Moot Hall, Keswick, 1am. We were off, darting through a ginnel, away from town, destined for the invisible summit of Skiddaw. No fanfare, no cheering crowds, no fuss. Only a handful of late-night revellers enjoying the dying embers of a Jubilee night-out. Low-key, yes, but as the well-worn proverb goes: from humble beginnings come great things. Ahead were very great things, the incomprehensible enormity of the Bob Graham Round: all 66 miles, 42 Lake District fells and 27,000ft of ascent and descent of it.
Preparing for the off
Left to right: Duncan, me, Andy (Splatcher)
The beginnings were not only humble; they were inauspicious. My support crew had already been stripped to its bare bones, after a man was lost to an ankle injury sustained on Jura, when one of my remaining three fell ill on Friday. A hurried re-jigging of pacing had taken place; the plan I had carefully concocted five days earlier ripped up. Adam, the sick runner, would now pace leg 4, allowing him an extra 12 hours to recover from illness. Duncan, still re-finding his legs following a stunning 19.32 Bob Graham three weeks earlier, would support legs 1 and 2, before Rob would pace legs 3 and 4 (and eventually 5). I was asking a great deal of few people.
I tried to dispel concerns and fears as we rounded Latrigg and made our way up the steep sides of Skiddaw. I was running with a group of five: Duncan and I, of course, and another Bob Graham attemptee and his two-man support team. The company helped; the distraction of the remaining 64 miles was momentarily forgotten. We were soon in cloud, however, the beams of our head torches thrown back in our faces and the lights of Keswick smothered. As we gained the summit, we entered another world. A black, godforsaken world, jumbled with rock, smashed by a tremendous wind. It was a barometer of things to come.
Escaping the worst of the battering ram, we plunged off Skiddaw and made good progress to Great Calva, and thereafter to Mungrisdale Common. We heard birdsong, heralding dawn. We were back in mist though, with the plateau of the common a confusion. The ultimate point of navigation – the towering wave that is Blencathra – was alarmingly absent. Duncan and I (the others had already dropped back) wandered in what seemed like the right way for several minutes before finding – with great relief – a familiar path. Blencathra was then gained easily and we descended to Threlkeld via the Doddick Fell ridge, preferring it to the more direct Hall’s Fell.
Refuelling at Threlkeld at 5am
We made Threlkeld comfortably up on 22-hour schedule pace. Nevertheless, the adrenaline of the start had gone. I was already beginning to feel weary. My feet had taken a battering on Doddick Fell, while my left ankle – my ‘Achilles heel’ leading up to today – was tweaking badly. I ate soup and sandwiches, but felt low and extremely tired as we climbed Clough Head, a near-600 metre, steep, unexciting climb. Life would soon get worse. The mist was thick, with potential views of the Helvellyn range obliterated. This was an ugly dawn. Navigation over the Dodds was straightforward; the pace steady; I was eating regularly. ‘You’re doing really well,’ Duncan kept insisting. Inside, I was fighting the urge to escape, to end this. I simply couldn’t fathom how tired I was.
On we went, over Raise and White Side, to Helvellyn Lower Man where the wind reached its most frenetic and ferocious. Down to the pikes of Nethermost and Dollywagon, I remained immersed in self-pity. When in such a place, the prospect of an out-and-back excursion from Grisedale Tarn to Fairfield, a 873-metre brute of a mountain, was hideous. Here my mental capitulation was almost complete. I contemplated abandonment. I rehearsed conversations, considered the ignominy of failure. I don’t recall saying the words: ‘I can’t do this,’ but I’m sure I told Duncan that ‘I don’t how I’m going to do this’. Lagging further and further behind Duncan, feeling sick and despondent, I somehow gained the summit of Fairfield. Had I known this would be my lowest moment of the round, I would have rejoiced. Stripped of such foresight, I simply tapped the highest point, turned and miserably ran back down the same rocky path. I reached Dunmail Raise (via Seat Sandal, the last hill of leg 2), 20 minutes up on schedule, but an extremely tired and disillusioned runner.
Arriving at Dunmail Raise, more than seven hours in.
Contemplating leg 3 at Dunmail Raise. That isn’t a smile.
Reflecting on my feelings now, there are so many reasons to explain my struggle. Physically, of course I would be in discomfort. Seven-and-a-half hours (my approximate Dunmail Raise split) into a 22-hour Bob Graham round seemed like nothing at the time, but a seven-a-half-hour run, covering almost a marathon, is an enormous undertaking, even as a single entity. The physical factors went on: the thousands of metres ascended and descended, the length of time on my feet, the battling against the wind, the running at a time when I would never typically run (1am-8am), the sleep deprivation. Worst of all, I failed to appreciate the cumulative effect of these physical permutations on my emotional state. I had lost all sense of perspective. Emotional immaturity, perhaps? Lack of foresight regarding the low periods? Assuming the Bob Graham would be easier than reality? Whatever the reasons, I had two choices at Dunmail Raise: drop out or pull myself out of this awful slump.
Steel Fell isn’t a good place to stage a recovery. Rob had filled Duncan’s able pacing shoes and his cheerfulness juxtaposed my moroseness. Once off Steel Fell, a long downhill ensued, then up again to Calf Crag. I began, slowly, to reawaken, to feel happy. I can’t remember there being a specific reason or a turning point. Gradually, I just felt better, less tired, and by the time I was heading up Sergeant Man, I was positively glad. The splits from hill top to hill top were unspectacular, nudging towards sub-21 pace, but I was, finally, enjoying the Bob Graham.
En route to Sergeant Man
And then Bowfell happened; there I simply wanted to lie down and sleep. I felt dizzy and weak, with Rob having to steady me on a couple of occasions. I pressed on and, strangely, after an awkward descent to Ore Gap I knew I had emerged from an hour-long blip. I dared not predict what my body would do next, but a sense of urgency and determination had taken over. I attacked Esk Pike and Great End with purpose, running comfortably over the pair. Broad Crag and Ill Crag also conquered, Rob and I were soon boulder-hopping past crowds of tourists en route to Scafell Pike. The journey to Scafell thereafter was always going to be via Lord’s Rake, a task that was completed with as much gusto as a man who has run for 13 hours can muster.
Descending the screes of Rakehead Crag, below Scafell
The steep drop to Lingmell Gill
Seeking a way across Lingmell Gill
I trickled carefully down Scafell, the longest descent of the entire round, arriving in Wasdale knowing the worst was over. I had run 41 miles, climbing the equivalent of Ben Nevis four times. I was excited – an excitement that was infectious. My supporters bustled around, feeding me pasta, urging me to drink flat Coke (my top tip for long-distance success), emptying my shoes of scree, offering encouraging words, popping ibuprofen pills into my hand.
Overwhelmed by the support, I realised for the first time that this wasn’t just my personal journey. It wasn’t simply about me. The others had profoundly invested in my journey and demanded a return. There was my dad, who like Duncan and I, had been up since midnight and would support at every road crossing; it was about my three pacers: I suddenly appreciated what it meant to them to get me round. They were tired too, yet all their actions – the feeding and drinking, the pep talks and reassurance, the navigation, the bag-carrying, taking splits, the opening and closing of gates, the wind-shielding, the effort of running over the hills for miles and miles – was for me. I have read numerous Bob Graham round reports in which the successful runner gushes over their support. Really? I had always thought. Do they do that much? Surely they are just there to be a necessary witness as demanded by the Bob Graham Club. I was utterly wrong. As long as the Bob Graham matters to me, the extraordinary efforts of my supporters will never be forgotten. Without them, my attempt would have foundered.
Being force-fed at Wasdale
Jogging through the National Trust car park, I had a new pacer, Adam, with Rob following closely behind. Yewbarrow has a fearsome reputation by virtue of the 550-metre climb to gain its summit; this is the place where many rounds succeed or fail. Adam, showing no sign of illness, stormed up the hill. Head down, following in his footsteps, I thought over-and-over again this is too fast, this is too fast. I was feeling too good; this can’t last, I told myself. I didn’t feel like I had been running for 14 hours. How can I have felt so wretched at seven hours, yet so strong now? The pace didn’t let up. I was running for home. Red Pike, Steeple and Pillar swept by. The ascent of Kirk Fell was enjoyable. Great Gable looked menacing but proved manageable. I pushed again, running comfortably off Green Gable and onto Brandreth and Grey Knotts. I can scarcely remember a time when I have run with such focus. If there is such a thing as the ‘zone’ in running, I was there.
I glided down to Honister, carried on a wave of euphoria. ‘Slow down,’ I could hear Duncan shouting from the car park. We had completed leg 4 in a blistering 3.50, far quicker than expected. Duncan wasn’t shouting because he feared for my legs on the descent; he was shouting sarcastically because he knew that I could now plausibly dip under his time of 19.32.
I left Honister knowing I had to run a time of around two hours, 10 minutes for leg 5 if I were to match Duncan. It was possible, but extremely challenging. Billy Bland, who holds the record for the all-time fastest Bob Graham round, only ran one hour and 51 minutes for this leg. Time didn’t matter, but, at these moments, it seemed my life depended on it. Any runner on a Bob Graham round needs motivation and if my motivation was to break a friend’s time, then so be it. Nor were Adam, Duncan and Robin – who were now all running with me – attempting to dissuade me from this goal. After 753-metre Dale Head, came our ‘test of manliness': to run from the col between Dale Head and Hindscarth to the latter summit without submitting to walking. I passed – just. It was hard not to with three people urging me on, insisting I keep running.
Concentrating on the ‘test of manliness’ to Hindscarth, with Adam in close proximity.
We plunged down the grassy slopes of Hindscarth before beginning my final climb to Robinson, hill number 42. On the top, Duncan gestured to the south and east. ‘Look at these hills; you own them,’ he bellowed into the wind. Touching the cairn, I fled downhill, with the others soon surging past to alert me to the optimum line to reach the path above Scope Beck. Once on road, I immediately swapped my footwear to road shoes that the others had carried since Honister. The road sloped down at first towards Little Town and we were flying with alarming speed. ‘We’re running six-minute mile pace,’ I hollered in disbelief at my supporters.
The road to Keswick
I ran hard for Keswick, thinking about time but not agonising about it. I had smashed 24 hours; that was certain. While running the Helvellyn range I’d have settled for 23. Even at Wasdale I was only on 21 -hourpace. Now – barring disaster – I was going to run inside 20 hours. Every minute beneath that milestone would be a bonus. I was still running quickly – even on the off-road sections and modest hills – to Portinscale, a mile or so from Keswick, but I was feeling increasingly faint and dizzy. Adam pushed three Jaffa cakes into my palm, urging me to eat. There was no collapse, no aforementioned disaster, but my pace had slowed inexorably, enough for me to realise that I would either match Duncan’s time or be seconds outside it. It would be the latter. Rallied by my three pacers, I surged up Market Street, the most glorious of sprint finishes, and clambered up the stone steps of the Moot Hall. After 19 hours and 33 minutes of non-stop effort I could stop. I slumped over the green railings of the Moot Hall, shell-shocked, exhausted, elated. It was done.