T o take part in a fell race is to run up and down one or more of the British Isles' many mountains. Fell-racers anticipate hypothermia, injury, falls (off cliffs, down scree slopes or into the occasional well), exhaustion, disorientation and death. Because if you don't realise how unpleasant it's going to be, says Richard Askwith, you're at risk of not enjoying yourself properly.
In his bracing and inspiring account of fell-running, Askwith argues that this demanding but little-understood sport has given rise to some of the British Isles' unsung sporting and folk heroes over the past 150 years: "Great things are done when men and mountains meet; and, though not one Briton in a hundred has any inkling that the great kings of their fells ever existed, the heroics of the greatest are as glorious as anything in sport's history."
Bob Graham is one of these heroes. In 1932, to celebrate his 42nd birthday, this Keswick B&B landlord decided to run 42 Lakeland peaks in under 24 hours. He trained barefoot so as not to wear out his plimsolls, and completed what was then considered an impossible feat. The "BG" is now a classic fell-running test and one which Askwith, a "yomping yuppie" from the South, miserably failed at his first attempt. This initiated a decade-long quest to conquer the BG, a quest which gives the book its structure: a 13-stone ex-smoker with dodgy ankles explores the history of the sport and meets its legendary runners to glean their secrets.
Time and again, Askwith hears that it's not enough to be fit; you've got to be hard. And some of the figures he meets are hardy to the point of absurdity. Billy Teasdale, for instance, the incomparable post-war runner, would often cycle, run or walk 20 miles simply to get to the start of the race (he'd do the same to get home and then spend the evening working on the family farm). Then there's Billy Bland, whose 1982 Bob Graham Round record of under 14 hours still stands and who later strolled the same course in under 24 hours to show it was "just a walk". Or "Iron" Joss Naylor, who overcame chronic back problems as a child to run (amongst countless other records) all 214 peaks described in Alfred Wainwright's Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells in a shade under seven days.
This grittier-than-thou attitude is the stuff of a Monty Python sketch. But Askwith passionately argues that the likes of Bland and Naylor are no mere headbangers, knocking off ever more obscurely conceived challenges: "The man who is truly at home in the mountains sees more deeply than that. He can see that our selves can never be entirely divorced from our surroundings; and that the man who is lucky enough to live among beautiful hills, and who enters into an intimate relationship with them, is also deeply in touch with himself."
The great fell runners, then, are Romantic figures for Askwith. (In a rare literary reference, he briefly compares Joss Naylor's written account of one of his epic runs to John Clare's Journey out of Essex, in which the poet described his escape from an Epping lunatic asylum and 95-mile walk home). They are also superb athletes, comparable to Britain's best road and track runners. Fell-running is an untelegenic sport populated by modest, tight-lipped stoics, otherwise more of us might realise this for ourselves.
Askwith is honest enough to admit that the tight-knit nature of the fell-running community has hobbled as much as strengthened it. The zealous application of the "amateur" ethos in the 1970s and 1980s nearly destroyed fell-racing, the history of which began with races for small cash prizes in the 19th century. Today, there is a minority which appears to resent that the records are being broken not by Cumbrian shepherds but by the likes of Mark McDermott, an IT worker from Cheshire. Modern fell-racing faces other problems: the typical fell-runner is, on average, getting older and race organisers are falling foul of spiralling race insurance costs (despite the fact that as few as six people have died in the past 70 years of organised fell races).
There is an undeniable nostalgia here for an ageing generation of rural Britain, epitomised by its great fell runners, many of whom have never moved more than a few miles from the villages in which they were born. But perhaps the sport is changing rather than dying - a book as entertaining as this, and by an "off-comer" such as Askwith, is surely a positive sign. You're left in no doubt as to the pleasures of running up and down mountains: "If you're not cold, or wet, or lost, or exhausted, or bruised by rocks or covered in mud, you're not really experiencing the mountains properly. You need to feel it, to interact with it; to be in it, not just looking from the outside. You need to lose yourself - for it is then that you are most human."