The Fellsman – Exhaustion, Wind and survival!

Posted on May 7, 2012 by Chris Baynham-Hughes

The Fellsman was originally meant to be the final test before an attempt on the BG. Similar in distance but less than half the climb and worse underfoot conditions, The Fellsman is a common stepping stone with a sub 17 hour completion been seen as roughly equivalent to a sub 24 hour BG.

My rather unscheduled but successful BG attempt left me in a questionable condition, but without the mental pressure of the supposed consequences of struggling with the challenge of one of the toughest days out in the UK ultra distance calendar.

My recovery from the BG had seemed a little too good to be true and had me in high spirits. The morning after had me fiercely gripping the banister every time I saw stairs, but by the Thursday I’d felt ready to run and had been cycling into work as normal from the Wednesday. Prior to the Fellsman I’d been out for two short road runs (40 minutes/ 6 miles each) and was building confidence that I could put in a good performance.

Getting a lift from top ultra runner and former Fellsman champion Duncan Harris had resulted in a good chat about the course and I was buoyant about my prospects. The plan was to set off at a good pace then within the first mile I would ratchet it down a peg and find others to talk to. In a perfect workld this would have been Martin (my MM partner and local kindred running spirit) but his feet were still skinless following his incredible performance at the Marathon De Sables.

Even with all the tape in the world (and he did have some serious tape on) it was going to be a tough ask for Martin. His spirits were high though and his talk was of giving it a go from the start. We’d travelled up the night before and slept in a huge sports hall. It had been cold and I’d had a disturbed sleep. As we toed the line the next morning, the wind was fierce and I’d resorted to putting on my jacket to keep warm.

Setting off from Ingleton was the usual drill. Everybody going off too fast and getting caught in the first narrow channel after the sports field. I hate being hemmed in and tripping over the feet of the person in front so I put on a couple of bursts to get some space at the start. I looked around for Martin and slowed up, but I couldn’t see him so figured he was taking a morte sensible approach. I cracked on towards Ingleborough.

Hitting the bottom of the first challenge the wind was insane. Mentally recalling the route I realised that I’d be against the wind for the whole day. I’d not really prepared for that and certainly wasn’t prepared for the sheer strength of the wind. I had a brief chat with Nicky Spinks (current ladies champion and holder of the Lakeland peaks record – 64 in case you’re interested) who said the wind would help us home. I wasn’t convinced though and felt that would be at best the last 10 miles. A poor ratio on a 61 mile race!

I was pleased with how Ingleborough was going and I got chatting to Neil Byrant the recent winner of the super tough Viking Way race – the 147 miles took him just 29 hours and change! The ultra running community isn’t small, but it is well connected through facebook and other social media applications. Since a race gives you plenty of time to find a new best friend the social web is pretty tight and we were quick to find people in common that we knew or knew of.

The summit soon appeared and I was nearly knocked off my feet by the wind. It was going to be a long day! Neil disappeared and I found myself on the steep descent with a chap in a big blue curley wig – it takes all sorts!

I felt good and latched onto a chap who had a pacer – I thought he was joking as I have to say I find this a bit too serious, but he was serious and we chatted for a mile or so before I dropped back – if I was going to survive this thing I needed to pace well and with the Hardmoors experience flashing back at me I felt I was handling that much better.

Hitting the ridge to Whernside was an eye opener… well, more of an eye closer. As Jez Bragg ran past in the opposite direction looking fresh, I was battling the wind that ultimately knocked me over. At one point I genuinely didn’t think I’d make it to the top until Neil came past and proved it was possible! Finally the top appeared and with the wind at my back for a good half mile I was surprised to catch Neil back up. At a rough guess I’d say I was in the top 20-25 at this stage and well within my comfort zone. Neil and I cracked on together again. The descent to Kingsdale was great and I was loving the route. A quick stop for water and homemade flapjacks signalled the start of the trudge up Gragareth. Neil spent less time getting fuel and pulled away. I was quite happy to follow him up the hill.

It was at this point that I realised that I had inadvertently switched off my stop watch for a good 40+ minutes. I had been using this for my food indicator and thus was behind a bit on my food. I had a long fight with a packet of shot bloks and finally got plenty in me. I hit the top and was glad to have the wind at my back after enduring it on my right hand side for the whole climb relentlessly trying to knock me off balance. I knew what was coming though and as I turned back into the wind I knew it would be a torrid few miles into Dent. I just didn’t realise how torrid!

After just a few hundred metres I was back at the wall which was to provide my navigational hand rail to the next check point. I wished I was a dwarf. The wind was unrelenting and even the wall just didn’t provide sufficient protection from this cruel mistress. If only I was 2 foot shorter! All of a sudden I felt empty.

When I’ve been reduced to the survival shuffle in the past I’ve always felt fatigue in my legs, but this time they just felt empty; numb almost. Psychologically I felt defeated by the wind. I saw the day panning out in front got me and at no point was this wind out of the equation or favourable. I failed to break the task ahead down and I sunk myself as a result. I started shipping places and (unsurprisingly) it wasn’t long before Nicky Spinks overtook – I’d held out a lot longer than expected there!

I shovelled food in and waited for the boost that never came. The miles passed, the wind didn’t. The ground got worse and I shuffled along. To my surprise I arrived into Dent with Neil – he’d subconsciously decided that 61 miles wasn’t far enough so had put in some extra miles, or, as he put it to me, he’d got lost.

By the time we hit the next hill Neil was off again. As I crossed the energy sapping tussocks and bogs to Blea Moor. A second wave of people had appeared and were going fast. Whilst not the case underfoot, the environment was beautiful. The view was stunning and to see everybody racing across it was a sight to behold. I tried to focus on this, but negativity forced on by the wind had taken hold and I decided to take a break at Stonehouse and really try to refuel.

Two plates of pasta later I had a faff with my kit only to hear; “What are you doing here?” Looking up I saw Martin clearly enjoying himself, not realising that, “What’s wrong, I thought you’d be miles ahead” wasn’t what I wanted to hear! I was really glad to see Martin though and we set off for Great Knoutberry together, along with his new best mate, Roger.

I’d really hoped this would provide me with the pick me up I needed, but my dark thoughts were refusing to budge and I just couldn’t get my legs moving. I sit here today trying to reflect why and I just can’t put my finger on it. I had great, supportive, positive company. I had just filled up and had been eating pretty well, I’d got plenty to distract me and, with the exception of the wind, great weather and 100% visibility.

Maybe I was destined to wallow. I told myself I need to have the bad days to appreciate the good; I tried restating goals, talking to myself… everything I could think off, but nothing worked. It had turned into a very long day and I was falling behind again. I felt like I was holding the boys up and whilst part of me really appreciated them waiting for me, a larger part wanted them to go on. I knew I was terrible company and the pressure of keeping up is not one I ever like to have.

I perked up a bit as we crossed Fleet moss; ironic given that it is the worst part under foot. I’d had some local knowledge regarding route choice the night before and was determined to practice my navigation so I could salvage something positive from the event. We were following the people in front (which now included Karen Nash, possibly the toughest person I have ever met) but they were drifting away from the route I’d been recommended. I was really pleased that my navigation approach worked and I quickly put us back on the track I’d been told was the best. As I proceeded to find myself thigh deep in bog desperately clinging onto my shoes I wondered if the old chap had known what he was talking about! Still, we hit every collecting feature and had a wonderful handrail so we arrived at out next check point with confidence. Anybody that has travelled over peat bog and marshes will know that is not always the easiest of tasks.

The journey to the next checkpoint at Hell Gap signalled the end of the peat bog for now and was certainly a relief to the feet. A farm track took us to the next road checkpoint with its promise of hot food and night time grouping.

The Fellsman operate a strict policy whereby people are grouped into a team consisting of a minimum of 4 people for the night sections. This ensures safety, but it also means that as an individual your personal race is over as you are then bound by the pace of the slowest team member. Originally I’d harboured hopes of passing these checkpoints quickly enough so as not to be grouped, but very early on I realised this was not going to happen.

Much to my astonishment Duncan was there. He’d been in second place and just a few minutes behind Jez when he’d started to deteriorate. He told us he’d come down with some sort of virus and as he’d gone on he’d ended up feeling it wasn’t safe or worthwhile for him to continue. He’d been at the checkpoint for 2.5 hours and as we left for the final 15 miles we heard he was getting bumped off the bus again due to a number of hyperthermia cases. Bad times.

The Fellsman mandatory kit list is perfectly adequate for the event and nobody should have been hypothermic on the day. My feeling was that people were sleep walking their way into it by pushing on rather than putting on their additional layers as their ability to generate enough heat diminished and the temperature dropped. The other aspect I feel has a bearing is inadequate gloves, but that’s another thing. Ultimately core temperature had spiralled down and even once clothing is put on the damage is done if core temperature hasn’t been maintained. Ok, so we’d had a snow shower, but it wasn’t sustained and that should have been signal enough for people to take action, but I saw a number that didn’t. I think some people learned a hard lesson in mountain craft that day. Granted it’s not something one does consciously and the mind can get a bit clouded after 40 miles, but I’m pretty sure the people that did have to drop out will not be making the same mistake again.

I guess there is always a fear that if you put on your last bits of clothing then you’ve got nothing to add in an emergency, but maintaining the warmth in the first place is critical. The aim in mountain running is to travel as light as possible, but safely. In the UK you’re never too far from a road – it’s not like Canada or Alaska where you could end up days away. This enables the UK mountain runner to stay very light as we work to a principle of moving quickly enough to generate enough heat to stay in the safe zone – depending upon the weather this can be a tightrope, but that’s the risk you take, the critical point is to know when you’re not generating enough heat and to be prepared to drop out if you’ve undercooked the clothing.

I’ve personally found that I calculate what I’ve got ahead, how long before descending, etc. and balance that against the cold feeling in my extremities. If your hands and feet are frozen solid then that calculation is critical and if you’ve got more clothing to put on then you’re already behind the curve if you’ve got this cold.

Naturally this is based upon having adequate protection in the frist place in these areas. You’re feet will be like lumps of wood if you’re travelling through frozen bogs with thin cotton socks on for extended periods of time. In turn frozen feet mean you won’t be able to move fast and continue to generate core heat. I’ve been slowly adding to my glove collection as a result too.

My latest addition to my gloves were a real splash out. A whole £1.50 on some fluorescent liner gloves. These go under my thick power stretch gloves and ultimately under my tuff bags (light Gore-Tex shell mittens) So to see a chap wearing the same liner gloves, but on their own as we came off Great Whernside was a real point of disbelief for me. I asked in astonishment if they were the only gloves he had and he replied: “yeah, and they’re rubbish!” Once I realised he was serious about his dissatisfaction I really had to stop myself shouting, “They are £1.50 liner gloves you fool, what did you expect?” Take decisions like this and you’ll ultimately come unstuck on the mountain.

We were grouped with Dave, the only person I’d managed to overtake post Gargareth that was still in the race. Pretty sure he’d gone out way too quickly and suffered badly as a result. Rodger knew him and he made it clear that whilst he couldn’t run he could walk hard. It was with a chuckle that we pointed out that we wouldn’t be running either! Martin and Roger had passed Dave earlier and had stayed with him for a bit. He’d worked his way through various skin colours from grey to green and had been sick, so we were all impressed with him for making it this far. There was an intensity about Dave and I didn’t know if that was his character or if he was just wired from the effort of getting as far as he had despite the condition he was in.

Night fell and head torches pierced the sky; the wind continued to howl and if anything intensified. The bog and tussocks continued to mark the territory. Within 15 miles to go it was just about keeping moving and staying focused. We’d all put on everything we had at the last checkpoint whilst shovelling as many custard creams down as was humanly possible. We’d been moving like this for the past 19 or so miles so we all knew we could finish as long as we didn’t get lost.

Arriving at the final roadside checkpoint at the base of Great Whernside I got a full look at the boys and I could immediately see that both Roger and Dave were in trouble. I ordered them to get hot tea into them and kept talking to Roger and made sure he knew I was serious that he looked terrible and that he needed to take action if he was to pull himself back from the edge. That was only going to happen if he warmed up and fast. To be honest at that stage I thought it was all over for him.

Dave was in a bad way, to be honest it was incredibly impressive that he had got so far. He’d been to hell and back in a day and his endurance and mental resolve were as strong as iron, but this was the end of the line for him. I asked him if he was going to continue as it really needed to be his decision. He hesitated before saying yes. It was the end of the line and he knew it but feared he was letting us down as we wouldn’t have enough people to continue. Admirable as this was, it was wrong. We’d never put somebody in danger just to finish a race.

We made it clear that his health was more important and besides we’d just get grouped again so he wasn’t letting us down. With that pressure off Dave reluctantly let himself accept the state he was in and make the unbelievably tough but right decision to drop out.  I called for help and somebody was there straight away, wrapping him up like a kitkat in foil and straight into the hyperthermia drill. He wasn’t quite there but was right on the tipping point; to be honest I wouldn’t have continued with him in that state. The whole scene made me proud of a many things: Dave’s spirit and to have shared this race with him, the simply terrific organisation and the calm capability of the marshals, and that it’s the scouting movement that organise such an event – a real testament to the movement worldwide.

Sentiment over Rodger had a minor wobble when he heard that the van would be with Dave in 15 minutes and to be fair, if Martin had called it a day then I’d have probably got in the van too. We all needed to answer the question to give us strength to carry on. I’d picked up since we were grouped but I was still questioning what on earth I was doing. However the three of us didn’t dwell on this again. We were finishing this thing. We were re-grouped with another bunch and were back out in the wind.

It started well, but the group wanted to go faster than my legs and Martin’s feet could go. We were fine until the top of Great Whernside and then we all started running again. I could tell Martin was getting agitated and whilst not showing it he was in agony with his feet. Unbelievably tough to still be in the game at this point!

One guy took the approach of running off ahead and then looking miffed whilst we caught up. It went against everything I’ve been taught in mountain craft and despite the best efforts of a fellow DBR entrant who worked tirelessly to keep everyone together, the team fractured over the remaining 5 miles.

Whilst I can understand people wanting to get a great time, in my view there are a few bits of reality missing from this mindset: (a) none of us were going to get a great time – the conditions saw to that, (b) we’re grouped for safety – once that happens your personal race is over and it becomes a team race. Like it or not, that is the situation, so you either need to be faster earlier on , or happy to be grouped and move at the pace of the slowest.

It’s the sort of situation where you apologise for holding people up, but the behaviour and attitude of some of the “team” was so poor they didn’t deserve it. Without  doubt the worst attitude I’ve experienced and after my frustration passed I just pitied those that were part of that. All my experience in endurance events has been incredibly supportive – competitive as anything I’ve experienced, but supportive and broadly selfless. Sadly this was a stain on that. We were made to feel selfish and as if we were deliberately taking it easy just to slow them up. Whilst the final path was quick and run-able, it was also stony and Martin was in agony.

At the final checkpoint we were able to split for the final 2 miles. It was a huge relief (for all I’m sure). From our point of view we’d finished the beast with our heads held high and as a trio. Whilst I was still struggling with my mindset at the time, my feelings now are of pride for finishing the event and that we worked together to achieve it. For a split second Roger contemplated running out the last 2 miles, but decided to stick together – he and Martin had been together from the start of the race so it was a fitting end for them to finish it together too.

We finished in roughly 17 hours, arriving at the finish line somewhere around 2am. The race director had taken the incredibly tough decision to halt competitors not passed the point where Dave retired by 1:41am. This is the first time in the history of the Fellsman this has happened (and on its 50th running). Such a shame, but absolutely the right decision and despite what some may think, a very brave decision to make too. I tip my hat to the organisers and totally believe they made the right call. Full details why are here: Looks like we weren’t the only people that found it tough out there! Huge respect to Jez Bragg that won the race in 11 hours and change.

I don’t think the enormity of the two weeks had sunk in at the time, but I feel it has now and I’m really positive again – something I thought would take me a long time to rebuild. It was back in days and stronger as a result of the experience. I may even go back and do it again now, but not both within two weeks!

Summing up I guess you could say we had the good the bad and the ugly:

  • The Good – The organisation, the event itself and the triumphant trio
  • The Bad – My mental state for the majority of the event and, without a doubt, the wind!
  • The Ugly – The attitude of certain “team” members from the grouping

I took away some lessons from the whole experience. For what they are worth they were:

1)      Break down the task in advance – I was trying to do this once the wheels had come off, rather than know I’ve got it in sections already… essentially a little more prep’ is required.

2)      More mountain training required (I’m sure I’ve said that before :))

3)      My negative mental spiral killed me. I wasn’t even that far back even once I had been walking for a while. I’m going to search for some psychological tools to change my mindset, although sadly I suspect it comes with experience of being through the tough times in races

4)      I had a visual reinforcement of the need to keep core warm and not to leave it and then try to warm back up – it’s easier to stay warm than to warm up

5)      Don’t do a BG 2 weeks before the Fellsman and then expect to do well

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