Saturday’s dawn broke grey over the Yorkshire Dales. Morecambe Bay sparkled distantly in a pool of sunlight, but the fells of Three Peaks were cloaked in scudding cloud and there was a chill air laced with a hint of rain.
Hikers head into the cloud on Ingleborough
For the 235 starters in the annual festival of masochism that is the Fellsman Hike, the mood must have matched the outlook. A gruelling route, which challenges the best runners and walkers to complete, is always going to be that much harder when the bogs are being filled by torrents and the peaks are shrouded in cloud that limits the ability to see to a few metres.
At 9:01am they were away; at 8:09pm, the unassuming figure of Macclesfield’s Mark Hartell was declaring himself equal to the best with his tenth victory in what many see as the ultimate fellrunning challenge.
Yet it’s not all about speed: 29 hours and 12 minutes after he left the Ingleton start, the final finisher of 154 who made the distance, 65-year-old David Evans entered the gates of Upper Wharfedale School, 62 miles later, to be greeted by applause from race officials and spectators and to be gifted, surreally, with a pot of trifle which he gleefully wolfed, clutching the pair of socks he’d had to retrace his steps to find after inadvertently leaving them while on the home straight.
The Fellsman Hike brings out steely determination such as David’s in many of the competitors. For others, the body and mind simply cannot make the full distance and they make the return trip to the finish HQ at Threshfield in what are termed, ignominiously, ‘body buses’.
The weather certainly took its toll. The darkness hours saw torrential rain just as many competitors were crossing the fearful black bogs of Fleet Moss and Middle Tongue. Even the top runners felt the sting of the conditions. Mark Hartell, whose winning time of 11h 08mins 22secs was some way behind his best of 10h 13mins, said: “With hindsight, given the weather conditions, we probably pushed a bit too hard early on.
“Along that ridge [between Gragareth and Great Coum] we were all getting very cold, I think.”
And just in case competitors start questioning their navigational judgement: the temporary stile you couldn’t find on Whernside’s ridge wall wasn’t there!
Early Saturday was grim, meteorologically, with heavy rain, strong winds and very poor visibility on the first fells, Ingleborough, Whernside, Gragareth and Great Coum. By mid afternoon, it had improved, with bright spells and even sunshine but, by evening, the rain had returned and by night, the fells were lashed by heavy rain.
Those who were still walking by late Sunday morning had the best weather, with Upper Wharfedale bathed in bright, if not that scorching, sunshine.
Mark Hartell’s record-equalling tenth win was not without problems, though in the end his winning margin was comfortable. He said: “There were five of us pretty much neck-and-neck up to Dent really. Quite often I’ve had the luxury of being on my own from Gragareth onwards. That’s a bit more pressure and of course there was that hour-and-a-half when the weather was really foul.
Fellsman winner Mark Hartell, on right of picture, early in the race, ascending Ingleborough
“Going up out of Dent, there’s that long climb up the Craven Way and I actually chatted to Steve Watts for a bit – he was just behind me and then there was a lad called Matt Davies from Dark Peak – he was perhaps another 100 yards back and then we could see Simon in the distance as well.
“I saw them all coming in to Blea Moor, so I’d probably got five minutes on the three of them by Blea Moor, and then maybe that came to nine minutes by the time we came to the out-and-back up Great Knoutberry.
“So I suppose from then on it was just gradual pulling away.
“But I struggled a little bit around Snaizeholme and over to Dodd Fell. I didn’t feel like I was going particularly well but every time I looked back I couldn’t see them; certainly they didn’t seem to be closing.
“Of course, the trouble with being in front is, particularly towards the end, you never know whether maybe you’re kidding yourself and you are slowing down and the others are going to finish strong, so you have to keep looking over your shoulder all the time.”
It was a successful day for Hartell’s fellow Montrail team members, Stephen Watts, Mandy Calvert, Chris Rhodes, Julian Brown and Jo Miles, the taking the Service Trophy for the team whose first three have the lowest ‘walking’ time – the rules were set when everyone walked the route! Hartell, Watts and Calvert had a combined time of 38h 56mins.
Mandy Calvert also took the Jim Nelson trophy for the woman with the fastest time, with her impressive 16h 07mins.
grough spoke to Fellsman winner Mark Hartell to get an insight into his performance. Mark told us: “I’ve started it 14 times and finished it 13 times now. I’ve won ten times, which equals what Al Heaton did.
“So that was something I’ve been aiming for for the last two or three years.
“My fastest time is 10:13; the fastest time is 10:11.” He laughs and continues: “I suspect my fastest years are behind me, now. It’s a shame, especially because they keep adding bits to the course. Hell Gap’s moved twice in the time I’ve been doing it.”
A hiker has his tally clipped at Kingsdale checkpoint
It’s interesting to know how a super fit athlete such as Hartell keeps going over such a long distance, what exactly goes through his mind as he pounds up the 11,000 feet of ascent.
“I find it quite meditative, really. I have to keep reminding myself to eat and drink. I love Yorkshire at this time of year, because it’s just packed full of wildlife – all the different birds and stuff.
“I always associate the lapwings with this race.
“I damn near trod on a plover’s nest. They shot up from beneath my feet. It was the first time I’d actually seen a nice little nest of eggs there. I try and enjoy the scenery, particularly once the weather had brightened up. The views are stunning: a long way in all directions.
“And I listen to music, lively music, to help me push on.”
So while the apparently mortal competitors encounter the peaks and troughs of mental anguish as every bone and sinew and muscle aches, the mind goes numb and the navigation skills desert you in the fog-bound gloom of Middle Tongue, the man in front is admiring the view and the birdsong. The Fellsman has variety!
Perhaps the difference is that, while most of us (including the writer!) have devoted a few months to training and familiarising ourselves with the vast inverted horseshoe that is the Fellsman route, for people like the 42-year-old IT contract project manager, it’s more than that. How many hours does he spend running?
He tells us: “I don’t count it up. It’s just a way of life. Probably less than when I set my best Fellsman times two or three years ago.
“A long time ago, back in 1997, I finally, on the third attempt, got a record in the Lake District – the most peaks in 24 hours [an extension of the Bob Graham Round].
“In those days, I just used to unquestioningly get up at five o’clock on a Saturday morning, drive up to the Lakes, do two sections, drive back home, pretty much every Saturday.
“I haven’t got the fire burning quite so brightly these days to do that. I just like running.
“I did 77 peaks in 24 hours. It’s probably reckoned to be about one-and-a-half Bob Grahams [the Bob Graham Round is 42 peaks in 24 hours].
“It’s the equivalent of doing the Bob Graham in 15 hours. That’s it for me! I’d love to pace somebody else having a go at it.
“I live just outside Macclesfield, just on the edge of the Peak Park, so I can run on the footpaths and over Shining Tor from my door.”
“One time, I blew up completely when I went from being first at Buckden Pike to 12th at the finish.
“It teaches you stuff, doesn’t it?
“I also do mountain marathons, though not terribly well. I’ve never been that successful at the KIMM (Karrimor International Mountain Marathon]. I did the OMM [Original Mountain Marathon, KIMM’s new name] last year, not very well. Mostly, that’s because it comes at a time of the year when I’m burnt out, from running and racing, but I am doing the LAMM [Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon] this year, with my old mate Mark Seddon again and we have been lucky enough to win it twice in the past.
“Mark scores well in the navigation; he is superb at that.”
Mark Hartell found his way into the Fellsman by a surprising route.
“I was a climber when I was younger. I used to smoke roll-ups and climb a lot. So the story is, that I attempted this [the Fellsman] when I was about 18 and it kicked me in the teeth. I dropped out at Fleet Moss with a bad knee. Ten years later, I got into orienteering and running and entered this and to my amazement I came second behind Phil Clarke; the next year I was third behind Phil Clarke and somebody else.”
In October, he’s off to climb the Himalayan peak Ama Dablam.
Last year, the Fellsman Hike became a round of the Montrail Ultra Running Championship, a series of 12 set up by Hartell along with one other person, to encourage ultra-long-distance running. The shortest is the Pumlumon Challenge in mid Wales and the Fellsman is the daddy of them all. Others take place as far afield as the Isle of Man and Sussex.
Hikers reach Yarnbury, the last checkpoint before the finish in Theshfield
Mark Hartell explains the logic behind the series: “I’m one half of the people behind the Montrail series. I’ve done some racing in the States and I’ve seen a race series out there and the whole ultra running scene out there is much, much bigger anyway.
“In the course of the year they probably have somewhere between 30 and 40 100-mile races and double that 50-mile races. There are some really good races in the UK – the Fellsman being one of them, in its heyday it used to get 450 runners – things like the Calderdale which is a good little event, they were almost on the point of not running it any more because they couldn’t get enough runners. So I thought, now I’ve got a bit more time, rather than me putting on yet another race, maybe I should try and get this series around some existing races and get them better supported.
“And most of the race organisers have been really good. They appreciate the extra entries.
“Last year I managed to do just four of the series races which is just what you have to do to qualify; this year I’ll probably manage five or six.
“We did have one lad last year who did all twelve.”
“They are different lengths. The Wuthering Hike is probably about the fastest one. The Fellsman is the longest. They are all 26 miles or more. It seems to be going pretty well.”
The introduction of the Montrail series has brought new blood to the Fellsman Hike. Hartell says: “I had thought it was going to be very competitive this year.
“The lad that won the Montrail Ultra Running Championship last year, Stephen Pyke, was due to be here and he was closing me down towards the end of last year’s race and it was his first time in the event, so he didn’t really know where he was going, and I was fully aware that if he’d stuck with me a bit earlier he’d have probably beaten me.
“But he decided last night that he’s got an injury to his calf and he wasn’t going to come.”
Will Mark Hartell be back next year for a bash at the record number of wins? He smiles and says: “The Fellsman is addictive.”
For the record, Simon Bourne took the Tregoning Cup for the fastest novice, with a time of 12h 24mins; Phil Hodgson was winner of the County Commissioner’s Tankard for the first over-50, in 14h 21mins and the new Great Knoutberry trophy for first over-60 contestant was won by Terry Butterworth, one of the men who set up the award!
Cheers! Competitors start the climb to Gragareth after refuelling at Kingsdale
The Thurrock Adventure Club, from a land not noted for its high fells, took the Lumbutts Mill trophy, presented to the team of three over the age of 50 with the fastest combined time. Stephen Whitelock, Harold Monk and Philip Baker, who together have seen 161 years on this earth, finished with a combined total of 71h 03mins.
There were a few dramas, with one set of competitors ending up in the valley below Cray and the usual gashes, blisters, strained ligaments and tortured psyches. Undoubtedly, the night-time weather had a bearing on the 81 retirees who may not have been able to get a bearing on the fell-top checkpoints.
250 volunteers manned checkpoints for up to 21 hours a time, the catering staff provided 700 slices of bacon, 132 litres of milk, 40 large catering tins of beans, 35 dozen eggs, 25kg of mince, 350 sausages and 300 pieces of hand-made flapjack, which apparently went down very well.
The airwaves are now silent, there are quite a lot of people explaining their weird gait to workplace colleagues today and a family of plovers is recovering from a rude awakening.
And David Evans will no doubt be glad that he did turn around and collect that pair of socks, even if it did add an extra mile to his route. If anyone deserves a nomination for the Mike Wooding Memorial Award for the spirit of the Fellsman, it’s David.
Now get next year’s diary out and make your mark in May. You know you want to!
We’ll be uploading our pictures from the event to a special page as we go through the week. We’ll keep you posted, so keep checking the grough website.
Mark Hartell finishes the race in 11h 08mins