Racing is a dark art. Fell racing the most noir. Arguably the cauldron of art and science. Monet, after all, did not mix his own paint. What does that mean? No-one knows. Mystery. Conjecture, from which all good debates must stem.
In fell racing we are blessed by the perfect storm of distance, steepness and the British way of making sense out of madness. Races become letters, with meaning to none but us. AL. CM. The bastard that is AS. Not everyone knows the minutiae of what constitutes an ‘A’ race, or when a ‘L’ becomes a ‘L’. Actually that last one is pretty simple. It’s 20km or more. Each one requires a concentration of effort commensurate to the letters bestowed.
The beauty, and art, being that one man’s AL feels like another’s BM, depending on where your strengths, or lack thereof, lie. A road (bleurghh) 10km is a measured effort along a known, registered distance with the fore-knowledge that, unless you go drastically wrong, you won’t be storming about on roller-coaster hills.
It’s perhaps best to concern ourselves with the A category and discuss (nay, preach) the correct methods of besting them. Why the A‘s? They’re what you ultimately train for and they’re the benchmark of intensity from which all others cascade. Satisfactory answer?
Given the forum and format of a blog, I’ll draw heavily (nay, entirely) on my own experience. You are more than welcome to copy. Nothing is fully guaranteed in racing….except maybe a meeting with ‘the Man with the Hammer’.
AL: (no less than 50m of ‘up’ per km and minimum of 20km)
Jura, Langdale, Borrowdale, Wasdale, Arrochar Alps.
You’re in for a long day with these boys. You’ve a lot to think about. Food? How much? Solids? Liquids? Baby food?? Water? Electrolytes? If not, where can I drink? How long between sups? Is it runnable? Can I nav? Bumbag or ‘race-pack’? These are all good questions for the night before. Race day is a little different. You’ll second-guess yourself and decide that the little dried-up beck on your map is a raging watercourse of Evian. So, no water then. You’ll see the bog surrounding it and decide that ’tis the season for bilberries. No food required. Nav? Well, I’ll just follow the guy in front. ‘Race-pack’? Piss off, I’m a fell runner. I’ll loop some string to it all and tie it round my waist.
Strategy? I’m actually fairly sensible nowadays. When I was a little sprog my first ever fell race was Langdale. I went out like a dog with six dicks and faded. Badly. These will punish you. Arrochar Alps is still the hardest race I’ve done. Blisteringly hot. No water (carried or found…..I was licking lichen by Beinn Ime). No food. Character building. These days I start modestly, get warm and try to measure my efforts for the final few km’s. This too, rarely works. Running downhill is just too exciting and fun.
Recce’ing a route helps best with this style. Take the time to find the best lines and you’ll reap the rewards. Or follow a local vest.
AM: (as above for steepness and minimum 10km, maximum 20km)
Kentmere, Anniversary Waltz, Carnethy ‘5’, Cader Idris.
It’s steep, sure, but it won’t last all day.
These are my favourites. They’re generally all runnable and made for racing. Honest and dependable, like a good dog. No amount o Recce these as those extra seconds in a decent line can make all the difference and have confidence in the lines you’ve chosen. You can afford to punish yourself on these puppies. They’re the best of both worlds, the happy medium, a bit like the Midlands. The ignorant or narrow-minded will call them ‘fence-sitters’ but what do they know? You’re fully racing in these events but they’re not the ‘take-your-brain-out-and-suffer’ type like the AS ones. These are made for the thinkers. The strategists. The sadists.
The tactics are obvious. Go out as hard as physically possible and hang on as long as you can. Steve Prefontaine said “the best pace is a suicide pace, and today is a good day to die.” Worked for him. The finish line or death.
AS: (as above for steepness and minimum 1.5km, maximum 10km)
Grasmere, Alva, Burnsall Classic, Cnicht.
Think BOFRA. Short, sharp, suicidal.
Light as possible with the kit. Water? Nope. Food? Nope. These decisions are taken away from you. The only strategy here is ‘how fast can I go before my eyes fall out of my head’? My way of running these is to start harder than I ever intended, get to halfway in severe oxygen debt and decide I’ve definitely over-cooked it, realise that the white spots and flashing lights in front of my eyes are actually significant life events and that I’m close to death, then hang on for the ride and hope against all hope that I don’t grand-slam at the finish line.
How do you train that? In short, you don’t. These puppies are all mental. Sure you can goof about with calf-raises and squats for strength on the ‘ups’ but you can’t practise being clinically insane, which is what you’ll need to be for the ‘down’ part.