Future of fell/mountain running: are Africans set to take over?
Three things recently have got me thinking again about changes in the sport of fell/mountain running. Firstly it was the World Mountain Running Championships, where Ugandans had a clean sweep in the men’s race. Secondly, the recent debate over whether Kilian Jornet would/could take the BGR record from Billy Bland; and thirdly was reading an advance copy of a chapter of Jonny Muir’s upcoming book on Scottish Hill Running, in which he speculates on the future of the sport.
So, let’s take these one at a time. Mountain running is the de facto global branch of fell running, and has been since it came to prominence in the early 1980s. [For more on its early history see ‘Going Global’, Chapter 17 of my first book, ‘It’s a hill, get over it’] It is organised by the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), whilst at the extreme end there is also the International Skyrunning Federation – which administers ‘mountain running above 2,000m over extremely technical trails’. Mountain running is more akin to fell running and is predominantly run by Europeans, run in Europe, and won by Europeans. The World Mountain Running Champs were first held in Italy in 1985 and have been held at a European venue each year since, reaching out just once – to New Zealand in 2005 [Correction: there have been two – Alaska in 2003]. A rather selective stat I admit, but taking the results of the men’s race over the years you find that Italy won the team prize all but two years of the first 21 occasions. Then in the next 7 years, Eritrea won 4 to Italy’s 3. But then the big change: in the last 5 years Uganda have won 3 times and Italy just once, with Uganda providing 4 individual winners and Italy none, having not had a winner in the last 10 years.
OK, enough stats but definitely a pattern there. In mainstream athletics we have been used to domination of many events by Africans in recent years, the steeplechase and marathon in particular. For example, the world’s 11 fastest steeplechasers where all born in Kenya (Kenyans have won Gold at the event at last nine Olympic Games), and the 10 fastest male marathoners are either Kenyan or Ethiopian.
Having hopefully got you interested with the slightly provocative blog title, these rambling lead me to ponder whether if the best Eritreans and Ugandans were to run races such as the Snowdon International Race (which leading Italians have for years now) whether they could challenge Kenny Stuart’s superb course record of 1-02-29 which has lasted since 1985. I recall that Kenny was interviewed about his record at the 2010 Snowdon race and as I noted in my third book, ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’, he replied:
I am quite amazed it [the record] still stands, but is something I am reasonably proud of. I think it is time it was broken. The record might stand for a number of years. If athletes of a certain calibre, maybe Africans, came over en masse they might break it. But it will take some breaking.
But so far that hasn’t happened.
My second reference was to the possibility of Billy Bland’s supreme BGR time of 13 hrs 53 mins being beaten this year, possibly by an ‘incomer’. Prompted by rumours on social media of a fast time having being done ‘under the radar’ and also public statements from the Catalan Kilian Jornet that he was planning an attempt sometime in 2017, I posted a blog with comments on things that Hugh Symonds and Billy Bland had said to me on Jornet’s chances when I interviewed them for my second book, ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. It was thoughts on an outsider taking the record, which I won’t repeat here, but in many ways reflected some views on the changing sport. But, what about an African mountain runner coming over and having a blast at it? What do you think? If you are interested the blog post is here, and the parallel FRA forum thread is here. Suffice it to say that there was an amazing level of interest in the topic, which meant I had 1,292 visitors to this blog the day after it appeared – WAY more than I normally get.
Thirdly, Jonny Muir will be commenting in his upcoming book about the effect that high profile, high cost, extreme events like the Glen Coe Skyline will have on ‘traditional’ hill running (as it is usually called in Scotland).
He decided to check his fairly robust view by doing a vox pop via the Fell Runners UK Facebook site to try to gauge the views of participants in the sport. There appeared to be a strong anti-commercialism strand in the replies. One I liked was: “Underground, word of mouth races are the future.” I would judge the mood to be worried rather than happy with the way things are/might go. But maybe (like sites like TripAdvisor) there is a tendency for complaint rather than praise in a public forum such as this. Do have a read of the responses (you need to be able to sign in to FB to do so).
I perceive a very insular attitude from the governing body (Fell Runners Association) who in communications say they are very worried about increasing numbers of competitors and their environmental impact affecting race access agreements. This inward looking attitude is exemplified by this response that I got, on behalf of the FRA Committee, when I asked for access to their archive in order to pursue my book research, in 2011: ‘It may be helpful if I make clear that the policy of the FRA is to avoid media exposure of and publicity for the sport. The prospect of yet another book about fell running is not welcomed and the FRA Committee will not wish to co-operate in providing assistance. “Feet In The Clouds” did no favours to the sport.’ At the time I found this a stunning attitude to adopt. Since then I have thought a lot about the future of the sport when writing about it, and I have quite a positive outlook. I will finish with what I said at the time (and which I still stand by):
I am sure though that the good races will survive, and that a responsible attitude to the environment can indeed see the sport prosper. I do think that attitudes have to change and that the sport should welcome all those who want to take up the challenge to compete that it provides. We should be celebrating the variety of events and competitors that there are.