This is an account of my first-ever fell race – the Pen-y-Ghent fell race – which took place back in June this year in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, North Yorkshire. To see the route, click here. ~Sze Kiu
1pm, Saturday 2 June, a field in Horton-in-Ribblesdale
“You really must try and eat something,” See Wah implored, waving a squashed, semi-warm, reduced-priced sausage roll in front of me. “No, I can’t, I’m not hungry,” I replied, and it was the truth. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the food, but I felt sick just looking at it. “Oh well, don’t say I haven’t warned you. You’ll have no one to blame if you get hungry halfway up Pen-y-ghent,” See Wah gave me a final look of resignation, before taking a big bite out of the aforementioned sausage roll. At least someone was enjoying it!
Deep down, I knew See Wah was right; I really should try to get some food down me, but my stomach had been in knots ever since I woke up this morning, the day of My First Ever Fell Race. I grabbed the shopping bag from the back seat of our car and examined its content: a cheese bake, a big breakfast roll, and a steak bake. I decided to go for the steak bake and bit into it gingerly. Three mouthfuls were all I could manage before feeling ill again. I could feel the steak pieces (yes, the bake actually contained real meat!) lodged in my throat. I needed a hot drink to wash it down. “Why don’t we go to the building over there and get some hot drinks? We can check out the village gala too,” I suggested.
“Fine, but you must try and eat something before the race starts,” See Wah reminded me once more as we both stepped out of the car. More cars were arriving now. A car pulled up alongside ours. A middle-aged man got out and we exchanged a few pleasantries.
“Have you taken part in this race before?” See Wah asked the man.
“First time I did it was 4-5 years ago,” the man replied. “I’m here on my own today as my son and grandson are running in other races locally. You’ll have a good time! The course’s changed a little this year – do you have a map? If not you can get one from the registration tent.”
“Thanks, we have the course map. It’s our first time running a fell race. Is it easy to get lost?” I asked.
“Nah, just keep following the person in front and you’ll be alright. Except for a few people, nobody takes it too seriously,” the man smiled and reassured me. “The route is mostly runnable. Mind you, it does get pretty steep as you approach the summit of Pen-y-ghent. A bit of scrambling is involved to get to the top.”
What?!?! Scrambling?!?! Why didn’t anyone tell me this beforehand???
11am, Saturday 2 June, Ingleton
“Enjoy yourselves! Break a leg – is that the right thing to say?” Joked our Airbnb host as he waved us goodbye outside the cottage in Ingleton where we’d been staying the night before. What if I break more than a leg? I thought to myself and gave a weak, nervous laugh as I climbed into the car. See Wah gave me a bemused look; he could not understand why I was so anxious. And why would he? He’s always been a lot fitter and sportier than me; to him, there was nothing more fun than participating in a foot race that involves running up and down a massive hill on a damp, misty Saturday afternoon.
Sadly, I couldn’t share his enthusiasm. Much as I enjoy off-road running in general and have had some prior experience of fell running, the idea of racing through a 6.5-mile course that involves going up and down stony/boggy hillside tracks, potentially leaping over streams, boulders and stiles in wet/foggy conditions – not to mention a 1700ft climb within the first three miles – seemed pretty daunting.
I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to, a little voice in my head said. It’s not as if I’ve already registered. I don’t know anyone there. No one would think less of me. Then again, maybe I should just go for it. People in their 70s took part in last year’s race. If they could do it, so can I? Hmm, will the terrain be too challenging for a relatively new trail runner like myself? After all, I’ve only been running regularly for two years. Fell racing is nothing like a road race. Maybe I should just give it a miss. I could just jog around the field and wait for See Wah at the finishing line. Yes, maybe that’s what I’ll do. “Oh, look, a petrol station. There’s a Co-op too, we can get some food to eat when we get to Horton,” The voice of See Wah broke my stream of thought. I looked outside the car window and discovered that we’d arrived in Settle. The plan was that we’d have a nose around the town for an hour or so before driving on to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, where the race was to start and end. It was raining steadily when we arrived. The whole town was enveloped in grey mist. Talk about pathetic fallacy! The knots in my stomach tightened.
1:15pm, Horton-in-Ribblesdale village gala
My hand shook as I stirred two tablespoonfuls of sugar into my cup of steaming tea, bought from one of the ladies in the tea and cake station. I took a sip and felt better instantly. Now I know why first aiders always offer traumatised people cups of sugary tea. It really does help to settle one’s nerves! We walked around the Horton village gala, which turned out to be a very small affair: the main event of the day seemed to have been a procession through the village (which we’d arrived too late for), and a kids’ dressing-up competition (won by a girl dressed as a Minion). There was a stall promoting guide dogs (no real guide dogs present) and a games stall (I didn’t investigate what games/prizes were being offered). And of course, the registration tent for the fell race on the other side of the field.
“Oh, hello there! You must be See Wah and Sze Kiu from London! I’m Gary, the person you’ve been e-mailing. Glad to see you’ve both made it! Registration’s now open!” A friendly man greeted us as we approached the tent. Gary is from the Settle Harriers, the organiser of today’s race. It was very kind of him to say hello in person.
“Registration forms and pens are on the table. You can pick up your race number and safety pins over there. It’s a fiver per person,” explained a friendly woman sitting in front of a laptop. This is it, I thought. I have to make a decision now. OK, so everyone does seem to be very friendly and relaxed. The rain has stopped and the mist seems to be clearing. I’ll probably kick myself afterwards if I don’t go for it, won’t I?
I picked up two forms and handed one to See Wah. I grabbed a pen and hastily wrote my name on the other form before I could change my mind again.
2:15pm, 45 minutes to go until race starts
Form filled. Entry fee paid. Race number received. That’s it, there’s no going back now! We made our way back to our car. I took out the half-eaten steak bake (now cold) and managed another three mouthfuls. I’ve eaten three-quarters of it now. It’ll do. See Wah quickly offered to finish the rest. We chatted some more with the man parked next to us. Listening to his previous experiences of this race (and fell running in general) somehow helped calm my nerves a little. There were still 45 minutes to go before the start. Unlike those big city road races where tens of thousands of runners would by this time (a) be gathered for a mass, cheesy warm-up session led by a D-list celebrity, or (b) be ushered to the one of fifty starting pens, the atmosphere in Horton was decidedly chilled. A few runners have started doing warm-up laps around the field, but most were just hovering by their cars chatting to friends, studying the course map, or buying a last-minute slice of pre-race-fuel cake. I figured I too should try to prepare myself mentally for the race (worrying myself sick about it for the past 5 hours didn’t count). Crouching down clumsily in the back seat, I extracted myself from the floral Joules sweater and jeans I’d been wearing, and put on my running t-shirt and a pair of neon orange thigh-length running shorts. I pinned my race number neatly onto my t-shirt. I put on my usual neon pink headband to keep my hair out of my eyes. The colours I was wearing clashed horribly, but as I told myself, safety first. Better to wear bright colours as it means I would be spotted easily by a helicopter should I get lost up on Pen-y-ghent!
Given how long the queue for women’s toilets usually is in any public event, I thought I should make my way to the ladies sooner rather than later. When I got to the back building where the toilets were, my instincts told me to join the first queue I saw. “Erm, this queue is for the gents’; the ladies’ loo is on the other side,” a man in running vest and short shorts in front of me said. Sheepishly, I walked to the other side where, lo-and-behold, there was not a single person queueing outside the women’s toilet! This must be my lucky day. See Wah was very surprised when I returned to the car in under 5 minutes! (After the race I found out that, of the 142 finishers, there were only 21 women. This might explain why for once the queue was longer for the men’s loo…)
2:45pm, 15 minutes to go, checking my race kit
OK, so the legs are feeling fine; the niggle in my right calf (which had been bothering me for the past month or so) is not present right this moment. This is a good sign (let’s not jinx it!), I thought to myself as See Wah and I joined a number of other runners for a warm-up lap around the car-parking field. As I passed each corner of the field, I would spot a man or two peeing (not that) discreetly behind a bush. Gradually, people began to gather behind the starting line. See Wah and I ran back to the car to retrieve our kit bags before finally joining the others (his a discreet black bumbag; mine a neon-yellow vest-style backpack). Fell racing can often be unpredictable in terms of the weather and terrain, which is why for middle- and long-distance races it is a requirement for each runner to carry a kit that includes waterproof whole-body cover, hat, gloves, map of the route, compass, whistle and emergency food. Since the Pen-y-Ghent race falls under the AM category (which means the route has at least 250 feet of climb per mile; the total race distance on ‘road’ is less than 20 per cent, and the route is over 6 miles in length), a full kit was required on the day, meaning I had to squeeze everything I’d listed above – plus a bottle of water and my trusty lip balm – into my vest backpack. (FYI, I chose a fun-sized Snickers bar as my emergency food.) Securing the straps of my vest across my chest, I felt more like a runner. I felt a little more ready.
The air around us was cool and fresh. Although the sky had brightened a little, Pen-y-Ghent remained hidden from view. Runners all around us were wishing each other good luck; some were extra encouraging when they found out this was our first race. I noticed that many runners were wearing their local club vests – and thus could tell that most were local, northern runners. Unlike a road race, no one wore headphones. It was a pretty relaxed atmosphere, not at all tense like I had imagined in my head the night before, though that didn’t stop me from worrying. Oh gosh, these are all local runners, which means they must all be really familiar with the surrounding area, and I’ll be the only one who hasn’t run it before. Argh! Why’s it so hard to stay positive!?
Nerves can be a funny thing. In my teenage years I played the piano fairly seriously and used to perform and compete regularly. I became very good at controlling my mental state-of-mind before a big event. And yet, here I was, twenty years later, unable to recall a single technique I had once mastered to calm myself. I suppose the reason behind this was a simple one: it was always easy(er) feel positive and confident before a performance, having had weeks and months to practise and perfect my playing; now, I was expected to race along a route I had never seen before, on an unfamiliar terrain. It’s a bit like sight-reading a piece of music in front of an audience. Fear of the unknown, I think that’s what they call it.
After a brief welcome and explanation of the course from the race director, and a final message of “look out for one another on the hills”, we were off, bang on at 3pm.
Steadily, the runners left the field and spread out along a road (B6479) for a mile or so. See Wah and I were at the back of the pack, jogging at a steady pace. To be honest, although I’d studied the map briefly beforehand, having never been to Pen-y-Ghent I didn’t have a clue what to expect or how tricky the ascent/descent would be. It didn’t help that we couldn’t actually see it from where we were. I decided to follow another runner’s advice and just follow the people in front. Thankfully, my confidence grew as the minutes went by; I was relieved that people weren’t sprinting right from the start (at least not those I was running alongside). Maybe they were all conserving their energy for the ascent? I wonder if I’ll have enough energy, having only eaten three-quarters of a steak bake. I hope I have enough water to last the whole race. Wait, what about the scrambling at the top? Will it be an overhang or a crimpy traverse waiting for me? Luckily I’d cut my fingernails a couple of nights ago so I don’t have to worry about breaking a nail. Ouch, my compass is rubbing against my rib. My mind drifted from one thought to another as I made my way towards the Bracken Bottom. I could see that we were about to go up a slope. Here we go. Start climbing.
Part 1: The ascent
It was at this point that See Wah said his goodbye, as he decided it was time to pick up his pace to catch up with the faster runners. I reassured him I’d be ok to run on my own from now on. No one had overtaken me at this point, so I thought I must be doing fine. As the steepness of the trail increased, I could see the runners ahead beginning to slow down. Many were now adopting the classic “hands-on-thighs” technique I’d seen so many times on photos and videos. I maintained a steady pace by combining brisk walking with jogging. The air was thick with mist as we made our way up; I couldn’t really see very far ahead. As long as I could keep up with the runner in front, I’d be ok, I told myself.
Gradually, the grassy path turned into a steep rocky path, which turned into a set of stairs, before turning again into even higher steps. I slowed down a little while maintaining a steady rhythm. I passed a number of walkers. The man who’d parked his car next to ours came bouncing past me. “Well done! How are you finding it? OK?” He asked. “Yes, I’m good!” I shouted back, which was the truth. The climb was tiring but it also felt weirdly good knowing that my body was coping fine. No real complaint from my thighs yet, though I did have to drop my pace another notch to cope with the steep gradient. A little later, I noticed an elderly runner – who I’d chatted to at the start of the race – was now leaping up the stone steps effortlessly beside me. “You’re climbing very well,” he called out encouragingly as he overtook me, “Keep going! Not long to go until you reach the top!”
“Thanks!” I replied, slightly out-of-breath, embarrassed by the fact a 70-year-old man was faster than me going uphill, yet at the same time feeling equally in awe of and inspired by him. After pausing for 20 seconds or so to take a sip of water, I urged my legs to get moving again. Soon after, the scrambling bit came. Thankfully it was nowhere near as bad as I had imagined it – no massive overhang or crimpy traverse – and I clambered up to reach the summit safely.
After two short but super steep climbs, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was still able to jog along the summit plateau. It must be the adrenaline! The summit of Pen-y-Ghent was so misty. I could barely make out the shape of the runner in front, and tried to stay as close to them as possible. Luckily, up until that point we had been running along a paved path, plus there were marshals throughout the various checkpoints, so there was no need to consult a map.
Part 2: The descent
So there I was, “cruising” along the plateau, thinking that the worst was over, when suddenly the trail I was following ended abruptly. In fact, I noticed there didn’t seem to be any ground ahead of me. I caught sight of the runner in front leaping and disappearing into the mist. I barely had time to register what was going on, when four or five runners suddenly came hurtling past me before also disappearing into a screen of fog. Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be … pretty scared! was the first thought that came into my head, as the mist was that thick it was as if we were on the set of Stars In Their Eyes. Bother! I think this is the descent! Then my mind went blank for a split second. I was shocked by how quickly people were running, no, flying downhill. Thankfully, I then recalled the fell-running videos I’d watched on Youtube. This is what fell running is about. It’s all about the downhill running technique… which I don’t have!!! Oh well, I’ll just have to go for it and try not to break my legs! And off I went, leaning slightly forward to embrace the grassy slope ahead, tentatively at first, but gradually increasing my pace as I began to relax. Visibility had been reduced to what seemed like just a few metres, making it very difficult to see where I was going, but luckily the route was marked by the occasional orange marker.
After a mile of blindly following the orange markers downhill, where at times I felt truly alone (I’d lost sight of the runner in front, and I daren’t look behind in case there were more runners about to overtake me, which would depress me to no end), the terrain levelled out and I was finally able to catch up with the person in front as we reached another checkpoint where a marshal told us we only had one more hill (Whitber Hill) to climb. This was followed by another descent. To be honest, I think my brain had stopped working by this point. I don’t remember much about this section, other than the fact that the ground was soft and mossy, which felt good to jog on. I also remember stepping right into a bog at one point, the only point in the entire race where my foot got wet! At one point, I spotted a photographer by a stone wall. I had seconds to recall the advice given in a Women’s Running article on the dos and don’ts of posing for race photos. Would it look cheesy if I smiled at the camera? Argh, too late! I think he’s taken the photo already. Hopefully he’s got one of me with my eyes open! (Sadly, they weren’t.)
At last, I found myself catching up with the runners who had overtaken me earlier. I could also make out the white tent in the field in the distance. I glanced at my watch. I’m in the final mile now. I pushed as hard as I could now that we were once again on (almost) flat ground. I overtook a couple of runners moments before turning into the entrance of the field to cross the finishing line, where I could see See Wah holding out his phone, ready to catch the moment on camera. I broke into a massive smile.
After the race
Beyond the finishing line, See Wah and I joined a small group of runners and spectators to cheer the remaining finishers. Time for a debrief.
“Well done! You finished sooner than I had thought you would!” said See Wah, who finished 63rd overall, in 1:07:45.
“Oh, well done! Give us a hug! That wasn’t so bad, was it?” said the man who parked his car next to ours, and who had finished just a few minutes before me.
“Shame about the mist at the top, couldn’t see a thing. But it was definitely better to run in cooler temperature,” a fellow runner chimed in.
“Kudos for travelling all the way up from London!” A spectator who’d travelled from York to support her friend said.
“Judging by the size of your smile, I think it’s safe to say you had a good time? We’ll see you again next year then?” Gary the race director said as he shook my hands.
In hindsight, I think it helped a lot mentally that we raced on such a grey, foggy day. Had Pen-y-Ghent been visible from the start, it probably would have instilled a greater sense of fear in me, making me go slower. The fact that I couldn’t see very far ahead the whole time meant I was able to focus literally one step at a time. A couple of other runners came up to congratulate me. The support and encouragement from everyone left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling (yes, really). After twenty minutes of standing still to chat to people and watch the prize-giving ceremony, I could feel my legs stiffening. No matter, I’ll deal with the pain tomorrow. I’ve just completed a fell race.
I’d done it. My first fell race. My official time was 1:26:07. I did not come last. I didn’t even need to eat my fun-sized Snickers bar en-route.
Will I do it again? Hell, yeah!
Featured image taken by johnthescone, reproduced under license CC BY 2.0 (https://flic.kr/p/5wnzh5); top photo by See Wah Cheng; bottom by Karen Allsopp of Settle Harriers