Friday, January 7, 2011

Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession, by Richard Askwith

If you thought fell running referred to the common experience of many trail runners, you would only be partly right.  In British English, a fell is "a barren or stony hill."  In the UK, fell running is a long and storied tradition.  In Feet in the Clouds, journalist Richard Askwith gives his first-hand accounts of his experiences in the sport and reports of his runs, facing down some of fell running's great challenges.

Most of the fell races have a simple course and simpler origins.  It's no coincidence that many of them start from a village pub.  You can almost hear the challenge after a couple of drinks: "I bet you a round of drinks that I can run to the top of that fell and back in an hour," as he points out the window to the nearby mountain.  So many of the races, though they are short in terms of mileage, are run basically straight up the mountain and straight back down.

Of course, over the years, many of the races have become more refined, and draw more than just the patrons of the local pub.  Askwith starts running with friends on weekends, and frequents these races, taking us on a tour of fells around the U.K. and the races held on them, and walking us through a hall-of-fame of British fell runners.  The stories he tells are entertaining, but they do contribute to drawing out the book longer than I felt like it ought to be.

Anyone who has been a trail runner or has been around trail runners will get a kick out of his descriptions of the races and the racers.  A couple of examples: "Fell-runners, I was learning, see sports injuries in a different way to other athletes. . . . Pig-headed refusal to face the medical facts is a central tenet of fell-running dogma. . . . Most of them see demonstrable indifference to health-threatening agonies as a necessary badge of honour, without which you cannot really claim to be a paid-up member of the sport."  I haven't suffered real "health-threatening agonies" but have certainly seen people press on through pain to finish a race.  This piece of advice sums up a key area of wisdom for ultrarunning: "I have learnt that successful ultra-distance fell-running can have as much to do with what you eat and drink as anything else."

Along the way on the Bob Graham Round.
A key thread through the book follows Askwith's pursuit of the ultimate fell running challenge: finishing the Bob Graham round.  This is not a race run on a specific date, but a course on which runners summit (and descend) 42 Lake District peaks, covering a distance of about 72 miles, in 24 hours.  Based on his descriptions, this is much harder than it sounds.  I'll save you the suspense: he does finish, but it takes him several tries.

As I said, Feet in the Clouds seemed overlong.  But I did enjoy his profiles of the fell running legends.  As I read I thought about how much fun it would be to write a book about the races and runners I have met in my short, quite limited trail running career (career?  That sounds funny.  You know what I mean.)  In the North Texas Trail Runners, and people I have met from Tejas Trails, and others I have read or heard about, there are plenty of great stories that could easily fill a book.  Maybe someone like Askwith, with his writing talent and a passion for trail running, will take on such a project.  In the meantime, it's fun to read about American trail runners' counterparts across the Atlantic.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, if you enjoyed "Feet in the Clouds", check out my new book, "Mud, Sweat and Tears":

    The highs and lows of Irish mountain running, at its best...