Have we lost our marbles? What on earth is a review of a book about running up and down mountains doing on a website dedicated to the joys of road cycling? Error 404: Relevance not found? Far from it. Feet In the Clouds is a gem of a book, an inspiration for any and all athletes.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with fell-running, it’s basically extreme cross-country running. Up and down mountains. It’s extreme in all senses of the word – in terms of terrain, endurance, and endeavour. Just like cycling, the hardships of the sport have created a rich culture of heroes, villains, and legends. Feet in the Clouds captures the spirit of the fells and the people that run over them in a vibrant and enchanting chronicle.
The author, Richard Askwith, is a keen fell runner and also a journalist. So, unlike the authors of many sports books, he actually understands what he’s writing about; and unlike so many books written by athletes, he also knows how to write. Think “Joe Simpson in running shoes”, and you’ve got the idea. You can’t put this book down.
The central theme of the book, and the jewel in the crown of fell running, is the awesome ‘Bob Graham Round’. The story of the Bob Graham Round is quite simply amazing. In short, Bob Graham was a mountain guide in Cumbria in the 1930s. To celebrate his 42nd birthday, he decided (for reasons not explained in the book) to run a circuit of 72 miles in the fells around Keswick, covering 42 peaks and with 27,000 feet of climbing and descending. Oh, and he decided to try and do it in less than 24 hours.
History does not record what Mrs Graham thought of her husband’s birthday celebration – but it does record that in baggy shorts, plimsolls and with a pocket full of hard boiled eggs, Bob Graham set a standard that was not matched, even by world class athletes, for another 28 years. Today’s record for the ‘BG’, set by Billy Bland in 1982, is a staggering 13 hours and 53 minutes. It’s a record that will probably never be beaten.
Richard Askwith became obsessed with the BG on a visit to the Lake District, and his attempts to beat the 24 hour mark take him on an incredible journey, both in terms of individual sporting endeavour and in homage to the great names of fell running. In doing so, he traces a sporting history in which some of the country’s greatest ever athletic achievements were ignored by the press and general public (sound familiar?); and where narrow-minded bureaucracy stifled sporting development (oh dear, familiar story again!).
Feet in the Clouds intersperses recollections of racing and running with charming interviews and biographies of the great stars of fell running. It’s interesting to speculate just how the great fell runners of the past would have fared on the track or road. In the late 1940s, the Cumbrian professional Bill Teasdale was running mile races in just over 4 minutes. In a field. Perhaps he would now be a household name if he’d been a privileged amateur running around a track rather than a poor farmer running up and down mountains for cash. Another Cumbrian, Kenny Stuart, showed the calibre of fell runners when he emerged from the obscurity of the mountains to become one of the world’s best marathon runners before his career was ended by illness.
The stories of these stars and their legendary races are enthusiastically recounted en route to the author’s final assault on the Bob Graham Round. Does he do it? Well, that would be saying, wouldn’t it?
Looking for inspiration on the bike or a book to read on the beach this summer? Then Feet in the Clouds is for you. My only warning is that it might give you an unhealthy desire to run up and down the nearest mountain. Now, where did I put those running shoes…?
Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith is published by Aurum Press Ltd, ISBN 1 84513 082 0, 337 pages, some nice piccies in the middle, and it costs £7.99.
And I’ve just noticed that the cover design was by Roger Hammond. Wonder if he’s any relation….