The Axe

Right, here we go then. Apologies if this all gets a bit deep and meaningful. What do you write about winning a race you've dreamed of winning since you started running?

The first time I finished the Fellsman was in 2008. It took over 18 hours. I'd retired the year before - my only memory of that is four of us sitting around a Camping Gaz lantern in a stinking wet tent and whining pathetically as we tried to get warm, then eventually being taken to the finish in a Land Rover. My first completion was with Wil Spain in completely different weather and was more successful, but still felt pretty tough. It broke me for weeks and was the hardest thing I'd done.

Wil chasing a sheep. Screenshot from a video (that I'm not giving you a link to).
After finishing in the middle of the night we slept in a little tent in the car park till about lunchtime, then nearly pulled it down when we tried to stand up and get out.

2008 was actually a notable year in Fellsman history, being the last time that Mark Hartell won. That year I did the race as part of the "Grand Slam" of the Runfurther championships. I travelled all over the country, spent a lot of nights sleeping in cars, met some lovely people and (eventually) completed all 12 races. I attempted the Grand Slam because I wanted to be involved in the championships but I could not imagine being anywhere near the winners - at every race I was amazed how fast they could run. For that year and for the few years previous, the winner was very often Mark Hartell.

Mark won the Fellsman 11 times between 1994 and 2008. At the time I could not imagine how you ran the race in well under 11 hours, with no grouping, no darkness, and was a bit in awe (I still can't do it, but I can now at least imagine it). The history is one of the things I love about this race. Others are that it's a proper endurance event, over proper terrain and up proper hills; that it's run by Scouts who are more interested in their Flapjack than the races you've done before, and the fact that it's in Yorkshire and is completely beautiful.

Back to that history, just look at some of the names on the list of previous winners: Ted Dance, Alan Heaton, Stan Bradshaw, Mike Hartley to name just four. Alongside the more recent winners, these are the people whose amazing exploits I read about when I first got into running. Some are now sadly departed (Stan Bradshaw in 2010, Ted Dance in 2013, and Alan Heaton just a few weeks ago), but it's awesome to even be in the same race as these names. To win the same race as they did would be a dream come true.

So, to the race!

After an uneventful kit check on Friday night I set my alarm for 5:30 and fell asleep in the back of the new car (RIP Noddy Van). Everything was ready so by 6 I was on the bus from Threshfield back to Ingleton for the start of the race.

I sat next to Lee Walker, who was running his first Fellsman but has done so much other stuff it was always going to be a walk in the park for him. After a little bit of queuing to collect our tallies, and a lot of queuing for the loo, we made our way onto the field outside Ingleton Community Centre.

The start (Photo: Lizzie Stenson / Facebook)
At 8:30 the organiser gave us a quick briefing - it was going to rain - then we were off. As I'd expected, Lawrence Eccles shot off and took an early lead on the road up out of the village. I gradually worked my way through the field and slotted in behind him, trying to feel comfortable. We ran at a decent pace up the track towards Inglebrough, and eventually I decided to try something I wouldn't normally do. I caught Lawrence, then moved past him and pressed on up the climb. The gap slowly increased, and looking back I saw that Rory Harris was now with Lawrence. At the top of Inglebrough I had a gap of a minute, if that, but the three of us had a good gap on the rest of the field. The weather was wet and the limestone descent off Inglebrough was horrible and slippy. Lawrence had a better line than me off to the left, but I stayed just in front and at Hill Inn had 1 minute on him and 2 minutes on Rory.

Starting to climb Ingleborough with Lawrence
At the top of Whernside the gap was 2 minutes, and despite managing to trip and bash my knee and leg on the descent by Kingsdale it was 3 minutes. From here on I couldn't really see anyone so had no idea whether I had a good gap or not. I took a different line up Gregareth this time, staying to the left of the wall, but I'm not convinced it was any better and it certainly didn't gain me much (if any) time. The climb didn't feel as bad as it previously had though, and it was good to be making progress. Pleased to have the biggest climbs done, I reached Dent in 3:12 and saw my Mum and Dad for the first time. It was great to see them and as always the Dent checkpoint was a great, slightly mad, place to arrive.

Rory arriving into Dent
Remembering how good they were last year I grabbed a couple of pieces of melon from the dude in the Hawaiian shirt, filled my bottle and trotted off up the road. The sun came out for a bit and I saw a little deer, both of which were very nice.

Leaving Dent I was worried I'd gone off too fast but felt OK as I climbed up to Boot of the Wold, then on up to Blea Moor (a nasty never-ending climb) before descending to run along the road to Stonehouse. There are some beautiful places by the river along here and the sun showed its face. My shorts had been so wet and sticking to my legs on Blea Moor I almost took them off completely, so it's probably best that the sun came out for a while...

Clowns at Stonehouse
The out-and-back on Great Knoutberry would be a good measure of my gap. I was worried it would be smaller than I hoped, so ran hard up the track before the final climb. I thought it was about 13-15 minutes to Rory, and I couldn't see anyone else so that was at least 20.

That was it. I knew I could win now and I would be disappointed with anything else. From here on the race felt like a battle against myself to make sure I concentrated and ran as well as I could. Every time I thought of being caught I forced myself to run a bit quicker to make sure it didn't happen, but at Top Mere I came so close to cocking the whole thing up... More on that later!

After Stonehouse and another refill at Redshaw came the climb up Dodd Fell. I was happy with my bearing this time, and once I'd climbed here and descended to Fleet Moss I had 18 minutes. Here the route was different this year. Sadly we would not be crossing Middle Tongue, instead we would drop down the lovely (but horrible on the knees!) Langstrothdale to a new checkpoint at Yockenthwaite, then climb back up to the original checkpoint. I felt determined on this section, and not knowing whether I still had a decent gap or not I had a good look up the road when I reached the bottom and saw no-one, which gave me a bit of confidence.

The new Yockenthwaite checkpoint
I was nervous about the section to Hell Gap and decided just to follow a bearing. On the way up from the checkpoint I couldn't understand why the ground didn't fit my map and eventually convinced myself I needed to head much further east to get across. After a few metres I had a sudden realisation: I hadn't counted the new checkpoint, so I was 350m below where I thought I was and heading 90 degrees in the wrong direction. I corrected, shouted at myself and made sure I climbed as fast as I could do make up for the lost minutes.

Eventually Hell Gap arrived, I checked in with the lonely man in the Land Rover, then headed down the somewhat uncomfortable track to Cray. Mum and Willow (dog) were half way down and it was great to see them, Dad was at the bottom and had made friends with Joe Faulkner, both of whom it was also lovely to see! I had spotted Joe on the start line but unfortunately it seems he retired early on.

Nearly at Cray. Working hard now!
Through Cray in 8:17 and with a 14 minute lead I set off up Buckden Pike. I enjoyed the climb and pulled back another couple of minutes, only to nearly lose the whole race between there and Top Mere. I passed the memorial in thick fog, then followed the wall to the south as intended, but after that I somehow drifted east and ended up following the wrong wall. I realised I was wrong, panicked and spotted the Park Rash checkpoint in the valley to my left. I set off towards it and had dropped a fair bit before I realised this could not be right, then finally re-checked the map and spotted Top Mere checkpoint (duuuuh!). I told myself off again and pushed hard back up the hill. The checkpoint had a slightly chaotic feel to it, but once the clipper had been found ("It's in the box", "which box?", "THAT box", "this box?", "NO THAT BOX!", etc...) I confirmed no-one else had been through yet and pressed on to Park Rash.

I don't think I stopped, I wanted to get Great Whernside out of the way then get down the horrible ground between it, Capplestone Gate and Yarnbury. Great Whernside is a lovely hill though :-)

One more up
The ground over these last few sections has really flumoxed me in the past, it's theoretically downhill but it's bloody hard work - it's wet, tussocky and boggy, with groughs thrown in for fun too. This year I guess the anticipation helped and it certainly wasn't as bad an experience as last year. I eventually reached Yarnbury after bang on 11 hours.

The final leg is a couple of kilometres of road into Grassington, then another couple up through the village, into Threshfield and up to the school. I had listened to a couple of songs on my iPod on the earlier road section, and put it on again for one last tune as I tried to run a decent pace down the road. "Everest" by Public Service Broadcasting came on, and somehow seemed very appropriate.

Rory took a minute out of me on this short last leg, but despite being slow I had enough of a gap to hold on and I won in 11:18. Rory arrived 9 minutes later, followed by Robin Carter in 11:59.

Mum and Dad, Terry Butterworth and all the lovely organisers were around when I finished, and I was given a Buff and a fantastic cup of coffee. Later, after a shower and cheering a few people in, I had the best Jacket Potato I have ever eaten, topped with the best cheese and the best beans. I chatted to Rory, Lawrence, David Chetta, Kevin Perry, Simon Bourne and Sabrina Vergee (fastest woman in 12:23 - well done Sabs!) until nearly midnight then headed back to the car.

Me and Mum.
After another blissful night in the Roomster I staggered back from the car park to the school and received the Axe. People clapped a bit then we all went home again. I tried to express my thanks to the organisers and particularly to the lovely lady who spent the weekend cooking, but if I didn't manage to then there it is! Thank you also Mum and Dad for coming out and supporting on a grim day, and thanks for most of the photos here! And, as ever, Scott and Accelerate, for putting shoes on my feet and belief in my head, and to Lorna, Charlie, Jim and everyone else who encouraged me.

I'm chuffed to finally be part of the history of this race. I hope it will still exist in 40 or 50 years from now, and if it does someone who probably hasn't been born yet will look at the axe and read the legendary names Hartell, Bragg, Collison and Perry in the same way I read Dance, Heaton, Bradshaw and Hartley. They won't know who I was, but they will know the same hills, bogs and trails, and the same highs and lows we have all felt on Fellsman day.

See you next year.

The Axe


  1. Brilliant write up. Glad you won it and achieved a life goal.

  2. Awesome effort! Great write up, I could certainly feel your passion for the event as I read it :).


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