In the Club – Twenty Years in Blue and Green by Dan Duxbury
It is twenty years now since I became a member of this great club, so thought I’d put pen to paper and reflect on my time as an Ambleside runner.
As a student at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside from 1993 to 1997, I spent most of my time climbing and avoiding doing any work. Shaking off a hangover with the odd run in an effort to stay in shape was the sum total of it, and I spent the time largely unaware of the fell running scene that surrounded me.
It was putting on my trainers to trot up to Grizedale Tarn to meet some friends doing the Coast to Coast, that opened my eyes to running in the hills and I started doing a bit. Months later, on the suggestion of Geoff Clayton (then caretaker at college), I entered the Rydal Round as my first fell race.
Finding myself with Geoff on the climb up Nab Scar, my legs and lungs were bursting with a new kind of hurt that would become familiar over the years to come. As we topped out, Geoff turned to me and announced that we’d cracked it and the worst was over. Lying bastard. I spent the rest of the climbs over Great Rigg and Fairfield cursing Geoff, who by all accounts was one of the loveliest men ever to walk the Earth, until I began the long descent and all was forgiven. I loved racing and was hooked.
It was a journey to the Dunnerdale race that same year that provided a chance meeting with Chris Rhodes who encouraged me along to join the club on a Tuesday night from the Rugby Club. I remember walking in to that grotty changing room on some awful December evening to find a bunch of scruffy, miserable old men being unpleasant to each other. That’s not quite true though. They weren’t all old, and years later their unpleasantness would get a rebrand as ‘banter’.
We jogged and farted our way out on the Under Loughrigg Road and I listened to their irreverent chatter and piss taking. As we turned left towards Grasmere, the pace quickened and slowly the talk subsided. Through the village people dropped back and at some point I found I couldn’t hold the pace and the group ran away from me. We regrouped at the top of Red Bank for what I hoped would be a warm down jog back to Ambleside. No bloody chance. It was right then that an invisible starter shouted an inaudible ‘GO!’. The race home began,
and there would be no more waiting.
Through that Winter I enjoyed regular training with the club and I guess now the technical name for those efforts would be ‘progression’ runs. Back then they were staple AAC Winter club nights. Usually about ten to fifteen of us: Rhodesy, Stu Shutt, Sean McKenna, Dave Holcroft, Flez, Roger, Barry, Norman Walker, Eric Parker, Dave Owen, Colin Sandham, Al Stevenson and others. About 10 miles, steady for the first 2, then ramp it up to an all-out race back to the Rugby Club for the finale. I couldn’t get enough, and they didn’t half get you fitter.
I loved the club and the sport immediately. Climbing had been my obsession for years but this immediately replaced it. Dirt cheap, no bullshit, no grades, no posing (Trail, Ultra and Sky were still years away) and, crucially, you could be good at it with skinny arms. I started training properly. I say properly; not a lot of thought went into it initially. To say there was conflicting advice from my vastly more experienced clubmates would be an understatement. Should I ‘just run loads’ or follow the ‘less is more’ philosophy and apply a bit of structure? Actually thinking back, I am not sure anyone at the club followed the less is more philosophy; so run loads it was.
Those of you who know me can imagine my joy when I first realised that, as well as running hard and taking the piss out of each other, the men of Ambleside liked to drink. It would be in my first year as a club member on a minibus trip to Whernside to do a champs race that I first discovered this. After racing round the fells in Yorkshire and sinking a couple of pints after, we boarded the bus to meet up with Robin after he finished the 3 Peaks CX race (finishing 9th in his first effort). We crawled back through the village pubs of North Yorkshire getting slowly sozzled. I remember feeling like the new kid on this trip but already felt a part of the club. In their gruff, understated way, the club members I had got to know were incredibly welcoming and I was starting to feel like I belonged. At the end of a long day, I staggered from the minibus at the Market Cross with a huge smile on my face, determined to get fitter and contribute to the team effort.
Around that time, 97 – 99, the men’s team was in the Doldrums a little after enjoying massive success through the early 90s when we were British champions 3 years running, as well as having individuals winning various other honours (Roger Bell, Mark Rigby, Keith Anderson, Ben Evans, Mick Hoffe). The talk on club nights was mostly reminiscing on these glory days and the tales usually revolved around Keith. Keith is our very own obese chain smoking chef who lived in Grasmere, discovered running in his 30s, and was British Champion 2 years later. Something like that. By all accounts his impact on the club went far beyond his own remarkable achievements. He got the men training hard together and our best men runners in those days would be among the best our club has ever had. These runners, who brought success to what by now felt very much like my club, quickly became heroes to me, even though I hadn’t met most of them. Robin Jamieson, Mark Flemming, Mark Rigby, Jon Atkinson, Guy Russell, John Hooson, Mick Hoffe, Roger Bell. Legends. A quick scan of the Fellrunner results section back in the early 90s will show you just how fast these men ran around the same courses we do now. Prepare to be amazed.
In 1998 quite a few of these key players from those glory days weren’t racing anymore and I remember it being hard for then captain Stu Shuttleworth to get decent teams to Champs races (sound familiar?). That said, we did regularly finish in the top 5 teams in Champs races and if I remember correctly were 3rd in the English champs in 1999. We also were regularly in the top 4 at the Hodgson relay, so not too shabby on reflection.
My own running improved quickly at first and a big part of what motivated me was racing for the club at Champs races. In 1998 I had my first top 10 which was in the old Winter League race up and down Helm Crag. This milestone came after a night up partying with no sleep at all – those were the days. I came 7th on a course that it is fair to say suited me. A steep walk from the off, with pretty much no opportunity for running, then a turn at the top and a fast, steep, technical descent. All in under 15 minutes. The following year I was 2nd at the same race. After leading for the whole climb, a super fit Gavin Bland, who arrived late and set off a minute after everyone, breezed past me like I was stood still and showed me I still had a long way to go.
I did manage to win a couple of low key races in 1999 but I was under no illusions about my ability, in champs races I was struggling to make the top 50. Running with the club on Tuesdays and Sundays were key sessions in my training week and I was continuing to improve.
It was around 1999/2000 that the club got a new influx of runners that would lead to renewed success. Jane Reedy, Si Stainer, Nick Sharp, Jon Deegan, Graham Patten, Gary Thorpe, Neil Ashcroft, Tony Smith and Dan Golding all joined around this time. These runners would become my peers in the club and also prevent me from ever getting in the A team at relays again. There was more travel to Champs races through these years, where now, looking back, I can more readily recall how many pints of Stella Ashy had the night before, than how the races unfolded. Chlachnaben 8, Moel Siabod 10, Donard Comedagh 7, Peris 5 (taking it easy); and he usually beat me.
I also got stuck into some of the classic long Lakes races and remember my first meeting with Gary as I staggered over Dow Crag in my first Duddon race having set off stupidly fast (6th at Wrynose) and blown up spectacularly. He tried to force feed me a Mars bar – I was having none of it. Mercifully on that occasion he spared me one of his anecdotes, but boy would he make up for it later. You will all have heard Gary’s fellrunning tales. If you know him well, you may have heard them a couple of times. I have run with Gary a lot and have heard them all at least 15 times. The Jura one, the cross country one, the Borrowdale one, the Joss Naylor one. Every one is a classic. Why do I still enjoy them? What is wrong with me?
Probably my fondest memories of racing through the early 2000s were the relays. Around then we had a huge strength in depth in the men’s team and regularly turned out an A and B team at the Hodgson. Our A team were always in the mix with Borrowdale, Dark Peak and Pudsey for the first 4 positions. We were even close to winning it a couple of times, even with a 2 minute lead going in to Leg 3 one year, but it wasn’t to be. Stu Shutt will tell you more about that one.
I was a permanent fixture in the B team, who were always in the top 7 or 8. I had some storming runs over the then Leg 4 (Dove Crag) with various people, including one particularly memorable one with Stephen Savage (the club’s sole junior hotshot back then) where we pulled through from 10th to finish 5th with a mean display of descending. Our men’s teams were 2nd and 5th that year, a result we would mirror at the FRA British relay in Langdale organised by our club in 2002 (I think). On that day I did the navigation leg for our B team with ‘ringer’ Martin Bagness, British Champion orienteer and coach to the national team. Naturally I left the map work to him. Imagine then, my horror on the first climb as he revealed to me, ‘Were in the wrong f***ing gully!’. He did redeem himself over the rest of the course and all was well in the end.
It was not all happiness and laughter at the relays though. Etched on my brain is one particularly awful run I had at the FRAs at Alva for our A team. I was trusted with leg 1 having shown some form at the Ben (1hr 43) and the Shires (2hr 2) the month before. We stayed at Mark Rigby’s in Glasgow and took it easy on the beers. We had a strong team. A medal was more than possible. The leg didn’t really suit me, but I was expecting to have a good run nonetheless. No chance. I never got going and struggled round to finish about 20th. There can be nothing worse than having a bad run on leg 1 of a relay. Knowing that everyone is waiting eagerly and that with every minute that passes their disappointment grows. I shudder at the memory even now.
Our senior men cashed in on this depth with an unexpected win in the British Champs in 2003. I’ll leave Gary to fill in the details of how it was won down in Wales, just make sure you’ve got a spare half hour before you ask him. Now that I am getting past the point of no return performance-wise, I can say with some confidence that my best results came in these years. I placed in the top 10 at a lot of the classic Lakes races and some top 30s in the Champs races that suited me.
Children and a ‘proper’ job came along in the mid 2000s and running became a little less carefree. It also heralded a time when I became more involved in the organisational side of the club. One thing I love about our club is that we have the best races anywhere and that, as a small club, we punch well above our weight in terms of what we give back to the sport through these races. Fell running is a great sport and it is only what it is because of the club structure and people giving back through organising and marshalling. The ‘old boys’ of the club who have been at the heart of making things happen for many years have always been an inspiration to me. Selwyn, Tony, Roger and John Brock have all given lots to the sport through what they have done as organisers and on the committee and I enjoy being part of the next generation of club members making things happen. When I first joined the club, it was proudly informal and I remember the outcry when the AGM went beyond half an hour for the first time. I love this ‘no nonsense’ spirit and think it is alive and well in the club still.
The past decade has seen a few notable changes in our club. Our junior section is a sight to behold. All those kids with their Ambleside vests on training hard up on Todd Crag is enough to make a sentimental old man all dewy eyed. The future is bright. Eleanor, Nikki, Kate and all the other coaches do such a great job. I’m proud that my own kids are now a part of that and representing the same club as me at races. Another more recent development is that our women have brought massive success in the form of multiple Champs wins. The way they pull together and answer the call for the greater good is something the male side of the club could learn from. Frustrated men’s captains from the last ten years would agree with me there I’m sure. Eh Ben, Tom, Todd?
The club now has a committee that meets occasionally and a state of the art website, Facebook group and Twitter account. Somewhere along the way the classic ‘Seven Hills’ of Ambleside became Nine.
WTF? The optimum Sunday run start time is still proving elusive, and don’t get me started on the Tuesday daytime runs!
A change for me personally is that at some unspecified time in the last ten years I went from following the older guys round the best lines on the fell, to being the older guy with ‘the knowledge’ that people are happy to follow on club runs. How did that happen? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it though.
I feel nothing but optimistic when I look to the future of the club. The juniors are going from strength to strength. We have healthy numbers of seniors with new members joining all the time. Jack is doing a sterling job so far of rallying the faster men and he, Sarah and Michelle are revamping the training side of things, which will only make the club stronger. I hope that as a few of the older members of the club relinquish their responsibilities, we find other members to step up and take on the, sometimes thankless, organisational roles that keep the club ticking over and moving forward.
As for me and my running, next year will be the year. I will be back. Just watch. My plan is to smash the Winter training and emerge reborn in the Spring; light, strong and fast. How’s that for a plan? So watch out clubmates…there’s life in the old dog yet. I’m coming to get you!