Baseballis ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.
I’m not one for looking at a watch during a race. After 25 years of running I think you should know when the effort level is sufficient. As I tagged the summit of Skiddaw however, I hit the lap button on my watch and glanced at the numbers. This would be the only opportunity I would have for a while as to gauge the stupidity of my undertaking.
Almost 35 years ago exactly, Billy Bland had set off on the same endeavor in what would become a legendary performance. That day, he had topped out on Skiddaw, the first of 42 summits of the Bob Graham Round in 53 minutes.
I was mildly concerned.
I was expecting maybe a 55 or so given I had tried my hardest to temper the effort to prevent matching Billy’s split from what I assumed was a suicidal pace. Too late, I guess. I descended down into unknown territory, tagging Great Calva and the absurdly boggy marshland of Mungrisdale Common on route to Blencathra.
A few days prior, over a delicious cask pulled ale, our local man on the ground, Adam Briggs, had casually mentioned one word:
Apparently, this is the connoisseurs’ route of choice off Blencathra. Not to mention, the route Billy took in 1982. Needless to say, the next day we hiked up Halls Fell Ridge to the summit of Blencathra to recce this option.
We had never been on this mountain before and the traditional descent using Halls Fell ridge seemed fairly legit by itself and probably not something you would want to undertake at speed in bad conditions. Nevertheless, as we stood on the summit, we peered down upon the infamous Parachute. I recall thinking one thing:
The scouting mission had indeed confirmed one thing: It probably wasn’t.
We had survived, but had had a hard time following a good route and had chosen a poor line lower down, bush whacking through knee deep heather. We eventually spotted what looked to be the correct line lower down but it would have to be left until the big day itself to see.
Well, the big day was now happening and after the 2nd fall I glanced down to my hands and noticed that I no longer had my navigation cheat sheet in hand. I was suddenly very happy about my last minute decision to carry a spare set. Luckily this would be the only issue in descending Parachute.
17 minutes 27 seconds after leaving the summit of Blencathra, I crossed the A66, marking the completion of the first of 5 legs of the Bob Graham Round.
It was certainly a relief to have some summits behind me and I had finally gotten a sense of the gravity of the task ahead. 2 hours and 19 minutes for leg 1 was fast by most standards but I was already 6 minutes behind Billy. It had seemed that all that time was lost over Mungrisdale Common, likely due to poor route choice given I had never been there before.
I had made no secrets of my ambitions to take a crack at Billy’s long standing record. It was therefore a little unexpected but not terribly concerning to be running solo. I had gotten a rather lukewarm reception when attempting to find witnesses for the attempt. There was, however, no real choice. We had planned this for over 6 months and had travelled thousands of miles to be here. It was now or never. Official status was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
You see, despite my finish, I am not actually a member of the Bob Graham Round Club, nor could I apply to be. The ethics and style of attempting the BGR is to have with you, at each summit, a witness to verify that you were actually there. Some people might wonder why, with the advent of modern GPS watches, there is still that requirement. Simply put, it is mostly tradition. Adventures such as these are best experienced with others and ensuring the community aspect of the challenge is most certainly a critical aspect of maintaining its authenticity and purpose.
Finding myself solo, was not, however, something that particular bothered me. I rather relished the extra challenge that it brought. Self reliance in the mountains is a fulfilling feeling.
So, you might be wondering. How was someone from Colorado able to show up and run the 2nd fastest time in history, mostly solo? If you read too much on the internet then you might be inclined to think I handed off my GPS watch to a team of highly paid, trained professionals or perhaps skipped the hard bits and faked the GPS data afterwards. There is, however, a simpler explanation.
Successful completion of the BGR is, as most things in life, an exercise in preparation. And I’m not talking physically, that part is obvious. With the BGR, there is a lot more to it than your typical US ultra distance race given the navigational and environmental challenges.
So what did that preparation look like? Basically this :
- Extensive background reading. Mostly the main BGR website, the excellent 2004 book Feet in the Clouds, which I first read over 10 years ago, and various reports from successful attempts including Mark Hartell’s excellent recap of of his 14:54 round (which was, until last year, still the 2nd fastest time ever!).
- Countless hours spent perusing various maps including the Bob Graham Round specific map and the OS Explorer Lake District Map set looking at route options and line profiles.
- Thorough Strava stalking to look at what other people have run in terms of routes and efforts. Surprisingly, it’s quite hard to find a full BGR activity on Strava. There are several sections and legs but not many decent fully completed activities. I spent quite some time creating a candidate route from several sections.
- Viewing the candidate route in 3D on Google earth to visualize the terrain virtually given I didn’t have the opportunity to actually spend much time there.
- Crafting the ultimate nerd’s spreadsheet containing
- Full route breakdown into its 5 legs and 42 sections with complete analysis and categorization of the perceived difficulty of each section comparing total gain/loss vs distance and heatmap visualization
- Extensive pre-determined navigational cheatsheet with bearings, distances and brief descriptions of the route. We would print this off and use on the day to limit the need for map navigation and hopefully save time.
- Full analysis of Billy Bland’s 1982 splits in order to attempt to formulate a strategy and build a run predictor
- Speciality gear
- Thumb Compass for use with my navigational cheatsheet (many models don’t have bearing markings which is fine for on-the-go navigation but not for pre-calculated bearings)
- Custom shoes! I run for La Sportiva but since they pulled the Anakonda line, they don’t make a fell running specific shoe any longer. So I took a pair of Bushidos and a pair of Mutants and combined them! Basically the soles of the Mutants grafted onto the Bushido uppers. My hope was that this would give me the low profile and lateral stability of the Bushidos, with the more aggressive and sticky rubber of the Mutants. I had two pairs made up courtesy of Rock and Resole in Boulder. I named them the ‘Mushidos’!
- Naked Band. Carry everything you need without putting a hot, awkward pack on and allows me to run hands free so I can navigate and use the hands to push the legs harder!
- Lastly, actual on the ground recce’ing! I was able to spend 3 days in the Lakes in February and complete leg 2 and parts of legs 3 and 4 in some fine winter conditions. i.e. snow and no visibility! On the week of the attempt I finished recceing legs 3 and 4, which, while not ideal in terms of tapering, did give me a better comfort level with the route.
A brief parting of the cloud reveals the rather dicey looking ascent up to Bowfell. A cold, foggy and windy time to be in the mountains but warmed considerably by the knowledge of how to navigate in them safely. There is simply no beating the satisfaction of successfully navigating difficult conditions with a map and compass.
Perhaps the only part of my preparation that was lacking was, in fact, the physical aspect. I had had a reasonable training block but nothing particularly special. I had done an early test of fitness in April at our run club’s annual test of stupidity, the Sanitas Suicides and had decided that I would stand a chance at the BGR record if I could break 6 hours there. This is a tough, steep, hot and technical trail and looping it is certainly good for character building!
Unfortunately, I had struggled with the usual myriad of injuries in the run up. The most recent of which, a sprained ankle, was still quite prevalent and painful as we flew into town.
Experience, however, can overcome impressive obstacles. Likewise for stupidity . Luckily I possessed ample amounts both.
The thing is with ultra running: preparation can only take you so far. At some point something will go wrong and the thing that separates success from failure it how you tackle the problems.
I had in fact recce’d all of leg 2 during my winter trip in February. I had, however, not anticipated the lack of water options on this leg, perhaps because I was not thinking about it from a solo perspective. Shortly after leaving my crew in Threlkheld, with sun already out in full force, I started to worry about the amount of water I was carrying.
Sure enough, despite rationing the 500ml supply I was carrying, I ran out approaching Lower Man. The decision about which route to use to summit Fairfield was now made. I had no option but to descend from Dollywaggon Pike to Grisdale Tarn to refill and tackle the direct line up Fairfield on sight. After refilling 3 times, I picked a reasonable looking line and committed.
3 hours and 4 minutes after leaving Thelkeld I ran into Dunmail Raise a little dejected but still determined. I hadn’t look at my watch but given how I felt on the last leg and the fact Silke didn’t mention anything to me, I knew my times had slipped.
Luckily for me I have great friends and I had persuaded my buddy Brian to help me out for leg 3. I ascended the steep climb to Steel Fell and met Brian, who had headed up ahead of me, on top. Perhaps it was the boost of some company but leg 3 was one of those rare moments in your running career that make you keep doing this kind of lunacy. It honestly felt effortless. I had to consciously hold back on the later sections. In fact, I was moving so well that Brian had to skip some peaks while I tagged them and after Esk Pike I didn’t really see him again. Despite having completed over 35 ultra distance races I am continually amazed at the incredible turn arounds that are possible if you are just willing to keep trying.
I got to base of Sca Fell, the final summit of leg 3, and one which had been a constant concern for me. In our preview of leg 3 earlier in the week we had gone via the popular Foxes Tarn route which had proven to be tricky to find in the fog and certainly felt impossibly slow for any real chance of a record attempt. As such, I had gone back up a couple of days later to checkout the Lords Rake gully which someone had told me was another good option. It certainly did prove to be an improvement over Foxes Tarn and I was reasonably confident that a record could be done using this. Luckily, however, Pete and myself had both arranged for climbing friends to setup a rope on the moderately graded climb of Broad Stand. This being the direct and fastest way to the summit. I had never been on this route before (hence the reccing of the other lines) and so didn’t know what to expect as it can be notoriously wet and slimy (as it had been when I looked at it on the first two recce’s).
Luckily, I had just passed both Pete and Andrew who were on route to their successful finishes and so had the benefit of a crack team of climbers who had a rope and basic harness setup ready to go. I jumped in it and headed up the route, finding the little crimp and mantling up the crux section in short order. After that big weight was off my shoulders I descended down the awesome scree gully of Rakehead Crag and into Wasdale, 3 hours and 48 minutes after leaving Dunmail Raise.
Wasdale marks the defining moment in the BGR. You have to ask yourself here, how much do you really want it. Because from here on it will definitely hurt. A lot.
Thankfully I was in good hands and had the pleasure of Andrew Higgins to accompany me on this leg and certainly proved to be invaluable. As good as I felt on leg 3, almost immediately on the steep climb up Yewbarrow I started to have cramping issues in my quads and numbness and pain in my feet.
In retrospect it might have been wise to switch to the Mutants for a little more cushion while I was down in Wasdale to avoid the foot issues. I continued on regardless and tried to take on as much liquids as I could to try and keep the cramps at bay. I guess this is certainly the benefit of having pacers as I proceeded to devour all liquids that Andrew was graciously carrying!
Furthermore, Andrew was very familiar with the route and was able to show me some great lines which I had not spotted during my recce earlier in the week. We plowed onwards relentlessly, passing our friend Adam who had hiked in to Black Sail Pass to see us. Although my quads and feet were still giving me some issues I was moving well enough for Andrew to decide to skip Great Gable and so I proceed up the last big mountain summit solo feeling decently confident in my condition. I decided to try a route I hadn’t recce’d previously off the summit as I was told this was the quicker way. I probably didn’t make the best line with it as I could hear Andrew and Adam yelling at me from Green Gable to go left but I got down quick enough and together with Andrew dropped into the spectacular setting of Honister Pass 3 hours 13 minutes later.
There’s not much to say about the final leg. It is like the final stages of anything difficult. Never ending, seemingly unnecessary, and mostly just miserable. I was solo again but motivated and determined to run well. I stopped briefly on the final summit to take a selfie, perhaps just to remind myself never to attempt such lunacy again! I dropped down the painfully steep section off Robinson known as the ‘Fall’ and found myself on the final 5 miles of road. It was uncomfortably hot, painfully long and surprisingly hilly!
As I turned into Keswick, my brother was there to give me the only timing clue since the first peak, suggesting that I should haul ass to make sure I looked good when finishing in the 2nd fastest time in history. And sure, enough, 1 hour and 52 minutes after leaving Honister I touched the glorious door of the Moot Hall, 14 hours and 17 minutes after leaving earlier that morning.
As I passed other BGers during the day there was a great amount of camaraderie and support for each other and it was really uplifting to see runners and crew all cheering for each other as we went around. The finish at Moot Hall was rowdier than I was expecting as it turned out there were quite a few attempts going on that day. I sat at the finish for several hours watching other people finish and chatting with crew and runners and had a really great time. Fell Running was, as I had remembered it, my favourite kind of running. Minimal commercialization, no fanfare, just great running with great people!
Ultimately, the record was not to be mine. I felt pretty happy with my effort though and figured I had made the best of the day at hand. I had had a great crew of friends and family and it was especially significant to have a great day with their help given all my races are generally in the US.
As the eternal student of running it’s always good to look back for improvements. Naturally, I think with more pacers it may have helped, specifically from benefiting from local knowledge and, of course, the ability to carry more hydration! I have already added my splits to my master spreadsheet to look for improvements! Aside from some weak sections on leg 2 where I was in a low spot, it seems I would need to improve my route choices on Blencathra, Fairfield, Calf Crag and Rosset Pike which were definitely statistical outliers from the rest, especially given only one of those was when I was feeling crappy. If I only reduced my time on those 4 summits to match Billy’s splits, then that would have saved me over 24 minutes!
All in all it was a very successful international attempt with all of us who came from Colorado to attempt the BG (Pete, Andrew, Nick and I) finishing. Pete and Andrew finished up in 21 hours 20 minutes and Nick completed what I think might be one of the most impressive rounds by completing it solo and unsupported in 21 hours 12 minutes. This was even more impressive due to the fact Nick had never been to the UK before and had recce’d 36 of the 42 peaks earlier that week. Crazier still, in the final descent of his recce’ing, he had taken a massive fall, incurring head, elbow and knee injuries. In fact, his knee was so swollen and bruised just a day before the attempt I almost doubted it would be possible. But then I remembered, this is Nick Pedatella we are talking about.
It was, arguably, one of the more interesting days in BGR history. With two sub 15-hour rounds (Jon Duncan finished in 14:59 bringing it to a total of 6 sub-15 finishers since 1932), 1 solo and unsupported round (no clue as to how many of those there have been but I doubt many), and 4 international finishers (again not sure on the stats of that either). Of course, 2 of us will be finishers but not members of that elusive BGR club. I just hope they don’t have too much fun without us in the annual club dinner!
It's tough to succinctly put down in words the experience of the BGR attempt this past weekend. A lot of time, thought, planning and help went into it and I'd certainly say it was an outstanding success for Pete, Andrew, Nick and myself! A huge thanks to all the friends and family that helped us out on the day. It was instrumental in our success! Big shout outs to Silke, Yves, Paul, Adam and my family for following along all day, Brian and Andrew for keeping things honest out on legs 3 and 4, Adam for his local knowledge and support and all our friends from Rocky Mountain Runners for following along remotely and generally encouraging all the bad ideas! My goal going into this was the rather ambitious quest to break Billy Bland's long standing record set in 1982. While I failed in this respect, I am very happy with my 14h17m round, giving me the 2nd fastest time since Bob Graham first ran this route in 1932. As the eternal student in running I have already been analyzing the data to see where improvements could be made! Also, huge kudos to Nick for completing a solo and unsupported round. I'm not sure if many people have ever done this, nor, to be honest, if many could. Big thanks to La Sportiva, CarboPro, Simple Hydration, Naked Running Band and Feetures! for making awesome products! As usual you can checkout Strava for the gory details https://www.strava.com/activities/1021253439