“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.