The Carnethy Interview – John Blair-Fish


As a scrubber in fell running in Northern England in the 1970's and 80's, the top names I remember were Naylor, Blenkinsop, Bland, Broxap, Weekes. There were many other fine athletes blazing a trail of achievement in the hills, too. One big name, both in FRA organisation and in the race results, was John Blair-Fish. His forte was the long events and endurance attempts, like the Bob Graham Round and How Many Tops in 24 hours? To a mid-field finisher such as me, his abilities were of heroic proportions, so far ahead of mine. Little did I realise I would meet John, enjoy running with him and now interview him.

Lets start at the very beginning, with your early days.

I was born in Bromley, Kent in 1950 and grew up in Surbiton, Surrey until I went to Oxford to read Physics. My father rebuilt a bombed Church, a vicarage and a Church School there. It was at King's College School, Wimbledon, where I started running seriously, originally at the behest of big brother, who was captain of the Cross Country Club. I ran Cross Country at Oxford but did not get a Blue. I was also involved in track running and race walking. My maternal grandfather both ran and race walked. He died before I was born and I'll never forget my grandmother telling me this was because he kept turning out for the club when he was ill. My younger sister does not run but on holidays years ago she watched me in races like the Ben.

I came to Edinburgh in 1972 as a postgraduate student in Meteorology and studied rainfall. I forgot to put that poem from A A Milne's 'Now We Are Six', which goes "Who cares, Let it rain, I've got a train upstairs", in my thesis. After the PhD, I started working for the University in Computing Support in 1976 and I've been there ever since. The name of the organisation has changed and so has the job.

How were you introduced to the mountains?
When I was at school we went on 'arduous training', camping in North Wales and climbing hills at Easter. The camping more or less put me off it for life - friends woke up to find a river running through the tent when the snow melted. Tryfan, the Glyders and Snowdon were my early experiences of the hills. Do you know the Scottish mountains well? Yes, I've climbed all the Munros - finished in 1988 - and I've got 18 Corbetts left.

So when was your first hill run and how did you get involved in hill running?
I started running on Arthur's Seat and the Pentlands as a postgrad. Someone put me onto the FRA while on the way to a Cross Country race. My first race was Cairngorm in 1973 when I finished 9th, then I was 40th in the Ben. There was no Carnethy Hill Runners and I ran first with Lochaber, then Edinburgh Southern and Dark Peak Fell Runners until Carnethy was formed. In the 70's and 80's I did lots of running and racing in the Lakes, including the Bob Graham round in 1978, and 3 attempts at the Lakeland 24 hour record in 1980 and 1981

Who are your heroes?
They tend to fall from the pedestal once you know them. In the running world, Gordon Pirie while I was growing up - I met him in 1988 when he was chief coach at Davos. Also Joss Naylor, Billy Bland. Being religious, several priests have stood out as heroes - Bill Brockie, Brian Hardy and Bishop Richard Holloway - did you know he runs every day? Gerald Hughes, who wrote "God of Surprises" and books about his walking pilgrimages, also stands out.

In my mind you are associated with hard training and long runs. Is it true?
Current weekly mileage is 40-50, much less than the 90 miles a week of 20 years ago. Until recently I tried to run for an hour a day during the week and 3 hours a weekend.

Any advice to others on the health front?
I eat vegetarian and organic, as far as possible, with a minimum of refined sugar and starch. I drink a lot of tea, fairly traded of course, and alcohol – I used to brew my own beer. I recommend lots of stretching. The older I get the sorer my muscles become. I also get very sore buttocks for being slumped at the desk all day. I broke my arm running by falling on the only rock in a field coming off the Scars above Kendal before a committee meeting in 1989. Everyone should look where they are going, even on easy terrain!

What is your favourite type of run?
I tend to run on my own, probably because I set targets for routes or time out, but I enjoy company. These days I hate flat runs, roads, or very rocky runs. In my younger days I had a reputation as a mad descender and being proficient in negotiating rough ground. It is a disappointment that I can no longer negotiate races like the Wasdale and the Bens of Jura and that my preferred terrain is border hills.

Do you have time for other sports?
I cycle to get around and some days do 50 mile hilly cycle rides instead of a long run. I also cross country ski and have raced in that discipline. I'm going to Norway again, soon.

You have been involved in the organisation of hill running for a long time.
I was on the FRA committee for nearly 20 years including being statistician, press officer, and editor of The Fell Runner and 10 years with the SHRA and the SAF Hill Running committee, and a few with the BAF commission. Basically the FRA was set up in 1970 for the whole of the UK when there were hardly any races outside England – few races full stop. We really only need one organisation with regional committees but we got muddled up with the national structures of the rest of Athletics and this World Cup jamboree. All pretty irrelevant to grass roots fell and hill running. It's real, existing races I've run as an individual that have some meaning.

How did you become associated with Carnethy?
Burns Scott asked me to help form a club for unattached runners in the Carnethy Race in 1981. It's grown! It could be too big. Unlike the early days there are more unknowns than knowns. I think Carnethy caters for a wide range of interests and the social events are good. The rather easy-going approach means we probably don't win all the team events we could – but that is no bad thing. It was a big disappointment to me in my more competitive days that the Club had less appreciation of classic and long mountain races than I did. Why did so few members compete in the Ben Nevis or the Bens of Jura? Why were members less ready to compete in the Lakes than the far reaches of Scotland? The weekend of the Wasdale, which I rate as creme de la creme of long races, members preferred to spend 11 hours travelling to Glamaig rather than half the day going to Wasdale. Another thing I've never understood is this passion for trail running. The West Highland Way and the Southern Upland Way were designed for walkers who did not want to climb hills or risk getting lost - trogs! Why spend weekends running them or weeks preparing to set records? Leave it to the cross country boys! If there's a hill there, climb it, unless the weather dictates going round it. OK - I've raced round the Tour du Mont Blanc three times - but it's not easy climbing mountains in the Alps.

You have run in races all over the World. Where do you prefer to run?
There are plenty of good races in the Scottish and FRA calendars but it is a pity that events like Moffat and Durisdeer stop for lack of interest. I don't run in the Lakes, or Yorkshire as much as I used to. I still run Aigle-Leysin, Sierre-Zinal and Tour du Dents du Midi every year but that's part of annual Summer holidays. In the last twelve years I have run the Everest Marathon, the multiday Supermarathons in Gran Canary, Morocco and around Mont Blanc, and a mixed road and fell Marathon in Aspen. I've also had running holidays in Crete, Tenerife, and Majorca with other club members. And your most satisfying athletic achievement? Finishing 10th in the first Davos Alpine Marathon in 1986 and getting my picture in the Times.

How do you feel about access to the hills in Scotland and their economic development?
I think access to the hills is OK here. I am not happy with exploiting the natural environment and making a mess. A lot of these developments do not benefit the local community or even Scotland.

Have you ever had a life-threatening incident in the mountains?
I was on a run in the snow on the Mamores in March 1980 with Colin Donnelly. For some reason he thought he needed to get back down to the valley quickly to meet his friends and disappeared off the side of the hill. When I went to look I found myself sliding out of control down an icy slope. Luckily it levelled off. Then in 1985 I slipped and rolled down the short cut gully on Kirkfell in the Ennerdale race. I still did a PB but did not race for 8 weeks.

How do you view the risks of running in the hills?

I think running in the hills is safer than driving to them, provided one is adequately clad and keeps track of the route on the map. This is more difficult in winter. I've run Kentmere twice in a blizzard, and run in two races where there were fatalities; the 1978 Three Peaks and 1980 Ennerdale. I think there should be a closed season in the winter and that alternative routes should be used in the summer in bad weather. Yes, safety is an important part of race organisation

What do you read? Are you musical?
I like biographies. A lot of my reading is tied up with religion and seeking God, and with the campaigns I'm involved in - the World Development Movement, the Jubilee 2000 campaign, and the Christian Socialist Movement. Gerald Hughes' view, expressed in some of his books, that those campaigning for peace and justice are closest to God, has been an inspiration. Currently I'm reading one of Bill Bryson's and a book by an "After Socialism Group" entitled "Beyond Fear - Vision, Hope and Generosity". The authors include Zen Bankowski, who many may know and runs for another club. I do not play a musical instrument but have a season ticket for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Concerts. I like dancing but I'm not at all co-ordinated.

Where does your motivation and enthusiasm come from?
I think I'm competitive, as deep down I feel totally inadequate and need to prove myself. I need to have a schedule and a route to guide me through the day or life. I find it difficult to just let things be.

Tell me about your dreams and ambitions and what will be happening in 2010.
No wild dreams or ambitions but I'd like to have a go at Vet II at Sierre-Zinal this year and the Over 50s Scottish championship next year. And, of course, being still single I'm open to proposals this February 29th. In 2010 I'll be hobbling along, complaining I'm running even slower and wondering if I should still run races and risk death like my grandfather.

Whom should I interview next?
Mark James, who seems to be a pagan, arrogant, friend of the environment from what he told me today about your censorship. (This is a reference to the Millennium Book.)

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