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.

Eritreans and Ugandans have performed well in World Cross Country Champs and track and road races recently – Joshua Kiprui Cheptegei was second to Mo Farah in the World Champs 10,000m on Friday.

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.

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7 responses to “Future of fell/mountain running: are Africans set to take over?”

  1. Alan Brentnall says :

    “held at a European venue each year since, reaching out just once – to New Zealand in 2005” – 2004 it was held in Alaska.

    • stevechilton says :

      Yep. Sorry missed that – it was 2003 on checking.

    • Alan Brentnall says :

      Sorry that should have said 2003 – my memory’s not what it used to be.

      Interesting points you make in the article. I’m not sure some of the reactions you got from the committee would be universally held. The fragility of the sport in the UK is a problem though, and external bodies, such as the National Trust, do impose restrictions on numbers and other aspects which were once taken for granted in fell running. And you can see the reasons why – but this doesn’t mean that anybody would be refused entry to a fell race for any other reason. There should be no outsiders, and ability should shine through any generalisations.

  2. Ewen Malloch says :

    I wonder if the core fell running races are somewhat protected from “outsiders” by offering minimal prizes. One thing I’ve noticed in road racing is that if there are substantial prizes on offer then the likelihood of them being won by professional athletes increases. It appears there are inflationary pressures too – for example the Bath Half was won for many years by Africans and yet in the last couple of years they haven’t turned up. Maybe the prize fund is no longer worth it.

    The other aspect that might offer protection is international kudos, or lack of it. The WMRC attracts fame, if not significant cash. The same might be said of the BGR although it is still very niche. Winning the Fairfield Horseshoe or the Borrowdale for example attracts kudos within UK fellrunning but is invisible beyond that.

    Where does the Snowdon race fall in that? Is it worth the time and expenditure for the Ugandan team to come over to it?

    Despite only being an occasional participant, I’ve found the sport diverging as suggested in your article. There are the core, established fell races and the newer “trail” races. A few years ago over a weekend I did the Farifield Horseshoe on the Saturday (cheap entry, super-friendly even to a displaced northerner like me, no frills) and the Keswick Mountain Festival 25k on the Sunday (expensive entry, corporate sponsors, friendly), both well organised, both well attended, both completely different in character. I enjoyed both but preferred the simplicity of the Fairfield race.

    I hope there’s space for both to continue into the future.

    • stevechilton says :

      There is the worry that prizes and kudos that events like Glen Coe Skyline can offer might attract the traditionals away from core fell running races. And also that entrants might not have the mountain experience to cope with such extreme events, which to be fair not all have for trad fell races when held in poor weather.

  3. derek h says :

    I can’t see many African runners turning up for genuine fell races – although they’d be welcome to come to Patterdale Dog day for a run up Arnison Crag. But I am worried because I think there is an increasing number of people looking to monetise fellrunning. These people either don’t understand, or choose to ignore the history and culture of the sport and its embeddedness in local culture and community. We need to be vocal about stressing what fellrunning is about and what it’s not about and not be afraid of offending people in the process.

    I am already seeing landowners start to take the view that all events on their land should have to pay substantial fees for access. The risk is that this will crowd out fellrunning in favour of commercial events (trail running). The landowners don’t understand or aren’t interested in the fact that fellrunning has its roots in the local community.

  4. sarah says :

    There are major differences between mountain running and fell running – Mountain running is the de facto global branch of fell running – is an arrogant British view, fell running is unique to the UK, the rest of the world do mountain running which is an IAAF recognised branch of the sport (fell running is not). Sky running is a very successful commercial entity and not a formal governing organsiation

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