The fells of the Lake District may for some be synonymous with Alfred Wainwright, but these days walkers will notice there are nearly as many people running in the fells as there are hikers. Trail and fell running has seen huge growth in recent years, as people seek the exhilaration and challenge of moving fast and light in the fells. To the runners, it's not Wainwright but the names of local legends Joss Naylor, Nicky Spinks and Ricky Lightfoot, that are idolised.
Aside from the physical health benefits of mountain running, runners are also improving their mental wellbeing, cross training muscle groups more than walking, and developing their mountain-craft and navigation skills to a high level. Trail and fell running has invigorated a younger generation to develop a deep respect and attachment to the Lake District fells, and it's a sport that is highly addictive and rewarding.
So what's the difference between trail and fell running? Trail running is following existing paths, ranging from narrow single tracks through to wide bridleways and green lanes. Fell running is selecting a runner's line across an open fell side, where there are often no paths to follow, and the route is determined by each individual as a line of least resistance and to fit the runner's skill set.
With its rugged yet achievable terrain, the Lake District is the natural epicentre of British hill running. Here are six of the district's top routes for runners:
Old Man of Coniston
The fells of Coniston offer superb mountain running, in a landscape carved both by glaciers and by mining. There are broad grassy mountain shoulders, airy rocky ridges, steep descents, and corrie lakes. It's a beautiful region where the weathered old mountains exude history and are still magnificent despite the erosion and scars on their flanks. For a runner, these fells are a playground, where you can choose the type of terrain you wish to run on, as there are so many route choices. It is interesting to run through the old mine workings high on the slopes of The Old Man of Coniston, and to ponder for a moment how tough a life the miners lived. Another attraction is that this region is great for running throughout the year; in deep snow for instance, the run down from the summit to Low Water is steep but exhilarating. For an easier run, the Walna Scar Road is a great trail.
Red Screes is oft ignored by the hoards in Ambleside, who head for the unimaginative Fairfield Horseshoe; and by visitors to the Kirkstone Pass, from which aspect it looks an intimidating slog. These collude to make this peak relatively quiet, and my misanthropic tendencies revel in this peace. The summit views in every direction are quite incredible, from the lush green valley floor of Patterdale to the north, and the seemingly endless fells and ridges to the west. The Kentmere fells dominate the east, but on a clear day beyond them and to the south are the Yorkshire three peaks, and then the length of Windermere and the Irish Sea. Running over Red Screes, via Scandale Pass, then up to High Bakestones offers a more remote route onto the Fairfield fells too.
Running in the Langdale fells is a complete visual overload, and you don't have to visit Angle or Stickle Tarns with the masses, as some of the best running and views are gained from Blea Rigg and the great running onwards to Silver Howe is delightful. Here the classic skyline of the Langdale Pikes, Bowfell and Crinkle Crags is a stunning backdrop. This route can be run in a nice loop from Grasmere, ascending via Easedale Tarn. Those who are confident running on steeper ground can tackle the full Langdale Horseshoe, with some technical sections on the traverse over the Crinkle Crags and its infamous 'Bad Step'. This route is followed by the annual fell race, and is a challenging 19.2km circuit of all the fell tops all the way around to Pike of Blisco, before the final sprint down to the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub for a celebratory pint.
Each aspect of Helvellyn offers a different challenge to runners. You can run the route of part of the second leg of the Bob Graham Round from Threlkeld over Clough Head and the Dodds, over rolling green fells (see this UKH Route Card), or move onto skyrunning terrain on Striding and Swirral Edges. It's also possible to run a tour of the mountain from Glenridding, crossing the range to the north over Sticks Pass, then running the Thirlmere forestry tracks, to then re-cross the mountain to the south over Grisedale Hause. Helvellyn is a fascinating mountain to run, as its height and aspects generally assure runners of several seasons of weather within a few hours, so it requires a judicious selection of route to suit the prevailing weather conditions. If running here in winter, don't forget to check out the latest conditions from the fell top assessors' daily reports.
This mountain has been responsible for the end of many an attempt on the Bob Graham Round, due to its unrelenting terrain, and its difficulty in poor weather. Classic lines to run are the Halls Fell ridge, and the SW flank, but sky runners are drawn to Sharp Edge, and those looking for the fastest line from the summit down to Threlkeld can attempt the 'Parachute Route' which Billy Bland descended in 14 minutes to the village. The southern aspect of Blencathra is stunning and austere, but one of the attractions of running the mountain is to unlock the routes, and to maintain a good rhythm. The mountain has a fascinating history, and was previously called Saddleback due to its shape viewed from the east. It saw mining activity for lead, zinc and copper, and the mountain was famously put up for sale in 2014 for a guide price of £1.75 million (then later withdrawn form the market).
It's no accident to include Wansfell Pike as the last route in this whistlestop tour. It is by far the lowest peak in this selection, but for this reason it makes a great choice when the weather's poor, or if you desire a shorter run. The route of the popular fell race ascends the NW slope directly from Ambleside, and the record of 18min 56sec for the round trip has stood since 1983. Those seeking tranquility could ascend via the southern flanks from Jenkins Crag, or if you prefer trail running then run the path descending to Troutbeck and back via Robin Lane and High Skelghyll farm. Wansfell has something for every type of runner, but the best time of day is in the evening when the summit is quiet, and you can watch the sun setting over the western fells, with the head of Windermere reflecting the oranges and reds of the evening sky.
Info for runners
When to go
Trail and fell running can be enjoyed year round, but runners should not underestimate the harsh weather that can often be encountered on the fell tops. The busiest times of year in the Lakes are over Easter, and in July and August. Outside the high season there is much more choice of where to stay, and you often have the fells to yourself. Autumn is a great time for running in the Lakes, as the ground is drier after the summer and the bracken has begun to die back, which makes progress far easier.
Runners are encouraged to take advantage of the great public transport links to the area to help reduce unnecessary congestion on the roads. All of the mountains featured in this guide can be accessed by public transport. Oxenholme (South Lakes) and Penrith (North Lakes) are on the West Coast rail mainline, and regional hubs of Windermere, Ambleside and Keswick are on the National Express coach route. Within the national park, the local bus service timetables and transport options can be planned at www.golakes.co.uk
Runners have a wide range of accommodation options to suit all budgets, including campsites, hostels, B&Bs and hotels. There are some interesting places to stay too, and here are some highlights. Camp at Wray Castle on the banks of Windermere. Stay in the remote Skiddaw House hostel, or the Black Sail YHA, with both akin to mountain huts. There are even glamping options, from tipis to shepherds huts and pods.
Trail and Fell Running in the Lake District by Kingsley Jones
The second title in a new running series from Cicerone, this book includes 40 routes from across the National Park. Routes are graded as trail runs, fell runs, or skyrunning, with a technical grading for each to help you select a suitable run.
Route length varies from 8km to 35km, and the book features a selection of some of the famous fell running race routes in the Lake District, as well as running that explores quieter corners of the national park.
Key features are detailed kit lists that mountain runners can consult, and advice on how to adapt your running technique to the mountains.
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