“When you consider the demands that the sport makes on strength, stamina, speed, and nerve, together with the constant risk of catastrophic injury, it’s curious that fell-running has never shown signs of evolving into a multimillion-pound sport with a global audience and sponsorship from tobacco companies… The reason is simple: fell-running is inconvenient to watch. Even for the dedicated hundreds who turn up to fell races to spectate (and most modern sports fans would consider even that an act of ill-advised hardiness), there isn’t often much to look at. Yes, the action is incomparably more exciting than running around in circles on a flat track, but most of it takes place out of sight, high in the crags — and clouds — above… The same inconveniences — coupled with the impossibility of conveying the scale of the mountains, the difficulty of the ground, and the violence of the runners’ movements in the same shot — limit the capacity of photographers and television cameras to capture the drama of the sport, especially in an age in which armchair sports audiences expect multiple camera angles, facial expressions, close-ups, replays, overviews… And if a sport can’t be experienced through television, it’s hard for the modern mind to comprehend it at all.” – Richard Askwith, author of ‘Feet in the Clouds’
Forty years ago, a 39-year-old sheep farmer from the Lake District of England named Joss Naylor traveled to the United States to race the Pike’s Peak Marathon in Colorado. Somewhat surprisingly, Sports Illustrated decided that Naylor’s personal story and his presence at this event were worth covering, and the result was a brief, but fascinating profile in the back pages of the issue that ran July 28th, 1975, and a recap of the race a few weeks later in the August 18th issue (“A Hurried Peek at Pikes“). As a high school junior and subscriber to Sports Illustrated at the time, I read both articles and I was fascinated by this man who worked so hard in his daily life, and still found energy and enthusiasm for running up and down mountains more rapidly than almost anyone in the world.
Naylor was a practitioner of “fell-running,” an obscure sport even in its native country. It shows how much of a loner I was that I immediately decided that fell-running was cool, and secretly wondered whether I would be any good at it. After all, I had I always loved running up steep hills. The idea of ascending rapidly up slopes that would stagger lesser mortals seemed both romantic and heroic.
I can now say for certain that I would not have been a good fell-runner. For one thing, I’ve always had a tendency to over-stride, a habit that fatally doomed my three attempts to run decently at the Mount Washington Road Race. But the real reason I would have failed is that I do NOT like descending, and fell runners are insanely good at that. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that good fell runners, like good Tour de France riders, are a little insane in their ability to descend mountains at breakneck speed, fearless as they plunge to what could easily be their doom.
I hadn’t thought about fell running for a long time, but earlier this year, I was contacted by Richard Askwith about a blog post I had written. Through our brief correspondence, I found out that Askwith, an editor for the U.K.’s Independent newspaper, had written a book about fell-running called Feet in the Clouds: a Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession.
He was gracious enough to send me a copy of the book, and I read it — slowly, over the course of several months — savoring Askwith’s stories from a strange world of brutal and majestic endeavors that seemed more suited to the 19th century than the 21st.
“Feet in the Clouds” is at least three books in one, with the different parts woven together to make a coherent whole.
The first book is a modern history of the sport of fell-running and a survey of its current status. Askwith patiently explains the cock-eyed relationship between the amateur and professional sides of the sport, the ongoing challenge of staging events that involve considerable risk to the participants, and the other existential threats to the sport. He writes as both an observer and competitor, and offers insights into the community of fell-runners, race enthusiasts, and event organizers that somehow keeps the sport alive.
The second book is a series of profiles of fell-running legends past and present. These are wonderfully done, and really help the reader to understand and admire athletes who have received little fame for athletic feats that rival those of much better known endurance runners. For example, Askwith describes how Chris Brasher, Olympic gold medalist in the steeplechase at the Melbourne Olympics and one of Roger Bannister’s pacers in the first sub-four-minute mile, became interested in fell-running, and how he came to appreciate the leading fell-runners of his time. How he fared compared to those relatively unknown champions, helps provide perspective on the achievements of the fell-running specialists. Askwith makes a convincing case that some of those specialists had talent at least equal to the best British track athletes of their day.
The third book-within-a-book is the most personal: it is the story of the author’s own quest to complete what is called the “Bob Graham round,” a grueling circuit of 42 peaks that must all be summited in under 24 hours. I won’t spoil the story by describing each of the times that the author tries and fails to complete the round, or the maniacal planning that goes into preparing for it, but the author’s description of his final attempt is one of the most moving parts of the book. It reminded me of Berndt Heinrich’s account of running a 100K race, a mesmerizing account that concludes his book “Why We Run,” and Askwith’s account is just as compelling.
I honestly don’t know whether fellow (not fell) runners who are accustomed to relatively flat, even surfaces, and certified 5k courses will find “Feet in the Clouds” to be too off-the-beaten track. I somehow doubt it will convince many people to take up the sport, if they haven’t already had some experience with it. Likewise, in an era when simulated “adventure” races like Tough Mudders and the like, satisfy the shallow urge to experience well-packaged suffering, the idea of simply running up and down mountains for 24 hours might not fire the imagination.
But even if the sport seems daunting — or “weird and English,” as the author describes it — I recommend the book highly. In it, you’ll find a remarkable landscape populated by remarkable people. These are described with love and great care by someone who himself became obsessed by fell-running for more than a decade, and suffered for its sake. The result is a passionate history, and a tribute to a little-known sport that may be disappearing from the face of the earth.
(The author, descending)
An earlier version of this post mis-identified the British Olympian who took up fell-running as Chris Chataway (the other “Chris” who helped Bannister in that famous mile race at the Iffley Road track in Oxford). It was actually Chris Brasher, an Olympic champion in the steeplechase at the 1956 Olympics, a founder of the London Marathon, and a pioneer in the sport of orienteering in Britain.