After living and running for the last 11 years in Australia, I returned to England with Christine and the two kids, to reconnect with family and friends and rediscover the beauty and history of fell running, which lies on the doorstep of my childhood.
As a kid growing up in Consett, County Durham (on the borders with Northumberland and Cumbria) we were surrounded by moorland, heath and fells. The Lake District, across the Pennines, was an easy day trip with Mam and Dad.
The peaks and valleys of the Lake District are spectacular, and are known as ‘fells’ where I come from, a term which (according to Wikipedia) means “high and barren landscape features, often above the alpine tree line”. We’d usually focus our attention on the Lakes and towns themselves though, and rarely can I remember really venturing up the cloud-covered summits.
Within days of arriving at my parents’ (mid-December 2017) I began to plan what running in 2018 could offer. Now back in Europe my options were huge; I immediately entered a few local fell races and quickly experienced the conditions North-East English winters had in store: sub-zero temperatures, frozen rivers and snowdrifts. The winter would go on to become one of the harshest in years, a massive contrast to sub-tropical Byron Bay, NSW, Australia.
In terms of experiences that would give me something very different to Australia, I was keen to try Europe’s alpine and altitude ranges. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) seemed an obvious opportunity. I’d had sufficient ‘qualifying points’ for a few years now, but never the funds to justify a trip halfway around the world for a race – no matter how iconic!
So I chucked my name in the lottery for that – but didn’t get in.
BUT WHAT ELSE?
Hunter Dodds, a mate I’d met in 2017 training for and running the Great Southern Endurance Run that November, messaged me:
“Still thinking you’ll give the Bob Graham a crack?”
We’d talked about it, but it had slipped from my mind.
“Oh I’d love to but… it takes a heck of a lot of organising???? A mate of mine did do it two years ago…”
“actually my brothers paced and crewed for him…”
“ah now I’m thinking again!!!”
And that was that! Thanks Hunter…
What is the Bob Graham Round?
The BGR is a classic fell-running ultra-marathon that famously featured in the brilliant Richard Askwith book Feet in the Clouds (2004).
Bob Graham, as Wikipedia will tell you, was a “Keswick guest house owner, who in June 1932 broke the Lakeland Fell Record by traversing 42 fells within a 24 hour period”.
The history of fell running in this region is immense. The BGR, as well as other similar challenges, have been repeated and records consistently smashed in the 88 years that have passed.
The names of Joss Naylor, Billy Bland (record holder since 1982 – 13 hrs 53 mins and broken this summer by Kilian Jornet) and Nicki Spinks (her double sub-48 hours round in 2016 is epic), count among the multitude of athletes who have become mythical in the mists of the valleys, mountains and consciousness of people in these parts.
No longer a local to the area, organisation would prove to be one of the biggest challenges of this adventure; it had been 25 years since I’d lived ‘back home’.
The ‘Round’ itself begins and ends in Keswick town centre, at the Moot Hall (now an information centre). It isn’t a race, but a self-organised traversing of 104km (66 miles) with 8,200m (27,000 feet) of ascent, over 42 peaks each over 600m (2,000 feet) high (the full details and rules are here: http://www.bobgrahamclub.org.uk/index.php?page=hour24 )
If it’s your intention to be admitted into the hallowed “Bob Graham 24 hours Club” then the attempts must be witnessed by at least one person, recording the time each summit is reached. Names of all companion runners and road crew are recorded and later ratified before you can be permitted to join. Successful rounds are submitted to Bob Wightman and are published in January of the next year. Membership numbers are assigned and certificates presented to new members at a reunion dinner, held the following October at the Shap Wells Hotel, near Penrith.
No race director, no course markers or organised aid stations. No other competitors, medals or t-shirt ‘merch’.
Logistics would be vital, if I was to even consider the attempt.
The Planning – recces and setting a date
My first port of call had to be Richard Petty, a friend from years ago who had successfully done it in 2014. He had now moved to the Lakes with Jo his wife and new twin boys.
How possible was it for me to put this thing together?
I didn’t have years, or even many months. The course would need to be recced and five legs individually trialled, possibly on numerous occasions due to the heavy dependence on weather conditions. BGR training and actual attempts have regularly been aborted due to freezing rain, snow, winds and zero visibility. All are common and the cause of many an accident or even death.
Did I have that time?
People often have a date set, plus a back-up date should the first fail or be cancelled. I didn’t have that luxury, or the crew I’d need to depend on, to have this flexibility.
Fortunately Rich got straight back to me,
“bloody hell mate, how exciting! Loved the BG and would love to talk about it…”
“would love to crew/run a leg with you…. been dying to do this since our nuts weekend in May 2014”.
In the weeks that followed other friends and family were dragged on board and the adventure began to take shape. The first public holiday in May was set, giving us a longer weekend and lighter, longer spring/summer days.
But the problem with setting the date for early May was that training and recces needed to start immediately. Fitting it into to work and family life would mean grabbing any chances I could to get over to Keswick, no matter what.
It was still winter!!! Very much so, in fact some of the biggest snow storms and coldest weather in years, courtesy of the ridiculously-named “Beast from the East”.
Recces in winter
So it began – a kid-free weekend with Christine to Keswick!
Keswick to Threlkeld: Leg 1 recce
After starting with Christine up to Skidaw, I continued to complete the first leg: Keswick to Threlkeld. The weather wasn’t ideal. The clouds came in and there was lots of snow and ice melt, flooding the normally marshy section over to Great Calva. Navigating across heathland with almost non-existent tracks was an eye-opener.
By the time I’d begun my descent of Blencathra, down Halls Fell there was zero visibility. The narrow rock ridge, only metres wide, felt perilous. On more than one occasion, sitting in melt water cascading around me, I wondered how much of an idiot I’d been.
I had no back-up plan to descend via another route. My naivety embarrassed me. Would I be calling my awaiting wife to say that mountain rescue were needed to get me down? After what seemed like a lifetime of kicking my toes into icy narrow tracks, I made it. Shaken!
I was petrified. What if the actual day was like this? Too dangerous for me and pacers; the responsibility for everyone’s safety was much more important.
Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise – Leg 2 recce
Regardless of this, two weeks later I returned for Leg 2. Brilliantly?? It was worse!! Threlkeld to Dunmail Rise, over summits including the Dodd’s and Hellvelyn, saw a repeat of the horrendous visibility, but with added howling wind and freezing sleet.
This time it was not the terrain but the weather that almost got me. I’d packed plenty of layers, but gloves were the problem. The Clough Head ascent was a snow drift and my hands had got cold and wet through soaked gloves. The ridge line had been sheltering me from the sub-zero gale above.
I bumped into a guy at the top, giving me a bit of a boost. It felt good to have someone alongside. We chatted and continued along the ridge line.
After an hour he turned to head back to his car, but as he did his GPS tracker and my watch map were showing conflicting information. The visibility was only a couple of metres. We then separated, only to bump back into one another minutes later. Neither of us was 100% sure which way was the right way.
I looked down, saw the path and trusted my watch map. When I looked back up he’d gone into the clouds. I shouted a few times but the wind was blowing hard. I stood at the trig point for a few minutes. I was freezing and I needed to keep moving. I’d changed my gloves and added my final fleece beneath my waterproof jacket, but my hands were ice!!! I couldn’t focus on anything else. (Now 5 months since that day, the frost bite in both my index fingers has left the tips partially numb).
I eventually arrived at Dunmail Rise after 5:30 hours to catch a lift with Darryl Priestley (brother-in-law) who’d had an equally horrific experience; he was training for the Fred Whitton endurance bike race, around the mountain I’d just been over. We both were relieved to be back inside the warmth and safety of the car.
Once again I was gaining a less-than-enthusiastic appreciation of what this challenge was going to take.
No less petrified, the next one, is the longest and arguably the toughest.
Dunmail Raise to Wasdale – Leg 3 recce
Logistics are everything! I had Rich Petty, my veteran BGR’er, to help. I stayed with him and his family in Orton the night before.
Getting to recce this section meant hours of driving to place cars at the start and finish, and Leg 3 is tricky. Starting at Dunmail Raise is easy but having a car at Wasdale, travelling over the spectacular Hardknott Pass was a 3+ hour round trip, followed by 5-7 hrs of running and an hour-and-a-half return from Wasdale to the start where my car had been left. This added up to an almost 14-hour day by the time I drove back from the Lakes to home.
Mercifully Leg 3 was less life-threatening. With Rich by my side, we chatted and discussed everything and nothing. Alternate options at Scafell, whether you choose Broadstair or Foxes Tarn, was a hot topic. The former requires ropes and climbing, the latter an additional 30-40 minutes. Without climbing experience we opted for Foxes Tarn.
The weather mostly held, and we were given occasional glimpses of the views the Lakes can offer.
Heathland for the first half saw us progress quickly over the route. Although on a few occasions one of us found himself literally thigh-high in boggy mud, running carefree over short, bright, green vegetation that had tempted us into a more direct line. We dragged ourselves unceremoniously out of the sludge, skilfully avoiding losing one of our shoes.
The second half was a world away from the first. Moonscape rocks and scree made progress slow. Rocking boulders flipped and tapped our ankles, like a small hammer smashing glass on an emergency exit sign.
This is the leg that would be important; 6-7 hours perhaps, and some difficult ascents and descents that needed care to be safe. Rich got me through and something resembling confidence began to return as the approaching attempt day loomed.
Legs 4 and 5 were going to have to wait until the ‘real thing’. With only weeks to go, time wasn’t on my side.
Fortunately Rich would be with me for Leg 4, Wasdale to Honister, not 3 as he had been on the recce. I was super grateful that he was doing a recce for Leg 4 on my behalf, a week before our attempt date!!!
The final leg from Honister back to Keswick was deemed less of a concern. With 50% of it on road back into Keswick, it’s possible to get away without practicing it beforehand.
AND SO WITH RECCES DONE…..
Training continued and long runs closer to home resembled 4-5 hour hill rep sessions to guarantee the necessary ascent.
THE REAL THING – MAY BANK HOLIDAY 2018
Snow, ice and zero visibility had meant that the Lakeland landscape had held its beauty very close to its chest, but that was about to change. Spring had truly sprung and unbelievably our chosen date was to become extraordinarily clear, sunny and hot.
I was over the moon. Not only would I finally get to see further than 2 metres past my nose, but from a crew/support perspective it would present a holiday atmosphere for both adults and kids.
We booked a house in Helvellyn Street, very close to the centre of Keswick, and this became HQ for the weekend for the 14 of us.
|Crew and support||Pacers|
|Christine and Stella||Leg 1 Mike Buckman – ‘Basil’|
|Peter and Anne Byrne (Dad and Mam)||Leg 2 Ian Hutchinson – ‘Hutch’|
|Sarah and Ruby Berry||Leg 3 Steve Collins|
|Behind the scenes||Leg 4 Rich Petty|
|Emma Little and John Wyndham||Leg 5 Mark Berry – ‘Buz’, Rich Petty, Sean and Sandy|
Pacers and crew changed over the final few weeks, as inevitably family commitments and life presented unavoidable obstacles.
Thankfully my local trail-running club ‘Derwent Valley Trail Runners’ (DVTR) saved the day as a couple of lads (Ian and Steve) jumped in last minute to pace Legs 2 and 3.
MOOT HALL – KESWICK
Leg 1 – Keswick to Threlkeld – 4:06am departure
(Pacer: Mike ‘Basil’ Buckman)
Starting at 4:06am on Sunday, we were waved off from the Keswick Moot Hall and Mike and I began the attempt. Apart from a minor ‘extra’ peak before Skidaw (impossible it seems, but I managed to stray from the most well-marked track on the whole round) things were perfect.
Dark for the first 45-60 mins, we were greeted by the sun, as the last clouds we’d see for the day disappeared.
It was going to be stunning. Cloudless vistas in all directions. For the first time there was the chance to see, in the distance, huge sections of what was to come – the ‘Round’ itself.
We chatted and admired the place. Just “WOW!!!!!!” I would go on to repeat this hundreds of times. I’d never seen the Lakes this clear.
And so it continued; Great Calva, onto Blencathra and then the hectic Halls Fell descent to Threlkeld. Thankfully iceless, yet still needing care, we made it safe and sound to the rendezvous point where the crew awaited.
Leg 2 – Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise – 8:22am departure
(Pacer: Ian ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson)
I changed my MoreMile Cheviot fell shoes (it hadn’t been as wet as expected) and into the Hoka Evo Jawz, and a DVTR club singlet.
We waved our goodbyes and ran for about 500m when I realised that although I’d eaten, I’d picked up no food/gels/bars. My crew notes hadn’t been clear and so no one had repacked for me. OOPS!
Hutch turned and legged it back to the cars before they departed and I slowly kept moving forward.
The leg starts with a short but tough steep climb straight up to Clough Head and then runs along the ridge toward Helvellyn, the site of my previous frostbite. It undulates for the most part, but is reasonably runnable and fairly good underfoot.
We talked and recorded our summits and times of arrival. It was ridiculously clear. Neither Hutch nor I had ever seen it this stunning before. We marched on without too much trouble and hit the last couple of very steep ascents and descents at Fairfield and Seat Saddle (summits 14 and 15) and down to Dunmail Raise.
We were greeted by Sandy, my 11 year-old son, who guided us directly to the rest of the support crew in the layby.
The size of the turnout reminded me just how much of a team effort this really was.
Leg 3 – Dunmail Raise to Wasdale – 12:30pm departure
(Pacer: Steve Collins)
Dunmail Raise is such a convenient spot between Keswick and Grasmere, and so a chance for everyone to get involved. Mam, Dad, my wife Christine, the kids – Sandy and Stella (7) – and my brother Sean were there. Pacers for later stages Rich and Buz, with his wife Sarah and daughter Ruby, plus Basil, were there too. Dad informed me that someone from Bob Graham Round (possibly Bob Whiteman) had passed by and enquired about our progress.
I thanked Hutch and picked up Steve Collins for this, the most difficult and longest leg of the Round.
Amazingly the kids joined us for the VERY steep climb out of the valley. I was surprised at just how far they kept up with us. Eventually though, as Stella and Ruby dropped back, I turned to Sandy and said,
“Mate, you’re going to have to stop here. I know you could keep going”.
Far below the cars and people were dots and the kids needed to get safely back down without me returning with them.
“Good luck dad, have a good run”.
After about 15 minutes Steve and I had cleared the ascent and I could begin to run again.
This leg is very much a game of two halves; the first being an undulating plateau of heath and moorland, relatively quick and easy progress can be made. Beautiful weather and spectacular views gave us the chance to enjoy this thing. We chatted to walkers and stopped to admire and take pictures of the whole experience. MORE WOWS!!!
The second half, though, is entirely different. Underfoot the soft grassy heath is replaced by rocks and scree, and traverses that slow the progress to a much more pedestrian pace.
Midway through this part I began, for the first time, to feel the pressure of time – sub 24hrs??
We’d moved well but I’d been so happy to be distracted by the experience that I’d let time slip by.
As we approached Scafell Pike I realised we had seriously fallen behind and we still had some work to do before reaching Wasdale. The descent from Scafell Pike, and then the ascent back up to Scafell, finished with a long descent all the way to Wasdale and was hectic.
We’d never intended the 30 minute ‘time saver’ using the rope climb up Broadstair, and hearing Steve’s comical admission that he was scared of heights, it was never an option!
We’d be dropping down to use the Foxes Tarn ascent. You lose a lot of height and although no ropes are required, the climb is virtually a waterfall crack between an almost vertical ascent. It’s then followed by a very steep march to the summit.
We passed a couple camping in the suspended tarn and reached the top.
The light was more subdued, and I was aware again that the big scree descent to the lake would still take some time. It was already 7:05pm, more than a few of hours later than planned.
The scree is fun. We bounded down it as it slipped beneath us, taking the impact and filling our shoes with gravel. We arrived!!
Steve had done a brilliant job…
But I could tell from the look on Rich, Dad, Mam and Sean’s faces that I needed to stop messing around and get my shit together.
I was hours behind and it would now take more than a concerted effort to get back on track, if this attempt was to succeed.
I’d done everything but focus on the time. It was starting to seriously look like I’d buggered it up and things we rapidly going pear-shaped.
It was 8:10pm; I needed to get back to Keswick by 4:06 am. That gave me 7 hours and 56 minutes to do the final two legs.
I really wanted to avoid this. It was unnecessarily stressful for everyone, and I could see it in their eyes.
Rich had had a similar experience in his attempt in 2014 but for different reasons. He’d got here hours ahead of now, but the weather had turned and in this next leg they’d experienced a couple of navigation and visibility problems. They’d then had to pull a monumental effort out of the bag.
I had no such excuse.
I’d already lost the time ‘buffer’ I’d hoped for and was now seriously behind. It was rapidly approaching dark and the first climb up to Yewbarrow from Wasdale is ridiculously steep.
“Ok, put the GoPro away, it’s time to get on with this.”
I wasn’t cold but changed my top and socks.
“Put some gloves on as well.”
“I’m not that cold.”
“Yeah, but the next ascent you’re going to be using your hands and the heather and gorse are sharp.”
Leg 4 – Wasdale to Honister – 8:21pm departure
(Pacer: Rich Petty)
Refuelled and recharged we said our farewells and looked forward to getting to Honister Youth Hostel. Rich had specifically recced this section the week before and had used an ascent that was on less slippery scree. We headed towards it and began to gain altitude.
I looked below and could see the team in cars waving as they headed off to Honister. As I turned back to face the climb, I realised Rich was a fair way ahead. My feet were sliding and so was my head!!!!!!
All the effort that everyone had put in to supporting me in this attempt and
I WAS ABOUT TO BLOW IT!
Rich is amazing. An historian with a seemingly photographic memory, he encouraged, cajouled and led the way. He recounted every height for each summit and the distance between, and he kept me going with facts and numbers. Well, and the occasional Delia Smith (English 80’s TV chef) quote:
“Dare to dream” and “Let’s have it!”
Bizarre references, that were hilarious, and lifted me.
Pitch black now and relying only on the head torches, I followed. I ignored, for the first time, the GPS maps on the Suunto.
Steeple, Pillar, Kirkfell, Great Gable, Green Gable were tackle in the dark.
We pushed and pushed, aware that we were going to need every minute. Then, a slight early detour off almost the final summit sent us too far down and I quickly began to stress.
Thankfully Rich recognised we could traverse across the scree to avoid losing any more height and dropping into the wrong valley. But it was slow going. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes.
Rich pushed harder and I tried to hold on. Occasionally I’d lose sight of his light:
He’d turn and I’d see him a couple of hundred metres ahead and attempt to chase him down.
By 1:20am It was looking desperate. Finally, lights below and Honister Youth Hostel, the final CP. We charged into the car park area where Dad, Mam, Christine, Basil, Sandy, Sean and Buz awaited.
Leg 5 – Honister – Keswick – 1:29am departure
(Pacers: Mark ‘Buz’ Berry and Rich Petty, Sean Byrne and Sandy Byrne)
I only had 187 minutes remaining. Schedules reckon; 180 minutes for 23 hours or 171 minutes for a 22:30 hour finish. I was going to be pushing 24 at this rate.
I barely remember stopping here. By now I was only consuming Coca-Cola and said virtually nothing. IN AND OUT.
I picked up Buz, who marched alongside and then took up position leading the way.
I’d also asked Rich to stay on for the first part, up to Dalehead and as far as Robinson. His navigation and experience would be vital if I was to avoid any silly minor mishaps on this ‘un-recced’ section.
We fast-paced up to Dalehead and from then on it was go, go, go!!
Both Buz and Rich sat 30 metres ahead and I just put my head down and chased them. The last descent to the road was steep, but I ignored my feet and bounded down as quickly as I could.
A 4-wheel drive track that went for a few kilometres finally gave way to the country lane, where the whole team were waiting in their cars.
I heard voices and could see them. From here the leg continued for about 10km of ‘proper’ road back to Keswick.
Christine had a fresh pair of shoes, but I shouted that I’d just keep going. Sean my brother now joined us and Rich jumped into the car.
My head torch suddenly went dead, but the beams of the support cars provided enough light. In addition, I realised that my back pack, still full of uneaten food and 1.5 kg of water, was an unnecessary weight I could do without. I unclipped and passed it to Buz. He burst out laughing,
“You nutter! Why’ve you been carrying all this”
I shook my head,
“I know, I know”
He jumped into the car.
One of the cars up front stopped and out jumped my son, Sandy. We’d planned on him joining me for the final 5km-ish. He ran towards me, excited at the madness of running at this time in the morning.
“Come on Dad, let’s go!”
I was fighting back the emotion of the moment, whilst panicking at the prospect of us arriving LITERALLY minutes too late.
“I can’t talk, Sean, tell him I can’t talk”
Sandy looked up and ran beside me,
“It’s ok Dad, don’t worry the time doesn’t mean anything really. We do this because we enjoy it!”
I could feel Sean look across at me, eyebrows raised. It was such a true, perfect, beautiful and thoughtful thing to say.
Oh man, not now… I wasn’t giving up yet, we were so close.
The three of us, my little brother and son, followed one car and were followed by another through winding lanes, the lights of Keswick still nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly we were at a junction, but the first car had disappeared. We had no idea which way it had gone.
“Nooooooo!!! Where are they?”
Sean gambled on right and sure enough could see them around the next corner. He spoke to Basil and Rich and then led Sandy and me off the road and along the final country track to Keswick.
They opened and held gates for me and I ran through unimpeded. We turned a corner and there it was. The town. It appeared from nowhere, possibly the cloud in which my head was engulfed.
In no time I could hear voices.
“Come on Son”, Dad shouted.
“You’ve got this babe, come on”, Christine ran alongside.
As we all ran into the Keswick town square, The Moot Hall awaited. I climbed those final welcoming steps and covered my head.
The sheer relief; we’d done it!! We couldn’t have cut it much finer.
We’d had it all: perfect weather, perfect views, an amazing team of crew and support.
And to top it all off, an unnecessarily dramatic finish to really give the challenge a level of stress we all could have done without.
But yes, we did it. 23:47hrs.
Sandy you’re right the time doesn’t matter…
…well it does a bit! 24:01hrs would have been devastating.
This event truly is a team effort and I can’t thank everyone enough for indulging me in this adventure. Support from family and friends (crew) is something that can’t be underestimated for the Bob Graham Round.
“The doorstep of my childhood” proved to be the greatest chances for me to immerse myself in my love for moving across a landscape.
(Next: 6 weeks ago I finally raced in the European Alps in Switzerland and Italy in Ultra Tour Mont Rosa 2018 https://www.ultratourmonterosa.com/ )
Massive love and thanks to:
- Family and friends – crew and support – above and beyond
- Derwent Valley Trail Runners – my adopted running club – https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009984662640
- The Bob Graham 24 Hour Club – http://www.bobgrahamclub.org.uk/
- Andy Dubois – super coach at Mile27 Coaching – http://mile27.com.au/
- Pete Bailey and Alvin Caoyonan – Sponsorship over the past few years at the Adon Group – https://adongroup.com.au/
- Kriss Hendy’s Strength For Endurance guidance and for showing me there’s more to running than running https://www.strengthforendurance.com/
- Billy Owens for his expertise in proof reading all the main text