by Brendon Hyde
A popular sport in Scotland and Northern England is “fell running”. The most notable fell race is the annual “Ben”, run since 1895 in the rugged western highlands of Scotland, from sea level at Fort William Town to the summit of Ben Nevis – which at 4,406 feet is the highest point in the British Isles – and then return to Fort William.
In 1979, amongst the limited field af 500 hardy Scots and eccentric Englishmen lined up for the start in the town park, there was a naive, bearded Sydney runner, unaware of exactly what was to be ahead. Considered the “supreme test of athletic stamina in Great Britain”, the route involves sprinting along, firstly, three horizontal and 1 vertical miles of bitumen approach roads, then across peat bogs, up grassy slopes which degenerate to muddy paths knee deep, up rock ledges and, finally, up loose rock scree slopes to the shingles on the summit.
Apart from the severe physical and terrain impositions, there is a climatic influence. Usually high cold winds with low visibility mist shroud the last 1,OOO feet to the summit. often it snows during the race and there are rapid changes in weather ranging from bright sunshine to complete whiteouts. As a precaution the army was mobilized along the most favoured route up the mountain with “walkie-talkies” and a standby helicopter. A check tag was handed in at the summit to aid rescue.
The sport required more than good physical condition as the races are mostly won by the skill involved in the descent. The Sydney man reached the summit in the middle of the main field in 151st place but then, on the descent, saw everyone around simply disappear forever into the swirling mists below. If you watch where you are placing your feet on the descent or (Heaven forbid!) use your hands to steady yourself while hopping down the boulders, then you will take twice as long as the experts. You have to pretend you are Superman and simply sprint down the side of the mountain taking boulders, waterfalls and slippery, unstable rocks in gigantic strides. I was told “just look down the mountain and run flat out with bent knees – if one leg misses contact or lands on a rock that gives way then bring the other leg through fast and, if that leg also gives way, then bring through the first leg again even faster still”. Hopefully one leg eventually lands on ground suitable enough to provide a fleeting stabilization reaction. Incidentally, if successful, you still do eventually contact the ground, but with anatomy other than legs and with an impact velocity in proportion to the time lapsed since the last successful foot planting. In fact, the top fell runners look like alpine skiers negotiating a giant slalom course down the mountain. Miraculously, only two athletes were carried down on stretchers.
The existing record of 1.26.55, set in 1975 by David Cannon, was not bettered by the eventual winner Colin Donnelly who, in running 1.31.26, was able to enjoy a cup af tea and haggis for an hour before the intrepid Sydney runner finally picked himself up off the mountain for the last time and finished in 2.30.56 and 275th place.
With immovable legs that felt like they had been filled up with highland whiskey, there was no choice other than to sit in the drizzle and watch the remaining highland athletic field events, like tossing the ball and chain over the high jump bar, hurling the hammer into the spectators, and tossing multiple hernias with the caber.