Yorkshire Times
Voice of the North
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
5:23 AM 13th September 2020

Review: Peak Performance: Ingleborough's Sporting Legacy By Victoria Benn

Victoria Benn
Victoria Benn
Victoria Benn’s wonderful new account of the history of the annual racing events of the northern Dales is more than a mere study of the facts and figures which would only, in any case, give the past a one-dimensional statistical definition. Avoiding the forensic aridity of number crunching, Ms. Benn does for regional sporting affairs what her previous book, Studs & Crooks, did for the communities who developed and adapted local shows over several generations of tenure. The human stories are the glue that binds her narrative of change and mutation: the experiences and observations recalled in interviews with those who were present at significant moments.

And it is instructive to witness the trajectory of time picked out in resonant local detail. The Three Peaks Race, whose primitive organizational structure and relatively small numbers of participants might have appealed to fell racing ‘purists’ for several decades, was a kind of yardstick of amateur endeavour, practiced often in horrific weather conditions and without the basic necessities of survival. When, in 1978, one otherwise experienced marathoner lost his way coming off Ingleborough in a blizzard, and died of hypothermia on one of the fell’s reverse slopes, the tragedy precipitated a re-calibration of route-finding and safety arrangements for future races. The chipping, tagging and GPS locators of the modern sport are commensurate with a massive shift in prevailing cultural attitudes, and it is somehow fitting, in an age of technological advancement, that one recent commentator should describe the race ‘hub’ in a Horton-in-Ribblesdale marquee as resembling ‘mission control’. Sadly, the ‘120 marshals…80-plus radio operators, rescue personnel and paramedics’ came too late for Ted Pepper, who disappeared into a heavy mist forty two years ago.

Rob Jebb Traversing Ingleborough. Image by Pete Hartley.
Rob Jebb Traversing Ingleborough. Image by Pete Hartley.
Victoria Benn’s survey of the histories of some of the most gruelling races in the UK’s calendar of pain finds a natural focal point in Ingleborough, the flat topped iconic mountain whose flanks look out panoptically over hills and Dales to the north, east and south, and west to the Irish Sea. And in a more than passing respect, the Fellsman Handbook for 1967 gives a concise encapsulation of Ms. Benn’s wider mandate:

Often gale-swept and mist-shrouded it can be most formidable, but so often is it climbed over, crawled under and played on it has become more than a mountain, it is an institution and as such cannot be ignored.

…which is no doubt why the opening sections of this fine biography of a mountain describe a kind of urge for parity, a striving to be on equal terms with its forbidding aspect – especially when backed by dark skies – through the relentlessness of physical effort. The early years of the Ingleborough race, which began beneath its shadow at Crina Bottom, a central event of Ingleton Show, were marked by an impossibly steep uphill battle, in the kind of clothing that a child of my vintage would be made to wear in ‘games’ classes at school in the ‘sixties: pumps, vests and precious little else of sporting substance. The inaugural Ingleborough Mountain Race of 1934 was won by twenty-year-old Leonard Howarth, but its popularity increased exponentially in the following years, attracting entries from all over the north, and large crowds to cheer them on. Subsequent luminaries of the fells made their names here, or reinforced existing reputations, including several who won the race on successive occasions: Robert Moorehouse, and in the postwar years, Bill Teasdale.

Gilpin Bland
Gilpin Bland
It is fitting that the people – men and women – who have helped to forge the success of Dales mountain sports over many decades are commemorated in a concluding glossary. The list of names includes the movers, shakers and significant participants of all of the events covered in this wide-ranging history, not least the great Reg Hainsworth who was not beyond the selfless sacrifice of his own leading place in the field to check-in fellow runners at the top of Ingleborough. Or Gilpin Bland, the world Cumberland and Westmorland Rules world wrestling champion, whose only mode of transport to compete at events such as Ingleton Show in the ‘twenties was a pushbike. Gilpin’s son, Bill, who still lives in Kirkby Malham, went on to match his father’s astonishing achievements.

Ushering in the modern phenomenon of ultra-running, Ms Benn’s book is right to underline the clear evolution of speed and distance which have transformed the face of fell racing in our time. The notorious Fellsman event – which commences in Ingleton – is one more illustration of the dual compulsions of both competitiveness and personal physical performance which drive runners towards the brink of the impossible, a world in which women can now reasonably claim to be on an equal footing with men. It is instructive to learn that what began its existence as one of the hardest endurance walks in the UK is now peopled predominantly by runners.

Featuring a range of exquisite images, Peak Performance is an elegantly written, thorough and engaging read. Victoria Benn is to be commended for illuminating the totemic significance of a mountain in the words and experiences of those who have struggled and battled stoically with it over many years.

Peak Performance: Ingleborough’s Sporting Legacy is published by Tickled Trout Press

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