The Chapel Fell Top: Roof of England Fell Race
St John’s Chapel, North Penines
Tuesday 17th July 2018
Report by George Stainsby
Lots of runners have goals. I set some for myself every year. Some are to run a bit faster over specific race distances; some are to improve on previous races; but until The Chapel Fell: Roof of England Fell Race, I had never started a race with the following goals:
Don’t break any limbs that will prevent you from going on holiday.
Don’t have everyone looking for you at the end…
…which quickly had a baby goal:
Don’t be on the local TV News as the ‘runner who needed mountain rescue, despite a beautiful, warm evening, other runners to follow, and a map of the fell.’
Despite its relative diminutive scale in the running world, and microscopic number of competitors compared with the Great North Run, the London Marathon, and their Big City friends, fell running is a healthy and fanatical strand of running. Not long before my debut fell race, I had watched online with thousands of others as Kilian Jornet tore up the main street of Keswick. He was cheered, lauded, and heralded by hundreds as he touched to door of the Moot Hall to complete his record-breaking Bob Graham Round. More on the Bob Graham round later, but the simple idea is to run over every peak in the Lake District in under twenty-four hours. This is very difficult to do.
He did it in just under thirteen.
That’s an hour quicker than the previous record, held by Billy Bland, who was one of the first people to congratulate Jornet on his stunning achievement.
In need of something to love about running again following the London Marathon, I decided that the Chapel Fell race was the best fit as a plan to reconnect to nature; to feel a burn in my lungs I could enjoy; and to experience the endorphin rush of Kilian Jornet, and the other fell runners I have read about since I started running. Nicky Spinks. Joss Naylor. Steve Birkinshaw. Richard Askwith’s Feet in the Clouds book had a profound effect on me; more because I identified with his suffering rather than any talent or success. I was simply going to enjoy running over hills.
I also knew I was going to enjoy it because John Tollitt is an expert fell runner (he also runs for Northumberland Fell Runners), and he reckoned this was the perfect fell race to start with. Unlike the runners from the books, I would not need much in the navigation department. While simply following the runner in front isn’t always the best plan, if that runner is more experienced, it certainly has its advantages. “The only thing you need to watch out for, really, is turning left at the gate instead of following the path straight down,” John reassured me.
“Ah. Right. What happens if I miss the turn?” Sometimes knowing your doom is better than the fear of the unknown.
“’N’owt, really. You’ll add on about three miles as you run back along the valley road instead of into the finish.” John made adding on three miles sound if not good, then not bad. I felt like I had no excuses, and not much to worry about.
Forty-seven runners, and a dog, gathered in the tiny village of St. John’s Chapel, in Weardale. Bum-bags contained a compass, map and whistle. The map told us to run up the side of the valley, and instead of dropping into Weardale, turn around the friendly and helpful marshals, and run back. The compass would tell us that south was uphill, and north was down. Except Chapel Fell is also the fell with the highest paved road in England. I have been here on countless, gasping, leg-hammering occasions on my road bike. Gradient and gravity are no friends of mine. If I needed the whistle, I would have to get my breath back first.
Starting off was one of the most exhilarating running experiences I have known. Immediately, the gravel path struggled vertically. An evening sunset dappled through the light clouds, and I half-expected to hear a heavenly chorus. Instead, I heard my lungs and those of my fellow runners, the crunch of gravel under trail trainer, and as we hit the open fell, a gorgeous breeze. My watch beeped a mile, and this was the last time I would take any notice of it. The beep was entirely incongruent with the rugged, bleak, and stunning landscape.
And I could run on any of it. Not funnelled by a barrier. Not passing any mile markers. Not even taking a sweeping line through corners. There weren’t any corners, because the fells are limitless. I was limited only by my own ability to jump shallow ditches, or judge tussock grass. At one point, I was within three metres of John, but that was as close as I managed. His footwork and judgement of when to run, and when running was a waste of energy and blow to the legs, left me studying my own learning curve.
Two lads behind me talked about a one hundred mile ultra that one of them had completed a couple of weeks earlier; they were still talking about it as they went past me. But that was the last time I would be overtaken on the climb up, and I reached the turn in 12th place.
Running downhill, at speed, on uneven ground, in your first fell race, four days before your family holiday, is, to put not too fine a point on it, sphincter-loosening in the extreme. It’s not like being on a roller-coaster, because when you run, you are in control. Well, you’re supposed to be. But when your little legs start revolving like the clappers, the ‘in control’ bit becomes ‘wheeee!’ Fell runners have to watch what they’re doing. I only fell flat on my face once, but I was overtaken quite a few times, constantly terrified of extending my leg too far and breaking it. Or tripping on a rabbit hole and snapping my ankle. Think any episode of Casualty in which someone unsuspecting has their life turned inside out.
The runners ahead weren’t so much running as leaping. They bounced from mound to mound, following an invisible path of least resistance, lightening searing down a hillside. I hurled myself as quickly as I could dare to the village at the bottom of the fell. Smacking into the gravel track which told me there was a mile to go, the light faded a little bit as the sun retreated behind the hills. I remembered the left turn John had told me about, mainly because I followed the runner in front. The final couple of hundred metres were quite steep, and even though I was in danger of being caught again, I turned off my brain one last time. 19th place. And I hadn’t made Tyne Tees News.
Looking down at my legs, I could see they had become the leftovers of an all you can eat bug buffet. Far from putting me off, John and I, like the other forty-seven runners, went to the café afterwards. Coffee and cake are even better following a race, and as an extra-special cherry on top of my fell race cake, the four first-timers all received a prize, too.
It’s the little things that make your day.
And running up and down the big ones.
A full set of results can be found here.