A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO FELL RUNNING
This article is a short introduction to fell running in the UK for the total beginner.
What is Fell Running?
The hills, moors and mountains of the British Isles are collectively known as "fells", and running in these uplands is well established sport, especially in the north of England. Fell races take place all year round and range from short dashes to the top of a hill and back to long circuits taking in a number of peaks. There are also two-day events known as Mountain Marathons where the emphasis is on endurance and navigational ability.
A beginner wanting to take part in a Fell Race needs to get a good base of fitness under their belt, and acquire the skills and experience necessary to cope with the tough terrain and navigational challenges. Experience of road or trail running, or fell walking, will help a lot. Personally, I came from a background of all three. I joined the Sri Chinmoy Athletic Club in my mid twenties and grew up in a family keen on fell walking - it was the latter that kindled my love of mountain scenery and Sri Chinmoy's philosophy of "Self Transcendence" that inspired me to take up running after having been useless at sport all through my youth. Despite this background, which included running several marathons and even an ultramarathon, and had also furnished me with the basics of map and compass use, my first fell race was a huge challenge.
Why race on the fells?
Presumably you love hills and mountains and you love running, or you wouldn't be even considering it! Fell races are great challenges, and at the end of the day we tend to run up a mountain "because it's there".
The kit you need for fell running is that same as that you need for road running, with a couple of small (but important!) differences. Firstly you need to get some studded "fell shoes" to give you adequate traction on the muddy/grassy/rocky terrain. Any specialist running shop in the UK will know about fell shoes, so get in touch with your nearest one and go in for some footwear advice. As far as clothing is concerned, you will encounter extremes of weather so in addition to your usual running kit you'll need windproof and/or waterproof "full body cover" (that's a jacket and overtrousers) and a waistpack to carry them in. I would also recommend lightweight, quick-drying gloves and a hat. Map, compass etc. are all essential in the long term, but for your first few forays into the fells just go with some experienced fell runners or stick to an area with well-marked paths. The usual hiker's procedure of letting someone know where you'll be and what time you'll be back is a good one to follow for safety reasons.
Unless you are incredibly fit, your first attempt at running up mountains will be pretty challenging. When learning to run fast, an athlete employs interval sessions (short, fast runs with slow recovery-jogs in between). Likewise, to get yourself used to fell running you can employ a mixture of running and walking. Gradually you'll be able to reduce the walking and cover many miles on the mountains at running pace, but to start with don't be reluctant to walk - there's no shame in it. If you run part of the way, you're definitely a fell runner.
Where to go.
The UK is a pretty small country, so most of us live near enough to uplands of some description. There are fell races in just about all regions of the country except for flat lands around East Anglia and Lincolnshire, and even that region has a few regular fell runners (who presumably get away to their nearest hills at the weekends). I live in a city, so my daily training runs are on the nearest hilly grassland to my house (fortunately less than a mile away) and it's only once or twice a week that I have a chance to drive out to the mountains to run on proper fell terrain. Many fell runners are in the same boat, so if you don't live on a remote mountainside, don't worry, just run reps of your nearest hill when you can and get out to the mountains whenever you get the chance - you'll appreciate it all the more when you get there.
Suggested reading: Feet in the Clouds, R Askwith, ISBN 1-85410-989-8 An Introduction to Trail and Fell Running, K Shevels, ISBN 1-905444-11-7 Mountain Craft and Leadership, E Langmuir, ISBN1-85060-295-6