Archive | October 2018

Got them navigation blues

Walking up the lane through Jonny Bland’s farm I bumped into Billy Bland and Carl Bell, as we all variously watched the finishing stages of the Dale Head fell race. The ensuing conversation covered nearly as much ground as the runners had, and eventually turned to upcoming races. I suggested to Carl that his Keswick AC team were a shoe-in for the British Fell Relays the following month. Carl replied with a surprising statement that made Billy splutter, “but no-one can navigate in our team.”

Move on a month and Keswick have won the Hodgson Brothers Relay, having never been headed, and are surely favourites for those British Fell Relays. But things don’t always work like out like that, and favourites do not always win. On the first leg Keswick came in equal first, with Edinburgh University Hare and Hounds. By the end of leg two [photo: Mountain Fuel] they were leading by 1-22 from eventual winners Pudsey and Bramley.

Keswickleg2Then came the navigation leg, with its 5 checkpoints that are not known in advance. By the end of the leg Keswick had slipped dramatically down the field, coming home in 71st place, now 31-29 down. To put it bluntly they had a ‘navmare’ finding the second checkpoint. At that 2nd checkpoint they were 201st (being only 231st fastest on that sector), then recovered to be 3rd, 12th, 3rd and 6th fastest on the sectors to the leg’s finish. The team ‘won’ the fourth leg by 1-27, managing to finishing 10th overall, 20-31 behind the winners.

This is all by way of illustration. It demonstrates that margins of error are very small. Even within that navigation leg it was only one sector that caused such a huge problem for the team. I asked one of the pair of Keswick athletes on this nav leg for their thoughts on what had happened. They are recorded anonymously, as it is in no way my intention to lay any blame for how events turned out.

If you are involved in the sport you will probably know who they are anyway, but thanks are due to them having the guts to share their pain

We found checkpoint one with no problem, with my partner taking the navigational lead. He had put in his homework and had been out and about on the fells on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday familiarising himself with the area, and was committed to doing his best for the team. Full credit to him for taking the initiative to work on his knowledge of the area and also his navigation skills in the run up to the relays, whereas the rest of us have only really focused on getting as running fit as possible. Admittedly I failed to make any effort to improve my navigation skills before the relays and didn’t get a chance to run in the area, so that decreased our map and compass literacy levels somewhat.


Between checkpoints one and two we took a contouring line around and ran across rough ground into a thickening fog. It was soon disorientating, but I had vowed not to interfere with the nav, as I would have been guessing and didn’t want a too many cooks situation. After longer than expected, we hit the fence and stream we were looking for, but not at the place that we thought we had in relation to the map. We went up and down the stream looking through the fog for the sheepfold, but it just wasn’t materialising. We tried moving along the hillside to see if we could find another stream, and listened out for the sound of the falls marked on the map, following a couple of false leads.

At this point it crept up on us that we may be a bit lost. A couple of runners passed lower down, we dropped towards them and then some more appeared. ‘Checkpoint two is way back that way,’ said the next pair. It was disappointing, but we ran against the now steady flow of runners, who shared some sympathies when they realised what we had done. Once we found the sheepfold it was pretty straightforward, but the first misjudgement had set us back a fair way.

We were able to make up some places, and Jacob had an exceptional final leg, to run the fastest time and make up 60 places I think. We were really gutted with what had happened.

Thinking about the above story brought to mind that the best runners have all had navigation issues at some point or other. A swift trawl through my book research notes came up with an example each for the three guys that I consider the finest of all fell runners.

Ken_NIMRABilly Bland was renowned for his ability to route-find in the Cumbrian races but wasn’t so sure about both Kenny Stuart and John Wild’s natural abilities in that area. “Kenny couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag if the top was open! I have said it many a time. To a certain extent John was the same. They were both racers and a lot better runners than I ever was, but they weren’t mountain men if you know what I am saying.” And yet Billy chose Kenny as his sole pacer on his leg 1 for his Bob Graham Round record in 1982.

BlandLangdaleBilly Bland admits that if he went out of Lakes he might not be so good at finding his way. On one occasion at the Chew Valley Skyline race he admits he followed somebody: I remember in particular going down there and I was very fit and I went up the first hill and down into the ghyll and Bob Ashworth had broken free and there were 4 or 5 other pretty good runners and I said, ‘does he know where he is going?’, and they said ‘yeh, think he does’. So, I set off after him. In the mist Bob could have run me to Manchester, I didn’t have a clue where I was going.

Towards the end it was possible for Bland to leave a tiring Ashworth, but in recognition of his path-finding, he sportingly held back and let the Rossendale man take the honours. Billy adds:

we came off last top together and because he had showed me the way round, but I had let him know that I could beat him, we still came over the line right together. Someone like Kenny Stuart would just sit on you, then beat you at the finish. Fair play to him, it didn’t bother me, in some ways he was a better runner than me.

josswithbookJoss Naylor won the Mountain Trial 10 times, but got well lost on his second one, in his home valley at that. In 1961 Joss was just 22 years old, and ran in his second Mountain Trial, which was based in Wasdale. He was in the lead all the way and finished fifteen minutes in front of the next man, George Brass. Unfortunately, Joss had got lost after the third checkpoint, and thus didn’t win as he had missed the last two checkpoints. Joss claimed that his sheep didn’t range that far!

Footnote: If you want to read about my navigational inadequacies, and also a bit about how some top fell runners approach navigation then you might like to read an earlier blog posting: Bob the navigator: thoughts on maps and navigation.

NB: if you want a nav course there are various ones around. See for example: Nav4/Due North and Fellrunningguide.

10% discount at Splashmaps

splashmapsI have been working with Splashmaps, and can now offer a 10% discount code to readers of this blog – which is valid for ALL Splashmaps products.

One of the best-selling products (5th on their list at the last count) has been the Bob Graham Round Map. Full details of the map can be seen at: Ordering from this link will give you 10% discount if you add steve8 in the coupon box on the ‘Cart’ page. In fact, add that code in for ANY of Splashmaps products you wish to purchase and you will get 10% discount (let me know if it doesn’t work).

About the Bob Graham Round map

BGRmapLike all Splashmaps products it is wearable and washable. It has a combination of Ordnance Survey and OpenStreetMap data, with an overprint that clearly shows the 42 peaks, plus the normal circular route of the round, plus variants, at the 1:40,00 scale.

For more details of the Bob Graham Round see: The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps. There is also a freely usable (with due credit) black and white Bob Graham Round map included within the book which is freely copiable and available in PDF format from my Resources page. The map data is from the OpenStreetMap project and is released under an ODBL licence.


Men’s fell race course records

Blogger Meanwood Rambler recently wrote an interesting piece about Victoria Wilkinson’s record breaking spree, and the (relative) stagnation in men’s fell race course records [Link to his blog post]. It prompted me to look back at the situation, and I decided to share my thoughts from my research for ‘It’s a hill, get over it’. The following is an extract from the relevant chapter in the book:

Record breakers and champions

“My whole feeling in terms of racing is that you have to be very bold. You sometimes have to be aggressive and gamble”
Bill Rogers

This chapter covers some of the male fell champions and the records they set. Mind you, analysing fastest times for fell races is a somewhat tricky area, as there is so much that can change, not least the conditions that an event is run in. Even more important is the fact that courses necessarily have to change, due often to access issues, or changes in start points due to facilities/parking etc.

Over time who have been the top record breakers? Three of them have been Billy Bland, John Wild and Kenny Stuart. In 1980 Billy Bland won his only British title and had a record breaking spree, which was followed by the next two champions over the next five years – John Wild and Kenny Stuart, who hold ten records between them still, with Bland holding two still.

However, these three record breakers have quite different racing profiles. Bland’s two records are both categorised as long and are both in the Lakes – Borrowdale at seventeen miles and Wasdale at twenty-one. Wild’s three are all short and in Northern England – Wrekin (5.5 miles), Rivington Pike (3.25 miles) and Burnsall (1.5 miles). Stuart by contrast has seven records, or which three are short, three are medium and one is long, and they are in Wales, Scotland and the Lakes. They are Wansfell (2.5 miles), Latrigg (3 miles), Eildon 2 Hills (3.5 miles), Skiddaw (9 miles), Snowdon and Ben Nevis (both 10 miles) and Ennerdale (23 miles).

Obviously records get beaten, and those above are ones that have held up. An interesting comparison is given by figures produced by a statistician in 1989. He counted the number of course records held at that time for all races in that year’s FRA calendar. The results are pretty startling. For the men, Colin Donnelly, who was in his triple British title winning spree at the time, had sixteen, to Kenny Stuart’s twelve and John Wild’s nine. For the women Carol Haigh, who never actually won the British title, had a staggering forty-three, to Angela Carson’s seventeen and Vanessa Brindle’s eleven.

However, many of the major races, for example Wasdale and Fairfield, have had significant changes to their courses. Sadly, when change like this happens the holders of the records for a previous course are then down-graded when a new record is subsequently set on a shorter or longer course. Who is to say that in some cases they wouldn’t still be the record holder if the change hadn’t happened? Having said that, there is a certain fascination in knowing who has set the fastest time for a course and in which year. The list of men’s records for the ‘classic’ courses (see Appendix 3) shows three that have lasted from 1977 – Langdale, Lantern Pike and Eldwick. For the women the oldest are four that date from 1984 – Ben Nevis, Pendleton, Saddleworth and Lantern Pike.

In the Sept/Oct 1990 issue of Up and Down magazine Neil Shuttleworth speculated on improving standards in an article entitled ‘The Record Has Stood …’. He noted that fell runners have only a once a year opportunity to break records, unlike track and marathon runners (when comparing records for the distance, not the particular marathon). Shuttleworth concluded that race conditions were probably the most important factor to consider, that is to say both the weather and the underfoot conditions. Popularity of events also has an effect, in that a more popular event will attract more, and better, runners and possibly increase the likelihood of records. Shuttleworth also felt that neither improved footwear or better diet were likely to have a significant effect, but that competition (i.e. intense rivalry between top athletes) was likely to be a big factor.

There are many instances where it can be shown that records were broken due to close rivalries, both in individual races and throughout seasons. One of the examples noted above is the Langdale record from 1977. It is held by Andy Styan, and when asked by Shuttleworth about it (in the article just quoted), he reckoned it was so fast for two reasons: good conditions and a very strong field. Styan commented:

Billy Bland, Alan McGee, Mike Short and myself pulled clear off Thunacar Knott, and the four of us pushed each all the way. Billy and I got away on the descents, and Alan and Mike would pull us back on the climbs until we got away off the Crinkles and held it over Blisco. I left Billy by the cattle grid and that was that.

Even so, these four all finished between 1 hr 55 mins 3 secs and 1 hr 56 mins 8 secs, and it was the first time four runners had finished inside two hours for the course.

Similarly, John Wild set a record of 12 mins 48 secs (by two seconds) for the Burnsall Classic in August 1983. Kenny Stuart was first to the top but was overtaken by a speedily descending Wild, who in Kenny’s view was “taking risks he just wasn’t prepared to take, including leapfrogging the wall”. Two weeks later at Ben Nevis they met again, and faced strong challenges from Sean Livesey and Jack Maitland. Strong winds and mist made for a difficult race. Maitland led Stuart to the summit, with Wild and Livesey close behind. Somehow Wild took the lead on the way down to the burn in heavy mist and had a lead of twenty seconds there, holding Stuart off by seventeen seconds at the end. Despite the foul weather these two, and third placed Livesey, beat Dave Cannon’s 1976 record, with Wild taking 1 min 20 secs off it. John Wild credited the record to Maitland’s pushing so hard on the ascent against a known climber such as Stuart.


My main conclusion was that it was the number of absolutely top quality athletes that there were running the fells in the 1980s, and the way they raced so hard against each other, that were the two main factors in these records being set, and still in many cases not yet beaten. This is explored further in ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’, which tracks Kenny Stuart and John Wild’s careers, and their rivals, such as Billy Bland.

recordsThe table is a list of the course records* that are still held by those three brilliant runners.

Not forgetting, of course, Andy Styan’s Langdale record which has resisted all challenges, including Billy Bland’s (who came within 14 secs), since way back in 1977.

* according to the FRA race page for each race

LINK: Information on my writing on fell running at Sandstone Press.