Ultra runner highlights of Kendal Mountain Festival – part one

Last updated: 08-Dec-16

By Kathryn Bullock

For the uninitiated the Kendal Mountain Festival is a must go long weekend event for the mountain junkie. The festival runs every mid November and has attracted visitors, speakers and film makers from around the world. According to the locals it gets bigger and more popular every year. 

The festival is held in the small pretty town of Kendal, strategically placed at the entrance to the Lake District with a strong closely knit community of fell runners and mountain bike enthusiasts. I wasn’t sure what to expect, never having been before, but I enjoyed the vibe. This is the first of a two-part series on the highlights of the festival so do look out for Part 2 – coming soon.

The chance to catch up with some of those making a name for themselves in TV for endurance sports and to hear the inspiring stories of those who have conquered some of the toughest mountains on the planet was all worth it. Hearing about how these runners faced the challenges of pushing their bodies to the absolute maximum was inspiring.

This is the place to mingle with those special people, who against all odds, prove that what you think is the impossible can be achieved. What strikes you about this group of people is that they are all self effacing, generous and without any super egos. They just love what they do and enjoy sharing their stories.

If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do then this is the place to be inspired to create your own adventure, fulfil your dreams and do something extra ordinary – whether that be a film, ultra, climb, marathon or bike adventure. The festival offers an extraordinary set of adventure films and the sessions I attended came with some amazing clips of crazy hair-raising moments, such as US endurance athlete Joe Grant perched on a narrow mountain ledge grinning at the camera as he picks his way quickly along the narrowest of arêtes, 14,000 feet up.

The key session for ultra runners was the Friday evening when we were treated to the Buff endurance session. I say that as the session lasted nearly four hours rather than the scheduled three, but was packed with a great line up of international runners and a very enthusiastic audience which packed out the Kendal Leisure Centre.

James Elson

First up was James Elson of Centurion Running who has been running ultras for 11 years. He shared his journey on how he got into ultras which all started with the MDS and then he got into the Four Desert Series races and Badwater in 2010, when he made the fatal mistake of getting water thrown over his head and suffered the most horrific chafing. He then moved into the European Championships and made the transition into endurance running where you’re on your own for huge amounts of time which he found to be a very different dynamic.

James ran the Bob Graham, which for the uninitiated is a fell running challenge covering 42 peaks in the Lake District. It’s named after Bob Graham who completed it in 1932 in less than 24 hours. It’s such a legendary race that there is a 24-hour club for those determined to complete it under 24 hours. James also went to Iceland to complete a north south endurance adventure of 342km with Robbie Britton. You can read more about James’s adventures in Iceland here.

Manu Vilaseca

Next up was the unassuming Manu from Brazil who started out as an industrial designer and ran in her free time. Manu then moved to Spain as it was no longer safe to run in Rio as she was having to put mugging money in her backpack, when running around the city. She ran a 500 km race in Costa Rica and the Terra Vita in Patagonia in 2012. Manu then started to get into mountain bike races and competed in the Trans Portugal 1000km race and ran in Hardrock and the famous Spanish Transvulcania ultra, which she loved. Manu’s mantra is “I still dream and I dream big”. Manu admitted that she found the UTMB very difficult – in fact it was the hardest one.

Joe Grant and Manu Vilaseca.

Joe Grant

Joe is based in Colorado but was actually born in Oxford, then lived in France and moved to the US about 10 years ago. Joe admitted to only having done one marathon in college and you could say that Joe fell into endurance sports. He started out skipping a flight from Philadelphia to Eugene, Oregon and deciding that he’d like to get there under his own steam so he biked the 4,200 miles instead!  You get the sense that Joe sets big hairy goals a lot.

Joe likes to push himself and take himself out of his comfort zone. He’s the kind of person that when the going gets really tough he just carries on. Joe got into ultras whilst living in Colorado as a way to explore the local trails and meet the locals and liked the fact that you didn’t need a lot of gear. He ran Hardrock and the UTMB which he saw as a “massive adventure”.

Joe’s most recent self powered solo adventure was in August 2016 when he completed the “fourteeners” and broke the record for climbing 57 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet and cycling to each one in 31 days and 8 hours. To put this in perspective this involved 1,500 miles on his bike and 400 miles on foot up the mountains. The previous record was held by Justin Simoni. Joe talked candidly about the raw, vulnerable state that you got into when you’re on your own for such a long time and are sleep deprived.

He talked about having to make key decisions to ensure you stay adequately nourished and safe and discovering that frozen burritos were a lifesaver. Joe found that his camera became his confidante as he was encouraged to talk to the camera when he was often at his lowest or in the most challenging places like camping out in a public toilet to keep warm or trying to stem a nose bleed, caused by so many changes in elevation.

The audience were curious as to how he managed to navigate so many peaks so fast and Joe relied on paper maps and GPS coordinates of the peaks. Joe is currently making a film about his fourteener adventure, so watch out for this as I’m sure it will make compelling viewing. Also don’t miss the videos of his amazing mountain running with ultra runner Anton Krupicka on his website alpine-works.com.

Testament to the camaraderie and closeness of the local fell running community was a fun knee quiz. The audience had to guess whose knees were in a series of photos and my god these runners know each other that well!! Impressive stuff.

Coming next is a bit more of a female perspective on the Kendal Mountain Festival as we hear more about “Duracell Bunny” Jasmin Paris and some prize parity issues in the fell running scene. 


All images Kathryn Bullock.

"Joe Grant is currently making a film about his fourteener adventure, so watch out for this as I’m sure it will make compelling viewing"

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Date Range

Global - Virtual


A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity


An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.



Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.



Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.



Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.