The Fellsman – a cavers foray into fellrunning


It’s mad the crossroads one comes to in life. It first came into my mind in 2015 to try a fell race up the stunning Ingleborough, the hill I looked out onto daily from home. Being a long-standing caver and lover of the hills I was well aquatinted with steep hills but in wellies as opposed to runners. I remember chatting to my friend Ems who was already a member of the Settle Harriers telling me “once your comfortable running 5 miles without stopping you should deffo join”, “they’re a great bunch”. Without stopping I thought, shit I’d better get my ass in gear, but when you’ve never really run with anyone bar your Cumbrian born 6ft6” partner its very hard to get much perspective of your ability. So I didn’t summon the courage to join and I’d have backed out of the 7m Ingy race if it wasn’t for Carmel and Timsy dragging my ass out the door.  Miraculously I didn’t come last and the following week I got a call from the infamous ‘Sharon McDonald’ congratulating me on my first fell race and wanting to meet up. I couldn’t believe someone could be so helpful and encouraging to a total beginner and over the year with tips and help from many of the harriers my little legs and ankles grew stronger. Now, I’d been toying with the crazy notion of doing the 3 peaks but my MSc got severely in the way of that and I lost any bit of confidence that I’d make the cut off’s, so in typical caver logic the Fellsman was Mike and I’s fallback option.  

Long, grim, overnight endeavours us cavers are well adapt to. So we weighted up the options, the three peaks would have to be light and fast but the Fellsman gave us 30 hours to crawl to the bitter end and the heavier bags were negligible to the loads we’d been carrying on multi-day, subterranean expeditions. At least on the Fellsman we could step into the unknown charters of walking long distance, we could even fail, a luxury not afforded to cavers deep underground. Maybe this cavers sense of commitment might distract us from opting out when completely f=cked in the depths of Fleet Moss. If nothing else it was easier on the ego to fail on a 60mile outing than a 24miler. So we signed up but didn’t speak much of it.  

So I’ve set the scene I am no seasoned, or experienced fell runner but you might find some of my strategies and learning curves at least hilarious if not useful. The most important learning point is that if I can do it, you bloody well can. All you need is an abundance of madness 🙂 It should be noted that the comparisons I make are with total novice fell runners not the seasoned nuts out there, thou I would hasten to remind one that it always best to do comparisons in that direction as one tends to fair out better giving you the brass neck to attempt these crazy things.

Some psychologists say the secret to happiness is low expectations and that deffo maintained our spirits on our first Fellsman in 2016. Every mile we did over 24 (the longest we’d ever trained), however slow, we marvelled at. It took us 26 hours but our sleep deprivation was overridden by the elation of making it past the 40mile mark, even if it meant crossing the ‘will to live wharp’ that is Fleet Moss and Middle tongue. Fellsman 1st timers never ever underestimate the academically flat trudge that is Middle tongue. Feck the steep hills, at least your hard work gives you some sense of feedback. From now on the checkpoint on the far side formally known as Hells Gap will forever be known in my mind as Hells teeth – a far more appropriate name!  A disadvantage of low expectations, however, comes into play when being grouped. Grouping which is the non-negotiable bane of the non-elite runners life on the fellsman, can be somewhat minimised. 1st rule of grouping (if you care about your time) is go with the first group your assigned to. We got originally grouped in 2016 with what looked like fit joggers at Redshaw ~30m in, suffering from a major case of imposter syndrome and not wanting to cost them their fellsman we declined and waited for the next bunch. We weren’t out for a ‘time’ but our laid back attitude resulted in a group of 8 people! Which brings me to the 2nd rule – Never agree to this, rules state you can go as a 4! 4 is more than enough because even if it’s a team of the 8 best and loveliest fellrunners, the variability in the peaks, troughs, shoe lace ties, pee stops etc of 8 different people results in vastly increased waiting times compared to a equivalent group of 4. It didn’t matter to us in 2016, in fact it was the people that really made it for us but this year I couldn’t do Fleet Moss in the depths of the night again and when I seen 8 numbers on our grouping sheet I hit the roof. Much to the dismay of the other poor sods who got grouped with us and after some assertive arguing (this delay of ~20mins was not deducted from our time I may add) we set off with the far more amenable size of 5. All miraculously people I knew, who were savage craic and whom I considered to be far superior, even ‘real’ fellrunners. And holy shit I was keeping up.

Now, this is where a no technique, slow arse like me can keep up with the likes of Emma, Gavin and Brett, I never keep up with Mike he just has to come home with me and therefore spares himself the headpeck later over leaving me behind LOL. We knew and trained on the route, we elucidated the most fabulously efficient line across the whole thing and downloaded it to our fancy dancy watches via a GPX file generated between strava and viewranger. We had the route so precise that we literally did 60.2 miles across the whole course. That precision made such a difference that we overtook a group of faster runners who were initially well ahead of us on fleet moss whilst moving slower. Now if you don’t mind me indulging here but that smugness is stuff of gold in that god forsaken bog, and after that we overtook 5 more groups before we were home. The fellsman route holds a lot of sentimental value to me as it is a traverse of the finest limestone in the dales and within it are the hidden gems I moved here to explore. Advantage no 2, if you want to shift the prospect of something from hard to still hard but relatively not as bad, try caving LOL nothing else in the world seems so bad anymore. I was genuinely surprised that walking to these caves in wellies and often in the dark did offer its advantages, if marginal, but clasp onto any positive thing you can as no matter how many miles you’ve run, even if fast. It’s your head and how you view what you’re doing that makes all the difference. And be disciplined with your thoughts, be eternally and completely irrationally positive. Break it down and enjoy all the little steps, rejoice every few miles you succeed and only count the miles completed never the miles ahead. My mantra when feeling low is to remember and its true in life as in fell races – nothing lasts forever, not even death 😉 There were times when my burning acid indigestion and nausea were so relentlessly gnawing that I thought it might have gotten the better of me but I would choose to focus on something better like slagging Mike off, singing god awful tunes or laughing at my misfortune on the Kingsdale decent when I ended up waist deep in a bog on the driest fellsman in what must be a decade.  You’d never predict it but I felt a lot better on the second half than the first so keep going!

Something else like many other women that I am afforded is the ability to pace myself. My pacing is often ruled by my staggeringly low self-esteem at times and strange inability to not overtake those whom I see as better than me but I want to say a few words about the comparison between doing the Fellsman across 26 (2016) and 19.5 (2017) hours and offer up some food for thought. In a highly unscientific hypothesis, when controlling for things like training, I’d really trained this year, e midst a bout of bad asthma and a sprained ankle robbing me of about 5 weeks, that far back in the pack moving faster is easier. By the time we got to Fleet Moss this year we had gently jogged most of the flats and downs. It was a lot more energy intensive and much to my dismay obliterated any idea of peeing sat down – holy shit those cramps were epic. No matter how bursting you are ladies, don’t rush it. It would seem hip flexors after that much movement in one direction aren’t going to be so cooperative with a swift change of direction hehehe. Oh the irony of those low profile portaloo’s, I thought to myself what luxury compared to a caving expedition. Jesus at least after hours of rope climbing one can still crouch down, I warn you those things are not intended for joggers!

Nevertheless, getting to Fleet Moss in the light and Cray after only 14 hours does make for an easier time. At least when jogging or shuffling which it usually is by then, the brain is still pouring out happy chemicals, you’re going to be shagged and hurting by then anyhow so you might as well get it behind you faster. The other point is that you’re not having to fight major sleep deprivation and your spending less time in the melatonin dozed nightime. So before you get overwhelmed with the distance ahead, all those scary stats and reduce to a stumble, at least first try 10 mins jogging and 10 limping before you give up. You’d be surprised how efficient you get those miles behind ya.

Before I finish my long brain fart I just want to rave about Phil Ward who works out of Giggleswick and the legendary Victoria Wilkinson who works out of Skipton, whom I went to for massage and rehab with my bad ankle. I really didn’t think I was going to make a fast enough recovery for the Fellsman and without them all this pain and suffering wouldn’t have been possible. The odds were stacked against me so this is why when I ended up sick with a chesty cough and sore throat 2 days before the Fellsman I did it anyways. Thank you so much Clare for being my chauffeur – hugs. I really wouldn’t recommend doing that to your immune system, I was bed ridden for 2 days afterwards and I’m still struggling to breath normally after a week of oral steroids. But for me, just this once, it was worth it for the euphoria. And finally to my partner Mike and my group Gavin, Emma and Brett. I know I was so jolly on the outside but I was suffering like hell at times inside but the savage craic we had amply distracted me 🙂 Settle Harriers thank you so much.

Oh and beware amply endowed ladies, vest style fell bags give you a mahoosive uniboob and over 60 miles those buggers rub. Ouch-ey, I never expected a bigger blister on my boobs than on my heel 🙂

The Fellsman is a 61mile/100k, (with 11,00ft of ascent) traverse of the Yorkshire Dales, the event is organised and run entirely by volunteers from Keighley Scouts and their friends. The staff and the whole operation is incredible and the banter between the staff and participants is said by many to be a highlight of the event. It’s really great to think that the small fee you pay is being reinvested into the adventurers of the future. Check out, for more info.

 – Steph Dwyer 5/5/2017

A side note about FEET

Last year every one of my 10 toes went black and it was a case of trying to find some foot beneath the layers of god awful blisters. I have really suffered with my feet, and chronically tight calf’s so I thought I’d share the recipe that has finally worked for me.

Inov8 X-claw, Skins compression socks, a very thin anklet sock and I cannot rave enough about CushNstep insoles. I had a looooong list of complaints but I never once wanted to tuck into my emergency stash of drugs cause my feet miraculously didnt ache! I brought spare insoles and socks but never needed to change em. Those do not look like feet that have done 60 miles, so there ya go there’s hope for us all, as for my poor chest and throat………