Brothers seldom agree and it’s the same for Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee when I ask them how to run downhill without plunging face-first into the mud. The British triathletes, who won gold and bronze medals respectively at London 2012, have joined me at the Chevin – a 282m ridge overlooking the Wharfedale valley in the Yorkshire Dales – to coach me in their beloved hobby: fell running. The trail along which we’re training forms part of a popular, seven-mile local race called the Chevin Chase and I’m shuffling nervously down the first descent. “Always look 10m ahead of you, not at your feet, so you stay balanced and see any dodgy terrain up ahead,” suggests Jonny. Ali disagrees: “If you overthink it you will be in trouble. It’s better to disengage your brain and go for it.”
It’s been like this since they were children, growing up in Horsforth, northwest of Leeds, where the young brothers would routinely scrap over board games and table tennis – Jonny can recall hitting Ali with a golf club. The brothers do, however, agree on one thing. “If you go fell running it is always going to hurt,” warns Jonny, 24. Ali, who is two years his senior, nods sagely. They explain that trudging uphill tests your lung capacity and leg strength, while scampering downhill fatigues your knees and ankles – if you can stay upright, that is. “I remember a fell race when Ali slipped on a rock and cut his arm,” adds Jonny. “Blood was pumping out everywhere. We could see the finish line just down the hill. But sadly we had to walk. It was awful.”
I’m not sure if Jonny is describing his brother’s injury or the trauma of having to abandon the race. Despite their cherubic faces, these Yorkshire lads are famously competitive – and committed. Ali once ran barefoot over broken glass in order to finish a race after his shoe had fallen off. Last winter Jonny tumbled . . . from his bike into a river then got back on and sped away, sodden and shivering.
The Brownlees are united by a lifelong passion for outdoor sports. Their autobiography is crammed with childhood tales of fell running and mountain biking in the Dales. In fact, the main reason they took up triathlon as teenagers was because it enabled them to do three sports instead of one. Today, the brothers dominate international triathlon races, which consist of a 1.5km swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run. Both have won the prestigious International Triathlon Union World Championships (Ali in 2009 and 2011; Jonny in 2012) and last year the brothers won six of the eight races in the annual international series between them. “After London 2012 it was hard to imagine anything matching that,” confesses Ali. “But it’s amazing how quickly you store away the memory and move on. When it was all over I just wanted to get home and go for a run.”
Triathlon may be the brothers’ profession but fell running remains their passion and emblem of their heritage. “We’re proud Yorkshiremen, we grew up fell running and we still do it whenever we can,” explains Ali. “I did my first fell race when I was 11. It was a Tuesday night race called the Bunny Run on a windswept moor above Haworth and the prize was a chocolate egg.”
A fell race is loosely defined as an off-road competition in which runners ascend and descend steep gradients. The courses are often hillier than those of cross-country or trail races, although the boundaries are blurred. Organised events originated in northern England in the 19th century. “A lot of the fell runs we did were part of country shows which have been going for over 100 years,” acknowledges Ali. “If you did well, you might win a pound.”
Jonny widens his eyes: “A pound? Fifty pence, more like!” This is Yorkshire after all.
Jonny sees fell running as an antidote to the strict regime of triathlons. “For triathlons we have to travel to races in Yokahama, Auckland and Cape Town, attend briefings and pack all our kit. But with fell running you just put on your shoes and come back an hour later covered in mud. It’s about freedom: when you get to the top of a hill, some people go straight down, some find special paths, others jump walls.”
Remarkably, the Brownlees still compete in local fell races at which the only prizes are biscuits and balloons. It’s a bit like Wayne Rooney turning out for his pub team. “The local feel and the local people are exactly what make it fun for us,” explains Ali, and the brothers particularly enjoy the Auld Lang Syne event at Haworth on New Year’s Eve. “Some people run in fancy dress,” says Jonny. “I turn up in my nice kit while others are dressed as a horse or a tree.”
I contemplate the relative benefits of hooves and roots as we attempt another sprint downhill. But it’s those pesky uphill slogs that leave my heart racing. “You need to be light on your feet,” says Ali. “Short strides and a high cadence are best.” Jonny chips in: “Always use your arms for a good drive uphill.”
The Brownlees often run with some flapjack in their pocket, courtesy of Ali’s elderly neighbour, Jan, who mothers them. Both brothers live in the nearby village of Bramhope. “If she comes round to my house and half of it is missing I know she’s been to Ali’s first,” says Jonny.
Behind the playful sniping, however, is a rivalry that has been a catalyst for their success. “Ali has been a barrier-breaker for me,” explains Jonny. Ali confesses, begrudgingly: “He keeps me on my toes.” It must be handy having your biggest rival as your daily training partner. But in a sprint finish the family rule is clear: “We race time and see who wins,” says Ali, without any hint of awkwardness.
The Brownlees say they have been busy training for the London leg of the ITU World Triathlon Series this weekend. “Whenever we race in London the noise of the fans gives me goosebumps,” says Ali. But their priority is the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July. “We have never raced at the Commonwealths before so this is special – we both want it,” says Jonny.
The plump hills and heather-clad slopes of the Chevin are clearly an idyllic landscape in which to prepare. “When you train seven days a week, you need good scenery to inspire you,” says Ali. I point out the gunsmoke-grey clouds above Otley. “Yorkshire weather can turn quickly,” says Jonny. “At one Auld Lang Syne race it dropped to -16C. The frost turned everybody’s hair grey. I couldn’t take my shoes off as my laces had frozen solid.”
As we loop back to the top of the Chevin and say farewell, I wonder how the brothers handle the pain of their chosen sports. “I pick a point up ahead and say: ‘I am not walking until I get there,’” reveals Jonny. “In a triathlon, that’s normally the finish line. On a steep fell run it can mean I am sometimes running ridiculously slowly uphill while everyone else is walking at the same speed. But it just makes me feel better.”
ITU World Triathlon Series, Hyde Park, May 31, worldtrilondon.com; ‘Swim, Bike, Run’ by Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee is published by Penguin (£8.99)
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