See a short video compiled from training runs and the event itself here before reading on.
There’s no t-shirt, medal or inflatable finishers archway. The Bob Graham Round, since its beginnings in 1932 has existed much like fell running, as an noncommercial and understated Lakeland challenge, completion of which entitles you membership into the BGR club numbering 2055 at time of writing.
I’d mainly stuck to paths. Forest tracks and soft gravel trails in the hills and mountains, the limit of my experience training for a small number of ultra distance races over the last few years. Lakeland fells however have a different character altogether and knowing just enough to know what I didn’t know about fell running, in 2015 I nervously accepted to be support runner on my friend Lee Tait’s BGR.
A few “recces” out with Lee in May and June, then his successful round in July 2015 and I was sold… almost. A physical, navigational and logistical challenge with a tight cut off time (for me at least) made “the round” seem out of my capability and I deflected friendly banter at the time that I would be next. But I’d witnessed something very rare and special in the coming together of fells, friends and this incredibly difficult challenge and the seed had been planted. With my own alpine race in August looming, the CCC on the Tour du Mont Blanc, I continued to spend time on the fells for training, all the while becoming more familiar with their temperament and my own ability running in the Lake District.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s by no mistake, although there are many others, that I’ve personified the fells, hills and mountains in this post. Although an inanimate entity, I’ve found that with every torment or triumph these lumps of earth have delivered over the years, they have left a tale to tell and a lasting impression much like a challenging encounter with a person.
Returning from the CCC in the Alps in September, full of confidence and wanting another project to stretch my boundaries, I nervously committed to my own BGR attempt and began assembling a team and planning training. I was surprised how willing people were to help and soon learned about the wonderful BGR culture of paying forward. Anyone I knew who had either completed, attempted, supported or knew about the BGR wanted to help if they could and making new and long lasting friends seems to be another accidental happiness of the round.
The team came together quickly and the recce weekends began with friends joining Emma and I in the hills for Lakeland adventures… beginning in winter! There was soon an understanding that when I posted a message to the group including the word “adventure” it normally meant being wet, cold, or lost and normally for a long time. Emma’s quote of the day on one particular drive over being “this time I’d like to not be cold or scared please”
Despite the character building conditions through Winter and Spring, I was lucky enough to have company on most “adventures.” It was great to have a team of people who never asked how far we were running for and only asked when we were going, even though some of the team were pushing their own limits of experience and ability. It’s a good point to say how grateful I am for their time, company, advice, navigational adjustments, meals out, accommodation, sports therapy and even shoes! I’ve found there aren’t many things more satisfying than getting warm and dry after a hard day in the hills with friends and exaggerate events of the day over a hot meal and a pint.
With each weekend recce I found myself less bothered by bad weather, distance or making mistakes. The first two being almost certain and the third being quite likely on most “Lakeland adventures.” But on the bigger days out I always carried a nervousness that I struggled with which did ease over those winter months, the remainder of which now lingering as a permanent but useful reminder of my limits on the fells and the potential bad nature of wild places.
By early Summer I was moving easier in the hills and feeling confident when injury struck and found myself almost unable to move with strained ligaments in my lower back, a symptom of progressive inflexibility creeping in from many months of desk work as a Teacher and running. For two weeks I could barely walk. The following two, I could only run for a few minutes in a drug induced haze, and the week before my BGR I managed 5 pain free miles around Simonside hills near where I live. It’s at times like these you need positive people around you and good advice. Weekly treatment from Phil Smith and constant motivation from Emma and the team kept me in good spirits. While doing the only other two forms of exercise I could do properly, swimming and rehab, I set about doing something useful and began planning logistics and schedule for the big day, an important component of the challenge. Thankfully there was plenty of distraction from all this logistical faff to needlessly obsess over, such as packing and repacking the same race bag in the hope it might get lighter, or answering the eternal question “what shoes do I wear?”
With all the training done and nervous decision making, the big day arrived. From what I’d read, 10 pm was the worst time to start a BGR but had been decided upon very scientifically after much debate and research. Finishing on my ambitious 22 hour schedule meant anyone still standing could go to the pub to celebrate the finish or commiserate the defeat. 10 pm had also worked successfully for three of my friends… none of which had made it to the pub, but this was now an additional challenge I’d secretly set myself.
We parked up in Keswick and walked to Moot hall, the start and and finish of this Lakeland loop, separated by 42 peaks chosen by Bob Graham in 1932, a 42 year old B&B owner. There’s a lot of history and legendary performances surrounding the BGR but I confess to not being there for reasons of nostalgia or with aspirations of breaking any superhuman records previously set. I arrived in Keswick town center that evening inspired by witnessing friends brought together on the fells in a unique and difficult challenge and to further explore my own physical and mental limits in this amazing landscape.
To add an additional but not unwelcome pressure a special guest had just days before confirmed as support runner on Leg 1. Ricky Lightfoot, elite runner and a friend of Phil Smith had found himself free and keen to help a complete stranger traverses the first 13 miles through the night. A top bloke to complement an already top bunch of lads and ladies, his laid back demeanour, friendliness and common desire to play in the hills soon eased any star struck nerves I had. I think my fellow runner on Leg 1, Lee Tait, beamed ear to ear for the whole stretch and later into the run and in the dead of night, I thanked Ricky for joining us and making the event even more special.
I hadn’t really visualised how the round would start but thankfully at exactly 10 pm an impromptu count down erupted from Jason and all the nerves and worries I had evaporated with shouts and cheers from the team causing an unexpected and emotional lump in my throat. They could now either get some sleep for a few hours, go to the pub, or embark on the other less advertised BGR challenge with my wife Emma of running logistics for a 24 hour race.
It was a still and warm night, I couldn’t ask for any better conditions and the setting sun cast orange then purple across the sky. I felt light and fast for the first time, probably because Ricky had kindly taken my race bag, and the three of us chatted as we trotted up Latrigg and hiked up Jenkins hill. I apologise to Lee Tait for being such a rubbish support runner on his BGR the previous year. I was almost embarrassed how much help I got, everything short of being given a piggy back! Every 20 mins or so I’d find a bottle of water or a piece of food stuck in my hand and to pass the bottles back, Lee instructed me to drop them to the ground for his retrieval so my pace wasn’t broken. Ricky sprinted ahead to open gates or double check directions to keep us moving and on course and handed me equipment or food from my bag.
There’s an ethereal feel I love while running in the hills or mountains at night. Time squashes or stretches in a blanketed world where only the change in gradient under your feet indicates your arrival at the beginning or the end of a climb you’re mentally ticking off from a list in your head.
The final descent from Blencathra drops into Threlkeld about 13 miles from Keswick where Emma and my support runners for Leg 2 John and Jason were waiting. We skipped, scrambled and shuffled down the tricky but thankfully dry descent of Hall’s fell until the twisty path starts to form and you begin to enjoy a semi controlled falling sensation you get from descending a Lakeland fell. Chasing my free-falling fix, and one of the best descenders in the business I almost forget any sense of pacing or caution but thankfully I got to the bottom beaming, feeling great and ahead of schedule.
Surrounded by a fleet of road resurfacing vehicles and bathed in the glow of yellow flashing lights, Emma, Jason and John were with the van and our makeshift aid station. The road resurfacing team had kindly laid fresh tarmac around the van in the car park leaving a perfect rectangle of old road and I was relieved that she’d held her ground and not moved.
I’d planned 10 minutes rest but felt I could take 5 to recover, resupply and get going. Ricky took the bottles out of my bag and I lazily watched rehearsed drills unfold before me, illuminated by torch light and highway maintenance vehicles not expecting to see a group of runners at 01:20 in the morning. I shook hands with Lee and Ricky and thanked them for a perfect Leg 1 and I was away once more with two pairs of fresh legs, good banter but suddenly feeling sick.
Maybe the pace, the volume of food I’d eaten, or both, had left me feeling sick and anything more than a slow trot or a gentle hill made me nauseous. I kept saying to myself “It’s a long way, I’ll feel better soon” and focused on the floor, placing one foot in front of the other and pulling Jason and John back who eagerly wanted to get going. The sun hardly felt absent that night, with only a few hours seeming to separating a faint orange glow on each horizon. Barely needing head torches the “Dodds,” were easy to find thanks to the continued clear weather. So stuck in one gear, we ticked the summits off, slowly and steadily, enjoying the best sunrise I’ve ever seen.
Still feeling a little ropey I’d decided to take a proper break at Dunmail Raise, the end of Leg 2 and 27 miles into the loop. I’d lost some time but it was great to see Emma and the team revealed in the shadowy valley below as we reached the brow of the final descent. There isn’t any shoe on earth that will stick to grass soaked in morning dew and excited to see Emma and take a break, my grand entrance to Dunmail Raise was a perfect somersault, disappearing into deep bracken and thankfully only witnessed by John and Jason.
All the ultras I’d run before had generous cut off times which left me knowing that if I was having a really bad day, and I’ve now had one or two, I could probably walk the remainder and still finish. Today I suddenly felt the pressure of the time ticking away knowing that for an “average Joe” runner like me, the BGR time limit of 24 hours meant success was in the balance. However, one of the many functions of support runners is motivation and the dawn crew ready for supporting Leg 3 were pacing, eager and full of an infectious energy which bolstered my morale. I was given a firm but encouraging shove out of the camp chair after a generous 10 minute break and at about 5:30am left the cool dark valley of Dunmail Raise for the sun drenched summit of Steel Fell, looking almost vertical from the road!
Leg 3 had always caused me problems during training. Twice I’d tried to check the route and twice I’d failed, once getting lost while alone in a white-out (never do this!) and once abandoned due to torrential rain and strong winds. The longest leg on the BGR and cutting east to west through the middle of the lakes, Leg 3 is remote, difficult terrain and for me, a planned 6 hours of hard graft.
Experience was offered rather than employed and in my own inexperience I’d probably not realised at the time that Phil Smith, Lee Grant and Ian Mulvey had volunteered for Leg 3 knowing that experienced support on this stretch can make a big difference in adverse conditions. Or perhaps it was because they preferred a few beers in Keswick the night before and Leg 1 or 2 weren’t an option. Either way, I was grateful and with support and entertainment now provided by these chaps, I was able to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, manage the fatigue creeping into my body after 8 hours on my feet and best of all, enjoy a blue sky day in the lakes.
It’s nearly a year between the last paragraph and this one including a failed attempt at the UTMB which is a completely different event and story but time and experience has certainly helped to build perspective coming back to finish this blog. It’s also the day before the Hardmoors 110 mile ultra and I’m trying to remind myself why I’m doing it.
I pressed any feelings of Leg 3 anxiety and sickness to the back of my mind by adding up all the things that were going well. The sun was shining, I’d got my friends around me and I’d just changed my socks… nothing can beat that feeling! Each leg of the BGR starts and ends with a sharp climb and descent. Steel fell is no exception. It must be a strange sight to see fell runners with hands on knees, doubled over, driving hard and sounding like steam trains as they ascend these near vertical features. A short respite followed at the summit to let the lactic acid drain from my legs and the fire die from my lungs then remembered that I must keep running where the terrain allows to keep the average pace up.
Having supported Lee Tait on Leg 2 then effectively attended his Leg 3 as a passenger, I saw first hand how the weather can affect navigation losing over 40 minutes on his schedule in the dreaded clag, even with experienced navigators. There are hundreds of books about nutrition strategies for ultra running. I’ve read none, but when Lee Grant offered a cheese sandwich, a real surprise as he normally carries about two jelly babies and 100ml of water on any run, I could of chewed his arm off. Since then “normal food” has always been part of any nutrition plan for ultra running.
By the time we’d reached Rossett pike the sun was beating down. There are plenty of streams to top up with water if you can find them but thankfully as well as knowing the route well, Ian Mulvey knew all of them. It was the first time I’d met Ian, a friend of Lee and Phil. His quiet and calm demeanour was relaxing and the endless supply of jelly snakes in his bag was very much needed. I’d scheduled 6 hours for Leg 3 which was drying up quickly reaching Scafell as my allotted time ran out. My descending was now labored and slow due to tired legs and an aching knee and Ian, Lee and Phil ran ahead to find the most direct and accessible drop off point from the summit. To my annoyance I watched as they casually ran past my planned descent, just out of earshot as I tried to recall my distant support team. Awake now for about 28 hours and on my feet for 14, I knew that fatigue was the reason I was annoyed and not my friends trying to do their best to get me round.
Wasdale head marked the end of Leg 3. I slumped into a camp chair, tired and sore and watched things happen around me in a blur. A drink was put in my hand but I didn’t want it. People were talking to me but I wasn’t listening. Food was put out in front of me but I wasn’t hungry. I remember muttering “I’m in a dark place here lads.” Responses echoed around my head as I seemed to stare at an unfocused spot on the floor until Phil’s voice broke into my mental fog with “that’s the worst done now, you’re still well under 24hrs.” I wanted to quit and I’d made the mistake of thinking about the entirety of what remained rather than breaking it down into small sections. Suddenly the back seat of our car looked very appealing as somewhere to sleep and forget this stupid BGR thing all together. It took a good 10 minutes before I emerged from this mindset, a virtual reality fabricated from fatigue and anxiety where you simply ask “why?” “What’s the point?” I began to eat, drink and chat with the others and joined in with laughter about Phil’s shoes that disintegrated while descending Scafell and who now had no choice but to squeeze into my spare pair of wet fell shoes. Then almost involuntarily, I got out my chair and started walking the 200 meters to the base of a sharp ascent to Yew barrow and the start of leg 4. Looking back, the difference between quitting and finishing that day wasn’t how many miles I’d run in training it was 10 minutes rest and support from friends. I’ve learnt to never let thoughts or decisions of quitting enter my mind until after an aid station or receiving support. You might very well need to quit but the mind gives up well before the body and a little cognitive therapy by yourself or others, accompanied by a cup of tea, will almost certainly get you going again.
Leg 4 is shorter in comparison but punctuated with sharp climbs and descents, making it hard on my legs that didn’t want to do either. I’d grabbed my walking poles from Wasdale Head to try and help with the ascents and soon I was moving and re-engaged with the challenge, bolstered by my Leg 3 support team continuing with me. I don’t think I looked at the view once heading up Yewbarrow settling for, and demanding at times, (sorry Lee) to have someone close in front to set the pace and direction as we zigzagged up one of the steepest climbs. As we climbed the clag slowly dropped over us like a wet blanket until the view was lost but navigation is a bit less difficult on this Leg and the patchy view made it easier not to think about the climbs, and more painful descents that remained ahead.
The clag lifted as we descended Kirkfell and the daunting buttress of Great Gable rose ahead, outlined by a perfect blue sky in the quickly changing weather. A walker heckled as we trotted past “on your Bob Graham?” as if it was obvious that a pack of runners chased by a zombie from the walking dead with no chat and vacant stare was clearly a BGR attempt. “Still looking good” he said in an affectionate lie to which I grunted as pleasant a response as I could.
Reaching Honister pass at the end of Leg 4 feels like the finish line. If you’re roughly on schedule and feeling roughly OK then short of breaking a leg, you’re probably going to make it. This is a nice thought but also a trap with 3 summits, 10 miles and for me, a planned 4 hours to cover on tired legs. With uncertainty still remaining until Moot hall I tried hard to enjoy the moment with friends while gather my thoughts and what reserves I had for the work ahead.
Rich, Charlotte, Emma and Sarah joined us at Honister pass, an addition to Lee and Ian staying on for another leg and showing no signs of fatigue after 26 miles. Their up-beat chat kept my mind off the ache in my legs and the hypoglycemia but it was mentally very difficult at this stage to break the leg into sections, my mind wandered to the comforts awaiting and relief of just sitting down. As if to deliver an additional final challenge to the last three summits, a dark storm cloud broke releasing a torrential downpour of icy rain, instantly sapping any heat I had left in my fatigued body. I shivered uncontrollably to the final summit of Robinson, drafting closely behind Emma who was shielding me from the arctic blast. As we reached the last summit the rain stopped as quickly as it had started, the mood and clouds lifted and there was a sense that the end was in sight.
Meeting the road after about 60 miles in the hills feels strange under foot, my legs so fatigued I felt like I was running on stumps. The chatter and laughter of the assembled troop on Leg 5 made the last few road miles fly by and the sound of feet on Tarmac occasionally synchronised to form the resonance of an army speed march.
There are words to describe the end but they just don’t seem to cover it; relief, euphoria, happiness, gratitude are just a few in my limited vocabulary. I’m grateful to Lee Tait for getting me out in the fells in 2015 and inspiring me to attempt the BGR. Fell running is a truly great feeling where I now find perspective and relief from life’s weird order. I don’t even need to be any good at it to enjoy these things. For me the BGR was a didactic and humbling experience to share with friends which has created a lifetime of stories that grow more vibrant each time they’re told with the friends I’ve made through this understated Lakeland challenge.
I never made it to the pub.
Camera stuff and a short film:
I really wanted to make a short film which is on the link above so I borrowed a GoPro 4 Black from friend and photographer Kaleel Zibe. It was a bit better than mine at the time and I mounted it to my Feiyu Tech G4 stabiliser. An additional and unnecessary complication to an already difficult task I carried this rig out on the round and was prepared to sacrifice some time and extra weight to capture some footage. There was no staging or hanging about and I managed to either film or direct filming until the middle of Leg 3 when the batteries died in the stabiliser and where my batteries we dying too. I actually thought the stabiliser was broken having fallen on it a few times but I was too tired to investigate at Wasdale Head even though it clearly said “change the batteries at Wasdale” in my race notes. At Wasdale we mounted the camera on a Smatree X1 GoPro pole which is why the footage is a bit shaky and not much got used. I edited it on Adobe Premier which is pretty awesome once you’ve got over the steep learning curve and the price. The first few minutes show bits from the training before it gets into the round itself. Thanks to Kaleel for the camera and also for the footage in the last few seconds at Moot Hall.