A Winter Bob Graham Round

A lone mountain runner, huh? What does that mean?
Words By: Henriette Albon | Photos By: James Appleton

I was not born with a whole lot of natural talent when it comes to running. Yet, I enjoy challenging myself in the mountains and moving fast through rugged landscapes. Over the years, I’ve drifted towards longer distances, pushing myself to the brink of what some might consider sensible. Don’t ask me why — I just seem to have a strong emotional drive to test myself out there.

My most recent endeavor took me to the land of football, tea, and The Beatles. You might not have guessed it, but runners in the English Lake District have pitted themselves against the hills for well over a hundred years. In 1932, Bob Graham set an extraordinary peak bagging record, linking 42 summits in under 24 hours. It wasn’t until 1960 that someone repeated the feat in a better time. Since then, numerous bold souls have started and finished The Bob Graham Round.

Starting and finishing in the small village of Keswick, the circular route covers 106 kilometers (66 miles) with 8,300 meters of climbing. For those who are successful and clock in under 24 hours, exclusive membership to The Bob Graham 24 Hour Club awaits. Just be sure to read up on the rich history and ethics before hitting the fells. This route is much more than your average Strava segment or FKT (Fastest Known Time) route.

While running is typically a solitary endeavor for me, attempting The Bob Graham Round is not. A runner needs to be accompanied at every summit for verification purposes. For practical reasons, so-called “witnesses” are allowed to help navigate and carry a runner’s kit. The Round is therefore as much a team effort as a solo challenge.

Throughout my running career, running has been a way for me to explore who I am beyond societal norms. It’s very much a tale of me journeying through nature and feeling the wind and rain against my face, my heart beating, and my legs burning from climbing steeps. I seem to have this animalistic ability to zone out and immerse myself in the act of putting one foot in front of the other. I prefer to stay in this sacred zone, uninterrupted and disconnected from social interactions. Having a small football team accompany me in this endeavor put a different spin on things.

When I first decided to attempt The Bob Graham Round, I quickly realized the need to (1) familiarize myself with the rugged route and (2) bring together a team of individuals willing to verify my attempt. Being based abroad there was only one thing to do — pack my bags and travel to the mountainous Lake District (oh, the irony) to acquaint myself with the local running community and terrain. In torrential rain, I got a taste for what the hills are like when there are storm warnings in place. I also met up with local legend Martin Stone, known for his running accomplishments dating back to the 1970s. Having been the third person to complete a winter Bob Graham Round, he had plenty of stories to tell and buckets of advice.

Inspired by Martin and other winter Bob Graham Round pioneers, I decided to attempt the route just before the winter solstice. This meant I would only get 7hours 30minutes of daylight before running back into the night. The idea of completing the Round during the darkest time of year appealed to me as a grand adventure. Whilst the lack of light makes the task at hand more challenging, narrowing the experience down to the pool of light in front of me would also present a more eerie and sensory experience than what I normally encounter during daytime. There was also the unknown linked to what weather conditions I would be faced with on the day of the attempt. Everything from crisp snow-covered peaks to miserably wet conditions was a possibility. I would be packing crampons as well as shorts for this trip, and everything in between.

My team was well aware of my ambitions to set a new winter record. I knew that to stand a chance, I needed decent weather and a great team around me. While running might not be my forte, planning is my real superpower. As it turned out, this played to my advantage. With the help of Martin, we assembled a great group of runners to assist me on the day. So much so that, in the days leading up to the attempt, I grew anxious as I didn’t quite feel like I deserved the team that we had lined up. At the end of the day, I was just an ambitious mountain runner determined to push my limits — having a group of local legends support me in this quest felt somewhat excessive and pretentious.

quote-leftIt’s very much a tale of me journeying through nature and feeling the wind and rain against my face, my heart beating, and my legs burning from climbing steeps.quote-right

Leg 1: Keswick to Threlkeld

Distance: 21km with 1600m+

Pacers: Sam & Jon

To no-one’s surprise, Keswick was eerily quiet in the early hours on Tuesday the 19th of December. At 02:50am, Sam, who would be pacing me for the first section of the route alongside my husband Jon, casually strolled up the high-street while sipping on a can of energy drink. I nervously introduced myself while attempting to reset my GPS tracker which was showing no signs of life. A couple of minutes later Paul Wilson, the chairman of The Bob Graham 24 Hour Club, appeared alongside Martin who would be helping with the logistics over the upcoming however-many hours. It suddenly occurred to me that this run was much more than a solo escapade in the mountains.

I walked towards the iconic entrance of Moot Hall which marks the start and finish of the route. Before we knew it, the clock struck 03:00am and it was time to get moving. Together with my “witnesses” for the occasion, I set off at a steady pace. The vibe was relaxed as I got chatting to Sam about why he had volunteered to go for a run in the middle of the night. It soon became evident that he wanted to make the most of his week off from his usual family duties. Squeezing in a long run before work made complete sense to him.

The sky was spitting rain and the mist rolled in as we crested the first summit. I soon learnt that I had fallen slightly behind the time schedule. Already?, I thought. This was not the start I wanted for my record setting attempt.

As we made our way towards Great Calva, the bog insisted on slowing us down further. The darkness seemed to amplify the miserable conditions that encompassed us. As we approached the third peak of the route, our fingers went numb from the windchill.

After almost 3 hours on the move, we descended into the village of Threlkeld which marked the end of the first leg. Sam wrapped up his night run before heading to work. Jon would be joining me for the next section alongside Scott and Jack. The rain was due to ease and so I took the time to change my top half which was soaking wet at this point. Martin handed me my spare rain jacket before driving on to the next road crossing where I would see him in a couple of hours if everything went to plan. The team was doing an excellent job, now it was up to me to keep moving forward.

Leg 2: Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise

Distance: 22km with 1,800m+

Pacers: Scott, Jack & Jon

Heading up Clough Head, the four of us were shielded from the wind. I focused on consuming plenty of calories before again being exposed to the elements. Although I was slightly behind schedule, I knew that the route would get increasingly challenging and so my strategy was very much to not go too fast early on. I was also intent on not making a big deal out of this more runnable section of the Round — I knew it was still the beginning of a very long run and now was not the time to feel tired.

Dawn treated us to views of the fells and the burden of the night instantly lifted. Daylight propelled us forward as we ticked off peak after peak, moving faster than expected. After almost 7 hours on the move, we descended into Dunmail Raise with confidence.

Leg 3: Dunmail Raise to Wasdale

Distance: 27km with 2,150m+

Pacers: Matt, Billy & Tom

The group was buzzing with anticipation as we arrived at the road crossing. Martin handed me a cup of English breakfast tea while quizzing me on how I felt. His enthusiasm was catching, and I set off up Steel Fell with excitement for what lied ahead. I was now accompanied by Matt, Billy, and Tom; three young blokes who were like a pack of fell hounds eager to move forward.

Steel Fell is a tough climb, and it didn’t take long before my wave of positive energy came crashing down. Leg 3 is notorious for its unrelentless and rough terrain and, having run the route a couple of weeks earlier, I was aware of what awaited me. The climbs aren’t necessarily very long but you’re continuously moving either uphill or through rough, wet ground. Having already done a marathon at this point, it’s easy to feel like you’re moving slower than you should be.

With their chitter chatter, the guys did a great job of keeping spirits high — I don’t think there was a single minute of silence between us. I was also getting more used to calling out “gel” and “drink” without feeling rude. Coming off Bowfell my knees started to hurt on descents, but the boulder fields kept me distracted for the time being. As we climbed up Lords Rake, the most technical part of the route, I found myself smiling and truly enjoying myself. The weather had been windy but dry during the day and we counted ourselves lucky. As we descended from Scafell with the wind in our face, we let out whoops and hollers, ecstatic in the golden light as we charged downhill. Surrounded by great people, the lows from earlier were forgotten and I felt truly lucky to have had the most enjoyable day on the fells.

quote-leftSurrounded by great people, the lows from earlier were forgotten and I felt truly lucky to have had the most enjoyable day on the fells.quote-right

Leg 4: Wasdale to Honister Pass

Distance: 18km with 2,000m+

Pacers: Nichola, Harry & Jon

To my surprise, we came into Wasdale 20 minutes ahead of schedule. I again took the time to refuel, chat to Martin, and change my clothes. This gave me plenty of time to soak up the supportive energy of the crew before heading up the long climb of Yewbarrow, also known as the Graveyard of The Bob Graham Round. It’s where most people quit. Moving uphill at a blistering pace (all things considered) I made it clear to my team that I was not stopping anytime soon.

According to the time schedule, we were expecting to lose the light just after the first peak but pushed on and managed to summit Steeple before getting our headtorches out. As we made our way towards the 34th peak of the Round, the wind whipped us off our feet and we unexpectedly felt exposed to the elements. Martin had warned me that the coming section would be tricky to navigate in the dark, and we did lose some time due to minor navigational errors. There’s no denying that my mood and energy levels were spiraling downhill at this point too. We were all quite relieved to arrive at the Honister Pass road crossing after a tough couple of hours in the dark.

Leg 5: Honister Pass to Keswick

Distance: 18km with 750m+

Pacers: Harry & Allen

I plonked down in the chair that Martin had arranged and found myself gulping down a cup of tea. I subsequently consumed two caffeine gels while changing my socks. I hadn’t run the final section of the route during my reconnaissance; many say it’s relatively easy and straightforward.

Completely exhausted with jellified legs, the prospect of running for another couple of hours seemed overwhelming at this point. “Don’t worry, it’s just a short uphill followed by a nice downhill to Keswick,” said Tom before handing me my poles. Powered by caffeine, I set off at an optimistic pace with the intention of getting the uphill over with as quickly as possible. Like waiting for a kettle to boil, it seemed to drag on forever. When the three of us eventually started moving downhill, the terrain was much trickier than I anticipated. Turns out, no part of The Bob Graham Round is “easy.” Having Allen and Harry light the way left no time for dilly-dallying. Although my body was screaming at me to stop, my companions were telling me to push on for just a little bit longer. Well into my cave of physical and mental pain, I pushed past my pre-defined limits and what I thought was possible on the fells. Would I have stopped without my pacers present? Probably not. But I don’t think I would be blasting down the final hill at record speed, having been on the move for the longest I’d ever run in my entire life, without the help from the team.

Martin picked up Harry when we hit the final road section; it was now down to Allen and I to complete the loop. As the remote and rugged mountains morphed into paved streets lined with streetlights, I lost myself in the monotonous rhythm of road running. When we finally turned the corner to the marketplace in Keswick, I was greeted by my small but significant team. There were no competitors chasing me down, yet I sprinted towards Moot Hall with the intention of not letting them down.

17hours 55minutes 25seconds. I stopped my watch and slumped on the ground with relief. It dawned on me how naïve I’d been standing on the steps of Moot Hall earlier that day with the intention of setting a new winter record. Yet I was grateful that I was bold enough to go for it, ending the day as a changed person with a memory of a lifetime. I glanced around to take in the faces of old friends and new, impressions from the day flashing before my eyes as I did. Exhausted from climbing hills, we didn’t exchange many words. But we all had a big grin on our faces, dead chuffed to have shared the adventures of the Bob Graham Round.

With the help of everyone around me, I knocked over 2 hours off the previous winter record. We fittingly toasted to our Lake District adventure with burgers and beer at the local pub: The Round.

A special thank you to Martin for being a vital soundboard in the weeks leading up to the attempt, as well as facilitating the logistics on the day. Thank you to Beth who joined me for several days of recceing in horrendous November conditions. I couldn’t have done it without my pacers and road support on the day. Thank you; Jon, Sam, Scott, Jack, Matt, Billy, Tom, Nichola, Harry, Allen, Tom, Nicky, Ross, and James.