Published on January 31st, 2013 | by Mike Hahn


Urban Fell Racing: Sweat, Hurt, and Romance on the Street

Bob Vogel runs hard to a third place U/F/2 finish. All photos courtesy John Bunker and Urbanfell

Bob Vogel runs hard to a third place U/F/2 finish.
All photos courtesy John Bunker and Urbanfell

December 1st was unseasonably mild in Tacoma.


My wife and I had hoped for some “character-building” weather to test the runners in our first attempt at race directing, Urban Fell Race 1. The course would be challenging enough in its own right. Still, a part of us wished for just a smidge of painful, wind-driven rain to honor the style of running from which we had co-opted our name.

Fell racing traces its roots to 19th-century Scotland. A natural outgrowth of an activity folks were already doing out of necessity (running across roadless hills and countryside), the races sprung up at community fairs alongside other competitive events. For a society of laborers and land workers, these tests were not only a welcome diversion, but also a measure of status.

The sport continues in Europe, primarily on the mountains (or fells) of northern Great Britain, and is characterized by difficult terrain and the high likelihood of shit weather. Route-finding often plays a role, too (the finish might be “that cigar-shaped boulder three peaks to the South”). To state it clearly: fell racing is for badasses.

How does an obscure sport borne amidst grassy hills and foggy moors relate to our City of Destiny?

Let’s consider again 19th-century Scotland. Tests of speed and strength are central to community-building. Competition is written on our DNA, and Tacoma brims with the raw, “You talkin’ to me?” spirit that feeds it. Our streets are paved with determination and desperation. You can’t run here without feeling it. We seek fellowship, but also hope to rise above the other fellows.

Tacoma’s a great place to be a runner. Recreational communities that would be the envy of larger cities are thriving here. At the same time, competitive running has become a big business and must play to the middle. It has lost some of the “destroy-thy-neighbor” intrigue that makes racing interesting. Plus, it’s kind of expensive.

Enter Urbanfell.

First, a confession: we are kind of sappy about “the romance” of running. Through the (probably-foggy) lens of nostalgia, we think about the efforts of Bill Rodgers and Roger Bannister and Mary Decker, and get tingly in our nether-regions. We know we will never be them, but we can aspire to a measure of their hearts.

Our idea with the Urban Fell Race series was to bring racing back to street-level: Low-cost, little regulation, and just enough reward to encourage hard running. In other words, to provide an outlet for Tacoma’s badasses-in-waiting.

Early returns have been encouraging.

That warm morning in early December, Urban Fell Race 1, twenty runners lined up to face hard miles on the city’s longest and steepest hills. Some were friends, many had never met; but all started with determination and finished with shared achievement. Three left with money in-hand.

U/F/1 racers hang around to cheer each other on. All photos courtesy John Bunker and Urbanfell

U/F/1 racers hang around to cheer each other on.

Urban Fell Race 2 invited runners to explore Tacoma’s alleyways, the brick and cobble in-between spaces that hide from public sight. Thirty-plus racers claimed victories over sporadic rain showers, terrible footing, and one another. All stayed to cheer until the last runner had crossed, then shared breakfast and stories under a 10×10 party tent. Community.

There are two more events in the Urban Fell Race series this season. If you’re up for a challenge and some old-fashioned fellowship, join us.

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