Iron Joss
November 20, 2010 12:02 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by reynir (23 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
What is "sweet rubbish"? My google-fu is failing me. Is that what we yanks call junk food?
posted by axiom at 12:15 PM on November 20, 2010


The story reminds me of the crazy Three Peaks cyclocross race in England. It's only very loosely marked and you race over three mountains over 40 miles. It looks like this.
posted by mathowie at 12:22 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've done a bit of walking in the Lake District and I've tried, on the odd day, to consciously push the pace. The thing that really surprised me is how amazingly hard it is to go down these trails at speed. I couple go fast enough up hill to really feel it in my lungs and heart, but down hill the rest of my body just complained constantly and I spent most of the time trying to work out if I was enjoying the challenge or was just plain terrified.

On a couple of occasions people came blazing past me in shorts and vests, I assume they were practising or just fell-running for the enjoyment/challenge as their was no event on. But they were so much faster that it boggled my mind, they were gone from view within minutes. Very humbling. Hard to imagine doing that over uneven rocks and scree for hours on end.
posted by samworm at 12:32 PM on November 20, 2010

He appears to be running the whole way in 1970's Nike waffle trainers.I wonder how many pairs he bought back then?
posted by Xurando at 12:38 PM on November 20, 2010

Fell runers are mental. I've been gingerly descending down scree in the Lakes trying not to start a rock avalanche that will carry me off to a stoney death. Then five old men come bounding past taking 8' strides and they're at the bottom by the time you've stopped for your fifth emergency cup of tea.

Amazing to see the times some of them get too. The Three Peaks race is over as a contest in little over an hour.
posted by vbfg at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

A constant refrain from the fell-runners in Askwith's book is that you're more likely to injure yourself if you try and hold back coming down the hills - better to simply let gravity take over and go with it.

More dog companion action here, Greg Nog, on a very narrow run along Sharp Edge on Blencathra.

Of course, sometimes there are less skillful ways to get down a hill.
posted by reynir at 1:00 PM on November 20, 2010

It's good, but it's not the cheese.
posted by Decani at 1:42 PM on November 20, 2010

Goddamn it! I really must learn to preview, reynir! Still, at least I linked a different year. :-)
posted by Decani at 1:43 PM on November 20, 2010

In watching the video, several parts of it struck me as things that might have made up a Monty Python sketch.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:03 PM on November 20, 2010

Awesome achievements.

I've a friend who enters these sorts of races in the UK and have been out running with her on a couple of occasions in the Peak District. Moving uphill at anything other then a gentle stroll always has you breathing hard but the downhills... The downhills are brilliant. I mean we've only really stuck to trails but the thrill of being outside, bounding downhill along uneven, rocky, sometimes narrow paths is always glorious.

And now I want to spend Sunday doing that.
posted by Ramo at 3:06 PM on November 20, 2010

Dang. I kind of feel bad for exoticizing the guy, but I can't help but feeling bowled over by the apparent beauty of Naylor's life. From the stone walls of the farm to the raggedy sheep to the jagged grays and greens of the landscape to and the playful nobility of the border collies, it's all gorgeous. The fact that it's a setting for startling feats of physical ability and endurance makes it positively breathtaking.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:53 PM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

We were on the island of Islay earlier this year, and could see the Paps of Jura across the strait. I can hardly imagine climbing them, let alone running up and down them, but some people seem to think it's awesome: "16 miles – 7 mountain summits (including the Paps of Jura) 7,500 feet of climbing."
posted by rtha at 4:55 PM on November 20, 2010

Of course, sometimes there are less skillful ways to get down a hill.
Those people are crazy! It was cancelled in 2010 but not because it was dangerous to life and limb or anything. No, it was cancelled because it was too popular for the rural area where it was held and there were issues with crowd control and emergency vehicle access. Crazy.
posted by nelvana at 5:14 PM on November 20, 2010

Oh, and Joss Naylor is awesome. Thanks for the great post!
posted by nelvana at 5:15 PM on November 20, 2010

> 1970's Nike waffle trainers

Nah, I think they're more likely to be Walshes.
posted by scruss at 5:59 PM on November 20, 2010

One of my brothers does a fair bit of fell running (times I've been out with him he kindly slows it down to a stumble, which is more my pace) and he finished the Dragon's Back run along the spine of Wales one year. If I make it out the car park without a tab break these days I feel pretty good.
Liked the bit near the end where Joss compares knowing the stones you run across to knowing the stones when you build a wall, plus his sound advice on bending the knees.
posted by Abiezer at 8:26 PM on November 20, 2010

palmcorder_yajna, I completely get where you're coming from. Part of what I find so admirable about Naylor is that he's so rooted in where he comes from, so at ease in the life that he lives and the choices that he has made. He knows his hills, he knows the stones (like Abiezer says), and he's part of that landscape.

In a broader sense, one of the things that interests me about fell-running is the nature of many of the greats of the sport's history - hard-working men from remote rural communities (although that's changed*) who have never had a scientific training regime, never had funding or physiotherapists and coaches and all the support that young athletes get, who walk eight miles to work in a manual job, walk eight miles home, and then run sixteen miles over the hills at night - but who are effectively operating at an elite athlete level, unrecognised, uncelebrated.

Askwith's book spends some time looking at the history of the sport, and the tensions between the 'professional' fell-runners (shepherds and ghillies competing for a small cash prize in the Guides Races that fell running came from) and the 'amateur' athletics associations who shamefully barred anyone, even kids, who had ever run for a prize but who allowed 'expenses' and 'sponsorship' way in excess of the prizes. Lots of class issues tangled up in that.

* with runners like Helene Diamantides
posted by reynir at 3:39 AM on November 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Shades of Cliff Young, too.
posted by scruss at 7:10 AM on November 21, 2010

Liked the bit near the end where Joss compares knowing the stones you run across to knowing the stones when you build a wall,

Yes, I liked the "read the stone" bit as well. It was an "oh of course" moment- Naylor has probably been repairing and building walls all his life. I had a lesson once from an Irish stone mason who would say the same thing.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:49 AM on November 21, 2010

I loved Askwith's book, he's a great writer. And after many years walking in the hills of the Lakes, Scotland, North Wales, it has his book that helped inspire a friend and me to enter the OMM for the last couple of years. It's not quite fell running of the sort I think Joss Naylor does, but it is all about moving fast over rough ground.

And as others have noted, to move up hills quickly you only need to be fit (!) but to move down hills quickly you must be immensely skilful. I was lucky enough to watch the Grasmere Senior Guides race earlier this year, and the eventual winner made a 200 m gap up in the mile or so descent.

The other fascinating book (not as well written as Askwith's, but worth it just because of the sheer matter of fact attitude the displays throughout) on a related topic is Hugh Symond's tale of how he set out to run every mountain in Scotland, England and Wales in one continuous chain in 100 days. He did it, in time, and was enjoying himself so much he headed over to Ireland just so he could keep running.
posted by grahamspankee at 9:04 AM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

The OMM might not be quite fell-running but it's a hell of a race anyway, grahamspankee, congratulations.

And Scruss, thanks for that link to the Cliff Young story, that's marvellous.
posted by reynir at 11:16 AM on November 21, 2010

Oh yes, Cumbrian accents on the front page! A la'al bit of yam.

Dogs get their own sport - Hound Trailing. Dozens of owners standing in a field shouting and whistling and shaking tins of biscuits, as a pack of dogs comes hurtling down the fell towards them is an absolutely amazing sight.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:10 AM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fantastic post, thanks so much! Fell running doesn't get much notice in the states (I guess because we don't have fells) so I'm always excited to see stuff about it.

The Bob Graham Round is another great race (and high on my bucket list).
posted by dolface at 1:55 PM on November 23, 2010

« Older ¡No Pasaran, Mother Fuckers!   |   Do bears still shit in the woods? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments