Unless you’re remarkably unlucky or remarkably slow, you’re unlikely to finish dead last in a road race. Head to the hills, however, and the standard increases exponentially. The same year that I’d run 3:02:13 at the London Marathon, I finished 51st of 61 finishers at the Ennerdale Horseshoe.
The speediest of road runners can be rendered useless on the slopes of a fell race. Running well up here requires a totally different skill set. Take the terrain: huge, angular boulders, as Northern as mushy peas and Corrie. A fell runner looks at this and thinks: “No problem.” A road runner looks at this and thinks: “No way.”
Despite its challenging nature, fell running isn’t a young man’s game. One of the most remarkable runners on show at Ennerdale was a 70-year-old woman who glided over the terrain like a silvery mountain goat. I just about managed to finish in front of her, but I was soundly beaten by several runners twice my age.
Question: what’s better than hiking up the steep slopes of Pillar once? Answer: hiking up the steep slopes of Pillar twice. I know this because I’ve done it. The reason? My map skills are nonexistent. This meant I had to follow two local lasses. Not in a creepy “do you run here often?” kind of way; they just knew the route. Or, at least, I thought they did. Thirty minutes later, however, our surroundings began to have a suspiciously familiar feel to them. “We’ve done a big circle,” said Ms Keswick AC, laughing the cruel laugh of the hill-hardened. I wanted to cry.
I’m a fairly back-to-basics type of runner: I run without a watch, don’t use Strava and have even dabbled in the whole barefoot thing. And yet I was still the most over-dressed runner on the start line. Which is to say, I was the only one wearing compression socks. The locals looked at me as if I’d turned up to run in a three-piece suit. Before the race had even started, I was a marked man.
Despite my particularly Southern appearance, the locals treated me with generosity. Lost on top of Pillar, I tagged on to three runners, one of whom was both a thoroughly nice bloke and familiar with the route. (Daryl Mullen: if you are reading this, on behalf of naïve runners everywhere who find themselves hopelessly out of their depth, I thank you.) With Daryl’s help, we negotiated the final six miles of the route – a mixture of moorland trods, rocky descents and some welcome grassy sections – without incident.