Joss Naylor, ‘King of the Fells’ who achieved superhuman feats of running over peaks – obituary (2024)

Joss Naylor, who has died aged 88, was a Lakeland sheep farmer who overcame crippling childhood injuries to become “King of the Fells” – one of the greatest fell runners of all time.

In a running career that spanned 40 years Naylor won numerous races and smashed multiple records running across the mountains of the Lake District.

His winning streak began in 1966 with victory in the Mountain Trail race and he was soon dominating the fell-running and mountain-marathon scene, then in its infancy.

But it was in 1971 that he demonstrated where his true talent lay, and that was in superhuman feats of long distance mountain running. Chief among them was the Bob Graham Round, originally a challenge to run around 42 Lakeland peaks in 24 hours, and first completed in 1932 by the Keswick mountaineer and guesthouse manager Robert Graham.

In 1971 Naylor completed the round in 23 hours and 37 minutes, while improving the tally of peaks to61. The following year, in atrocious conditions, he raised the bar again, running across 63 summits in 23 hours, 35 minutes.

“It did not seem possible that anyone could be moving on the mountains on a night like that,” his pacer, the late Chris Brasher said (Brasher previously paced Roger Bannister in his four-minute mile).

In 1975, Naylor set out to improve the record once more, departing at 7 am, this time in a heatwave. By 8.30 in the evening he was 47 summits down, and at 1 am his pacers struggled to keep up. The final summit, Grisedale Pike, was reached at 5.30 am and by 6.20 am it was all over – he had taken the round to 72 summits, running more than 100 miles with 37,000 ft of ascent, all within 24 hours.

Brasher compared the challenge to climbing Everest, then Ben Nevis, Snowdon, then Kinder Scout. “He just isn’t human,” another of his pacers, Eric Roberts, said.

Other feats of Naylor included knocking 24 hours off the Pennine Way record in 1974, running its 270-mile length in three days, four hours and 36 minutes, a record that stood until 1989. In 1976 he ran the 185-mile coast-to-coast route from Robin Hood’s Bay to St Bees in 41 hours. He lost all 10 toenails and the skin on the soles of his feet fell off.

Aged 50, Naylor completed the Wainwrights (the 214 Lakeland peaks described by the celebrated fell walker Alfred Wainwright), with a cumulative distance of some 300 miles, in seven days, one hour and 25 minutes – a record that stood until 2014. He would have been even faster had he not stopped to rescue a lamb trapped in a mud hole.

Afterwards, his throat and tongue were so swollen that he could barely drink, and rubbing from his shoes was so severe that his ligaments were exposed.

He had completed this averaging a mere three hours’ sleep a night. “I just do not have the words to describe the discomfort, the physical pain, the frustration,” he wrote afterwards.

Naylor also ventured further afield, setting the record for the Welsh 3,000s – the 14 peaks of Snowdonia over 3,000 ft – in 1973; it stood for 15 years. Aged 70, he ran 70 Lakeland fell tops, covering more than 50 miles and ascending more than 25,000 feet, in under 21 hours. He also ran in Colorado and in Catalonia.

His displays of endurance were all the more extraordinary since Naylor, also known as “the Iron Man”, had suffered crippling injuries as an accident-prone child and was once advised by doctors to avoid strenuous exercise. Aged nine he had a wrestling accident, then injured his spine while climbing a fence.

At 19 he had all the cartilage removed from a knee, and for five years he had to wear a special corset for his back. At 22 he had two discs removed, spending six weeks encased in plaster. But at 24 he decided he had had enough, threw the corset away and took up fell running.

“Few people have ever conquered themselves so completely, or so utterly subdued the weaknesses of the flesh to the will of the spirit,” noted the writer Richard Askwith in his history of fell running, Feet in the Clouds.

Joseph “Joss” Naylor was born on February 10 1936 at Middle Row Farm, Wasdale Head, the third of four children in a family who had farmed in the valley since 1928. He attended school in Gosforth, leaving at 15 to work on the family farm. By the age of seven he was helping his father on the fells, milking cows, fetching sheep and dry stone walling.

When gathering sheep, he recalled, “you’d set off into the fells on only a basin of porridge and walk all day. This got me used to travelling long distances with little food.”

His first race was the Lake District Mountain Trial in 1960, but it was an inauspicious start: he ran in work boots and long trousers cut off at the knee and suffered an attack of cramp. He was saved by a pair of picnicking girls. “I borrowed their salt cellar, half emptied it into my hand and ate the lot. I quickly recovered – but I’d lost the lead.”

His father initially took a dim view of the running. “He was one of those chaps who if he told you something it would be right. He thought running was a waste of time.” That soon changed when the winning streak began.

Naylor’s gift was an ability to maintain his stride and pace no matter what the terrain, whether across steep grass or through a field of mountain boulders. He was described by Pete Walkington, one of his running partners, as “a real stick insect” with a “gangly leaning forward style”.

His lack of cartilage may have lent him an advantage when running down the fells, giving him a more fluid action and preventing him from locking out his knees. He did once try running on the road, but ended up with broken bones in both feet.

Joss Naylor was appointed MBE in 1976 for services to fell running, the year before electricity reached Wasdale Head. He continued to farm and run into his eighties and was a familiar face in the scene, supporting many others in their record attempts.

In 1990 he set up the Joss Naylor Lakeland Challenge, an event for the over-fifties which covers 48 miles and climbs 16,000ft. Naylor did it in 11 hours, 30 minutes. He also had a racehorse named after him (the beaten favourite in the 2004 Grand National).

Naylor was passionate about the Lake District and continued to live just two miles from where he was born. “For me,” he said, “running has always been more about getting out in the natural environment than it is about exercise or training.”

He is survived by his wife Mary, whom he married in 1963, and by a son and two daughters.

Joss Naylor, born February 10 1936, died June 28 2024

Joss Naylor, ‘King of the Fells’ who achieved superhuman feats of running over peaks – obituary (2024)
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