When it comes to taking part in classic events, you can’t get much more classic than Burnsall – the clue is in the name. The race has been a fixture in the fell-running calendar since the 1870s after a group of pub-goers decided to plan a race route to the top of the hill and back down again; one of them, a young whippersnapper named Tom Weston, decided to give the course a quick trial and allegedly ran naked to the summit and back. The race then became an annual event and is truly one of the most revered races in British fell-running history. At only 1.5 miles and 850 feet of ascent, Burnsall is one of those ‘must-do’ races, a piece of genuine running heritage on our doorsteps – well a forty-five minute drive away (thanks for the lift Paul).
There have been numerous legendary performances at Burnsall; a race epitomised by a lung-busting ascent to the heraldic ‘flag on the fell’ and then a soul-searchingly ferocious descent over some of the roughest, heather-bashing terrain known to man (or goat). As a geeky junior fell runner I spent plenty of time looking up accounts of Ernest Dalzell’s 1910 record where he ran an unbelievable time of 12 minutes and 59 seconds, including allegedly nailing the whole descent in 2 minutes and 42 seconds. Dalzell eventually passed away in the Great War but his legacy lives on, albeit his record was eventually beaten by Fred Reeves in 1977. It has only been bettered twice: by Reeves in 1977 and Jon Wilde in 1983.
Records and performances that would be the stuff of legends weren’t my focus for this race. I knew that this was an important one in the Hyde Park Harriers Fell Championship. Early championship leader Richard Edwards was on holiday and I have been engaged in a little tussle with Michael Vargas over the first few races. We both had two wins apiece and this would be a rare show-down between the two of us. I felt that the rough nature and technicality of the course would suit me once we got to the descent but I also knew that Vargas’ ability to power through the pain barrier could lead to a really gut-wrenching chase on the ascent. To make matters even more interesting, Dan Cross (who had finished 7th the year before) turned up – I had a rabbit to chase. There was a really good turnout in the end: myself, Dan, Vargas, Colin (back from Portugal and having done the 10 miler), Sam, Naomi and Paul, with Dan Waas and Toby on chief cheering and burger consuming duty.
We got there in plenty of time as Paul and Sam were going to do some miles before and myself and Mike decided to recce the course (complete with coffee and cake). I had done the junior race in 2009 so I had a general idea of the starting ascent but I quickly realised that the junior route had all the easy running and that what lay beyond that was the real test! A quick walk up the hill revealed what was in store and we scouted out the descent to try and find the best route off. We even managed to accrue some local knowledge and eventually were content with the optimum way.
The race started off at a hell of a pace and myself, Dan and Vargas all were running together through the first (STEEP) field, I was tucked in behind Dan and Mike was just behind me. I could see the elite of UK fell-running streaming off into the distance as Sam Tosh took the race out hard and Victoria Wilkinson was doing a fine job of possibly being the best female British runner around, she was comfortably in the top 10 on the climb. As the climb got steeper I noticed Mike had dropped off a little and I was still managing (just) to cling on to Dan as we made our way through the heather at the top; I was feeling ecstatic with my position, especially knowing that the rough descent on the way down would favour me.
Now I have a dodgy right ankle. I also really like horrible, nasty, technical and foul descents. The two really don’t go hand in hand at all so this time I had a great idea; I’ll tape my right ankle up. As we got onto the descent I managed to take two runners straight away and was just getting back on to Dan’s shoulder when SNAP, my left ankle went. This had never happened before and I felt like I’d lost an air of invincibility – it’s my right ankle which is screwed, never my left. I immediately eased off and thought I’d have to walk back in and screw up what had been a good run up until that point. I realised that I could still run-ish on it and a quick look behind and no Vargas spurred me on through the last couple of fields and into the finish – it was a super painful ending fuelled by adrenaline. I was very happy to get over the line in 20th place in 19.03, around 20 seconds behind Dan. I had my customary collapse over the line and waited for the others to come in.
Mike came in not far behind in 31st place, impressive considering he’d also destroyed Oakwell Hall parkrun that morning. Colin was next (after completing the 10 mile road race) but appears to have been omitted from the results. Naomi was followed in closely by Paul and then Sam came through a couple of minutes later to complete the HPH set.
Even though I ended up missing the best part of four weeks whilst my foot recovered this was one of my favourite and most anticipated events of the HPH calendar. It’s akin to being able to run in the Prefontaine Classic or riding a queen stage in the Tour De France. I really hope it is in the Fell Championship next year and I think the 10 mile road race is a good shout for the Road Championship too. This is one of those ‘must-do’ races, at least just once to say you’ve done it, so hopefully I’ll see a few more HPH there next year (and this year’s contingent returning).