Fell Racing

As well as road running, track and field, and cross country, Serpentine is also affiliated to England Athletics for fell running so Serpies can enter any race organised by the Fell Running Association. While London will never be a hotbed for the sport, there are several races within fairly easy reach, including Box Hill in January, Surrey Hills in May and the Isle Of Wight series in September. Fell races which may be of interest to Serpies are listed on the events planner in the ‘cross-country’ column; if you know of one you’d like to do just email events@serpentine.org.uk to have it added.

What is fell running?

Fells are a northern word for hills. The sport started in the Lake District, with some races now being well over 100 years old. Races consist of steep climbs and descents, though usually there is a lot of running on undulating ridges as well. All races are graded by severity as follows:

  • A category – races will average a climb of not less than 250 feet (76m) for every mile (1.6K) of climb, and will have not more than 20% of the total distance on the road
  • B category – races will average not less than 125 feet (38m) of climb for every mile, and will have not more than 30% of its total distance on the road
  • C category – races will average not less than 100 feet (30.4m) of climb for every mile, and will have not more than 40% of it total distance on the road

They are further graded by length:

  • Short (S) races are under 6 miles (9.6K) in length
  • Medium (M) races are 6 miles and over, but under 12 miles (19.3K) in length
  • Long (L) races are over 12 miles

So a race will be given a grading such as “AL” or “BS”, which gives you some idea of how difficult the race will be. Be careful though – as the climbing is averaged out, a C category race may still have a very steep climb hidden among lots of flat running!

How do I get involved?

The easiest way is to join your fellow Serpies for the Isle of Wight series in September. This is three races over two days (AS, BM and CL), which also forms the SEAA Championships.

Alternatively, just turn up and run! Most races are north of Birmingham, though there are a few in Surrey, and several in the West Country. The Fell Running Association website has details of all the races, and is worth joining as you get a printed calendar and 3 big and glossy magazines a year, for a bargain £12.

What’s it like?

No two races are the same. Indeed, weather conditions mean that the same race will be different from year to year – wind, rain and sun all dramatically affect races. All will be properly hilly, some may involve crossing rivers, some will be marked while others will require you to find your own route between predesignated checkpoints.

Most fell races are more low-key than road races, and many are held as part of a fete or other attraction, so there is often lots to do after the race. Midweek races usually start and finish near a pub!

But most of all – it’s fun!

What will I need?

Most importantly – the right footwear. Road shoes will probably not be adequate, and spikes will be useless on boulder fields and roads (which are often used in fell races).

Several makers specialise in fell and off road shoes – Walsh and Inov-8 are the major names, though New Balance are about to launch a new fell shoe. Theses shoes give fantastic grip on almost all surfaces (always be careful on wet rock) and are essential for those downhills.

As fell races take place in exposed and often mountainous areas, you will also need some other kit. For any “A” graded race you should have, and be prepared to carry, full windproof gear, including jacket, leggings, hat and gloves. The organiser may wave this, but you should have it with you. Some clubs now insist on it for all their races and will check each competitor before the race. This is a major source of debate among fell runners but the golden rule is: do as the organiser says – they are primarily interested in your safety.

You should also be prepared to carry a map (one which is relevant to the course – not a road atlas!) and a compass, and should have some idea how to use them. This is especially important in races that are not marked, and in poor weather, as being able to navigate may be the only way you can safely get off the hill. We hope to arrange some very basic navigation sessions in 2008, but there is an excellent introduction by Martin Bagness called “Mountain Navigation for Runners”, which is available from Amazon. Alternatively, there are many providers of courses in the Lakes and Snowdonia who will ensure you can navigate well in difficult terrain.

More advice

The FRA website has a very active forum and members are always willing to give advice on all sorts of issues. The Serpies Facebook group is also a good source of information as there are several experienced fell runners in the club.

For background reading, the only place to start is Richard Askwith’s “Feet in the Clouds”, widely available and published by Aurum. This has three main strands – profiles of some of the great runners and races; a diary of a season; and an account of the author’s own attempts to complete the Bob Graham Round. Askwith is a journalist, and a long-time fell runner (despite being from London), and this is an excellent read even if you never intend fell running yourself.