The Bob Graham Round is an increasingly popular ultra distance fell running challenge in the Lake District. Taking a circular route from Keswick it summits 42 Wainwrights over a distance of 66 miles with over 8000 meters of ascent and descent. It crosses a road at four points splitting it into five legs. Dan and I had spent months planning this joint attempt. We sat in the George Hotel in Keswick at 4pm on Friday watching the rain continue to fall whilst awaiting the arrival of our support team. The forecast was that the rain would stop and most of the round would be dry but it still seemed stupid attempting it that day. As it got closer to 6pm we didn’t care about the weather and just wanted to get started. Justin and Grant were in good spirits and loaded up with extra food and water. I felt sick and I’m sure Dan did too. We left the pub and walked to the Moot Hall where we waited out the last couple of minutes before setting off as planned at 6pm with 24 hours to complete the route. We were using a schedule for 23.10 hours to give us some spare time in case we had any nav, injury or other issues by the end.
The rain continued but as soon as we left Keswick and started up Skiddaw I felt a knot loosen in my stomach and was suddenly happy to be heading out into the fells. The feeling of ease with myself and others around me is never better than when out running in the hills with friends. We moved well up Skiddaw with Justin keeping an eye on the pace. Coming over the top we were hit by the usual relentless wind and the rain increased. Dan and I didn’t want to hang around in this and skidded down the trod towards Great Calva. We couldn’t see much in the cloud and were already soaked but our legs felt good so we just kept moving. We chose the direct route off Great Calva through the heather and found a good line to the trod up Blencathra after crossing the stream. Wading through this bothered me much less than usual given the conditions, just a good chance to wash some of the mud off. Going up Blencathra we lost Justin and Grant as they dropped behind. We both felt bad to leave them but knew we had to keep moving while we felt good to get round in 24 hours; they both knew their way back. Their encouragement up to that point had us in a great frame of mind and before we knew it we were over the top, sliding down a very wet Halls Fell and rolling into Threlkeld for checkpoint one and the end of leg one. We were here in 3.18 hours, over 30 minutes up on schedule and feeling good. Quick sandwich, banana, coffee, flapjack, restock, pacer hugs all round and we’re off again. Never has a peanut butter and nutella sandwich tasted so dry.
Joining us for leg two were Phil, Rob, Michael and Matt (who was putting a huge effort in, also doing leg three with us, and sentencing himself to a night of misery). By now the rain had stopped and the climb up Clough Head went quicker than expected, still gaining time. My first waist high bog experience happened on the way down to Great Dodd but the tracks on the ridge were generally good for the rest of the leg. It was great to have a big group for this section as good chat and constant feeding encouragement kept us fresh whilst still making time on our schedule. At this point we didn’t realise how much we would need it. We were back in the clouds by Raise but there was something serene about moving along the Helvellyn ridge in the dark and cloud. Looking round to see a trail of five head torches was strangely reassuring. We didn’t take the best line towards Dollywaggon Pike from Nethermost Pike and I found myself a lot more aware of the drop off to the left than usual. From Dollywaggon we took the direct line down to the west side of the tarn and skirted around this to head up the brute that is the Fairfield. Everyone was moving really well on the steep downhills despite how wet everything was, confidence was high. We’d banked more time so far this leg so decided to take it a bit easier up Fairfield and then back over Seat Sandal thinking of what was ahead. The thought of beans and eggs at the next checkpoint in Dunmail Raise was growing in all our minds. People started talking about going to bed. It was nearly 1am but Dan and I potentially had 15 hours more of this…we had to put those thoughts out of our mind. Michael found the faint trod off Seat Sandal and before we knew it we were once again greeted by Gill and Mum with some hot food and a much needed coffee.
Phil, Rob and Michael went to well earned beds after helping us gain more time. We started leg three around 45 minutes ahead of our 23.10 schedule with Dave and Matt at 1.55am. Psych was high. The rain had stayed off over leg two and the forecast was for things to keep getting better. Leg three covers the worst terrain on the round with a lot of rocky technical ground towards the end so we decided to turn the pace down a bit to save some energy for this. As we got over Steel Fell and headed towards Calf Crag we realised things were going to be tough. Although it had stopped raining everything was still soaked from the day’s heavy rain. Bogs were full, rocks were wet and paths were poor. Even though we were moving slower everything seemed much harder all of a sudden. Then we, mainly I, started falling over the wet and difficult to see rocks. On one fall all of my weight went through my shin onto a rock which really hurt. I knew that could be a problem after another 12 hours. The falls and the heavy terrain took me to a pretty bad place that took some time to get out of. Sharing this with Dan made me realise I was not alone in this. We kept moving over Sergeant Man, High Raise, and Thunacar Knott then headed for the Langdale Pikes. These were a nightmare. The rocky path and scrambling to the peaks which can be a delight on a sunny day was like moving over ice and caused us to slow to almost a crawl at times. Time was slipping away quickly and the usually runnable sections where we could make it up were just too dangerous because of the rocks or had been replaced by bogs that we all ended up falling in several times. This heavy going spilled over to us going uphill and we weren’t able to keep the pace up as we did earlier even when the ground improved. I seemed to get out of the low I experienced going towards the Langdales but Dan found it more difficult to pull himself round. As we got up Bowfell we had lost 40 minutes on this leg and were only half way through with the worst terrain to come, then it started raining again. We started gingerly moving over Esk Pike and towards the boulder fields of Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag, Scafell Pike and finally Scafell. At Broad Crag I was soaked and starting to get really cold. We were 10 minutes behind schedule and decided to split up and regroup in Wasdale knowing that the checkpoint was just over an hour away…hopefully. I warmed up putting a bit more effort in up Scafell Pike and was delighted to see Dan catch me up as we descended towards Scafell. We stuck together and kept a good pace up the Lord’s Rake and West Wall Traverse. We got to the top of Scafell together and knew we just had the long but easy descent to Wasdale and some much needed breakfast. We split up again and I went off ahead. I have never wanted a hot drink and bacon and egg sandwich more and this spurred me on to fly down the scree run and into the car park. Seeing everyone there really picked me up. Matt, Dave and Dan weren’t far behind and we all refuelled and restocked. That bacon and egg sandwich was a thing of beauty. Matt and Dave were taken to well-deserved beds while the rain just seemed to keep getting heavier. Grant and Rob inherited us in a much poorer state than they had last seen us at checkpoint one. Dan and I had some decisions to make.
By the time we left Wasdale to start leg four it was 9.24am. We had lost 1.05 hours over leg three and were 20 minutes behind our 23.10 hour schedule. I had never been on the fells in worse conditions. When we started moving up Yewbarrow it was clear I was a lot fresher than Dan and at this point if we kept losing time it was going to be really tight by the end. Having supported the end of two other rounds and seen the state people tend to be in I wanted some time in the bank by the end of this leg. My shin was starting to hurt after my fall earlier and I was really worried I may not be able to run on it by the end. Dan was clearly sick of me trying to get him to go faster. We decided to split again which seemed like the right decision at the time but I really struggled with this. At this point I felt if Dan continued like this he wouldn’t make it within 24 hours but that by me abandoning him I would be at least partially responsible for this. By now we had been going together for over 15 hours. Grant stayed with Dan and Rob with me. I talked the decision through with Rob going up Yewbarrow and he reassured me I was doing the right thing. After this was settled the conversation dried up as I buried myself in trying to make time back on leg four. The rain kept falling but I knew this leg well. Even in the rain a lot of it was runnable and the climbs wouldn’t be too bad in the wet. Despite this internal monologue the climbs up Yewbarrow and then Red Pike were still relentless. Rob wasn’t getting much chat from me but as we ticked the peaks off I knew I was making time back. We took a good line to Steeple and then on the way to Pillar bumped into Dan and Grant going the other way. They had taken the wrong path to Steeple and hit the ridge too far east leaving them about 10-15 minutes away from the summit when we met them. This meant they could have been around 25 minutes behind us. Taking the wrong path must have been a huge psychological blow when time was tight. We pointed them in the right direction and set off to Pillar. The rain stopped and the cloud cleared. Finally, we could see where we were going and where we had been. As we hit the top of Pillar I was back on the 23.10 hour schedule and this coupled with the weather improving was a huge boost. 34 peaks down only 8 to go. The long descent to and then scramble up Kirk Fell felt good. I was enjoying the running again and felt back in control after hours of being in the opposite headspace over leg three. We cruised up Great Gable. From here you can see most of the way back to Kirk Fell which was 35 minutes behind on our schedule. We couldn’t see Dan or Grant and I was really concerned he may have slipped further behind schedule. Next to scramble down the boulder field and up to Green Gable. Being on dry rocks was a totally different experience to what we were dealing with overnight. Then we just had Brandreth and Grey Knotts along the ridge before the descent to the Honister Pass and another checkpoint.
This ridge has a special significance to me. To the west you can see Haystacks and it was near the top of this hill that Dad needed rescuing in 2015 when walking with his partner, Syl. He was totally incapacitated that day with a significant heart attack, Q wave STEMI to you medics out there. He needed emergency stenting to save his life and was a long way from help. When you are up here and see how wild it is, it reminds me how lucky he was to be saved through the combined help of the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team, Great North Air Ambulance and the people he met on the hill that day. Particularly Irene, who was invaluable in contacting the emergency services when they initially had no phone reception. He received medical treatment on the hill and was kept comfortable whilst awaiting the air ambulance before being taken directly to Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle for his stent and later recovery. The Mountain Rescue looked after Syl, his partner, and helped her off the hill before driving her to see him in hospital. The fact that somebody can receive medical help and then be airlifted to hospital by organisations that operate as charities is amazing. It is for this reason that I wanted to fundraise for these charities by doing the Bob Graham Round. In my head if I was on time here there was no chance I wouldn’t finish this, I just hoped Dan was turning it on somewhere behind me.
Rob and I arrived into the Honister Pass at 1.49pm, 14 minutes ahead of our 23.10 hour schedule, plenty of time for 24. The support team of Mum, Gill, John, Michael, Rhonda and Sian were amazing again. Every time we came into a checkpoint they sorted us out with clean socks, foot care, hot drinks, hot food and restocking our bags for the next leg. Knowing this support was coming really helped me through some difficult times. Beans and brie were on the menu here; I’ll take this opportunity to apologise to everyone who suffered the consequences of the amount of beans I ate on this round. It was just Rob and me to continue to the end from here over leg five. Dave and James were going to come along but felt it was better to keep them both back for extra support for Dan when he came through. We plodded up Dale Head which seemed much bigger than it ever has before. Once up here we could see Hindscarth and Robinson which were the last two peaks. Going downhill was really hurting now. My shin was stiffening up and becoming more painful. The only reason I wasn’t thinking about it too much was that the rest of my legs weren’t that much better. Knowing there was time to play with we moved slowly over the last two peaks. From Robinson I looked round to see a completely clear day with all of the 42 peaks visible from here, no sign of rain. The misery of leg three seemed like it was weeks ago. The descent from Robinson really hurt. Going down anything steep at this point did not agree with my legs and particularly my shin. We scrambled over the rockier section on the ridge and were then presented with the steep grassy bank down to the foot of the valley. There was no doubt in my mind approaching this that I would be sliding down it on my bottom. It felt so good to not be on my feet. At the bottom I got up and as I shuffled off shouted to Rob that I wished there was more of the route to slide down. Five seconds later I slipped and was back on my bottom. Rob was taking a drink at the time and it went everywhere. I popped some painkillers at this point and 30 minutes later wished I’d done this earlier on as they freed the legs up a bit. I was on the road now and just had 6km on the road from Little Town with loads of time in the bank. Mum met us here and ran in with us, further down the road Phil and Nina were also waiting. It felt good being back in a group, not that Rob wasn’t amazing support for the rest of leg four and five but seeing more people just made the end seem so much more tangible. With Mum came the news that Dan had got into Honister nearly 40 minutes down on our 23.10 schedule but still on to complete the round in under 24 hours if he kept moving as he was. This was great news and further lifted spirits which were already high on the run in. Then came the field of pheasants which greatly entertained Phil and Rob. When I was 2km from the finish a message filtered through from Dave, who was with Dan, that they were on the road only 4km behind us. Dan had sped up on leg five and was flying, or as much as you can fly after being out for 23 hours. This was the first time it felt like we were both going to do it and somehow it made my legs relax a bit more. Before I knew it we were in Keswick trotting up to the Moot Hall. I finished at 5.17pm which completed as 23.17 hour round. I’d slowed a lot on the last leg but didn’t care because it was done and Dan was going to do it too. A quick stop to chat to the fantastic support team and a few others who’d gathered at the finish was followed by a walk back down the road to meet Dan. We may not have stuck together but I wanted to finish his round with him. He was looking good when he came into Keswick. We were able to trot up to the Moot Hall together for 5.37pm giving him a 23.37 hour round. Dan had flown round the last leg and was comfortably in under schedule, hugs and photos all round. We had done it in far from ideal conditions and most importantly neither of us had to come back and do it again!!
That was certainly a memorable 24 hours. Not quite how we had planned it but that’s the nature of the beast. To anyone thinking of having a go I can strongly recommend it. Just start with trying a leg or two yourself or helping out on someone else’s attempt and I guarantee you’ll be hooked on the challenge. Even in bad weather the route covers some spectacular countryside and the sense of community that comes from taking part as a supporter or on your own attempt is truly unique from any other event I have been part of.
Thanks must go to everyone who helped with road support and those who ran with us on the fells. Without them we couldn’t have finished on schedule with the conditions we had on the day. Particular thanks have to go to Matt and Dave for running leg three as that was the hardest time I’ve ever had out on the fells. I’ll never trust a weather forecast in the lakes again.
Road Support – Susan Thain, John and Gill Brigham, Michael and Rhonda Loram, Sian and William Reece-Loram,
Fell Support (leg) – Justin Tancrel (one), Grant Harris (one, four), Phil Green (two , five), Rob Hartley (two), Michael Greaves (two), Matt Hetherington (two, three), Dave Brigham (three, five), James Connolly (five), Rob Tyler (four, five), Nina Cameron (five)
If you would like to support Chris and Dan’s efforts, please visit their fundraising page: https://www.youcaring.com/greatnorthairambulanceandcockermouthmountainrescue-866019