Fell runners call for ban on GPS navigation

Legends such as Joss Naylor unite with several race organisers to call for a universal policy on new technology

The Three Peaks Fell Race in Yorkshire, where runners try to navigate the best route between checkpoints (Pic credit: Paul Halford) 

The Three Peaks Fell Race in Yorkshire, where runners try to navigate the best route between checkpoints (Pic credit: Paul Halford) 

Prominent members of the fell running community have teamed up to produce an open letter calling upon the Fell Runners Association (FRA) to ban the use of GPS navigation in races. 

Signed by the organisers of at least 54 races plus runners such as Joss Naylor, Nicky Spinks, Rob Jebb and Ian Holmes, the letter - posted this week on the Fell Runners UK Facebook group - questions FRA's policy of leaving it up to individual events to have their own rules in place.

It reads in part: "We say that they (FRA) now need to take a strong lead and ban on screen maps and pre-loaded GPS tracks as a means of navigating in all fell races. Any solution that stops short of this will lead to a lack of clarity and put unnecessary pressure on fell race organisers."

The use of GPS devices for training and racing is common in all forms of running and generally accepted as a means of judging pace. However, some of them have the facility to show the route, which some fell runners say goes against the spirit of their sport.

The letter introduced the problem by saying: "It is a simple sport. You have some hills. You have some checkpoints to visit... You use your skill and fitness to get between these points as fast as possible. Sometimes the organiser flags it if he or she wants you to go a certain way, or gives specific instructions. Other than that, it is up to the runner. That is fellrunning and it has changed very little in the hundred or so years that people have been racing each other in the hills."

It added: "You might be surprised to discover that you can upload a file of a route that another runner has run to your watch and follow that track with an arrow on your wrist correcting your line every few metres alerting you that you are too far left/right. This technology exists, is very accurate and been used to great effect in races, affecting the outcome of some."

The letter's correspondents admit the practice is not widespread but could become common in future.

As reported earlier this year, Ambleside AC took the lead by banning the use of a GPS device for navigation in its races. Their rules allowed for their use for recording their use, displaying distance travelled and in emergency situations by those who have to quit the race.

The letter garnered masses of support on the Facebook page, but also some opposition. For example, Andrew Grenfell commented: "I personally wouldn't use GPS bread crumb trails but why complicate what is a simple sport by adding an extra rule. Leave it up to the race organisers, just as happens with flagging and most other route related issues."

Further, S JD Webb wrote: "I'm somewhat torn - tricky to implement a ban on GPS devices with nav function while allowing them to be carried."

A statement from FRA given to Trail Running read: "The use of GPS's in FRA races has sparked a lively debate amongst the fellrunning fraternity, with FRA members, race organisers and runners expressing a complete spectrum of opinions from 'they should be banned' to 'they are a useful navigational aid and an additional safety feature'.

"The FRA promotes a variety of races aimed at meeting the needs of a variety of runners. Courses vary from the fully marked to those where the runners need to be able to navigate. Because of this variation, the FRA Committee do not feel it is right to have a 'one size fits all' mandatory rule on the use of GPS's, but prefer to leave it to  the discretion of the race organisers, other than in championship races where the use of GPS's will be allowed.

"Race organisers will therefore continue to able to have a race rule banning the use of GPS's in their race(s). If they wish to have a ban they will be expected to agree this with the fixtures secretary when registering their race."