Fell race tests even the spectators

By hump-backed Wath Brow bridge, weary fell runners step gingerly down slippery banking into the icy waters of the river Ehen, swollen by overnight rain. Ah, the blessed relief as they rub and knead their calves with fingers and thumbs, jabbing deep into the muscles, soothing aches caused by scaling fellsides so steep they sometimes needed hands to help.

Suddenly, laughter. Two large twigs float past on the water, watched by the two children who had chucked them over the upstream parapet above the twin arches.

Both the kids playing poohsticks, the game AA Milne invented, and the mid-stream muscle massagers have just completed the Jarrett’s Jaunt, the annual race organised by Cumberland Fell Runners. The four to five-mile route negotiates a stiff climb up the Chimneys, where runners bunch up, and then on to Flat Fell and Dent Fell – the forested hill that fringes western Lakeland, and which, despite its “modest” 1,155ft height, Alfred Wainwright observed, offers panoramic views of the Isle of Man and Solway Firth. Wainwright called it “Dear” Dent, not an endearment heard from the recovering runners; neither from those seniors doing warming-down exercises nor by the juniors on shorter runs planned according to age. Some are so shattered they collapse on finishing, only to miraculously recover minutes later, as kids do.

Tony Greenbank’s grandson Harry finishing Jarrett’s Jaunt on Dent Fell. Photograph: Tony Greenbank

Even spectators are challenged: their view of the runners is often hidden by trees. And it is not until the seniors – some staggering with fatigue – are funnelled towards their finish line via a “lane” hedged with orange plastic netting that they are at last visible to the appreciative gathering by the bridge.

My 16-year-old grandson, Harry, skidded coming down the slippery slopes, but his actual finish time brought him in fourth in the over-21s handicap race (he is bumped up above his age group as he runs for Cumbria). My grand-daughter Ishbelle, 11, valiantly kept upright while she descended to arrive second girl home in the under-13s. Hail to all these plucky young athletes, their fledgling talent blossoming like the pearly white snowdrops dangling in drifts from upright and slender stems.