"We'll have 420 running here today," said Rogerson, watching cars arrive at the start area of the Horseshoe race. "That's a lot. There are 250 races a year now in Britain, but this one, the Horseshoe, is a true classic."
In the valley that lies between Nab Scar and Low Pike there was the usual bustle that attends the beginning of any race. It seemed a miniature, rusticated version of Staten Island before the New York City Marathon or Hopkinton, Mass., before Boston. One hour before the official start of the race at 1 p.m., people milled about congenially. Runners were sipping tea. Dogs were chasing sticks. Kids were teasing the sheep despite the numerous signs that read LAMBING SEASON—PLEASE DON'T BOTHER THE SHEEP.
A center of activity was the red van belonging to Pete Bland. I drifted over. Bland and his brother Dennis were peddling T-shirts, light gloves, hats, soft-cleated running shoes and other gear useful for this sport.
"It's a perfect day for a fell race," said Pete. "The clouds will keep it cool, but it shouldn't be too cold on the ridge. And the haze is high enough. No one should get lost. You won't need a compass. Most people won't even carry a bum bag today—they'll need no extra gear."
Pete started fell running 35 years ago when he was still at Windemere Grammar School. A modest man in his 40's, trim and white-haired, Bland was a local champion in the 1970s, but says he hasn't "got the faintest idea" how many races he has entered or won. How many hillsides has he run up? "All of them, I suppose," he said shyly. But he wouldn't be running today. "No, not this one," he said. "I've got to mind the shop. And also, I've got a bad knee." One probably suffers bad knees and ankles often in fell running, I suggested. "Yes, there are many twists on the rocks," he confirmed. "I've taken a few stitches on the head, too, because you do take tumbles."
Dennis Bland, 30, has been fell running for 20 years but, unlike his big brother, hasn't won a race in ages. "I did win one once," he said as he limbered up alongside the van, preparing to compete. "I was an under-12, and at Ambleside they had a junior race, a mile up to the flag and a mile back. I won that one, but I've been shut out since." Nevertheless, he has retained his love for fell running and is, in fact, a preeminent historian of the sport.
"Fell running was a Victorian sport," Dennis explained. "There was no one person who devised it. It was called guide racing, either because they set flags along the course, or because the earliest fell runners had to have guides lead them around the race. It's never really had a fashion, like marathoning in the States. Still, it's been continuously popular right on through."
When Pete Bland suggested I enter the Horseshoe, I had very real doubts. I asked Dennis to preview what such an experience might be like. He paused in his exercise and gazed up at the hills.
"It's a fast start, downhill, then they make you turn and it's right up a rock wall. Straight up. They send you over two summits and when you reach Fairfield's, you're on the ridge, you're in the horseshoe. They send you along, up Hart Crag, down a bit, then up Dove Crag. Then it's fast running on the way back down. You're nearly back at the finish, and then they send you up a hill at the end, which is rather cruel as you've been nine miles and you've got no legs left.
"It's about a medium fell race."