All three of my books on fell running are available from good bookshops and on Amazon. They are respectively: a history of the sport of fell running, the story of the Bob Graham Round, and the lives and achievements of two of the sport’s finest (Kenny Stuart and John Wild). Running Hard will be out in paperback next month, and will be launched at an event with Kenny Stuart and Ben Mounsey, helping raise money for The Brathay Trust and The Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association.
Last month I speculated on whether the East Africans who are starting to dominate mountain running could come over and take longstanding UK fell race records like Snowdon. The blog drew a few comments, as did the social media coverage. Subsequently I have had a long discussion with the Snowdon race organiser (Stephen Edwards), who explained his take on it.
A tad provocatively perhaps, but the conversation started with me asking how ‘international’ The International Snowdon Race really is? It obviously has great Italian runners coming, but as an event do they try to get the nations that do well at WMRA’s World Mountain Running Champs (for example) to send athletes. I was particularly thinking of the Eritreans and Ugandans, mentioned in that first blog posting.
Stephen replied that he understood my point of view and that it’s a question that a few others have asked, but that money comes into the equation. The race pays approximately £5,000 for the hotel accommodation and food for athletes at present, with the number of international team member having gone up now to four males and four females, so cost is always increasing. However, the rule to change the number of team members came with no financial support from the rule changers.
The race organisers would love to get more different countries coming to the race, but another issue is the timetabling of events. It doesn’t help that this year the European Mountain Champs were held a week before Snowdon and the Worlds two weeks after. There is also a feeling many of the current runners don’t like the terrain of the Snowdon race. There is room for all these events, but only so many top class runners to share around them. Stephen commented that they would love to get the Snowdon Race as the European or World Championship event. [It was host to the European Mountain Trophy in 1996.] He also feels that it’s not just getting more country’s teams to Llanberis, it needs the highest quality athletes to compete at the highest level to challenge the record. He adds that in the past they have come from a few different countries, but in the end local runners were quicker than them.
The World Mountain Champs race came to Betws-y-Coed in North Wales in 2015 but it was run on what was really a trail route in a forest and consisted of a multi-lap course. Stephen felt that having looked at the pictures of this year’s Worlds (in Italy) it was basically running on grass – well grass on the side of a mountain.
We ended up discussing the idea of a UK Cup, consisting of the Snowdon, Scafell, and Ben Nevis races. Run in all three and best placed runner is the champion. I liked the idea but can imagine issues with FRA approval, and of the races being too popular and perhaps not wanting more entries. Out of curiosity I went to the FRA website to check when the Scafell race is. Well, it is this Saturday (16th Sept) but is by far the least well attended of the three races – having only 31 pre-entries as of today (11th), perhaps due to a class with the Three Shires race. Interestingly though, presumably in an attempt to raise the race profile, the FRA race page for Scafell says: Note trophies/prizes for “Jack & Jill” fastest couple and for King and Queen of “Snowden/Ben Nevis/Scafell Pike mountains”.
Having speculated here on the future of fell/mountain running, I was interested to note that Jonathan Whyatt was recently elected as President of the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA). Under a title ‘Newly elected WMRA President Jonathan Wyatt shares ideas for the future’ he makes some interesting points on the future of the sport on the WMRA website.
His nine main points included:
- Ensure that courses for World events will be a good test of true mountain running ability so we need to look for more difficult tracks than in the past. This is something we will be talking about as well as trying to work together with other groups that organise events in the off-road environment.
- Bring together the best athletes at the most important events. The sport needs this, so we can show to the World how good Mountain and Trail Sports can be. We will start the discussion with the calendar in mind, so that we give the athletes the chance to run a World Championship all together on one day.
- Support iconic mountain events and make the most of events that are held in beautiful mountain terrain, thereby showing how positive Mountain Running is.
Tougher courses, the best athletes, support for iconic events. Fine words that I would like to see them deliver on, a view Stephen Edwards totally agrees with. Watch this space.
Finally, cycling back to my point about East Africans, the Guardian last week carried an article entitled ‘Untold stories: why we should know more about East African runners’. It emphasized the achievements at the recent World (track) Champs at the London Stadium, particularly some lesser-known Kenyans and Ethiopians. The article concluded:
If athletics is to remain popular in the post-Bolt/Farah era, we need to make more of an effort to engage translators, journalists and managers in getting to know the top East African athletes a little better.
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.
It was great to be a guest at the International Snowdon Race this year (thanks RO Stephen Edwards for the invite), and watch the action at close hand, some 23 years after I had run in this iconic fell race.
We travelled up earlier in the week to spend some time in wonderful Snowdonia, staying at the Royal Goat Hotel in Beddgelert one night (a nostalgic visit to a hotel from childhood holidays with my parents), and with friends from Uni days another night. On the Friday we took a stroll up Snowdon, choosing one of the less frequented routes for a change of scenery.
On race day it started very wet and we parked up at the Royal Victoria Hotel and bumped in to first Kenny and Pauline Stuart, and then John and Anne Wild. We wandered down to the start area to get the vibe as the rain seemed to be gradually lessening. Getting in to a good roadside position we watched the runners come out of the start field and head off up past the start of the mountain railway, then the hotel and on to Victoria Terrace before hitting the lower slopes, expecting them to get as much of a view as we had on the day beforehand (none). Fancying a coffee and a bite we made for a cafe in Llanberis and came back for the finish of the race.
The youthful looking winner, Italy’s Davide Magnini, came down the last bit of road seeming to be still full of running, although he was over 4 minutes off Kenny Stuart’s course record. He was followed in by England’s Chris Farrell, Tom Adams and Chris Holdsworth (thus taking the team prize). Watching the race video later Magnini showed great style on both the ascent and the descent. His time to the summit (5 miles) was 42-47 (at a pace of 9:52 per mile), with just 23-55 for the descent, giving him a 1-06-42 finish time.
Not long after that, the first lady came in, who was Annie Conway (who was actually not representing one of the national teams, and came home in 1-20-15), followed by Scotland’s Louise Mercer, and England’s Katie White.
After the race we went to the Electric Mountain to set up for the post-race talk that I was doing with Kenny and John. I was worried we might only have a small crowd, but there must have been 60+ there when Stephen Edwards hot-footed it over from the prize giving to introduce us.
I talked for a while about John and Kenny’s achievements, before giving them the floor for some anecdotes. I then refereed a bunch of really interesting questions from the audience, before selling and signing a good few of my three books, including the latest Running Hard: the story of a rivalry (which details the ups and downs of John and Kenny’s lives and running careers).
Back to the Vic for the excellent buffet provided for us (and the elite athletes), before repairing to the garden for a few beers and some banter with John, Kenny and co. When we went to bed the action was just starting (was there a disco?), but we were fortunate to have a room way at the back of the hotel so were not disturbed.
In the morning we had breakfast with John and Anne, chatted with some stiff looking athletes, and headed for Joe Brown’s for a bit of retail therapy, before heading home, via an impromptu road-side swim in Llynnau Mymbyr as the sun was now showing itself.
But what was that ‘Think Spinks’ bit all about in the title (I imagine you thinking)? Well, my fitness isn’t what it was and I am having some issues with one of my knees just now, so was worried if the Snowdon summit bid was a good idea. We set off, me nervously, on the path which starts at the Rhyd Ddu railway station knowing the weather was ‘variable’. In order to try to get me over the nerves my wife (who has obviously read It’s a hill, get over it) suggested I just ‘Think Spinks’ and all would be fine. So, having no cold rice pudding to hand, I resolved to just try to be as determined in adversity as Nicky Spinks always seems to be. So, we plodded on at a steady pace, rarely stopping and soon moving into the clouds. Having memorised the map I was expecting a false summit before we reached the top, and when Moira asked if we had reached it yet I replied ‘no’. In the mist we had not seen it (just after where the Watkin path joins, which we also didn’t see) as the main path contours under it, and thus you don’t have to go over it. As we slogged up another seemingly interminable steep path I began to lose my faith in Nicky, and was heard to mumble ‘I am bored’.
But then there was a strange noise and large spaceship loomed up in the misty cloud above. Lo and behold, we were there, and we rushed past the café and up the steps to touch the summit (and have a photo). A coffee and a short respite was taken and then we set off down. After only a short while the clouds were clearing and we had some marvellous views, seeing the knolls, paths, crags that we had missed in the cloud as we ascended.
Reaching the bottom with very sore legs and a raging thirst we took more coffee in the marvellous independent Beddgelert café next to the Post Office (can you see a pattern developing here) before a brilliant swim from a layby alongside Llyn Dinas.
A great day, and a great weekend. A lot of mental energy was spent in that walk up Snowdon, and I am sure the positive Spinks thoughts had helped immensely.
I thought it might be interesting to see which of the blog posts seemed to strike a chord best, and were thus the most viewed each year since this blog has been going. [For the purposes of this review I am necessarily ignoring the homepage, which always shows up as the highest in the hit stats, yet obviously varies as new posts are published.]
For the first year (2013) it was a blog entitled Why I wrote ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, in which I give some background to how I came to write my first book, having as it seemed no previous inclination to do any such thing.
By the second year (2014) I had started thinking that I should write about almost anything BUT the books I was writing. So, the most viewed that year was Are we now a cafe society? Some of my favourites …. – a subject I had actually thought vaguely of writing a book about!
In 2015 my second book (The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps) came out, and I wrote a blog about my experience of supporting a friend’s Round, as a sort of tie in. Good game – a BGR from the roadside support viewpoint was the most viewed posting of that year.
By 2016 I was writing more blog posts (and books!), averaging a post every 3 weeks. The most popular of the year was about attending an amazing event at Brathay Hall to celebrate Joss Naylor’s 80th birthday. Evening with Joss, Billy and Kenny has been the most viewed post of all, so far.
Having recently organised the launch event for my book ‘Running Hard’, and also attended the launch of Steve Birkinshaw’s ‘There is no map in hell’, I decided I would jot down some thoughts on the two events, and consider the good and less good points about ‘doing it yourself’. Hopefully it will provide some pointers for anyone else going down this path.
Although my launch was setup by myself* and Steve’s by his publisher, there were many similarities in style and feel of the two events. Both were held in the Lake District in fairly intimate venues, and were great successes, as I hope the following descriptions will show.
The Skiddaw Hotel, Keswick on Saturday 18 Feb 2017
The venue was originally going to be the Moot Hall (which I had used for the launch of The Round) but it turned out to be unavailable, which was a bonus in the end as the audience probably wouldn’t have fitted in there! The room in the Skiddaw Hotel as very good, with projection facilities, and sound amplification (which we abandoned as it distorted badly). Being in a hotel we weren’t able to provide food or drinks, which I had brought in before at the Moot Hall, but that turned out to not be an issue. Several attendees availed themselves of the nearby bar, and I had a coffee and a glass of water.
I wanted it to be a free event, but we had the support of local bookshop Bookends, who advised me to sell tickets, which we agreed on being a nominal £2 cost. They provided two staff who bought in a load of copies of the book (and some of my other two books). The agreement was that I would get the entry fees and they would keep the money from book sales. This meant that the fees and the money from the publisher paid for the room hire, with just enough over to buy the first round in the pub afterwards!
The venue worked well, having plenty of space. Although we pretty much filled all the chairs they had others to bring out if required. There was plenty of room at the front for anyone who was going to speak, and best of all was that we had it booked for two hours which gave time and space for networking before and after the event, and crucially plenty of space for selling books, which we also did before and after the event. There was also plenty of space for personalised signing of books, which I did mostly by wandering around letting people catch me for autographs.
The tone of the event was set by my long standing friend (and mountain marathon and climbing partner) Mike Cambray, who introduced me, with some Shakespeare thrown in. He also organised a lovely gesture of getting attendees to sign a card with their thoughts at the end of the event, which I cherish greatly. For myself, I talked about the book, and read a couple of passages from it (the first time in 3 launches that I have chosen to do that). I was very fortunate to be able to get both the main protagonists from the book to be there and they both had the floor at different times to say a few words. The one mistake I made was not prompting people during the event that there be a chance for questions later on, as that part of the event never really got off the ground. But it was a great event, and particularly nice to chat with some of the top fell runners who had taken the time out to attend the launch.
* My publisher (Sandstone Press) is in the far north of Scotland, so it was not really practical for them to arrange and attend the launch. They did provide part-funding for the event.
Steve Birkinshaw’s launch:
Wilf’s café, Staveley, Thursday 18 May 2017
The venue was the fantastic Wilf’s café (in Staveley), which was even more intimate than my hotel one, and we were well packed in. Wilf’s had provided good snacks, and wine or soft drinks were also available. On the train on my way up that afternoon I had daydreamt about a pint or two from the next door Hawkshead Brewery, but sadly they weren’t involved.
Two staffers from Sheffield-based publisher Vertebrate were there to coordinate the event and sell books. They had chosen to make tickets available online for £6, and achieved a full house of enthusiastic attendees. The venue worked well, with the food and drink (and mingling) in one room and the talks in another, which suffered from having an annoyingly loud air con system, which couldn’t seem to be quietened.
Steve was introduced by race organiser Shane Ohly, who set the set scene well, before handing over to Steve, who told some stories about the lead-up to the Wainwrights attempt, with really great slides to illustrate his discourse. At two points he handed over to his attempt coordinator, and then to his wife Emma, who gave their perspectives on what it was like to see Steve suffering so much during the 6 days. Steve then took questions, which produced an interesting range, from food, through sleep, to where the book title had come from.
It was good to meet a couple of friends from the fell running scene and to hear about the Wainwrights event and its after effects on Steve himself, and also to chat with the Vertebrate crew about their business and publishing ethos. For more about the launch event see this Vertebrate blog.