What on earth possesses you to run up and down a hill? It’s a question I’m often asked by ‘normal’ people. I usually just shrug my shoulders and laugh. It’s pointless even trying to explain to someone who is alien to fell running or hill/mountain running. You simply have to do it, to understand it. A sport like no other, it’s like a powerful drug… once it takes a hold of you it’s difficult to imagine what your life would be like without it.
‘A sport so simple and pure’
The truth is I’ve not always been a runner. At school I was a footballer, and an average one at best. When I reached university I turned my hand to cycling, something I became quite good at, but ultimately I was guilty of not putting enough effort into my training. I even tried tennis… though my on-court career lasted all of about 30 minutes! I spent a fortune on a new racket, then halfway through the first set smashed it to pieces in a fit of rage! Yes, I’m ultra competitive and yes I sometimes struggle to channel my aggression in a positive way. In hindsight tennis was not a good idea. Andy Murray can rest easy. I suppose that’s when I found my love for running – a sport so simple and pure, plus there’s no chance of me destroying expensive handheld sports equipment halfway through a race!
I started running to work out of sheer convenience. It was quicker and cheaper than catching a bus and I didn’t drive at the time. I then realised that I seemed to have some degree of natural talent for running so I entered a local cross-country race. I finished 11th and it didn’t take long before I was searching for another, bigger adrenalin rush. Someone I know suggested I should do a fell race. At which point I uttered those words… ‘What on earth possesses anyone to run up and down a hill?’ My friend chuckled to himself and simply replied, ‘Try it… you’ll soon understand.’
‘Just ten seconds in and my body was working at its full capacity’
And so it was in May 2005 that I took to the start line of the Mytholmroyd Fell Race (West Yorkshire, England). At 6.2 miles and with 1,350ft of ascent, it was, in comparison to some of the other races I now run, a relatively short blast. At the time, however, it hurt like hell. The race started with a steep uphill climb. 10 seconds in and my body was working at its full capacity… My lungs were on fire and I was struggling to breathe.
Eventually I reached the summit. I was absolutely shattered and my heart rate was off the scale! By the time I hit the final descent my legs were like jelly; so much so that they didn’t even feel like my own. It was then that it dawned on me… despite the pain, the hurt and the jelly legs, I was still running downhill at a ferocious pace. It was a feeling I will never forget. I felt alive and free, fuelled on a heady mix of speed and courage. I was running on pure adrenalin; enjoying the finest natural high in the world.
‘I felt alive and free, fuelled on a heady mix of speed and courage’
When I reached the finish I was a physical wreck – I’d been battered by both the hills and the weather. I lay flat-out on the floor for about five minutes until I could finally control my breathing and muster enough energy to sit upright. It was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. ‘Are you okay?’ asked a concerned onlooker. I took a deep breath…’When’s the next race?’ cam my reply. I was instantly hooked on fell running and couldn’t wait to do it all over again.
Since that first race I’ve never looked back. I’ve been fortunate enough to compete at the highest level and against some the very best fell and mountain runners in the world. One thing that I love about the sport, across all its forms, is that the ‘superstars’ are a different breed of elite. There’s no arrogance or bravado. It makes a refreshing change given what you see happening in other sports.
‘The superstars of fell running are a different breed of elite. There’s no arrogance or bravado’
Here in the UK, fell running continues to rise sharply in popularity… and it’s not surprising. The beautiful thing about fell running, you see, is that it accepts athletes of all abilities and encourages them to take part. The fact that it’s not elitist means you’re just as likely to share a post-race pint with the winner as you are with the person who finishes last. For this reason alone I consider it to be the best sport in the world.