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Monday, 28 July 2014

Lakes marathon organisers ignored advice not to let race go ahead

Organisers of a Lakeland mountain challenge which sparked a huge rescue operation held the event despite police advice not to.

They today defended the decision to go ahead in spite of both police and mountain rescue teams advising against it due to bad weather.

Police said they were ‘disappointed’ by the decision, and admitted the rescue operation had been expensive.

And the leader of Keswick Mountain Rescue team, Mark Hodgson, was doubtful the runners should have been there at all in such weather and critical of those who allowed the race to go ahead.

“Had anyone rang and asked for advice, we would have told them it was their decision whether to go ahead, but you have to question the wisdom of allowing it to carry on,” he said.

“I have been out there in some fairly wild weather, but that ranks as one of the wildest.”

More than 2,000 fell runners had to seek emergency shelter after being battered by torrential rain and gale-force winds above Borrowdale on Saturday.

About a dozen were taken to hospital suffering from minor injuries or hypothermia while the last handful were only reported safe yesterday afternoon.

Police and mountain rescue teams advised organisers of the two-day Original Mountain Marathon to call it off because of the bad weather forecast.

But OMM press officer Mike Parsons, from Patterdale, said: “This is an adventure sport and Cumbria is the home of adventure.

“The people taking part are not just fell runners - they are also masters mountain navigation and survival. If Paula Radcliffe came along she would not be allowed to run.

“The competitors come along for a good weekend - that is not a weekend sat in the pub, it is one that sees them being challenged in the mountains.

“We knew the forecast for Saturday was poor and that conditions would be challenging and we actually cut the length of all the courses by about a quarter before the start.

“But we knew that conditions were going to be much better on Sunday and we firmly believed that we would be here at Seathwaite holding a prize-giving ceremony in bright sunshine.” 




Mr Parsons, who has been involved in all of the 41 mountain marathons - 25 as a competitor - said the decision to cancel the event was taken on Saturday lunchtime when conditions deteriorated dramatically.

Some of the runners took refuge at Honister Slate Mine which stands between Saturday’s start at Seathwaite, Borrowdale, and finish at Gatesgarth in Buttermere.

Hundreds were put up overnight in nearby barns or at Cockermouth school or Glaramara outdoor pursuits centre while around 1,700 stayed on the fells.

Mr Parsons said: “There were 1,400 teams of two taking part every entrant was carefully vetted. They have the experience and carry all the necessary kit for an overnight camp.

“What normally happens in this event is that all those taking part stay out overnight. That is just part of the experience and the challenge.

“When we did call a halt on Saturday there were people coming up to me saying that we did the right thing starting it and the right thing stopping it.”

Superintendent Gary Slater, of Cumbria police, said that organisers had been advised not to go ahead with the race following adverse weather conditions in the days leading up to it.

He added: “We made it clear earlier in the week that we thought it should not go ahead. That was based on the weather we had as late as Thursday. We had good grounds to give our advice.

“I accept that the people in the race were experienced fell runners, but the circumstances we have had over the past few days have been fairly unique. We had flood warnings all over the area. We always knew it was going to be difficult.

“It was disappointing they chose to go ahead.”

Superintendent Slater said it was a relief when he was able to call the major incident off and that the support received from the public had been helpful.

He said the operation had been expensive.

The decision to go ahead with the Original Mountain Marathon, in which some elite entrants literally run two marathons in two days and climb thousands of feet, was also attacked by one of the first rescuers.

Mark Weir runs Honister Slate Mine which became a refuge centre for hundreds of freezing runners, spectators and 999 crews.

He and his staff worked throughout the night bussing people down the narrow mountain pass in treacherous conditions.

He said: “We have come within inches of turning the Lake District mountains into a morgue. We need to learn from it. On a good day, this place is heaven on earth. In extreme freak weather like this, it is hell.

“This incident has proved beyond doubt that people can survive in the worst conditions imaginable - but they need to know what they are doing. If nothing is done no-one learns anything and incidents like this will continue to happen.”

Police had called in an RAF helicopter to search for athletes left stranded.

Flight lieutenant Curly Crawford, of the RAF, said that they rescued five runners on Saturday and were called out yesterday morning to help find 80 more.  He said numbers fell throughout the afternoon as runners made themselves known to race organisers.

Police confirmed they had all been accounted for at 2.25 pm yesterday.

Seven hundred and forty three runners spent Saturday night in Cockermouth Sheep & Wool Centre, Cockermouth School, Honister Slate Mine, Glaramara outdoor pursuit centre and Gatesgarth Farm.

The race was abandoned at midday when it was hit by the worst weather in its 41 year history.

Mountain rescue teams searched the hills until after dark and throughout yesterday morning, with teams drafted in from across the county and 70 volunteers taking part at the height of the operation.

Cockermouth School was set up as an emergency reception centre on Saturday night by police and county council bosses after they were alerted at about 6pm by Mark Weir at Honister Slate Mine. 

It closed yesterday afternoon after most racers had been helped back to their vehicles.

Thirteen casualties were taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia and minor injuries.  Most of them were released yesterday.

Mark Wear, of Cumbria police, said about 130 people had been dealt with by the reception centres at the Sheep and Wool Centre and Cockermouth School.

Calls were placed to the WRVS, Salvation Army, Red Cross and St John's Ambulance and dozens of volunteers turned up at the school to help serve hot drinks and set up a sleeping area in the hall and eco centre.

Sainsbury's staff opened up the Cockermouth store and delivered food to the school for the runners.

Slate mine owner Mark Weir - who rescued a group of stranded schoolchildren during a storm on Thursday - sheltered about 300 competitors.

Shane Ohly, who completed the run, said: "The weather was very bad; gale force winds and torrential rain. However, the event is for experienced fell runners and everyone should have been able to cope.

"We heard that the road through Borrowdale was under 7ft of water and that the road at the end of the Honiston pass was about to be submerged at the only passable ford.

"As for the competitors, many were stuck in a huge farmer's barn at the planned overnight campsite."

Have you been affected by the floods? Tell us below . . .

Have your say

Re:Rescue Teams question... YES! ALL should be well prepared (No signs/leaflets for?)for all weather conditions, clothing, fell knowledge and possible suitable insurance carried for team/individual extreme sports. I have, when undertaking voluntary work for the ambulance authority been informed a decade ago that it costs well over a thousand to send an air ambulance out with the NHS picking up the bill which cannot be right for some ill thought callouts! Charity Donations... Consider other charitable organisations that also need help when giving.

Posted by Roy Gad on 12 November 2008 at 10:51

Dan - you wonder why I split the £70,000 over the whole county? Simple really, the whole county, including the people of Alston Moor, Carlisle, Westmorland, Furness and the West Coast pay towards the provision of the emergency services which were diverted to the incident when those who paid had to wait!

Obviously, as you re-iterate in a later paragraph the money was spent more locally to the event, probably as good a reason as any for the folks of Borrowdale to welcome them.

As to everyone being prepared for the weather I suggest you read the articles in the local (green top) edition of the Times and Star where some of the competitors openly admit that they were more than thankful to be "rescued".

So far as knowing Borrowdale, I could surprise you - probably known the valley and a lot of the folks a wee bit longer than yourself, fully aware of the fell-running tradition and ran against the older members of the families you mentioned (and not just in the short guides races).

Thing that really puzzles me is why did you chose to stay in your tent at Seathwaite if you actually do live in the valley yourself? That's really entering into the spirit of things.More convenient than what? And again, like me, you should know just what can happen up there (remember '66 or is that a bit before your time?)

I won't be sending an entry in for next year - not because of any perceived naivety or an assumption that it is only a long walk. It's simply that having reached an age where knees don't allow the speed at which the head navigates there is no longer any joy in being an also ran! My comment was supposed to be slightly tongue in cheek - I am aware of the demands of the courses, just that I'm also aware of my own current limitations.

But Dan, next year I hope you and everyone else enjoy the OMM, wherever it may be held, just think a bit more about the weather.

Posted by Jack on 3 November 2008 at 21:18

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