Mud, Sweat & Camaraderie: The Fell Run

If you love off-road run­ning, or trail rac­ing, and your upcom­ing trav­el plans include a trip to the Unit­ed King­dom, you should know about fell running.

Any­one in rea­son­ably good run­ning shape with a fair lev­el of back­coun­try smarts will enjoy the exhil­a­rat­ing expe­ri­ence of lop­ing across mead­ow­lands and pas­tures, pow­er­ing up hills and rock-strewn pas­sages, slip­ping along exposed hill­side tracks, wad­ing through streams, nego­ti­at­ing boul­ders and leap­ing over fence stiles. Half the fun of it, though, is that some­time you’ll actu­al­ly need and want to slow down and walk, and look and listen. 

The sport gets its name from “the fells”—Britain’s upland country—places like or the moors of Dart­moor and Exmoor in the south­west and the round­ed peaks of the north­ern Lake Dis­trict. Even fur­ther north into Scot­land, the land is thread­ed with streams sur­round­ed by round mono­lith­ic peaks called Munros. Although North­ern Ire­land is not par­tic­u­lar­ly moun­tain­ous, a few small moun­tain ranges and lone sum­mits dot the scald­ed land­scape, and fell run­ning is very pop­u­lar there as well. In Ire­land, the sport is sim­ply called “moun­tain running.”

So what exact­ly is it?
Imag­ine a cross-coun­try run­ning run, but on a course that is longer, steep­er, and typ­i­cal­ly unmarked. When you com­pete in a fell race, you’ll need moun­tain nav­i­ga­tion skills sim­i­lar to ori­en­teer­ing (or what is called Rogain­ing in Aus­tralia). The dif­fer­ence is that when you run cross coun­try, you fol­low a specif­i­cal­ly marked route. In fell run­ning, there may or may not be “way” points, and while you may fol­low a route, you find your own way. 

Unlike trail rac­ing in Amer­i­ca, fell runs typ­i­cal­ly do not include routes that require rock scram­bling or climb­ing, although it isn’t unheard of for rock climbers who also hap­pen to be fell run­ners to pur­sue record times tra­vers­ing ridges. Again, one of the things that sets fell run­ning apart from cross coun­try is that fell run­ning routes in most cas­es aren’t absolute­ly set in stone—typically you’re try­ing to go from Point A to Point Z and back to Point A, on your own accord. And that’s what makes it chal­leng­ing and fun.

Fell run­ning appears to have a long his­to­ry in the UK, with records show­ing events going back to Scot­tish kings attempt­ing to vet new mes­sen­gers, and more recent­ly 19th cen­tu­ry com­mu­ni­ty ath­let­ic games and cul­ture fairs. Com­pe­ti­tion was very much a part of the fab­ric of com­mu­ni­ty life, and speed and strength, espe­cial­ly among labor­ers and shep­herders, were espe­cial­ly cel­e­brat­ed. Some of these events sur­vive to this day, includ­ing the Gras­mere Sports Meet­ing’s annu­al Guide’s Race in the Lake District.

Today, fell run­ning and fell rac­ing are pri­mar­i­ly about friend­ships and cama­raderie and/or sim­ply enjoy­ing the out­doors in a phys­i­cal­ly chal­leng­ing man­ner. Because of this, the sport appeals to a wide range of endurance sports enthu­si­asts: from non-com­pet­i­tive run­ners who love to chal­lenge them­selves in the out­doors to high­ly com­pet­i­tive run­ners who enjoy tack­ling steep hills or cross-coun­try runs, even if it means being far out there in the ele­ments alone.

Get­ting Out There
Run­ning in an unfa­mil­iar coun­try dic­tates, at least at first, vet­ting routes. Ask around at run­ning shops about local fell run­ners or clubs you might con­nect with, or vis­it the FRA forums for fell route sug­ges­tions. You should also brush up on nav­i­ga­tion skills. Being able to read maps and take com­pass bear­ings (or oper­ate a GPS) will not only increase your route options, but give you a leg up com­pet­i­tive­ly, should you decid­ed to race.

Weath­er can change very quick­ly, so run pre­pared with all the usu­al weath­er-pro­tec­tion gear: a water­proof yet breath­able, pack­able shell, a wick­ing base­lay­er, a hat that cov­ers ears, gloves and light­weight wool run­ning socks. Con­sid­er a fan­ny pack or light­weight back­pack to stow snacks, a map and com­pass or GPS, and a whis­tle. For day­long dis­tances, con­sid­er also car­ry­ing a light­weight bivy bag, a head­lamp, and basic first aid sup­plies, includ­ing an ACE ban­dage and some Arni­ca salve. Let some­one know where you are going and your esti­mat­ed time of return. Pay atten­tion to land­marks and clock time to some degree to avoid los­ing your bearings.

Footwear and Oth­er Gear
You’ll need more than a tra­di­tion­al pair of road run­ning shoes. Fac­tor in rough steep ter­rain and rain, and you get the idea of what you should be wear­ing. Tra­di­tion­al run­ning shoes typ­i­cal­ly have a 12–15mm heel-toe dif­fer­en­tial, and mod­er­ate min­i­mal­ist shoes a 4–10mm heel-toe drop. Many expert fell run­ners choose zero-drop shoes that fall in the 0–4mm range.

Zero drops seem to low­er the risk of twist­ing your ankle. Recent research has shown that shoes with a near-lev­el pro­file allow the body to main­tain a more nat­ur­al dri­ve posi­tion (pos­ture and flow) in rela­tion­ship to the feet dur­ing runs. This helps reduce the over­com­pen­sa­tion some shoes can pro­duce due to their bio­me­chan­i­cal designs. Oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions for trail run­ners include a light­weight design with snug-fit­ting water-resis­tant and breath­able uppers, and fair­ly aggres­sive out­soles with deep­er lugs for bet­ter sta­bil­i­ty and ter­rain bite.

Fell races are cat­e­go­rized (grad­ed) accord­ing to dif­fi­cul­ty and dis­tance cov­ered. For exam­ple, a race marked as “A” cat­e­go­ry means you’re fac­ing an aver­age of no few­er than 250 ft. for every mile you climb, and that no more than 20% of the total dis­tance is on road. One marked Short (S) is less than six miles in length. Medi­um (M) dis­tance is between six and 12 miles in length. Long (L) races are at least 12 miles. If you see a race marked NS, then nav­i­ga­tion skills are required; LK means you should have some local knowl­edge of the area; and ER means expe­ri­ence IS required.

The Fell Runner’s Asso­ci­a­tion over­sees the major­i­ty of fell run­ning events in the UK, and has about 6,800 mem­bers in Eng­land, Scot­land, North­ern Ire­land and Wales, and sup­ports about 400 events annu­al­ly. Addi­tion­al­ly, there are about 300 ath­let­ic club groups that par­tic­i­pate with region­al ath­let­ic asso­ci­a­tions. (In Ire­land, the Irish Moun­tain Run­ning Asso­ci­a­tion (IMRA) is the pri­ma­ry orga­niz­er and gov­ern­ing body of the same sport). Each coun­try has its own tra­di­tion of fell run­ning and a sep­a­rate gov­ern­ing body to over­see com­pe­ti­tion, though the sport is large­ly the same. The top two fell run­ning races of the year include the Ben Nevis race in Scot­land and the Snow­don Race in Wales.

Accord­ing to the FRA, they put less empha­sis on pro­mot­ing their events to get new mem­bers than they do pro­tect­ing the fells. To that end, they con­tin­u­al­ly coor­di­nate with landown­ers and land trust agen­cies to ensure access and pro­tect envi­ron­men­tal­ly sen­si­tive areas. In some areas, you may need to remove your shoes and wash the out­soles in a creek to thwart the spread of plant dis­eases that are wreak­ing hav­oc in some areas due to the increase in foot traf­fic from fell running.