You might think that the more wonderful books there are written about a sport, the more fun it is to do, right? This seems like a completely reasonable assumption. In fact, it is the stupidest thought I have ever had – but it’s why I first entertained the notion of fell running.
I was thinking in particular of Feet In The Clouds, by Richard Askwith, which opens with an account of unbearable injury and discomfort on top of a mountain, or fell, if you must. When I went back to it, I found a little warning note at the start: “The activities described in this book are dangerous and may result in injury or death. Don’t try them.” Heavens be blessed, there was zero chance of death, since long before I got to “dangerous”, I hit the insuperable hurdle of “hard”.
There are serious fell running groups all over the UK, with the exception of places without any inclines, which is to say, London and the south-east. So I started on the Isle of Wight, the week after a Covid-cancelled race which had helpfully published all its routes: a short, sharp run over St Boniface Fell, 3.8k, 235m ascent; and the Ventnor Horseshoe, much longer at 12k and in fairness probably too ambitious for me, even if it wasn’t a 443m ascent. I don’t even run 10k, except in a dire emergency, which is to say, I never run 10k.
I know the St Boniface Fell very well to walk; it’s a steep climb through Ventnor, then a mellow valley with a sharp ascent at the end to the world’s most beautiful woods. I wasn’t with a group, but Mr Z did consent to come with me and we gamely started running from the off. He could go at a discernible jog for about 100 metres. “This isn’t running at all,” he said, stopping by a bin, the last outpost of civilisation before we hit the solitude of the valley. “This is a completely different level of fitness.” Finally, I, too, reached the bin; I was also running, but my run was no faster than my walk. It was weird. It was like having sleep paralysis: what I was telling my body to do was nothing like what it was actually doing.
Off-road, you hit the vagaries of running on wild terrain. It plays havoc with your foot rolling, so if you have pronounced pronation, it’ll get worse. It complicates your foot strike and slows your cadence, so again, my appraisal is that I was running, but to the untrained eye I would have been walking. Meanwhile, Mr Z was walking, yet keeping pace with me perfectly well.
We got to the woods at the top; downhill should have been the easy bit, where you pick up speed and make up for your woeful time on the way up. Unfortunately, it was a little too steep, and he made the considered choice of going down on his arse, while I crept down hanging on to branches, like a monkey going through the first phase of rehab after a car accident.
You know what’s really nice, just as beautiful, and almost as fast? Walking.
What I learned
The descent requires the most focus. Slowing down puts a huge strain on your thighs
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