David Butterfield

Two athletes who took on the fells – and won

Two athletes who took on the fells – and won
Blencathra overlooking Threlkeld, Picture credit: Getty
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In a summer where sport as we know it has been cruelly cancelled, opportunities to celebrate athletic heroism are hard to seek. But today, not one but two titanic achievements occurred independently – and only a few miles from each other. Both have a strong chance of being the country’s most impressive running feats of the coming decade, if boasting weren’t anathema to them.

The 24-Hour Fell Record is what it sounds like: you have precisely one day of continuous running to cover as many of the Cumbrian mountains as possible, so long as you get back to the spot from where you started. When the early Victorian tourists first came to Lakeland, to survive a single ascent was deemed a pedestrian feat. By 1904, Dr Arthur Wakefield took the record to 21 peaks – an endeavour thought sufficiently impressive to earn him a place on Mallory’s second Everest expedition. But records are there to be broken, and over the next hundred years the bar has been raised to an utterly incomprehensible tally of 77 peaks. Since that record was set in 1997, there have been seven unsuccessful attempts to break it, and – as of 02:45 this morning – one success. Kim Collison, a well-known fellrunner and coach based in Mungrisdale, has managed to extend the record to 78: eighteen hours into his lung-busting and leg-melting run, he cheekily ran a mile off course – and climbed another 100m – to take in Fleetwith Pike, the rugged guardian of Buttermere. Since every second counts, Collison limited his day-long slog to three stops, each lasting one minute. As it turned out, he re-entered the sleepy village of Braithwaite with fifteen minutes to spare.

Having turned 40 this May, Collison is a veteran of the fells. In December, he posted the winter record of the Bob Graham round, a 67-mile circuit of 42 fells. Originally the 24-Hour Fell Record of its day, Graham’s eponymous feat of 1932 has since evolved into the classic test of mountain endurance for the moderately fit. Over 2,000 people have since completed the round (many after many a failure), whereas only a handful of superhuman athletes have managed to improve the Fell Record.

But as Collison hurled himself over the finish line this morning, an even more epic struggle was happening over the other side of Grisedale Pike. For Sabrina Verjee, a 39-year-old vet from Ambleside, was then entering the seventh and final day of her attempt to cover, in a single run, all 214 Cumbrian fells catalogued by the celebrated guidebooks of Alfred Wainwright. Since launching out from Keswick at 3am on Monday morning, she has covered 326 miles (525 km), traversing boulder and bracken, bog and beck. The total ascent is a head-spinning 36,000 metres (or, if it’s any easier to gawp at, 118,000 feet). This is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest four times – from sea level. The route Verjee has followed was hammered out over hundreds of hours, stringing together the best – or rather least brutal – way round the county’s mountains. Although she has described herself as ‘not a professional athlete by any means’, Verjee is an accomplished ultra-runner, finishing fifth overall in the Montane Spine Race, a 268-mile schlep along the full 268 miles of the Pennine Way.

Still, to run all the Wainwrights – a feat first achieved in 1985 – is of an entirely different magnitude. While she has taken on food, drink and fresh clothes at certain road crossings, Verjee has not meaningfully stopped. Each of her scheduled pauses barely lasts an hour; her longest ‘break’ has been three hours in the middle of one night. To say that she has been able to sleep at all in the last week would be misleading. Instead, overcoming unimaginable exhaustion and often challenging weather, she has battled night and day through pain that never shifts and only grows. (‘There is no map in hell’ is the name of a former record holder’s harrowing account.) Teams of pacers (Collison included) and supporters have helped her fight on, while keeping social distancing in mind: despite the scale of her achievement, Verjee asked for no visitors to welcome her at the finish. As I write this piece, she is on the final descent into Keswick, with nothing left to block her way. This will be only the fifth time the feat has been completed, and the first time by a woman. While Paul Tierney’s record of 6 days 6 hours (and 4 minutes) still stands, today’s achievement is a model of iron endurance and rare bravery.

The sport of fellrunning has enticed the world’s best athletes to the Lakes; similar reasons led Collison and Verjee to move to the region. And this historic Sunday, both have placed their names squarely among the nation’s greatest fellrunners, to sit alongside Nicky Spinks, Jasmin Paris, Billy Bland and Joss Naylor. Still, neither story will make a major splash in the press, and doubtless that is how the two competitors would want it. But, with sincere apology to them, I hope the news spreads: the better these awesome achievements are known, the more they will inspire others to compete against the mountains, the elements and themselves.