When a Bob Graham is Not a Bob Graham

By Andy Collings

It probably didn’t go unnoticed to most that I recently attempted the Bob Graham Round. In case you missed it (I’ve no idea how if you did), here are my musings of what was an excellent weekend in the Lake District.

Firstly, who and what is the Bob Graham Round? Bob ran a Bed & Breakfast in Keswick and he liked nothing more than taking long walks on the fells. The round itself consists of 66ish miles over 42 peaks, 8,200m of ascent, all to be completed in under 24 hours.

It’s said that each of the peaks represents a year of Bob’s life. Incidentally, the 42nd peak was added in 1932, the year after his first attempt was unsuccessful. Some wish he had got the job done the first time!

It’s also said that Bob walked, not ran, the round in tennis shoes, long shorts and a pajama jacket. His food was bread and butter, a lightly boiled egg and plenty of fruit and sweets for energy. His record stood for 28 years before it was broken. 

The breaking of the record was the end of an era and the start of a new one—who would have envisaged how many would follow him around the circuit in years to come? To the end of 2019 there are 2,384 ratified rounds.

On the weekend of 21st August 2020 I was in the Lake District, hoping in some small way to leave my name in the fell running history books, as many from Tring Running Club already have.

In the days leading up to the weekend there was lots of weather watching and the forecast wasn’t looking good. Being so high up on the fells, the highest point in England at one point, the weather can make or break any attempt. With the forecast of 70 mile an hour winds and heavy rain I decided to postpone my attempt until midnight 22nd August, the weather looking more favourable (sort of).

I set off on my round at midnight Saturday 22nd August, through the ‘ginnel’ across Fitz Park and out onto the fells towards the summit of Skiddaw. My leg 1 support was Alan Whelan and Simon James. Delaying the start seemed to be paying off, looking up at the dark starry sky. Sadly, by the time we hit the summit, the wind was gusting across the top and visibility was down to about 2 metres.

Despite the wind and rain, at first the leg went well and we soon found ourselves atop Blencathra, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. We had only the Halls Fell descent ahead of us to finish Leg 1. All 3 of us had descended Halls Fell a number of times before the weekend. It’s a pretty scary prospect in the daylight and in good weather. Unfortunately, in the dark and wet we lost the path. What followed was a long arduous climb, sometimes looking down sheer rock faces, shimming carefully down ‘chimminies’ onto ledges. An hour later we arrived at Threlkeld, over schedule. 

Despite putting in an immense amount of training for the Bob Graham, I started to suffer from cramp. This is something I have been plagued with in the past but not in the last 12 months. Simon J & Karin Voller gave me some pretty painful massages at the change over, hoping this would help. After the massage and a bowl of porridge I set off on leg 2 with John ‘any cairn will do’ Millen and Paul ‘Pack Horse’ Bayley. 

The climb up Clough Head seemed slow but by the time we got to the top we were back on schedule. The Dodds were uneventful, and all the way over to Helvellyn and on to Dollywagon Pike we were about on schedule.

On the descent to Angle Tarn, I started suffering badly with cramps again and our progress slowed considerably. By the time we got to the summit of Fairfield we were 6 minutes down on schedule. Still, no reason for panic.

The descent to Dunmail was the killer. We were now 11 minutes down on schedule. More massage, a bacon sandwich (prepared by Nigel Lacey), flat coke and a cup of tea and it’s time to go. This time in company with Simon Barnett and Roland Kelly. This was the first time I met Roland!

Leg 3 is a make or break leg; a high percentage of those who fail to complete the Bob Graham retire at the end of Leg 3. Simon and Roland had relieved me of everything that I had been carrying so I could run unencumbered. Carrying my water and snacks seemed to make sense to me at the start but carrying 1kg of water took its toll eventually. The 10 minute break at Dunmail had been shortened to 7 to try and get back on track. I didn’t learn this till after. I also had help from Lynda Hembury and Brian Layton on this leg, who joined us to High Raise before heading off to Rossett Pike, whilst we completed the Langdales.

The leg turned into a war of attrition with some pretty awful weather, which required getting into full waterproofs. The timings ebbed and flowed, with schedules being met at some tops and lost on others. I was glad to see the highest point in England, Scafell Pike but knew Lords Rake and the West Wall Traverse  lay ahead. We skirted around Scafell to the Rake, which looked like a waterfall! No turning back now, up we went, slipping and sliding, trying not to think about the consequences of a fall.

The top came into sight, metaphorically speaking—you couldn’t see much, to be fair. Just the scree descent to Wasdale left, where I was looking forward to a bowl of ravioli and a cup of tea. We arrived 27 minutes behind schedule. My schedule was for 23 hours 30 minutes, so not much leeway.

I knew long before Wasdale that I wasn’t going to be retiring and It was a matter of going through the motions, eating, drinking, a change of clothing and off. Celine and Kirsty kindly removed my wet upper clothing and replaced them with dry layers. They went above and beyond by removing my shoes and socks, drying my feet, and putting dry socks on—all whilst I was being spoon fed my ravioli.

I can still hear Henrys’ voice ringing in my ears, “Come on Andy we’ve got to go,” over and over! I was helped out of my seat and staggered off towards Yewbarrow, whilst having my waterproof jacket and gloves put on me. I was mostly incapable of anything but putting one foot in front of the other at this point.

Joining me on this leg with Henry was Gareth Tomlinson, another person I just met for the first time. Simon Barnett also decided to join me again. I wasn’t chatty, to say the least, despite Gareth’s best efforts and his singing!

We left Wasdale 25 minutes down. I didn’t have much left in me. We weren’t too far off the schedule timings between the tops, but I was unable to gain anything back. In fact, I lost a further 22 minutes overall, putting me 49 minutes behind.

Before arriving in Honister I sent people ahead to get everything ready, as I decided I wasn’t stopping, and was aiming to hopefully gain some time back. I had 2 hours 52 mins to complete the final leg. On a previous recce I had completed the leg in about 2 hours 20 minutes, so I wasn’t losing hope. Karin and Rich Bedlow joined me. I felt I was moving and climbing well. We got to Dale Head in 38 minutes (2 minutes over schedule), Hindscarth 23 mins, (3 minutes over) and the final top Robinson in 30 minutes (2 minutes over). We got to the road at about 23 hours 27 minutes, leaving me 33 minutes to run about 7k, which is 4:43/km.

I ran as hard as could, with loads of encouragement from Rich, Karin and Celine who had joined us, but it was just too much. I made it to Portinscale, which is 4km from the finish, and had only 5 minutes left. I realised that it was done.

Everything shut down and I could barely walk in a straight line. It was over. I was not going to finish in under 24 hours. As I staggered the final 4km, I mentally processed everything that had happened, already thinking about the next time.

These adventures are, in themselves, quite selfish pursuits, but supported by completely selfless people. I cannot thank you all enough for all the time and money you spent in pursuit of my dream. I’m sorry I didn’t quite achieve it. As I said at the beginning, this would never have been possible without the help and support from my friends at Tring Running Club and Run the Wild. Thanks to Alan Whelan, Simon James, John Millen, Paul Bayley, Simon Barnett, Henry Keighly-Elstub, Rich Bedlow, Karin Voller, Nigel Lacey, Celine Wilcock, Kirsty Barnett, Brian Layton, Lynda & Paul Hembury. Thank you also to the two people I didn’t even meet until the day itself, Roland Kelly and Gareth Tomlinson. Finally thank you to my wife Katie for her continued support in my crazy adventures.

To be continued Spring 2021.