Going into Spring, Tom and I both felt a bit tied down: lambing was taking up many hours of the day and too many of the night and Tom was working too much. However, now we lived closer to the Lakes, the Bob Graham round that I had hoped to do before my accident was pressing unfinished business, giving us a necessary compulsion to get out in the hills.
With a date set for an attempt in late July, we focused any days off on getting plenty of height climb in the legs. Feeling about as ready as anybody might, and with 3 weeks to go, we headed north to Scotland for 10 days of holiday. We were exceptionally lucky with the weather – clear skies, warm weather and cloud inversions, which meant that tapering was abandoned in favour of long alpine-esque adventures in the Cuillin and elsewhere!
Back home in Cumbria, feeling fit, but with worryingly used legs, I started to finalise the logistics for the day. It was still so sweltering that sitting in the shade induced a sweat. On the one hand, running 65 miles and ascending 27000ft in the heat would be pretty unbearable, but if the weather broke it could be just as bad, if not worse! The forecast was certainly not stable and contingency plans for a midweek attempt were rapidly put together as the forecasted electric storms became more probable. As it turned out the weather was on our side and Saturday 28th July dawned with not a cloud to be seen and temperatures of “only 25c”.
Just as the campsite finally grew quiet enough for sleep, the late-night drone flying stopped and the ten o’clock ice-cream had van driven home, it was time to get up. Tom had got out of the tent a couple of hours before to tell a party to be quiet and they were still chatting around the campfire and looked very surprised to see us. It had been a perfect evening on one of the longest days of the year and the hot sun had been replaced by a bright full moon. I wiggled out of my sleeping bag, already dressed in my running kit, and bundled into the car for the short drive into Keswick.
Outside the Moot Hall, I loaded Dom Spracklen up with my food and water for the first leg and Roger Laycock with the spare layers and emergency kit; I was carrying nothing apart from a map in a money belt. I touched the door, poised and excited to begin whilst Roger counted down the seconds on his watch until 2am. I was so excited I had to stop myself from sprinting as we started. We jogged through the outskirts of town and out onto the track towards Skiddaw, our first peak. Our head torches illuminated the stony track, but the moon was bright enough to show the peaks in the distance. Unfortunately, Dom’s night had been even less successful at sleeping than mine, and rather than the restful day off work that I’d had, he’d endured a busy week and a long drive back from Scotland the day before so his body wanted to sleep rather than walk quickly uphill in the middle of the night. We carried on, expecting him to catch us up, but as we walked the flickering light of his torch became more distant. We paused at the fence corner on Great Calva and deliberated over whether we should wait. We still couldn’t see the head torch and time was passing so, guiltily, we climbed over the fence and ran down the trod amongst the bilberry bushes to the stream. We were effectively now a group of two. Roger had kindly brought a bottle of water to supplement what I had asked Dom to carry and I drank some before the next climb, although to our surprise he had accidentally bought fizzy water. I tipped it out and drank from the stream. I felt strong throughout the leg and enjoyed the time to talk as we easily navigated our way around the northern fells. The ground was much drier than when I had reccied the leg and the trods used by other teams had become more obvious over the last few weeks of summer. The sun rose as we climbed Mungrisedale common; the sky was orange and pink cloud rested on the top of Blencathra where Tom was waiting for us in the mist by the trig point. Roger waited for Dom and I descended the parachute in Tom’s footsteps after eating any snacks that he had carried up for himself. We were 6 minutes up. Jude had provided a mini feast in Threlkeld and, after a shoe change and some mini-rolls, I was ready for leg 2.
The second leg of the BG which takes you over Helvellyn and the Dodds from Threlkeld to Dunmail was joyful. The early morning air was warm without being too hot and my legs still felt light. My pacers, Martin and Matt Holroyd, effortlessly guided me from one summit to the next quietly reassuring me at each peak that we were steadily gaining a couple of minutes here and there. I ate very little on the leg, just one packet of crumbled crisps, but drank sips of my water almost constantly as Matt ran with the bottle in his hand and kept giving it to me. I had chosen to descend Dollywagon via the fence posts to avoid any slippery stones on the zigzag path and did the descent entirely on my bottom, watched by Julia and John Murfin who had come to meet me at Grisedale tarn. After the out and back to Fairfied, my mum appeared through the bracken as I jogged gently down to the road at Dunmail. I felt free and was surprised that I was enjoying it so much.
The furthest I had run in my preparation for the round was the first two legs together and so I was a little nervous starting the next leg. Legs 3 and 4 are the crux legs, being longest, roughest and hilliest. I had badly broken my leg in a rock-climbing accident two years previously and I wasn’t totally sure whether I would find myself struggling with my leg shortening or damage to my joints. Leg 3 felt like the most daunting obstacle to completing the round. It was long and hilly and would have been a big day in itself. I had also not run it in its entirety since being a pacer on it several years ago, largely because of the logistical difficulties in getting back to the car from Wasdale. However, up to steel fell, across to calf crag and onto the pikes, I felt like I was flying. I had eaten well at Dunmail raise (half a pizza and a can of peaches) and the combination of Steph Dwyer, Mike Bottomley and my sister as pacers provided constant conversation and entertainment. The high temperature was starting to be a problem, but I kept drinking water in the hope I would be spared from dehydration. Sabrina Verjee met me to accompany me from Pike of Stickle to Rossett pike and, humbled to be in her company, I felt like I ought to run that section really quickly! Sabrina sent Steph off to find water whilst Mike and I continued up Bowfell. When she left, however, I started to feel strange and my vision was going a bit blurry and it felt like I was giving myself water overload by drinking so much without taking on much salt. I lay down on the top of Bowfell and ate Steph and Mike’s packets of posh crisps. It may have been a placebo, or it could have been the calories, but it felt like the salt was making me feel better enough to stagger up Ill Crag and Broad Crag. At Mickledore, Tom’s dad had rigged a short rope up Broad Stand – easy when dry and fresh, but potentially disastrous when weary and wet. From here, Steph, Mike, and my sister left and headed off to Styhead tarn for a swim and Tom took over. At this stage, a swim felt like a much more sensible idea than running another 30 miles! However, Scafell did feel like a big milestone on the round and once I had passed it I was quietly confident that I would succeed.
The day was heating up and, whilst way ahead of schedule, I was starting to hit a rough patch. My back was really painful for the descent down to Wasdale and I lost time on my schedule. I don’t have very good posture at the best of times, but since my accident, my right leg has been shortened by about 1cm and the back pain is accentuated on long runs. I was sure I would make it round, but I definitely wasn’t sure if i would make it on time.
Tom’s mum and Joe Hobbs (Lonsdale) met us in Wasdale with orange juice and a bacon sandwich. She also had poles, which I hoped would make me feel more comfortable on the climbs. We weren’t going fast for any of leg 4, but we were steady and I was able to keep up my pace and not lose any more time. We stayed with another pair from Dorset who were doing the round supported only by each other, and we were able to help them find some of the BG trods that they didn’t know. I wasn’t able to eat much until Joe mentioned that he had a veggie sausage sandwich in his bag. His food sounded much more appealing than mine so he dutifully donated me the sausages from inside, retaining the squished bap.
It was amazing to arrive to so many supporters waiting for me in Honister. The temperature was cooling down and was much more comfortable and I once again felt energetic and injury free. I sat on a crate to eat a tin of rice pudding and then strode up the hill with Josh Westwood and my sister. I made up time rapidly on this leg, and was really surprised when Josh said that beating 21 hours was now well within my reach. Unfortunately, on Robinson, my sister started to slow down and throw up. She didn’t know the descent route and we deliberated over whether we should leave her, but Josh managed to get in touch with Tom and my mum who could come and pick her up from the road. Her pre-exercise dinner choice of three hard boiled eggs had not been particularly wise! Josh was fantastic down the rocks, despite living on the opposite side of the Dales, he had found time to learn where every rock was and skillfully led me down to the road where Joe and Andrena were waiting on the tandem to accompany us back into keswick. I jogged the road sections steadily but comfortably but I was worried that my sister and her search party wouldn’t see me finish, but fortunately, just after the outdoor centre in Portinscale I heard a whooping as they drove past.
I ran into Keswick as fast as I could to a round of applause from strangers. My legs felt fine and I was ecstatic to finish in 20 hours and 23 minutes – 1 hour 37 minutes faster than my schedule. My Bob Graham was probably the best day of my life, and one that would not have been possible without the generous support from my friends – thank you!