Risk, perception of risk and calculation of risk is a fascinating beast. The idiosyncratic element is so large it’s almost a social science in itself!
A recent disagreement on a facebook post got me thinking about this topic; whilst a stolen run in the Langdale Pikes pushed me to write about it. As I ran, alone, light fading, snow underfoot, rain coming in, visibility poor, wind picking up, in shorts, carrying a small belt kit I figured some people would think me reckless, some fool hardy or irresponsible, others may see it as calculated, assessed and reasonable – although these views would probably require greater insight into my preparations.
In this case I’d told my wife where I was going, how I would get there, after how long she should start to look for my head torch on the mountain, at what point to raise her concern/ look harder and how long before she should raise the alarm. I’d also packed a map, compass, survival bag, knew the area, was never more than two miles from a road, had full body cover, an exceptionally bright head torch and I’m reasonably experienced and competent in the mountains… well I’d at least argue I know how and when to use my kit and the limitations of the kit.
Still, for some (my parents at least) I suspect that I’m not taking sufficient precaution (sorry mum and dad) but herein lies the issue at hand. Why are perceptions of risk so different and why is it important to make a proper assessment and to recognise/ question the reasons behind the different choices we make as a result?
There are many factors that influence a calculation of risk, the primary ones I’d note are:
- Likelihood of occurrence
- Impact/ severity
- Risk appetite (whether the individual is a risk lover or are risk adverse)
- Models/ Experience
- Mitigation – strategies to avoid the risk becoming an issue* or to deal with it if it does
*a risk is something that might happen; an issue is something that has happened.
Factors 1 and 2 combine to give a calculation of risk, 3 and 4 are social (idiosyncratic) factors that will impact perception of 1 and 2, ultimately leading to an appropriate decision for that individual to satisfy their risk profile and feel comfortable that they have made an educated and calculated decision.
My argument would be that many never actually critically think about the likelihood/ severity in enough depth and jump straight to risk profile (lover/ adverse). A quick search of forums/ FB kit list posts highlights this immediately and where this post started to germinate from. I’ve lost count of the “but what if…” “bogie man” style statements, typically presented as a black and white with no room for a shade of grey let alone fifty! It’s not a phenomenon restricted to ultra/ fell running forums, indeed I would argue it is an extension of the same arguments that have parents afraid to let their children out to play through a fear of the “paedophile lurking on every corner!” It’s not that the risk isn’t there, it’s just that the likelihood is significantly lower than certain newspapers would have us believe – the baby gets thrown out with the bath water as a result. This is low quality thinking.
To be as clear as I can be, the following examples and text are not intended to have a pop at any race organisers. I believe they are being placed in an increasingly difficult position in making these judgement calls. I always carry full mandated kit and don’t complain whether I believe it should or should be mandated (although I have sought clarification and when it wasn’t provided in a meaningful way I have complained there was a lack of clarity; e.g., if a race is going to put ‘emergency food’ on then it needs to quantify it by weight or calories… I digress).
Like I say, being an RD is not easy, especially given the decisions runners make; e.g., I turned up at a race with micro-spikes and ski goggles due to the freak conditions and snow fall; I lined up on a heavily altered course (for safety – which was bemoaned my many) next to people in barefoot style trail shoes with zero grip suitable for a summer run in very dry conditions. I wore the goggles almost all day and used my micro-spikes on ~35% of the course. Finishing I was asked if I’d done one or two laps as most had dropped or been pulled after one – considering the amount of moaning at the RD’s decision to adjust the course I think the decision was vindicated and a good called made. The point is that the RD shouldn’t have to make what was clearly a common sense call and it shows just how many people put blind faith in an event “it must be safe because they are letting us go out”. I digress. Essentially I totally respect an RDs decision and treat a kit list as a minimum. I may take thinks that border on acceptability, but take them I do.
Naturally this doesn’t stop me having an opinion about kit lists in general, however my guiding principle is that a good kit list has a mandatory and a recommended element. For me, everything on the mandated list should be a risk mitigation. It shouldn’t reflect personal preference or requirements, but be targeted at a specific risk.
The Facebook question was related to the use of pain killers and anti inflammatory pills (NSAIDs). This is a topic in itself and not one I’m looking to debate; suffice to say I’ve read plenty of statements warning against usage due to potential kidney damage. I’ve used them personally on one event, but they didn’t make any real difference for me so I personally wouldn’t take them again. My stance is if I’m in such a state where I’m reaching for the pain killers then it’s time to drop out, but I digress again.
What I did find quite shocking was that a couple of events now had painkillers on their mandatory kit lists. In an age where you can’t get a paracetamol at work/ school due to fears over liability for dispensing such pharmaceuticals, I find it astonishing that a race would mandate carrying the drugs, especially an amount that, taken in one go, would be harmful. The argument was that an experienced doctor had advised this addition to the kit list and nobody would force a competitor to take the pills, but for me this is a tacit stamp of approval/ encouragement that it is not only ok, but it’s expected and encouraged – I am certain that is not what the RD intended, but I’ve lined up at too many races to mention where inexperienced participants are heavily influenced by the kit list, thus I think this is a very dangerous addition.
Aside from all that, I’d question the logic; i.e., what is the risk that is being mitigated here? In this case it seems to me it only creates risk 0 if a situation arose where somebody needed pain killers it would be due to an injury (twist, fall, sprain, etc.) Painkillers are then about comfort for the individual (cue wagging forum finger along the lines of, “well, if you strayed from the course and broke your leg then you’ll be grateful for the extra clothing and painkillers!” – this is taken almost verbatim from a post on the Fb L100 forum) your life is not going to be saved by a paracetamol or Ibuprofen. – but your internal organs could be damaged and you could put yourself at risk by taking too many through a one-eyed determination to finish coupled with an exhausted, sleep deprived, befuddled thought process. Pretty high likelihood of that state for participants of hundred mile or a non-stop multi day ultra I’d wager!
So getting to likelihood, we must first assess the chances of something happening, this is skewed by experience either direct or indirect (I’ll come back to this) – in the case of the L100 post I’d say it was pretty unlikely and thus not requiring me to carry extra anything as presented by the poster, but wait! Likelihood is only one piece of the risk puzzle. The impact is crucial in deciding on the mitigation strategy, so let’s look at that as perceived, or even evidenced, likelihood is useless without impact.
If the impact is great; i.e., risk to life and/ or future quality of life, then a mitigation strategy should be in place or acceptance of the risk made; e.g., the impact of running off a cliff is high, even if the likelihood is low, but what is my mitigation? Improve my map reading? Don’t sprint in the clag/ dark? Pack a parachute? In reality it’s something I just have to accept, whereas taking a mobile phone with 112 set up (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPZv_8dABfU) may be the mitigation strategy for incapacitation on the mountain.
Jumping back to the broken leg on the L100 post, whilst the impact might be high, my assessment goes something like this:
(a) It’s difficult to go wrong nav wise as it’s bridleway/ well worn footpaths that I’ve recced
(b) There are a huge number of people coming through who can raise the alarm
(c) You are tracked between ~8 mile stretches (CPs) so the organisers know roughly where you are
(d) Most sections you can pretty much drive a land rover to
(e) You’re never far from a road or obvious landmark so if your nav really is that bad then you’ll hit one of these soon or should be able to see one to help with your location
So what is the mitigation in the kit list? Well the poster was pointing to extra warm layers and a first aid kit. My assessment? Well stipulate a phone with 112 set up – a ‘First aid kit to include: blister plasters* / sterile pad dressing / bandage or tape to secure dressing as a minimum requirement’ is, frankly, going to do bugger all to your broken leg anyway. A real, useful, make a difference in an emergency, first aid kit will weigh between 5 and 9kgs and would never be stipulated on a run – much like the fact you could twist your ankle on a kerb or get knocked down crossing the road in town, one cannot account for every possibility.
* when was this ever an emergency?
In this area I feel many RDs lack courage/ fear the backlash of an uneducated back lash of “how irresponsible!” if they don’t have a first aid kit on their list, rather than a practical, considered approach to not mandate it (notable exceptions include NAV4 events which makes it’s kit list decision based upon first class, firsthand experience). At this point it’s clear I’ve drifted into mitigation and whether the mitigation is effective; getting back to the point, if the risk is a small cut to the finger or a blister and the mitigation is about comfort rather than safety then IMO the items should be on an optional list rather than a mandatory one. Again, looking at the first aid kit a more serious wound can be dealt with through construction of a tourniquet using clothing if required. So far we have likelihood (crystal ball) and impact (not so much worst case, although it should be considered and balanced with a likelihood of it going wrong, but realistic case scenarios.
For me it’s really clear. Every race risk which has a severe impact should be mitigated or accepted due to low likelihood/ impracticality of mitigation. Rapid core temperature loss due to rain and wind leading to hypothermia can be mitigated by waterproofs. Nobody is saying that you can sit down in a blizzard as if you are in San Tropez providing you have a “minimus suit” on, but waterproofs make a significant and genuine difference and enough to get an individual to safety.
Another fine example of excellent, well thought out mandated kit was the addition of a bothy bag on Dark Mountains. Some may say; “but you’re carrying a tent!” they would be right, but if you’ve got so cold that you need to pitch your tent or a weather front has come in so quickly as it did on us, then being able to jump in a bothy, make a considered decision, warm up and then pitch the tent, wait it out, etc. is a superb mitigation and is far more likely to be used – I know we talked about it at one point! Others include a survival bag not a blanket, map and compass, not GPS alone, etc.
Items that do not meet this criteria should not be on a mandatory kit list in my view – recommended kit, yeah, but not mandated – some people are happy to risk a DNF if the situation gets more hairy than the mandatory list. The notable exception to this is what I call “levelling kit”; e.g., a mountain marathon list includes a stove – hot food is not a requirement to survive, so a stove is arguably outside of the justification for the mandatory list (if you ignore the ability to provide a warm beverage in a hypothermia situation – one reason why I suspect it is on there) however it keeps the playing field a little more level.
So far, logic enables us to assess and draw a strategy together for risk, but two very vital elements are missing – appetite for risk and models/ experience. These have a huge influence upon our perceived likelihood and potential impact.
Appetite for risk – risk adverse or risk lover?
One’s tolerance for risk will have an influence on one’s assessment of likelihood and impact which one should be very mindful of – maybe even ask the question; “Have I really got that risk assessment right? Am I being a little too gung ho?” however the major influencing factor it has is over one’s mitigation strategy. A risk lover will be far more comfortable with less kit, it doesn’t mean they wont take enough to be safe, just that they will view the requirement differently to a person that is risk adverse.
The “yeah, but what if” people amongst us may take items to ensure they get to the end at all costs whereas a risk lover may simply say, “well if that happens I’ll just have to drop out & DNF as I believe the chances of it happening are so low compared with the burden of the mitigation strategy”. So risk lovers will tend to mark likelihood lower and be pragmatic (sometimes overly so) about kit. In a sport like ultra running which can see a start line flooded with machismo, this can lead to events being cancelled due to poor decisions; e.g., the 2012 Fellsman was cancelled part way through for the first time in 50 years due to the sheer volume of hypothermia cases. IMO this was about a lack of experience and poor decision making; both in the kit taken and, more importantly when people put it on. “Runners” making “runners decisions” in the mountains is a poor choice; i.e., “I’ll put my jacket on at the next CP” rather than stopping for 2 minutes to stay safe – I’m no martyr, I’ve done this myself several times!
These greatly influence our lives in all facets and influence the view of likelihood and impact significantly. As an abstract example, I have a great idea for a business, whilst I know abit about running a business and in the past have been paid to advise organisations as to how they should do it, I see the risk of setting up my own business as way too great – the potential pitfalls and risks outweigh the reward for me. A major influencer on this assessment is down to the fact that I don’t know anybody that has built a business from scratch – I have no first, second or third hand experience of this. Thus all I see is a question mark as to how I pay the mortgage, let alone finance the company.
The same applies to an assessment for the mountains. Once you’ve experienced or witnessed a case of hypothermia it’s harder to believe it can’t happen to you. Is it just a big “bogie man” that only happens to others? Ever badly twisted an ankle and had to get off a mountain alone? All this has a major impact and is generally positive; i.e., results in a more realistic risk assessment.
It must be noted that none of the mitigation strategies are a substitute for experience or knowledge. The best equipped bag in the world is no good if you don’t know how or when to use what is in it. Likewise avoidance of an issue by not taking silly risks is a far greater strategy. This doesn’t mean being over cautious, nor does it mean doing something because you got away with it last time. Regular and realistic in flight assessments should be part of any run in the mountains. My recent run up to Harrison Stickle was a good example of how I personally do that. I looked for signs of successful paths in the snow, regularly checked the crust and if my weight was held before proceeding, I kne my escape routes, slowed down, kept a keen eye on my Nav and ditched the idea of taking in Pike O’ Stickle in favour of getting part way down without the need for my head torch (although I had it on in case I fell and knocked myself out). I knew I was on a well used path and ensured I stuck to it; more importantly I ensured I was warm as toast – overdressing and paying in sweat rather than under dressing and pushing it to keep warm. I also regularly reminded myself that I was on my own.
Was it as much fun as really pushing it? Well as a dedicated sensation seeker I’d say yes, I was forced to concentrate at all times, I got to contemplate my own mortality and it got dark so I got to use some kit
So what, all very interesting but what do I want you to think about/ take away from this ramble? I’d sum it up as follows:
- Always respect an RD’s kit list and risk assessment
- It is my firm view that RDs should remember that newbies are greatly influenced by a kit list; put pain killers on there and they may very well think it’s de rigueur – don’t be afraid to put items on the suggested/ recommended list instead , think carefully about what should be mandatory; i.e., if it isn’t mitigating a serious risk with a high impact or a leveller.. if not, suggested list
- You can’t absolve all responsibility to the RD, do your own personal risk assessment before the race – mandatory kit list is the minimum, the less experience you have the more you should pack!
- Continue to assess risk throughout your run, especially if solo – take mitigating actions both before (tell somebody your route) and during your run (slowing down, is that potential ankle breaking leap worth it? etc.
- Kit is no substitute for experience – knowing how and when to use it so search out a course, go on that “crazy” group run in terrible conditions – I’d recommend the FRA run courses, NAV4 (http://www.nav4.co.uk/) and Mountain Run (http://www.mountainrun.co.uk/)
All this talk of risk comes at a time where a race has been found guilty of the deaths of three trail runners. It’s a terrifically tragic case and one nobody ever wants to see or hear about. The only details I have are here and my comment may as a result be deeply misinformed as I am solely going on this.
Ultimately when we take to the mountains for such races we take a risk and a personal responsibility for that risk. The idea that we as participants can absolve all responsibility for our actions is ludicrous. Ok, seeing the weather being a bit iffy could prompt the RD to mandate a bothy bag for all runners, but they can’t account for the actions of the runners to come off the way marked trail. Likewise no matter what is signed before a race, the organisers/planners can still be guilty of gross negligence.
I’ve had a chat with my wife about this very subject and how I wouldn’t want any actions to be taken or any impact as a result of my death if it were to happen. There are times when blame shouldn’t be searched for and it should just be accepted as a tragic accident. I would hate to think that my actions could put limits on the sport I love so much or the freedom that comes with that sport.
The key IMO is to increase the skill levels and knowledge of the participants in these races, I see the governing bodies; FRA, TRA, etc. having a strong hand and influence in this – more cheap/ not for profit navigation courses put on, raising awareness of hypothermia and other issues that pose a great risk to the runner; maybe even a licence system that enables people to run the longer or more challenging races (e.g., AL fell races).
The licence could simply consist of a number of courses and a test of knowledge, phased in over a 3 year period and with an abundance of courses run by local running clubs involved in the fells should make this a relatively painless exercise. It could also strengthen the already strong community. Sure people will grumble, but better than races being cancelled due to organisers not being able to take on the liability.
Numb to the risk?
The final word I wanted to give on risk is that it is calculated but ultimately it is so difficult without a crystal ball that we are forced to subconsciously take risks daily and become numb to them. The key here is that it is the perception of risks that we are ultimately dealing with 0 statistically you are significantly more likely to die or be seriously injured on a standard daily activity; e.g., riving a car, than you are on the mountains. It is out lack of familiarity (and of those around us) with the setting which leads to gross over/ under estimation – much like too much exposure (driving a car) without a reminder (road death/ accident/ near miss).
In short, get trained/ gain experience slowly rather than jumping in at the deep-end without a good mentor. Learn to calculate the risks you are taking and consider them before, during and after (review) make your own decisions to match your comfort level and have fun out there!
Got this far? I’d love your thoughts and feedback.