“No, no, no! Not now. Don’t do this to me!” (actually something somewhat less polite…). I had just turned at the top of High Raise and started the gentle descent when it hit, a sharp pain in my lower left leg. I tried to walk it off, but no luck, this was really hurting and getting worse not better. “Why now of all times?” I thought, as I gave up and slowly hobbled back towards Dunmail.
I had been preparing for over a year to do the Bob Graham Round, a 66 mile loop of the Lake District taking in 42 of its highest peaks and climbing approximately 27,000ft. The aim is to get round in under 24 hours, and it is seen as somewhat of a milestone in any fellrunner’s career.
The idea had come into my head when talking to my best friend Mark about our fast approaching 40th year. We had to do something challenging, a real test, something a bit different from our normal mountain marathons, backpacking and rock-climbing trips. The seed sown, we had begun with a backpacking trip round the route the previous May, the same weekend Jas Paris set the record for the fastest woman’s time on the Round (15 hours, 24 minutes) – 3 fantastic days out, trying to work out the best lines and generally getting more and more nervous about how on earth we could do that all in 24 hours, let alone how anyone could then shave another 8 hours off that!
It’s fast approaching midnight, we drag ourselves out from the warmth of the Chief Justice and out into the fresh, albeit surprisingly warm, air of Keswick high street. Mark has had to pull out as he hasn’t been able to get enough time on the hills, so it is just me going for it. Jamie Walker-Jones, a man with a sense of adventure if ever I have come across one, and Martyn Farnsworth, a friend of Jamie’s with whom I have done a couple of runs with in the past, are all geared up and ready to go. They have agreed to do the night shift on Leg 1, hopefully trying to stop me from repeating my normal mistake of racing off way too fast. With us are Hugh Williamson, an old friend who has come up to do the Wasdale valley support, and Martyn’s girlfriend Jenny.
Waiting by the Moot Hall are another group of BG runners – Jake Redvers Harris and his pacers. It is one of the busiest days of the year for the round, being close to the summer solstice. The Dark Peak machine has already been running for about 5 hours, the lights of their big group visible coming off Blencathra as we had driven towards Keswick, and there were a couple more rounds setting off both an hour before and an hour after us. We exchange brief hello’s, noting we are on the same schedule, the watch turns to midnight and we set off….in opposite directions out of the square! 2 minutes later we are back together as we head past the Leisure Centre and in the direction of Skiddaw. It is a long, long climb, and I am feeling good. Jamie and Martyn try their hardest to stop me racing away, and as we approach the summit trig point I am pleased to see we have managed to stick to schedule, a good sign. It is pretty windy though, with more cloud than was forecast, so it could be tricky later in the day.
Dropping down from the summit, I spot the reflective strip by the stile in my torch beam, and we quickly descend down towards Hare Crag and on to the stream at the bottom. Climbing Great Calva I push on, feeling really strong, chatting to Jake and his support runners, only to realise that Jamie and Martyn are lagging behind, so I ease off – slow and steady wins the day and all that. Despite that we still do the climb 6 minutes faster than schedule – it’s good to know that all the training seems to have paid off.
I’ve done lots of mountain marathons and fell races over the years, but nothing approaching the BGR’s sort of length, so for once in my life I actually put in a (loosely) structured training plan, and this had gone pretty well. The winter and spring had been spent ploughing up and down the M6, getting as much time out on the hills recce’ing the route as possible, interspersed with mid-week miles on the trails round my home in Nottinghamshire or in the Peak District, and then as this year began I started to throw in some longer events. The Marmot Dark Mountains in January with Mark was a highly entertaining 12 hours slogging through snow and darkness round the northern Pennines in truly horrendous conditions, then the High Peak Marathon with Jamie, Martyn and Andy in early March my first 40+ mile outing, both events going well. Finally, I had signed up for the Fellsman, which was taking place about 5 weeks before my BG attempt. I didn’t really know much about the event before signing up, but it was 61ish miles, with a decent amount of climbing and some rough terrain, so seemed like a good test of how the training was going. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole training process – a great route, good weather conditions and really well organised. I linked up with Alex Fawcett and a couple of his pals from Ripon Runners about half-way around, it turned out he was also training for the Bob, with his attempt pencilled in for the same date and start time as me. We worked well together and got round the Fellsman in a touch under 13 ½ hours, well ahead of my expected 15-16 hours – all was looking good for the attempt.
Back on Great Calva, Jamie joins me at the summit, we pick Martyn back up at the fence corner, and then head down on a bearing towards Blencathra. This is where the two groups split up for the first time, us heading straight down, Jake and his support taking the longer but grassier descent around along the fence line. I manage to pick up the trod first time despite the darkness, and we are quickly down at the river. After a fairly easy crossing – the river is surprisingly low given the rain during the previous week, a sign of the dry year we have had so far I guess – the long climb up Mungrisdale Common begins. I try to set a reasonable tempo, avoiding going into the red, but despite this I find Jamie and Martyn getting distanced. However, going too slow is sometimes as hard as going too fast, so I just get into a rhythm and decide I can always wait at the top.
About half way up I regroup with Jake, and together we make our way to the summit. Jamie has put on a bit of a spurt, and closed the gap a bit, so I ease off a little to let him catch up. Martyn is still way down the slopes though, so as we head up the final rise to the summit of Blencathra we discuss options. I decide that I am feeling good and don’t want to wait around too long in the wind, so we agree that once Jamie has seen me to the summit I will grab a bottle and some M&M’s and shoot off down Halls Fell to Threlkeld whilst he waits for Martyn then follows down – with a 10-minute stop scheduled there they should be OK to meet us and hand over the bag before I head off on Leg 2. At the summit we say our goodbyes, and as Jake heads down the Doddick route and Jamie waits for Martyn, I scoot off down the Halls Fell ridge.
I’ve not done it in the dark before, so there are a couple of spots I stop and think about the route, but it is dry and I make quick progress, eventually dropping into the village and over to the changeover in the car park at 3:32am, 15 minutes up on schedule. At Threlkeld I meet my wife Zoe, who is doing the majority of the road support for me, and has a pot of beans and sausages waiting. These are quickly devoured, socks changed and orange juice consumed, and I am ready to go. But still no sign of Jamie or Martyn – what to do? Luckily I have left enough spares in the car with Zoe, so grabbing these I decide to push on (it later transpires that they took a wrong turn on the descent and ended up coming in another 10 minutes after I left).
I’m joined by Paul Fulwood and Mike Mallen. Paul is an old contact from my old home of Grimsby who had moved to Keswick a few years ago. I hadn’t seen him in about 18 years, but when I popped up on the BGR Facebook group he got in touch and kindly offered to help, he brought along Mike, a friend of his from Keswick AC.
Paul and I had met up a few weeks earlier when I had decided to fit in one final long training run after the Fellsman – we had set off up Clough Head, with Paul going to go as far as Raise then turn back, whilst I carried on to Dunmail. I was feeling really strong, and set a fierce pace up the hill that day – Paul advising me to make sure I go slower on the big day. Across from Clough Head over to Great Dodd, Watson Dodd, Stybarrow and onto Raise, still feeling really good. Paul said cheerio at Raise, as he was recovering from a knee injury so didn’t want to overdo it, and I carried on over the rest of Leg 2, setting PB’s on most of the climbs, and racing down from Seat Sandal to the car at Dunmail. I had done the leg in 3hr 15m, over an hour quicker than I needed to on the day and was still feeling fresh – a good sign.
So it is good to be back out on Leg 2 with Paul, and he and Mike do a sterling job of holding me back (my one instruction to Paul was to make me slow down!), making sure I kept eating and offering good company. Despite that we still gain 9 minutes on the schedule on the climb up Clough Head, cresting just in time to see the sun start to come up. Onwards we go, over the Dodd’s and onto Raise, slowly chipping away, gaining a minute here and a minute there. This time Paul carries on at Raise.. The rest of the Helvellyn ridge carries on in much the same fashion, with me straining on the leash and Paul & Mike doing their job, keeping me steady!
We take the direct line off Dollywaggon Pike and skirt round the back of Grisedale before the out-and-back up Fairfield. It is probably my least favourite climb on the round, a combination of the loose screes, steep climb and the fact that I still remember the Saunders MM a few years ago where Day 2 involved climbing over Fairfield 4 times in as many hours! However, it is soon over, and on the way down we pass Jake on the way up. He is still on schedule, which is great news, but it is the last I will see of him today (though I later hear the good news that he managed to complete well within the 24 hours).
A final climb up Seat Sandal and then we make the quick descent down to the road at Dunmail, completing the leg in 3hr 53 minutes. I am now 39 minutes up on schedule and feeling fresh. Zoe is there, along with my Leg 3 pacers, Andy Cross and my dad, Simon. Andy is an old friend who, although he doesn’t do much fell-running, is as fit as a butcher’s dog and full of enthusiasm. My dad perhaps doesn’t have Andy’s energy levels, but is still going strong at nearly 70, and is a sure hand on what will be the hardest leg from a navigation point of view.
Back to that final training run with Paul. As I said, I was still feeling fresh at Dunmail, so after a 5-minute rest, off I went up Steel Fell, again pushing myself hard on the climb. Steel Fell passed in 19 minutes, Calf Crag another 18, then off up Sergeant Man. Half an hour later I was there. Just the short trip over to High Raise to go and then I turned to head back round via Ullscarf and back down to the car, and that’s when it happened. In hindsight I should have stopped at Dunmail in the first place as initially planned, but it’s always tempting to get that extra bit of training done, and besides, the climb from Calf Crag to Sergeant Man was the one bit of the whole route I hadn’t recce’d since the initial backpacking trip.
And so, with 3 weeks to go, I had just mucked up 12 months of hard work and planning. I was pretty certain it was shin splints, and whilst I’m no medical expert, I was pretty sure it would need more than 3 weeks’ recovery before attempting something like the BGR. It was a pretty depressing and painful drive back down the M6 that evening, as I tried to work out all the possible options, none of which seemed very positive.
2 days later I was in the hospital getting the leg x-rayed. The pain had just got worse over the last 48 hours, and after some (foolish) internet research I decided I had better get it checked out to make sure it wasn’t a stress fracture. The doctor couldn’t see anything on the X-ray, which gave me some hope, but then she dashed this with the helpful comment that “they don’t normally show up for a couple of weeks though”. It was pretty clear she didn’t think much of my chances of being back to running properly in 3 weeks, let along doing 66 miles up and down hills.
The next few weeks were a real rollercoaster of emotions – there were good days, there were bad days and there were lots of days spent trying to work out whether I would heal in time. How Zoe and the kids put up with me I don’t know! One week in I made the decision to switch my attempt to my fall-back date, 2 weeks later. Surprisingly once the decision was made, I felt much better, both mentally and, as is often the case, physically. My physio worked wonders, encouraged me to not only do my exercises and cross-train with swimming and cycling, but to get out and try some short runs, and slowly I built the distances back up, the leg improving at every stage. Finally, on the weekend originally planned for the round, I headed up to Langdale and did a short 10k loop up to Harrison Stickle to see Alex on his way to what was a really impressive sub-21 hour round. Needless to say, the sun was shining and it was perfect conditions for my non-attempt! The next day I did the Kentmere Horseshoe in the clag with Mark, Dave and my dad, and the leg didn’t hurt. It was on.
So here I am, making the climb up to Sergeant Man, 5 weeks to the day since the shin splints hit, and the doubts are floating around in my mind – will it happen again, is 5 weeks enough time? The logical part of me knows that I am not pushing anywhere near as hard as last time, and if the leg was going to go, it would probably have done so earlier on, during Legs 1 or 2, but it doesn’t stop me worrying! The sun is well and truly up in the sky now, and it is getting warm – the earlier gusts we encountered on Skiddaw a thing of the past. My stomach is also starting to play up, a theme for the rest of the day, and I lose 5 minutes to an unplanned stop. It is a relief to reach Sergeant Man and meet up with Matt Harper who has come all the way up Stoke to be the water boy for us on Leg 3. After a brief hello and introductions to my dad and Andy, we turn and head up to High Raise. My shin feels fine, and my mental niggle clears – I know it will hold out now.
We keep on pushing through the leg, over Thunacar and across to Harrison Stickle and Pike o Stickle, before the descent over Martcrag Moor down to the stream and the climb up Rossett Pike. Last time I had been across there with Mark, we had both disappeared into the bog up to our waist without any warning, and the same had happened to my dad a couple of weeks earlier, so we are relieved to make it across with only the lower half of our legs getting wet! I am still feeling strong on the climbs, and we are picking up 1-2 minutes on the schedule whenever we start going up. I get the climbing traverse line up Bowfell spot on, and by the time we reach the summit I am over 33 minutes up on schedule. Matt leaves us at Bowfell to make his way down the Band and back to Langdale, Andy, Dad & I turn and head down towards Ore Gap. I remember to drop away from the main path to pick up the grassy trod, and this makes the descent much more pleasant. The next few peaks pass quickly, we gain time on some, lose it on others, until suddenly the crowds at the top of Scafell Pike appear. Not surprisingly, for a hot sunny day in June, it is somewhat busy at the summit of England, so after a quick photo with Dad we quickly head off down towards Mickledore – we are now 40 minutes up on schedule (which I later find out is causing a bit of concern for Brian heading over from Honister to join us in Wasdale!).
Even as a regular rock climber I have decided Broad Stand is not for me this far into the day, and I dislike the descent and climb up via Foxes Tarn, so we turn right at Mickledore and make our way over towards Lord’s Rake. Neither Dad nor Andy have been up this way before, so I lead the way up the scree-filled gully. It is a little damp and the cloud has come in (the only bit all day!), but it’s not too bad, and once we take the turn onto the West Wall Traverse the atmosphere is fantastically eerie. The summit of Scafell soon arrives – the cloud is still down so we don’t hang around and head off on bearing towards Wasdale. My quads are starting to feel it on the descent, and I am much less agile heading down the scree-run than last time I did it, so we lose a bit of time on the descent, but still manage to run into the car park at 1:55pm, 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
Steve and Hugh have biked over from Honister with bags full of food to provide the support in Wasdale, giving Zoe the chance to go and get some sleep. They hand me some pasta, a bottle of Coke and, most importantly, the ready-salted crisps I had put in a last-minute request for as I had departed Dunmail, so I quickly take on the fuel.However, my feet have suffered on the descent from Scafell – I must have got some stones in the shoes on the way down the scree run, and the short run into the valley from the base of it has been enough to give me blisters on my right heel and on the sole of my left foot. With the wet feet plasters aren’t sticking so the only thing we can do is tape them up – this will get me through the rest of the round, but not without some pain later on.
After a slightly longer stop than planned due to the blister repair, I head out of the car park accompanied by Andy, who is doing the leg 3 & 4 double, and Brian Stallwood. I’ve not met Brian before, but he has kindly stepped in at short notice when one of my other support runners dropped out with earlier that week. Brian completed the BGR a few years ago, and, after a couple of years out to injury, is now back and looking to do the LL100 in a few weeks, so is keen to get some hill miles in. His experience and route knowledge is highly welcome, and so is the additional company provided by his two dogs, Harry and Teaser.
A lot is made of Yewbarrow – it is a bit of a mental barrier for aspiring BG runners – but I have always liked steep climbs, and we make excellent time on the climb, reaching the summit in 41 minutes. It’s still sunny and Teaser in particular finds it hot work – quickly finding a pool at the top to lie down in! After Yewbarrow we drop down and pick up the traverse line below Stirrup Crag over to Dore Head, and then on up Red Pike. There is apparently an even more direct line that can be taken here, but having failed to find it on my recce’s we stick to what I know. The climb up Red Pike seems to drag, but eventually the top is reached and we carry on over towards my favourite peak of the round – Steeple. Brian waits on Scoat Fell taking photos whilst Andy & I drop down to the col and up to Steeple, reminiscing about the fact that last time we were here there was a blanket of cloud covering the Lake District, with only those peaks over 800m peeking through – probably the best cloud inversion I have ever seen. It’s not like that today though, with clear skies all around.
Back on Scoat Fell we pick up Brian and the dogs and make our way over to Pillar before carrying on down towards Black Sail Pass. I usually love this descent with its good, runnable terrain, but I am having troubles now with both my stomach and my blisters, so it is not so enjoyable. Andy and Brian keep ensuring I am eating and drinking, but it is getting harder and harder to do so.
Brian takes us up the Ennerdale race gully onto Kirkfell. This is a new route option for me, as I usually stick to the fence posts, and is one to file away in my. Again, my legs are going strongly on the steep ascents, and so by the time we are over Kirkfell and onto the summit of Great Gable I am 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Combined with the 1 ½ hours leeway the schedule gave me I know now that, injury aside, I have the round in the bag, and can just try to enjoy the last part. We head down over the peaks towards the last changeover at Honister in good spirits, and though my blister means that I lose time when the ground starts going down steeply, I am still smiling as I come into Honister and see a crowd of supporters hovering round the car. In addition to Zoe, continuing her sterling job as road support, there is Jamie and Martyn, who I last saw at the summit of Blencathra and who are back to do Leg 5 with me, plus Dad, Hugh & Steve who have made their way back over from Wasdale. Andy’s family are here as well, picking him up ready for a quick getaway back south.
A mug of soup and some M&M’s inside me, Jamie and Martyn lead out from the car park and onto the climb up Dale Head. With almost 5 hours to make it to the Moot Hall it’s a nice feeling knowing that there is plenty of time to spare. I have picked up my walking poles at the car, and these are a real help on the climb. We seem to be making really good time up the hill, so I am a little surprised that we arrive at the top slightly slower than schedule. Looking back at the end I realise I was a little optimistic in all my timings on Leg 5 – something to note for the future. However, we continue along the ridge and over to Hindscarth. As we descend from Hindscarth my Garmin gives a little beep – low battery. Martyn stops to get the battery charger out of the pack, but we realise that this has ended up in my dad’s bag, back at Honister in error. Nothing we can do, so we push on up to Robinson, and when it beeps again at the summit I save the route and turn the watch off – I’ve made it to all of the peaks now and have plenty of time, so it is only a minor issue. It is a great feeling being on that final peak, the sun still in the sky and all of the climbing behind me, and one I will remember for a long time.
Sadly, the positive feelings are shattered by the pain from my heel on the descent from Robinson; every time it gets steep the blister is pressing and pulling, and we make slow progress down the ridge. However, down we go and, having taken the first descent into Scope Beck, it is soon back onto level ground and a nice run along the valley to meet Zoe and Dad at Newlands. We’ve lost about 15-20 minutes on the descent, so it is a quick change of socks and shoes, a drink and ditching of the poles we are off for the final road section into Keswick. It certainly won’t qualify as my quickest 5 mile run, but has to be one of the most satisfying, with Jamie snapping away on his camera phone as we chip away at the miles. Eventually civilisation comes into view, we cross the bridge over the river and begin the final mile. By this stage I am slowing to a crawl and decide that I will walk until we hit the road then try running again – got to make sure I look fresh coming into the finish and all that!!
And so, almost a day after leaving the Moot Hall I can see the high street ahead of me, break into a jog and soak up the atmosphere as I run up the rise towards the Moot Hall. A small crowd awaits, breaking into applause as I approach and then I am there, touching the wall. 22 hours and 20 minutes, just ahead of schedule. I didn’t know what I would feel at the end, whether it be relief, joy or just pain, but what I actually feel is just plain happy. I’ve had a cracking day on the hills, with good friends, old & new, and, despite what was not the ideal final preparation, achieved what had just seemed a bit of a daft idea 12 months ago. We stick around to see a couple of other groups come in, then drift back towards the car and the opportunity to sleep.
Thanks to all of the people who supported me, both on the day and in the training for the round. Zoe Brearley, Hugh Williamson and Steve Wyatt for the road support, Jamie Walker-Jones, Martyn Farnsworth, Paul Fulwood, Mike Mallen, Andy Cross, Simon Brearley and Brian Stallwood for the pacing and load carrying, Matt Harper for lugging 3kg of water up from Langdale for us, Jayne Brearley for looking after Josh & Lucy for the day and for the morale support through the process and Mark Diplock for sharing the idea and also for all of the training runs and events we did together. Also to my kids, Josh & Lucy who have put with with an absent dad for much of the last 6 months!