Joss Naylor, ‘King of the Fells’ who performed superhuman feats of running across peaks – obituary

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

During his 40-year running career, Naylor won numerous races and broke several records while running in the mountains of the Lake District.

His winning streak began in 1966 with victory in the Mountain Trail race and he soon came to dominate the then infancy of the mountain running and marathon world.

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

In 1971, Naylor completed the circuit in 23 hours and 37 minutes, taking his total ascent to 61. The following year, in appalling conditions, he raised the bar even higher by climbing 63 peaks in 23 hours and 35 minutes.

“It seemed impossible that anyone could move on the mountains on a night like that,” said his pacemaker, the late Chris Brasher said (Brasher had previously paced Roger Bannister during his four-minute mile).

In 1975 Naylor set out again to break the record, setting off at 7am, this time during a heatwave. By 8.30pm he had reached 47 summits, and by 1am his pacers were struggling to keep up. The final summit, Grisedale Pike, was reached at 5.30am and by 6.20am it was over – he had completed the circuit of 72 summits, run over 100 miles with 37,000ft of ascent, all in 24 hours.

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

Naylor’s other achievements included breaking the Pennine Way record by 24 hours in 1974, completing the 270 miles in three days, four hours and 36 minutes, a record that stood until 1989. In 1976 he walked 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.

Naylor at Mas Moli Petit, Figueres, Catalonia

Naylor at Mas Moli Petit, Figueres, Catalonia – john angerson/Alamy

At the age of 50, Naylor completed the Wainwrights (the 214 Lakeland peaks described by the famous mountain walker Alfred Wainwright), a total distance of about 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 stuck in a mud puddle.

Afterwards his throat and tongue were so swollen that he could hardly drink, and his shoes chafed so badly that his ligaments were exposed.

He had done this on an average of only three hours of sleep a night. “I simply have no words to describe the discomfort, the physical pain, the frustration,” he wrote afterwards.

Naylor also ventured further afield, setting the record for the Welsh 3000s – Snowdonia’s 14 peaks over 3,000ft – in 1973, which stood for 15 years. At the age of 70, he ran 70 Lakeland summits, covering more than 50 miles and climbing more than 25,000ft, in under 21 hours. He also ran in Colorado and Catalonia.

His stamina was all the more remarkable because Naylor, also known as “the Iron Man,” had suffered crippling injuries as an accident-prone child and had once been advised by doctors to avoid strenuous exercise. At age nine, he had a wrestling accident and injured his spine while climbing over a fence.

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

“Few men have ever so completely conquered themselves, or so entirely subjected 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.

Naylor, the 'Iron Man', in 1973Naylor, the 'Iron Man', in 1973

Naylor, the ‘Iron Man’, in 1973 – JOHN.CLEARE/Mountain Camera Picture Library

Joseph “Joss” Naylor was born on 10 February 1936 at Middle Row Farm, Wasdale Head, the third of four children in a family that had been farming in the valley since 1928. He attended school in Gosforth and left at the age of 15 to work on the family farm. By the age of seven he was helping his father on the hills, milking cows, rounding up sheep and building dry stone walls.

When you were gathering sheep, he recalled, “you would go into the hills with just a bowl 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 was running in work boots and long trousers cut off to the knee and suffered a bout of cramp. He was rescued by some picnicking girls. “I borrowed their salt cellar, drank half of it in my hand and ate the whole thing. I recovered quickly – but I had lost the lead.”

His father initially had a negative view of running. “He was one of those guys who, if he told you something, he would do it right. He thought running was a waste of time.” That quickly changed when the winning streak began.

Naylor’s gift was his ability to maintain his stride and pace regardless of the terrain, whether it was over steep grass or through a field of boulders. He was described by Pete Walkington, one of his running partners, as “a real walking insect” with a “gangly, stooped style”.

His lack of cartilage may have given him an advantage when running down hills, allowing him to run more fluidly and prevent his knees from locking. He once tried running on the road, but ended up breaking the bones in both feet.

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

In 1990 he set up the Joss Naylor Lakeland Challenge, an event for the over-50s covering 48 miles and climbing 16,000 feet. Naylor completed the event in 11 hours and 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 his birthplace. “For me,” he said, “running has always been more about getting out into the natural environment than about exercise or training.”

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

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

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