Safety on the Fell and Hill

Keven Shevels

This article is reproduced from the booklet “An Introduction to Trail and Fell Running” with the permission of Trailguides Limited. Further information on the booklet can be found at: www.trailguides.co.uk.

Safety has got to be on the mind of every runner whether you are just running round the block or running in the wild country of the Highlands. The safety of yourself and anybody that you are running with, first of all rests with yourself. Even on a relatively “safe” low level route, accidents and injuries can and do happen.

Speaking from personal experience, I know what its like to twist an ankle or pull a muscle and then have to walk three or four miles home. A friend of mine tore a calf muscle on a moorland run and had to be virtually carried two miles to a point where he could be picked up by car. So be aware of the possibility of such things happening and be prepared. However don’t be put off by thinking that such things will happen to you if you go trail and fell running. The worst ever injury that I ever suffered was a broken ankle and I got that while slipping off a curb in a road race !

Below are a few wise words on safety. Most are common sense and, to be honest, should also apply even if you are only going for a run round the block.

Running alone:

In an organised event you always have the security of knowing that someone knows that you are out there and roughly where you are. On a training run you may be running on your own either on the moor, in the forest or on farmland. Accidents can and do happen and even on low-lying farmland, in a worst-case scenario, it may be hours before you are found.

Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. However, don’t forget to tell them that you are back. Many an emergency callout has been caused by this!

Injury:

If a serious accident occurs that requires you to be immobile then stop and look for some shelter. If you are carrying one get into your survival bag. Ensure that you keep your body temperature up. You will quickly get chilled and cold once you stop running. If you are carrying one, use a whistle or mobile phone to summon help. If a third party is injured always try to ensure someone stays with the injured person but if circumstances dictate that you have to leave them to get help, ensure you have a the grid-reference of the injured person’s location. The event may have a specific emergency telephone number to call. Use your first aid if you feel competent.

If you do retire from the event DO NOT leave the competition area without advising the event centre. If the Mountain Rescue or other emergency services are called out after the event has finished you may be charged. Be prepared to give up your race to help fellow competitors, after all they may have to give up theirs to help you. If in doubt over an injury then seek medical assistance.

Carrying ID:

If anything does happen to you, one of the first things any rescuer will want to know is your name. It is always advisable to carry a small card with your name, address, contact number and details of any medical conditions on. This can then be laminated or just covered in sellotape to make it weatherproof. Keep it in your bumbag or elsewhere about your person. During a race, your race number leading to your entry form will provide details in the event of an accident. However in terms of medical information it will always be quicker if you are carrying it yourself. On training runs, especially when training alone, this becomes even more important.

Summoning help:

A large number of runners nowadays carry their mobile phone in the event of having to summon help. However it can be a false sense of security to rely on the mobile. There is no guarantee that you’ll be able to get a signal in the remoter parts of this country and maybe even not some of the non-remote ones.

A cheap and reliable backup to the phone is to carry a small plastic whistle in your bumbag or somewhere on your person. This is standard practice among hill walkers and a very useful one to copy. It is surprising how far the sound of a small whistle can carry.

The international distress signal is six blows of a whistle, wait a minute and then repeat. Using a similar system of six flashes, a head torch can be used to signal in darkness.

Be aware that on some races the carrying of a whistle is compulsory as part of the required kit list.

Getting lost:

This can happen on both trail and fell runs even if the course is marked. A lapse in concentration and a route marker can easily be missed. However it is more likely to happen on unmarked courses or if training in unfamiliar areas.

The first signs of being lost will be when you realise that you haven’t seen a fellow competitor for a while and/or the land features in front of you don’t seem to match your map. Obviously the sooner you realise that you have a problem the easier it is to correct. If you are having doubts about your route then check, don’t go blindly on. The worst thing that you can do is panic. Stay calm and appraise your situation. If necessary retrace your steps back to a point where you know you were on the correct route and continue your run from there.

Weather:

With both trail and fell running, weather conditions can have a large effect on both your comfort levels and your performance. Check weather reports prior to the event and when you arrive. Always carry sufficient kit with you to the event so that you are prepared if the need is to add or reduce your clothing.

If weather conditions are severe then it is the race organiser’s responsibility to either cancel or change the event route to maintain the runner’s safety. Under FRA rules and regulations, events crossing high level mountain routes are required to have a low level alternative route if weather conditions are considered too severe to use the planned route.

However be aware that in remote mountainous regions it is possible to get sudden, very localised, extreme changes in weather. These may affect all or part of a race route. One of the reasons for carrying mandatory equipment.

Appropriate footwear and clothing:

Wear appropriate footwear. Road shoes are not much use when running down a steep, slippery hill. Arriving at the bottom of a hill on your backside, or even worse, is not necessarily fun. Especially if it is a cow field !!

Dress appropriately for the weather conditions. In bad weather carry waterproof/windproof clothing and be prepared to put it on. It may look macho only wearing a running vest in minus 10 temperatures but it doesn’t do your reputation for sanity any good. Wind chill is not often recognised as having a major effect on long-term endurance, however, the more the body has to counter the effects of the wind the more energy is wasted. The correct clothing choice can have a great influence on countering wind chill. Take some alternative clothing with you to the event so that if the unexpected happens and the weather turns nasty you may have some extra layers to carry.

Obstacles:

Watch out when encountering such obstacles as styles and gates when you are tired. Lifting legs or moving in a different plane, can be a potential injury waiting to happen. Wooden boards and stone slabs can be very dangerous especially when wet making it easy to slip or fall.

Be Careful !

Fatigue:

Running off-road is more demanding in terms of energy consumption and fatigue can and will hit during an event or a training run. This is especially so on longer trail and fell runs. So do not be afraid to admit tiredness. Slow down or even stop – re-fuel and hydrate by eating and drinking. Knowing when fatigue has hit gives you a major chance of recovery.

Fatigue can take many forms but some indicative signs would be loss of communication, falling over and continuously wanting to rest.

If in doubt seek medical assistance.

Heatstroke and hypothermia:

Running in the open countryside does expose the runner to the more extremes of the temperature range. Obviously this will be affected by the part of the country that you are running in, how remote and wild the route is and the relative height of the route. Don’t just assume that these only represent a danger in high-level fell races. Trail races may also cross high-level areas and even on low-level routes the weather conditions may conspire against you.

Make yourself aware of the early signs of heatstroke and hypothermia. The person suffering from them is normally the last to be aware of their condition. Be aware of other runners around you too.

Heatstroke – some indicative signs are dizziness, headache, feeling hot.

Hypothermia – indicative signs are feeling cold, pale skin, lack of muscle co-ordination and being irrational.

If in doubt seek medical assistance.

Crossing streams:

In both trail and especially fell races, you may have to cross streams. This means that you get your feet wet. Now this all adds to the adventure of running the trails and I can’t believe for one moment that you would really want to wimp out of the experience of paddling your little tootsies. However, in times of wet weather it will be a little imprudent to cross fast flowing water especially if it is deep.

Do not under-estimate the power of water. Even if only up to the level of your knees it can still have the power to sweep you clean off your feet. So use your common sense. As a general rule of thumb, do not enter water that looks as if it comes higher than halfway up your shins.

This article is reproduced from the booklet “An Introduction to Trail and Fell Running” with the permission of Trailguides Limited. Further information on the booklet can be found at: www.trailguides.co.uk.