Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Bob Graham Round

"Something has happened to me. For more hours than I can remember, a storm has been screaming around me. For more hours than I can remember, I have been running - or trying to run - in the mountains. Now I am lost, utterly. Every muscle in my body is shaking, both feet are blistered raw, every joint aches, and my last reserves of warmth and strength are gushing away like a stream".

Richard Askwith - Feet in the Clouds

Why is it that I am strangely attracted to the experience that is described above? It's not like I actually like blistered feet, or being lost in the mountains, or aching joints or uncontrollably shaking muscles. Or do I? At this stage I think I might be perfectly willing to accept all those things if I am going to be rewarded with those other feelings that Richard has not mentioned in such proliferation. Like the sudden extra injection of energy and power the legs get as you crest the top of a hill, when the cairn is in sight and there are no more false summits mocking your efforts. Like the panorama at the summit on a clear day when all the earlier slog is rewarded and forgotten simultaneously. Like the childish happiness that comes from bounding back down the other side, playing hopscotch between the scree. It doesn't always feel easy but more often than not it feels like it was worth it.

The Bob Graham Round is something that has occupied my brain since I stumbled across Richard Askwith's book a few years ago. Before that I was quite happy to view mountains from the comfort of the road below. But it was the descriptions of misery and suffering that first made me think there was something to this mountain running lark that might be worth exploring. I'm not sure why but that's the way it was. Like putting yourself through all that would be worth the sense of achievement. However I now know there is much more to it than that. Because once I started running in the mountains, it was as if something clicked and running became fun. To think no one had told me how great this was while I settled for dodging in and out of traffic on busy roads! How could it have taken me so long to realise? So the rewards far outweigh the big bag of shite you get presented with every so often on a bad day like Richard describes. Further, and equally bleak reading in Mike Cudahy's (a man who really knew how to suffer) very entertaining "Wild Trails to far Horizons", awakened my senses to the possibility that racing against other runners was not the only way to challenge the mind and body. Running around a pre-determined route in the hope of setting a particular time seemed to be something that went hand in hand with this type of running. But mostly just running in the mountains, alone or with friends, without any worry about times or opponents or checkpoints felt like the most natural thing in the world.

I am in love with the Lake District. That is fairly clear to those I send to sleep with my constant nattering about the place! But before completing the Round last week, I had only visited the area twice, the first time was to run the Lakeland 100 last summer. The second was in March of this year to do a training run on 2 large chunks of the same course and to enjoy the company of some like minded friends. It is with great embarrassment that I admit I had never visited a single one of the 42 Bob Graham Round peaks. The Lakeland 100 has plenty of steep climbs but it is a trail race and doesnt go over any of the tops. So what better way to see all these mountains that I had only been lucky enough to read about and look at on maps (which is a joke considering my map reading skills), than to go and do the BGR?

A support crew that knew what they were doing was going to be the most important thing to get right. I struck gold here and also discovered one of the advantages to social networking. Gaynor Prior answered a post I put on the Lakeland 100's Facebook page and from then on I was in safe hands. Between herself and her sidekick Tracy Dean, I would be well looked after and if nothing else, the whole thing would be well organised. Both of them are really strong runners too, and they had supported round attempts previously. The bonus was that Tracy and Gaynor turned out to be two of the nicest people I've ever had the pleasure to meet in the running world and there was plenty of laughs provided by both over the the weekend. Tracy also provided three top navigators in Stuart Air for leg 1 and 5 and John Whilock and Anthony Bethell for leg 2. Unfortunately Anthony got a bad dose of the flu in the week before and he couldn't make it. But I've a feeling we'll get a chance to run together again on a future round or race. My good friend Terry Conway had planned to run the round with me but he also got struck with a bug. We would be meeting him anyway on Saturday to celebrate his recent marriage to Annie. He had picked a top venue in the Hawkshead Brewery so that was something to look forward to.  I also managed to get some quality navigators and pacers through the FRA Forum and Twitter and all that was left to do come Friday morning at 2am was run.

So I got the ferry from Dublin on Wednesday and was in the Lake District by the early evening, having picked up Barry Murray off the train just outside Manchester. He had been racing in a 40 mile ultra in Wales the Saturday before, coming second, and had stayed on to do some work in the area. So we drove straight to Keswick, where I had arranged to meet Adam Briggs, who I also got in contact with on twitter. Adam is a pretty remarkable guy. He underwent a heart transplant at the age of nine but he hasn't let it stop him getting out and doing what he loves, like running up Latrigg on this particular evening which is what we were planning on doing. So off we went and got a nice run in while also getting to know Adam and the area.

We pitched the tent at Castlerigg campsite which was just outside Keswick and was overlooked ominously by peak number one on the round, Skiddaw
The weather was looking like it wasn't going to co-operate with us and it was damp and cold on Thursday when we got up. This is the way it stayed for most of the day but by the time Tracy and Gaynor arrived, it had started to look like it was improving slightly. Barry set about making his speciality energy bars "Baz Balls", their name generating plenty of banter over the few days. I think he should call them bars at this stage!!
Barry prepping his Balls

 John and Stuart arrived later in the evening and we had a quick introduction before I headed for the tent at 11ish in a pointless attempt to try to get some sleep. This wasn't helped by the couple in the tent beside me "not sleeping" either.

We got to the carpark beside Moot Hall at 1.45am and met Bruce Duncan, my second navigator for leg 1. I was in very safe hands between himself and Stuart, both having completed their own rounds and both really good navigators. We made our way over to Moot Hall and managed to find a slightly tipsy Pete Docherty lookalike to take a photo for us before we got on our way.

Leg 1 - Moot Hall to Threlkeld
We got underway bang on time and made our way out of town and through Fitz park. As soon as we hit the base of Latrigg and began the long climb towards Blencathra, It became clear all the warm gear wasn't going to be necessary this early on. The night was so still and completely in contrast to what I was expecting. It was a relief actually, knowing that for some of the day at least, I wasn't going to have miserable conditions to deal with. We chatted away for the next hour or so that it took to summit Skiddaw and I couldn't help thinking that seemed to be a lot of hard work to bag just the first of 42 peaks. At least the track was good the whole way to the top, which wasn't the case for the remainder of the leg. I felt like I was back in Wicklow or Kerry sinking in bog and muck and expending more energy than should be necessary for every step. The descent off Great Calva was an enjoyable one and provided a brief respite from the aforementioned bog. But we were reunited at the bottom as we crossed the River Caldew. The journey up Blencathra saw the first signs of light and there was barely any need for the headtorches anymore. I remarked at this stage that this ascent might well be the most unremarkable looking spot I had ever set foot on. The clouds were keeping the views to about 50 metres and it seemed like we were walking in a sloped, featureless field.  Bruce assured me that the other side of Blencathra would make up for this and he was right, of course. After the summit there was a great piece of ridge running and the descent down Hall's Fell completely made up for my earlier  dissatisfaction. The going was slightly slower than I'd have liked with plenty of slippy rock to remind me that a fall this early in the day probably wouldn't do me much good. The two lads just lapped it up and drove on.

We reached the meeting point in Threlkeld in just over 3 hours, meaning I was 5 minutes down on my schedule. This didn't really bother me, given that I had no real idea of the kind of time I was capable of, and only decided by talking with Terry when we were discussing doing the round. We agreed that sub 18 hours was achieveable and sounded decent enough. I then used Bob Wightman's excellent website schedule calculator and it spat out 17 hours and 30 minutes. So that was it. Very scientific! The girls kicked in to action as soon as they saw us trundling down the road and they were ready with a nice cup of coffee and a selection of things to eat. The coffee was just what I needed as I wasn't that hungry yet but it was definately time for a strong brew.
Fashionista at Threlkeld!!

Leg 2 - Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise

Jon Whilock was ready and waiting to get going and I said my thank you's to Bruce and Stuart for an excellent job. The great thing about not knowing the people I was running with before this run was that there was loads to chat about along the way and thats exactly what myself and Jon did over the next 3 and a half hours. In contrast to the first leg the tops were more easily accounted for now and once we got up the steep ascent of Clough Head, we could start making some real ground. The clag was hanging around in abundance though and we just needed to be a little careful not to go astray. But Jon never faultered and carried on chatting as if we were just out on another training run.  Coming off Dollywagon Pike was probably the first time where I began to feel a little fatiged and questioned the sanity of what I was doing. Did I really need to run sub 18 pace? Could I not just amble around and make sure to get under the 24 hour time limit? Well, no I couldn't actually!! I had already committed the lads to following me around the lake district until at least half past 7 this evening. To keep them out in to a second night would be really taking the piss and besides, They had both promised that if it took me that long, they would leave a note on the door of Moot Hall informing me that they were gone to get pissed and I was a useless git for keeping them waiting. So taking it handy wasn't an option then!

We skirted around GrisedaleTarn and began the climb up the steep scree laden track to the Fairfield Summit. This ascent felt particularly taxing as I seemed to slip back on the loose surface with each step. My hamstrings were also feeling really tight and I was generally just feeling a little sorry for myself. This is something I fully expected to happen on numerous occasions throughout the day so I just continued chatting to Jon about his previous Round experience. He had plenty to say on the subject, given he also had successful Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsey Rounds (the Welsh and Scottish equivalents of the BG) under his belt. Once at the top it was a matter of jinking round the scattered rocks at the summit and making our way back the way we came to begin the ascent up the last peak in Leg 2, Seat Sandal. We had been shrouded in low cloud for the previous 3 hours but now as we began the descent to Dunmail raise, they made every effort to reveal one of the Lake District's stunning views. It was a fast, rocky track down and I made sure to enjoy the change in pace while I had the chance. I got a nice surprise as I neared the base of Seat Sandal, when I was met by Adrian Hope and Matt Brown from Inov8. I had called in to them in their office the previous day and they told me they would try to make it to Dunmail but knowing that it was a Friday and that they were working, I didn't really expect them to be there. A friendly face when you are tired during something like this can do wonders for the mind. That must be why people spend too long in the comfort of their support crews during things like this.
Coming off Seat Sandal
Reciting the safe cross code to myself!

New pacers, Gary and Raj
Gaynor supplying the Caffeine
Again Gaynor and Tracy were first class in their organisation here. All I had to do was drink the coffee they were shoving in to my hand and eat! I brought over 2 cakes my mother had baked in the hope that it would be to some of the lads' liking and it was at this stage that I noticed it was going down a treat. Although I'm not sure if anyone apart from the two ladies benefitted from it!! They like their cake.

Leg 3 - Dunmail Raise to Wasdale

Myself and John said our goodbyes as he was heading back home to go to work! I definately owed him a decent effort for the rest of the round after hearing that!  My new pacers, Raj Mahapatra and Gary Thorpe were ready and waiting so we got acquainted and after a bit of shuffling of gear, got going as quickly as we could up Steel Fell. It felt like a bloody grass wall it was so steep, so we settled in for the long hike to the top

It was clear to me pretty early on in this leg that I was going to start doing a bit of suffering for the next while. I'm not sure why but I felt like crap on and off for large chunks of leg 3 and 4 and particularly on leg 3 when I stupidly asked Gary were we near Scafell yet. I wasnt looking at my watch and didn't really want to, but I felt like we had been on leg 3 for a fair while and using my limited knowledge of the route, picked Scafell because it was the last peak of the leg. Gary's answer was pretty straightforward and to the point. "Nooo!!! We're miles away"!! No sugar coating or bullshit, but a bit of bullshit might have been nice on this occasion. Anyway thinking back now this was probably the nicest leg of the BG with a lot of variation in terrain. And I particularly liked the route up Bowfell and the views off of it. Gary, at this stage, realised I was slipping off the schedule but equally he knew there wasn't much he could do to make me go any faster and between himself and Raj, they both just kept chatting away, asking if I needed any food or water and telling me a bit about themselves. It all helped to keep me moving in the right direction. So on we went and kept ticking off the peaks until we were at the base of Scafell and the infamous Broad Stand I had heard so much about. And I have to admit, I can understand why it demands a lot of attention. The thought, "fuck going up that" sprang to mind for some reason! Gary had said beforehand that Lords Rake was probably the best option and I was beginning to agree with him. So we contoured to the right around Broad Stand and on towards a near verticle scree filled gully, with what looked like a grave's headstone perched precariously at the top. It was a fitting likeness in my mind at the time. It was then I remembered reading somewhere that this giant slab was slowly moving and it would eventually fall some day. Maybe this was a good thought to have because it made me want to get up that gully and out from under it as quickly as humanly possible. Raj decided to detour straight on to Wasdale at this point because he had been suffering a bit after going over on his ankle.  As I found out it's something he suffers from on a continual basis because of an arthritic condition and showed to me what kind of a character he is to still be able to run in the mountains while dealing with it. We were nearly at Wasdale now anyway with just the descent off Scafell to come. And what a descent it was! We were out of water, the day was warming up nicely and I was just starting to feel the first hints of dehydration when presented with this steep, and at first, rocky slope. This thankfully gave way to grass but the gradient just mashed my quads and I could feel them turning to jelly with every step. My toes also felt like they were going to bore holes in my shoes and all I could think of was Yewbarrow and how this current leg masher wasn't going to do much for my now limited ascending ability once we hit that giant slope. On a positive note, the weather was improving and the views at this stage were mind blowing and well worth the effort to make it this far. I just wish I could have stopped, sat on the grass for a little while, ate something that didnt taste like shit and admire them in comfort. But, not to be and we hit the car park at Wasdale about 30 minutes down on the schedule.

Raj was already there and Barry had the coffee brewed and ready to go. I met Bill Williamson, who was taking up the navigational duties from here to Honister. Alan Lucker was there as well and he was going to meet us at Beck Head just before the ascent of Great Gable for the remainder of the leg. These guys were another example of the spirit within the mountain running community. Here they were supporting me the day before they raced as a pair in the Old County Tops race, a 37 mile fell race taking in Hellvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston Old Man. Madness or selflessness, I'm not sure but I was glad to have such accomplished lads helping me. And of course this is where Barry joined in for the remainder of the trip. And it was great having a friend with me at this stage when I was starting to feel the strain.
Barry and Laura Ruxton wondering what the hell kept us!!
About time. Nice heel striking!
No idea what's going on here
Laura Ruxton took over the crewing duties here and delivered Barry to Wasdale at the same time. Because it's such a difficult place to get to by road, Tracy and Gaynor went on to Honister, the start of the last leg instead of rushing to try and make it from Wasdale back to Honister and getting no time to rest themselves for the day. Laura however, drove all the way from Kendal earlier in the morning to meet the lads at Dunmail, then on to Keswick to pick up Barry, then back to Kendal where she got ready to drive all the way back to Wasdale to be there for our arrival. So she adds to the list of people that I won't ever be able to thank enough.

Leg 4 - Wasdale to Honister Pass

Once I had finished pissing about with gear and food we were off up the road with Yewbarrow towering over us ready to drain me of whatever bit of climbing strength I had left in my legs. And thats exactly what it did. Never did one climb feel so utterly shit. Bill was just motoring along and making me look like a wimp while Barry was uttering words of encouragement behind me in a vain attempt to get me moving a little quicker. I resorted to using my hands to pull me up the slope while Bill just kept chugging away. Finally I shouted after him "So Bill, tell us a bit about yourself" in a casual sort of way, hoping he would slow down and do exactly that. And he did, for about 30 seconds or so and then he was gone again! Of course what he was doing was making sure I kept moving and it worked. There was no point in making it easy for me to stop or slow down when it was clear I needed a kick up the backside. This was just a civilised way of doing it. My lack of knowledge about the route was really starting to mess with my head and nowhere was this more obvious than when we summited Red Pike. What I could see from here was a Horseshoe of tops extending off to the right. It looked ok when stretched out like that in front of me. So lets just go and follow that then shall we? Not so! Instead we'll just take this detour to the left and completely out of the way to take in Steeple. The whole theory behind recceing and knowing what lay ahead was now explaining itself to me. The sky seemed to be changing in tandem with my mood as grey clouds formed over to the right, which conveniently, was the direction we were headed. On any other day I would have been able to appreciate the little technical trail across to Steeple, standing there on its own with sheer drops to either side. But today, it was an inconvenience that Bob should have thought twice about including in his round! On we went to the imposing looking Pillar and then came the long trot across Black Sail Pass to Kirk fell and a scramble up a scree gully where we met 2 runners coming the other way. All I could think of was how good it would feel to be as fresh and lightfooted as they both looked. But I consoled myself with the thought (a mistaken thought) that we were nearly finished the leg and it was all plain sailing from here. You see I could have sworn we had already been over Great Gable and that the worst was over when that was out of the way. Except the Great Gable I had been over in my head was in fact Pillar and that big upturned basin looking chunk of rock off in the distance was the "real" Great Gable! It was now all making sense. We still hadn't met Alan so how could we be nearly finished the leg. In my own mind I had convinced myself that maybe Alan was'nt actually meeting us but do you think I would ask Bill whether this was the case? No chance. On closer inspection Alan was in fact perched on Beck Head just below the Base of Gable. So I asked Bill if we were going up the upturned basin (more like I said "you better tell me we are not going up that f$*king thing). We arrived at Alan and Bill took great delight in telling Alan I didn't know we were going up Gable. They both laughed at the absurdity of such a thought. If it was anyone else I would have laughed too. But it wasn't anyone else. It was me! A serious case of pissing and moaning ensued inside  my brain for the next few minutes until I realised to my surprise that actually my legs didn't feel that bad. There was no more tight hamstrings, I was ascending as quickly now as I had been on leg 2 and I was almost at the end of leg 4. If I wasn't so preoccupied with trying to weasle out of going up another peak, I might have realised this earlier and actually just got on with it. Anyway, it was better late than never.
On the way up to Beck Head having ascended from Kirk Fell in the background.
Start of Great Gable ascent
Heading to Green Gable from Great Gable
Green Gable

So the Ascents of Great Gable And Green Gable proved to be a lot easier than first they looked and we were now truly within touching distance of end of leg 4 and Honister Pass. It was just a nice trot across moorland to a final grassy descent.

Leg 5 - Honister Pass to Moot Hall, Keswick

On arrival at Honister I noticed Raj had rejoined the group and I would have him along with Stuart and Barry for the final section. Tracy had also donned her running gear and was ready to swap crewing duties for a run out. The clouds had descended again at this stage and by the time we all reached Dale Head summit there was only about 50 feet of visibilty. Once this initial climb was done I knew the worst was over and it was just a matter of tagging the last 2 peaks and heading for the road to Keswick. The atmosphere had changed now and we were all enjoying this last piece of running, knowing there wasn't far to go. We all let out a bit of a cheer at the summit of Robinson and set about getting down. The descent looked great and had I been a bit more nimble, it would have been a good one to attack and go hell for leather but my legs weren't about to let that happen and the lads had to put up with a trundle rather than a bombing descent. But they were still full of encouragement and it must have been hard for them to continually do this given how long a day it had been for them too. It made it easier to keep going and I'm indebted to them for that. Barry had raced a 40 mile ultra in the Brecons the previous Saturday and was out on his feet for the guts of 8 hours today. Tracy and Stuart were both up at 1.30am and had been on the go since. And Raj had done his ankle but was back for more punishment now. And of course Gaynor was patiently waiting for us at Newlands Church having driven all over the Lake District and made sure I wanted for nothing all day. As we hit the road I realised that all I needed to do was run this nice smooth section and I'd be done and able to lie down but smooth and flat means runnable and the way I was feeling, that was easier said than done. So every so often I would have to stop and walk as the lads encouraged me to just keep moving. Gaynor passed us by in the van on her way back to Moot Hall and that helped to lift my spirits enough that I could at least break in to a jog. I had thought that we lost loads of time on leg 4 but we were actually bang on schedule for that section and we had pulled back some time on this section, meaning that we might actually have a chance of getting to Moot Hall in under the 18 hour mark. So we all upped the pace and made a last push for the town centre. I touched the door at Moot Hall after 17 hours and 59 minutes and 24 seconds, and just slouched against the railings. Raj provided a bottle of Lucozade which I had been craving earlier and I made my way back down the steps to thank those who had stood patiently waiting in the rain. Gaynor produced a bottle of Champagne and somehow most of it ended up on Tracy. She could have saved some for the rest of us!! It was a bit embarrassing having people waiting, considering I was a half hour late and I had put everyone to so much trouble but you wouldn't think it was any bother to any of them. From the moment I asked for help in doing the Round, all I was met with was positivity and friendliness. People could not do enough for me and I owe everyone who helped out a great deal of gratitude.
So here goes:
Barry, thanks for putting up with my monosyllabic answers and foul mood the whole way around leg 4, and for cooking and making quality coffee all week!

Stuart, Bruce, Jon, Gary, Raj, Bill and Alan, thank you for impeccable navigation and support throughout. Ye made it easier to keep going when I felt like stopping and ye brought me on the ultimate tour of the Lake District. And to Ant Bethell who, even though he was barely able to get out of bed with flu, still considered coming up to theLakes to help on Leg 2. Luckily good sense prevailed and he looked after himself instead.

Adam for showing us around Keswick and taking on a couple of lovely runs at the start and finish of the week. And for making it to Moot Hall and stand in the rain after having to be up at 4am to drive to Hospital in Newcastle.Oh, and of course the locally brewed beers!

To the lads at Inov8 especially Adrian and Matt who came out to Dunmail and made me feel very welcome at their office on Thursday. And to Natalie for sorting me out with shoes. I didn't fall once throughout. Result!!

Laura, thank you for spending your Friday driving back and forth and to the most remote section of the route for road support. Very much appreciated and I'll buy you a pint in July at the Lakeland 100.

Gaynor and Tracy, I owe ye big time for all ye did. Ye not only provided support all day but ye were great craic all weekend and ye made the weekend all the more enjoyable by being so positive and friendly. Nothing was too much trouble for ye. And thanks David too who came all the way from work to make it to Moot Hall for the finish and caught a really nice video to keepfor the memories. Much appreciated.

Post Round:

Of course the other reason we were over on this particular weekend was to celebrate with Terry and Annie who got hitched in Scotland the previous month. We had a great night in the Hawkshead Brewery (brilliant choice of venue) and it was great to be invited by such a lovely couple.

Barry, Tracy, me, David and Gaynor enjoying Terry and Annie's Party
The few days holiday in the Lakes afterwards were a great way to round off the week and Terry took us on some of his local  run routes around the hills above Ambleside in absolutely smashing weather. You could not have made it up! Roll on July again when we will do it all again for the Lakeland 100!!


  1. Had a brilliant, brilliant time watching a great runner do his thing. Can't wait till July, bring cake!

    1. No cake no craic... 'it's the way we roll'

    2. Ok I'll bring cake ye animals!!!

  2. Have to mirror Gaynor's comment. A great experience helping out a fantastic runner!

  3. An epic report to go with an epic adventure! Well done!

  4. Savage Paul, well done evrryone.

  5. Well done Paul.

    What I find gratifying about your report is that someone of your abilities experiences the same anxieties, fears, internal panic attacks, mood swings, self-doubt, food problems, sore legs and overwhelming joy that the rest of us experience.


  6. A pleasure to have witnessed. Awesome stuff. :)

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Great running & a great report.
    Well done P.

  9. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this amazing achievement - brilliant - the write and the Round!

  10. Fantastic Paul. The organisation alone would have been enough to exhaust me. Well done.

  11. Great read Paul and great effort, can't wait until July when I'm down supporting Johnny Millen, hopefully catch up with you in Chamonix.

    1. Hi Davie, hope it all goes smoothly for Johnny and ye guys supporting him. Will definately catch up in Chamonix. Finally sorted accomodation out :)

  12. Great Round Paul. Sounds like a good day out, would love to have a go at it. Is this the next step from the Wicklow Way Ultra?

    Dale Mathers

    1. Haha, ya Dale, a slight step up! It's a great way to see the Lake District

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