Run for your life! (2008)

(The Independent, 28 October 2008)

They set out on a 53-mile race across Britain’s harshest terrain – with a storm closing in. But the athletes of the Original Mountain Marathon were prepared for that. What they didn’t expect was the storm of criticism that followed. By Richard Askwith

RA Highlands 2011

WHEN I FIRST saw the headlines, I felt a sudden dryness in my throat: “1,700 runners stranded in the mountains”; “Hundreds of fell-runners missing”. Many of my best friends are fell-runners – especially in the Keswick area of the Lake District, where the news-leading “race to rescue runners” was taking place. Had some unspeakable natural catastrophe swept scores of them to their deaths?

Then I checked out the detail and became simultaneously relieved and perplexed. As I understood it, no one was missing at all.

I suppose it depends what you mean by “missing” – a simple-sounding concept that conceals one of the great ideological divides of our time.

Let’s start with the facts. The headlines were generated when severe weather disrupted the Original Mountain Marathon (or OMM), which took place – after a fashion – in Borrowdale at the weekend. A mountain marathon, as you may or may not have gathered by now, is quite different from a marathon. It isn’t run on roads; it covers considerably more than 26.2 miles; and it lasts for two days. Competitors run in pairs, over unmarked mountains, using old-fashioned map-and-compass skills to find a series of obscure and distant checkpoints, while carrying on their backs all their needs for a night in the open (including tent, food and cooking equipment); and, having spent the night in the open, they continue the ordeal the following day. Bad weather is common, especially in a winter event such as the OMM, and is considered – like the mountains themselves – part of the challenge.

On Saturday, the weather was freakishly bad. Nearly a month’s worth of rain fell in a single day, in an area already known as the wettest place in England. Rivers burst their banks, innocuous becks became roaring torrents, paths became rivers, drystone walls collapsed, and freezing winds of “biblical” intensity lashed the hills with such power that people were blown off their feet.

Even hardened champions began to suspect that this was a day when the only sane option was retreat and, four hours after the start, the organisers reluctantly decided to call the event off. But as there was no easy way of communicating this to the competitors, many continued as before: that is, struggling on along their designated courses, or taking unilateral decisions to abort their missions. These were the competitors who, in the headlines, were “missing”.

What the headlines failed to point out was that they were all equipped with food, waterproofs, maps, compasses, tents, sleeping bags and first aid and survival gear, and electronic tags that told the organisers which checkpoints they had visited. No less importantly, they had set out with the expectation of being challenged by the extremes (up to a point) of mountain weather.

Were they lost? From the point of view of the police and the mountain rescue teams, they were, because no one could say precisely where they were. But most had a pretty good idea themselves, and in due course every single one succeeded in making contact with the organisers again – either by reaching the overnight campsite, or by picking up the message of cancellation from the checkpoints, or by taking their own decisions to get off the mountains and then make arrangements to inform the organisers.

Reports that hundreds were “forced to spend the night on a mountainside” missed the point entirely: the only ones whose plans were disrupted were the disappointed hundreds who were forced not to spend the night on a mountainside. I have yet to speak to a single competitor who felt that he or she had been the victim of an emergency. “You’d have loved it, Richard,” one of them told me. “Incredibly violent conditions – but a true test of mountaincraft.”

It was chaotic, certainly, if you followed it from afar. But much of the sense of chaos resulted from the fact that, even after they had been notionally “rescued” (that is, they were in a built environment rather than a wild one), most competitors were unable either to communicate with people outside the area (mobile phones don’t work in Borrowdale) or to get back to or use their cars on the flooded roads. Were they still lost? From the point of view of anxious families in other parts of the country, perhaps they were.

Meanwhile, a second storm was breaking – of blame and finger-pointing. A senior police officer declared himself “disappointed” that the organisers had not called the event off earlier; the owner of a local slate quarry (in which some competitors took shelter) complained that “we have come within inches of turning the Lake District mountains into a morgue”. Questions, agreed the media, would have to be asked.

But which questions?

* * *

I HAVE BEEN a fell-runner for much of my adult life. I’ve never been much good at it, but I can swap “Tough? You think that was tough?” stories with the best. That’s what the sport is about. Its events range from 15-minute “sprints” to days-long endurance challenges, but all involve, by definition, the dangers and discomforts of the mountains. Few of the thousands of hours I have spent running in the fells have not involved being cold, or wet, or lost, or frightened, or injured, or exhausted to the point of delirium, or several or all of these. I won’t say that this is the whole point of the sport, but it’s the price that we willingly pay for the good bits.

Chief among these are the joy of feeling utterly absorbed in an environment far bigger than oneself, and the joy of pushing oneself to one’s limits, and the joy of throwing off the shell of physical caution that encases most adult lives to do something that is simultaneously ludicrously imprudent (have you tried running flat out down a steep, slippery mountainside?) and utterly instinctive.

Additional pleasures include the scenery (doesn’t apply on days with zero visibility), the conversation (doesn’t apply on days when you can’t keep up with your fellow runners), the joy of being outdoors in the wilderness (doesn’t apply in foul weather), the joy of making full use of your physical powers (doesn’t apply when you’re having an off-day), and the joy – which applies all the more when the other pleasures don’t – of it being over at last, and of being able to share your relief with like-minded people. I’ve been trying to explain these joys to my “normal” friends for half a lifetime, but still they come back with the same uncomprehending question: why do you do it?

The late Chris Brasher, an Olympic champion, pioneer of orienteering in the UK and the man behind the first London Marathon in 1981, spent much of the 1972 Karrimor Mountain Marathon (as the OMM was then called) trying to extract from his fellow competitors some answer to precisely this question – but could get nothing more helpful than: “Oh come on Chris, you know why.” Later, writing in his weekly newspaper column, he speculated thus: “Perhaps it is escape from the pressure of life, but really it is more than this: it is proof that, sophisticated man though you may be, you can still go out with all your worldly needs on your back and survive in the wild places of Britain. That knowledge is great freedom.”

Three decades later, I attempted a similar exercise, at a scarcely less weather-ravaged mountain marathon in Scotland – with even less success. I remember it vividly. We were in the Trossachs – Scotland’s wettest mountain range – on the wettest day of a two-month wet spell that was reported to have been the wettest for half a century. As in Borrowdale this time, the landscape remade itself in the deluge. There were raging rivers where the map recorded only dry gullies, and small lakes where the map recorded nothing. I completed one tricky descent in slightly less than a minute after slipping and aquaplaning down half a mile of waterlogged turf on my back. At one river crossing I was almost swept away by the torrent and, lunging to save myself, broke my compass on a rock. My map disintegrated in the rain. So – disgustingly – did the trench latrines at the overnight campsite.

The rain eventually stopped for a while, but not the screaming wind. I remember trying to wash at the campsite by immersing myself fully clothed in a freezing river, then standing for 15 minutes in the wind, arms spread like a cormorant’s wings, trying to get vaguely dry. And I remember, too, lying with my partner in our hastily erected tent, still soaked and filthy, and rejoicing, even as the tent began to sink into the liquid mud, in the fact that we were – relatively speaking – almost warm and dry. We were also not running, which, to be honest, was all we really cared about by that stage. Instead, we were in a windproof tent in a puddle, sharing a fruit cake that had been battered into its constituent parts and washing it down with some Cup-a-Soup minestrone from a shared mug that tasted of that morning’s tea. It was, by some distance, the most delicious meal I have ever had.

As to why we were doing it, no one could really say. Most people seemed to be experiencing some degree of physical distress. Many were contemplating the second day’s running with nauseous horror. Yet no one seemed bothered by the fact that the nearest hot bath or comfortable bed was 20 miles away. This seemed perverse. If ever there was a day that demanded hot baths and comfortable beds at the end of it – not to mention hot meals and plentiful beer – this had been it. But there was something about the lack of mod cons that added to the appeal.

Later, taking a last peek out of our tent door in the hope of discerning a star or two in the cloud-black sky before sinking into the sweetest of exhausted sleeps, we concluded that this was the nub of the matter. We are richer now than we were in Brasher’s day, richer than our parents or grandparents were; but we are also more stressed, more deeply in thrall to the addictions of getting and spending. We have more possessions, and they tyrannise us. Each new mod con must be shopped for, maintained, insured, upgraded; each new thing must be stored, kept track of, kept secure, tidied; each new debt must be serviced; and the whole package is paid for in overwork, time poverty, 24/7 availability and 24/7 insecurity. We have more, and we have less.

In such a world, freedom is both more precious and more elusive. And one of the few surefire ways of liberating ourselves from the tyranny of the consumer society is to put ourselves beyond its reach. This is one of the attractions of all long days in the hills: you escape from all those things.

To reach the end of a long, hard day and realise that you have no more chores awaiting you than to crawl into a lightweight tent and extract food from bag A and sleeping bag from bag B is to feel a great weight, of whose presence you might not previously been fully conscious, dramatically lifted from your shoulders. There is nothing to distract you from the once-simple business of being human, eating, talking and resting beneath the stars (or clouds). And if the price of this escape is two days of stormy mountain-running and a night without beds, electricity and running water, who cares? You just have to think positively – which, sustained for a whole weekend, is in itself a hugely refreshing experience.

* * *

NONE OF THIS, I fear, will cut much ice with those who believe that we should not be allowed to refresh ourselves in this way; or, at least, that race organisers should not facilitate such refreshment for us.

They have a point. Rescue operations by police or mountain rescue are not only expensive but often risky for the rescuers, and no one should provoke such operations lightly. But fell-runners, in my experience, are infinitely more responsible than most mountain-users in terms of taking responsibility for their own safety (there is considerable overlap between the fell-running community and the mountain rescue community); and fell-race organisers are usually painfully aware of the need to minimise risk.

There have, to my knowledge, been just seven deaths in British fell-races over the past 75 years. All have involved bad weather, with hypothermia being the most common cause of death but falls playing a part as well. None has involved mountain marathons or people running in pairs (as mountain marathon-runners do). Some of the victims have been inexperienced and underequipped, but organisers now go to exhaustive lengths to ensure that nobody enters a race unless they can show they are prepared in every sense for its rigours.

Even so, there are those who believe the organisers should be blamed for anything that goes wrong on the fells. It’s this, I believe, that constitutes the great philosophical divide. For example: at an inquest in 1994 into the death in a snow-storm of a well-equipped, well-prepared runner in the Kentmere race, the coroner suggested that the organisers had been at fault for not cancelling the race, because of the possibility that the weather, fine at the start, might turn severe. Yet what, in practice, does this suggestion imply? Should a fell-race be called off whenever there is a possibility of bad weather? If so, half the fell races ever run have arguably been reckless. And if the weather deteriorates suddenly after the start, does a mid-race abandonment – inevitably a somewhat chaotic process, as the weekend’s experience shows – reduce the risk or add to it?

Some administrators believe that race organisers should respond to such risks by preparing alternative “bad weather” routes on lower ground (as, incidentally, the OMM organisers did). Others argue passionately that this is counter-productive. Selwyn Wright, a social worker from Barrow who used to be secretary of the Fell Runners Association, refuses point blank to introduce such an alternative for the notoriously tough Three Shires race, which he organises over 12 mountainous miles around Langdale, Cumbria.

His reasons are worth examining. “If you make it the organiser’s responsibility to make the race as safe as possible,” he says, “you take individual responsibility away from the person on the hill. I’m not saying organisers should be gung-ho, but I don’t want people to think that, if the weather’s bad, they shouldn’t worry. I want them to worry, and to take responsibility for themselves.”

As secretary of the FRA, Wright attended two harrowing fell-running inquests, “so of course I’m concerned about safety. But I don’t want people to come along to the Three Shires race who think that I’ll take all the responsibility away from them. I’d sooner let them know the dangers, and say that if they don’t have the right equipment and the right attitude, they’re better off not coming. The last thing we want is an influx of people who think it’s safe to do fell-running.”

This strikes me as a fairly persuasive argument – but, increasingly, what people like me or Selwyn Wright think is neither here nor there. What matters is the opinions of coroners, lawyers, insurers and jurors to whom the self-inflicted trials of fell-running may seem indistinguishable from madness. Organisers – of the OMM and other races – are coming under pressure to modify their events to fit in with what Wright calls “the risk assessment culture”. Many will conclude that it would be simpler, and safer, not to organise a race at all.

Perhaps that would be best. Perhaps Britain would be a better place if, instead of enjoying the raw pleasures of the fells, we all took out expensive gym memberships (as playing-field-selling governments have encouraged us to do). Yet many rural (and urban) communities in the North would, I am certain, be far poorer places without the unsung heroics of the organisers and helpers whose efforts provide thousands of ordinary people with a recreation that is healthy, wholesome, character-forming, inexpensive and life-enhancing.

Competitors I have spoken to seem pretty unanimous in the view that, far from “deserving to be shot” (as one critic put it), the organisers of this OMM event did well in very difficult circumstances. They point out that the competitors were not only well equipped but were expecting bad weather. Several runners said that they had experienced worse conditions in the past.

* * *

THE 2008 OMM will go down in fell-running lore as one of the great bad-weather nightmares in the sport’s history, along with the 1998 KIMM in the Howgills, and the 1976 one in Galloway, and the 1980 Ben Nevis race (controversially cancelled), and, most famously, the 1962 Mountain Trial. In the last of these, the weather was so atrocious that all but one of the runners (who included many all-time greats of the sport) failed to finish – yet fell-running veterans always refer to the event with particular reverence. They speak in awed tones of George Brass, the indomitable winner, who hobbled home after nearly seven hours in the storm, with only one shoe and an old fertiliser sack wrapped round him to keep out the wind. They take great pride in the fact that, as the great mountain writer A Harry Griffin wrote in the Lancaster Evening Post at the time, “37 of the 38 competitors decided at one stage or another… that to stick it out any longer would be to court disaster – and they had to make the difficult decision at a point where they had sufficient reserves to get back to base”.

The combination of gales, deluge, mist and cold was certainly life-threatening that day. There were reports of competitors being forced to “cling to rocks or fall prone to stop themselves being blown into steep gorges”. But no one spoke of an “emergency”, and no one considered his safety to be anyone’s responsibility but his own. And, as Griffin observed: “The fact that only one man finished the whole course is not nearly so important as the fact that 38 runners knew exactly their own capabilities under the most trying conditions they are ever likely to experience. Thirty-eight men went off into the unknown with their maps and compasses and returned safely, having tested themselves to the utmost. Some were lost for a time, but all extricated themselves.”

You could have said much the same about the events in Borrowdale; and, indeed,the organisers did. “The idea of self-reliance isn’t a popular one in this day and age,” they insisted on their website at one point, “so the fact that 900 people are said to be unaccounted for is being presented with the implication that they are lost and in trouble – which is not the case”.

It would be wrong to dismiss too glibly the concerns of those who have accused the organisers of the OMM of irresponsibility. One cannot simply shrug off an occasion whose toll is reported to include two broken legs, a dozen people treated in hospital for hypothermia, one narrow escape from drowning, and a sleepless weekend for any number of worried families and friends.

Yet it would be equally glib to brush off the concerns of the opposite camp, who feel instinctive distaste for the idea that, if we are not all “accounted for”, something is wrong. Our rulers may feel a nanny-like urge to account for our whereabouts at all times (and, now, to account for all our emails and phone calls), but we are not children. Until the mountains are closed off to the public, we have the right to take responsibility for ourselves when we are in them.

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