At the top of a muddy slope that drops into a beautiful valley, I take a deep breath and prepare to put one foot in front of the other. Walking down this track, strewn with roots and ruts, wouldn’t normally be too challenging. But today I’m attempting to reach the bottom at a faster pace. The trouble is, I’m struggling with my fear of falling.
Thankfully, help is at hand. I’m in the Black Mountains for a Beginning Fell Running for Women course, run by Welsh company Element Active, based at Llanbedr village near Crickhowell. The day is run by Ruth Pickvance, a former international runner and British fell champion, and Faye Johnson, who competes internationally for Wales. Ruth created the course to encourage women to try fell running, which means dashing over hills and dales in wide-open spaces, rather than the usual joggers’ grind of pounding the pavements.
The growth of parkrun (which has seen more than four million participants since 2004), and programmes such as Couch to 5k, have led to a surge in the popularity of running. And now many runners, especially women, are looking to push their boundaries even further – and immerse themselves in nature – by embracing sports such as fell running.
Excited, nervous chatter fills the air as our group of 16 women arrive at Llanbedr village hall, our base for the day. Our ages range from mid-30s to late-60s, with reasons for signing up that include gaining off-road confidence and beating anxiety. Two things we all have in common are a love of nature and the headspace that running affords. “I have to be in the mountains to keep myself sane,” says Pi Davidson, who has travelled from the Hebridean island of Jura. “Running gives me a child-like sense of freedom,” another woman, from London, adds.
I’m pleased to learn the day won’t be all heads-down running. Instead, it’s broken into three indoor and three outdoor sessions. Inside, we learn about everything from essential kit to finding suitable races. Outside, the focus is on technique and practice, rather than distance. Participants only need to be able to run 5km to join the course, and there are bite-sized sessions to ensure that everyone can work to their own level.
It wasn’t so long ago that fell running was considered the preserve of men. It grew out of events such as the Guide’s Race, which started in the late 19th century and saw male mountain guides race up and down fells in the Lake District. “Women were only allowed to compete in the British Fell Running Championships from 1979, many years behind their male counterparts,” says Ruth.
Now, not only is fell running more popular (the Welsh Fell Runners Association reports a 23% increase in its membership between 2018 and 2019), but the number of women runners is also on the rise. The Fell Runners Association has seen a 20% hike in female membership since 2016 (compared with a 9% rise in male membership).
For Ruth, the attraction is simple. “Fell running is about moving fast and unencumbered through beautiful landscapes,” she says. “It requires minimal kit: you leave technology behind and connect with nature. You’ve got the weather and the terrain to contend with, which requires self-reliance. It’s a real adventure, in a way that running on tarmac isn’t.”
Moments later, we see just what she means as we run beneath the dappled canopy of woods in the Vale of Grwyney. We do a two-mile loop twice, negotiating a loose rocky section, crossing the fast-flowing Grwyne Fechan river and pushing up an incline. Unlike with pavement pounding, I have to concentrate on my foot placement, and enjoy the liberating feeling of choosing my own route.
It’s tempting to chat, but Ruth asks us to refrain on the second loop, to see if we notice the difference. Immediately, there’s a shift. I hear the river burble and I smell the earth. I see shafts of sunlight that rake the trail and feel twigs cracking underfoot. We tune into the landscape, feeling the terrain, working with it, as we run.
While reaching the top of a fell requires physical fitness, running downhill involves mental fortitude – and a hefty dose of confidence. For Ruth, this is often where women come unstuck. “Women tend to be perfectionists, with an internal monologue that says we aren’t good enough. Fear of falling is natural,” she reassures us. “But taking risks is a prerequisite for confidence. We aren’t asking you to lose control, but we want you to grow in confidence.”
Having two instructors means we can break into smaller groups and pick up extra tips. Like Ruth, Faye strikes just the right balance between nurturing and encouraging. “Send your arms wide for balance,” she suggests as I lollop downhill. “Leaning slightly forwards will increase your speed. Switch your brain off and let your legs take over.”
We begin on an open, gently sloping field before moving on to trickier – and steeper – terrain. I’m soon picking up the pace downhill, but our final challenge is yet to come: the ascent and descent of Table Mountain (its original name is Crug Hywel), a 451-metre hill looming above us.
We hike up the steep, fern-lined incline – any idea of running having long been left behind. I copy Ruth’s technique of pushing off my thighs with my hands, leaning forwards and taking deep breaths.
After around 15 minutes of climbing, I reach the summit. My sense of achievement is shared by the others as they arrive with infectious smiles. We spend a few moments basking in the sunshine, drinking in panoramic views of the Brecon Beacons behind us and Sugar Loaf in front.
It’s a rich reward, and one that can only be topped by what’s to come next: turning off our minds, letting the brakes go and flying back downhill.
• Element Active’s one-day Beginning Fell Running for Women courses cost £55pp, element-active.co.uk and will be held on 5 April, 7 June, 26 July and 16 August. Pentwyn Mawr, in Bwlch (a 10-minute drive from Crickhowell), sleeps two, from £48pn, airbnb.co.uk
At a glance: kit for fellrunners
The most essential piece of kit for fell running is a pair of shoes with grippy soles. There are a variety of models at varying prices. Inov-8 has a range with soles made using super-strong graphene (the Mudclaw G 260 costs £140, inov-8.com). In addition, take lycra tights (or shorts in hot weather) and a lightweight waterproof jacket (ideally with a hood and taped seams). Go for thin layers, such as light merino wool. A running pack or bumbag is ideal for carrying hats, gloves and extra layers. For racing, a map, compass, whistle, overtrousers and emergency food are essential. For listings of fell races around the UK, see websites for the Fell Runners Association and the Welsh Fell Runners Association.
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