My favourite part of childhood summer holidays with my dad was our trip to the Yorkshire Dales agricultural show, a respite from his usual gruelling regime of mountain walks and examining dead fauna. Between prize rams and displays of trimmed leeks we watched the fell-running races: infants and gnarled pensioners scampering up and then down a sheer crag, all for a biscuit and a certificate.
“Look at the little bastards!” Dad would exclaim, gesturing incredulously, plastic pint glass slopping bitter as wiry five-year-olds whizzed past, legs a blur. Lumpen by his side, mouth crammed with cake, I would feel an obscure longing: why wasn’t I a fearless, muddy-kneed dynamo?
Nearly 40 years later, I’m joining North Leeds Fell Runners for a run on Ilkley Moor to scratch that itch. “Fell running is an all-terrain sport,” the Fell Runners Association website explains, “and often involves routes with no paths … You should expect open moorland, rocky grass, bogs, tussocks, heather, boulder fields and some very steep climbs and descents.”
I live in York, perhaps the flattest place in the UK, and my exercise regime is booking then skipping Pilates classes. I did one practice run, which I thought went OK until I got home and realised I had been out for only 12 minutes: this will be an uphill task in more ways than one. Limbering up in singlets and shorts, the North Leeds runners offer little reassurance. The age range is wide but everyone looks intimidatingly fit, even Burt the dog (he’s not in shorts).
I’m terrified. Ominously, before we start, I have to provide an emergency contact, then a woman called Liz says I’m very brave – immediate alarm bells – and a man called Dave tells me it’s fine until your peripheral vision fails. He’s laughing, so it might be a joke.
Thankfully, Mike, the unofficial run-leader, (65, with frighteningly long legs) has devised a “not too brutal” route for the group I’m joining: him, Hilary and Clare, who are recovering from injury and returning after a break respectively, photographer Richard and my friend Rose (a proper, hard-core fell runner who has volunteered for “keep Emma alive” duty). The bigger, faster groups choose their routes, then we’re off, through the gate on to the steep, bracken-lined moor.
Rose claims it’s a misconception that fell runners always run, but my impression is of accidentally joining a greyhound race: lithe frames whiz past at absurdly high speed. I’m going nowhere fast. It feels like dragging bags of wet cement uphill, except the bags are my legs. I’m overtaken by a limping sheep.
Far above, Mike points out the “fast lads”, already sprinting across the horizon. “If it helps,” says Rose conversationally as I stagger past, sweat in my eyes, chest itchy and heart trying to escape from my mouth, “your body is in shock.” I’m not sure it does.
What does help is the group often pretending they need a breather. This compassionate fiction keeps me going, plus my guilt at poor Richard, who – Ginger Rogers to my lumbering Fred Astaire – is doing everything I am, but backwards, with a bag of camera gear.
Finally, mercifully, the gradient levels out. As the prospect of imminent death recedes, I can look around: we’re surrounded by honey-scented purple heather punctuated by limestone outcrops.
The sky feels huge, the clouds shading from cotton wool to angry black, blue sky and diffuse golden sun. It’s wonderfully silent until the plump grouse startle ahead of us, grumbling. I’m running on Ilkley Moor, baht’at (unless my fleecy headband counts)! I’m starting to understand the appeal.
Perhaps sensing that, Mike’s encouragement becomes more muscular. “Come on!” he shouts. “Get moving!” It’s like walking with my dad, except he isn’t taunting me with a withheld Mars bar. The top is worth it: I love the 12 Apostles – a windswept stone circle – and the panoramic view over the Dales, Pennines and moors.
Instead of savouring it, however, it’s time to try “straight-lining”: picking a destination and heading there, path be damned. Mike hares off into an arbitrary patch of boggy, stony heather, like some kind of moorland anarchist. “Pick your feet up,” Rose advises. “And don’t get too close to the runner in front,” adds Hilary. There’s absolutely no danger of that.
The final mile is a sheer scramble downhill. “Brakes off, brain out,” Mike says: trust your legs and instincts. Against all odds, I love it with all my risk-averse heart. “This is great,” I hear myself saying, gleefully hopping from rock to tussock. I feel fearless, playful and childlike; subsequently pictures reveal I look like a flustered matron who has left Zoom Zumba in a hurry to bring the washing in.
But the feeling is real: I reach the bottom tingling all over. Lactic acid? Endorphins? Who cares?
The faster runners reappear, barely puffed after twice the distance; Burt the dog still wants to play. I’m ecstatically disinhibited at merely surviving. “How do you stretch your bum?” I ask peripheral vision Dave, a total stranger.
On the way home after chips in the pub – the best bit – I send my father a picture of me in “action”. “Wow!” he replies. I can almost hear his pint spilling: mission accomplished.
Would I go back?
North Leeds run all through winter, with head torches. Apparently, it’s stunning in the snow. Maybe I’ll … ha, of course I won’t. No.
Smugness points: 5/5