Round date: 24 July 2021
On Saturday 24 July 2021, Tom Sawyer and myself attempted the Bob Graham Round. Below is my account of what happened over the 42 peaks, 66 miles and 27,000 feet of climbing. If, however, you want a summary then Oliver (my 22-month-old) summed it up quite well: “Daddy go for really big run. Lots of hills”.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the weekend as a whole. We planned this attempt at the end of 2018 before Tom departed for what turned out to be an extended trip to New Zealand. I had imagined many aspects of the attempt but one part I didn’t imagine was the beautiful but hot weather we had. The build-up consisted of moving small piles of assorted food into ever decreasing areas of shade whilst we all attempted to also use these areas to keep us and the children cool. A test of priorities.
The closer we got to kick off the more the doubts crept in. But with plans in place, kit ready and handed out, and some calming encouragement from Lucy (my wife), it was time to try and sleep. Whilst I think I slept, I could sense the buzz of excitement as the team supporting us were getting ready and arriving at the campsite.
As we got ready to leave the campsite we could see head torches on Skiddaw building the excitement. We arrived at Moot Hall far too early. After pacing around Moot Hall listening to a very bad rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition (Tom Raftery later assured me that Stevie wasn’t in Keswick that night…) we ascended the Moot Hall steps and watched the seconds tick down. Saturday 24th July 2021, 00:00. Go…
Leg 1 – Support: Ross Langley; Leg time: 03:37 (-9 minutes); Total time: 03:37 (-9 minutes)
Embarrassment was avoided with successful navigation out of Keswick and before we knew it Ross was leading us up Skiddaw. Ross, Tom and I have trained together for some big events over the past few years so starting this together was a great start to what we hoped would be a great day. Ross had also provided me with so much support in preparation for this attempt. We have spent hours running together or in the car to and from various recce or supporting trips and discussed pretty much every aspect. Thank you, Ross!
The moon was shining bright illuminating Keswick and Derwentwater behind us but the digger before the gate to Skiddaw summit had us thinking the hallucinations had started early! We reached our first summit of the Bob Graham Round in 78 minutes and headed for Great Calva. It was this trudge through the heather where I started to relax, finally. But as I relaxed the enormity of the round and that I was actually running it sunk in and the emotion hit me.
We cleared Great Calva and the horrible descent to the river, then headed towards Blencathra without too much trouble. We had seen head torches ahead and could now see them behind, it sure was a busy night on the fells. Blencathra had a little clag but that didn’t deter Ross who guided us in expertly. Down to Threlkeld via Doddick Fell, just like that leg 1 was done. Excellent navigating and pacing from Ross ensured we arrived slightly up on time but not allowing Tom and I to go too quickly at the start…something that could have very easily happened! A quick pot of rice pudding, some water and a change of t-shirt we were off on leg 2.
Leg 2 – Support: Michael Burgess, Hugh Beedell; Leg time: 04:02 (-18 minutes); Total time: 07:39 (-27 minutes)
Leaving Ross at Threlkeld we picked up Michael and Hugh for the long climb of Clough Head. It was starting to get light as we headed between the Dodds and the sunrise as we hit Stybarrow Dodd was breath-taking. The cloud inversion with the sun rising through and above the cloud was one of my highlights of the whole round. Something I had never seen before. It turns out Hugh is an expert cameraman capturing some awesome shots of us running towards Helvellyn.
Whilst I was enjoying the views, Tom was hardly speaking. One of many personalities we would see during the day. My only struggle along this leg was getting very cold hands and needing a long sleeve and my gloves for the majority. Before we knew it, we were at Dollywaggon Pike and descending towards Grisedale Tarn. I had my first (and thankfully only) fall as we went around the edge. Out and back to Fairfield over the rock and scree reminds you of the terrain to come.
My knee started to hurt here which was worrying as we still had a long way to go. We crossed paths with another attempt here, and were told by wild campers that they had seen ‘at least 9 attempts’ go through already.
As we climbed Seat Sandal my mind wandered to the road stop at Dunmail Raise. We had almost done 2 of the 5 legs and I didn’t feel like I had been running for that long. I remember trying to push this out of my mind and not get ahead of myself. Another brilliant navigation and support performance from Michael and Hugh we arrived at Dunmail Raise 27 minutes up on time.
This was our first real stop and I was excited to see my sister, Emma, who had made it from North Devon to support having no experience of fell running. She had my bowl of Weetabix ready which was washed down with a cup of Coke as Simon slathered sun cream on my arms and legs. What a sight for her!
Leg 3 – Support: Simon Barnett, Fraser Wilcox; Leg time: 05:39 (-27 minutes); Total time: 13:18 (-54 minutes)
Michael and Hugh tagged Simon and Fraser in for leg 3 and we were soon on the climb out of Dunmail Raise to Steel Fell. Getting some revenge on Simon for his Ramsay I ditched my long sleeve within about 3 minutes of the climb giving him even more to carry. As we made our way towards Calf Crag we caught Brian who was out for the day providing additional hill support. By this time Tom’s personality had changed from grumpy leg 2 Tom to excitable leg 3 Tom. The difference was remarkable. I didn’t realise the sun could have such an effect on someone!
I’d done 2 recces of leg 3 but both had been in the clag and I hadn’t actually seen much so I was really enjoying what felt like new terrain. We had been assured Simon was a ‘leg 3 expert’ but weren’t comforted by phrases such as ‘I’ve never done this line before, let’s give it a go’. Much of the early part of this leg is a blur as we transitioned from the early grassier parts to the rockier later part.
We met Brian again at Rossett Pike and I had the additional water he had carried for me. This turned out to be key as all of Simon’s reliable water sources weren’t reliable. A quick chat with some other BGR supporters and on we went with Simon providing some tour guide information on Billy Bland’s Rake as we climbed it.
We made our way towards Great End and had a nice chat with a man and his daughter doing a recce of Borrowdale fell race. Some words of encouragement and we carried on only for a star struck Simon to realise it was Rob Jebb. It wasn’t long before we made it to the highest point in England, Scafell Pike, and lots of walkers and runners who must have wondered what we were doing running up the little steps, shouting out a time, and running down again. Mad people.
Now for the fun scramble to Scafell. We had decided to take Lord’s Rake and the West Wall Traverse but could see another Bob Graham Round attempt ahead of us. Simon wanted to get us there first and dragged us at a speed down to the mountain rescue stretcher. We had a clear scramble up this fun gully.
Once we were at Scafell we had a 33 minute descent ahead of us to Wasdale Head. One of my favourite parts is the scree surf just before the river. We crossed the river and weaved in and out of the walkers. It hit me. I was going to see Lucy and Ollie for the first time that day. I really had to fight the tears back at that point. In to the National Trust car park and there they were. A big hug with Ollie and Lucy was just the energy I needed, I knew I was going to do it at that point.
Some more food and drink and a change of clothes and we were ready for leg 4. Simon and Fraser, like those before, had expertly navigated and kept us fed, watered and moving over the leg we were probably most worried about in 27 minutes quicker than schedule.
Leg 4 – Support: Alan Whelan, Tom Raftery, Claire Shelley, Hugh Beedell; Leg time: 04:38 (-19 minutes); Total time: 17:56 (-73 minutes)
Next, Yewbarrow. We left the car park accompanied by Alan, Claire, Tom R and Hugh (who had decided to double up support on less sleep than we had got!). There was a lot of conversation coming from this group which along with the good stop helped keep the spirits high. That was until Yewbarrow started biting and we slowly put one foot in front of the other.
The heat was really ramping up and was starting to take a toll on me. From Yewbarrow to Red Pike was where it really hit. My legs were hurting, I was thirsty but didn’t want to drink and didn’t want to eat. The guys were great at pestering us to eat and drink.
After Yewbarrow getting to Red Pike feels like it shouldn’t be too far but it is about the same amount of time. The summit couldn’t come soon enough. The chat was back and spurring us on. On to Steeple next and I started to feel a bit better. Some pizza, hula hoops and paracetamol did just the trick.
There is a great psychological boost of heading to Pillar and then Kirk Fell in the direction of Honister at this point in the round. The conversation was in full flow from the supporters which I really found helped and I tried to feed off of their energy. Think we were back to “leg 2 Tom” by this point.
At Black Sail pass Brian reappeared with more water for the group which was gratefully received. Up the scree to Kirk Fell (great line Claire!) and next; the what seems unclimbable Great Gable. On a clear day like we had the panoramic view of the whole round is breath-taking and makes you appreciate how much ground you have covered.
From Great Gable to Honister was a bit of a blur and before I knew it I was following Alan off Grey Knotts before he stopped to guide the others to the best line. I ran down to Honister knowing we were ‘nearly’ there. Some well-timed cold roast potatoes from Becky was exactly the food I didn’t know I wanted. I was ready to get to Keswick.
The team we had with us on Leg 4 were amazing. The random chat, the pestering to eat and drink and Alan running ahead to scout the lines. This could have been where it went wrong for me but these guys got us through!
Leg 5 – Support: Simon Barnett, Alan Whelan, Claire Shelley, Ross Langley, Tom Booth; Leg time: 02:21 (-30 minutes); Total time: 20:17 (-103 minutes)
For the final leg we were joined by Alan and Claire carrying on from leg 4, Simon and Ross for a second time and Tom B who met us halfway up Dale Head. Spirits were high as we headed to Dale Head and I don’t really remember much other than there was lots of talking. The same to Hindscarth. Robinson to go. Head down and climbing. The final summit. Get us to Keswick.
We all filed off of Robinson down to the Tarn and all was going well until a squeal from Simon in front as he fell over. No damage done and we continued into Little Town. I was adamant I wanted road shoes for the final bit so stopped for a quick change.
Simon and Alan stopped here whilst Fraser re-joined and Claire and Ross carried on. We tried to run as many of the hills as we could and tried to work out our expected time.
As we headed around the top of Derwentwater Dave joined us for a great moment with Tom. For those that know Tom and I, we never don’t race. Something kicked in as we headed towards Keswick. The pace just kept getting quicker as we sprinted up Keswick High Street. Up the steps to Moot Hall. Touch the door. We did it. 20:17.
As I write this I’m not sure if it has sunk in yet. I feel incredibly proud of what we did and grateful that we had the opportunity and support to make an attempt at the Bob Graham Round. As I struggled to sip a beer looking back at Moot Hall we caught up on the day’s stories from everyone.
Not being able to park at Wasdale, nearly missing lifts, and finding out Oliver and Lucy had been up most of the night as he was sick multiple times but everyone had kept this from me during the run! I think Tom and I had it easy.
The best thing about finishing the round (apart from being able to stop running) was seeing all our friends and family that had put a lot of time and effort in to help us do this crazy challenge. It was a privilege to have you help us and to spend a day in the hills in such great company. I’ll never forget your smiling faces looking at us as we turned around from those green doors.
Ross, Michael, Hugh, Simon, Fraser, Alan, Claire, Tom and Tom across the legs, Brian providing hill support over legs 3 and 4, and incredible road support from Lucy, Emma and Ollie Wade, Dave and Becky Sawyer (Tom’s parents), Ross, Zoe, Maeve and Ted Langley, and Nigel Lacey. I can’t thank you all enough for the support that you provided during the training, preparation and attempt itself. I’m already looking forward to supporting a few of you on your attempts in the future.