Setting the Scene
Over the Friday evening and Saturday morning of the 3rd weekend of October, a time honoured ritual of the fell running world was being played out. All the great and good fell clubs and North Shields Poly, were gathering for the highlight of their season, the British Fell Relay Championships. All in all 244 teams and 1466 runners were competing, a number that I believe was a record.
This year Ambleside AC were hosting the event just outside the quaint Lake District village of Grasmere. It looked to have been well organised. The facilities were good with 15 portaloos, the routes looked good and promised some steep unforgiving climbs and leg breaking descents. Best of all though was the mobile pub selling real ale on the event field. NE Harrier League please take note.
This was the Poly’s second showing at the relays. In 2016, six doughty souls had travelled to Scotland and did really well to finish just outside the top half of the field in what was regarded as one of the toughest championships ever. Some of them had inexplicably returned for more. This year Jon Heaney was our skipper, ably hindered by Barry Young and David Guy-Johnson and the original plan was to enter two teams, a senior male team and a mixed team, which Barry duly did. Then to our surprise more people showed an interest and we found there was just enough for three teams, although this did mean including Vaughan Hemy and myself, but then, every silver lining has a cloud. After much deliberation and finger crossing, the three team option carried the day and Barry added another. Needless to say this was the cue for several people to become unavoidably unavailable or injured and for Jon to age ten years in ten days. Fortunately we’re a big club and the names of a few trail runners and out doorsy types were thrown into the hat and by a combination of enlisting the walking wounded and outright lying about the nature of the event, we found enough replacements
The Fell Relays, a very, very short guide.
For the uninitiated the Fell Relays always have the same format. Teams of six complete 4 legs of between 4-8 miles in distance. Not too far you might think, but add in between 650 and 900m of climbing on each leg and you have a hilliness factor to literally die for. Add in some scrambling over wet greasy rocks with considerable drops on either side and you have all the makings of a grand day out or maybe a trip to casualty. There are all the usual age prizes so that the old and decrepit have a chance to share in the glory. In addition to male and female teams you can have a mixed team of three males and three females. Finally there are “open” teams where any combination of runners can take part but this team doesn’t qualify for any prizes. The Poly fielded a senior male team, a mixed team and an open team.
Legs 1 and 4 are for solo runners and are always the shortest but often the steepest. In addition leg 4 is the only fully marked leg, not that this stopped some runners from taking a slight detour! Legs 2 and 3 are run by pairs who must keep together at all times. Leg 2 is usually the longest leg but Leg 3 is a navigation leg where you only get your map once you’ve started running and have to decide on the hoof how to get to each checkpoint. Do you follow established footpaths or strike off onto untrodden ground? Do you go for a longer line with less climbing or do you take the steepest most direct route to a checkpoint? The choice is yours. Needless to say, get it wrong and this will end up as the toughest and longest leg and probably destroy your team’s chances of a good position. So no pressure then.
For posterity here are the members of our three teams, listed in order of running leg:
North Shields Polyfellers (senior team),
Brad Clough, Chris Rowe, Graham Lewis-Dale, Jon Heaney (capt), Danny Richardson, Paul West.
North Shields Polymixtures (mixed team),
Jimmy Anderson, Lisa Henderson, Michael Kane, Mark Smith, Jenny Simpson (capt), Rachel Inman.
North Shields Polygones (open team),
Vaughan Hemy, Helen Heaney, David Guy-Johnson (capt), Mike Harvey, Richie Fawcett, David Quinn.
Will Powis, Pauline Hemy, Anna Rowe, Alan Whitley and some assorted siblings.
Several other local teams were also present including, Northumberland Fell Runners (2 teams), Durham Fell Runners (3 teams), Norham, Elvet, Tynedale and Tyne Bridge with 1 .
Race day was, as forecast, damp and drizzly with the clag down to well below1000 feet, thankfully Ambleside had provided an absolutely huge marquee for us all to shelter in. When I arrived the Polyfellers had already annexed a sizeable portion of it and set up our table, chairs and most importantly, the cake stands. Jon sorted out the registration and handed out the maps, numbers, dibbers and food vouchers to the respective team captains as they arrived. Thankfully for his peace of mind everyone turned up and did so in good time. Everyone even turned up with all the mandatory kit. Who says runners can’t be organised?
Soon the dulcet tones of announcer Selwyn Wright were calling the leg 1 runners to the starting pen. A word about Selwyn, he’s a bit of a character in the fell running world and he kept up an enthusiastic, rather unique commentary for over six hours. Some may recall Barry Young’s idiosyncratic commentary at a track meet that went down so well with some people that he was never asked again. Classic lines such as, “For those that want a tart there are plenty available in the refreshment area”, spring to mind. Well, all I can say is that those who complained about Barry, would have had multiple apoplexies if they’d heard Selwyn’s efforts.
Leg 1 Distance: 8.0 km, Ascent: 730m
The Leg 1 runners set off at 11am. Their race started with a short lung bursting climb up from the event field to a good level path which soon became a more gentle mostly runnable two mile climb to Grizedale Hause at an altitude of 650m. From there a much steeper climb, almost a scramble in parts, of 150m takes you to the high point of the leg, the summit of Seat Sandal. Once there the real fun of fell running begins, the descent! This is one of the best, a really wonderful easy angled run on a good, mainly grassy surface down Seat Sandal’s south ridge all the way back to the starting field.
Keswick AC finished this first in a creditable 44 minutes, the organisers had estimated about 40 minutes for the leaders but conditions weren’t perfect by any means. We expected Brad to come down first for us but some thought Jimmy would run him close and so it proved as Brad came in after 57 minutes, Jimmy after 61 and then Vaughan in 66. Vaughan had clearly put some effort into his run as it took two marshals to guide his dibber into the box as he tagged Helen and I at the changeover. I’ve never seen anyone looking so wasted as I think the photo opposite proves! At this point, NFR, DFR and Tyne Bridge were all a few minutes ahead of us.
Leg 2 Distance: 10.8 km, Ascent: 850m
Leg 2 had a more forgiving start, a more or less flat few hundred metres before a climb over Stone Arthur to the summit of Great Rigg. A climb of 640 metres in 2.5km. From Great Rigg the angle of ascent eased considerably to the summit of Fairfield. (It was here that Helen and I briefly caught up with Michael and Lisa before they left us for dead on the way back down.) The descent from Fairfield was on rocky ground culminating in an easy scramble up, over and down Cofa Pike. The route turned for home at Deepdale Hause with an exhilarating and slightly downhill run along a narrow trod with a big drop on one side all the way down to Grizedale Tarn. From Grizedale Hause it was an easy angled run down the Leg 1 ascent route all the way back to the finish.
Now we have an account from the pen of Graham Lewis-Dale who not wanting to be compared with Barry, deliberately removed all attempts at humour from it.
“Leg 2 Review. Hey that rhymes!
I arrived at Grasmere with Danny, Paul and Jimmy about 9:30 and parked up. Me, Jimmy and Paul were ready to walk down to the main tent but had to hang round for Danny to unpack his 8 boxes of spares of everything needed to run several Bob Graham rounds. Having met up with a relaxed Jon Heaney we prepped to race. Entering the waiting area and waiting for Brad Clough to finish I needed to concentrate on the task ahead, but as usual Chris Rowe couldn’t stop yapping away. Will Powis was on look out and Chris and I were waiting and laughing at the commentator shouting at the leg 2 runners who hadn’t seen their leg 1 pals come in and losing valuable time. Will shouts over what I thought was “I’ll keep a look out” and I give him the thumbs up. Chris and I continue chatting away and suddenly I see Brad 10m away from finishing. We rush to the start and high five him just before any embarrassment. I later find out that Will was actually saying “here comes Brad”. I think he should have posted this on Facebook, where I was more likely to know what was going on.
We start the long climb for 3 miles and 3,000ft to our peak at Fairfield, passing Steep path bend and Great Rigg. It was, as usual a hard slog for the entire 3 miles but passing Tyne Bridge gave us a boost along the way. The fog was thick from about 500ft with no more than 20m visibility. However, the route was well marked and getting lost would be an impossibility. As we approached the peak at Fairfield the wind picked up considerably, so we dabbed in (yes, I hadn’t lost it) quickly, thanked the marshals and prepared for our 4-mile descent.
The route down to Deepdale Hause was steep and treacherous and we were stuck behind a couple of slower runners that we caught up with. From this point onwards, it was an excellent run down to the finish, fast but with great concern over the wet rocks and slabs where any slips could mean you join the Mark Smith injury club. The pace increased considerably over the last 2 miles. As we approached the finish, coming downhill over the muddy grass, both Chris and I quickly realised that at the speed we were running at, a fall was inevitable so we quickly jumped on our backsides and slid down in true Jon Heaney style. We were conscious of becoming a muddy laughing stock like a certain Mr West. We pushed the pace for the final 50m where Jon and vegan Jesus were waiting to make up some valuable places with their fresh navigating skills received from Barry just 2 weeks earlier.“
Leg 3 Distance ? Ascent?
Now came the real test, the navigation leg. I had the utmost confidence that Jon, Danny, Mark and Jenny would have no trouble despite the low cloud and so it proved as they navigated effortlessly around the course. However, the pairing of Mike and Richie were a bit of an unknown quantity. I shouldn’t have worried, because just like the others, they also nailed the 7 mile leg to perfection, unlike quite a few other teams who made some, shall we say, rather interesting route choices. Our senior team took 60th place on this leg, our best of the day and consolidated 3rd place in the local pecking order behind NFR and DFR. All of our teams improved their positions going into leg 4.
For the cost of only one year’s supply of Quinoa, I was able to commission an account by one of our Leg 3 heroes, Danny Richardson and here it is:
Leg 3 Review.
“We were waiting with the group when we saw red vests in the distance, ah crap they’re coming already, so in full panic mode we dibbed into the transition area then realised the 2 red vests weren’t Graham and Chris so we waited patiently like a pair of caged tigers. TBH and NFR pairs were both in transition also so this gave us some encouragement that North East bragging rights were still up for grabs, NFR got the jump though probably setting off 5 mins in front of us.
Then the unmistakable pair of Graham and Chris came bounding down the hill and we were tagged into play. The nav leg you set off and cover 1/4 mile or so before you get issued with your map of check points with no marked route it’s all in our own hands (how fun). We had a quick look at the map and decided I would lead the pace while Jon plots our route through to Cp 2, this one was relatively straight forward and we quickly made up a few places. As we left Cp1 Jon got a good line and jumped past a couple of pairs while I was caught sleeping and found it hard to get past them on a narrow slippery path. Once past them we pushed on and got a great line past Alcock Tarn up over Lord Crag into thick clagg. Visibility was now as bad as it got and we were both relying heavily on map and compass (who knew) but we came out bang on the mandatory crossing point and found Cp2 easily. We decided the best option to Cp3 was to lose height and use the wall as a handrail this was great running once on the footpath and we got there quite rapidly.
The climb out of Cp3 was quite honestly savage at times on all fours. I knew I was worrying Jon when he waited to see if I needed a gel, he was just stronger/quicker on the day. When we reached the footpath to Great Rigg at the top of the climb we regrouped and got running again. We set our bearing on compasses and left the path, as we did so the leg 4 race leader came flying alongside then past me. Jon thought the blurred red vest was me and took off trying to keep up much to my amusement as I figured out what was happening. I managed to catch up just in time to start the descent over Great Tongue which was treacherous, mossy and rocky. We did however manage to land within 20 metres of Cp4. From here the only problem was trying to keep an enthusiastic Jon in my sights as he’d got a sight on the NFR pair and sensed blood, he was soon curtailed when the marshals shouted at him to stay with your partner (naughty boy). His grassy descending was more confident than mine but we regrouped and finished strongly, (how I didn’t slip on my arse I don’t know) and we tagged Paul West in the reality that we’d made it in with over half an hour to spare before the mandatory mass start for leg 4. This was a big improvement on our last time in the relays when we didn’t make this cut-off.”
Leg 4 Distance: 7 km. Ascent: 600m
Leg 4 began with a 500m climb up Heron Pike via Alcock Tarn. From Heron Pike point it was mainly runnable and included some off piste terrain as the route contoured around the head of Greenhead Ghyll to the summit of Stone Arthur. From there it more or less followed the first climb of leg 2 but in reverse which made it a rather unforgiving and steep descent for much of the way.
First back for the Poly was Paul West who added a crowd pleasing tumble on the easiest bit of the course. He made a good recovery though and brought us home in a total time of 4 hours 51 minutes in a superb 67th position. His split times showed a rcreditable top 40 position on the final descent. Next in was a Polyfellers debutante, David Quinn who charged down to the finish in fine style. Then to round things off it was great to see the whole team applauding last minute stand in Rachel, who ran in with a big smile on her face or maybe a grimace, to see our mixed team home and conclude a great day of fell racing.
At the top end of the race, Pudsey & Bramley held on to their lead with Keswick ending up 10th despite winning 3 of the legs and proving just how crucial a good navigation leg can be.
Now for a bonus, here’s an account of the final leg from the perspective of our fell running novice, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, Master David Quinn.
Leg 4 Review
“Standing in a field in the drizzle and low cloud on a Saturday for 4.5 hours hardly sounds the most attractive and fun filled day. Following that with 54 minutes of tortuous climbing and descending again does not sound like something any sane person would want to do. And yet…The day was great. Being the final leg runner on one of the 3 poly fell relay teams truly was a grand day out. First being surrounded by a group of true nutters who enjoy this bizarre strand of running is just fun. The anticipation and nerves were there from the very start as the leg 1 runners left and meandered up the twisting steep “hill”! It was then on to the serious business of eating my food for the day, 4 pain au chocolat and a banana whilst ticking through time watching for the various legs coming down the “hill”.
The nervous energy was very apparent in another of the leg 4 runners as Paul West decided to run along to Checkpoint 1 of leg 4 straight off. Over the course of the next 4 hours he did laps of the marquee and the field with such regularity it was unsettling! Should I be warming up?? Thankfully standing with Rachel Inman our other leg 4 runner who was very relaxed (other than when she called her dad to tell him how steep it was) helped keep me calm. Vaughan’s recollection of the poor kid screaming and looking like they had cut their head open didn’t have the same effect.
I would be part of the mass start at 3:30 so when we were called forward a few minutes early and given the option of going immediately I was relieved and ready having already seen Mr West disappear into the distance 35 minutes earlier. So, the simple thing now was to run 4.5 miles as quick as you can with a mere 2,000ft of climbing. The thought of how is that possible had entered my head, 2,000ft is probably about the amount of elevation I gain in an average month of running. Anyway back to the running. I think being part of a mass start really helped, it gave me the chance of gauging my speed against others. The start along the paths and roads was gentle enough and I was pleased that nobody really appeared to streaking through the group at a pace dissimilar to mine and actually I was picking off quite a few early on. I was also pleased to see the route to the first checkpoint was something I had walked up earlier in the year (albeit in a much more leisurely manner). Familiarity was a friend for all of 10 minutes. As the incline began to get more steep I joined with the crowd of walking with hands on quads and then running when it flattened a little. Again I seemed to be going past more people than were passing me. It was twisty, slippy, steep and getting colder and less visible the more we climbed. I then started questioning how on earth sweat was dripping down my head at the slow pace I was travelling at and why on earth was someone breathing so heavily, oh wait that is me as well.
I was very relieved when it levelled out heading past Alcock Tarn to the first checkpoint. Taking the turn at pace and using the dibber was a good point until I realised where we headed next. Checkpoint 2 was at Heron Pike and the ascent to that was obscured by the cloud. Thank god I had adopted the climbing posture of head down and hands on quads so that I didn’t have to constantly be reminded that I was nowhere near the top. This part of the climb was much tougher and the path / route much less worn and used. This truly was an experience! I did manage to pass a couple more fellow walkers and one even had the ability to talk and tell me how hard the climb was, I think his name was Sherlock.
Reaching Heron Pike was a relief as from then onto checkpoint 3 had looked pretty easy on my map, not as much climbing for a start. It was nice to also realise that I could actually run again despite the burning in my quads and calf muscles. The biggest difficulty at this stage was that I appeared to be in my own space and the people ahead were far enough away to be barely visible in the gloom and that although the path was marked sporadically with red or red and white tape I was constantly searching for the route ahead. This did cause one trip when my focus was not on foot placement but I thankfully managed to get back to running in one balletic movement, at least in my head.
Checkpoint 3 to the major descent that came after Stone Arthur and checkpoint 4 was quite fun. It was mainly descending but across the slope, which was a new skill to learn. One man came flying past and then about 30 seconds later a woman did exactly the same. Confidence boosted by their ability to run at that pace made me pick up pace to follow although concentration on foot placement should have still been paramount in my mind with a couple of slips on rocks and moss over the next couple of minutes. There were times during this part where I realised the surroundings. Running here looking over Grasmere would be gorgeous if I wasn’t try to run at speed!
And then came the true descent. The announcer for the event had said that he couldn’t imagine a steeper finish to a fell race, I wondered how steep it could possibly be, well I don’t think I could do it justice in describing it. Again a few of the what I would guess were more experienced fell runners (this being only my 2nd fell run) ghosted past me and I commented with another fella how unbelievable it was and questioned how they did it. I watched as a young female was being recorded flying down at some inhuman running angle. I went down a couple of descents zig zagging across to try and maintain my upright stance and realised I was catching people. But then the near vertical drops came. Right, just go for it. People were stopping to slide down on their backsides. I decided that I’d just risk it and run. Each of the next few descents seemed to be bordered by a stone wall or stream surrounding by rocks. Each time as I hurtled down moving my legs at a speed I did not think possible I was just thinking “do not run into that, it will hurt”. I passed several people on the steeper descents and strangely did not have one person go past me on any. Maybe I have found a new skill, although what I realised was that I had very little control and this may be beginners luck.(It was a new found skill Dave, everyone descends feeling like that!! ed.)
Approaching the finish through the last couple of fields all that was going through my mind was don’t fall over in front of everyone having watched somebody do that earlier. The good news was I didn’t fall over, I mean who would do that? The better news was that when I did finish the bulk of the poly runners had remained to cheer me on and give me cake!
Mentions in despatches
Aside from their heroics on the fell, huge thanks are due to Rachel Inman, Helen Heaney, David Quinn and Jimmy Anderson for running at short notice to make up the teams. Alan Whitley gets a gold star for plodding up into the murk and giving some encouragement to our runners. Finally, Helen Heaney deserves a second award for her superb Polyfellers cake. Oh and Pete Bland would like to thank Vaughan Hemy for his purchases.
To Sum up
To put out three teams totalling eighteen runners at an event like this was something special to see. If anyone had told me that when Barry Young, Trevor Wakenshaw and I started the fell section, well, I’d have laughed in their face. No local club, not even the two specialist fell clubs, entered more teams than we did and we were the only one to have three teams finish the race because one of DFR’s teams failed to finish. For our senior team to finish 67th out of 244 starters and only five places and five minutes behind NFR, who have some high class fell runners in their ranks, was a great achievement. To put it into perspective, in 2016 we were twenty five places and thirty minutes behind them and this showing emphasises that the Poly is now a real player on the fell running scene.
Each Polyfeller should give themselves a well deserved pat on the back, especially because everyone proved they were competent to race on the fells in what were far from ideal conditions. I’d like to finish by saying that because there were so many great performances I’m not going to highlight any here (well, apart from Mr West’s acrobatics that is), because I know everyone gave it their all and by doing so, did themselves, the fell section and North Shields Poly proud.
The next Fell Relay Championships, which will be in the Peak District, can’t come along soon enough.