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Bill Smith: Lonely death of a modest giant of fell running


The rescuers paused for a few moments to pay their respects to the man they had found submerged in a peat bog on the remote Trough of Bowland last weekend. It is an honour afforded all those that perish out on the wild Lancashire fell sides.

Yet few among the recovery party could have realised that the remains of the elderly man, discovered the previous day but thought to have lain undiscovered for up to three weeks, belonged to one of the legends of the British sporting outdoors.

Yesterday it was confirmed that the dead man was Bill Smith, a pioneer of modern fell running and author of one of the sport's definitive works, Stud Marks on the Summits. Lavish tributes were paid to the veteran athlete who, aged 75, is believed to have fallen as he ran across Saddle Fell.

Graham Breeze, chairman of the Fell Running Association, said: "Fell runners come and go, champions come and go, but no-one will ever be as important to the development and history of fell running as the man who died in September on the Bowland fells."

In one particular feat of endurance in 1975 he completed 55 peaks in 24 hours. The following year he scaled 63 peaks in 23 hours and 55 minutes.

Peat bogs remain a potent menace to all runners and walkers. Although they are among the most endangered and sensitive landscapes in Britain they are a common site in northern uplands.

To the unassuming eye they appear to be solid ground but are in fact little more than a veneer of soil floating on often ice-cold water. Survival experts recommend slow movements or a wide swimming action to get out, but panic can cause those that get stuck to sink deeper, eventually making it impossible to escape without help.

Despite his towering reputation within the sport, Mr Smith, who lived on his own in Liverpool, was described as a "staggeringly modest and unassuming man" who used to travel by public transport to the often remote events.

In later years he used to photograph runners and help with organisation, and continued to train. Racegoers had become concerned when he failed to turn up to marshall at the Thieveley Pike race near Burnley in September.

Mr Smith's body was found on Saturday by a walker. The area was remote with no mobile phone signal and it took several hours of hiking before he could raise the alarm.

Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue Team returned the following day in the light. The body was eventually recovered by police helicopter after a five-hour operation. It was identified by his elderly sister who lives in Liverpool.

Mr Smith began running after a chance encounter with another legend of the sport, Stan Bradshaw, on the Todmorden Boundary Walk in 1971. Soon he was running up to 100 miles a week completing long-distance races, such as the Wasdale Horseshoe, and setting records.

Among the runners inspired by meeting him was Boff Whalley of the anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba, which recorded a song called "Stud Marks on the Summits". He said Mr Smith encapsulated the ethos of the sport – its emphasis on self-reliance and nature and its history.

Stud Marks on the Summits sold out when it was published in 1986, but continues to change hands for more than £100 on the internet. Commonwealth gold medal-winning long distance runner Ron Hill said Mr Smith's book was a "bible" for future generations.