Run to the Hills

October 28th, 2008

I don’t know much about fell running, but I know what I don’t like – the sensationalised scaremongering surrounding the washed-out mountain marathon in the Lake District. The overreaction revealed less about the risks facing the runners than the risk of us walking into a society where nobody is allowed to be “unaccounted for”.

When the Original Mountain Marathon was abandoned amid terrible weather on Saturday, police reported 1,700 of the 2,500 competitors “unaccounted for”. The implication was that all must be in peril. On Sunday fears were still being expressed for more than 900. By that afternoon all were safe.

It turned out that the 1,700 “unaccounted for” could account for themselves, having sheltered in farms, a school and a slate mine. A dozen were treated in hospital, which can hardly be unusual for such an event. Others reported only that the car park was flooded and “our credit cards are still in the car”.

Yet they were met with a chorus of official condemnation, as a spokesman declared: “We have come within inches of turning the Lake District mountains into a morgue. We need to learn from it.” The lesson, it seems, is that all must be accounted for, with no freedom for running wild.

These were not children lost on a school trip, but experienced, well-equipped runners who enjoy extreme conditions. As a race organiser said: “They are capable of looking after themselves.” That is seen as madness today when, notes the OMM website, “the idea of self-reliance isn’t a popular one” so that “the fact that 900 people are said to be unaccounted for” must mean “they are lost and in trouble, which is not the case”.

This is all another sign of a culture where people are not trusted to cope without support, supervision and surveillance from above; where mobile phone calls and e-mails must be accounted for, and soon you may be unable to buy a phone without a passport or to breathe without appearing on a DNA register.

As one who would think twice about walking fells in summer, I can still see that the attraction of running them in a storm must involve being “unaccounted for”. That’s why running free through woods and fields appealed to the borstal boy in Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, or to Bobby Sands, as seen in the film Hunger. Weekend reports suggested that it was a problem the runners were out of mobile phone range, but that was probably why some were up there.

No doubt Socrates was right to suggest that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. But the “unaccounted-for life” certainly is.

The Times

Quite so, and a reminder that even people with ‘nothing to hide’ are never exempt from prying minds.

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