Chasing the Frog – June 2018 by Dan Duxbury
The story of the Frog Graham, a swim/run adventure in the Lake District by Dan Duxbury
‘The Frog’ seemed destined to become another running dream consigned to the ‘that would be great but I’m too busy’ bin. For the previous two years I had thought about it through winter as I enjoyed long runs in the hills, but just as the weather began to warm up, other things took precedence. That was until I got a call from Ian wondering whether I knew of anyone doing anything adventurous for a filming opportunity? I didn’t. Was I doing anything interesting? Not really – just the usual round of fell races. A throwaway mention of the Frog Graham by me, a quick search online by Ian, and a plan was hatched. Ian wold provide the extra motivation to make me commit to doing it, and I would be his slave in front of the camera.
The Frog Graham is a swimming and fell running challenge in the Lake District. Covering 40 miles and 16,000 feet of ascent plus 4 lake swims, it takes its name from the popular 24-hour round of 42 fells – the Bob Graham. As an experienced fell runner, the hill running element didn’t faze me too much, however the swims would be a different story.
I like running because it is simple – minimum faff. I also love being in the mountains. As I am based in the south Lakes, the Frog route would take me up some of my favourite fells around Buttermere that I don’t get up that often. I have always enjoyed the process of preparing for challenges like these. Poring over maps, choosing the best lines, reccying, what to wear, what to eat, when to set off, pacing, timings, bracken, lake temperatures – with the Frog there is a lot to consider. As I prepared, I became more interested in trying to do it ‘fast’ if possible to set a time for others to aim for. The current fastest time was just under 14 hours.
Swim training consisted of a weekly mile in the pool for the few months in the run up. Alpkit had kindly given me an excellent new wetsuit to wear as I psyched myself up to get in the lakes. Worryingly, the lake temperatures remained low into May and I only managed 3 or 4 lake swims before my attempt. Run training was pretty much the usual for me. I did quite a few fell races through February to May and tried to have a long 3-4 hour run each week too. I reccied most of the course over one sun-drenched weekend in mid-May, although I was broadly familiar with most of it from races and running over the years. Although I would be in my comfort zone on the run sections, the distance and elevation were still daunting and I knew that I’d be visited by ‘the man with the hammer’ as the hours ticked by.
Compared with running, I am far less comfortable when it comes to swimming in the lakes. Deep, dark, cold – FISH! – does anyone actually enjoy it? But as a runner, the swimming element would really provide the challenge and was a key part of what I’d signed up for – it had to be done.
The self-supported nature of the Frog (carry your own stuff) means that, unlike the Bob Graham where support runners who will navigate and mule are lined up months in advance, you can maintain more flexibility in when you attempt it. To this end, I put aside a few weekends in late June and July and all was set.
Wonderful May weather – the hottest on record – put a spanner in my plan. The fells were bone dry and the lakes had warmed up quickly; it was perfect conditions for an attempt. Over the years with the BG I have seen plenty of people sit out excellent early season weather hoping to squeeze out that extra 5% of fitness and stick to ‘the plan’, then end up trudging around in the lashing rain, regretting not going earlier when conditions were ideal. The forecast looked stable, so the date was brought forward to the start of June.
I put an email out to those people who had shown an interest in coming along to keep me company, and to my delight I found that I would have someone with me on all the swims, and some of the hill sections. As the day approached, one final decision had to be made – wetsuit or no wetsuit? It is the norm to do it with one. The lakes were around 16 – 18 degrees which is quite pleasant once you are in, and the weight of carrying a wetsuit and the extra time taken putting it on and taking it off would add a significant amount on to my time. What to do? I still hadn’t decided as I sounded out people for advice the day before.
Some last minute changes in the weather forecast caused some concern and when a grim-faced Ian picked me up at 3.30am in Kendal, it was raining hard. Getting decent footage for his film was his concern; being able to see the opposite shore on the Bassenthwaite swim was mine. We joked and chatted on the way north as the weather improved, stopping off to dip my hand in Windermere on the way past to help solve my wetsuit quandary. It felt warm. What to do?
We pulled into Keswick with 20 minutes to go and it was decision time. Some semi-useful advice from my good friend and company for Skiddaw section and Bassenthwaite swim Ben Abdelnoor and the choice was made – I would take it. Bags were hastily repacked and I traipsed through the alley to the Moot Hall steps. The tops were clear, the temperature was cool and the weather appeared stable and just about perfect. Ian almost looked happy as he fiddled with his cameras. Switch the tracker on. Final check of watches. Go!
I had decided in advance to go up Skiddaw via the less popular route of Carlside – for two reasons. Firstly, that way offered the chance to ditch my kit at Whitestones and do an out and back unburdened with my 4kg pack. Secondly, I have supported many a BG up the main route and I wanted this to feel entirely different. Ben kept the chat going on the climb and all was good. I was at Skiddaw summit pretty much bang on schedule in 68 mins. A lovely descent down through Dodd Wood and the butterflies in my belly started, as the first lake – Bassenthwaite – approached.
Conditions on the lake were perfect. The change into my wetsuit felt time consuming, although, in reality, my run – swim transitions probably amounted to no more than 3 minutes at each end. It was my intention to be slick and fast with them, and much to my family’s amusement, I had practiced them in my living room in advance. The water felt warm and I was regretting taking my wetsuit as I would have to carry it, perhaps unnecessarily, over 40 fell miles, potentially costing me 30-40 minutes of time. I gapped Ben slightly on the swim, which gave me immense pleasure, though knowing what a nice guy he is, he probably let me get ahead to boost my confidence. Another wetsuit wrestle on the far shore and it was off on the short road section to the wonderfully named Barf.
The best line up Barf takes you three quarters of the way around it before summiting. It is steep but good going through a lovely conifer wood. A committed Frogger in future may well scope out a faster, more direct, line up here from the lake but I hadn’t had enough time to have a poke about, so ‘did the tour’. The pace was fast and I still felt strong (as you’d expect – I was only 2hr 30 mins in) and Michelle, who had joined me for this section, was working hard to keep up. The lovely run over Lord’s Seat and the sublime traverse of Ullister Hill was pure pleasure. As was the satisfaction of nailing the fastest line down through the woods (easy to get wrong as I had on my recce a couple of weeks before). I was through Whinlatter in 3 hours 15 mins and feeling great.
The next section has some of my favourite running in the Lakes. However, this has to be earned via a gruelling slog up Grisedale Pike. Even though you are already at Whinlatter Pass when you begin, this climb still always feels like the gift that keeps on giving. I had to have a word with myself to take the edge off my pace as I climbed because I was clearly working too hard. I had a plan for pacing the Frog, gained from experience over the years. I always set off considerably faster than I finish on things longer than 5 or 6 hours and accept that my pace will slow in the second half. Experience has shown me that, if I have done enough training, my pace will not slow too much and this is be best strategy for me to get the best time. I struggle to eat when running hard- typically I can manage less than half a bar every hour, more than this and my stomach complains and moving well becomes uncomfortable. I hoped that I could achieve a fast time on the Frog if I got that fine balance of eating enough, but not too much, and going hard, but not too hard, early on and maintaining pace and ‘hanging on’ in the second half. A strategy full of jeopardy.
The first feeling of fatigue came as I climbed steeply up Crag Hill and I took some food on board. Once up on the summit, the next couple of miles floated by over Wandhope and Whitless Pike and a great line down and over Rannerdale was just about possible with the bracken levels. Crummock Water looked inviting as I descended steeply to it and attempted to flick the switch to swim mode. An over-exuberant wetsuit change left me with an uncomfortable squeeze in the ‘gentleman’s department’ which needed mid swim adjustments that thankfully didn’t require the assistance of my slightly perplexed looking swim support Tanya. Crummock is the deepest lake and coldest of the swims on this round but it still felt doable without a wetsuit. I used a pull bouy to rest the legs on the swims and found that the cool water and rest of the legs left me feeling refreshed and invigorated for the start of the next run section.
Not that there was much running on the climb up Mellbreak. This brute of an ascent, that I had really struggled on in the heat on a previous recce, had become a sort of barometer in my head. I told myself that if I could manage this and the big Red Pike climb to follow at a reasonably good pace, I would be over the worst of it and, providing I didn’t completely blow up at the end, a decent time would be possible. I was moving ok but my legs were feeling it now, over 6 hours in. I had a bit of a rough patch over Red Pike and slowed down as I approached the rock strewn summit of High Stile. I am a confident descender and was soon moving well again plummeting down the 2000 foot descent to Buttermere. I had found a line well to the right of the steep ridge path as you descend and was happy to get on it and hit the stile at the bottom bang on.
I decided to do the relatively short Buttermere swim without a wetsuit and was looking forward to a cool dip and a chance to rest the legs. After a speedy transition, I was in and the temperature was comfortable. The swim passed quickly and a small crowd of supporters at the other side gave me a boost as I got changed and trotted out towards the final hill section and the massive climb up Robinson. However, the energy in my legs quickly drained away once the climb began and on a steep section less than half of the way up I had a big energy crash.
This is what I was dreading. I was staggering about, making very slow progress and generally having negative thoughts about my ability to finish. Doubts filled my mind – ‘What was I thinking? I haven’t done enough long runs. I’ve set off too fast, what an idiot!’. Michelle was with me and provided the necessary encouragement/abuse as I shovelled jelly babies and a gel down my neck. As the sugar hit my system, my energy levels and mood changed, although from now on my pace would be reduced to ‘survival plod’. But I knew it would be this way and my timings accounted for this. I just needed to maintain forward movement and avoid another blow up.
The summit of Robinson, the final big climb, came and went and it started to feel like I was heading for ‘home’. There was, however, still ten miles of running and the final lake swim of 1 mile across Derwentwater yet to come. Throughout my time preparing for this Round, I had spent more time thinking about this final swim and what state I would be in when I got there, than any other element of it. A mile of swimming after 38 miles 16,000 feet of running is no small task. I found to my surprise that I was looking forward to it. My run-weary body yearned for a rest and a cool dip and the chance to use different muscles was appealing.
My spirits were lifted as three clubmates Chris, Paul and Jim came up to meet me on Catbells and we descended together to the shore of the lake. I met Sharon, who was going to swim with me, and following the success of the wetsuit free Buttermere swim, decided again to do it without.
The mile of swimming across this lake is broken up by 3 islands which you must visit. Psychologically this is a big help, with the swim effectively broken into 4 shorter sections. I got into my rhythm on the first section, then embarked on the longest section to the middle and largest island – Rampsholme. Halfway across I started to shiver uncontrollably and I knew I was in trouble. There was still over half a mile to the other shore. It got worse, I couldn’t hold the pull buoy between my legs as the shivering worsened. I was in a bad way, and I was alarmed at how quickly it had come on. A glance up showed me I still had a couple of hundred metres to go to the next island. It struck me that if I could get to there, I had the option of changing into my wetsuit (which I was towing in my dry bag) for the remainder of this swim. I reached the island and with difficulty, shivering violently and with limited control of my fingers, changed into my wetsuit. If I had not had my wetsuit, my attempt would have finished there and I dread to think how awful that would have been, not to mention the problem of getting my shivering hulk safely off that island.
Back in the water, the extra warmth and buoyancy did the trick and I made steady progress across the lake. I heard shouts of ‘Daddy!’ and saw my children in the water and they came over and swam with me for the final few metres. The relief of having the swimming done was huge as I grappled with the wetsuit for a final time. With shouts of encouragement from the lake shore, I set off on the final flat 2 miles into Keswick with a spring in my step. The pace felt good and my ambitious target of 12 hours looked doable. Willed on by the friends I had running with me, I kept the pace as high as I could. It was a busy Sunday evening in Keswick when I entered the square, ran up the steps and touched the door 11 hours and 52 minutes after setting off that morning.
Ian buzzed around with his camera and there were friends and well-wishers from the Frog community congratulating me. I had had an amazing day out in the hills and my time was significantly faster than the previous best. I was satisfied that I couldn’t have gone any quicker and had set a decent time for others to strive to beat. A top fell runner could take an hour or two out of my time if they were willing to brush up on their swimming and familiarise themselves with the route. The challenge of the Frog is unique and I can see that in time it will become more popular. It deserves to be. Whether you want to do it as fast as possible, or treat it as a long day in the hills with an added twist you can find more information on the excellent website www.froggrahamround.co.uk
What are you waiting for?