In 2006, Joss Naylor ran 50 miles up and down seventy Lake District
fells, ascending more than 25,000 feet in 21 hours. Not his best performance, but to be fair, he was 70 at the time.
Cumbrian shepherd Joss Naylor
(warning: Youtube link; Cumbrian accent, impossibly adorable sheepdog) is one of the greatest British athletes most people have never heard of, and perhaps the greatest competitor ever in a sport most people have never heard of either: fell-running.Fell-running
is a simple sport. You run up mountains, over them, across them, down them. There’s rarely a course marked, and one of the skills of the great fell-runners is their ability to find the quickest routes across slopes and scree.
Naylor’s an unlikely elite athlete. He had a back problem throughout childhood, could take little part in sports, and was ruled unfit for national service. A botched knee operation when he was 18 meant he’s never been able to straighten his right leg due to the amount of cartilage removed, and when he was 22 he had two discs removed from his back, couldn’t work for months and has been in constant pain since.
In 1961, when he was 24 Joss entered his first race on impulse, still wearing his heavy work boots. He led for eight miles before cramp set in, but he had been bitten by the bug, and went on to become one of the champions of the fells.
He won the Mountain Trial
ten times (including every year from 1971 to 1977), and for most of the 1970s, won most of the major distance races most of the time. In 1974 he ran the 267 mile length of the Pennine Way
in 3 days, 4 hours and 36 minutes, knocking nearly 24 hours off the previous record. In 1975 he set a record of 72 peaks, over 100 miles and about 38,000 feet of ascent in 23h20m.
In 1986, aged 50, Joss set out to run all 214 of the Lake District Wainwrights
- the equivalent of 15 marathons in distance, and 3 trips up and down Everest in ascent. Running through a heatwave, he made it down from the last peak 49 minutes short of a week after he started.
Olympic Marathon gold medallist Chris Brasher
raced in the 1962 Mountain Trial as a pacer for Naylor. He described it as "still a memory equal to any of the greatest Olympic races that I have ever seen" and called Naylor "the greatest of them all".
Scientific diets never played much part in Joss Naylor's success: “on big runs, he will take mouthfuls of sweet rubbish, macaroni pudding, trifle, weak tea; and a few cans of stout at night”.
In Richard Askwith's
excellent book Feet In The Clouds
(subtitled 'A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession', he asks Joss whether he regretted not turning to competitive athletics (another fell-running great, Kenny Stuart
won the Glasgow marathon at his very first attempt at the distance, coming within 7 minutes of the world record), and winning fame and sponsorship.
'Joss shrugs. "I just hadn't the time, like. I had too much work to do at home. I'd have had to get somebody else to do my work."'
Joss Naylor is seventy-four now. Still a shepherd. Still a runner.