Natural Ability – the Perfect First Fell Race

As well as the six Polyfellers that tackled the wild slopes above Loch Lomond, a further 14 swelled the numbers at the Natural Ability race at Allenheads.  This is a perfect introduction to the sport and it is great that some faces new to the sport were there to explore their curiosity… Terry Brown’s account takes up the running…

It was a cold and blustery day that saw a massive poly turnout for the Natural Ability Fell Race – 14 of north shields’ finest turned up in Allenheads in various states of attire.  ‘Best practice’ kit was cobbled together by myself, but thankfully not needed.  The award for ‘least clothing worn on the day’ went to Paul Dodds who braved the cold and rain in the vest and shorts! I opted for a pair of gloves to complete the fetching ensemble, as we all lined up for the 11am start.  The mantra of ‘lets just take it easy’ lasted almost 2km this time before I thought ‘lets have this’ – I may learn one day, but today wasn’t that day as the running felt good.

The course measured a little over 9km with 285m of climb, and saw some stunning scenery (albeit, slightly reduced visibility because of the rain and mist), and is a nice introduction to fell running – not too technical, very well marked, and absolutely brilliantly marshalled – it was impossible to put a foot wrong, and the marshals needed thanks. I even gave a round of applause as I passed the solitary marshal at the top of the first climb for braving the weather!
The route out of Allenheads started on tarmac but very quickly got into the fields and the leaders were already starting to stretch out into the distance as the rain started to fall more heavily, and we followed a route gently downhill and along the river east allen on single track, DJ and I ducking the low branches that those in front of us seemed blissfully ignorant of! After a few hundred more metres, there was our first real opportunity to get wet by fording the river.  A bridge was offered, though I saw nobody take it preferring to take the shortcut over the river, and the beginnings of ‘the climb’ – the main uphill section of the course.
The start of the climb was on tarmac and by this point, Michael Keane was showing his current flying form and had vanished into the distance, myself and David Johnson were making good progress after fording the stream, and Angela Green was running a strong uphill ahead.  The route crosses a road and veers straight up hill and at this point, there was as much walking as running.  Passing those walking the hill in full waterproofs/ backpacks, and walking poles while wearing a pair of shorts, a vest, and by now, some very soggy gloves still makes me chuckle!  Thankfully an opportunity for me to open the stride and even when walking I managed to pass 8 or so on the climb.  Once the top was crested, the pace was picked back up and it was an undulating  trail of roughly 3km along the top above Allenheads, though some of the views were beautiful from up here, before dipping back down for an incredibly fun descent.
Not too technical, 100m descent in approximately 1k on mostly winding mossy/grassy paths.  This man got trapped behind a couple of runners (from Northumberland FR and Durham FR) who were skilfully treading the known path, so a ‘lets see if I can go wide and get past them’ nearly had me come a cropper, but you could hear their pace increase as they saw me edge past them to lead our small pack, and I managed to get over the style first and gain a few crucial seconds.  The last descent in the field was a ‘hold on for dear life and turn the legs over quicker!’ where I managed to open the gap a little, and nearly tumbled a few times, to the finish.
The goody bag, for a race of this price and size, was superb! T-shirt, water, gels, balloon (who doesn’t love a balloon!) – absolutely cracking.
The poly did brilliantly in a field of 77 with Michael Kane first man home for the poly coming 12th in 48.18, and Angela Green putting in a strong run just missing out on 3rd Vet Female coming in 54.16.  Fourteen out, and fourteen safely back in – I suspect I speak for most when I say it’s a race I’ll look forward to for next year to do it again.
The full results can be found on the natural ability fundraising site.

We’ve arrived…



I think we can now say with confidence that the fellrunning scene has a new, bona fide member in its ranks.  It’s not like the Poly hasn’t been involved in fellrunning for some time (Katherine, DJ, Barry, Chris Rowe, Gary Robson et al have been quietly practicing the dark side for various amounts of years), but our fielding of a team that more than held its own in the sport’s premier team event is definitely a movement forwards as a club.  It’s an arrival.

The “UKA Fell and Hill-Running Relays” as they are officially called (the ‘fell relays’ everyone calls them) are an annual event held in mid-October which attracts the very best in the sport. Taking part and completing them is a big deal and clubs send very strong teams – no-one is making up the numbers.  Winning them us VERY prestigious.

The format is as follows:

  • 6 person team
  • 4 legs, 2 solo legs and 2 paired legs
  • The solo legs are marked courses (requiring no navigation) and are short and sharp
  • The first pairs leg is more committing and longer, but marked and marshalled
  • The second pairs leg is a navigation challenge, with the map handed out moments before the start.
  • The order is solo – pairs (marked) – pairs (navigation leg) – solo
  • Fastest cumulative time wins

Our gallant team (below) were Gary Robson on the first solo leg, Danny Richardson and Chris Rowe on the marked pairs leg, Jon Heaney dragging along the author for the Nav pairs leg and Will Robson for a flying finish on the second solo leg.

Pre-race selfie: nerves and brews

The weather was, well, Scottish autumnal weather – low cloud and rain….and the ground conditions were wet, boggy in places and slow going.  The slopes rising out of Loch Lomond were steep and the courses that were set looked tricky.


The first leg runners, including our Gary, were piped out of the starting field and they were off.  Leg one looked short and so Danny and Chris knew Gary would eat it up in no time.  29  minutes later, they were proved right as he powered back into the starting field ready to touch hands and set the first pair off.  Gary was well up, 36th from 112 teams – a superb start. His time was 29:17, 5 minutes behind the leader (Joe Symonds, Shettleston Harriers in 24:22).

The first leg was tight amongst the leaders, with seconds separating the first half dozen.  Astonishingly, the team whose runner was second home from leg one was greeted by a pair that were not a pair, i.e. one of them wasn’t there – faffing about with kit and not ready to run.  3rd place came in, 4th, 5th, 6th and eventually they were away, the culprit still dressing himself as they started running.

Danny and Chris set off in the rain on what looked like a tough leg with a lot of climbing in a short distance – about 3,300 feet of up and down in 7 miles or so.  The last climb was over 1,200 feet in about a third of a mile – a real sting in the tail.  Even Danny, a fine athlete as we all know, had a bit of a crisis on that last climb – it really was that brutal. They were 70th on their leg in 1:46:00. The pairs legs usually attract the strongest runners as it is usually the longest (not always, as we shall soon see…) and so we put a very strong pair out.  They put in a strong run and handed over to Jon and I – very nervously watching the weather coming in.  As they ran in, we were already priming our compasses for what was going to be a hell of a workout.

Jon and I had about five minutes before Danny and Chris came in to study the map for leg three, which had just been released for us all to view.  Our first impression was that this was a long route.  14km ish?  2,800′ ascent? We were guessing but it looked very tricky, lots of wiggly contours which usually denotes confusing ground.  I’ve done 6 or 7 nav legs in the past and this already looked like the hardest I had seen.

Confession time: We knew that hitting controls 3, 4 and 5 was going to be very difficult.  We contented ourselves that control 1 looked easy to find, with tapes marking the initial outward route.  However, the descent at the end was also taped.  Guess which tapes we followed? After about 5 minutes, we started climbing steeply – too steeply.  We had ****ed up from the absolute start.  Two other teams around us did the same and we bolted through some rough ground to the correct track, feeling like muppets.

It woke us up because we hit all of the other controls just about dead-on, a few minor adjustments at the very most.  Jon and I had never navigated together before but we complimented each other well and had to use one another as a dead reckoner for compass bearings on 50 metre visibility across largely featureless and boggy ground.  We finished 68th in 2:15.

A overlay of the various route people took. Light green made the same initial error we did, but realised WAAAAY later!

I was initially a bit disappointed, mainly because Jonny and Scott from NFR totally kicked our arses on this, fair play to them!  I think we lost 5 minutes on the first error but other than that I think we nailed it.  The trace above tells us that we did pretty well…

We were still well in the pack, team wise.  All this and we had yet to play our ace card – young Will Robson was primed and ready for an insane looking leg 4 – 2000 feet up, turn round and run down again.

In full flow – Will

Will flew around in 25th on his leg – up there with some serious names.  It was great watching him fly past toward the finish.

Will moved us up to 58th overall – around halfway.  I think this is a cracking result.  That might not sound much but this was so much more that a test of running – it was committing, uncomfortable and technical.  We had greats of the sport alongside us, Jasmine Paris, Nicky Spinks to name but two you may have heard of…

It was a brilliant debut, we all learned loads and the 7 hour round trip was well, well worth it.  Thanks team-mates and next year, surely we can take a ladies team too…..?