Two great reviews of ‘The Round’ have recently appeared on the Amazon page for my book. It is always nice to hear of readers enjoying something you have put a lot of yourself into writing.
One goes (in part): “What makes Steve Chilton’s book stand out is the numerous first person accounts from runners, as well as their pacers and supporters: authentic voices, describing real experiences. Either through interviews, or use of diary entries and other contemporaneous accounts, the author builds up a detailed picture of both the landscape and the characters of those who have responded to the challenge it sets. The book’s centrepiece is an exclusive interview with fell running legend Billy Bland, who in 1982 completed the BGR in 13 hours and 53 minutes – a record no-one else has yet come close to. This and other interviews make this book an essential document in the history of the BGR in particular, and endurance challenges in general.”
The second includes: “I’d been looking forward to The Round with great anticipation. In every way, it exceeded my expectations. Further to his first book ‘It’s a Hill’, Steve Chilton has yet again managed to describe with intrigue and passion the rich history of a fascinating and unique facet of fell running. Yet also, and importantly, The Round takes you on a journey, deep into the minds of those brave enough to attempt, or even simply involve themselves in, the Bob Graham Round. It is this clever first hand narrative throughout the book that drew me in, leaving me inspired.”
Someone asked me the other day how the second book has gone compared to the first. It is not easy to say, and my gut feeling was perhaps that it hadn’t gone as well. I have just got the first sales statement from the publisher which possibly counters this guesswork. In the period from book launch in mid-Sept to 31 Oct the sales of ‘The Round’ have been just over a third more than those that were achieved by ‘It’s a hill, get over it’ in the exact same period after its launch in 2013. The task is now to keep up some momentum. What I have noticed this time around is that I have achieved less reviews for book II than book I. I have also not had a series of book talks to back up the launch this time. So, I feel there is a task to be done to get ‘The Round’ out there and noticed by more potential readers.
As a diversion to all this I have been recently encouraging a friend to blog about her own athletic experiences. It is based on a first trip to train at altitude, in this case at the Lornah Kiplagat HATC in Iten (Kenya). The trip is along with another Barnet & District AC clubmate, and they are both hoping for good times at the London Marathon. As someone who is working with both of them I will now frighten them by putting it on record that I am confidant that if they both run well they can break the respective female and male Club Records. I really would encourage you to drop by the On track. On tour blog to read how the training has gone and to hear some light-hearted stories about mixing with the GB internationals and ‘training with the Kenyans’.
Footnote: if anyone goes to Amazon to purchase ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, they haven’t got paperback copies of it any more. Other shops and online suppliers may still have them. I have copies myself and they can be purchased direct from me for £6-99 (inc p&p).
Postcript: after writing this note I have just heard that Sandstone Press are printing another 1,000 copies of ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, which will be available from end of month. The above offer still holds though.
Over the Christmas holiday I interviewed Hugh Symonds as part of my book research. At one point we discussed his own Bob Graham Round, and also his thoughts on Billy Bland’s seemingly unreachable fastest time. This is his explanation of how his own round came about and his speculation on anyone beating Billy’s time, and the Cuillin record:
Many fell runners think the Bob Graham Round (BGR) is a difficult thing to fit in during the summer if you are a competitive athlete. Hugh subscribes to this view, commenting, ‘to be fair my years as a successful fell runner were only really between 1982 and 1988. I am so glad I had that period. I now think it was a bit short really, but that is just the way it went. There was no way I could consider doing a BGR in that window when I was at my best. If you did the BGR one summer you would knock out several races. In 1989 I really tapered off performance-wise in races. It was frustrating, but clearly it was because I was totally focussed on the mountains of Britain run in 1990.’ (See his excellent book Running High).
‘I was doing really long training runs and basically slowed down. Doing the mountains run I slowed down even more. If you go out running for 6 or 7 hours or so for nearly 100 consecutive days you are not going to be fast any longer. I was actually talking to Steve Birkinshaw about this recently at the Sedbergh Hills race, after his Wainwrights effort. I think he found it interesting to talk to me, but was probably not very encouraged!’
‘I wanted to do a BGR, I would have really regretted it if I hadn’t. I half thought of doing it on the way through the Lakes on the mountains of Britain run. Wouldn’t that have been cool? So, I knew I was slowing down on becoming a Vet. I started running with Mark Higginbottom at Sedbergh School, and we said to each other “why not do the BGR”. We supported each other with a couple of friends in some parts. I am so glad I did it.’
[Full story in The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps]
We got to talking about Billy Bland’s record time for the Bob Graham, and Hugh gave his thoughts on it being bettered. ‘Jon Broxap paced Billy on his record BGR in 1982. Apparently Jon said that on the stage he was on it was run at the pace of a Wasdale race. So it was like doing multiple Wasdale races back-to-back.’ Checking this with Tony Cresswell, who also paced the round, he told Hugh that, ‘the fact is that I was at absolute FULL stretch to stay with the bunch – which I did fortunately.’
Hugh continued: ‘Our eldest son Andy lives in France and knows Kilian Jornet quite well, and he thinks Kilian could break Billy’s record. I don’t think so actually. I told Andy that I don’t think Kilian would break the BGR record OR indeed Finlay Wild’s sub-3 hour Cuillin Ridge record. It is partly because running in Britain is so different from the continent. The sort of running you get on the BGR you don’t really get in Europe – getting your feet muddy and stuff. Very few foreigners have been successful on the BGR. This difference is more noted on the Bob Graham than the Cuillin Ridge. If you are a really good climber there is a lot of rock on the Ridge. If the weather was good, which is a big if, maybe Kilian could do the Cuillin time. But it wouldn’t be on the first attempt. He would have to reccie it. It is a huge time commitment that I suspect Kilian wouldn’t have.’
I found it interesting to contrast Hugh’s thoughts with those of Billy Bland himself. What follows is an edited down version of my discussion with Billy Bland (which was more fully expressed in The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps):
Do you think you got the optimum performance you could get [when you set the BGR record]? I hadn’t the pressure of beating anyone’s times. I wasn’t under any pressure at all. I think it was quite fortunate. Anyone who does it is going to be under that pressure.
Could you have gone faster, mindful of the ‘bonk’ you had? So, I think there was possibly another 10 minutes there. It was like putting a nozzle in the car. I got some food down me and was away as if nothing happened. It just was a fuel thing.
Is someone going to beat your time soon? I said it to Ricky Lightfoot, because there is some talk of him doing it. I am saying never mind what times others have done. Just set out for a day on the fells and do what works for you. If it comes out alright, it comes out alright. Don’t get hyped up about hitting times.
But why has no-one beaten it? I think I know why. You see what happens now with this Wainwright round [Steve Birkinshaw’s recent effort]. You get an aura, and people put you on a pedestal that you shouldn’t be on. Naylor has been on a pedestal for ages. People didn’t think it was possible as it was Naylor. Then because I was dominant in long fell racing and did this thing. Then McDermott and Hartell had taken the 24 hour total on and both tried for my time. I kinda knew they wouldn’t get my record. That puts it even more on a pedestal. Even though they weren’t regular fell race winners, but they were long distance specialists. I never saw myself as anything special. That is where others fall down, they don’t train hard enough. I don’t think I am hard mentally, but you certainly get a confidence out of what you can do, knowing your ability and harnessing that in the proper manner.
Could Ricky Lightfoot do it? He may be doing the mileage. He is doing mountain running, which is fine, as I don’t think it is about focus. My focus wasn’t on the BGR. I just stuck it in because me brother was gonna have a go. Which coach would have told you that was a good idea, stuck between two long races? None.
What about Kilian Jornet? Would he [pauses] want to come here? If someone said to me when I was at me best, do you want to go to Spain to have a go at this and that. Spain means nowt to me, this is what means something to me, where I live. Jornet would need the right people with him to show him the best way. If he is capable, then fine. I couldn’t care less if someone took my record. What I know is that is about as good as I was, within a few minutes. That is the satisfaction.
Footnote: The image at the head of this posting is from a Run247 video interview between Ben Abdelnoor and Kilian Jornet. At the end of the interview Ben hands him the BGR booklet and asks him about doing it. Jornet replies: ‘Yeh in the future. It is one of the best trails in the world. Why not, in some years.’
Great to see The Fellrunner give a full page for a review (by Jonathan Bale) of ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ in the Autumn 2015 issue. You can read the full review by clicking on the image, but I will just quote twice from it here:
“The author has earnestly researched the topic from an array of valuable sources, some readily accessible, some esoteric, resulting in a book that combines his narrative interspersed with existing reports and enlightening interviews with noteworthy participants in the sport.”
“The author has completed a very worthy edition to add to the published fell running category in your library ….. I enjoyed the book as a historical reference, a source of wry amusement, a reminder of yesteryear whilst encapsulating the spirit of long distance fell running challenges in the Lake District. I am sure many will do likewise.”
Compass Sport carries a review (by Duncan Archer) which emphasises the fact that I went out of my way: “…. to interview those making and helping the pivotal attempts in the BGR’s history, to get first hand stories. This includes a rare interview with Billy Bland, the current record holder ….. the book finishes acknowledging ‘the unsung heroes’ who facilitate many attempts: the pacers, navigators and supporters.”
The review concludes that: “this is an interesting and informative read, and makes a valuable contribution in the fell running library.” [Click the image below to read the full review.]
As I pulled in to the John Charles Sports Centre a large group of top triathletes had just finished a morning swimming session. I was there for an interview which I had arranged to be in the Centre’s café. Being slightly early I joined several others in having one of the warm home-made cherry scones that seemed to be the (re)fuel of choice for these athletes. Sitting down with scone and coffee I acknowledged the presence of my interviewee, who was finishing what looked like a post-training debrief with one of the athletes.
Jack Maitland is Director of Triathlon at Leeds Metropolitan University, and part of the British coaching team for triathlon, and thus working regularly with the Brownlee brothers, who are based in Leeds. He was also previously an outstanding fell runner, having won the British Fell Champs back in 1986. I was there to interview him as he was a contemporary of, and fierce rival of, Kenny Stuart and John Wild. These two are the central characters in my latest book project, which I am current working on. It is parallel biographies of the two of them, and also tells the story of the incredible 1983 fellrunning championships that year, when they went head-to-head over a full season of 15 races.
Halfway through the interview I could see out of the corner of my eye first one, and then two, Brownlees come and sit at a table nearby. Resisting the urge to halt the interview and gush over to them and ask for a selfie, I did swing the questioning off topic and asked Jack the Coach about working with the two of them. What he told me surprised me somewhat, and caused me to reflect on what Jack had already told me about his own athlete/coach status when performing, and also the attitude to coaching of several other top fell runners that I have had the pleasure of interviewing in the process of writing my first two published books, and now this third manuscript.
I had assumed that Maitland would be applying a strongly scientific approach to his coaching of the World Class triathletes in his care (think Brailsford’s ‘power metering, and marginal gains’ approach in cycling). It seems not, as this was Maitland’s reply when I questioned him about it: ‘Actually that is interesting, as my way is pretty non-scientific. It depends of course what you mean by science. There is planning, organisation, recording and structure, which are all important. But heart rate monitors, power meters and lab tests, well we hardly use that at all. Our athletes have been tested. So I learned a lot from testing them and used that information. I don’t think it is that valuable to keep testing them, you know from their training form and their race form how they are doing.’ He then told a quick story about being tested himself. ‘I did have a VO2 max test once, when I was starting triathlon, and I remember it being pretty high [but he couldn’t recall the result]. The guy doing my test said I should take up cycling!’
Looking back over the discussions on training and coaching that I have recently had with some of the top fell runners there does seem to be a bit of a pattern shown. As a sweeping generalisation these top performers have certain traits in common. Shall we say: driven, motivated, singular in approach and often somewhat ‘individual’ in their approach to their training and their preparation. What follows are some quotes from, and backgrounds for, some of those top athletes. All come from either the published versions in my books or from the original interview transcripts.
Firstly then, Fred Reeves – who won the Grasmere Guides Race eight times. Early on Reeves began working with coach Dennis Beavins, when he turned professional. This helped him strike the right balance, ensuring that flat speedwork continued, particularly to complement the tough downhill training. Reeves noted: ‘My training consisted of running over 70 miles per week, mainly on hills and trails around Coniston, plus 2 speed sessions per week with Dennis and the other runners during the race season. Grasmere was always difficult for me – quite steep and fairly rough, but it was always the one to win, and there was always a lot of hype, press coverage and big crowds to add to the tension. I had no special diet – I even enjoyed a few cream cakes during training, which once resulted in a headline from one desperate reporter “Cream Cake Fred sprints to victory”. I always ate cheese and honey sandwiches one and a half hours before a race.’
Beavins promised he could coach Reeves to win the Grasmere Guides race (the premium pro race), but this coaching relationship seems a world away from that propounded by the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose take on coaches was: ‘You say you want to be an Olympic champion. But wait. Think about what is involved …. You will have to hand your body over to your coach just as you would to a doctor. You will have to obey every instruction.’
Come to think of it, I know a couple of coaches who subscribe to a version of that philosophy. My underlying philosophy as a coach is to work towards making myself redundant, and to make the athlete as self-reliant as possible.
Going back to Fred Reeves, there is the imponderable question of whether he could have been a top class marathoner if he had moved to the event earlier and trained more specifically for it. Being 5 ft 10 ins tall, and weighing 9 st 7 lbs in his peak years he had a good physique for the event. There were reports of tests done on Reeves at Leeds University in 1981, which prompted the national marathon coach to suggest he still had potential at the marathon, even though he was 36 years old at the time. Reeves was recorded as having a body-fat ratio of just 6.64 per cent, a resting pulse rate of 42 beats per minute, and a VO2 max of 79 millilitres/minute/kilogram.
Tommy Sedgwick was Reeves’ great rival on the pro scene, and his take on this was that a sports professor contacted himself, Billy Bland and Fred Reeves to test them and find out how they trained. He noted that: ‘Fred was more technical than me, and had a coach. I tried to explain to the professor what training I did, by writing it down for him. Also, I have the greatest respect for Billy Bland, but he is rumoured to have responded at the time “I go out the back door, run on the fells till I’m knackered and then come home”. No technical stuff with him then, but Bland’s stamina was tremendous.’
Billy Bland won the British Fell Champs in 1980, and set what is still the fastest Bob Graham Round (BGR) time, of 13 hrs 53 mins, in 1982, directly between two victories in long Lakeland fell races. When I interviewed him for ‘The Round’ book last year he commented: ‘My focus wasn’t on the BGR. I just stuck it in mainly because my brother was going to have a go. Which coach would have told you that was a good idea, stuck between two long races? None.’
For the same book I talked with Mark Hartell, who still holds the record for an extended BGR, with 77 peaks completed within 24 hours, from 1997. He commented on topics he had ruminated on with Billy Bland over the years. ‘Billy and I have had good chats at BG Club dinners. He has said to me that his wasn’t some kind of genetic natural ability. He firmly believes that he simply worked harder than anyone in training at the time. “If the weather was bad then I would run on the spot in the kitchen for three hours”. I am sure that is an exaggeration, but the point being made is that he may have felt a degree of disappointment that other people around haven’t had a better go at some of these things.’
In several ways Billy Bland was something of a trail-breaker, although he himself fully acknowledges that his actual training regime was very unscientific. There was no room for a coach, track sessions, repetitions, or even tapering down for races with him – just hard training. A typical training run was up Glaramara, Allen Crags, Esk Hause, down to Angle Tarn, on to High Raise, and finishing down Greenup, a two to three hour effort. For a change he might do the five tarns – Styhead Tarn, Sprinkling Tarn, Angle Tarn, Blea Tarn and Watendlath Tarn – fifteen miles in around two and a half hours. He was especially good at reading rough ground and making steep descents, sometimes deliberately taking to rough ground to try to throw others off his tail. In a profile he once stated: ‘The rougher the going the more I aimed for it. That doesn’t mean to say I really enjoyed it. But if you’re travelling across ground faster than somebody else then you sort of like it. I got a reputation for being able to find my way around a course.’
So, what of Kenny Stuart (three time British Fell Champion) and John Wild (a two time champion)? Well, you will have to wait for the new book to get the full details, but for now note these comments from the two of them.
John Wild was a noted tough trainer, who was coached at times by Don Woodruff, and later by Alan Warner. Of the former he said: ‘Later on Don’s coaching became quite challenging. When I was in my late 20s he would suggest a double session, like doing two hill sessions on the same day. I would do a hill session at lunchtime, and the same hill session in evening, and I would be doing better on the second one.’
Kenny Stuart’s take is: ‘Being fascinated with the sport and liking to read, I bought a few books, which proved ground-breaking for me. All the time I was on the fells I was self-coached. Actually though, Dave Cannon coached me when I came off the fells to have a crack at marathons.’
In 1984 Kenny’s wife Pauline Stuart was queen of the fells, but claimed that she didn’t know what the Ben Nevis record was, although she had done the race twice already. She set a course record that still stands, and says she was inspired by the comments of another athlete’s coach. ‘I knew the course suited me. The main reason I was inspired to do it was because I overheard this well-known coach talking at the start. “Ros Coats is here, Pauline isn’t going to have it her own way. She never tries hard enough, she always looks as if she is out for a breeze.” I thought damn you, I’ll make sure I win this. I got really annoyed, and it fired me up. I was absolutely determined, which is why it was a good time, and I beat the coach as well, much to his disgust. I showed them I could run really hard.’
Lastly, here are some thoughts from Rob Jebb, British Fell Champion in 2003 and 2006. The first race Rob Jebb entered was the Buckden Pike junior race, which his father had allowed him to enter even though he was technically under-age. Finishing one place from last he nevertheless enjoyed the experience. He recalled to me that: ‘My father was my early inspiration as a junior and also my coach, but I also trained with the [Bingley] Harriers on Tuesdays for a long run and on Thursdays for speedwork, having joined them in 1984 at the age of nine.’ Nowadays Rob coaches himself. ‘When I was younger we used to have coaches at the club. Dennis Quinlan was a big influence. He made me believe in myself, and he did coach me for a couple of years. I just used to run with others as well and go training hard with them.’ In his view it is not rocket science, although he did do track sessions when he was younger. ‘Nowadays I may go to Kendal to do some flat work on grass now and again. I have had a VO2 max test but I have forgotten the figures. It was before I was twenty, someone just gave me chance to do it at the time. I don’t use a heart rate monitor either.’
All this took me back to the conversation with Jack Maitland. I had asked him about the similarities and differences between Jonny and Alistair Brownlee. He replied that: ‘Alistair and Jonny are similar aerobically. Johnny perhaps has a little more speed and would win over short distances. Once you get beyond a certain distance Alistair’s 2 year training age advantage would take over.’
Maitland also made an interesting point about himself and his own attitude to being coached, and subsequent move to being a coach. ‘I was largely self-coached. I wasn’t a very coachable athlete I think it was fair to say! When I got into triathlon I was bringing some of what you might call running expertise to it, whilst Robin Brew brought swimming knowledge, for instance. I got the idea I could do some coaching as I was already trading information.’
So, coached or uncoachable – which are you? I can certainly think of some others, including club mates, who take the latter label!
If you have enjoyed this little wander through the coaching maze you might like to read more in: ‘It’s a hill, get over it’ and ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. I also have another take on the subject coming out in issue #7 of ‘Like the Wind’ magazine next month.
So, is ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ worth its place on the TGO shortlist list for Outdoor Book Of the Year? [voting here, till 15 Nov]
Who am I to say. But this is what some others have said about the book:
‘Steve Chilton writes with authority, documenting the development of the Round from a more-or-less idle challenge to its present status. There are extensive profiles of many of the challenge’s most significant individuals: innovators, record setters, recorders and supporters.’
The Westmorland Gazette
‘We found this book to be an informative and interesting read, and feel it will become a valuable historical addition to the small library of previously published books on fell running and endurance.’
Kenny and Pauline Stuart
‘One of the best reads ever of this exclusive club… very special.’
Joss Naylor, legend
Claire Maxted, Trail Running Magazine
‘A great read, a real insight into the history of the BG, the records and the people behind them.’
Richard Davies, review on Amazon
There is something legendary about the BGR. Steve Chilton has interviewed the men, and the women, people of rare determination and doggedness, as well as extraordinary fitness, who have completed the Round.’
I have recently become rather obsessed with the Bob Graham Round (BGR). Last week I had my eyes opened to a running event that I now feel tops the BGR (or indeed the other two main rounds in the UK) for the challenge it presents. I already knew of The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which is a race around Mont Blanc, and has a record time of over 20 hours, but being on the route really brought home what a challenge it must be to race it.
Whilst staying with friends in Chamonix we traversed about 7 miles of the route, pretty much the final run in to the finish in Chamonix. Due to a decrepit knee (mine) and a stressed hip (one of my friends, who has previously walked to the North Pole) we were walking rather than running. As we had managed to bag four days of superb autumnal sunny weather this was actually a bonus, as we were able to take in the scenery at our several rests. The range of the colours of the trees, and the sight of the snow-capped ranges around Mont Blanc itself (which we had been amongst earlier in the week), were just delightful to behold.
It was very runnable terrain, and with little navigation required on the section we did, which was probably as well as we had managed to leave our map back in the apartment. But it is worth remembering that all runners will do some of the route in the hours of darkness, with the extra challenge that offers, and that we were on one of the easier sections.
There is no real point in making a comparison, but I am going to! The table shows some of the basic details of the UTMB and the three classic UK rounds.
|Event||Distance (miles)||Summits||Height gain (feet)||Record time|
|Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc||103||?||31,000||20 hrs 11 mins|
|Charlie Ramsay Round||60||24||28,000||18 hrs 23 mins|
|Paddy Buckley Round||61||47||28,000||17 hrs 42 mins|
|Bob Graham Round||62||42||27,000||13 hrs 53 mins|
It is not unreasonable to suggest that UTMB is the ‘hardest’ of them. If you read Nicky Spinks’ blog she certainly found it so (but then at the end she analysed why it had not gone well), and remember that she is the only person to have done all three UK classic rounds in under 20 hours each. The perceived wisdom is that the Paddy Buckley is harder than the BGR, and the Ramsay Round harder still (partly because of its remoteness – for training on and supporting).
Anyway, enough speculation and back to reality. I would like to go back to witness the UTMB event itself in August 2016. If not that, then maybe the annual Climbing World Cup in Chamonix, which happens in the square just outside our friend’s apartment. But, if you are looking for a challenge, don’t just think BGR but how about the less frequented Buckley or Ramsay rounds. Or strike out abroad for the UTMB, or even better still make up your own challenge.
Further reading: there is more about the UTMB in Lizzy Hawker’s ‘Runner’, and on The Bob Graham Round in my second book ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. For more about the Paddy Buckley Round or the Charlie Ramsay Round you will have to wait till I get round to writing a book about them! Actually that is not so, as I do know that a manuscript for a Ramsay Round book is now being worked up by a friend of mine.
There are, of course, details on the web of all these events. This Strava link gives the UTMB route details. A Google search will bring up loads of videos which give a flavour of the UTMB terrain.
This first video was recorded at the London launch of ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. In it I explain a little of the background to the Bob Graham Round and illustrate a recent one I supported. There are a few questions from the floor at the end. Thanks to Angus Macdonald for the recording and to Mark Long for editing. [Warning: it is over 25 minutes long]
The second video is from Sandstone Press, and is one of their regular video blogs announcing new publications from their extensive range. This one covers three new titles: A Petrol Scented Spring by Ajay Close, The Round by myself and Truestory by Catherine Simpson. [For those with a short attention span the really interesting part starts at about 2 mins 10 secs in – but DO watch it all]