Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
It’s a Hill, Get Over It: Fell Running History’s and Characters by Steve Chilton. Sandstone Press. £19.99
Steve Chilton is ready to admit that before he started fell running that there was “a consequent increase in girth due to some poor life style choices”. His career ended with a hip replacement in 2005, but fell racing is still in his blood.
The earliest fell race was organised by Michael Canmore, King of Scotland. Dennisbell McGregor won the purse of gold by running up and down Creagh Choinich even though he finished without his kilt. As he was speeding past him, his tiring elder brother despairingly grabbed at the garment, but Dennisbell ran on regardless.
The first fell race at the Grasmere Sports was in 1852. In 1868 the guides were running to the top of Silver How and back for a cash prize of £3. Today £500 is on offer to anyone who can beat the record set by Fred Reeves in 1978.
In 1962, the weather was so bad that only one runner, George Brass of Clitheroe, completed the course. Even Joss Naylor retired, suffering from cramp and exposure.
Joss Naylor is “one of the greatest runners of the modern era”. “Although a somewhat ungainly figure as he lopes over the fellsides he has two natural advantages.” His weight of nine stone and being “brought up in a natural training arena for the sport”. He may also “have some form of congenital analgesia” – he just shuts out pain. When he ran into the sea having completed the Coast to Coast in 41 hours non-stop, the soles of his feet and some of his toe nails came off when he removed his socks. Chris Brasher thought Joss better than Zatopek, Kuts, Coe and Ovett. “There was only one man in his class and that was ‘Wilson’ of the Wizard.”
Another of Steve’s greats is Billy Bland of Rosthwaite. In 1982, the Golden Jubilee Year, he knocked an amazing four hours off the record for the Bob Graham Round. He puts his success down to “a hellish slow pulse rate” of 32 which he inherited from his father. But he also trained hard, running between eighty and a hundred miles a week and working hard as a builder and stone-waller.
The Bob Graham Round involves running over 42 peak Lakeland summits. Bob reckons that, “Anybody should be able to do it – provided they’re fit enough.” Few were as fit as Bob. He set the record of 23 hours 39 minutes in 1932, running in shorts, pyjama jacket and gym shoes and snacked on bread and butter, lightly boiled eggs and sweets. The record stood for twenty-eight years.
Steve Chilton loves the sport even though he can no longer take part. He looks at the early days of fell running, of the gambling and questions of professionalism, and “through the development of a full race calendar, to the sport becoming ‘open’ at last.” He looks at the great runners of the past, the ones who have set records for time and endurance, at their training methods and at their physical advantages. But he also examines “the downsides of the sport . . . like the fortunately infrequent fatalities, and individual or institutional disagreements”.
“I have written,” Steve says, “about the people who run, the sport’s organisations and rules, its techniques and conventions, its dangers and rewards and its relation to other apparently similar or closely related sports.”
The great fellrunners may be extraordinary, supermen in terms of physical stamina and endurance, but for them, as for everyone, there is the scenery to enjoy and “the mental and physical release running on the fells can give”.
It’s a Hill, Get Over It is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com