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We've been here with me before...but hang in there.
Picture the scene. The great outdoors...someone, it doesn't matter who, is pitting himself against nature, trying to find some accord, some harmony. He briefly scans the landscape ahead, before putting his head down and reacquainting his eyes with his feet. Said feet are placed carefully, conserving energy and avoiding false steps. The movement is slow, as the person tries to build up some rhythm upon a surface that is constantly scheming against it. Time slips by, hours pass, and the sedate meter of his deep breathing and footsteps drives him upwards. Sometimes a steadying hand may rest on the slope for balance: perhaps the occasional appearance of outcropping rock will demand that the arms are required to assist in the battle with gravity. But if he shows determination, he will inevitably arrive at the top, where he can sit down, contemplate the view, and appreciate the sandwich fillings. And after a while, when his legs are rested and his minor oxygen debt repaid, he will arise and pick his way carefully down...possibly putting his Goretex anorak and gloves on as the westering sun urges afternoon into evening. Eventually, he will arrive back at valley level, pleasantly tired and content. He will have enjoyed the experience.
Take 2: The same mountainside. Another figure is also sketching a route upwards, only this figure seems to be wearing a vest, shorts and trainers. Not bothering with such trifling matters as anaerobic thresholds, the weather, and the possibility of breaking an ankle if he misses his step, he streaks upwards with gay abandon. He arrives at the summit apparently on the verge of collapse, and without any sort of rest proceeds to turn around and run down again at an obviously suicidal speed. Occasionally gravity will force him to visit the very limits of his ability to control the descent: inevitably, his way of regaining command of his direction will involve speeding up rather than slowing down. Go figure. He arrives at the bottom, and the assembled masses (if there are any) will start wistfully thinking of Darwin Awards.
Welcome to the maddest sport in Britain. Fell-running.
Richard Askwith was a journalist and lapsed club runner who, having been introduced by his friends to the sport in his early thirties, developed an obsession with completing one of its great challenges: The Bob Graham Round, a course of 42 peaks over 72 miles with (and this is the killer, trust me) 27000ft of ascent. And the same descent. All to be done within 24 hours. So, statistically akin to running three marathons while climbing up and down your house stairs about 4000 times. And the reality is it's MUCH harder than that. Despite that, the Bob Graham Club, restricted to completers, has over 1200 members, and in the five years it took Askwith to realise his ambition (after numerous, often excruciating failures), he immersed himself in the sport: its history, traditions, future (?) , most famous races and most legendary proponents. 'Feet In The Clouds' is the tangible result of his immersion.
And what a gloriously guileless little book it is. Combining aspects of autobiography, history, straightforward reporting, profiles and interviews, it is written in the style of a journalist or travel writer attempting to be clear and dispassionate but failing...he loves the subject matter too much. It's a hard game for hard people, but these are people who aren't prone to bragging and therefore they deserve someone who blows their trumpet with quite such bravura skill and untrammelled joy.
The book has two basic framing devices: Askwith's 'progress' towards his Bob Graham ambition, and the documentation of a year's happenings within the sport. The former involves a colossal amount of discovery, both about the sport and about Askwith himself as he searches for the knowledge and inner hardness to allow him to reach his target: never was a truer word spoken than by the man who says 'Being fit is easy. It's being hard that's hard.' The latter involves some skilful newspaperesque 'reportage' as well as some far more personal chapters chronicling Askwith's competing in the most famous races in the calendar.
These range from the comparatively short (the Burnsall race in Yorkshire, 2 miles almost impossibly steeped in tradition, and scene in 1910 of fell-running's equivalent of the 'Bannister Mile', where Ernest Dalzell set a course record so ludicrous that it took over 60 years to better it and whose legitimacy is still debated today) to the excessively long (the two-day drip drip dripping orienteering torture that is the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon), via a host of intermediate classics: the Borrowdale, the vicious Ben Nevis, the Grasmere guides race, Skiddaw and many more.
Askwith explores the roots of the sport, back to 1064 when a king of Scotland organised a race near Braemar to audition would-be messengers, through to 'foote races'in the North of England in the mid 19th century, conducted naked so as not to spoil the clothes of the competitors. There were the guides races, born of a time where being able to call yourself the fastest guide was a ticket to a greater range and moneying of clientele, and from which came the amateur/professional schism that was as deep and livid here as in any other sport. And when he arrives in the present day he ponders where the sport might go in the time of the 'where there's blame there's a claim' culture and whether it can possibly survive as its pool of competitors gets older and sparser. All of this is done in a style that manages to be warm yet bloodless, and avowedly page-turning.
Askwith meets the people behind the scenes: the organisers and the scientists. Foremost amongst them are Fred Rogerson, a quiet old man whose encyclopaedic knowledge and encouragement have driven comparative legions of runners to achieve the Bob Graham, and Pete Bland, who together with Norman Walsh perfected the breed of fell-running shoe still in general use today: a rubber rippled sole that I can vouch does indeed give 'excellent grip and shock absorbency'.
And best of all, Askwith meets the legends of the sport. People almost unknown outwith of the cognoscenti, but athletes of staggering stamina, drive and bravery. That, and too daft to know better.
He meets Bill Teasdale, probably the greatest of the professional guide racers, and winner at Grasmere a mere eleven times: one of only two of these superb athletes to have received an MBE (and when he went to get it, it was the furthest he'd ever been from his home in Caldbeck in the northern Lakes). A man of whom more than one exasperated vanquished opponent was heard to say 'has Bill gone home yet?' on reaching the finish line the proverbial country mile behind. He meets Helene Diamantides, a Greek expatriate who has made astonishing inroads into the performance gap between men and women in the more extreme endurance events. The first athlete of either sex to complete the three classic 24-hour runs (the Bob Graham, the Welsh Paddy Buckley Round, and the Scottish Ramsey Round) in a single summer, and in the winning pair in the Dragon's Back race, probably the toughest event ever staged in the British hills.
He meets Kenny Stuart, the Keswick gardener whose unnatural fleet of foot over the steepest hillsides was sadly curtailed by ME. Stuart was part of the ultimate era of fell-running, and many of his course records still seem pretty invulnerable over twenty years later (the organisers of the Ben Nevis race habitually offer a £1000 prize to anyone who can better his 1984 winning time, safe in the knowledge that they won't). He meets Billy Bland, the manically training Borrowdale stonemason from the same generation who holds all the records that Stuart doesn't, records that nobody from the current competitive pool is even remotely approaching (Bland's record for the Bob Graham, probably the most amazing mark I know of in ANY sport, is 13 hours 53 minutes: 26 years on, nobody has got within an hour of it). Rather discouragingly for Askwith, Bland's last performance of the Bob Graham Round was entirely at walking pace, 'just to show how easy it is', and he was still 2 hours inside the time limit.
And he meets the most famous fell-runner of them all, one who might even be known to the man in the street: Joss Naylor. The Wasdale shepherd is the other MBE in the sport, a man with the runner-up in the Grand National named after him, a former winner of The Biggest Liar In The World contest, and possibly the greatest living embodiment of the idea that the mind can bend the unwilling flesh until it will unquestioningly do its bidding. A man who had two discs removed from his back and all the cartilage removed from one knee before he even took up running, and who once spent six weeks with two broken feet without noticing it. A man whose record breaking runs inevitably include climatic hardship and phenomenal physical pain that would terrify all but the most resilient souls: ankles rubbed by ill-fitting running shoes until the ligaments were showing, 24 hour mountain challenges completed in storms that would make anyone else refuse to venture outside their back door, and attacks of cramp that would cause him to literally lapse into unconsciousness...Iron Joss shut them all out, and kept going.
He didn't meet me though, and that's probably the most glaring omission. My most glorious mountain running moment (actually, because I'm endowed with just the vaguest essence of common sense, I rarely actually RUN in the hills) was descending from Skiddaw summit to Keswick (five miles and 2800ft of descent) in 28 minutes. I can remember the rush, the sense of other-worldly surefootedness on slopes where a twisted or broken ankle was only a misplaced foot away, and the cocky joy of hurtling past countless Sunday hikers (including everyone in the walking club of which I was a member) as though it were yesterday. No mean feat of recall, considering I was 15 at the time and therefore this memory is 26 years old. And I simply couldn't have imagined running any faster than I did, and I won't ever again, now that I value the ligaments in my knees a little more...Let's overlook the fact that Kenny Stuart ran this course (up and down) in 62 minutes in 1984, taking 17 minutes on the descent, including (so legend has it) the fastest mile ever run by a human being.
This book tells you about this remarkable man, several more men and women scarcely less remarkable, and most of all it informs you that there are still sports that breed pure fortitude and complete camaraderie rather than greed and ego. That's not the reason it's the finest sports book I've ever come across, but it is anyway. A quite superb evocation of the collective human spirit.
Hugely recommended to anyone who likes a sports book: even Premiership footballers are urged to learn to read so as to appreciate that the greatest athletes aren't the ones with the most money.
(Previously on Ciao. Please note that this is a NON-FICTION book, despite its Dooyoo category).