Tag Archives: Fell-Running

“Running Free: A runner’s journey back to nature” by Richard Askwith

How much do you spend on your running habit a year? Probably more than you think. I go through 2-3 pairs of road shoes at £80-£90 a time, plus a pair of spikes or racing shoes for a further £50-£60. Although I tend to keep my kit for several seasons, I’ll still need the odd new pair of shorts and/or singlet at some point during the year, so that’s another £40 or so. Then there’s the fees for entering races, and travel costs and accommodation for those that are further afield. Realistically, I’m probably spending £350-£400 a year on running, a sport that should, essentially, be more or less free.

Richard Askwith, author of the superlative Feet in the Clouds, has a name for this phenomenon: Big Running. Needless to say, he is not a fan. By his reckoning, my own spending is actually pretty modest. In an early chapter, he walks into Sweatshop and puts himself in the position of a novice, purchasing everything the shop suggests the budding runner needs. By the time he’s added shoes, clothes and various “essentials”, such as Race Day Arm Warmers, his imaginary bill comes to £1,144. While clearly no sane person would actually buy ALL of this stuff – and would probably choose cheaper brands – Askwith is right to say that something is clearly wrong with the state of our sport.

Running Free is an unashamed manifesto for a different sort of running, liberated from the commercial forces that seek to monetise every step we make. Askwith suggests that there are “7 Ages of the Runner”. We start out as hesitant newbies in the 1st Age, before starting to make running a key feature of our calendar in the 2nd. In the 3rd, we start chasing peak performance, doing everything we can to squeeze out marginal gains and improved racing times. It is this 3rd Age that Big Running loves so much, because 3rd age runners are suckers for kit.

Some of us then move onto a 4th age, which is where we take on a monumentally daft challenge, such as the Bob Graham Round, the Spartathlon, or completing an absurdly large number of marathons. Askwith’s argument is that many of us would find so much more enjoyment from running if we could transition to the 5th Age, which is where we disentangle ourselves from the tyranny of the watch, stop chasing times, and simply enjoy ‘slow running’ – running for running’s sake. He is still exploring and defining the 6th and 7th Ages.

He’s right up to a point. It IS horrific how much running gear and the bigger races can cost. He’s also uncomfortably astute in pointing out that many of us focus so much on times and PBs that we fail to enjoy our surroundings and enjoy the act of running itself. My internal jury is out on whether my current campaign to run a sub-3 marathon is actually ‘pleasurable’ or not.

However, Askwith virtually ignores what I would call Little Running; local club-running scenes and rivalries, and the associated subculture of running that happens at a county or regional level. Yes, the British 10k in London costs £50+ to enter, but the Oxfordshire Mota-vation summer series of five 4-mile races is an absolute bargain at £15, is staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, and takes entrants to a different pretty village each month. I can’t help but feel that Askwith’s perspective is skewed by having been a London runner for so long, and that a lot of the issues he is ranting about are big-city complaints. Out in the provinces, the running scene is smaller, friendlier and more close-knit.

He also has very little to say about classic cross-country running – as opposed to commercial obstacle races – which I would argue encapsulates many of the virtues that Askwith himself is seeking to promote. Membership of my club (£30) entitles me to enter two different cross-country leagues during the winter months for free. While I’m sure that running through a freshly ploughed field with a labrador at 5am is very invigorating, for my money there are few running experiences that beat the first mile of a cross-country race, where 100 comically under-dressed men charge through mud and branches, mercilessly bound up and down slopes, tongue lolling out of the mouth at the sheer exuberance of it all (maybe that’s just me).  Why run with a dog when you can feel like one yourself instead?

I think he’s also too dismissive of initiatives such as Parkrun, which he argues is compromised by its commercial sponsors. But where Askwith sees the evils of corporate advertising, I see a business plan for sustainability and a much-loved weekly institution that is being kept free for everyone. I think Askwith has forgotten what it feels like to be just starting out, and having a welcoming, inclusive environment in which to take your first lycra-clad steps. You can’t jump straight to his 5th Age immediately.

However, there are some revelatory moments in the book. The history of the obstacle racing industry makes for a fascinating case study in (alleged) chicanery and idea theft. The first such event was probably Tough Guy, set up in 1986 by an eccentric farmer called Billy Wilson. It remained a low-profile charity until 2009, when an MBA student called Will Dean proposed an idea to Wilson for expanding Tough Guy internationally, getting Wilson to share his logistical and financial secrets in the process. Dean failed to win Harvard’s MBA prize that year, but did set up his own event in 2010 instead, called Tough Mudder. Needless to say, Wilson was not part of the planning committee. In 2012, Tough Mudder had a turnover of $70million. Making that kind of money out of electrocuting people is seriously impressive, however underhand.

The best chapter of all relates to something I had never heard of: The Trevelyan Manhunt. First held in 1898, this is a highly secretive, invitation-only weekend event in the Lake District that sounds like a cross between fell-running, parkour and tag. Teams are split into Hares and Hounds, and the art is in knowing the landscape and how to elude the hunting pack. What astonished me was just how many key society figures of the 20th century have been Manhunters: G M Trevelyan (celebrated historian); William Beveridge (responsible for creating the NHS); one Chancellor or the Exchequer (not George Osbourne); one Home Secretary; and one former Governor of Hong Kong, amongst others. Forget the Bilderberg Group. This group sounds like the real New World Order.

In summary, while I think there is much truth in the book, I dispute Askwith’s thesis as a whole. His writing remains as polished as ever, but it does in places come across as the outpourings of a grumpy old man. Anyway, if he thinks running has got to a bad place, he should take a look at Big Cycling. Lousy doped-up EPO-taking cheats.

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“Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession” by Richard Askwith

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.

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