When I am 90 years old I hope to be living in the Lake District with an all terrain wheelchair, my husband and a Labrador called Barney. I will have set up an oldies adventure group for like-minded souls and we will climb small fells, stopping for picnics, tarn swims, sketching and tea-shopping. I will also have mastered ‘Nuvole Bianche’ by Ludovico Einaudi on the piano since I will have had time to play the piano in retirement and to have actually progressed from my current grade 2 ability. I will sit by the fire in the winter with my dog and read this account and it will bring back treasured memories.
July 2022: Why the Bob Graham Round?
I wanted an adventure. A BIG adventure. One with a goal. One that you could do with friends. One in beautiful countryside. I had had an insight from supporting a few others on their fell challenges the year before and The Bob Graham Round seemed perfect. The Bob Graham Round (BGR) is a popular fell running challenge in the Lake District that involves 42 fells (27,000 ft) and 66 miles in under 24 hours. It has a 1 in 3 success rate. I didn’t know if I could complete it BUT, I knew that the training journey itself would be exciting and going into the unknown ‘goal wise’, well, I could only gain from that.
I would have (in July 2022) classified myself as a trail runner. I am not sure of the exact distinction between trail and fell running but in terms of races I have found trail races tend to be on paths and courses are marked. They also tend to be less hilly and therefore more ‘runnable’. For covering ultra distances on the fells, unless you are Jack Kuenzle (amazing and fast fell runner), there is a lot of marching uphill rather than running. Having done trail running and racing it took me a while to get my head round this. Surely I should run? I soon realised, I would not last the distance if I did this.
I had some practice of mountain navigation from family walking and from the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, and then walking and hiking with my husband before we had kids, but this was a long time ago and I find for me it’s a skill that I lose if I don’t use. However, the year before I started training for my Bob I had practised my map reading skills in an unplanned way. Things turned out that I ended up exploring the trails of County Durham with my good friends Tricia Everett, Susan Scott (Stuart’s wife), Kathryn Moore (not a Strider) and their dogs Rocky and Jesse. Each week I used my subscription to Ordnance Survey maps online, to create a fun looking off-road run route in an area we had not been to. They ranged from 6 to 15 miles. Our aim was to explore new places, but to not have to drive more than 30 minutes so we could easily return to family commitments. The others were happy to leave the planning in my hands which was brilliant as I like adventure planning and then on the day I navigated the route. We had fun, discovered new places, discovered some footpaths that no longer existed, and discovered some weird and some wonderful new tea shops. There was the day we ended up floundering about in a huge pile of manure in a cow field when all of a sudden the rest of the herd charged out of the barn into the field to join their friends on the other side. Luckily we were not in their path! There were many days of crawling under fallen trees in woodlands following storm Arwen. Not all footpaths are well walked and there was the day when we ended up in shoulder-high corn in a field. There was another day in some woods where we found a shed full of Christmas decorations and further on in the wood was some abandoned children’s adventure equipment! On many of these runs we discovered some pretty new countryside. Tricia and Susan record their runs on Strava and I reckon a top T-shirt design would be the outline of County Durham with all known footpaths on, then in red all our run routes. This would also show us the ones we have left to do. Having done this navigation turned out to be very helpful, as it was something to build on. As I started to navigate in the fells though I found it a lot harder as there are just a lot less features to use, and it is all about looking at contour lines and getting as much information out of the features you do have. A compass is often essential.
The Long Training Runs
Geoff’s training plan had many things on it but the weekly long run in fells was the highlight of my life for eight months. It was like going on holiday every week. Most of these adventures were with Tricia and Stuart who were training for their own running goals. Tricia planned to attempt the Paddy Buckley round the weekend before my Bob and Stuart was training for the Lakeland 100 later in the summer, so when we could, we went together, which turned out to be throughout the winter and spring. This involved a lot of planning for all of us. Obviously it’s a big time commitment. I am lucky to work only three days a week which helps and my husband has a shorter working day on Wednesdays (a day I don’t work) so this is how I fitted it in around family and work. I used annual leave in the peak of my training to allow myself the training time needed whilst minimising impact on family life. I am also lucky to have a supportive husband. Wednesday also turned out to be a good day for Tricia and Stuart to go.
I have written an account of these long training runs as they were brilliant. I have not included it here as it is currently 37 pages long (and I haven’t finished it yet so it may get longer) which might be a bit unfair on our Web Officer! So here I just share with you what happened on the day of my attempt.
My Bob Graham Round (Attempt 1)
It was 6:55am on Saturday 3rd June. I stood on the steps of the Moot Hall waiting for my start at 7am. This was it. I could visualise the sheet of plain A4 paper with my training plan in a table, the last square containing the words “BGR attempt” in bold type. It had been 8 months of training. I felt proud of myself for getting to the end of that table and for qualifying to stand on this step. I was excited, nervous and feeling like I was about to dive into an unknown tarn (not literally this time!). Soon Nick, Emma and Jack joined me on the steps. They were my support crew for Leg 1. Then Geoff gave a calm countdown from 10. Then that was it. There was nothing else left to do but to start. We were off slipping away from the early morning market stall assemblers, along the quiet street in the cool early morning air. The sounds of our steps echoey in the stone flagged pedestrian area. Farewell Keswick. Hope to see you again in 24 hours.
Emma, Jack and Nick had my kit, water and food and it felt very lovely and free not having to carry a bag. We were quickly out of Keswick and along the pretty footpath towards the peaceful Newlands Valley of sheep and black Herdwick lambs. There was a touch of early morning mist evaporating from the grass in the fields and the sunlight shone hazily through this. Everything felt new. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I felt very committed to this.
It was nice having such good company. We continued chatting and running and after a few miles I felt the presence of some guys behind us, also running steadily. The nature of their footsteps told me that, like us, they also had a mission to complete. The three of them came alongside and we all fell in step. They said they were doing the George Fisher Tea Round and asked us where we were going. I confidently replied that we were going to Keswick. They looked surprised and confused and one of them looked back over his shoulder towards the direction of Keswick which was rapidly receding behind us!
Before I carry on I need to mention what I was wearing. So, I had been working towards the 25 parkrun milestone since 2016 when I ran my first parkrun. It had taken time as Saturday has been more of a family day for me. As my BGR attempt approached I was nearly there and my thought was that it would be great to celebrate two achievements in one day. I was hoping I could celebrate by wearing my 25 parkrun milestone T shirt on my Bob Graham Round. Sadly I only reached 24 official parkruns! So instead I looked on the parkrun website to see what I could wear to celebrate ‘nearly 25’ parkruns. Apricot doesn’t suit me but they have pink parkwalk tops, and what I was doing was basically a long fast walk with running in a National Park. So, that’s what I wore.
We started the climb up Robinson, the first fell, and the sun rose more and it got hotter. I was feeling good and was determined to make hay while the sun shone (literally) as I knew the boulder section on Leg 3 would be slow for me. Leg 1 over Robinson, Hindscarth and Dale Head was a beautiful morning run, which at this early time we had to ourselves. It’s a short leg and soon Emma and I ran side by side down the bumpy grassy descent of Dale Head viewing the cars now in the youth hostel car park below to try and spot Heather’s van. As we got closer we saw Geoff kindly waiting to direct us.
Heather and Jules were doing road support at Honister. Heather had asked me what I would like beforehand, so feeling like a total diva I had asked her for scones with butter and jam and a cup of weak caffeinated tea and had expected only that. However, my experience at Honister was like being at a spa! I was directed to a chair in the shade, said scones were presented, a cup of tea arrived, Susan Davis started applying sun cream to my arms, and when some got on my glasses Heather magically whipped up a tissue! Who needs to go to Seaham Hall Hotel when you can go to Honister car park!
My Leg 2 support runners were Ian and Caroline Oldham, Nina and Dawn. Just like on Leg 1, these are fabulous people. It was starting to feel like a big wonderful party day out with more and more lovely people. We climbed up over Grey Knotts, Brandreth laughing and chatting then on the top of Green Gable was a row of tiny blue flags and some guys in yellow high vis jackets. A trickle of racing fell runners appeared up the other side of Green Gable and were cheered on by a group at Aaron Slack. They cheered us on too which was nice! We strode up Great Gable, getting clear views from the top. It was now blisteringly hot and I was really glad of my sun hat. The sunlight glared off the bare rocks around us. I put my gloves on ready for the rocky descent. Nina was navigating and she had done a few more recces of this leg since I last ran it with her and Dawn in the rain and she took us down a much better way than the previous ways we had tried. Much less use of 5 point body contact. I did slip a few times nonetheless and Ian jokingly asked if 6 point body contact would be an option. I considered in my head how 6 point body contact could be achieved to take my mind of the last of the screeish path.
We carried on across the small saddle towards Kirk Fell. Kirk Fell is one of my favourites and I often seem to end up there. It has character. On one side you have the steep and direct descent to Wasdale with amazing views, on the other Kirk Fell Crags which are fun but not scary. Over its broad top there are a few fence post lines in places which are a great help to navigation in the mist. You also have the brilliant shelter on a very high up pedestal of a summit and finally it is part of what I call ‘The Cathedral’ (the fells nearby being Gables, Steeple and Pillar). What’s not to like?
We ran past Beckhead Tarn which comes just before the ascent of Kirk Fell. It was really hot and I was thinking where is there a stream or tarn I could have a quick dip in? There were only centimetres of water left in Beckhead Tarn after a few weeks of very hot weather, so that wasn’t an option. Really Wasdale was the next place, in the Lingmell Gill and I started to think of that. Ian offered me a salt tablet, and thereon every 2 hours, and I ate and drank regularly as you are supposed to, although I didn’t feel so hungry in the hot weather as I usually do so it was more forcing myself to eat them.
I started to feel nauseous on Pillar. The light of the sun was really intense and blisteringly hot. Despite this, I was full of energy and feeling positive and was running well. As we reached the summit of Pillar I restrained myself from doing my normal ‘Pillar summit cairn greeting’ though to preserve energy. Instead I bounded on up Great Stoat Fell then onto Steeple with Ian. We bumped into a friend of Ian’s doing the Steve Parr round which was a boost. I carried on up Red Pike making sure I did not look around as I remembered my training run when I had been intimidated by the size of the fells around here and had made a mental note not to look at them on my attempt. I remembered that their appearance is deceptive as it actually doesn’t take long to get up each one. But this wasn’t a problem as going faster I needed to look where I was putting my feet.
I approached Yewbarrow and felt closer to my husband who I knew was waiting in Wasdale and this spurred me on even more so I flew up the side of Yewbarrow losing all my pacers. I was really enjoying running free and the ascent of Yewbarrow is great fun for going fast as it’s like a series of upward ramps where you can charge up each one. I waited not long at the summit and Dawn caught me up and witnessed me having got there. Then it was the gnarly descent that comprises loose stones, loose rocks, loose soil, loose bracken and loose scrawl (mixture of loose everything). Unfortunately greater than two point body contact is not an option on this because of the rocks. I did my fastest best and as we got lower I could see someone on the bridge looking up. How exciting! Down, down, down, it felt too slow for my liking and I pushed on. The loose stone percentage increases as you get further down so is even more annoyingly slidy, but getting to the first stile is mentally helpful, then the second stile, then the ‘thank-goodness it’s grassy’ grass and gorse bush field, the final stile, the road, the bridge and finally the campsite car park! Woohoo!
Wasdale Head car park was crowded with cars on this summer day but Stuart and James came running to meet me and lead me to the helpfully shady spot where Jonny had parked the ‘supervan.’ (The ‘supervan’ was hired to transport people and kit but turned out to be of monster size compared to the photo on the website, hence the naming). It was great to be here. It felt like the first milestone had been ticked off. Also it was another spa experience! I felt like salty crisps so ate two bags and a slice of cake with a big cup of tea and more water. Jonny washed my feet and changed my socks and gave me sun-cream. We had a giggle as the last time he changed my socks I was heavily pregnant. Being in the shade was wonderful and I decided not to jump in the stream as I wanted to save time. (Although I wonder now if I had if the final outcome would have been different or slightly better.)
Wasdale Head is deep in a valley. I was keen to get away from it. The biggest climb was next, which is from almost sea level all the way up the back of Sca Fell to the summit. Having time (almost an hour) in the bank before this was reassuring. I was especially looking forward to getting the West Wall Traverse and the ascent up to Mickledore out of the way. My time with Nina, Dawn, Ian and Caroline had been really special on this special day and I was sad to say goodbye but I was happy to see Stuart and James and looking forward to running with them. Party number 3 whoop whoop was about to start! With my bespoke running sticks in hand we said our goodbyes and started on out of the campsite.
The ascent of Sca Fell was steep and long. That was okay. I knew it would be so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and told myself to be patient. I resisted the temptation to look behind to Yewbarrow to see if we were level with its summit, until I felt we definitely would be. I felt strong despite increasing nausea, which was due to the heat, and my sticks were really helping. We reached the stone path through the rocks and at the top Stuart made a temporary memorial for the sticks. (Temporary because I wondered if Aaron might find them useful for this descent on his clockwise BGR next weekend… and if so then maybe James could then use them for the ascent on his anticlockwise BGR a few weeks after that?) At the top of Sca Fell there was no wind and a swarm of itchy flies around the summit cairn where people picnic. We wanted to get away from the flies and made haste to the start of the West Wall Traverse.
I let James go first (pre-planned and agreed by him! Ha). The West Wall Traverse and Lord’s Rake were done with care and concentration. We spread out to ensure we didn’t send any flying stones into each other. The horrible eroded bit up to Mickledore was done with my heart beating and I was very glad to reach the saddle! I plonked myself down and took off my shoes to shake out bits of the Lord’s Rake that had decided to come with me. James did the same.
We made our way onwards to Sca Fell Pike, Broad Crag and Ill Crag. All went well over this bolder field except that the nausea got worse, but I was still trying to ignore it at this stage because it was frustrating and otherwise I was fine. However, Stuart and James did notice my increasing food rejection which was due to the nausea and so I had to admit it. Despite feeling groggy it was a beautiful mellow evening. The walkers were mostly gone and those coming up now were coming to wild camp. A group of lads came past us saying they were going to pitch a tent on Broad Crag! Since Broad Crag is a pile of rock boulders this was intriguing. We carried on up Esk Pike and Bow Fell, with the sweltering sun still shining. Stuart was offering me lots of food and gels and I was forcing them down.
By the time we were at Sergeant Man I wished I had felt well enough to appreciate being here, but by now I just felt grim and sick. And things didn’t improve. Let’s just say getting to Dunmail was not the best running experience of my life. Somewhere around Calf Crag we picked up a lost walker also affected by the heat who we took with us. We carried on to Dunmail road crossing where the next road support was and I ended it there.
It turned out that today was not my day.
Reflections on My Training Journey and BGR Attempt
You know what, I feel so blessed. I may not have completed the BGR but that’s okay. This journey has given me so many amazing days on the fells with friends. Existing friendships have been made stronger and I have met more like-minded people. I have improved my navigation, my ‘fell craft’ and have gained experience. I am extremely thankful to my coach Geoff for his excellent training plan, support and advice. I am very grateful to Susan Davis for her support alongside and to Tricia and Stuart who shared my journey over the long winter months in the fells as they trained for their own goals. Thank you to all you Striders and non-Striders who came out with me on the fells and who were there supporting me on the day.
As for my attempt. I believe my training plan gave me the fitness I needed to complete the round. I think the issue was that I was unprepared for and inexperienced in hot weather, which untimely led to heat stroke. Nearly all of my training had been in bad weather over the previous autumn, winter and spring.
Since then I have been out running in the heat with greater preparations and a slower pace on the fells and have gained more experience and been fine. However, despite this I think hot weather is not for me. For example, on my three-leg training day in cooler weather which had been three weeks prior to my attempt I did the same distance and elevation and arrived at Dunmail with energy. So, for next time, yes, that’s right, there will be a BGR Attempt 2, I am hoping for cooler weather. I am excited to try again!