Feet in the Clouds, by Richard Askwith

Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession

askwith feet in the clouds review

Richard Askwith, Feet in the Clouds   2004, Aurum Press: London, 352 pages

by Richard Askwith

Richard Askwith’s window into the world of fell-running is a compelling and popular read for runners of many different breeds and terrains, perhaps because it reaches into the heart of why running so often becomes a passion and an obsession.

Askwith’s story hinges on the epic Bob Graham Round (BGR), the famous Cumbrian challenge which takes in 42 of the Lake District’s highest peaks, over 66 miles, and which fell-runners aim to complete within 24 hours. The BGR took on legendary status after Bob Graham’s first achievement in 1932, with a period of 28 years before anyone else matched the feat, many people coming to believe it was impossible. It has since become increasingly popular as one of the ultimate endurance tests, though only one in three attempts are successful. Through the book, Askwith describes his own attempts to achieve the BGR, and the devoted, single-minded obsessiveness and emotional highs and lows that these entailed.

Interspersed with his personal tribulations, the author indulges us with fascinating insights into fell-running. The physical aspects of the sport are relayed in colourful detail: bone-crunching injuries, hair-raising near-vertical descents down mountainsides, agonising blisters and sprains, navigational woes, and tiredness which overwhelms the body and spirit.

He also weaves in wonderful character portraits, based on personal interviews, with some of the true hard-men of the fells: Bill Teasdale, Joss Naylor, Kenny Stuart, Billy Bland. These are men who grew up in the fells, as shepherds, farmers and gardeners. They ran because it seemed the most natural thing to do, and formed an extension to a lifestyle of physical labour amongst the hills. By way of contrast, a chapter describing the feats of Helene Diamantides shows what can be accomplished by runners cut from a different template: a female, an “off-comer”, but as tough, spirited and astonishing as any of the men. The achievements of these athletes, and other fell-runners, rank among the most incredible ever seen in British sporting history, and yet they remain obscure names unrecognised by the vast majority, living out their lives in the absence of the wealth and fame that has been bestowed on lesser mortals in more popular sports. Askwith does a fine job of bringing some of these names into wider recognition, but we are left with the sure impression that while these modest champions enjoy their local fame, they prefer to be left alone by the wider world.

This book also includes an engaging history of fell-running, including the appalling acrimony that existed between the amateur and professional administrative bodies between the 1970s and 1990s. The attitudes and rules of the amateur associations in particular did huge damage to the sport during that period, and the losers from this bitter squabbling were the athletes – including, at the lowest point, school children. Any of us who care about our sport, in any of its forms, would do well to acquaint ourselves with this history, to ensure we actively seek to avoid similar ludicrous power struggles.

If I could ask for more from Askwith’s book, it would be that he treats us to more of the details of his own BGR attempts, which he seems to skim over too quickly. This may be his fear of self-indulgence, or of boring the reader, but in fact for runners these are the details that would delight and inspire. I find myself yearning for more description, to appreciate Askwith’s sensory experiences as he delves into the depths of his energy reserves, and to feel more contact with the environment that provides the setting for these great adventures. Nevertheless, this is a book which has the paradoxical effect of making you want to read on, while simultaneously wanting to throw down the book, pull on your running shoes and head out of the door!

Most of all perhaps, Askwith’s book conveys the power of mind over matter. Fell-running, and endurance challenges such as the BGR, seem ultimately to come down to a self-belief that enables the successful to draw so deeply on their inner strength that they become capable of defying the odds and suppressing the almost overwhelming physical urge to stop. For me, this book is an essential read, because fell-running in all its rawness and simplicity reveals something of the resilience of the human spirit to persist in rising to seemingly impossible challenges. And it’s hard not to be inspired by that.

 

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