Fellsman winner Duncan Harris on his way to victory

Fellsman winner Duncan Harris on his way to victory

One of the country’s toughest ultra hillrunning challenges was won by a man who only took up running 18 months ago.

The victor in the Fellsman, a 97km (60-mile) route across some of the Yorkshire Dales’ toughest terrain was 43-year-old Duncan Harris of Chester, who came home in just over 11 hours. The event involves 3,425m (11,240ft) of ascent.

The Fellsman, in its 48th year, has a reputation as a supreme test of stamina and attracts runners and walkers from across the country. Originally purely a walking event when it started in 1962, it has latterly become one of the races in the UK Ultra Running Championships, though it still has a hardcore of entrants who walk the event, navigating the horrors of Fleet Moss and Middle Tongue’s bogs in the middle of the night.

The last competitors in this year’s event, which started at Ingleton on Saturday morning, hobbled into the Threshfield finish 28 hours after setting out.

Competitors climb towards Gragareth, with Whernside behind them

Competitors climb towards Gragareth, with Whernside behind them

The course was started by 401 competitors this year, the highest number for 18 years. 298 of them made it to the end, in conditions of biting cold winds on the tops, though the ground underfoot was as dry as anyone can remember.

First woman to complete the course was Nicky Spinks, who was eighth overall.

Duncan Harris’s win meant a rare defeat for Fellsman regular Mark Hartell, beaten into second place following an out-of-character navigational error on the 687m (2,260ft) summit of Great Coum. For Hartell, 11-times winner of the event, it was a crucial point in the race, allowing Harris to pass both him and Steve Birkinshaw and take the lead to the finish.

Steve Birkinshaw, left, and Mark Hartell

Steve Birkinshaw, left, and Mark Hartell

Hartell said: “We [Birkinshaw and I] were chatting. We were talking about Steve’s upcoming Lake District 24-hour attempt; we were talking about pacers and all sorts of things and, as sometimes happens when you get chatting, you lose concentration on where you are.

“We looked round and I thought: what are those two blokes doing standing on top of that hill. That was the checkpoint.

“We followed the wall and then went too far round to the left. We lost about four or five minutes, which was a bit frustrating.”

Birkinshaw added: “I was following Mark. He’s done it about 15 times.”

An eventful Fellsman saw volunteer John O’Connell taken to hospital after collapsing soon after the start. One of the event’s organisers Jonny Carter, a senior nursing officer at Airedale General Hospital’s accident and emergency department, was on hand to perform resuscitation and Mr O’Connell is reported to be stable in the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

Still full of energy: one Fellsman hiker climbs from Kingsdale, with Ingleborough in the distance

Still full of energy: one Fellsman hiker climbs from Kingsdale, with Ingleborough in the distance

A further worry for the organisers was the runner who went missing for a number of hours after following participants from another event off the summit of Whernside. She attempted to get back on course but eventually found refuge at the Station Inn, Ribblehead, 3km (2 miles) off course, and was brought back to the Threshfield base by one of the Fellsman’s ‘body buses’ that collect runners and walkers who retire from the event.

Winner Duncan Harris’s most surreal moment was being accosted by a taxi driver for directions as he passed through Grassington, just a kilometre from the end of the race.

But for the IT manager, who works for the SOS Children’s Villages charity,  it was an unexpected victory. “I did it last year,” he said. “I only actually started running about a year and a half ago. I started running because I wanted to do the Bob Graham Round which I did last year, not particularly fast, and since I did that, I’ve just put in a lot more training.”

Competitors' headtorches light up Yarnbury checkpoint as dawn starts to break

Competitors' headtorches light up Yarnbury checkpoint as dawn starts to break

But the crux of his race came after passing Lancashire’s highest point at Green Hill, before the race drops down to the Cumbrian village of Dent. He was following Mark Hartell and Steve Birkinshaw, who had been leading up to then.

“They made a mistake at Great Coum,” said Harris. “They followed the ridge round to the left and missed the checkpoint, so at that point, I got ahead. They were 300m off to the left.

“I got a big enough gap – maybe five or 10 minutes – which meant they couldn’t see me, which I think is advantageous. I think maybe Mark’s mind was elsewhere.

“But it was quite funny because, I went through the checkpoint and I immediately fell in a bog and there weren’t many bogs I for me to fall in, and my hands got completely soaked – my gloves – but the wind and sun did dry them out.”

The incident gave Harris a psychological fillip on only his second Fellsman and he would keep the lead to the finish on Saturday evening.

“I did it last year,” he said. “My time last year was 14hrs 21mins. It never occurred to me that I’d win it. I thought I might do 13hrs – I might knock an hour and a half out.

A Fellsman participant is greeted by a rainbow at Yarnbury

A Fellsman participant is greeted by a rainbow at Yarnbury

“I felt a bit weak going over Fleet Moss and the Middle Tongue area, but after that I was able to run all the way – the flat bits anyway, not the steep uphills.

“Last time I saw anyone was on Great Knoutberry; you turn left and go all the way up the hill. I don’t know how long it takes, maybe 15 minutes, so unless you’re half an hour ahead of them, you see them going up, and I saw Steve Birkinshaw was coming up. That was the last I saw of anyone. I saw Mark Hartell too, who was a bit behind him, just as I was coming off the Great Knoutberry path, he was just coming up to the turn. That’s the last I saw of any of them.

“It was very dry. I still went round Fleet Moss, I didn’t go over it, but it was probably as dry as it gets. There are bits where you can run over bits of bog that were actually cracked. It was a bit windy the whole way. It didn’t rain at all; it was just windy the whole way. You didn’t feel as if you got a following wind until Yarnbury [the final checkpoint]. It was always cross or head. It wasn’t that cold; I just had one layer on and thin gloves and balaclava.

“That was good enough for the whole thing. I never took the sack off except for the secret kit check they introduced this year at Stonehouse.”

The kit check en route is to ensure competitors are carrying the clothing and equipment required by the event’s rules.

Fellsman hikers climb Gragareth

Fellsman hikers climb Gragareth

Harris said: “It’s a bit frustrating because I was really focused, thinking I’ve got to be really slick at the checkpoints, you know, one minute – and then suddenly you get to Stonehouse and its: ‘Unpack your bag’ and I’m thinking: I don’t want to still be here when they get here.”

But his last 30 miles on the event were solo, a challenge by Birkinshaw having brought him within three minutes of the winner on the climb up to Blea Moor before the Borrowdale runner went off the boil.

Birkinshaw, winner of the elite class of the Original Mountain Marathon with Scot Jethro Lennox, encountered difficulties that were to put paid to his chances of victory.

“I felt great the first four hours then it sort of went to pieces,” said Birkinshaw. “Going up to Blea Moor I started feeling bad.

“It got worse and worse. I was sick going up Fleet Moss and Middle Tongue. Mark overtook me there. I got really cold and shivery; stopped to put everything on. I started to drink water again and have a bit of cake and just about kept it together.

“I was hoping to do really well. I’ve been doing a lot of training all winter. This is my second time in the Fellsman. I was third two years ago. Another bad one; hopefully that’s it out of the system.

“I think I’ll be back. It’s a great event; brilliantly organised; lovely hills on a day like today.”

Checkpoint staff at Kingsdale clip a runner's tally

Checkpoint staff at Kingsdale clip a runner's tally

The event winner’s toughest time came on the leg from Langstrothdale. He said: “I found it hardest around Fleet Moss and Middle Tongue. I actually got a bit of a boost off Middle Tongue, because I got a really good route off it. There’s a kind of quad bike track which means if you follow that, you don’t have to do as much of the bog which, even though it’s dry, there’s a lot of up and down into the peat hags.”

For someone unused to such arduous terrain, the win was something of a surprise. “Over the winter, I’ve done a lot of flat running just because I don’t live anywhere hilly,” he said. “It’s just a bit of effort to get in the car and get to a hill. If I want to go and run up a hill I have to get in a car. I live in Chester. You only have to go 15 miles to Wales and in an hour you can be in Snowdonia, and in half an hour you can be in the Clwydians, which is not a million miles from this terrain, so it’s quite good practice, but I’ve got a low tolerance to driving round.”

Cycling and swimming also figure in Harris’s training regime – he’s a member of Chester Triathlon Club. He said: “I had done this 38 miles hill run nine days ago and frankly I was pretty strong for the first 25 of that and I was pretty all right after that but I wasn’t really running that much so I was quite surprised I managed to keep going.

“I think I really did get a big psychological boost from when Mark and Steve messed up. I thought – weyhey, I’m in front; I can’t believe it.

Two Fellsman competitors climb Gragareth, with Whernside behind them

Two Fellsman competitors climb Gragareth, with Whernside behind them

“And then I thought: I’m in front; I’ll see how long I can stay that way. Steve Birkinshaw is a real quality guy; he won the OMM elite.

“I had no idea how far behind they were. I started to think, when I got to Cray and Park Rash and I was going up Buckden Pike and you get a good look back and I was starting to think, well, maybe I can win it now.”

As with so many of the participants, the Fellsman has quickly won a place in Harris’s heart. “I really like the route,” he said. “The reason I came back was not because I thought I could do well, but because I really enjoyed it last year. I was kind of thinking, because I’d done the Bob Graham last year, what would be a good thing to aim at this year. I sort of half thought about doing the Lakeland 100 and still might have a go at that. But I thought, I’ll do the Fellsman again because I really enjoyed it and see how I do.”

Winner Duncan Harris, left, with second-place man Mark Hartell

Winner Duncan Harris, left, with second-place man Mark Hartell

In the end, it was a Harris, Hartell, Birkinshaw one-two-three. Hartell and Birkinshaw ran together for much of the route, but the 11-times winner pulled ahead after Middle Tongue. Hartell said: “I overtook Steve just coming to Hell Gap; I don’t think he had a good line; I think he was actually walking. I don’t know whether he had twisted his ankle or blown up or something. I thought I’d completely got away from him, because I saw him behind going up Buckden Pike, then just coming away from Park Rash he was just 50 yards behind me, so I ran like a startled kitten for as long as I could and put a bit of a gap in.”

There was some disappointment for Duncan Harris. “I was really looking forward to the vegetable soup at Park Rash, having somehow missed it last year, but apparently I was too early this year!” he said.

He also missed the presentation of trophies, having to rush off. Harris said: “I couldn’t stay as I had promised my daughter, Anna, age six, I would be back for her first ever organised event: a 10-mile off road cycle ride.

“My wife and daughter also needed the car to get to it. Anna is very interested in taking the Fellsman Axe to ‘show and tell’ at school.”

But for some, the Fellsman, which is organised by Keighley Scout Service Team, is not about speed, but endurance. Pete Hinxman and Jacob Hussey crossed the finish line together at 1.14pm on Sunday. On paper they may have been the last to finish, but they still managed to beat the 103 who couldn’t make the distance.

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