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Falling for Fell Running
Robert Sullivan
June 03, 1991
A visiting Yank discovers the rigors and joys of running up and down hills in Wordsworth's magical Lake District
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June 03, 1991

Falling For Fell Running

A visiting Yank discovers the rigors and joys of running up and down hills in Wordsworth's magical Lake District

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The ridge running was certainly the highlight of my Horseshoe experience. We scrambled nimbly over the shale-coated track and were rewarded with the most extraordinary scenery. It was hard to stay focused on the fact that we were competing, not merely recreating. Robin Bergstrand, who won the race in 72 minutes while I was still on the ridge, would tell me later, "Even for the people at the front, the setting is an integral part of the event. To a certain extent you must look only at the track in front of you or you'll kill yourself. But you can still appreciate where you are. It's not like running in a city center, is it?"

At the checkpoint on Dove Crag's summit we turned and headed down, toward home. Runners are forever choosing the high road or the low road across a mountain meadow as the quickest route from A to B. Races are decided by such strategies; Bergstrand had sealed his win this day by choosing the left side of a rock wall on the final descent while the next guy went right. All you must do in a fell race to stay on course is find the flags and be seen at the checkpoints. How you go about this is your business.

After the Dove Crag pivot, the idea that a runner could indeed be lost and forgotten up here was made most apparent. Running through high-mountain grasslands I realized that our part of the pack had, by now, spread itself very thin and that, if I didn't concentrate, I would lose sight of the person 100 yards ahead. On a foggy day this prospect would have been disconcerting at the least, but today it was only of fleeting concern. The visibility was good, and a runner who disappeared down the slope could soon be spotted again. I jogged on at ease. The ground was soft, and the legs still had a little spring left in them. This was relaxed Hyde Park-type running, albeit at 2,800 feet.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd....

This crowd was the pack ahead of me. With the running now being done on my kind of turf—a level playing field, sort of—I seemed to be gaining on them.

And then we reached the rocks.

"Most Alpine runners seem to think these races only go up," Bergstrand would tell me later. "On the continent, they race up mountains. Same in the States, at Pikes Peak and at the other big trail races. But mountain running in Britain is unique because we've always assumed that the race goes up and down. And the down can be much the hardest part. It's certainly the most dangerous."

There were steep drops off High Pike, and I negotiated them carefully on rubbery legs that wouldn't always put my feet where I told them to. As I picked my way down the slope, the pack pulled away again, and a couple of runners from behind bounded past me. "I think the best of fell runners could run past mountain sheep on those rocks," race director Tony Walker, a 24-year fell veteran, told me later. "They hardly seem to touch each rock. They just skip down. They fly."

I did not fly. I, to the contrary, planted each foot firmly, not wanting to suffer the broken ankle, twisted knee or concussed skull that are, as Pete Bland had said, staples of the sport. The difference between those hopping past and me, lumbering downward, was the difference between a fell runner and a fallen one.

Finally, having conquered—well, having got by—"Her rocky sheepwalks, and her woodland bounds," I arrived at the blessed meadows of the vale.

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