To me, I wouldn’t class myself as a proper fell runner until I had done the classic Lake District challenge of the Bob Graham Round, 66 miles, 42 peaks and 27000ft of ascent. I have been planning my BGR for a long time, several years really if you count all those times supporting friends as my first recces. This summer I knew I could take my fitness from the Trail World Championships and recent holiday running in Morocco on to the Lake District hills. I had recovered enough from other long races and was still feeling the benefits of staying at 1800m and climbing up to 4200m, two weeks ago in Morocco.
The date was set, the support, at least 3 on each leg plus road support were all in place to go at 2am, now the only thing to do was check the weather. Mmm, 45mph winds with 50+mph gusts on Skiddaw, only the first of 42 summits, was not what I wanted to see. Neither was frequent heavy showers, thunder storms and although dropping to 20mph, winds for most of the next 24 hours. Others scheduled to go this weekend had already cancelled their attempts. I spoke to some of my support team, we wondered about postponing for a couple of hours until the wind at least had died down but then, everything was in place, I was all set, we decided to ignore the forecast and go for it, but also aware I needed to wrap up and eat plenty as it would be harder than anticipated in these conditions. I’m so glad that decision was collectively made, by the time leg 2 supporters met us at 5am the forecast had improved, the predicted thunder storms were no more and the wind had further dropped. Okay, we were still getting heavy rain, but I was well equipped for that with my Montane Further Faster Neo jacket.
Rewind to Friday evening, I was suprised to get a few hours sleep but then when the 1am alarm came I was keen to get started, it was my turn and I was more than ready for my BGR. There was another round starting at 2am, Andy Swift from Calder Valley had also decided to go for it, all be it on a slightly quicker schedule than me. We wanted to shelter as long as possible so arrived at Moot Hall with 1 min to spare, we did miss the watch passing from 1:59 to 2am so decided to go for 2.01 to make it on the minute – those seconds might matter later on!
Leg 1, with my support team of Andy, Jo, John and Rupert started well as the anticipated wind up Skiddaw was actually a tailwind! That changed though for the last mile or so, visability and heavy rain made the top section particularly hard going. We were having to keep an eye on not losing height, despite being blown to the West. Skiddaw was ticked off bang on schedule but the poor visability was making what would usually be obvious trods difficult to spot. Dropping down towards the next summit brought a nice relief from the winds. Although still raining and the ground being very wet underfoot I enjoyed the grassy descent and then subsequent climb to Great Calva, this boggy section is after all what most fell runs in the Peaks are made off! A little time was lost in the bogs but then the climb to Blencathra was not too bad, head torches went off somewhere around here, but with the clag down there wasn’t that much daylight. I enjoyed the long climbs throughout the day but this was the only one I lost time on, that can be accounted for by the wind and rain though. We did stop for a brief photo on Blencathra but it wasn’t the weather to be hanging around, especially when there were no views to be seen. The safest option off Blencathra in this is Doddick and I was glad we took it. Doddick was so much nicer than Hall’s Fell had been in the wet when I had supported a round earlier in the year, and even in better conditions I think it makes a good option down as it’s all an easy run rather than the scrambling sections on Hall’s. I arrived at Thelkeld, the end of leg 1 in 3 hrs 29 mins, that was only 3 mins down on my schedule which given the conditions I was more than happy with. Looking back I think the harsh weather on leg 1 actually helped me as I do like a fast start on races and might otherwise have gone off too quickly.
My plan all along was to be quick at change overs, just grabbing a smoothie I had made with Mountain Fuel Morning Fuel, but then eat something substantial at the top of the first climb of each leg. It didn’t make sense to me to eat lots at the change over then have the blood flow diverted to the stomach in digesting the food. Instead I wanted the large muscle groups to work optimally on the steep climbs at the start of each leg. This meant the first changeover was just over 1 minute, no messing about.
I was joined on leg 2 by Kim and Richard, Andy also carried on from leg 1. They had been checking the weather and we were very pleased to find the thunder was no longer predicted, there would still be large parts of the day in heavy rain but the wind was dropping and we would at least finish the day in sunshine. I was so glad I had gone ahead with the planned start, as they say, the forecasts for the Lake’s are so often wrong!
The first climb up Clough Head is a favourite of mine, steady to start with then getting progressively steeper! It was early enough in the day to be feeling fresh so I powered up, gaining 7 mins and then there’s a lot of nice soft, but still very wet grassy running over Helvellyn and the Dodds. The mist was clearing and there were even times when we were getting views, several times the cloud lifted just as we reached a summit to reveal a whole load more hills to cover! There we 4 other groups out, all on different schedules and different start times but at some point on the out and back to Fairfield we all bumped into each other and had a brief chat in passing. Leg 2 came and went without incident, the descent from Seat Sandle to Dunmail was incredibly slippy, but I had gained enough time on this leg to take it steady and still arrive at Dunmail 25 mins up on schedule, done in 3 hrs 39 mins. A quick stop here, just over 2 mins and it was onto leg 3.
Mary and Clare set off on Steel Fell with me, Paul had already gone ahead and did an amazing job on this leg of navigating in horrendous conditions, very limited visibility and often with persistent heavy showers. He stayed just far ahead most of the leg to have already scouted the best lines and we could just follow. This was the leg I was most looking forward to getting done, the wet rocks around Bowfell would not be fun, but the 25 minutes gained took a lot of pressure off. When I have supported on this leg before we have made sure we hit the spring on Bowfell to fill up water bottles, no need to worry today as there were several very fast flowing water sources throughout the leg. What would normally be good running on the grassy sections along Grasmere Common was more akin to Outer Edge in the Peaks, deep bogs! Visability was not good, the only person we saw for a few hours on this leg was a shepherd and his dog rounding up sheep, it felt like we had the hills to ourselves. So much so, that we didn’t bother finding rocks for a quick toilet stop, you couldn’t see more than a few meters ahead and couldn’t hear anyone, so Paul continued on ahead and the rest of us had a quick stop. This wasn’t the best timing as the clag lifted at just the wrong time for us to collectively pull a moonie to the BG group following only a few hundred meters behind! Bowfell wasn’t as slippy as I had been expecting, helped by the rain being no more than a bit of light drizzle now. Then on one of the next tops, I think it was Great End, I put my hand down to save a stumble, my thumb hyper-extended and a sudden wave of nausea overcame me. I could move my thumb but it swelled quickly and my grip was not what I wanted for the scramble coming up between Scafell Pike and Scafell. Doing some physio mobilisations and massage to the joint eased my thumb a little and provided a distraction up to the most technical part of the BGR. Not being a climber I opted for Lords Rake and the West Traverse to get to Scafell, the heavy rain over the previous few hours had actually helped us here, a lot of the loose scree seemed to have been washed down so it was much more compact and seemed much easier than previous times. I was relieved to get up here and then onto the picnic spot that is Scafell. With a bit of bum sliding down the wet grass, scree skiing and then the stream crossing with freezing water up over my knees I really enjoyed the last half hour of the leg, it was one of my favorite bits of the day. We got into Wasdale after 5hrs 39mins on that leg and I planned a sit down for the first time. I had soup, tea and a shoe change waiting for me but couldn’t manage my laces with my thumb. Luckily there was plenty of people on hand to get the scree filled shoes off, there’s a knack to getting Injinji socks on quickly so I took over this bit but then I needed lacing assistance again! The longest stop had been just over 4 minutes and I was ready to go, this time into the sunshine.
Simon and Jude made up the leg 4 dream team, we have been the same leg 4 team for all three of our rounds now. I sipped at some ginger beer on the climb and again climbed strongly, covering Yewbarrow in 37 minutes, it was turning into perfect weather for a BGR, about time! Andy had been struggling on leg 3 of his BGR and needed a longer stop at Wasdale, this meant we left at the same time and covered most of leg 4 together. This was nice to do as a big group, the comedians in his support team provided the entertainment! Zoe met us on Kirk Fell and took some stunning photos, fantastic memories to look back on. Food was going down okay but much less frequent now, I had brought some Peanut M&M’s as we had all enjoyed them on Jude’s BGR last year, I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at sharing though, only allowing Jude and Simon 1 each! I was still feeling surprisingly good, enjoying the climbs in particular but the descents were beginning to hurt the knees a little, my quads were definitely showing signs of fatigue! We got to Honister in 4 hrs 10 mins and after a couple of minutes break I was well up on schedule.
Katie joined Simon and Zoe on Leg 5, and for the first time in the whole round I started to not enjoy it, I was getting stomach cramps and not managing to get food on board, needing to frequently stop. I had been reminded a bad patch is bound to happen so to get to the last climb before it hit wasn’t too bad really. I was fine to walk but running was a problem so it became a run/ walk, but I think I may have missed a calling as a race walker as my support had to jog to keep up with my march! The last descent from Robinson was painful, I didn’t enjoy that at all, but with only the road section to go I was looking forward to getting this done. I was doubting if I could make sub 20 but Katie was adamant I was not only finishing but well inside 20 hours! I shouldn’t have doubted myself, as with the speed I was walking with the occasional jog, it was clear there was time in hand. Not enough time to dodge puddles though, forgetting the people walking on the trail from Portinscale to Keswick hadn’t been on the hill all day so had clean, dry clothes on. Apologies to the old lady I landed very heavily in a puddle right as I passed her!
I touched the door at Moot Hall in 19 hours and 37 minutes, with a huge feeling of relief, relief to finally have a proper sit down and relief I have ticked off the BGR. Despite the horrendous weather, I had such a brilliant day, up to 15 hours that is, so I have realised my fun threshold for Ultra Marathons is 15 hours and I intend to only race up to a max of this now!
A few things that worked well were:
- The heavy weight Montane gortex jacket from the start,
- VIA Bite 1 bumbag to have a few bits of food to nibble at when at regular intervals,
- The shoe and sock change at Wasdale – I changed to my favourite shoes, La Sportiva Helios which despite being low drop had really good grip and cushioning,
- Injinji socks – no grit between the toes on the scree sections,
- Food strategies of eating at the top of the climb instead of sitting at changeovers, my rest time was only 10 minutes over the whole round.
- Some of the food I enjoyed was Mountain Fuel, including home made sweet potato pancakes, dried fruit from Morocco, Prozis marzipan bars from the TWC in Tuscany, Double Decker, Peanut M&M’s, Hula Hoops, soup, Mountain Fuel Xtreme, ginger beer, flat coke. Given how my appetite has been since finishing I have a huge deficit to make up, but I ate enough to get me round without over eating and I think this helped in not getting any stomach issues until so late in the day.
The unique part of the BGR is the reliance of your support crew, good friends who know you, know the route and are experienced in these challenges was key to my success.
Huge thanks to:
- Leg 1: Andy Horrobin, John Davies, Jo Zakrzewski, Rupert Bonnington
- Leg 2: Andy Horrobin, Kim Baxter, Richard Baxter
- Leg 3: Clare Oliffe, Paul Nelson, Mary Gillie
- Leg 4: Judith Jepson, Simon Mills, Zoe Proctor
- Leg 5: Katie Kaars Sijpesteijn, Simon Mills, Zoe Proctor
- Road support: Leg 1-3 Simon Mills, Legs 4-5 Clare Oliffe