In the English village of Buttermere, Cumberland (pop. 50), the winner of the annual fell race crosses the finish line in pleasant spring sunshine. David Cartridge, of Bolton, Lancashire, has run 9� miles and climbed three mountains—some 3,700 feet of total elevation—and returned to the cheering town in less than 90 minutes. As Cartridge finishes, the last runner is still traversing the barren peaks, the fells of Cumbria, at only the halfway mark.
A team of Italian runners wanders along the northern slope of Crag Hill, attempting to find Checkpoint 4 at the summit, which is covered in dense fog. Meanwhile stragglers back at Checkpoint 2, on the other side of the valley, have discovered that the runners before them have trampled the steep hillside into mud, and a crowd of spectators watches as the unfortunates descend the mud slide and tumble into an icy stream. The stream is fed by the melting snow that runners at Checkpoint 3 are now negotiating. Runners at Checkpoint 4 encounter rain as they come upon the fog bank filled with lost Italians.
Closer to Buttermere, Larry Grossman, of Brookfield Center, Conn., confronts a barbed-wire fence and then carefully climbs the stile. Between him and the finish line is a pasture of mud, manure and sheep, which display a mild interest in his presence. "This gives new meaning to the term track and field," he says, stepping carefully to avoid the hazards. A hundred yards down the road, a runner has left a pasture gate open, and 12 cows, joining in the excitement, create a ministampede to the finish line. Racers jog in place behind the cattle in the narrow lane.
"This time when my club asks why I didn't better my time this year," says one fell runner caught in the traffic, "at least I have a different excuse."
Wherever else hill racing may exist ( Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland all have active hill-running clubs), it is definitely in Great Britain, with 188 fell races this year, that the sport has found its most enthusiastic home. The British Isles have a surfeit of barren, un-tillable hills in the 1,000-to-3,000-foot range, mostly used (if at all) for sheep grazing, and no part of the nation is very far from this type of countryside. The colorful Buttermere Fell Race, also known as the Sail Beck Horseshoe (the course is approximately horseshoe-shaped), is one of Great Britain's most popular fell races, if only because it is set against the unrivaled scenery of the Lake District.
Fell racing can be traced back almost 1,000 years, according to Bill Smith, whose 600-page Studmarks on the Summit (referring to the marks left in the mud by the studs on the bottom of running shoes) is the encyclopedia of fell racing. In 1040, Scotland's King Malcolm Canmore wanted to hire a "running footman," and the employment situation being what it was, nearly the whole male population wanted the job. So the king staged a race, a run up Creag Choinnich (1,764 feet), and offered, in addition to the job, a handsome sword and a purse of gold to the winner. That may still be the biggest prize offered in the all-amateur sport of fell racing.
Today, events are organized by the local fell-running clubs and entry fees rarely exceed $5. Some prize money is given—say, �50 to the winner—and the races are frequently won by the local club members themselves. Often the event seems more like a town picnic than a major sporting event.
Most fell racers require three basic pieces of equipment: a compass (for when the mists close in), a topographical map (for when the hills all look alike) and proper clothing to prevent hypothermia. After registering with race officials, runners scrutinize the official map for the designated mountaintop checkpoints and are given a key ring full of tokens. At each checkpoint, the competitor drops a token into the hand of a waiting official. How a runner gets from checkpoint to checkpoint is his or her business—and strategy.
A good deal of stamina is required to haul a weary body up thousands of feet of elevation and over great distances, often at a marathon pace, and a fell race is among the most demanding of running events. The Fell Runners Association of the British Isles puts out a catalog of races that shows what fell runners are up against in the major events.
The Three Peaks Race is run from the heart of the Yorkshire moors, starting at a village called Horton in Ribblesdale, not 30 miles from where Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights. The course is a 22-mile path linking three fells, and the race is run in the unfailing dreariness of late April. In 1982 John Wild of St. Athan, Wales, covered the distance in 2 hours, 37.3 minutes, which is remarkable when you consider Three Peaks demands a combined climb of 4,500 feet along the way.