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.’