Elite runners and running guides Iain and Sarah Ridgway of www.runsnowdonia.co.uk offer some tips and advice on getting started with fell running and racing.What is fell running? That's not such a simple question. Fell running basically covers off-road running, but it's a progression from trail races like Sarn Helen in mid Wales where you'll cover 16 miles in under two hours through to full on pathless serious races like Jura Fell Race, where very few in the field will cover the 16 miles in under four hours. There is a huge range of races in the calendars: some will essentially be hill walks with phases of downhill running; others bog fests; and others mainly fast trail running. It's all fun. Some will be fully flagged and marked out, others you'll be expected to navigate yourself around the course just like you would when out for a walk on your own.
How to get into fell running?
Just go out and run. If you can walk safely in the hills and you can run on the roads, then you can fell run. Just build up slowly, take your time, take appropriate gear and build your experience base like you would with climbing or hill walking.
There are a few running guides around, like ourselves. Our aim is to make us redundant to you. We go out and pass on skills and techniques so you eventually do not need us.
Without a doubt the most rewarding aspect of the running guiding work is when you are sat on the grass at the end of a race and a previous client comes up to tell you about their race... obviously it's much more enjoyable if you've beaten them...
A running guide should be ML qualified, like you would expect from a walking guide, and have a wealth of experience. Have they run in a wide range of environments and countries? Where have they raced? What can they do for you? We get clients who want to learn techniques, navigation instruction and some who just want to have a blast in the hills. I'm yet to be dropped by a client but a few have really made me work for my money... sometimes you are basically a personal trainer, simply running the legs off someone.
What do I need to fell run?
A pair of short shorts and a pair of fell running trainers. For the longer races you will be required to carry a map, whistle, compass, full body cover etc., and these are normally carried in a bum bag or small rucksack. 95% of runners will prefer a bum bag. There's no need to spend a huge amount and there is a huge range of lightweight waterproofs and fell shoes now available.
You also need the ability to bullshit and make excuses. At the start line it's important to tell fellow competitors one or all of the following: 'I've had this knee injury for a while... 'I'm so unfit'... 'I haven't trained at all'... 'I think I will be just jogging around'... 'this isn't a goal race'... 'I'm hung over'...
The big question we get asked is about which shoes, which we'll address in a later article but, simply, as long as they have grip and fit they are fine. Guys like Lloyd Taggart beat me because they are fitter than me, not because they have better shoes - you can't buy a CV system. However shoes do make a convenient excuse for a poor performance. It is better to blame them than the fact you are 2 stone overweight, do not train enough and drink too much.
How fit do you have to be to fell run?
Not fit at all. Fell running is for all and probably contains a wider range of abilities than most running disciplines. If you are a fit hill walker you will be fine. The main thing to get over is idea that all uphills must be run. Walking up hill is normal. We all do it, top runners do it less, but walking can be quicker and more efficient than running so do not get frustrated if you have to walk. Try to develop a sustainable pace rather than hammer up the slope for a few meters then bend over for 5 minutes gasping. The main thing is never stand still, just keep going, and don't take it too easy!
How to get into fell racing?
A question we often get asked is how to actually get into fell racing? The FRA have developed a system of abbreviations which they use on the fell running calendar which is now available on the website (see below right). These assist in guiding a runner to a race correctly suited to them; informing them about the difficulty of the race, the amount of skills or experience required and whether the course is at least partially marked.
National Fell Running Associations
The FRA is set up to promote fell running in each of the home countries, where there are extensive calendars of fell races in each respective country. The respective organisations include:
- The English based Fell Running Association (FRA)
- Welsh Fell Running Association (WFRA)
- Scottish Hill Runners (SHR)
- Northern Ireland Mountain Runners Association (NIMRA)
- Manx Fell Runners
These organisations do a lot for the sport in assisting race organisers, organizing insurance (an unavoidable evil) and providing access for juniors. They are worth supporting but you do not have to join them to be involved in the sport.
In addition to these associations, most of the main fell running clubs in each region will have a local race calendar on their website, for example the following websites all contain local race calendars:
- Eryri Harriers in North Wales
- Dark Peak Fell Runners in the Peak District
- Carnethy Hill Runners in central Scotland
What information can I get from the calendar?
The calendars contain a range of information, some more than others but almost all will at least contain total distance and total ascent (from 2011 this will be metricated). This is also summarised by a set of letters (e.g. AL, BS, CM etc). The first (A, B or C) basically summarises the average amount of ascent and descent per mile (76, 38 and 30.4 m of ascent per mile for A, B and C respectively) in the race whilst the second (S (<6 miles), M (6 – 12 miles) or L (>12 miles)) summaries the distance. For example, Snowdon International Race is 10 miles long with 1000m of ascent, therefore it is category AM.
In addition to this other abbreviations inform potential runners of the nature of the race. A novice would probably be better to avoid races with the initial ER – experience required; in addition you may also see NS – navigational skills required – and LK – local knowledge an advantage. An ideal race for a novice fell runner is probably one signified with the initials PM – partially marked.
Another useful piece of information you can get from race calendars is the record times. These give the potential runner a good guestimate of how long a runner can be out for and the seriousness of the terrain. For example Jura Fell Race at 16 miles long has a record of just over 3 hours, so even the best runners are only just averaging 5 mph, whereas the classic Yorkshire 3 Peaks race, at 23 miles long, has a record of 2:46 so the top runners are 7-8 minute miling.
Go to a race. Fell running is one of the cheapest sports to get into, however there are usually some kit requirements. Competitors should arrive at races prepared to carry any or all of windproof whole body cover, other body cover appropriate for the weather conditions, map and compass suitable for navigating the course, whistle and emergency food (long races). At all category A Long and Medium fell races these requirements are mandatory but an organiser may decide to waive these requirements for races of other categories.
The main thing is choosing the right race. Some races are suitable for a novice. Some are not. Approach racing and running like you do climbing, you are responsible for where you are at that moment, if you get lost it is your fault, if you fall it is your fault. The worst and most dangerous view is that racing somehow provides a safer form of running than being out alone. You should do both with a similar mindset.
In saying that, of course I take more risks in a race. For example descending at pace, but for me the potential rewards merit that risk. But I do not take those risks because there may be marshals or competitors there to help me should I fall or people to follow should I get lost. People have died in fell races and people will continue to do so. It is unavoidable in any sport with inherent risks.
There was some controversy last year on comments I made after winning the Peris Horseshoe, which was shortened. While I pointed out that it was the organiser's call to shorten the route, and understandable given his position in the valley, I did not think the race should have been shortened. Yes people were getting lost, yes people were cold ... so pull a jacket out, get a map out and get yourself off the hill.
There's too much responsibility on race organisers at the moment and quite frankly runners need to take responsibility for where they are, what condition they are in, and be able to make a decision on whether they should pull out and turn back. The decision to DNF should come from the runner. There's no shame in that. For me it was a sad day for the sport of fell running when the organiser felt runners wouldn't be able to cope with some mild frontal weather and low cloud. However fell running is not an extreme sport. It's only extreme for the incompetent. If you see a fell runner describing it as extreme you are looking at an incompetent runner.
Joining a club?
The first thing to remember is that clubs are for all standards. There is this misplaced view that clubs are just for the elite runners. Also clubs tend to be informal so do not worry about just rocking up and running with them and see what they are like. Take your time. It's not that there are good clubs and bad clubs, its more finding people good for you to run with. Like minded people. Training with others provides motivation, safety, new ideas for routes but also helps you develop friendly rivalries. Nothing motivates you more than having a mate recite every one of his 48 victories over you before he lets you get out of the car... yes that has happened! However whilst I really enjoy my solo runs on the hills, I also like those group training runs. Competing at team events like the annual FRA relays are great fun and worth joining a club for in themselves.
What about other running disciplines?
Running is a broad church and most runners will compete at a number of the specific disciplines. Most clubs are quite broad in their interest, for example, my club, Eryri Harriers compete on the road, cross-country and the fells. Whilst the club historically focused on the fells, the fell runners inevitably get dragged in to compete for the club in other disciplines. This is no bad thing. In the winter the fell running fixtures are often few and far between (some areas do have winter fell running series) and so racing for the club provides renewed focus. However competing on the road and XC also benefits your fell running.
One of the fell running greats, the 3000ers record holder, Colin Donnelly, believed his winter XC running provided leg strength which helped him during the fell season. Road racing provides you with speed, and prevents 'cheating' your effort sessions. There is no hiding on the roads! Too many of us fell runners are in fact quite lazy runners. You can find yourself running too slowly on the fells as times, or stopping conveniently to enjoy the view! However when you race a 10K its all about your pace, your CV system, and there is just no hiding.
There is the rather odd view that fell running is the toughest of the running disciplines but personally I've always felt that a fast flat marathon is far tougher, where the pace is relentless; and nothing will leave you as physically sick as racing a 5k flat out. At the end of the day, a race is as hard as you make it.
Whilst being on the fell is the aspect of running which most appeals to many others, including me, I think its important not to restrict yourself. That is the beauty of running; there is always another challenge to keep the sport fresh. After 5 years of pretty much full-on fell running I've currently switched my focus to running a quick road marathon, and it's re-invigorated me. I'm training more, fitter than ever and will return to the fells a better fell runner.
Why has fell running become so popular?
Well I think we are generally in another running boom, but this time it is off-road running. Roads are busier than ever, people are cooped up in offices and so hitting the trails is more attractive. On top of that I think the book 'feet in the clouds' has had an influence. Fell running is an independent, no-nonsense, hassle free, regulation free sport which I think is attractive in todays no risk regulation bound society. Within 30 minutes of finishing work in some office block in the centre of Sheffield you can be running out over the Eastern moors on a star lit night, snow on the ground, the moon lighting your way. Life's stresses just dissipate in such moments.
For many fell running is the sport they enter later in life. You are certainly never too old to start and its not unusual to see a good deal of 60+ and 70+ year old fell runners. Unfortunately it's also not unusual to just see the back of them! Getting beaten by some wirey pensioner is pretty much an unavoidable experience for those new to fell running.
Fell running provides many of the things which appeal about climbing. You have the risk, adrenalin, great situations, like-minded people, new experiences - but you get all that in a much more condensed style. So for the time-limited, fell running provides so much in so little time. There's a great moment when you begin fell running when you suddenly realize what is accessible – evening runs over mountain summits, winter runs etc.
What are the benefits of fell running?
For me it's the experiences you get, the weekends away, meeting new people. I've never experienced a sport in which I've met so many like minded people who have become life long friends. Fell running opens up a whole suite of new experiences, from evening runs where the mountain fix becomes accessible after work, to pacing people on Bob Graham or Paddy Buckley Rounds. Being out all night on the fells with like minded people and having the sun rise as you are running over the mountain tops is just a fantastic experience. Getting into fell running really does open up a whole new world, yes it's clichéd but it really will change your life.
About Iain and Sarah Ridgway
Iain and Sarah Ridgway are two of the UK's pioneers in guided fell running, with a reputation based on an elite level running career, both representing Wales at International level, and a wealth of experience. Having won some of the toughest fell, mountain and ultra-distance races in the UK, New Zealand and the USA, both also hold numerous race records. For the past five years they have co-run a mountain running guiding company, Run Snowdonia, based in Nant Peris.
Run Snowdonia are strong believers that the hills are there to be enjoyed and it is that love of the hills which they aim to foster. It is this ethos which will keep a runner going year on year, decade on decade. They not only guide the runner around the most beautiful spots of Snowdonia, they focus on how to enjoy the mountains safely and also how to train to run fast through stunning scenery. Run Snowdonia offers weekend training courses, bespoke guided runs or support for such challenges as the Welsh 3000ers.