Trail running or fell running, what’s the difference?
When I tell people that I’m a fell runner I’m often asked what the difference is between fell running and trail running. What is a fell? Are trail runs and fell runs actually the same thing? Do some people do both?
Fell is a term mainly used in the Lake District to describe mountains or high moorland. Hence the sport of fell running which emerged from the old guide’s and shepherd’s races traditionally held alongside wrestling and other sports at the annual games events in rural Lakeland towns and villages.
A trail is a track or path predominantly in countryside areas and is often well signed and easy to follow.
Fell running, although a minority sport, has been taking place in the UK for many years with the Fell Runners Association (FRA) set up in the 1970s to oversee the sport. Trail running on the other hand is a relatively new sport having its roots in America and Europe and which has only emerged in the UK within the past 10 years but is showing a huge increase in popularity; the Lakeland Trails Series began in 2006 and now attracts over 10,000 runners.
The stereotypical image of the fell runner may be a stringy, bearded old man in a vest running up a rough hillside (and there may be some truth in that!) but the allure of the sport is its simplicity.
In today’s commercial world trail running has attracted the attention of some big companies with Salomon sponsoring events in the UK and abroad and the image of a trail runner may be more compression clothing and sunglasses – a slightly more upmarket fell runner! There is certainly more extrinsic value in winning a top trail race than a British or English championship fell race.
So fell running is harder than trail running right?
Er no! Probably the most iconic trail run is the UTMB – The Ultra Tour of Mont Blanc which covers around 170 kilometers and over 9500 metres of ascent! However, trail races in England mainly tend to follow valleys rather than heading for the mountains. Trail running also trends towards Ultra Distance, i.e. further than a marathon and races such as the Lakeland 100 are becoming increasingly popular. Which is harder; a 10 mile race on remote moorland in winter with low cloud, strong wind, heavy rain and poor visibility or a 60 mile trail in the heat of mid summer? They are different types of hard. It could be argued that the more remote and hostile terrain of a fell race is potentially more dangerous – but harder?
The one big difference between the two sports is that true fell running requires you to be able to navigate (although plenty of fell runners play follow the leader and hope that the person in front knows where they are going!) Many fell races cross remote, open moorland often without paths and with route choice being left to the individual. So in bad visibility map and compass skills are essential. In trail races it is more a case of following a good path on a set route with any junctions being well marshalled and signed.
Is the definition between trail and fell running always that clear?
Definitely not! In the FRA calendar there are probably 500 races to choose from some of which follow low level, well marked paths and which the organisers mark out so that runners can’t (shouldn’t!) get lost. In summer, evening races may start at a local cricket ground or country pub and do a 4 or 5 mile loop around the fields and woods – certainly not fell races in the true sense of the word. Ennerdale Trail Race however visits the remote Black Sail Hut at the eastern end of the valley, some 10km from the nearest metalled road, it is certainly more remote than many short fell races.
Some races combine both trail and fell; The Ultra Tour of the Peak District follows footpaths and trails before heading out onto more remote moorland.
Others sit somewhere in between the two; The Snowdon Race climbs to 1085 metres above sea level, much higher than many fell races, but does so on a well defined track on which runners then reverse on their way down.
So are you a trail runner or a fell runner?
A bit like a meso / endo morph, probably somewhere between the two. Some fell runners wear compression socks and fancy shades! Some trail runners can navigate and don’t mind getting their expensive shoes muddy! Does it really matter? I suppose the important thing is that whatever you wear, whatever surface you run on, trail running, fell running or whatever you call it.. just enjoy it.