Thursday 24 May 2012

BG 2012

The BG. The Bob Graham. The first and best known of the classic rounds - a circular route through varying mountain terrain, taking the challenger on a roller coaster of emotion, to the edges of pain, suffering and stretching their capacity for endurance to breaking point. It only takes one day to make or break even the greatest mountain athletes. In that time, the challenger must battle the elements, the terrain and self-doubt to haul themselves round no less than forty two Lakeland peaks, covering sixty eight miles and climbing and descending roughly the height of Everest. One second over that twenty four hour marker and the challenger is deemed to have a failed. On 12th May 2012, team TyneandWeary took on the challenge for a second time...

Adam: The lead up to this, my second attempt at the BG, was certainly not the preparation I had anticipated at the start of the year. I'd had a few months out with injuries, only been out for a handful of real hill days and confidence was low following a string of mediocre results.

After a solid week's training pre-Highlander and the Highlander itself, I could see a glimmer of hope that my mountain fitness was returning and the injuries were becoming 'manageable'. A fortnight later and things improved again with a successful run at the Fellsman. It was my best performance of the year to date and knowing that I could manage 13hrs out on tough terrain was a welcome boost.

However, the Fellsman was also a major contributor to a nervous lead up. With only two weeks recovery before the planned assault on the BG, would there be enough time to recover? Were the rolling dales of Yorkshire enough of a test to have confidence in climbing 28000ft? I asked numerous other questions of myself  - had I done enough recce's? Was my approach too relaxed? What if I fail again?

Back in January, going for an early May attempt was seen as a safe option. The weather is usually better in May than later on in the summer; there's enough daylight to limit the darkness to a single section and there's always the backup of a free weekend later in the summer to have another crack! Having had the wettest spring in living memory, eyes were firmly fixed on the MWIS forecast in the days running up to d-day. It seemed that it had been raining for weeks, even snowing, and this was due to continue. In some remarkable turn, a short window of dry and relatively still weather appeared right when we needed it. From early evening Friday the skies were due to clear, followed by high cloud cover and sunny patches through Saturday.

Having suffered from an evening start last year, the decision was made to start at one in the morning. The first leg would be done in the dark but then we'd hope to have daylight from then on in a race against the sunset late Saturday evening. There's no way you can really condition yourself to such an early start so getting as many minutes of shut eye as possible is all you can hope for. Easier said than done!

I think my night went a little like this:
21:17 - finish kit faff, bit later than planned
21:19 - running kit on and head down
21:34 - check watch, still not asleep, "This is not good!"
22:52 - "Have I missed it?", "No, phew", at least another hour to get some sleep
23:05 - awake again or did I just not fall asleep?
23:47 - only a few minutes to midnight now, not much point in trying to sleep again
23:58 - waiting for the alarm
00:00 - it's time!

It wasn't long before we stood on the steps at the Moot Hall, waiting for the clock to strike one.

Andy: To see a group of runners charging excitedly out from the market place at Keswick at 1 am on a Saturday morning might be a strange sight, but ask any fell runner what this group were up to and they would know. Compared to last year my excitement at the start was curbed somewhat. Maybe it was the recognition that a significant injury in March had really set back my training  - I felt unprepared and knew my ankle could flare up at any point and ruin my attempt. Maybe it was the drained feeling in my body from a week of battling off a cold? Maybe it was simply from having a better appreciation of the gravity of the task ahead... Either way, I had set off now, the clock was ticking, 23hrs59mins to go!

Leg 1 – Keswick to Threlkeld
The first leg was uneventful  – Adam, Duncan  and I, along with  our support runner Viv  were  chatting away as we steadily climbed Skiddaw by headtorch, trying to convince our legs that 1 am in the morning was a sensible time to start a 24 hour run. 1 hr 18 m in and we were jogging off the top of a frozen Skiddaw heading ‘off road’ to Blencathra via the outlying hill of Great Calva. We met our splits comfortably and had navigated the rough terrain in the dark and waded across the icy River Caldew without any major glitches. We chose to avoid the frozen rocky ridge of Halls Fell and descended into Threlkeld off Blencathra in
26 minutes via the path down Doddick instead.

So far so good, 3hr33m, 13 miles and the first three hills down 5 minutes ahead of my 22hour schedule. 

On the downhill my ankle had hurt a lot, increasingly so as it began to thaw out. I was not surprised and not concerned, providing the damaged ligaments didn’t go completely my recent training runs had taught me I could continue to run with this level of pain, especially as it was only on the downhills.

Leg 2 – Threlkeld to Dunmail
After a 7 minute refuel with our road support teams, Adam, Duncan and I set off onto Leg 2 with a fresh team of support runners. On the harsh grassy climb up Clough Head the morning frost crunched underfoot and glistened as the sun crept up over horizon - I felt fresh and alert - privileged to be fit enough to be out running on what promised to be a glorious day.

Running steadily over the Dodds towards Helvellyn in the morning clag our navigation was put to the test. Duncan and his team pushed on into the cloud and Michael, my support runner for Leg 2 looked after us brilliantly. This allowed me to switch off and concentrate on relaxing and eating and drinking regularly over the five hills to Helvellyn.

After the tough descent off Dollywaggon, the sun had burned off the cloud and Adam and I began the long climb up Fairfield. I was surprised that at this point I felt ok, the climb was taken steady, my legs were beginning to shout but we were still 8 minutes ahead of the schedule.

My ambitious target to reach the end of Leg 2 on a 22hour schedule and feeling fresh was achieved after we flew off the last hill, Seat Sandal, in just 14minutes.

Now 17 minutes up on schedule, 7hr 42mins, 15 hills down and over 26miles miles 
under the belt – time to dig in: still 27 hills and nearly 40 miles to go.

Adam: Descending down from Seat Sandal at a fair rate of knotts was a great feeling, in stark contrast to blindly hacking our way through a bracken covered boulder field as had been the case 10 months ago. I was looking forward to arriving into Dunmail. It would be the first time on the round that I'd meet my parents who were supporting and also I'd have the opportunity to shed my kit as I would now have my own support runner until the end.

Over legs 1 and 2, I piggy-backed on Duncan's and Andy's support runners and whilst I carried my own kit, I very much relied on their pacing and navigation. Rob Sanderson would be my support over leg 3 which filled me with confidence as I knew Rob would keep us on the right track and be wary of any potential sugar crashes! It also meant that Andy and I could go at our own pace without slowing the other down. 

Duncan was long gone!

Adam climbing out of Dunmail
Leg 3 - Dunmail to Wasdale
Just before 9am we headed off onto leg 3 as a group of four. A fellow NFR team mate of Andy's, Scott, would be supporting Andy. The guys were energetic and enthusiastic and this rubbed off on Andy and I as we made our way up Steel Fell. The day was only just starting and the mood was positive.

We hit the summit of Steel Fell together but then Andy started to pull away on the gentle climb to Calf Crag. I just didn't have another gear to go to whilst climbing and so decided to stick to my own pace and let Andy go. I expected to see Andy and Scott gradually disappear into the distance and that I'd eventually see them when it was all over, back in Keswick, fingers crossed.

The gap grew to a couple of minutes at High Raise but a couple of steep descents around the Langdale Pikes meant that I caught back up whilst coming off Pike O' Stickle. We made steady progress together over Martcrag Moor and Andy picked an excellent line up to Rossett Pike.
Running over Martcrag Moor
Andy: Rosset Pike, hill No. 23,  marked the point where last year I had had to abandon my attempt. This year that thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I felt strong and confident, pushing on to gain time on both of the big climbs up Bowfell and Esk Pike, even the rocky ground of the Scafells ahead couldn’t stop us making good progress and meeting the splits. The cool weather but clear skies provided ideal conditions and the scenery was incredible.

Scafell Pike was busy with walkers, one of which joked that this was probably my second hill of the day  – I didn’t correct him (No. 29!) and just grinned in response. Mickledore saw Adam and I part ways – his preferred route up Scafell was via Lords Rake, whereas I headed to Broad Stand, a moderate but exposed rock climb. I was relieved to find Ian was still there manning a safety rope. This took the pressure off by reducing the risk of a potentially fatal cramp induced fall. The rock was fairly dry and I climbed up the awkward layback without any issues. The remaining scramble up after Broad Stand proved to be easier than I remembered.

With all the major mental obstacles out of the way Scott and I ran down the quad burning 800 metre descent to Wasdale, once again desperately trying to ignore the pain in my ankle and making good use of the scree slopes before being cheered in by our road support.

Now 33 minutes up on schedule, 13hr 19mins, 30 hills down and over 45miles done - I felt great. I was trying not to get ahead of myself but it was difficult, I just could not imagine not getting round now. Even with another 7hours to go thoughts were starting to turn to how fast I could finish, how strong I could be and how determined I was to maintain the pace.

Adam: I'd decided before setting off that I'd be using Lord's Rake to get between Scafell Pike and Scafell in the most efficient and risk averse way. I'm not a climber and the additional worry of scaling Broad Stand was not something I wished to entertain for the first 12 hrs of the round. At Mickledore, Rob and I headed right and under the cliffs towards Lord's Rake.

I was quite surprised to see so many walkers in the rock strewn gully. Whilst safety was of paramount importance, I was keen to not get stuck behind anyone 'mincing'. I took a brash approach and scuttled up and round several walkers on my ascent. At one point, the shouts of "below, below!" had me thinking I'd dislodged some huge rocks but Rob assured me that it was a young lad venturing up a thin and precarious parallel gully.

We made quick progress, quicker than I'd done on my recce a few weeks earlier and made our way round to Scafell summit. I knew Andy's route was a lot quicker and didn't expect to see him, although with such a quick ascent of Lord's Rake I hoped that I might catch a glimpse.Unfortunately it wasn't to be, at least not on the climb to the top.

On the descent, however, I could clearly see Andy and Scott only a few minutes ahead. I knew I had an advantage over Andy on the downs, especially such a runnable one, and so up'd the pace in an effort to reduce the deficit. If I could, I wanted to head onto Leg 4 with Andy.

Leg 4 – Wasdale to Honister
Andy: The climb up Yewbarrow is notorious. A steep grassy climb that can break even the most prepared runners. It is not its size, more its position in the round. A steep 600m grassy climb hurts, more so after 45miles.

I surprised myself. I felt like I was gliding up the climb, chatting away to Paul Hainsworth and James Charlton, both fresh and determined to support me and help me round. Without meaning to I had dropped Adam on this climb and was 5 minutes inside the target time for this hill alone. He was not finished though and was no more than 10 minutes behind me at any point for the rest of the leg.

Adam: On the climb out of Wasdale and up Yewbarrow, I had to let Andy go for the second time. Now supported by Jonny, I was again struggling on the climbs. This was a long one and simply a matter of head down and get on with it.

Andy: The peaks of Red Pike, Steeple and Pillar flew by and I continued to feel strong on the climbs. On the long rough run down to the bottom of Kirk Fell I began to struggle to block out the pain in my ankle and I think I let this get to me. My legs felt weak for the first time on the climb up Kirk Fell and I was sure I had dropped some time. James confirmed that I was still well up on schedule and a sub 21 hour round was now on the cards.

Andy on Steeple
A gel helped me push hard up Great Gable,  in my mind the final big hurdle,  and I had taken another 5 minutes out of the schedule by the top. “It is all downhill from Gable” – a complete lie, but relatively speaking the last three hills of leg 4 involve very little climb and the flat terrain was run comfortably.

Adam: After Yewbarrow, I made steady progress on the way to Great Gable. The weather was still fantastic, with views right out over to the Scafell Pikes in one direction, the remaining Leg 4 peaks in the foreground, and then the final 3 peaks of Leg 5 in the other direction. With a combination of steep and rocky ascents and descents, Andy and I yo-yo-ed as we progressed. At times we'd be close enough to shout words of encouragement to each other but minutes later we'd be seemingly miles apart.

Great Gable was very much a focal point for me during the early parts of Leg 4. Once there, it's pretty much one direction back to Keswick and it's the last of the 'big' peaks so to speak. I'd also failed miserably to climb Great Gable simply from Wasdale on one of our early recces and didn't want to be defeated again.

I felt strong on the flats and the downhills especially but the climbs were still a struggle. There was nothing I could do but plod and plod I did. I knew completing the round was definitely on, barring any major incident, and knew that we'd been up on schedule throughout Leg 3. But I had no idea what sort of time I could manage at this stage.

With the final really rough descent out of the way having come off Great Gable, we made good progress on the soft and surprisingly dry tops between Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knotts. I approached Honister with a huge amount of optimism as the legs were feeling good. Despite being out for nearly 18 hours, the cool evening air, clear tops and thoughts of finishing were hugely motivational.

Leg 5 – Honister to Keswick
Andy: Honister was a buzz. My road support could sense it was in the bag and I was eager to get going. Mums homemade flapjack went down a treat, I was feeling hungry and for the first time all day I felt tired. A procession of us  set off onto the last leg. Despite running Leg 2 Michael was joining me along with, Dad,
James and my best friend Richard. It meant so much to have such close friends with me and I was determined not to let them down, especially Richard. Not a natural runner, he had trained incredibly hard to join me on this leg and reaching the end with me would be a huge achievement for him.

I felt strong again on the climb up Dale Head and could sense that my support team were being stretched. I wanted to enjoy the last leg with them but at the same time didn’t want to lose any time. I needn’t have worried - Richard made it to the top inside a 22hour schedule just two minutes behind me and soon caught me on the ridge to Hindscarth before heading to Robinson with Michael to wait for me there.
I  resisted the temptation to attempt the ‘test of man’ to run up the gradual climb up to the top of Hindscarth but was another 4 minutes up on schedule despite walking some of it.

James was keen to continue to push the pace and I was happy to be pulled along, running the diagonal path to the 42nd and final hill of the day. I continued to push out the climb but my legs finally started to desert me and it was a welcome relief to see Michael and Richard waiting at the final summit.

From here Michael and Richard kicked for home and I got swept along in a wave of emotions. I felt relaxed and at ease, despite being very aware that I had a tough road section ahead I seemed to be striding out  comfortably. Seeing Richard and Michael thoroughly enjoying themselves on the fast grassy descents just ahead of me, and having James by my side encouraging me on was a wonderful combination. After dodging a crazy horse guarding a gate, the hardest part of the day began - the 5 miles on the road.

Adam: Feeling good, we kept the refueling down to a minimum and set off on Leg 5 within 4 minutes of reaching the car park at Honister. Andy had left just before I'd arrived and I wondered if it would be possible to catch him on this leg. It certainly wouldn't happen on the final slog of the day up to Dale Head, but I had so much running in my legs, I thought the flat sections might just be enough.

It was also clear now that a 21 hr round was a likely outcome and just how quick I could do Leg 5, which was very much a mystery, would decide my final time. Rob joined Jonny and I on this final leg and it was great to get going with both my support runners. They made the climb up Dale Head entertaining with general banter and it went by in a flash.

Next up was the 'test of manliness', a run from Dale Head all the way to Hindscarth without a pause to walk. One of the few peak to peak legs where this is a possibility, but so late in the round, it would be a big ask. Setting off, I wanted to remain comfortable for as long as possible, I knew it would be doable if I didn't go too fast. Once on the gentle climb along the Hindscarth ridge, I could feel it was in the bag and so kicked on. I never thought I'd be running so strongly at this point in the round. At just under 13 minutes for the run, I'd knocked nearly 8 minutes off the scheduled time. This felt great on such a short leg.

I pressed on, running down to the col before the final true climb of the day to Robinson. Jonny pushed hard up the hill and made sure we were headed in the right direction. Once at the summit, I resisted the opportunity to celebrate. My finish line was still 10KM away!

At just gone 8 in the evening I was on my way down the familiar slopes. A time well inside 21hrs was now possible and every minute counted. I was finally able to throw caution to the wind on the descent and spotted Andy and his support runners only a few hundred yards down the valley.

I'd pulled a bit of a gap on Jonny and Rob and didn't know whether to keep pushing the pace or slow down a bit and let them catch me. I was desperate for my road shoes! Fortunately, as I slowed a bit for the random horse, they caught me and this meant I could change immediately into my road shoes when we reached the first tarmac.

A formula one pit stop-esq shoe change occured and I was off again; leaving a trail of fell shoes and extra clothing ditched for Rob and Jonny to collect. I pulled another sizeable gap and caught up with Andy as he was changing shoes. I didn't know whether to stop or carry on, I was flying. In the end I think my legs made the decision for me and I decided to continue on.

I now had a new goal, making it from the top of Robinson to the Moot Hall in under an hour. I was on my own through the woods and still felt amazing. I couldn't hear, nor see, either Jonny or Rob and started to wonder if when I reached the Moot Hall if anyone would be able to confirm my time.

On the approach to Portinscale I began to flag a bit, my earlier exuberance started to fade and I began to realise that an hour was probably going to be too much. On the approach to the bridge, Jonny caught me, something I had half-hoped wouldn't happen. 

I took the opportunity to take stock. I was about to complete the Bob Graham Round; a challenge that I'd failed before and had so much respect for. The hour challenge hadn't come to fruition and I'd been caught but this didn't matter. I was about to complete in a little over 20 hours, a time I wouldn't have contemplated, even in my wildest dreams. More to the point, I'd managed to share the experience with family and a select group of mates. Two of whom were to join me in completing on this day.

I stuffed a couple of jaffa cakes down to keep off the impending sugar crash. After a couple of short walks and some steady jogging across the fields heading into Keswick, I was on the road heading up to the finish. It was great to see my parents and Andy's supporters as I used my last reserves of energy to scale the steps of the Moot Hall and stop my watch. Relief! Relief and then amazement - 20:07:51 - not a bad time I thought. The final leg had taken just under 2 hrs 10 minutes and the final Robinson-Keswick split was 1:03:48, over half an hour quicker than the schedule.

A couple of minutes later and I was able to cheer Andy in. Duncan, having successfully complete in an amazing 19:32 came out to greet us and we took the customery 'after shot'.

Andy: Crossing the market place in Keswick everything was a blur  – I noticed Rosie and Riley and heard a lot of applause and cheering. It was only when I bounded up the steps at Moot Hall and stopped my watch that I looked round and was able to take a breath and absorb the moment with a select group of friends and
family below me.

I cannot describe the feeling at the finish. Whilst trying to reflect on what I had just achieved I felt surprisingly calm, a strange sense of relief at completing the challenge yet a reluctance to accept that this amazing day was over. A wave of gratitude overwhelmed me, and I hobbled down to give all my supporters and family well deserved hugs.

For so long completing the Bob Graham had been a dream. Now it is a surreal reality for which I owe so many people. One thing is for sure - the highs and lows of 20hrs12minutes spent on those Lakeland fells will be etched in my memory forever.

Of course, without the following people, our rounds would not have been possible and a huge thank you goes out to them:

Hill Support - Duncan (BGR - 19:32!!), Viv, Michael, Scott, Rob, Jonny, Ian, Paul, James, Richard, Mick
Road Support - Rosie (& Riley), Karen, Mick (Andy's parents), Dave, Alison (Adam's parents)

And thanks to Duncan's supporters too for helping to make the weekend!

Adam - Duncan - Andy

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