“I hope you bloody finish it this time. I would like to have a normal Christmas next year!”…The encouraging words from my Mother while preparing for my winter attempt on the Bob Graham Round. For the two days prior I turned the family home in Burneside (near Kendal) into a unorganised mess of food, socks, lycra and angst. I had done much the same thing last year, and I can say with some authority that these kind of preparations do not fill a home with Christmas cheer.
It was not my intention to make another attempt on a winter BG this year, but somehow my good friend (who I completed my summer round with) Rob Brown, managed to convince me otherwise. Rob is a better runner than me; he is faster (has actually won races), trains harder, and is a lot more mentally resilient than me, but for some reason he seems to enjoy dragging me around the mountains? What's more ridiculous is that I always seem to forget these facts. What did Einstein say? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”…Cheers Albert, I am starting to think you might have had a point!
We set the date for the 21st December making it a true Mid Winter Round. This wasn’t necessarily intentional, it was simply the only day when both Rob and I were free. In-between Christmas family commitments, work, and me traveling over from Switzerland, we had a narrow window of opportunity. This worried me a bit. When reflecting on my failed attempt last year I had thought that it would have been much better to have had a window in which to run, rather than a specific day. It had been glorious weather 2 days prior to my first winter attempt, then biblically bad when I had committed to run, thus putting a premature halt to proceedings. "What was that about doing the same thing over and over? Ah well, fingers crossed and all that!"
The brief window of time before starting a Bob Graham is unique. Its not like a race where you have a big group of people who are about to collectively go through a very similar experience. Its just you, and a couple of mates, heading out for an adventure in the hills. I love how understated it feels. Rob and I nipped into Weatherspoon’s to have the obligatory ‘last minute nervous pee’. Being so close to Christmas the place was busy with people celebrating, and as we walked out of the pub we passed a group of girls, who some would say, were slightly over dressed for a night out in Keswick. I couldn’t help smiling at this crossing of two completely different worlds. It was time to get going…
The finger crossing had had limited effect on the weather, and as we set off at 10pm, we knew that we were in for a soggy evening. The forecast promised that things were going to clear up in the morning, so at least we were running towards good news, and at least we weren’t running through a foot of snow like I was last year. In fact there was a distinct lack of snow this year, the trade off being that the ground was utterly saturated.
As always, there was lots of light hearted chat on the way up Skiddaw with Kim Collison, Thom Disney and Steve Angus. After a minor navigational cock up going down to Hare Crag, it wasn’t long before we were over Great Calva, through the thigh deep Caldew and slogging up to Blencathra. On the way up we discussed route choice from the summit. It seemed to be a general consensus that Doddick Fell would be a sensible choice. The rock was extremely greasy, and we were doing ok on time. Throughout this discussion Kim had stayed remarkably quiet, and on reaching the summit, without a word, headed straight off down Hall’s Fell. Seemingly, being our de facto leader, we didn’t even think to question Kim’s decision. At this point I ought to mention that at the start of October I had dislocated my shoulder badly, and was scheduled to have surgery on the 9th of January. I think its fair to say that as we stumbled down the slippery and exposed ridge my mind wondered back to being carted off in an ambulance a couple of months previously. Although I enjoyed the morphine, I was not keen for a repeat performance. “Concentrate. Don’t slip!”
A change of shoes, a warmer top, a quick glug of tea, and we were leaving Threlkeld with Matt Stapley, Andy Thompson and Tobias Barthelmes. We had got soaking wet on leg 1, and things weren’t looking much brighter for leg 2? “This definitely is starting to feel like a Winter Round”. The climb up Clough Head is never easy, and I felt Rob starting to pull away from me a bit. I dug deep to hold onto him, reminding myself not to over do it. Easier said than done when ego is at stake, and as well as that I had started to get stomach cramps. "Oh no, not a repeat of last year, what was I doing wrong?" Things were fine on the up hill’s when we were walking, but on the flats and downs the running was making the contents of my stomach slosh about with painful effect. I forced myself to keep eating and drinking, and luckily, I was’t feeling sick, just uncomfortable. At least this took my mind off of the wind and driving rain! Helvellyn was reached, and another good mile stone ticked off. We made pretty much exactly the same navigational blunder as in our summer round and ended up on the way down towards Wythburn rather than Dollywaggon Pike, annoying as it was, at least it improved the Strava stats. Fairfield and Seat Sandal were past with very little drama apart from the continued stabbing pains in my abdomen, and it wasn’t long before a warm change of clothes was reached at Dunmail. I necked a bunch of painkillers and along with some pizza, luckily, that got rid of my stomach problems. I’m no doctor but, I think that’s textbook first aid!?
At Dunmail we picked up Ian Handscomb, Joel Burchet-Scott, Dan Mills and Scott Newburn. It was nice to have such a big team on board as, for me, this always feels like the most intimidating leg. With the weather as it was (shit) it was nice to know that we had the man power to deal with any unforeseen circumstances. It was during this leg that things started to get a bit hazy. I don’t remember talking very much, and being in that rare state of total determination and focus. I only really have a couple of clear memories from Leg 3, and they all seem to be from after the 'sun' had come up. Its like my brain and body were just fed up of being in the dark. My Dad and a friend Chris had planned to meet us in the Langdale fells, but they were nowhere to be seen. It turns out that my Dad just missed us by seconds. He told me later that he could hear our voices on top of Harrison Stickle, but couldn’t quite catch up to us before we left. As for Chris, he was still in bed with a massive hangover. Topping out on Bowfell we were met with driving hail and sleet. We were already soaked through, so I guess the weather God’s thought that they might as well up the ante. We all rushed to put on all of our layers in what little shelter we could find. Looking back we were all right on the limit at this point. If one of us had any kind of problem where we had to stop, things would have gotten serious pretty fast. These thoughts did not cross my mind at the time. All I was focused on was how cold my hands, now effectively stumps, had become. I was getting legitimately worried about the state of my fingers. It wasn’t only worrying, but a total inconvenience as I wasn’t able to feed myself. All of this led to the inevitable ‘bonk’ as we scrambled up Lords Rake. Getting to the top of the first steep section it hit me, “I need food!” Dan gave me my food bag and I inhaled two slices of pizza, some roast potato’s, a bar and a gel. Feeling dizzy and drained I dragged myself to the top of Scafell knowing that I had loads of time to recover on the long descent down to Wasdale. Running into the car park I was glad that my well thought out nutritional strategy of 'eating all the food I had in one go' back up on Lords Rake, had paid off. I was feeling good, we were moving well, and even though we were down on our Plan A schedule of sub 20hrs we knew we were doing the best that we could.
There was a great crew of people in Wasdale, and spirits were definitely high. Getting to Wasdale is a big mental milestone, and it was a total relief to get out of the weather, in fact it looked like Leg 4 was going to be quite pleasant. Things were looking up, so I celebrated by getting naked in the car park and feasting on salt and vinegar crisps (you’re welcome for that mental image). Another amazing crew were joining us, Ian Lovett, Jim Scott, Brian Melia, and Jon Tombs (wearing his Santa hat). Thanks to this crew, Leg 4 went really really smooth. Ian and Jim were constantly feeding us and taking our poles whenever we got fed up of them, and Brian and Jon, the Leg 4 guru’s, took us on the best lines with their perfect navigation and local knowledge. I think between Brian and Jon they have run Leg 4 about 20 times. Rob and I were locked into our pace, and it definitely felt like nothing was going to stop us getting to Keswick. More hazy memories and blank spots, but a highlight was bumping into Chris Toward on top of Green Gable. He had managed to drag himself out of bed and suppress the hangover, and he came bearing gifts. We paused for a minute to scoff down kendal mint cake, flapjack, and other treats that he had laid out, and fuelled by this impromptu hill top buffet we happily made our way down to Honnister.
At Honnister we bumped into a friend, Giles Ruck, who had been pacing Sabrina Verjee. Sabrina had set off an hour ahead of us, and all day, in the back of our minds, we thought that it would be really cool to catch up with her. She is a strong runner (she broke the women winter record that day), so we knew it would be a tall order. Spoiler Alert! We finished 7mins behind her, close, but no cigar.
Another crew of mountain legends joined us for the final push to Keswick. Chrissy Findlay, Becky Burchett-Scott, Fran Waes and Rachel Findlay-Robinson brought smiles, excitement and experience to help make the final leg a fun one! It was the first time that I have done something where you have two lots of nighttime. It was definitely a mental hurdle to overcome running into that second night, especially considering that the forgiving weather of Leg 4 was behind us and the wind and fog had returned with a vengeance. I could feel myself flagging as we made the final climb onto Robinson, less so physically and more so mentally. I was ready for a nap, but the end was in sight, just the dreaded road section to contend with. We swapped to road shoes at Little Town, Robs feet were badly blistered so it was a much needed change, and I was thankful for the quick stop to psyche myself up for the remaining kilometres. Rob is a strong road runner, he has run a 2:41 marathon, and all day I had been saying to him, “don’t go and start showing off when we get to the road”. In true Rob Brown style we started off steadily and within a a couple of minutes we were running sub 5min kilometres, which for me, at that moment in time, felt like a bloody sprint. Our Plan B of sub 21 hours was within reach and with Rob pushing the pace it looked like we were going to do it.
By the skin of our teeth, we climbed the stairs at The Moot Hall, arriving 20hrs 55min after we started. Shell shocked, relieved and nauseous. We had completed the round 50min faster than we had in summer. We were surrounded by a small group of incredible, lovely people and we did the only thing you can do in these situations; sit on the floor, eat chips and soak up the amazing atmosphere. Its about a month since that moment in front of Moot Hall, and while writing this I have a huge smile on my face reflecting on those finish line memories. I have said it before, and I will continue to say it: What makes the Bob Graham, and challenges like it, so special is the people that join you for the journey. The shared satisfaction of knowing we have all been part of a great adventure…
I spoke to Rob a few days ago and asked if he was feeling the same as me about the whole experience. You can always count on Rob to put things in perspective!
Training for the PTL this summer starts soon (as soon as my shoulder has healed), and this time it was my idea to team up with Rob for some prolonged suffering. "Yes Albert, I know, I'm an idiot!"
P.S. Warning, shameless plug approaching!
I decided to get some help and guidance with my running earlier in the year. I felt like I had hit a major plateau, and knowing nothing about training, I decided it would be worth hiring a coach. The process totally worked for me, and I can’t recommend it enough. Kim is a bloke with experience, a hard work ethic and an all enduring smile. I am inspired by him, and he genuinely wants to help. Give him a bell https://kimcollison.co.uk/