Race date: 28th & 29th April 2018
Race report by Simon Bayliss
61 Miles, 11,000 feet, the challenge of a lifetime.
It’s Sunday morning at a quarter to one. I’d stopped running over an hour beforehand, but had spent much of that time lying in a foetal position on the floor of a school hall in Threshfield, North Yorkshire, grappling with the fact that with no more running to distract me, no more fantasising about the end, all I was left with was an utter wretchedness, comprised in large part of pain, sickness and misery. An ill-judged cup of tea pushed my stomach into open rebellion and I found myself in the first-aid room vomiting into a disposable sick bowl, wracked with self-doubt. “What had I been thinking? Who was I kidding? I can’t run long distances; my body just can’t handle it. What’s the point of running anyway? It’s all so futile. There’s no way you can do a BGR”. The quite brilliant first-aid team press a bottle of Lucozade into my hand and take my vital signs as I drink it. The effect is near-instantaneous; sugar courses through my veins and suddenly I am elated, exceptionally happy that not only have I finished the Fellsman (an unmarked race across unforgiving moorland terrain advertised as 61 miles with over 11,000 ft of climbing), not only have I smashed my pre-race targets but most importantly I have faced the worst moments of my running life and gritted my way through them. I also feel a little sheepish, as this was my second misery – vomiting – sugar – recovery cycle of the evening, but had completely forgotten the lesson from earlier.
It had all started in the same school hall on Friday evening, as I queued for the exceptionally thorough kit-check. Four safety pins in my first-aid kit? 300 grams of emergency food? Do my shoes fulfil the requirements of sections 3a and 3b of the rules? Five long-sleeved tops including a fleece/down layer? A foil poncho? Was my hat warm enough? Where’s my spork? Arrgh! I know I’ve packed it, but I can’t find it. It’s only a spork. Sorry, no kit-check pass for you. Go away, sort yourself out and come back when you’ve found it. Finally, having managed to locate it, and still clutching my kit-check pass slip, I settled down for a night’s sleep on the floor of the school’s sports hall (note to self: next time, get there early and bag a gym mat). I was booked onto the 6am bus to the race start in Ingleton, and with breakfast served from 4:45 it was to be a short night.
You know you’re in for a long race when the bus taking you from the finish to the start takes 45 minutes. Once there, it was nice to spend time catching up with old friends over a cup of coffee, and discussing race strategies with old hands who had entered the race before. I always like to have a range of goals in mind at the start of a race, so if things don’t turn out as initially hoped there is always a plan to fall back on. For today, I’d settled on finish, finish under 18 hours and finish under 16 hours. I’m attempting the Bob Graham Round in June, a challenging days effort in the Lake District, so was running the Fellsman as a training race, a means to see how I would cope with a long day out covering high mileage, and these targets were based around this. A rule of thumb is that a sub-18 hour Fellsman is a good pointer that a sub-24 hour Bob Graham is possible.
At 8:30 we were off, heading straight up to tackle Ingleborough Hill, the biggest climb of the day. My legs always protest at the bottom of big climbs, and today was no different, but I settled in to a decent rhythm and was making great progress. Ingleborough and Whernside were dealt with, followed by the steepest climb of the day up to Gragareth. Roadside checkpoints, with super cheery marshals and impressive catering arrangements were ticked off along with the hill-top checkpoints, again with brilliant marshals who faced the prospect of spending up to 20 hours in a tiny tent on a bleak, windswept moor.
I was running well, feeling good on the climbs and fast on the descents and enjoying the magnificent scenery, but the hours of running, and the increasingly boggy terrain was taking an inevitable toll. More than once I went into thigh-deep bogs, but overall I was happy and, importantly, eating well, especially at the roadside checkpoints, each of which had a different speciality. Hot pasties and sausage rolls at Dent, pasta at Stone House, hot dogs at Redshaw, fruit salad and rice pudding at Fleet Moss. I’d been looking forward to the fruit salad especially and I grabbed an extra helping as I left, which turned out to be a big mistake. I ate too much, too quickly and soon started to feel queasy, which in turn stopped me refuelling at all for the next two hours. I hung onto the small group I was with until the Middle Tongue checkpoint but I was feeling worse and worse and was forced to watch them disappear ahead of me. As soon as they were out of sight my internal monologue started badgering away at me to stop, lie down and have some respite. “No-one will see you lying down, it’ll be lovely, just stop. Make the pain end. The grass looks soft, the sun is out, a little rest, stop a while”. Thankfully, at this point I looked at my watch and saw it was 6:30pm. [A deep dive into the Fellsman rule book is required at this point. Rule 2d) states “At dusk [entrants] will be formed into groups (minimum of four) at roadside checkpoints and keep these groups until a roadside Checkpoint Officer splits them.”, while 6c) states that “[Entrants will be disqualified] for failing to maintain compact groups of entrants after they have been formed as per rule 2d. Each member of the group must be within sight and sound of all members of that group. Failure to maintain groups will result in disqualification of the whole group”.] The upshot of this is that if I haven’t left the next roadside checkpoint, which was two miles away, before 7pm, I will be grouped and potentially compelled to spend the rest of the race with slower runners, forced to go at their pace, or (a worse prospect) be the slower runner myself, ruining other runners’ races. This provides the motivation to ignore the insistent voice in my head and press on. Before the roadside checkpoint, there was the aptly named Hell Gap hillside checkpoint where I told the marshal I was beaten and he cheerfully told me to stop talking nonsense and get myself down to the road ASAP. After a horrible descent down a rocky track I arrived at the Cray roadside checkpoint nine minutes before the grouping deadline, and decided to take some time to recuperate, and then get out before 7pm. I couldn’t face any food but instead had a cup of milk, and left the checkpoint with a few minutes to spare.
I had a little under twenty miles to go, I was on my own for now, and I felt awful. I was on flat, runnable grass, but could barely walk, and was overtaken by several other runners who had also managed to beat the 7pm grouping deadline. My stomach was feeling worse; the milk had been a very bad idea. My internal monologue, which hadn’t stopped whispering “Give up” to me, now ramped up the volume and became insistent: “Twenty miles of misery. It will be dark soon. Turn back. This is awful. There’s a lovely roadside checkpoint a quarter of a mile back there. Quit, they’ll see you right. They’ll drive you to the finish. Drive you. In a lovely minibus with heaters and seats. Quit. Quit. Quit. Twenty miles. This is pointless. Quit. Quit. Quit”. I ignore this and trudge on, telling myself “I’m doing this for a reason”, but the reason seemed very empty and hollow right then. At this point, I started to vomit. A few other runners overtook me as this happened, compounding my misery. “Are you all right, bud?” they asked. “Nnnggghhh. Be alright, thanks”. I trudged on, and started on the climb up Buckden Pike. I was sick again. At this point, I decided to sit down, but to do so in order to sort myself out and get going again as soon as possible. I forced a gel down and ate some dried mango, and put on my hat, gloves and coat. The gel and mango worked amazingly quickly, and I was soon up on my feet and heading onwards and upwards full of renewed purpose. I was going to get to Park Rash, the next roadside checkpoint (where I would be grouped), and from there it was only 10 miles to the finish. I flew to the next two hilltop checkpoints, feeling better than I had in hours, and kicking myself that I hadn’t had the good sense to force sugar in much earlier. Ninety minutes later I was at Park Rash, where a group of four was just leaving, so I now had to wait until at least another three entrants arrived. I refuelled again and took the opportunity to strip down and put on warm, dry clothes. A couple of runners came in, and then a group of four, so we were now grouped together as a seven. Off we set into the dark and clag on the climb up Great Whernside. The mist got thicker and thicker, rendering head-torches almost useless as we climbed ever higher. After forty minutes of climbing we eventually found the hill-top checkpoint, had our tally cards clipped and set off running again. We put on a decent pace but managed to keep together as a group as we gradually descended out of the clag. There were a few spots of absurdly unrunnable ground, with monstrous tussocks interspersed with deep peat hags, but on the whole we kept up a punishing pace, and worked fantastically as a group. Finally, we reached the last roadside checkpoint, where the rules allowed us to be de-grouped for the final two and a bit miles of tarmac to the finish. I was still feeling strong, but also desperate to get this over and done with, so I put the hammer down and set off, and arrived at the finish having just completed the two fastest miles of my race. I staggered into the school hall, sat down and immediately realised how much my feet, quads, back and (bizarrely) pecs hurt, and at the same time bonked big style. Cue forgetting to get some fuel in me and instead focussing on lying on the floor groaning and moaning in an orgy of self-pity.
After first-aid got me going again, I had time to reflect on my day. I’d run a magnificent course through stunning scenery, in weather about as good as one could hope for. I’d finished with a time of 14 hours 31 minutes, easily smashing all my targets. I was 24th overall (out of 341 starters), and first V50. I’d learnt (and subsequently forgotten and re-learnt) some important lessons about fuelling during a big run, but most pleasing of all was that I had discovered that I have the ability to suffer and keep going, to be stubborn and focus on the end, and not to take the easy way out, at least if my motivation is strong enough. I’m still nervous about my Bob Graham Round, because I will have to keep going for up to 24 hours and the thought of suffering for that long is daunting, but I think I’ve proved that at least if I fail to complete it won’t be for lack of trying. The one question I asked myself a lot on Saturday, and to which I still don’t have a good answer, is why am I doing this? Running such distances is, on the face of it, horrible. It hurts while I’m doing it, it hurts even more in the next few days after I’ve stopped, and has a certain futility to it. But as someone who was utterly hopeless at PE and who was always one of the last to be picked for teams, it is undeniably ego-boosting to complete something so hard, so out of the ordinary, so bad-ass. But when it comes down to it, I think it’s just that I love it. I love the adventure, the wild places, the hardship, the laughs, the camaraderie, the highs and the lows, the absurdity of it all.
The winner of the men’s race was Neil Talbott, who finished in 11 hours 16 minutes. The women’s race was won by Jessica Richardson in 14 hours 1 minute. First, and only Strider, and winner of the County Commissioner’s Tankard for the fastest over 50 was Simon Bayliss.
|24||Simon Bayliss||V50||14h 31m|
Full results are available on the Fellsman website