The fastest mile ever recorded by a human is not Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record of 3mins 43secs, set in 1999. It is actually 3mins 24secs, ran by Craig Wheeler at the Meltham Maniac Mile in 1993. It’s not a world record because the race is entirely downhill on a steep descent in the Pennines, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. If El Guerrouj had tripped and fallen during his record attempt, he would have bruised his knee. If Wheeler had fallen, he would have left his knee, most of his leg, and probably also a bit of his head halfway up the mountainside. As Feet in the Clouds makes clear, ups are tough, but its the downs where fearless legends are made.
The book tells the history of fell-running, a sport that revolves around running up and down some of the hilliest terrain in Britain. The sport has its own version of climbing Everest: the Bob Graham Round. Beating this challenge involves covering 72 miles, 42 peaks and 27,000 feet of ascent and descent, all in under 24 hours. Most attempts fail. There is no prize money. Few people outside of running circles have heard of it. But the sheer masochism of the challenge gives it a romantic appeal. As one of the author’s friends says of someone who succeeded:
“Rob got there with five minutes to spare, but, God, you should have seen the state of him. He’d pissed himself, shat himself, puked all over himself. I thought he was going to die.” There wasn’t the slightest suggestion of disgust in [the friend’s] voice; just awe and respect, with perhaps a trace of envy.
Fell-running is a sport intimately bound up with the landscape of the north of England, particularly the Lake District. Arguably the most scenic part of the country, the Lake District’s beauty is matched only by its ability to absolutely piss on you for six days out of any week-long holiday. Many an English child of the 1980s can swap stories of being dragged to the Keswick Pencil Museum (slogan: “home of the world’s first pencil!”) on a rain-sodden day for the third time that week, because it’s the only dry attraction open.
Mere inclement weather wouldn’t bother the nutcases depicted in this book. At the sharp end, fell-running clearly attracts a certain kind of awe-inspiring psychopath. There is Tommy Sedgwick, a champion “who sprained his ankles so often they ended up twice as thick as those of a normal man”. Or Billy Bland, who holds the record for the Round at an absurd 13hours 57mins. But most of all, there is Joss Naylor.
Joss Naylor must rank as the most incredible athlete that hardly anyone has heard of. Naylor had two lumbar discs removed, all the cartilage drained from his right knee, and damaged his back so badly in a wrestling match that he had to wear a special brace for five years, all before he took up running in his 20s. He spent two decades in constant pain, yet managed to win virtually every fell race he entered. In his late 30s he had four more discs removed from his back, but at the age of 50 he ran and climbed all 214 Lake District peaks in a week, the equivalent of running 15 marathons and climbing four Everests. In my review of The Art of Running Faster, I referred to the ‘tough bastard’ era of British running in the 1980s. A whole new category of ‘iron bastard’ has to be created for these men.
The sad thing is that none of them made any money from it. For most of the years after the twentieth century, fell-running was mired in the acrimonious amateur vs professional dispute. Most fell-races were run for prize money, which meant participants faced a lifetime ban from amateur events, such as big city road races or the Olympics. Yet paradoxically, it was the amateurs who got rich from their sport, as sponsors and organisers found clever ways to circumvent the rules about not paying athletes. In 1981 the amateur Sebastian Coe became a millionaire; meanwhile the legendary fell-runner Kenny Stuart earned £687 in prize money, most of which he spent on petrol to get to races.
You get the impression that most of the fell runners don’t mind. Feet in the Clouds is a love letter to the landscape of the fells, and by interweaving the story of his own 5-year quest to achieve the Bob Graham Round, Askwith transports the reader to a world in which being harassed, humiliated and humbled by Mother Nature is the only thing that matters in life. It is simply an astonishing book, featuring the most captivating writing of any sports book I have ever read. For a while after reading it, you too will be inspired to drive up the M1, put on your spikes and take on Scafell Pike. Then you will come to your senses, realise that these people are quite, quite mad, consider getting a pint at a Keswick pub, and book tickets to see the world’s longest colour pencil instead.