Trail Running Emergencies:
In the final weekend of October 2008, two thousand runners descended on the idyllic rural haven of the English Lakes. They were a mixture of orienteerers, fell walkers, mountaineers, experienced mountain runners and novices. Eager to participate in the most iconic off road endurance competition in the UK, the two day Original Mountain Marathon, they were dealt a harsh lesson in how man is at the mercy of the elements.
Every one of them had been issued with mandatory kit lists, in the militaryesque pre event information. This included compasses, whistles, maps, protective clothing and food supplies. The organisers, who were used to being at the mercy of mother nature themselves, had to resort to emergency planning procedures, as the malign weather forecasts proved accurate, producing 65mm of rain in 24 hours.
Floods on pre-planned routes, from Seathwaite to Gatesgart near Borrowdale, panicked some in to taking alternative paths. But they could not escape the deluge.
Some news channels had reported that 1,700 entrants were officially unaccounted for overnight. An RAF helicopter helped police and mountain rescue teams search in the area around Keswick for the missing runners. However, many of them had returned home without contacting the events team, while others had camped at non-designated spots. The organisers had been forced to cancel the event, for the safety of the participants.
Perhaps surprisingly, the injury rate was relatively low: Six people were rescued by an RAF helicopter and thirteen people were taken to hospital in Keswick, suffering from hypothermia and various minor injuries.
As few of the competitors had been carrying mobile phones, and signal coverage was so poor, most runners had not been able to contact their frantic relatives. Although all of them were wearing electronic tags, this may only have created a false sense of security, as they could not provide information about their exact location.
But the OMM entrants were lucky. Most of them had had to take part in pairs. What if they were forced to go it alone? October 2008 raised many questions about what sort of things can go wrong and what preparations are necessary for off road running events, as well as lone wolf training runs for the relatively uninitiated.
By way of explanation, one of the organisers later suggested that society is not overly keen on accepting the notion of ‘self-reliance.’ They were right in as far as, a duty of care, should always lie with yourself and dealing with an emergency situation while trail running, comes down to how well prepared you as well as how lucky.
You can download navigation software like Viewranger on to your phone, or bring a GPS device to locate your position quickly, should the need arise. But unless the terrain is very familiar, you should still take a map and a compass.
If you are forced to stop on a really long run, due to fatigue or injury, your core temperature will quickly fall. This is exacerbated in wet, cold or windy conditions. If you are low on blood sugar, as may well be the case in some longer events, the runner’s body may not have sufficient energy to stop this cooling process. Luckily the descent in to low blood sugar, otherwise known as hypoglycaemia, can be easily reversed by carrying quick release energy fuels, whether it is a few bananas, flapjacks, or gels.
The FRA now publishes a hypothermia guide on its website.
Hypothermia is caused when the body’s core temperature falls to somewhere in the range 34-35°C, from 37 degrees. Severe hypothermia is experienced when the core temperature falls below 33°C. Unchecked, this condition is fatal. Exhaustion hypothermia tends to creep up on runners, who push themselves beyond their limits, while immersion hypothermia, resulting from a fall in to water, requires a quick change of clothes, if that is at all possible.
The condition can quickly progress from moderate to severe, but the first stages are shivering, pale skin, progressing to confusion and the person starts slurring their words.
If you come across someone who is showing signs of hypothermia, the priority is to keep them insulated from the cold and if possible replace wet clothes with dry ones. Get help as quickly as possible. Blow a whistle if you need to, call 112 or 999 and inform mountain rescue of your location using grid references and the letters of your grid, as well as the condition of the person. Body warmth is an invaluable form of assistance, so by all means give them a hug but don’t vigorously rub their skin. Sudden movement can result in cold blood rushing to the heart, which can be fateful. Most emergency rescue teams advise against evacuating any unconscious or partly conscious casualty yourself, for this reason.
It is always good to keep the person awake by speaking to them and while you wait for the rescue team. Notify a race organiser or marshal. Sending a text can still work, even if a call doesn’t and sometimes re orientating your body or changing which side of the head you make the call from, can work.
Hyperthermia or ‘heat stroke’ & dehydration
Cory Jones, of Outdoor First Aid ltd, believes motivated athletes become so purpose driven, they forget to take on water.
“The biggest danger is a hot day when we feel everything is OK and there appears to be no immediate danger. Motivated people will run through the pain and not drink enough water. This is life threatening on a hot day. It can even happen on a cool day if you haven’t been keeping the fluids up.”
For runners who hate carrying bottles of water or camel packs, I would recommend a filter straw. Many of these are at least 97 % effective against harmful bacteria and weigh little more than a biro.
Alisia Jennings, a member of FAST training247, has seen a lot of ugly feet and runners’ are among the worst. Her advice: “I can’t express more the importance of looking after your feet. The correct footwear should always be worn and a clean pair of socks.” Choosing the correct footwear requires some appraisal of the terrain and likely weather conditions and does not mean wearing whatever you have to hand.
Alisia also suggests that off road runners should carry a list of any medical advice or medications they are on, just in case paramedics need to assist them. This might sound extreme, but as with anything worth doing, you have to prepare for the worst.