Having just completed my final UK Big Round, I thought I would dig out my write up of my first, a Bob Graham round that I ran I 2012 for my Stag do!
The first Ultra
It is just after last orders on a Saturday night, I pick myself up off the steps of the clock tower in Keswick where I have been sat, slumped over in my own world for the last ten minutes, and, helped along by my mates, stagger across the square towards the chip shop for some late night feasting. As I lean against the wall of the chip shop, ignoring the sideways looks from strangers, trying not to throw up I think “I am going to feel terrible in the morning, but it was worth it, what a Stag Do that was!!”
The punishment and mal-treatment inflicted upon my body that day wasn’t your average paintball and beer weekend; I had just completed a boyhood dream of a Bob Graham Round, 42 Lakeland peaks, 106 kilometres, 8250 meters of ascent and descent in 23 hours and 10 minutes.
First completed in 1932 by Bob Graham, hotelier of Keswick, at the age of 42 this route is an extension of the Lakeland 24 hour challenge first proposed in 1870, making it the first modern ultra-marathon event and has become the benchmark for mountain running in the UK.
I count myself as extremely lucky that my job as a Mountaineering Instructor, based in the Highlands, means that I spend most days out in the mountains, either out for a day at a time, guiding or teaching, or on longer multi-day expeditions carrying a bigger bag and walking a bit slower.
Although working days in the mountains don’t often feel like hard work they do keep my legs pretty strong and my base level of fitness fairly high. In addition to this every spring I do a few bigger hill runs to capitalise on the leg strength gained from a hard winter of work and enter the LAMM, a 2-day mountain marathon event, this year coming 6th in the Elite category.
Despite all of this I had never seriously thought about attempting a Bob Graham Round, it has been on my bucket list since hearing about it as a young lad on a walking holiday to the Lake District, but all I had was a vague plan to get round to training for it properly one day, after all the longest run I had ever done was 8 hours and there was no way I could do that three times!
This all changed in august when I returned from a 4 week climbing trip in the French Alps, feeling pretty fit from some big walk-ins and long routes at altitude, excited about some great mountain rock climbing in Scotland, only to be greeted with 4 weeks of wet, windy weather. Oh well, plan B, let’s go running!
The second trigger for my attempt was a plan to head down to the Lakes for my Stag weekend, again hoping to go rock climbing, but I suppose whilst I am there, there is no harm in having a go I suppose!
So after a couple of weeks of frantic emails and negotiations I had ditched the climbing, drinking and enjoying myself plan, and had my attempt logistics sorted.
It is normal to have a team of support runners to help along the way, with one, or often a lot more people, running with you on each of the 5 legs to help carry spare kit and food, navigate and generally motivate and encourage. Planning an attempt is a good way to find out who your mates are; try asking someone to meet you in a lay-by at 4am to run with you for 5 hours, whatever the weather and see what happens!
I am sure many an evening has been passed in Lakeland pubs debating the benefits of running a round clockwise or anti-clockwise and what is the optimum start time to make the most of the available daylight. I just opted for what seemed the most obvious; a clockwise round, as run by Bob himself and a midnight start, a nice round number and dark for the easiest running at the start and end. This did mean however, that as I was walking to the start at the Moot Hall in Keswick town centre I already felt like I was in need of a good nights sleep!
After a few nervous minutes waiting for the clock to tick on to midnight it was time to go, through the car park, across the park and onto the track that leads up to Skiddaw and the first big climb of the day.
My biggest worry was that I would do my usual trick of setting out too fast and soon find myself trying to hold on for the rest of the run, fine if it is only a couple of hours, but not much fun for another 20 or so. To avoid this I had a very strict schedule to stick to, with a time to be at each of the 42 peaks that would get me round in 23 ½ hours. The problem with this plan was that, as I hadn’t reccied any of the route I would have no idea what my pace needed to be. Fortunately my first supporter, Chris, was a local fell racer so knew the hill like the back of his hand, “when we’re racing we get to the top in about 40 minutes” he says, and we have 1hour 25 minutes, so a nice quick walk should do it!
Arriving at the top of Skiddaw 5 minutes up on the schedule already, seeing the light of Keswick far below disappear as into thick clouds and freezing wind, the ridiculousness of my situation really hit me, what a bizarre way to spend a weekend! I loved it, and scrambling down the slippery summit rocks towards the next peak I couldn’t help but just laugh at myself, I was loving it!
This first leg is in many ways turned out to be the hardest of the lot, some very rough, boggy and wet ground felt very slow and hard work, twice we had to wade, thigh deep, across streams swollen by the recent wet weather, there is a lot of ascent in this leg and the decent from Blencathra is a grade 1 scramble, Hall’s fell, or the ‘knee wrecker’ as it is apparently known, a slip here was not an option and the concentration was very tiring. So I arrived at Threlkeld, my first road crossing and end of leg 1 feeling fairly pessimistic. I was already tiring, one knee was starting to play up in a way it never has before and I had only done 3 peaks in 4 hours, maybe this was a silly idea after all!
A quick 5-minute change over, a bit of food, some tea, fresh socks and a fresh supporter, Robin, and we were off again, another reasonable climb up to Clough head out of the way and at last we got some nice running. The wide grassy ridge snaked out in front of us in the first signs of morning light and the peaks came quickly; the Dodds, Raise, White Side and there we were on the last climb up to Helvellyn just as the sun rose to our left, this amazing spectacle was a real energiser and well worth all the effort. It didn’t make the mountains any smaller, but it helped me find a rhythm and at that point I decided it would need a really good excuse to quit this challenge and so long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other I was in with a chance.
Another change-over; pasta, socks, top, tea, supporter and we are off for the longest leg of the day, Dunmail raise to Wasdale, 6 hours including the highest peaks of the day and the dreaded Broad Stand, an easy but serious rock climb.
My earlier interest in the navigation and route finding went out of the window here and I put my trust in my supporter, another Chris, who had reccied this bit of the route the week before and I concentrated in the relentless task of putting one foot in front of the other. Some grassy undulating hills out of the way and we were at the head of Langdale, the place that first really inspired my interest in the mountains. It was here, eleven hours into my challenge that I started to falter a bit, despite all of my best efforts I just hadn’t managed to get enough fuel into my body and the warning light was well and truly flashing. My legs had the feeling they wanted to give up and my brain was saying the same, I was concentrating hard to watch my feet and make decisions about what I needed to do next, very much like the feeling of trying to convince yourself you are sober as you leave the pub and start to walk home! Fortunately the schedule showed that we were around twenty minutes up, so for the next couple of peaks I just walked and tried to eat as much as I could; jelly babies, energy gels, a hot-cross bun and flapjack. Just keep eating, just keep walking, don’t think too much, just keep plodding on, ignore the crowds at the top of Scafell Pike, I knew this wasn’t going to be the end of my effort, my body just needed a chance to catch up, slow and steady was the mantra.
By the time we arrived at Broad Stand I was starting to recover and the climbing was a welcome distraction. An easy rock climb, but with a big drop if you get it wrong, slippery in the wet (it think it is always wet!) and with running shoes not the ideal choice this felt serious and I would recommend a safety rope, we didn’t have one so it was with some relief that we got to the top of the difficulties and scrambled easily to the top. From here a long decent took us to Wasdale Head and another leg was in the bag!
More pasta, hot-cross buns, tea, dry socks and top, electrolyte drink, quick attempt at a stretch and ibuprofen for the knees and we were off again, this time with two supporters, Will and Rob, one to navigate one to feed me, perfect! The last big climb of the day, 500 meters straight up the steep hillside to Yewbarrow wasn’t as bad as I had expected and from there some brilliant running took us around to Kirk Fell and the Gables, I think I was enjoying myself! Here rockier ground and low cloud made route finding harder, but again my supporters did a great job and all of a sudden we were descending out of the cloud to Honister pass just as it was getting dark.
I was fifteen minutes up on a schedule that gave me over half an hour to spare at the end, with only three hours of some of the easiest running ground ahead of me, I was tired but feeling good and my knees were no worse than they had been 12 hours ago. Surely it was in the bag, all I had to do was keep trucking on! It was cold, dark, cloudy and raining. By this point I had become a total passenger, relying on my two supporters, Simon and Chris, to do their thing and get me round. I stopped really taking an interest in where I was, or what was coming next, trying to take my mind somewhere else until my body had finished its job. Eventually we hit the road at High Snab, only 6 km of road running to the finish; walk, shuffle, walk, jog, walk, jog down a small hill, shuffle up an incline, are we nearly there yet?! I could keep moving but it was slow and that was the longest 6 km of my life so no one was more surprised than me when the end of the high street came into view and my body started sprinting, not just a quicker shuffle, but a full on Usain Bolt 200 meters to the steps of the Moot Hall that I had left 23 hours and 10 minutes earlier, I had done it!
I woke up the next morning, unsure of my surroundings, only a collection of half remembered dreams explaining the pain and discomfort that had overtaken my entire body. I have never felt so totally drained by anything and it would take at least three weeks before I felt recovered, but yes, it was worth it, what a Stag Do, thanks boys!!