Bob Graham Round: A group attempt - planning, training and logistics
It was summer 2014 when Rob first voiced a desire to do the Bob Graham Round, a classic fell running challenge involving 42 summits, 66 miles and 27000 ft ascent in the Lake District to be completed within 24 hours. Like many runners, my introduction to "the BG" was Richard Askwith's book "Feet in the Clouds". While reading, I had dismissed the BG as crazy, and little had changed when Rob mentioned it.
The exact Bob Graham route isn't strictly defined, but the 42 summits form a large loop (map here). Having chosen clockwise or anti-clockwise (the former is far more common), there remain many refinement opportunities, but everyone follows broadly the same route. Four road crossings break the Round into 5 Legs; I refer to them by number clockwise.
It took until late October 2014 for the idea to fully seed itself in my mind. I roughly marked up a map of the summits and suddenly the whole thing seemed more real.
A first recce - Legs 3.5 & 4
A couple of weeks later in November, it became very real when Rob and I ran a loop south from Honister to pick up the second half of Leg 3 on the Scafell plateau and the whole of Leg 4.
Excited and up for the challenge despite cloud, wind and rain, we cut west from Honister beneath Grey Knotts, up between the Gables, then over to Esk Hause. Continuing on, we got distracted chatting in poor visibility and, despite being fairly handy with map and compass, discovered that in the mist we simply couldn't find Great End. Smartphone GPS confirmed our location, and lesson learnt, we got back on track to Scafell Pike summit.
We promptly went wrong again coming off Scafell Pike, the correct route forking from the clearer path going unnoticed in the cloud. Climbing back to the summit then carefully following a bearing southwest to the stretcher box beneath Scafell, we realised that to have any chance of success in the Bob Graham Round, we needed to avoid mistakes like this.
Further route deviations in the cloud at Foxes Tarn (we went way too low and invented a different route up Scafell), then later at Steeple (we couldn't find it), reinforced the need for multiple recces, and ideally GPS backup to avoid unnecessary disappoint on the day.
Looking back, 23 miles and 11,000ft ascent was a pretty solid first outing, and we barely exceeded this in the following 7 months of training.
Logistics in the pub
By late January 2015, talk had moved onto the specifics of how three (initially four) of us could run together and increase our chance of a successful Round. The Bob Graham first-timer completion rate is about 1 in 3, so the odds are against a team of 3 who doggedly run together completing their Round within 24 hours. However, there are big psychological benefits to training and attempting the challenge together (and it's far more fun!), so we were left in a quandary.
Assuming that we would all go through highs and lows at different times throughout a BG attempt, it made no sense to always slow to the pace of the one who is struggling if it put us behind schedule. We would potentially triple our time losses by dropping back in turn for each of us to go through a tough patch. Instead we opted for "Pirates' rules" to maximise the chance of each individual finishing.
Pirates' Rules: Running to a 23 hour schedule (splits for each summit for a given target time are easy to come by), we would allow ourselves to drop up to 10 minutes behind; but then those able to would push on to avoid further time loss. If someone was unable to sustain the pace, they would drop off the back. If they could recover their pace and catch-up, they would rejoin the other two. Only in the event of serious injury would the attempt be abandoned by the other runners. It seemed harsh, but we thought it best to agree this beforehand rather than enter with uncertain expectations.
A few pints down and we had the general approach thrashed out. Two target weekends (end of June, start of July) gave the option of postponing from the first weekend if the weather forecast was poor. As it transpired, it would actually have taken very bad weather for us to delay given our support logistics and risk of even worse weather the following weekend.
The training starts
The three of us, Rob, John and I, now had 5 months to train-up from fairly fit to having the stamina to sustain nearly 24 hours of relentless muscle and joint impact from climbing and descending the height of Everest over 66 miles of Lake District terrain.
Our focus was getting as much ascent as possible into our training runs, with a notional target of hitting 10,000ft ascent per week as we got stronger - a lot of climbing to find in the Peak District! I doubt any of us actually routinely hit 10Kft/week, but it was a good way to focus our training.
My BG training began properly in mid-February, running the "Kinder Quattro" with Rob, 4 climbs from Edale valley up onto Kinder plateau. It started off as a Half- Kinder Dozen (ie. 6 routes up), but we ran out of energy and light. The next day we did a route from Bamford, twice over Win Hill and twice over Lose Hill, "Win some, Lose some" - this was to become familiar BG training territory. The steep climb up Parkin Clough on Win Hill is pretty amazing training terrain.
We planned out several more Lake District trips to recce the route, build stamina and confidence. Rob and John ran Legs 1 and 2 in a day in late Feb and seemed pleased to get another good chunk of the Round under their belts.
In March we were back in the Lakes for a look at Leg 3, with a loop from Grasmere starting with Fairfield, following the BG summits round to Bow Fell, then closing the loop with Crinkle Crags, Pike O' Blisco and Langdale Valley. Rob had run some of this before, so we focussed on refining the route, particularly the unclear ascent between Rossett Pike and Bow Fell. A 25-mile 9,000 feet day felt hard in the final few miles, but we managed 13 miles next day; a trip from Great Langdale to checkout the notorious Broad Stand.
Broad Stand, an exposed scramble with a couple of hard moves giving a direct route up Scafell from Mickledore, poses an interesting challenge to the Bob Graham runner. The bold solo it unprotected, so on this first visit we looked at how we might get 3 of us up without gear. The tricky section is a 3-4 metre step in a corner with limited holds and a long fall beyond a decent ledge. We managed to boost John up the step first, then I was hauled up while stepping on a kneeling Rob. But we couldn't pull Rob up without a push from below, so he down-climbed and we met again south-east beneath Scafell after John and I descended via Foxes Tarn. This was going to take another recce!
Hard training months
For a late June BG attempt, April and May are really where the training needs to get serious. However, looking back at my Strava training log, the numbers seem surprisingly low in retrospect. With typically 3 runs per week, I'd manage one or two hard sessions at the weekend, sometimes with a race, regularly hitting 30+ miles (~50km) and averaging 6800 ft (2100m) ascent.
What the distance and ascent numbers don't show is that I was holding the intensity high; these were fast miles that were perhaps "better value" than longer but slower runs. A mid-April weekend in the Lakes for the Teenager with Attitude race Saturday, then Rab Mini Mountain Marathon (4hr score event) on Sunday is a nice example. I ran as fast as I could in the TWA, a pretty brutal 16.5 miles with 6500ft ascent (great race over the north-western fells) - recommended!) and was pleased with a good result. Waking in Great Langdale campsite for the Rab the next day, my legs were sore and one knee a bit iffy, but starting slowly, I managed another 15 miles and 5400ft ascent and placed 8th. The next week featured only a 5K parkrun as recovery!
"BG Pace", ie. running slowly enough to manage (hopefully) the whole Round, was a new experience a couple of weekends later when, back in the Lakes, Anna and I did routes based on Leg 1 and Leg 2 respectively in consecutive days. We were actually well behind 23hr schedule for the Skiddaw, Great Calva, Blencathra loop since the ground was new to us, and while guided by a rough route I'd drawn-up and imported to my Suunto watch, there was plenty of room for improvement. The Halls Fell descent from Blencathra in the wet was also slow; slippery rock makes it much trickier. Two ~5 hr days at a gentle pace still felt hard which was concerning, though attributable in part I think to lingering fatigue from the TWA/Rab efforts 2 weeks earlier.
A final recce later in May saw Rob, John and I do the hardest section, Legs 3 and 4, in a day. Leaving Rob's van at Dunmail Raise, our spirits were high and the ground felt familiar as we made quick progress across the first few summits, finding the slightly-hidden Sergeant Man with no problems. Covering the Langdale fells, then Esk Pike, and onto the Scafell plateau, our thoughts turned to Broad Stand. John had brought a few nuts and slings to "aid climb" up the awkward section. This we did, though the protection was far from perfect, and it still took us 15-20 minutes to get past the difficult bit. We decided that a large nut, 2-3 long slings, and a medium cam would be enough on the day.
Enjoying the scree run down into Wasdale we stopped for a decent rest and food stop, then Rob and I continued on to Leg 4 while John wisely cut it short to avoid exacerbating a niggling injury. This was the only occasion that I saw the summits of Red Pike, Steeple, Pillar, etc cloud-free, and while the views were fantastic and the good vis helped our route optimisation efforts, they were still tough climbs. Over the Gables, then easy running to Honister, I could feel my quads on fire while Rob flew down the final descent. Pub dinner and a YHA bed in Buttermere felt good that night after 27.5 miles and 13,400 feet ascent! A partial recce of Leg 5 the next morning (I ran up Robinson from Little Town to meet John coming the other way from Honister) completed our learning of the BG route in perhaps 7 weekend trips.
With 3 weeks to go before our target Bob Graham weekend, my final "big" run was a solo 50km into the Dark Peak from western Sheffield; a stunning way to spend a summer evening. At <5 hours including a refreshment stop at the Ladybower Inn for a trail 50K ultra, this was pretty solid running, but still less than half a BG in distance and 13% of the ascent! Oh well, no more time for training - a taper down to ~20 miles/wk for two weeks, then nothing for the 7 days before our attempt felt about right for me.