The Bob Graham 24 Hour Club says:
"First done way back in 1932 by Bob Graham, hotelier of Keswick, Cumberland, at the age of 42, the 42 Peak Round has become a testing ground for the supremely fit. Each summer around 100 of the most highly tuned ultra"-distance fell runners will attempt the 27,000 ft of ascent within the allotted 24 hours. Only one in three will return to the Keswick Moot Hall before the clock runs down. Most of the rest will be back again...!"
May 28th 2010. 6pm. Keswick.
The moment had arrived. 14 years after my first attempt at this 24 hours, 70 mile, 42 peak challenge I was now ready for another go. With around 500 miles of training in the first few months of 2010 I was realistically as fit as I was ever going to be, but with the recent memory of a night run over part of the route that went badly wrong some negative thoughts were still swirling around in my head.
I sort of knew that today would be different though, the support from friends would be there, running with me and waiting at each of the 4 road crossings. I would also be running with my own support runners on each leg who would carry most of my food and clothing for me. Andy, with whom I had trained more most of the year had his own support runners but the idea was to stick together for the first leg.
Andy (left) and myself at the Moot Hall in Keswick
LEG 1 - Keswick to Threlkeld
Distance: 12.5 miles, Ascent: c.5150ft
Support Runners - John Garner and Richard Mellon
6pm - we set of at a jog, and decide to go through an alley with the sign "Sweet Temptation" above it. Leading us towards the East of Keswick and the long first climb up the first peak, Skiddaw. It's very easy to set of too fast with all the adrenalin and excitement, I was using a heart rate monitor to keep a control on my pace on the first three stages at least, and this proved very useful as I had to keep slowing myself to bring my heart rate down to what I thought was sensible (under 140 bpm).
It was a perfect evening, clear skies, and evening sunlight with great views over the Northern Lakes and Southern Scotland. The dry winter and spring meant the conditions underfoot were perfect, but the weather forecast suggested that we may be in for some rain the next morning, that was a long way off yet though.
Tom on Skiddaw Summit - high spirits
Skiddaw summit was completed a couple of minutes ahead of schedule, my plan was based on a 22 hour 20 minute schedule, which would give me some time in hand should there be bad weather or other problems. Besides carrying my hill food and spare clothing, my support runners would also record my time over each summit. Next was Great Calva, and then Blencathra, the training runs over this leg really paid of as I now knew the best line to take over the rough heather clad hills. I was linking together familiar little landmarks, path junction veer right, keep to left of stream, down through the heather to an improving path, a clear patch of grass, it was feeling good.
I had to be just as careful not to "over do it " going downhill is as tough as going uphill. 30,000 feet of uphill may seem a lot, but the same amount of downhill means your legs can eventually buckle and give way if you get over enthusiastic. John and Richard reminded me to keep drinking, I emptied the last of 1.5 litres of sports drink from my camelback and eat some nuts heading up the third peak, Blencathra. We were well ahead of schedule now (were we going too fast?!). Next the big steep descent to Threlkeld. John had worked out a super new route that smoothed out the descent and connected bits of scree together. This meant you could avoid the rocky ledges of Halls Fell Ridge, gain time and also expend less effort. Get it wrong though and you could be floundering through deep heather, or be stuck above crags and steep ravines. It all went well though and looking behind I could see Andy's group following close behind. Richard went ahead to let Dick and Sharon (ground support) know that we were arriving early (by 30 minutes), and to make sure Phil was ready for leg 2.
It was action stations at the campervan, a seat appeared for me, some rice pudding, a cup of tea. A quick double check of headtorches, food, drink, summit check list and spare clothing for the next leg. 7 minutes after arriving I was on my way again, other support crews also buzzing with excitement and activity.
LEG 2 - Threlkeld to Dunmail
Distance: 13.2 miles, Ascent: c.5900ft
Support Runner Phil Whiting
Phil told me he had supported 4 BG efforts so far - all of them had failed! There were several groups ahead and behind us now heading up the first summit of leg 2 (Clough Head). Again I checked my heartrate and slowed down on the steep climb to conserve energy. Despite what felt like a very easy pace I was still up on time at Clough Head summit as the lights of Keswick, Penrith heralded the 6 hours of darkness to come, by the time dawn came I would have a good idea if I was going to get around or not.
The Helvellyn ridge was marked up by the head torches of each support group, like some surreal mountain highway. Then the occasional burst of light as the teams headed over the summits and looked back at the following groups. At times the lights appeared to be floating way above us in the darkness. Banks of cloud were obscuring the nearly full moon which occasionally showed up as a rather sinister red disc. At one point a group had overshot a summit and was heading back to it as we hit it direct (My Garmin wrist GPS proved invaluable in the night). The rocky sections of Dollywagon came and went and the out and back leg to Fairfield meant we met groups coming down as we were heading up, including Andy's group who were about 20 minutes ahead of us now. As we passed we briefly spoke - Andy was enjoying it!
The steep return down Fairfield was taken carefully and then the final peak of this leg, Seat Sandal remained before the drop to Dunmail Raise. Suddenly beneath us were the waiting support vehicles, and there at the stile was Dick ready to guide me to the van. Another blur of activity, check clothing, drink (I nearly took just water by mistake), mug of tea, two big bowls of muesli gulped down, and after just 7 minutes I was off again on the next leg.
The look of fear - leg 3 coming up
LEG 3 - Dunmail to Wasdale
Distance: 15.2 miles, Ascent: c.6500ft
Support Runner Alistair Shawcross (ropes Dick and Sharon Gerrish)
Alistair was my support on leg three (the graveyard shift), he had drawn the short straw starting at 1.48 am (approx 30 mins up on schedule still). We had the severe slimb of Steel Fell for starters, then undulating rough ground to Calf Crag, which seemed to take a long time and I worried that we had over-shot it, but it eventually loomed out the darkness and according to the schedule we were holding the pace fine, neither gaining or loosing further time, with time in hand I was more than happy with that.
Three weeks ago I had done a night time run and felt awful by 4 am, so I was worried that I might end up in the same condition today! The groups that were so close together on leg 2 were now more spread out, just the occaisional flicker of lights as teams hit the summits indicated that we were not entirely alone.
On such long runs your mind can start playing games, is that my knee hurting? or my ankle? am I starting to feel tired? But then the soft light of dawn came and I still felt OK (unlike another runner we passed near Harrison Stickle who was kneeling on the ground and retching uncontrollably).
Low clouds in the valleys to the east and a soft pink sunrise accompanied our approach to Rosset Pike and the start of the "real" mountains of the Central Lakes. Bowfell to Scafell is a tough section, with lots of boulder hopping, steep rocky descents, and some tricky navigation when the visibility dropped to a few metres at times.
Coming of Bowfell in poor visibility
Approaching Scafell the weather deteriorated, it was now light but steady rain and mist were making things very slippery underfoot. Suddenly we had caught up with a couple of other groups, including Andy (who was still going very strong), and together we tackled the slippery and treacherous climb of Broadstand. Dick and Sharon were there with ropes to help us up, they had driven around from Dunmail Raise, walked up Scafell and got the ropes in place just a few minutes before we arrived!
"Heave Ho" up Broadstand
Coming of Scafell at 6.45 am I was expecting the worse for the next leg in terms of weather. A few weeks before on a training run over this section we had been drenched by cold rain and sleet, It was not enjoyable. However just a few minutes after leaving the summit we came out the clouds and there were in front of us was Wasdale and all the peaks of the next leg. The weather was perhaps going to be kinder with us this time!
Alistair was tiring and I arrived in Wasdale alone, but there to greet me was the "Bob Graham Support Circus" and more specifically my helpers for the next leg, Ian and Andy. This was my longest "rest" (16 minutes), although I was busy all the time, changing my socks, t shirt and top, and checking we had everything we needed for the next leg. Alistair made a stirling effort and arrived with my emergency kit, walking poles and more importantly some Nurofen tablets that I felt may be useful. I had felt very "delicate" descending the 3,000 feet into Wasdale, with a stiff left knee and ankle, so I knew the painkillers may be needed.
Leg 4 - Wasdale to Honister
Distance: 10 miles, Ascent: c.6300ft
Support Runners Ian Richardson and Andy McVitie
I felt strong heading up Yewbarrow at the start of leg 4. This peak looks like a vertical wall from the valley, it is relentlessly steep and it climbs from close to sea level to over 2,000 feet in less than a kilometre. Being careful still not to "overdo it" I hit the summit 47 minutes after leaving Wasdale, bang on the scheduled time for the ascent.
Heading up Yewbarrow
Next came Red Pike, then the outlying rocky peak of Steeple and further tough terrain took us to Pillar. Again the visibility was poor at times, but my Garmin GPS helped to get the key sections spot on (neither Ian nor Andy had run this leg before so I was solely responsible for navigation). Although Ian wasn't navigating he did take up the role of entertainments officer, singing "Ten Green Bottles, Nine Green Bottles", etc at 100 decibels as each peak passed. In fact someone supporting Andy on this leg remarked to Andy "weird - I could hear this singing but couldn't see anyone!"
Leg 4 - Starting up Great Gable
The steep rocky climbs of Kirkfell and Gable were the last severe ascents, the huge dome of Gable had been looming to the East for the last few hours, and heading over the rocky summit in the mist felt like a key moment. I seemed to gain fresh energy on the remainder of leg 4 and soon the last two peaks of this leg were done and Honister Pass was in sight. Arriving at Honister to some familiar faces was great, but not as great as the bacon butty waiting for me in the van! Sick of sweet energy gels and bars this went down a treat. A final change of socks and shoes and after an 11 minute "rest" I was on my way again.
Leg 5 - Honister to Keswick
10.6 miles, Ascent: c.2500ft
Support runners - Ian Richardson (and Dick Gerrish to Dale Head)
Just three peaks to go now and then the final section to Keswick. On the long gradual ascent of Dale Head I relaxed and chatted a bit with Dick and Ian, taking a few minutes longer than the schedule, but then really went for it on the last three climbs and descents and pulled further time back. Ian was encouraging me to get under 21 hours, which was a tall order.
By 2.10pm we were back on the road, but still with 7.5 kms to go. Dick and Sharon and Alistair were there in the van and Sharon joined us for the last 3 kms of running. It was a bit of a shock to have to weave in and out of the bank holiday crowds back to the Moot Hall, but suddenly I was there, it was all over, 21 hours and 3 minutes was my total time.
Back at the Moot Hall
It was great to be welcomed by everyone at the finish, and for a while I felt OK. It was time for a drink and some food, but then in a cafe just a few yards away from the finish it suddenly hit me. I felt dizzy, sick and weak. About 45 minutes later Andy came in with his support group, but my support group still had a job to do! Feeling very fragile I was guided to the camper van and driven home (flat out in the back).
I slept well that night!
Although a "solo" challenge I would not have made it without a big team of helpers. So thanks to all the support runners mentioned above and other helpers, Dick and Sharon in the van, Val on leg 1, Iain Cole for helping me with ankle and calf issues during training, Dallam runners for some great days out on the hill, Andy who inspired me to give it a go this year, and of course Barbs for allowing me so much time to train!