10 Sep 14 by James Elson

Redemption on the Bob Graham Round

So far, 2014 had been almost entirely devoted to completing the BGR. It wasn't meant to be that way, as my previous two attempts came and went, so my race plans got scrapped in place of coming back and giving it another go. I knew I could get it right, albeit I would need to run at the upper levels of my ability all day to make it under 24hrs. I looked at those first two attempts as two ideal recce's, albeit 2 efforts in the 20hr range within the space of 4 weeks on the route had taken a little something both mentally and physically. I just took the positives from those, and most importantly started working on everything that had prevented me from making it, before, to be in a position to give it one more go this year on September 6th.  

I ended up having what was honestly the single most enjoyable full day of running I've ever had. 

Sunset over leg four on Saturday evening. Photo c/o Natalie White

Pre Attempt

The two previous attempts had failed because of a variety of reasons. If I was honest with myself I didn't work on the route enough. I tried to navigate at least some of the route myself - both times, losing valuable minutes in small and large chunks. I got my nutrition all wrong. I carried too much gear. And I didn't run very well.

I started answering as many of these nagging questions as I could, before this third effort. 

- Navigation: It was really one man who made my mind up to get this done this season and not next. Bill Williamson is a BGR legend. He's completed all 3 British Rounds, and helped scores of runners on their own attempts over the years. I had contacted him at the beginning of the year, but with his own race schedule and being 'booked out' to many other attempts, he simply wasn't able to make either of my first two attempts. After the second failure, he read my report and promptly emailed me to say he'd get the navigators together, told me to get on and do some training and that he'd get it sorted. Within a few hours, he'd emailed me back to say that he'd rallied around and a quite exceptional group of runners had offered to help. I think they'd mostly found the shambolic efforts to date pretty funny, but I took heart from the fact that they seemed convinced I could get around in under 24. From my side I got a few good friends to agree to do the pacing side of things. The list of navigators & pacers ran as follows:

Leg One: Jim Mann (Winter BGR record holder). Matt Winn-Smith (Double Iron World Champ/ BGR finisher)
Leg 2: Alan Lucker (All 3 British Rounds). Matt Winn-Smith
Leg 3: Bill (All 3 British Rounds). Drew Sheffield (Team CR Legend).
Leg 4: Rob Woodall (All 3 British Rounds and Peak Bagger Extraordinaire). Natalie White (Former English Fell Running Champ/ 21hr BGR Finisher). Aidain Linskill (Supporter of multiple BG attempts).
Leg 5: Ian Roberts (31 years of BG support). Bill. Robbie Britton (Team CR Legend).

I knew I would perhaps only be able to ammass this calibre of support the one time. By adding a group of 5 additional pacers to the list, we now had 3 of us out on each leg, one pacer who would help carry kit, a lead navigator, and me. I ended up with more pacers for Leg 5 this time, than the whole of the first attempt. This is how I knew now, to make a BG happen. Nici Griffin would crew us and co-ordinate everything between legs. She would be the glue that held the whole thing together and with her attention to detail and experience on this side of the fence I could think of no one better for that role.

- Nutrition: With only 4 crew points in a 24hr run, a lot of gear, water and food needs to go out with you on each leg. Nici who crewed the second attempt was left with no options for my nutrition going out on stage 3 last time because I hadn't done adequate shopping before hand. This time I listed items to be packed together in individual bags to go out on each leg. No opportunity for error.

- Fitness: I was running ok in training. With 10 previous visits to the Lakes in 2014 alone I had spent a good amount of time learning how to move efficiently over the terrain. But I had hardly raced at all, sticking to occasional one off big efforts rather than consistent shorter racing that I've relied on in the past. This time I ran a marathon on a high school grass track, 3 weeks out from the BG just to see where I was at. I didn't kill myself and ran fairly well. I knew then I had the base fitness to complete and as vastly different as that running experience was, it allayed my doubts about my basic running fitness. 

Leg One:

One issue I had with the first two attempts was lack of sleep. This time with an 0100 start I got to bed at the same time as our 8 month old at 1900 the night before. He woke at 2100 but I managed to get him back down by 2130 and got 80 minutes sleep before the alarm went at 2345 and we drove on to Keswick. It wasn't a lot but it was a damn sight better than 0 minutes. 

When we got there, Ian Roberts was already on site and we were shortly joined by the crew. At the start there were about 8 of us and I was already starting to think the support infrasructure/ team effort on this day was going to be overwhelming. All for one person to run around in a giant circle in under 24hrs. It sounds crazy, it is crazy. That's why it's so brilliant. 

Jim Mann the lead navigator, jogged down to the hall with about 5 minutes to spare having hot footed it from threlkeld. He, Matt Winn Smith and I cracked on at 0100 exactly, Ian's voice shouting '85 minutes up skiddaw is fine' as we shifted through the back streets of Keswick. As is more common than not on the first top, we ran in to clag and some heavy rain. Jackets went on and Jim took the time to ensure we got on to the summit safely in 74 mins, a nice start. We got off on to the trod down to hare crag with no problems. The climb up Calva went smoothly with Matt opening up about his Double Ironman World Champs victory 2 weeks earlier, and Jim talking about his successes at Winter rounds. These were two of the very best guys to have as company to start things off. The climb up Blencathra through Mung Bog went well as the rain died off, but the descent to Threlkeld held one or two special moments. Jim took us initially on a grass line he had found, to cut across under the steeper drop offs of Hall's Fell. We joined it a little high up, however, and conversation seemed to die in the wind as the greasy rock plunged away below us in to the dark and cloud. Matt and I were none too swift over there and we both fell lower down the descent but were able to continue moving well down to the first crew point, right on schedule about 3hr40 on the clock. 

Leg Two:

When we got to Threlkeld, I expected just Nici and Alan, as it was the sociable hour of 0440 in the morning. In fact we were also met by Drew and Ian Roberts. Where else do you get people willfully showing up in the middle of nowhere at that time of the morning just to say well done. It meant a great deal. The first time we ran the BG, Paul and I came in to Threlkeld to a shopping bag full of milk and pork pies on a friends back wall. This was better.

Leg two is great running. Alan Lucker the next navigator was instantly a calming influence. He was totally relaxed even in the face of cloud wrapping itself around the summits. We left Matt at the car attending to gear and food needs and pressed on at a good lick towards Clough Head. As we climbed up the bottom of the fell, we saw car lights behind us and Matt jumped out and jogged up to catch us up. He could have run to catch us no doubt, but that he opted for the lift gave me a boost that we were moving pretty well and I felt really good. 

Clough Head came and went, a short pit stop before the Dodds, but excellent navigation from Alan all the way across Raise and Helvelyn and the two Pikes meant we stayed right on plan, meanwhile we were wrapped in clag all the way. Visibility was just about good enough so as to allow us to look slightly ahead, but when the darkness fell away at 0630 it was the extra light we needed to stay the course. We dispatched the out and back up Fairfield in 15 minutes less than it had taken me last time. Over Seat Sandal and down to the crew point at Dunmail we were bang on schedule and in the space of literally 2 minutes on that descent, the cloud just lifted away to leave the Lakes visible all around us, the last smouldering remnants hanging on to the fell tops. 

Descending to Dunmail at the end of leg two (Photo c/o Alan Lucker)

Bill had emailed me a couple of days before the attempt and told me he didn't want to see me at Dunmail before 0900. Save the energy and be consistent throughout, don't try to bank minutes early on. When I arrived at 0858 it seemed to be a good start. 25 minutes I was at Dunmail last time, 7 minutes this time.

Leg 3:

Bill led the way up Steel Fell and Drew jumped in as pacer carrying a lot of gear with us for the circa 6 - 7 hr leg that is the crux of the round in more ways than one. 

Steel Fell is short and steep but we were up in good time and on to the first plateau with no issues. This is where the magic of Bill's mountain craft began to shine. Without pausing to stop or seemingly even to think he picked out the most even terrain and the fastest possible line between the tops, without ever sacrificing an inch of elevation gain. Chatting away ten to the dozen he gave me total confidence that this leg would be quite different to the two previous times. Every single top came and went between 2 - 7 minutes faster than ever before. I was running where you can actually run and we didn't pause for anything. Overall we worked hard, it was always at an effort, but I was eating enough prior to every climb to allow me to take them in stride rather than the stop start effect of previous attempts. It sounds a bit presumptious but by High Raise at the very centre of the Lakes, I knew we were going to make it in time. 

This was a great day to be out on the fells. 

Starting the climb up Pike O'Stickle with Bill behind. Photo c/o Drew Sheffield


Descending Pike O'Stickle like a pro! Photo c/o Drew Sheffield

Over the rough stuff at the top of Leg three towards Great End we began to take some much more direct lines and the savings kept coming.

Coming off Bow Fell. Photo c/o Drew Sheffield

The bit I was really looking forward to was Bill's line off of Scafell Pike and up on to Scafell. There's no easy option here, we took Lord's Rake as before but ducked off left and made our way up the West Wall Traverse. It was a grind up there with plenty of use of hands to haul up the gully but when we popped out on top, we were within reach of the summit rather than way below it as Lord's Rake spits you out. 

Here is a link to a video of the route up Lord's Rake and the West Wall Traverse that we took. The 'easiest' way up Scafell.

The descent off of the top was 36 minutes, down from 50 previously and came via the best scree run I've ever seen.

We came in to crew point 3 at Wasdale in 14hrs dead as opposed to 16hrs30 the last 2 times. Legs were good, energy was good, weather was good, time was in hand. And to help matters, my wife and son together with mum and dad had slogged it round to Wasdale in the car to say hi. It was time to enjoy the best of the lakes, leg four.

With the crew at Wasdale (Muscle beach). Photo c/o Phil Elson

Leg 4: 

Always looming over the Bob Graham aspirant is Yewbarrow. It's steep. Rob Woodall led Natalie, Aidan and I up and took a great line and we climbed it in one swift move pausing for water only once and topped out in 42 minutes, a time I would have taken even if I'd been fresh. We rolled straight on to the higher part of the leg around to Red Pike and I reduced my previous effort of 74 minutes, to 45 flat. It was clear to me now that I just needed to keep moving to get it done. I didn't feel any pressure and really began to take in where were. Leg four really is sensational. It's only around 11 miles, but with 6000ft of climb it's steep ups and downs mean that the leg time is between 4 and 6hrs dependent on how smashed you are. You can see out over the west coast and the Irish sea, down in to the best of the Lakeland valleys - Ennerdale, Buttermere and Wasdale. But most of all the fells there stand as individuals, behemoths standing sentry in a ring around Wasdale Head. Yewbarrow is a classic 1 in 2 climb. Red Pike is a suprising way off from there, before the traverse to the prominentry of Steeple - a real favourite. Then Pillar, Kirk Fell and Great Gable are just monsters taking roughly 45 minutes each to climb and descend. 

1. Drew Sheffield descending to Steeple on our recce in May. 2. Climbing Great Gable on the same recce.

I'm not usually a very emotional person but as we got over Great Gable on to the last three simple tops (Green Gable, Brandreth, Grey Knotts) before Leg 5, the sun set over Ennerdale and I had to drop back a bit from Rob and Natalie to make sure I held it together!

Last of the sun on the back of Great Gable. Photo c/o Natalie White. 

In to Honister at the end of Leg 4, I had 4hrs50 minutes to knock off leg 5.

Leg 5: 

Leg five breaks down in to two sections. The final 3 tops and a descent down to a road. Then the road run in to Keswick. Ian and Bill led us straight up Dale Head on this one. Not quite as steep as the other routes up from the crew spots, so relatively relaxed and despite my lack of power we hit it on the planned 35 mins. We ran on and round to Hindscarth as dark fell on us, where we could see two headlamps twinkling at us from the summit. Bill asked me if I knew anyone else who would be out here at this time of night and I said no. When we arrived, it turned out to be Martin Bergerud from Lyon Equipment our team sponsor and his wife Lisa who just happens to have done the BGR in both directions. Not a bad addition to the knowledge out on this last section! I was feeling pretty whacked out by now but we were still moving relatively well considering. The only loss of time really was a lengthy pit stop which came on very suddenly but luckily Robbie was on 'hand'. 

When we made it down to the road I switched in to more comfy shoes and pressed straight on to get the job done. When we arrived in to the high street Bill said thanks for a great day in the fells. I couldn't believe he was thanking me! There were probably around 15 people back at Moot Hall including almost everyone from the round and my ma and pa who were then able to get me home (i had no idea how i was actually going to get back) which was nice. I felt pretty vacant, mostly on account of the lack of sleep in the past 40ish hours, but otherwise pretty good considering. 

As I mentioned before it's pretty hard to make the numbers mean anything because of the ground and the weather but I know some might be interested in those so below are what I make the legs out to be after numerous runnings of them, what I ran them in on the day, and my splits. 

Leg 1: 13.4 miles. 5724ft climb. 3hrs 40 mins.
Leg 2: 14.3 miles. 5700ft climb. 4hrs 13 mins.
Leg 3: 17 miles, 6150ft Climb. 5hrs 58 mins.
Leg 4: 10.8 miles. 6011ft Climb. 4hrs 58 mins.
Leg 5: 11.3 miles. 2333ft Climb. 3hrs 10 mins.

Total: 66.8 miles. 25,918ft Climb. 22hrs 15mins. 

I'm not going to talk too much about how hard the BG is, except to say that save for the most talented of fell runners it is not something that can be done without a great deal of effort and planning. I know a few readers of this website will have it on their radar so being as honest as I can: I put myself in sub3 marathon shape, made 10 separate trips to the Lakes for training in a 7 month period, had possibly the most experienced team of navigators and pacers available (of 12 people who paced at different times, 7 of them had finished the BG), devoted my entire summer racing season to meeting this goal and got in with a relatively paltry 1h45mins to spare at the third attempt. I would liken my effort to running well under 18hrs for 100 miles on the flat. It is an exceptionally challenging run. Ultimately fell fitness is very different to run fitness and that is the crucial element. Someone with a lot less road speed can do this, being a good climber and descender is important. My fell experience is still relatively small in comparison to my run experience. Billy Bland walked the route in 22hrs. That's the difference fell experience can make. 

Ian noted toward the end that the number of people attempting the BG is increasing, but that the spirit doesn't seem to have died in any way. He expressed concern that press coverage could be leading to many ill fated attempts but I still get the feeling that relatively few go for it in full. I'm not sure how I earned the respect of people like he to make them willing to support my effort, but I think my determination to succeed and wanting it to be more than just a simple 'get around to tick the box' exercise was perhaps evident in my earlier reports. Whatever the case I am exceptionally grateful to the group of people who made this happen. Whilst I may have been the only one able to do the actual running, I was held aloft by the support team all the way around. 

Lastly, a few good friends have been struggling with injury, poor performance and the odd DNF recently. I have flirted with all three many times in the past. From my relatively inexperienced position, all I'll say is that this sport is somewhat of a roller coaster. There are big peaks in troughs in training and racing. If you hang in there, it will come back around. It's been 5 very poor efforts for me between probably my two best ever runs, Spartathlon 2013 and BGR 2014. Really, all I had to do was keep my head in the game and I have no doubt that a few years ago I would have sacked this off and moved on. Finishing it the third time means many more than 3 times over what it would have done to bag it in one. I could feel the pressure at times in the past 6 months, wondering why I continued to chomp at the bit when a rest seemed to be prudent. I guess I just knew in myself that that wasn't necessary, that it would turn around and that when it did, it would turn around completely. 

I read the below just recently and perhaps it may apply to those of you who, like me, occasioanally fall short over the years. 

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

--- Theodore Roosevelt