Monday, 16 July 2018

My Bob Graham Round

A discovery, an idea, a dream, ultimately leading to a slow fruition of pieces coming together. Having heard of the Bob Graham Round when I first started ultra-trail running I was vaguely intrigued. Over time, the notion of this audacious challenge steadily took hold of my conscience. Then after reading Richard Asquiths much lauded book ‘Footsteps in the Clouds’, it truly landed in my stratosphere as something I really wanted, and more importantly, dared to comprehend.

With my now regular self-authored story of personal pity with over training syndrome caused through a combination of too many 100 milers and shift work – timing would be key. After supporting last years club attempt – an annual tradition for the Dark Peak Fell Runners – I was semi-committed to June 2018. Like most things of this nature it gathered legs and before I knew it my BG attempt sat firmly in my calendar. And was looking to play a part in my lead up to the Lakeland 100.

The real issue was my ongoing health concerns. After 2 years of disappointing performances I needed to change the script – rest alone wasn’t quite cutting it. Firstly I’d taken on a coach at Love to Run Coaching in the form of Dave Troman. Dave is fully conversant as regards my history and problems. So we looked to identify training solutions that sat somewhere between conditioning and adaption, but keeping an eye firmly on quality recovery. The next part of that puzzle was changing occupations. After over a decade of shift work, not getting any younger and trying to juggle life with an ultra-training program something had to give. So a job change allowed me to work a 9-5 to ensure I maintained my circadian rhythms.

Working towards this challenge my last two races had ended in disappointment so I was less than confident. However the training program and the new found sleep pattern had me feeling human again. It’s amazing how over the years what you consider feeling normal is – when in reality when your doing 20-30 mile training runs right before heading out for a night shift – you actually perpetually feel crap all the time.

My training block on the lead up to this was focussed on improving fast hiking. A relative weakness in my skillset. Those in the know are all too familiar with the sorts of gradients encountered on the BG. It’s just not practical to expect to run many of the ups over the 24 or so hours of movement. So with hours of patient and diligent fast hiking, I worked on developing the right systems to tackle this challenge. Time would tell.

On Friday 22nd June 2018 I headed up to the Lake District to face my demons. I landed just after lunch time at the campsite where Dark Peak were already in attendance. At about 3 in the afternoon, with about 4 hours still to wait, I attempted to grab some sleep in Dan Stower’s tent (a fellow contender). With the temperatures slowly cranking up this proved pointless so I just took the time to consume some more calories and try to stay cool. I started to kit up and noticed, in my haste I’d grabbed a ‘pair’ of my favourite, and go to shoe in the form of the Salomon S-Lab Sense 6 SG – But much to my personal amused and horror I’d picked up an odd pair! I’d got a left version 4 (heavily worn) and a right version 5 (brand new). Maybe this was a bad omen, or reflection of my ongoing muppetry?

Just after 6pm we all headed into Keswick to the iconic start point of the BG at Moot Hall. As we landed, my flutter of nerves started to lift and instead I was excited and anxious to get moving. The square was a hive of activity, with people taking photographs of the willing victims. I was happy and calm now surrounded by family and friends. Rupert Bonnington of Mountain Fuel had kindly come out to see me off, along with good friend Mark Richardson.
We had 5 official contenders for the BG – Dan Stower, David Hakes, Fiona Lynch, Yvonne Beckwith and myself. There were also 2 other contenders starting at the same time and capitalising on some of our support. This made for a busy start, but also added to the atmosphere. Comically Tony Audenshaw aka Bob Hope from ITV’s Emmerdale was supporting one of the rounds so he joined the party on leg 1.

As our start time neared, we all stood by Moot Hall enjoying the ambiance, the evening sun beating down. Months of specific training and a subsequent taper manifested as a nervous energy amongst us. Then abruptly, without a countdown, no starter gun or an extravagant operatic send-off (ala Lakeland 100) we were on our way. A steady trot through town and out towards the initial ascent past Latrigg.

My Leg 1 supporter was Stuart Walker, who had willingly loaded his pack with some of my water, food and clothing supplies. However the Dark Peak machine (as its lovingly titled) has us run as a group till at least leg 3. This meant a huge entourage of around 20 runners all filing up the mountains together. This made for a great atmosphere and general comedy all round. I was lucky to also be joined by Casper Caars Sijpesteijn who’d kindly come out to trog up to the summit of Skiddaw with me.

Once through town and onto the trails we hit the first climb and almost immediately everyone studiously took to a fast hike to preserve energy. I failed to realise this initially and only noticed a couple of minutes later as me and Casper trotted upwards. Slowing to a power hike I could feel the strength in my legs from months of training. I genuinely felt bombproof, my body full of energy, ready to tackle what lay ahead. Gone was the weak, lethargic Kirk that had set out on the Hardmoors 55 March and he was replaced with a rejuvenated, healthy individual akin to his old self.

My attempt would hinge on nutrition and I’d been studying calorific counts in all my nutrition. I knew a bottle of Mountain Fuel would give me enough energy for the hour, so armed with 2 bottles I would supplement the extra required for the leg (planned at just under 4 hours). Sipping the new Mountain Fuel Raw Energy ( felt easy and most importantly refreshing. Much easier on the palette than flavoured varieties – definitely a winner in my book. I also had some of the new Mountain Fuel Jelly so I took the opportunity to throw one of these down of the orange variety. Again refreshing and easy on the stomach – less like a gel than I’d imagined. No stickiness and much easier to swallow when your stomach doesn’t want much in the way of solids.

The climb up Skiddaw from the bottom is one of the longest of the whole round, yet it flew by chatting to Stuart and Casper about all things running and adventures. We tagged the top in just under 1:20, comfortably up on schedule which meant we might be moving a little too quick this early on. All the same, David Hakes started a rapid descent off the summit, on the quad track leading to the base of Great Calva. As we got to the next climb, I was gently chastised for my own pace and told to ease back – point taken…

On the climb I dropped in with Fiona Lynch, on her own attempt and had the chance to chat. It’s good to understand other people’s backgrounds and motivations. Not least you can often meet lifelong friends during these all day type endeavours. Again we were up Calva pretty rapidly and had the awful descent through the deep heather I’d struggled with on my solo recce’s. Luckily David and Dan had a much better line which we took which traversed the hill a bit before dumping us out on the right hand side before the extended climb up Blencathra.

I’d been dreading this leg, only because on one my recce’s I’d felt so crap afterwards, yet today I felt pretty good. The evening was beginning to cool and I was strong in my stride. The climb to the summit of Blencathra was spent with both Stuart and Dan chatting various topics as a distraction. As we neared the final kick Stuart Walker reminded us to enjoy the moment and the scenery – to which we were presented with a stunning sunset over Great Calva behind us. I always try to take, even a couple of seconds during these types of events to soak in the moment. Too often it’s the memories later, when the hours of pain and hard ship have waned away, that sit in our minds. Yet to not enjoy it in the moment is almost criminal. Not today – I would savour every seconds where I could.

Tagging the summit it was apparent we were in the region of 15 minutes up on schedule, so to capitalise we charged the descent with reckless abandonment. Dan, David, Stuart and me took off like it was our last downhill of the day. The rocky and technical descent reminiscent of a sky running line in the mountains. And quickly enough we hit Threlkeld as the final sunset disappeared behind us. We ran into the road crossing where all our food and support lay waiting.

Leg 1 – 3:38

Here I thanked Stuart for his kind assistance and fellow Mountain Fueller’s Paul Nelson and Paul Grundy joined me for the next couple of legs. I took the time to sit down and eat a cheese sandwich and have a cup of sweet tea. The tea went down so well I asked for a second, so felt that the nutrition was still on course. I loaded my new porters up with supplies and off we went after around 10 minutes or so.

The train in full effect we jogged up towards the base of Clough Head. It wasn’t long before head torches were on and we commenced the night section. The climb kicked after an initial slope of sorts and got serious steep. My effort here started to feel a little laboured, hard to pinpoint but it wasn’t coming as easy as Leg 1. It was good to talk to Paul Nelson about the Dead Sheep race –although ironically he could tell me almost nothing about it due to a clause in keeping the spirit of the race. The bet I could surmise is it’s essentially a British version of the Barkley Marathon – sounds amazing, but not floating my boat, lol.

Once up Clough Head a lot of the climbing for Leg 2 is done and it’s then more rolling. This gave plenty of opportunity for some quality running. I’m not sure what happened along here but my stomach wasn’t comfortable and I’d stopped eating to try and let the 2 cups of tea I’d had at Threlkeld settle. On a positive, the summits started to get ticked off more readily up here. The naivety of the blackness of night making any climbs much less daunting.

It wasn’t long before I finally let the contents of my stomach go. An instant relief on my tight belly, but losing valuable calories in the process. I started to gently try and drip feed some fluids and calories back in. Unfortunately this proved to be a bad idea in the big scheme of things and led to a painfully comical repetition over the rest of the leg. Essentially I’d eat when we moved slowly on the ups, throw up the contents of my stomach on the summit then repeat. As the puking got worse and then became dry heaving I knew I was in trouble. Still I marched on and started to plan my strategy at the next road crossing at Dunmail to push away my creeping doubts.

The beam of light at my feet became my own cocoon from the discomfort and impending disappointment. I was trying to stay focussed but it was proving difficult as I lost count of the number of times I’d been sick. It was too early in the endeavour to be suffering this bad, my previous DNF’s all serving to add to the doubt. The reality started to overwhelm me. With the lack of any recent success to psychologically lean on I could only see one outcome. Searching for some ray of light in this dark (both mentally and actually) place a spark of inspiration – a quote from a movie.

There is only one logical direction in which to go – forward.

My mantra would drive me onwards in spite of my current plight. While ever my legs could move and my body produce energy I would travel in one direction, the right direction. For the first time in a couple of years I found my old self, a stubborn and tenacious me that would continue no matter what. Hello old friend, it’s been a while.

Not least this new mind-set, but with positive thinking I began to identify what was going well. Despite the lack of calories my body felt reasonably strong and the legs felt great. Previously with over training syndrome I’d feel as weak as a kitten by now. But not this day, I charged the last descent, a fun grassy trail down towards the welcoming car lights at Dunmail where we’d meet our support.

Leg 2 – 4:53

As we hit Dunmail, I’d already discussed releasing Paul Nelson so he could assist his wife Lucy on her 10 Peaks race. I thanked him profusely for his help and wished him well. Paul Grundy and I were now joined by Simon Mills – Dark peak BG veteran and support specialist. I’d witnessed the full force of a Simon Mills, BG saving support mission from Kris Groom’s successful attempt last year. It essentially consists of expert navigation taking in some cracking lines, an intelligent calorie intake strategy and a strong dash of ‘tough love’. Poor Kris suffered this onslaught last year when his stomach went south at Wasdale – what followed after an initial friendly bedding in period was a series of home truths to push Kris back on course and steer the ship successfully back to Moot Hall.

And so it began – with military precision and efficiency Simon took to organising some nutrition for the longest Leg (3). I already knew in myself a previous stomach settling strategy to adopt in the form of chocolate Yazoo. So I downed nearly a full bottle at the ‘aid’, threw up a tiny amount and left it at that. There were plenty of calories in a bottle so I was confident I had enough to drive me forward for a while. On requesting some of my Coke, which nobody could find, Fiona kindly offered me a small bottle for the next leg.

Not long after we started out over the now deserted dual carriageway with a hint of sunrise starting to rise over the mountain tops. Straight up the vertical face of Steel Fell, we initially followed another group but Simon quickly identified we were on the wrong line. As we skirted up the sheer face it was apparent that everyone was beginning to break up into their own contender/supporter contingents. This was a little earlier than anticipated, but with my nutrition issue I was quite pleased not to be in a position to slow anyone down.

I entered into this event with the ethos of enjoying the experience with friends and soaking up the scenery and experience. In order to do so I had zero aspirations of any kind of fast time – rather I was more than happy to continue on the Dark Peak schedule set at 23:30. In fact even more so as my round was starting to come away at the seams. But in the interests of storytelling; Dan and David appeared to be charging ahead now, with Fiona tailing a little back. As we reached the plateau over Steel Fell I dropped back a little and found my own pace. Yvonne was equally being sensible and taking up the rear with a pace of her choosing (much nearer schedule as we’d got a little ahead of ourselves over legs 1 & 2).

I diligently sipped coke and Yazoo over the next hour or so while my stomach tried to find some equilibrium. It was really hard going but all I could do was repeat my mantra;

There is only one logical direction in which to go – forward.

As I continued to tick off peak after peak, I was pleased to be up on the relative plateau taking in Sergeants Man (notoriously missed by Ally Beaven on his impressive winter round). My legs felt good and slowly my body was getting some renewed energy. However it wasn’t long before Simon (rightly so) started bullying me into getting some solids in my stomach. In the end the only thing I could get close to keeping down was a packet of Walkers Square crisps. They immediately dried in my in my mouth like a piece of cardboard. But washed down with a sip of coke I steadily and gradually over the next few hours began to line my stomach. This strategy might just work. However, I would only believe it was possible when I’d tackled Yewbarrow at the start of Leg 4, my psychological halfway point. After all it was all ‘downhill’ (clearly not!) after that…

After a never ending stream of hours just ticking peaks off, Scafell Pike finally came into view, signifying the last two summits before the end of the leg. I was finally starting to really enjoy myself again, I couldn’t take much food in, but it seemed my trickle feed of calories was enough to keep me moving forward. Scafell Pike (relatively quiet at 8:17am) was duly ticked off then the slight descent down towards the base of the notorious Broad Stand (a climb where ropes are highly recommended). We however would deviate right to the semi technical route up Lords Rake and the West Wall Traverse. Lords Rake is an exposed climb up a steep narrow gully strewn with loose scree. However using the wall to prevent any impromptu falls made it feel secure enough. This is followed by the West Wall Traverse which demands a bit of hands on rock action. It was a little slick in places but I can only imagine what it might have been like in truly wet conditions. Maybe Foxes Tarn becomes the only logical route on say a winter round. Reaching the summit of Scafell (Scafell Pikes baby sister) I collapsed to the ground exhausted by the ongoing effort. Simon gave me a friendly, metaphorical kick and we were on our way, ever downwards towards Wasdale.

The first part of the descent was rocky and awkward, followed by a steep grassy section that was marginally better due to fatigue starting to set in my quads. Having reccied this section a couple of weeks prior I knew a stupidly steep scree slope wasn’t far off. I was a little concerned after my memory was a bit marred by the recollection of nearly breaking Debbie’s (Martin-Consani) hand with tumbling boulders set free by my reckless abandon. Not today though, after Simon and Paul set off in front leaving a bit of a gap, I set off and had an awesome ride. The loose scree taking any and all pain from the legs – leaving me to charge down, the constantly moving and fluid ground soaking up the impact. Like a live creature, better ridden the faster you moved, I ran with the unbound joy of a child. One of my highlights of the day.

This left us to have a quick dip in the stream and run the final trail into Wasdale where we could replenish our supplies.

Leg 3 – 6:03

I sat down in my chair and immediately a hive of activity from the amazing support tended to my every need and more. Liz Hutchinson and Jo Yeoman deserve massive credit here. Not only did they force feed me some fruity bread, they did the not so pleasant task of removing my shoes and sock and sorting my feet out. Brilliant support – for which I’ll ever be grateful.
My running support here was planned to be added by Kris Groom with Paul Grundy stopping here. However Paul was having such a good time he decided to add on one more leg. What a star, not least the sheer amount of weight he’d carried for me. Kris had kindly (!!!) brought a cow bell, much in the spirit of my usual (wife and kids) support crew. He thought it might be a good idea to hang it from his bag so it would jangle the entire way around leg 4!!

I looked up to the normally imposing vertical face of Yewbarrow – my ‘halfway’ point. Yet today, with my spirits high it didn’t look as big somehow. The sheer magnitude of the ascent already gained at this point put things in perspective. I didn’t fear it, rather I wanted to get up it to tick it off and get on with enjoying the day out. It was in this moment I realised how much I was enjoying myself, something I hadn’t been able to do during ‘races’ for a long time. My body felt good and I was at total peace with effort put out, and what was required to finish.

We summited Yewbarrow in really good time, despite Paul fighting a sun cream induced blindness. This was it now, I could take a truncated victory march to the finish. It was all but a done deal in my head. It’s amazing what difference a positive mind-set (and some calories) does to your energy levels. I happily skipped over Red Pike, Steeple and Pillar, even running some of the mellower ups. Kirkfell (ironic I guess given the name) took considerable effort, the rising heat adding to the challenge. Still ascending Red Gully, I didn’t lose heart, merely I saw it as another obstacle beaten. Due to this the two Gables took it out of me further, but then I knew the final plateau of leg 4 was ahead before the descent to Honister and a chance to see the family. My spirits were constantly raised by my superb supporters who pointed out my timings as I was some 1hour and 15 minutes up on schedule.

The descent to Honister soon came and I had a flash of emotion at the thought of seeing Emma and Cam. The descent, although the softest ground you could imagine was steep enough to remind my legs they’d done some 25000ft of ups and downs. Still as we hit the flat I felt fantastic so opened the legs up to see what I had left – Plenty it seemed, so maybe quite a bit more to push out over Leg 5 to the finish. I was certainly full of confidence I would finish well inside the allotted time.

Leg 4 – 4:39

Seeing Emma and Cam was a huge lift for me. Their presence reminded me of all the good that comes out of my running. The shared, family experiences and travel that enrich all our lives. Not least, my lovely wife had the usual stroke of genius in regards my nutrition. This time it came in the form of watermelon, which despite the previous stomach woes, I proceeded to smash two large slices.

I dropped off Kris, Paul and Simon here. Even Paul Nelson had come over to wish me well over the last leg. I picked up my close friend and chief navigation expert Ian Winterburn here, along with the other half of the Groom massive in the form of Wendy.

I was keen to maintain the time buffer I’d built up so jogged up to the base of Dale Head to tackle ascent 39 of 42.  As I crossed the road I was excited to see my Coach, Dave Troman drive up to see me at Honister. Much to his surprise I was well up on schedule. A quick hello and I rattled up the hill, trailing Wendy and Ian.
I enjoyed this ascent, saying hi to numerous runners descending off Dale Head in the opposite direction, who were running the Buttermere Horseshoe race. Soon enough we topped out at the summit and were treated the views down the valley.
2 Peaks to go!

As this leg continued I just got stronger and stronger. The final climb up Robinson was pure mountain pleasure. A stiff hike, but I savoured every step, Wendy and Ian were great company, passing the time and effort required to reach the pinnacle of the day. Ian filmed my final ascent for me to serve as a lasting memory of my attempt.

Up on time, it was merely academic now, but I was still keen to get a reasonable time under the schedule. Ian ably navigated us on the premium line off Robinson, onto the final steep grassy drop. Which in all honesty hurt like hell. My quads, knowing the end was near, started to feel the relentless hammer they’d received over the last 21 or so hours.

Down on the trail we started ticking over at a steady cadence. Now off the endless ups and downs my legs really started to come back. Every step I felt my stride opening and a flood of pure enjoyment and joy. This was running bliss! I’d opted to follow the trail run in for the last few miles. The road is quicker, and after being told I was within 5 or 10 minutes of David, I was tempted to gun it for a fun race in. However I’d enjoyed the day so much I figured the trail run in through the woods held much more appeal. And so as the temperatures in the lower altitudes rose exponentially, I cruised on soaking up the moment.

Emma and Cam (on his bike) tried to join us at the marina to follow in, but we were now moving so well we dropped them immediately. My Suunto Spartan Ultra was on a 60 second GPS ping to ensure it recorded the whole run over 24 or so hours. As a result I couldn’t get an accurate gauge on pace, but Emma was recording and estimates we were 7-7:30 minute miling. Still it felt easy – adrenaline now my primary fuel. As we turned onto the final straight I opened up into a sprint – which was all but thwarted by the market vans and tourists meandering outside Moot Hall.

Still after much dodging I found my way to the Hall and kissed the steps to a lovely welcoming. Relief and happiness washing over me. Emma arrived moments later in a flood of tears. We’ve travelled a long journey with my ‘illness’, and this finally felt like redemption for all the heartache and pain. It was a culmination of many lows to reach this ultimate high.

Leg 5 – 2:40
Finish - 22:15

After the race I had some chips and curry sauce with several helpings of beer. All quality recovery fuels right?? Mountain Fuel Recovery followed and certainly contributed to my legs feeling excellent the following day. Probably one of the best recoveries from an event I’ve had, and maybe the hardest event I’ve completed (maybe not in effort, but almost certainly as regards the course). I’d equally put this down to the excellent training and preparation, guided by my coach Dave Troman – can’t thank him enough. I’m also grateful to each and every one of my supporters – without them I wouldn’t have got round this great challenge. And special thanks also needs to go to Dark Peak Fell Runners (particularly Richard Hakes) for organising the BG weekend. 

Two weeks after BG I’ve got a mountain race in Snowdon, so another 22 miles and 8000ft ascent. This will be a team event so probably much more relaxed. After that, it’s Lakeland 100 at the end of July. I’ve finally got some confidence back that this is achievable.

                   Thanks to Salomon and Mountain Fuel for their ongoing support.


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