I’ve often said I’m a glutton for punishment and this weekends adventures confirmed that. Certainly the Bob Graham Round requires a strong sense of adventure, a penchant for technical fast fell running and a willingness to suffer a fair amount of pain.
As part of training for TDS (part of the UTMB series) I’ve been focusing on increasing my ascent and descent. Having checked the stats for Bob Graham it actually comes in at more ascent per mile than any of the famed UTMB races and therefore seemed a good training challenge to get in some long days out in the hills and test how my legs stood up to the shock. Along with another running buddy, also training for UTMB, we hatched a plan to recce the route on the 3-day bank holiday and crossed our fingers for good weather.
Our initial plan was legs 1 and 2 on day 1, legs 3 and 4 on day 2, and the final 5th leg on day 3. However, with it being bank holiday, buses were reduced and faced with a long drive back after an equally long day running on Monday we changed out plan to cut out day 3 and go for legs 3-5 in 1 day on the Sunday. The weather looked good, i had snacks to enough to feed a small army and off we set from Keswick at 7.30 am on Saturday morning.
Day 1, Leg 1
Day 1 started well, we made it up Skiddaw quickly, chasing another fell runner just in front of us. It’s actually the first time I’ve done Skiddaw in the day light, having previously attempted it at the end of the Lakes 3000 in dark, wind and rain, and I was surprised by the ease we reached the summit. Despite a small bit of clag we navigated off the top, hitting the fence line only marginally off and picking up the track down into the bog and up onto Great Calva. Coming off Great Calva we picked up the track down to the river, slowing massively as the conditions underfoot got pretty slippery and at one point hanging onto a fence for dear life to lower myself down the hillside (not the most glamorous look). After trekking across more bog and crossing a river up to my knees (wet shoes it would be then), we started the long ascent up the back shoulder of Blencathra, my favorite mountain in the Lakes. We reached the top with 30 minutes to get down within the maps 23 hour time guidelines feeling pleased with ourselves. Making the decision to go with the direct route off halls fell (rather than Doddick) we soon regretted it, slowing our pace considerably to get down the scramble before picking up the steep scree path down to Threkeld. We hit Threkeld in 4 hours 15, already behind time taking the chance to stop and refresh our water we had stashed the night before at the sports club.
Day 1, Leg 2
Leg 2 starts with the long and steep climb up Clough Head. Again we made good progress on the uphill, although steep, a relatively non-technical ascent. Hitting the top we were lucky to have a clear day and all summits in sight so navigating over the dodds (a notoriously tricky section) was no problem at all. Running as much as possible on the easier paths we continued across, now spying the higher ranges of Helvelyn and Nevermost Pike ahead of us. However after now over 6 hours of brutal ups and downs our energy was dipping, having to stop often to top up on food and relying on our poles to drag us up the fells. Reaching the end of the ridge way we were already at 7 hours 30 so well out of time with Fairfield and Seat Sandel still ahead of us. However with time not our main objective for the day, we continued on determined to finish day 1 strong. At this point we opted for the zig-zag route off the ridge followed by the direct route up Fairfield rather than the out and back option most people seem to select – a choice we regretted as soon as we hit the long scree slope slog up Fairfield that seemed to go on forever. The trip down the other side was no better and unfortunately showed up my lack of technical down hill running skills, with numerous fell runners overtaking me on the way down after a long days running. After reaching Seat Sandel we then made our first real nav error coming the wrong way off the top, instead of going direct down to the lay-by, taking the longer route back into Grasmere. However to our good luck this did enable us to pick up the bus back into Keswick after 9 hours, 39 minutes of running, 28.7 miles and 11903 ft ascent (and the same in descent). Although tired and in need of the George’s famous Cow Pie we felt relatively in one piece and pleased with our efforts, even if not the quickest.
Bellies full, glass of wine had, peanut butter sandwiches made and off to bed for us in preparation for day 2…
Day 2, Leg 3
For day 2 we planned to run all the way back into Keswick so we opted to forgo public transport and leave a car at the start at the base of Steel Fell. Braving the icy and already strong winds down in the pass at 7.30am we shouldered our bags (with 2 litres of water each) and off we set, legs grumbling in anticipation of the steep climb ahead. And steep it was – a rude awaking into day 2 – although hitting the top of Steel fell we were surprised at how runnable the next section was along the plateau. After weaving our way across the bog we started up towards Sergeant Man, opting to take the path up the beck and missing Raise (sneeky but we had both done it before). Making good progress up the beck we hit to top and spent the next few hours wondering around the next peaks trying to ascertain which indeed was the real peak (and which were impostor Birketts or just cairns to guide the way). Certainly as part for a proper round attempt we would need to come back and recce in more detail! Already slow over the pikes and on rocky terrain we then made our second nav error, coming off right from Martcrag Moor towards Stake Pass rather than direct route down the fell side. As a result we added on the miles and minutes, back tracking to take the “heather ledge” up to Rossett Pike.
It was then that the monumental climb of Bowfell appeared towards us, it looked impenetrable and neither of us had ever been up the route it attempted to take us. As the map told us, we followed a “faint path up to the summit plateau marked by cairns” – it was indeed faint and it was pretty hard to tell scree from cairn. However after quite a bit of grumbling and a lot of climbing we made it up a scramble through a small gully and out onto the plateau alive and relieved. By this point we were however well behind time and my left knee was beginning to complain – we planned a short re-assessment of plans once we got to Scafell and of we headed again with a little less bounce in our step. We were just over half way through leg 3 and still had Esk Pike, Great End then two crags before tackling Scafell and Scafell Pike at 978m. Our original option was to take lords rake (aka the scree path of death) up to the top and then down on into Wasdale but with the wind picking up to the 50 mph promised and our (mainly my) progress slow on the rocky terrain we took stock, reminded ourselves this was a “training run for UTMB” and not a bob graham attempt and opted to nip across the corridor route to miss out Wasdale, Yewbarrow, Steeple and Pillar and pick up the route again at Great Gable. A couple more hours in the bag and the thought of a pint at the end urged us don the pass and onto the 2nd half of leg 4.
Day 2, leg 4 from Great Gable
After our cheating shortcut we made good time over over to Styhead tarn, but now stood contemplating the HUGE climb up Great Gable – it just keeps on going! We gritted our teeth and plodded our way to the top, hauling ourselves up with our poles. We reached the summit, only then to take the worst scree/rock path on the route down from the summit to the gap over to it’s sister mountain Green Gable. I’ve done the path before when doing Napes Needle and Sphinx ridge and a hated it then. I hated it even more now. However the next peaks are relatively simple, Brandreth and Grey Knotts, leveling out before you make the long and rough descent down to honister pass. Cursing under my breath as i dodged down the rocks and heather, I was over taken by other more sprightly fell runners who had more sensibly just decided to do leg 4 in the one day rather than 3-5! Taking a short recovery and scoffing my last peanut butter sandwich we dragged ourselves away from the slate mine for the last and final section, hoping to finish around 8pm for a pint of local ale…the pub was now calling and very well deserved.
Day 2, leg 5
The final section looked straight forward, we only had 3 peaks to tick off and then it was a simple descent and run back into Keswick for beer. However, we knew the climb to Dale Head, although not the steepest, is one of the longest – at that time of the round it really seems to drag. False summit after false summit we eventually stumbled over the cairn and set off around to hindscarth and over to the final peak of the day, Robinson. The evening light was beautiful and the running now much more relaxed as we headed down into the valley and joined the path. Since we were not under time pressure we opted for the scenic and slow rather than fast road route back to Keswick, after a bit of faffing picking up the track skirting Cat Bells down into Portinscale and back into town. By this stage we were shuffling/run-walking our way back, picking out trees to run to and no longer wishing a sprint finish or with any time expectations.
We hit Keswick and Moot hall in in just under 13 hours (but missing about a 3 hour section back in leg 4), fairly pleased with the eventual time of our recce but in awe of anyone doing this in under 24 hours. My knee hurt, my back ached and I had flies stuck to my face. Checking I did not smell too much, and then promptly deciding not to care, we fell into a pub, drank some beer (with strange looks from normal clean folk) and then head back to our rooms for a glorious feast of noddle pots and pesto pasta. hurrah!
Reflections on the BGR
I knew BGR was tough, but I don’t think you can really comprehend how tough until you try it. The sheer number of peaks, the technicality of the ground, the changeable weather, the remote location of the route, all make it one of the toughest challenges i know. Even doing it over 2 days i covered more ascent than I have in any other ultra race – but that was of course why we were doing it. Once the legs recover and the rose tinted glasses come on I’m sure I’ll be back to recce the missed section on leg 4 and the dream of some day completing in 24 hours is still alive (just….).
The stats from our run:
- Miles: 59
- Peaks: 36 (42 minus 6 as we missed out Raise and the peaks in the southern end of leg 4)
- Time: 22 hours 39 minutes
- Ascent: 25,000 ft (and the same in descent)
It has to be tried to be believed. But it did leave me with great confidence for TDS in 33 hours!