The Bob Graham Round. Where do we start.
The BGR is a 66 mile, 27,000 ft circuit of 42 of the highest peaks in the English Lake District within 24 hours.
“First done way back in 1932 by Bob Graham, hotelier of Keswick, Cumberland, at the age of 42, the 42 Peak Round has become a testing ground for the supremely fit. Each summer around 100 of the most highly tuned ultra-distance fell runners will attempt the 27,000 ft of ascent within the allotted 24 hours. Only one in three will return to the Keswick Moot Hall before the clock runs down. Most of the rest will be back again …!”
I first came across the BGR a number of years ago and was immediately drawn to the challenge, but looked on at it in awe and admiration. 66 miles with 27,000 ft over 42 of the highest fells in the Lake District? You’ve got to be kidding. There was no way I was capable of completing that! However, over the years, it became a more and more realistic ambition, and eventually I knew that one day I would be able to attempt it.
Over the last 2 years, I began training with the aim of a 2017 attempt. With long, hilly runs forming the basis of my training, and plenty of fell races, I soon grew in confidence. Taking part in a number of mountain ultra races, and spending long days out in the Lakes reccying the various legs, I could feel my body becoming more and more conditioned, and was able to practice my nutrition strategies. I was fortunate to know guys like Alan and Graham who have both completed the round, and drew experience from them.
Fast forward to Friday 16th June at 23:00pm, and there I was, stood in front of the Moot Hall in Keswick, about to set off on my attempt.
The BGR is split into 5 legs as follows:
Leg 1: Keswick to Threlkeld – 3 summits
Leg 2: Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise – 12 summits
Leg 3: Dunmail Raise to Wasdale – 15 summits
Leg 4: Wasdale to Honister – 9 summits
Leg 5: Honister to Keswick – 3 summits
I’d planned to run on a 22:30 schedule, giving me some cushion in case I struggled and slowed, allowing me to still come in under 24 hours, yet not pushing it too hard in the first part of the round meant that if I had anything left I could push on in the latter sections. I’d arranged a number of friends to support me on the various legs, and Lily to manage the road crossings, with my parents available to help if required.
At 23:00 on the dot, we said our goodbyes and left the Moot Hall in Keswick. The plan was to be back there within 24 hours – it was going to be a long day! Matt was supporting me on this leg, fresh from his own successful BGR attempt a few weeks previously. I’d supported him on 3 legs, including Leg 1, so the route was fresh in both our minds. It had been overcast yet quite mild all day, and although the forecast for the Saturday looked very promising (albeit very warm), I knew the clag would be down on the first few peaks. I hadn’t anticipated it to be as bad as it was though! The sun had just set so the head torches were on from the start, and we made our way steadily out of Keswick towards Skiddaw.
It was really relaxed, and great catching up with Matt about his round, and his house move that day. We soon slowed to a walk on the lower slopes and before long we entered the clag. The combination of darkness and low cloud made it really hard to see as our headtorches were reflecting off the moisture in the air. The wind also picked up and soon we were being buffeted whilst doing our utmost to stay on the path – visibility was down to a matter of feet! With the help of GPS we summited, finding the trig point (on Matt’s round I missed the trig due to the cloud!) and made a hasty descent off as quickly as we could. I was 3 mins up on schedule which I was really pleased with, knowing I was moving at the required pace.
We easily picked up the trod leading down to Hare Crag and made good progress over the very boggy ground – I stayed close behind Matt doing everything possible to avoid any bog dips, and quicker than I expected we reached the main path under Great Calva. By now we’d descended out of the cloud, and the sky was starting to clear. It was very mild, a balmy 15 degrees, so we were both running in just shorts and tee. After climbing the not-too-strenuous Great Calva, we made our way down the fence line to the River Caldew. Next up, an hour-long slog up Blencathra, a climb I have always found boring! Despite being 01:30am, looking East we could see the sky brightening as the new day was coming through. Stars were also now visible, and we could see the summit ridge silhouetted ahead, so it looked like it was going to be a good day as promised!
Even though we took it steady, the climb passed quickly. Due to it being dark, we weren’t quite sure on the trod to take across the screes so we stuck to the path and worked our way along the ridge. Randomly we saw some walkers up at the summit! I’d decided in advance that if the weather was bad, or the rocks were wet I would take the Doddick Fell descent rather than Halls Fell which we took on Matt’s round in very dodgy conditions! Even though the weather had improved, I decided to take Doddick, and we had a very pleasant run down into Threlkeld where Lily and my Leg 2 support were waiting. Matt’s job was done and he was heading home for work!
I arrived in Threlkeld after 3 hours 39 minutes, 2 minutes up on schedule, which I was delighted with. Everything was going to plan so far. Lily could see our headtorches whilst we were descending so was able to make my porridge (which was amazing!) and coffee ready for my arrival. Lily was also going to wash, dry and apply talc to my feet, change socks and alternate shoes (between my Inov-8 X-Talon 212’s and Salomon S-LAB Sense 3 Ultra SG’s) at each road crossing (yes I was a diva!), fill my next supply of drinks bottles, whilst also preparing my next support with my pre-bagged food I had prepared – she was going to be very busy and invaluable if my attempt was going to be a success.
I was looking forward to Leg 2 as it was on this leg that I would start to properly tick off the summits (12 in total). The sun would also properly rise so this would be a great moral boost after running through the night. Graham and Karl joined me on this leg. Graham has previously done the BGR and supported on other rounds, and Karl has aspirations of his own. I felt refreshed and think I was rather too excited as I flew up Clough Head, in hindsight too fast as I took 8 minutes off the schedule on that climb.
Graham and Karl managed to slow me down and from then on we ran at a very leisurely pace, which was great and it was really enjoyable running. We took our headtorches off after Clough Head at about 3:45am as the light from the sunrise was enough to see and it was beautiful looking east as we ran. After Great Dodd you start ticking the summits off fairly quickly. Watsons Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise, White Side, Lower Man and Helvellyn all came and went uneventfully. Helvellyn was the highest point on this leg so that was a good milestone to tick off.
As it was still only 5:00am, it was lovely and cool and the morning air was clear. It was perfect running conditions, despite a slight headwind. Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike followed before a very steep descent down to Grisedale Tarn. I was being very cautious on all the descents, trying to conserve my quads which take a hammering, but I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be in a lot of pain. I told Graham to drop down to Dunmail Raise and miss the last 2 summits so he could get ready for Leg 3 which he was also supporting on.
Myself and Karl plodded on towards Fairfield, a peak I was not looking forward to. It was an out and back climb, rising 900 ft, and one I have found hard the last 2 times I have done it. However, both times I was solo, and chatting with Karl really took my mind off the matter in hand and we reached the top without any issues. After retracing our steps, we summited Seat Sandal, and it was at this point I started to feel a little queezy. The temperature was starting to rise, and I think I needed a quick sit down, so we ploughed on taking in the painful and very steep descent down to Dunmail Raise.
I arrived at 06:47, 7 hours 47 minutes gone, 28 minutes up on schedule. Lily, my parents and James (who had travelled up from South Wales) were waiting for me, along with Graham, pasta broth, pizza and coffee at the ready, as well as rice pudding. After eating, changing socks and shoes, applying sun cream, changing tops, grabbing my sunglasses and cap, we were ready to push on.
This was the longest leg of the day, and I was expecting to take around 5 hours 45 mins. Since it was longer I made sure my support had more water (6 x 500ml bottles rather than 5, of Mountain Fuel, electrolyte and water) and more food (bars such as Mars and Snickers, Cereal bars, flapjacks and bags of nuts) than the other legs. I was eating a bar every 30mins and making sure I drank a bottle every hour. Once again the support were amazing, with Graham mainly navigating and James feeding me and prompting me to eat! Karl also decided to continue on this leg, but with no support responsibilities.
The climb from Dunmail is never nice, straight up Steel Fell, but feeling rejuvenated this was steady and fairly enjoyable. I had mentally split Leg 3 into 2 as it was so long. From Dunmail to Pike of Stickle, Rossett Pike was in the middle on its own, then from Bowfell to the end in Wasdale. I love the first section, great grassy running, with some amazing views over Langdale and towards the Scafell range, where I was heading. This first half ticked off Steel Fell, Calf Crag, Sargeant Man, High Raise, Thunacar Knott, Harrison Stickle and Pike of Stickle. I felt I covered the ground fairly well and arrived at Pike of Stickle bang on schedule for this leg (still 28 mins up overall). This also marked roughly the halfway point of the round, so it was great psychologically to know this. I certainly wasn’t getting ahead of myself though, as the toughest sections of the round lay ahead ready to pounce on any wounded runner.
Since we were running fairly slowly (an “old man plod” as James called it), my legs felt good, however my queeziness from earlier was still lingering and I was getting sporadic stomach cramps. We took a less direct line up Rossett Pike then normal, but I was happy with this as it meant we missed the man-eating bogs, and the climb was less severe, if a bit longer. As we approached Bowfell , taking the direct line through the crags, we summited into mist which was lingering around the ridge line. Whilst not ideal for nav purposes, it was a welcome break from the direct sun which was now nearing full force. Graham did a great job leading us to Bowfell and then back along the ridge to Esk Pike.
From here on in, this leg becomes very slow going, with the majority of the ridge being a boulder field. My stomach cramps were getting worse so I took the opportunity to have a bathroom break which immediately eased some of the pain. It was also around this point that I started to struggle taking on food. A combination of the heat (apparently it was 28 degrees?!), the fact that I’d been running for around 12 hours and eating the same old bars, meant that I was struggling to swallow them, especially the flapjacks. I knew that the next road crossing at Wasdale was still about 2 hours away, so tried my utmost to carry on eating – failure to take on enough food normally means the beginning of the end on a round!
Great End (where we saw an incredible cloud inversion), Ill Crag and Broad Crag were ticked off, before we made our way to Scafell Pike, and the crowds of tourists! The smell of tobacco wafted through the air so I was keen to get off as soon as possible. After dodging the crowds, we headed down steeply towards Mickledore where we had a decision to make: Broad Stand, Lords Rake or Foxes Tarn. These are the 3 ways to ascend Scafell. I’d chosen Lord’s Rake as it didn’t require any rock climbing or ropes, yet it is a cracking scramble and great fun! Graham led us down and then up the steep, rocky shoot, before we branched left and went up the West Wall Traverse. This popped us out just short of the summit so a short run took us to the final peak on the leg.
The descent off Scafell, which whilst being one of the best descents I have ever run, was one of the parts of the round that I was most dreading. It’s 2.5 miles of pure downhill, with the top section steep and rocky, followed by a steep, grassy and rocky section, then a fantastic scree shoot, and finishing with a very steep grass section down into Wasdale. On any other day I would have been in my element, but this far into the BGR, my feet were hurting on the downhills, so I gingerly began to descend, telling Graham and James to speed off ahead and enjoy themselves. I was feeling exhausted and desperately needed shade and a sit down. I dropped down into Wasdale feeling quite low, knowing that first up on Leg 4 lay Yewbarrow, a horrible climb.
I ended up losing 8 minutes against the schedule on the whole of Leg 3 (partly due to the choice of route up to Scafell), but I was more than happy with that as I approached this leg with damage limitation in mind, rather than a place to push on and extend my time ahead. I arrived at 12:55pm, nearly 14 hours after I’d left Keswick, and now 20 minutes up on my schedule. In Wasdale, once again Lily was amazing, sorting my feet which were very sore (from the constant pounding on the downhills – thankfully I didn’t get any blisters all day), feeding me, and making sure I was taking on enough food and liquids. I was feeling really rough, but not once did I consider stopping. I would have to be dragged off the mountain if I was going to stop! After changing footwear again, and putting on a dry top, I was ready (?!?) to continue.
It was now Ed and Alan’s turn to support, and they were waiting, ready to get going. We set off out of the car park, pizza in hand, however within 30 seconds I was bent over retching. It felt as though as I was going to be sick but nothing was coming out. I carried on and caught back up with Ed and Alan, really not sure how I was going to cope with this leg. I was expecting low points during the day, and with this being the first major low, I knew I had to keep mentally strong to be able to get through it.
There’s no easy way out of Wasdale and Yewbarrow is no exception. It goes up 1,750 ft in 1 mile, averaging 42%. From experience I knew it was tough and had heard from other people how much it hurt at this point in the round. We slowly pushed on, starting the steep ascent, and strangely, I really enjoyed it. I think the food was kicking in, and it was great chatting with Ed and Alan. A little bit of cloud had temporarily shrouded the sun, which gave some much needed shade. 42 minutes later we reached the summit, remarkably 6 minutes up on schedule. How? I have no idea, but that was a boost I needed.
Alan kept shooting ahead to take photographs, which are fantastic. After a brief descent, there is another long climb, this time up Red Pike. Whilst never too hard, it is a bit of a drag, and 44 minutes later we reached the cairn on top, this time another 4 minutes up on schedule! I had planned to be conservative on Legs 1, 2 and 3, running to schedule and then push on if possible on 4 and 5. I didn’t expect I would be able to after my state in Wasdale though!
After Steeple, you turn 90 degrees and start heading East, which is the general direction of Keswick. This was nice as it felt as though we were heading home. I picked up a slight tail wind, and really enjoyed the next section, feeling as though as I was running strong, towards Pillar. I was really happy with my climbing and didn’t once struggle, it was the descents that were ruining me and I was dreading. Since the weather was so good, the views again were fantastic. Although looking towards the ever prominent Great Gable was certainly daunting, as I would be climbing that shortly.
I took the long descent off Pillar nice and steady, before the climb up Kirk Fell. It was at this point that suddenly I realised I only had 8 peaks to go! I had planned to take the line up the old fence posts, which I was familiar with, but somehow we ended up taking the gully. This turned out to be a better line. Whilst I was running and climbing well, I was really struggling to take on any food. The bars were just not going down, causing me to gag and it was taking me an age to eat a flapjack or Mars bar. I couldn’t stand chocolate or sweet food in general. I hadn’t had a single gel all day, and knew now wasn’t the time to try, I would have certainly been sick! I tried to eat the nuts but these were very dry. I was drinking plenty though, with the electrolyte and Mountain Fuel keeping me topped up.
Next up Great Gable, which some say is the last big climb on the round. This turned out to be better than expected, with Ed leading us on a good line through the boulders near the top. At the top, paranoia temporarily set in, with me asking Ed to double check my times to make sure I was on schedule and that I could make it back to Keswick in time! It turns out I had been pulling away from my schedule all through the leg so I had nothing to worry about. Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knotts, the final 3 summits on Leg 4 are all easy and quickly ticked off, although we weren’t sure of the Grey Knotts official top so I visited both potential tops to make sure the right one had been tagged.
Like all legs, there is a long, steep descent down to the road crossing, this time down to Honister. I told Ed to go ahead as he was supporting on Leg 5 as well, and after a very painful plod down, I arrived. It was now 17:33, I’d been going for 18 and a half hours, and I was now 53 minutes up on schedule – thanks to Ed and Alan I’d gained 33 minutes. Lily and the team were waiting, but they were shocked to see us so soon. I was a different person from Wasdale, still tired, but in good spirits, knowing the end was in site. After more pasta, pizza and a change of socks and shoes, we were ready to get going.
Graham was back for this leg and he joined Ed who was carrying on. I was looking forward to the final 3 summits, but not the long descent off Robinson, and the the 4.5 miles on the road! I knew I was up on schedule enough to enjoy the leg, and not worry about the 24 hour cut-off. However, as we summited Dale Head, Graham turned to me and said that I was now 54 minutes up on schedule, did I want to push on and make it an hour? I said of course, but I wouldn’t be upset if I didn’t make it.
From that point on, Ed and Graham seemed to speed up, I got another second wind, and we powered through over Hindgarth and then to the summit of Robinson, peak number 42 and the last one. I was now 63 minutes up. It was literally all downhill from here, but before I could relax, I had to negotiate a long, steep, and at times technical descent down into Newlands. After a lot of pain, I reached Newlands Chapel where Lily was waiting with road shoes and my Harriers vest. My trainers felt like slippers when I put them on!
All that lay between me and the finish was 4.5 miles of road. Graham and Ed were faster than me on here, and after a bright start, I was soon plodding along again, lagging behind, feeling very sick. I was making all sorts of noises, and thought that at any moment I would throw up. The road went on forever, but finally after reaching Portinscale, Keswick came into sight. Thankfully adrenaline kicked in for the last mile, and as we entered Keswick, we met Lily to run the final few hundred meters up to the Moot Hall. I had dreamed of this moment for a long time, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It was mid evening, so the main street was still fairly busy, and random people were clapping and cheering as we ran past, trying to muster up a sprint for the last hundred meters.
I’d made it! I touched the Moot Hall after 21 hours and 17 minutes, 1 hour 13 minutes up on my schedule. As soon as I stopped on the steps and lay down, cap over my eyes, everything caught up with me. I didn’t quite pass out, but I think I was close! I lay there for a few minutes, with Lily and everyone waiting for me to come down, but I was spent. Fish and chips for everyone followed, although I couldn’t stomach anything other than the fish, a flat Coke and some sparkling water, and apparently I was slurring my words and spaced out half the time. I didn’t care, I was in the Bob Graham Club!
Looking back at my splits, it turns out that somehow I ran the last 2 legs at 19 hour pace! Over the course of the day I stopped for 60 minutes at the road crossings in total, averaging 15 minutes at each.
I couldn’t have done this without Lily and all the support. Each and every one of them helped make this possible. They were all fantastic and priceless, feeding me, dragging me round and keeping me in good spirits. It was certainly a team effort. It was an incredible day, and one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
I love stats! Here’s my splits:
|Location||State of light||Leg time||Estimated time||Actual leg time||Actual time||Actual vs Schedule|
|Threlkeld – Arrive||Dark||30||02:41||34||02:39||-4|
|Threlkeld – Depart||Dark||14||02:55||10||02:49||4|
|Helvellyn Lower Man||Dawn||17||05:20||14||05:02||3|
|Dunmail Raise – Arrive||Daylight||24||07:15||17||06:47||7|
|Dunmail Raise – Depart||Daylight||14||07:29||19||07:06||-5|
|Pike o Stickle||Daylight||11||09:30||12||09:08||-1|
|Wasdale – Arrive||Daylight||34||13:15||31||12:55||3|
|Wasdale – Depart||Daylight||19||13:34||18||13:13||1|
|Honister – Arrive||Daylight||12||18:26||13||17:33||-1|
|Honister – Depart||Daylight||13||18:39||13||17:46||0|
|Keswick Moot Hall||Dusk||96||21:32||84||20:17||12|