The Wilson Run: the oldest and toughest school run in Britain

Green Hill, Thrush Gill, Seven-Bar Gate, Cautley, Desperation Ditch, Muddy Slide, Danny Bridge … these place names along the shadow of Cumbria's Howgill Fells read like found poetry to hill walkers and nature lovers. But to the pupils of Sedbergh school, which nestles in this stunning corner of England, the names each represent another agonising notch on the school's annual Wilson Run.

The event is the oldest, and arguably toughest, school run in the country. Sometimes known as "the Ten", though I think the "Hell in the Fells" would be nearer the mark, it is a brutal cross-country race that has followed the same up-and-down, lung-bursting, ankle-twisting, nerve-shredding 10-mile course for 135-odd years.

It's a school tradition that's loved and loathed in equal measure by current and former students. It's named after Bernard Wilson (one of the school's first housemasters) who came up with the uniquely gruelling course. He was clearly a teacher in the old-school mould. Without pain there can be no gain, and it's a world away from what my children regard as pain: they feel hard-done by if they have to miss an episode of Made in Chelsea. The idea of them hurtling across the moors into the mouth of a gale wearing nothing but plimsolls, gym shorts and a flimsy school vest is hilarious. But Sedbergh is an old school, it was established in 1525, and has an old-school approach to discomfort. One of the school's songs even includes the line: "We laugh at pain." The motto is "Dura Virum Nutrix" – Latin for "a stern nurse of men". And the Wilson Run is certainly stern stuff.

In all the years it has been held, the historic run has only been cancelled three times, owing to epidemic (1936), snow (1947) and the foot-and-mouth crisis (2001). The first winner, in 1881, was C Charlesworth, who went on to win it five times. The record time by Charles Pumphrey stood unbroken at 1 hour 10 minutes for almost 100 years, until it was dramatically broken by Charles "Chuck" Sykes in 1993 with a time of 1 hour, 8 minutes. Clearly being called Charles helps with this race – and Chuck's record still stands today.

The Ten is held at the end of the Lent term and is only open to boys and girls in the Sixth Form. However, a handful of Old Sedberghians, parents and curious locals run the course each year before the official race gets underway. Which is how I found myself lining up last Tuesday with my friend and old boy Tom Hartley and few other grizzled veterans.

Race day this year was greeted with the usual miserable weather, and the wet January weather meant it was exceptionally boggy underfoot. It started off easily enough with a plod along Ten Mile Lane, but then we passed through a gate and swerved up Green Hill – an endless upstretch of grass. Within moments Hartley and I were gasping for air, thighs burning. From there it only got worse. Mud, rivers, treacherous paths, an aggressive sheep dog, more mud, thorns, tussocky grass, wind, even more mud, the odd bemused hill walker and on and on, until finally we hit Danny Bridge and the last mile or two on the road back to the school gate. It's furious, but you couldn't call it fast. Our time would have brought us in a good 50 minutes after Chuck. The school's race this year was won in emphatic style by Archie Campbell who romped home in 1 hour 15 minutes.

Hartley and I may have been well off the pace, but the sense of running a route that has been followed by runners for more than a 100 years was exhilarating, connecting the generations across the years. The motto for the day – a quote from Wordsworth printed in post-race programme, summed it all up: "My shoulder all with springes hung, I was a fell destroyer." We were all fell destroyers …

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