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A Junior’s Eye View – stories from the Wansfell Race by Eleanor Knowles

A Junior’s Eye View – stories from the Wansfell Race

by Eleanor Knowles, Ambleside AC

On 27th December 2019, a record number of 180 hopeful happy souls registered for the annual post-Christmas uphill stomp, the Wansfell Race.

Chloe Rylance: ‘As a younger junior, I remember being envious of all my older teammates who were able to compete in the Wansfell race, and even now, although this year was my 3rd year competing in this event, I still experienced the same pre-race excitement. To me, this race has always been a kind of ‘fun run’ where there is no pressure on my performance and although some may say it’s not the right attitude, I just rocked up and ran the race with minimal preparation.’

An innocent-sounding two miles in length, this race has probably caught out many an adventurous holiday-maker. You can picture the scene: slightly optimistic, outdoor-loving friends full of beer and bravado in the Golden Rule; Christmas cheer stoking a rash commitment to ‘give it a go’; all glory awaits in their fell racing debut. But this is no beginner’s race.

James Bowen: ‘Even though I knew this was a tough course due to the amount of climbing, I was keen to enter the race as it would be the first time I was old enough to compete. Living in Ambleside and training with Ambleside Juniors, I had run on Wansfell quite a few times and so I felt confident that I could manage the course. In fact I had been up there just two days earlier on a training run.’

The race starts with the unforgiving tarmac ascent of Stockghyll Lane. Then the briefest respite from lung-busting gradients at the fell gate. And all too soon the unrelenting, thigh-burning climb to the rocky summit of Wansfell.   More than a mile directly up.  “And they call this a running race?” you hear our optimistic friends from the Golden Rule splutter whilst they grind upwards.

Chloe Rylance: ‘I was surprised to see the start line stacked with so many big names, but this only fuelled my anticipation to see how I would compare to some of the leading seniors. Instilled with the true fell runner’s competitive attitude, I also agreed to a bet on the start line with Michael Stevens (Clayton-Le-Moors) as to who would finish the race first, in conjunction with our ongoing tally.’

Although any route is allowed, most ascend by the stone path and then descend slightly to the north.

Charlie Allmond:  ‘I was a long way back at the start line so had to sprint with James [Bowen] through a lot of slower traffic to try to get up the field into a competitive position. Despite gaining a number of places during the road climb section, I had to queue at the stile where the race heads onto the hill.’

This preferred descent avoids the stone path which is treacherous at speed and instead takes the equally steep unmarked grassy descent which is also treacherous at speed but at least provides a soft landing for the inevitable trips and slides.

Chloe Rylance: ‘The race start at Wansfell is always pleasant as the usual hustle and jostling of eager juniors is minimised, and I’m able to ease myself into the race. The climb, well known to all my friends by the amount I complain, is definitely my least favourite part. But despite this, I managed to stay fairly high up the field. Towards the end of the ascent, I was caught by a few other female competitors but I still had the security of the fast descent to regain my position.’

From personal experience, if you don’t lose places to rivals on the climb, on account of feeling heavy after Christmas excess, then you certainly will lose to them on the return when only the expert technical descent-master will triumph.

Charlie Allmond: ‘I felt strong on the ascent, gaining quite a few positions and even caught glimpses of the front runners at some points. I felt that I was pushed very hard with the pace on the climb but was feeling good. I accelerated up to the summit and got to the turn point with some relief and somewhere around the top ten.’

Despite all this, the race has a lower age limit of just 14-years-on-the-day. And whilst the headline results in 2019 showed fantastic wins for Ambleside AC’s senior men and women plus a new ladies record, to me the standout story of the 2019 Wansfell Race was the fabulous turnout of club juniors, many of them racing with seniors for the first time.  So in this article I’ve shared some stories and dramas of the race from the perspectives of Ambleside AC junior runners, some squeaking into the 14-years age limit by a matter of days.

Sophie Rylance: ‘I was a mixture of both nervous and excited to be racing my first Wansfell race. I knew I couldn’t beat my sister Chloe, so as long as I finished and was ahead of my friend and clubmate Maesie, I would be happy.’

Over the years the Wansfell race has enjoyed the full gamut of Lake District weather. It has seen Christmas mists, storms, rain and blue skies. It has witnessed the path lethally spiked with ice; old wet snow to ‘aid’ the fast grass descent; and brilliant new snow to mask ice-rink conditions on the lane.  It has given far-reaching mountain views, misty moody atmospheric views, and no view at all.

Chloe Rylance: ‘The descent, also well known by all my friends to be my favourite part, this year consisted of the usual stupidly steep, grassy slope saturated with the previous rain and a few rocky outcrops, all of which forced us to gather considerable speed. Thankfully, I managed to overtake some other athletes without falling over, and I even gained sight of Michael Stevens, much to his distress.’

This year the weather was tame – no transport issues, no snow in the forecast, no mist. And although wet, conditions underfoot were largely good. It was even a little too warm for spectator coats on the brisk walk up the lane.  The easy weather will certainly have helped generate the bumper turnout at this year’s race, but the Ambleside AC Junior runners would have been on the start line no matter what – they were ready!

Maesie Evans: ‘As the start time of the race approached I was a little nervous, but surprisingly not as nervous as I expected, given that it was my first senior fell race. Running the road section at the start of the race was actually a lot better than I had imagined it to be.’

I stood beside the path just over the fell gate to watch the race both out and back. This is very much my local – I’ve notched up many reps on the Stockghyll Lane and live less than one minute easy jog from the hallowed tarmac. I’d be racing myself, but a back injury has thrown me out for the foreseeable. So what did I see as the head of the race approached?

Chloe Rylance: ‘It was really nice to see how the race highlighted the strength of the fell running community. During the race I gathered lots of support from my fellow competitors, as well as the equally dedicated spectators cheering for me.’

Well, aside from the mild excitement of two Ambleside senior men in the leading three, I was really looking for the first of our juniors up the road.  It was 18 year old Joe Edmondson, looking taller, and self assured. It is certainly one of the stand-out aspects of involvement in the junior club – witnessing literally the growth of young runners.  Joe was chasing senior team mate Tom Simpson and was striding away just ahead of leading lady Sarah McCormack.  Joe returned in incredible form, floating to an amazing 10th overall (22.33).  “I’m not sure where that came from”, he said on his cool down jog. He was beaming, and rightly.

Sophie Rylance: ‘Before the race I did my usual warm up with stitch stretches, and made sure I was at the start in good time. [This wasn’t hard. Sophie lives approximately 30 seconds jog from the startline!] At the start line I didn’t know many people and Maesie had gone to the back to run with her dad, so I tucked in behind Chloe and Michael.’

Next over the stile emerged 14-year old Charlie Allmond, dwarfed in size by the runners around him but this was of no concern to him. Charlie had sneaked into the race by just 10 days, his 14th birthday falling a week before Christmas. At this stage in the race he had total concentration on his face and was chasing hard on his senior teammate and leading-lady Sarah McCormack.  Charlie is an accomplished, confident and highly ambitious runner, self-contained and totally focused.  He is also a handy artist, and his painting of a fell runner appears with this article.  Back at the stile, and Sarah returned with a huge new ladies record (22.54). But by this point she had dropped Charlie who was running still, but holding his arm painfully, visibly upset (27.16).  There had been some drama in those twenty minutes.

Charlie Allmond: ‘I started descending well for 100m or so but suddenly a really sharp painful stitch developed across my stomach resulting in me having to hobble down the hill in considerable pain. I considered giving up but was determined to finish the race. A few runners could see that I was struggling and asked if I was ok which I really appreciated as it showed me the spirit of fell runners.’

Just behind Charlie came Harry Bowen, striding with his characteristic long-armed, easy-looking style, bouncing uphill.  But where was twin brother James, who had been warming up earlier? Another drama there, between start line and stile.

James Bowen: ‘After my usual warm up, Charlie, Harry and I found ourselves at the back of the runners on the start line. I felt fine as we made our way past some runners on the road but as I approached the base of the fell, I realised that I was struggling and my arms just seemed to stop working. I can’t even explain why I struggled but I pulled out before even getting onto the fell, and watched as Charlie and Harry pulled away onto the hillside. Surprisingly, given the circumstances and that it was the first year I was old enough for this event, I wasn’t too disappointed. There’s always another race sometime soon.’

The Bowen twins having grown up with our club, being such a regular feature of races and dominating their age category in many of them, it was hard to remember that this was the first year they were old enough to compete here at Wansfell.  They are often to be seen pounding the streets of Ambleside of an evening, steely-faced and serious-minded, displaying their impressive road cadence, “like Ambleside’s resident Kenyans out training”, as I once heard them described.  Back at the stile, Harry was gliding comfortably on his return, his expression as always giving nothing away (25.20).

Harry Bowen:  ‘Even though in some ways this was ‘just another race’, it was my first fell race for a while and the first time that I was old enough to compete in this race.  I knew the course from training runs with my Ambleside AC team mates, so I knew what to expect and was hoping that I could finish in the top thirty runners. After setting off from the back of the field with team mate Charlie, I managed to get past some runners on the road and tackled the climb to the summit. I don’t really think about very much when I’m running. I just run and see what happens! The downhill was trickier than the uphill as it was very slippery, but I managed to pass some runners on the way down and I came into the finish just within the top thirty. I was pleased with my finishing position and glad to have completed the race.’

Next of the Ambleside Juniors to emerge over the stile was seasoned racer, 2019 England-vest-wearer, and neighbour on my street, 16-year old Chloe Rylance.  Her unmistakable long-legged slightly forward-reaching gait saw her stride confidently past, with her usual smile and even time for a wave. Over her years with the club Chloe has triumphed individually as U13, U15 and U17 champion. Like all athletes, she has faced some easier and some more difficult seasons and she has come through all these to emerge as a runner with poise, maturity, modesty and strength. She is very much loved and admired by the younger runners in our team – a fabulous role model.   I imagined at this early stage of the race she would be feeling calm and competitive, with her eyes on some target runners whom she had in mind to beat. On the climb Chloe looked comfortable alongside some good senior talent, and she returned in excellent form (26.14).

Chloe Rylance: ‘I finished strongly with an unusual sprint finish, to the considerable surprise of my mum, but Michael just managed to hold onto his lead by a mere one second,  therefore bringing him to a 4-3 win in our tally. I also managed to achieve first U18 girl and scraped into 5th overall woman which I was very pleased with in such a strong field.’

Two of our younger runners were next in the pack.  First was 14-year old Sophie Rylance, the picture of concentration and calm. She was striding with an impressively quick cadence given the steepness of the slope, and like sister Chloe threw a brief smile for the shouting spectators before switching her face back to ‘on’ mode.  I could only imagine that the build-up had been stressful; the prospect of a first race against seniors with older sister Chloe also on the start-line, plus the high level of expectation from team members, who know what a talent she is, and who would be watching out for her performance.

Sophie Rylance: ‘I was quite surprised by how slow the adults set off compared to the normal junior race starts that I’m used to. But this helped me feel quite relaxed – not having to start with a sprint. Getting to the bridge half way up the climb seemed to take forever. But after that I reached the top quicker than I had realised, and I could finally start the descent. The part I had been looking forward to!’

Sophie returned as fresh-looking as she’d seemed on the ascent, bounding across the final field with typical fierce Rylance concentration.  She practically galloped down the road, providing a huge gazelle leap to please the crowds (30:34).

Sophie Rylance: ‘It was a slippy and therefore fast descent allowing me to catch and overtake Jo Simpson, Ambleside FU23, who I had been battling with to the summit. To finish the race I leaped the cattle grid and sprinted to the line overtaking the last few people I could.’

Next came Maesie, the youngest of our juniors on the startline, who celebrated her 14th birthday just six days before race day. Maesie is an old-school fell runner – enjoyment comes first; muddier is mightier; it’s-a-hill-get-over-it (no drama); the more chat the better.  Before the start Maesie had been calmly warming up, jogging on the lane with her parents (also clubmates) Kat and Jim.  I noticed her Dad looking mildly uneasy (post Christmas virus he said) and I wasn’t sure whether the prospect of one of his fit, fast daughters in the race today had lessened or added to his alarm!  And so I wondered what Evans family drama might occur up on the fell.  In typical Evans fashion, Maesie crossed the line possibly the most cheerful finisher (36:18).

Maesie Evans: ‘I had been up Wansfell many times before. But for this race my Dad said he’d run with me if I wanted. I said yes, but on this race he couldn’t keep up. It made me smile and keep my pace when I heard my family cheering me on at the stile. Even better my 6 year old cousin shouting to me that I was just ahead of my parents. I managed to keep ahead of them both throughout the race and I am happy with my performance.’

Ambleside AC’s junior team has gone from zero to hero in just 8 years. We restarted a long-dormant junior section from scratch in 2011 and were crowned FRA champions in July 2019.  Led by myself and Kate Ayres, both new to junior coaching back then, on 5th May 2011 nine totally inexperienced youngsters aged between 6 and 10 set out from the Ambleside Parish Centre for our inaugral training session. There was little to hint at the wonderful success to come for our little club. But on that first Thursday, one of the 7-year olds setting out to play a warm-up game of ‘fetch the gogos’ in Rothay Park would go on to wear an England vest in the 2019 season, and would add points to our 2019 championship winning FRA series.  Many, many fantastic new runners have joined us since that first outing eight years ago, but to look back and see that one of our originals has travelled the whole way with us has been truly wonderful.

Our success has been built gradually. We have grown numbers in a managed way, secured seniors and parents as coaches to support our growth, and created a strong junior family atmosphere.  And through all the years, from the early days right up to our Championship winning celebrations of 2019, we realise we have also built a strong ethos that unpins everything. Our secret weapon is being the club with the perfect balance – the balance between a relaxed atmosphere and a professional atmosphere at training nights; between training as fun and training as hard work; between running for pleasure and racing; between racing for our own personal sense of achievement and racing for the team; and between knowing that your pace is perfect, and knowing you can work harder and get faster.

Charlie Allmond: ‘A few people suggested that I should pull out of the race but it was important to me to finish despite the pain and being further down the field. I was relieved when I got to the finish and was desperate to lie down due to the pain. I was disappointed with my position but happy to be able to finish the race and push through.’

We have the whole range of runners in our junior club; fast, normal-speed, competitive, shy, sociable, newbie, super-experienced, does-all-the-sports, does-no-other-sports, loves-stretches-and-planks, hates-stretches-and-planks, descenders, climbers, cross-country lovers, long legs, short legs, ultra-fast-feet, lumbering feet, mud seekers, clean-shoes-all-the-way-ers, ooh-look-at-my-new-gear types, relay lovers, Grandma’s footsteps experts, training plan users, and once-a-week runners. We love their every quirk!

Charlie Allmond: ‘On reflection I am happy that I managed to complete the race and realise that these challenges are just part of racing and that you can learn so much when things don’t go to plan.’

We believe, and the youngsters believe us, that everyone should have the confidence to race, that everyone counts no matter their speed.  We know that every race is experience, it’s ‘in the bank’.  We also know, and the juniors believe us, that those not winning today, those who work hard and just manage to cling on to the back of the field are working just as hard and are gaining just as much for themselves and contributing just as much to the team, as those who find themselves at the head of the field.    The runner who has a bad day but sticks in there to complete the race, that’s the type of runner we nurture in our team.  For our team, it’s all about resilience, pride, and hard work.

And our team almost all turn up to races and they almost all smile for the spectators.  Our 2019 Championship winning season saw over 40 different individuals turn up and race in at least one of the FRA Championship races. That’s over two thirds of the runners on our books taking part in the FRA Champs in one season. And most of the others raced at least one event closer to home. We believe in racing for all at Ambleside AC!

Chloe Rylance: ‘Overall, the race was thoroughly enjoyable and the constantly increasing participation clearly highlights that this is a view held by the majority. I’d also like to say, on my own behalf and I’m sure the whole field, a big thank you to Michelle Foxwell (Ambleside AC) for constantly putting on such an exceptional race. See you next year…’