My experience completing the Bob Graham Round

The Bob Graham Round. The Bob Graham. The Bob. The BGR. The BG. The Round.

42 fells in the Lake District covering approximately 66 miles (106km), gaining 27000ft (8200m) of elevation in the process. The eponymous challenge, first done by Bob Graham, a Keswick hotelier in 1932, repeated and altered (what we now know as the round is actually this latter interpretation) by Alan Heaton in 1960, has now been emulated by 2258 others, as of 2018. 2017 was the first year that saw successful attempts enter 3 figures, with 112 people successful running and ratifying their rounds. The production of a specific Bob Graham Round map (started back in 2009), as well as the publication of Steve Chilton’s 2015 book “The Round: In Bob Graham’s Footstep’s”  have no doubt contributed to its growing popularity, and Kilian Jornet’s record-breaking 2018 round will inevitably add further to the number of attempts made this year and beyond. Yet with its growing popularity has also come a falling success rate – it is now only about 1 in 3 attempts that are successful. No matter how many people have done something before you, or how much beta you have about the challenge, there’s no escaping the fundamental proposition: to run round the 42 Lake District fell tops in under 24 hours. 

When you’re in it, it seems like everyone else is too.

For the weeks and months building up to my scheduled attempt date, my mind had been filled with thoughts only of the Bob, and it seemed like everyone I came into contact with either knew about it, was preparing for their own attempt or had already completed it. I found myself hideously inept at being able to engage with anyone on ‘normal’ issues. Talk to me about the 147 trod heading off Calva, or engage in a discussion about how to get up Scafell, but discuss anything in the real world, anything of actual significance, and I was doomed. It was time to get on with it, to get round.

Leg one (Keswick to Threlkeld)

Start: Saturday 25th May 01:00 | Finish: 04:34 | Cumulative time: 3:34 | Pacer: Chris Stainthorpe

After 2 good hours of being horizontal in our tent, I met Chris for the first time outside Moot Hall at 00:45. I had asked on the FRA forum a few weeks earlier if anyone was able and willing to support on a leg or two and Chris came forward. He had been chatty, supportive and positive in the planning stages, but we’d never met in person before. Gauging from our conversations, he seemed decent, but was he actually going to be an absolute arse? OR might he think that I was an arse? Maybe we were both arses, and our newly forged friendship was about to blow up before it had even started whilst trudging up Skiddaw? It was a stab in the dark, but one that turned out better than I could have ever hoped. OF COURSE Chris turned out to be a great guy, and I think it actually worked in our favour that we didn’t know each other beforehand; it left lots to chat about, and getting to know him served as a nice distraction on the long climbs up Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra. Chris did a cracking job of reminding me that we were going needlessly fast on the plod up Skiddaw, and kept spirits high throughout. We lost the trod heading off Skiddaw around Hare Crag, so wasted a few minutes ploughing our way through thick heather, but other than that we stayed right on track, and made good progress. Reaching the top of Blencathra was magical. I spent a good minute savouring the view down Hall’s Fell, with the dawn light now making our head torches redundant. This was enough to reaffirm my choice of start time: the psychological boost of getting the dark bit over and done with first was really uplifting, and sunrise was now fast on its way.  

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Grainy dawn view down to Threlkeld from Blencathra

Coming into Threlkeld I knew I was a few minutes up on schedule, and felt relieved to get the night leg over without any major navigational errors, but also didn’t want to get ahead of myself at this point. I was also excited to see Sofie and Emma, who had a  comforting porridge breakfast and strong black coffee awaiting. Sofie did a quick sock and shoe change while I ate, whilst Emma re-filled my water bottles. It felt pretty slick, but at the same time not super frantic. I wasn’t trying to break any records after all; sure I wanted to get round in under 24 hours, but I also wanted to enjoy the day, and appreciated spending a bit of time and having a bit of craic with Sofie, Emma and my support runners when I could. 

Leg two (Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise)

Start: 04:44 | Finish: 08:36 | Cumulative time: 7:36 | Pacer: Jeff Roberts

After descending from his evening bivvy up on Blencathra, Jeff met me for the first time in Threlkeld. I had got in touch with Jeff through the Carnethy Hill Running Club, a club that I liked to kid myself I was a member of, but had actually only attended one training session over the winter. I nonetheless still felt a connection to the club, and running leg 2 with Jeff would hopefully provide yet further motivation to get more involved with the club when back in Edinburgh.

Sunrise as we ascended Clough Head was magical; it clearly propelled us to keep up a solid pace too, since by the top we were up a further 6 minutes on schedule.

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Summiting Great Dodd brings with it the most runnable stretch (bar the home strait into Keswick) of the whole round, and the time flew by; again, the fact that I had only just met Jeff this morning played to our advantage, as conversation flowed easily, with Jeff telling me about his upcoming support for John Kelly’s attempted Grand Round.

Before the attempt I had set Fairfield as somewhat of a yardstick for how I was doing. In my reccie of legs 1 & 2 a few weeks ago, it had felt like a real slog and my quads had felt burned on the descent; now it felt good, as we made further inroads into the schedule. Reaching Dunmail Raise we were half an hour up on schedule, and the sun was still shining.

It felt like I was there for only a few minutes, but it’s amazing how time just evaporates when you’re at your support car. Still opting for real food, I got some cous cous, falafel and hummus down me, resupplied on snacks for leg 3, and perhaps more crucially, had no coffee. Caffeine can have a large effect on the body, and I wanted to maximise the benefits; I would almost certainly require the extra kick at Wasdale and Honister more than I did now.

Leg three (Dunmail Raise to Wasdale Head)

Start: 08:47 | Finish: 14:22 | Cumulative time: 13:22 | Pacer: Iain Embrey

Road crossings are great because they mean seeing your support team, proper food and the psychological boost of having completed a leg, but they invariably mean steep climbs too. Leg 3 kicks off with Steel Fell and, on paper, is the longest and toughest leg. Having met my pacer for this leg, Iain, the previous weekend at the Goatfell Race on Arran, he had quickly become a vital part of my BG plans. He had completed the Bob himself back in 2014 and had supported numerous others in their attempts; having him for the big leg brought with it some advantages that were now becoming apparent:

  • Efficient lines saved us a good few minutes at different times – the routes he showed me up Sergeant Man and Rossett Pike must have saved us 5- 10 minutes. Whilst this doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things, it all adds up. More importantly, it has a huge psychological impact, knowing that you’ve taken the most direct line, that you’ve saved energy, that you’re up.
  • Knowing the route well meant Iain was able to set targets for which parts I could run. He’d say things such as, “How about you run to that point there, then we’ll walk to the top.”
  • Iain knew better than anyone the importance of eating, so he’d remind me to eat on the hour, if not more frequently, mixing up the food with bars, crisps and sandwiches

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Before we knew it we had passed the melee of people on Scafell Pike and were on our way over to Broad Stand. Sofie and I had had a look at it a couple of weekends earlier, and decided that it was safe, so long as the rock wasn’t too wet. Having also reccied both Lord’s Rake and the Foxes Tarn, it was clear to me that Broad Stand was by far the quickest of the routes. Moreover, the other two routes both require descending more first, before regaining the lost elevation. Whilst that might only cost you 5 or 10 minutes, I thought it would be quite demoralising. The flip side of that is that you feel great when you know you’ve taken the most efficient line. There’s only really one tricky move in the climb, which is an airy Diff. move out and round a rocky step. Once you’re over that, it’s a nice scramble up to the top.

We reached Scafell almost an hour up on the 22h schedule, still feeling good and looking forward to seeing the support team at Wasdale. But it wasn’t meant to be – a few minutes into the descent, Iain received a message from Sofie informing us that the support car had punctured a tyre, and my pacer for legs 4 & 5, Robin, was on his way in a taxi. He had supplies with him, but he’d be late reaching Wasdale. Now the extra time we had banked during legs 1-3 came in pretty handy – it meant we were able to slow the descent right down, take a bit longer at Wasdale, and still not feel up against it time-wise. I felt for Sofie and Emma at this point – their job was immeasurably harder and more stressful than mine; all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other, whereas they now had to deal with a punctured tyre on our hire car, and ensuring that Robin got to Wasdale to meet me on time, with adequate supplies.

During leg 3 we had passed another BG team that had started an hour before us. Their support team now stepped up and became our support team too. Unwaveringly, they sat me down in the back of their van, fed me pizza and made me a coffee. It was an uplifting reminder of what I was enjoying most about the Bob: the camaraderie, the willingness to help others, the feeling of we’re all in this together. 

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Back-up support team at Wasdale Head

Before I knew it, Robin was with us, ready to go. To add to his travel problems, the road in to Wasdale was closed, so he had to jog the final few miles in. Even with all of that, he still managed to be there within 10 minutes of us having arrived. He was already proving he was worth his weight in gold, something he would only further add to as our time together continued.

Leg four (Wasdale Head to Honister Pass)

Start: 14:35 | Finish: 20:58 | Cumulative time: 19:58 | Pacer: Robin Sanderson

Robin is a running friend of mine from my road running days in London, but perhaps more importantly, he had supported other BG attempts. He knew what it took to get round, understood the aches and pains, and wasn’t going to indulge me in any moaning. His ability to get to Wasdale on time, with the right kit and supplies, and be mentally ready to go so swiftly were already testament to that.

Yewbarrow has a reputation for spelling the end to many BG attempts. That wasn’t the case for us; it was what came after that triggered the start of our problems. Having been fortunate enough to have had good visibility throughout so far, the clag now came in, and visibility was reduced to 10-20m, accompanied by wind and rain. On the ascent up Red Pike we vowed to put on more layers at Steeple, but the reality was that it was already too late. We had got cold, and there was little chance of warming up now that the weather had set in. Cold doesn’t have to spell disaster though; it might just meant that things were going to get a bit tougher. What was to follow was a new experience for me; as soon as I got cold, my left hip seized up. It didn’t slow me too much on the ups, but meant that I was unable to run the flats and downs. It was a vicious circle: the cold had caused my hip to stop functioning properly, meaning I couldn’t move as fast, making me yet colder and slower.

The wind on the way out to Steeple was strong, but Robin and I found a cosy rock to crouch behind to get all the extra clothing we had on. This necessitated a greater dexterity than either of us was capable of, however, so Robin ended up doing up my zip with his teeth. All of our warm clothing now on, but still feeling cold, there was only one option from here: press on. Cowering behind rocks feeling sorry for yourself only leads to getting colder and makes completion seem further away.

Shuffling on, we painstakingly ticked off the leg 4 tops one by one, losing a good 10 minutes on the 22h schedule on each. For a good few hours it seemed like the 24h cut-off was slipping away, but I tried not to think about that.

Get to Honister. Get warm. Change clothes. Maybe the hip will start working again then. 

Briefly losing the path off Great Gable meant an extra 5 minutes of clambering over wet rocks, but by this point Honister was finally on the horizon. Before Gable it had been quite intangible, a distant paradise so far out of reach I hadn’t let thoughts about it enter my mind. Robin’s regular offerings of sweets had been what had kept me going for hours, but now the warm, safe environment of the car was just below us. Descending off Grey Knotts, I was reassured by how the left hip was able to get some semblance of a trot going; could the round still be salvaged?

We spent 21 minutes at Honister. Getting warm was the priority, but Robin and I were past the point of well-reasoned decision-making, so insisted on standing around outside in the rain, getting yet colder. Sofie and Emma had their work cut out and pushed us into the car. Sofie made me change all my clothes and threw a sleeping bag over me, whilst Emma brewed up a mocha and heated up some pasta. With every added bit of warmth came a growing realisation that it was still possible, to get it done in under 24 hours.

Leg five (Honister Pass to Keswick)

Start: 21:19 | Finish: Sunday 26th May 00:34 | Cumulative time: 23:34 | Pacer: Robin Sanderson

Leaving the warm, comfortable environment of the car for the long, cold ascent up Dale Head into the clag was tough, but now the end was in sight, and we were both highly motivated. My left hip was still a bit gimpy, but the mix of ibuprofen, caffeine and adrenaline due to the end now being in sight, seemed to be hitting the spot.

The final 3 tops ticked off, I was excited when I spotted the trod leading down to the valley floor coming off Robinson. Better yet, I felt like I was able to get my hip moving. We reached the valley floor still with 1h30 to play with. It was the first time since Yewbarrow that I had allowed myself to start thinking about completion, to start realising that we were going to do it.

Emma drove up the road to Low High Snab so that Sofie could run the final road stretch with Robin and I. With time now to play with again, we took the opportunity to don our road shoes and de-layer for the home strait. After having invested so much into the round so far, I wanted to savour this final stretch, to enjoy running in with two people that had given so much to my self-indulgent, entirely pointless endeavour. 

At 00:34, with 26 minutes to spare, we reached Keswick and I touched the door at Moot Hall. It was over. We had done it. A team effort from start to finish.

Sofie, Emma, Chris, Jeff, Iain and Robin, I was and still am overwhelmed by the lengths you went to to help me get round. 

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Success!