Bob Graham Round Ė 26 June 2010
Iíd probably only slept for 15 minutes or so when nerves and excitement got the better of me. 11.45 pm isnít a usual time for getting up but this wasnít a usual day. My Bob Graham Round, the culmination of 10 years of dreaming, 5 years of wondering, 3 years of specific training and 3 months of logistical planning, had arrived. I couldnít wait to get started.
The Bob Graham Round is a fell runnersí test piece; a rite of passage. Those that have done it are part of an elite club. Those that havenít done it will always look up enviously and admiringly to those that have. I wanted that. The round consists of a circuit of 42 Lake District fells. The challenge is to visit these summits in any order within 24 hours starting and finishing at the Moot Hall in Keswick. The numbers are scary. Estimates vary on the exact mileage and it depends upon the route that you take but itís at least 66 miles. Scarier still is the climbing. There appears to be greater agreement on this with most estimates coming in at 28 000 ft of ascent to be climbed. Or, roughly, climb the height of Mount Everestfrom sea level in a day.
The circuit has to cross the road at 4 points which splits the attempt into 5 distinct legs. The first leg starts from the Moot Hall in Keswick and takes in Skiddaw and Blencathra crossing the A66 at Threlkeld. The second leg goes south down the Helvellyn massif coming down to the road at Dunmail Raise. The third leg is where the Bob Graham is won or lost. This is the longest and toughest leg taking in the Langdale pikes and Scafells finishing down in Wasdale. The fourth leg is another killer with 4 stiff climbs on it over Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Kirk Fell and Great Gable. The fifth leg is a comparative doddle. Just traverse the three fells at the head of NewlandsValleyand the 5 miles of road back to Keswick.
You donít do this on your own though. I had assembled a crack team of pacers from Southwell Running Club and beyond to carry my food, read the map and generally encourage me round. Iíd picked Nick Evans for the first leg because of local knowledge and supreme night navigation skills. I had not picked him for his ability to get out of bed in the middle of the night! It was just nerves that made me feel twitchy and we got to the start 15 minutes ahead of the 1 am set-off time. There I met Chris Rainbow, a fellow Bob Graham hopeful and his pace team. We had met on the fell runnersí forum and agreed to pool our pacing resources and move together wherever possible certainly on the navigationally more difficult night leg.
1 am Öweíre off.
A few photos and weíre off down the main street. The first task is to find our way down the right ginnels and out of town. As we leave town, the ascent of Skiddaw begins. We slow to a fast walk, probably too fast. Nick acts as our conscience and reminds us every few minutes that weíre probably pushing a little too hard. The land rover track up Skiddaw is easy to follow which is why this leg is one of the obvious candidates to do at night. We hit the summit in 79 minutes; 2 minutes up on our schedule.
The next stage is important. If we hit the path that descends from Skiddaw towards Great Calva then our progress will be faster and less strenuous. We donít hit the path instantly but Nickís prompting pushes us in the right direction and we pick up the fast line two thirds of the way down.
Weíre now out in the middle of nowhere at 2.30 am. The lights of Penrith glow away to the east. A couple of radio masts light up the north and south. We are fortunate that it is a clear night with bright full moon. The moon is too low in the sky at this point to appear over the top of Blencathra but it provides a bright indigo sky to silhouette the mountains against. We are on a fast line and the summit is clearly visible. We reach the summit of Great Calva five minutes ahead of schedule and quickly pick up the fast descent route by the fence line towards Caldbeck.
I was blessed by great good fortune in almost every imaginable way during this run. We found highly favourable conditions. The ground was generally dry and very runnable. The moon was bright and the night cloudless. The threatened early morning mists did not appear and, now, the potentially tricky river crossing of Caldbeck was made trivial by the near drought conditions that Cumbriahas experienced since the floods that caused so much damage in the autumn. I skipped across without getting my feet wet. For many Bob Graham runners this involves a thigh deep wade against a treacherous current. Things were clearly going our way.
If nature was being benevolent, then I was doing my best to undermine her good work. I had chosen to carry a camelback bladder with a litre of High-5 energy drink to keep me hydrated and to keep my electrolyte levels high and so prevent cramp. All the advice for people making ultra-endurance runs is ďDonít eat or drink anything on the day that you donít usually consumeĒ. Why did I think that this advice didnít apply to me? Iíd used High-5 once before in a Southwell sprint triathlon (it was a freebie) and probably drank about 250ml of it. Half a litre into the orange flavour gloop, my stomach was beginning to cramp up in complaint.
I turn off my head torch on the climb up Mungrisedale Common. By 3.30 am it is light, certainly light enough to pick the good line up Blencathra which we reach three minutes up on schedule. The pace feels good to me but I can sense that Chris is straining at the leash a bit. Certainly, he stretches out a short lead on the steep, rocky descent down Halls Fell. We drop Nick on this section as he wisely saves his knees for later on in the day. We reach the first changeover more than 10 minutes up but that downhill section has really taken it out of me, much more than it should have done. Iím starting to feel really queasy by now but I have a 10 minute break to get some scoff down and start feeling good again.
5 am ÖThrelkeld
John Croxford, one of my oldest friends Ėthose grey hairs tell no lies! Ė met me with his usual cheery ďHey!Ē and told me how great I was looking. I must have believed him because I let him take my camelback and fill it up with a fresh litre of High-5. I scoff a healthy portion of sugar puffs and milk. This is my usual pre-race breakfast, so I didnít think I would have any problems digesting this. I wash it down with a cup of tea and we are off again.
Nick Evans is now being whizzed home to Berrier for a few hoursí sleep before his efforts on leg 4. I am now joined by Ian Shaw. Ian had already been pretty insistent that I wasnít going to be carrying a map on his watch; I had given in reluctantly. He was also pretty adamant that I shouldnít be carrying my camelback either. I had previously fought against this saying I wanted to have liquid on hand whenever I wanted. As we leave the road and start the climb up Cough Head, I give in and pass Ian my bag in return for a bottle of Lucozade Sport. More orange gloop, yeh!
Chris and his team stretch out a 100m lead over the climb. As the stomach cramps get worse I start to decline offers of food. I feel tired, really tired. I feel much more tired than I had expected to at this stage. This challenge is all about keeping up a steady pace when you get tired but Iíve got over 18 hours left and I feel exhausted already. I dig in and sip on the Lucozade hoping that this is just a passing phase.
Itís a trivial, gentle descent from Clough Head down a wide track when Ian, distracted by clipping his pen back to his rucksack, goes over on his ankle. I can tell from the yelp of pain and prolonged hopping that this isnít an injury that he will just run off. A sprained ankle is an injury that Iím very familiar with and Iím carrying athletic strapping for just such an incident. Ian declines the strapping but takes some ibuprofen. The terrain is fortunately fairly even and we continue to make good progress albeit with Ian in considerable pain and me feeling more and more light-headed as I continue to decline food.
We keep Chris in sight around 300m in the distance as we pass over the Dodds; three summits in quick succession. Even at our distance we are still pulling ahead of the schedule. We are 17 minutes up by the summit of Stybarrow Dodd. It is 6.30 am and the beginning of a stunning Lakelandday. The high fells are clear and just a little haziness lingers around the valleys. The route of the day lies out in front of us, a long way in front of us but we are going well. I just wish I didnít feel so sick.
One of Chrisís pacers drops back and asks whether weíre OK. Ian is moving relatively well and I give him the thumbs up and he returns to the front. As I leave the summit of Great Dodd my stomach cramps finally get the better of me and I bring up my breakfast and the Lucozade sport in an orange cocktail Ė tequila sunrise anyone? The stomach cramps donít vanish instantly but I do feel a lot better. I know that I donít want any more of that vile High-5 drink. I want water; plain, cold, sweet water, please. We havenít got any water. We have got some water stashed at Stickís Pass between Stybarrow Dodd and Raise so we press on.
At this point, I see a figure in the distance moving across the skyline at tremendous speed. ďBloody hell, heís motoringĒ I say. The chap hits the summit of Watson Dodd and turns towards us. As he approaches, I realise itís Alan Ward. Iíd spoken to Alan on Thursday for some last minute route advice and heíd said that he was up in the Lakes this weekend and would love to join us for an early morning run. I had presumed that 5 am in Threlkeld had been a little early for him and that we wouldnít see him. But here he is, like a guardian angel appearing just when we needed him to assist this slightly sorry party; one sick and one lame. Alanís infectious enthusiasm gives me an instant lift and the weak blackcurrant squash that he is carrying is a lot more acceptable to my constitution.
We press on towards Helvellyn and beyond making steady progress, even catching Chris and his party by taking a more efficient line on one of the descents. In spite of his pain, Ianís knowledge of the fells and map reading is immaculate. At Dollywagon, Ian says goodbye and heads down the path to the road crossing. The descent down to Grizedale Tarn is steep and unforgiving and the climb of Fairfieldrough and rocky and he wisely admits that his ankle should be asked to take no more. Alan nurses me to the last tops on this leg. I still feel weak and light-headed but I know that weíre inside schedule. I can still do this if I can just get myself feeling a little better. We arrive at Dunmail Raise at 8.46, thirty minutes up on schedule. Time to try and get some food and water inside me or this next section will be beyond me.
Vicky Bunnage and John Abbott greet me at Dunmail. I collapse in the chair. I manage a little Irish stew and some tea in between a couple of cat naps. Vicky and John clearly wear a look of concern. I know that I must look pretty dreadful. I donít remember falling asleep but the photographic record is a little different. Chris bounds out of his chair after the allocated 15 minute stop. I let him go. His pace is killing me and I need to take my time, to take on food and water and get myself feeling like Iím working within myself. I may be up on time but I know Iím seriously in deficit on effort. I need to get the balance back.
9.06 ÖLeave Dunmail Raise
Steel Fell is not the biggest climb in the round or the steepest but it looks very imposing right now as I set off with Ian Haighon the crucial 3rd leg. Itís on this long, rough section Ė 19 miles with nearly 8 000 feet of climb Ė that many attempts founder. I have half an hour in hand though and I intend to use it.
We lose no time to the first top and only a couple of minutes on each of the next summits of Calf Crag, Sergeant Man and High Raise. Ian continually offers me food. Twix bars, brunch bars, nuts and raisins, all turn to sawdust in my mouth. Cherry tomatoes and satsumas seem to be all I can manage. My stomach feels better than it did but it reacts to each mouthful of food like itís being kicked. I would normally be eating on the climbs when the slower pace makes digestion easier but today I cannot manage the effort of climbing and the effort of eating at the same time. Itís not a day for multi-tasking.
We pass over the Langdale Pikes in good time letting only a couple of minutes of our previous advantage slip. On my recce of this leg I had taken a slow line up Rosset Pike. Ian and I, uncertain of the best line from StakePass, follow a Bob Graham Round party a few hundred metres ahead of us. Their line is not the best and it costs us five minutes of hard won surplus. On the next climb, the awe-inspiring 1000 foot rising traverse to Bowfell, we follow our own line and hit the summit bang on pulling back a few minutes of lost time despite having included a two-minute sit down to apply sun cream.
The confidence boost that this leg gives me is immense. Ianís quiet words of encouragement and re-assuring manner keep me moving at a steady rate. Iím starting to feel a little stronger and I know that the objective of this leg is just to get me to Wasdale in touch with the overall schedule. Itís midday and the sun is really starting to beat down. Iím taking on water whenever Ian will allow it. He rations it superbly over the next 3 hours.
summits, Esk Pike, Great End, Broad Crag and Ill Crag come quickly. The fells are awash with people.
My girlfriend, Vicky, has promised to see us on the top of Scafell but she is not in sight on the summit, so we head off. We take a poor line causing us to miss Vicky on her way up and costing us a few more minutes. The downhill running is hard. My feet are sore with pounding on the unrelenting rocky ground of the previous 3 hours. My quads, too, are feeling the strain. I have trained hard for the uphills and my uphill legs are not letting me down. Downhill is really hurting me. We get to Wasdale Head car park at 3.34 pm just 4 minutes behind the overall schedule but I am starting to feel good. I have some appetite at last and I feel as strong now as I have all day. Iím on a 22.55 minute schedule so I know I have an hour of contingency in hand. I just need to keep my pace going and I have this goal in sight. From four hours previously, when I could hardly imagine being able to put one foot in front another for five more minutes, the transformation is complete.
John Abbott has the chair set up in the shade and the Sweet and Sour Supa Noodles ready to go. I drink water greedily first and then slurp down a good portion of noodles. The greasy, salty, bright orange Supa-noodle liquid Ė in stark and ironic contrast to the ďisotonicĒ orange gloop of earlier in the day - is just what my body is craving and I glug most of it down.
3:53 pm ÖLeave Wasdale Head
I know Wasdale well. I have climbed the fells from here countless times. It is the leg that I have most confidence on, for route finding. I could probably do this section without a map. Fortunately, I donít need to worry anyway as I have Nick Evans again by my side and Iím once again banned from map reading.
The climb up Yewbarrow is a big part of the Bob Graham mythology. The hill is only just over 2000 feet but the valley at Wasdale is only a couple of hundred feet above sea level. The fast line up the hillside takes the steep direct line to the summit. I know that if I can keep my speed going over this effort then I have enough time in the bank to get me round.
Nick sets a good pace. He doesnít stretch out in front of me and sap my confidence but picks out the steeply ascending path through the bracken and taps out a steady ascending rhythm. The bracken on the hillside seems to trap the heat and the climb is punishing but we hit the summit of Yewbarrow perfectly on schedule; 48 minutes of good work. I feel a temporary wash of euphoria before looking up to the summit of Red Pike, another 1 000 feet plus of climb above the col below Dore Head.
However, there is a growing confidence inside me. The climb up Yewbarrow was tough, but I knew that it wasnít going to get any tougher. I feel at this point that I have this in me. I eat some nuts and raisins and turn to look at Great Gable. This is my favourite Lakelandfell. I have climbed it more than any other by a dozen. It looks now, as it has all afternoon, massive and majestic and somehow set apart from the other hills with impregnable looking crags on all sides. I know that itís a 20 minute climb from the col but it still stirs a nervous chill inside me.
From the summit of Red Pike, Nick leads me off in the direction of Pillar. I, somewhat nervously, ask if we are going over to Steeple, the next summit on the round. Nick assures me that this may appear indirect but is fast ground and the best line. I do not argue. The time at the summit tells me heís right.
We pick good lines avoiding unnecessary tops and finding fast descents on Pillar; I even run some sections here and there. We are losing a minute per summit on the schedule but nothing to give concern. The climb of Kirk Fell seems shorter than on my recce. I have hit the zone. I can walk like this all day. The evening feels cooler now at 7:30 pm and at 2 500 feet and I feel strong. I know the climb up Great Gable in my sleep and we fly up, regaining all the time losses on the previous 4 summits. We pass another BGR party. They have set off at 12pm, an hour before me. The hourís luxury that I possess is not theirs. We wish them luck as we pass but we know that they have their work cut out.
The pressure is off and I really start to enjoy the day. Early morning and late evening on the fells are the most beautiful times. The light and the loneliness combine to give a unique feeling of a special moment that few others are sharing. Brandreth and Grey Knotts are not, in my opinion special Lakelandhills but they will hold a permanent affection for me for the way they look, and I feel, this evening.
In a rare moment of short-sightedness, Nick heads off from Grey Knotts towards the YHA car park at Honister and not towards the waiting crowds in the other car park. I am sure he waved at them from the crest of the hill but no matter, the loss is less than a minute or two.
Iím greeted by quite a crowd, it seems. Vicky and John Abbott are there ready with food and camp chair. Also greeting me is John Boyle, fresh from the Sedburgh race this afternoon. I manage a Muller Rice (original flavour) and a cup of tea. In total over this day I cannot have eaten more than 3 000 calories. I am sure that I have eaten less than I normally do during an average day. I have probably used up close to 10 000 calories. The mystery is twofold. Where does the extra 7 000 calories come from? And why was the 25 calories that I sucked from a Twix bar on Bowfell so important?
During my rest at Honister, the party we had overtaken came through. Their time was tight and they didnít stop. We cheered and applauded them through. Five minutes or so later, we set off after them.
9:43 pm leaving HonisterÖI can see the pub from here!
When I was planning my companions for the Bob Graham I was influenced by many factors. Who could stand the pace? Who could pick good routes? Who did I want to pick me up if the going was tough? For the last leg I have two old friends who I could rely on for all of these.
Johns Abbott and Boyle kept up a constant chatter and banter up the climb of Dalehead. The beauty of the evening, our dayís adventures and the time since we had last met up provided plenty to talk about. They passed me water and snacks at frequent intervals and I ate and drank with comfort. The path from Honister to Dalehead is straight and unmissable but JB offered good advice from a previous fell race as to which was the faster side of the wall to be. Dusk is falling as we make the summit, a minute over the schedule but time is our friend. We can make out the other BGR party in the distance and hear their urgent encouragement; time is their companion too but nagging at their shoulder as they push for the finish.
Just two more hills to go. Hindscarth comes and goes with barely a pause and we pick up the descending traverse to the col below Robinson. One more climb to go. John A and John B are buzzing around checking maps and bearings to ensure the line to the summit is as efficient as possible and they donít let me down. The last top has a euphoric feeling; nothing can stop me now, except perhaps a broken ankle on the rocky steps off Robinson. John Abbott is ultra cautious on this section warning me of every patch of uneven ground as the dusk gives way to early night. This behaviour exemplifies the attention to detail and care that all my pacing crew took throughout the day. We proceed at a sensible pace along the ridge of Robinson down towards Newlands. Down in the valley we can make out the lights of our fellow Bob Graham candidateís party, hoping that the valley path is the faster in the failing light.
They may be right. The rocky steps off Robinson feel slow and the path to the road to Keswick takes longer than I expect.
At the road in Newlands valley we meet up with Ian Haigh, Vicky and Nick once again. Sadly, of course, Ian Shaw is missing. In the twelve hours since we parted he has visited A&E in Carlisle, been x-rayed and discharged and driven (uncomfortably) home. Itís a shame because this leg is the opportunity to celebrate what weíve done.
I grab my last brief sit down and change from fell shoes into road shoes. I have just 5 miles of flat(ish) road back to Keswick. It feels like a lap of honour. Vicky, Ian and the two Johns and I run together with Nick following on just behind in the car. The party chats in a relaxed fashion and it just takes me a quick word now and then to remind everyone from time to time that theyíre supposed to be helping me and not running off into the distance. I am very, very tired. I can run for perhaps 5 minutes at a stretch before I need to walk. The road is by and large flat but every slight rise brings me down from jog to walk. I still have a quick pace to my walk and itís this, I know, that has got me round. We pass through Portinscale and Ian Haighís family, up for a few daysí holiday, come out of their cottage as we pass and applaud us through.
They are not the last. As we enter Keswick, we pass people enjoying a more normal Saturday night out. Many of them recognise a Bob Graham Round party and clap, encourage and pass on good wishes as we move by. We know our way through the town and Iím soon on the cobbled street up to the Moot Hall. It feels as if the whole of Keswick are lining the streets, applauding, as I pick up the pace. I know there are probably less than 20 people watching as Iím encouraged by Vicky into a sprint finish but it feels like a ticker tape parade. Vicky eases off the sprint finish just in time to stop me snapping something and I touch the Moot Hall door 23 hours and 12 minutes and 50 seconds after I set off. We are just 6 minutes after the party we have been chasing since Honister who have missed their target by 6 minutes. I feel brief sympathy for them.
Chris Rainbow and his wife Tammy are there to greet me. Itís and hour and three quarters since he has finished but heís hung on to see me in. I shake hands and hug and kiss those prepared to let me that near in my sweaty, smelly, exhausted state. We pose for photos and congratulate each other on what weíve done and what weíve been part of.
I cannot stop grinning and will not stop for several days. The feeling of achievement is strange, unreal. In the weeks and months leading up to this, I had been filled with doubt. I felt that I had the capability; I knew I had the mental reserves to push on when it hurts but this challenge was of a different order to anything I had taken on before. And Iíd done it.
The experience was one I will always look back on with tremendous affection, emotion and pride. The most pleasing and humbling aspect of the whole event was the dedicated effort of the team that supported me and to see the lengths that they were prepared to go to, to help. When I had asked for support, I had not known who might be available and what help they might be able to offer to what is a supreme piece of self-indulgence. Everyone who responded exceeded my expectations by far. I will be forever indebted to all those that paced me, fed me, encouraged me and congratulated me, for being part of a truly life-affirming event. I wonít be able to repay any of those debts unless somebody wants to indulge this enormous folly and attempt a Bob Graham Round. And if they do, Iíll be there.
Paul Orton 13 July 2010