Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Bob Graham

It's 1 o'clock, Saturday morning, 26th June. I touch the green doors of The Moot Hall again, and we go. Down the main street and right through a ginnel to the car park. A group of lads yell as we pass the pub at the bottom and one of them sprints ahead of us shouting the theme from 'Chariots of Fire'. We cross the road, cut up the side road near the slate shop and climb the slight rise to the left that brings us down to the bridge and Fitz Park beyond. It's warm, the air is so still that it's almost eerie, and the peaks on Leg 1 are cloud free. The gods are on our side. I chat to my pacers, Paul J and Mark R, whilst my fellow contender, Paul O runs beside us with our navigator for the leg, Nick E. As we cut across the park, it hits me that this isn't another recce, this is it. I look round at everyone and say, 'This is it. This is our Bob Graham.' I've a feeling that it's going to be a grand day out.

My Bob Graham had started 22 years ago. Whilst studying at Birmingham University, I'd taken a mountaineering option, and found myself on a particular day walking in a small group late in the evening with our instructor, Mike Cudahy. A lecturer in the Sports Science Department, he was also establishing himself as an ultra distance hill-running legend, having recently become the first person ever to run The Pennine Way in under 3 days. He must have sensed that morale was low. It had been a long day and all thoughts were on reaching the YHA that was our destination. His words broke the silence and we started to listen as he told us the story of the Bob Graham Round. The next hour passed in a minute, and, as we finally reached the hut, I knew that one day I would do everything I could to become a member of 'The Club',

19 years followed. Travelling, a short career in teaching, reasonable success in the local road-running scene, marriage, children, establishing my own business. I'd always thought of myself as 'a runner' and although during these years I'd never stopped running, it had, in recent years, become a weekend treat rather than something I'd base every day around. At the start of 2007, however, running came calling again. The kids were past 'baby' stage, the business had become less demanding in terms of hours worked. For the first time in years I'd got time, and in that time I wanted to run. The local circuit of 10k's, 10 miles and 1/2 marathons held little appeal. I wanted to escape. I planned a completion of The Viking Way over a number of weekends, and poured over maps for off-road routes across the Lincolnshire Wolds. Then one night, after googling 'The Bob Graham Round', I chanced upon Mike Sadula's site and Richard Askwith's book. That evening in the Lakes all those years ago came back to me and I promised myself I'd complete the round when I was 42 - the same age as Bob Graham himself when he completed his iconic run.

It crosses my mind a few times on the climb up Skiddaw on the 26th June that I'm cutting things a bit fine. Although I am 42 at the moment, my 43rd birthday is the very next day!

The climb up Skiddaw is steady. Nick reins us in, telling us to keep the pace down. Paul J thrusts Haribos into my hand. It's warm. The light-weight jacket has already come off. We reach the summit slightly up on schedule, but feeling good. Crossing the fence on the way across to Hare Crag we spread out, looking for the path that's not easy to miss in the daylight. It proves elusive for a time, but the navigation from Nick is sound and we eventually hit it. The path is easy to follow now to the top of Great Calva. Leaving that summit, we follow the fence down to the Caldew. The dry conditions in the Lakes over recent months make for good running, and I even manage to cross the river without getting wet feet. The trudge up Mungrisdale is my least favourite part of the whole round. It's 3.30am, headtorches are off. I look down, one foot in front of the other and think back over how far I've come in the last 6 months.

Since my return to running, I'd worked up to decent weekly mileages and even won a couple of ultra-distance and off-road marathon events. But my Lakes knowledge was limited. I'd decided to commit myself totally to the Bob Graham from New Year 2010. I'd stopped racing and spent at least one weekend in two in the Lakes. Armed with map, compass and Bob Wightman's notes, I'd recced the whole route by myself. Every run had been solo. I needed to know that I knew the route, learnt the best lines and developed the necessary navigational skills to get me round and keep me safe. As the big day of my attempt approached, I'd thought back over the 3am Saturday alarm calls, the 4 1/2 hour drives to Keswick and surrounding valleys, those early season snow covered routes, getting lost in the clag, those beautiful days on the hills in May and realised that the Bob Graham Round was so much more than getting round a particular route in a particular time on a particular day. As my confidence on the fells had grown, I'd developed a love for the hills that I'm sure will stay with me forever. These last 6 months had been amongst the best of my life.

The march over Mungrisdale Common seems over much sooner than I'd feared - a good sign. As we climb the steep path up the back side of Blencathra, I'm finding it hard to hold back. Paul O looks in good spirits, but I've a niggling feeling that he'd be more comfortable with a slightly slower pace. I'd met him through the FRA Forum and we'd agreed to set off together, but keep our own pacers should one of us hit a 'bad patch'. We pass the stone crosses, touch the summit cairn and head down Hall's Fell. It's daylight. The rock is dry. The summits of Leg 2 are clear of mist. Paul J hands me a few more Haribos and says, 'Oh - I can smell that coffee!' Life doesn't get much better.

We reach the Cricket Club car park 9 minutes up on schedule. Tammy, my wife and road support, has the road-side cafe set up. Cold Fanta, hot coffee and blueberry muffins. Spirits are high. I enjoy a sit-down and look at Guy C, joining myself, Paul J and Marl on the next leg. He's actually warming-up for the next leg! He stretches and does a few strides while the rest of us talk about how the old peanut butter sandwiches don't seem to be going down too well.

The break is soon over. The cafe is closed and we're thrown out onto the Newsham House road. Paul O is joined by Ian S. I've never met him before, but he also lives in the UK's flattest county, Lincolnshire, like myself. The first time I'd climbed Clough Head after running Leg 1, I'd really struggled. Today, however, chatting to Guy and ignoring Mark, 'the little dude from Manchester's jibes about my beloved Liverpool FC, the summit comes easily. It's cold up here though with a fair breeze blowing, and I rue leaving my jacket down at the road-side.

On the run towards Calflow Pike, Ian turns his ankle. I admit to not paying much attention, thinking he'll run it off. Little do I know that he'll spend most of saturday afternoon in Carlisle A & E with an ankle the size of a balloon.

Guy sets a good pace and we gain time on each of the Dodds. Paul O has dropped a couple of hundred yards back, but seems to be moving ok. Mark drops back to check things are right with Ian who looks to be struggling a little. However, Paul O's party has been joined by a friend who sprinted past us on Watson's Dodd, heading in the direction of Threlkeld. He looks super fit. He's dressed in just shorts, vest and X-talons. Guy, currently residing near Bristol, turns to me and says, 'Must live up North him!'

The path undulates over Raise, Whiteside and Helvellyn. Heading towards Nethermost, Paul O's group runs a better line and overtakes us. I tuck in behind, thinking how easy he looks. A few minutes later we're at the base of Fairfield. I go up and back with Guy while Paul J and Mark remain by the wall at the bottom. I'm enjoying the day. My legs feel good. We're up Seat Sandal in a flash and gaining on a group in front who set off at midnight. Paul J and Mark both tell me to keep drinking, keep eating. They will have finished their two legs at Dunmail. From being complete strangers just hours ago, they already feel like friends. Paul J says, 'Oh - I can smell that coffee.' I laugh and remind him he'd said that at the summit of Stybarrow, over 2 hours ago. Must have a keen sense of smell.

Reaching Dunmail 33 minutes up, it's good to know the road-side cafe has opened early. Cold Fanta, hot coffee and warm rice pudding. Dunmail is buzzing with BG life. There are at least 5 other support parties around. There's even a tent pitched at the base of Steel Fell. I thank the Manc lads and Guy and promise to see Paul and Mark for their attempt on August 14th. I'm pleased to see Dave and Pat, my partners for the next leg. Dave has had a couple of hours kip after seeing us off at 1am ('seems rude not to,' he'd said earlier.) Ian Salready has his ankle raised and taped  - he'd come down after Dollywaggon and doesn't look great. Nor does Paul O. Unbeknown to me, he's been struggling with stomach problems since Threlkeld. He flops into a chair and, unbelievably with the amount of activity around us, falls asleep for a few minutes. When the time comes to set off again, he tells me quietly to go ahead. He'll follow on at a slightly slower pace. My heart sinks. Although I thought we may well split up during the day, I was really hoping both of us would get round. I'm quiet on the climb up Steel Fell. Paul seems a tough bugger, well experienced in long-distance routes, but by the look of him back there, he looks done for.

On my recces, I'd saved Leg 3 till last. It scared me a little. My first outings over it during the Easter Weekend in snow and poor visibility did liitle to settle my fears. However, it had become, along with Leg 4, my favourite section of the BG route. Dave and Pat are great company. The day has become bright and slightly too warm, but with a pleasant breeze on the tops. The jelly babies and orange squash keeps going down and we're gaining time on every top. Bowfell, the half-way point in my head, comes and goes. Pat keeps telling me how well I'm going - well up on the 23 hour schedule I'd aimed for. My confidence is growing, but I'm waiting for that 'I feel like I can't go on' moment that I'm assured will come. The landscape changes from Bowfell onwards as we head over Esk Pike, Great End and towards the Scafells. We've already overtaken a couple of midnight starters and on the way to Ill Crag we stop and chat with a bare-chested anti-clockwise contender I'd been chatting to on the forum. We're all going well and share some banter before cracking on.

Over the Pike, we're down to Mickledore and following Pat as he picks out the path to the bottom of the Foxes Tarn gulley. It's hot now, really hot, and the first real signs of tiredness are creeping in. I've always struggled up the climb from Foxes Tarn to the upper ridge of Scafell - the steep, scree-ridden path usually makes me feel like I'm treading water. I'm glad to get to the top, and once there I feel that the BG is within touching distance. Running down the nose of Scafell and down to the Wasdale Valley, we take up our seat's in Tammy's cafe, tired but buzzing with achievement and anticipation. I'm 1 hour and 4 minutes up on my 23 hour schedule. Get Yewbarrow out the way and I'm nearly there I tell myself.

Whilst I'm trying to get some Irish stew down, my pacer for Leg 4, Jon, prepares himself and his Lakeland Terrier, Pip. Jon was the catalyst for my Bob Graham attempt. As the first person I'd met locally who had done the round, it was his words of encouragement and knowledge over numerous visits to his osteopathy clinic last winter that really got my attempt off the ground. I'd met Pip during an off-road marathon in October, where she and Jon finished joint 4th. He'd amazed me with tales of Pip accompanying him on all of his training runs, everything from long, slow miles to early morning interval sessions! When he'd told me a few days before that Pip would be joining us on the BG, I hadn't really taken him seriously, but as Dave, Jon and I jog towards the gate at the base of Yewbarrow minutes later, Pip is in tow.

The climb up Yewbarrow is hard. Today it is very hard. Although I'm feeling fine on the flats and descents, I'm starting to feel very tired on the climbs. Dave, freshly laden with 4 litres of water is struggling up too. Jon's bounding up telling us he always calls this 'Yewbastard', Pip's running ahead without a care and Dave and myself are dying! Fortunately, the agony is relatively short-lived, but Dave has me laughing for the rest of the leg with his repeated reminiscences of climbing Yewbarrow today, hanging on grimly to a single fern with his life flashing before his eyes.

I love this leg. Each peak has it's own magic. We're still gaining time on each summit. We're all moving well. Jon is providing sustenance in the form of Bounty bars - very welcome seeing as the jelley babies won't go down any more.

The climb up Kirk Fell is tough but I know there's only Great Gable left in the 'big climb' category and the rest of the round is manageable. That rocky climb takes all I've got but I know as I stand by the summit memorial that the round is in the bag now.

As we jog into Honister a little later, I'm flushed with the feelings of a dream about to be realised. Tammy's cafe is open for the last stint of the day. Debbie, Dave's partner, helps out. She's been a star - helping Tammy with lifts and preparing the food and drink. I thank Dave - I'll be up to help him out on his round on the 30th July. Judging by his preparation and his strong performance today, I'm sure he'll have no problems in completing.

Dave and I had been talking about Paul O on the way across Leg 4. We'd not seen him since Dunmail and were fearing the worst. However, as we relax with a cup of coffee, Tammy gives us the good news that he looked like he was back on track. She'd waited at Wasdale to see him in and he'd come in, looking confident, bang on the 23 hour schedule. Although, as it turns out, we'd have completed our joint attempt apart from one another, it gives me a real lift to know that it's odds on that Paul is also going to make it.

Colin H, hoping to train for a BG next year, has joined us at Honister. He's another pacer I've never met in person who has given up time to help me achieve my round. Over the following few days, this is one subject that myself and Tammy keep returning to. Although I'd done all my training by myself, the people who helped me during the day were the one thing that really made the day so magical.

Times up and Tammy asks Jon if Pip will do Leg 5 too. Jon says, 'I'll get off and if she follows, I'll know she wants to come.' If she stays sitting, Theresa, Jon's wife, will have to give her a lift to Keswick. As it turns out, Pip's keen enough - much to Theresa's relief as Pip had managed to run straight through the boggy puddle on Grey Knots and is now wearing the muddy canine equivalent of compression socks.

We leave Honister at 19.38. It's a beautiful evening, the sun sinking slightly as Colin sets a fast pace up Dale Head. I'm trying to relax, take this all in, but every climb is a weary slog by now and all I can concentrate on is the next summit. There's relief as the path levels out eventually and the beautifully constructed cairn at the top comes into view. The view across the Newlands Valley is breath-taking.

We jog slowly over Littledale Edge and soon we've visited summit number 41 and are on our way to number 42. The slope up to Robinson is much steeper than I remember. Despite numerous offers of food and water, I feel as though I can't eat or drink anything. My stomach is churning and I'm feeling slightly nauseous. Colin and Jon keep chivvying me along on the never-ending climb and we're greeted near the top to a magnificent view of the sun setting over Buttermere. Then we're at the top. My spirits rise again. We jog down to the rock step, negotiate the steep, grassy slope by the lone tree and pick up the pace once we hit the path by the beck.

Over the bridge at Little Town, the small carpark is almost full. Tammy and Theresa are waiting patiently along with support teams for the numerous 12 o'clock starters that will be follwing along shortly. Jon swaps his role with Tammy and we're off again - Colin, Tammy and myself, walking up the short climb that starts the road section. It's great to have Tammy along on this leg. With her being new to running, this is the first time we've actually run together. After months of patience and unwavering support, it seems only right that my 'BG widow' came along for the final stretch.

There's a relaxed atmosphere as we run along the Newlands Valley. The light is beginning to dim, but it's warm and the air is still. I'm well up on time. It's a beautiful finale to a brilliant day. A guy in flip-flops appears from nowhere at Stair and jogs with us for a few hundred yards. He soon falls off the pace but congratulates us on the nearly completed round.

The road seems to go on much longer than I know it really does, but eventually we're over the suspension bridge and turning right towatds Keswick. The time elapsed has hardly crossed my mind since Honister, but as we hit the path, I glance at my watch and realise sub 21.30 is on the cards. Colin and Tammy are setting a strong pace, but I'm reinvigorated now and push on. Off the path, over the bridge and along the pavement to the Co-op roundabout. The Moot Hall is in sight. I look back at Tammy and Colin and forward to Jon, Theresa, Dave and Debbie by the green doors, and I'm sprinting, smiling madly. The last few yards, touch the door and I'm done. 21 hours 25 minutes.

I pose for a photo, sit on the nearest bench and realise, in the midst of one of the proudest moments of my life, how terrible I feel. The next hour and a half goes by in a daze. I'm sick in one of the side alleys. I attempt to drink a pint. I'm sick again. I sit on the Moot Hall steps, head between knees, thinking idly that I never thought finishing the BG Round would feel like this.

A couple of the 12 o'clock attempts arrive to applause. Another guy arrives a matter of minutes outside the 24 hours, and then we see Paul O, his girlfriend and supporters legging it up the slope to the hall. He finishes strongly, just outside 23 hours and it really hits me then what we've done. We shake hands, the two newest members of 'The Bob Graham 24 Hour Club' and the day is complete.

The Bob Graham Round is approximately 66 miles in length. Total ascent is about 29,000 feet - equivalent to the height of Everest. Indeed, in fell-running circles, the BG Round is sometimes referred to as 'England's Everest'. In 2010, 513 people reached the summit of Everest. 88 people completed the BG Round in under 24 hours.

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