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Not another kit review: an appreciation of the OMM Ultra 15 rucksack

This is just a note to say thank you.

I have never told you how much you mean to me. Until now.

I did not want you at first. All those years ago, when I first saw you – in the flesh, not just in those glossy pictures on the web that I couldn’t stop gazing at – I was not sure. I didn’t know then that I needed you. I went away. I left you. But I never stopped thinking about you. I was young and indecisive. I came back. I realised you were worth it.

You were now mine, and, together, we grew. Continue reading

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Running. What’s the point? Strava, of course.

Iain Whiteside was running. What was Whiteside thinking about when he was running? Strava, of course. ‘I realised I had spent the previous 30 minutes thinking about what I was going to name this run,’ he admitted. Whiteside stopped running. He was on Braid Hill in Edinburgh. Inspiration came to him: ‘At a standstill on Braid Hill,’ he would later write on his Strava feed. Literally.

For Whiteside, the Braid Hill moment was the second part of an epiphany. The first half came in a Keswick café after an attempt on a winter Bob Graham round had floundered in deep snow at the Back o’Skiddaw. Continue reading

Jonny and Arielle at the Tooting Bec track

The daddy of all compromises: trying to be a father and a runner

The essence of Nick Hornby’s biographical Fever Pitch is that Arsenal is the author’s constant in life. Amid the flux of education, work and relationships, happiness, sadness and indifference, Arsenal and football remain resilient to the vagaries of life. Come what may, for Hornby, it is Arsenal yesterday, Arsenal today and Arsenal tomorrow. The love is timeless and unconditional.

For Hornby, read me. For Arsenal, read running. I have run up clag-shrouded mountains in the western Highlands, pounded pavements in every British village, town and city I have ever visited, persevered non-stop for 19 hours in the hills of the Lake District, jogged 41 miles around a sweltering London in pursuit of the summits of the capital’s inner boroughs, raced horses in mid-Wales, grown dizzy circling a track in Tooting Bec, trudged through the mud of Parliament Hill, become hypothermic at Tough Guy, and been out-sprinted by a Womble in the London Marathon.

There have been life-changing runs. Winning runs. Inspiring runs. Good runs. Mediocre runs. Bad runs. Awful runs. Occasionally – very occasionally – I have felt like the hero in Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: ‘The first and last man on the world.’

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Running is my thread, the simplest of sports that links a scrawny 12-year-old boy on a cross country course in Worcestershire to a husband and father on today’s seven-mile run around the better bits of Croydon some 20 years later. I will always run. I will always be a runner. Life will always attempt to intervene, attempt to woo you and I into lethargy. School tried. University tried. Alcohol tried. Jobs tried. Girls tried. Triathlon threatened to seduce me. Injury glowered. The dreaded monster ‘work’ forever looms.

But the thread – at times twisted and stretched, tense and ravelled – endures. And it needs to; the temptation of an easier, different life – a non-running life – is ever-present.

There is something more devastating to the delicate thread of being a lifelong runner, however, than triathlon, injury and work.

A baby.

It happened 19 months ago: six pounds of helpless flesh and bone called Arielle that turned two lives – mine and my wife’s – into bafflement and exhaustion. A baby means you do not sleep. A baby disrupts the rhythm of a life you have spent decades moulding. A baby distorts your judgement.

It distorted mine. I stopped running.

Even at three months, my daughter preferred nocturnal living. One night – a night that was probably no worse than many others, but seems, in hindsight, a psychological turning point – I frantically wrote in a diary: ‘Fatherhood is hard, desperately hard. I struggle for one all-defining adjective as every day the reality is shaped differently. Compromise. That is the great battle of being a parent and a father. Where do your priorities lie? Pre-baby, I ran a lot. Not as much as some, but up to 60 miles per week. There is very little more important than our health. As clichéd as that sounds, you only have to glance across a street, office or train carriage, to realise how many people forget or ignore that. They are fat. They have given up. They are lazy. Yet fatherhood has deeply compromised my sport, my running. I wonder if it will forever. Get your priorities right, some might say. Baby comes first, not an inconsequential trip to the track or a 10-mile tempo. She does, of course, but then other parts of my life do not simply stop because of her existence. No parent should feel guilty about maintaining a sense of independence, should they? Yet I feel guilty for even intimating that my personal pursuits might – for some minutes or hours of a day – be more important than the upbringing of my daughter.’

I re-read the words in the morning, pausing over one sentence: ‘Other parts of my life do not simply stop because of her existence.’

I resumed running.

But I was a different brand of runner.

Over the previous two years, I had looked to far-flung challenges. After completing a 13-hour Fellsman in Yorkshire and a 19-hour Bob Graham Round in the Lake District within six weeks, I became the fastest person to run the 66-mile Vanguard Way a year later. My running trajectory was seemingly clear: ultramarathons in the South and North Downs, the West Highland Way Race, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.

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Not with a baby.

I would run, I decided, but I would be a reasoned runner. A clever, time-savvy runner. A faster runner. That meant no ultramarathons, no trips to the Alps and no 100-mile jaunts through the south of England.

I stopped looking beyond what was on my doorstep and considered what I had at my immediate disposal: an outstanding group of club mates at Herne Hill Harriers, access to one of the most competitive cross country leagues in England, numerous races within 30 minutes of home, countless runs that could start and finish at my front door, a commute to work of eight miles. I live in south London. We have parks and pavements. The hills are modest. I would be a road runner by necessity. I would focus on shorter distance by necessity. Most importantly, I was trying to find time: quality time to train consistently and most effectively.

In doing so, I became a better – for me, that means quicker – runner. I made an agreement with my wife. Tuesday night – for interval training – was mine; Thursday night was hers for whatever she chose. The arrangement was hallowed. I would get up early with the baby on Sundays while she had a lie-in; she would take over and I would run. The rest I would fit in when I could.

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Jonny and Arielle at the Tooting Bec track

Running with the buggy

In 2006, I quit my job to spend three months cycling and walking some 5000 miles around the UK, climbing the 92 traditional county summits, from Inverness-shire’s Ben Nevis to Huntingdonshire’s Boring Field. It was my obsession, as long self-propelled journeys must become. I would set daily targets: to climb the highest point in Derbyshire and cycle 50 miles, for instance. If I failed to meet the objective, I would almost be reduced to tears, torn apart by my frustration at failing to meet an arbitrary goal that meant nothing to anyone but me – even if weather, illness or bad luck had been the cause.

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I would adopt the better part of this philosophy to running, I decided. Not the obsessional lunacy of run at all costs, but a logical, rational assumption upon beginning a new day: today I will run. Once you have emotionally committed to this idea, made it possible and probable, time is found because time has to be found. I would run to work or run home, rather than taking train and tram. I would escape at lunchtime or – being a teacher – during a free period. I bought a running buggy; now my wife and I could run at the same time. (I once used the buggy to run up the zigzags of Box Hill). I would get up early. I would go to bed late. I told myself that there were two forms of tiredness: being tired from life’s demands and being tired from running. My energy to run came from a different source, I convinced myself. I would always find the required energy. I would never be too tired. I built a rigid, virtually unshakeable schedule into my week: Monday recovery, Tuesday intervals, Wednesday easy, Thursday hills, Friday easy, Saturday race or threshold, Sunday long. I became more efficient at everything as a result: I marked by books faster; I planned lessons more quickly; I answered emails with greater alacrity.

Such was the rigidity of training and life – aided by the dismissal of apathy and procrastination – I could run around 55 miles per week. I lowered my 10k time to 34.19, my 5k time to 16.28. I raced on the track for the first time in 15 years. I was not a bad father. I was a father who recognised his existence was not exchanged at birth with his daughter’s.

And so the thread stretches into a third decade. I can see it coiling ahead of me, up more mountains, along more pavement, around more parks. Although I cannot see the end, I glimpse a knot a little closer, another test to the strength of the thread.

Baby number two.

It will be hard. But I will find a way.

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Ten ways to find more time to run

  • Run commute. – You have got to go to work; you have got to get there. Kill the time you may have spent driving, on buses, trains or trams by running. The run commute can be recovery miles, a longer midweek run, a tempo or threshold session or include a series of hill repetitions.
  • Be ready to run. – Have running kit, shoes, a watch and whatever else you need – money, refreshment and so on – ready to go. I would have missed evening training sessions on numerous occasions had I not previously set out kit.
  • Do not procrastinate. – Do not worry about the weather, where you are going to go or whether you are adequately fed and watered. Just run.
  • Do not use the ‘too tired’ excuse. – Life is tiring, even more so with children. You will feel less tired after running.
  • Buy a running buggy. – They are not cheap and they are bulky, but they guarantee you time outside. The cost alone will make you feel guilty about not using it.
  • Be more efficient at everything. – If you need to find time for family and running, make time by being more efficient. Take a shorter lunch break, avoid time-wasting and become faster at mundane, everyday tasks.
  • Establish a routine. – Humans are creatures of habit. Make running an indelible part of your daily routine. You will run today. It is as simple as that. You find time for other things. Why not running?
  • Compromise. – Ensure your partner is explicitly aware of your running plans. I train on Tuesday nights. That is the law in my household. My wife goes out on Thursdays. I unfalteringly abide by her law.
  • Combine racing with a family outing. – This, of course, depends on a number of variables – not least the mood of your loved ones and the length of the race – but why not plan a day out around a race in a notable location or a weekend away at a European marathon destination?
  • Remember, nothing is more important that your health and wellbeing. – There should be no guilt attached to exercising. Running stops you becoming that fat oaf sitting at home watching hours of television and stuffing his face with fast food. You are a runner; you are different.

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This article was first published in Men’s Running.

@MuirJonny

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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, heightsofmadness.com 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 heightsofmadness.com 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

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

Stan Allen

3. Bob Graham Round – SUCCESS!

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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

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8. The madness of the ultra-distance runner

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9. Isle of Jura Fell Race

The finish

10. Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014

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@MuirJonny

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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.

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Running in London: where are the hills?

The run from Keswick town centre to the summit of Skiddaw sees the runner gain around 900 metres in altitude. The only time I have set my watch to this run was during my Bob Graham Round in 2012; Skiddaw was hill number one and not the place – or the time (1am) – for unnecessary heroism. I summited in 77 minutes – a quick time, given the circumstances. Incidentally, the record for the Skiddaw fell race, which climbs up and down the mountain, is Kenny Stuart’s breathtaking 62 minutes. I digress, however. Back to my run: 900 metres of height gain in 77 minutes (and about four miles).

Unless you commence an effort from the banks of the Thames, it is very difficult to find a single climb of 100 metres – a ninth of Skiddaw – in south London. This weekend, to gain a cumulative 900 metres in height, I had to run for nearly four hours (split over two runs) and cover 29 miles, ascending around 30 individual inclines that I would describe as significant (for London). Say what you will about the north/south divide when it comes to running, but with the comparison of 900 metres, four miles and one hill, to 900 metres, 29 miles, 30 hills, I know who has the better deal.

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@MuirJonny

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

Hindscarth

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I am the 1739th member of the Bob Graham Club

It is official. I am a member of the Bob Graham Club. Member number 1739, sandwiched between Martin Spooner (1738) and Andrew Kirkup (1740). This is a reward (one of many) for 19 hours and 33 minutes of toil on an endless June day when possibilities seemed limitless. Happily, the updated list, including those who successfully completed the Bob Graham Round in 2012, has been published. The 2012 statistics are also out: 72 successes (compared to 93 in 2011) with only ‘a small number of sub-2o hour rounds’. There are now 1781 names on the list. Incidentally, about 4000 people have successfully climbed Mount Everest.

Bob Graham 2012 list

Hindscarth

What is Alan Hinkes up to at the moment? … and other questions

Traffic – is that the right way to describe people? – to this blog arrives via a plethora of web searches. Handily, WordPress lists these terms. Many are questions: some are perfectly logical, others make me question the sanity of the human race. However, according to the web search questions, people do not want much. Generally, they care about three things.

– How hard things are.

– Ben Nevis.

– What Alan Hinkes is up to.

Here are my Christmas top-20 (and some helpful answers). The hard stuff first –

1. Is it hard to row the English Channel solo? Probably, yes.

2. How hard is the Inaccessible Pinnacle? It’s tricky, rather than hard. Take a climber with you.

3. What is the hardest Corbett to climb? I really don’t know. For the hardest Munro, see above.

4. How hard is the Beachy Head Marathon? Not as hard as the Ben Nevis Race.

5. How hard is the Ben Nevis Race. Harder than the Beachy Head Marathon.

6. Is the Highland Cross harder than a marathon? If it’s the Beachy Head Marathon, yes.

7. What is the weather like on Ben Nevis in September? Wind, rain, fog, sleet, snow, mist, and probably all at the same time.

8. Which Munro should I climb in preparation for walking Ben Nevis? Why are people obsessed with this mountain?

On to the information seekers-

9. How do I prepare for cycling Mont Ventoux? Cycle. Lots.

10. Where is there a half-marathon tomorrow in UK? Tomorrow? Nowhere.

11. When are midges worst on Rum? All summer long. But don’t let it put you off, though.

12. How high is Worcestershire Beacon? 425 metres.

13. Is Catbells on the Bob Graham Round? No – unless you’ve had a navigational catastrophe.

14. What speed do you need to run for a Bob Graham Round under 24 hours? Three miles per hour-ish. Sounds slow, doesn’t it?

15. Why is Twmpa called Lord Hereford’s Knob? I’m still not sure. Something to do with Lord Hereford? And his…

Now for the ridiculous –

16. What’s going on in the Cotswolds? You’re in the wrong place.

17. How long will it take for my blood blister to go away? Umm…

And the utterly ridiculous, the bang-your-head-against-a-table level of ridiculousness.

18. Is Marble Arch the same as the Arc de Triomphe. NO!

19. What country is the south of England? Country?

And one that only Alan Hinkes can answer –

20. What is Alan Hinkes up to at the moment?

Ben Nevis pony track

Ben Nevis: very hard

Bob Graham blues?

Bob Graham blues? Is there such a thing? If there is, I think I have developed a bout. I feel rather empty; my Bob Graham Round, successfully completed a fortnight ago, has left a mental and physical void yet to be filled by other distractions. I am running my first mountain marathon, the Saunders, in July, and I’m rowing the English Channel as part of a team of four in August, but neither has captured my imagination in the way the solo hardiness of the Bob Graham did.

Once home from work today, I decided on the antidote to this low: go for a run. This was despite a promise I’d made to myself during my round. While trotting over the Helvellyn range, I said aloud that after ‘this’ was over, I would rest – for a month. No running for a month. Rest, recover, enjoy the memories of success. Feeling as desperate as I was at this particular point in my Bob Graham, I was pretty happy with my decision.

A month? I lasted 12 days – until today. And I discovered something concerning today: in these 12 days it seems certain my legs have been stolen and replaced with another, alien pair. The initial steps I took felt like the first I had ever run. My legs creaked into action with extraordinary reluctance. Within a minute of what was impossibly slow jogging, my right shin started to throb, then the troublesome left ankle, then – in sympathetic symmetry – the right ankle.

I thought carefully: left ankle – pain or discomfort? Pain, I conceded. At the end of the road (I didn’t even get round the block), I turned round and ran home. I was out for about seven minutes. So that’s the extent of my mileage this week: less than one. How long does it take to recover from a Bob Graham Round, from almost 20 hours of continuous running? Who knows? For me, not 12 days. Patience is what I need now; impatience will not get the better of me again. Maybe now I will keep that promise made on Helvellyn.

Bob Graham Round – SUCCESS!

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.

Journey’s end!

Bob Graham – 52 hours and counting

My Bob Graham Round attempt is almost upon me. In around 52 hours, at 1am on Sunday, I will set off from Moot Hall in Keswick, before proceeding up the moonlit (hopefully) slopes of Skiddaw. And thereafter? Some 60-plus miles, 42 summits, 27,000ft of ascent and descent, returning to Keswick by dusk that evening. The prospect is tremendously exciting.

There are umpteen variables that will ultimately lead to success or failure, a swift round or a pedestrian one. But there are two key variables in my mind: one, the elements; two, injury. The former looks a safe bet: no rain, high clouds, not too warm, negligible wind. Conditions don’t get more ideal.

And so to injury. My final visit to a physio was on Wednesday. I told her my left ankle was tight after just 20 minutes of running, with the surrounding tendons then becoming disconcertingly crunchy. She dismissed my concerns, saying that 20 minutes was scarcely time to get into a run, let alone adequately warm up. Her gung-ho attitude was a revelation. She massaged the ankle area, then the calf. ‘You’re fine,’ she said. After weeks of mithering, it was impossible to accept her words without grave doubt. My brain has now, finally, processed her vital information: it really is going to be fine.