On the run

What keeps people running up mountains when everything in their bodies is telling them to stop?

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You’ve probably seen them when you’ve been out walking: in nothing but shorts and a vest despite the raging winds, skipping down the rocky scree like goats, their hair still wet with condensation from the mountain fog.

When you hear about the kind of strain fell runners put their bodies under you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re a different species.

Marcus Scotney from Sheffield has been running on the hills for over 25 years – and represented Great Britain in the 100km world championships last year – but that doesn’t mean he’s able to avoid the inevitable hardships of the sport.

“I got stage two hypothermia after the first day of a two day mountain marathon”, he says. “A big weather front came over, and people were walking away from the start of the race.

“We were doing a river crossing, and all the rivers were huge from the rain so I got swept away and did about 100 metres down river. I ended up thinking: ‘This is my moment, this is it for me.’”

Scotney, who now specialises in long distance ultra-running, made it out alive and carried on competing despite the dramas of the day. But there have been tragedies. In 2013 experienced fell runner Brian Belfield died of hypothermia after falling 1,000 feet down a mountainside in the Lakes.

“I got stage two hypothermia after the first day of a two-day mountain marathon.”

Following his death new rules were brought in to try to make the sport safer. Stuart Hale, a former fell runner who coaches some of the country’s most successful hill athletes, argues the level of danger depends on how prepared you are.

“Some people make it more dangerous by not being as fit as they need to be, or not having enough kit. The trouble with the UK is the weather can turn at any time. This year we went to Snowdon. It was the end of July, but with wind chill it was minus four.”

Fell runners have a lot to contend with to get good at their sport. Blisters and sprained ankles are day to day, but hypothermia and extreme exhaustion aren’t uncommon. Fell races are usually only a few hours, but the challenges can go on for days.

The holy grail of challenges, the Bob Graham Round, takes in 66 miles over 42 Lakeland peaks in 24 hours. On top of the sheer distance covered, it involves a total climb of roughly 27,000 feet. For a quick comparison, most road marathons are just 26 miles and 385 yards. Although challenges like the Bob Graham are usually done with some kind of support, Glen Borrell completed the round alone this year.

“The element of danger in fell running is appealing”, he says “Going off path it’s rugged, it’s a bit rough, but I enjoy that.”

He’s not the only one who thinks like this. Hale, fully understanding the conditions he could be running in, celebrated his honeymoon with his wife by running 100 miles over four days. The strangest part of it is that occasionally runners, like Dot Kesterton, can’t quite work out why they keep doing it.

She says: “After my first fell race, hanging over a fence, I can recall saying: ‘Never again! I’m never ever going to do anything as awful as that again!’ Three months later there I was again, running up another whopping big hill going ‘This is awful.’”

Kesterton is 63, a grandmother and a determined five-day-a-week runner. “I’ll keep going for as long as my joints, muscles and head will allow.”

She could keep winning races for a good while longer: fell running is uniquely suited to older athletes because of the terrain. As the ground changes all the time, peak-baggers, as they call themselves, employ a range of different muscles rather than straining just a few. They can make the most of their strength on steep ascents, and they’re able to avoid knee impact problems usually associated with road running.

One of the reasons Kesterton, also from Sheffield, has stuck at the sport is she’s rather good at it.

“I have to admit, there is a certain pleasure in passing younger men and hearing the tales afterwards. A woman said to her partner: ‘Did you enjoy that race?’ And he said: ‘No, I didn’t enjoy it. First of all I was overtaken by a slip of a lass, and then two grey-haired women went past. I’m never going to do it again.’ Obviously I’d been doing it for longer than him.”

But although she likes to tease the younger competitors, she has a real appreciation for the camaraderie.

“I do believe I’ve had an impact on a lot of people, because a middle aged man can’t say ‘I can’t do it’ if I’m trolling round the neighbourhood.

The sport has existed in one form or another since the 19th century, and although it’s grown and been adapted it’s never become commercialised.

It remains rooted in the traditions of the same small towns and villages where some of the greatest mountain runners grew up: Joss Naylor, Nicky Spinks, Kenny Stuart and Billy Bland (to name just a few).

Most of these runners turn up to at least one or two races a year to cheer new competitors on. Naylor is the undisputed figurehead of the sport: a Cumbrian shepherd whose back was so impaired that he spent years in a special corset, before ignoring doctors’ orders and taking up running. His records were unbeaten for decades, and he’s still running. In 2006 he ran over 70 Lakeland peaks, covering over 50 miles and ascending more than 25,000 feet, all in under 21 hours. He was 70 at the time.

“He’s an absolute legend, and whenever a race goes past his house in Wasdale Head he always comes out and watches,” Scotney says.

“He really encapsulates the mental aptitude and toughness you need for running.”

It’s mental aptitude that keeps people going when everything in their body is telling them to stop. It’s about overcoming mental mountains, reaching the top, and – Borrell’s favourite part – stopping to admire the view.

“Sometimes it can be snowing, sometimes horizontal rain, but when I see an amazing set of clouds or a sunset, at that moment I’m the only person that’s got that view. Those moments make the experience.”

Photo: Marcus Scotney has been fell running for 25 years (Laurence Crossman-Emms)

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