Every year, on a Sunday morning in April, the pretty Derbyshire village of Hayfield is packed out with 300 bumbagged runners. It is a sea of club vests this year, and there is a noticeable absence of casual joggers. This is the start of the Kinder Downfall, one of fell running’s flagship events, and my first proper fell race.

I’m from Derbyshire originally, but when I was an athletics-mad teenager, fell runners were seen as a strange breed to be spoken about in slanted tones. I’ve since ventured off the roads and on to the hills and trails down south, so I thought it time to return home to test myself on some proper terrain.

The Kinder Downfall is a sturdier prospect than most. The route takes in a portion of the Pennine Way, skirting Kinder Scout, the Peak District’s highest point, and passing over the waterfall that gives the race its name before topping Kinder Low, which isn’t low at all but stands at more than 609m (2,000ft) above sea level. It’s a modest 9.6m (15.4km) long, but with 600m of total ascent, it’s hardly a park run. Only the final part of the course is marked. Having not recced the route, I’m hoping to follow the crowd.

Before we begin, the organiser apologises for raising the entry fee to £5 – still astonishingly good value. Special thanks go to someone from Inverness who donated an extra fiver to the marshals, the Kinder Mountain Rescue Team. “Is he expecting to be rescued?” returns a heckler, to general hilarity.

Someone shouts something, and we all start moving – first through the village, then up on to a grassy path of gradually increasing gradient. My legs feel leaden from too many last-ditch hill sessions, but I soon start enjoying myself as we file up peaty trails past the pint-sized Kinder reservoir and on to the high moor. Artlessly picking my way sideways down a sharp bilberry slope, I watch as others of better fell pedigree bounce past with ease.

The serious climb begins as we trudge up the sandy gritstone trench of William Clough. I lock in behind a woman in a pink T-shirt – on this terrain, it’s easier to ape someone else’s footfalls than choose your own line. Eventually, we all slow to a walk, hands on knees and silently grimacing.

After a mercilessly brief flat section, we’re on to a rough-slabbed stone pavement of even more outrageous gradient. At this point I begin to feel the benefit of the recent hill sessions and scarper up a few places, with pink T-shirt woman and another in tow. ‘You’re 10th, 11th and 12th lady! Who will be 10th?’ shouts an onlooker. I don’t think they’re trying to be theatrical.

The answer comes at the summit, where ladies 10 and 11 take off in front, never to be seen again. The Pennine Way near Kinder is flat on the map only: in reality it’s an assault course of rounded gritstone boulders and damp peat patches, the successful crossing of which involves a rock-hopping, bog-skipping agility that I do not possess. A dozen or so runners stream past me as I make several undignified route choices and jar my ankle three times, painfully. At times reduced to hands-on scrambling, I’m only dimly aware of the breathtaking views. This is harder than I thought.

But it gets easier. If, as biomechanics gurus claim, running is controlled falling, then fell running is falling in all manner of ways and directions. The repeated process of falling and being caught by the ground feels both liberating and reassuring – until the ground drops me. Descending gently down a narrow hikers’ path, a small stone breaks my stride and I fall flat on my front like a toddler, scraping my leg and elbow along gritty cobbles. It hurts.

Feeling a bit shaken up, I try to recall the tale of the legendary Joss Naylor running all 214 Wainwright summits in just over seven days. By the sixth day, the flesh on his ankles was rubbed away to the nerve, but he still carried on running. My minor grazes now seeming pathetic, I stumble on down the hill.

The final part of the race is a glorious lope down over smooth, grassy fields and stiles. I discover I’ve something left for the flat road section and manage to sprint back up a handful of places. Back in Hayfield, one last lap of the park, and we’re into the funnel to finish. I look around and see sweaty, beaming, grateful faces. Everyone is shaking hands.

In my fell running fantasies, there’s always warm orange squash. And lo, there it is, standing in giant plastic bottles at the finish line. Overwhelmed, I pour myself a cupful of neat concentrate before a kindly bloke points out I need to water it down. I do, and it tastes like the most exquisite nectar. I’ve finished in 1hr 39min and 139th place, 12th woman, and it feels wonderful. Not because of my unremarkable performance, but because I’ve finally tried this thing called fell running. It’s hard, it hurts, and I intend to do it again and again.

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