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)
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.