On Saturday 15th June I completed the Bob Graham Round. Quite a few people have said “Well done … but what is it?”. So I thought I’d write a “short” blog to explain and also give a bit of a run report to share my experience. Okay, it turned out to be a long blog!
My BG journey started, as a lot of people’s do, by reading the book “Feet in the Clouds”. This is among the best written books on running and whether you are a fell runner or not, it draws you into its world through the narrative which follows the repeated attempts of a London-based journalist to complete the Bob Graham Round, interspersed by a history of fell running and his other experiences in that world, completing in races, training and meeting some of the greats. Any book that begins, in capital letters, with the line “THIS IS HOW DEATH MUST FEEL.” deserves a least a try, come on folks, you know you want to!
The book captured my imagination, but was so far out of my experience at the time that I could only really fantasise, not really being able to put it into context. That was soon to change! In June 2016 a certain Mr Simon Ford was to make an attempt on the Round and I somehow found myself roped into supporting him on leg 3, which as I knew from Richard Asquith’s book, was generally considered to be the toughest leg and would also be my first practical experience of running in the Lakes.
Let me back-track a little here and explain what the Bob Graham Round actually is. The way I think of it is this, if the Answer to the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is 42, then possibly the Bob Graham Round is THE Question, since the challenge is to be witnessed touching the highest point on 42 specific Lake District peaks within a 24 hour period. This is a mix of peaks that you’ve heard of, such as Helvellyn, Skiddaw or Scafell, but also others that you may not have done, with curious names such as Sergeant Man, Steeple or Yewbarrow. The other rule is that you must start and finish by touching the door of the Moot Hall in Keswick. After that it’s up to you to choose your own route, though by now most of this has become fairly established and most people choose to take a clockwise route of around 66 miles. The route itself splits fairly neatly into 5 legs, with a chance at road crossings to be met by a roadcrew with food and drink, plus to change your support runners who need to witness the Round. Typically less than half of the attempts are successful, for example, in 2018, 199 people registered an attempt and 88 completed.
At around 7am on that fateful day, I found myself craning my head up towards where Simon was due to appear on the final run off Seat Sandal, I deliberately didn’t look in the opposite direction to the start of leg 3, where Steel Fell loomed high, looking like an impossibility. Eventually Simon arrived like a steam train and after a short break we set off on Leg 3. To cut a long story short, I made it through, but only just. I’d never experienced anything like that and frankly it nearly killed me off. However, I was then inexorably drawn into the excitement of the day and followed Simon around changeover points to the end as he blasted through the route. After that day I had a new target, and putting aside excuses like kids or work, it was only a matter of time before I made the attempt myself.
So, how did my attempt go?
Well it started with probably the worst decision I made for the whole Round. As anyone knows who has done a marathon or ultra, a key piece of preparation is the meal the night before. As this is a solo event there was no organised Pasta Party, so I’d booked into a nearby Italian. The meal I chose was a creamy pasta sauce that was still bubbling in my stomach well into leg 3 some 16 hours later and came close to scuppering my attempt.
My start time was 1am on Saturday morning. Why that time you may ask? Well the reason was pretty basic, I wanted to run as little as possible in the dark. My aspirational schedule was for 21 hours which in theory would get me back to the Moot Hall at around 22:00, meaning that the only dark running would be on the relatively benign first two-thirds of Leg 1 where you begin with a long pull on an easy path up Skiddaw from Keswick, followed by a jog across the moors to Great Calva and finally light would come just as I got to the first tricky bit, coming off Blencathra where there’s a bit of scrambling to be done. In the event that worked out perfectly, it was great to see Carl at the start line to see me off and I was almost exactly on schedule throughout leg 1, even with a hellish bit of weather thrown in on Skiddaw and the clag closing in to give only a few metres visibility for most of the leg. I arrived at Threlkeld cricket club for my changeover on schedule, but minus my 2 support runners, 1 of whom had had problems descending Blencathra and I’d sent the other one back to help.
The creamy pasta sauce was making its presence felt at this point and though I managed to eat some of the cold porridge I’d prepared earlier, it didn’t sit well and I didn’t eat everything that I’d intended to at this point. For any long distance running, the biggest problem can be your nutrition, so I was starting to get a bit worried.
We set off on leg 2, which starts with a short jog up a country lane and then a nasty ascent up to the top of Clough Head, probably my least favourite of a selection of nasty climbs that are part of the Round. One of the guys supporting me on this leg had never done this particular ascent before and made sure of expressing his intense joy at the experience. I’d marked leg 2 as the danger leg, mainly because, although it has some proper climbs in it, it’s also probably the most runnable of all the legs except leg 5. The danger is that you get too carried away early in your round and blow your wad before you’ve got to the tough bits on legs 3 and 4. I felt like I was being pretty sensible, but when I got to the 2nd to last climb Fairfield (it’s not fair and it’s not a field!) I really started to struggle, it felt like the wheels were coming off and I really had to push to gain the top. I hadn’t really been eating properly, but even so it was far too early for me to be having difficulty. I was getting more worried. Fairfield is an out-and-back, so reaching the top of Fairfield and feeling a little dazed, I turned 180 degrees and went straight back down. The clag was still down at this point and it was only when I was partway down the fell that I realised that my support runners were nowhere to be seen. It was their job to stay with me rather than the other way around, so I carried on, but slowed my pace a bit to hopefully let them catch up. They didn’t and I arrived at the bottom alone and paused. I wasn’t sure what to do as they still needed to witness the final summit of the leg. I was confident that they weren’t in trouble, there was nothing to fall off, so either they were lost or just really slow. At that moment I heard shouting from way up above and yelled back. Gradually the voices got louder and we finally sighted each other from about 50 yards. Thankfully they were okay and I was able to turn and carry on up the next hill. By the time we got to the top of Seat Sandal the guys had caught me up and explained that they’d taken a couple of seconds to check the maps and hadn’t realised that I’d just carried on, then didn’t know where I was. Oh well, you live and learn.
Dunmail Raise is the name of the 2nd changeover point. A fairly non-descript place on the A591, it’s marked by a large cairn in the middle of the grass divider on the road. Leg 3 has been the death knell of many an attempt and given how I was, I knew that I needed to get the right nutrition and hydration before I started up Steel Fell. Kay had made me a cup of tea which I guzzled down and I tried a sandwich which I managed most of, but even though I knew I needed it after 7.5 hours out on the fells, I couldn’t face eating anything else. Instead I decided that I’d take some food with me and Rachel kindly wrapped a couple of pieces of pizza and a sandwich for my support to carry. Simon joined me at leg 3 to return the favour and would also be with me on leg 4.
Leg 3 is a bit of haze. I know this because at one point staggering through a bog I remember thinking, “this is a bit of a haze”. I do remember a few other piecemeal things. Simon told his non-PC George Michael joke, again. Still makes me laugh though. The clag came down just before Sergeant Man and we had to circle around a bit to find it. We got caught up in a big fell race at Bowfell and I had to fight my way to the top against the tide of runners coming down. The climb up Scafell Pike (almost lost Simon in the crowds) and then Lord’s Rake up to the summit of Scafell were tough for me. But I finally, finally started to get my mojo back as I descended Scafell to the 3rd changeover at Wasdale and actually got a little emotional on the descent as I realised that contrary to what I been thinking for the previous 6 or 7 hours, my stomach was settling and I might actually finish the damn thing!
I had scheduled a long stop of 15 minutes at Wasdale, where the support team did a great job of looking after me and my support runners. The reason for the break was a bit of recovery time in advance of leg 4, because the descent from England’s highest mountain is long and tough on the legs, and then as soon as you leave the changeover point you have a massive and steep climb up a mountain called Yewbarrow, more commonly known as “Yewbastard”. Many an attempt has faltered on Yewbastard.
The long first climb started as a bit of a struggle, but halfway up, the refuelling at Wasdale really started to kick in and I began to feel, not exactly good, but capable. My dodgy stomach had sorted itself out, as had the weather. This was the point at which I really knew that I was going to finish and now it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and getting through the final 12 hills. I now picked up my speed and picked off the hills one by one, making sure that I was moving well in between them. I was also getting ahead of my schedule without really having to push too much, so although I kept waiting for the wheels to fall off, I was now starting to think that I could get to a sub-21 time, which would be fantastic. The end of leg 4 came and I got to Honister slate mine 33 minutes ahead of schedule, putting me at around 20:30 schedule.
I then had a choice, do I settle for what I have and take it easy to the finish, or push on to see what time I could get? What I knew was that my schedule allowed for a lot of spare time on leg 5, so I thought that if I could keep running then there was an outside chance of actually coming in more than an hour quicker than planned and actually get a sub-20, something that would have seemed ludicrous a few hours earlier! I decided to go for it and stayed at Honister for as short a time as possible, then started up the last significant climb up Dale Head. Anthony and Carl joined me here after having scaled Blencathra themselves earlier that day. After Dale Head most of leg 5 is eminently runnable so I went for it, hitting Hindscarth and then the final peak Robinson 43 minutes ahead of schedule. Back on leg 4 I’d had to take a couple of Ibuprofen due to a dodgy knee and it now started to kick in again on the descents, however the final decent off Robinson is a nice grassy slope, so rather than run it I decided to slide down on my bum to save my knee. It was now just a 10k back to Keswick with about 50 minutes to do it which normally wouldn’t be any problem but seemed like an insurmountable challenge at the time. However, I was still on schedule when I met Claire at the 4.5 miles point to change into my road shoes and where Dave was going to join us for the run in. Far from being the sedate group jog back into town that I’d envisaged, this was now some road running as hard as I’d done before. I gritted my teeth and got on with it, stopping to walk only briefly a couple of times on hills, but otherwise going as fast as I could manage. I’ve never been so glad to see the Keswick Pencil Museum as I was when we finally arrived in the town and looking at my watch I could see that I had around 4 or 5 minutes to go with about ¼ mile to the finish and achieve my sub-20 time. I could probably have walked it from there, but kicked on and it still gives me goosebumps to remember the welcome as I ran up the final stretch to the Moot Hall to touch the green door. Everyone on the street applauded and cheered, and if you’ve seen my finish video you can hear quite a bit of shouting from the A&T members who were there to see me. Brilliant stuff. And I finished in 19:58:33, which was well ahead of my expectations.
I couldn’t have done this without some amazing support on the day from our fantastic club. Simon has mentored me through my training and recceing and I simply wouldn’t have been there without his help. The road support from Kay, who was there from start to finish, as well as Rachel who joined at leg 3, plus Claire and Dave who joined at leg 4, and others who popped up at other points. I may not have been very communicative at times, but the support was noticed and very much appreciated. Also the help in transporting runners between legs from Kay, Rachel, Anthony, Neil, Dave and Claire. And last but not least, the A&T support runners in Simon, Carl, Anthony and Dave. All very much appreciated, thank you.
Stop the watch!!!
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