Come on Londoners! Don't be put off by a lack of fells, limited open land access and a benign micro-climate! Get into fell-running!
"About 9am, still punch-drunk from a six-hour drive up from London the night before, the car scattered with empty crisp packets and inexplicably purchased cassettes. Above us: Steel Fell, dank and precipitous, weighed down by rolls of battleship-grey cloud. Behind, the brutal howling of the A591. In the air, a faint whiff of wet exhaust, giving way, as we started up the slope, to the fresher, wilder scent of damp, cold mountain."
- from Feet in the Clouds, by Richard Askwith
When runners in London step out of their homes in the early hours of the morning, they are not going to find a fell at the end of their drive, and any hill they do find is likely to have a white line down the middle rather than a rocky knife-edge ridge.
The truly hardcore – such as Richard Askwith, whose book Feet in the Clouds is essential reading for any fell-runner (and darn good for non-runners too!) – will make the trip to The Peak District, North Wales or Northern England – the Lake District of course being their spiritual home.
Up North, Fell-running has been around for over 150 years. Fells are no different to any other mountainous, rocky, beautiful and brutal hills anywhere else, they are simply named differently in the North West thanks to Old Norse visitors whose word for hill was fjall. That’s right, as in Fjallraven. Of course, its not just about the hills. You may find yourself fording streams and leaping over bogs, and whatever happens you can be sure it’s never happened before – all fell races are different each time because of influential weather and other seasonal factors.
Closer to home it’s tricky to replicate the experience of, for example, running 214 fells (The Wainwrights) in under a week which is what London Mountain Film Festival speaker Steve Birkinshaw first did and described in his superb book There is no Map in Hell (get it signed at the Festival).
Nevertheless, you can give it a go…
3 Steps to Fell-Running Heaven (and Hell) for Londoners
1. Start with Trails…
Jump on a train and some of the best National Trails in the UK are less than an hour from the capital. Otherwise:
Lots of miles of woods and fields to belt through and enough hilly bits to get a burn on – plus the chance to soak up the awesome view of London from Parliament Hill. If you don’t mind a short spell on a road or two you can build Alexandra Palace and Highgate Woods into your routes.
The Tamsin Trail encircles our largest Royal Park and offers a 12km course with a couple of hills to keep it interesting. You don’t have to stick to the paths of course but mind the deer! Nip over the A3 footbridge and you will find yourself heading into the depths of Wimbledon Common along some great trails.
There’s approximately 6,000 acres of forest to explore, but if you don’t want to get lost it’s smarter to go with the nine way-marked trails – you can find maps etc on the City of London website.
Things are getting a bit hillier down here… a ridge of hills that run from Farnham to Dover. The 246km North Downs Way runs the entire length of the ridge and is specifically designed to offer the best views for those who blaze along it. The Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is also in the North Downs and contains the trail-running hotspots of the Devil’s Punchbowl and Box Hill.
The 160km South Downs Way route runs from Winchester to Eastbourne. There are regular trains from London to either end of the trail, or you can join the trail at Petersfield, Amberley, Hassocks or Lewes.
2. Gear Up
When you’re ready to ramp up the risk make sure you get the right footwear – there’s lots of specialist shoes on offer these days for fell and off road-runners. These shoes give fantastic grip on almost all surfaces (beware wet rock) and are essential for downhill stretches.
As fell races take place in exposed and often mountainous areas, you will also need some other kit including full windproof gear such as jacket, leggings, hat and gloves. Not all organisers demand it but it’s a very good idea to have it anyway.
Map-reading skills are also required – many races will expect you to carry a map and compass. You might have to travel to another part of the country to take a navigation course for fell-runners but one day you may be very glad you did!
3. Find a local Fell-race!
Well.. there’s only one really to give you a realistic taste of fell-running and that’s on Box Hill - although you can travel a bit further to find good events on the Isle of Wight.
Organised by the amazing South London Orienteers the Box Hill event takes place in January. It's 12km long and has over 500m of climbing. The race venue, like many fell races, is a pub! In this case, the Stepping Stones in West Humble.
Here’s a link to the event on the Fell Racing Association’s website: Box Hill
If Box Hill whets your appetite and you want to head north with your new passion here’s some further information to help you choose your races. Good luck!
Fell Race Categories
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
Races are additionally 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