It’s shortly after 11am and I am sitting in a community hall, with a numbered card wrapped in a freezer bag and pinned to my jacket. Outside, rain falls steadily; it’s around 6°C. I’m about to run in my first fell race and am quietly having kittens.
I watch the other runners register, stretch and chat. Along with the sort of clothing usually branded ‘technical’, most wear vests emblazoned with club names: Harriers, Hurriers, Ponies and Striders among them. Some wear sprigged shoes and adopt a strange gait upon the smooth, wooden floor.
Two men sit next to me and banter about being out of shape. I listen and feel relieved. Then, one of them removes his trackpants, revealing calves and thighs thick with accelerant muscle, and my relief vanishes.
I walk outside onto the field where the race will start. Lycra-clad figures jump and trot in vigorous warm-ups; I stretch self-consciously. We gather onto a makeshift starting line under the football posts. I find a position at the side, near the back and away, I hope, from jostling competitive bodies.
Breathing heavily, I stomp my feet into the grass against the chill and my own trepidation. It is going to start. I am going to run.
Ready. Set. Go.
As soon as we are off I can feel that the pace is too fast for me. My legs wheel as I try to keep up. Across the field and out into the lane, the knot of runners spreads into a ribbon. I am still on the heels of two men in front of me when we come out from the lane and plunge across the main road. A high-viz quartet of marshals applauds each of us as we make the crossing. There is no more applause behind me: I am running last.
We start our ascent onto a farm road and the man in front of me chugs air like a draught horse. I work against my body and brain, struggling for a rhythmic stride amidst ragged breath and an inner voice that is shouting to stop. We turn out onto a steep, rocky track and the men in front of me cut into a swift, striding walk. At the sight of their slowed movement my own feet slip indulgently into a walk, but as I clamber over a stile and onto a flatter path I know I must force myself back into an unrelenting run.
The chill of the first unavoidable puddle I slosh through washes into my shoes and soaks up my legs. The route winds into heather and mud and my footing grows uncertain. I can no longer hear the breath of the men in front of me; they become coloured shapes which grow further and further away. I contemplate pulling out. Perhaps this is really beyond my abilities. Perhaps I’m wasting everyone’s time. Perhaps I should stop, turn back and walk down, handing back my number and shaking my head in defeat.
I don’t know when my feelings of defeat become feelings of determination. It seems to happen around the time I finally lose sight of the last man’s yellow jacket and I am running alone on wet, boggy moorland. I can’t tell how far behind I have dropped and finishing, just finishing, propels my legs forwards.
Up on moorland, the wind lashes at my cheeks with sharpened raindrops and threatens to hurl me from the track. My nose drips in the cold and a wipe with my damp sleeve only smears my face with rain and sweat and snot. I grit my teeth as a squatting marshal aims the fat lens of his camera towards me.
Beneath the waterproof swaddling of another marshal, I spot the face of a friend’s daughter. I think she is saying “dig in!” (or perhaps it is even “give in!”) but I am not quite listening since I am shouting my determination at her. A few strides away I realise that I have vociferously sworn at a woman I barely know.
I have fallen before I notice the rock and I feel damp soil under my hands before I notice I have fallen. Hearing a marshal behind me, I swiftly scoop myself up and continue running. I have lost any sense of geography; I have no idea where I am, how far I have gone or even which direction the village is in. Instead, I am in thrall to topography as every climb on the undulating track rips into my leg muscles and every descent offers a moment of breath-catching release.
I am more aware of the second fall. I have a sense of flight before I am down, yelling, my fingers groping rivulets into a deep slick of mud, peat and horse shit. I haul myself upright. Running again, pain sears at my knees where I have landed and I have a moment of deciding whether I am injured, like a tumbling child deciding whether to cry.
I am still going.
Someone, somewhere, sometime shouts “downhill all the way!”, but downhill turns into a gouged-out path, barely foot-width and at one stage almost vertical. I fear falling; my hands find scant reassurance from lanky heather. Relief at regaining the farm road, at knowing where I am and finding steady ground underfoot, surges into my legs. I run in pounding leaps which my body produces and my brain marvels at.
I round into the lane and back onto the field. A pair of marshals become blurs of high-viz and bunting as they notice me and dash to reconstruct the finish line they’d been packing away. I am laughing and they are laughing as they stretch out the bunting and wrap it round me.
I finished a 5 mile (8km) category BS fell race in 1 hour and 9 minutes. The first female runner completed the course in 34 minutes and 47 seconds. I do not care. I am jubilant.