Blogger Meanwood Rambler recently wrote an interesting piece about Victoria Wilkinson’s record breaking spree, and the (relative) stagnation in men’s fell race course records [Link to his blog post]. It prompted me to look back at the situation, and I decided to share my thoughts from my research for ‘It’s a hill, get over it’. The following is an extract from the relevant chapter in the book:
Record breakers and champions
“My whole feeling in terms of racing is that you have to be very bold. You sometimes have to be aggressive and gamble”
This chapter covers some of the male fell champions and the records they set. Mind you, analysing fastest times for fell races is a somewhat tricky area, as there is so much that can change, not least the conditions that an event is run in. Even more important is the fact that courses necessarily have to change, due often to access issues, or changes in start points due to facilities/parking etc.
Over time who have been the top record breakers? Three of them have been Billy Bland, John Wild and Kenny Stuart. In 1980 Billy Bland won his only British title and had a record breaking spree, which was followed by the next two champions over the next five years – John Wild and Kenny Stuart, who hold ten records between them still, with Bland holding two still.
However, these three record breakers have quite different racing profiles. Bland’s two records are both categorised as long and are both in the Lakes – Borrowdale at seventeen miles and Wasdale at twenty-one. Wild’s three are all short and in Northern England – Wrekin (5.5 miles), Rivington Pike (3.25 miles) and Burnsall (1.5 miles). Stuart by contrast has seven records, or which three are short, three are medium and one is long, and they are in Wales, Scotland and the Lakes. They are Wansfell (2.5 miles), Latrigg (3 miles), Eildon 2 Hills (3.5 miles), Skiddaw (9 miles), Snowdon and Ben Nevis (both 10 miles) and Ennerdale (23 miles).
Obviously records get beaten, and those above are ones that have held up. An interesting comparison is given by figures produced by a statistician in 1989. He counted the number of course records held at that time for all races in that year’s FRA calendar. The results are pretty startling. For the men, Colin Donnelly, who was in his triple British title winning spree at the time, had sixteen, to Kenny Stuart’s twelve and John Wild’s nine. For the women Carol Haigh, who never actually won the British title, had a staggering forty-three, to Angela Carson’s seventeen and Vanessa Brindle’s eleven.
However, many of the major races, for example Wasdale and Fairfield, have had significant changes to their courses. Sadly, when change like this happens the holders of the records for a previous course are then down-graded when a new record is subsequently set on a shorter or longer course. Who is to say that in some cases they wouldn’t still be the record holder if the change hadn’t happened? Having said that, there is a certain fascination in knowing who has set the fastest time for a course and in which year. The list of men’s records for the ‘classic’ courses (see Appendix 3) shows three that have lasted from 1977 – Langdale, Lantern Pike and Eldwick. For the women the oldest are four that date from 1984 – Ben Nevis, Pendleton, Saddleworth and Lantern Pike.
In the Sept/Oct 1990 issue of Up and Down magazine Neil Shuttleworth speculated on improving standards in an article entitled ‘The Record Has Stood …’. He noted that fell runners have only a once a year opportunity to break records, unlike track and marathon runners (when comparing records for the distance, not the particular marathon). Shuttleworth concluded that race conditions were probably the most important factor to consider, that is to say both the weather and the underfoot conditions. Popularity of events also has an effect, in that a more popular event will attract more, and better, runners and possibly increase the likelihood of records. Shuttleworth also felt that neither improved footwear or better diet were likely to have a significant effect, but that competition (i.e. intense rivalry between top athletes) was likely to be a big factor.
There are many instances where it can be shown that records were broken due to close rivalries, both in individual races and throughout seasons. One of the examples noted above is the Langdale record from 1977. It is held by Andy Styan, and when asked by Shuttleworth about it (in the article just quoted), he reckoned it was so fast for two reasons: good conditions and a very strong field. Styan commented:
Billy Bland, Alan McGee, Mike Short and myself pulled clear off Thunacar Knott, and the four of us pushed each all the way. Billy and I got away on the descents, and Alan and Mike would pull us back on the climbs until we got away off the Crinkles and held it over Blisco. I left Billy by the cattle grid and that was that.
Even so, these four all finished between 1 hr 55 mins 3 secs and 1 hr 56 mins 8 secs, and it was the first time four runners had finished inside two hours for the course.
Similarly, John Wild set a record of 12 mins 48 secs (by two seconds) for the Burnsall Classic in August 1983. Kenny Stuart was first to the top but was overtaken by a speedily descending Wild, who in Kenny’s view was “taking risks he just wasn’t prepared to take, including leapfrogging the wall”. Two weeks later at Ben Nevis they met again, and faced strong challenges from Sean Livesey and Jack Maitland. Strong winds and mist made for a difficult race. Maitland led Stuart to the summit, with Wild and Livesey close behind. Somehow Wild took the lead on the way down to the burn in heavy mist and had a lead of twenty seconds there, holding Stuart off by seventeen seconds at the end. Despite the foul weather these two, and third placed Livesey, beat Dave Cannon’s 1976 record, with Wild taking 1 min 20 secs off it. John Wild credited the record to Maitland’s pushing so hard on the ascent against a known climber such as Stuart.
My main conclusion was that it was the number of absolutely top quality athletes that there were running the fells in the 1980s, and the way they raced so hard against each other, that were the two main factors in these records being set, and still in many cases not yet beaten. This is explored further in ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’, which tracks Kenny Stuart and John Wild’s careers, and their rivals, such as Billy Bland.
The table is a list of the course records* that are still held by those three brilliant runners.
Not forgetting, of course, Andy Styan’s Langdale record which has resisted all challenges, including Billy Bland’s (who came within 14 secs), since way back in 1977.
* according to the FRA race page for each race