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Bob Graham Round - Matt Duckett

Like many, I was inspired to attempt the Bob Graham Round (BGR, The Round or the Bob) after reading ‘Feet in the Clouds’ by Richard Askwith -  a book which chronicles the history of fell running, whilst following the authors attempt at the Bob, inspiring many-a Round in the process. 

 

The Bob Graham Round is England's classic mountain challenge (Wales and Ireland both have their own!), with a route which covers the highest fells in the Lakes: 42 peaks over 105km running with 8,100m ascent - all to be completed in 24 hours. It was first completed in 1932, as a Mr Bob Graham traversed the (now slightly different) route to gain the 24-hour Lakeland Peak Bagging record. The first formal attempt came in 1960, and since then around 2,800 successful rounds have been made - with roughly one in three being successful. Currently there are around 150 completions a year.



For a round to be successfully recorded, giving the participant membership of the infamous Bob Graham Round Club, the attempt needs to have their runner ‘witnessed’ at the top of each peak.

Consequently it requires a team of runners and immense planning: breaking into five ‘legs’, with at least one support runner per leg to witness – plus extra for help with navigation and ‘muling’ - carrying food and water. This meant that I could focus on the running and not worry about anything else. In the buildup it certainly felt more like a logistical challenge than a physical one!


I’d spent far too long putting it off – I’d done recce weekends to spend time on the course, read all the books and watched the YouTube videos (highly recommend Jeff Pelletier's video if anyone wants to learn more). I’d partly left it so long as I’d wanted to have a crew of experienced friends (instead of searching for helpful strangers), so I garnered my crew and set my date for 11th May 2024. Quite early in the season, but reasonably long days and historical weather data showed there was a decent chance of it not raining - certainly not a guarantee but important: the weather is undoubtedly the biggest variable impacting the success of the Bob.

 

Mercifully 11th May came around and the skies were clear – it was the weekend where everyone was seeing the northern lights. Not us though - dutifully tucked away in bed we unfortunately missed them on the Friday night, but thankfully it made for clear skies for the weekend.

 

Saturday morning came and nerves were creeping in: had I recced enough of the route? Had I sufficiently prepared my crew? Was I actually physically fit enough to do the challenge - that completion rate of one in three is quite stark!

 



I’d decided on a 6am start and soon enough was off, with QPH Luke navving and witnessing Leg 1. Skiddaw was high (938m!), but spirits were higher. Skies were clear, there was a slight breeze and with chants of ‘Come on Skiddaw’ [to the tune of come on Eileen!] the 80-minute climb was actually quite enjoyable. 


Descending to the Mungrisdale bogs the song of choice was ‘Oh Mungrisdale’ to the tune of ‘Oh Christmas tree, and I was particularly thankful for my shoe choice - the Terrex SG ‘bog trotters’, and a couple of river crossings later I was starting the ascent up Blencathra (868m). At this point contenders are faced with several route choices - descend via Halls Fell or take one of the slightly gentler descents into Threlkeld. I’d been permanently scarred from Halls Fell, having traversed it during the 2017 Lakes in a Day (my first 50-miler!) and taken a tumble on some greasy rocks, breaking my headtorch in the process, leaving me to navigate the evening section with just my iPhone torch! The (slightly!) gentler descent via Doddick added a few minutes but required much less rock-hopping, preserving legs for later in the day, and bringing me to the crew point in ~3.5hrs.

Luke left me at Leg 2, and after an initial climb up Clough Head (a common characteristic of the crew points is that they’re preceded by quite beastly climbs!) and after this climb the route stays high, with good running following the Helvellyn ridge from Threlkeld down to Dunmail Raise. Leg 1 had three peaks to ‘bag’ on the round, whereas Leg 2 has a whopping 12, and they came through thick and fast on the Helvellyn Highway. The day was heating up and the ground was dry, which was great for running but the ‘Bogtrotters’ were out of their comfort zone: I was feeling the lack of cushioning and my feet were starting to blister. 


I finished Leg 2 ~90minutes up on schedule, and as Legs 3 and 4 are ‘the back’ of the round, the Dunmail Raise crewpoint was a complete reset: baby wipes, a change of clothes and a

bacon sandwich. Ironically at this point I’d realised none of the food I’d brought with me was appealing: my homemade aid station selection of flapjacks, waffles banana and crisps weren’t sitting well, and I put in an order for gels from the crew. 


Leg 3 is a killer, taking in Bowfell, Scafell Pike and Scafell over ~6.5hrs starting in the middle of the day, with the initial steep, grassy climb up Steel Fell from the Leg 2 crew point foreshadowing the difficulty of the rest of the leg. By this point it was hot and I was drinking like a fish: super-mule Graeme did a heroic effort carrying a good 2.5L water for the leg, which initially wiggles up towards Bowfell (902m) before taking in Scafell Pike (978m) and Scafell (964m). One of my notable takeaways from recce-ing this part of the route was the bog, and I’d decided to keep the bogtrotters for this leg. This turned out to be a terrible decision: unlike my recce conditions the ground was now firm, exacerbating the blisters which had formed on my feet in the previous leg. Positivity was needed, and music-ifying each peak ensued - ‘Thunacar Knott has got it goin on’ [to the tune of ‘Stacy’s Mom]. If the running wasn’t going to be a success, Bob Graham The Musical certainly would be.

 

Halfway through leg 3 Graeme collapsed into the Langdales (his parting words on the WhatsApp group were ‘Matt strong, Graeme dead. Having a lie down.’) and handed me over to Lake District local Jonathan who, accompanied by his dog Bow (named after Bowfell), had the task of navigating me from Rossett Pike over the Scafell range and into Leg 4 through the night. 


Whilst my legs were getting increasingly more knackered, the descent from Scafell was great fun. The steep slope covered with scree allowed us to scree-surf our way down the fell as the loose scree gave way underfoot and we slid into Wasdale Head - the Leg 3/4 road crossing.

 

Wasdale Head is known as the ‘Graveyard of the round’. Having taken 6.5hrs on leg 3, with the crescendo of Lords Rake and Scafell I could absolutely understand why - I felt pretty beaten up descending into Wasdale. Thankfully I was still 30 minutes under my 23hr schedule, and so there was no need to entertain the idea of dropping, but I certainly needed a few chips, a bit of rest and the maximalist cushioning of the Hoka Mafate Speeds. 

 

Bow (the dog) clearly also had rest in mind and he laid out over the backseat of the car, blissfully unaware of the 4 hours of night running he had left.

Yew-bastard I shouted as I climbed up Yewbarrow out of Wasdale head. The light faded, darkness set in and head torches came on. Unfortunately no northern lights tonight, but plenty of campers out on the Leg 4 horseshoe were out hoping to spot them. The clear night and bright moon allowed us to see the whole of the route and the night went without any major navigational mishaps - an irritating ‘out and back’ to Steeple and a very scrambly climb up Great Gable made me realise just how sapped of energy my legs were. I was dropping pace and Jonathan took on the role of the hare: running ahead to pick out the paths, set the pace and give me someone  to chase. Whilst I was running slow, I was still on schedule and once Great Gable was out of the way I knew the big climbs were  done and the rest of the route was easier running. Not quite easier nav though as we spent a good 5 minutes locating the actual summit of Grey Knotts before the Honister descent.

 

I stopped for 2 minutes at the Honister Pass road crossing to change support crew before heading out on the final leg. Leg 5 is the most straightforward – whilst it’s tackled at night, there are three smaller summits with relatively straightforward nav, and I had over four hours left to get them done before returning to the Moot hall – which was plenty of time. After a slippery descent from Robinson, the final 10k are on the road – and looking for every sliver of comfort and speed I changed into my carbon plated Adios Pros, which helped me to run the final 10km in a blister-poppingly fast pace of 07:30min/km.

 

Approaching Keswick the sun was starting to rise with a pink hue providing the backdrop to the town, and as the Moot Hall came into view I felt quite overwhelmed to have finally completed this challenge to which I had devoted so much time and mental energy over the last few years. At 5am the streets of Keswick were empty other than my crew, and following a finishing ‘sprint’ I finally touched the doors of the Moot Hall in 22:57.







It really was an incredible day out on the fells, which seriously wouldn't have been possible without the support crew who were all brilliant:

 

-          Luke Willem

-          Graeme English

-          Kieren D’Souza

-          Jonathan Wren

-          Gus Morrison

-          Jo Cluett

-          Jeev Singh

-          Fiona English

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