FELL RUNNING LEGEND
David Fearnhead talks to fell-runner Shaun Livesey who, at his peak, won major national championships and wore the vest of England and GB. Photography: Cavan Smyth
The Long Duddon fell race is not for the faint of heart. It’s an energy-zapping 18-mile course which rises over 6,000ft around the head of Duddon Valley in the Lake District. It is a long ‘A’ category fell race and a counter in both the English and the British Fell Running Championships. It’s a race Shaun Livesey would dearly love to win in June 1988.
As the runners gather on the start line, he finds himself next to a legend of the sport. Billy Bland is widely regarded as the best long fell runner of all time. His name accompanies records still held today, but in 1988 he’s Shaun’s competition and as Billy points out to him: “You can’t be considered a fell runner until you’ve won a long Lakeland race.”
Perhaps it was those words that prompted Shaun to take a fateful early lead, putting distance between himself and Billy: “Long races are often more of a waiting game,” Shaun reflects. “Billy took a better line at about 11 miles into the race, taking a large group with him and relegating me to 14th position.”
For those unaccustomed to fell running, think of trying to run a marathon uphill, on a twisting and pitted lane in a landscape carved by glacial ice and ancient volcanos, all whilst navigating with a map and compass. The mass-start competitors have to pass through a number of manned checkpoints over ascent and decline. Races can range from one mile to 30 and in all weather. And when Shaun says all weather, he means it.
In 1983 he was one of the few to finish the Kentmere Horseshoe fell race.
“Just before the summit we were hit with a whiteout. Most of the field abandoned the race and turned back for home,” recalls Shaun, who was unaware of that at the time, due to the snow storm around him.
“I could see nothing but white. About halfway round I came across another runner, we briefly discussed pulling out due to the extreme conditions, but we couldn’t find a way off due to the heavy snow, leaving the only option to carry on and finish the race. With more experience I would have pulled out before the first summit. It was down to luck that I managed to get back at all.”
Born in Clayton-le-Moors in 1963, Shaun moved to Clitheroe, aged 10, and went to Ribblesdale Secondary School (now High School). He had little to no interest in sport, and if he did it was individual sports such as watching tennis or cycling.
Team sports were never on his radar. At 15 he scraped into the school cross-country team for the Ribble Valley Schools Championship in which he came last. Most would have quit at this point and said to themselves, ‘running is not my thing’, but not Shaun. Shaun joined the Ribble Valley Harriers, a nationally recognised and well-respected running club with some very talented juniors coached by George Wrathall.
“Training was embarrassing,” admits Shaun. “I was one of the older ones in the club, and generally at the back trying not to lose contact. I raced in the Mid-Lancs Cross-Country League, which is a series of six races run over the winter, after my first two races coming 99 (out of 103) and 101 (out of 105) George asked me why I ran. I replied that I enjoyed it – he said that was good as I had no real talent for running,” Shaun adds. “He said it in a nice way, not in a put down way.”
Races three and four continued in much the same vein until Shaun discovered something quite by accident. He was good at running uphill, and by good, very good indeed.
It was a race in Todmorden, a town perennially confused by whether it’s in Lancashire or Yorkshire, that Shaun was to have his epiphany.
The course on the Calder is renowned as difficult due to its hills, and as Shaun reached the highest point of the race, he experienced something he’d never experienced before. He was leading. And so, in this most momentous of moments, Shaun stopped running.
“I panicked, not knowing what to do at the front, so I dropped back into the pack by the end of the first lap. Second lap I found myself back in front at the highest point again, this time I stayed there managing to finish in the top three.
“My next Mid-Lancs race was at Kendal where I finished third again, against a good field. George thought I had a talent for running uphill, so he took me to a fell race at the Hodder Show at Dunsop Bridge. At only 16 years old I was running in the senior race and I was with the leading pack at the top. I finally finished 10th, as I struggled to run down a steep hill at speed.”
The winner that day was the inappropriately named Harry Walker: “Harry was regarded as the best fell runner of his time. He was typical of the sport in general. Relaxed, friendly and very humble, which for me was surprising as he was clearly admired and looked up to by everyone in the sport.”
Years later it was Harry Walker, then watching as a spectator, whose calming words during the 1986 Yorkshire Three Peaks Fell Race helped Shaun to one of his biggest wins.
However, that first fell race years before, impacted Shaun in another way.
“Running in stunning locations over mixed terrain made the sport very attractive in comparison to racing around a track, or cross-country laps around fields, or road racing around streets in built-up areas.
“Running on the fells requires concentration. The terrain can be quite rough, if unmarked you need to ensure you take the right line, watching for breaks. I found on track, road and cross-country my concentration could drift. I would start thinking about mundane things, or get a song stuck in my head.”
Shaun’s burgeoning success at fell running brought him to the attention of John Wild. A Captain in the RAF, who’d represented England at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in the steeplechase and he had also won elite international cross-country races such as the Cross de San Sebastián and the Juan Muguerza. In 1981 he won the British Fell Running Championship at his first attempt, and still holds the course record for numerous English fell races including Rivington Pike.
Over the winter of 1982, under John’s tough training regime, Shaun dropped from his normal 10st (63.5kg) to 8st 3lb (52.2kg). At 5’ 3” (160cm) there wasn’t a lot of Shaun to begin with but what there was, was now an efficient and consistent running machine.
By 1987 he’d begun working with Clitheroe’s Nick Dinsdale, who runs NJD Sports Injury Clinic. “Nick is and was very much a cyclist who represented England as a veteran cyclist – his coaching was very much data and attention to detail. He was great to work with and helped me achieve my goals.”
At his peak, Shaun’s body fat was 4.6 per cent, the average for an elite male runner is around eight per cent. His resting heart rate was 28 beats per minute, an average adult is between 60 and 100, and his VO2 max, which is the maximum oxygen consumption, was 86ml – 50ml is considered above average for a young male.
Though even at his peak in 1988, he still found himself trailing Billy Bland by two minutes in the Duddon Valley fell race. Over the next five miles Shaun managed to close the gap, catching him with just 1.5 miles to go at the start of the final descent: “I pulled away to win by 45 seconds, which was quite a feat considering Billy was probably the best descender in the country.”
The lad from the Ribble Valley had beaten the local hero.
“I consider myself lucky living in the Ribble Valley,” says Shaun. “It is ideal for training, you can run off road, there are plenty of paths and tracks through countryside or you can put some good miles in on the riverside, then you have Pendle and the surrounding hills – the whole area is perfect for running.”
Shaun is keen to point out a lot of people helped him in his career, but one person in particular stands out. His wife Julie, who he married in 1984 and with whom he has two children: “I always felt she had as much invested in my running as me, watching and supporting me at races and having to put up with all the hours of training (morning and night) and weekends away racing, the highs and lows.”
Following his win over Billy Bland back in 1988, Shaun Livesey would go on to win the English Fell Running Championships in 1988 and 1990 and would wear the vest of England and GB. He still runs today.