I first heard about the Bob Graham Round when I was 18 whilst with a group of friends. We naively decided to try to backpack around the route over a bank holiday weekend. We did not get very far, Great Gable I think (going anticlockwise), before retreating to the pub at Wasdale Head having been beaten by truly awful weather. Several years later I read Feet in the Clouds by Richard Asquith and the seed was sown again.
For those not familiar with the Bob Graham (BG) it’s a 66 mile round of 42 peaks and 8200m of ascent which starts and finishes at the Moot Hall in Keswick. Bob Graham, a hotelier from Keswick, set the Lakeland record for most peaks in 24 hours in 1932. The round was not repeated in a better time until 1960, a testament to how impressive an achievement it was. In 1971 a club was formed to recognise those who completed the round. There are few rules except each summit must be witnessed and you must complete the round within 24 hours. The success rate is approximately 1 in 3; that’s two failed attempts to every successful round.
Then Covid came along and races got called off. I started researching the BG round, watched a few YouTube videos, read a few accounts of the round and joined the BG Facebook page. I’d not run for 2 months with an Achilles problem, but found my initial runs on the fells seemed to help so I pushed on. My miles went up quickly from 0, to 20, to 60 miles a week with no issues. I also started to recce the route, still uncertain if it was realistic or not. The July family holiday became a Lakes trip (as did everyone else’s) and my supposed Alpe D’huez trip turned into a 5day Lakes trip also. The BG club was not recognising attempts anyway so I was happy just to see how it went. Exploring the round with friends was simply amazing and we had some great days in the hills.
Then I started to obsess. Splits, road crossings, route choices, runner choices etc. Marlene and the rest of the family joked whenever BG was mentioned and rolled their eyes. The kitchen table was littered with maps and I tried to get as much advice as I could. As midlife crises go, I suppose better then buying a motor bike and cheaper than an affair.
As Covid eased off, the BG club decided to allow new rounds, and so I decided to register for an attempt though still a little unsure if my 3 month training block was enough. I was fortunate to get a crack team of support runners, most of them with a lot of BG experience. Several friends offered to come and road crew also. To find anywhere to stay for all of us turned out to be difficult (apparently everyone was to holiday in the Lakes this year), but my amazing wife found a great youth hostel near Derwent water. It turns out the Bob Graham himself had previously worked or owned it at some point (we never did clarify which) but it felt like a positive omen.
Two weeks out from my own attempt I was at the Moot Hall in Keswick at 2am with Rich supporting Ian in his BG round. He had delayed his start by 4 hours hoping the forecasted gale force winds would subside (they hadn’t). We joined him for legs 1 and 2, approximately 26 miles, in what was fairly appalling weather. Leg 1 felt strangely tough and I was a bit worried about how slow I felt I was going. As we headed out onto leg 2 and up Great Calva, Ian set a ferocious pace and I had to give it everything to keep up. The rest of leg the hoods were up and heads down into the strong winds and rain. I questioned our sanity but finally it cleared slightly towards our final two peaks and as we dropped down to the road crossing at Dunmail. Ian looked strong and then carried on to leg 3. Rich and I were exhausted, a little worrying for me as we headed off to bed. Sadly the winds and conditions continued and despite a good effort Ian abandoned just after the start of leg 4.
September the 5th 1am, the weather forecast was a bit worrying (gales and wind chill of minus 2 on tops) and it had been raining pretty much all evening. A group of us gathered outside the Moot Hall; several of my best friends, Douglas (my son), Marlene and my support runners. I was feeling quite relaxed about it but looking forward to getting leg 1 over with as it’s the one I was most concerned about. On a previous recce I’d not been able to cross the river which was in full flood. On the same day in daylight we had found the descent from Blencathra difficult in bad weather, this time it would be in the dark and in bad weather. In the end it went fine. Charlie and Dan kept a steady head as we picked a safe line down Halls Fell and no one died. We got to the 1st road crossing in 3h 50, bang on schedule.
Leg 2 in hindsight was a breeze. I was joined by Kim, Nina and Tim and we set off up Clough Head with head torches and trying to eat some food. Kim insisted I would enjoy the climb this time, like a Jedi mind trick “you will enjoy it”. Oddly it worked. Then the Dodds, three peaks which are notorious for navigation problems, went by without any incident and the weather seemed to brighten up – we were treated to an amazing sun rise going up Raise. We even saw some other walkers as going up Helvellyn. We got down to the next road crossing at Dunmail, 3hr 50 for the leg, faster than expected. Kim then chose to share that she’d never supported a non-successful round that got to Dunmail, so no pressure then.
Leg 3 is the hardest and longest and I’d allowed 6 hours. There is a lot of technical rock in this leg notorious for being like ice when wet. I was joined by Mike, George and Rich (comedy trio). We found all the lines first time and I was climbing well still. The three of them kept talking, singing and providing encouragement, and I was quite enjoying myself. The tricky Bowfell ascent was fine as we hit the right traverse to the summit first time. We got passed by a party with a runner on route to do a 16hr 05 round. From there it was on to the tricky rocks of the Scafell range. Unfortunately, the rain came. I’d not enjoyed this section previously in the wet and today was much the same. It’s a case of just trying to keep it smooth and not break anything. Scafell Pike came and went with all the crowds, into the isolation of Mickledore and Lord’s Rake. You have a choice here: Broad Stand (quite exposed and not somewhere you want to fall off), Foxes Tarn (safe but involves a lot of height loss) or Lords Rake (an easy but exposed scramble). I went for the latter. From Scafell there’s the biggest descent of the entire round into Wasdale. 6.15 hours for the leg, within schedule. Saw Marlene (a surprise) and Suzanna at the road crossing and resisted getting emotional (too early for that stuff) and sat down to have a change of socks and waterproof.
I was met by Matt (fellow triathlete) and Dave who’s simply amazing with the map for leg 4. As I left, I was struggling with one shoe which I felt was too tight. I loosened the laces to see if it would ease (It didn’t – so just had to crack on) as we headed up Yewbarrow (known as the graveyard of BG rounds). It’s steep and the route just goes straight up. I had my 1st moment of doubt when I felt faint halfway up – Matt came to my aid with a gel and after 5 minutes I felt better and was still climbing. The weather turned rubbish again, hail and rain and it was a case of just getting on with it. Matt kept prompting me to eat and although not fast I was still moving (and conscious). I loved this leg on my recce with Great Gable my favourite mountain always visible to the East.. This time it felt less fun. Once you are at Great Gable it is said you are almost home (strange really as its still over 4 hours to Keswick). But I was delighted to get there. The next hour took us back to the final road crossing at Honister, just as the last light faded and head torches came on again. 4h 59 for the leg- bang on again (thanks to Matt and Dave).
There was a pleasant surprise at Honister when met by several of the party. Although a little cold I was still happy and thought it was in the bag. Kim, Paula and Marlene fussed over me like a formula one pit crew. A quick change of shoes as the foot was still sore and then on again. It turned out a minor roll of my ankle on leg 2 had caused the ankle to swell up and hence the shoe feeling tight.
Leg 5 I thought I knew well (but apparently not well enough). Paul and Ollie were pacing. The last three fells were in thick mist causing us to make two navigational mistakes, and for a moment when I realised we were lostI thought I may of blown it at the last hurdle. Fortunately, we found the path and got to the last summit, Robinson. There was a tricky descent into the valley floor, fun in the dry but slippery in the wet. Then finally at the road and the last 10k back to Keswick. Douglas and Angie joined us in the final run in- a brilliant lift to my morale. By then I just wanted to finish and can’t say I enjoyed the road section despite the fabulous company, Douglas chatted away merrily and I just listened. Everyone who’s done the round tells you how hard this last 10k feels.
The last 100m is up the Keswick High street to the Moot Hall where everyone from out party was. I could hear the cheers as I was approaching, and then to touch the door, 22 hours and 54 minutes after departing. It’s difficult to sum up how it feels. The BG had been an obsession and finally it was over. I’d had the best help you could get and was surrounded by my friends. To borrow the words of the founder of the club, Fred Rogerson, “The camaraderie of the fells is second to none”.