Prior to my successful round in May 2005, I had paced half the Bob Graham and made two serious attempts at the round. The first attempt was in June 2004 with the second a month later in July. Accounts of these may be accessed by the links to the left. This is an extended version of the account provided to the BG club with my timing details.
A Walk in the Park
“Yes!” I slam both fists into the cellar door of the Moot Hall, probably rattling it loudly enough to wake those nearby. Job done! I turn and look at my watch and stop the timer - 23:54M, just six minutes spare.
After the two failed attempts in 2004 Cath, my wife, had become impatient with my obsession and had stated that she would not provide support beyond this attempt. I wasn’t sure if she was kidding or not. Injuries to a couple of my pacers meant that BUPA sponsorship for the attempt, along with helicopter support, was a real possibility, fortunately they both recovered in time and were able to provide assistance.
I had taken the Friday off work so as to get some rest but most of it seemed to be spent getting things ready. Finally I dropped the Threlkeld provisions off at Andy’s and we were ready to head over to the Lakes.
Up until the previous night the plans had been fluid as pacers kept me informed either of their recovery or the weather on top of Pillar(!), appalling apparently but everything was set, so it had to be go. We were dropping Steve off at Dunmail so that he could get some sleep before pacing me on the central leg. As we arrived we saw Duncan, my first pacer’s, van but no Duncan. There was a shout as he came across the road having been talking to the support team of a woman who had set off at 7pm that evening, it was going to be a busy day on the BGR
We left Duncan’s van at Threlkeld just as the woman in question came through, looking strong. Even better was the appearance of the moon from behind thinning clouds. It was looking as if the forecasts would be right for once. Suitably buoyed we headed to Keswick.
This is almost the worst part of an attempt - hanging around in Keswick waiting for people to turn up, just letting the minutes tick by. You want to be away, but a midnight start is a midnight start, no good setting off at seventeen minutes to: working out your times would be a nightmare! Ali, who had paced me last year, turns up to see me off. He is a contender himself but setting off at 1am to get Halls Fell in the light. Craig is next to turn up. Although we have never met in person, he has offered to pace the Helvellyn leg and wanted to see us away.
Finally the hour draws near and we move through the ginnels into the market place. There is another group there, also on a midnight start but on a slightly faster schedule than myself. We introduce and chat non-commitedly, a few photos are taken.“Get ganning!” Says a local on his way home from the pub, “It’s midneet!” A minute or so to go and I remove my gloves to touch the cellar door of the Moot Hall with bare flesh, even kissing it to make sure. A good luck kiss from Cath.
Midnight, and we are away at last, skipping round benches and down ginnels and alleyways until we emerge into Fitz Park. Away from the street lights we can let our eyes adjust to running using headtorches. It is cool enough that it is better if we hold them rather than wear them on our heads where the beam only highlights our breath. Soon we are out of the town and heading up Latrigg at a brisk walk. Just behind is the other contender and his pacer.
The other party pass us just after the (empty) car park at Latrigg though come the first rise we pull back and we reach the foot of the big climb to Jenkin Hill together. Occasional conversations soon cease as the relentless slope causes us to conserve our breath. Duncan and I keep a steady pace and pull away from the others. In fact this was to be a constant theme of the section: we would outpace them on the uphills, they, us on the downhills. Over the section it evened out.
Our approach to Skiddaw is marked by incoming cloud and wind. Soon visibility is just a few metres. The second fence appears out of the mist on schedule and we speed up on the level section round the back of Little Man before slowing again for the final rise to the summit area. The cloud here has cleared - it was just clinging to the South West slopes - not a good sign really. However the night view out across the Solway plain is now laid out below us, there is even some moonlight to help us. Over the fence and we see the ights of the others just coming off the summit. As we descend the tussocky slope, searching for the faint quad-bike track that will be our guide, I notice something odd. Snow! I stop and look down to realise that it is in fact patches of lichen that are almost luminescent.
The others catch us as we strike off on a faint trod to cross Hare Crag. However cloud cover means that we have the wrong trod and we plough through bogs on the traverse around the hillock. We all strike for the track in the wrong place and flounder through heather to arrive on the track around 200m from the correct spot. A refill of water bottles and we are away, but taking different lines. We head up to the south ridge and along that joining the others near the summit. We are nicely up by Great Calva and the descent to the Caldew is remarkably hassle free. No time for niceties - just wade the river and cross the bog on the other side. Again we pull away from the others on the rise up to Mungrisedale Common, arriving on the summit area about 100m away from the cairn having just missed the main part of a shower.
The path made good going for once but we were soon back in cloud as we approached Blencathra. By now the path looked unfamiliar and by the time we reached the scree it was obvious that we were too far to the left so a long rising traverse line gained the saddle near the cross. As we approached the summit, I was sure I could see a tent. “Allo?” Said a voice. “Morning” we replied and then “There’s a lot more where we’ve come from!” Finally the summit of Blencathra after the longest leg of the round. Just Halls Fell now and we’d be refuelling.
It was instantly obvious that there had been a big shower over the ridge as everything was dripping wet. So began another bum assisted descent of Halls Fell. This meant that we lost nearly all of our time advantage in the descent. By the end of the rocky section we could make better progress. A phone call to Andy to wake him up and it’s down again, past the hounds at the farm to a sea of vehicles waiting for teams. Our respite is by the main road so we pass by with a quick hello and stroll up to the cars.
I am changing socks when Craig announces that he has had a poor night’s sleep as his drinks water bladder had leaked over all his clothes and sleeping bag! Food and water are readied and we are about to leave when a set of car keys cannot be found. Several minutes are lost until the car can be locked.
Clough Head is the same long pull it ever was. At least the clouds are lifting. A break at the old coach road then it is on and up again. Craig begins to fall behind and it is only at the summit when told of the time that he tells us it is nearly ten minutes faster than he has done it before. By now the clouds have begun to look threatening and as we trot down towards Calfhow Pike it begins to rain. Not early summer rain but driving, cold, winter rain. Hats and gloves go back on as we begin to chill. Dawn on Great Dodd is not the multi-coloured occasion that it was two years ago. By Watson’s Dodd the actual rain has stopped but the wind is still cold and bitter.
Stybarrow Dodd is without incident and Raise comes and goes speedily, along with Whiteside. The long pull up Lower Man is slightly slow but the easy going onto Helvellyn itself sees us pick up more time. a rest out of the wind in the shelter is in order. “What is it with you and the Bob Graham?” asks Andy, “The forecast is fine; You set off on the round. It rains!” This is followed by some Billy Connoly style stream of conciousness that ends in various TV weather forecasters thumbing their noses at me.
Nethermost Pike is a case of pick a cairn - any cairn. They all seem the same height, we choose the largest and head back to the main track. Pulling onto the first rocks of Dollywaggon Pike a searing pain shoots through both inner thighs. Cramp! I lean against a rock wondering what has happened to bring this on so early in the round. Slowly the pain subsides and with a bit of massage, I can continue to the summit.
The next part is of one of my dreaded sections - from Dollywaggon Pike to Steel Fell. Three big descents with three big climbs and little respite in-between.
We follow the old fence line down from Dollywaggon to skirt round Grisedale Tarn. At Hause Gap, Craig announces that his legs are shot and he’ll wait for us here. So, it’s those screes again. Hmm, up, and down, Bugger! Still got to do it. Andy keeps me going until out of the clag descend the pair that had started at the same time as us. A few words, and a thought to myself that he looks remarkably fresh, and they are gone and we are left to continue.
The summit is reached without celebration and the descent is not as bad as I had feared. Craig says that he wishes that he had come with us as he had got cold waiting but the climb to Seat Sandal warms him up. Somehow we get a good line, and time, down to the final drop. Looking North to Thirlmere there is sunshine, will the day clear up? The steep descent is slippy underfoot but short and I am running to the road leaving the others behind. I am waved across the road and collapse into Duncan’s van, the cramps returning to leave me wincing in pain. “Well done” says Mike, “Twelve minutes up on schedule”.
I lie on my back like a baby as my feet are dried and new socks put on, then my wet shoes. Warm food is shovelled down. “Peanuts!” And they are opened and passed to me. Fluid and yet more food as showers pass by the van door. Apparently, I look so bad that Cath considers stopping me from continuing but the improving weather holds her hand.
The last part of this dreaded section is next - the climb up Steel Fell. It turns out not to be too bad and we only lose a little time due to my intermittent cramping. The traverse over to Calf Crag is uneventful until another debilitating cramp attack, this time on the flat. Things do not look too good.
Although this is the longest section, regular water sources mean that just one pacer can keep me supplied with fluid, and now Steve refills the water bottles in the first beck, adding the electrolytic compounds that I hope will stem the cramp attacks. The long pull up to Sergeant Man is steady and on time though we have lost the advantage already from Dunmail.
High Raise is next, and on the way meet Ali and his team who are doing these two in the opposite order, this despite them starting an hour later than us. They must have flown along the first two legs! However the extra distance their route has taken them means that we are still ahead by Thunacar Knott. Despite the weather clearing there are still some dark clouds about and a sharp hail shower strikes us. One missile hits a nipple which is surprisingly painful, even through two layers of clothing!
Harrison Stickle comes quickly enough, Steve leaving me to climb the final section on my own as he can see from below. As I clamber over the final rocks I feel the cramp returning but it is on the descent that it really strikes. I am left reeling in agony, unable to bend or straighten either leg. As the pain recedes and we jog down the slope towards the head of Dungeon Gill, members of Ali’s group offer me some advice on getting rid of the pain. By the time I reach the summit of Pike o’ Stickle, I have lost six minutes on a twelve minute section and the cramps have really returned. I am collapsed against the rocks moaning “What has gone wrong?” I actually want to swear but there are walkers nearby, “Why can’t I be fitter?”
I am looking at giving up, the pain is that great, but I can’t face the stagger down into Langdale. I determine to finish the round whatever. Whether I am inside the time or not, I will get round! The decision made; I try thumping my legs as per the received advice and some pain goes away, more massage and slapping of the muscles and I can maintain some movement.
Going across the bog of Martcrag Moor we get a good line (though not the best) and keep up with the other group. Steve refills again at Langdale Combe as I pick up the rake across to Rossett Pike. I am going better now and Steve has to really run to catch up with me. The clouds are lifting from Bowfell as we contour round the edge of Langdale towards the next top. A lone walker is sat looking down the valley. “What’s he fishing there for?” I wonder until I realise that it is his walking stick pointing in the air! At the top we have rejoined the other group and we head for the face of Hanging Knotts together chatting away. Ali is astonished that I have managed to continue, frankly - so am I.
At the foot of the rakes is a fresh beck and we all take a refreshing change from electrolytes and bottled water. The rakes are not bad and we continue to chatter away as the pace slows for the climb. For once we have a view to admire. “Busy on Bowfell” says a pacer as he takes a photograph of the nine of us: there are four contenders and six helpers in this combined group. Eventually, we debouch onto the summit plateau of Bowfell and stumble across its bouldery wasteland to the summit. No more big climbs now until Yewbarrow.
We find a grassy line, save for the last bit, down to Ore Gap, then it’s back on the rocks for the rise up to Esk Pike. A surprise awaits me here: Mike Bullough has driven round to Seathwaite from Dunmail and come up to help me on to Wasdale. He also brings more water as there are no water sources on this bit. The jog down to Esk Hause brings us into contact with walkers along with runners in the Old County Tops race. Soon we have left them again on the direct line up to Great End.
“Which is the top?” someone asks, “Both are the same on computer mapping but Wainright gives this as the top” is the reply. “That’ll do me” So the time is logged and we head on to the next top. Ill Crag is an awkward little prow of jumbled boulders on the Scafell Plateau, but not as awkward as Broad Crag, the descent off which I have yet to be convinced that I have got the right way. Perhaps there isn’t one.
The pull up to Scafell was where I quit last year in the mirk. This year it is fine views all round and I am going fine apart from the deadness in my legs. This is the only fell where we see a number of walkers. Away from here, if we met a dozen it may be an exaggeration. Touch the cairn, another swig of water and we are away again, down to Broad Stand. Somewhere along the way I bruise the ball of my foot on a rock. Given that there are ten of us, Broad Stand could be a bit crowded.
It is! It is also soaking wet. Fortunately there is a fixed rope in place, courtesy of a mate of Duncan’s. Even better, the contenders have first go. The first step is straight forward using the loops in the rope to hold on to; the second is even wetter and has a wire with slings attached for aid! Even with this it is very awkward with high steps and long reaches to the next loop. Soon easy ground is reached however and the long scramble up to the Scafell summit ridge begins. As I reach it, one of the support team pops up out of Deep Gill. It hasn’t really saved any time going directly. The summit is easy from here and Steve arrives just behind me to log the time. “Mike has gone straight down to Wasdale” he says. Now this is the bit I am not looking forward to: 3000ft of descent on sore legs.
The first bit isn’t too bad as it is on scree but then it becomes rocky and bruising. This then ends and slowly the angle eases until the ground becomes grassy and we can jog downhill. We meet two runners who direct us at a scree run but I decline due to the state of my legs and head leftward to the normal descent line. When I reach it, I wish I’d gone for the scree. Every step is a jolt to the sore muscles in my legs. It seems to take forever to get to the stile in the fell wall and nearly as long to descent the intake field. Finally I reach the corpse road and trot along this towards the carpark. Christine Preston is there to hold open the first gate and she jogs alongside me with fresh water. The stop is in the carpark. I sit in the back of the car. We are just seven minutes behind schedule.
Cath is amazed to see me looking so strong. I suspect she was expecting a wreck. I’m buzzing now as success is definitely within my grasp and the others have to tell me to shut up and eat my food so that we can get going again. Socks changed; a bit of lube in delicate places; and we are away across the dale to the foot of the climb up to Yewbarrow. Two pacers on this section - John and Christine.
This is a typical fell-runner’s ascent: direct and no deviations. Tired legs force me to stop occasionally but John keeps me going with encouraging words. Actually I don’t feel that bad except for the solid feeling in my legs. A glance at my HRM shows a pulse rate of 130 so we certainly aren’t pushing it. Finally the slope eases and we move over the tussock grass to the summit having lost six minutes but it is the last of the big climbs.
We trot along the summit ridge to the split in the path and cut left to follow a trod under the rocks of Stirrup Crag to the col of Dore Head. Another long climb follows, this time though it is gentle and on tracks and we keep to schedule, neither gaining nor losing time. I am constantly being offered drinks, jelly babies, peanuts, in an attempt to keep me going. I hardly finish one mouthful before something else is thrust into my hand. “We were told that you weren’t eating or drinking enough” explains John. Descents, even small ones, are still agony on my sore thighs. Coming off Red Pike is a case in point as I hobble downwards, on the flat or uphills, the pace picks up though. We cross the wall and head to the spur for Steeple. John stays behind to take pictures whilst Chris and I go out along the ridge to the outlier. We have gained four minutes. Things are looking better.
The crossing to Pillar is surprisingly rough. Once again the descents are almost slower than the ascents but we lose no time on this bit. The weather is lovely: a light breeze and pleasant sunshine. The views are fantastic and the descent to Black Sail Pass is filled with talk of how the Lakes is the most beautiful place in England, Britain, Europe, the world! All this to a stunning backdrop of Great Gable and the Scafell range.
It was sometime during this descent that my brain decided to give up on the pain in my legs and not pester me with it any more. It certainly made the downhills easier. A solitary tent at the pass (someone waiting for another contender) and we begin the climb up to Kirkfell. A choice at the bottom, John and Chris usually go to the right, I to the left. We go left up the gully before cutting back onto the ridge. Once on the plateau we just follow the old fence posts to the summit. “You know what I can smell?” says John, “The smell of victory!” Coming off Kirkfell we make one of the few route errors on the round and fail to find the gully leading down to Beck Head. John had wanted to follow a rake but it was new to me so had insisted on carrying across the fellside. I had only recce’d this section in snowy conditions so had not been able to see the grassy rake.
We were soon back on track though and now faced with the last rough section: Great Gable. The climb up this was surprisingly steady and we reach the summit with 4 1/2 hours remaining. Perhaps John was right, I am going to do it. The descent to Windy Gap takes my mind off matters as we lose more time. A team on an 18hr schedule passes us. A good line to Brandreth claws back some time. Duncan meets us between here and Grey Knotts, just as I manage to do some running again, and we descend to Honister via a grassy line I had not used before and run into the car park to applause from the various support teams.
Again my helpers have to get me to eat rather than talk, but soon we are ready to move. Three and a half hours remain. Surely now, I’ll do it. The sky is turning red and lighting up the bracken covered hillsides. The view takes my mind off the long, long, slope up to Dale Head, the tiredness finally starts to get to me and none of this fell section is taken at anything other than a walk. We lose time to Dale Head but gain that amount and more on the way to Hindscarth, only to lose even more on the way to Robinson.
Darkness falls as we approach Robinson. We had hoped to avoid the use of our torches for a while after this but the increasing rain means that we need them immediately. Duncan decides that the best way off is to drop down into Little Dale and use the track in the bottom. However the track we think is the one only leads us back to the ridge so we continue in the dark along that. There is a problem in this, in that there are a series of rock steps near the foot of the ridge and they will be very slippy, and slow. More time is lost as we descend them with extra care. Then it is along the ridge to High Snab Bank, one of Bob Graham’s original tops, before a final leg thumping descent to the track.
Steve appears out of the darkness and gets instructions for the road head and races on ahead. Duncan and I run along the, now tarmac, lane, dropping down all the time. Due to the slope I can’t check the watch to see the time. As we approach the church a figure looms: “Which one of you is the contender?”, “He is” says Duncan, “Not allergic to Ibufren are you?“, “No”, “Take this and it will kick in in about ten minutes and help keep the pain away”. I carry on, trying to peel back the foil of the bubble until I realise that I simply have to push the pill out. The carpark comes into view a moment later.
We now have 57 minutes to get to Keswick. A couple are used in changing my shoes as the bruise on the ball of my foot is noticable. Supposedly the last bit takes 40 minutes. Steve, Duncan and myself set off along the road, half jogging, half walking. In the dark I look up at Causey Pike and think: “Bugger fifty at fifty”! A few minutes later, Cath drives past. The village of Stair comes quickly enough but we (I) have to walk the rise past Swinside. As we carry on through the trees, I see a light coming towards us and can’t figure out why Duncan should be running towards a cyclist. It turns out to be Mike. A moment later another light is revealed as Craig.
“You’ve done half of it and it is all flat or downhill” encourages Mike. Portinscale arrives and we run past late night revellers as we cross the Greta. Even on the flat I have to walk occasionally. The lights of Keswick just don’t seem to be getting nearer. Finally a stile and we pull back onto tarmac. “Run from here!” someone says, I get to the road and say that I’ll run from the mini roundabout to the finish.
The others are getting anxious and as soon as we get near the roundabout, they are urging me on. More drunks with unheard comments then I’m past the flower pots at the foot of the market place, the finish is in sight. “Sprint!” my pacers urge as we start the final slope to the Moot Hall. I round the new bench wondering how to celebrate and with a couple of paces to go, I clench my fists, raise my arms and . . .
The Highs and Lows
The Bob Graham is as much a rollercoaster mentally as physically and there will be lows in every round, mine were:
- The bad weather (thankfully short) from Clough Head to Great Dodd.
- The cramps. I cannot remember having muscle cramps that bad. I have a generally high pain threshold but these had me in tears.
The highs were:
- Getting round!
- The views from the western fells in the late afternoon sunshine. There really is nowhere else quite like Lakeland.
- The applause of selfless helpers and pacers as I approached the Moot Hall.
Pacers are essential to get round the Bob Graham, they carry food and water, record your times, stop you from getting lost. Here they are:
- Leg 1: Duncan Copley.
- Leg 2: Craig Sawyers (Photo © Craig Sawyers) and Andy Wiggans (Photo © Paul Wood).
- Leg 3: Steve Brock with Mike Bullough helping in the latter half. Darren Ball fixed Broad Stand.
- Leg 4: John Preston and Chris Preston.
- Leg 5: Duncan Copley on the fells, with Steve Brock joining for the road, then Craig Sawyers and Mike Bullough helping with the last miles.
Thanks are due to all of them.
One person missing from the above list is Cath, my wife, who provided road support on this and on my previous attempts. Especial thanks to her.
The times tell their own tale. Looking at the figures I am surprised at how close to the intended schedule we were for much of the round. Also surprising is the make up of time lost due to cramping up around the Langdale Pikes.
The following shows our times at for each leg. Times quicker than, or the same as, the schedule have a green background, those that were slower have a red background.