Feet In The Clouds interview with Richard Askwith

FITC coverYou may have recently seen my review of Richard Askwith’s book about fell running, Feet In The Clouds, which is being re-released by Aurum Publishing. A classic text that I have probably read half a dozen times, you can read my review here.

In addition to sending me a copy of the book, which you can win here, Richard also kindly offered me the opportunity to ask him a few questions about fell running, his experience and the response of the fell running community to the book. Here is what Richard told me:

What do you think are the attributes that the best fell runners possess and can a ‘normal’ runner acquire them?

The single most important attribute is toughness: physical, mental – everything from courage to the ability to shrug off incidental pain. Some people seem to start off with a lot more of this than the rest of us, but I think you can acquire it, if you want to. Apart from that, you need to be superfit: aerobically, anaerobically, in terms of strength, in terms of agility and in terms of stamina, with the kind of natural athleticism that allows you to handle very high speeds on the descents. It clearly helps if you weigh next to nothing: I’ve never seen a top fell-runner carrying an ounce of extra fat – although we middle-of-the-packers sometimes to get away with it. Finally, but not least, you need to be at home in the mountains. This gives those who were born and bred in the fells a major advantage over those who grew up in cities. But if you really want to become a mountain person, you can: you just have to arrange your life so that you can spend lots of time in and on the fells. It’s a bit mad, I suppose. But I think it’s worth it.

What was the hardest part of writing the book? And what were the highlights?

Deciding what to leave out: there were so many people and achievements and places that cried out to be written about, and I simply didn’t have the space. It was also quite tricky to get into a state of mind where I could describe to non-fell-runners what fell-running is like. Part of the secret of getting better at fell-running is that you have to let it become second nature, so that you simply stop thinking about the discomforts and the dangers and just get on with it. But you can’t really write a book just by saying “It’s no big deal.” So I had to think my way back into earlier states of mind, when I was really aware of all the difficulties.As for the highlights: the best bit, without question, was the people. There were so many different people who helped me, in different parts of Britain (and beyond), of different ages and from different backgrounds, each of whom had their own special insight into this wonderful sport that most people in the country had simply never heard of – and every single one of them responded to my requests for help with enthusiasm and generosity. They gave me time, information, tips, introductions, quotes, archival material: it was as if there was a kind of collective will that a book about fell-running should be written. I don’t know if they were all expecting the kind of book that I wrote, but I hope that not too many of them were disappointed.

How did the fell running community react to the publication of Feet in the Clouds?

They were very kind. I don’t suppose the book was to everyone’s taste, but generally people seemed glad that I’d tried to capture the best of their sport in print. More recently, some people have expressed concern that the book’s success has encouraged excessive numbers of ill-prepared novices to give the sport a try, putting themselves and others at risk and damaging the environment and atmosphere at some of the most popular races. I do worry about this, although I don’t think the surge in interest in off-road running in recent years is exclusively related to Feet in the Clouds. But I think that really feckless novices tend to be discouraged pretty quickly by the discomforts of fell –running, and I hope that most people are bright enough to understand that, if you’re going to come into a sport like this, you have to show a bit of respect: for the mountains, and also for the people who live and run in them.

As a fell runner, how do you view the growth of ‘trail running’ as a sport distinct from fell running?

I welcome it. Different runners want different things, and individual runners want different things at different times. So it’s good to have two distinct sports that cater for different tastes. If what you’re after is basically an off-road run in nice scenery, trail running is for you. If you want a mountain adventure that also involves running – some of it fairly kamikaze running – then that’s fell-running.

What is the hardest run you have ever done?

I’m not sure I can answer that question. There seem to be so many contenders. My first Ben Nevis race. My second Ben Nevis race. My first attempt at the Bob Graham round. My second attempt…  My first Grasmere. My first Three Peaks. They all seem impossibly hard, in retrospect. I suspect that the worst of all my have been my very first attempt at fell-running, when I ended up covering the final couple of miles by a mixture of crawling and wriggling on my bottom. But perhaps the real answer is that, with fell running, if it doesn’t feel like the hardest run you’ve ever done, you’re not trying hard enough.

What would be the best advice you can think of for aspiring fell runners?

You need to be fit. You need to be tough mentally: this isn’t a sport for whingers. If you’re not used to running on rough, steep ground, give yourself plenty of time to master it: downhill technique is more than half the battle. Start with smaller races and work your way up from there. It’s easy to bite off more than you can chew if you aim too high, too soon. Above all, find out about the sport before you try it. Get your head around the idea that mountains are dangerous, and that you need to take responsibility for your well-being. Learn how to use a map and a compass, get some basic outdoor survival kit, and accept that this isn’t a sport where you can just assume that someone else will make sure that you have a pleasant, trouble-free leisure experience. But if you can take all that on-board, give it a go. Show a little humility, responsibility and respect, and you’ll find the fell-running community incredibly supportive and welcoming. And you’ll probably have the most rewarding time of your sporting life…

My thanks go to Richard for taking the time from his busy schedule to answer all my questions. I really think that Feet In The Clouds is a great book and if you haven’t already read it, try to win one here or order a copy – I am sure you will not be disappointed.

 

 

 

Feet In The Clouds is published in paperback by Aurum Press and will be in shops on 9 May 2013, priced at £8.99.

The good people at Aurum have sent me a copy of Feet In The Clouds to give away, so head over to the freestak Facebook page for a chance to win the book.

 

Book review: Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith

One of the things I love about running is that at it’s heart is a purity that doesn’t exist in many other sports. There is not much that is contrived about trying to get from one place to another as fast as you can. There are no balls, or rackets, or off-side regulations. There are hardly even any rules (except follow the prescribed route). Somehow running is about something that human beings have had to do to survive since the dawn of our species.

However under the broad umbrella of running as a sport, there are myriad different events – from track sprinting to ultra-distance trail races and from elite events such as the Olympics to mass participation events such as big city marathons and ParkRuns. When I started running, the easiest form of running – and the one that appealed to my sense of wanting to take control – was road running. But as my interest in running developed, I discovered other types of races and one book, above all, gave me the impetus to take my running off-road. That book was Feet In The Clouds: A Tale Of Fell Running And Obsession, by Richard Askwith.

FITC coverAskwith is an accomplished writer, currently employed as the Associate Editor of the Independent and this, along with his determination and dedication to become the best fell runner he can be, makes Feet In The Clouds a wonderful read.

Much like Open, the autobiography of Andre Agassi, Askwith’s book opens with a chapter that simply grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. You are immediately sucked into a world where physical exertion, doubt, fear, ecstasy, history and camaradery are all an integral part of why its participants are involved. If, like me, you are interested in what you are capable of, Feet In The Clouds is a very direct challenge: could you? Would you? Should you try any of this at home (or on a hill near to home)?

What is also wonderful about Feet In The Clouds, is the way that Askwith tells of his considerable personal challenges and exertions within the context of a sport that has its fair share of heroes and heroics. This tends to do Richard the disservice of diminishing what he himself achieved. But it also paints a vivid picture of a minority sport within the wider sport of running, which has quietly and unassumingly carried on for generations (although sadly, more recently perhaps, waned more than waxed). Richard writes about and indeed meets many of the unsung heroes of fell running like Joss Naylor, Pete Bland and Angela Mudge who work tough jobs and race tougher races.

In that sense, the great fell runners that Richard describes are like many of my heroes from the golden age of road running like Bill Adcocks, Steve Jones, Mike McLeod and too many others to mention: men who worked five or six days as well as running 120 miles each week and completed marathons in times that should make today’s pampered professional runners blush.

If you need any more convincing that this is tough sport, how about this for a race course!

If there is any slight criticism of Feet In The Clouds, it is the forensic level of detail that Askwith brings to bear on his chosen sport. Every so often there is a  chapter which is a look at a month of fell running and that is perhaps too much detail for the casual reader.

But then again, fell running is not a sport that is for anyone casual in any sense. The epic races, reckless down-hill charges, hard lifestyles and deep community that makes up fell running is not for the faint-hearted and whilst some people might not understand the significance of a race up and down Scarfell Pike or Snowdon or the challenge that the Bob Graham Round represents, that in no way diminishes what amazing feats the characters in Feet In The Clouds achieve (the author included) and a re-issue of this book is the perfect antidote to the Olympic legacy of multi-million pound sponsorship deals, Olympic stadia and corporate endorsements. This is a book about getting out there and doing it.

So I really recommend that you get a copy… then lace up your fell shoes and go and get out on the hills. It won’t be long before Richard Askwith’s tale of obsession becomes your tale of obsession – just don’t say I didn’t warn you!

 

 

 

Feet In The Clouds is published in paperback by Aurum Press and will be in shops on 9 May 2013, priced at £8.99.

The good people at Aurum have sent me a copy of Feet In The Clouds to give away, so head over to the freestak Facebook page for a chance to win the book.