In my last year at University I got round to reading ‘Feet in the Clouds’ and so, as for many, the seed was planted: ‘I want to do the Bob Graham Round’, though I knew full well at the time it may just remain another pipe dream. I worked in Leeds for 9 months after graduating and flirted with fell running with a friend I’d met at the Uni cycling club. We’d go and trot around Ilkley Moor, ‘training’ for the Scottish Islands Peaks Race (which he’d roped me into after his girlfriend quite understandably bailed on the idea).
A six-hour slog around the Yorkshire three peaks that Spring made me think twice about my potential as a runner, but it wasn’t until we stayed at my Gran’s one weekend and completed what we thought was a very brave day on the hills: Langdale to Wasdale Head via Scafell and back via Styhead Tarn. By the end of the day I was battered but also buzzing from the amount and variety of scenery we had encountered, a sensation I’d felt lacking from mountain biking. On the ascent to Bowfell we met some runners who had done the ‘Islands race and told us it’s “like doing the Yorkshire three peaks, three times”. We laughed with ignorance: ‘How can it be that hard?!’ How I laugh now… On the way back to Leeds we stopped at Pete Bland’s and I bought a copy of the Bob Graham Round route map.
At first I really couldn’t get my head around how doing the Bob was possible. I used to stare at the map, read the description and the 23.30 hrs scheduled leg times and it would just go over my head. In Autumn that year I went out to recce a few legs, a memorable moment being sat on the edge of Fairfield, stuffing my face with pasta after a monumental bonk-out. As I stared into the blurry horizon high with hypoglycemia, I was fully convinced it was possible if I knuckled down to some long training runs on the route. I shuffled down to Dunmail Raise where my mates were waiting to pick me up and confessed my newfound optimism, which was met with a good old dose of British pessimism. I’ve always been good at kidding myself, a skill I’ve since come to learn has some value when it comes to ultrarunning…
Over the next 6 months, following the sudden death of my Grandmother who I was living with at the time, I needed something to focus my scattered mind, so settled on a date in May, reasoning I’d have the rest of Summer to reattempt if I failed. I knew how to get into shape quickly from my mountain bike racing days so committed to some fairly enthusiastic crash training. I became consumed by the Bob and I crashed a little too hard, giving myself my first taste of Achilles tendinitis, which my chronically weak cyclist calves still struggle with to this day. Maybe I should’ve played more football as a kid and not skived P.E. after all. Sub-20hrs seemed cool so I set my schedule…
Leg 1 | Scheduled Time: 3:17. Actual Time: 3:20.
Tim Ripper, Rich Watson and I set off up Skiddaw together at 3am, arriving at the top in the rain but on schedule. We push the pace up Great Calva and again arrive on time. Blencathra is always a drag and my enthusiasm gets the better of me and we become separated. A bit of fumbling around in the clag checking the GPS and we are soon reunited. Due to the wet conditions we decide to descend via Doddick fell and arrive out of the clag to a dreary Threlkeld a few minutes down on schedule. Psyched up, I down some porridge and a cup of lukewarm but exceptionally strong coffee, then stare at the tarmac beneath me momentarily before emptying the contents of my stomach on it. Cool. I had to look away from my crew to avoid their eye contact and doubtful faces. I heaved a few more times then changed my shoes and began Leg 2.
Leg 2 | Scheduled Time: 3:51. Actual Time: 4:09.
My sole pacer for this leg was close friend Daniel Argyle (Darg). He’s done an Ironman but he’ll be the first to admit navigation and hills aren’t his forte. Though I had to stop and wait for him a few times he did a great job of keeping the banter up as I was in a pretty low place for the first half of this leg. I managed to nibble a bit of an energy bar but eating was requiring more mental energy that I thought it was worth and nothing we had was appetising. I was craving anything savoury so I decided to just wait for things to settle down, rather than try and force my appetite and deal with the old dry heaves.
I must have been distracted because I went off-route and bagged the top of Calfhow Pike before realising it’s not on the round. As I was rationalising my thoughts about the day ahead, ascending Raise I noticed some litter on the trail ahead, a real pet hate of mine. On closer inspection, I realised it was an unopened packet of Hoola Hoops! ‘There IS a God!’. Amused by our fate, we pressed on over the Helvellyn range and I managed to have a nice lie down next to Grisedale Tarn for 5 minutes while Darg caught up. Apparently he’s not great at descending either. Still on a savoury binge, I asked him to head straight down to Dunmail Raise and ask my crew to skip straight to a warm breakfast homemade veggie chilli and rice, which were ready on arrival and dutifully scoffed with much gratitude. A quick face wash and change of base layer and top and we were ready for the off again.
Leg 3 | Scheduled Time: 5:14. Actual Time: 5:56.
For help on this leg I had a close biking friend from Uni, Tom Bell, who is one of the fastest XC mountain bikers in the country and a dab hand at running, so had no worries with him carrying my gear. Ascending from the car was grim. Everyone knew about my ballsy 20hr schedule and second pacer Jamie was keen to claw back the 20 or so minutes I’d already lost. The first half of this section is pretty bleak and I had to chew my cheek to not shout ‘Jamie, sod the 20 hours, let’s just get round!’.
The weather had perked up by mid morning though and I looked forward to meeting two of my Uncles atop Bow Fell with some homemade rice pudding. As I explained I’d been sick and that I didn’t think I’d be feeling like this at this point in the round, I had to look away to hold back a few tears. I just didn’t imagine things would turn out like this on my big day. Shit happens.
I’d arranged someone to do the rope work for Broad Stand. The rock was wet and we were both a bit daunted at times. The going was slow, although even I was surprised when I looked at my watch at the top of Scafell and realised it had taken us 58 minutes to get there from Scafell Pike, in contrast to the schedules 28.
On the long run off Scafell I did some sums (I can’t have been that tired!) and worked out that if I did leg 4 and 5 on schedule and didn’t stop at the changeovers, sub 20 may still be possible. It was make or break time and ignorant or deluded, I was prepared to give it a go.
Leg 4 | Scheduled Time: 4.23. Actual Time: 5.07.
Accompanied by Rich Stevens, an Ambleside runner and fellow designer, we set off up Yewbarrow like a rocket and we arrived at the top in 39 minutes, 4 minutes faster than scheduled. We carried on like this as far as Pillar, at which point my energy levels were dwindling, so we stopped while I gorged myself on homemade guacamole and nachos, a personal favourite. With Rich pleased to be relieved of a bit of weight, we pressed on, descending my favourite part of the whole round, the fast, flowing single track path down to Black Sail pass, up the Steeple gully and over to Gable. Here he insisted on pushing an almost race-pace to the top. I wanted to just say ‘mate let’s just calm down!’, though I knew his intentions were good so I had to bite down and get on with it. Descending Green gable on to the last few tops of the leg it began to get dark and pain behind my right kneecap was getting debilitating. We hit a horrendous line off Grey Knotts and zigzagged our way down in the general direction of Honister Pass, eventually finding the main trod to the car park. Now hobbling, I was pleased to see the team and get some more chilli and a can of coke down me.
Leg 5 | Scheduled Time: 2.33. Actual Time: 3.11.
Now resigned to accepting a sub-20 hour round wasn’t going to happen, Paul, Pete and I set off up to Dale Head. I decided to take up Pauls offer of using Poles, though I didn’t really know what I was doing with them. They were a welcome distraction though. It was now pitch black and I was back in the headlit tunnel-vision gaze I left Moot Hall in. When you don’t have anything but the ground immediately in front of you to help judge your pace, I think it can seem like you’re moving faster than you are. I felt we were moving at a descent speed and would hit the top in the scheduled 28 minutes, but my theory was confirmed and we arrived in 32.
Descending Hindscarth we enjoyed the nocturnal view from the top and a strange sensation overcame me with the realisation that I was actually going to make it. As we looked over to Sellafield I savoured the view and promised myself it was not the end of my long-distance endeavours, but the beginning of an exciting new journey. It’s not often you get out on the tops at 1 in the morning, but there and then, I was so grateful for being there, to be doing something I truly love and in such good company.
Once on the last stretch of tarmac the lights of Keswick appeared and relief washed over me as we ran into Keswick, up the cobbled high street towards the same sounds of gentle clapping I’d left behind over 22 hours earlier. I put my hands on the painted wooden door and stopped my watch. 22 hours, 33 minutes. I thought I’d be much more emotional than I was but when the big moment came I didn’t have the energy to be anything other than a zombie. I lay down on a nearby bench and stared at the stars, then forced some of Stam’s pasta down, before a long-winded journey home. My Dad had totalled Pauls gearbox and I was busy puking into any bushes I could find. We were all more than ready for bed.