The terms ‘epic’, ‘surreal’, and ‘teamwork’ were used by several participants. It was the first Bob Graham Round (BGR) that I had witnessed at such close quarters, and it has left me with some brilliant memories, increased respect for BGR completers, and a few new friends in the sport. Whilst not on pacing duties at all, I was coordinating the road support, and also advising Neil Walker on his preparation and planning.
Quite why he trusted me, with such a freely acknowledged lack of experience in the matter (apart from writing a book on the subject), is way beyond me to understand, but thanks for including me, bud. I hope with this (rather long) posting to give a feel for the two days from the viewpoint of a deeply involved support person.
Neil first contacted me at the back end of April, to ask for my ‘support’. We discussed the need for an extended build-up, for on-leg reccying, and for getting a good team of pacers. He then announced that he would be going in July, allowing a mere three months preparation – not ideal. A long Skype called resulted in a plan for several weekend trips to the Lakes to reccie legs, and midweek long runs in and around his Cheshire base.
The pacing team came together, a 23 hour schedule was agreed, and I started working on the support plan. This was massively informed by previous plans that Bruce Owen and Bridget Collier kindly shared with us. Training went well, with Neil managing to get to the Lakes most weekends, but somehow not fitting in midweek long runs as we had planned. This was partly because the long reccies, sometimes over double legs and sometimes supporting other rounds, took their toll and his body needed to recover. He substituted long midweek bike rides to lessen the strain. He was as ready as he could be in the time, and took a two week taper, doing virtually no running in that period.
So, the date finally arrived. In the last Skype call with Neil I had to keep my own excitement bottled as it was designed to be a ‘keep calm and relaxed’ chat with him. Brother Mike Walker travelled up on the Friday and helped Neil box the foods into support-sized portions. Neil had been trying out various food combinations on the reccies, and had arrived at his own individual requirements, with pork pies featuring surprisingly highly. I had been in Sheffield in the week and travelled up Saturday morning, enduring a detour through Preston when the M6 appeared gridlocked, as was the detour. Some members of Team Neil were staying at Raise Cottage, the former Achille Ratti climbing hut. It is situated almost at the crest of Dunmail Raise, and is handily about 200m from the road support point at the end of leg 2.We had the whole of one dormitory booked, and as I was first to arrive I settled in to await the others. Neil had agreed that a friend from Scotland could tag his round, so Alan Smith parked his camper van at Dunmail and came with us to the start. At 5pm we set off to the start point, which is at the Moot Hall in Keswick. Mike Walker and I drove the two pacers for leg 1, Geoff Briggs (nav) and Dave Anderson, together with Neil and Alan of course, on a strangely quiet ride to their physically destination and their metaphorical destiny.
The Saturday afternoon stalls were still busy at 6pm in Keswick, and it was a slightly incongruous setting with a ‘meat waggon’ backed up to the steps of the hall, astride which BGR aspirants have their photo taken.
On the dot of the hour they were off to cheers and well wishes from a crowd of supporters, and were last seen disappearing down the first alleyway on their 62 mile jaunt, over 42 peaks and ‘looking forward’ to over 27,000 feet of ascent, before their arrival back in Keswick, on what would in fact be the next day of their eventful weekend.
Mike and I went back to Raise Cottage to have a bite to eat, a chat, and to keep an eye on the tracker (a simple GPS device in Neil’s bumbag that was sending signals on a minutely basis, which were then relayed to a continually updating webpage – see opentracking). I already knew this was strangely addictive and potentially time-wasting, but with the personal involvement it meant you could see how he was doing at all times (except at odd times when the signal went and you had to hope nothing untoward had occurred). We checked the food box for the leg 1 changeover through again, and made sure that the leg 2 pacers were up and about if they had taken power naps, as they had a long night ahead. We took the pacers, Andy Ford (nav) and Bruce Owen, to Threlkeld in good time, and had marvellous views of the sun going down on the fell tops as we went.
In the Threlkeld car park we met Barnet clubmate John Owen. He is 2nd claim Altrincham, and had also managed to be part of the send-off team, having dashed from running the Lingmell Dash fell race to be there to support Neil. Mike and I setup for a changeover for the first time, dodging the midges and hoping for an early warning of the runners’ arrival. Local lad Mark McGlincy had been due to pace on leg 1 but injury prevented him doing it. He was however still able to jog up to the lower slopes of Doddick Fell to show them a good line he knew off there that shaved a small amount of time off for them. On Neil’s 23 hour schedule he had 3hrs 49mins to cover the 3 peaks on leg 1. We had just got the kettle boiling when suddenly they appeared jogging down the lane, a handy 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Often a pacer is sent ahead to tell the support team what the contender really wants most. In this case it was loo roll, and Neil grabbed it and ran straight through the car park to inspect the rear of a nearby hedge at close quarters. It may have been at this point that I said to Mike, ‘I don’t know what I am doing, you know!’. We did our best to give the two contenders and the pacers whatever food and drink they wanted, from our well stacked food table.
After a mere 7 mins spent refuelling they were off again. I think I mumbled a few ‘go wells’, but as we will see it is surprising what you DO say, and also how little you remember of what that is. Dave Anderson was carrying on through, so they went out to ascend Clough Head with him and the 2 fresh pacers. They left at 9-54pm just as it was getting dark, with the Dodds and Helvellyn to do in the dark, before the thrutch up Fairfield and Seat Sandal before descending to Dunmail Raise for the next support point. Meanwhile Mike and I took Geoff Briggs back to Raise Cottage, where he was able to eat some of Neil’s wonderful homemade chilli as reward for his efforts. Mike and I did some more food box shuffling in light of what had been taken from the first changeover box, realising we had enough to feed an army altogether. No-one was going to go hungry on this trip.
After a short rest, and more caffeine to keep me going, we made sure Tom Bush was up and ready to take on his leg 3 pacing role. It was 1-45am in the morning. We already knew that Bruce and Andy were going straight thru, with Bruce taking the nav role on the next leg. The setup point is just a bit of verge where they cross the A591, so we wandered up there from the cottage with all the stuff. Mike had forgotten his headtorch, so I leant him my spare, which had seen me through many an adventure on the hills. ‘Ah, the legendary Stevo headtorch’, says Mike as he dons it. We set up the table, find a level space for the stove, and get the food and drink ready on the table. The headtorch became even more legendary when it failed completely after about 5 mins!
The brilliant thing with the location is that you will see the headtorches as they come over the brow of Seat Sandal and know you have 15 mins or so to get everything ready. I had made up Bruce’s special porridge concoction in advance and had it in its own pan warming up. A few stirs with a fork and it was ready. I am not sure what Bruce said when receiving it from me, but (apparently) I did my best Bruce Forsyth impression and said, ‘Good game, good game’ back to him. Neil was still laughing about this incident a day later. Alan was going well, and seemed to me to be existing on just warm water at each break. I later found out he had a stash of Scottie scram about him in various places. They had lost 9 mins against the schedule on leg 2, and the planned 10 min break had slipped to 11 mins as they hopped over the style, and we saw the torches heading off up Steel Fell.
We packed up and went back to the cottage, Dave to sleep and Mike to have a power nap. I tried to get some shuteye but failed, and was up and about helping Dave Walton pack his troops and supplies up for his drive round to support at Wasdale Head. He set off with Mike, and headed off to pick up Stefan Bramwell at Castlerigg and Tim Raffle in Threlkeld on the way. I tried to go back to bed and must have achieved an hour or so of light sleep before getting up to check the tracker and their progress on leg 3. They lost a little time more on this leg, arriving at Wasdale about 30 mins behind the schedule. I was a little worried, so tried to contact Dave. Signals were bad at both ends but we eventually made contact, to confirm that all was well. The only significant problem was that Neil was worrying (unnecessarily really) about the lost time. A few words from his pacers and he was fine apparently. We could see from the tracker that they were off up Yewbarrow, and that and Red Pike were done at faster than schedule pace, so they should be fine. On the tops they had caught up with Tim Mosedale, doing his incredible ‘triathlon’, and he had summed up his state in one word – ‘forked’.
Back at the cottage I was having yet more coffee when the leg 5 runners (all were Neil’s Altrincham AC clubmates) turned up there unexpectedly, saving me a Keswick car park pickup. Loading some stuff in my car I fell down the wet steps outside the cottage, but thought it best not to mention such incompetence to anyone. Jeff Norman, Craig Partridge and Shaun Jackson piled into Jeff’s car and set off to Honister, whilst I followed with a car full of food, drink and clothes. Getting there in good time I did a bit of setting up in the quarry car park. It was raining so much this consisted of putting the table out and putting the food box under it. The stove was readied for boiling water, and I retired to the car to get out of the rain and wind. Their hoped for time of arrival had passed and we were anxiously scanning the horizon over which they should appear. After one false alarm for a solo runner they eventually appeared, now 35 mins behind. So, they had a good leg 4 in all that crap weather, slipping a mere 5 mins. [no photos were taken at Honister, it was that grim]
When he saw the car park Mike said, ‘he won’t have the table out’, but I did. When they arrived chaos ensued. People were all over the place. Neil was cold and in need of some extra clothing. I was trying to press food on everyone without much success. I was told Neil had asked for a porridge pot so tried to make one up. We had washed the spoons after Dunmail and managed to leave them in the cottage. So I tried to stir the porridge with all I could find – my index finger. Try it sometime! Stirring up the solids and trying to mix it produced something semi-edible. Fortunately for me, but not for Neil, the wind was so strong that the water had not heated through. I thus didn’t get a scalded finger and he didn’t get a very hot porridge. When it was time to go, after 13 mins according to the increasingly smudged time cards, all the team were scattered around the car park. Gathered together they set off up the last serious uphill, Dale Head. We last saw the team going up the skyline looking good. Mike was going straight through and having spent the break helping his brother had to scrabble some food down and run to catch them up.
A couple of us went in to the café for a warming coffee, before heading down the pass to Buttermere and over Newlands Hause to near Newlands Church for an extra support point on the road run-in. I was so wet through that I had the heater on full blast in the car – and nearly passed out from heat. It is a good little car space over the bridge from the church for a support spot and I set up and brewed up. Not much food was taken on board here, so near the end, but the sweet teas seemed to be appreciated.
I think all had a shoe change, moving from fell to road shoes for the last few kilometres of road. Neil was in the zone, just asking ‘where’s my Alty vest’, donned that and started the run in, with a couple of extra supporters joining his now expanding group. I packed up with help from Dave, and drove past them further up the road, regaling them with ‘Glory days’ by the Boss at full blast through wide open windows.
We parked up in Keswick and walked to the Moot Hall, where a welcome team was rapidly forming. Dave and I then walked down to the end of the track into Keswick, where we could see them after they crossed the bouncy bridge. When they reached us, we ran in with them. I was chatting away with Mike, then realised I wouldn’t make it all the way at a run. What a fall from grace for someone that once considered himself a bit of a runner.
Being so unfit I was gasping up the main street when they touched the Moot Hall, so didn’t witness the immediate emotion. Neil had been on his feet for 23 hrs 40 mins and had held it together brilliantly, despite a small time loss on leg three. There followed many photos and congratulations, before we repaired to the Dog and Gun for beer and food. I can recommend the veg goulash with dumplings there.
Later that evening and the next morning Neil, Mike and I reflected back on events. Two comments Neil made stick in my mind. He was commenting on the great pacers and said, ‘I am a single male and there’s not a single female pacer’. He also claimed a world record for on the hill peeing, noting that at one point he had ‘a pee and there was a whole line of pacers peeing’. Other random thoughts included thinking that Raise Cottage was a top spot for a BGR stay – owner Philip’s homemade bread and jam were a joy to savour.
It was nice to think that Neil had carried on both old and new traditions for his BGR. He very kindly paid for the accommodation for those of his team that stayed at Raise Cottage. He encouraged friends to join him on the run-in, and he had pacers from several different running clubs (see below). He also took advantage of the tracker service so that friends and others could follow his progress – be it going well or otherwise. Later I asked Mike if he was inspired to ‘follow in Bob’s footsteps’ and he quietly replied ‘er …. no’ – but I am not so sure. Whatever, it was a grand day out.
Finally, some thoughts from those heroes, the pacers:
‘I hope everyone had as good a time as I did at the weekend – it’s always a pleasure to be involved in these big rounds.’ – Geoff B
‘… an amazing weekend which left me truly inspired.’ – Dave A
‘A great day and good to meet a load of new people through the BG, once again it’s only reinforced my view that this is the best sport in the world.’ – Andy F
‘All the planning & preparation seemed to work out perfectly. Apart from the weather on Sunday, but even that was an added frisson …’ – Tom B
Neil’s pacers were: Geoff Briggs, Pennine Fell Runners – Dave Anderson, Pudsey and Bramley – Mark McGlincy, Keswick AC – Bruce Owen, Pennine Fell Runners – Andy Ford, Horwich RMI – Tom Bush, Altrincham AC – Mike Walker, Barnet & District AC – Stefan Bramwell, Pennine Fell Runners – Tim Raffle, Altrincham AC – Craig Partridge, Altrincham AC – Shaun Jackson, Altrincham AC – Paul Swindels, Unattached
Well not my own really, but I am ‘doing as I say’ by supporting a friend’s Bob Graham Round at the end of this month. Sadly, with the state of me, it will be road-side support rather than pacing or on the hill support, but I am looking forward to it massively nonetheless. I have been ‘advising’ my friend on his training buildup, which has been quite a change for a coach normally working with 800m to 10k runners, but fascinating to see this particular commitment developing and building, hopefully to a successfull completion. We hope to be using a tracking device (from the most excellent www.opentracking.co.uk/) so that interested parties can follow progress. At the moment the training and reccies are going well; and kit, food, and support logistics are being finalised. More details, including tracker URL, nearer the date,
Things are rolling along nicely with the Bob Graham book. I have just signed off the typeset proof of ‘The Round: In Bob Graham’s Footsteps‘. It now goes to the indexer for that work to be done, followed by a last proof check, and then printing. The book will be published on Thursday 17th September, and I am currently working on a book launch, which is planned for Saturday 19th September. Appropriately enough it is to be in the Moot Hall in Keswick, which is where the Bob Graham Round starts and finishes. I am also working with the publisher on the details of the dust jacket. We have three fantastic cover quotes to weave in somehow, two I am pleased to say from absolute fell legends. I am also working with a prominent magazine to have an extract published in their next issue, which will conveniently be out just prior to the launch.
In case you are thinking this writing lark is all sweetness and light, it doesn’t always work out as you might wish. I wrote ‘The Round’ quicker than ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, partly because I had increasing confidence and partly because my networking tentacles extended further and contacts and interviews seemed to come more easily. Whilst finishing the manuscript I had an idea for Book III, which I started working on. I pitched it to my publisher who was initially interested in the synopsis. But when I later asked about the timescale for my planning I got a sort of ‘whoah, slow down’ message, which I am not sure whether to take as ‘no’ or ‘maybe, but later’. So I am working on the manuscript, but more slowly now, having established really good relationships with the two main protagonists. And yes it is a third book about fell running!
So, to keep my creative juices flowing I have tried to write for other media. Having had an article on navigation published in The Fellrunner recently, I thought it would be a cinch to get stuff accepted elsewhere. Having talked to a friend who had his writing accepted for Like the Wind magazine and The Guardian Running Blog, I decided to write something specific for both to see if it would be accepted. I was not put off by some of the almost abusive comments that my friend got to his piece in the latter, Fartlek: Sweden’s gift to running. So, pieces loosely entitled ‘the dark art of coaching’ and ‘are you tough enough’ were sent to the respective editors. Time has passed and I have heard from neither. Frustrating, but will be thickening the skin as necessary as rejection seems more likely as time goes by.
Footnote: that weekend trip mentioned in the last blogpost resulted in 4 more Wainwrights – Barf, Lord’s Seat, Broom Fell and the lovely Walla Crag (from whence the photo at the top of the blogpost was taken). However, I am still not convinced I will actually chase completing the Wainwrights.