SI Vault
Clive Gammon
July 28, 1975
Having sheared all of his local competition, sheep farmer Joss Naylor, Britain's marvelous fell runner, is going to try Pikes Peak
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July 28, 1975

His Heart's In The High Land

Having sheared all of his local competition, sheep farmer Joss Naylor, Britain's marvelous fell runner, is going to try Pikes Peak

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The last two ducklings have plenty of run left in them, and in the dimly lit barn they twist and dodge like hockey players to avoid capture. But they stand no real chance. One hand intercepts the leader, another hand swoops down on the second, and into a sack they go with the rest of the furious fluff balls. Without pausing, the farmer, nut brown from the summer sun and wearing, incongruously, track shorts and running shoes, races off to release them in a small outbuilding. He has noticed the soft curtains of rain billowing down the sides of Yewbarrow Fell, 2,000 feet above his 17th-century farmhouse at Bowerdale, in the English Lake District, and if the fleeces of the 100 sheep he has set himself to shear before nightfall get soaked, he will have lost 24 hours from an already-desperate schedule; you can shear wet sheep but you can't pack wet wool. So with the ducklings out of the way, Joss Naylor comes running back with his sheep dog at his heels to herd the flock into the barn. He quickly pinions the first sheep across his knees and begins snipping at its fleece with his shears. He is hurrying because he has a plane to catch.

Joss Naylor weighs 135 pounds, will be 40 next February and has had two discs removed from his spine. Single-handed, he farms 150 acres of rough sheep-grazing land on the side of a mountain in Cumbria, in the north of England, and 50 good acres in the valley. Normally there would be no necessity for him to clip his 1,500 head of sheep at the killing rate he has set himself. But they all have to be finished in a fortnight, when he plans to fly to Colorado to prepare for the Pikes Peak Marathon, a 26.4-mile mountain run which takes place on Aug. 3. The conditions will be alien to him, especially the altitude, but so extraordinary have been his feats in mountain runs in Britain that his fellow runners there believe he will have the same devastating impact in Colorado that he has had in his home country. Meanwhile, aside from the sheep, he has made most of his preparations. His brother will take in his three milking cows, and since his three young children will be home from school, his wife Mary, who has a summer job at a tourist restaurant on the lake below the farm, will have enough help with the stock.

Now he slaps a blue stock mark on a shorn ram and grabs another. "It's hard work," he says, "but it helps me to prepare, mentally like. When you're sitting here for a couple of weeks, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the red-hot sun, clipping your 100 sheep a day, it's very easy to start telling yourself that you can give over at six o'clock, when you've done 80. It's like when you get the first touch of cramp in the legs when you're running, and you think, 'I'm not going to finish.' But see, you can't think that. You have to fix it in your mind that you are going to do it, just like the 100 sheep, and stick it out till you've done."

Mountain running—fell running, it tends to get called in Britain because fell is the dialect word for mountain in the Lake District, where the sport was first developed more than a century ago—must rank with marathon swimming as the cruelest test of an athlete's endurance. It involves grueling changes of gradient, and terrain that ranges from loose stone and rock outcrops, through high grass that drags at the legs, to peaty bog patches. A year ago in June, Joss Naylor decided he was ready to run the Pennine Chain, the long spine of mountain that extends from the Scottish border across northern England to the peak district of Derbyshire, in the Midlands. The course was 271� miles, and Joss would run alone in an attempt to break the existing record of four days and five hours. He set out from the village of Kirk Yethold, just inside Scotland, a little after three in the morning and headed for Cheviot Hills.

"I had a great first day," he recalls. "I did 106 miles. But somewhere I'd torn a muscle in my groin, and when I set off next morning I couldn't lift my leg. I had to trail it for the first 14 miles. I got some treatment on it with this deep heat stuff and I could start running again, but it pained me for the rest of the time. The second morning, too, I strained my Achilles tendon."

That second day he had to climb High Cup Nick, cross its northern edge to Cauldron Snout and then negotiate a rock stairway down to the valley of the river Tees. Besides the injuries he had picked up en route, he now admits that he was in poor shape when he began. He had hurt his back baling hay on the farm, so that his sciatic nerve was troubling him, and a couple of weeks previously, in another farm mishap, he'd knocked his hip bone out of its cup and it was still very sore.

"I was just about a wreck when I started," he says, "and through the third day my body was in such a state with injuries that it was just a bloody awful endurance test. I should have packed it in but it was all built up in my finish like. And there were all the people who'd come to help me, the pacemakers I had. I felt I had to see it through. At the end, my ankles were swollen up, my hands were swollen and my shoulders were aching badly because I'd tried to put the wear and tear on them. I had a dead feeling in my legs, and it took nearly six months for them to come right. You know, I can't sleep after one of those big runs. Probably I get an hour or so of proper sleep and then I stay restless for the rest of the night. It's two or even three nights before I'm myself again, because the body has taken such a big pasting...the blood runs from your gut into your arms and legs." He adds wistfully, "If all had gone well, it could have been a great record...."

Unless you were aware of the result, you could get the impression that Joss failed in his Pennine Chain attempt. In fact, he broke the record by 24 hours, covering the 271� miles (including 32,000 feet of ascent and descent) in three days, four hours and 36 minutes, including rest stops totaling 18 hours, 43 minutes. What chagrins him is that he didn't do precisely what he had in mind—cut the time to under three days.

Such a feat as the Pennine run would be a gargantuan one for an athlete in his prime who had never had a day's illness. The medical history of Joss Naylor, though, sounds like required reading for up-and-coming osteopaths. He was an undersized child, and when he was nine an unlucky kick in the back—as he fooled with the other kids—permanently injured his spine. He lived with intermittent pain right through his childhood and as a young man, until they took two discs from his spine when he was 20. He recovered enough to take part in Cumberland wrestling—formal contests, Japanese in style, in which the opponents clasp one another by the waist—but an-other piece of bad luck hit him very soon after. He was 23 when he jumped a wire fence, stumbled and went down on his back, his spine hitting a stone that was no bigger than a pigeon's egg.

"It was two years before I was any good after that," he relates.

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