Mike Hughes’s Bob Graham Round

Friday, June 17, 2016

72M / 27,000'

Mike Hughes

The “Bob Graham Round”, or simply “the BGR” or even just “BG” – there is plenty written about it so no point going into details here, suffice to say is not a race, you are the only entrant, you go when you like, you start and finish at Moot hall in Keswick. To be successful you have returned there after visiting the 42 named peaks of the BGR in under 24 hours.

My report ended up being quite long, the short version; I trained lots, tried hard, had loads of people to help and did it with just minutes to spare.

My full BG story….

I’ve been going to the lakes regularly since I was a young lad and even now every time I visit the sheer beauty and grandeur of the place impresses me. I’ve got to know the hills fairly well over these last 30 years or so, and sometimes learnt the hard way when the weather “comes in” that it’s not always a friendly place and you need to respect the hills and be properly kitted out. I started running fairly recently, about 3-4 years ago, at first trying all sorts of different races both on and off road, in the end settling on more of the off road sort of running. I was hesitant about fell running, thinking it was quite mad. In Feb 2013 I did my tentative first fell race, Commondale Clart. Trying to run through the heather scrub and falling flat on my face in a bog (in front of the only two ramblers out on the fell) and then an exhilarating charge down a grassy hill I was hooked, and it is mad, it’s great.

So, when I heard about the BGR for the first time a few years ago I thought great, that’s interesting, I bet some of those routes will make some nice days out walking in the lakes, might even think about doing the whole route one day, you know, take a back pack and do one leg one day, stay in a youth hostel or something then do some more, might be able to do it in 3 days?

Then you start doing bits, and you start looking at how long it should take you to do that on a full BG attempt…. hmmm, it’s pretty quick going, it’s not always running, you walk the hills after all. Then someone asks you if you fancy a go at it one day, you scoff, no…, no…, it’s mad…but you are lured in, hooked, the question is there, could you do a BG?

So, you have a choice, you are approaching 50, by no means too old, Geoff did a BG then at 50 did another for good measure, adding a further 8 tops in to make it 50 at 50, and did it quicker than his first shorter attempt! . Are you going to have a go one day? Have a go? Yes, that’s it, you are not setting out to be as bold as to complete it, but you, like many others, brave an attempt, it’s bound to be a good day out and see how far you can get, you never know, you might do it?

I thought about it for at least a year, it’s not so much the attempt itself, but I knew you would need time to get the training in, get “the hills” in your legs, be “fell fit”.

After much faffing about I finally decided to have a go, so soon after Christmas I drew up a list of people who I thought might be interested in helping out, I wanted to keep it low key – the less that knew about it the less the pressure. I clicked the send button and felt sick. Email replies came back, it was on, June 17th, 7am at Moot hall.

There was never a day after that that it was not on my mind.

Right, what to do then? I went and joined a gym, I thought if I was to do justice to the commitment of all the support from everyone for this I had to give the training my 100% best. I’d also decided that I was only going to have one attempt, one chance. I started spending ages browsing over all the supplementary health pills in the supermarket too and bought a large tub boasting 28 different vitamin and minerals. I think I took about 4 pills eventually, I just never got in the habit of taking them, they are still on the windowsill in the kitchen. After a few visits to the gym soon realised it wasn’t for me, I think I went 3 times. What I did do though was run, most days, and some days twice. I never used my garmin, I’ve no idea where it is, not used if for years, partly because I can’t see it without my specs. I’d run to work no matter what the weather, roughly an hour off road, it was fantastic to see the sunrise come earlier and earlier as spring arrived and I could finally ditch my head torch. I would run when I probably should have rested, but I wanted to try and run when my legs were still tired from the previous day and “not willing”. The BG was on my mind as soon as I woke up, it was hard to think that as I’d run to work the day before I’d just be finishing now. Finishing, could I finish? – It was very difficult to think positively about finishing for sure, so I didn’t, I just convinced myself I was doing all I could to have a good go. The only time I would rest would be for an imminent race. I would also get some “cross training” in. This consisted of dismantling sheds, building fences, breaking up concrete paths, digging and other general heavy work, for most of the day. I did plenty of X/C too, that’s great training, and some great races too, “the Carnethy” and the “the Allendale challenge” both “character building”. On my run in I started adding hills towards the end of the run, some real leg burners, at first I struggled to get up some, but started to feel my legs get stronger, not quicker, but stronger. I used the occasional park run after the X/C season to see how my fitness was doing, a pb for the first time in about a year was reassuring close to my attempt, especially as I’d run 5 miles off road before it. The real training though was the trips to the lakes, and I tried to get over most weekends, as well as some mid week days off work too. I had lots of company for many of these recces, including Mandy and Nigel who unfortunately who couldn’t be there for the attempt. Geoff and Susan of course were absolutely key. I’d joined them often last year on some of Susan’s training days for her Joss, although after seeing what it took out of Susan at the end of her Joss after 15 and a half hours left doubts in my mind if I could go for longer than that, in training she was going very well and one day heading up Steel fell I just didn’t have it in me to stay with her, so on she went with those that had just joined her, she was certainly “going well”. The recces in the lakes were brilliant, at first often cold, nothing like running in wet slush or wading through snow drifts with your laces picking up great balls of snow on them as it froze. Cold numb feet and hours away from the warmth of the car ride home. Poor Mandy who discovered a buried stream in a snow gully and fell into it, sat stuck up to her waist as cold icy water washed over her. This was my fault; these shivering cold people were here because of me. This BG thing is a bit selfish in a sense; you ask a lot of people for a lot of help all for your own personal goal. But it’s not really, it’s just a shared comradery and passion for such a special place and to be part of it and help someone through the journey is what it’s all about.

Sometimes I’d go to the lakes on my own. I once went over and there had been a lot of snow, and when I finally got to the top of Seat Sandal the sky went very dark to the west and it looked like a bad storm was coming over. I quickly got on my extra kit, balaclava and thicker gloves and got ready to brace the storm. I thought if it got really bad I could dig into one of the drifts and shelter in there till it passed. My mind soon went off the looming storm though as on my decent I came to a large drop which I couldn’t get down, and when I tried to get back up the snow was too loose to get up, I’d pretty much slid down. It got serious for a moment, I was stuck. I carefully traversed the top of the crag, making sure each time each hold was good, if I went wrong here I’d be in a mess, I had my whistle but hadn’t seen a soul and with the wind I don’t think anyone would have heard it anyway. I was in a world of my own. I was soon onto safer slopes and truly relieved. I went straight up Fairfield, normally a loose zig zag rocky ascent, this time pretty much in a straight line due to all the snow. The decent was great, charging down the deep snow and occasionally falling into deep pockets, it was like being child again, almost wanted to go back up and do it again, but there was more to do. Dollywagon was tough, I just couldn’t see the top. It had brightened up by now, the wind dropped and it was silent. In fact the sky was exactly the same colour as the snow, they merged as one, and below me all I could see was my track of footprints disappearing steeply into the mist below, all around was white, it felt like I was in a cloud. It’s one of those moments that will always be with me. The top eventually came and as it flattened out there was a good view left/west over to great gable, on the attempt I would have been over that mid-morning, the bit I was on now would be done late night in darkness. I stopped and swore out loud, great gable was a hell of a long way away, this was crazy. I reached Helvellyn and met the only person I saw that day, a cheery fellow with ice axe and crampons. I sat next to him at the shelter (a wall) in my mudclaws, scoffed my pork pie while we both took in the view around us and how fortunate we were to be there. I was soon on my way again as I was starting to feel cold. I came down off Clough Head to Threlkeld where I met my brother-in-law Andy. He was in his camper van so made a mug of tea, I had 3, I didn’t realise how dehydrated I had become, a lesson learned, can’t afford to get dehydrated, don’t rely on feeling thirsty, or hungry, keep the steam engine stoked up and keep it rolling. Eating on a BG is done on the move as well as at changeovers.

The trips to the lakes continued, the routes becoming more familiar now and trying to run the legs to schedule – hitting the peaks at the denoted times, or before, for a 23.5 hour attempt. It was time for longer days too, aiming at some “double leg” days. When I did the Helvellyn leg followed by the last leg, (Blencathra, Great Calva and Skiddaw) I got into Keswick and sat on some steps in the market place drinking a litre of milk, my legs felt like they had been run over by a bus. After the drive home I had to grab my roof bars to prize myself out of the car and slowly hobbled into the house, “silly bugger, do you want your tea before your shower?”- Heather, my wife, who I would never have met if it was not for the lakes and youth hostelling, was so tolerant of all the time my BG was taking up – another big ask when often there is so much to do at home. Anyway, I was feeling comfortable with the hills, some long days, 12 hours once, half a BG but slower than pace. I met Nicky Spinks one day, she was out doing her double attempt at a BG, she was casually making her way up Yewbarrow chatting to her navigator about how the wall had been washed out after all the floods in the winter. She was in no rush, no panic, just getting on with the hill, she seemed so calm, another lesson learned there, just get on with it calmly and efficiently. She passed me later in the afternoon on her way back over to Scafell Pike, I was coming off and she was going up, I continued, expecting to be passed soon, but she never came – I glanced over and she was a long way ahead, skipping over the rocky landscape towards Broad Crag on some invisible path well away from the 100s of walkers out that day. “Good lines” are another thing you need to learn about, or hope your navigator knows them anyway !

I was learning to get the food right too, pork pies and tubes of cream cheese, chia bars, chocolate bars, peanuts, cheesy wotsits all washing down well with Lucozade Sport and plain water. The team I had lined up was excellent, I couldn’t ask for more there. I was feeling well and the long days out had got me lean, I normally weigh in around 72kg and I was now staying under 70kg – too skinny said Heather, despite the copious amounts of good food she cooked for me. I got several pairs of mudclaws well run in too, I’d decided these suited me best, not the best on rocks maybe, but better on rocks when they were worn down a bit like mine were now, but I liked the grip they gave on grassy descents.

So I was as ready as I could be, food right, kits well tested out, team right, me right – trained as best I could and could not have done more, it was time to ease off a bit and think about the organisational side of things and “Eat for England” . My test against those hills I loved so much and had so many memories of was a week or so away.

Lists and schedules became key. Firstly the schedule, that’s easy, you type in your planned time to get round on the schedule calculator on the Bob Wightman website and you are away. On advice from Geoff I’d chosen an anti-clockwise round, starting at 7am. This starts you off at a normal day and means that you then run the fairly easy going of the Helvellyn dodds in the dark, easy under foot that is but difficult to navigate as the paths and trods are not often clear. Then you have to think about who would be good to have on each leg with you, the idea is you obviously run the whole thing, but you have a team for each of the 5 legs. The team is a navigator and then a couple of more people to carry your clothing and food/drink, and one of those people also needs to write the time down that you touch each summit cairn. Then you need to think about how these people will get to the start of the leg, and how they will get back, and what kit they might want to have ready for them at the end of their leg. So the road crew is vital, and Heather did a fantastic job, quite stressed about it initially but once she had the detailed plan pulled it off in true girl guide fashion as well as turning out bacon butties, cheese macaroni and cakes. I was to run 66 miles on the attempt, she drove 175 miles !

So the day arrived, everyone had their legs allocated, the forcast was good, not too hot, not too windy, dry (wet rocks slow the job up) – it was on.

The start at Moot Hall.

After a reasonably good nights sleep I made my way to Moot hall for the 7am “off”. Quite a few had come to see me off, eagerly looking at my watch and 7am prompt we set off to cheers and clapping. I was running this leg with Susan, Jules, Graeme and Elaine. Susan led us through the market traders setting up and we were soon on the quiet back roads heading down to Newlands. The start this way round does mean you have quite a bit of road so I’d run in my road trainers on for this bit, quickly changing into my fell shoes at Newlands church where Graham Daglish had driven Geoff to join us for the rest of that leg, Geoff saving himself for later in the day when he would nav leg 4 for me. After a steep grassy climb and a bit of straightforward clambering up rocks we were on the first top of the round, Robinson, 08:35, I was 7 minutes up on schedule, 7 minutes in the bag that I might need later. The next 2 tops come much quicker, and we were soon on the long run down (passing Katy who had come up the hill to see us on route) to Honister by 09:18 for the changeover and start of leg 2, still 7 minutes up. Porridge with honey and some warm tea and I was keen to get going, 09:23 we were off again, I scheduled a 10 minute break but didn’t need any longer. Tom (who did his BG in 2010), Penny and Jon joined me for this leg, it’s a steady climb form there at first, not as bad as it looks from the car park, and we chatted and joked, Jon seemed to be enjoying it !. Grey knots for 09:45, excellent, now 15 minutes up. The pace pics up from here it’s fairly runnable and the next tops come fairly quickly, Joan met us as we went onto Green Gable. The climb onto Great Gable from windy gap is lovely, you have to give it a bit of thought as to which way you want to find a way up through the rocks, but it’s straight forward and safe, it’s much easier going up these things than down. We arrived on the top at 10:36, 18 minutes up. The decent from there is difficult, it’s steep, slippy in parts, awkward and loose under foot. There are good ways down and not so good, route choice can make a big difference here, I think I’d recced this leg about 7 times, once got it totally wrong and came off in another valley! We lost Jon at this point, but had to press on. Tom sent me and Penny ahead and tried to find Jon, but we didn’t see him again until Wasdale, he was fine and had just followed the path at the bottom of the valley. I was feeling good still at this point, and the tops were soon being ticked off. Coming off Pillar I heard a thump behind me, Penny had stumbled and gone down hard, but was ok and carried on. I arrived at the lovely little peak of Steeple bang on midday, 30 minutes up. Coming off I was met by a large group of fell runners, it looked like a race, turns out it was a group of 5 folks doing a BG together, they must have left Moot hall at about 4pm on Friday I think, they were going clockwise. I had my first “starting to feel it a bit” as we cut across to Yewbarrow, the decent off there is painful and I was glad when we hit the road, guided in by “Big Scott”, a grand lad form NFR who was to be my nav on leg 3. [I’d tagged along to his BG last year but I couldn’t keep up and lost sight of him at the end of my leg, he did a cracking time of 19 hours and something. How Billy Bland did it on pretty much the same mid-June weekend in June in 1982 in 13:53 or Joss Naylor who did a BG round and added a further 30 tops back in 1975 and still had 40 minutes left, well I just don’t know how they did it. Billy’s record has yet to be broken. ] I was led through the busy carpark where Heather had set up my chair and everything I needed. Susan and Elaine had come over the pass on foot, Heather had driven round bringing my leg 3 folks and to take Tom, Penny and Jon back. A change to tops, fresh socks, some talc on my feet and some risotto and I was feeling fine. Then my legs went into spasm as I tried to lean forward in the chair to do up my laces. I sat back and it subsided, tried again and back it came, agony. It was soon time for the off again, this was a big leg and some of it I had only been over once, and one part which I was dreading was to come – the climb down a rocky slab to Broad Stand. To get there you first climb up Scafell, so off we went, Big Scott, Paul, Jack and James. It’s an awful slog up the grassy fields and fell from the car park, steep and monotonous. I had to pause now and then, but couldn’t stand on the steep slope without my legs giving way, it was easier to keep moving, I was in pain. We got to the rocky path up to Scafell and my legs eased, the ground demanded concentration now and was much more interesting. We hadn’t lost any time surprisingly and did it on scheduled time, taking us an hour to come a mere 2 miles. After a bit of careful exploring we found the top of Broad Stand. Kevin and Linda had offered to climb there and meet me, can you believe that, climb a mountain for me, carry up a rope and harness and look after me.

Linda roping me up for Broad Stand.

It was great to see them there, ropes laid out ready and harness waiting, I was down in a few minutes, the rest of my team just used the rope, I was glad I had the harness! I’d see Kevin later on, about 2am, he was my nav for the last leg. At this point I wasn’t thinking any further about what was to come, the terrain demands your full attention, its slow going and to get any pace at all you really have to concentrate on where you put your feet. We passed a rambler who had stumbled, she was laid on the rocks with blood oozing from her temples, fortunately she was with an organised group so help was at hand. It was nice to get onto some rocky climbs too, my back was starting to ache and it was good to be on all fours and stretched out a bit. I even took a couple of pain killers that James had, Heather will tell you that’s just not like me. Coming off Great End, 45 minutes up, we met up with Jack’s mam and friend, they gave us water and Kendal mint cake. All was going well, I was feeling ok and legs were going again. We descended to Rossett Pike by a lovely route which Scott took us on, his nav on this leg was spot on. We met Andy there, he’d come up from the Lansdale valley to meet us, again with offers of food and water. It was 5 o’clock by then, and the hills were getting quieter, we didn’t see many people at all after this, I was 49 minutes up and feeling good. The Langdale pikes came and went and we were soon running along the grassy top to High Raise and then on to Sergeant man. I was feeling a bit tired by then, a bit slower, but we were going ok and by the time we reached the top of steel fell and looked down the steep descent to Dunmail I was still 36 minutes up.

Dunmail Changeover.

The “pit stop” was busy, Geoff thought it might be stressing me, but I was in the zone, tried to shovel some pasta in, Gibbo and Sally sorted my feet, a fresh top and time for leggings as I knew it would be cold during the night and we were off again. The sun was casing long shadows as we headed up Seat Sandal. Geoff was nav, Gibbo and Scott my new pacers. I struggled up here, feeling sick after the food and legs feeling like jelly. By the top we were doing ok though, still 28 minutes up. It was getting colder, I put gloves on after Fairfield. I was also starting to feel a bit weird, had trouble focusing on the ground but the sickness had passed. Scott was a great pacer, he had the schedule, he has a lot of experience at helping out at BG’s and he kept me tight on time, we were losing a bit but he encouraged me on, without pressure, but he let me know I needed to keep pace. Darkness came, our head torches came on, as did a little red light on Geoff’s back pack. We followed his silhouette in the moon light as we traversed the Helvellyn range. One hill below us was draped in a thin curtain of mist, other than that visibility was good and we made good progress, losing just a few more minutes. We saw lights in the distance, another BG attempt coming the other way, one of the support was a mate of Scotts who he’d not seen for a good while, so they had a quick chat but we were all on a mission and soon back on our rounds. Midnight we were on Watsons Dodd, it’s now father’s day and Sally would be waiting for me down at Threlkeld. I wasn’t looking forward to the next climbs, they are long and boring, but the crack was good and in the dark you can’t see the “never getting any closer” top and it was fine. I love the drop down off Clough Head, it’s steep, but the ground is soft and you can get a rhythm going and we were soon down to the fence where we crossed over, though a bit of over grown marsh, past the old railway wagon and we were on the steady gradual descent to Threlkeld.

It was all action stations from there, I was expecting the car park to be fairly empty and quiet, but it seemed busy and full, it was 1:45am and I was 13 minutes up, it was possible. Scott gave me an excellent leg massage with some stuff he had, it really helped ease the cramp. Danny, Sally and Kevin were there all ready for me, and Kevin got his mate Nick to join us too, really good to have an extra person in case anyone needed help to get off the hill. Of we set, I was feeling ok and in good spirits, but as soon as I hit the steep climb up to Blencathra I knew I was getting weak. I tried not to think about what lay ahead and what was still to do. I’d come a long way in the last day and I tried to draw strength, mentally, from that, just a bit more to do, keep going, keep going. I just didn’t have the strength in me though to get the momentum to get up the next rocky steps, sometime I had managed to get up but had not got enough to give me some forward momentum to get to the next step, I’d lean back and if Sally didn’t give me a push in the back occasionally I’d stumble to the ground, I was finding it easier to be on all fours. It’s interesting doing Blencathra in the dark, in daylight you feel quite exposed, in the dark it felt more like we were exploring a rocky cave.

Early hours of Sunday morning going up Blencathra.

Danny kept me accurately informed of how many meters we had yet to go, that was really helpful Danny, really good to know I had a hell of a long way to go! We got to the top, I was a minute down, I was into my 30 buffer as I was on a 23:30 schedule. I was in a bit of a daze after that, I felt ill and needed the toilet, so my pacers chatted amongst themselves, I think I lost about 10 minutes, but there was no choice. We seemed to be going slowly, I asked Sally how we were doing and it was not good, we were losing time and final 2 tops are tough. We headed across Mungrisdale common, though a bog full of cotton grass almost glowing in the moon light and found the stream crossing to take us to the base of Great Calva. This is another bad climb, a calf splitter, and I used everything I had to get up there, even trying to pull on the rusty wire fence at times to try and pull myself up. I was slow, in fact even before going up I had doubts I was going to finish in under 24 hours, the time at the top confirmed it, we were 23 minutes down, that meant if I was going well it could be done, but the long climb to the fence just below the summit of Skiddaw was going to eat well into that 7 minutes. Oh well, I’ve had a go, I knew I could finish, not under 24 hours, but that’s not so bad, I’d have nearly done it in 24. People offered me food and drink but I wasn’t interested.

Sally knew I really wanted to do it though, “come on dad” is a big kick up the back side, so I sent all the rubbish in my head about not finishing in time way and started to think about what I needed to do to get to Moot in time. I had no idea how long the climb up to Skiddaw would take, I knew from recces that it was tough and long, so I just got on with it. If I could make Skiddaw by 5.45am I knew I might make it, on recces I could get down from there into Keswick in 1:10. I dug in deep, Danny would go ahead and look back at me, into my eyes, he was in Dr mode and looking at a victim in A+E seeing if I was ok, he insisted I drank and ate a bit, so I drank a bit to shut him up but I wasn’t tempted by his offers of food much. Kevin was nibbling on a bar, he broke a small bit off and offered it to me, I was “tricked”, I took it, but would have said no if it had simply been a question if I wanted any. We got to Skiddaw, it was daylight, time felt it was really running out now. It was a cold wind so I pulled my buff over my head and was helped on with my windproof.

Skiddaw, the last top, and an hour to get to Keswick seen below...

Sally and Mike

The time, 5:45 am, it was on, there was a chance. I ran as best as I could on the tops and down the rocky slopes to Latrigg, it was hurting but I was in not going to give in now. I had to really concentrate, the ground is uneven and my legs were shot. We hit the houses on the out skirts of Keswick, Kevin went ahead and then came running back, the route he was going to use was closed, oh no, time was really tight, a quick discussion as to options and we were off and soon running through Fitz park. I had to walk, 10 steps then run again for a while, then 10 steps, come on, 6:49am, nearly there. I hit the shopping street and could see moot hall, everyone was there waiting but looking the other way, I ran down and gave a quick shout, I made it, 8 minutes left. It was all a bit much for Sally and it got quite emotional.

I sat at the seat opposite moot hall and looked at the steps there that I’d stood on 24 hours before, I just couldn’t take in what I’d done. After about 5 minutes I thought I’d pop to the loo, I could hardly stand, my legs were gone, I needed help down the kerb from Geoff. He and Heather came round to the toilets with me to make sure I was ok, I came out of the toilets and then straight back in, puked up a few times and returned to the gathering at moot hall. Time for bed. We were staying at a friend’s house in Borrowdale so didn’t have far to go. When we got to the car my voice went all weird and my lips swelled up, don’t know what was going on there and it only lasted a short time.

The Finish

I had great difficulty getting from the car the 20 feet of so to the house and couldn’t lift my feet to go upstairs, so I sat for a while on the bottom step and then tried to lift my back side up to the next step and go up backwards, I had no strength in my arms to take my body weight. I realised that if I laid on the stairs on my back I could slide up that way. I didn’t have a shower, I couldn’t lift my leg over the bath, I just slithered into bed and tried to sleep. I was feeling cold so Heather made me a cup of tea, I drank some and was promptly sick again so just went to sleep. Sally took me home later in the day. The following day I was feeling ok but weak, even my voice was sounding weak. I weighed myself, 62 kg, I’d lost at least 5kg.

Would I do it again? – No

Have I sickened myself of the hills of the lakes ? – No, couldn’t wait to get back.

What next ? Looking forward to helping out one someone else’s BG, who’s next….?

All these folks who were part of it, either on the day and/or the recces. Thank you all whole heartedly for your support, good wishes and efforts in the hills.

Heather Hughes, Sally Hughes, Geoff and Susan Davis, Jules-Juliet Percival, Graeme and Katy Walton, Elaine Bisson, Graham Daglish, Tom Reeves, Penny Browell, Jon Ayres, Joan Hanson, Big Scott-Scott Gibson, Jack Lee, James Garland, Paul Evans, Kevin and Linda Bray, Andy Wilson, Gibbo-David Gibson, Scott Watson, Danny Lim, Nick Spencer, Mandy Dawson, Nigel Hepple, Steph Scott.

A special thank you to Heather for generally putting up with me and all the trainers I possess. Kevin and Linda too, the precious time saved at Broad Stand proved vital.

Finally Geoff and Susan of course, they were the inspiration for me to do this and so supportive, I’d simply never have been able to do this without them, it would not have happened. Geoff’s company and guidance the best there is for this BG malarkey, the “Davis training plan” will get you there.

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