It's a century-old sport whose spectators can bet on the outcome of races in Scotland and Northern England. Back then, a handful of farmers, shepherds and artisans would race up and down the nearest hill during the annual agricultural show. The Grasmere race, which is over in 12 minutes and held on the Thursday after the third Saturday in August, is the premier event for the professionals. Now several hundred likeminded amateur brethren may race 10 miles or more on the hills for fun.
The pinnacle for an amateur fell-runner today is the World Cup for Mountain Running. First contested in 1985, the event was held in Keswick in 1988. That year Reebok helped sponsor the event, deemed a success when 18 nations enjoyed idyllic autumn weather reminiscent of the Alps.
The Fell Runners Association is the sport's controlling body and as a recognised branch of athletics is eligible for the support of the British Athletic Federation. Keswick's Kenny Stuart, thrice British fell-running champion, is the only British champion to have won the World Cup in its short history, although Martin Jones from Horwich, a club steeped in fell-running traditions near Bolton, has won it for the last two years. He represents a new breed who translate their basic speed on the flat to stunning effect on the hills. A good pair of lungs is no guarantee of success: Bill Teasdale, the professional whose post-war dominance earned him an MBE, said, 'Confidence allied to ability makes a champion.'
The present trend is to imitate the Continentals and at World Cup level that means shunning our idea of a fell race: one which begins and ends at the same point like a pub, school or farm at a dale head and includes a natural circuit of the nearby hills. This year the World Cup will feature only uphill races. Jeff Norman reckons we have produced some of the best at mountain running - Kenny Stuart, Joss Naylor, Billy Bland and Bill Teasdale. He should know, having won the classic Three Peaks race in Yorkshire six times (1969-74), run in an Olympic Marathon and won the 1975 Sierre to Zinal race in Switzerland.
Also the 1974 British Fell Running Champion, Norman has raced against the best for many years and thinks that they have to some degree an extra ingredient - fell craft.
All mountain sports are dangerous; perhaps that is the attraction for fell-runners who seek to contain the risk. With fell craft and skillful navigation they seek to minimise the dangers of Britain's hostile mountains. For them, running uphill only is the soft option. Not everyone can run downhill on rough ground and the dyed-in-the-wool brigade reckons the Continental way takes the thrills and spills out of the sport.
The sport is tough and by its very nature will not attract the masses. The FRA have a 'Code Of Conduct' for competitors and organisers which includes, for example, restricting the numbers entering and minimising environmental damage.
The odd twisted ankle or back apart, extra rewards are fitness, freedom, exhilaration and the chance to become another World Champion.
FRA Membership Secretary, c/o 39A Kirkland, Kendal, Cumbria
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