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I swallowed hard, shrugged, paid the two-pound entry fee and got a number. I was told we were to start from below Rydal Mount, the manor house Wordsworth lived in after he moved from Dove Cottage. Wordsworth, by the way, was a great perambulator, the equal of Dickens. His fellow Grasmere literary lion, Thomas De Quincey, once estimated Wordsworth's lifetime pedestrian travel at 170,000 miles. The poet often found inspiration on high, traipsing into these hillsides, composing his poetry and reciting it aloud.
'Tis the sense of majesty and beauty and repose A blended holyness of earth and sky
There would be majesty and beauty perhaps, but no repose in this afternoon's pursuits. This I knew, as I stood at the back of the pack, waiting for the starter to drop the restraining ribbon.
Suddenly he did.
The race organizers, like the children, apparently held little regard for lambing season, as the first downhill loop was through a sheep field. One requirement of an official fell race Category A, as designated by Britain's Fell Runners Association, is that the course should not include more than 20% of its length "on road." The Horseshoe met this criterion easily; none of its distance was on road. It was over rocky cliffs, mountain ridges and sheep fields.
Bounding through the meadow, I got a first impression of fell running. It was rugged, even when the going was relatively easy. There was a tendency to slip and slide. One poor runner stumbled in his first few steps and found himself up to his elbows in mud and sheep droppings, as the cleats of a dozen others heaped more upon him. It seemed the lowest jock-world ignominy imaginable.
At the bottom of the sheep slope we banked left around a large oak. As we headed back up through the meadow, the front-runners really dug in. The pack spread out much more quickly than it would have in a regular road race.
Half a mile into the Horseshoe I was breathing heavily. I realized that the casual jogging I had been doing around the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park had hardly prepared me for running up sheep fields, much less mountains.
"Then they make you turn, and it's right up a rock wall," Dennis had said. "Straight up." It sure was. I looked up from the base of this considerable cliff and thought, I can't run that. I was right—I couldn't—but this was O.K. No one else could run it, either. When the climb became too severely pitched, the runners broke stride and began power-hiking up the hill. Even the leaders, whom we could espy way up ahead, did this. No one's a wimp for walking in a fell race.
Four hundred people grunting up a mountainside make a disturbing noise. There was precious little conversation on this stretch of the Horseshoe. Everyone was focused on the summit of Nab Scar and, once that was attained, on the summit of Great Rigg and, subsequent to that, on Fairfield's summit. "This first bit, she's a bitch," said an old guy as he passed me by. I smiled, unable to respond in a vocal manner. The race was 30 minutes old and I was drenched in sweat and my thighs were already starting to ache.