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Fell down south
Outdoor Fitness

Fell down south

Posted Monday, 9 February 2015   |   1275 views   |   Sport   |   Comments (0) Just what constitutes a fell race? And can you legitimately apply the term to a run that’s miles away from the Peaks, Lakes or Yorkshire Moors? Matt Swaine heads to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast to find out.

FOR THE VAST majority of its 150-year history, fell running appears to have been the preserve of weather-beaten northerners who honed their sport on the ankle-busting slopes of Britain’s craggiest moorlands. A decade ago, my first fell race did little to dispel this image, each of the runners wiry, lean and dressed in battered shorts and vests that looked as if they had rolled off the production line at the height of the Cold War.

Carrying more than a little surplus flesh and dressed in pristine sporting attire, I stuck out like a sore southern thumb. And after tackling the lung-busting ascent of the Lake District’s Fairfield Horseshoe, I romped home third from last, narrowly beaten in a sprint finish by a man in his late sixties, 30 years my senior.

Ten years on, and even the most cursory glance at the Fell Running Association website reinforces the northern bias to the sport: the Pennines, Peak District, West York Moors and Lake District feature heavily on the race calendar. Royal Tunbridge Wells doesn’t. Like searching for the Northern Lights and following rugby league, fell running is an activity best pursued far to the north of Birmingham. Surprisingly, however, fell races are slowly starting to appear on the sporting calendar in the south. But be warned, these races don’t always meet with the approval of purists. “There’s a cultural difference in running north and south,” explains runner Gordon Hathway. “I wrote a piece for the Fell Running Journal years ago suggesting that running the Cornish coastline was as good as any route up north, and it got a slew of letters – people saying how ridiculous the idea was. ‘Running along the coast isn’t fell running’, they said. But they don’t realise just how demanding these kinds of routes can be.”

Gordon subsequently set up the Charmouth Challenge: Britain’s most southerly race that delivers enough ascent as it travels over Golden Cap – the highest point on the south coast – to qualify for fell running status. It’s where I’m lining up today in the company of runners from across the south. I’ve been asked to keep my eyes peeled for northern running club singlets, but it seems the Hashers and Harriers are almost exclusively of southern extraction.
“What I love about this race is that it’s short and ridiculously brutal,” explains John Connor, who organises the Purbeck Marathon a few miles up the coast. And as we start to jog slowly away from Charmouth Primary School, his words – ‘short and brutal’ – are proved to be painfully accurate.

The first climb takes us up a steep Tarmac road – a fearsome ascent that the Ordnance Survey illustrates with a cluster of contours crossing the road at 90 degrees. I’ve been putting in some hill training on home runs around Bristol, repeatedly dropping down and climbing out of the Avon Gorge, but the murderous accumulation of lactic acid in my legs suggests I haven’t done anywhere near enough. Runners either side are starting to walk the final incline, but I persevere and meet the first water stop at the top a deep shade of lobster red. Tactically this could be my undoing.

“The joy of this route is that from here you can see pretty much the whole thing laid out in front of you,” says Gordon, who breezes by just as I finish gulping down the last of my water. “From here you can see the best of the Jurassic Coastline from Lyme Regis to the west and towards Weymouth to the east, and that’s where we’re heading – Golden Cap just to our south.”

If I were walking, I’d agree, it is indeed a beautiful view, and as the path levels, I start to regain my composure and take in my surroundings. The hedgerows are bristling with butterflies and bumblebees as we trace the edge of agricultural land. It is a bucolic paradise, about as far from gritty, peat-dark moors as it is possible to find. But while the landscape might be genteel, there’s no hint of southern reserve among my fellow runners.

“Cracking route this! Beautiful mixture of hay meadows and coastline,” says one runner who suddenly appears on my shoulder, before pulling away on the next incline. “No need to rush, I’m enjoying the shade!” says another as we wait patiently in a queue to negotiate a stile. “I’ve raced this one for the last six years,” says a third who gives me a 10-minute rundown of his 17-year running CV. “Save your legs for this climb: it’s a real killer,” says another with a broad smile.
And it is. Golden Cap is the highlight of the route: all 196m of it. It might not stand comparison with the lofty summits of the Lake District, or barren moorland routes or the prolonged scree gully descents of Snowdonia, but it has a large concrete trig point at the top and that’s enough to give it a whiff of mountainous achievement. The main difference is the sea churning beautifully below. I grew up further along the Jurassic Coast on the Isle of Purbeck, and I’ve always loved running along the high cliff paths. One day the sea can be a stormy grey of ominously brooding water, and the next a calmly exotic Mediterranean blue. And the inclines come with surprising regularity, taking you to a host of headland lookouts before dropping down to secluded beaches, where it’s a treat to dive in and cool off. Running by myself I’ve even marvelled at porpoises far out to sea and watched sea birds plunging into the water to fish – something you’re never going to spot from the summit of Mam Tor on the ridge between the White and Dark Peaks.

But is a route like this really a fell run? Honestly, I don’t think it is. It’s not mountainous or wild enough really to pass muster. But there’s no doubt it’s just as tough. Perhaps it needs its own classification: a term that captures both the challenge and the country idyll, the bruising barrage of short ascents and the fact there’s a Mr Whippy ice-cream waiting for you at the finish. Fell running fails to capture the eclectic range of terrain, from canopy covered woodland to long swooping paths that lead literally from sea level to high coastal cliff and back down again. I challenge anyone to run this route and not find themself grinning from ear to ear as you cross a sandy finish line and stand, Canute-like, with tired feet in the refreshing chill of the English Channel.

I don’t think it’s a question of a north and south divide. I spent a lot of my summers as a child on Dartmoor and would watch runners pile past Okehampton army camp to race up to the summit of Yes Tor. And it comes as no surprise that Okehampton Running Club is well represented in the Fell Running Association’s list of races in the South West. In the middle of the moor is even a mountain rescue group that has its own swift-response, moorland running team, whose function is to get to casualties faster than anyone else. Fell running might belong up north, but there’s something culturally similar that, at its utterly uncommercial best, is associated with village fairs and local festivities.

With just a few miles to go, my mind is now focused on the finish line. I’ve lost time chatting to the coastguards on duty on Golden Cap, and taking photos of other runners along the way, so I’m looking for a big final push and I employ the best bit of running advice I’ve ever been given. “When you get to the top and start to descend simply switch your brain off,” fell-running author Richard Askwith told me prior to my first ever fell race. So I do just that and let gravity speed me back into Charmouth. The last 300m takes us over a wooden bridge, back into the village and over the finishing line. And, on one of the hottest days of the year, the local fire crew are ready with their hoses to cool everyone down. Forget medals and commemorative T-shirts – this has to be my most memorable finish ever.

“What did you think of that then?” asked Gordon, who’d obviously been waiting a while. “Brilliant,” I reply. “I’ve set a personal best and I’ll be back next year to beat it!”

This year, the Charmouth Challenge takes place on 4th July. Find our more at charmouthchallenge.co.uk

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