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Running: What the Fell? An Introduction to Hill Running

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Ready for a lung buster? The southern Idaho foothills make perfect fell running terrain for our author. Text and photos by Steve Graepel

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I had just moved to Boise and was training to climb Mount Fairweather in Alaska’s notorious Fairweather Range. Hardened legs and deep lungs are de rigueur for alpine climbing; the rolling Idaho foothills were the perfect crucible to prepare for the 15,000-foot giant. So each weekend I would shoulder a weighted pack and hump loads up and down our steep foothills. I’d climb for three to four hours, accumulating thousands of feet of elevation.

Fairweather was a bust—there’s not much you can do to train for chest-deep confectionery snow—but I knew I had tapped a new power supply with my off-piste training cirque. My legs and ankles were stronger, I had less knee pain, and my aerobic capacity was boosted. The following year I swapped the boots and pack for my running shoes and began to run my off-trail route.

What I didn’t know was that running hills was a tried and true sport. It’s called fell running. The British have been doing this sort of thing for centuries (no surprise there, hey have a knack of wringing good sport out of hard efforts: Everest, the South Pole (Shackleton!), a 20-year Scotch…). What started nearly 1,000 years ago in an effort to find a royal messenger kicked off the Highland Games and eventually matriculated into a sanctioned culture of mountain runners, weaving a bit of trail running, orienteering, cross country and sometimes, grueling overnighters. The goal? To run the steepest hills as fast as you can!

Running is a simple sport and its best appreciated that way. But taking it to the highlands requires some slight modifications to your strategy. Here are some tips to help ease into it.

Shoes Make the Man (or Woman)
When I first started running off-route, I simply donned a pair of road shoes and headed out the door. I spent a lot of time on my backside, sliding down the hills. To compensate, I would resort to strapping on micro-spike crampons for traction.

If fell running is nothing else, it’s traction. A good shoe will have a lot of it to keep you upright over wet grass and chossy terrain—more than your typical trail shoe. A proper fitting fell shoe can do as much for your running as a climbing shoe does for climbing. Expect aggressive tread with sticky rubber for traction over rock and mud, a low stable profile for ankle stability, some toe flexibility, and just enough mid-foot protection to nick the edge off rocks underfoot.

Many shoes have a waterproof upper (par for the wet Lake District conditions…or the Pacific Northwest), making them a great winter shoe. If you live in a hot, dry climate, opt for a breathable shoe.

Inov-8 has been marketing fell-specific shoes for years. Montrail and Salomon have thrown their last into the field as well. If you see descriptors like ‘talon’, ‘mudclaw’, ‘cross’ or a reference to the highlands in the name, you’re probably on the right track. The right shoe does indeed make a difference!

Tip: Hills add a lot of vector force to your step, and everyone’s foot is unique. To compensate for a “standard last,” learn lacing techniques to keep your heel locked in your shoe and consider buying an aftermarket footbed for a custom fit.

To keep the weight off my feet during a monster mountain run, I opted not to bring gaiters. I was climbing an average of 1,000 feet a mile in Idaho’s Boulder Mountains, but most of the boulders appeared to be pee-gravel…piping right into my shoes. By the end of the 15 miles, my feet were trashed and I was stopping every ten minutes to pour out gravel.

Running cross-country can funnel a lot of debris into your shoes, adding wear and tear to your shoes, socks and most importantly, your feet. Many companies that market off-trail shoes will sell low-profile gaiters as well. These are an inexpensive, lightweight addition to enjoyable running. Without them, expect to frequent stops and battered feet.

Trekking Poles
I’m sure they are considered a faux paux by purists, but don’t hesitate to use them when getting started. They add stability over variable terrain, significantly decrease stress on the knees, and can help build upper body strength. Get an adjustable pair to adapt to climbing, descending, and contouring. Also consider that you’ll be subjecting poles to an extra measure of stress. Lighter, expensive poles can be more fragile.

Tip: Keep your hands out of the wrist straps or remove them all-together. If you fall, its better to jettison the pole than risk breaking them (or worse, you).

Not unlike spinning, fell running can be as hard as you want to make it. And just as making the jump from the road to trail takes an adjustment period, expect a transition from trails to fell running. Take time to find your ‘gearing’ while running off trail…determine what you can run and what you should hike. And don’t be ashamed to walk—in some cases, it’s faster (more efficient, safer…) to hike than run. But also expect huge gains in fitness through persistent running.

In general, shorten your stride when climbing. On steep hills, pick a line that runs at a slight angle to lessen the grade. When running down hill, vary your gaze a few paces ahead with immediately in front of you. Keep your arms out for stability, and step on your toes to leverage your foot’s arch as a “shock absorber.”

As they say, misery loves company…safety in numbers. Adventure running should always be treated with some respect. Since fell running isn’t for everyone; perhaps look to your more adventurous running friends first.

Here in Southern Idaho, we’re blessed with high alpine desert—its relatively easy to keep a bearing. But I’ve spent time out East and in the Midwest where this wasn’t the case. Off trail hill running entailed thick brush and hardwood forests, making it much easier to get lost. If this sounds familiar, brush up on your map and compass skills.

Where to go
Stay off private property or ask for permission before you go. Look to wilderness, national forests, or better yet, BLM land (which is often not as rugged, optimal for adventuring running). To limit trailside erosion, stay away from popular trails when venturing off on public land. And keep a watch out for wildlife. Game have a knack for finding a weakness in the topography. But try not to startle them in winter when they are already physically stressed.

In my seven years running the Boise fells, I’ve only seen one other person. Her parting words: “shhh, this is our best kept secret!” I couldn’t agree more; I love the isolation, the presence of moment, the wildlife and the workout. But running the hills is too precious an experience not to share.

I’ve seen herds of 50+ head of elk, run with coyotes, foxes, and deer. Vary your route and you vary the experience. Its ideal training for adventures deeper into the wilds, but if you only have an hour or two, it’s a pretty good substitute.