The only things I can hear are the sound of my own panting breath and the barrage of wind gusting past my ears. My sight is impaired to only a few meters due to Mannanan’s Cloak above and my numbing fingertips are a contrast to my sweaty forehead. The senses are few but they’re enhanced. Each step forward feels like it’s making little impact into the final destination yet we charge on.
Another sodding hill. “I do this for fun?” I question myself. The actual saving grace is that I can’t see the top, meaning I don’t know how long the suffering will last. The higher we go the more exposed we become. The wind makes me feel like my face is being misplaced, yet behind my grimace, I’m smiling. We keep charging on.
The ground is levelling and then all of a sudden the wind dies completely. I can hear my compatriots’ breaths once more, reaffirming that I’m not alone in this endeavour. A brief moment of pure clarity as we neared the top, it was surreal but I knew it wouldn’t last long. Down to my left, our end destination of Royal Ramsey, a beacon shining by the sea. All the pain of going up was soon replaced by elation of reaching the white cairn summit of North Barrule.
Now for the descent. With multiple miles in my legs, they’re fatigued. A momentary lapse of concentration and one wrong step, could result in disaster. As I fumble through the hidden rocks and rabbit holes my feet turn over faster. The speed is accelerating. I’m not sure if it’s the sweat or tears in my eyes, either way it’s like a car with broken wipers as my visibility is again hampered. I’m basically free falling, and at this moment I don’t think I have ever felt so much freedom. Just a yessir cascading down the side of a hill with zero cares or worries in the world.
Nearing the end my thighs begin to burn as I apply the brakes against gravity and a stitch has formed. I must’ve forgotten to breathe for the last 4 minutes. The elements have now subsided as we are back on level ground and I look back up at what we have just endured. I think to myself, “did I just f*cking do that?!”
This feeling never seems to escape me. I’m the stereotypical ex-footballer with dodgy knees and having unknowingly retired from contact sport at the age of 21, this type of exercise never seemed attainable, more of a sporting mirage, but then one day I gave it go, fuelled partly by Guinness, and some like-minded pals, and the fell running bug was caught.
In its simplest form, fell running is the practice of running up and down mountains/hills in all weathers, there really isn’t anything more complicated than that. Some leisurely partake, while others race. In races there’ll be checkpoints or flagged sections but in the main it can be a self-navigating task from A to B, a wrong turn, as many have found, can sap vital seconds or minutes from your competitive time.
The sport was essentially born out of people running in the Lakeland hills, and in the earlier days these folk were shepherds. The races are all over but there’s no surprise some of the most famous are in the North of Britain. They have the playground for it up there, and if you have ever gone to the Lake District or a similar national park you will surely know why. The Isle of Man is no different, it is literally on the doorstep of most and as such it has a great fell running community.
From my perspective the community on the island is a friendly one, you only have to look at the
Strava Kudos being thrown about for a run to the shops. There is a strong sense of comradery and spirit which I think stems from an overall respect from everyone taking part in the challenge of running up and down adverse terrain.
Athletics in general on the island is very well supported but from a fell running perspective there is one club, Manx Fell Runners (MFR). With over 120 competitive members, the club organises a full 12 month running calendar of events from seniors down to junior levels. This is no easy task which is why it takes 17 hard working committee members to run the club like a well oiled machine and plenty of other volunteers and officials to get the races just to a start line. Without them and their hours of dedication the community would not exist.
Having high numbers of members or race entrants hasn’t always been the case and back in the 80s and 90s it wouldn’t have been unusual to see more marshalls than runners! Take the 2012 Greeba race (now Ardwhallin) for instance where entrants were at a respectful 82, whereas this year (2021) there was almost double the entrants with 162 runners.
Fell running doesn’t draw the same attention as cycling, motorsport or team sport on the island, yet their athletic capabilities are often beyond belief. Not that these men and women of Manx fell running do it for self gratification and for their name in lights but how many people reading really know of the greats of this sport? Very few I imagine.
The records and achievements of these runners can be seen on the MFR facebook page. This is thanks to the priceless efforts of record keeping by the volunteers of the committee and club members of MFR. So you may yet learn about the great Ian Callister with his 37 Manx Mountain Marathon finishes.
Speaking of which, the Manx Mountain Marathon, a 30 mile slog from Ramsey to Port Erin is the next race in the calendar on the 29th May and usually attracts runners from all over the UK. Runners not up for this distance (like me) can compete in the half marathon on the lower section of the course. Due to Covid restrictions, next year will be the official 50th anniversary of the event, however the big Manx names will still put on a fierce show in this year’s races which can be viewed by spectators in locations all over the island.
This current crop of leading runners are only as strong as the community that MFR have created. This may just be the main reason that numbers have improved over the last 10 years. People are sticking around. It’s not just about the running, fitness and strava segments… it’s about the people, the relationships and the social.
For me, that’s what has attracted me to this sport. It’s all about running with my mates. Call me soppy but I run for social, not for fitness. The exercise is simply secondary. I love that the sport is accessible, and that I can go from sea to the summit of Snaefell in no time at all. You are able to lose yourself in the hills and forget about any stresses, especially when you’re concentrating hard not to fall in sheep sh*t. Above all I am able to appreciate this island for what it’s got to offer and I guess there’s a reason why this place makes us free as thy sweet mountain air, we may as well run in it.