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Steel Fell Race Report, by Ben Abdelnoor

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Steel Fell Race, 17th August 2022

A common occurrence in many households is the finding of an odd sock. When Britta and I moved in together one of my stipulations of our co-habitation was that she would cease and desist from casually pairing up socks of different sizes, or pairing up two ‘left’ or two ‘right’ socks together. We’ve had a harmonious system operating ever since. Almost all of our socks are of a particular brand with specific ‘left’ and ‘right’ socks. I’ve never intentionally worn them on opposite feet but I can imagine it would be very uncomfortable. There is a drawer under my side of our bed where single, unmatched socks are placed. We refer to it as the sock orphanage, where little lost socks, currently numbering around fifteen, await a hopeful reunion.

Arriving home from work I dash upstairs to change into my shorts and vest. I grab a pair of blue socks which nicely complement my club vest. I try not to notice, as I slip my favoured pair of socks on, that someone has paired up two left socks. I’m short of time and decide I just need to grow up. Cautiously descending the stairs I’m sure my right foot is kicking out to the right, scuffing the skirting board. I grab a bumbag and pair of shoes and head out to the car.

Tonight’s race is from West Head Farm at the southern end of Thirlmere, once the home of fell running legend Gavin Bland. Gavin has returned to West Head for the first time since leaving the farm, and stands directing cars into the field whilst his wife, Lou, helps out on registration.

We’re in the middle of an unprecedented heatwave and this evening, like the previous few nights, shows no sign of relinquishing the warmth from the day. The sun, beginning a lazy move towards the horizon, throws it’s energy down on us as we stand in the field, chatting and joking, tightening our laces and casting an admiring eye upon the fells. These are the nights that I know I will hold fondly in my memories of a summer of fell racing.

Steel Fell is steep; steep in the way that it gives you 1200 feet of climbing in less than a mile. It’s not a good introduction to fell racing. I once brought my mate Aidan to do his first fell race at Steel Fell on a grim, sodden night. The rain didn’t stop. His 1-litre Toyota Yaris could barely get up Dunmail Raise, a portent, perhaps, of what was to come; Aidan could barely get up the steep climb of Steel Fell. After collecting his race number he sat in the car, glumly watching the rain thrash down and only getting out when I told him we were gathering on the start line. From the finish line he marched, grumbling, wet through and miserable, straight back to the car. Aidan’s never raced again.

I don’t feel much quicker than Aidan tonight as I head out of the field and onto the fell. Feeling sluggish on the climb I think my right foot is still struggling with it’s identity crisis; born a right foot but now identifying as a left foot. Heading across the plateau to the summit the leaders come careering towards us and I’m careful not to let my wayward right foot veer into their path. Tom Simpson (Ambleside) leads with Ali Thornton (Howgill) close behind. Despite Tom having a devil-may-care attitude to descending, it’s a tumbling Ali who gets down to the bottom first, taking the win by a matter of seconds.

Andrew ‘Scoffer’ Schofield, tonight’s race organiser, puts this race on each year, just days after organising one of the biggest fell races in the calendar, Borrowdale. Scoffer is someone I’m grateful to for keeping grassroots races like Steel Fell going. Whisper it quietly, but there is no entry fee for this race, no hidden costs, no car parking fees; all of which is to be applauded. So too is the fact there are only prizes for the first man and first woman, proving none of the hundred-strong field are racing for the accolades. The finish times, written on sticky labels, are only approximate. “We’ve got the times wrong after about the first thirty runners,” Scoffer announces at prize-giving, not an apology, just a statement of fact. “But unless anyone has an issue with them being a l’al bit out, I can’t be arsed to go back an’ work it out.” He looks out expectantly through his paint-splattered glasses at the gathered crowd to see if anyone objects; no one dares.

With some spot prizes handed out and a few rounds of applause, the evening’s entertainment draws to a close and we head to our cars. The sun, now beginning to dip behind the broad shoulders of Ullscarf casts the Wythburn valley into shadow.

It’s not until a few days later that I bring up the sock issue with Britta. It turns out that a similar pair of blue socks, both ‘right-footed’ socks, were inadvertently paired up and placed in my sock drawer. Later in the week, before I hop into bed, I announce that it’s time to revisit the sock orphanage and see whether we can reunite some lost single socks.

Ben Abdelnoor