I first found out about 'The Bob Graham' when I was 35. After an epiphany where I fell in love with mountains aged 29, I spent the next few years basically throwing myself at them in all ways, hiking, scrambling, running, climbing, winter climbing. At that stage my passion far outstripped my knowledge, and it was a case of following that, and seeing what I enjoyed most. At first it was scrambling, I loved moving over steep rock using my hands and whole body, it felt like such a childishly fun way to climb a mountain, much preferable to me than walking up, which often feels like a slog to me. Then on occasion I'd find myself running, sort of out of excitement. I used the word childish above, and the urge to run was borne out of that as well. I did a day trip to Snowdonia from Devon once. My girlfriend at the time thought I'd gone mad and I probably had a little bit. Got up at 4, drove without stopping, parked in Ogwen by 9.30, had a full day on the Glyders then drove home in time for Match of the Day. It honestly felt like a 'fix' to a drug addict. I remember breaking into a run from an almost greedy motivation, to gobble up as many peaks and views as I could. When I started buying proper gear (I shudder now but my first scamper up Tryfan was like the archetypal tourist: jeans, t-shirt, running trainers), I knew I wanted to buy lightweight shoes and steadfastly not boots. But I didn't, at that stage, know what scrambling was, or that fell running even existed as a pastime.
My brother gave me the amazing and now iconic book Feet in the Clouds (Richard Askwith) not long after this. A tale of fell running and obsession, it chronicles the authors pursuit of completing the infamous Bob Graham Round: A Lakeland challenge set in the 1930's by Bob Graham, covering 42 Peaks, ~70miles, starting and finishing in Keswick. Still devouring classic mountaineering literature as fast as my eyes could Johnny 5 scan it, I finished this book and then moved onto the next. Then a year or two later I met someone who dropped it into conversation about footwear. "I wore Inov8's for my Bob Graham". I was stunned: "Woah, wait, you've done a Bob Graham Round?" I thought it was reserved for immortals. But soon I was involved on supporting people attempting their own Rounds, and learning fast about mountain running. However, the idea to pursue my own attempt seemed farcical and I never entertained it. I knew enough to know that a part of the significance of the 42 Peaks was to do with Bob Graham's age, and I sort of decided that I'd put it off until my 42nd birthday. Also, I was too keen on climbing at that stage to run as much as was necessary to be in that sort of shape.
Suddenly of course, I was 41. Having put it off for a few years, but having it in my mind any time I'd run an OMM, Yorkshire 3 Peaks, Race the Train or any mountain run, now the year was here to run, to train, and to get Ultra fit. Urgh. It seemed like such a bind. A hugely time consuming chore. But slowly some running happened. At first just getting 10k fit, then 20k fit. Then, as detailed earlier in the year on this blog, I trained with James to run across Dartmoor (31mi). That was March. In June I 'ran' along the Cuillin Ridge on Skye with Libby, and did the Snowdon Horseshoe - 'getting some hills in my legs'. And by July I didn't really have any more excuses left. But the BG would be more than twice as far as the Dartmoor crossing, and more than twice the accumulated ascent of Skye. I started using the South West Coast path to train on, basically because it's the steepest hills Devon has to offer, and running increasingly long stages of that. Even so, there is still a huge gulf between 30+miles along the coast path, accumulating something like 5000ft of ascent, and ~70 miles around the Lake District, supposedly including ~28,000feet of ascent. Of all the mini-challenges I've taken on this year, I was fairly certain this would be the one I'd ultimately fail at. I'd bitten off more than I could chew this time.
Just to further stack the odds, I opted not to ask a bunch of friends to give up their time and run Legs for me as support & pacers. I just felt too guilty to do it, and told myself that doing it unsupported meant less pressure. If I fail, which I probably will, at least I'm not letting anyone else down. Pacers typically will carry all food and drink, providing the runner with a steady stream of jelly babies and gels and bars, and passing drinks - so the runner doesn't have the burden of carrying that extra weight. Plus, they do all the navigating, and keep spirits up with conversation and jokes and generally distracting the runner when things get hard. Forgoing pacers was a bit silly really, not naive exactly, but far too idealistic. But there we go, that's what I did. I also didn't help myself with travel and accommodation. I got so nervous about actually doing it, I hedged my bets with travelling (in case my actual birthday (I wanted it to be the 24hours of my actual birthday) was full of thunderstorms or heavy rain), and didn't book any accommodation local to Keswick. So on the morning of the day I was due to start at midnight, I checked the forecast - iffy - and asked my retired Dad if he'd drive up with me, explained about the road crossings, told him he could sleep in the car and wouldn't have to do anything other than essentially ferry some food around for me (which would save me a day spent caching it around the Lakes in hedgerows or behind rocks).
We drove up to Keswick, I got half an hour snooze in the car. I packed my bag, and was ready to go. I was ridiculously nervous. Scared even. Not really sure why. The dark? It was certainly more intimidating but I'm a bit old to be scared of the dark. Loneliness? Maybe a bit. That's a lot of time in your own head. Getting lost? My nav should be okay if the weather holds up. Hard to say. Impending pain? Failure? Genuinely not sure but must admit, nerves bordering on fear were fluttering for the afternoon and evening before I set off. So I sat in the car with my bag packed for ages. Dad told me to stop procrastinating and get on with it. He was right. "Okay, see you at Threlkeld about 2.30am then?" "Do you want a picture of you at the Moot Hall?" "God no. The street is full of people getting drunk on a Bank Holiday weekend, I want to tag the front door, push Record on Strava and get out of there as soon as possible".
And just like that I was running. Forcing myself to go super slow, repeating a friends mantra 'light and easy', I found my way out of Keswick and onto the lane that leads up hill to Latrigg. As soon as it started to get stiff, I walked. Acutely conscious there was a long way to go, I was going to walk up all hills, and gently jog any flats and down-hills, broadly speaking. So basically its then quite a slow start, as Skiddaw summit is quite a way back from the A66, and more or less a uniformly sloggy uphill trudge. Quickly, things started to go wrong.
'Some patchy mist above 700m overnight', was much more like 'blanket fog'. In the dark with my head-torch bouncing back off the clag, I could only see about 2-3m in front of my feet and to either side. I started using the grass verge at the side of the path as a handrail. As the path grew wider, and more rocky, I lost the verge, so then it was a matter of using contours and shape, and continuing on the same bearing. I was hoping not to have the map out really, but it was suddenly essential. Finding the Trig point on the top was a big relief, but it was fairly windy now, slightly damp, and I was cold, and a bit annoyed. The prospect of heading on over the top onto less travelled ground, path free, shooting bearings and pace counting, unable to run because of the limited vision, did not appeal. Very quickly, considering this was the 1st top, I decided to retreat to Keswick. Immediately relieved at not heading into the back of beyond, and the mires and becks around Great Calva, I still realised I'd need to use the map to pick up the track down. I decided on a compromise, I was unlikely to do the Round anyway, the pea soup was just the nail in the coffin, but I didn't want to retreat back to Devon without some sort of long day in the mountains having come all this way. I'd run to Threlkeld, still meaning about a 14mi leg, and hopefully by then the fog would be clearer and the Helvellyn range would be better. A nice consolation would be to run 42 miles, and maybe I could still string all the 3000ers together on foot (Skiddaw, Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Scafell), by doing the first 3 Legs, maybe I'd manage that?
Turning round and heading down, I saw 3 head-torches approaching. In the 5-10 seconds it took for them to run past me, my thought processes went like this: I'm saved! - Hey, if they stop and say Hello perhaps I could ask to tag along? - They seem to be actually running up this hill - Why the heck didn't I get support to do all this nav and carry my bag? - Crikey they're going fast - "Hello!" "Hi!" [they didn't stop] - [I watched them disappear, quickly] - Even if I followed them I'd lose them before Great Calva and I'd still be out there navving on my Todd anyway - Ah well, back to Keswick.
I picked up the path quite easily, and started zig zagging down. The rock was wet from the fog and I walked gingerly to avoid a slip. One of the 3 runners caught me up, he was heading down. We chatted, I told him the above thought processes and general plan for the day. He very kindly said 'you've been unlucky with that fog, it wasn't supposed to be that bad; but you should give yourself a huge pat on the back for having the balls to set off from the Moot Hall on your own. I couldn't have done that. The reason I caught you up was because I didn't fancy getting off here in these conditions on my own'. We said goodbye at the A66 and I headed East. Glad to be out of the fog, I jogged along fairly easily, until arriving in Threlkeld and finding Dad, awake, around 2.20am, having saved myself climbing two mountains but not saved much mileage. I told him the new plan, replenished a few bars and fluid, and set off for Clough Head with my fingers crossed for better conditions on the tops for this Leg.
I was to be disappointed! Picking up the paths low down easily enough, this approach stretch was still demoralising, with some heavy boggy sections that saw me in up to my knees, soaking wet feet, and a sloggy, up hill stomp that was seriously uninspiring. But I knew that was going to be the case, and only hoped that once on the tops this undulating range should be some of the most runnable terrain of the day. I found the Clough Head Trig' in yet more thick pea soup.
Worse than Skiddaw. Annoying. Map out, bearing taken, pace counting and walking - it would have been like running blind folded - I set off for the Dodds exasperated, a bit chilly, questioning WTF I was doing with my birthday, feeling lonely, and hoping my nav continued to hold up. Days before I'd told myself that if I did twist an ankle or worse, I'd be on well travelled terrain, on Bank Holiday Monday, and passers by would never be more than a safety whistle blast away. Right at that moment that was plainly not the case. I found the next peaks cairn with another sigh of relief, and pushed on.
At the next top I was admittedly fairly grumpy. 4.30am perhaps? Awake for 20 hours now and scurrying up and down mountains for the last 6, this all felt very futile and very, very silly. I thought about bailing off to the road and throwing the towel in. The map showed the next decent descent path to do that from was 2 more tops away, so I grit my teeth, put my hat and gloves on, hood up, scoffed a cereal bar, and set off for one more miserable hour of this micro-nav walking. Either the fog would clear, or I'd reach the exit point. It might be a grim hour, but it's only an hour, and I could grind that out.
Approaching Helvellyn Low Man the clouds parted. I could see a thin crescent moon and the tops of the clouds, like you do sometimes in an aeroplane after take off. For 5 seconds I could see. It was beautiful. I grabbed a quick view of what was ahead (in case I lost it again), and took a photo of the parting clouds.
It occurred to me that a full moon and a clear sky would be really bloody nice to run in. Then over the next 5 minutes the fog/clouds basically blew away. Right away, like re-setting an Etch-A-Sketch. Suddenly I was standing on a wide ridge in a sea of clouds, seeing the other tops around Thirlmere, Patterdale and beyond above the clouds like islands in the sea, it was hypnotically beautiful and I took photos and stared, almost open-mouthed. I have never, ever, been so glad to see a view, and not just any view, this wasn't a multi-storey carpark in Luton. The sun wasn't up yet, but light was improving and the colours in the sky were vivid and amazing. I ran. Everything out the window: No tactics, no pacing, no plan no thought, just running along almost deliriously I floated along the rest of that range at a decent bloody pace and it didn't even feel hard, it felt like a privilege, even to run up the hills and slopes of Helvellyn and Nethermost Pike. Somehow I felt light, rejuvenated, it felt like flying. Pure joy of running for half an hour, an hour. I found myself saying 'morning!' to sheep as I passed them at a helter skelter down hill pace. They look a lot less threatening when their eyes aren't reflecting a head-torch beam back at you in the pitch dark.
All runners have those experiences when running feels effortless, you flow along able to run fast, striding out seemingly without trying. This was like that, only on gorgeous mountain terrain, as the sun rose, above the clouds, even on the up hill bits I was scampering up them without even breaking a sweat, no lactic in my legs, just covering the ground so effortlessly it felt natural and right. All of that, with these amazing views, after 5 or 6 hours of being in a 2-3metre head torch bubble of fog. I felt like I could run and run, go as fast as I wanted and never fatigue, like I was a part of the wind almost. Weightless.
The sun actually came up just before Seat Sandal.
I could see the road and skipped my way down to meet Dad at Dunmail Raise.
Dad was cold, I was on a high, I used a baby wipe to semi-clean my filthy feet (there is still black bog gunk under my toenails over 10 days later and I've nail brushed them to within an inch of their lives), dried them, then Vaselined them, and change my socks. I ate. This more substantial road stop was basically breakfast, so I had one of those cold Frappy coffee things, some rice pudding, re-stocked my bag; and all the time jabbering to Dad about that leg being 'a game of two halves', he only seemed amazed that I wasn't cold. Steel Fell looked steep. It is steep. A hands on knees march, straight up.
Keen to get stuck into Leg 3, telling Dad I'd see him in Wasdale, I sent a text to a dear friend who was checking up on me having survived the night, and set off. Dad headed for a cafe breakfast, gloating about a full English and a hot brew. Steel Fell did not feel effortless and weightless and like the wind. Steel Fell felt like a bastard. I slogged. Quickly reminded what lactic feels like. At the top I slurped some fluid between gasping lung-fulls of air, and looked across to Calf Crag, Sergeant Man, High Raise and the Langdale Pikes. This looked wide and open and frankly, bloody far, but it was clear and sunny, not hot yet, at maybe 8am, and I set off trying to trot at a more sustainable pace. These were lovely miles. Basically a large plateau, admittedly with some damp boggy bits, I cared less about wet feet now, I was getting stuck in and just devouring the ground, I was headed for Wasdale with no real escape plan (Langdale potentially, but that would involve a grovelling phone call to Dad, if he even had signal). There was no one there, for acres and acres. Feet in the Clouds says something about the feeling of running in The Lakes, alongside crowds of walkers until you reach the first top, where they stop and break open their packed lunches, and you then carry on able to explore huge expanses of wide open mountains in total solitude. It's one of the joys of running in this landscape, simply to cover and see so much more landscape. On Thunacar Knott a couple kissing and cuddling on one of the peaks shouted across to me "Willyou take our picture?". They were approximately 100m away and I thought: that means run to you, get your camera, run back, take the photo, run and return your camera, then run on... So I shouted back "Sure" and took their photo on my camera and ran away. Giggling to myself at my own mean spirited joke.
I went up Loft Crag by mistake. Adding in a peak was never part of the plan, but somewhere around this stage Strava announed "35 miles, 11 hours and 20minutes", and I briefly considered that I was half way in distance terms, in less than half the time. Even allowing for missing out Great Calva and Blencathra, perhaps I could still complete a 'lap' of sorts, and make it back to Keswick within 24 hours?
Slightly amazed that I seemed to be on some sort of schedule even after the infuriatingly slow going of the night nav, I carried on around the head of Mickleden towards Rossett Pike and Bowfell. It was getting warm now.
Around Angle Tarn - people. Lots of people. Felt like a culture shock. Then at Esk Hause I started to fade. Great End and Ill Crag felt like very annoying diversions on rocky, boulder hopping terrain, I was walking, and gulping as much fluid as I could. Getting through the gels and bars now too, I was acutely aware of the need to on-board as much fuel as I could. Then, seemingly instantaneously, just before Scafell Pike I was done. Finished. Walking up towards the hoards of folk on the summit platform I started to see stars, and my left arm started to tingle with pins and needles. Worried it might be a heart attack I sat down and took off my pack. I lolled and nearly fell asleep sitting up/keeling over. A passing walker asked "Are you okay mate?" and when I focussed on his face I could see he looked shocked at my appearance. Slightly worrying. I said "yea I'm fine, thanks", and he said "okay" in a tone that suggested 'I don't believe you' and walked on. I ate a bar, slurped a gel, scoffed some sweets, drank some drink, and sat there, simultaneously telling myself 'It's just a slump, you were always going to have some slumps, take 5, and then get to Wasdale and regroup' and 'Nope, that's me, I'm done'. Coming into this thing, I always knew there'd be a time when I had to ask myself 'how much do you want this?' - aware that it would hurt, and carrying on would seem impossible. And I always thought my answer would be 'Not that much'. This wasn't quite like that. I had a sore toe from kicking a rock, and a blister, and I could feel my knees on the down hills, but I was so tired, so so tired, it felt like sleep deprivation way more than pure physical exhaustion. And I was done. Utterly.
I didn't even stop on Scafell Pike, walked straight past the hundred or so people swarming the top, in a grump chuntering to myself, I stumbled down to Mickledore and Broad Stand (I'd forgotten I'd need to use my hands), which was scary in my woozy state, then from Scafell to Wasdale Head I just dragged arse. I'd given up. I'd get to Dad, and we'd get a pint and a pie then drive home. Could not wait to get my shoes off, and eat something other than pure sugar. Strava kept telling me how slow I was. "Previous mile in 31 minutes". Fuck off Strava. The only silver lining of the tracking app at this stage was that I knew I was close to ticking over 42 miles (which was a pretty bloody good guess) and would do so by the valley floor. Finally, after the longest, interminable descent, I could see the National Trust Campsite and my car. I looked across to Yewbarrow and the 'straight up' start to Leg 4. Laughed out loud. Not for a million pounds could I get up there. If I was ever crazy enough to try this again, that would be cruxy. Get your teeth stuck into Leg 4 and then surely from Honnister you can crawl to Keswick. Three Legs would do me today, I was satisfied with that. On my own apart from Dad, with silly weather on the night Legs, and sub standard prep and fitness, and stupidly thinking I would just drive up, do it, drive back (Like a sort of crap Goran Kropp!). Amateur Hour. I was done in, but satisfied that I'd given everything I could on this occasion. It had been a memorable birthday.
Dad didn't have any words of wisdom or carefully premeditated psychological encouragement. "I'm done Dad" "Okay, let's go home then". Didn't even mention a pint or a meal. Probably for the best. Driving home swapping driving duties every hour was hard enough as it was, borderline dangerous as I twice opened my eyes in the middle lane. Bad drills really. Should have stopped at a hotel somewhere, but we were close enough to getting home by just after midnight so we forced on; made it home and I collapsed into my bed where I stayed for 11 hours.
It took me about a week to recover. Blisters were dressed, toe nails were clipped, legs were stretched. It was Day 3 when I was able to go 'bannister free', but the lasting issue was a deep fatigue. I had afternoon sleeps that felt unstoppable, unconsciousness washing over me like a tsunami, and slept 10 deep hours every night for the following week. That was a nice feeling, deeply, deeply tired. I was 42. I wondered what the next year would bring.
Here are the some other pictures of sunrise...