Training and Leading Up to the Attempt
The Bob Graham Round (BGR) has been a long-term goal for well over a decade since reading ‘Feet in the clouds’ (by Richard Askwith) and listening to fellow runners’ tales about their attempts to follow in the footsteps of Bob Graham. Since joining the Striders in 2010, I’ve learned about each leg of the round in detail and had the privilege of training with and supporting others on their rounds.
The Striders now have a strong collective of experienced fell-runners and navigators, all of whom have become great running friends. Looking back, committing to the challenge was probably the hardest step. How would I find time for longer hill days, strength and conditioning, and the discipline needed to stick to a structured training plan whilst working full-time and fitting in family time? I had the nagging fear and self-doubt that I wouldn’t be able to complete the challenge or the training.
Unlike Bob, I’d missed the chance of a 42nd birthday attempt a good few years ago. My first serious planning for an attempt began back in winter 2019 when I set myself the challenge of doing the round in June 2020. Geoff kindly drew up a training plan and offered invaluable support to get me started. After 3 months of solid training from Jan-Mar 2020, including some amazing winter days in the Lakes, my attempt was put on hold when Covid hit.
Fast forward to winter 2022 and it was time to go again, assemble the support team, somehow find more time for some longer days in the hills, and focus on Geoff’s training plan once again. I’d selected the same June weekend for 2023 as in 2020 and it was time to ramp up the hill work!
My training started properly in December 2022 with the Roseberry Topping marathon, a great winter event. Thereafter, my longer training runs were either local runs in Durham, or day/weekend trips to the Lakes or Scotland. The longer hill training days from January to June 2023 were the highlight of the training plan, an excuse to venture off the beaten track, linking together summits, ridges and valleys with the objective of eventually getting back to the car before the legs gave up. Some runs I did alone, and for others I was fortunate to have the great company of other running friends. Each run had its own story with some great laughs and memories along the way. Some of these days also involved supporting others on their rounds (BGs and Tricia’s Paddy Buckley round) while doubling up as invaluable training and experience for me as I witnessed the highs and lows of those undertaking their own personal challenges. Alongside the running, my overall fitness benefited from the PT sessions with Sam Renwick – THE SECRET PT.
In early June 2023 the tapering began, and it was back to fine-tuning the support plan and re-checking the logistics for the day. I was aware that despite all the meticulous planning and preparation, all sorts of things could still go wrong on the day – sickness, a twisted ankle, navigation errors, horrendous weather, not eating or drinking properly. I’d done the training, I had a great team to support me, and for the first time in 6 months I felt ready and confident to go for it, whatever the round threw at me.
There’s nothing like heaping even more pressure on yourself than inviting family along to experience what the BG is all about. On the eve of my attempt, my parents, in-laws and children were all staying in Keswick. My wife Alexis and sister Emma were fully briefed on road support, and my good pal Chris had kindly agreed to provide leg 3 checkpoint support at Wasdale (the most inaccessible of the 4 checkpoints). Everything for the next day was organised including enough food and drink to keep us going for a month, never mind 24 hours!
After an early evening meal with all the family, I left a buzzing dining room to try and get some sleep. A quick check of the weather forecast, and my kit for the next day, and I drifted in and out of sleep, reeling off the 42 peaks in my head as I had done regularly over the last 6 months. Try it, it’s a great alternative to counting Herdies, and a sure way to learn the summits for your attempt!
Leg 1: Keswick Moot Hall – Honister
Summits: Robinson, Hindscarth, Dale Head
Support runners: Nick Latham (nav), Ste Brock, Stuart Scott
Road support: Alexis Garland, Emma Greenwood
I woke at around 4am, the day had come, my biggest challenge yet. After coffee, porridge and a bagel, and hugs and good wishes from family, we left the house at 5:30am to meet up with Stuart and Nick at Keswick Moot Hall.
It was a typical grey, drizzly Lakes morning, perfect for running. I’d hoped that getting Stuart out of bed early might also tire him out for leg 5 later in the round, but that was wishful thinking! While we chatted quietly in front of the Moot Hall, Sam Renwick came cycling round the corner to wish me good luck – Sam had cycled through the night from Durham to see me off. Cheers Sam!
At 5:59am it was time to ascend the steps, touch the Moot Hall door, and wait for the clock to strike 6am. I could breathe a sigh of relief, it was all about the running now, eating every 30mins, drinking well and keeping going, however bad I felt. All being well I’d be back here around 5am assuming that I could keep to the 22:30 hour schedule I’d set.
After an easy week of exercise, and with road shoes on for the first time this year, the first 10k (and only real road section of the BG) from Keswick to Newlands Church went floating by as Stuart, Nick and Ste chatted about the day ahead, and whether they would make it back for the Keswick parkrun by 9am. Just before Newlands, my parents met us for a quick shoe swap (road to fell) and we soon began to ascend the lane leading up to High Snab. We opted to keep on the grassy path up Scope Beck before ascending steeply to the crags that led up to the first scramble before the steady climb to the top of Robinson, the first of the 42 peaks.
The next 2 summits – Hindscarth and Dale Head – were traversed easily and all 4 of us descended quickly into the Honister Youth Hostel car park for the first rest stop.
Leg 2: Honister – Wasdale
Summits: Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Green Gable, Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar, Steeple, Red Pike, Yewbarrow
Support runners: Elaine Bisson (nav), Dawn Hosking, John Bisson
We were greeted at Honister by the smiling faces of Alexis, Emma, Elaine and John Bisson, and Dawn Hosking. My second breakfast of the day was a bowl of muesli, dates and fruit cake, washed down by tea, and after 10 minutes we said our farewells and were off, climbing steeply into drizzle and mist, and up to Grey Knotts and Brandreth. I knew I was in safe hands following Elaine on this leg, and with John and Dawn close behind, making sure I ate and drank regularly, we made really good progress. Despite the mist and drizzle, Elaine picked out the best trods.
After Green Gable the leg 2 route gets rockier and more dramatic, passing over Great Gable and then descending steeply to Beck Head, then another steep ascent up to Kirk Fell. My previous 2 recces of Great Gable had brought me down 2 different scree lines, this time we were bang on and wasted no time. The long ascent of Pillar went smoothly; apart from Scafell Pike, this was probably the busiest point in the round as we came across a steady stream of runners on the Kong Lakes Ultra which uses Pillar as a checkpoint. On the flat grassy top of Pillar, Dawn handed me a Marmite bagel and we descended through the rocks along the ridge towards Steeple, the only out and back summit.
Another drink and snack and we were heading down past Scoat Fell towards Red Pike. You can get a decent pace going here but after a slight ankle twist, I was reminded to rein in the enthusiasm and go steady. After Red Pike the climb up the back of Yewbarrow is one of my favourites, possibly because Wasdale isn’t too far off and also because of Stuart’s Spewbarrow incident on this very peak 5 years earlier. Yewbarrow is the final climb of leg 2 (anti-clockwise) and at this point we began to glimpse Wastwater through the shifting mist for the first time. We’d got used to running in the mist for the last 3 hours without really thinking about more distant views. There’s no easy way up or down Yewbarrow. It’s a 500m+ scramble through rocks, crumbling earth and vegetation. My preference is to go fast and direct, and make sure my bum hits the ground first if you lose your footing and balance which I did a couple of times. Wasdale is a great checkpoint location, the least accessible by road and encircled by steep imposing hills. The longest climb was next!
I’ve seen many runners pass through the checkpoint at the National Trust car park, listening to the cheers and claps from fellow runners and supporters. There’s something special about this one, especially when you’re running a clockwise round knowing that you’ve cracked leg 3 (which obviously I hadn’t yet as I was going the other way!).
Elaine, John and Dawn were fantastic company and support on leg 2, and we arrived 25 minutes up on my leg 2 schedule, and 42 minutes up on my 22:30 schedule overall. So far so good.
Leg 3: Wasdale – Dunmail Raise
Summits: Scafell, Scafell Pike, Broad Crag, Ill Crag, Great End, Esk Pike, Bowfell, Rossett Pike, Pike o’ Stickle, Harrison Stickle, Thunacar Knott, High Raise, Sergeant Man, Calf Crag, Steel Fell
Support runners: Tricia Everett (nav), Mark Davinson, Tim Grimwood
My road support at Wasdale was the extremely jolly and excited Chris, who plonked me in his deck chair and volunteered to give me various massages which I didn’t fancy. Instead, Chris and Mark fed me well on pasta and rice pudding, tea and cake. Susan (Davis) had also decided to wander over to Wasdale to give me extra morale boosting support, and for 15 minutes I relaxed and enjoyed the BG banter as Mark and Chris encouraged me to eat more.
Leg 3 is the ‘graveyard’ leg, the longest and hardest; only when you are half-way through the leg are you at the mid-point of the entire round. I’d made good time, eaten well and was ready to get the longest single climb up Scafell out of the way. Again, on this leg, I had great support lined up with Tricia, Mark and Tim, all of whom had completed the BG in the last 5 years.
Just before 2pm we left the support party and began the steep ascent of Scafell. Chris joined us for most of the climb which starts with a gruelling steep grassy ascent, eases slightly in the middle before the final rocky path up to the summit. With Tricia setting the pace, Tim and Mark kept me well fuelled over the next few hours with a wide variety of food and drinks weighing them down. The trick is to keep pestering the runner until they can’t refuse anymore, and then to make sure they eat or drink it. It almost becomes a competition between the support runners to see who can react quickest when a drink is needed. After Scafell we had the spectacular scramble down the West Wall Traverse which connects with the bottom half of Lord’s Rake before skirting the bottom of Scafell Crag and onto Mickledore.
With this awkward section out of the way, we made solid progress over the next few peaks, from Scafell Pike – via Broad Crag, Ill Crag, Great End, Esk Pike – to Bowfell, maintaining the splits between summits almost exactly to schedule. Despite the thick cloud and tricky navigation, we found one of the faint lines leading off the Bowfell summit plateau descending steeply down towards Angle Tarn and up the short climb to Rossett Pike. Almost half-way through the round I was feeling pretty good, although I do remember feeling fussier about what I was going to eat or drink next (Scotch egg or pepperami, gel or smoothie, cheese sandwich or pork pie, liquorice or Turkish delight…?). Fortunately, Mark was on hand to remind me that he’d been carrying a can of opened coke since the top of Bowfell and would really appreciate it if I drank it. Cheers Mark and thanks Elaine (for asking Mark to pack it)!
Tricia, Tim and Mark were super encouraging throughout leg 3, reassuring me that I was doing well and still on schedule. Once the 3 Langdale Pikes were ticked off, we only had 4 more peaks and around an hour of running before the next checkpoint. I was starting to feel like I could do this but knew that I couldn’t get carried away and had to eat and drink more to keep me going for another 9 hours. On the grassy and boggy section between Calf Crag and Steel Crag the momentary quiet was broken by the sound of Essex and Northern Ireland, as Chris and Susan (Scott) appeared from behind a hill to shout encouragement and join us for the final section, via Steel Fell. My sister Emma also appeared at this point having sampled the extremely steep, scree riddled, hands-on-knees climb up from Dunmail Raise. I slumped into the chair at Dunmail relieved that leg 3 was done and I was still in working order. Alexis hadn’t seen me since Honister, about 11 hours earlier, and was relieved that I was still smiling, joking and still in one piece.
As well as my leg 4 support team, it was great to see Nick again with Julie. Huge thanks to Tricia, Mark and Tim for seeing me through leg 3.
Leg 4: Dunmail Raise – Threlkeld
Summits: Seat Sandal, Fairfield, Dollywaggon Pike, Nethermost Pike, Helvellyn, Helvellyn Lower Man, White Side, Raise, Stybarrow Dodd, Watson Dodd, Great Dodd, Clough Head, Threlkeld
Support runners: Geoff Davis (nav), Nina Mason, Penny Browell
A change of socks, rice pudding, chocolate bar…………, and 12 minutes later, I was off again, this time following Geoff up Seat Sandal, closely followed by Nina and Penny who were to be a truly amazing tag team on leg 4. It was around 8pm, the weather was starting to pick up and we were in for a stunning evening on the hills with a gentle breeze and decent visibility (at least until it got dark). Thanks to Paparazzi Penny particularly, as this is also the leg with the most photos.
The big climbs on this leg are at the start, Seat Sandal, Fairfield and Dollywagon Pike. From now on, it was unknown territory in terms of distance and elevation. I’d run legs 1-3 in training but hadn’t gone further. Geoff was setting a solid pace up the long steep climb of Seat Sandal while my body battled to digest the food I’d just eaten. Gradually the gradient eased, and we crested the summit after about 40 minutes. After a quick section of descent, next up was Fairfield another monster of a hill. With Nina and Penny making sure I was eating and drinking regularly, I felt a resurgence in energy levels and maintained a good pace to the summit. Geoff led us the direct route to Grisedale Tarn before we started the long ascent of Dollywaggon which we achieved bang on pace.
Thinking back, I couldn’t believe how good I felt at this point. I was determined not to let this opportunity slip. As we progressed over the next few peaks and into the night, my running pace picked up and we ticked off the long ridge of hills including Nethermost Pike, Helvellyn, White Side, The Dodds and Clough Head without any hiccups. I also remember feeling hungry and being able to eat a pack of salted cashews washed down by smoothies, gels and water. Geoff’s navigation on this leg was unrivalled, and Nina and Penny were immense, making sure that my mood and energy levels didn’t drop.
Coming off Clough Head I could see the lights of Threlkeld and within half an hour we were joined by a few supporters on the lane leading to the A66 and Threlkeld Cricket Club, the final checkpoint.
Leg 5: Threlkeld – Keswick Moot Hall
Summits: Blencathra, Great Calva, Skiddaw
Support runners: Stuart Scott (nav), Tamsin Imber, Aaron Gourley
It was just after midnight in the cricket club car park, I sat down for the final time and was handed some cake and custard to eat. Stuart advised me to have some fruit cocktail – which I’d intended for him to carry on leg 5 to weigh him down – and I sipped away. I didn’t really feel like eating but did my best.
After 10 minutes or so, it was time to go again. Cheered off, Stuart, Tamsin, Aaron, Chris and I left Threlkeld. There were now only 3 peaks of the 42 left. Blencathra is one my favourite mountains in the Lakes, it commands immediate attention as you approach it from the east. It has multiple routes and spectacular ridges leading up to its lofty summit ridge. It was over the next hour, by far the worst of the round, that I realised why most BG attempts come down Blencathra instead of up. The climb up Hall’s Fell is one that I would usually enjoy, but this time it was brutal. The first 1,000 ft from Gatehill is a steep path through heather and bracken, which then leads to the last half-mile of the ridge known as Narrow Edge. Stuart set the pace, while the others reassured me that all was good. Despite the fatigue I remember this section well because of the scrambling, exposed drops and the effort it took to follow Stuart, who was doing a great job of leading us up the most direct route to Blencathra’s summit. Reaching the final summit seemed to take forever and there were several times when I muttered expletives into the night and in Stuart’s direction. At the summit stone I was on my knees and there was only one thing that would make me feel better.
Chris had also joined us for the climb, and I think I just about gave him enough notice before I was sick into a strong wind in his direction. Chris descended to Threlkeld soon after…..was it something I said?! For many, sickness comes much earlier than leg 5 so I was fortunate in this respect. Almost immediately I felt better. Despite this, progress over Mungrisdale Common was slow. This is usually a runnable section, but my painful shin and overall state made it difficult to run. Tamsin offered me some Kendal Mint Cake which was about the only thing I felt like at that point. As we approached the beck, I went flying down a muddy chute for a few metres, which Stuart had done seconds earlier.
After a few laughs and a quick wash in the beck we began the approach up Great Calva, another steady and steep climb. My arms and legs were working hard to maintain a decent pace, and we managed the climb in one go. Only Skiddaw left, and I had about 3 hours before the 6am Moot Hall deadline.
Somewhere along the boggy path between Great Calva and Skiddaw, and as dawn broke, Stuart started singing “it’s coming home.” I couldn’t help but laugh but was conscious that I could still crash and burn, and that it wasn’t done quite yet.
With an eye on the stile that led to the summit path we kept up a good pace and 30 minutes of climbing later we had reached the final summit and Aaron took a great selfie of the 4 of us. Only downhill from now on, and an hour of running on hard-packed track and paths before the short section into Keswick. My right shin was now giving me serous jip on the final descent, but I blanked it out and the next 4 miles flew by. We cut across Fitz Park, through the backstreets of Keswick and towards the car park and high street. The clapping and shouting started as the Moot Hall came into view. A final burst up the high street and steps of Moot Hall and it was over, my head resting on the door, the feelings of relief, joy and tiredness washing over me. After 3½ years of first setting myself the goal and 6 months of training it was done.
Like all BG supported rounds it was a team effort, and for the next 30 minutes it was brilliant to chat to and thank everyone who stayed on to see me home in 23 hours 23 minutes. It was now 6am, Keswick was waking up and I was hobbling off to bed.
None of this would have been possible without the support of Alexis, Emma and Chris (my road support crew), my 2 boys (for keeping me on my toes), my parents (for fostering my love of mountains on family holidays), Geoff for his coaching and all-round encouragement, my amazing running friends, and of course the Striders’ community for all their support. Massive thanks again!
Photo credits go to all support runners who happened to take a few shots during the round. Thank you for the memories!