This Sheep-Farming Fell Runner Is Still Going Strong at 80
Joss Naylor ran 30 demanding miles on his 80th birthday to raise money for charity and honor his father
Photo by Martin Campbell
What will you do for your 80th birthday? Joss Naylor marked the occasion by running more than 30 miles over rocky fells, from Caldbeck to Wasdale in the Lake District of his native U.K.
On June 25, the accomplished fell runner – who in 1975 ran a record 72 Lake District peaks, covering approximately 100 miles and 38,000 feet of ascent, in 23 hours 20 minutes – ran the route in honor of his late father, Joe, who in 1927 moved from Caldbeck to Wasdale.
“The route [started] from the church yard in Caldbeck where my father’s buried and then [crossed] the northern and western fells over to Wasdale Head,” Naylor says. “It covers some great terrain and, as things worked out, has been one of my most memorable runs. I had a fantastic support team on the fells and where the route comes down into the valleys.”
Naylor’s run last month raised funds for the Cumbrian-based charity Brathay Trust, which works with disadvantaged youth in the U.K. So far, a fundraising page for Naylor’s run has raised €10,952, roughly 73 percent of the €15,000 he set as a goal.
Like his father, Naylor is a sheep farmer, but that hasn’t slowed down his running much: In 2006, at age 70, he ran 70 Lakeland fell tops, covering more than 50 miles and 25,000 feet of ascent in under 21 hours.
Perhaps more impressively, he’s been at it nearly his whole life.
Photo by Martin Campbell
Falling Into Fell Running
Naylor began running at age 20, after a doctor at Manchester Royal Infirmary, where he went in for a back operation, told him he was designed to be an athlete. In 1960, he entered his first race, the Lake District Mountain Trial.
It was a learning experience.
“It started on the school green at Wasdale Head,” Naylor recalls. “I didn’t have any running shoes or shorts, so I ran in my work boots and cut the legs off my trousers above the knees.”
He took an early lead, but cramped up going over a stile.
“The course then ran over to Westmorland Cairn and on to Styhead Tarn,” he continues. “There were two lasses having a picnic at Styhead so I borrowed their salt cellar, half emptied it into my hand and ate the lot. After that I quickly recovered, but had lost the lead.”
The rough introduction to racing didn’t deter him, and he has returned to every Lake District Mountain Trial since.
But it is his individual expeditions in and around the U.K.'s most undulating terrain that have most made Naylor a legendary figure in fell running. In addition to the aforementioned 72 peaks in under 24 hours in 1975, he covered the 267-mile Pennine Way in three days and four hours in 1974; ran all 15 of Wales's peaks above 3,000 feet in four hours 46 minutes in 1973; and, in 1986, at age 50, tagged 214 peaks in the Lake District, known collectively as "The Wainwrights" after the guidebook author Alfred Wainwright, in seven days.
Photo by Scott Umpleby
Balancing Work and Training
Sheep farming is extremely demanding work; Naylor says his father, as a shepherd, knew each of his 2,000 sheep individually. The younger Naylor has a similar number.
“I’ve never had time for a specific training program,” he says. “Running and farming doesn’t really go together; however, having an active work life obviously adds to overall fitness and strength.
“When you also have 2,000 sheep to shear, clipping by hand, there’s no time left to run," he continues. “However, when I could find a couple of hours, I’d run from Wasdale Head over Blacksail Pass, around Ennerdale Lake and back.”
Most years, Naylor found time for two races at most. “I would maybe fit in only two training runs before each race,” he says.
Naylor has a surprisingly straightforward and gimmick-free strategy that has kept him running ultra distances over demanding fell terrain at an age when his peers – and many younger than him – have hung up their shoes.
“The most important thing is to look after your joints and body,” he says. “If you have an injury find a way around it. Get it sorted and keep going.
“Don’t leave long gaps – weeks and months – between running,” he continues. “Always run in places that interest you to keep it varied.”
As for diet, Naylor has always found a simpler approach works better.
“The only food I ever eat on long runs is sandwiches and cake,” he says. “I carry food that you can eat in two mouthfuls without having to slow down or break stride.”
On his June 25 run, Naylor says he drank only blackcurrant juice with added salt.
“As you get older, you learn what you need and what works for you,” he says. “Don’t alter it.”