Q&A: Joss Naylor

Photograph by Martin Campbell

Joss Naylor is one of the world’s most revered fell runners. The Cumbrian sheep farmer broke the Lake District 24-hour fell record three times in the 1970s – his 1975 record of 72 peaks, 100 miles and around 38,000 feet of ascent in 23hrs 11mins stood for 13 years. At 70, he ran 70 Lakeland fell tops, clocking up over 50 miles. This year, Naylor celebrated his 80th birthday by running 30 miles from Caldbeck to Wasdale to raise money for the Brathay Trust.

Why Caldbeck to Wasdale?

It was in memory of my father, Joe. He was born and farmed in Caldbeck, then moved to Wasdale and met my mother.

What do you recall about your dad?

He was one of those chaps who if he told you something it would be right. He thought running was a waste of time, but when I started to run well he came to watch a race. I was leading the field by about 15 minutes and jumped the gate right in front of him. He had tears in his eyes as I sprinted to the finish.

How did growing up in the Lake District shape you?

When gathering sheep 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.

How did you discover you had a talent for running?

When I was 20 I had a back operation and the doctor told me I was designed to be a top athlete. My first race was the Lake District Mountain Trial in 1960. 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. I took an early lead, but cramped up going over a stile. There were two lasses having a picnic so I borrowed their salt cellar, half emptied it into my hand and ate the lot. I quickly recovered – but I’d lost the lead.

Is the key to your incredible endurance physical or mental?

On my longer runs I didn’t really suffer pain. The main issue on my 1975 24-hour record was my feet overheating. The long runs are more of a mental challenge. I remember when I started the 70 at 70, it was as if someone put an arm around my shoulder and said, ‘You can do it’. I’ve also learned that if I have a bad patch during a run I’ll recover and run through it.

What do you think of running aids such as gels and bars?

I’ve never used any of them. The only food I eat on long runs is sandwiches and cake. I carry food that you can eat in two mouthfuls without having to break stride. On my Caldbeck-to-Wasdale run I drank blackcurrant juice with salt added. As you get older you learn what you need and what works for you.

How much do you run these days?

I get out onto the fells maybe three times a week. I run on Sunday morning with the dog and always on the fells.

What have you gained from a lifetime of running?

I’ve taken a lot from the tranquility of the Lake District – an appreciation of the landscape, wildlife and plants. For me, running has always been more about getting out in the natural environment than it is about exercise or training.

What advice would you give a road runner taking to the fells?

You need the ability to read the ground. The main thing is not to run on a full stride but to adapt to the terrain. Just enjoy being out there and don’t rush into racing before you’re ready.

What’s your link to the Brathay Trust?

I’ve been Patron of the Brathay 10in10 since 2007. I’ve been inspired by what they do with disadvantaged young people. It’s been an education to see how they turn lives around.


To donate to Joss’s 80th birthday run, visit his JustGiving page.