Fell running, also sometimes known as hill running, is the sport of running and racing, off-road, over upland country where the gradient climbed is a significant component of the difficulty. The name arises from the origins of the English sport on the fells of northern Britain, especially those in the Lake District. It has elements of trail running, cross country and mountain running, but is also distinct from those disciplines.
Fell races are organised on the premise that contenders possess mountain navigation skills and carry adequate survival equipment as prescribed by the organiser.
Fell running has common characteristics with cross-country running, but is distinguished by steeper gradients and upland country. It is sometimes considered as a form of mountain running, but without the smoother trails and predetermined routes often associated with mountain running.
The first recorded hill race took place in Scotland. King Malcolm Canmore organised a race in Braemar in 1040 or perhaps as late as 1064, reputedly to find a swift messenger. This event appears to have been a precursor to the Braemar Gathering. There is no documented connection between this event and the fell races of the 19th century.
From the 19th century records survive of fell races taking place as a part of community fairs and games. The sport was a simple affair and was based upon each community's values for physical ability. Fell races took place alongside other sports such as wrestling, sprint races and (especially in Scotland) heavy events such as throwing the hammer. These fairs or games events were often commercial as well as cultural, with livestock shows and sales taking place alongside music, dancing and sports. In a community of shepherds and agricultural labourers comparisons of speed and strength were interesting to spectators as a source of professional pride for competitors. The most famous of these events in England, the Grasmere Sports meeting in the Lake District, with its Guide's Race, takes place every year in August.
The Fell Runners Association started in April 1970 to organise the duplication of event calendars for the amateur sport. As of 2013 it administers amateur fell running in England, in affiliation with British athletics. Separate governing bodies exist for each country of the United Kingdom and each country has its own tradition of fell running, though the sport is largely the same. The most important races of the year include the Ben Nevis Race in Scotland, run regularly since 1937, and the Snowdon Race in Wales.
Overlap with other sports
Fell running is often known as hill running, particularly in Scotland. It is sometimes called mountain running, as in the name of the Northern Ireland Mountain Running Association although the term mountain running often has connotations of WMRA races which tend to be on smoother, drier trails and lack the route choice which may be available in fell races.
Fell race courses are often longer than cross country running courses, steeper and unmarked when out on the hills (with a few exceptions). Fell running also overlaps with orienteering. Courses are again typically longer but with less emphasis on navigation. Fell running does sometimes require navigational skills in a mountainous environment, particularly in determining and choosing between routes, and poor weather may increase the need for navigation. However, in most fell races, the route or sequence of checkpoints is published beforehand and runners may reconnoitre the course to reduce the risk of losing time working out where to run during the race. Category O events and Mountain Marathons (see also below), test navigational ability, attracting both orienteers and fell runners. Other multi-terrain events, such as the Cotswold Way Relay and the Long Mynd Hike, also qualify as fell races under Fell Runners Association rules.
Some fell running could also be classed as trail running. Trail running normally takes place on good paths or tracks which are relatively easy to follow and does not necessarily involve the significant amounts of ascent that are required in fell running.
Fell runners have set many of the peak bagging records in the UK. In 1932 the Lakeland runner Bob Graham set a record of 42 Lakeland peaks in 24 hours. His feat, now known as the Bob Graham Round, was not repeated for many years (in 1960); by 2011, however, it had become a fell-runner's test-piece, and had been repeated by more than 1,610 people. Building on the basic 'Round' later runners such as Eric Beard (56 tops in 1963) and Joss Naylor (72 tops in 1975) have raised the 24-hour Lakeland record considerably. The present record is 77 peaks, and was set by Mark Hartell in 1997. The ladies' record is 64 peaks, set in 2011 by Nicky Spinks.
Most fell running regions have their own challenges or "rounds":
- Lake District – The Bob Graham Round
- Scotland – The Ramsay Round
- North Wales – The Paddy Buckley Round
- South Wales – South Wales Traverse
- Ireland – The Wicklow Round
- Northern Ireland – The Denis Rankin Round
The Fell Runners Association (FRA) publishes a calendar of 400 to 500 races per year. Additional races, less publicised, are organised in UK regions. The British Open Fell Runners Association (BOFRA) publishes a smaller calendar of races (usually 15 championship races, and other smaller events, such as galas or shows)>– mostly derived from the professional guide races – in England and Scotland and organises a championship series. In Scotland, all known hill races (both professional and amateur) are listed in the annual calendar of Scottish Hill Runners. In Wales, the Welsh Fell Runners Association provides a similar service. Northern Ireland events are organised by Northern Ireland Mountain Running Association. Again, races are run on the premise that a contender possesses mountain navigational skills and carries adequate survival equipment. In Ireland events are organised by the Irish Mountain Running Association.
The World Mountain Running Association is the governing body for mountain running and as such is sanctioned by and affiliated to the IAAF, the International Association of Athletics Federations. It organises the World Mountain Running Championships. There are also continental championships, such as the African Mountain Running Championships, the European Mountain Running Championships, the South American Mountain Running Championships and the North American Central American and Caribbean Mountain Running Championships.
- Fell Runners Association
- Scottish Hill Racing
- British Open Fell Runners Association
- World Mountain Running Association