By Colin Allott
If you ever fancy feeling really sick, do the following in this order:
1. Stay on a sailing boat in Norway in a storm.
2. Drink lots of rum.
3. Listen to tales about running the Bob Graham Round.
My long suffering girlfriend, Alex and I were visiting our friend Kath, who had recently supported someone on the final leg of the Bob Graham Round. She poured us all another rum, and explained the challenge: Running over the mountains of the Lake District, covering 66 miles and nearly the height of Everest in total ascent, all within 24 hours.
“Wow”, I said. “What kind of idiot would do that?”
Kath explained that I was the sort of idiot that might do that.
“No chance!” I protested. “I’m not one of those weird ultrarunners. It sounds awful”.
Alex wasn’t the slightest bit convinced. With a knowing sip of her drink and a sigh, she pointed out that I’d end up doing it one day.
I laughed-out-loud, then swiftly put an end to the nonsense. “Don’t worry” I reassured her. “I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever do a Bob Graham Round – I’m not that daft”.
Leg 1 – Keswick to Threlkeld
–Three is company—
Two years later I was standing there in Keswick with one hand touching the green door of Moot Hall. Some of my support runners were taking photos. What the hell was I doing? I was pretending it was completely normal behaviour. However, the expressions on the faces of some nearby tourists confirmed what I already thought; it wasn’t normal behaviour. Not in the slightest. But this is how you start a Bob Graham Round, and this is where you need to return to finish it.
I’d given myself a 22hr 30min schedule. A fairly relaxed pace, but with enough extra time to account for any ‘mishaps’. The Bob Graham Round (or BGR) is comprised of 5 legs, and on each of these you need support runners to help out and witness you at each peak. You also need road support at the 4 road crossings: Threlkeld, Dunmail Raise, Wasdale and Honister.
My team was entirely made up of members of my running club, the Goyt Valley Striders. The majority of them didn’t have any BGR experience, but I was determined to make it a club event. This of course meant throwing a lot of people in at the deep end.
Anyone who says they aren’t nervous before attempting a challenge like this is a massive liar. I’d been planning and training for the BGR for over a year. I’d dragged 20 people to the Lake District to help out, and had intricately planned out the next 24 hours. When the clock struck 6:30pm, I was finally off, and I’d run out of time for worrying.
For leg 1, I had surrounded myself with experience in the form of Mark Whelan, Mick Wren and Ade West-Samuel. Navigation was no worry for me at the start, because this particular mountain range was Mick’s stomping ground. Mick could probably run this leg blindfolded, but we decided against that.
The climb from Keswick to Skiddaw is a beast, but chatting with the chaps the whole way meant I barely noticed. I was also shovelling as much food into my face as possible, including Mr Kipling’s entire back catalogue of cakey treats. Keeping hydrated was equally important, and Mick had an exciting drink called ‘Tailwind’. In summary; Tailwind was pretty rough. Never before had I ever considered rinsing my mouth out with water from a sheep-trough, just to take the taste away. Mick went on to explain it was called Tailwind for two reasons. Nice one Mick.
Everything went smoothly until the final approach to the summit of Skiddaw. Sadly, at this point, my old hip injury decided to make a reappearance. I’d be nursing this little terror for the last 4 weeks, and although it had improved recently, I knew it’d make an unwelcome return at some point. But that was far too early. I wasn’t bothered about the pain so much. But I knew it would ruin my speed. Anyone that’s tried running with dysfunctional hips, knows it’s like driving with the handbrake left on.
Suddenly, I was distracted, because after an hour and a half, Skiddaw was bagged. This left me with only 41 more peaks to go. With that sobering thought, I completely ignored the magnificent views from the summit and immediately darted down the grassy descent.
Descending off Skiddaw, the hip pain vanished, but I wasn’t buying it. I knew on the next ascent up Great Calva I’d be crawling. I quickly improvised a plan where we’d all get to Great Calva on schedule. I’d run the descent quickly, leaving the other guys behind, but grab some extra minutes in the bank. They’d easily catch me on the ascent. As expected, I trudged up Great Calva at a glacial pace. Ade caught me about two-thirds of the way, and Mark and Mick caught me just before the summit. We exchanged a few words and Mark took a photo, but I wasn’t in the mood for dithering. It’s like they say; “a minute spent at each summit is 42 minutes lost on a Bob Graham Round” (no-one actually says that).
Moments later I was alone again, bounding down towards the river. Surely I couldn’t run a whole BGR like this? The downhill pace was unsustainable. It was also completely unsociable! I waded across the river Caldrew wondering what to do. Ade quickly caught me again and we embarked on the marshy slog up the north side of Blencathra. The summit of Blencathra feels like the edge of the world – one of the best spots on the BGR. After Ade had witnessed me at the summit, I took a deep breath and launched myself down the terrifying drop of Halls Fell Ridge. Tackling this section at speed is the fell running equivalent of F1 racing. With perfectly timed steering and braking, you’ll stay on the ideal racing line. Get it wrong and you’ll crash, and it would be messy. As dusk fell, I tried focusing on the tricky descent, but my mind kept drifting into thinking how surreal it was. There were 20 people helping me on this BGR, yet there I was at 10 pm on a Friday night, plummeting down a mountain, very much alone. Before I knew it, I was hitting the roads leading into the village of Threlkeld, and the warm glow of civilisation.
Threlkeld – 10:10 pm
–Out of the frying pan into the fire–
I stumbled towards the van like a drunk. Why did my legs feel like jelly? Why was my head spinning? After all the training and recces, leg 1 should have felt like a warm-up. Instead, I was ruined. I looked amateurish and it was embarrassing. I couldn’t quit after just one leg, so I decided to attempt leg 2. Then I’d quit. After necking some paracetamol, I force-fed myself tomato pasta until I felt sick. I tried to get organised, but by this point my brain had turned to mashed potato and the planned 5 minute stop ended up taking 15 mins.
BGR tip 1 – Plan your road crossings properly. I’d spent a year researching and practising the route, and found the perfect lines between peaks, just to save seconds here or there. That all counts for nothing when you waste 10 minutes at a road crossing. Damn.
Leg 2 – Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise
–A Journey in the Dark–
Running through the mountains at night is a very silly thing to do, but amazingly, I’d managed to convince Lucas Jones, Alistair Fitzgerald, Dave Bowen and Mark Ruston, it was somehow a great idea.
Twelve peaks made up the second leg, and like Pokemon, the game was to catch them all. First up, Clough Head was best described as a ‘relentless struggle’. With all the exuberance and speed of a slug on Valium, I inched my way up the steep climb. This gave me a great opportunity to watch my team disappear off ahead. I could tell they were wondering what was wrong. They didn’t have to wonder for long, as I spent the rest of the climb incessantly ranting about my rubbish hips. It was going to be a long night… For everyone.
As we approached Great Dodd, the darkness fell. I was always dreading the night time, mainly because the dark is scary and the monsters might get me. However, a glorious thing lifted my spirits. Behold! The full moon beamed down on us, like a giant Petzl head-torch in the sky. As long as it didn’t cloud over, it would guide us to fairer lands. Within seconds, the clouds rolled in. Very funny. OK then; navigation was going to be a lot more fun. As long as it stayed dry. Before I could even finish that thought, it started to literally rain on my parade. Urggghh! I took off my bag to fetch my waterproof top, except… Where the hell was it?
BGR tip 2 – Bring waterproofs. It occasionally rains in the Lake District. That’s the secret of how the lakes remain topped up. Also, if you forget them, prepare to be laughed at.
Lucas came to the rescue. Unbelievably, he had a spare waterproof top to donate. Gee, thanks!! With visibility down to a few metres, I needed to perform some mad navigation skills. However, when I checked my compass, I instantly knew it was knackered. So maybe I wasn’t an orienteering whizz-kid, but even I knew the red needle thingy was meant to face north. About as useful as an inflatable dartboard… Mmmmm, I needed another miracle. Lucas then amazingly conjured up a spare compass from nowhere. Wow, Great! I was incredibly thankful, but then a bit suspicious. After careful consideration, I decided to use my 3rd wish to grant Lucas freedom from the lamp he’d clearly magically appeared from.
As well as making navigation troublesome; the clag also heavily impacted our downhill speed. With the water droplets hanging in the air, the light from our head torches reflected straight back into our eyes. As we flew down the descents, the rocks and boulders came into view at the last second, making progress sketchy at best.
The peaks between Great Dodd and Hellvelyn all seemed to blend into one, and to be honest, the experience was fairly grim. However, I managed to cheer myself up, by remembering I’d brought a gingerbread man. I took him out of my bag and we had a fabulous time together running down off Helvellyn. But I was getting hungry. After careful consideration, I started eating the head-end first. At the time it was really important to me that the little guy didn’t suffer, like I was. RIP gingerbread man.
Thanks to his periodic threats, Alistair, kept me well hydrated on Leg 2. He also had an interesting home-made drink. It had a distinct ‘briny’ tang with a chemical orange aftertaste. Was this an Irish Sea/Boracca cocktail? I didn’t dare ask. It would either kill me or get me round a BGR. We decided it was worth the risk.
Navigation went surprisingly well until Dollywagon Pike, when we all missed the correct path. Luckily Dave Bowen was still awake. He stopped us dead in our tracks and ordered a 90 degree turn to the left and up the steep slope to the summit. Phew! Thanks, Dave.
After the next descent, we eventually reached the bottom of Fairfield. Fairfield is a joke – a really bad joke. You’ve nearly reached the end of Leg 2, but instead of heading down to Dunmail Raise, you have to run in the opposite direction, up a 1000ft climb and back down again. Hence, why I’ve officially awarded it ‘Col’s least favourite hill on the BGR’. The climb lasted a lifetime, maybe more. After a couple of ice ages and possibly the rise and fall of several empires, we finally reached the summit. I gave the cairn a kick for good measure. Our reward for this effort was to head back down, retracing our steps, directly west. Except, we didn’t. Not even close. When we found ourselves on steep bouldery terrain, I realised we’d messed up quite badly. Taking evasive action, I skirted across the slope and hunted for the path with my team following me. After a while, I found myself back on the path. Awesome. I turned around to high-five the team, but they weren’t there. This is the moment I could have waited or tried shouting, but that would have been far too sensible. In a moment of sleep-deprived madness, I descended the path to the foot of Fairfield on my own. Then, with a growing feeling of apprehension, I slowly started the climb up Seat Sandal, the last hill on Leg 2.
What the hell have you done? It’s 2:00 am and you’re alone on a mountain in the middle of the Lake District. Engulfed in the thick mist, your eyes strain on the dark void below, searching for a sign of movement, a light, anything… Where are they? They clearly didn’t follow you to the path. They’re either searching for you on the slopes of Fairfield or completely lost themselves. You try whistling as loud as you can. Nothing. You also try shouting. Nothing. You try sheltering behind a rock from the relentless wind and sporadic volleys of rain, but you’re getting colder by the minute. After 10 minutes, the temptation to head down to Dunmail Raise becomes overwhelming. But with no-one to witness you at the summit of Seat Sandal, your BGR would be over. Now is not the time to panic. Suddenly you feel very exposed and very alone. It’s time to accept the reality that you’ve completely screwed up and lost every one. On a Bob Graham Round, that’s a bad thing. A very bad thing.
BGR tip 3 – Don’t lose your support team. This should be really obvious. Unless of course, you plan to sabotage your own BGR attempt. Poor visibility can really help you achieve this.
I have no plan. I just keep pathetically shouting and flashing my head torch. Finally, I hear an answer from the darkness. It’s Rusty. Brilliant! The rest of the cavalry quickly arrive. We don’t talk about recent events, and collectively focus our efforts on getting off the mountain.
Frustratingly, we’re now making a mess of the descent off Seat Sandal. After a few minutes, I see a familiar-looking rock. It’s our sign to turn right. You see kids; that’s what recces are all about – recognising your favourite rock. We hurtle down the path and as we break out of the cloud layer, a view emerges beneath us that can only be described as ‘extraterrestrial’. Below me are UFO’s, projecting beams of light through the eerie mist. My blood goes cold. As the mist clears, it becomes embarrassingly obvious that it’s actually about 10 vans parked at Dunmail Raise. It’s still a weird sight, but sadly not Close Encounters of the Third Kind. To be fair, I am very tired, but I still believe: The truth is out there. 👽
Dunmail Raise – 2:56 am
–An unexpected party–
Chris Bowen has brilliantly positioned her van right next to the stile and I’m quickly sat down. I’m not a happy bunny. I’ve just screwed up the end of leg 2, and I’m still in agony. Forget the 22hr 30min schedule, I’ve now reverted to a 24hr schedule, and I’ve already gone over it! It’s a bad place to be so early into a BGR attempt. Is there any point in carrying on? I doubt I’ll even manage the run to Wasdale, but to keep everyone happy, I’ll give it a go. Amongst the flashes of head torches and noise, I hear offers of more tomato pasta or rice pudding. A memory of force-feeding myself pasta at Threlkeld makes me shudder, so I opt for the rice pudding. Chris apologises that it’s not very warm. Who cares? It tastes magnificent. I love rice pudding. Time to get moving – right after I’ve had some more paracetamol…
Leg 3 – Dunmail Raise to Wasdale
—The Breaking of the Fellowship—
On leg 3 I’m lucky to have Mark Richards, Pete Woodhead, James Hobson and Rusty (again!). The one thing these guys have in common is that I suspect they all have the same bit of their brain missing… Why else would they agree to start a 6-hour mountain run starting at 3 am? Respect!
What wondrous delights does this leg have in store for me? I don’t know, and I would rather not guess. But first on the menu: Steel Fell. Bollocks!
It’s still pitch black, I’m immensely tired and my hips are screaming at me to stop. I turn to the team’s shaman for sage advice. Pete Woodhead is carrying a plethora of pain-relieving potions, many of which cannot be pronounced in the common tongue. I opt for the ‘Elixir of Ibuprofen’. After reciting the incantation (and rubbing the Ibuprofen gel into my hip) it works like a charm. I am born anew.
After Steel Fell summit, we’re picking up the pace through the marshes and abysmal clag. The next 30 minutes goes something like this: “We’ve lost the path!”… “Go left”… “We’ve found the path!”… “We’ve lost it again”… “head right!”… “Where’s the path gone?”… “found it again!”… (repeat). Utterly exhausting. It feels like we’re on a galleon ship adrift in a stormy sea. Luckily for me, Captain Mark Richards is doing a great job of navigating the course to Calf Crag, and calmer seas.
An alarming shout pierces the air as Pete falls and twists his ankle. After some worrying moments, he insists he can limp on and slowly starts moving. Although I feel desperately sorry for him, I’m bloody delighted it wasn’t me. I wisely decide not to share this revelation with him. He might not appreciate it.
I do not believe this darkness will endure. I’m looking forward to the warmth and spectacle of a glorious sunrise, for dawn is ever the hope of men…. Hang on. It slowly dawns on me that it had actually already dawned on me, it’s just that at the time it didn’t dawn on me (feel free to re-read that). Before me is a wall of impenetrable greyness, where there was once a wall of impenetrable blackness. At least I get to turn off my head torch. Hurray!
High Raise is probably my least favourite hill on the round. I’m struggling, so on the ascent, Mark Richards offers me his walking poles. Big mistake, Mark! On each subsequent climb, I give Mark a pathetic look and claim them as my own. After each summit, I throw them back to him like a spoilt brat. Terrible behaviour. Sorry, Mark.
After a navigational cock-up on the ascent of Bowfell, we eventually reach Esk Pike and the tricky rocky section from Great End to Scafell Pike. I hear a familiar yelp. That’ll be Pete twisting his ankle again. I’m starting to suspect that Pete is keeping count of the peaks by twisting his ankle between each one. Truely, the method of a sadist.
But that’s one of the challenges of the Bob Graham. Imagine you’ve just done 12 hours of mountain running through the night, with no sleep. Suddenly, on the Scafell Massif, you’re expected to dance around over ankle-breaking rocks like some sort of mountain ballerina. It’s just asking for trouble.
There are no souvenir photo opportunities in the claggy mists of Scafell Pike, so we hit the descent. Since Great End, we’ve been running alongside a fellow BGR team from Keswick, and they lead the way down through the fog.
After a few yards, a faint trod heading to the left quickly emerges from the mist. My spidey senses start tingling. I call out “I think it’s that way” in the most feeble way imaginable, but no-one heard me. The team from Keswick are pulling away and we’re going with them. I’m probably wrong. Forget it.
After a couple of minutes of fast descent, I hear a shout from the front. I look up, and a silhouette of a hill is momentarily revealed in a break in the clouds. It’s Lingmell. For the last 5 minutes, we’ve been heading in completely the wrong direction. Gutted.
BGR tip 4 – Following the runner in front is a classic mistake and can often lead to trouble. Don’t do it! In fact, never follow someone from Keswick.
We stop dead. Everyone looks confused. I should have trusted my instincts a few minutes back. I’m furious with myself. I can hear everyone debating what to do. The guys from Keswick sensibly want to head back uphill to the turn-off we missed. I know I can’t do that. I’m already over my schedule. If we head back uphill, I’ll lose too much time and my BGR will be over.
With no time to think, I more or less demand Rusty’s phone and check the GPS. I can see a possible route from our position directly across to Mickledore. It avoids any climbing, but there’s no path to speak of and it skirts very close to the edge of Pike Crags and a 300ft vertical drop. With no time to discuss or debate this, I’ve made my decision. I leave the path and run into the mist following the GPS. Someone from the Keswick team shouts “What’s your compass bearing?!”. “Not a bloody clue, but you can follow me if you want!” I yell back. To my disbelief, they decide to follow me. My poor team, on the other hand, have no choice…
The idea of pacing myself is now a distant memory. I’m now sprinting through tussocks and leaping over boulders. I take another look at the GPS, but Rusty’s phone has locked. Replacing the OS map is now a screensaver of Rusty’s son Magnus smiling at me. “Dammit Magnus, you can’t help me now!”. I maintain my bearing and after a couple of minutes, I join the path to Mickledore. When in doubt, follow your nose. I wait at Mickledore until Mark Richards gets within shouting range. I explain my plan of sprinting down to the start of Lords Rake because everyone will easily catch me when I struggle on the next climb. Mark gives me the nod. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last time I would see Mark Richards. In fact, I wouldn’t see Rusty again either.
I’m clambering up Lords Rake using my arms as much as my legs. I’ve underestimated myself. This is classic Col territory and I suspect I’m pulling further away from my team.
At the top, I take the short walk to the summit of Sca Fell. I turn around, gaze into the mist, and start manically chuckling to myself. Yet again, I’m all alone. What an idiot. A quick check of the watch confirms my fear. I’m still over-schedule. I sit down, give up on my Bob Graham attempt, and decide to enjoy the rest.
BGR tip 5 – *See BGR tip 3
My body temperature is dropping fast. It’s no surprise; the wind has picked up and I’m stood on top of the second-highest mountain in England at 9 am. I yell to see if anyone is nearby, but my pathetic shouts are lost and engulfed in the sea of fog, like a rubber duck adrift in the smothering foam of a bubble bath. The rocks of Sca Fell cairn provide no warmth, but I’m hugging them anyway. I need to get moving. After a few chilly minutes, a figure emerges from the grey blanket. It’s James. Bloody brilliant! I stop hugging Sca Fell and dart down to him. Very shortly Pete joins us. How Pete has managed to get this far with his foot, pathetically dangling off the end of his leg, I’ll never know. Pete surely can’t keep up on the descent to Wasdale. I hate to do it, but we leave him behind like a wounded animal. The ravens begin circling overhead. It’s what he would have wanted.
James and I start the plummet to Wasdale. After a couple of minutes we’re beneath the cloud layer and I can see the Keswick team in the far distance. By the time we reach the scree slope, we’ve caught them and they sensibly dive out of the way. We’re clattering down the scree at speeds that could melt your face off. I love scree slopes. They’re relaxing on the legs. Similar to lowering yourself into a lovely warm bath, but filled with rocks. James is now performing an impressive (but probably-not-choreographed) display of acrobatic moves, including a full pirouette – just to remain upright. Skills!
Thanks to a rapid descent, I’ve gone from 5 minutes over, to 5 minutes under a 24-hour schedule. That section took us 28 mins, which was somehow faster than Nicky Spinks on her record-breaking round. A small and pathetic victory for me in the ‘rivalry’ that she doesn’t know about.
Wasdale 9:56 am.
-A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to-
There’s a strange atmosphere at Wasdale. It feels peaceful and serene, yet you could cut the tension with a knife. My support runners know that the fate of my BGR hangs in the balance, and I can see concern etched on their faces. In contrast, I’m feeling relaxed because I’m under no pressure. Now I’m only interested in finishing, and I don’t care how long it takes.
On road support at Wasdale, I’m incredibly lucky to have Moira Hunt. She asks if I’d like my feet washing. I was warned this would happen. She’s lovingly prepared a tub of warm water for me. I place one foot into the water and… instant regret. I snatch my foot from the boiling cauldron. What happened to the elbow test, Moira? I can only imagine bath-time used to be the stuff of nightmares in the Hunt household. After a dash of cold water is added, it feels like heaven, and Moira is once again my favourite. She’s also the first person to wash my feet for me since the ’80s.
Steve Hennessey is also on road support. Like a guardian angel, he seems to float in from nowhere, and bids me “take a bite of this veggie-sausage bap”. It tastes divine; every last mouthful of it. Bless you, Steve (and sorry for stealing your entire sandwich).
Leg 4 – Wasdale to Honister
–The turn of the tide–
I could stay at Wasdale forever, but my Leg 4 team look impatient. On leg 4 I have Paul & Amelia Hunt and Clare Griffin. Paul keeps looking at his watch. Amelia is pacing back and forth. Clare has assumed a not-very-subtle stationary running position. I get the hint, but Amelia is now shouting at us to get the hell moving. “Fine!” – I obediently and painfully rise from my chair. Now is the hour!
Leaving Wasdale is tough. Last night’s sleep was replaced with 15 hours of mountain running, covering 40 miles and 18,000ft of ascent. I could do with a little sleepy. Instead, I’m greeted with the sight of Yewbarrow and the sobering thought of another 9 hours of mountains. Wasdale is nicknamed ‘the graveyard of the Bob Graham’, and now I know why. But far from being dead and buried, I’ve just set off. I might look like a re-animated corpse, but I’m moving, and I’ll take that as a win.
I finally gain the nerve to look up at Yewbarrow. Crap. I know what I must do. It’s just… I’m afraid to do it. Yewbarrow is actually one of my favourite mountains, but on the BGR? No. It’s my least favourite. The route from the Wasdale carpark to the summit is an insane wall of grass. I’m trying my best, but the hip pain quickly returns. I’m frequently stopping, but each time, Paul stops right behind me and refuses to overtake. He’s not saying anything. Just silently making me feel guilty. I know exactly what you’re doing, Paul. It isn’t going to work…
…It works. Astonishingly, we reach the summit in 43 mins, clawing back 10 mins on the schedule. The realisation then sinks in that these guys are probably going to kill me.
Despite being overshadowed by the more glamorous mountains surrounding it, the next peak, Red Pike, is surprisingly the 4th biggest ascent on the whole round. On the brutal climb, I somehow gain another 6 minutes, but it hurts badly. It’s an experience I’d rather forget, and unquestionably my least favourite hill on the round.
I’d been warned how I’d almost certainly hit a bad patch at some point on the BGR. To be fair, the last 15 hours had felt like a bad patch, but the bag of ready salted crisps I’ve just found in my rucksack is the final straw. Like a bad patch on top of a bad patch. I really feel like having a tantrum, but Paul averts this by calmly explaining that I shouldn’t have put “a boring flavour” of crisps in his car if I didn’t like them. I need to grow up. I also need inspiration.
BGR tip 6 – Get Clare Griffin to support you late into a BGR attempt. As self-appointed morale officer, she will do an amazing job of relentlessly brainwashing you into believing you’re actually doing ace. A word of warning though: she will sing to you…
Clare’s first performance is a bold choice. Apparently it’s a swing-jazz cover version of the nu-metal classic ‘Down with the Sickness’. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell which version it is, since Clare forgot to bring a backing band with her. I don’t have the heart to tell her, but she eventually works for out herself that it could be a better choice of song, considering I was “looking a bit pukey”. Still a cracking effort though – a solid 8/10.
Paul, on navigation, is skipping around off in the distance coaxing us on our way like the pied piper of fell running. Although I guess from way over there he can’t hear my moaning (or Clare’s singing). Smart move.
We’re now climbing Pillar and the heavens open. The rain quickly turns into hail. What is this new devilry? Maybe I’m hallucinating, but I can hear Clare and Amelia discussing how Paul looks like a ninja-turtle now he’s pulled his waterproof over his backpack. I look up and chuckle in agreement. Apparently his name is ‘Paulo’, the less-famous fifth ninja turtle. With his special talent of BGR leg 4 navigation, he was never really required on the kid’s TV show. But look at him go now! I’m pleased I’ve given Paulo his navigational task. He is, after all, my hero turtle.
My brain’s gone all fuzzy. I keep forgetting where I am and where I’m going. In fact, why am I doing this? Then I remember that Alex promised that if I completed the BGR (and behaved myself) she would take me to see the Alpaca’s tomorrow at Lingmell Estate on Derwent water. I have to keep moving. At any cost…
I’ve now reached the stage that apparently ultra-runners often find themselves in. It’s called the “I want what you’ve got” stage. Clare’s got chocolate Kendal mint cake. I want it. Clare happily hands it over the delicious minty treat with a smile (but her eyes look sad).
The rollercoaster of Leg 4 reaches a crescendo with the double whammy of Kirk Fell, followed by Great Gable. Normally I love Great Gable. But not today. Today it can do one. Today it’s my least favourite hill on the BGR. Let that be known. I’m already struggling with the initial climb. I’m like a wounded animal and quite frankly, need putting out of my misery. My hips have given up. I want to give up. It is in this moment, when all hope had faded, that I receive some unexpected help. Without warning, Amelia pops open a bag of BBQ Hula Hoops with one hand, downs the lot, and appears to gain super-human strength. Very much like Popeye, but with fewer sailor tattoos and a much worse diet. Now, roided-out on magical BBQ flavourings, she’s carrying both my bag and hers. Well, blow me down! I wasn’t expecting that, and I’m certainly not arguing. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders (which I suppose is no surprise). Feeling as light as a feather, I attack Great Gable with everything I’ve got. It turns out; that’s not much. But at least it’s now less painful for everyone else to witness.
I’m now stood on the summit of Great Gable. By rights, we shouldn’t even be here. At the end of leg 1, I’d written myself off, but kept pointlessly trudging along. I look back to Sca Fell and remember the moment that I completely gave up. The only thing that kept me going was the amazing support from my team, and not wanting to not let them down. Now I’m 20 mins under schedule, and for the very first time, it feels possible. I can now see blue skies. Is my mood controlling the weather?? I can’t wait for the sun, for when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
I look north and foolishly convince myself it’s all downhill from here. I skip off the summit looking forward to the gentle slope all the way to Moot Hall. Before I know it I’m at the foot of Green Gable. On the short ascent, I can hear myself whimpering again. Amelia has clearly had enough by this point and invents some elaborate plan about having to run off ahead to get the bag change done in advance at Honister. Smart move.
Honister – 2:50 pm
–A Short Rest–
Stumbling into the car park, I head towards the van. Alex looks concerned. I’m concerned that Alex looks concerned. Do I look that bad? I need to eat something. I’d pre-ordered a huge range of options for Honister, and Alex has prepared an amazing buffet for me. Fish and chips, coffee, cake, chocolate bars, everything you could wish for. However, I feel sick and nothing looks appetising. I start thinking of a YouTube video where Nicky Spinks leaves Honister and pukes up what she’s just eaten. I’m not sure how that’s going to help me at this stage. For some reason, I just hopelessly sit there. Clearly frustrated by this pathetic spectacle, Amelia suddenly starts spoon-feeding me rice pudding like you might feed a toddler. I guess that’s what I’ve become – a toddler trying to do a Bob Graham Round. Despite being a little scared, I try and salvage what little dignity I’ve got left by triumphantly seizing control of the spoon and independently feed myself like an actual grown-up might. It’s like the old saying goes; you can lead a horse to water, but you’ll have to force-feed it rice pudding. I manage most of the can. I bloody love rice pudding. I’d scheduled a 15 minute stop, but thanks to the advanced bag change we only take 5 minutes. I’m starting the fifth and final leg of the BGR and incredibly, I’m now 30 minutes under schedule. And… another small victory: Unlike Spinks, I’m not puking.
This Bob Graham Round was unofficially sponsored by Ambrosia, BBQ Hula Hoops and Mr Kipling himself.
Leg 5 – Honister to Keswick
–The Return of the King?–
Dale Head is a right bastard. On the Borrowdale Fell Race, I’ve only ever crawled up this hill but vowed that one day I’d run it properly. But it is not this day! Today I’m crawling again. Dale Head isn’t my least favourite hill on the round though – On reflection, that was probably Bowfell.
The good news is the sun is finally out, and my leg 5 team; Paul Oakley, Roy Whittle, and Brian Holland are brimming with confidence. Even Brian looks excited! On this leg, Roy is heroically carrying my bag and water.
BGR tip 7 – Take water in handheld bottles (rather than flasks with tubes). Every time I need a drink on leg 5, I summon Roy, stand uncomfortably close to him, and suck water from the tubes. I look like a hopeless lamb suckling from its mother. Quite embarrassing, really.
The whole team are doing an amazing job of looking after me. At any given moment, all 3 of them seem to be glued to my side.
All that ‘suckling’ seems to have paid off though because now I’m delighted to report I’m peeing quite frequently! For the record, my team do leave my side at these moments (as is customary).
After Dale Head, we skirt round to Hindscarth, and I start to have a ‘colly-wobble’. My hips are completely ruined and it feels like they could implode at any moment. My 30-minute buffer suddenly feels a bit flimsy. It’s now mine to throw away. Why do I lay these troubles on an already troubled mind? Luckily I’ve got Paul Oakley with me. Like an athletic Yoda, he somehow re-orders my words and says them back to me in a way that sounds like everything is absolutely brilliant – How does he do that? I quickly regain my self-confidence. It’s like they say: self-confidence starts with ‘self’ and ends with ‘confidence’…
After a long climb, we eventually reach Robinson. Final count: 42, the last peak on the BGR.
It feels like the end, but that’s dangerous thinking. There’s still a quad-busting 1600ft drop into the valley. Following that, I’ve got to follow the roads back to Keswick for ‘only’ 6 miles (or 10km for people that use proper measurements). Better get on with it.
We’re on the descent off Robinson and my sleep-deprived brain has decided the worst route possible is definitely the best option. We’re now clambering down rocky drops and missing all the best routes identified on the recces. I figure the only parts of my body left working are my legs and about 3 brain cells. One’s controlling the right leg, one controlling the left and the final one is trying to navigate. Eventually, we hit the valley floor and pick up the pace on the gentle downhill to Littletown.
I’ve been monosyllabic for hours, but now I’ve reached ‘conversation saturation’, and I’m struggling to even listen to anyone. Brian’s chatting away to me, but I haven’t got a bloody clue what he’s on about. My head is just bobbing away in agreement like one of those nodding dog ornaments that people put in their cars for god knows what reason. I just pray he can keep up this one-way conversation. Otherwise, I’m just left with the voice in my head. And that, quite frankly, is a terrifying thought.
We jog into Littletown where Alex is waiting with the van. She hands me the greatest gift I could possibly imagine – a pint of slightly-warm cordial. It’s amazing. Roy swaps my fell running shoes for road shoes. He also becomes the first person to tie my shoe laces for me since the ’80s. I’d normally be embarrassed by this degree of pampering. But right now? Well, it’s my special day, isn’t it? We quickly get back on the road and the novelty of comfortable road shoes lasts approximately 2 minutes.
I check my watch for maybe the 100th time in the last 3 minutes. My brain can’t do the maths, but I reckon I could now walk to Keswick and finish within 24 hours. It’s going to happen! Then, as if by magic, I suddenly see a small herd of Llamas in a nearby field. So, OK, they aren’t alpacas, but they are my second favourite South-American cameloid. I stumble over and take a selfie in celebration with the woolly gang. Leg 5 team look confused.
Yes, the Llamas were brilliant, but all of a sudden the realisation of knowing I could walk to the finish completely saps my determination to keep running. There’s also no point pushing myself since I’m not going to finish with a great time. I’ve only got one reason to tell my legs to shut up and keep running; the faster I do this, the sooner the pain will end. My brain and legs finally reach a trade agreement and I begin a tedious pattern of swapping between jogging and walking. It’s complete torture, but probably worse for my support runners. At least I’m clinging on to my 30-minute buffer. After an eternity of tarmac, we eventually cross the bridge before Keswick. Strangers out for a walk start congratulating me.
–One does not simply walk into Keswick–
The tiresome jog/walk pattern continues into the outskirts of Keswick. Finally, poking out above the houses, I can see the tower of Moot Hall. I feel numb with disbelief. I shouldn’t be here. In fact, I wouldn’t be here without the support from the Goyt Valley Striders. I’m now almost sprinting towards Moot Hall with renewed energy in my legs. It quickly dawns on me that I’m not stopping now until I’ve hit that green door. I can see Clare Griffin and Dave Bowen ahead of me in the distance. Before I know it, I’m on the home straight and there’s a crowd of people running with me. People are cheering. I look up and see Alex stood at the top of the Moot Hall steps. I sprint the last few yards and fly up the steps. Suddenly I’m holding her in my arms and time stops.
I’ve just spent nearly 24 hours on an amazing adventure in the mountains with my mind bent on trying to get back here. Now I don’t want it to end. Challenges don’t come much more epic than this. It could well be the hardest challenge I’ll ever do. So I decide to savour the moment.
My support team are shouting at me to touch the door. I know I’ve got to touch the green door of Moot Hall to officially finish, but by doing so I’ll put an end to this sweet moment. I take my time.
Thanks to all these wonderful people (in order of appearance):
Alex Sturrock, Mark Whelan, Mick Wren, Adrian West-Samuel, Steve Hennessey, Chris Bowen, Dave Bowen, Lucas Jones, Alistair Fitzgerald, Mark Ruston, Pete Woodhead, Mark Richards, James Hobson, Moira Hunt, Paul Hunt, Amelia Hunt, Clare Griffin, Rik Griffin, Roy Whittle, Brian Holland, Paul Oakley.
Only five weeks after the Bob Graham Round, we heard the tragic news that Mick Wren had passed away. He was on the fells, not far from Skiddaw, out to meet and support another Bob Graham Round team. This was a huge shock, and no-one could quite believe it.
I’d only met Mick twice before organising this BGR attempt, but that was more than enough to know he had to be involved. It was really important to me that Mick was on leg 1. With all his experience, he had a wonderful calming presence. He also never hesitated to crack a joke and have a laugh. This is exactly the sort of person you need around when you’re a bag of nerves.
I feel lucky to have met Mick. I instantly clicked with him on the few mountain runs we did together. I loved listening to his stories of his 100 mile races, namely the Ultra-Tour Du Mont-Blanc and the Lakeland 100. He was clearly a really tough chap. But even that quality was overshadowed by his other attributes. He was cheerful, supportive, and always up for a challenge. A true inspiration and definitely someone to look up to. He will be missed.
In Memory of Mick Wren.