Sometimes setting yourself a challenge seems like a good idea. In spring 2011 I first took up running to get fitter and faster for my 5-a-side football. Mainly so John Calvert and Gary Messer wouldn’t complain as much about the number of late tackles I caught them with. I soon found the running was more about what I could do and less about everyone else. I had always been almost the last one picked at school sports and walked more than ran cross country, but this felt different. Perhaps I was in the wrong game? A year later I had done a marathon, won a club cross country trophy and competed in a few fell races. I decided I was retiring from football while I could still walk and took up running full time.
Fast forward to early 2019. I’ve got a seven year Harrier League race streak (every one since I stopped playing football), with a few near misses for a place in the fast pack, I’ve done a few short ultra-marathons, ran a road half marathon in under 1hr25 and completed every distance from 800m to 10,000m on the track in 2017. To be honest though everything else I have competed in is just a sideshow or a warmup for what life is all about: a day out on the fells.
As a man with a short attention span and little patience the monotony of road running was never going to be my thing and any enthusiasm I had for tarmac quickly dissipated. As a member of a traditional road running club since 2012 I’ve always felt like an outsider, a man on a mission to convert the heathen roadies to the joys of big hills and wild descents. Fell running is simple, get from A-B as fast as possible without getting lost. On the uphill’s put your body under as much stress as you dare, stay on the edge of being oxygen deficient for as long as possible before walking regaining strength and increasing oxygen flow to start running again. My general rule is stop when the runner behind stops, start running again when the runner in front starts running. On the down hills the strategy I use is to move my feet as quickly as possible and be prepared for a loose rock or trip hazard. I’ve always understood injury is potentially just around the corner, but you just need to put that to the back of your mind and be confident.
My first exposure to fell running was perfect, December 2011 Guisborough Woods. I would describe it as “cross country on steroids”. Three laps, three climbs, three descents, plenty of mud and go as crazy as you can at the end. I started off tentatively, a bit unsure. By the last decent I had grown in confidence and overtook 14 other runners on the decent almost taking out the volunteers at the finish as I hadn’t worked out how to stop safely.
By mid 2012 I was a regular on the North Yorkshire Moors, Cheviots and the occasional short midweek race in the Lake District. My apprenticeship included racing the top vet male 70’s in an English Championship race which showed how far down the pecking order I was. From 2013 to 2016 the races gradually got longer and harder and while mostly the finishing positions didn’t get better I was learning and mostly having fun. I transitioned over the years and by 2017 I was ready for the big miles and high altitudes, completing tough fell races in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales including the tops of Scafell Pike and Snowdon.
From the minute I found fell running it was important to understand a totally alien world where seemingly sane people tortured themselves and did it with a smile on their face. My clubmates Jason and Lisa Taylor were into fell running and part of the appeal was they enjoyed the beautiful views but I only saw the person in front and concentrated on closing the gap. Another regular was Phil Green who loved the “crack” but I’m anti-social so it wasn’t that. I quickly worked out the part I liked best was putting myself under strain and beating the runners who I couldn’t catch on a flat surface. It was like a badge of honour feeling I could suffer and survive better than my peers. For a man who had been looking for something he could do better than most this seemed to be it.
The luminaries of fell running came in a few categories; pioneers Wendy Dodds and Bob Graham, shorter races Kenny Stuart and Fred Reeves, longer challenges Billy Bland and Joss Naylor, modern day masters Killian Jornet and Victoria Wilkinson. I wouldn’t say any were my hero their brilliance was too remote. We might share a start line but there’s a huge gulf between a Craghead pit pony and a Grand National winner. In 2013 I decided to organise a cross country event in Durham City. This led to me working with Geoff Davis who was a volunteer with Elvet Striders. As far as fell running went this was my lucky break. Geoff and his wife Susan had done everything, and more, I wanted to do in fell running and were more than happy to pass on their knowledge and experience. Over the next few years my experience increased due to a mix of my own drive, Geoff’s help and my clubmates at Derwentside A.C. becoming more involved in fell running.
Bob Graham was a Keswick guest house owner who attempted to run a record “peak bagging” round of 42 peaks, in less than 24 hours, to match his 42 years in 1931. He failed but returned to attempt again in June 1932 and was successful completing the round in 23 hours 39 minutes. His round was 66 miles long with 27,000 of ascent starting and finishing at the Moot Hall in Keswick. It included all of the 10 highest peaks in the Lake District with 25 others over 2,000 ft. A group of friends were recruited as pacers to carry provisions and verify the bagging of the peaks. In the 1950’s interest in the round grew and a determined group decided they would try to beat the record. After a few near misses Alan Heaton completed the round with a time of 22 hours 18 minutes in 1960.
In 1971 the Bob Graham Club was set up to celebrate the round and those who completed it. Alan Heaton was installed as member 1. Membership is available to those who can complete the round (either clockwise or anti-clockwise) in less than 24 hours and have a verifier at the top of each peak. In the last 59 years up to the end of 2018 2,259 members have been accepted into the club. My long suffering wife Tracy insists it was obvious from the moment I discovered the round an attempt was inevitable but to me it was like climbing Everest or going to space an unobtainable fantasy.
I volunteered to help for Geoff’s Joss Naylor Challenge (Bob Graham for over 50’s) in September 2017, enjoyed running leg 2 and saw how logistics worked. I wasn’t sure if I could complete the Bob Graham in under 24 hours but I knew my family would struggle to help me at the all important road crossings. An attempt was still the moon away.
By early 2018 I had increased my weekly running and had a target of 50, mostly trail, miles each week. I felt stronger for this and finally completed one of my long-held goals of making the medium pack in the Harrier League. I had a big month in May. I volunteered to support Stuart Scott on his Bob Graham and was rewarded with a beautiful sunrise although I could have done without the 3AM start. I followed this by pairing up with Dawn Metcalfe on the Old County Tops. After 10,000 ft of climbing and 37 miles in ten hours I began to think perhaps I could possibly run for twice as long to add my name to the Bob Graham Club. The next week as I helped pace Elaine Bisson to her Bob Graham I took more notice of the logistics of a successful round and realised I still had a lot of work to do and planned to continue building until 2021.
By January I had changed my mind and convinced myself 2019 would be my year. I had been running well with a 2018 club leading half marathon in October and near misses for the Harrier League Fast Pack in November. My big problem remained the logistics of an attempt and training couldn’t start until this was organised. I met Geoff and we discussed the options; Date? Due to other commitments June 1st Clockwise or anti-clockwise? Anti-clockwise get the road out of the way first. Training? At least once a fortnight on the tops. I blocked out most Wednesdays in my diary to allow for travelling and training. Start time? In the morning I don’t want to lose a whole day’s sleep. Road crossings and transport? Silence. Geoff agreed to make enquiries with Heather and Mike Hughes who had looked after Elaine. A few days later I was informed they would do it but would prefer not to drive to and from Wasdale. I then did what every son does in this predicament I phoned my dad, made driving to Wasdale sound easy and he agreed to do it without having a clue what I was talking about (in reality it is a windy 1 hour 30 drive from Keswick along mostly country roads).
I was ecstatic and didn’t sleep for a few nights planning ahead. I asked Stuart and Elaine to help me with some days out and amazingly both were available to help. We built up a messenger group for BG training and on January 30th set off on our first day out. Stuart had recruited his friend Tricia Everett who was also considering an attempt and the two club members helped the hopefuls on their way. Running up mountains in 60-90cm of snow isn’t easy. We saw more skiers, 6, than walkers, 1, during a crisp day on Clough Head, the Dodds and back. We all enjoyed it and agreed to come back next week for another try in better weather.
Over February and March the regular outings continued starting at 5 hours then extending as the days got longer. We had beautiful weather and rainy gloom which was character building and made us prepared for anything. We relied on Elaine’s excellent navigation, listened and learnt from Stuart’s BG problems. With the increased time came more miles and more elevation. I didn’t find this a problem and I had got used to eating regularly on the move to maintain my strength. I had a few niggling injuries but none which kept me from running for more than a few days.
By April I was trying to do two excursions a week and complete over 10,000 ft of accent. My expected car mileage of 10,000 a year took a huge hit with over 4,000 miles driven over the two months including a few excursions to take Jacob to watch Sunderland play away. Again I was helped immensely by my training partners who were patient and didn’t lose it when I was grumpy, sarcastic, impatient or decided to put on a burst of speed and leave them behind. I was fortunate to have three of the top female fell runners in the North East supporting my round and mined their knowledge and know how throughout the training.
On the long days out, I often thought about my motivation for completing the Bob Graham round. In some ways it has to be selfish. I’m doing it for me but as with most things in life it’s partly for others. While this may seem wildly hedonistic and inflate my importance, but my attitude is if I can do it anyone else can achieve their goal. In my own family setting I remember how my grandma (now 98) kept herself fit and family holidays where we walked for hours and hours were an annual Summer treat/torture depending on the weather. I remember the never-ending walk-up Skiddaw as a young seven-year-old boy and needing to stop frequently to rest. Grandma never seemed to get tired despite being in her 60’s and talked the whole way up encouraging us to keep moving and enjoy the walk.
Skip forward three generations and my own daughter is undermotivated by life outside school. She has tried a few different sports/clubs and found nothing which fits. I hope completing the Bob Graham Round can inspire Jess to keep searching for her “thing”. Finally I’m doing it for all of the oppressed, road runners at Derwentside A.C. who believe cross country is as far as you can go off road and a marathon is the pinnacle of human endurance. Let’s be creative and get out there.
During May I was conflicted, for the first couple of weeks I was training hard but had one eye on the Old Country Tops race taking place on the 18th. I had agreed with Dawn we would return in 2019 after finishing the 2018 race in 10 hours 4 minutes. We both wanted to knock off the four minutes to get under ten hours. The race went well we had a strong first half and continued to gain time on our previous effort finishing in 9 hours 8 minutes with first place in our age category. For the Bob Graham training this was both good and bad news. We were faster than last year, it was obvious I was in decent shape and there were no injuries but on the flip side I had only run for 9 hours would I be able to continue for the potential extra 14 hours? It was a question I would only be able to answer on June 1st.
My original idea was to mostly rest for 2 weeks after the Old County Tops but as usual life didn’t go to plan. My clubmate Adrian who was helping on leg 1 wanted to recce his leg and the only day we both had free was the Sunday of Old County Tops weekend. I felt fantastic, after a sleep in the car and some dodgy parking from Adrian, as we jogged up Robinson, Hindscarth and Dalehead before returning to the car at Littletown.
I had been engaged by Tricia Everett to help on her Bob Graham leg 1 the next week and rested. The next Saturday Tricia’s pace up Robinson surprised me and I struggled to maintain contact. I began to think I’m going to mess this up it’s a disaster but maintained a confident and composed act at the end of the leg when asked about my own attempt only a week away. My only run in the week before my attempt was a lovely 5 mile trail run with my adopted beginners trail running group at Derwentside A.C. I enjoy running with this group every month as they love trying new routes, have fun and never know where we are.
Every Bob Graham Round follows the original template. One or more pacers on each leg plus the runner attempting the round. In my case it was designed to look like this; one navigator for each leg (thanks to Stuart, Elaine, Graham, Geoff and Nigel) two or three pacers on each leg to carry food supplies and additional clothes (thanks to Adrian, Scott, Ian, John, Dawn, Juhana, Fiona, Nina, Aaron, Mike, John, Jack, Susan) and the road team who get the pacers to the start of each leg and allow me to get some solid food and a change of clothing (thanks to Heather, Mike, Kent, Mary Lou, Tracy, Jess and Jacob).
The weeks beforehand were characterised by continually checking and double checking, stockpiling food and drinks, making arrangements and most tedious of all resting. I probably found the tapering most difficult, I’m not good at resting and find it difficult to say no so strimmed half an acre bruising my thigh ten days before the attempt. I pack a new t-shirt for each leg as I’m sure to get them sweaty; Leg 1 Derwentside A.C. my club, Leg 2 fluorescent orange easy to see in the forecast poor weather Leg 3 Pedro’s 10K, Pedro would have loved finding out about this adventure, Leg 4 Tour Of Pendle where I loved diving off the Geronimo descent and Leg 5 Ronhill Mountain Goat which I wore winning my first vet 40 fellrunning prize. It’s all about the journey to get here. My story in five t-shirts.
I had a final check over and catch up with Jason Taylor, the man who got me involved in fell running, who is now a soft tissue therapist (he reduces chances of injury by squashing potential problems back into place with his thumb, palm or elbow). I only had the usual chronic injury. It was caused when John Donneky slipped off the water jump hurdle on the first lap in the Steeplechase, fell full length into the water and everyone behind crashed into the barrier. I don’t think it has ever really recovered but I’m used to it now.
It was the night before Christmas…. well not quite but I’m not sleeping and I’m worried about something I can’t control. I’ve got confidence I can keep going and reach the end given favourable weather and no disasters outside my control. I like to be in control, so this scares me and it is soon daylight. I leave my stopover for the night (thanks to Janice and Alan for letting us stay) fed, watered and as rested as possible. We pass over three big bags with food, water, clothing and the timing cards to Heather and Mike before walking to the start. The weather is better than expected and there is a small group of supporters waiting near the Moot Hall. Two minutes later I’m totally frustrated and want to get on with the challenge but I can hear Tracy in my head telling me to act normal and not let it worry me. I try to be as engaged as I can but it’s the type of situation I hate. Being centre of attention doesn’t come easy. Finally just when I think I’m never going to leave the “one minute to go” shout goes up. I’m the most relived person in the North West when I’m allowed to go.
Leg 1: Moot Hall, Keswick to Honister via Robinson, Hindscarth and Dale Head
By far the easiest leg on the round with only one significant climb up Robinson. Five miles on road before hitting the fells. My memories for this leg are linked to two words confusion and relief. The confusion began early when after about a mile of the road there were only two of the five who started. Two caught up near Littletown, and immediately got dropped on the climb, but it was another three days before I saw Adrian again. Tracy had agreed to take my fell shoes to Littletown but I hadn’t explained in enough clarity we would only take 40 minutes running on the road, so she wasn’t there when we arrived. I had to run the rest of the leg in road shoes which was an experience I wouldn’t like to repeat. It was a huge relief to reach Honister in one piece and see my fell shoes already there. My kit bag was still on route with the other pacers and I was forced to borrow essentials for leg 2.
Leg 2: Honister to Wasdale via Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Green Gable, Great gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar, Steeple, Red Pike and Yewbarrow
A step up in difficulty and deterioration in weather conditions made this leg one to forget. My Roclite shoes which I had changed into at Honister proved to be unsuitable and at times I felt like Bambi on ice with one leg going one way and the other the opposite. I fell on the descent from Kirk Fell and couldn’t use my thumb properly for the next 12 hours. John decided to change into his waterproof on the top of Kirk Fell after we had all began to jog off. Visibility was particularly bad (less than 10 metres) and we had to send back a search party for him. Thankfully we all arrived safely into Wasdale where it was raining heavily. Tracy had brought my spare kit from Honister so I was able to change jackets.
Leg 3: Wasdale to Dunmail via Scafell, Scafell Pike, Broad Crag, Ill Crag, Great End, Esk Pike, Bowfell, Rossett Pike, Pike of Stickle, Harrison Stickle, Thunacar Knott, High Raise, Sergeant Man, Calf Crag and Steel Fell
Time for the big pointy stuff, but first an hour walk up grassy and boring Scafell. This was the part I had been dreading but it passed uneventfully albeit slowly. I consumed more food on the Scafell climb than the whole of leg 1. It continued to rain and made conditions on the 900m+ plus tops at the start of the leg difficult. I had changed into Mudclaws at Wasdale in preparation for the West Wall Traverse and Lords Rake which was descended without incident. As we got onto the more grassy areas and further from the slippy rocks the weather began to change, and the sun came out. On the rocks I started to get a shooting pain in the left Achilles every other step and over the next couple of miles thought this was going to be the last leg. On the grass it eased and I felt like the hardest part was over. I was going to enjoy the rest of the day whatever happened.
Leg 4: Dunmail to Threlkeld via Seat Sandal, Fairfield, Dollywaggon Pike, Nethermost Pike, Helvellyn, Helvellyn Lower Man, White Side, Raise, Stybarrow Dodd, Watson’s Dodd, Great Dodd, Clough Head
With the two most difficult legs over I should have been looking forward to pushing on for the completion but in the back of my mind there was still a doubt would I be able to keep going for another 8-10 hours in uncharted territory? Would my body hold out? I likened my predicament to a racing driver in the lead but a mechanical or puncture away from a DNF. The leg went smoothly with a 50/50 split between light and dark. I was my usual grumpy self when I ran out of every other flavour of drink and had two hours drinking the terrible blackcurrant I had put in for emergencies. My other abiding memory will always be having my photograph taken at non peaks before it got dark and spoiled the pictures. “This isn’t it – it’s the next one” “I know just stand next to the cairn and smile”. The road portion from the bottom of Clough Head to Threlkeld hurt my knees but I didn’t expect anything else after all those hours on the move.
Leg 5: Threlkeld to Moot Hall, Keswick via Blencathra, Great Calva and Skiddaw
I like Halls Fell. You never seem to go exactly the same way twice. On this night it seemed like a totally different journey than usual despite probably only being a metre or so away from my normal route. It was only after Blencathra when we began to head downhill using the communication mast as a marker I began to realise something was wrong with my knees and I was unsteady even on the most gentle slopes. I walked all of the downhills and moved as fast as I could on the uphills. Having the mindset I was in a race helped and I concentrated on keeping pace with the leader. In the gloom and driving rain I almost ran into the trig point on Skiddaw. Time recorded, there was only the run back to Keswick. As it began to get light I reflected on completing the round, it was all over now wasn’t it?
Not quite. My most unpopular decision with the team had been to add a 43rd top to the round to make it a 43 at 43 (43 tops aged 43) if I had time. If it was good enough for Bob Graham it’s good enough for Mark Davinson. There was plenty of time left so the planned diversion was on. Nigel agreed to accompany me to one of my favourites and keep an eye on me. I had recently done hill reps on Skiddaw with a visit to little man on the uphill and downhill in preparation for a tired crawl to the summit. We collected the rest of the pacing team and set off for the Moot Hall.
At the bottom of Spooneygreen Lane I have a little moment. I start to struggle mentally. Most of the day is a blur but we have another couple of hours and I’m enjoying it, can we do more? Unsurprisingly we can’t and I head through the park towards the town. We pick up Jess on the way and she seems excited chatting and running up to the opening through the alley into the main street where I jog up the steps and touch the door. It’s over. I pose for photographs and accept congratulations.
Apart from my knees and the damage from the fall I feel much better than some of the races I have done. It’s a 100% Bob Graham record over the last year for Geoff and the team, 4/4. Sub 24 hour finishes from Stuart, Elaine, Tricia and now Mark. I’m happy to be in the club with most of the fell running greats and of course Geoff but the mind quickly wanders to what’s next? It isn’t the ‘marathon and retirement’ moment a lot of my clubmates have. I’ve got a few good years yet and how else would I avoid housework?
I arrive home at 7.30am uncomfortable, legs and feet swollen but able to walk and carry my own bag. I slip into the toilet and open the new Fellrunner magazine which had been delivered while I was running. I shed a few tears reading the Alan Heaton obituary near the back of the magazine. He will always be the first member of the Bob Graham Club but for today I’m No 1.
This is a guest post by Mark Davinson, Derwentside AC. Mark has supported many Striders in completing the BGR, and has been supported in return for his successful attempt.