Claire Maxted is an all-round outdoor lover, runner, cyclist, occasional climber and kayaker who has adventured all over the world but still insists the UK in good weather conditions is the best playground on the planet. She is editor of Trail Running magazine. Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.
When Keswick hotelier Bob Graham ran 42 Lake District peaks in 1932 to celebrate his birthday of as many years, he never could have guessed what a massive following his 66-mile round would create. Bob ran a staggering clockwise route from the Moot Hall in the centre of Keswick, up Skiddaw and Blencathra, over the Helvelyn range, on to the Langdale Pikes, the Scafell massif, the peaks above Wasdale, the mighty Great Gable, finishing with Robinson en route back to Keswick. It’s an epic undertaking with over 8,000 m ascent that Bob appears to have taken in his famously strong stride within just 24 hours, wearing heavy boots and sometimes even barefooted. Many didn’t believe the feat was even possible, which might be why Olympic gold medalist Chris Brasher failed twice and it took almost 30 years for Alan Heaton to complete what had then become known as the ‘Bob Graham Round’ or BG in 1960. Since then fell runners have taken up the challenge, but no one has come within an hour of the 13 hour 53 minute record set by local legend Billy Bland of Borrowdale in 1982. The BG has become a hugely popular test of fitness and determination for UK fell runners.
Inspired by Bob Graham’s birthday gift to himself, I decided to treat myself to a BG for my 30th rather than the usual 30 shots of something wickedly corrosive in a blur of bars. If I had known it would produce the same effect – a sleepless night, mystery bruises, wrecked feet, delirium, vomiting, sneaking over hedges for the loo, then maybe I wouldn’t have given it a go. It wasn’t pretty, stop reading if you’re squeamish (there’s butt-chafing to come), but, like broken glass worn smooth by the sea, over the last two years the memory of this monstrous epic has somehow managed to sneak itself into the filing cabinet of my brain marked ‘Fantastic’.
Charging through the cheers from the Moot Hall in Keswick at 6pm on a beautifully sunny May evening, my pacers and I watched the sun go down on Blencathra on Leg 1. The first leg was chattily easy, surrounded by mountain views. Little did we know that the weather had plans to test us to the limits. I ran through the first stop at Threlkeld, grabbing a piece of pizza and a headtorch for Leg 2 over the Helvellyn range in the dark. Unseen in the inky blue night sky, an army of clouds were gathering. They shelled us with their contents as we hit the rolling plateau of featureless, hard-to-navigate tops, but it was only about to get tougher.
In training, I had only ever run for 12 hours solid so beyond this point was an unknown. I knew my mind was determined to get round, but was my body fit enough to get within 24 hours? Six months prior, editor Nik Cook advised me to do 2-3 runs a week, with 7-9 hour and 5-7 hour back-to-back mountain days recceing at weekends. So as we fought through driving sleet and wind down Seat Sandal for Leg 3, not only was I bordering on hypothermic, it was 3am and the next mission across the grassy, hummocky Langdale Pikes to the imposing flanks of the rocky Scafell massif was about to push me over my known limits.
It was at this rainy, early morning food stop, at Dunmail Pass, that my admiration my pacers and support team swelled. I was adventure racing a lot, and these guys are the best on a BG: great team players, re-fuelling you on the move; carrying everything, looking after themselves and unshakable in biblical weather. Most importantly they can navigate, now critical as we trudged towards the clag-choked smudge of a sunrise across the muddy wastelands below Esk Pike. The elements reared up against us, the slippery rocks ate time. I was tiring. A sinking feeling as we finally came into Wasdale – could I make 24 hours?
By Leg 4 I was running on empty with a mouth too dry to swallow all my favourite usual ultra foods – cold pizza, cheesy cheddars, jelly babies. I stole slippery stuff off my poor pacers – banana, porridge, mashed potato, corned beef. It was over as I dropped to Honister Pass. 24 hours was up. “Are you going to stop?” said my concerned Mum, spoon-feeding me for the first time in 28 years. Stop? What? That hadn’t occurred to me. “No!” Everyone cheered – so many people had come to walk the final leg over Dale Head. By this time, my sweaty butt-cheeks were a fire of chafing; hot pokers plunged into my hips; mountains, people, rocks/sheep swam in front of me. I couldn’t believe my legs were still moving forward, but once we hit the final mile back into Keswick I ran faster than the first. After 26 hours, 36 minutes I touched the Moot Hall and my legs gave up completely. Clapping was happening somewhere, cheering, a down jacket, a plastic cup of champagne and a bag of salty chips. I stifled sobs of relief. I’d done it. Not in 24 hours, but I did it. Even my post-shower puke-a-thon couldn’t shift the pride. I will be back to shave those 2.5 hours off. Over the last two years I’ve got a hell of a lot fitter and I’ve forgotten how much it hurt. Well, at least that’s my 40th birthday present sorted.
The Record Holder
Farmer Nicky Spinks from Dark Peak Fell Running Club came back from breast cancer to smash the Bob Graham ladies record down to 18 hours 12 minutes in 2012. Last year she smashed it again by 6 minutes. Nicky is supported by Inov-8. Read blogs by Inov-8 ambassadors at http://team.inov-8.com.
What thrills you about the BG?
As I’m driving into Keswick seeing Blencathra, Clough Head and the Helvellyn range, I get a sense of wanting to be up there and always a small thrill that I soon will be.
The BG in 3 words?
Long, boggy and rocky.
Does surviving cancer help?
It has made me a more stubborn mountain runner and less likely to give up. I’m stronger mentally now.
What prevented a sub-18 record?
Falling over on Leg 1 and cutting my hand; climbing Broad Stand then falling on it a couple of times on Leg 4 made it hurt and instead of running downhill smoothly I was scared of falling on it again. I also broke my watch and so couldn’t tell how fast I was going (or not!).
Will you try for sub-18?
No. Some things in life are just not to be. I’m looking at other rounds in Wales and Scotland. Then another 100 miler, the L’Echappee Belle again in France.
Making sure everything goes right; weather, legs, stomach, support. Being strong enough to pull it round when things go wrong.
When everything goes right and you can happily summit Dale Head with only two more hills to go.
Don’t overtrain – people plan a June BG, up the mileage in January and by April are shattered, injured or at their peak. Recce the route – all of it, including roads. Try everything out before the day and be organised with food, support, clothes. Make it simple so anyone can find anything.
Fell shoes: Vital vital VITAL that you wear your absolute comfiest pair of grippy trail shoes that you’ve been putting some decent mileage in during training. I used the Adidas Adizero XT4, a good balance between lightweight, grip over both the Helvellyn range’s grass and the Scafell massif’s rock.
Poles: These were an absolute godsend to take the pressure off your knees and help grind uphill. I borrowed them off a friend for my BG and now I swear by the Mountain King Trail-blaze Carbon poles, super light yet still tough, and easy to assemble and collapse.
Vaseline: On Leg 5, about 58 miles and 25 hours in, my own butt cheeks turned against me to chafe with every step! No one had any Vaseline so I had to use a Lipsil from my first aid kit. I will never look at Lipsil in the same way again.
Headtorch: You can save precious minutes over your nighttime section by using the brightest headtorch you can afford, casting a beam of light over the fells that any helicopter search team would be proud of. The Silva Trail Speed Elite’s eight hour battery life on medium setting should get you through.
Small water bottles: Something you might not think of, but after 12 hours, your ability to hold a 1litre water bottle passed over to you by your pacers will diminish incredibly, so where possible, use slim 500 ml – 750 ml ones that you can grip easily with your tired hands. Making drinking less effort avoids pace-slowing dehydration.
The Other Rounds
Paddy Buckly, Wales
Created in 1982 by Paddy Buckley this 61 mile route with 8,534 m ascent takes in 47 of north Wales’ highest mountains from Llanberis. It’s rough going over the Glyderau, Carneddau, Moelwyns, Nantlle Ridge and Snowdon massive.
Records: Tim Higginbottom 17 hours 42 min (2009); Nicky Spinks 19 hours 2 min (2013).
Charlie Ramsay, Scotland
Charlie Ramsey devised this 56 mile route with 8,686 m ascent in 1978. Starting from Glen Nevis the route includes over 24 Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000 ft), over the Grey Corries and Mamores ridges and Ben Nevis.
Records: Adrian Belton 18 hours 23 min (1989); Nicky Spinks 19 hours 39 min (2014).
This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.