IMRA versus the FRA

HillgetoverThe other night I finished ‘It’s a hill get over it’, Steve Chilton’s new book and the latest entry into the line of fell running lore*, and it left me thinking about the differences between the FRA and IMRA and how these differences might inform us about the future direction of IMRA and some of the challenges the organisation faces.

* The book comes heavily recommended – it is less dry than ‘Studmarks on the Summits’ and a more comprehensive, if less emotional overview than ‘Feet in the Clouds’. And IMRA get’s a few brief mentions.

Mountain running versus fell running
There are more differences than similarities between the two organisations. While both are the governing bodies for ‘mountain running’ in their respective countries and are affiliated to their respective athletics governing bodies, the similarity ends there. Firstly, the FRA has long considered ‘fell running’ as almost a separate sport to ‘mountain running’. The distinction is not semantic and easy to apply: point-to-point routes over open mountain terrain with no guarantee of trail is what constitutes a fell race. Mountain racing is considered the international sport controlled by WMRA which is almost always 1) fully marked, 2) on good trail and 3) favours uphill only races. Aside from these two broad distinctions the sport of trail running has arisen, that is, just running on trails that are not on mountains or fells.

For this and other historical reasons, the FRA is not the sole governing body for off-road running in England – rather there is BOFRA (the old professional organisation which today to a large degree serves as custodian of the old ‘Guides races’ that take place at the Lakeland sports fairs) and The Trail Runners Association (covering trail running). IMRA on the other hand expanded from its inception into the 80ies to include races of all types – both what you could classify as trail, fell and mountain. This trend reached its zenith when IMRA organised a number of ‘Irish Trail Running Championships’.

Trail running was never formally included under IMRA’s remit, however, and it is probably down to organic growth of the calendar that races of different types became part of the calendar and now include over 50 races per year, of all categories. Going through them briefly: The Irish, Connacht and Leinster Championship races can be considered of the ‘fell’ type, the Winter and Leinster Leagues are unique hybrids of ‘mountain’ and ‘fell’ and ‘trail’ (the Scalp). Then there are a number of pure ‘trail’ races – the Wicklow Way Trail and Ultra as well as the Spring and Trail League series.

To centralise or not

Unlike the FRA, IMRA has subsumed most of the burden of organising events in a centralised manner. To highlight this difference: IMRA has to canvass for volunteers and train people on their tasks for over 50 events each year. The off-road calendar in Ireland includes only a few races organised independently, although these numbers are growing, such as the professional trail races – the Mourne Way series, the Cooley Legends Half, the Urban Trail Series, and The Wild West Run as well as a few races run by a dedicated club – such as the Mullaghmeen Woods race which now is a regular fixture of the ‘Spring League’ series.

This latter model, of one club or central organiser being responsible for each event, is the norm in England and within the FRA – indeed there is an entire sub-organisation (founded before the FRA) called the CFRA (Cumberland Fell Runners Association) dedicated to running the Lakeland Classics (the very long category ‘A’ fell races). If events fall off the calendar it is largely a local problem for that event organiser rather than a central one. In the case of the Lakeland Classics series, this move has been a great success – resulting in a revival of the fortunes of the races.

The great question of ‘internationals’

Both IMRA and the FRA have had their issues coming to terms with international competition of Mountain Running – it took much lobbying on part of the so-called ‘Home Nations’ to convince the World Mountain Running Association to alternate each championship between Up/Down courses and Up Only courses (the Continental nations having a strong preference for up only).

The majority of grass-roots fell runners are not as enamoured with this version of the sport and thus you have the inevitable split between elites interested in international competition for its own sake and grass-root wishing their funding to go to competition similar to their chosen sport. But in England it is more complicated than this: several high-standing fell-runners, among the very best, find that an international ‘Fell-Running Trophy’ is in order as the WMRA events do not cater to their strengths. Some have called for a revival of a Home Countries International – a tradition discontinued when the international teams ceased travelling to Knockdhu. All parties have a point – after all you would not ask a 5 km champion to go represent you in the marathon. 

There is a case to be made that ‘fell’ running and ‘mountain’ running are almost entirely separate events and in Great Britain this has probably been a key factor in the setup of previous Home Countries internationals and the Commonwealth championship over rougher courses than WMRA can offer.

Effects of the Running Boom

Ironically, it is the ‘trail’ and ‘mountain’ races that have benefitted most from the ‘running boom’ whereas ‘fell’ type races are lingering. This trend is obvious in Ireland where all races can be viewed easily under the same calendar – the ‘tamer’ League races have numbers that stretches the capability of a volunteer workforce – certainly for the long-term, whereas numbers remain low or have dropped across the Irish and Leinster Championships. It goes without saying that it is unfortunate when Championship events become merely a side-show for the majority of an association’s members and a is seen as the central event only by a committed few.

The FRA has seen similar trends with several of its long classical races having a drop in numbers (Ennerdale was cancelled in 2002) whereas ‘mixed’ routes such as Snowdon, Ben Nevis and Three-Peaks need to impose caps on numbers and turn runners away every year. Likewise, the British Championship has undergone changes – it was the norm to run 10 out of 15 races to claim the title whereas it can now be done by winning 3 out of 6. No doubt the requirements of an increasingly congested calendar has been part of this trend.

The shift in popularity to ‘tamer’ races* may also be seen as a sign of the times, something that Richard Askwith covers well in his latest book ‘Running Free’ and I recommend it if you are interested in a strong opinion on this. We live in an age of ‘manufactured adventure’ with booming numbers going into adventure racing and obstacle racing such as Tough Mudder and Runamuck. Few may be aware of this but Tough Mudder, as an example, is a multi-million dollar business and operates as any other Big Business.

As technology and development has taken us further away from our natural environment, and we crave a return, the preference of the masses is very much in ‘controlled adventure’ and dreams of the ‘noble savage’. This needs not be a bad thing – as our population has moved away from rural living and outdoors life in general, fewer people possess the skillset to handle themselves independently in the wilderness (safely). To have a wide range of difficulty levels from ParkRuns to Mountain Marathons allows beginners a natural progression from ‘not so wild’ to ‘wilder’. From this viewpoint perhaps we should welcome the low numbers in open mountain races – as long as these events are kept sustainable. Within IMRA series such as the Leinster League can then be viewed as a suitable ‘incubator’ for the skillsets that will be required later for those runners who wish to make the jump to more open mountain events.

* Interestingly, a similar trend can be seen in the masses favouring longer and slower events over faster and shorter. A trend I described in ‘Where have all the sprints races gone’ in 2010. It is likely a result of more people entering the sport in their late years through long-distance events rather than learning the sport from the short distances up in their junior years as was the norm (and, I would add, recommended).

’It’s the environment, stupid’

In this note, the question of environment stability always arises and the FRA have taken their policy towards this to a much greater extreme than IMRA. The FRA refused any comment or support to Steven Chilton’s book on the basis that ‘any publicity is unwelcome’. Unlike other sports bodies, the FRA does not wish to grow larger – as it is deemed unsustainable for the environment in which their races take place. Several IMRA committees have had to grapple with this question as well and no long-term resolution has been identified. Certain routes are more appropriate for large numbers than others so perhaps the solution is a simple ‘cap’ on each race route set by the Committee on an annual basis. This is bound to cause some acrimony when the first runner is turned away or league points are decided against a runner who missed the opportunity to compete.

The second question of numbers relates to the volunteer situation – there is bound to be a threshold beyond which an amateur organisation cannot support the logistics of running 50 plus races of ever growing numbers. The FRA setup is slightly more flexible in this respect as they largely stay out of individual race organisation leaving local organisers to do the heavy lifting. Without a cap and some way to control the calendar from exploding year-on-year the IMRA Committee may seek to put the organisation of certain of its events permanently with either other organisations, permanent sub-committees or outsource to professional organisers. Questions may also be asked whether it is necessary for IMRA to organise for almost every single calendar month when there are plenty of third-party races now. IMRA also carries a larger burden than the FRA in other ways: they are the central administrators for the Wicklow Round (whereas the various Rounds in Britain are organised by separate bodies). The Bob Graham Round, for instance, is looked after by former ‘Rounders’ and has it’s own membership club.


Skimming across some of the challenges for the future, there are many options, none of which will meet with universal agreement and any such decisions made are bound to be met by criticism by any Committee that seek to implement them – whichever way the decisions are made. Caps could be introduced on races that are deemed ‘sensitive’, volunteer requirements could be increased and control of certain races could be moved permanently to other organisations such as athletics clubs, mountain rescue or professional organisers.

Leagues could be reviewed to see if they place more drain on the organisation than their inclusion demands and leagues like the Trail League could be considered out of scope for IMRA and perhaps best moved to a separate organisation. There are interesting ideas as well on how to solve the issue that there are only really two opportunities to practice ‘Continental Mountain Running’ for those hoping to represent Ireland at Championships – those two races being the European and the World Trial but they’d be beyond the scope of this comparison but there are exciting possibilities in the area.

What stands out, in conclusion, is that IMRA has evolved into a very centralised organisation taking control of most of the activities. This may be the natural development in a smaller country (had Cumbria been a country perhaps the CFRA would have gone that direction) whereas the FRA has not only adopted a model of decentralised control but has divested itself of responsibility for trail running and moved this to a separate body.

Similarly, control over international selection and the trials no longer reside within the FRA but with a sub-committee of the AAA with reference to the FRA. It is easy to imagine that many in IMRA would welcome international events being held and supported by an Athletics Ireland sub-committee (with reference to IMRA) whereas those traditionally passionate about international events will argue that this would be a dangerous move because Athletics Ireland may not show the level of interest in the sub-discipline necessary to grow the sport at the elite level. That is a problem for the elites and aspiring elites mainly. As far as the masses are concerned, the greatest concern will be to secure an infrastructure that can keep the organisation functioning without undue strain on few individuals in a future that is likely to see more and more numbers in the ‘League’ races and stable or fewer in the Championship races.


John Barry said…
Well done Rene. Great read and very insightful.
IMRAjogger said…
a lot of food for thought there...

I'm not sure about the burden of the Wicklow Round on the IMRA committee, it doesn't take much managing as far as I can see?

beyond that I think you've hit several nails on their respective heads!

thanks for sharing.
Renny said…
IMRAJogger, thanks for your comment. Yes, I did not mean to imply the Wicklow Round was a big apparatus merely that it is part of an accumulation of centralised tasks (what we would call 'task creep' in outsourced business) - adding a few more examples would probably have made this clearer. I suppose the question I ask myself is - 'what would be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back'?

On a constructive note, perhaps decentralisation should be sought where there is a passionate grass-roots to safely transition it. The Bob Graham Club is by all accounts a great institution and over time a Wicklow Round Club may be the best guardian's of the round. On the other hand, the Ramsay and Paddy Buckley Rounds do not have such bodies.