FRIENDS and colleagues have paid tribute to an 'inspirational' runner and 'cheerful' conservationist who died after collapsing in a Lake District fell race.

Stephen Owen, 37, was competing in the four-mile Loughrigg Fell Race, near Ambleside, when he suffered a suspected heart attack around ten minutes into the race to the top of the 1,100ft fell.

Other athletes, mountain rescuers and emergency services all attempted to save the Eden Runners club member.

Paying tribute to her partner on Facebook, Katie Milburn described Mr Owen as 'the most beautiful human' she had ever met.

"My best friend, soulmate, adventure companion, the most beautiful human I've ever met and man of my wildest dreams passed away," she said. "Stephen's heart stopped suddenly on Loughrigg fell race and we're awaiting further details as to why.

"I'm deeply sorry to share this devastating news in this way but forgive me for being unable to communicate to all that knew and cared about him individually. I'm with both his family and mine. We are broken hearted. Life is so short."

Langdale Ambleside Mountain Rescue and the Great North Air Ambulance Service both attended to Mr Owen after he collapsed last Wednesday evening.

A competitor in the race, who does not wish to be named, said there had been a 'huddle of athletes and spectators' around the runner, just off the main path up to Loughrigg.

“Runners passing by were concerned for the welfare of the runner on the ground and were asking: ‘Is he alright?”

“When I came back off the top I could see that the group was working to revive the runner. At the finish everyone was concerned and I think we feared the worst when the Great North Air Ambulance arrived after two mountain rescue vehicles had gone up onto the fell.”

Mr Owen worked at the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, joining in 2016 as the reserve and training officer for Eycott Hill Nature Reserve, near Penrith.

A statement from the Trust described him as 'an active, inspirational and committed conservationist and a much-loved friend'.

Kevin Scott, northern reserves officer at Cumbria Wildlife Trust, added that he was 'one of the nicest people you could meet'.

"He was a genuinely nice person," Mr Scott said. "He was very kind, very generous with his time. He never had a cross word or an unpleasant word to say about anyone and I never met anyone who had a bad word to say about him. He absolutely loved the work and was really, really passionate about wildlife and nature conservation.

"I think what struck me immediately about Stephen, apart from the fact that he was an incredibly nice person, was that he was always cheerful and he was absolutely fantastic with people which was a large part of his job.

"He worked with a wide range of volunteers and people from partner organisations and with people who did not share our views and he was without exception always calm, cheerful and completely professional in his demeanour."

Mr Owen, from Penrith, previously worked as a warden for Baron's Haugh, a RSPB nature reserve in Scotland. Mr Scott added that staff there were 'equally devastated' by the news.

Fell running icon, Joss Naylor, also offered his condolences to Mr Owen's family, saying that it was a 'tragedy' but adding that such a death on the fells was rare.

"You don't like to hear of a thing like that happening in any sport," he said. "It's an absolute tragedy - for the family as well, they don't expect anything like that."

Mr Naylor, who has been running for some 60 years, could only think of two other similar incidents - once 'a lot of years ago' in the north of Scotland and once in the Lake District.

"I've ran now for nearly 60 years and we know people who have gone off course on a bad day," he said. "But just to collapse and die like that is very, very rare.

"When somebody's physically fit, you don't expect something like that to happen.

"It's an awful thing for the family and it's something that's come out of the blue - it's an awful shock."

Organiser of the race, Ben Abdelnoor of Ambleside Athletics Club, said members were devastated to hear of the runner's death.

"I was in Rothay Park, whereas it happened on the fell, but it came as a great shock," he said. "It's not something that happens regularly in fell running by any means.

"Obviously it comes as a great sadness to the fell running community and we send our sympathies to his family.

"It was not an easy situation to deal with."

The Fell Runners' Association said it did not want to comment.