A Return to Fell Running

Sunday 1st January 2023

Stats at a Glance Nine Standards Fell Race (organised by Howgill Harriers) | Race HQ: Mountain Rescue Centre, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria | Distance: 7.6 miles (12.2 km) | Ascent: 1667 ft (508 m) | Max Elevation (Nine Standards Rigg): 650 m (2132 ft) | FRA Category BM

Race Route & GPS Files (Plotaroute)

Other Useful Links: Fell Runners Association | Si Entries (Online Race Entry System) | Results

As we approached Christmas 2022, mixed in with the festive spirit I began to detect a familiar, gently persistent urge to enter another running race – a full eight months after my last major outing at the Blackpool Marathon. Although by no means ‘race fit’ I’d been running consistently enough to think that, by my own standards, I could at least enjoy the day. Thoughts turned immediately towards cheap, off-road races, and they don’t come much cheaper than my local fell races which can usually be entered close to the day, if not on it (the perfect type of race to enter in my opinion).

Mind you, it may have had something to do with acquiring a new pair of Inov-8 X-Talon Ultra 260 V2 fell shoes to replace the last of my cherished pairs of Inov-8 X-Claw 275s which I’d first bought in 2017 for ultra-distance fell races and which I absolutely loved. As is the fate for most shoes these days, they were discontinued, being succeeded by the X-Talon Ultras. They seem just as comfortable however, as they’re made on the same last, one which seems to suit my feet.

New footwear for 2023: Inov-8 X-Talon Ultra 260 V2 fell running shoes

The first event that came to mind was the Guisborough Woods Fell Race, which usually takes place shortly after Boxing Day and is not too far away from me. I’ve done it several times over the years and always enjoyed it. I was on the verge of entering when, for some reason, I demurred. By the time I’d thought and talked about it – even rearranging a visit to friends – the closing date for entries had come and gone. “Never mind”, I thought, “I’ll have a go at the Nine Standards” which I’d noticed was taking place at Kirkby Stephen, in Cumbria, a few days later, on New Year’s Day. This time I followed through with the entry and was soon in receipt of the email confirming details, timings and locations etc. Despite having to pay a £2 supplement as I’d let my Fell Runners Association membership lapse, it was still relatively good value at £12.

At eight miles Nine Standards is a bit longer than the Guisborough race, with more altitude. The out-and-back course follows the Coast-to-Coast long distance walking trail from Kirkby Stephen to Nine Standards Rigg – a four mile ascent – before turning at one of the massive cairns that give the race its name and coming back the same way. Although my running had been consistent it lacked specificity for a race of this type and I decided to include a couple of sessions that would help condition me in some small way for what was to come.

Kirkby Stephen is about 48 miles away from us, in the North Pennines, taking just over an hour to reach by car. Race HQ was in the Mountain Rescue Centre, not too far from the marketplace, and opened at 10.30 am while the race itself started at 12 noon which meant we could have a bit of a lie-in on the first day of the new year. The journey was trouble free with only light traffic and we were soon pulling into the back streets of what is normally a busy market town, comfortably close to Race HQ.

I’ve rarely felt so relaxed at a race and the only thing to ruffle my composure was having to run the short distance back to the car for the whistle I was missing at the obligatory kit check. Conventionally, this requires lightweight waterproof body cover (jacket and trousers), hat and gloves – plus said whistle. There was no requirement for emergency food (usually gels which, even though I don’t eat carbs, I still have to carry) or a compass (a map was helpfully provided by the organiser but was unlikely to be needed).

Derwentside AC club-mates Mark, Scott & John before the Nine Standards Fell Race 2023

The weather was cold, blustery and sunny, with intermittent showers – exactly as forecast. It’s common to find the tops of the North Pennine hills covered in snow at this time of the year but there was none to be seen. The ground however was sodden with recent heavy rain which had caused the organiser to shorten the route by a half mile or so to avoid damaging the farmer’s field.

So the 2023 version of the race would start on the road in the nearby village of Hartley, within the arc of a handsome rainbow as the first of several chilly showers blew through. This is where I finally hooked up with Mark and John, club mates from Derwentside Athletic Club who are both faster than me and who would finish well towards the front of the field. There was time for a brief chat and pics before we were marshalled onto the start line. I headed straight for the back of the pack, determined not to set off too fast, with a two-fold goal of enjoying the race and running the entire course, the first half of which – as I might have said – is almost entirely uphill. When the whistle went, a couple of minutes after twelve, I was duly held to a comfortable shuffle, mindful to be on the same side as Diane so she could document my glorious return to the racing scene.

Start of the Nine Standards Fell Race 2023 in Hartley near Kirkby Stephen

I think I might actually be the world’s worst starter – something I never train for – though I could have helped myself by taking the time for a proper warm-up. As soon as the field began to break up I felt terrible and when the road reared upwards my heart was pounding in my ears and the idea of walking was impossible to ignore. Rightly or wrongly, I stuck doggedly to plan and was able to maintain a slow running pace which, coupled with a keen sense for the ‘racing line’ (you’d be surprised how many runners think nothing of doing extra metres whenever there’s a bend in the route), helped me gain a few places with little extra effort.

Knowing there was a long way to go before I’d get any respite, I closed my mind to the heaving lungs around me and withdrew into myself, slogging on with no goal other than to get to the top. A willowy young lass in front of me dodged behind a couple of parked cars for a ‘paula’ while the Birkett Lane tarmac rose and fell, then rose again before giving way, almost imperceptibly, to a rocky track which got muddier and more broken as we gained height. Cold rain blew through in squalls but with a long-sleeved thermal shirt beneath my club vest and 3/4 leggings I felt comfortable in that regard at least. My focus remained doggedly on maintaining form that could be mistaken for running while I continued to inch past disembodied pairs of feet.

Shortly after stumbling and bashing my right thumb on a rock (I’m developing a black thumbnail as opposed to the more common toenail) I looked up to see a couple of young guys hurtling down the hill towards me. I didn’t have time to react and they shot past on either side. Immediately, I started to make an assessment of how far ahead they could have been and where that might place the turn back to Kirkby Stephen. For a brief moment I forgot about my discomfort and started scanning the descenders for the distinctive red and yellow colours of my own club, to get a better idea of how long my suffering might last.

As expected, John passed me first, clad only in vest and shorts. I was surprised at how not-out-of-breath I sounded as I shouted support. Mark followed soon after, again dressed as though it was a summer track meeting. They’d both be somewhere towards the top of the field in the results, I guessed, but it was the top of the course that I was concerned about which I knew couldn’t be too much further away. After a couple of hundred metres and a final tract of thick grey mud, with an occasional rock offering a dubious base off which to push, I crested a grassy lip to see, surprisingly close, a large cairn surrounded by a noisy crowd of hardy supporters and – more importantly – runners changing direction. If there were nine cairns, I didn’t count them, concerned now with how my quads would cope on the long and rough descent.

As soon as I’d made it round the cairn myself, I was overtaken by a bloke who’d been on my heels the whole way up. I couldn’t help noticing that he looked about my age (60-ish), an observation which, from the results, proved to be entirely accurate. I could already tell that my legs were good and contented myself with thinking I might pull him back on the descent. Unfortunately, while I was able to pass a few others, my ‘category quarry’ remained stubbornly beyond reach. A bit further down I was passed by another guy but as he was obviously younger than me I wasn’t too bothered while it was encouraging to see that there were still plenty of runners coming the other way.

On the way up we’d crossed a narrow section of deep marsh where I’d gone in up to my knees and which was approaching rapidly for the second time. Luckily there was a guy coming up the hill who’d found a solid tussock and, just as he left, I took a flying leap onto it, clearing the marsh without having to slow down or get my feet any wetter!

Running into the finish of the 2023 Nine Standards Fell Race in Kirkby Stephen

Soon afterwards the track returned to tarmac and concern for my ankles gave way to that for my knees. I was surprised that those I was about to overtake were ignoring the grassy verge which, in my humble opinion, offered a much better surface on such a steep gradient. With a growing awareness of the approaching finish I could see that opportunities to improve my position were diminishing: I took my time to reel in the lone runner ahead so that I could be confident of having something in the tank if he dug in and took it to a sprint.

Once past, I focused on running as smoothly as I could without going too deep – it was now about winning a two-horse race rather than seeking to improve my time by a handful of seconds. Thankfully it never came to that; I could sense that I was far enough ahead to knock off the gas and enjoy the descent through the ‘forbidden’ field, across the River Eden and into the town, up steps and through narrow lanes, to a novel, sheltered finish where I was quickly joined by Diane (who’d taken the surprisingly impressive photographs) and where I found John and Mark in clothing much more appropriate for the conditions than the last time I’d seen them.

John (17th) & Mark (24th) slipping into something more comfortable at the finish of the 2023 Nine Standards Fell Race

By the time we emerged from the shelter afforded by the narrow tunnel between the buildings it had begun to rain again and, as no-one was sticking around, we headed directly for the car where I got changed and from where we made the short dash back to the Black Bull for some post-race refreshment. We didn’t make it to the prize giving but on receiving the results by email I was happy to find myself scraping into the first half of the 146-runner field in 72nd place. More encouragingly I was fourth MV60, separated from the category winner by just under two-and-a-half minutes, with a couple of others in between – great for morale and a far better result than expected.

Would I recommend this race? Absolutely. It made for a great day out thanks to the efficient organisation by Howgill Harriers with the support of the Kirkby Stephen Mountain Rescue. It’s good value too, at £12 (£10 if you’re an FRA member). It offers an uncomplicated route with little chance of getting lost – straight up and down – challenging every runner regardless of ability or experience. The town has lots of parking and plenty of welcoming facilities, even on New Years Day – just don’t celebrate too hard the night before!

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