Sunday, May 1, 2016

Bob Graham

On Saturday 23rd April I completed the Bob Graham Round in a time of 15 hours and 24 minutes. This is a classic Lakeland route of circa 66 miles and 8000m ascent, starting and finishing at the Moot Hall in Keswick, and visiting 42 summits along the way. Below is my account of what turned out to be a truly unforgettable day.

My first encounter with the Bob Graham round was in early 2011, when I offered to support a leg of a fellow Carnethy runner’s winter attempt. At the time I was relatively new to fellrunning, and had little experience of the lakes. What I lacked in experience however, I made up for with enthusiasm, and so I set off alone (this was pre-Konrad era) to ‘recce’ leg 3. To cut a long story short, I spent most of the remaining daylight hours getting onto the route (I’d driven down from Edinburgh that morning, and had planned a circular run), and after following this for around half an hour, I realized I should probably get back to the car. Then it got dark, and so I descended ‘by the light of an absent moon’, guided only by the sound of a stream, falling in a couple of holes along the way. Thus began my complex relationship with the Bob Graham.

Four years on (2015), after a busy season of racing, and with far more experience under my belt, I started thinking about the Bob Graham once more. By then I had supported several rounds, including Nicky's record breaking 2015 Bob Graham (18:06), and was interested to know how fast I could run it myself. At the same time, a part of me wanted to run it with minimal support or fuss, the way I would usually approach a day in the hills. With this in mind, Konrad and I ran a minimally supported ‘under the radar’ winter BG round in February 2016 (not much help in terms of route familiarization – most of it was under the snow, or in the dark – but a really grand day out together, and just as memorable as the subsequent summer round).

In March we ran the route once more, this time in daylight over two days, with a B&B stop and several ice creams along the way. Analyzing the GPS trace when we got home was a real boost. We’d been running at 17-18 hour BG pace for much of the time, despite the packs we were carrying. I started to feel more confident.

We spent the following week hiking in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, carrying all our gear and food, and wild camping along the way. Despite the lack of running training, I was sure that the long ascents and altitude would work in my favour for the coming attempt. Unfortunately, the food poisoning I picked up on our journey home to the UK (Konrad’s summary, ‘I told you salad isn’t good for you’) threw a spanner in the works so to speak, and forced me to miss the British Championship Race in Ireland the following weekend. I moved the date of the attempt back a week (16/17th to 23rd/24th April), and hoped I’d start to feel better soon.

With a week to go I ran around the 3 Peaks route, whilst Konrad was busy racing the Fellsman, and felt reasonably good. I spent the next week fanatically checking weather forecasts (yes, plural, in fact 5), all of which predicted that the glorious weather we were having would break in time for the weekend....

Descending Calva on leg 1 (photo Spyke)
To my delight, the doomsday forecast started to improve on Thursday. I emailed my support team (which was at that stage changing from hour to hour with last minute additions and drop outs) to say the attempt was on.

The night before the attempt we gathered at Steve Birkinshaw’s house, which he had very kindly offered as a base for the attempt. The atmosphere of nervous excitement increased a little with the arrival of each supporter, as did the already-ample cake supply. At 9pm I said my goodnights and headed to bed, despite knowing that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Instead, I lay thinking about the day ahead, and all the supporters that had given up their weekend to help me.

The alarm went off at 2.45am, and a hasty bowl of porridge followed. By 3.50am we were gathered on the empty square outside the Moot Hall in Keswick, shivering and adjusting head torches. We counted down the last 10 seconds out loud, and at 4am we set off.

Leg 1: Keswick to Threlkeld 
(pacers: Konrad, Spyke, Dave Ward)

Leg 1 team at the start (photo Alan Scholefield
Climbing Blencathra at sunrise (photo Spyke)
After all the anticipation and preparation of the previous few weeks, I was glad to finally be running. With no pack to carry, and fresh from the enforced taper of food poisoning, I felt incredible. I trotted up Skiddaw with wings on my feet. Despite the warnings of my pacers, it wasn’t until we reached the summit 10 minutes up on schedule (which had been laid out for a 17:15 round) that I realized we were actually moving reasonably fast. As the night gave way to light, we dropped down into the valley and started the climb up Calva, grateful for the clear cold night, which had helped to consolidate some of the bog. Dropping off the summit of Calva I let out an unrestrained whoop of joy, whilst above us the full moon gave way to the delicate pink and orange of sunrise. Neil Talbott was waiting at the summit of Blencathra, and led the way down the parachute drop, whilst I clung on behind, exhilarated by the descent. I ran straight through the changeover at Threlkeld, 26 minutes up on schedule (I gather that the leg 2 supporters were a little rushed in getting ready!), grabbing a cup of cocoa and a couple of mum’s cakes on my way past.

Leg 2: Threlkeld to Dunmail 
(pacers: Alex McVey, Neil Talbott, Julien Minshull, Shane Ohly)
Helvellyn Ridge (photo Alex McVey)

I had been expecting to hate the climb up Clough Head (the previous two times I’d done it the ascent had gone on forever), but we were at the summit in no time. The Helvellyn ridge was an absolute delight, one of the finest running experiences I have ever had. I still felt fresh, the frosty grass was sparkling in the sunshine, and the views seemed to stretch away forever. The conversation was plentiful and varied (from climbing escapades and mountain rescues, to the fact that Julien had taught me at primary school) and we dropped into Dunmail in good spirits, now 51 minutes up on schedule.

Leg 3: Dunmail to Wasdale 
(pacers: Jim Mann, Iain Whiteside, Jon Gay, Ben Abdelnoor, and Jess the collie dog; Broad Stand: John Helme)
Leaving Dunmail (photo Iain Whiteside)
Anticipating a fast run, Jon Gay had already set off up Steel Fell (‘V40 warm up’ as he termed it – he had no need to worry!) and I followed behind him with the rest of the team, simultaneously eating a cup of homemade pasta soup. The team was excited and eager to push on, but I was aware that my pace had dropped a little, and I let this happen without worrying too much - my plan had always been to listen to my body and run to my strengths, as opposed to focusing on a schedule. Having said that, we were still making up time on each split, and I was enjoying having Jess herding me along. Iain continued to ply me with food (and I think to also eat all the leftovers I passed back to him – bravo Iain!), whilst Ben and Jim scouted out the best lines ahead. The climb up to Bowfell was probably the hardest of the whole day. I had started to feel sick, and was struggling to eat, but I knew I still had a long way to go. Luckily we were approaching the familiar Wasdale Fell Race route (a favourite of mine), and my mood picked up as I trotted across the rocks on the ridge from Great End to Scafell. Jon Gay pushed on, skirting the summits, to be in place to accompany me on the final section of the leg. Descending from Scafell Pike to Mickledore, I was relieved and cheered to see John Helme and his rope waiting for me at Broad Stand. With a quick scramble I was up, and joining Jon Gay for the short run up to Scafell. We didn’t take the best line from the summit, but we lost no time, and were soon slithering down the final scree run (my quads were so very grateful for that scree!) into Wasdale, now 1 hour and 23 minutes up on schedule.
Scafell (photo Jon Gay)

Leg 4: Wasdale to Honister 
(pacers: Jon Ascroft, Bill Williamson, Antony Meanwell, Konrad Rawlik, Iain Whiteside, and Jess the collie dog)

Yewbarrow (photo Konrad Rawlik)
Whilst being ahead of schedule was great for me, it made for a rather stressful supporter experience behind the scenes.... In fact, unbeknown to me, it looked doubtful for a while that any of my leg 4 pacers would make it to Wasdale in time. With some reshuffling however, everyone just about made it (Bill did have to chase us up Yewbarrow!). I was still not feeling great, and had definitely slowed down by this stage, but the end was drawing closer, and it was encouraging to have such a time-buffer over my original schedule. I made a poor attempt at eating a cheese sandwich and some Mini Cheddars before ditching the idea of real food and turning to Pepsi and Haribo sweets for the remainder of the round. I enjoyed chatting to Antony, whilst marveling at Bill’s brilliant lines (I only wish I’d concentrated more!!) over terrain I thought (wrongly) I knew like the back of my hand. The summit of Great Gable marked a turning point - I knew I’d cracked it at that point. I think I wasn’t the only one feeling jubilant as we descended to Honister.

Descending to Honister (photo Alan Scholefield)
Leg 5: Honister to Keswick 
(pacers: Tim Budd, Andy Oliver, Jo Zakrzewski, Rhys Findlay-Robinson, Stephen Birkenshaw, Jon Gay, Konrad Rawlik, Jon Ascroft, Jim Mann)
Descending to Honister (photo Alan Scholefield)
The last leg seemed ‘very social’ (as one supporter rightly put it!) both in terms of pace and company. It was like a moving party. Jess - who wasn’t supposed to be running this leg - attempted to do so anyway, and nearly took me out upon being called back. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other on the climb up Dalehead, smiling when Rhys commented that ‘I had my supporters under good control’ – he’d checked social media and there was still no whisper of my attempt. We passed over Hindscarth, and on to the final summit (Robinson), where someone took a photograph, and then we all followed Jim down his secret grassy descent line into the valley. The final miles of road passed in a happy tired blur, and suddenly we were in Keswick, and turning onto the high street. Incredibly, and much to our surprise, we were met by a huge crowd gathered at the door of Moot Hall, cheering us on. It later transpired that they were there by complete coincidence, as part of a charity event, Lighting up Catbells for Nepal. Nevertheless, they gave me a resounding welcome – and I made the most of it!

Final Summit (photo Jon Gay)
After that we all piled into the pub, and I sat there in a warm and happy trance, occasionally sipping at a token half-pint whilst friends chattered around me – a perfect end to what had been a perfect day.

In addition to my pacers on the hill, I’d like to say a huge thanks to my static support team: Alena Vencovska (mum), Zoe Barton, Alan Scholefield, and Lynne Taylor. There were also a few people that came out to support and missed me because I was up on schedule, so they definitely deserve a mention too: Paul Cornforth, Scoffer, Lins Palmer, John Hewitt, Sabrina Verjee.

Final Thoughts:
A week later, now that the storm of social media has settled down, I have had time to reflect. I know that I ran well, and I am proud of what I did. That said, I don’t think I deserve more praise than anyone else who embarks upon a Bob Graham (or any other life challenge for that matter), and puts their heart and being into the attempt, regardless of whether they do it in record pace, or under 24 hours, or whether they succeed at all.

I have been asked by a few people whether I could go any faster, 92 minutes faster to be precise, which is the time it would take to beat Billy Bland’s legendary record of 13:53 (a question I never dreamed I would be answering). The answer is probably (almost certainly) not. His time on the first leg was 31 minutes faster than mine, which is a phenomenal difference. 

Climbing Dale Head (photo Alan Scholefield)
That said, his time (factoring in rest times) on the final leg was only 5 minutes faster.... So yes, I would be lying if I hadn’t asked myself the same thing. Could I have dug deeper, and pushed harder in the second half, rather than drifting slowly towards my original schedule over the later splits? After I’d finished, I was tired, but not completely exhausted. I’d imagined I would be dragging myself around for at least a week after the attempt, but by Tuesday I was back running in the Pentland hills, and feeling surprisingly fresh.

So would I go back and try again? The answer is probably not, and certainly not in the near future. This day was in every way as perfect as it could have been. True, I suffered at times, but even then part of me was still having fun. The weather was beautiful, I was in the company of great friends, and in the fells I love so much. I don’t think one can re-live a day like that. Some things are better left as they are, and I have a feeling this is one of them.

    Schedule Actual Difference
    Split Cummulative Split Cummulative Split Cummulative Leg
1 Skiddaw 1:15 1:15 1:05 1:05 10 00:10  
2 Great Calva 0:35 1:50 0:31 1:36 4 00:14  
3 Blencathra 0:58 2:48 0:49 2:25 9 00:23  
THRELKELD 0:22 3:10 0:19 2:44 3 00:26 0:26
4 Clough Head 0:45 3:55 0:39 3:23 6 00:32  
5 Great Dodd 0:23 4:18 0:23 3:46 0 00:32  
6 Watsons Dodd 0:07 4:25 0:06 3:52 1 00:33  
7 Stybarrow Dodd 0:10 4:35 0:08 4:00 2 00:35  
8 Raise 0:14 4:49 0:13 4:13 1 00:36  
9 Whiteside 0:08 4:57 0:06 4:19 2 00:38  
10 Helvellyn Low Man 0:11 5:08 0:11 4:30 0 00:38  
11 Helvellyn 0:06 5:14 0:03 4:33 3 00:41  
12 Nethermost Pike 0:08 5:22 0:07 4:40 1 00:42  
13 Dollywaggon Pike 0:10 5:32 0:10 4:50 0 00:42  
14 Fairfield 0:32 6:04 0:26 5:16 6 00:48  
15 Seat Sandal 0:20 6:24 0:20 5:36 0 00:48  
DUNMAIL 0:14 6:38 0:11 5:47 3 00:51 0:25
16 Steel Fell 0:21 6:59 0:17 6:04 4 00:55  
17 Calf Crag 0:18 7:17 0:15 6:19 3 00:58  
18 Sergent Man 0:33 7:50 0:23 6:42 10 01:08  
19 High Raise 0:05 7:55 0:07 6:49 -2 01:06  
20 Thurnacar Knott 0:12 8:07 0:09 6:58 3 01:09  
21 Harrison Stickle 0:08 8:15 0:06 7:04 2 01:11  
22 Pike O'Stickle 0:09 8:24 0:08 7:12 1 01:12  
23 Rosset Pike 0:37 9:01 0:30 7:42 7 01:19  
24 Bowfell 0:25 9:26 0:26 8:08 -1 01:18  
25 Esk Pike 0:17 9:43 0:15 8:23 2 01:20  
26 Great End 0:18 10:01 0:17 8:40 1 01:21  
27 Ill Crag 0:12 10:13 0:12 8:52 0 01:21  
28 Broad Crag 0:08 10:21 0:06 8:58 2 01:23  
29 Scafell Pike 0:10 10:31 0:09 9:07 1 01:24  
30 Scafell 0:20 10:51 0:22 9:29 -2 01:22  
WASDALE 0:26 11:17 0:25 9:54 1 01:23 0:32
31 Yewbarrow 0:38 11:55 0:38 10:32 0 01:23  
32 Red Pike 0:39 12:34 0:35 11:07 4 01:27  
33 Steeple 0:15 12:49 0:15 11:22 0 01:27  
34 Pillar 0:23 13:12 0:22 11:44 1 01:28  
35 Kirkfell 0:42 13:54 0:36 12:20 6 01:34  
36 Great Gable 0:26 14:20 0:28 12:48 -2 01:32  
37 Green Gable 0:10 14:30 0:09 12:57 1 01:33  
38 Brandreth 0:12 14:42 0:09 13:06 3 01:36  
39 Grey Knotts 0:07 14:49 0:06 13:12 1 01:37  
HONISTER 0:10 14:59 0:10 13:22 0 01:37 0:14
40 Dale Head 0:27 15:26 0:27 13:49 0 01:37  
41 Hindscarth 0:13 15:39 0:11 14:00 2 01:39  
42 Robinson 0:19 15:58 0:20 14:20 -1 01:38  
MOOT HALL 1:08 17:06 1:04 15:24 4 01:42 0:05

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