Why we go to the hills… and how to join us

Some years ago I was running in the Eastern Fells of the Lake District. As I descended a mountain called High Street, I passed a walker. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ he shouted incredulously into the breeze. I smiled. Encumbered by boots and bag, I wondered the same: How do you do it?

I know what you might be thinking: you are with the walker on this one. Running is hard enough. Why increase the struggle by adding hills and mountains? The prospect is absurd. Nonetheless, hear me out.

I was a walker once. When I first started going to high places, Continue reading


The unpredictable art of running blogging

I have been blogging for some years. I was a writer and journalist first. My original purpose was to support the publication of my first book, Heights of Madness, and my second and third books thereafter. Over time, graduated into a running blog – a blog that last week pleasingly surpassed 50,000 visits. Writing permits self-expression, reflection and can be a carthotic process, but writers also write to be read. As I tell my students, writing is meant to be read. Writing must have an audience. Writing must provoke a response.

What is always surprising, however, is what people want to read and what becomes popular. Every blogger will empathise with the time you spent hours crafting the apparently perfect blog, adorned with beautiful images and scrupulously edited, only for very few people to engage with your masterpiece. And then there is the blog that you knocked into shape in 10 minutes while on the bus or the train from somewhere to somewhere that racks up hundreds of visits.

What I have learnt about blogging, particularly in the overcrowded market of running blogging, is that if you don’t shout, no-one will listen. The most successful blog posts – and I certainly don’t mean the best written, most interesting or most entertaining – stem from exposure, be it on social media or the traditional media. The cream does not always rise to the top.

To mark 50,000 visits for and in the spirit of if-you-don’t-blow-your-own-trumpet-you-don’t-get-anywhere these are my most visited blog posts.

1. ‘I was there…’ Marking 125 years of Herne Hill Harriers


2. ‘Do you want beans with that?’ A tribute to Stan Allen

Stan Allen

3. Bob Graham Round – SUCCESS!


4. Overcoming adversity and adverse conditions at the Box Hill fell race

 Box Hill village

5. Mont Ventoux

The north side of Ventoux

6. Beachy Head Marathon 2011 – race report

Beachy Head

7. The Bob Graham Round as seen from the water-carrier’s corner


8. The madness of the ultra-distance runner


9. Isle of Jura Fell Race

The finish

10. Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014




The Bob Graham Round: as seen from the water-carrier’s corner

High above, the jagged, dark silhouette of Blencathra decorated an oppressive sky. There were no stars. An incessant rain pounded the car roof. We fretted. Marc and Nayth (and their water-carriers) had left Moot Hall at midnight. Time was winning. Blundering off Skiddaw, the fivesome had been bamboozled by what is elemental in daylight. Time seized her moment.

A star came out. A yellow, blinking beam. Then another. And another, until we could count five precious beacons. They were descending Halls Fell, presumably slick and slippery with water. Slowly, the stars brightened, gingerly descended Halls Fell, swept across a mountainside, and plunged down a road until they were shining in our faces.

You do not run on the Bob Graham Round. You do not walk. You move. And if you keep moving, keep progressing, keep going, Time will relinquish her willing grip. And that is all a Bob Graham pacer – call us what you will: water-carrier, mule, motivator, navigator, force-feeder, split-taker – can ask from those he paces. Just keep moving. We – Marc, Nayth and two new water-carriers – kept moving into the dawn, relentlessly up and up and up Clough Head, over the trio of Dodds towards Helvellyn. Nothing happened, but nothing is what you desire. Something is what you fear. We were descending in clag when my right foot clung to a boulder. I was in the air. I was skidding on a carpet of rocks. I sensed the others freezing. Dread. The moment, the something, the horribly unplanned that can ruin everything. ‘I think I’m okay,’ I said breathlessly. There was blood, grazes and throbbing, but it was not that moment. We resumed movement.

Fairfield. A towering monument to hardness. We slogged up, zigzagging through scree, tapped the summit and escaped to Seat Sandal. A ripple of applause greeted the runners at Dunmail Raise. Time’s grip was loosening. Steel Fell beckoned. We climbed forever. Leg three stretches implausibly far. Wasdale was the objective, six hours away. Nayth and Marc kept moving. I know what you are thinking, I thought. You are hating this. You are wondering why you are here. You do not believe you can do this. You can, I wanted to shout, but the epiphany of belief, of wondrous realisation was theirs to accomplish.

Once on Bowfell, Great End, Scafell Pike, Broad Stand and Scafell gathered menacingly. Leg three was transformed. Gone were the bogs and tussocks; rocks rule here. The pounding takes its toll. Marc and Nayth kept moving. They paused momentarily on summits to record a split before they moved off. Scafell Pike was heaving. ‘You’re nearly there,’ a walker remarked. They weren’t.

Broad Stand gesticulated. Ropes had been strung along the wall. One-by-one we were ferried upwards, three of the four of us non-climbers. Marc howled as cramp seized a leg as he hoisted himself away from the hideous ledge that Coleridge knew a fall would have ‘of course killed’ him. I went up last, flapping and flailing tired arms and legs in unpretty fashion. It was emotionally exhausting. My knees throbbed. Above was a great staircase of vast ledges and boulders, and further up the summit of Scafell. The descent to Wasdale is the longest of the round: a steep wall of rubble and grass, a sweeping moor, a scree shoot, a murderously sharp field, a wade through a gushing white river, a meandering footpath to the National Trust car park. Marc and Nayth’s support crew were waiting, a feast laid out. My job was done. I stopped. I had spent 10 hours on the fells, covering some 28 miles. The relief was crushing; I could have cried. Slowly but surely, the water-carriers had helped Marc and Nayth claw back Time. They were on course to finish in 23-and-a-half hours, having drifted outside 24-hour pace in leg one. They just had to keep moving. I watched Nayth vomit profusely as he left the car park and craned my neck skywards as the group processed up Yewbarrow. Momentarily, 45 minutes later, they were silhouetted on the skyline, then they were gone, swallowed by Yewbarrow. I got into a sun-baked car and closed my eyes.

The silhouetted stars reappeared four hours later, scuttling into Honister. Marc ran past like he was finishing a 10k. Dangerous thoughts had been racing through my mind since my Yewbarrow-gazing. I was going to run again, run leg five from Honister back to the Moot Hall in Keswick. I couldn’t not be part of this.

A pack surged up Dale Head. What belief does to a man. Marc and Nayth, in particular, believed. Their stride and their body language expressed the decisive compulsion of a human who is going to complete a Bob Graham round. There was magic in the air in those hours. Dusk began to fall as we bounded off Dale Head. Mountains gradually faded into the sky. Rain began, rain that I have never minded less. Marc and Nayth embraced on Robinson, summit number 42. Nayth’s mother – who had run with us from Honister – was overwhelmed with enthusiastic pride. Time, of course, would not stop. We had to keep moving. The hills were still and silent; Hindscarth appeared impossibly vast from the west. Keswick was a bright smudge. Marc shuffled down Robinson, a man who did not seem able to bend his legs any longer. Darkness. We were stars again: seven headtorches inching closer to the steps of the Moot Hall with every step, every shuffle, every movement. Rain fell harder. Little was said. Water-carriers burst forward to open gates. It was very dark. Time had slipped beyond 11pm. ‘How far?’ Nayth asked. ‘Not far,’ I replied, knowing that after 65 miles, a step can be too far.

We were in Keswick, over the river, over the roundabout, past the shops. The Market Square was ahead. Cigarette smoke wafted across the road. Scafell Pike walker, they were ‘nearly there’. At 11.21pm, Marc and Nayth scaled the last two metres of the Bob Graham round and stood atop the stone staircase of the Moot Hall. Relief. Joy. Disbelief. Time stopped. She had been defeated.









Fell running and the Langdale Horseshoe: leaving behind the contrived world

There was no warning. I had hurtled downhill off the rough roof of Thunacar Knott and as I approached Martcrag Moor, the ground, previously solid, became liquid.


I began to disappear. Calves gone. Knees gone. Thighs gone. Waist gone. Gasping, a thousand thoughts a moment, body flailing forward, legs scrambling for traction. Swimming, wriggling, groping.

Wooomph! The bog released me.

When was the last time I had inelegantly wallowed waist-deep in a bog, I mused as I resumed my hurtle on an indistinct and sodden track, now to the outflow of Angle Tarn. That was it. Hell Down South, November 2010. I waded through the ironically-named Bog of Doom, a 100-metre or so long trench of brown water. Since a bog – to be pedantic – is an area of ground too soft to support significant weight, the Bog of Doom is not even a bog. The process, therefore, of passing through the Bog of Doom is as contrived as Peter Andre tombstone piledriving Kim Kardashian at WrestleMania XXX.

There lies the magic of fell running: a sport that does not need gimmick or invention, the very antithesis of contrived. The sport is a rebel with a cause – a cause of dismissing the average, the norm, the constriction of health and safety.

A rush and a surge, and a field of 400 competitors in the annual Langdale Horseshoe fell race in the Lake District are running, spilling east on a track, before turning sharply up an ever-climbing path to Stickle Tarn. The steepest sections are walked, with the runners’ gait  becoming long and determined, the shoulders hunched. I look up, then glance down. An unending snake of colourful runners. The navy and green of Ambleside, the purple of Borrowdale, the turquoise of Helm Hill, the brown of Dark Peak. It is utterly beautiful.

Runners soon after the start

The rules of the race are simple. Start at Langdale. Visit six checkpoints among the Central and Southern Fells. Finish at Langdale. How the runner gets from checkpoint to checkpoint is their business, for the route is gloriously unmarked.

To call myself a fell runner would be an insult to other fell runners. While I may be the 1837th member of the Bob Graham Club, having scaled 42 Lakeland peaks, covering 66 miles and ascending 28,000ft in the process, in under 24 hours, when racing at Pendle in April, I – a Birmingham-born London-dweller – had never felt more foreign anywhere in the UK.

My forays to the Lake District are fleeting. Fleeting and precious. My running world is south London and predominately the streets of Croydon, Streatham and Tooting: roads, pavements, paths around parks, tartan track. A world away from the rough and ready moors and mountains.

Yet the first half of the Langdale Horseshoe suited the southerner: the ground, apart from Martcrag Moor, was firm; there were trods and generous paths; the gradients were moderate. At the Esk Hause checkpoint – a glamorous term for a man with a piece of paper – the racing route turned sharply south-east on a route that even the notes on the map described as ‘dreadful but right’. A real fell runner would scoff at my indifference as I cursed and blundered my way along the ‘dreadful’ route. A path, yes, but a path on a wicked camber, over sodden ground, rarely flat and littered with rocks.


Bowfell – England’s sixth highest mountain and the zenith of our pursuits – beckoned, its head lost in mist. As I descended, the mist lifted, revealing the rolling madness of the exquisitely-named Crinkle Crags. While others skirted the ridge, I stayed high, running solo; for a few minutes this was my mountain alone. On Crinkle Crags lurks the Bad Step, a 10ft rock scramble that is easier to go up than down. ‘Leap onto a walker or climb down with care,’ the map advises. I plunged down inelegantly, before a glorious, on-the-limits-of-control rush downhill to the lower slopes of Pike of Blisco, on top of which was the final checkpoint. I resume my climbing stoop and I am soon there, blinking in the wind. It is all downhill from here.

We – a man in a Bingley vest and I – had been running downhill for two or three minutes, taking turns to lead, hurdling grass tussocks, veering past rock outcrops, squelching through bog.

‘Do you know the way?’ I asked.


A pause.

‘Do you?’


We blundered on. You are are wearing a Bingley vest. You are from the north. You are virtually local. How can you not know the way?

‘The map?’ I shouted back. He shook his head. So did I.

We blundered on. Maps remained folded in our respective bags. My earlier comments on the map’s contents are merely in hindsight.

Above a crag, we paused. We looked around, scoured the mountainside. In a race of almost 400, there was only Bingley and I, as well as two fools who had blindly followed our tracks. We had not found a short cut.

It should have been all downhill from Pike of Blisco. We climbed, contoured and sweated over long grass, before the race route – marked by a drawn-out line of plummeting humans – reappeared. Now it really was down, down, down, and sprinting along the road to the finish, I stole a glance right at Bowfell and Crinkle Crags, intoxicated by the knowledge that I was up there only minutes ago.

Jonny descending

The next day, before catching a train back to London, four of us – all members of the Bob Graham Club – ran into the Howgills from Sedbergh, chasing each other to the top of Calf Top. The train home was shockingly fast. In what seemed like moments, I had gone from running in the empty Howgills, gazing across grey skies and green hills, to riding a swaying, cramped and angry (and a hundred other awful adjectives) bus from Brixton to Streatham. I could have wept. I was back in a contrived world.

A version of this article also appears on the SportPursuit website.


The travails of a soft southerner in the Lake District

It had all started rather well. I was running in fifth place in the Lowther Trail Run, ticking along nicely. I could not believe my luck. Despite not having raced for three months, with much of that time lost to injury, I was climbing well, descending reasonably and moving purposefully on trail. Entering mile six of 13, I was confident of sustaining my place and pace. I swept through a gap in a stone wall and a moment later I was on the ground. My right ankle had taken a shuddering twist on some unknown obstacle. Adrenaline forced me immediately to my feet and I attempted to put weight on the ankle. A sharp pain. I sat down again, watching five or six runners flood past. I got up, hobbled a couple of steps and turned to face oncoming runners with the intention of walking back along the course to a nearby road crossing. My race was over. There was no need to manfully continue simply for the sake of it. I am long past racing when injured or ill. As quickly as I decided to abandon, I changed my mind, and blundered down a grassy bank. I did not continue out of foolish pride. I continued because I pragmatically thought I could run the pain off. The ankle was sore for a couple of miles, particularly on downhill sections or on tussock moor. But soon I was climbing well again and tapping out a fair pace for miles nine to 13, despite not having run these distances since mid-June. I obsessed about catching the runner in front, some 60 seconds ahead. Slowly, he came back to me; I caught him and moved 20 or so metres ahead, only for the final hill to intervene. I relinquished my hard-fought ninth place and sprinted into Lowther Castle the last of the top-10. I have a long way to go before I regain where I was in the early part of 2013 (and surpass that level), but a time a shade over one hour, 40 minutes for 13.3 miles of trail with 1400ft of ascent – not to mention that had I kept my feet (and not had a tennis ball of a swelling on my ankle today) things would have looked rosier – is not a bad place to begin.

Results are here. I was 11th, it transpired, not 10th.



Losing my innocence on Wainwrights’ fells

It was a late-October day in 2003 when I climbed my first Wainwright fell. Not that I knew at the time. Not that I cared. I was among a group of five university friends, who – without the benefit of a map – had crawled up the side of Lingmell. I forged ahead and summited alone, unwittingly claiming fell number one. I gained a second minutes later, Scafell Pike, the roof of England. I remember turning at the sound of a great roar, glimpsing a jet flashing through Wasdale far beneath my feet. That night, after thundering south along the M6, I painted my face green and celebrated Hallowe’en in Preston.

What has happened since?

I have become a fell-bagging monster, that’s what.

What started out as pure, innocent and innocuous, and an excuse to miss lectures, has become a determined pursuit to conquer each of Wainwright’s 214 arbitrary bumps.

After two months of teetering nervously on 98, I became a centurion on Bonscale Pike, an attractive hill overlooking Ullswater that I had not heard of 24 hours prior to cresting. Nor – in all likelihood – would I ever have gone there were it not for the taint of Wainwright. Thereafter, a run south over the High Street ridge on one of those astonishingly beautiful Lake District days took my total to 105. I’ve come too far to turn back; I will complete. And because running in the fells means 10 or more can be bagged easily on a single excursion, if I put my mind and body to it, I won’t have to wait too long.

The numbers do not tell the full story, however; I cannot escape the feeling that I am missing something. Pausing on High Raise, I looked across at the hills of the Kentmere Horseshoe and the less-dignified summits to the east. I had run over these in February, yet the names escaped me. It was only when I looked at the map (I know, I’m even carrying a map these days), I recalled Branstree, Selside Pike and Harter Fell. I had been to these places in body but clearly not in spirit. Once visited, I had simply forgotten them, cast them off, turning my eyes to another summit, another tick.

I continued to the highest point of the day and proceeded along the path that skirts the very top of High Street, several metres below the trig pillar. It didn’t occur to me to summit. Sitting here now, in London, I’m bemused by my behaviour. I’d been here in February and in previous years; I’d no need to visit again. That was my ill-sighted logic. I went to the zenith of Stony Cove Pike, of course; it was my first visit. Another mental tick. As I descended Hartsop Dodd, I wasn’t reflecting on what I’d done, more on what I hadn’t. There were still six Far Eastern Fells missing from my resume, with Place Fell the most conspicuous. The fell-bagging monster was planning the next run before the current one had been concluded. What would Wainwright have thought? I’d even used Wikipedia to assist in the identification of the top of Bonscale Pike.

I miss the days when I knew nothing and every summit was a moment of pleasure, a glistening achievement, not just a tick on a list.






The madness of the ultra distance runner

‘Busy weekend?’ the Friday conversation goes.

‘I’m going to Jurassic Encounter Adventure Golf at New Malden on Saturday, then, on Sunday, I’ll run…’

‘How far?’

Sharp intake of breath. ‘Forty…’



I’ve had this conversation many times over the years. Or certainly words to this effect, as this will be my first visit to Jurassic Encounter Adventure Golf, which, judging by a website that roars at me every 20 seconds or so, looks ridiculous in comparison to the notion of running 40 miles.

Mad is the typical, thoughtless adjective my listener selects. You shouldn’t have asked the question then, I think; you know I run. One such conversation led to a colleague insisting I cease running because of my ‘knees’. Every time she sees me in my shorts, I sense her inwardly tutting at my imminent knee destruction. MY KNEES ARE FINE, I want to shout; in fact, apart from a drinking accident at university, my knees have remained injury-free in close to 20 years of running.

I’m not mad.

As I write, competitors in the Grand Union Canal Race are shuffling 145 miles from Birmingham to London. One of their number, Mimi Anderson, has already run the race route in reverse to get to the start line. Should she get back to London (on foot and in one piece), she’ll have run 290 miles. The numbers are mind-boggling. There are 89 poor souls out there.

As I write, racers in the Hardmoors 110 event have been running for more than 12 hours through the night, following the Cleveland Way in Northumberland. The cut-off time limit is 36 hours and to be an ‘unsupported’ runner you must have completed a race of the ilk of the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc, the Lakeland 100 or the West Highland Way.

As I write, 1000 athletes (an incredible number if that’s the case) are leaving Richmond as they begin the 60-mile London to Brighton Challenge. It’s not the Cleveland Way, but the North and South Downs stand between them and the sea.

As I write, there are runners in the Lake District attempting to crack the 24-hour, 42-summit, 66-mile Bob Graham Round. They started at 1am and I imagine they are somewhere high on the Helvellyn range, perhaps gliding along in the glory of a Lakeland morning, perhaps struggling and cursing their own ambition. They literally have Everest to climb.

As I write, runners will be emerging from their tents on the Hebridean island of Jura. I wish them no midges. They will look skyward at the three glorious Paps – if the weather allows – over which they will later run as part of a 16-mile loop from the island capital.

GUCR, Hardmoors 110, London to Brighton, Jura. And people say I am mad. Madness – and I don’t mean this in the genuinely mentally unhinged way – is relative, of course. There is always someone madder. One person’s madness is another person’s mundane. Step forward Mimi Anderson. Step forward the Bob Graham runner who isn’t happy with 42 peaks in 24 hours; he must claim 50 or 60. Step forward the Jura mentalists who will today seek to gallop up and down thousands of feet of loose, ankle-jarring scree in three hours. It’s not an exaggeration to say they all risk their lives in their particular pursuits. But then isn’t that a prerequisite of madness?

I sought to explain this obsessional need in Heights of Madness, my first book about cycling and walking 5000 miles between the UK’s 92 traditional county tops. I tried to explain how failing to meet arbitrary daily targets, set by myself, for no-one else and for no deadline, such as climbing a Munro, cycling 60 miles, camping, eating, reading a map, being warm, being safe, simply surviving, must be achieved or I would be reduced to a depressed wreck guzzling chocolate biscuits in my tent. I still struggle to fathom that level of obsession, despite having been the obsessive. I do not know what drives Mimi Anderson. Does she know herself? Perhaps, like me, when she woke up, she thought: My legs really hurt, but I said I was going to run to London today, so that is what I am going to do. I will stop when I get there.

Tomorrow, I will run a seventh of the distance Mimi Anderson will cover this weekend: 40 miles (or thereabouts) from Newhaven to East Grinstead, following the Vanguard Way, as I prepare for my own piece of madness in three weeks time. If this makes me mad, then several hundred ultra-runners will have to be sectioned on Monday morning.

You know who is really mad? To use a playground taunt: what you say is what you are. Those are the people who are mad. Those who haven’t felt the wind grip them on Helvellyn. Those who haven’t seen dawn rise across the North York Moors. Those who haven’t snatched a breathless view from the summit of a Jura Pap.

Those who haven’t dared to dream about where madness could take them.

Running the Bob Graham

Pendle Fell Race 2013 – race report

It is the taking part that counts, isn’t it? Discounting the Box Hill Fell Race, it has been a while since I have run a proper hill or fell race. It showed. I was 66th at today’s Pendle Fell Race in Lancashire, a long way back from the action at the front. I should not be surprised. Sydenham Hill or South Norwood Hill in south London simply cannot prepare the runner for challenges of the ilk of Pendle.

I got a terrible start. The organisers were pushing runners back to a start sign, only to start the race from further up the road in Barley, leaving me stuck behind a couple of hundred of folk. After weaving my way through traffic up to and around Ogden Reservoir, we were soon on open hillside, running uphill. My thoughts turned to weakness: when can I walk? Soon, it turned out. The marked race route was runnable, but few were running, so I joined the procession of determined walkers. The summit was in sight when the route plunged down Pendle’s eastern face, before climbing very steeply to the trig pillar. A long, colourful single-file line stretched ahead and behind; it was beautiful in a masochistic kind of way.

Getting down was the easy part. The slope was moderate, the ground predominately dry. I did not time the ascent, but it cannot have lasted more than 12 minutes. I walked back to where I had parked my car, in a layby offering an uninterrupted view of Pendle and the track I had raced along to the finish. The photograph below is that vista. Runners were pouring in, racing downhill, geed on by muffled shouts. I could see some on the very top of Pendle, stick figures silhouetted against the sky. It was a sky that was a sensational blue, sharpening the green and brown edges of Pendle. Meanwhile, the hill’s crevices cradled the last of the winter snow. Not for the first time I could see only beauty. Beauty in this sport and beauty in the places this sport brings us.

Full results here.


Finding the motivation to run

If I refused to run every time I did not feel like it, I would never run. Never is an exaggeration, of course, but finding the motivation to run is a constant challenge. Rarely more so than yesterday. I had been running 20 minutes since leaving Kirkstone Pass, the high level route linking Ambleside and Patterdale. I say ‘running’. I had only been actually running for about two minutes, such is the steepness of the ascent to Red Screes. I was cold. I had not eaten enough. I was tired. I had got myself in bother on some snow after losing the path. My conclusion? Knock this on the head. Head back to Kirkstone Pass. Turn around. My thoughts were flooded with conflict. You live in London, you’re not here very often, make the best of it, get on with it.

The good thing about the Lake District is that the hills come quickly, however. As soon as I had extricated myself from potential difficulties on snow, I could see the summit of Red Screes. Thereafter, this would not to be the most glamorous of runs, albeit prettily adorned by snow. First I went out and back to Middle Dodd, then, after dipping into Scandale Pass, gained a third Wainwright of Little Hart Crag, before another out and back to High Hartsop Dodd. It takes discipline to do these out and backs. Nor is there much logic to this practice, although I can see why High Hartsop Dodd – a bump on a grassy ridge with a lovely view – is a Wainwright.

I still felt cold, hungry and – frankly – rather unwell, but I persevered. I had now gone too far to turn back; the end was nearer than the start. Dove Crag was an innocuous lump; I had to check with a walker that this was indeed Dove Crag. Hart Crag was more impressive, Fairfield, the highest point of the day, even more so. Fairfield will always represent a personal psychological barrier; it was here that my Bob Graham round came close to capitulating. The mountain gods did not want me here today. The wind was ferocious, picking up crystals of snow and flinging them in my face. I wandered over the lip of Fairfield, glanced at Seat Sandal, before the wind called time and hurled me in the direction of Great Rigg.

The ridge over Great Rigg, Heron Pike and Nab Scar had looked runnable and kind from Dove Crag, and so it proved: with Windermere ahead and the Coniston fells dominant slightly to the right, this is some of the finest mountain running terrain in Lakeland. A mile of road running took me to Ambleside, the culmination of three hours, 12 miles and 10 Wainwrights. I still felt all the things I had on the climb of Red Screes – and worse. Was it worth it? Should I have turned back? I glanced north to Fairfield and traced the undulating ridge south to Nab Scar. I smiled at the thought that less than an hour ago I had been up there and now I was down here. It was definitely worth it. It is always worth it.

20130404-221328.jpgKirkstone Pass

20130404-221419.jpgHigh Hartsop Dodd


Ultrarunning: eliminating the ‘poison’ of doubt

Not a day has elapsed since June 3, 2012, when I haven’t reflected on the events of those 24 hours: a successful Bob Graham Round, all 42 peaks, 66 miles and some 27,000ft of it. I am continually inspired by what happened that day, imbuing a (so far) life-long sense of if-I-can-do-the-Bob-Graham, I can do anything. But, as time passes, my reflections seek clarity and depth on not just what happened, but how, and therefore, why, it happened. The necessary physical preparation is a given. What had continued to puzzle me is how I had felt wretched for the first 10 hours of my attempt, but wonderful for the next nine-and-a-half. I think I’ve finally found the solution, courtesy of Matthew Syed’s Bounce, a book which has long been on shelves but is a new personal discovery. Ruthless self-belief and the eradication of doubt are the intrinsic ingredients for success, he argues.

The biggest transition on my round was mental, not physical. Three weeks before my effort, a niggle developed on an ankle. I stopped running. Doubt emerged. I obsessed about the injury. Doubt grew. I decided to attempt nonetheless. I paced up Skiddaw in the dark doubtfully. I descended Blencathra in pain. Doubt magnified horribly. I was utterly miserable as I ran across the Helvellyn range. I wanted to give up on Fairfield. I told my pacer so: ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ I felt no better on Steel Fell. The same thought: I can’t do this.

Then, something happened: a surge of positivity. I had suddenly gone too far not to succeed. A switch had been flicked. The change was purely emotional. After all, how can the physical state improve after 10 hours of punishment? I realise now that I had choices: to be doubtful or not. I didn’t give myself that choice in the first half of the attempt; nor did I give myself a choice in the second. Once I’d make that choice, the effect was dramatic: I was happier, more awake, more alert. The result? Running simply hurt less. I never realised the mind could be so powerful. For hours – as Syed notes – doubt had been my ‘poison’. ‘No man indulges his inner scepticism. That is the logic of sports psychology,’ Syed explains. I had indulged my inner scepticism to a three-course meal. Perhaps I should have read Bounce last spring? I don’t think it would have helped. I had to work it out for myself.

Syed goes on: ‘Progress is made by ignoring the evidence: it is about creating a mindset that is immune to doubt and uncertainty.’ My progress once doubt had been expelled was stunning. I ran with an assurance that I long to re-capture. I was utterly convinced in my own personal success. Maybe I’m stating the obvious? Of course, achievement is linked to the elimination of basic human doubts and insecurities. Understanding such a concept is the tip of the iceberg, however; putting this into practice is the challenge. That is the greatest lesson I could have learned from running 66 miles.

Dunmail Raise



Mountain travel: why running trumps walking

I can’t remember the last time I went to the mountains to go for a walk. The idea is absurd. Why walk when you can run? As I descended (a running descent!) to the Nan Bield Pass in the Far Eastern Fells of the Lake District, a walker going up remarked: ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ Encumbered by boots and bag, I wondered the same: How do you do it?

The joy of running is found in its simplicity; take running to the mountains and that joy multiplies. It never used to be like this. When I first started going to the lofty lands, it was to walk, never to run. Had I seen a mountain runner, I’d have been as incredulous as the walker had been. Despite always being a runner and a marathoner at 18, I hadn’t linked the concept of running and mountains. Now I can’t separate the two. Everything changed when I ran the Snowdon race in the mid-2000s: my mountain running epiphany. The race hadn’t felt too bad; I’d run most of the way; the adrenaline rush upon summiting had been Amazon-like in its surge, far greater than anything mere walking could conceive; the ability to go from top to bottom in half an hour was a revelation. Thereafter, mountains and running became indivisible.

When runners look at maps, the possibilities become endless. That’s how it seemed on Sunday night when I stuck my finger on Kentmere and pondered. The eponymous horseshoe was the starting point only, the framework, part of something, not the whole of it. Fast forward 12 hours and I was running to Garburn Pass. At the top, I turned left to Sallows, before retracing my steps back across the pass and on to Yoke. Sallows? Yoke? They sound like the latest fad in baby names; they are mountains. It was a day normally only imagination can conjure: still, snowy, silent. To the west was a cloud inversion, out of which the Scafells peeped inquisitively. Over Yoke, Ill Bell and Froswick I went, mesmerised, inspired. I left the summit of Froswick at the same time as a walker. I looked back as I neared Thornthwaite Crag; he was still on the descent, already many minutes behind. Ahead, High Street was deserted and magnificent.

The twist of the horseshoe came on Harter Fell. Why continue to Kentmere Pike when there are hills to be explored to the east? Branstree and Selside Pike were accomplished; Tarn Crag and Grey Crag next in line. Here the running was punishment. The hills were seemingly pathless and under snow. If I was lucky, I could skim across the surface of frozen snow. If I was unlucky – and I was increasingly so – my feet would plunge through the crust to wet snow and mush beneath. There was worse to come: between Tarn Crag and Grey Crag I ran in fear of falling into disguised frozen tarns, well aware of the consequences of such ill-fortune.

Fortunately, the runner can quickly escape adversity and trouble. They can also rediscover adversity rather too easily, as I did on the long ascent to Kentmere Pike where every step broke the crust. It was relentlessly hard. The top seemed remote, but the momentum of running, of perpetual motion, forces you on; there is a reluctance to pause for anything more than a moment. The result is that very soon you are there. The view from the summit was wondrous. I ran downhill, through Shipman Knotts, my 14th Wainwright of a six-hour, 22-mile day, into the late-afternoon chill of the now-shaded Kentmere valley. I jogged through empty lanes, exultant and awed, yet devastated it was over.








Overcoming adversity and adverse conditions at the Box Hill Fell Race 2013

The 2013 edition of the Box Hill Fell Race was a treacherous affair, ran in conditions that can only be described as adverse. Snow had fallen the previous day, so much snow that parts of the ground were no longer visible. In some areas, the ground was covered by as much as two inches of snow. Overnight, the temperature had plunged and plummeted to at least -1C. We were in the grip of the Beast from the East. The race should have been cancelled, of course. To persevere was nonsense. Close our schools! Ground our aeroplanes! Shut our roads! Box Hill Fell Race, how dare you assume you can beat the big freeze, the cold snap, the English weather. Extreme care, that should be the motto of the English.

Despite the bitterly cold, Arctic conditions, the race was definitely on, the organisers stoically insisted, and so some 200 fools assembled at the foot of the towering peak that is Box Hill to bravely face conditions that were treacherous and severe, and almost certainly adverse. We were sent on our way. No kit inspection. What if someone neglected to pack an extra jumper? Hypothermia would soon set in. What if someone hadn’t fully charged their mobile phone? How would they cope, lost and hopeless, in the vast, snowy, adverse recesses of Box Hill? What if someone wasn’t carrying a full complement of plasters. How would they ever mend their broken leg? I carried nothing but my common sense.

The risk of slips and trips was high as we proceeded up an icy glacier, the reckless and scantily clad moving to the front. Upon reaching the highest point of the climb, we descended the notoriously steep south face of Box Hill above Dorking. Down there, people were being sensible: reading the Daily Mail, checking on elderly neighbours and not travelling unless absolutely essential. Our route, unbelievably, had not been gritted. There was a high probability of fall. Conditions were increasingly treacherous. Pesky tobaggoners (tabogganists?) had smoothed the surface. Were I prone to hyperbole and metaphor, I would say the slope was an ice rink, a pane of glass; let’s just say it was extremely slippery. You’d have thought someone would have stopped to help, given me their arm and assurance. But, no, the hooligans hurtled past, leaving the doddering descender to his fate. It was treacherous.

Conditions on the rest of the course can only be described as severe, treacherous and, at times, hazardous. At one point, the route passed through a forest on a cambering path. Yes, I suppose it was pretty, but an adverse camber in adverse weather? Highly dangerous. The risk of slipping was considerable. The organisers will pay for their recklessness if I fall, I thought. No win, no fee – one of those. The south face was not an anomaly;  not one part of the course was gritted, even the major routes. The end drew near, but first there was one more (ungritted, undoubtedly adverse and treacherous) downhill stretch to the finish line. The risk of falling over and making a fool of myself was very high, as was the potential of being mown down by a 10-year-old on a toboggan. Treacherous, severe and very, very adverse, it is a wonder I made it to the end.

Those very important results are here.

Box Hill