These slides have all the best pictures from our adventures on the way to our successful Bob Graham Round, and links to the key reports of a two year challenge where an exhilarating dream led me to stretch my understanding of running and of myself.
@ 2012-07-08 – 21:54:10
@ 2012-05-15 – 21:05:18
“If you don’t write it down, it can vanish utterly – not just you, but your whole world”
Richard Askwith, author of Feet in the Clouds
This blog was never just about running. People have told me more times than I can count that I'm crazy for doing this challenge but I've never felt saner than when writing these posts. As I have found my feet again in this world I've found an honest voice.
I hit my personal rock bottom in 2008. I tried to live a controlled, safe life, hiding from any strong feelings which threatened to upset the applecart. The world was frankly too big, too scary to take in and handle. Somehow I got the mindset I must either control the world or escape from it. I switched from side to side, achieving academic success when I tried to control the world, and escaping to fantasy lands when I realised I couldn't. I found a way to be as teenagers do, and by twenty had settled into patterns.
But I discovered the way I'd found had a hairline crack, which developed into a fissure through which it felt like my life was going to fall. Those feelings I had bottled up lead to the depression and relationship problems I've written about previously, and eventually hurt my lovely ex almost more than I could bear. I learnt that repressing dreams, passion and anger was sure to lead to unhappiness, and that I couldn’t live like that.
Changing a lifetime’s habits is tough. In the last two years my biggest challenges haven't been on the fells and trails. They've been in a small room in North London where together with my skilled therapist I've delved deep into my inner world. We've changed things in my character that I thought were fixed. This consumerist, competitive society that has forgotten community makes even those of us who have stable, loving upbringings develop mental health problems. Many of us share them and I believe need to learn how to talk, as we feel so alone even whilst we are surrounded by people feeling the same feelings.
More than ever in this time of crisis, it is time to talk to one another.
Springy Panthers in the sunset
All that remained was one large climb up Dale Head and then a ridge of two further peaks. This was the section I'd expected to be doing as dark fell but we had so much time there was no risk of that; which was lucky as we forgot our headtorches.
I'd had two visions of what stage 5 would be like, either a dreadful war of attrition or a desperate scramble to wring every last bit of energy to reach that 24 hour schedule. What I hadn't expected was a gorgeous evening ramble through the setting sun whilst laughing our heads off. But if you take Jany and her fellow awesome Springy Panther Mariana with you then you can't help but laugh. We scaled the final big climb, Dale Head, slowly but surely, and took a moment to admire the view.
I was feeling very dehydrated but otherwise fine, though running was still exceptionally difficult. As we ambled our way across the Newlands horseshoe we could see Alan and his crew on the next peak each time. Harold had rejoined, which has to be the most awesome support job any BG support runner has done without running the whole thing, and Wes was back to get the thing done and look after my broken body, with liquids and gels on demand.
Before long we faced the very last climb up to Robinson. All I can remember about this is Jany and Mariana's master plan to get my mind off the exhaustion so that worked wonders! Before I knew it we were standing smiling on my forty-second peak of the day. On the schedule we needed 97 minutes to get back from here; we had 162.
As we made our way down I got my first sight of the finish line, Keswick in the far distance. After a brief jog I started to walk again, partly out of exhaustion but also due to emotion. I felt with certainty for the first time that the two year journey was going to end here, today. And in such a perfect way, with a day I will never forget too. I welled up but fought down the tears as I still had a job to do. I chatted to Mariana about the inspiration for all this, and my disbelief at the perfect day. I understood all the meaning of this challenge and could feel it inside, almost but not quite overwhelming me. I didn't want this to end.
I had flirted with despair, isolation, alcohol. But the excitement and sheer life force of running and Serpentine RC reignited my spirit. Perhaps it overdid the reigniting a little, but my god, what an adventure. Through the Bob Graham I have found a way to tell enough of the story of my own battle. The physical challenge focused the mind, and the learning of new skills and capabilities has helped me believe I can change myself given time and support. A quote from Mark Hartell (holder of the current 24 hour record for the number of fells climbed) about Fred Rogerson (founder of the Bob Graham club) sums this up.
“Some may say that Fred has a lot to answer for; in one view of the world he encouraged selfish devotion to an arguably futile cause. But that would be to miss the point. Fred instinctively understood how a passion, a desire and a lot of hard work could bring special things from people and he cultivated that in hundreds or thousands of us - quietly and non-judgementally. He also saw how those skills - that self-belief, reliance and confidence - transfer into our daily lives and makes us, we hope, slightly better people.”
My life has been about dreaming big and running to catch up. I’ve often dreamt too big in the past and overwhelmed myself with fear at being unable to measure up. Slowly my dreams and capabilities have been converging and the BG is where they've come together - a big idea that I've been able to measure up to. But it’s not an idea I’ve been able to measure up to by being independent. I’ve been able to do this because I’ve learnt that it is far stronger to be interdependent with those around you – building a group, a team, a community. There is no better feeling than being part of a whole as you work to overcome a challenge.
After 22 long hours we finally started the final few hundred feet of descent to leave the mountains behind and start the jog along the valley to Keswick. A last surprise waited in store as a gorgeous young horse joined us on the last of the fellside, displaying rather good downhill technique as he trotted down with us. Then to our concern it reached the path we wanted and headed along it, fenced in by two stone walls. I had been treating finishing the BG as just a matter of time now but a kick from a horse could change things. Warily we all edged along one side of the path, hoping the foal would realise he could escape back to the fellside, but no; he went to stand in front of the stile we wanted. Damn, what now? Then he ducked his head into a bucket; he’d just been after his drink. We laughed, jumped over the stile and took a moment to admire the gorgeous animal.
I took a Gu gel in this moment of quiet – woosh! Soon we were running along the path and onto a weird substance called tarmac. The final 5 mile run to Keswick was underway and my body and head tingled with excitement. I already had my Serpie top on and Harold had changed into his new serpie vest; as we passed groups of people in the valley a few acknowledged the London club far from home. I smiled with the satisfaction of knowing the job was done – “You remember that woman who asked me if I called myself a fell-runner? Well I think I can answer yes now”.
Past Chapel Bridge where our lovely ground-crew were waiting for one last support station and together onwards to the fields below Catbells, down farm-tracks and through gates, past hamlets and down into Overside wood all the while with a broad smile inside. Finally to the Fawe Park mountain, twenty metres of rather-quickly ending climb. “Just fifteen minutes to go from the bottom of here”. Suddenly there were lights flashing on the road ahead of us. Mike, Paul and Helen had come to join us for the final run home! They’d been waiting over an hour, but what a wonderful memory for me. Eight of us ran through the dark of Portinscale, Keswick’s outlying village, together in one big group. Every step was easy and a joy; now the smile wasn’t just inside, it was all over my messy, knackered, happy face.
I felt fantastic. I could have speeded up but I wanted to finish together with everyone and I also didn’t want to keel over and die at the end. I floated on air across the final field before the turn at the pencil museum. A quiet, tranquil Keswick greeted us, until I could see the Moot Hall – then a wonderful cheer went up; all those brilliant supporters cheering in the end of our journey. I bounded down Keswick main street to touch the green door of the Moot Hall, which I did with a leap of joy. I found Alan and we embraced each other. “We did it, we did it!”. He had finished four minutes before (just as another attempt was setting off; passing the baton on to the next adventurers). We had planned and schemed so meticulously together for this day and knew that without the other we likely wouldn’t have experienced this day. I remembered then to stop my watch after just over 23 hours since we had left that same door.
Hugs, congratulations, champagne and thanks all followed, but not the tears I’d expected to come. I couldn’t believe we were here, the adventure was at an end; I was immersed in the wave of supporter’s energy and hugged them all or shook their hands with abandon.
What do you do after completing the BG with an hour to spare? Go to the pub obviously.
Darren bought me a pint of shandy and a jug of tap water and I collapsed into a chair. Someone told me James Adams, the most unexceptional exceptional person I know, had a message from Richard Askwith for me. Adams had been listening to Askwith talk as Alan and I were running the final stage and asked if he'd call us when we finished. He said yes but in the end had to leave just too early; but he'd left a message of congratulations and said “welcome to the club”. It felt perfectly right; a message from the guy who caused me to hear about this challenge, relayed by a friend who opened my eyes to what more running could be than times and PBs. I felt a deep warmth inside and a love for all my friends sat round me, and those watching and supporting from far away.
Moments later the emotions started to come, along with feeling rather ill. I survived another five minutes in the pub then, raising a glass to my wonderful support team, made my excuses and headed finally home. I saw the supporters of the attempt that had been following us gathered at the Moot Hall for their moment, but left them to it as my body finally let in the exhaustion. A text back at the B&B finally brought the tears; tears of happiness, tears of pain, tears of sheer overwhelming connection to the world. I let them flow and then, wholly content, put my head on the pillow to get some desperately needed sleep.
What's next? Well the simple answer is the New York marathon and a return to road-running; I have some unfinished business on the roads that I’ve been missing. And then there’s also supporting others on their BG attempts. There’s a wonderful tradition in the BG that competitors who complete it are honour-bound to support those who plan to tread in their footsteps. Four of my support crew are considering their own attempts and I hope to be lucky enough to support them on successful rounds in the future, and I have also ended up talking to a guy who (not known to me) has been following my plans about supporting his attempt. I love the thought of being up there doing single stages helping someone else to achieve their dream.
But there is a more complicated answer than running, which starts with why I did the BG. This was a reaction to and way out of crisis, when I had lost who I was for a while. Now I know thoroughly who I am - I know that I can stretch myself too far sometimes, but I can dream big and methodically achieve those dreams. I know being open and close to people is hard, but I know I love shared endeavours, passions and dreams; and that we are strongest when we are together. I know how much I love people and how much they love me when I include them in my dreams. I know I care passionately about those around me and believing in the good that everyone has inside them.
Dreams can change life when you want them to. They don't need to be something like the BG – endurance challenges only work for some people. If you want to touch a bit of these feelings find something which uses your talents and passions. If you love music learn to play a concerto, if you have a passion for sport let it sing through a team, if you write then write a book to share your understanding of this mad world with others, if you bring people together look around you at what your community needs and make it happen, if kids are the centre of your world put some time into sharing your passions with them, if you care about those less fortunate than you volunteer to help strengthen them. Find your passion and follow it whole-heartedly because it is then you will feel like you belong in this world. And if my small story tells us anything then it is to not be afraid to talk to others about your weaknesses; learning from them can make you stronger than you ever imagined possible.
Think I’m dreaming? That this all sounds nice but where do we get the time to do this? Understanding yourself and being mindful is what I’m talking about, and Google have realised the potential of releasing people’s passions. This is how we can achieve change and fulfilment in today’s world – the developed world isn’t about goods and production any more, it is about relationships and interdependent people. Every man can neither choose nor afford to be an island.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.”
For me, the flow of this story came together with the flow of the rest of my life, as I had to re-examine my personal and work lives closely. I applied the above thoughts to my life and came to answers which have surprised me but feel dead right. I am hopeful Quakers will give me a space and understanding to be mindful of who I am, and the support to act on my beliefs in the world – where this will lead I’m not quite sure but it is time to find out. Revisiting my work goals from the perspective of what I know, what I care deeply about, who I like to work with, and what sort of life I’d like has given me a confidence and freedom in my job I’ve never experienced before. I’ve realised how much I can do, and stopped concentrating on the things I can’t. I’ve realised how much we can do, when we do it together.
Keep healthy my lovely friends, family, colleagues and readers; mind and body.
"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel" ~ Maya Angelou
@ 2012-05-15 – 19:51:37
I wanted to leave the penultimate post in this blog to the faultless, marvelous support crew for whom I have run out of superlatives. Alan's team were similarly spectacular but they have their own moments they'll have shared with him. Here's some of the guys and girls who were such an important part of a day I will never forget.
“I particularly remember the good natured ding-dong between you and Alan about an 11pm verses 12pm start”
“I remember feeling the excitement mount and dispel the last traces of sleepiness as we first spotted the bobbing head torches descending Blencathra at 2.30am. Then as we climbed to the Helvellyn ridge the stunning almost full moon turning orangey red as it slowly descended behind the Western fells followed shortly by the first flicker of dawn over the Pennines. The icy arctic blast on the summit ridge froze my water supply then my lips/jaw, preventing much in the way of motivational chat. I’ll remember seeing Swirral and Striding Edges in all their glory - I have been up Helvellyn four times before, always hitting cloud at the summit. And finally hammering it down Fairfield without turning an ankle and passing the other attempt on their way up."
Anja on the stage 2 night to dawn stage
We could see well, didn't need our head torches for too long on this stage. As we were running from Dodd to Dodd on the Helvellyn ridge, the moon was going down on our right. James suddenly shouted "I claim the first sighting of sunrise". I had been to fascinated by the moon to even look over to the other side, but he was right - hues of orange, purple and yellow rose up on our left, as if they were shifting the dark canopy of the sky over our heads, pushing the moon out of the picture on our right. Only moments later, it seemed, the sun seemed to feel that the space had been sufficiently cleared for her royal appearance, and the bright, gleaming (but by not yet warming) golden ball came into sight. All this might sound daft, but it's hard to describe the magnificent show that was unfolding in front of our eyes. I've never seen anything like it. I WILL see more sun rises in the mountains. That's a new goal in my life that I set that morning.
This was the best run I've ever had. The moon. The sunrise. The peaks. The ridge. The friends. The endeavour. The knowledge that James and Alan had almost a full day of exertion ahead of them. The honour to be part of this. It was beautiful in many ways
Supporter’s looked after each other; and there were some impromptu adventures for supporters that we were unaware of:
“My cramp on the way up Great End and Harold’s rescue by getting a couple of emergency cheese triangles out of my bag (and later realising that they were the 25% less salt kind), and Richard fishing a packet of pork scratching from the very bottom of his rucksack. Then a desperate struggle to haul myself up Broad Stand, made easier by Claire and Richard’s (our rope team) calmness and reassurance.
After cramp meltdown halfway up Scafell from Broad Stand I tried to follow Harold on the descent but fell behind (it later turned out that he had gone the wrong way and I followed so the slightly desperate scree shoot I think we both went down made things a little more exciting).”
Operation slow down Jedgar - Mike on stage 4
“On being delivered to Wasdale by Helen in order to meet James, Alan and their supporters off the tough stage 3, I for the first time on the trip began to feel tinglings of nervousness and trepidation. Paul and I, both friends of James from school and not serious runners like many of James's Serpentine supporters, were throwing ourselves in at the deep end. Stage 4 isn’t quite the toughest stage but no walk in the park either, incorporating as it does nearly 6000 foot of ascent and a number of relentless climbs including Yewbarrow, Kirk Fell and Great Gable. What Paul and I lack in road running fitness we make up for in mountain experience and misguided ambition. Neither of us had particularly trained for this event (training is for people with time on their hands and a curious penchant for relentless bodily abuse), but we didn't tell James; it was on a need-to-know basis at the time, and he just didn't need to know.
The group arrived impressively early from stage 3 and Wes took me to one side and gave me a full briefing on James's status: his vital signs, his eating patterns, the tone, frequency and length of his BG-burps (caused by his unique diet for the 24 hour period), his mood (unfalteringly positive and happy most of the time). Wes methodically handed Paul and I his food for the next stage, and with James we hatched a hydration plan involving various bottles of liquid of a questionable colour. Most importantly, Wes said, we needed to make sure that James ate. He wouldn't want to eat, but he would need to eat while we were up there. Sure I said, no problem, we will oversee James's nutritional status and ensure he remains in tip-top condition. A glut of muesli bars, fatty solids and gels took their place in our rucksacks ready to be put to task in the name of mountain ultrarunning.
We set off and beat schedule up to Yewbarrow, which was almost unbelievable given the late stage of the expedition. I began to offer James food at this point, and ran into a number of hurdles in this plan. James was NOT interested in eating any proper food. He would walk on consistently and say something like "I'll take 4 jelly babies and 2 sips of Nuun", and Paul and I would fumble around in our bags and find said sustenance, hand it to James and he would promptly scoff the paltry fodder, pause, and then let out a motivating utterance followed by a spectacular burp. I would then say something like "James, just FYI I have a banana, Paul has a pork pie, we also have yoghurt covered raisins, an apple, various muesli bars and...." and before getting to the end of my sentence would be silenced with something along the lines of "Mike, if you talk about food again I will punch you in the face. I am going to take solids on at the stops and at no other time; I will puke if I take anything on now. My body is already complaining about the jelly babies".
Aside from the altercations regarding food, James was incredibly chipper throughout the whole stage. We made up a few minutes at most peaks, lost a few at others. Overall we covered the beautifully atmospheric stage in 5 hours, one or two minutes behind schedule but no more. It was an absolute privilege to be in those hills with the company of two great friends in such spectacular weather.
Highlights from the stage included seeing Jen and Darren at Black Sail Pass, and Nat, Deedee and Nicola at Grey Knotts. It was so kind of them to join us so fleetingly and at such great personal effort, and it really cheered James up.
The absolute highlight for the whole day was the fast descent of Grey Knotts down to Honister where, from 500m away, we could already see the waving hands and hear the cheering voices of the wonderful and quorate support team. Jany grinned and gave me a high five as I had fulfilled our agreement whereby I would deliver to her a smiling James. However I had failed in our other agreed treaty of the day, "Operation Slow Down Jedgar". He was smashing his schedule and we were slightly concerned earlier in the day that he had gone to fast too early, but at the end of stage 4 it was hard to believe he would fail. He had done the real meat of the BG and now had a wonderfully upbeat and competent support team to take him through the final, technically easier, stage.”
Following the BGR: Stuck on the wall (my Mum and Dad following on facebook)
“Mum got up for a drink around 04.00 and told me that Paul had seen you at Threlkeld. His quote of you saying 'absolutely perfect' and that it was a beautiful night was great and really encouraging. As soon as we got up the rest of our day revolved round your Facebook wall on both computers and text messages.
Great news at the end of Stage 2 about you being 15 minutes ahead of schedule, followed by photos of you looking relaxed. Then we saw Alex's video with the view of the hill ahead of you lit by a beautiful sky that almost made me want to join in ;-) I knew though that Stage 3 was the crunch one, being so long and over so many mountains including the Scafells, not to mention the long steep descent to Wasdale. Good news from Nicola from Harrison Stickle, we guessed that he'd stayed on a bit after his stint on Stage 2.
But then we went into a 'dark side of the moon' phase when no contact was received for around 6 hours! When there was still no news at 16.00, 2 hours after your expected arrival at Wasdale Head, we certainly were wondering what was going on and it got harder to concentrate on our work. Suddenly a text from Mike letting us know that you were both actually still ahead of schedule after we had decided that you were probably way behind. Brilliant! It was only then that I looked at the 3-D map and remembered that Wasdale is surrounded by mountains as one could see in my Heaton Cooper print in the hall. Of course communications would have been negligible.
So now I thought things were looking very good. I picked up Askwith's book and read the whole of his chapter on his successful attempt. Turns out that, having been running well to schedule, he suddenly had a major drop-off in energy on this stage and even the smallest hill looked massive. He kept begging his support team to let him rest for a bit longer, then a bit longer. He just wanted to sleep. This brought it home to me: you may have run really well for 15 hours but there was still a hell of a lot to do and on depleted energy resources.
We waited patiently for news from Honister, knowing now that messages would take time. Eventually a text message .... "Alan passed through Honister 43 minutes ahead of schedule." Great news, but where is James? Another long, long wait where we again assumed that you must have slipped behind target. Then, much to our amazement the message on the wall from Nicola: "Alan 50 minutes ahead of schedule, James 25 minutes ahead". That was really exciting - suddenly for the second time you had been transformed from a seeming lost cause into game-on.
From Askwith's account I realised that you had now got so far that you would get there come-hell-or-high-water. Wonderful! The super photo of Paul and you in front of Scafell sent by Mike, and Alex's photos at Honister with you and your 'sherpas' were great to see.
The message from Nicola that Alan had 20 minutes to go, James 40 on the road to Keswick enabled us to relax and just wait for the good news. This arrived not long after 23.00 with a photo of you looking incredibly relaxed in a Keswick street with supporters. It had been a tremendous 23 hours for us, as good as any sporting event I've attended. For you it was the culmination of 2 years of commitment, how good must you be feeling?”
Mariana (keeping me chipper on the final stage)
“What I really enjoyed about the stage was chatting to you and getting to know more about what influenced you to do the Bob Graham in the first place. How people like Westaway had introduced you to the possibility of running over mountains that lead you to run them on your own and feel the freedom and immense enjoyment of being out in the Lakes. It feels special when you mention friends who will have a lasting influence on you for the rest of your life. I'm sure during the middle of Stage 3 though you were more thinking, 'Bloody Westaway'!!!”
And I thought the interaction with you and Wes was just brilliant, how you guys were so in tune with each other and he really looked after you physically and emotionally. That is one hell of a bond that you have there and it more than ever represents the Serpie spirit.
I think I have already told you that I loved your comment climbing the final mountain that you would never underestimate yourself again. It was so poignant and had a huge impact. It seemed to sum up the magnitude of your achievement that was unfolding before us.”
Nat at the finish
Alan came into sight first and we couldn’t do anything but cheer and hoot as he let loose on a massive sprint finish up the high street. He touched the green door at Moot Hall, took a moment, then proudly announced his finish time of 22 hours, 56 minutes and 16 seconds. Another BGR-er were just leaving, and on his way out he gave Alan a vigorous shake of the hand. I gave Alan a big hug, what an achievement.
Before long a couple of headtorches appeared at the bottom of the high street and similarly another sprint finish by James. I knew this moment meant everything to him and I cheered and clapped as loudly as I could. Knowing how hard he had worked to get to BGR, he had given everything over 2 years to get to this moment. All the trips to the Lakes, all the organisation, training, recces, ultra races… it had all paid off. It was a plan that had been executed to absolute perfection: his training, being injury free, the support vehicle and runners, and most of all, absolutely perfect conditions for the attempt. I was so happy for him and to have been there on a couple of his first trips to the Lakes where it all began, I feel like I had seen him grow from an occasional trail runner, to an experienced, mountain fell runner, and here is he was adding his name to an Elite list of fell runners….I could not have felt more proud seeing him jump in the air and hit that green wall at Moot Hall
Lisa Pettit at the other end of facebook
So proud of you both. My first ever trip to the Lakes was in November 2010 at the start of this amazing adventure. The best bit about it all? You proved by planning and thinking of the long term goal and not the short term gain you could do it. Well done Alan & James
The Ground crew – Alex “awesome” Pearson
“Planning, routine, schedules, preparation. There was a formidable amount of all of these evident in the moments before the start of the BG attempt I witnessed starting on a cold Saturday night. It isn't something you can just rock up and do. James and Alan were understandably nervous but took comfort in The Plan. There was nothing big left to figure out, they just had to execute this plan they had spent so many months previously perfecting.
And execute it they did. With so many variables and possibilities they made it look externally like the plan was on rails without possibility of deviation. Everything went so well it makes me smile just to think about it.
There is this phrase 'beware the chair' , i.e. do not sit down for too long at checkpoints, you might not get back up. Alan has progressed to the next level with this. He 'owned' the chair. That is to say he readily took the option of a comfy seat and blanket at each checkpoint, he rested for the alloted time, and then he was up and onwards. There was never any question taking the rest would hold him back. He explained to me later the drive was to stick to the schedule but I still think it a testament of sheer will power. I initially thought Alan was super-quiet at the checkpoints but I later adjusted this observation. He is usually to be found helping others and providing support. Here he correctly sat back and for once let others fuss over him. I had quite simply never seen that before, it was wonderful to witness.
James visibly went through a gamut of emotions during the day. Typically he would be joyous at arriving at a checkpoint, various degrees of chatty, and then quite serious while going through internal checklists and stealing himself for the next leg. All the supporters were brilliant during the checkpoints (and I am sure during the runs as well) Nobody got in the way and things spoken were typically succinct and functional. We were on the clock and it felt like we were pit-stop crew.
The last point to see them at Chapel Bridge a few miles from the finish was emotional and humbling. They were absolutely shattered but still driven. I saw hints of a smile from James and cheery hellos from Alan. I really felt for Alan when he said he was feeling a bit broken because again I had never heard anything like that from him before. I know for him to say that, he really must have been pushing the limits. The contrast a few miles later when Alan ran towards Moot hall at the finish and heartily slapped the clock tower was....well it was a pretty special moment, I don't think I can put it adequately into words. And then a very short while later James did the same and managed a jump at Moot hall to put a seal on the adventure.
Amazing. Just amazing. I am so pleased to have been there that weekend to see it for myself and play a small part of the adventure. Nicely done chaps.”
@ 2012-05-13 – 22:20:07
I took a little extra time to refuel fully at Dunmail Raise, with Alex P continuing his stunning job as valley-crew coordinator. I just sat on the open boot of a car whilst supports scurried here and there sorting food, tea, kit and anything else which came into my head. I’m going to put together the supporters story in their own voices later, but I can’t keep saying enough how much this was a team event; not just me and Alan. I knew I had to conserve every bit of energy as the hardest stage of the Bob Graham loomed – literally in this case as to our left was the merciless hands-on-knees climb up Steel Fell.
Stage 3 of the BG includes Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain and fourteen other aggressive peaks. On none of our recces had we succeeded in doing the stage to the schedule time, with most of them ending in failure to even complete the stage. Mostly we had tried the stage in foul weather, but even that day in good weather we had taken nearly an hour too long. There was nothing simple about the next bit of the day.
During the stop Anja whispered something very important to me "I loved that run. That was the best run I've ever done". I had been wondering how my supporters were, and hoping they were enjoying everything, especially when we scuttled off fast down the last hill and left them to their own devices to get down. What Anja said put the seal on the massive positive energy I now had to go and break the back of the BG. Taking my porridge and Wes, Harold and Nicola with me I faced Steel Fell.
Wes was on this stage for a reason, he's my perfect mountain buddy. During the OMM we learnt that we work perfectly together and his navigation is both damn good and confident. One of Alan's supporters on this stage, Phil, described his “absolute command” of the navigation. I told him I would rely on him, and gave him the weighty responsibility of leading us faultlessly across the mountains. He did it to perfection. Also on this stage was Andrew Henderson, who but for an injury would have been joining us on the whole thing, and his mate Richard. We were very glad of their support as they had stepped in last minute to fill a gap and are excellent mountain hands. Harold was still with us, the pocket dynamo running without a pause since the beginning, not for his own round, but purely out of support for ours. Woodford first claim he may be, but Serpie in spirit he is too.
Stage 3 starts with a climb, then a plateau, then a climb, then a plateau, then two spiky things on a plateau, then more climbing and goes on like this. Initially the mountains are dull and featureless but as the stage goes on they become increasingly entertaining. We reached the first plateau quickly, and begun to make excellent time. Alan and I were running again and I even started to wonder if we might be moving a bit fast for some of our supporters. But we had a super mountain fit crew so we simply kept to schedule time on each mountain without bother. Throughout this time I had very few worries as we knocked around stories of what got us into fell-running and the BG as the day warmed up a little. I kept marvelling at the time of day – it was only 10am as we crossed the plateau to Thunacar Knott. The pubs weren’t even open yet and all we had to do was reach Keswick in time for a pint before last orders. This was alternatively reassuring and scary, as it showed how long there still was to go. Nicola left us shortly after – perhaps he was in need of an earlier pint?
I was finding it hard to take on much food any more though and at the top of Rossett Pike there is the sobering thought of the rocky scramble up the 900m high Bowfell. Here Wes got my eternal gratitude by producing a flask of hot tea which I duly downed; I think others were lucky enough to get a sip. Bowfell was the half way point of the BG in my mind as at its peak you are on the highest mountain ridge in England with no significant descents before Scafell Pike, England's summit itself. As we reached the top without drama we were expecting to see Nat and DeeDee. However they were nowhere to be seen and we worried we had started to outrun our supporters. In fact we found out later they were chronologically challenged and had misread the timings by an hour unfortunately. They were to more than make up for this later though.
As we left Bowfell we checked the schedule - we were now 29 minutes up overall. For the first time a dangerously seductive thought entered my head "we're going to do this thing". I didn't voice it, to voice it would have been to tempt fate. But a quiet confidence was building egged on by the fact we hadn’t reached lunchtime yet – you could start a decent days walk now and we had already done twenty-four mountains.
I was right to be cautious though. On the way up Scafell Pike my lack of food began to hit hard.
Wes dropped back to make sure I was ok. I was suddenly feeling very tired and slow and thinking about the difficult next half hour getting from Scafell Pike to Scafell. I could walk on but each step was laboured and I couldn’t imagine how I could get food back on board if the energy dips started to come in waves. Wes offered me a Gu gel, Cola flavoured and caffeinated, which I greedily sucked down. I think it had rocket fuel in!
Suddenly as we summitted England my head was buzzing. I tapped the cairn, let Andrew take a photo, and then virtually without stopping headed towards the atmospheric Mickledore, which for the first time I discovered you can actually see from the top of Scafell Pike. It stood out in all its rugged glory high above the world around it. Alan had scarpered off to climb Broad Stand, roped by more lovely supporters who I hardly met over the weekend, whilst I rushed off with Wes to take the alternative traverse path.
Our supporters weren't ready for this sudden fuel injection and we scattered them behind us across the mountainside. The adrenalin flowed for the first time in the day; get this done well and a successful BG would begin to move from hope towards reality. Me and Wes dived across the scree and I nailed the angle of descent to find the subtle start to the traverse path. I clambered across the rocks, head buzzing, even losing Wes briefly. Soon we were on the climb to Scafell which had been transformed from the nightmare energy drainer of my March recce to an entirely regular tough climb. As we topped Scafell we saw Alan only two minutes ahead and to my joy we hit the schedule time on the nose. "Well if I can do that on schedule......" I said leaving the thought unsaid.
900m of direct descent to Wasdale awaited us. We could see the lake of Wastwater way, way below; we had half an hour to reach the same elevation. No time for pausing now so Wes and I scampered off, hoping to catch Alan on the descent. No chance...he was flying. I begun to enjoy the rocky, slidy descent down but we weren't closing the gap. I heard Wes stop to explain our escapade to a couple of hikers but I continued down relentlessly. After five minutes of technical tough descent we had only descended 250m; this drop is the longest one of the Round and extremely tough on your core muscles. At this point I took the edge of the pace as it was clear I couldn't catch Alan and I needed to make sure I didn't shake up my stomach too much before the rest break at Wasdale where I needed to refuel. Wes and I chatted our way down, hoping our other supporters had kept close enough to follow our route down which had been optimised during the recces.
Eventually we came steaming into Wasdale, 36 minutes up on schedule and heads and bodies tingling with adrenalin. The ground crew were set up to perfection again, and looking after Alan as his support crew appeared to be AWOL (later found elsewhere in the car park). I now couldn't bear the thought of solid food so demanded soup, porridge, tea, more soup, and more tea. I felt knackered and gave myself time to fully refuel as ahead lay the lung-busting, mind-killing 50 minute ascent of Yewbarrow. Andrew and Richard made a big effort to get down on time as they still had some of my kit, which I’m very grateful for. I think Harold appeared, having gone to see Alan climb Broad Stand to get info for his own attempt next year. Phil was missing, later to be found in the Wasdale Head pub a mile along the road.
We had done the hardest stage of the BG in 5 hours 48 minutes, twenty-one minutes faster than the schedule gave us.
On stage 4 I was joined by my two school mates. Paul gave me feet in the clouds in my uni days, so he didn't really have a choice to be supporting or not - he had planted the seed. Mike I've got to know fantastically over the last decade; on hills, at climbing walls, over snooker tables and over pints and whisky. He taught me to climb over the last year which has made me a much better fell-runner as I'm much more confident when the ground is rocky as hell, leaping over stuff I would have previously tentatively clambered over. As we got into the meat of the Yewbarrow climb, Paul asked Mike and I to be ushers at his forthcoming wedding to his lovely fiancée Helen. This was a fantastic surprise and we both said yes in a heartbeat - it will be an honour to do that for a friend who has known me at my best and worst.
This made the Yewbarrow climb fly by (which is some achievement) and before we knew it we were closing in on the summit. We topped out in 44 minutes, five minutes up on schedule "We just climbed Yewbarrow, we just climbed Yewbarrow, nana-na-na, nana-na-na" I sang as we hit the stopwatch. I was counting the remainder of this thing in big climbs now, and that was the evilest one left done without an issue. The end of the BG was beginning to take a hazy form in my mind.
We trotted off towards the descent before the next big climb to Red Pike, chatting about which countries we could see in the view around us (Scotland and Wales definitely, along with the Isle of Man, Ireland less sure. And the best bits of England of course). My stomach and throat were now alternatively causing trouble; I was completely parched and trying to take on liquid, but anything I took on resulted in comedy burps minutes later. BG burps were a surprise but you can hardly blame your body for doing odd things when you put it through something like this.
Red Pike took some climbing, and now in the best bit of the day for walking we saw plenty of people. I was feeling pretty poorly but the guys kept my mind ticking over with fascinating chat about pilot training which I listened to whilst only joining in from time to time. At the top we entered my favourite section of the Round; each mountain distinct and special. The first was Steeple, the wonderful promontory over Ennerdale. Here Mike told us at the start of the ridge to it that if we reached it in five minutes we would be within schedule. “Well let’s reach it in five minutes then” I shouted and bounded off towards it. Paul wondered if this was energy from the jelly babies he’d just given me to eat, or the “mental-confusion” stage of hypothermia. It can be difficult to tell the difference when ultra-fell-running.
It was the jelly babies and we topped Steeple in twenty-one minutes. I announced “twenty-one” to the world as we stepped on the cairn – the guy and his son sitting on top asked if we’d done twenty-one mountains. Even more than that said Mike as I dived back across the ridge without pausing to look at the view.
Onwards to Pillar which we summitted without incident. Coming down was hard work though, my body really didn’t want me to run any more. I let it off, and just walked down, trying to take on liquid and small bits of sweet stuff. I was exhausted, shattered, ill. I still had hours and hours to go. But I was also at complete peace with no thought of stopping and not wondering for a second why I was doing this.
Carried on a wave of friends’ support
It was the final two big climbs of the round to come, both very steep and rocky. I was preparing myself for them and to my delight Darren and Jen were waiting for us at Black Sail Pass, just before the ascent of Kirk Fell. We saw them from a way across the fellside and I smiled at recognising them – they had come on to the fells purely to support us on the way, and give us a fillip in the middle of a stage. They duly did this as we grabbed a quick chat on the early slopes of Kirk Fell. Soon they were gone as we begun the scramble up Kirk Fell; following the fence posts that lead the way up well for once in my life as Mike led us up a relatively un-taxing way.
We arrived a little late at Kirk Fell as I had failed to run a downhill section when I should have done. No matter, plenty of time in the bank and one final massive climb left – Great Gable. This is my favourite mountain, a complete high-sided mass of rock and boulders shooting straight up into the sky from every angle you look at it. It looks impossible to climb but by striding across the increasingly large boulders you are taken to the top before you know it. I was confident we could make a little time on schedule as I was still climbing fine. I was right, as we took the short but very sharp climb step-by-step and topped out at Great Gable with a smile and photos. It was pretty much downhill from here to Honister Pass, the beginning of the end.
There were three mountains left of the stage, only one worthy of the name. Green Gable is Great Gable’s little sister, but very different in nature, made of red clay soil next to it’s bouldery neighbour. If I knew anything about geology I’d tell you something interesting here. But I don’t. Following Green Gable we crossed the undulating ground towards first Brandreth and then onwards to Grey Knotts.
Suddenly we heard a huge cheer from across the other side of the plateau. In the distance, on Grey Knotts’ rocky top, stood three figures. They were waving and cheering and cheered even more when we waved back. I could hear Nat’s Aussie cheeriness clearly and soon realised it was joined by Deedee and Nicola. I smiled broadly; what a moment. As we made our way across the plateau they cheered again and again, happy to see us still moving. We soon reached them and climbed to the top of the final mountain of stage 4. I’d felt all day like I was being carried round on a wave of friend’s support, and this stage had brought it fully home.
We begun to jog down the descent to Honister Pass, and to my joy Nat was jogging alongside me. Nat was there at the start of this madcap adventure, and has been a constant friend through the ups and downs in the last two years. I was so glad she was able to run a little of the thing with us. Nat – you are a wonderful friend and I can’t wait to be running the streets of New York with you and Wes.
We could very soon see the slate mine and Youth Hostel where our support cars waited, and having walked most of stage 4, the adrenalin now begun to course through my veins again. I begun to speed up slightly on the descent, letting gravity take me down. Paul joined me at my side as we enjoyed the runnable grassy slope, and we could see Alan just leaving the stop to begin the last stage ahead of us. Then we hit a path towards the bottom, I heard some cheers from still far below, and couldn’t bear not to release my downhill legs properly. I bounded down the path, lept a stream and rushed on down to the stop. As I hit the slate mine path I saw the supporters of the attempt which we'd seen at Fairfield cheering and shouting encouragement. Their attempt was clearly still on track.
I jogged into the car park to instantly crack-up laughing as I saw Jany dressed in her red panda suit, and all my ground-crew gathered around. We had broken the back of the BG, it was still broad daylight. I had dreamt of this moment as I ran down that hill on a recce last year and it had just happened exactly as I’d hoped. My support crew looked after me like champions again as my shattered body and mind prepared to face one last effort.
@ 2012-05-10 – 20:53:37
“We’re off” A cheer went up from the twenty or so supporters gathered around us and we bolted off through the nearest alley way to escape Keswick and head to the long first climb up Skiddaw. Trotting out of Keswick I felt utterly relaxed, the thing was finally underway. Now I was psychologically wholly in the moment, where I would stay for nearly the whole day. I think it was the number of recces that we’d done which produced this feeling; I know the route intimately, we knew the sort of pacing we needed to do and the last two years had built up to this moment. The enormity of the challenge still overwhelmed me if I thought about it though, so I didn’t. I simply thought about the next mountain.
Our supporters on this stage were Harold and Brent. Harold has been a rock throughout our recces since joining our gale-battered attempt at a three day hostel-to-hostel BG last year. He’ll be attempting the thing himself next year and I just hope I’m quick enough to support him on a stage; the man is flying! Brent is a fantastic mix of brash American together with being wonderfully kind and self-depreciating. As we were still in the very first foothills he said “this is awesome, I’ve never done a night-run before”. I knew he hadn’t recced one with us, but I hadn’t realised this was literally his first night-run. Luckily as he’d said when we’d been discussing stages, he’s very resourceful and I know he can look after himself.
Climbing Skiddaw it all begun to feel surreal. We had picked a night with a near full-moon deliberately, but I hadn’t realised we had also picked super-moon night. The moon was at perigee, and with the entirely cloudless sky it stood out amongst the starlit sky so boldly you could pick out individual craters. The lights of Keswick were now glistening far below us and Derwent water stretched out beyond with a silvery sheen across its surface where the sunlight reflected by the moon in turn reflected off the water. There was no time to attempt a photo which could do this vision justice but it will stay with me for the rest of my life. To try and get across a little bit of the feeling, here's a photo someone else took of a similar moon.
We plodded slowly up Skiddaw’s easy path, trying to work out how to keep to the right pace and not overdo it. Before we knew it we were alone on the summit just after midnight, being buffeted by an icy cold wind. The first of forty-two mountains completed we headed to our first major descent. I’d promised myself I would not enjoy any descents until Wasdale; I’ve become a decent downhill runner and have acquired a taste for the adrenalin-rush given by quick descents requiring every muscle in your body and every nerve in your head. Only problem is they tend to smash your legs to a pulp which didn’t seem a good idea with 22 hours still on the clock; so we gently bounded down the soft heather over the back of Skiddaw.
In the last two years I’ve recced every inch of this route in every conceivable condition. Now we begun to draw on the homework; we knew that jumping the fence at the right point followed by tracking a bearing straight down the mountainside led to a subtle path in the grass which brought you right to the bottom of the next climb. The Bob Graham was first done by fellsmen; born and bred Cumbrians who often farmed the hillside. Knowledge of the terrain was a key part of their success; and in that vein I had set out to become as familiar with this countryside as they would have been. Coming out at a specific tree that I knew to be the spot we needed made me smile broadly.
The next fell was knocked off in similar fashion without much interest as it’s a formless lump with a pathetic excuse for a summit. The one piece of interest was that behind us we now saw headtorches bobbing down the Skiddaw descent in the far distance; we were being followed by another attempt! They must be catching us as they will have started at least half an hour behind and are now a maximum of twenty minutes back.
On the descent of “Great” Calva we begun to lose Brent as the three of us spread out amongst the heather to try and locate the well-hidden path down. I shouted back from time to time but didn’t get a response so assumed either he couldn’t hear me or was too focused on not falling over to respond. He kept on coming down though so I trotted on entirely happy with the pace, and he quickly caught us at the bottom as I stopped to briefly answer nature’s call.
Do not go down
Stage 1 has only three mountains but two of them are monarchs of the fells; Skiddaw already done we now had Blencathra on the list. A speedy river crossing froze my feet for the long slog up the dull backside of the mountain. Harold and I wandered up marvelling at the moon and the perfect nature of the night with the cold wind now gone (we hoped that was just Skiddaw’s microclimate as per usual).
As we neared the top we had a problem. Brent was knackered from the unfamiliar ground. 100 metres from the top he shouted he was going to go down and find a different way home. I felt responsible for those of my support team out on the fells and decided this was a terrible idea, as I knew there was no easy way out from the way he had turned and he would be on his own at night whilst knackered. I was in “leader” mode in my head so fair commanded him not to go down, and ordered Harold down to go accompany him off the fell which he duly did. Alan and I could witness each other across the top of Blencathra (being witnessed is a condition of joining the BGR club) and we would see them at the bottom. I’m not sure Brent welcomed my insistence as the route we were going involved the rather fun Hall’s Fell ridge.
This isn’t horribly sharp, but at night has a definite piquancy with drops into gullies either side, and usually slip-slidy rocks at the top with little path. Tonight though we discovered our next bit of luck; the ground was bone dry. The drought has reached the Lakes and despite recent rain the whole Lake District is parched. Whilst I hope it recovers soon, this was perfect for us as difficult on-yer-bum sections suddenly became walkable. This would be a story of the rest of the day and would save us invaluable time and effort.
I laughed at the ease with which we’d just hopped over one of the most technical sections of the route, and jogged on down the mountain on my own as Alan had a few things to attend to. Smiling broadly as I eased my legs gently down the rocky path I was surprised to see a headtorch near the bottom of the fellside and coming upwards. Turned out to be a stranger called Leon, waiting for the attempt behind us. I wished him good luck and bounded on down to the first support stop at Threlkeld, with Alan following me in moments later. During the stop Paul (my mate who started this crazy adventure by giving me feet in the clouds) asked me how I was doing, “Absolutely perfect”.
It’s coldest at dawn
Next came the Helvellyn ridge of stage 2. We were joined by Nick M and Anja; I’d met Nick only four hours previously at the Moot Hall, he was a friend of Harold’s who had been keen to get involved and it turns out comes from Kirby Lonsdale in Cumbria. Anja is a lovely, adventurous Serpie who can now indulge her mountain desires to her heart’s content by visiting her fantastic boyfriend Pete where he lives in the Swiss Alps.
“This is a bastard of a climb”; I was filling in Nick on the deceptive looking climb up Clough Head which lay in front of us. From bitter experience I knew that the relatively small looking lump took a good deal of climbing. Still accompanied by the heavenly moon we took it step-by-step. Usually this climb psychologically rips into me; it casts doubt on your ability to take on this terrain and anything else you have left in the day seems impossible. But all those runs I’d attempted with the goal of getting in the moment were paying dividends; even here with 39 mountains to go I was at peace inside.
The top of the ridge was still dark and now bitingly cold. Night temperatures drop throughout the night and it seems to be coldest around dawn. We were now plunging into the weather blown from the arctic on top of one of the most exposed ridges in the Lakes. I tried to take a picture of the moon and then took the next ten minutes trying to stop my hands from freezing solid.
Dawn broke finally and we got our first sight of the day’s sun. Before that sun set we needed to cover the next 35 mountains and be coming into a valley the other side of the Lake District. We were shortly joined by the remainder of our support crew for the stage who had come up Sticks Pass to join us after the dark. One of my best training buddies Nicola, the relentlessly positive Jany, and the simply relentless Harold were here to see us through to breakfast. Climbing Helvellyn was simply gorgeous and unreal, as well as absolutely bloody freezing. Everyone’s camelbacks were freezing solid, and my special drinks were turning into slush puppies (carbohydrate fuel Perpetuum and water mixed with chia seeds, affectionately known as frog spawn).
Sleep deprivation and jelly babies
Nick tried to get a picture on top of Helvellyn but failed as his frozen hands shivered. We weren’t in a mood to stick around, “This is the BG, one chance for photos” said Alan as we trotted off towards the next two small peaks.
Or I thought they were small. On the second of them I was suddenly hit hard by the sleep deprivation and now over six hours running. Climbing the fifty metres up Dollywagon Pike was a surprisingly large effort and this was psychologically destructive because of what lay next. Over the next valley was the monstrous cul-de-sac of Fairfield; twenty brutal minutes of climbing followed by ten equally brutal minutes of descent. I usually liked the climb but on my March super-recce this was where it had begun to go wrong. It was happening again.
I thought quickly. On the steep descent down Dollywagon Pike I decided to break one of my rules for the day; to not eat anything sweet until half way through. I’d instituted this to avoid feeling sick and not getting proper food down, but this was an emergency – the whole round could be destroyed in the next hour as it was non-stop aggressive climbs and descents. “Who has sweet stuff? I want it now please”. Out of various bags came fruit jellies, Kendal mint cake and jelly babies, all of which I greedily stuffed down as we crossed the valley towards the bottom of the climb.
I’d told folks they needn’t join us on this climb unless they wanted to as we came back the way we went, and Anja and Jany took me up on the offer. Thank god they did because this gave me my next brainwave – dump my rucksack with them. I chucked it back to them, set my face towards Fairfield and decided to march up the big git of a climb before it knew what had hit it. I’d started the climb worrying I wasn't going to be able to keep pace, and finished it setting the pace. As we hit the top Alan said we had beaten the schedule time for it by a few minutes “I didn’t think it was possible to be up on the schedule time for Fairfield”.
Suddenly full of beans again we bounded towards the descent, with “must not have fun!” still going round in my mind. I tried hard but failed, laughing to myself as we zig-zagged our way down the hill. Towards the bottom we came across the other attempt we had seen on Skiddaw on their way up. A shouted chat between us revealed they were on a similar schedule to us, though seemed to have started extremely quickly.
Climbing the final mountain of the stage, Seat Sandal, I reclaimed my rucksack but that would be the last time I would wear it on the day. My wonderful support crew would soon be taking everything for me. We nailed the descent down Seat Sandal, with a route we had only once found before and hadn’t been able to recreate since. Everything that could go right was doing so, and we shocked ourselves by beating the schedule by almost nine minutes coming off Seat Sandal which was simply huge. We arrived after 8 hours and 4 minutes of running, which gave us a lovely twenty-one minute cushion over our overall schedule time of 23:11. This was a stupidly good warm-up for what was to come – the meat of the BG.
Click here to watch this video. It sums up so much about the day – the wonderful support crew giving me food, hugs and company whilst revelling in the ridiculousness of it all.
@ 2012-05-08 – 15:15:16
"Feet in the clouds" wasn't it? Fell running is not a spectator sport for good reason: the stupendous skill, bravery, speed and stamina of its elite competitors are more often than not lost in the mists. The number of names for the mist tells you how important an actor it is; clag, pea-soup, fog, murk, clouds. Even on sunshine bathed days clouds wander across the tops of the tallest peaks trying to disorientate unwary tourists and there’s a specialist mountain weather service (MWIS) for just that reason. I didn’t think that “visibility virtually unlimited” were words the mountain weather forecasters had in their vocabulary, let alone words I would see on the forecast for the 5th May 2012, but there they were.
Oh shit! As I read those words the panic started to rise. The threat of bad weather had been the thing keeping the nerves under control. We needed perfect weather to have a hope of doing the Bob Graham and you never get perfect weather in the Lakes. That was my pre-emptive excuse, "we gave it a darned good go and the winds or heat or hail or clag just dragged it out of our reach." I no longer had a get-out clause, the BG had just become towering reality. And there really was no hiding place left because I've chosen to do this challenge in full view of those who know me; visibility virtually unlimited in the internet sense as well. After lunch we contacted our supporters with the confirmed start time of 11pm Friday. The stage was set, the support crew and 'audience' in place and the day awaited its two central actors – Alan Hall and me.
I felt sick, couldn't eat, sleep, pack, rest, talk. I panicked and contacted three of my best ultra running mates. Texts came flying back with words of pure experience and belief in me. I started to feel the confidence I had in the weeks before begin to kindle. Words from my lead support driver, Alex, came back to me "embrace and confront the nerves my friend, it is energy to feed off of as much as gels and flapjacks". I managed to begin to prepare and then got into the swing preparing everything I needed carefully; perhaps rather obsessively. But that’s using my strengths. I wasn’t born with talent; I didn’t get selected for my secondary school cross-country running team when I first joined the school. My dad had taught me the value of homework though as we watched sport together and saw those who had worked hard rewarded and those who didn’t squander natural talent. The more complicated the endeavour, the more talent becomes just one small part of any success. By playing to your strengths you can make huge inroads to the more talented and perhaps overtake them. By the end of my school days I was cross-country captain.
Hard work, intelligence, openness to support and preparation were a few of our strengths and now, in the last hours before the start they could serve to calm the nerves.
Into the mouth of the wolf
Nerves just about under control I headed out to dinner with the early arrivals of our huge, wonderful support crew. I told them to talk about anything but what was about to happen – Jany encountered a grumpy me for the first time since we’ve known each other. By the end of dinner she got me laughing hysterically when I could have been breaking down in tears; and that wasn't going to be the last time she'd do that in this journey.
I went to see if I could get forty winks but just ended up reading my facebook messages. Facebook and my phone had been going crazy since the night before with messages of good luck. I was very touched by all the messages, feeling the love and support of absent friends across the ether. From Florence came Claudio with: "in bocca al lupo!" and the response came from Teresa with “crepi al lupo”. This is an Italian idiomatic phrase along the lines of break a leg, but at this moment I loved what I believe is the literal translation.
Claudio: “Into the mouth of the wolf”
Teresa: “May the wolf die”
The BG had a snarling, ferocious reputation which it had only served to confirm over our recces. Now I put my drink bottles in my rucksack, double and triple-knotted my fell shoes, tightened the headtorch on, fired up the Garmin and took the short walk into the night to face the wolf head on.
I wasn’t alone though, Alan and I had teams of the best supporters in the world waiting to be by our side the whole way round.
@ 2012-04-29 – 18:52:05
I thought I'd tape together the recce profiles to make a profile of the full Bob Graham (because I'm clearly not nervous enough already)
But you can't see that very well so I've done it properly in powerpoint, with pictures and everything. Enjoy!
Thanks to everyone who has been there on the way - whatever happens next weekend it's been wonderful to share it with you all.
@ 2012-04-08 – 14:31:58
This weekend was the scene of my final, very successful, recce for the Bob Graham. Two years ago I bought my first pair of trail shoes, in Keswick. It took a matter of hours until the die was cast; the first time I ran down a Lake District hill (the tiny Latrigg) I loved the feeling. The seed that had been laid in my mind a long time ago germinated, and soon blossomed. I felt compelled to follow the dream, despite not really knowing what it was that I was attempting to do.
A busy climb up the peak of England, and down again
Our final recce was a 12 hour jaunt over the second half of the Bob Graham. The aim was to start at 11.30am and finish in time for a beer back in Keswick. Serpie friends were to join for sections all over the mountains.
Four of us begun, to climb Scafell Pike via the smaller peaks to its East. Harold shot up the climb, taking Vic with him, with me and Stephane chatting along behind. Others in the Serpie Easter contingent had set off before us on the same route, and by the time we were ascending the first peak, we came across Lars, Lisa and the Hodges. "We heard you before we saw you" shouted Lisa, illustrating the entertaining climb we were having as the joy of climbing into clear skies coursed through our bodies.
We bobbed from peak to peak on the way up to Scafell Pike, introducing Vic to a new sport called ankle twisting. I never know how to describe mountains to people who are asking what it is like up there; one person's boulder hopping is another's ankle breakers. We made good time though, leapfrogging a group doing a recce of stage 3 of the BG.
Poppy had set off before us as well and I was hoping to find her on the climb, but as we rose higher and higher there was no sign. I'd shouted to her just as she left our B&B that we expected to be on top of Scafell Pike at 1.15pm. We approached the top dead on time to almost a party on top - the highest mountain in England on a pleasant Easter Saturday was standing room only. I looked around to find Poppy but still no sign....until suddenly running up from the other direction came a bobbing red hat as she bounded up to make it to us. Fantastic meeting place!
I convinced her to join us on the rest of Stage 3, as we went towards that dreaded Scafell again. However, we've now found a decent alternative to the risky Broad Stand....going to Foxes Tarn but via a nice traverse path. The climb is still energy sapping, but not quite so dispiriting.
Topping Scafell we now had 900m of descent in a mile down to Wasdale Head. Harold and I let loose, enjoying the wonderful views and the exhilaration of finding the quick feet to make descents fast and relatively untaxing. Filling our heads with endorphins and adrenalin we charged towards the bottom and a short break. The others all soon followed, managing what I think was all their first Lake District fell-running descents in impressive form.
I've attacked the Bob Graham with the single-mindedness that I can apply when I let my ambition fly. Even whilst I was still saying to friends I was "just finding out what it entailed" it was clear from my actions and planning that I meant to do this thing. Running events only mattered if they contributed to the goal, my holidays became almost exclusively in the Lakes, and I hued out time from my life for the BG. As this was a challenge way beyond anything I had done before there wasn't much room for manoeuvre. Whilst I would make compromises everything I did had one eye on the BG, and I felt the need to make plain, direct decisions...or were they selfish?
No-nonsense mountain decisions
Stephane had enjoyed the first part of the day so much he decided to carry on with Harold, me and now Gav, to the second part; the five hour stage 4. He recently ran a fantastic 2.59 Barcelona marathon and still had that in his legs, but seemed to be going well. However stage 4 starts with a mighty climb up Yewbarrow, an unrelenting 600m of ascent, followed by two-thirds of that again up Red Pike. It soon became clear he wouldn't enjoy pushing himself through the rest, up the punishing climbs of Kirk Fell and Great Gable. So he made his decision, and made it bluntly - immediately saying, this is me done, how do I get to the end on an easier route? A quick chat, making sure he was fine, and we were able to continue to our goals in the knowledge he was safe and happy.
We made the decision with no nonsense, which is exactly the type of decisions you need to make in the mountains. A few people have been on the wrong side of me making some pretty blunt decisions up there. I rub some people up the wrong way by my sudden change in tone, as all the pleasantries are gone. People with less experience in the mountains think this is me being rude whereas those who have been there themselves know that it is just necessary - make slow, hazy decisions up there and you'll at best fail to achieve half of what you could, at worst produce serious danger. To make decisions well like that requires a level of self-assurance on both parties account, and trust between each other. When you think your partner has made a navigation mistake you need to speak up quickly, you can't be polite. But it can't be questioning their navigation ability; or taken as questioning it. It is just that right at that moment, two heads are better than one. If it is meant, or taken, personally in any way then you begin to fall out. Kindness, which I value so highly, suddenly has a harsh edge.
But why do I feel the need to push on and achieve those plans? Why not just chill out? That dream and my ambition drives me. However I wonder if ambition can get in the way of friendships which actually make life worth living. There's that phrase "if you want a friend in politics, get a dog". Politics reflects the conflict between personal ambition and friendship - the wonderful Danish TV series Borgen (from the makers of the Killing) shows this brilliantly as a politician begins to lose her family because of her ambition disguised as a sense of duty. In my life I make decisions daily about how much time I make for different aspects. The most precious thing we have is time, and how we choose to spend it reflects our priorities and our dreams. Where you put your time is what you care about, and you reap what you sow from the decisions you make.
Into the foggy gloaming
Finally my dreams were to take five of us into the unknown. The final stage may be in the dark, so today we aimed to start it at 8pm. Pea-soup fog was now descending on the mountains, as we begun to climb into the dusk. Our visibility fell to a few metres as the fog enveloped us, and then as we topped the first of the three mountains in stage 5 dark arrived. Now we could hardly follow a path even if it was clear on the ground. If you'd told me two years ago I would have dared to go up in pitch dark fog-ridden mountains I'd have told you, no way. But I'm a different, more confident person now and together with my excellent recce partner Harold we begun to navigate with confidence. My mate Mike has recently learnt to be an airline pilot, and he told me about part of their training which involves instrument only flying, with no visibility allowed. I imagined this was similar; we used our compasses and my altimeter on the watch to take bearings from place to place.
I was very impressed by the calmness of our companions. Poppy, Alex and Vic all decided to join us and place their trust in us, in conditions where one mistake could leave you lost for hours. But they all seemed to be enjoying the experience....well for the most part. I think descending Robinson was at times deeply scary and awesomely different, as we reached some technical crags on the way down which tested their downhill legs. All kept their heads despite the worry though and soon enough we could see the first lights of the houses in the valley below us. Or were they sheep's eyes reflecting in the dark? Perspective goes all screwy in the misty gloom.
Soon we hit the track in the valley, and begun the 'road' run back to Keswick. Dodging through the villages, tracks and fields on the outskirts, in full flight and eery isolation, was great fun. Vic pointed out that my six mile road run appeared to involve an amusing number of fields and stiles. I didn't mind though, my energy levels felt fantastic and I could have continued - so much so I felt I could do the whole run again. Soon we reached Keswick, and the final sprint up the main street. Drunk examples of binge Britain attempted to run with us, but despite the 30 miles and 3,500m of ascent in our legs we sped away from them up to the Moot Hall. Almost twelve hours of the best countryside in England ended with smiles, hugs, and soon beer. Will I be back there in four weeks time before midnight strikes?
Everyone seemed really happy at the end of the day, having had days spread out across the mountains and doing new things. This is the good side of ambition, it leads you to excellent focus on the things you want to achieve, and can bring other people with you when you're open and include others. But still ambition drives you to exclude other things from your life, and unbridled ambition surely leads to a lonely life. But the answer can't be to make so many sacrifices for your friendships that your passion for life disappears. Relationships and ambition need to support and nourish each other - if they are in conflict they are deadly to happiness.
"A man without ambition is dead. A man with ambition but no love is dead. A man with ambition and love for his blessings here on earth is ever so alive"
Pearl Mae Bailey
@ 2012-04-03 – 13:57:51
*Mum, don't read this post*
Since the idea of this challenge started I've been fighting a nemesis on the route - Broad Stand. Regular visitors here will know well this is the scramble/climb that bars the straightforward way from Scafell Pike to Scafell. It has a fearsome accident reputation despite being 'only' a scramble in mountaineering terms. For me it's played on my mind since the beginning as, despite everything I get up to, I do suffer from nerves when over dangerous edges. Confronting the fear and doing it anyway is exhilirating but has its limits.
I've tried various approaches to removing the challenge: learning to climb, heading up there with plenty of ironwork to attempt it roped and harnessed, pretending to myself that it's only an incy wincy detour to avoid it. Nothing has worked. I became a better climber, but not good. When we took the ironwork up there I bottled it. And the detour (via Foxes Tarn) nearly destroyed me on our super-recce, with the 200m drop and re-climb almost reducing me to tears of exhaustion.
Climbing it could be the difference between doing the BG and not.
So this weekend we went to play on the Scafell Massif to investigate one remaining alternative and perhaps have a peek at Broad Stand so that Alan could show me his 'chin up' method for defeating the thing. On the climb up to Scafell Pike we discovered the Lakes were almost completely dry. Rivers trickled, bogs had become dirt and tarns (ponds) were just a circle of black rocks. This makes walking much easier as our trail shoes almost stuck to the rocks. And it got me thinking that if I didn't look at Broad Stand today I never would.
*Gulp* Here we go. The approach to it is the most foreboding sight for me in the Lakes, with a huge rock wall making you feel tiny. It appears there is literally no way ahead. But then someone points out this narrow crack in a rock, not wide enough to get through with a rucksack on. Squeezing through you come to the first of a set of rock 'steps', and a first relatively easy scramble. Even this is scary as you're above a 5m drop on to a sharp looking rock. Round that and up to a scramble to the second step - now the fall is becoming larger and despite excellent handholds your mind starts imaginging the slip slidy fall that would break your legs if you get this wrong. After a while I make it up to the second step. This is where Broad Stand really is. You have two options:
- Squirm up a crack that is exposed over the full 20m drop
- Get close and personal with the rock in the corner, and haul yourself up with your hands as there are zero footholds (where the top guy in the picture is sat)
The corner is safe, if more difficult, so we go that way. Alan shows me his chin up method, which requires reaching up to grab unseen handholds at the top of the step, dangling by your hands, doing a chin up, and then shoving your elbow on to a useful ledge a metre above where your head starts. From there you can lever yourself up. Not the most graceful of moves but as Alan shows it is effective at doing the only thing which matters - get your body from one step to the next.
The step we're on is relatively safe, though still slopes slightly downwards towards that drop. My legs are shaking slightly and I'm unsure I can even get down easily from where we've got up to. Confront the fear and do it anyway. Of course I'm scared, this is a dangerous place. But take it step by step and it'll be fine.
I step close to it and almost bail straight away. But then I manoeuvre myself slowly to manage to grab on of the handholds Alan had used. I dangle by my arms, but they're tired now and I can't pull myself up enough. I'm scared and rapidly scramble down back on to the ledge. I try again but now the nerves are going. I swear and tell Alan I need to pause. I go for a sit down on the ledge getting my nerves under control and looking out at the stunning view, whilst Alan climbs down to join me.
Come on! I go for it again, and get myself on to those handholds, dangling by my arms. Pulling myself up I can see the step I want to be on for the first time. Now I just need....to....get....that....elbow...up....no, damn! I can't get it there. I lower myself down and now my arms are buggered. It'll take me 5 minutes to have enough strength in them to do it again. We have a long rest of the day ahead of us (this was mountain two of eleven on the day). We down climb slowly. Damn, damn, damn and blast.
The nemesis wins again. How do you know when to keep going back to a challenge and when to accept that you have to take a completely different approach to change the result?
Successful day otherwise though - eleven hour run done with no major energy dips. One more super-recce to go.
@ 2012-03-12 – 19:37:35
One of the major principles of fitness training is ‘specificity’. An ugly word which just means the best training is to do what you’re going to do. So given I’m going to attempt to run/walk/crawl over hills for 24 hours I thought I’d better do some long distance runs over hills. And where better than on the Bob Graham route itself? Oh, and yeh, I need to run in the dark so the idea of a pre-dawn start was born.
The beginning of the day was efficient and low key, giving little clue of what was to come over the next 14 hours. At half four, Poppy and I made our way out in to the keswick night to find Harold W who was to be wonderful support throughout the whole day. Our first destination was a nightbound Blencathra and a date with Halls Fell ridge. Poppy wisely left us to our plan of doing the descent off the ridge in the dark. As we climbed into the clouds of the small hours the visibility was only few metres and our headtorches reflected off the mists. Path finding was difficult but Blencathra is an easy climb from the West.
As we neared the top we climbed above the clouds and the sun followed suit, poking above the horizon. Suddenly we could see without the torches and soon enough we were nearing our first peak of the day. Being above the clouds in the first light of the day gave a wonderful surreal view, as if we'd climbed on to a plane.
Halls Fell ridge was slippy and tough, but annoyingly light - I had been fooled by sunrise times. At least it means visibility gets good pretty early; I'll need that in two months time! Soon Harold and I found our way to down to the first checkpoint of the day, awesomely well organised by Alex.
After a change of shoes into my new lovely mudclaws, we set off towards the Helvellyn ridge with Brent joining us for the stage. Soon we were climbing up into the cloud again, and could see the weird conditions we'd left behind at Blencathra. There was a bank of cloud from quarter of the way up but it abruptly stopped 100m below the top, leaving the summit to poke out.
We were now climbing into our own bank of cloud on the ridge and hoping to emerge out the top. But the ridge was just too low, so we kept threatening to stick our heads out the clouds but then would soon descend back down again. Harold was ace at keeping us on track in the mists, correcting my overconfidence that had taken us off path early on. Finally as we were minutes away from Hellvelyn itself we emerged to bright blue skies and views of the valleys beneath full with cotton wool clouds. The top of Catstye Cam, the mountain which looks like a kid drew it, was specked with tiny figures as the similarly early risers made their was towards the majestic Swirral edge. Standing on top of Hellvelyn at 9am in the sunshine looking around at the glorious outdoors is one of those atmospheres you never forget.
Nine peaks done, we set off towards our second big descent of the day. Dollywagon Pike to Grisedale Tarn (don't you just love the names?) is a quick but relatively nice descent, on a rocky path. Brent told us to go ahead because he was going to "descend like a girl". I know several girls who'd hit him for that - a girl who flew past me in the Anniversary Waltz last year would be first in the queue. He made it down without too much fuss given this was his first Lake District descent.
I'd been enjoying telling Brent about the treat we had in store for him to finish off his stage. The evil Fairfield cul-de-sac was next...straight up for twenty minutes, straight down for eight minutes. Climbing up Fairfield I started to feel tired for the first time in the day as the early start begun to get to me. The next stage, six hours long with fifteen peaks, was weighing heavily on my mind. We met a guy who did the BG two years ago as we climbed the final peak of stage 2 (Seat Sandal) and I asked him if it was as tough as it felt right now. He said "nah, mine was easy, I just flew round".
I added a nav mistake to the tiredness coming off Seat Sandal so, although we had done stage 2 a little quicker than the scheduled time for a 23 hour round, I arrived at our second checkpoint in not too good a way. I felt tired, but too sick to eat properly to revive my energy levels. The support crew were fantastic, with Alex laying out a spectacular spread and Poppy following all sorts of random instructions I was giving. I procrastinated on the basis that I needed more time to eat, but really I was worried about how tired I felt and what was to come. Soon though it was time to go. Wes and Nicola now joined me and Harold for a sunshine-soaked stage with the aim to reach Wasdale Head in six hours time. I passed navigation to Wes, both because I was knackered and because his nav is top notch.
The next four mountains almost finished me off. A very sharp ascent of Steel Fell followed by continuing climbs upwards to the plateau around Sergeant Man saw us drift outside the schedule as I walked parts I should have been running. We were only losing two or three minutes on each one but they begin to rack up fast on this stage with so many peaks. Reaching Sergeant Man we went onwards to the flat runnable section to High Raise, but I couldn't run. I began to walk as the others ran on. Nick came back to me to see how I was doing. I felt empty, nothing hurting, but no energy and no hope I could keep moving across such tough terrain with any speed. Really who do I think I am attempting this challenge? Nick's encouragement got me 'running' slightly as we approached the cairn. I arrived saying to the guys that I thought this would soon be game over, I couldn't do this. I would continue for now but the idea of the BG was dying. "How far off schedule on that leg was I?" The answer came that I was one minute quicker than schedule....
Wes now gave me a pep talk, saying I would have lows but I'd come through. He started to feed me sugary stuff, nuts etc. and take care of me. We got running next to each other and I asked him to tell me stories of what was going on in his life and his new place with Nat. We shot the breeze as bits of energy started to appear and I moved my mind away from the exhaustion. We picked up the next peak, and I even felt ok when me and Harold took a slight detour to the next peak which required a scramble up.
I in no way felt good but Nick and Wes had given me some fight. I knew that completion of the day was down to the next two peaks - a long slow slog to Rossett Pike, and then a short sharp climb to the 902m high Bowfell. Once there although there were still significant peaks left we would stay high until the final descent. Wes did his route finding extraordinaire bit for these two mountains as I trudged on relying wholly on my support team now. They would find the route ahead as I just kept moving slowly but steadily the whole time. I got a perk from the food I'd managed to eat and from this ace support and we topped Bowfell making back a little bit of time on the schedule. We were now only around 10-15 minutes down on the schedule for the stage.
That was 22 peaks done, and 6 to go. I began to feel like I could get to the end ok, though was a bit worried we were playing with the dark and the potential for being on top of Scafell after nightfall. We needed a refill of water and I leant heavily on my supporters yet again when we spotted a stream slightly off our course. I sent them off to pick up water whilst continuing on the direct route to the next peak. I know I'm repeating myself but I don't care - guys you were awesome up there.
We were now closing rapidly in on the peak of England at Scafell Pike, and some energy was flowing back. I welcomed the big stony rocks as they don't slip around and no-one is expected to run across them. I let my long legs carry me up. As we neared the top I had a brief chat to some walkers.
Man out walking "Good day?"
Me: "Yeh, bit of a long one though"
"Where have you come from?"
"Errrm....errr...." I racked my brains to remember. "Oh yeh, Keswick"
"Keswick?" questioned the man unbelievingly.
"Yeh, yeh, I think that's the right answer"
I walked on as Harold filled him in on the day we'd started on Blencathra and our trip across the Helvellyn Ridge and onwards. My garmin was showing 35 of the toughest miles in England, and I felt the frission of excitement which led me to this horrendous, wonderful, ridiculous challenge. We had come from the opposite side of the Lake District. As we stood on top of Scafell Pike minutes later we looked back that way and saw Hall's Fell ridge bathed in sunlight poking its nose out the banks of clouds all around. Ten hours ago in the first minutes of the day we had been there.
One fell remained, and unfortunately one last problematic challenge. Broad Stand lies between Scafell Pike and Scafell, the final fell of stage 3. Broad stand is a massive accident black spot in the Lakes as shown by this bizarre incident of a walker falling nine metres right next to rescue workers tending to another walker who had just fallen from the same spot. I want to avoid Broad Stand on the day as I don't want to take stupid risks so we were going by one of the alternative routes. This involves a 250m slippery, screey descent and then a long scramble back up.
The descent (into the clouds again) was ok if slow but on the climb my energy levels crashed in to a hole again. I slowed right down and each step began to feel an age. At this point I felt a desperate need for a pint, or a hug and a cry - I just desperately wanted to stop. But I held it all in as I knew that giving in to that desire would open the floodgates of the pain and I might not be able to carry on. With fifteen minutes of daylight left at 900m up in the mountains was not the place to curl up in a ball and stop moving.
Wes yet again saved me from wallowing in the exhuastion by chat of gigs to come this summer and we soon topped out at Scafell - our 28th peak of the day. A 950m descent awaited us down to the finish of the day. We all ended up taking this slowly as the various aches and pains held us back from any quick descending. After five minutes in the final sunlight of the day we became shrouded in the clouds below us. Twenty minutes later we emerged to a blessed view of Wastwater in near-darkness, night falling quickly on our long day.
I counted down the metres to the bottom and as we hit the final footpath I felt so relieved and happy. We barrelled along towards the meeting point, and I was shocked to discover I could still run. We had climbed very nearly the height of Mont Blanc during the day and I had felt every bit of it. Now I neared the end I sprinted like a little kid eager to test his capabilities. I'm under no illusions it was a transitory feeling but god, it felt good.
Alex emerged from the gloaming with a car full of food, drink, clean cloths and dry shoes. An epic 14 hour day was finally over. Unfortunately we had lost a lot of time on the Scafell climb and descent, arriving a full 59 minutes late on schedule on the stage. Overall if we had been doing the BG that day we would have been something like half an hour too late at Wasdale Head to expect to finish in twenty-four hours. Not terrible, but not a success. This was half the BG. Half. It is a monstrous, gigantic challenge for someone like me. And there are no excuses to be had on this day, everything went as well as could be expected. If I can't even do half on schedule then surely I can't do the whole thing - that would be like expecting to run a sub 3 hour marathon when you can't even do a 90 minute half-marathon.
But that's ok. We've learnt hugely valuable lessons, the most important one being that the food is critically important. The energy crashes were to do with food, and recovery from them was possible. And I could almost smell Keswick as we came to Wasdale Head - it is still a long, long way from there but my brain could handle it. The recoveries I had from the energy crashes suggested I could continue and the schedule gets easier and easier towards the end; in some ways 24 hours felt tantalisingly and excitingly close. Finally my support crew were so good I can't find enough words of thanks - even on a recce they saw me through the bad patches and did so much hard work for me. Guys and girl you were simply fantastic.
There are still two recces left and this day will stand me in good stead for May. I will set off on the 5th May with the intention to complete the thing, and if it takes me slightly longer than 24 hours so be it. The adrenalin and excitement of the day might see me through or it might not. Next time someone on Scafell Pike asks me where I've come from I can say "Keswick, and I'm going back there!".