Friday, 21 August 2015

Joss Naylor: The Way of the Warrior

Surely, I thought, Joss Naylor's heart and ambition was too big for his spare frame and spindly legs. These days nobody knocks 30 per cent off a record — indeed records are broken by fractions of one per cent. So when he told me, back in March, that he proposed to run the Pennine Way -all 270 miles of it - in three days, I really began to think that he had taken leave of his senses. After all, the existing record for this mammoth solo trip was held by Alan Heaton, one of the greatest fell runners of all time, bringing it down from four days eight hours to four days five hours. That is a fair margin to break any record by - three hours or some 12 miles. Obviously, 100 hours (four days four hours) was possible — indeed that was the target that both Bill and Alan had set themselves. But now here was Joss proposing to set himself a schedule of 72 hours.

Three months later, at midnight on Friday June 21 — the shortest night of the year — I drove into our impromptu campsite behind the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm. There was a deep silence over the little group of tents and we tried not to disturb them as we hammered our pegs into the rock-hard ground. Hard because this spring and early summer has been one of the driest in human memory. Three hours later, as the church clock chimed three, Joss strode off up the hill towards the Cheviots, to begin his long journey. He is 38 years old now, nearly six foot tall, a mere nine-and-half stone. He farms on the north side of Wastwater in the Lake District, running his sheep over Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Haycock and Middle Fell. He and his wife Mary do all the work themselves, long days and long nights of work, lambing and gathering, sheering and gathering, dipping and gathering. No wonder he is fit. And yet he still finds the time and energy to maintain his record as Britain's greatest long distance fellrunner.

There are men that can beat him in the shorter races, which means, in this context, any race that can be won in under three hours. But in the long ones, like the Vaux Mountain Trial or the Ennerdale Horseshoe or that ultimate test of endurance the Lakeland 24 hour run, Joss is the master. Having studied his technique over many years, I have always been surprised by the lack of power in his frame. There are no big muscles in his legs, no piston-like thighs, and this is perhaps why he has so little speed. What he does have is an astounding ability to whisper over rough country without seeming to expend any energy. It is the supreme quality of relaxation.

Early that Saturday morning, we, his support troops, drove around the Cheviots and approached the old Roman Fort of Chew Green from the South. The sun was just rising, sending low shafts of light across the hills, picking out the Roman fortifications so that they seemed to stand as high and proud as they did those long centuries ago. Soon the stoves were blazing and the bacon sizzling. We breakfasted well, knowing that we had to stoke our bodies for the long day ahead. And then Jeff Bull (one of the Ranelagh Harriers team that broke the Pennine Way relay record in 1971) came flying down the hill to say that Joss wouldn't stop for breakfast. He would keep on the skyline and he'd like a drink and a biscuit. We tried to catch him but we couldn't — he and his pacer Graham Dugdale were specks in the distance, sliding smoothly over the hills towards Byrness. It took him just three and-three-quarter hours to run from Kirk Yetholm to Byrness a distance of 29 miles, including the 2,676 feet of Cheviot itself.

Wainwright in 'Pennine Way Companion' (the classic guide to the Pennine Way) says of this section: This is not only the longest stretch of the Pennine Way without a habitation but one of the toughest, a test of endurance. Gird up your loins as they have never been girded up before . . . . the casualty rate is high. Strong men take a long, long day - Joss traversed it before breakfast! We were worried about his speed. If he was going to keep this up, we wouldn't be able to drive around to the pacemakers' change-over points. Besides, what about Joss? No human being could keep up such a pace for three days. Mountain Life’s (Shay Gorman, our advertising manager, and myself) took over the pacemaker's job through Redesdale Forest and along the river. I was running ahead trying to snatch some photographs and two miles of that was enough to exhaust me. Over Padden Hill and Lord's Shaw through Bellingham and Wark Forest he went, down to Hadrian's Wall. There at the Peel Farm car park, Ken Ledward and Tim Walker, who provided the main logistical support from Ken's Transit van, were brewing soup for lunch – 62.5miles completed and it was not yet mid-day.

A quick photograph or two and I dashed off to recce my next pacing section. From Walltown Crags across the A69, over Black Hill to the Kellah Burn. Waiting for Joss, up there on Wall-town Crags, one could look down and across the Border country to the North and imagine the Roman soldiers — far from home, patrolling that empty land against the wild Picts. Now the only enemy advancing from the north is the regimented teenage conifers, a dense impenetrable monotonous jungle of foreign trees. Oh, where are our native hardwoods!

Joss was slower now, just slow enough for me to keep with him and chat. He has had back trouble almost all his life and recently it began to affect the feeling in his legs. I asked him how they were. 'Dead', he said with 74 miles behind him. 'But then they were dead when I started!' The pacing schedule was working well. Masterminded by Ian Milne (another Ranelagh Harrier who was responsible for much of the planning behind the record breaking relay runs on the Pennine Way and over Offa's Dyke) the pacers took over at regular intervals of three or four miles so that Joss always had someone to talk to, someone to carry his drink and food, someone who was certain of every turn and twist of the way. The weather was perfect: overcast to keep the sun off his shoulders, not too hot and with a light wind from the north east.

The Pennine Way itself was in better condition that I have ever seen it. You could run on top of the ground instead of half way up to your knees in bog. And in the three years since I was last on the Way, the boots of thousands of walkers have worn a definite path. Now there is little doubt about the correct route. Joss was living off rock cakes and apple pie (home made by Mary) and drinking Accolade (a powder which you can get in most big chemists and which contains all the salts the body needs) and a mixture of orange and lemon squash liberally fortified with glucose. He was eating and drinking wisely — which means a little and often instead of a lot at longer intervals. There were eleven members of the support team: Ken Ledward and Tim Walker, Peter Trainor and Alan Evans from the Lakes, John Offley and Graham Dugdale from Thames Valley Harriers and five members of Ranelagh, Ian Milne, Jeff Bull, Shay Gorman, myself and with Bill Bird keeping up the tradition that past record holders of the great fell-running epics always seem to turn out to help another fellrunner to improve the record.

Stateside Joss
Already the support team were bonded together in admiration for this man Joss, who could run us all into exhaustion and then keep on for more. Through Slaggyford and Alston, over Crossfell and Great Dunn Fell he went, slower now in the evening sunlight, down into Dufton for a bath. We pitched our tents and invaded the Stag for pint after pint of well earned beer. We, the pacers, had run our 12 to 18 miles (except for Graham Dugdale who took the brunt of Joss' speed over those first 29 miles) but Joss now resting in his tent had covered 106.5miles in a total time of 18 hours 17 minutes — indeed, if you subtract his interim stops his running time was 16 hours 49 minutes, an average of between six and seven miles an hour. He stopped that night for five hours 48 minutes and at 0310 on Sunday, June 23, he was away over High Cup Nick bound for Cauldron Snout and Sour Hill Farm.

We waited at the farm for him to appear through the early morning mist. We waited and waited. And then Shay Gorman came running. 'He's pulled a muscle — he can't lift his left foot up properly'. While Ken and his boys fed Joss with breakfast, I got to work on the muscle. There was a spot high on the front of the thigh where it joins the body which when pressed sent spasms of pain shooting through his body. It seemed hopeless. The words formed in my mind: 'You've had it Joss — you won't get another 10 miles on that leg'. But I didn't say the words — not to this man! Massage and food, massage and food, and he was away again, picking up so much speed that he nearly confounded the pacemakers.

At Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England, he was still going strongly as Ken threw his Karrimor 'Instructor's Survival Bag' over him and fed him. Never has there been such a strange impromptu camp. Joss didn't want to sit down for fear of stiffening up, so tall men acted as poles, while the faithful Ken plied him with soup. I will always remember one section that bright evening — out of Gayle, past Gaudy House Farm and over the shoulder of Dodd Fell.The turf was green and springy, the sun was low and soft, and the wind whispered coolly. Wharfedale was behind us, Ribblesdale in front and all around is the incomparable Yorkshire fells. That is what the Pennine Way is all about — lifting fells and lifting feet, the quiet murmurs of the hills and good company.

I missed the last traumatic hours of that day as the pacers gathered around a tired Joss, reinforcing his iron will over Pen-y-Ghent and Fountains Fell, down to Tennant Gill Farm — 80.5miles in 21 hours. A long, long day. He was away late  at 05.10 on a bright and perfect morning with Malham Tarn and the River Aire glistening in the sunlight. Nobody, except Joss, will ever know how he kept going through that day. His left ankle was swollen, his feet half a size bigger, his lean face leaner still. We did mental calculations: he was still making four miles an hour including stops, and if he could keep that going  throughout the day and into the night then he could still — despite his injuries — arrive in Edale at 2.00 am on Tuesday morning and that would be the Pennine Way in three days.

Joss Naylor and friend oop on't fell
 But there has not yet been born the human being that could force an exhausted body beyond such barriers of endurance. At nine that night he came across Featherbed Moss (Wainwright: The place is a mess, a labyrinth of peat sponges that can be squelchily negotiated only by trial and error). Ahead was Black Hill....There is no foothold in this sea of ooze and the night. Six of us gathered around him as he set off across the peat — there was eight miles to go to the shelter of Crowden Youth Hostel and Joss now had the wear of 247 miles in his legs and heart. We blundered in the dark, missing the easiest route to the top of Laddow Rocks. One could sense the drop, one could feel the fatigue in Joss but not once did he stumble. And then there were lights, flickering up from Crowden.

I cannot name them all for I know not who they were, except that they were climbers and walkers and fell-runners come to assist this man, whose strength and will was as ten. 68.5miles, that was the distance that he walked and ran that third day in 18 hours and 35 minutes, and they were kind to him at Crowden Youth Hostel.He stayed there for a mere three hours 35 minutes, showering, eating and sleeping and then he was away at 03.20 on Tuesday morning. I last saw him at Snake Pass at five in the morning. Bleaklow behind him, Kinder Scout ahead. A mere eight-and-a-half miles to the finish.

He came down into Edale at 07.41 with 16 miles covered in four hours 16 minutes. Or, to put it all together, 271.5miles in three days four hours and 35 minutes. He had not done it in three days — but he had knocked 24 hours off Alan Heaton's record. No-one else could have done it. He ate and slept for a couple of hours, and then Ken drove him home to Wasdale......And there Joss milked the cows!
Chris Brasher: First published as ‘No one else could have done it' in Mountain Life Aug/Sep 1974