Why Burnsall is a classic

Just back from running today’s Burnsall Classic Fell Race – a brilliant event and the “classic” tag well-earned.

I’ve blogged before about Burnsall’s renowned history and records, but what stood out today for me were two things. Firstly, the particularly good atmosphere and friendly banter between runners before and after the race. I got chatting to a couple of lads while recce-ing the course beforehand who were only too willing to share their route-choosing tips and reminiscences of previous races. Eg, we decided that keeping to the left of the tree straight after the wall on the descent was the best bet – I think this was proved correct! Good to give the “lower” half of the race a proper recce on the day as strictly-speaking it’s out-of-bounds the rest of the year.

Secondly, loads of chat at the finish line about just how good a course it is, and I have to agree. It’s got a bit of everything squeezed into its 1.8 miles. The initial runnable climb, the steeper bit near the top where you have to walk, a proper wade through heather, the awkwardly steep (and today, slippery!) initial descent, the wall to hurdle and then the exhilarating rush down to the finish. And only 50 yards of road at the beginning and end (albeit with loads of spectators!). It’s like all the best bits of fellrunning neatly packaged into 20 or so minutes.

You can toy with a few tactics too, although probably more of an issue for better runners than me. I made a daft effort to get ahead of a few just before the wall on the climb – knowing the difficulty of overtaking from then on – and almost came to a complete stop straight after and lost all the places again! Further on, some near me on the descent tried their luck on the heather rather than the path – not sure it worked for them though.

So overall, great day, sure I’ll be back next year, and many thanks to all the organisers and volunteers that make it happen.



2 minutes 42 seconds of fame

Fellrunning’s enduring legend – the most famous and extraordinary individual performance in the history of the sport – is Ernest Dalzell’s descent in the Burnsall Fell Race of 1910. 2 minutes 42 seconds of tumbling, whirlwind descent from the top of Burnsall Fell to the finish line in the village. In the 107 years since, no one else has got within a minute of it (see previous blog)*.

Of course, the scale of the record just fuels the legend, as many have doubted the time. How can we trust a handful of eyewitness accounts from so long ago? I’ve been a bit of a doubter myself – my own best descent time in the race is about 6 minutes – flat out. How could it be humanly possible to run a mile, 800ft downhill, in 2.42?

I had this question in mind whilst out on the course earlier this week. Standing by the summit cairn, the village seems just a speck far below, almost as if it would take at least 2.42 to paraglide down, let alone run. Jogging down, there’s only really one route – along a thin, steep path through the thick heather: (photo of last year’s race from woodentops.org.uk)

burnsall descent

If the heather and gradient don’t slow you down enough, the path is worn down to the bedrock, and it’s this combination of steepness, heather and rock that makes progress so painfully slow, and Dalzell’s record seem so improbable.

But crucially, on the day of Dalzell’s record in 1910, the heather had been burned. His race, unusually, took place in September – almost all subsequent races have taken place in August with the heather still thick on the ground.

Further down the fell, just off the main path, I noticed an area where the heather was absent. I had a crack at running down this bit and it was a doddle – springy peaty turf and any rocks clearly visible and easily avoided. I reckon I was two or three times quicker here than on the path. Suddenly, it became a lot easier to envisage Dalzell throwing himself down a bare slope like this with abandon, just picking himself up from various somersaults and carrying on.

I was reminded of a few clips I’ve seen on youtube of that quaint English tradition of cheese rolling. In this annual event, competitors pursue a rolling cheese down Cooper’s Hill just outside Gloucester, a 200 yard-long grassy slope of 1 in 2 – a similar steepness to Burnsall. The fastest pursuers have perfected a technique of propelling themselves downwards by not just running but lying on their backs, rolling, diving forwards – whatever really! – and complete the course in seconds. Dalzell could well have used similar techniques on the bare slopes of Burnsall in 1910.

So, I came away from Burnsall the other day firmly convinced that Dalzell’s descent time was indeed possible, and that it will only ever be beaten if the Duke of Devonshire can one year conveniently burn his heather in time for Burnsall Sports Day.

Looking forward, as ever, to this year’s race on 19 August – you can enter online now


* and Dalzell’s overall time of 12.59 was only broken in 1977.

Mud before the marathon

“This upside-down, inside-out version of running where the streets and roads are just passing distractions in a search for those places where the running is dirty and uneven, where the world’s natural disorder sparkles and rushes, bends and cracks. Running without blinkers on”.

One of my New Year Resolutions this year was to enter the Leeds Half-Marathon. So back in early Jan I filled in the entry form, paid my £34 (!) and the clock is now ticking to May the 14th.

Not that I’m a massive fan of road running, particularly not 13 miles of it. I did some 10ks a few years ago, but generally I prefer to get off the roads and onto the trails and hills. So why the Resolution?

We live pretty much on the Half-Marathon route, and on every second Sunday in May the road is closed for a couple of hours in the morning. So it’s always seemed rather churlish not to stand on the pavement, witness the spectacle of 10,000 people going past and give encouragement. I’ve done this for many years now and each year I’ve felt a bit more like participating, rather than just spectating. Finally, this year, it was time to give it a go.

Version 2It was only after entering that I actually began thinking about what preparing for and running a half-marathon entailed. Conventionally, several weeks of running on the roads in advance. And then the big day itself – 2 hours of plod, plod, plod along the streets (and that’s presuming all goes well). The prospect wasn’t exactly grabbing me.

But I’m glad to say I’ve rediscovered my enthusiasm. For this I have a couple of books to thank (and Leeds Libraries for having them in stock!) – both similarly-titled and on a similar theme: Running Free by Richard Askwith and Run Wild by Boff Whalley.

The key message of both books is simply that running should, more than anything else, be about fun and adventure. Not about watching the clock, shaving seconds off your PB or about doing something you somehow feel you should be doing. Rather, it should just be about enjoyment, the sheer pleasure that comes from getting out there and running about, much as we did as kids.

So, I’m now seeing preparing for the Half-Marathon as an opportunity to return to the kind of running I like doing best – off-road, up and down, through woods, fields, mud and streams. Fortunately, we have a natural playground on our doorstep in Meanwood – the Meanwood Valley – and I’ve been making the most of what the valley has to offer.

Actually, just recently, it’s been a whole lot of mud, particularly the stretch north of the ring road through Adel Woods. It’s been great not to be put off by the cut-up paths and puddles, if anything to seek them out. In fact, winter muddy running feels like yet another great discovery about the Meanwood Valley. Good job I’ve got an outside tap at home though!

So do take a read of the books if you can. The quote at the top is taken from Ch.31 of Boff’s book, describing a run he took up Meanwood Valley in 1986. I’m glad to say it’s still like that now.

As to 14 May itself, fingers crossed the preparation will allow me to enjoy it the best I can. But already I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be both my first and last half-marathon.



“Great is the rivalry, even greater the friendship”

Review of “Today we Die a Little – The Rise and Fall of Emil Zatopek, Olympic Legend” by Richard Askwith


This excellent biography uses one of the famous quotes attributed to its subject as its title. But I’ve entitled this blog with a quote that struck me even more. It doesn’t feel very likely that an Olympic champion would say this about their fellow competitors these days. But the theme running through this book is that the Czech Emil Zatopek deserves the status of sporting hero as much for his generous spirit as his incredible achievements in athletics.

Before reading the book I had heard the name Zatopek as a famous athlete of the black and white era, but other than that knew nothing about him – exactly when he ran, what distances, what he won etc. But while I was approaching the subject fresh, I had read one of the author’s previous books about running – the mini-classic “Feet in the Clouds” – so I had high expectations. They were not disappointed.

Askwith has a breezy, eminently readable style that draws you in effortlessly to his subject. And Zatopek’s story is worth telling. A moderately talented athlete, he became the best primarily through sheer hard work – a maniacal training regime totally unusual for the time. This initially brought him a gold and silver in the 10,000m and 5,000m at the 1948 Olympics, as well as a number of records. But I knew so little about him I was even unaware of the achievement for which he is most famous – an unbelievable triple gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics of 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon. And I thought Mo Farah’s “double double” of 5,000m/10,000m golds at 2012 and 2016 was the greatest Olympic achievement in long distance running!

But there’s a lot more to this book than athletics. Equal weight is placed on exploring Zatopek’s personality – his cheerful demeanour, his time for fans and people generally, including the touching relationship with his wife. But in particular, the graciousness of his dealings with fellow athletes. Competing for Zatopek ultimately appears to have been a vehicle for making friends. He even gifted one of his Olympic medals to another athlete who had missed out through bad luck.

The book’s title mentions the “Rise and Fall” and, not unusually in sporting biography, we find that our hero’s life after retiring from their sport was not so spectacularly successful as their earlier career. Zatopek spoke out against the repression that followed the liberating “Prague Spring” of 1968 and was gradually frozen out of society as a result. He was dismissed from the Czech army and ended up working in a drilling gang in remote areas, living in a caravan.

It’s a real additional strength of the book that it acts as an effective history of Czechoslovakia, as well as of Zatopek. Ironically, Zatopek’s life (1922-2000) almost exactly dovetails that of the country. Much of that time it was a totalitarian state, and we are drawn into the difficulties and dilemmas of being that state’s most famous international figure (at times the book reads like some real life parallel of 1984 or a spy-thriller!). I was reminded of the best book I have read about the recent history of Northern Ireland – Johnny Rogan’s biography of Van Morrison. A good biography can do that.

Recommended. Put it on your Christmas list. It made me want to go out running.


The appeal of grassroots sport

There’s an emerging theme elsewhere on this site about my growing disenchantment with elite sport. While this stems from an ongoing planning battle in Leeds where Green Belt may be sacrificed for the purposes of redeveloping Headingley Stadium, it’s actually a general trend I’ve noticed. Footballers can certainly conjure up great matches, but we’re all aware of the ridiculous salaries. What substances are OK for the endurance athletes – runners, cyclists etc – to take or not to take? And while I understand that the golf at last week’s Ryder Cup was of an exceptional standard, I didn’t see it – the ugly, vulgar crowds put me right off from the start.

This is all particularly the case in Leeds where the City Council appears to have been dazzled by hosting the 2014 Tour de France Grand Depart and now can’t get enough of elite sport. Tour de Yorkshire, Olympic Parade, ITU Triathlon etc. Without fully appreciating that it may come at a cost. For the Triathlon earlier in the summer, we were boxed in our cul-de-sac for half a day so that 30 or so elite men and women could cycle down the main road once – 4 hours of road closure for 4 minutes of action. And now we might not be able to jog around our bit of the Meanwood Valley because they want it to redevelop Headingley – it’s just the latest in a long line…..

Meanwhile, I’ve been very happy to be dipping my toe back into a grassroots sport that I was taking pretty seriously 10 years or so ago – fellrunning. The appeal of this admittedly slightly eccentric sport has already been brilliantly described at length in Richard Askwith’s book “Feet in the Clouds”, which I fully recommend to all. A general theme to take from the book is that there is potentially as much appeal and interest in a local, down-to-earth scene like fellrunning as there is in the self-important and commercialised world of elite sport, which we all pay vast sums to Sky, BT etc to watch.

I was reminded of this the other week, lining up for my first fellrace for several years at Burnsall, in the Yorkshire Dales. Just a quick look round the field of 100 or so, I recognised a few faces, not because I knew them personally but because they are the “stars” of the sport. By stars I mean just very competent at what they do, well known on the circuit, with great results and records behind them. But their reasons for being there are just the same as mine – not for any money or glory, it’s just great fun to do. With the greatest respect to Mo Farah (whom I admire), I’m not likely to ever actually rub shoulders with him on a startline anywhere.


Burnsall was a great race to start again with. An idyllic scene, a race history that goes back to the 19th Century, and a great fellrunning challenge. Basically, you start on the village green, run through a gate and then go up through steep fields to the open fell. At this point the route narrows to a thin track up through the heather to the cairn, 800 feet above the village. When you go for a walk up a hill, one of the things that gets you to the top is the thought of a well-earned rest, a snack and a drink, taking in the view etc. Not with fellrunning. All that effort and within a split second you’re hurtling back down where you’ve come. This is particularly true of Burnsall, where the first half of the descent is so steep you have to put the brakes on to stay on your feet. You then jump a dry-stone wall (which is 6ft high as you approach it, but 9ft down on the other side!) and into the fields. The gradient here is slightly less steep and you can really fly down it, which accounts for the buzz of endorphins that sustain you over the finish line and for long after. Absolutely bloody exhausting, but so worth it.

Elite sport likes its stats but you can get into the stats of fellrunning too. The men’s record at Burnsall is 12.48, set over 30 years ago. Why hasn’t it been broken in all that time? In fact, if you look at the recent winners’ times they’ve actually been getting slower. Could it be that there is a competing event that attracts the top athletes? Is the heather longer now than it used to be? (it can really slow you down, particularly on the descent). Tantalisingly, the race programme reveals that the record ascent time is 8.22, and the record descent is 3.40, meaning that theoretically a 12 minute time is possible!

For me though, I took twice as long. Who cares though? It was just good to be back.