The race should be on the fells, not the web

Entry for the Ben Nevis Race opened on Sunday. Runners were told they had three days, until midday on Wednesday, to add their name to a pre-selection ballot. Hundreds signed up, enticed by the increased hype around this year’s race, partly due to its selection as a British championship event.

I was among them. I entered at 12.04pm on Sunday, while my incredulous four-year-old daughter, sitting next to me in Cineworld’s Screen 6, asked what I was doing on my phone in the closing moments of Despicable Me 3. I was entering a race that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do, or will do. That’s what I was doing.

Shortly after 4pm on Monday – 44 hours before the ballot was due to shut – the Ben Nevis Race Association stopped taking entries, posting the following message on its Facebook page.

Understandably, people – obviously those who had not entered – were irritated. And rightly so. If you are told you have until Wednesday to enter…

We have been here before. The last time Ben Nevis was a championship race was 1990, long before online entries was a thing. Some 60 people applied after the race was full and were told there was no place for them. Colin Donnelly, British champion in 1987, 1988 and 1989, and the youngest ever winner of the race aged 19 in 1979, was among them. As the season progressed, Donnelly emerged as the championship leader and had only to finish in the top-12 to win a fourth consecutive title. It meant nothing, for he did not have a number for Ben Nevis. Mark Rigby won the race. Gary Devine, in third, won the championship. Donnelly – who would later spend eight years living and working in Fort William, looking up at Ben Nevis every day – would never run the race again in defiant protest. Nor would he be British champion again.

The Fellrunner reported the fiasco in its January 1991 edition.

There was little sympathy even in these pages for Donnelly.

Except there wasn’t next year…

And here we go again: a championship race on Ben Nevis; the race organiser turning large numbers of people away. The latter, it must be said, is typically the case for the Ben, even when runners entered by post, but not it seems in such large numbers as this year.

There is a reason why Ben Nevis has not been a championship race – this very situation. So why pick it? Ben Nevis has no need of elevated status: the race does not require prestige or, presumably, the income. It will always fill up; it will always attract the best hill runners from Scotland and England; it will always be one of the UK’s flagship hill races.

It’s not like there aren’t plenty of other hill races in Scotland in September and October, even ‘long’ races to satisfy the spread of championship events (if such a race could not have been accommodated earlier in the season). Fancy a trip to Ardnamurchan for Beinn Resipol? Or to the famous Braemar Gathering in the Cairngorms? Or Devil’s Beeftub in the Borders, the race held in memory of John Blair-Fish?

Ben Nevis is not an isolated case. A common theme is emerging in 2018. The Isle of Jura Fell Race went to a ballot this year. I did not get in. The organiser emailed to say I was not even in the top-50 of the waiting list.

Same story for the Edale Skyline Fell Race, the first race in this year’s English championship. Gavin Mulholland, an undoubtedly talented runner who notably won a Northern Ireland vest at last year’s Snowdon International Race, was among those who missed out. He took to Facebook and the Fell Runners UK page to express his dismay.

Mulholland’s final words epitomise the frustration of many: ‘The race should be on the fells, not on the web.’

He is right, of course, but what’s the solution?

It is pointless blaming race or championship organisers. Their job is complex enough – a task that must be made simpler by online entry. Fell and hill running cannot resist that change.

Are we, the would-be competitors, partly at fault? Why are we flocking to the Ben or Jura or Edale, copying the herd mentality of those lured to the beacons of the London Marathon – 380,000 entered the 2018 race – the Great North Run or Tough Mudder? That is not to belittle those races: they undoubtedly inspire and challenge tens of thousands of people every year. Yet they symbolise a creeping commercialism that hill running and its participants typically like to eschew.

This is easy to say, of course, because if a race is a designated championship event, like Ben Nevis and Edale, the ambitious runners, have to turn up. But do they deserve a place ahead of a midpack plodder whose cursor was poised on SiEntries?

That races are popular can only be a good thing for the sport – and certainly in Scotland, because for every Ben Nevis or Jura, there are a dozen other races lucky to have 100 entrants toeing the line. The paradox is, hill runners do not want races to be too popular. How that is achieved is the conundrum.

Responding to Mulholland’s post, David Holmes offered a solution to a problem that transcends hill running.

A return to the ‘good old days’ is a popular idea in a traditional sport, but would that be the ‘good old days’ of Ben Nevis in 1990?

I could go on, yet for every potential solution, there is a but. Perhaps this is just the way of things now? It is worth remembering, however, what this is all about – the right to be in the mountains, and they stand unflustered and unmoved. They could not give a damn. Maybe we should follow their lead?

Edited on February 9.


10 Comments Add yours

  1. Derek hurton says:

    That’s what happens when you let market fundamentalism and corporatism extend their dirty tendrils into the world of fellrunning. Read innov8’s parent company medium term strategy document and you see what I mean. For all their (& they’re just one easy target) talk about the love of the sport, they’re just the same as their sibling brands le coq sportif and arena… global brands with multi billion dollar turnover targets. They want more and more and more fellrunners in order to satisfy their one fundamental motive: profit maximisation. Overfilled races are just one symptom of this.

    1. heightsofmadness says:

      Can you send a link to the strategy document?

      1. Derek hurton says:

        Yup, do you have an email address?

  2. Gavin Mulholland says:

    Haha this is a much more eloquent and informative way of discussing our current issue.

    1. heightsofmadness says:

      Thanks – but you were the inspiration!

  3. colin donnelly says:

    the Ben Nevis has been under rgue organisers for many years. Solution? boycott.
    it worked well in 19th century Ireland. The power lies with us, the runners

    1. heightsofmadness says:

      That’s what I’ve said in the book – albeit without the Irish analogy!

  4. stevemon50 says:

    Nice blog Johnny. I blame the race for status, profit, top dog mentality. 99% of fell runners don’t win. Most of them are happy to finish. The pleasure is in taking part. The sport would be elitist if not for the 99%. Maybe a solution would be a race not on the calendar just for the elite? Also online entry with start date/time is yet another race. I like turning up paying and taking part as I did in Dec. 2017 at Eskdale Eureka – tough race. Guaranteed entries for whom? Solution in the spirit of fell racing – championship races announced on the day? Or championship races announced as normal but with entries held for those competing for title? And then released if not taken by set date. Happy 😊 on the fells. Steve 😎

    1. heightsofmadness says:

      I think holding entries makes sense, albeit creating more work for the organiser. My experience lies far more in Scotland, where it somehow feels racing is less important than England. Maybe there are fewer traditional races north of the border? There’s a lot of focus on racing though, isn’t there? Surely the race is merely a conduit for being in the hills.

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