“Getting lost is understanding that the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.” (Rebecca Solnit)

1994, and Pudsey & Bramley’s Sarah Rowell and Paul Sheard were paired up to run the infamous Howarth Hobble, 32 miles of gritstone moorland around the Calder Valley. Despite being up against some of the country’s best long-distance runners, Sarah held her own and, with half a mile left to run, she and Paul overtook the leading pair of Clayton Harriers coming over Penistone Hill before the dash down into Haworth.

Knowing victory was theirs, they ran down the lane and into the car park before taking a quick left, then right, and along the secret ginnel that Sarah had been shown by Wendy Dodds, straight ahead and… and into someone’s garden, where the pair found themselves confronted by a line of washed sheets flapping around in the wind.

Not far behind them, the Clayton lads did the decent thing and blindly followed Sarah and Paul into the garden, where the race’s four leaders ran around in a small circle before heading back out and down the actual route to the main street and the finish – where the Clayton pair outsprinted Paul and Sarah and took victory. To add insult to injury, Sarah admitted later that she’d recently recce’d that last stretch of the race.

Anyone with half an idea of Pudsey & Bramley’s reputation regarding navigation won’t be surprised, of course – but who hasn’t at some time or other found themselves utterly, hopelessly lost? When it happens during a race, it’s at best frustrating and at worst downright dangerous. But away from races, isn’t there something to be said for that creeping, anxious feeling of being completely disorientated? Isn’t being lost part of the fun?

Before this piece gets carried away with itself (and follows the wrong vest), it’s worth reiterating that being able to navigate – and specifically, to navigate using a map and compass – ought to be a pretty essential part of being a fell runner. I know runners in my own club who’ve been racing the hills and mountains of Britain for three decades without having the faintest idea of what to do with a compass; which hasn’t impaired their enjoyment for a moment. But we all know too well that the sport has a patchy history of serious injuries and even fatalities that have been caused by runners finding themselves lost.

I’d been running on the fells for only a handful of years when Clayton Harrier Judith Taylor, an experienced fell runner, well equipped and with mountain and navigational skills, tragically died during the 1994 Kentmere Horseshoe race. Judith’s death shocked me; I’d always had a gung-ho attitude to my fell running, and I was prompted to recognise that a love of running into the unknown brought with it a sense of danger.

Someone told me recently that the art of good navigation isn’t in not getting lost – we all get lost sometimes – it’s in getting unlost. Finding your way back, understanding your situation, working out what to do for the best. It seems that as long as we can learn how to get ‘unlost’ then we can embrace the adventure and wonder of getting truly lost; there’s something delightful in finding yourself in unfamiliar territory. Arguably, it’s by getting lost that we learn how not to get lost. And then there’s purposeful disorientation – where a pre-planned route is suddenly changed, where your curiosity leads you to take a path or a bearing that you hadn’t plotted on a map and hadn’t run before.

I do it up on the hills around where I live, revelling in the deliberate folly of following a path just because I have no idea where it might lead. Running in forests – where there’s no horizon to help with direction – can be completely (and fascinatingly) baffling, as can running in mist and low cloud. It’s like taking away a safety-net, it concentrates your mind, forces you to think differently.

What I can’t celebrate is the fine art of getting lost in a race due to following another runner. No. That’s not an adventure, that’s just stupidity. And we’ve all done it, and every time we do it we tell ourselves what idiots we’ve been – and then we do it again a few months later. Oh look, he’s got a local vest on, I’ll put away my map and follow him down into the wrong valley.

Johnny Parsons, another P&B runner, was running in third position at the Wadsworth Trog in about 2002 when, on the long final moorland stretch, the clag dropped and visibility was reduced to vaguely making out the runner in front. Johnny fished around in his bumbag, realising that it hadn’t been the wisest choice to carry a compass he’d literally pulled from a Christmas cracker. The compass needle was, in his own words, “spinning around like a helicopter blade.” So he did what we’d all do in the circumstances – he followed the vest in front, until after a few miles of heavy, tired running, Johnny and the vest in front were confronted by scores of runners – the middle of the field – coming towards them the opposite way out of the mist. Johnny finished 72nd.

It happens to the best. In 2008, Graham Pearce, finding himself in thick cloud during the Borrowdale championship race, decided to hang onto the Dark Peak vest in front of him – everyone knows that Dark Peak runners know how to navigate, don’t they? Graham says:

Apparently the Dark Peak runner’s sense of navigation was so good, it was better than his compass – and silly me, I followed him into the unknown. When we realised we were completely off-course, he turned to me for support. I just laughed, pointed out the colour of my vest (ie, Pudsey & Bramley), apologised and then took the opportunity to have a wee in the hope he’d sort it out while I was otherwise engaged. ‘Listen’ I said as I relieved myself, ‘there’s no point in me even getting my map out’. Suddenly out of the mist came Rob Jebb, climbing up out of the wrong valley towards us, as utterly lost as we were.”

It’s by getting lost while out on our daily runs that we hope to learn how not to get lost during a race. It’s a fact that scientists are driven by not-knowing, by the quest to find themselves in a place they didn’t already know. James Clerk Maxwell, the great physicist, said:

“Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”

Thoroughly conscious ignorance – that’s our state of mind when we suddenly find ourselves unsure of our place or direction, but knowing we have the tools to make sense of it. Being able to be somewhere completely alien, but knowing that with a compass, a map and an understanding of contours we can understand, orientate, rediscover. And what fell running shares with science is a love of discovery – many of us choose to run on the fells because on the roads there’s no sense of wonder, only of following a path someone else has set for you.

Our sense of wonder ties in neatly with all this – GPS technology is determined to strip out any chance of getting lost, and its use in our sport is likely to get more controversial as the technology gets better (the forums on the FRA website testify to how strongly people feel about it). Personally, I think that using a map and compass doesn’t take away our engagement with the land beneath our studded soles – it involves a constant dialogue between brain and feet, a dialogue full of arguments, questions and reassurances. GPS, on the other hand, aims to take this dialogue out of running, which is why I have no desire to run a race using anything more than map and compass. As a contributor on the FRA forum noted, in response to a suggestion of wearing a GPS watch to run the Borrowdale race, “If you need a GPS to get you [to the finish line] safely then perhaps you need to consider whether you should be entering races like Borrowdale.”

Adam Speed (yes, another Pudsey runner – we have a reputation to defend) tells this story:

As a training aid I treated myself to a Garmin Forerunner which has some functionality that allows checkpoints and routes to be plotted, which should enable much easier navigation by just having to glance at my wrist and follow the pre-determined route. The 23-mile Rombalds Stride was coming up and I saw my chance to try it out in the heat of battle, and having sourced the grid references of all the checkpoints from the internet, I carefully plotted them onto the Garmin.

The day arrived and I teamed up with Andrew Birkinshaw, as he knew his way around the course. We trotted round the first 20 miles no problem. On the final slog up The Chevin I got a little bit ahead of Andrew, and as the Garmin had been spot on all the way round I decided to press on to the next checkpoint. Quite a few people were taking a different line, but I’d be alright; I had my new technology to tell me where to go. After a good while without seeing any runners or stud marks in the mud I decided I must be heading in the wrong direction and asked a dog walker if he knew the whereabouts of the Quarry car park – the next checkpoint – and he responded by simply pointing his finger back over my shoulder. I trudged back and eventually found the final checkpoint, three miles from my carefully-plotted route. In the post mortem I discovered that the checkpoint details I had taken from the internet related to the old course. Two lessons learned: recce, and use a map and compass.”

Away from race days, though, getting lost really can be an essential part of the joy of fell running. Finding yourself in a strange place, not knowing which way you’re facing, wondering where you went off-course – whether by accident or design – is a great way to learn the essential skill of getting unlost. It’s also a good way to test your ability to cope with the unknown.

The French Situationists declared their love for getting lost in a philosophy they called ‘Dérive’ (‘the unplanned journey’) which was basically the idea of losing yourself in a city, ‘directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings.’ It meant walking to a street corner and turning left or right depending on how you felt, not what you know about the area. In this way you were more likely to come across somewhere unknown, somewhere fascinating; and you would, inevitably, end up being lost. The Situationists were fed up of the way life was made up of a series of pre-planned experiences, everything was mapped out for us – the ‘Dérive’ sought to undermine this.

Author Rebecca Solnit explores the philosophy of getting lost in her book ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’. She writes of the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were among the first people to champion mountain walking as a leisure activity – Coleridge famously made the first recorded ascent of Sca Fell Pike – and their 30-miles-a-day rambles over Lakeland’s highest peaks were often over unplanned routes. Solnit writes:

“Getting lost is not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.”

I love doing races I haven’t done before. I feel like I’m being invited by a race organiser to discover something, and somewhere, new; to see a snapshot of an area that I can return to later, in my own time, to explore. During a race we’re numbered and identifiable, we wear club vests and appear on results sheets. But later, alone, we can return to those race routes and wilfully go the wrong way, wondering where the hell we might end up. Away from racing, getting lost can be a guilty joy – you can keep secret how stupid you were, up to your thighs in the middle of a peat bog heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction – but in a race there’s the certainty that everyone will find out. We presumably all know that gradual, dawning realisation of disorientation, that creeps downwards from your brain, past the tightening pit of your stomach, before it finally brings your legs to a halt. Some will panic and blunder on, this way and that, climbing through brambles or over dry-stone walls, some will carefully re-trace their own studmarks, others will freeze in a cluster of self-doubt: ‘Where am I? Where’s North? Where’s home? What do I do? Who am I? Is there a God?’

The best solution, racing or not, is to embrace it. Gather it in and accept it. Being lost doesn’t make you a loser, it reinforces the reason you’re doing this – it says, in a hail of metaphors, change plans. Adapt. Try new routes. Run off the beaten path. See what’s over there. Explore. Take a chance. And if you get lost often enough, you’ll start to learn how to get unlost, and you’ll begin to understand how to find your way to somewhere familiar, to the finish line, to home. And you’ll feel all the better for the detour that you made.

– Boff Whalley


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of The FellRunner magazine