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UK Mountain Marathon Called Off In Media Storm

Many will have seen the sensationalist TV coverage. Here is the true story as it unfolded, from the daily web statements of the organiser. There are some important issues discussed in relation to self-reliance and safety. It would be great to see an event of this type in Australia – compared to adventure races, which seem to enjoy hyping risky behaviours like sleep deprivation, mountain marathons have their roots in the UK fell and mountain racing scene, with a strong emphasis on self-responsibility and demonstrated experience before entry.

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1. Mountain Marathon Called Off For First Time.

For the first time in the history of the OMM (Original Mountain Marathon, UK) the race has had to be called off due to bad weather. Race Director Jen Longbottom made the decision just before midday after several hours of torrential rain had resulted in extreme conditions on the mountain and severe flooding. All the rivers very quickly began to burst their banks and even minor becks became foaming torrents. New water courses appeared all over the fell sides and the roads were awash.

There was little choice but to call off the race but with the OMM that is easier said than done. With thousands of competitors scattered across the hills and difficult communications in the area the best that could be done was to contact as many marshals as possible by radio and station more marshals at strategic points to direct all competitors to return to the start/finish area to hand in their Sportident tags, which would help account for everyone.

All the local mountain rescue services (there are 5 covering the course area) and race vehicles were helping ferry competitors back to base and there was a steady line of very wet racers walking back down Honister Pass and along Borrowdale. On hearing the news some were relieved but I saw one team who couldn’t believe it. “We’re gutted,” was their first comment. “We’re absolutely flying today and not in any difficulty, but I guess it has to be. What a disappointment!”

The café on the top of Honister pass was already packed with retreating teams and this was one of the places the announcement of the cancellation was made. Just outside, the mine buildings and car park were underwater and there was such a volume of water on the car park that large new waterfalls were flowing from it down onto the road.

Back down at Seathwaite conditions were already deteriorating rapidly as the valley continued to fill with an immense volume of water. In no time the river had burst its banks and by mid-afternoon fast flowing water filled most of the valley. Soon the roads were closed to traffic as the floods swept across them. Fast moving water several feet deep made the roads impassable and cut off race HQ at Seathwaite and access from Borrowdale.

What the situation is at race HQ at Seathwaite, and how many vehicles from retiring competitors managed to get out and over Honister Pass I can’t say as I’m presently in Borrowdale and cut off, unable to get Seathwaite. It seems likely many of those retiring will have to spend the night in whatever shelter they can find (there are large barns at Seathwaite farm) and everyone will have to wait until the rain stops and the waters subside. It’s now 16.28 and there is no let up in the rain, which is forecast to stop later this evening. Please be aware there is no mobile reception in the area so those with friends and relatives competing may not hear from them.

Sources: Rob Howard on http://www.sleepmonsters.co.uk/racereport.php?race_id=6846&article_id=5432&page_count=2&page_action=rep 

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2. Waiting for the Floods to Subside

I may be only a few miles from race HQ at Seathwaite, but as I’m unable to get there I’ve had the strange experience of spending the afternoon watching the media get hold of the story of the 2008 OMM and run with it. Starting as ‘breaking news’ on BBC, it then made it to the main BBC news, was the lead on ITN and is now on all the major news networks, in the UK and around the world.

It’s no surprise of course. Mass participation, angry local residents (the guy at Honister Mine who said the organisers ‘should be shot, but that can come later’), the uncertainty of lost people in the mountains and floods – they push all the right media buttons for a good story, and the fact there is little communication here leads to some speculation. The story is all over most of the major news networks now and our elderly B&B hosts (who kindly raided the larder for us as the nearby hotel had a river running through it) are a bit bemused by the media storm.

The down side to this is that a fair amount of misinformation gets circulated and lots of people are worried about friends and family who were taking part. The facts are gradually being straightened out. It is no longer being called a charity event, and the BBC finally accepted that there are parts of the world where there is no mobile coverage, but it is difficult for those with no knowledge of the OMM to understand what a mountain marathon is.

The idea of self-reliance isn’t a popular one in this day and age, so the fact that 900 people are said to be unaccounted for is being presented with the implication they are lost and in trouble – which is not the case. They are all well equipped and the vast majority will have made their way down off the hills and found shelter – though they may not be able to get back to race HQ or let anyone know where they are. Those who didn’t get off the hills still have a tent, sleeping bags, stove and food – and they expected to camp out in very wet conditions.

No one should underestimate the seriousness of the situation or the risks, and nothing will stop people worrying, but the situation is not as sensational as the news makes out and the organising team led by Jen Longbottom are exceptional and will be working through the night. However, the situation is made that much more difficult as race HQ has been cut off by flood water, and this is where the competitors left their cars.

Anyone who is worried should look at the forum on the OMM website rather than the TV news. This has some good advice and a sound assessment of the situation from those who know and understand the event. There are also reports on the BBC Cumbria news website from competitors who retired from the course and got home, and they are generally supportive of the event. (Those who are critical usually do not know what a mountain marathon is.)

The emergency services are doing all they can and local businesses (including Honister mine) have rallied round, but it is midnight now and it’s still raining. Until it stops and the floods subside (which the locals say should happen as rapidly as they rose) it won’t be possible to fully account for everyone and undertake the huge logistical exercise of getting them back to HQ and on their way home. So the situation is likely to remain confused tomorrow with more widespread (and sometimes speculative) media coverage. [I will try to get to HQ tomorrow morning and report, but its impossible to say when that might be.]

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3. News Update

This a brief news update – a full story will follow as soon as possible.

By this morning most of the floods had subsided, roads were open and passable with care, and the competitors were making their way back to Seathwaite.

During the night they had sheltered in various places, including the school in Cockermouth, youth hostels, and farm houses. Some slept in the barn where registration took place and there was plenty of food on offer at HQ.

Despite media reports of over 1000 competitors being ‘unaccounted for’ the true facts as of 02.00 in the morning were that 44 competitors had not been located, and by 12.00 this was down to just 8 pairs. (At any normal OMM there are usually this number not checked in after the race has finished at around 17.00 and more often than not they have set off home without checking in.) Every effort is being made to check on these remaining competitors, but they could be walking back in.

The logistical exercise of getting the cars off the parking field was mostly complete by lunch time, with tractors towing and teams of racers pushing vehicles out, and it is likely those who have left will now have rung any friends and family worried by the media frenzy. More full news and pictures to follow soon.

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4. Media Storm Hits the OMM

News Update; All competitors are now checked in and safely on their way home. While competitors in this year’s OMM were hunkered down in their tents, sleeping on floors of schools, barns and cafes, or settled into B&B’s and hotels around the Lake District, they were largely unaware the attention of the media was focused on their fate.

Very rapidly during Saturday evening the OMM became a ‘breaking story’ on BBC News 24, and by the evening it was leading the news bulletins, then it was in the Sunday papers, on national radio and even on international news networks. By nightfall press of all kinds were making their way into Cumbria to get the full story on Sunday morning.

Unfortunately, the lack of mobile coverage, the fact race HQ was cut off by floods, and the large number of agencies involved, created a confused situation, and in the absence of facts mistaken assumptions were made, inaccurate figures given and then repeated across the media. News agencies were still reporting 1700 ‘missing’ or ‘unaccounted for’ on Sunday morning, many hours after race HQ had the number ‘not checked in’ as down to 44.

While the readers and listeners of the world media had the impression that a major emergency situation was taking place, those in the event itself saw things differently – they were quickly and efficiently providing food and shelter at race HQ, checking where everyone was and working with the mountain rescue teams to ensure everyone’s safety. The competitors themselves were sensibly taking shelter where ever they could prior to making their way back to HQ.

The whole situation will no doubt be analysed in every detail long after the event but at the root of the media frenzy (and much of the criticism the race is getting) is a misunderstanding of what a mountain marathon is all about.

To the press so many competitors in a mass event ‘unaccounted for’ implied they were lost and in danger – but to the race the fact teams were not checked in back at HQ was understandable given the situation. All the competitors have to show a suitable amount of outdoor experience when entering and carry an extensive list of mandatory equipment including all they need to survive in bad weather and to camp out overnight. (Tent, sleeping bag, stove, food, warm clothing etc.)

It’s quite normal for retiring teams to camp out on the hills and make their way back to base in a mountain marathon and the ethos of the race is that those taking part are primarily responsible for their own safety. (Many made their own decision they were not experienced enough for the conditions and did not start, while others decided when to retire from the course for themselves.)

The police and media also struggled to understand the idea teams were free to make their own route choice and could not all be ‘accounted for’. Route choice and navigation are an essential part of mountain marathons and the various courses covered much of the central Lake District. There was no easy way to tell everyone taking part the race had been cancelled, and many pairs got to the mid-camp in Buttermere before finding out, or spent the night somewhere unaware the race was off.

When competitors did get back to race HQ they were mostly disappointed they couldn’t take part on Sunday or that the race had to be stopped in the exceptionally bad conditions. In contrast to the judgements made by the ‘outside world’ who didn’t understand the nature of the OMM or have the right facts about what happened, none of the racers we spoke to were critical of the event and the organisation. Everyone we saw was smiling and felt the right decisions were made, both to start and to cancel. They’d had a memorable weekend and were astonished to find out they’d been making news headlines.

As they arrived back to check in, get some food and set off home, the media began to arrive in force, with microphones, recorders, cameras and satellite trucks. They’d come looking for more news on the big news story of the weekend expecting to find the aftermath of a major emergency, and found most competitors had already set off home, and those coming in were cheerful and sitting around drinking soup and tea. They’d expected hundreds to be missing, and found only a few whose whereabouts were still unknown. They’d expected to find the race in disorganisation and disarray and found they’d coped with the situation efficiently and effectively.

When the BBC interviewed OMM Director Mike Parsons it was as though they were speaking two different languages. The presenter became more and more confused as each question was met by an unexpected answer, until she eventually asked; “You mean there was no emergency here?” Mike’s answer was, “No, not really.”

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5. After the OMM – A Report By Rob Howard

When the 2008 OMM came to an end at Seathwaite on Sunday most competitors returned along the road from Seatoller, having walked over Honister Pass from Cockermouth or Gatesgarth. Some spent the night on the pass, others at the Lakeland Sheep and Wool Centre or the school at Cockermouth, and most in the barn at the overnight camp at Gatesgarth. Those in Cockermouth School were even provided with a cooked breakfast before setting off back!

Graham Brown and his partner who were in the ‘C’ Class were one pair who could not speak highly enough of the help they’d received. “We had set off to walk back over Honister,” they said, “but when we got to the top we were told the road was closed and bussed back to Cockermouth. They looked after us incredibly well there and later in the night switched to looking after local residents who were flooded out.”

Something that has been largely overlooked is the fact that the flooding was more severe than even the valleys were used to, or expecting, and many local residents were flooded out and needed assistance. (One of the difficulties the police had was that they had to make decisions on how to spread thin resources and this may have contributed to their criticism of the OMM.)

As I spoke to Graham race organiser Jen Longbottom walked passed and heard the comment about their being stopped at Honister. “It would have been better they’d let them come here,” she said. Clearly she felt that the competitors had been stopped from returning to HQ where they could be accounted for and looked after – even if they did have wade deep water to get there. (Teams were stopped on the pass first by the owner of the Honister Slate Mine, and later by the Police.)

In the registration barn those who had retired had their Sportident tags cut off and their return registered and they were kept supplied with a constant supply of tea and soup. Some racers had spent the night there rather than camping and one was Brian Leyton, who was completing his 97th mountain marathon. He was aiming to run his 100th at the next LAMM … and he still is, reasoning that as he hadn’t retired this event still counted as completed! (Not sure that one will hold up Brian!)

Outside registration the Cockermouth MRT were coordinating with Jen Longbottom and Roger Smith to complete the checking off of returning racers. At this time there were only a few still to be checked in and they were discussing putting out appeals on local radio to ensure they were not sat in a B&B somewhere nearby.

There was some frustration about this checking process on all sides. The Police didn’t seem to understand the nature of the event and felt everyone should be quickly accounted for. But then they were fielding the calls from worried relatives (resulting from the clichéd, overhyped and inaccurate media coverage) and unable to answer them and the information from HQ was not reaching them … or the national media.

On the other hand when the Police contacted Mike Parsons to tell him everyone had left the Sheep and Wool centre and he asked for the names of those who stayed there … he was told they’d not been taken!

Earlier in the day an RAF Sea King had passed over, clearly searching for the remaining competitors, and at one point it landed so the crew could talk to the rescue team. (It was not asked for by the race and as has been said in the forums the RAF supply this service as part of their training. There is no additional ‘taxpayer cost’ and the MRT teams are all volunteers supported by public donation.) In fact several MRT members were competing, including the leader of the Cockermouth Team, who called them up when he got to the mid-camp at Gatesgarth.

Here there was an injury to a volunteer from the Glossop Scout Group, sustained when both mess tents blew away, injuring his leg and knocking him unconscious. (This may have been the head injury reported in the press.) He was dealt with by other members of the mid-camp team initially, and then by the event first aider Andrew Wilson – a serving paramedic – whilst awaiting the arrival after 40 minutes of the local ambulance service. Andrew and the local staff then decided to take him off to hospital with suspected knee and neck injuries.

According to Mike Parsons the condition of the mid-camp was really the tipping point for the decision to call the race off – rather than the weather conditions on the hill. The rising flood water forced vehicles to be moved and then threatened the power supply for the cabins installed at the two finishes, then the accident took place and the organising team felt maintaining the mid-camp was no longer feasible in the conditions.

The press accounts of 13 injuries may have been inflated by being combined with other incidents not related to the race, but the full details on this have yet to come out. Cockermouth MRT told me they attended two fractured ankles and one marshal with mild hypothermia, and the female competitor rescued after being washed downstream was helicoptered out with other walkers (not competitors)who were in difficulties.

There was also a major rescue undertaken by the Kendal team who sent me this comment;

Whilst the media were hyping up the search for missing people that never was in the Borrowdale/Honister/Gatesgarth area, across the way in Langdale the real search was on for three genuine missing, under equipped walkers in upper Oxendale/Red Tarn area.

Both Langdale, Ambleside & Kendal MRT’s were involved all night. The walkers were found by a search dog at about 3am cut off by a raging torrent in Crinkle Ghyll, tired, cold, wet and frightened. It took Kendal MRT’s full swift water rescue squad to get to them and bring them to safety in the dark. When we got home and reported it to the media they were not interested! Your “missing” 1700 was a much better story than one of Kendal MRT’s most technical rescues for a long time. Long Live The OMM!

P.S. The Police had asked us to bring our Land Rovers to Honister to help with the evacuation to the Sheep and Wool centre but after talking with Keswick MRT we decided to stay at home where we were really needed!

One pair who did not need rescuing were Dave Prentice and Trevor Smith (both 64), a pair who have completed 29 KIMM and OMM’s (the most anybody has). They were one of the last pairs to walk in and by this time the media had arrived in force, so they were met above HQ by two photographers and accosted by newspaper, radio and TV reporters when they walked into the farm yard. (They were milling around having arrived as the last competitors left, looking for the story they themselves had fabricated.) They were not going to get much controversy out of Dave!

“We aced it!” was his comment to me. “We were wondering whether to retire and when we passed Black Sail YHA it was too good to resist, so we went in there. They were very good, letting us send them a cheque later by post, and we played cards and drank G&T’s all night!”

When I asked Dave if the conditions were the worst he’d encountered on the event he thought about it for a long time. “I think the rain was worse in Galloway and the wind worse in the Howgills,” he said, “but for both combined these were just about the worst conditions.”

The pair were soon on their way home, which could not be said for the unfortunate competitors who parked at a dip in the road where the floods were worst. A number of cars were filled with water, but they were not the only ones caught out, there were abandoned cars all over the area and many others down Borrowdale after the floods subsided. Another unfortunate incident was that the farmer (who was busy helping competitors get out) lost a number of sheep to the floods.

Now the 2008 OMM is all over the analysis and repercussions will rumble on for some time and opinions will remain deeply divided on the rights and wrongs of the decisions taken, but looking at my photos from Seathwaite one thing stands out. Most people were still smiling. They’d come for an adventure and to test themselves, and that is what they got … along with some press notoriety!

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Media coverage 1: Original Mountain Marathon runners rescued from freezing gale

HUNDREDS of marathon runners had to be rescued yesterday after horrendous weather swept through northern England, causing flooding and freezing conditions.

About 700 were competing in the Original Mountain Marathon in the Lake District when torrential rains and near freezing Arctic gale force winds blew in.

At least 12 people were taken to hospital with hypothermia and minor injuries. Dozens of rescue crews last night still were looking for more runners either trapped by flooding or trying to wait out the storm.

Cumbria Police said competitors spending the night on the mountain were mainly seasoned mountaineers and were expected to be carrying suitable equipment to cope with adverse weather.

The manager of Honister Slate Mine, near Keswick, Cumbria, said he had sheltered up to 300 runners.

“The weather is absolutely horrendous and it’s a scene of chaos up here,” mine manager Mark Weir said yesterday.

“I believe there were up to about 2000 people who entered this race and I advised the organisers not to go ahead with the event. Our staff are helping to transport them off the mountain pass – but we need more help and more buses as there are still plenty of people up here.”

Race director Jen Longbottom had called off the race after the start and following hours of torrential rain.

“All the rivers very quickly began to burst their banks and even minor becks became foaming torrents,” Ms Longbottom said.

“New water courses appeared all over the fell sides and the roads were awash.”

Mountain rescue team spokesman, Bob Liddell, had not ruled out calling in the RAF for help. He said 26 members of the mountain rescue team were battling through heavy winds and rain to help trace any distressed runners.

“It is impossible to say how many people are up there because there is no mobile reception,” Mr Liddell said.

“I don’t believe the organisers will have been able to account for everyone at this stage. We will continue to operate for at least the next couple of hours but the weather is far too windy for RAF helicopters to be called up.”

Source: http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,24556433-5012749,00.html

Media coverage 2: Flooding washes out UK mountain marathon

Hundreds of mountain runners spent the night in tents and hastily-organised shelters after a long-distance race in England’s Lake District race was called off due to heavy rain and flooding, British authorities said on Sunday.

Officials said 44 had not checked back in with race organisers but the athletes had extensive outdoor experience and were probably not in danger.

About 2,500 athletes began the Original Mountain Marathon on Saturday before the race was called off, police said.

Almost 800 people stayed overnight in shelters, while some 1,700 camped out in the hills.

“The figure we are working on is 44 unaccounted for,” a Cumbria police spokesman said on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to give his name under the force’s policy.

“There is nothing to suggest that they need medical assistance.”

He said that police weren’t sure if the missing athletes were still out on the hills or had made their way down and not checked in with race organisers.

A Royal Air Force helicopter is in the area, looking for any of the 44 who might need assistance, Flight Lieutenant Curly Crawford told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Competitors were scattered across the 80 kilometre-long course when heavy rain and high winds rolled into much of the Lake District, about 482km north of London.

“Most of those unaccounted for will be camping out in their tents and I’m sure they will be fine,” said Neil Talbott, who competed in the race.

“It was compulsory to bring hypothermia ‘space blankets’ and camping equipment.

“The event is billed as a tough event and competitors know what they are letting themselves in for.

“It’s held at this time of year annually for a reason because the weather is part of the test,” he said.

“There are various categories and you are not allowed to take part in the harder courses unless you have previously competed in the marathon.”

The area near the race had about 65 millimetres of rain over the past 24 hours.

Source: http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=653829

Media commentary 3: Weather Eye: Lake District Original Mountain Marathon hit by storm

Some 2,500 runners faced a gruelling ordeal at the weekend when they were struck by high winds and heavy rain during the Original Mountain Marathon in the Lake District (report, Oct 27). The bad weather had been forecast, though, as a deepening low-pressure system in the Atlantic skirted past western Scotland. Embedded in the storm was an active cold front, which dropped nearly a month’s rainfall in 24 hours, with some places getting more than 100mm (4in) over the weekend.

But there was nothing particularly unusual about this storm or that the Lake District is often very wet. The valleys of the Lake District are arranged like bicycle spokes around the mountains, and help to funnel winds from all directions. That airflow is often laden with moisture and when it comes up against the steep fells and mountains of the Lake District, the moisture is released as buckets of rain on the slopes. This is why Sty Head in the Lake District is the wettest place in the UK, on average, with 430cm (169in) of precipitation a year and nearby Sprinkling Tarn set a UK annual rainfall record of 652cm (257in) in 1954.

This weekend also gave reminders of May last year, when 2,400 young people had to be evacuated from Dartmoor during the Ten Tors Challenge. Driving rain flooded streams and rivers, and more than 700 rescuers were involved in the mass evacuation. In 1996 the same event was abandoned during a sleet and snow storm. The weather in the uplands can be ferocious, and organisers and participants in these events need to pay close attention to weather forecasts.

Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/weather/article5026049.ece

Youtube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sto2MYmhVws

Event site: http://www.theomm.com/event – click on Results and Reports, Sleepmonsters Reports, The OMM – Photo Gallery

The Last Word – Groucho Marx

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book”.

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