The Bob Graham Lie by Ben Abdelnoor
I’d like to apologise to everyone who’s asked me over the years about doing a Bob Graham Round and received my little white lie. My stock reply has always been the same: “I’m not interested at the moment, but I’ll do one someday.” In truth, for at least the last three seasons, I’ve been more than keen to fit it in. For me it was easier just not to talk about it.
I cope well under pressure but I didn’t see the need to unnecessarily put pressure on myself. Especially when I know what the inevitable follow up response would be if I said that I did want to have a go at a BG: “Oh, you’ll do a really fast round.” That’s something I didn’t want to have hanging over me; if I was going to do it I just wanted to get round.
But not only did I want to do my round ‘on the quiet’, I liked the idea of setting out on my own and running alone for the entire route.*
Whilst I didn’t do an awful lot of specific planning or training for my round I was certainly aware of, and reasonably prepared for, what I was to undertake. The way I looked at it was like this: I’d been running on the fells for over ten years, so I’d already put in a significant amount of mileage training, particularly over the last couple of seasons in running long races; I’ve helped out on at least half a dozen rounds, running almost all of every leg; I’ve walked or run up all the BG summits in the last thirty years literally hundreds of times; I’d reccied the first leg in the dark and had sat down with my set of Wainwright books and a map beforehand.
The first thing I wrote in my planning notebook was, of course, the food. Now this was something I’d being looking forward to for a while. Jelly babies, Mars bars, Snickers, Milky Ways, GU gels, cheese and pickle sandwiches, tuna mayonnaise, buttered malt loaf, nectarines, pineapple and mango chunks, roasted peanuts, salt and vinegar crisps, Coca-Cola, tea and sparkling water, it was a pleasure to write that list and I looked forward to consuming as much of it as I could.
The Lead-up to the Round
I won’t call her my ‘long-suffering girlfriend’ because it’s cliched and not true, but Britta’s certainly had to put up with a number of my announcements of “Right, this year I’m going to have a go at my BG.” Except this time, with a month to go, I told her, and we realised I was in good shape, injury-free and feeling great. All I had to do was finalise one small, and rather embarrassing, aspect of the BG Round… Was I able to go up a hill in the dark and, most importantly, on my own? I’m not as afraid of the dark as I used to be, but I’m pretty jumpy. So, the weekend before my planned Round I parked at the Blencathra Centre shortly before midnight. Putting on my biggest head torch and my loudest music I ran out along the Cumbria Way to Skiddaw House, onto Great Calva and Blencathra, before descending via Doddick Fell. And by the time I got back to the van in the early hours of the morning I knew I was ready – quite simple really!
Currently only Britta knew of my plans, so with 72 hours to go I thought I’d best let my parents know. Mum was coming to visit that weekend; she didn’t sound particularly convinced by the idea. I confided my plan to a club-mate, who gave me some encouragement, saying he thought I was capable. So, all in all, only six people knew of my plan: two flat mates were let in on the idea as I needed them to look after my hens.
I’d been fairly nervous leading up to the weekend. I was sure I had it in me to complete a round, but I wasn’t sure what it’d be like to be on my feet for so long without sleep. The Gerry Charnley Way – a 37-mile tour of the central Lakeland fells – completed in 2007, took me 11 hours and was the longest time I’d spent on my feet. My reasons for not competing in ultra-races include the fact I like to stop running and go to bed at night, and a fear of the dark….
Saturday 6th September
We parked in the car park at Keswick where I dressed and donned my race pack, squeezed full of spare clothing and batteries, compass and maps, food and drink. I threw a hoodie over my top and a pair of tracksuit pants over my leggings; I didn’t want to start at the same time as anyone else, so we went to the Moot Hall incognito. There was no sign of any imminent attempts, so off I stripped. As it happens, we think mine might have been the only attempt that Saturday night into Sunday which, given the fantastic forecast and excellent weather, following on from a pretty poor summer, I found extraordinary.
After a couple of quick photos I set off from the Moot Hall, ten minutes earlier than my planned 11pm start. The three of us, Mum, Britta and myself, had had a quick walk out to Fitz Park to check the way, which was a good thing given we missed a turning and ended up in a dead-end on our first attempt!
For my round I’d written down split times for a 23-hour schedule for the first two legs, then splits for both a 20- and 23-hour schedule from Dunmail to the finish. I figured that aiming for a 21-hour round might be about right.
I had an uneventful first leg over Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra. I rang Britta from the summit of Blencathra to let her know I was heading down Doddick Fell to meet her in Threlkeld. The sky that night was full of stars, and what I thought was the radar station on the Pennine summit of Great Dunn Fell, turned out to be the huge orange-glow of a rising moon. I spent most of the first two legs trying to act confident, talking to the moon and the stars, to the slugs and spiders which were in abundance that evening, and the sheep (at least the glowing eyes that appeared and disappeared…). I was comforted not just by talking to myself, nature and the celestial beings but looking at the glowing lights of Carlisle, Wigton, Keswick, Penrith and anywhere else I thought I could see. If I could see them, I convinced myself they could see me, so technically I wasn’t alone. Like I said, I get scared in the dark…
I know that doing road support can be a rather stressful affair, with so much time to plan, and then very little time in the crucial moments. To help Britta I’d used transparent plastic bags with various bits of kit grouped together, I’d boxed up foodstuffs and bagged any ‘important kit’ like laminated schedule cards, spare headtorches and batteries, maps etc. It was a great relief to find Britta waiting with everything laid out on a table and my chair ready to sit in. Each checkpoint was expertly organised and efficient: a timer was set to go off after nine minutes to remind me to get going; a checklist was used to ensure I’d done necessary tasks such as change socks, take Ibuprofen, swap over maps etc.; tea was brewed, Coke and sparkling water poured and food spread out so I could quickly pick what I wanted to take with me. My change-overs got steadily quicker; 11 minutes at Threlkeld and Dunmail, eight minutes at Wasdale and just three minutes at Honister.
The second night section passed with only one minor incident. I wouldn’t like to imagine how these sections would have gone if there’d been low cloud or poor visibility. My navigation isn’t particularly poor, but I didn’t want to have to use my map and compass this evening. And then it happened; heading off from Great Dodd on a wide trod, I began to skirt along the fellside with a slope off to my left and the faint outline of various dark fells ahead. I felt like I wasn’t heading in the direction of Watson’s Dodd, more traversing past it in the direction of Stybarrow Dodd. I stopped and tried to peer into the darkness, but it was difficult to get a perspective on which outlines were fells close by and which far away. I dropped to my knees, took off my race pack and pulled out the map. I knew where I was, I’d gone past Watson’s Dodd. I could picture it, flat and featureless, on a western dog-leg. Panic set in, “No, no, no, I can’t miss it out, that’d be the end of my attempt.” I knew I should be able to find it without too much difficulty, but it was the realisation that the darkness could scupper plans so quickly. Relief washed over me when I eventually came upon the cairn, and turned safely onto the trod that led away from Watson’s Dodd to Stybarrow.
I should point out that another of my concerns was knowing whether or not I was at the correct summit cairn. Most of the tops are pretty obvious, but other summits (Rossett Pike, Broad Crag, Ill Crag) I hadn’t visited that often. I sat down in the week leading up to the run and looked at Wainwright’s sketches of the summits and paid close attention to his detailed maps. It was surprising just how many summit tops appeared to have more than one summit cairn which, on occasion, found me wandering between them to ensure I ticked it off. On Nethermost Pike I visited a couple of cairns, on Fairfield I went to three shelters or piles of rock, Harrison Stickle three, Esk Pike two and two on Great End.
By Helvellyn I really, really needed the daylight to come. My spare head torch was far weaker a light than I’d anticipated, it kept slipping down my forehead and I didn’t trust it’s battery life so I was forced to keep it on a low setting. By the time I left Dollywaggon Pike there was a significant morning glow to the east which, despite me shouting repeatedly at it to hurry up and arrive, finally made a full appearance as I left Fairfield summit and gave me the chance to call Britta and let her know my position. As I descended off Seat Sandal with an early morning spring in my step I had my first realisations that I had a good chance of getting round. Britta said she could hear me singing as I descended down to the road crossing at Dunmail.
I didn’t meet anyone on the first two legs – except a couple of folks campervanning in the Latrigg car park – which didn’t surprise me given it was night-time. What did surprise me was how few I saw on the following leg which took me through Sunday morning. Including folks camping at Angle Tarn, I passed ten people in all on leg three, which included the Langdales and Scafells, and this on a beautiful Sunday morning. I don’t think I’ve ever been on Scafell Pike alone in sunshine like that, it was just perfect.
Whilst I was keeping track of each leg on my laminated card and was aware that I was generally gaining a few minutes on each of the legs of my 20-hour schedule, I didn’t concern myself with quite how fast I was going. More important was getting to each top safely, continuing to feel strong and making sure I was eating, drinking and not missing out on visiting any of the 42 summits, another of my pre-BG fears. From Rossett Pike I didn’t want to risk getting crag-fast on the direct line to Bowfell and, having unsuccessfully tried to find it a few weeks ago, I opted for a short descent to Angle Tarn, followed by a tiring drag up to Ore Gap and across to Bowfell summit. Similarly, the route from Scafell Pike to Scafell was an easy decision for me, it was always going to involve descending down to Foxes Gully and climbing back up. I didn’t want to take any chances today.
And so it continued; a relatively comfortable climb onto Yewbarrow with the sun beating down on my back. An out-and-back to Steeple – don’t look down! – a fairly horrendous scramble up a gully on Kirkfell Crags – why didn’t I just go up Red Gully? – a slow, rocky descent off Great Gable via the tourist path, all topped off with a thirsty run from Kirkfell to Honister without any water. By Honister I knew I’d done it, it was only a matter of in what time. After I’d left Wasdale I figured I could be on for a sub-20 hour Round, and despite Britta telling me not to think about it until Honister, I spent most of leg 4 trying to work out if I could get a time which began with 18 hours…
From Honister I couldn’t eat anything, so other than filling up drinks bottles and picking up my trekking poles I was ready to set off after just a couple of minutes. The final stride-out to summit Dale Head was an anxious climb, for it wasn’t until I reached the top that I’d know for sure whether I was on for a sub 19-hour time. From Dale Head to the finish was just glorious, I tucked my poles away for the descent off Robinson and positively skipped down the final climb and trotted into Little Town. Here I gave my feet a quick wash, changed into road shoes and fresh socks, and set off for Keswick. Britta and Mum took my race pack off me and agreed just to drive straight to Keswick, no point risking seeing me on route and missing the finish. With nothing to carry I set off at a comfortable run, knowing the quicker I ran the sooner it’d be over. Those final joyful few miles passed faster than I expected and coming into Keswick I tucked my headphones away, wanting to enjoy the sights and sounds of my grandstand finish…
Low-key it began, and low-key it finished. Just Mum and Britta, standing a little off to the side of Moot Hall. No clapping, no cheering, just beaming smiles and hugs. I’d done it. Still can’t believe it. A perfect day.
*A solo, unsupported Round involves being totally self-sufficient, carrying all your own food, clothing and equipment without any road-crossing support or food/clothing stashes. My round was a solo, supported round and I’m very grateful to Britta for being there at every crossing, ready and waiting with food, clothing and some encouraging words.
Moot Hall – start 10.48pm
Blencathra 1.49am (mobile call to Britta)
Threlkeld – arrive 2.20am
Leg 1: 3 hours 32 minutes
Threlkeld – depart 2.31am
Fairfield 5.48am (mobile call to Britta)
Dunmail – arrive 6.22am
Leg 2: 4 hours 2 minutes
Dunmail – depart 6.33am
Pike O’ Stickle 8.15am (mobile call to Britta)
Wasdale – arrive 11.15am
Leg 3: 4 hours 53 minutes
Wasdale – depart 11.23am
Honister – arrive 3.03pm
Leg 4: 3 hours 48 minutes
Honister – depart 3.06pm
Little Town – depart 4.35pm
Moot Hall – finish 5.13pm
Leg 5: 2 hours 10 minutes
Total: 18 hours 25 minutes