June 11, 2014 George Foster

Ethics in Fell Running: An Essay

Well, I’ve put paid to the idea of monthly ‘reports’ of a self-gratifying nature. Instead I’m succumbing to ataxia style ramblings whenever thoughts come into my head or events transpire to warrant some text. My boss at work asked me the other day if I was a ‘reader’ (implying that I don’t use big words much), so I’m practising some here, ready to unleash them upon perfection. 

(This should also serve as a warning that there are not many pictures in the post (one, maybe two) so if you’re bored at this opening gambit then best waste your days on something else cos it’s all downhill from here!)

Why pray tell are you being regaled by yet more tales of climbing/running derring-do in such a short space of time?! Good question, with a simple answer……this weekend just gone was meant to be the 2nd and 3rd British and English Championship race of the 2014 season respectively. I say meant to be cos the weather had a big say in the matter, resulting in a slightly shortened course without any of the peaks or hills on the original Ennerdale Horseshoe being used at all. Shame. What we had instead was a fast trail race over a couple of slight passes to a fair climb up to just below Great Gable followed by a long, tedious drag along wide tracks back down the valley. 21 and a bit miles by my watch. 

Ethics? Indeed. I’ve just realised that this is a two-pronged ethics effort. Firstly, and in my mind more serious, the premier league ‘point’, that I set out to make initially, is one of accidents, injuries and the role of the participant. The second, a close second, the league one of issues, is one of organiser liability; fairly closely linked to the first one as I said.

I must of course be referring to an injury that has happened recently, and it must, therefore, come as no surprise that this injury occurred at the race yesterday in Ennerdale. Hence the topical nature of this essay. You with me? 

A slab of background to whet your stone. 

The weather was looking horrend-balls so the decision was taken early on to divert the course from the original and planned route to one that was more amenable to the vagrancies of the climate. In this case, as said, missing all of the prominent peaks and hills – there was lightning in the air! Correct decision in my eyes and the vast majority of those who had turned up for one of the proper Lakes classics and been met with a very much watered down version of it (excuse the pun). It was still a good run (save for that final 6/7 miles along the valley bottom, which couldn’t much be helped). I’ll come back to the implications later….alas those that hadn’t sacked it for a pint elsewhere toed the line at just gone 11am and pestered off into the gathering gloom. Personally, and why else would I write a blog save for a healthy stroke of an ego every now and then, I was having a pretty good race! My previous posts on here have alluded to the fact that I’ve been having a few ‘off’ days but today I was feeling goooooood.

I’d started a lot more conservatively than usual, partly because I hadn’t heard the gun go off and partly because I didn’t actually have a clue how far this new version of the course was going to be! (Route profile – http://www.movescount.com/tools/routeplanner) By the time we dropped down into Buttermere (it really did go that off course!) I felt I was moving along very nicely. Karl caught up with me as we ran along the side of Crummock Water and Buttermere and we had a little chat until the climb up to the top of Scarth Gap Pass, approximately a third of the way through the course. After a bit of coming and going between us I managed to get a good old rhythm going in these young legs of mine and found myself chasing a lad from Carnethy down to Black Sail Hostel. The long slog up that tongue towards Great Gable was shit. We didn’t go right up the top but contoured around and about back down the valley to Black Sail Pass before a super fast descent back to the hut. This is where the ethics come in.

I was a good 3/4 of the way down feeling uber fresh and came by a runner being propped up by two on either side of him walking him down. As I drew alongside I saw he was in a pretty bad way, blood pissing down his leg and some shoddy looking ‘bandage’ from an old emergency survival bag wrapped about his knee. Though I doubt even Blue Peter – rest their souls – could have done better to be fair!

It looked similar to that up there. What would you have done? Honestly now. What would you have done? I was feeling great, having a very good run by my standards, would have been pushing into the top 50 in a double Championship race in around 3hrs 20mins and only had 6/7 miles left. Would you have stopped? ‘OF COURSE’ you say, ‘WE STICK TOGETHER US FELL-RUNNERS’ you’d add…..’BOLLOCKS’ I’d reply. I can count on one hand the amount of people in the 35 minutes it took us to get him down to Black Sail Hostel, a distance of barely 2km, who stopped to offer help – and 35 minutes is a long time in a race (My official time and place was 3:51:35 and 129th).

Now before this descends into some vitriolic diatribe let me just say….I don’t blame you. I wanted to help, which is why I did, but when the guy I took over from blasted down the hill to the hut to get those inside to phone Mountain Rescue before carrying on with his race, I felt a little part of me flare up. I felt angry and guilty at the same time. I was doing well until then in that race. I could have and, regretfully I felt, should have left them to it and cracked on. There were two guys with him, more help from Carl Bell on his mountain bike and some other walker on their way. They’d easily have coped. I didn’t need to be there. In my eyes though once you’ve stopped for someone you’re with them until they’re off the hill.

When we stopped to re-bandage his leg the damage became a lot more obvious, as did the need to stay with him. There was a nice split right down the centre of his knee cap, with a healthy dose of bone showing through. I’ve just seen on one of the forums somewhere that he fractured it in 4 places. Ouchie. 

Meanwhile people kept on with their race.

Why am I really writing this post? I think I’m seeking to justify why I had such a strong sense of wishing it upon someone else. I was very selfish. I think, however, that I could make a good old guess that I was experiencing exactly the same emotion as all the hundreds of other people who ran past and carried on with their day. In everyone’s defence though I should acknowledge the obvious point of ‘why stop if you can already see that someone is being helped?’ Fair point. Selfish me didn’t see the accident, nor did I hear the scream of the guy as his knee shattered. I could have swept by, lost in obscurity. Selfish me shouldn’t have stopped. Someone else would have….wouldn’t they? 

In a race of that many people how were there only two people helping him when I ran past? The 4 or 5 in front of me screamed past, as did the 4 or 5 behind me. How long would it have been before someone else offered to take a shoulder and help? I am not for one minute holding myself up as some sort of ‘champion of the fallen sportsman’. I’ve already said that my immediate emotion and the over-riding one in the aftermath of the race was of regret that I had stopped when I was doing so well – but what a dick I am. Was I going to win the race? Definitely not. Had I amassed enough Championship points in the previous races to be up on the podium? Definitely not. Would it have mattered if I was or had? Definitely not.

(Me at the end of race looking miserable!)

The hardest thing I learnt from the other day was that I’m in a sport that I don’t feel protected in. Yes we go into the hills of our own free will and yes we should know how to look after ourselves and accept the consequences of our actions. I don’t know that if I was to have an accident like that or worse whether someone would stop for me? That’s the hardest lesson.

There’s a quote from that legend Billy Bland in the book ‘Feet in the Clouds’ (you might have heard of it?!), when describing a duel with John Wild during the Borrowdale race, that goes….”he were sitting on me all way round, and coming up Gable he were still with us. I was beginning to get concerned. I thought, ‘If I can’t get rid of him off Gable, it’s a bit kinder ground after that, he’ll beat me.’ Anyway, for last quarter of Gable I think he was suffering a bit, but he stuck to us – he was hard as nails, was John; I was soft next to him. Then we left Gable, and I put on a spurt, and he fell on a stone, a few hundred yards off Gable, heading for Windy Gap. I just shouted, ‘Are you alright, John?’ ‘Aye.’ Anyway, it were misty as well, so I thought: ‘This is my kind of weather – down into Windy Gap and away.’ John ended up down in Gatescarth, because he lost his guide. It was a big kick to beat him, because he was a lot better runner than me. But some days you get your reward. But if he’d have said ‘No’, I’d have turned round.”

Now then….the route change. Lets not for one minute add these two issues, “cause and effect”, together to get some spurious ‘5’…..that would be cheap and dumb. I don’t really even need to labour the point as it is. The route was changed and folk got an experience that they hadn’t signed up for/paid for. Big deal. I didn’t hear any rumblings of discontent. People got on with it. Correct attitude in response to the correct decision. So the weather wasn’t quite as biblical as predicted but if it had been then whoopsie daisies! It could have been a busier day for Mountain Rescue. Nuff sed. 

Told you there weren’t that many pictures. Sorrrrr-weeee.