Bored of your average run surrounded by drab urban scenery and the mundane pounding along the tarmac of a paved road? Northumberland Fell Runners might just persuade you to see the light. Even your average fell run can feature breathtaking scenery – it’s safe to say it’s not your usual prosaic jog.
Club secretary John Telfer has been fell running for over 10 years and tells me that it’s fairly easy to get started. ‘All you need is a decent pair of shoes, some equipment, a map and a compass and off you go. There’s no entry level qualifications. If you’re brand new to it you’re always best to go out with someone who knows what they’re about. You do need a bit of hill craft, you’ve got to know how to look after yourself.’
The club has around 100 members who meet at fell runs across the North East, bound by their love of taking on the raw elements of the moorlands. John tells me that races are graded in terms of their length and how much climbing there is per mile. Races differ from the relatively short and straightforward to something significantly more difficult. ‘It can be very intense, particularly on the climbs,’ he explains. ‘Generally you’re not going at the same full wack as you would be running along a flat bit of tarmac. They call it fell running but there are very few fell runners that can maintain a running style on some of the steepest hills. If it’s rocky as well you are reduced to a fast walk.’
Mandatory kit guidelines from the ruling body on fell running require participants to carry full waterproofs, a hat, gloves, compass, map, food and a whistle, and John says, it’s right to err on the side of caution. ‘People say, “Why do you need to carry all this, it’s a beautiful summer’s day?” I can tell you from experience, even on a summer’s day, if you’ve been running and you stop running you can become hypothermic, you can cool down remarkably quickly. It’s there for a reason, it’s not there to slow people down.’
As with any extreme sport there are risks involved, and John claims that it’s not unknown for people to get lost when the mists close in. ‘You carry a map and a compass for very good reasons. People do look after one another, they see somebody running off course and they don’t think “haha, here’s a place I’ll gain”. You need to have your wits about you, you can’t go into these things half-cooked.’
The club have a number of races this year, with the notorious Allendale Challenge on 9 April kicking off spring’s proceedings. John informs me that there’s only about 3,000ft of ascent all told, which makes it reasonably flat compared to other races. However treacherous peat bogs can make it a real slog and runners might well be praying that those April showers stay away or it’s sure to be a veritable mud-fest.
Above all, John’s keen to emphasise that fell running is essentially egalitarian, bringing people from all walks of life together in solidarity and a collective joy of being out on the open moorland, taking on nature and its throes of inclement weather. Even Olympian heroes like the Brownlee brothers who were brought up on fell running still enjoy a pint or two in their local after races on the moors of West Yorkshire in which they inevitably lead the pack.
‘I’ve never come near to winning a prize but it doesn’t diminish the experience,’ John tells me. ‘It sounds stupid when I say it’s relaxation when I’m pushing myself half to death, but the great thing about fell running is you’re meeting people from different backgrounds, you’ve got a common enjoyment that brings you together. We’ve got surgeons, builders, accountants, people who you genuinely don’t find coming together; but that’s the glue that binds us.’