In June there's the Welsh Peaks Race. It's a mere 20 miles but doubly steep—a total of 9,000 feet in elevation, including a sprint up Wales's highest peak, Snowdon (3,560 feet). Scottish fell racing is represented by the purist's favorite, a simple 10-mile jog up Great Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis (4,406 feet), run in September.
On the uphills of any of these races, it's hard to tell the experienced fell runner from the miserable, already nauseated first-timer, because the muscle-saving, efficient way to run up a hill is to bend forward, almost doubled over, as if to fall up the hill. "The purpose in running up the hill holding your knees—and it does look funny, doesn't it?—is to take the pressure off your shins," says Danny Hughes of the Cumberland Fell Runners Association, which sponsors some of the races in the Lake District.
Hughes says that road runners will find their calf muscles and the front of their thigh muscles taxed greatly in fell racing. "The only way to practice fell racing is fell racing," says Hughes, "although I did know of a champion who practiced by stepping on and off of a chair as slowly as he could to get the legs used to lifting the body."
Connecticut's Grossman, an experienced marathoner, ran his first fell race at Buttermere. "Like most first-timers," he said, "I took one look at the hills and figured uphill was going to be the worst part. In reality the tricky part is down."
Most falls and slips, and most bruised arches and sprained ankles, result from barreling down the mountainside, improvising on the spot, not knowing where you will step until you've already stepped there. Pauline Stuart, a former Ladies Fell Running Champion of the British Isles, says downhill running is a matter of instinct. "It seems to me that when you are cautious and try to plan each step—get overly aware of yourself—that's precisely when you fall," she says. "Just run it fiat out, and the feet take care of themselves."
Fell-running events in Britain are diverse enough that you can find something perfectly attuned to your wishes—long distances and mild slopes; short, very steep courses; all uphill; all downhill; you name it. Catching on now in England is the uphill mile, a straight shot up nothing less than a 10% grade. Times of six to seven minutes aren't unusual. For the ultimate fell-running experience there's the 50-mile Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, which takes in a total climb of 14,000 feet over two days in the Lake District, with a break in between for some rugged mountainside camping.
"The appeal of fell racing," says Hughes, "is in its closeness to nature." For while running along the top of mountain ridges, traversing streams, finding one's own path, one must, as Hughes says, "think like nature thinks."
Grossman, with one fell race under his belt, agrees. "There may be more prestigious events, more famous marathons, greater challenges, but nowhere in running is there a feeling like running above the clouds, with valleys, cliffs, waterfalls on all sides of you. I don't think racing could be any more beautiful."