Something I've been pondering and have felt compelled to follow up recently.. it seems that participants rarely ask what arrangements are in place for a race to operate safely. And the consensus amongst those I’ve spoken to seems to be along the lines of ‘…..well, you kind of just take it for granted that all that stuff is in place’. Which seems to be based on assumptions that there are certain standards organisers are obliged to work to and, perhaps, that higher entry fees mean better levels of safety. But:
1. Can you take this for granted?
2. Given that there are many natural hazards that will always exist in such events (e.g. steep and/or uneven ground etc.) which are actually part of the attraction to many, does it really matter?
The answer to the first question is (unfortunately) NO it can’t be taken for granted.
And I can tell you with confidence that safety provision certainly isn’t proportionate to the entry fee.
There are examples of low key fell races organised by local village hall committees doing much more for your safety on the back of a £10 entry fee than other commercially minded organisers charging more than 10 times that for an event of similar distance.
Yes, the latter may be providing more in terms of medals, t-shirts, prizes, catering, music etc. but could their budget be going on all that – plus lots of glossy marketing/social media to attract you there – to the detriment of having safety arrangements out on the course that could save your life?
Do you ever ask yourself that question?
I’ve had the privilege of seeing behind the scenes at quite a few races put on by other organisers over the years. I’ve seen some (like Ourea, organisers of The Dragon’s Back, Glencoe Skyline etc) that are absolute gold, industry leading, standard in terms of safety. And, some that are – frankly – way down at the other end of the spectrum.
But, to be honest, unless you look behind the scenes or ask the question yourself, it’s quite difficult for the typical runner (customer) to know where on the safety spectrum a race is. As you can’t always judge the book by its cover in this instance.
Frightening events at a recent race in a mountainous area of the UK, which has attracted a lot of negative publicity in the media and various online channels, have clearly demonstrated this. And, while the situation there was quite extreme, there are many other examples of races happening with some quite basic safety risks not being well managed, if many managed at all.
Going back to that second question about whether it really matters given that it’s a hazardous sport anyway. Well, the answer to that is, IMHO, most definitely YES too!
We may sign a disclaimer when we enter races saying we accept the risks involved and understand that the organiser can’t prevent us having an accident, such as from tripping over a rock, that may smart a bit (or worse). However, this certainly doesn’t absolve the organiser from their own responsibilities.
Firstly, the disclaimer means diddly squat if they’ve not made it clear what you’re letting yourself in for when you signed up. E.g. if it’s a trot along a nicely manicured trail that’s suitable for beginners or involves highly technical terrain needing mountaineering skills.
There is a clear responsibility on organisers to ensure participants know what is says on the tin is actually what’s in the tin.
Secondly, because the risk of an accident (or medical emergency) cannot be completely eliminated, it is especially important that organisers have ‘appropriate’ measures in place to reduce the likelihood as far as they reasonably can, within the context of the race and considering the target audience. And – most importantly - to ensure that a minor situation doesn’t escalate when that it reasonably could have been avoided. For example, a person unable to move due to a twisted ankle ending up as a fatality due to hypothermia because nobody knew they were stranded on the mountain.
So, back to the original ponderer about what questions ought to be asked but rarely are.
Here are just a few I’d encourage you to think about. And there may be others you can think of.
Does the race have a permit issued by a governing body?
In the UK permits for trail/fell races are often issued by the Trail Running or Fell Running Association on behalf of UK Athletics. And the issue of a permit gives you some assurance that, at the very least, arrangements and underlying risk assessment have had some level of scrutiny by the body issuing it.
If the race doesn’t have a governing body permit, how do I know if safety risks have been assessed and will be managed?
Organisers are not obliged to have a permit btw. A lack of one doesn’t in itself make them unsafe. They may have done very comprehensive risk assessments, have top notch processes in place and have private insurance (as Ourea do). But equally they may not have any of that. You don’t really know unless they tell you or you ask.
Do I fully understand what I’m letting myself in for?
Distance and elevation gain don’t tell the fully story on this, as the nature of the terrain makes a huge difference to the skills required and speed that you’ll be able to move.
Will the organisers know where I am on the course, or whether I’m actually out there at all?
There are various ways of doing this from simple manual processes (such as marshals recording you through checkpoints) to more elaborate ones such as GPS trackers. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by fancy technology though. Trackers are only of use if they’re reliable and there is a reliable person in the organiser’s team watching them at ALL times (i.e. not just your mates dot watching from the couch).
What will they do if I don’t turn up at a checkpoint or the finish within a certain time scale?
This relies very much on the system being used for monitoring your progress, and whether there are competent people ready to respond.
What will happen if I have an accident and/or have to stop somewhere on the course?
Again, as above, but, if in a remote/mountainous location, it needs the persons responding to have the skills to find you and take appropriate action when they do. A very different skill set to that needed for a marshal at parkrun.
How long would it take to get help to me and what will the help consist of?
This is a case of ‘how long is a piece of string’ tbh but will be a lot quicker, and the help will be most effective, if the organiser has competent people and robust processes in place than it would otherwise be. (E.g. someone with a high level of mountain competence and wilderness first aid qualifications - such as a Mountain Leader - is likely to be more effective in dealing with a situation in the mountains than the first aiders you may find at a road race / village fete etc.) In any case, if you’re more than a few 100 metres from somewhere with vehicle access, you’re almost certainly looking at hours rather than minutes before you’re in the warmth of an ambulance / building. Which is why having suitable extra/emergency kit should be considered a life saver not a nuisance.
What is the procedure if I go off course?
If you’re entering such races you really should make a point of knowing this and taking some responsibility for it yourself. Because any processes for dealing with the issues above quickly fall apart if you don’t.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by events in the mountains/remote areas that claim to be ‘fully marked’ though. This is almost impossible to do, especially in events where it may get dark and/or where poor visibility (hill fog/clag) is a distinct possibility. There is a reason why the Fell Running Association has never allowed races they license to advertise themselves as any more than ‘partially marked’ (PM in their races listings).
This post has ended up longer than intended. As you may have gathered, it’s a subject I’m quite passionate about. And that’s both as a runner that’s been taking part in such races since way back in the last century, and now as a race organiser. And perhaps partly because both Chris and I spent many years in our previous working lives in industries where there was nothing more important than safety – him in construction, me in railways. And have seen the dire consequences of corner cutting first hand.
So when we see corners being cut by others in the running event industry we find it frustrating, and often frightening, as it impacts on the reputation of all us organisers, as well as playing fast and loose with the lives of those in the community we love.
Nuff said for now, Brookise
-Andy Brooks, founder of Peak Running