Starting my fell running life whilst living in Keswick meant early acquaintance with the Bob Graham Round (BGR), and a cultivation of the veneration and respect such a meaty challenge deserves. It helped of course that planetFear had some reputation for employing people knowledgeable of the BGR, and, particularly during the summer months, we’d get BG hopefuls popping in and discussing the BG with Huw, Steve or Chris.
I was still very much a climber dabbling in fell running at that point, so the BGR felt like a huge, impossible task, only available to the very best fell runners, but I always thought that it would be something I would like to have a crack at. Even now, I certainly would not put myself anywhere near the category of “the very best fell runners”, placing consistently mid-pack in fell races, but my performance on The Spine Challenger (injury not withstanding) made me think that the BG may be a serious possibility.
So let’s wind on – toward the end of February I was feeling a little at a loose end. The big challenge which had been on the horizon for the past year had been and gone in an unremarkable anti-climax (due to my own stupidity it must be said), and I needed something new to look at. The BGR seemed like the obvious candidate, so I posted on Facebook that I was considering it and had an excellent response back from people happy to help.
So that was that, and I may have dropped myself in it a little, but I’m hoping that 2017 will be the year of my (at least first) successful Bob Graham Round…
Fast forward to early May, and I hadn’t managed to get to the Lakes and complete any recces of any description, but finally a weekend was free, I had no reports to write for my PhD (well, I kind of do, but that’s another story), and I could commit to looking at a leg of the BGR.
I elected to start with the easiest, and arguably most convenient leg – leg 1 – which runs from Keswick, up Skiddaw, over to Great Calva, up on to Blencathra, and back down to finish in Threlkeld. I’d also suggested to Lucy and her parents that we all go over to the Lakes together, which would allow them a nice walk whilst I “enjoyed” myself on the hills, and to top it all off, Steve (whom I used to work with at planetFear) had said that he was up for joining me on my run.
An early morning start had us driving over to Keswick on Saturday morning, with the plan for Steve and I to meet at planetFear (now Kong Adventure, but we still think of it as our old workplace) and set off on our adventure. Which actually worked pretty well, plus I was able to borrow an Inov8 race vest from Kong Adventure (review to follow) for the run.
Heading back to Jim’s car, I booted up, whipped off my trousers (shorts were pre-worn underneath) and we were off. Steve had a running watch with him, so we could keep track of how we were progressing, particularly in relation to the schedule outlined by others for a ~23 hour round (the BG must be completed within 24 hours, from Moot Hall to Moot Hall, to count).
All was peachy to begin with. The foot bridge from the top of Stanger Street across to Fitz Park was washed away in the floods of 2016, so to get to Spoony Green one must go up past Packhorse Court, down past the Youth Hostel and up through the Sport Centre grounds. It’s not really as slick as the old route, but it only seems to take an extra minute or so.
Up Spoony Green is an old training route of mine (and almost everyone else who lives and runs in Keswick), and is a good test piece for uphill running. When I still lived in Keswick, almost three years ago (gasp!), I could run the whole way up Spoony Green to Latrigg car park; I was keen to see if I could still manage the same feat, and thankfully I could. It might have even felt a little easier, which is nice considering the loss of familiarity with the route.
After reaching the gate post, Steve and I dropped the pace a little to get breathing back under control, and headed on to the car park, before heading across to the start of the tourist path up Skiddaw.
I’ll not bother too much with the description here – Skiddaw tourist path is fairly unremarkable in all honesty – but it was great to be back; Kewsick always feels like home.
We hit the bottom of Jenkin Hill slightly ahead of time, then the fence crossing below Little Man slightly more ahead of time. Conversationally, it was a scintillating ascent – Steve had just been watching the 2hr marathon attempt which we talked about on the way up, and the regime of walk the steep uphills and jog anything we could move comfortably on meant we hit the top of Skiddaw about 12 minutes ahead of schedule.
A couple of things to remember here:
1 – when the paths fork after the second fence crossing, bear right. Left goes up to Little Man, and unless you want to add a summit, don’t do it! That should really be obvious, but I had a brain fart and almost tried to go that way. The things I do without a map in my hand!
2 – rather than follow the track the entire way to the summit, Steve divulged some local knowledge by heading right on a little trod after the second cairn on the right, as you’re heading up the final climb, allowing a corner to be cut off. Not a massive gain, but every little helps, plus I feel the ground on the trod was actually more runnable with my silly left ankle than the blocky horror show that is the top of Skiddaw main path.
At the top of Skiddaw we posed briefly for the obligatory summit photo, Steve grabbed a sandwich out of my race vest for me, and we were on our way. It was chuffin’ windy!
From here you drop down the northern nose of Skiddaw roughly until it plateaus, then hang a right directly down the hill to meet and cross a fence. Once over the fence (fortunately not barbed), you head straight down Blake Hill which provides nice soft running, albeit with a few divots here and there. Steve showed his pedigree here, and soon left me way behind. Always happens on the downhills (the bastard).
Crossing a small saddle just before Hare Crag (one of many in the Lakes), Steve warned me of a boggy section directly before obligingly falling waist deep into it. Shortly after, we popped out onto the bridleway, ate something (I was feeling hungry), and headed off up Dead Beck towards the summit of Great Calva.
A couple we briefly met on the track asked “Bob Graham?” “Nope, just reccying today” we replied.
Great Calva is by far the smallest hill on this leg, but is still a heathery slog. It was alright really, but I was still feeling hungry and could tell that my legs weren’t doing all they should. We did have a nice talk about chess though, which I always wish I had persevered with. You just can’t do everything, and a PhD is quite enough brain work for now.
Approaching the summit, I mistook the southern cairn as the top and lost a few meters to Steve as he picked out the trod round to the summit cairn proper (11 mins ahead of schedule). We had a quick sit down out of the wind (still bloody windy) to have a look at the map and discuss options. Steve recommended taking the fence-line down to Wiley Gill and on to the Caldew, but mentioned the “racing line” taken by the rapid folk aiming for a fast round. I elected for the handrailing fence line option – I’m not looking to break any records.
On the way down the hill, my nose started really giving me some trouble. I’d been suffering from either hayfever or a bit of a cold, and thought my nose was running badly, until I realised that it was in fact bleeding. I stopped briefly to wipe the worst of the blood off of my hands, and got back on it to catch up with Steve who had left me behind, yet again.
Arriving at the River Caldew, I washed my hands and face – feeling instantly better – and we faffed around looking for a crossing spot. I eventually got bored and waded through a shallower looking part, particularly as all the rocks looked as slippery as a Westminster Politician (eeh, look at me politiking), and we started to ascend the opposite bank up towards Blencathra.
At this point, my lack of food the previous night and a significant breakfast before heading over really started to take its toll. Steve produced one of his many protein bars, and that helped me along for a little while longer.
Conversation turned towards music, physics, the podcast “In Our Time” (which I’m still yet to listen to, despite it sounding absolutely fascinating), and how much Blencathra has it in for Steve.
We weren’t initially following a trod, but with this section, the rule seems to be go up. As we arrived at the plateau of Mungrisdale Common, the pace picked back up again until we began to ascend just below Foul Crag.
Another route option presented itself; do we go up the side of Foul Crag and along, or do we cut more aggressively, taking a corner off, but risking popping out in the wrong place and travelling across more difficult terrain. Again, I elected to look at the reliable option as I plan to run this leg in the dark, but just as we reached the base of Foul Crag proper my body decided it was time to sit down.
Oh dear, I really should have eaten more.
Fortunately, there was a nice little shelter to sit behind, and we spent a couple of minutes (it felt like 10 or more!) sat down chatting about my (distant) plan to move back and set up a research laboratory after my PhD plus further post doc work. The wind was still fairly brisk however, and so we got a shift on pretty quickly.
Steve then picked out a cut which rose gently to the right to deposit us near enough right on top of Halls Fell Ridge (8 mins ahead of schedule). A quick chat with a couple of guys up there, a photo of me pistol squatting on the summit platen(?) and a quick discussion about Halls Fell Ridge or Doddick Fell later, and we were on our way down off of the final mountain of the day.
Now, I understand the rational of going down Halls Fell Ridge (HFR), or even the parachute route if you can do it (one can dream). It’s direct and fast, if you can move properly.
However, I’m not fast on awkward descents. I’m better than I was, but descending is my big weakness. HFR epitomises awkward descent – next time I’m going down Doddick Fell; at least I’ll be able to run it!
I was to have one more nutritional malfunction on the way down.
Just after leaving the scrambley, rocky section, my whole body just flopped. Irritatingly, I could feel that my legs still felt fresh and strong, and muscularly, I was fine. But my brain was sluggish, and things just didn’t want to move. Steve asked if I was ok, I replied with something along the lines of “I really should have eaten more before setting off”.
I want to avoid over-dramatising the situation, but this is something you will never quite get until you experience it yourself. Fortunately, I’m stupid enough to have experienced it before, but wise enough to choose good running partners, knowledgeable enough to recognise the effects quickly, and most importantly, understand how easy it is to fix. Interestingly, the outward effects aren’t entirely dissimilar to those related to mild hypothermia, which is why Chris tried to feed me through a hypothermic section on last year’s Old County Tops. But it is crucial that you realise what is going on.
At this point Threlkeld (and a pint) was in sight, so Steve passed us a flask of Mountain Fuel infused drink, which I necked there and then. For the record, Mountain Fuel should be drunk in small amounts, regularly, to avoid throwing the whole lot back up again! No problems this time though, and within only a couple of minutes my legs sprang back into life, allowing us to descend with great aplomb. (Not really great aplomb, but I was no longer a shaking mess).
Cruising down the road into Threlkeld, Steve checked the time. We’d lost our time over the schedule, but were still on for four hours – not bad considering I’d been on the verge of bonking for the past hour or so!
Heading toward the center of the village I reduced to a walk and just enjoyed the sunshine. It was fantastic! We turned into the Horse and Farrier, just in time to meet Brenda heading back out into the car park and waving us in to join Lucy and Jim at the bar. Pint in hand, we headed back out into the sun and enjoyed a well deserved sit down on the most wobbly picnic bench I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, before heading back in for a pub meal. (Excellent food at the Horse and Farrier by the way.)
Finally, we dropped Steve back off in Keswick before turning around to head back to Newcastle. All in all a grand day out!
Important stuff now:
Firstly, thank you to Jim for the lift, beer and food; Brenda for the company and Werther’s Originals in the car; Lucy for your encouragement and patience. Thank you to Steve for the company, sharing local knowledge, and feeding me because I was too stupid to eat enough before, and pack enough for the run.
And finally, as I’m sure you’re all now bored of my ramblings; long distance fell running is an eating game. The top boys make it look effortless, and I’m sure they’re better adapted than I am, but even so, everyone talks about nutrition. The annoying thing is that I know this, I’ve learnt it the hard way many times, but I keep making the same mistakes – possibly through some misguided idea of where long distance starts. In reality, it starts when you’ve used up all your breakfast (and a bowl of cereal is not enough!) and there’s still a hill (or more) to go.
So the main thing to take from this, aside from a few navigational hints and tips, is that eating is important. Eat before, eat during and eat after. Don’t stop eating just because you don’t feel hungry right there and then – it will catch up with you, and if you’re not used to being hungry and powerless on the fells, it could easily turn bad. Fortunately, it rarely does.
Fell running and mountain marathons are great. They allow you to be a fat man hidden inside a thin man’s body, and that my friends, is why I do it…
That and the views and the thinking space and the exercise…
‘Till next time!