Stories from the Rounds, 1: Rob's Bob

Over the next few weeks I’m sharing 3 stories, from the 3 Rounds covered in my Big Rounds book.

The first is Rob Bushby’s account of his Bob Graham Round, originally written up for a Running Log at Outward Bound Ullswater and slightly revised here. Rob finished in the time of 23:08, becoming club member 896. He’s generously supplied a few more photos from the day which we couldn’t manage to squeeze into the book.

Rob was hugely encouraging of my own paltry efforts on the Rounds, and on the book (however long I took on both) and this funny, humble account continues to inspire and make me smile.

Running the Bob Graham Round, 20th – 21st August 1994 - Rob Bushby

“Rather you than me!” was the common response to the mention of a Bob Graham Round attempt. This was quickly followed by a questioning approach to my mental state of health. Struggling up Kirk Fell, 34 Lakeland peaks still to overcome, I was inclined to agree with the sceptics. Having just jettisoned the Pasta Choice I’d been force-fed at Honister Pass I enquired of Brian, my veteran pacer: “Should I be feeling a bit tired by now?” “I suppose so”, he replied, “but chucking your guts up just then wasn’t a good sign. Have another Jelly Baby.”

It appeared to me that Bob Graham Round attempts fell into two camps: those who undergo months of focussed training, back-up planned with military precision; and those who wake up one morning, think “I fancy having a crack at that Bob Graham thing”, then go out and do it. Membership of the elusive, exclusive Club requires the traverse of 42 Lake District peaks, covering around 61 miles, within 24 hours. As such, the former strategy has much to commend it. Deciding on an attempt only one week previously meant that the ad hoc last minute approach was the one I adopted. 

I’d been intrigued by the notion (if not the reality) of doing the Bob Graham Round for a couple of years. A continuous circuit of the major mountain ranges of the Lake District had a strong aesthetic appeal, with its varied terrain and changing character being viewed in a kind of 24 hour omnibus edition. To see the distant outline of saddlebacked Blencathra and Skiddaw from Scafell, then proceed towards them for 12 hours or so, gives a perspective that combines panorama and intimacy, a fuller experience and closer relationship with the mountains.

Then there was the personal aspect. Was it beyond my running abilities? To what extent was it to be a mental rather than a physical challenge? Was I scared to make a commitment just because of the fear of failing? I knew that the answers would never be clear unless I gave it a go. After all, Mr. Graham himself had said: “Anybody should be able to do it – provided they’re fit enough” following his inaugural Round in 1932.

Mac’ n Cheese at Honister Pass

Mac’ n Cheese at Honister Pass

A weekend identified itself – work-free, full moon, and a few people around to help. There were lots of opt-out clauses: minimal training, long distance running inexperience, just having wrapped up a full-on Outward Bound Adult Challenge Course the day before, and feeling generally knackered…but none of them were sufficiently convincing.

All of the night-before preparation fell into place, with a skeletal support team forming. Scepticism was balanced with advice and words of support. “Drink and eat lots – Power Bars and Lucozade” …“Don’t run the uphill”…“Use the fenceposts on Great Calva’s East side to drag yourself up – you’ll need to by then!”

The words of Mr. Rogerson, legendary Bob Graham Club Administrator, stuck with me. “Take them one at a time and they’ll fall, lad, one by one. They’ll fall.”

As I arrived with Rachael at Keswick Moot Hall (the Round’s start and finish point), the whole experience seemed to be taking on an abstract sense, an isolated chapter removed from the everyday scheme of things. Local fell runner Mike Fanning appeared from round a corner accompanied by a friend’s dog, suffering from the after-effects of a Friday-night curry. Mike, not the dog. And with minimal fuss we were on our way, departing at the slightly incongruous time of 08.35.

We set a steady pace along the roads towards Newlands valley. The grey morning carried a humid edge which had me breaking sweat already. Never having run with Mike before, I tapped him for advice and was glad of his chat to take my mind off my amateur status for this endeavour and what lay ahead. We maintained a steady jog up the inclines beyond Littletown – wisely, I wondered? The first climb up to High Snab Bank pulled tautly on my calves. Jeez, how will the rest be? I dismissed doubts, wouldn’t let them linger. Several mist-laden false summits led to the top of Robinson. A skip of elation – first one down! And the time matched that of Paul Yardley, a BG graduate whose timesheet we’d brought for guidance. It was beginning to sink in that I was really doing it, here and now.

Hindscarth and Dalehead were quickly ticked off in refreshing light rain which afforded occasional glimpses of Great Gable and its neighbours. We slipped down to Honister Pass with confidence raised, to be met by a new pacing team. First stage over, and relatively painless too! I’d found a rhythm and shaken off the earlier sluggishness – I never was a morning person – and was looking forward to cracking on, one stage at a time.

Esk Hause

Esk Hause

Brian and Rich, colleagues from Outward Bound, readied themselves as Rachael smothered my feet with talc, changed my socks and fed me macaroni cheese. Mike bade a farewell with a promise to return that evening to see me over Helvellyn and the Dodds. Hurried from repose by the enthusiasm of my new team, a purposeful pace up Grey Knotts was a little too quick for comfort.

As Great Gable approached I entered a phase of physical and mental torment. Three elements – legs, midriff, head – became distinctly unsynchronised. My legs felt strong, but my stomach churned like a spin drier and my mind was unfocussed, lost and confused in abstract thoughts. I contemplated the Round as a pregnancy: I was in a prolonged labour stage, discomfort that would gradually degenerate into ongoing pain until, with accelerated panting and effort, the whole thing would finally be over. Yes, running can do strange things to the mind. I’d lost the pace and rhythm essential for covering distance, and became frustrated at the rugged terrain and my inability to run with anything other than stuttering steps. I thought of the infamous Colemanballs from a ‘70s Olympics: “Juanterino opens wide his legs and shows his class”. No chance of that – this section should be renamed the Bob Graham Scuttle.

An explosive chunder provided a timely cure, discarding the Pasta Choice and unifying my disparate faculties. Brian’s pessimistic assessment did nothing for my confidence so I sucked on a Jelly Baby and kept quiet. The day’s biggest challenge was trying to replace some of the lost energy by digesting a Snickers bar – it took half an hour and the whole of the ascent of Pillar. Then came a diversion to Steeple and a knee-jarring jog towards Yewbarrow. I was glad of its scrambling approach, and perked up at the simultaneous sight of another ‘Bobber’ and Wasdale Head. A steep and rapid descent, and we were at the end of Stage 2, right on schedule.

with Ann at Threlkeld, final leg, 3am

with Ann at Threlkeld, final leg, 3am

The two litres of water and bread roll input at Wasdale must have been pumped with adrenalin: Scafell was afforded little fear and conquered in sure and steady style within the hour. This was a welcome psychological boost. Sanity had returned and I was feeling strong. Brian was knackered by now though, and it was my turn to lend support. Better judgement steered us away from a dripping Broad Stand, and an elusive Lord’s Rake lost us half an hour on our escape from the clouded summit. Time wasn’t a big issue, though. We were virtually half way around, I felt good, and was enjoying the day. We scampered up Mickledore and caught up with Rachael on Scafell Pike, at 978 metres the highest point in England. It was a perfect time and place to top up supplies, Jelly Babies having run out on Scafell.

We detoured off the main drag to the summits of Broad Crag, Ill Crag and Great End, the weekend walkers largely oblivious to our undertaking. The occasional hiker recognised the tell-tale pairing of one runner carrying all the gear and the other looking slightly more ragged, and enquired “Bob Graham?...Good luck mate, keep it up.” Bright evening sunlight peeped through from underneath heavy, threatening cumulus, giving lovely conditions for a gentle run up Bowfell. Brian’s intuitive navigation helped us skirt above the southern flank of Angle Tarn to then take in the soggy, boggy approach towards the twin sentinels of the Langdale Pikes. The rocky climbs to Pike O’Stickle and Harrison Stickle gave a secure, firm respite from the previous peaty shite, but reminded my legs that they were almost 12 hours into the event. I was encouraged by the onset of the final two legs – the welcome, familiar sight of the rolling Dodds were getting closer. I’d worry about Blencathra later. Brian and I weren’t saying much; we didn’t need to. His initial doubts had dissolved and he transmitted a quiet confidence, nudging me along.

With the hills to ourselves, we reached Steel Fell at dusk. A tricky descent to Dunmail Raise in rapidly fading light followed, guided by the lights of an expanded support team below. I crossed the A591 at 9.30, skipping cockily to show off and say “Look, I’m still fresh and up for it”. Words of encouragement (and surprise!) at such positive progress became more purposeful as I lingered. Brian’s prior pacing contributions had been for failed attempts and he was determined that this one would reward his efforts with success. I couldn’t express my gratitude adequately as he departed for home. His role had been key in keeping me relaxed, confident, and on course – both navigationally and time-wise. The leg massage, foot rub and replenishment stop passed all too quickly.

started there… then over there…. coming off Skiddaw in the morning

started there… then over there…. coming off Skiddaw in the morning

Seat Sandal was a nightmare, a tortured 45 minutes. “A bit of a grunt, this”, understated Mike as he resumed his pacing duties. The legs had forgotten about long steep uphills, the last significant ascent having been 6 hours before. And Fairfield and Dollywagon to follow too! Their bark, in fact, was worse than their bite, their gradients seeming favourable after the front of Seat Sandal. A neat line from Cofa Pike saved time and by 12.30 we were on top of Helvellyn. A quick run of ticks now would keep morale up. The moon, full and brilliant, reminded us that it was there only as a favour, regularly dodging behind clouds.

Mike took his pathfinding responsibilities seriously, finding the most treacherous route across Sticks Pass and sinking up to his waist in bog. “Avoid this bit here, Rob” was his generous advice. The undulating paths of the Dodds are a runner’s dream: smooth, not too steep, and space, lots of open space. Mike looked after me like a dog on a lead, running ahead, then looking back to check I was keeping up. A drenching on Great Dodd didn’t dampen our spirits as we navigated intuitively towards Clough Head. The drop down to Threlkeld was arduous. My knees ached and my diaphragm felt bruised from all the jolting it had endured, making breathing difficult. As we neared the lights of Newsham Farm voices could be heard: “Is that you, Rob?” Who else would it be? Rachael had gathered a posse – Ann, fellow Outward Bound tutor and a couple of her mates from Ambleside. “Well the video wouldn’t work” seemed a fair excuse for turning out at 3 in the morning.

Hall’s Fell Ridge was longer than I’d remembered. After an hour of huffing and puffing, the summit of Blencathra came as a relief. By this stage energy conservation was a priority and conversation limited. I concentrated on nibbling at a Power Bar. Darkness was slowly lifting beyond Penrith as we encountered the long drag down Mungrisedale Common. Tussock and bog gave way to knee-deep heather, and the sting in the tail – Great Calva. Some poem from distant memory came to the fore: “Endure, endure, endure again, until endurance itself is beaten into joy”.  What bollocks, I thought. From first examination of the route, I’d always seen this as a masochistic detour, a view confirmed by the strenuous yomp around to the recommended path and fence stakes to aid a rhythmic plod to the top. 41 down, only one to go!

I was determined to ignore any time pressure there might be and ran purposefully until the obtuse tussocks reduced us to a stagger. Across Dead Beck and up the seemingly endless spur of Hare Crag, Ann and I matched each other stride for stride. The sun, fully risen now, cast a golden glow directly onto Skiddaw’s flanks, illuminating the lush purple heather. A warm sense of euphoria enveloped me as we made the final summit. Now, for the first time, I allowed myself the luxury of the knowledge that I was going to complete the Round. Rachael kept up her habit of popping up in odd places and woke from an hour of slumber in the summit cairn shelter as we arrived. A few hundred metres of stiff-legged stagger yielded to a more fluid stride, and by the time we rendezvoused with Mike at Latrigg we were cruising. It took exactly an hour to reach the Moot Hall from Skiddaw’s peak.

Done it! Moot Hall arrival

Done it! Moot Hall arrival

Most journeys end where they begin: I touched the steps at 7.43, completing in a respectable time of 23 hours and 8 minutes. This was cause for both celebration and relief – I’d dreaded the prospect of dragging myself to the finish in a desperate, ragged heap. To still be upright and finish in good style was a bonus.

Celebrations weren’t really necessary. I hobbled to the papershop and we adjourned to Mike’s place for a brew and a bacon butty. Mental and physical numbness were displaced by a tremendous sense of achievement. It had been the most enjoyable day I’d ever spent on the hill, shared with friends who’d given wonderful support. Before starting, I hadn’t appreciated the full part their assistance would play in making the day successful. In particular, my thanks are due to Mike Fanning, Brian Whitworth, Rachael Tring, Richard Chalmers and Ann Hurst, along with all those who offered words of advice and encouragement. It was very much a team effort rather than a solo endeavour, and I’m looking forward to continuing the tradition of assisting others in attempts to join the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club. It’s a club that’s exclusive, though not elite. To have followed, quite literally, in the footsteps of many respected runners and remarkable individuals and joined their club is a memorable and humbling experience. Whilst the aches and pains were short-lived, the inner sense of accomplishment will always be something to call on.

For more information and to purchase, see: The Big Rounds