meeting, they featured short, steep, up and down courses. Great figures from this tradition of the sport included Ernest Dalzell of Keswick, Bill Teasdale of Caldbeck, Fred Reeves of Barrow, Tommy Sedgwick of New Hutton, near Kendal and Kenny Stuart of Threlkeld. As a quick reference to the steepness of the best of these races, Alva Sports climbs 1,300 feet in 0.8 of a mile and the race at Wasdale Show (my favourite short race ever) climbs 2,400 feet in 1.25 miles. They also featured cash prizes. And betting! More of that shortly.

The race at Burnsall in the Yorkshire Dales has become legendary, arguably above all others. Run from around 1882 onwards, over a course of 1.5 miles with 900 feet of ascent, the race has a lung-busting climb followed by a descent featuring deep heather and many hidden rocks and boulders. The pioneers took the winning time down to 14 minutes 23 seconds. In September 1910 Ernest Dalzell was second to the turn and launched himself down the fell in a reckless descent. Eyewitnesses recorded:

  • “Dalzell’s descent was hair-raising in the extreme. Never would one have credited that legs other than those of a deer could perform the terrific leaps and bounds over hollows and boulders which carried Dalzell to victory.”
  • “It was something inhuman, for the man stayed in the air longer than intended.”

Dalzell clocked 12.59.8. Over the years that followed, no-one could come close to his time, despite it being tackled by the best in the business. The Dalzell record attained mythical status. Even Teasdale, a fantastic athlete, couldn’t get close. He ran 14.07 in September 1953. Finally, Fred Reeves reduced the record to 12.47.2 in June 1977. That record still stands.

Today, what is left of these races, fall under the control of the British Open Fell Runners Association. These races always feature events for children of various ages. Some say all fell runners should attempt a senior BOFRA championship series at least once in their running career. I agree. It’s well worth the effort. The series requires 8 finishes from 16 races run between early May and early October.

Amateur Fell Racing

In direct contrast to guides races, which because of their cash prizes were regarded as “professional” under the strict rules of the founding fathers of athletics in Great Britain, a second code of races evolved under the wing of the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA). The sources of this code were the guides’ races on the one hand and the long mountain and moorland traverses of athletic mountaineers and fell walkers such as Eustace Thomas and Bob Graham.

Bob Graham - Dunmail Raise - 1932 Round

Bob Graham and pacers at Dunmail Raise on his 1932 Round.
(Photo: Bob Graham 24 Hour Club Archives)

Records pinpoint the Hallam Chase in the Rivelin Valley, near Sheffield as the first amateur fell race in 1863. 1893 saw the first running of the Rivington Pike Fell Race near Horwich in Lancashire. In 1895 the first race to the top of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in these islands, took place, and the Ben Nevis Race Association was formed in 1899. In 1952 the first Lake District Mountain Trial took place, adopting its classic “unknown course until just before you start” format in 1957. This race also was the first to offer a race for ladies as far back as 1953. 1954 saw the first Three Peaks Race. 1966 saw the launch of the Skiddaw Fell Race and the Fairfield Horseshoe Fell Race, two classic Lake District medium length courses. And in 1968 came the first long Lakes classic, the Ennerdale Horseshoe, a 23 mile race with 7,500 feet of ascent over typically rough ground.

So, no surprise that the Fell Runners Association (FRA) was formed on 4 April 1970, coming under the wing of the AAA, as a result of the interest shown in a duplicated calendar of events circulated amongst fell runners. Membership was open to individuals (and remains so structured today) and the first subscription was 25 pence. Members received a calendar and magazine. Membership initially was 117.

The number of amateur races grew slowly but steadily; 42 events in the 1972 calendar, 70 in the 1977 edition, 143 in 1983 and currently the FRA permits around 500 events up and down the length of England. And in 1972 a Championship was launched which, whilst it has changed in format over the years, still includes events in the short, medium and long categories, thus providing a genuine test of all round running ability for those at the sharp end of the sport. And in 1977 women’s events were sanctioned to be run under AAA rules.

Relations with the Wider Athletics Family

Fell runners have not always (ever, some would say) co-existed peacefully with the athletics establishment. Amateur fell racing was, from its inception, governed by the AAA (formed in 1880) and races run under its rules. The character traits possessed by the average fell runner and which propel them to take part in and enjoy the sport don’t necessarily resonate with the “blazers” who control mainstream athletics. Right though the 1970s and the early 1980s an almost constant debate raged as to whether the FRA should stand apart from the AAA and seek to become an independent governing body for fell running.

The type of structure that the proponents of staying “inside the tent” wanted found little favour with the General Committee of the AAA but with the help of lobbying amongst clubs, and despite the opposition of the General Committee, in 1982 the FRA was finally approved as the body to manage the sport of fell running in England, with delegated authority from the parent body, now UK Athletics.

The 1970s and 1980s were dark decades for a whole host of reasons, but saw a particularly bizarre chapter in the fell running story. Amateur races were thriving but the guides’ races, whilst they continued to be run, were withering from their glory days between 1900 and 1960. The rivalry between Reeves and Sedgwick reversed this trend, and a body was established to save the remaining guides’ races from extinction.

Ted Mason - Alastair Dunn - Muker Show 2011.

Ted Mason and Alastair Dunn fight to the line at Muker Show 2011.
(Photo: Andy Holden)

Various AAA rules, affecting both junior and senior athletes, provided that any athlete who took part in an athletics meeting that was not registered with the AAA, where money was offered as a prize or where betting took place, would automatically be deemed to be a professional. The Victorian ethos of the AAA required those under its umbrella to be protected from the “scourge” of professionalism. When the AAA decided to pursue those who had infringed these rules, the situation began to spiral out of control with runners banned for running alongside professionals or winning small cash prizes. Chapter 9 of Feet in the Clouds (see below) reviews the sorry story in detail.

The irony of the situation will not escape anyone with knowledge of athletics in the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst the likes of Coe, Ovett and Cram were allowed to run for £000s payable into their trust funds, amateur athletes were asked to ostracise their family, friends and colleagues for consorting with professionals or winning a few quid. As a further marker of the stupidity of all this, Kenny Stuart, the champion guides racer of 1981, won 30 out of his 32 starts that year and pocketed a total of £687. If this had covered his fuel costs of travelling up and down the country to race, I would be amazed.

Matters reached such a position that the 1984 FRA annual general meeting passed a resolution to the effect that: “The FRA recognises that in principle there is no difference between amateur and professional in our sport. The Committee is requested by this meeting to seek an end to this distinction by means of negotiation with the AAA…..” Inevitably, the blazers at the AAA showed no interest in negotiating.

Matters continued to deteriorate on all fronts but after enormous efforts by both the FRA and BOFRA, the “artificial separation between amateur and professional fell runners collapsed, belatedly, under the weight of its own grotesqueness” (Asquith) and during 1992, fell running was declared an open sport.

Fell runners can enter whatever races they like. You don’t have to be a member of the FRA or a Club to enter a fell race. And no premium or surcharge can be levied on those who don’t have those memberships. We are an egalitarian bunch.

Fell Running Literature

Fell running hasn’t produced a huge volume of literature, unlike climbing where fine works abound. But for those interested in reading more about the sport the following works are highly recommended. The first two works expand greatly on the history taken above at such a canter. All are well worth a read:

Bill Smith – Stud Marks on the Summits (A History of Amateur Fell Racing: 1861-1983). SKG Publications 1985

This magisterial work by the late Bill Smith is the fell runners’ bible. History of both codes, a survey of the various branches of the sport, reviews of runners and races up to the early 1980s. Essentially self-published in 1985, the work is the definitive history of the sport in our country. The print run was limited and copies are highly prized and sought after. Anyone who wishes to consult the work can do so because, by agreement with Bill, the work was scanned and made available via the FRA website a few years ago. It can be found on the FRA website.

Richard Askwith – Feet in the Clouds. A Tale of Fell Running and Obsession. Aurum Press Limited 2004 (Paperback edition 2005)

A fine book. If one can look past Asquith’s obsession with completing the Bob Graham Round, you will find some wonderful writing evoking the spirit of the sport we all know, love and practice. A fine series of chapters recording the “fell running year” give a great overview and there are excellent interviews with Bill Teasdale, Joss Naylor, Billy Bland and Kenny Stuart, four of the true greats of the sport.

Peter Hooper – The Best of the Fells. Self-published 2010

A compilation of fell running articles pulled together by Hooper from a wide variety of sources. A great little read. As Askwith says in his review: “This is a wonderful little book – it’s almost like carrying the fells around with you in your pocket. And it’s all in an excellent cause…” . Proceeds to local mountain rescue teams. Available via Lulu.

Boff Whalley – Run Wild. Simon & Schuster 2012

Boff Whalley is the guitarist in the soon to be late lamented band Chumbawamba. In the words of the current FRA Chairman the book is: “a polemic against big, bigger, biggest city road marathons.. and a paean to off-road running: running wild.”

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • If you fell run, what draws you to it? What do you love about it?
  • What are your favorite fell running books or other literature?
  • Have anything to add about the evolution of fell running?
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Morgan Williams
Morgan Williams is a fell and mountain runner who lives in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in England. He is a member of Ambleside AC and member number 371 of the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club, where he acted as Secretary for 13 years. His first fell race was the 1984 Langdale Horseshoe and since then he has run anything from the Wasdale Show Fell Race (2.4 miles, 2,300 feet of ascent) to UTMB. He is a former Secretary of The Fell Runners Association, which manages the sport of fell running in England and served for a decade as a trustee of the John Taylor Foundation for Young Athletes, a grant-giving charity. These days he runs when the fancy takes him.