Some Stuff About Me ......

I live in Harrogate, North Yorkshire with my wonderful wife and soul-mate Helen. I have two incredible sons - Evan and Matthew - who are occasionally show up at home, usually when they're hungry or need money. The three of them are the best thing that ever happened to me and I love them all. I spent over 24 years in the Royal Navy, but since I packed it all in and got a proper job my life has gone from strength to strength and I've never looked back. I am a die-hard soul music fan, but my heart truly belongs in the fells of Northern England, it's what I was made for. Please read about my adventures and experiences ....

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Not The Best of Weeks

It's funny how life can take you from a very high point and plunge you deep into the mire, that's pretty much what happened to me last week. It started off with a problem that Helen had at work, I won't go into details but it meant that she was facing a reprimand for stuff that really wasn't her fault and naturally, she felt pretty badly about this. One her characteristics is that she absolutely hates being blamed for anything - whether guilty or innocent - and over the years I've learned to keep absolutely stumm when there's the smallest chance of my words being taken as an inference of blame. No surprise then that this really upset her and brought on a bit of a desolate mood, one that I recognise and from which I know it's all but impossible to extricate her.

So things around Chez Exile were not at all sunny if I'm honest, but they got immeasurably worse around 0500 on Wednesday morning when the phone rang, shaking me out of a pretty deep sleep: It was the police, calling from Leeds General Infirmary with the news that my youngest son, Matt, had been assaulted during the early hours by some drunken/drugged yob and was in A & E in a pretty bad way - initial examination appeared to indicate that his jaw had been broken in several places. Needless to say, we rushed off to Leeds post-haste, I was half-mad with worry about his safety and anger at him letting this happen. I should point out here that Matt does live with me, his mother and I have been divorced for years and she actually lives in Devon - *nearly* far enough, though I'd prefer it if she was on the other side of the channel.

We got there and he was in a bad way, his face was already very swollen and there was lots of blood around, the policeman who made the initial response was taking his statement. Here's what happened: Matt and his mates were on a night out in Leeds to say goodbye to each other, they'd been friends for years and were now off to University and going their seperate ways. They left whatever place they'd been in and were asking directions (not sure where to) from a group of four lads when one of them - immediately to Matt's left and for no obvious reason - hit him in the face, breaking his jaw in 4 places and fracturing the upper right joint. Hitting someone from outside their peripheral vision is a cowardly thing to do, but entirely in keeping with some of the scumbags you get thereabouts, I can't really describe how mad I was when I discovered this, but my immediate concern was for Matt's well-being.

He was put immediately onto the "acute" list and had to wait about 30 hours for surgery. This might sound like a long time, but I'm assured it's far from abnormal .... all I can say is that it's heartbreaking to see one of your own children in such distress, his mouth and teeth were completely messed up and he was quite incapable of either eating, swallowing or even yawning. They gave him an strong IV painkiller (tramadol?) and it was the first time in his life that he'd been given any kind of opiate and I'm sorry to say he reacted very badly to this, his pulse raced to over 115, broke out in a sheen of sweat and would have been very sick if there was anything inside him at all. The retching caused him agony, not at all funny. Anyhow, he was wheeled in around 1400 on Thursday afternoon and actually in theatre for 3 hours. I'm told that LGI has some of the best maxillo-facial surgeons in the country and I don't doubt it. When he came out of surgery things looked hugely improved - his face looked aligned and in proportion again, the swelling had considerably reduced - this was because they had taken a huge blood clot out of his cheek (with a commensurate hole/stitches unfortunately) and the very good news was that they'd only had to remove one tooth - a wisdom tooth - during the course of the operation.

The bad news is that he how has four titanium plates holding his left cheek and chin together, along with four (temporary) titanium studs inside his mouth that have bands attached to keep his upper and lower jaw aligned. The swelling came back pretty soon after the operation and he is as bruised as hell, plus in considerable discomfort. I suppose we should be grateful really, this could easily have killed him. He was released from hospital late on Friday and spent most of the weekend sleeping, I'm also pleased to report that he is looking a lot more chirpy today and we're making progress with things that he can eat. Obviously there is no question of chewing his food, so it's a soft diet for the next 6 - 8 weeks. Helen has made a cauldron of her delicious veggie soup (which I love as well ), smoothies, oatmeal, scrambled egss, chilli .... that's how far we've got to date. He will be fine. Of more concern is his Uni start-date, I was meant to be taking him to Newcastle on Saturday to begin life as a Bloody Student, but I suppose that will be dependent on the outcome of his first follow-up appointment tomorrow. I hope it works out for him, he will be devastated if anything affects that start date.

Changing subject, all this meant that we had no exercise all week and by Saturday lunchtime I was chafing at the bit. The sun was shining so I went out for a quick bat around my local "short course" on my bike and then on Sunday we met up with Andrew and Stef for a nice 14 mile run out on Barden Fell and up to Simon's Seat, then back to Storiths afterwards for bacon butties, cake and tea. I felt nearly normal again by Sunday night.

Watching the news that night, I was surprised to see the highlights of the GNR - I'd completely forgotten it was on! Not that I paid it much attention mind you, I'm not a supporter of this race (despite the fact that I've done it in the past). I know this event is important to a lot of people and if that's the limit of their expectations, all well and good. Personally, I think it's a crap course for such a big race and once I'd learned the extent to which Nova International rip off Joe Public and all those charities, well, there isn't a chance of me augmenting Brendan Foster's pension fund. I don't know how he gets away with it to be honest, it's plain usury. In terms of mass-participation events, the London Marathon is infinitely better value and a better race.

Anyhow, enough of my whining. Later.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Out in Bronte Territory

Went over to Haworth yesterday to do the Yorkshireman half, this wasn't on my radar post-BGR but I was going along to watch anyhow (Helen had an entry) and a mate offered me a place, so I thought I might as well give it a go - is three weeks enough to recover from a BGR? The short answer is No.
It was a lovely day for a run over the moors and I did enjoy it, however I found it hard going in places and I could tell that my body is still tired. I've heard from other people that it takes longer than you think to get back to "normal" fitness after something as debilitating as a BGR and I now see what they mean. Climbs I would have normally whizzed up felt hard and the long run down the moor to the end didn't feel as easy as it should have done. Still, I didn't do too badly - I think I came 87th our of 250, so not a disaster.
On the plus side, it was great to catch up with people, I got a hug from the lovely Mel who was there with hubby and several other wonderful people were in attendance, I do like these occasions, they're right sociable aren't they? Also, some other friends did pretty well .... BGR mate Linda won the lady vets category in the marathon and Emma and pal Tracy from Chapel Allerton won the ladies team event, big cheers all round.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Bob Graham Round Success - The Final Chapter

Leg 5 Support Runners:
Andrew Kitts (navigation)
Stef French
Mark David
Emma David
Elise Milnes

I've made a pretty glaring omission in my narrative so far insomuch as I've made no mention at all about one of the most important facets of trying to get round a BGR and that's your fuelling strategy. Obviously you have to do your best to stay hydrated and on a coolish day this should be achievable, particularly as it's easier to drink than it is to eat when your bodily systems are all shutting down.  Of course a major issue here is that on the big day your supporters have to carry your water as well as their own and it can be a little taxing when you're faced with a major climb.  My plan was to ask each supporter to carry 500ml and if necessary refuel at one of the many little springs that are on the route. I've never taken water from Wiley Gill or the Caldew on leg 1 (it's probably OK), but leg 2 has a good spring as you go round Grisedale Tarn, there's a very good one climbing Bowfell on leg 3 and there's a usable one on the slope as you approach the Scoat Fell wall line on leg 4.  Although I'd got both water and electrolyte in equal measure, it probably wasn't going to be enough to keep my big enemy at bay: Cramp.  Every marathon I've done has been blighted by this and I've never been able to really get to the root cause of it all, however I was supporting a mate on leg 3 of his BG last year and I saw him using something he described as "anti-cramp tablets" and I investigated. They're actually called Endurolytes and made by Hammer Nutrition, pretty expensive for what they are but they work. Really work. I had a bag of these in the back of my shorts and started using them from leg 2 onwards. Total recommend from me, I have no doubts as to their effectiveness.

What you eat is a much more complex matter and the subject of massive discussion among people interested in doing the BGR, it was also one of the major factors in my demise in June. It IS possible to get round on energy gels - I know a bloke who consumed over 20 torq gels as he went round a few months back, I've also heard of a guy who did it entirely on Kendal Mint Cake. I wouldn't recommend either approach, but of course what works for one may not for another. The general consensus is that you should eat "proper" food as much as possible, preferably low GI with a bit of protein mixed in. There's also a good rule of thumb that you should attempt to take in most of your food early on in the round (within the first 12 hours) as it may not be physically possible to eat much later on - that's when stuff like gels come in. Well, my food bags all had stuff like cereal bars, malt loaf, hobnobs, fig rolls, pork pies (really) and cheese butties made with wholegrain bread. I knew I would have to eat as much as possible on the early legs and that's just what I did, I really went for it on leg 1 and felt like i couldn't eat another thing. Did pretty much the same on leg 2 and believe that this is what gave me the energy source for the rest of the round, because my desire to eat pretty much disappeared halfway through leg 3. At pitstops I decided on granola breakfast cereal with skimmed milk, my idea being that it would be easy to eat and give me that low GI energy source, however in practice I only managed this at Threlkeld and at Dunmail and in retrospect it was a bad idea - the problem here was it sat really heavily and for a good part of the round I felt very bloated by all the stuff I'd jammed in. It would have been better to have something like soup at the stops and save the bulk of the eating for when actually out on the individual legs. When the point came on leg 3 where I just couldn't face normal food, Rick gave me some mint cake and I found it really easy to eat and obviously was a good energy source that would have given my (low) blood sugar a boost, so much so that he gave me all his supply and as you'll have read earlier, ran ahead to Wasdale to order more! It was just another thing that went right on the day and ensured that I will always have some mint cake on hand for future BG supports, an essential item.  Thanks Rick, in retrospect you might have saved the day.

So back onto the matter in hand. My supporters for leg 5 were our friends Andrew (navigating) along with his good lady Stef, Emma (who did leg 1 also) and hubby Mark, Elise also elected to carry on from leg 4 and finish the whole thing. Helen desperately wanted to run a leg with me, however she was very busy with managing the support arrangements and feeding everyone, so we agreed that she would run in with me from Newlands, i.e. the final 5 miles or so back to Keswick that you do on the road - by that time her duties were over. I should also add that our club chairman Tony Essex had made the trip up from Harrogate, he's not a fell runner but has been marvellously supportive of me and had decided to come up and give me a cheer for which I was (and am) very grateful - he was going to run in from Newlands also.

Emma, Stef and DT - Leg 5 Support Team
Andrew led the way up Dale Head and I steeled myself for the last major climb of the round. On training days I've skipped up here in around 30 minutes, but today my legs felt like lead and I had to really concentrate on keeping they moving onwards and upwards. Andrew and Mark were up ahead, Stef (who is a terrific BG supporter btw) stuck by my side and she, Emma and Elise coaxed me up Dale Head with a steady flow of encouraging words and tiny pieces of mint cake, determined that whatever happened, I wouldn't be running out of fuel. Nothing was too much trouble, if I wanted a drink it was there in a second, if I was cold my jacket magically appeared and was put on me without breaking stride - thanks girls, you were absolutely fantastic.  Dale Head summit came in 37 minutes (on schedule) and as we turned towards Hindscarth I think I dared to believe that this really was going to happen and that I, fool that I am, was going to conquer one of the biggest and toughest challenges out there.  The one that Chris Brasher tried and failed to get round, calling it "desperately difficult".  The one that said No to Sir Ranulph Fiennes and so many others.  The one that said No to me just a few months previously.  I didn't dare to be smug or assume anything, there would be time for that later.

In case anyone's wondering, BG schedules are designed to account for attrition, by that I mean they account for the fact that you get progressively slower and more tired as the round goes on - it's for this reason that you hear a lot of people being down on time at Wasdale and then making up 30mins + on legs 4 and 5, i.e. the flex is there in the later legs. None of that for me though, I was 100% focussed on sticking to my schedule and arriving off the fells in something like a condition to tackle the road section. It was claggy and wet, though not really cold. Poor Stef had to cope with me putting on/taking my jacket off every five minutes, as well as doing her best to keep me moving at the necessary pace, I must have been a proper pain in the proverbial.  Hindscarth came and went in 19 minutes (slowish) and Andrew called over his shoulder to me that the roast beef is pretty good at the Bob Graham Club dinner and I do believe a pang of elation swept through me but I suppressed it just as quickly - I wasn't out of the woods yet. We set off down the long, rocky path to the foot of Robinson and one climb seperated me from the 42nd and last peak. When we reached the bottom, I had a momentary start as I saw Andrew head up the fence line rather than the rising traverse to the right that takes you to the summit, however quickly realised that because conditions were poor and the top shrouded by cloud, he was taking no chances and had opted for the safe route.  And a good decision it was too, it would have been terrible to be messing around in the clag trying to find the very last top.

Emma was waiting as Stef and I climbed the final few feet to the summit plateau and before long we had come to the Robinson shelter and that was it, all 42 done. I expected to feel some sort of sense of achievement or elation, but to be honest I was so brain-dead by now that all I could think about was the descent down to the valley floor. There are numerous ways to descend Robinson and I have fairly mixed feelings on the subject.  I do like the Snab Bank route for instance, but the most direct is simply by dropping more or less due East off the summit plateau and getting down to the valley floor as soon as possible. The drawback is that it's steep, tricky to get the right line and at this point, most contenders are totally fooked (if you'll excuse my use of the vernacular).  Dave Harrison knows this line well and very kindly agreed to meet us on top of Robinson to guide us down.  Sure enough, there he was in the mist and led us down a fantastic line down the side of the fell, yes, my quads were giving me grief and every muscle in my body was begging to stop, but the reality of the situation was beginning to sink in and as we reached the valley floor and ran up the path to the fell gate, I'm sorry to say that I had a severe attack of melodrama a la "Feet In The Clouds" and my mind was filled with the memories of the months of training and weekend recces that had brought me here, of the miles and miles over cold, damp fells with no view to speak of and nothing but a biting headwind for company ..... all a bit pathetic really and just sentimental nonsense.  There is nothing sentimental about the Bob Graham Round.

Before I knew it I'd reached the fell gate and from this point onwards it was just road.  Helen and Tony were there along with Dave Almond who had also come round to make absolutely certain I got in. I was really glad to see them.  A quick change into road shoes and we were off down the lane, I had a little over 90 minutes to get to Keswick and every expectation of success. As we went up the lane to Little Town I looked behind me and had a fabulous view of the Newlands Valley with Robinson and Hindscarth shrouded in mist and I gave a whoop of delight, I'd just done the Lake District Grand Tour and felt it was only right to say goodbye.  Or should that have been au revoir?
The Newlands Valley - it was magical!
I've ran this section on multiple occassions and *usually* enjoy it a great deal, there is something special about being part of a successful BGR and that run up to the Moot Hall that is life-affirming and brings a big smile to everyone's face.  Done a couple of fast ones too, on Dave Almond's BGR last year we charged to Keswick in some ridiculous time and only the weekend before had ran in with Carol in 46m (the fact that she'd done her BGR the weekend was why she wasn't out on the fells with me this time). I'd hoped to be somewhere around the 50m mark myself, but I ran into a painful problem - my feet. Don't know why I didn't really notice this before, but my feet had taken a tremendous battering and were very bruised underneath as well as very swollen from being permanently wet.  I did the whole thing in Inov8 Mudclaw 272s and this worked - the grip is unbelievable from these shoes - the downside is nearly zero cushioning and although I'd changed into a nice cushioned pair of Asics at the top of the lane, the impact of running properly on the road was causing me severe grief. Jesus it hurt, it was like spikes being shoved into the balls of my feet and I confess that I was in agony. I tried running on my heels but that was just ridiculous, the best I could manage was a short run up to the excruciating point then a fast walk.  I think by this point I knew that nothing was going to stop me, the Bob Graham Round had been mine on that day and very shortly I would come into Keswick having had that Grand Day Out On The Fells that people talk about. Andrew, Stef and Dave were never far away, Helen and Elise were running at my shoulders and Mark and Emma strode on ahead as if they were clearing any potential obstacles out of my way, what a fantastic crew, what a brilliant day, what had I done in all those years of undiscovered badness to deserve such rewards? I was totally humbled and didn't dare speak in case I said something more stupid than normal.

We crossed the footbridge en masse and I could see the rooftops of Keswick before me: This was it, I was going to do it!   We turned into the High Street and the pace upped, the pain in my battered feet forgotten. Across the mini roundabout and the last vestiges of adrenalin in my system ignited and I sprinted as hard as my exhausted body would let me.

Running up Through Keswick Town Square
I could see everyone at the Moot Hall cheering and thought my heart would burst and then - The Door. The famous Green Door. I hit the door and my knees sank beneath me, this was it, the end of the road.

I'd done the Bob Graham Round.

I hate to quote from well-known books, but as I stood I could really feel the weight lifting from my shoulders and nothing but joy and gratitude to all the fantastic people who had helped me get here, not only my wonderful wife who has had to put up with so much and supported me through thick and thin, but those who came out with me to run over dark and cold mountains in all weathers and the dead of night, just so I could achieve my grand ambition. Of course, I had to go up the steps to the top door for the traditional celebration and I now know why people look so wobbly when they do it, it felt like going up Yewbarrow again.

You'll also see what I mean from the You Tube clip here, I must admit that I like seeing this - I might have been tired, but it brings home the joy every time I see it.

As we milled around in front of the Moot Hall, I tried to drink in every moment (and some champagne), knowing that this was one of my Best Ever Moments.  I'd been here with others and felt nothing but admiration for a supreme effort and now it was my turn, I couldn't quite believe it if I'm totally truthful.  We all retired to the pub for a celebratory pint and I let reality sink in.
I suppose that's the end of my Bob Graham story for now, thanks very much for sticking with me this far.  I'll leave it a few months and then come back and speak of the aftermath, there will be a story worth telling I'm sure.

I'm really glad that the Bob Graham Round happened to me.

Bob Graham Round Success - Part #4

Leg 4 Support Runners:
Simon Noble (navigation)
Linda Murgatroyd
Elise Milnes
Alan Lucker

It occurs to me that before I continue much further with this little opus, some explanation about BGR protocol is required: There's nothing stopping anyone from registering an attempt and just turning up on the day with a few mates and doing it, however the chances of success are pretty small.  Extensive preparation and route reconnaissance is what most normal mortals have to do and it really takes a lot to be able to say with any semblence of truth that you know your way round the BGR. There are a lot of people out there with extensive experience of it, some of whom have not (whilst very knowledgeable) actually got round and I suppose - although it sounds terribly unkind - never will. These people are always willing to pass on their knowledge and if you're passionate enough, you'll soon start to unvravel the secrets. Moreover, I think it's important to be seen to "serve your time", there's a definite community out there (bigger and more closely-knit than you might expect) and you'll be expected to put in the training and commitment in return for support.

So, and this is the point I was coming to, although you are expected to be able to navigate yourself around the BGR from start to finish, on the day itself most people have nominated navigators, these are usually people who know the route intimately and can be relied on to get a contender to the end of a given leg no matter what the conditions.  It's a job that carries a lot of weight, you'll appreciate a person's hopes and dreams can rest on making the right decision at the right time. Of course, a contender will discuss route choice (because there are options) with his navigator and that's exactly what I did. Also, you usually have one or two other supporters who will carry your kit, food and water for you and generally jam it into you at every opportunity.  Again, the more experienced your supporters are the better, as they will understand the trauma and try and mitigate it as best they can. It's true that getting someone round a BGR is a massively rewarding and very social occasion.

I had a great team for leg 4 - my navigator for leg 4 was my pal Simon, he's a retired teacher (younger than me - how did he manage to retire so early??) who, when he's not roaming the fells, fills his time with voluntary work for Keswick Mountain Rescue.  He's as strong as an ox and great company, he recently got round his BGR at the second attempt in 22.45 so we have something in common, the difference between us was that he had a twenty year gap! This man knows every blade of grass on leg 4 and is a genuine authority on the Lakeland Fells.  Also keeping me company was a very experienced leg 4 person, Linda ("Mrs Stagger" for those that might recognise that handle), her friend Elise Milnes and Alan Lucker who had seen my attempt on the FRA forums and volunteered to come along. All of them had come over Beck Head from Honister via the Moses Trod into Wasdale.

We set off to cheers from the support team and I was already focussing on the climb in front of me, one of the worst on the round - Yewbarrow.  Affectionately termed "Yewbastard" among its many admirers, it takes about 45 - 48 minutes of hard effort on a typical 23hr schedule, is incredibly steep and comes at just the wrong time, i.e. when a contender is totally knackered and has just sat down for a few minutes of precious respite. Sorry to be harking back again, but the last time I was here with my mate Dave Almond navigating and Alix, Stuart and Tom pushing me along .... well, I was in a sorry state, it took 52 minutes of grievous effort and damn nearly broke my spirit and body, I was a mess. Today, well, I wasn't exactly doing cartwheels of joy but it didn't feel so bad.  Simon and Linda's cheery demeanours had already made me feel that anything was possible and despite the sun shining at my back, I just got on with it. I can't say it was easy - that would be a total fib - but following a trick that Dave Swift had shown me on leg 3, I just concentrated on Elise's heels in front of me and matched my pace to her as she went up the fell - it worked, and before long I was at the summit, on schedule and feeling like a massive weight had been lifted from my shoulders - I was in with a real chance.

 Linda and Elise proved to be terrific supporters, they stuck by my side while Simon and Alan determined the best lines, always encouraging me to move faster, eat a little more and drink whenever I could. I followed Elise (who is a pretty good ultra-runner) up a lot of steep climbs on this leg and am now confident I could pick out her legs in an identity parade of 100, not that I'm suggesting she would ever be dragged into an identity parade you understand.

 Linda had even brought along a bottle of energy drink for me, her experience showed - this was was really easy stuff to stomach and was a life-saver for me, how thoughtful was that? Red Pike came and went, we reached Steeple (which I like) and although I was tired - no, bloody exhausted - there was absolutely no prospect of me backing off at this stage, it was all or nothing and in retrospect, it's good that I was thinking like that.

The next one was Pillar, the place where I baled out last time, it was a real boost to hit the summit and realise that I was still on schedule. Did I dare believe? You know, I don't think I did and I'm being serious. I wanted this to happen so much, I just wouldn't permit myself to accept that my doing the Bob Graham Round was a foregone conclusion, not until I was in position where I could crawl and still make it. Right now I had another thing on my mind - the weather. The forecast had said that it was going to close in and as we ran off Pillar I could see the wisps of cloud sweeping in across Kirk Fell, the blue skies had disappeared and it looked like my jacket was going to be required after all. Down to Wind Gap we went and across that horrible slatey bit that leads up to Red Gully, a quick scramble and we were on our way to the summit. Right in front of me I could the brooding bulk of Great Gable, big grey clouds were already obscuring the summit and I was swearing under my breath, sadly I don't think it went unnoticed by Linda.  I've got one of those old fashioned switches in my head that normally prevents me from using bad language in front of the gentler sex and that's despite my being the Royal Navy Freestyle Swearing Champion from 1992 right up until I chucked it and got a proper job.

Very soon we were over Beck Head and climbing Great Gable and this is a proper climb, there's no nice little trod to run up, it was a scramble right up to the summit plateau made worse by the greasy, wet rocks. Simon led us to the Borrowdale race descent and we traversed nicely around the side of the mountain before linking in to the path down to Windy Gap and all of a sudden I felt incredibly weary, totally bone-tired. Normally, the climb up to Green Gable takes just a few minutes, but plodding up there felt like a mammoth task. I faltered for a second and I could see Linda and Elise looking back at me and a wave of pathetic self-pity swept through me and I damn nearly cried: If I hadn't flogged it off years ago I would have sold my soul to get round the BGR, I needed to get moving and now.

I'd prepared a little argument to present to myself in just this situation and it was something like this: "Why are you letting yourself even consider slowing down or worse, stopping? It's in sight - the object of your desire for so long, the thing you have spent so long and so much effort chasing, the impossible goal that you've dreamt of. Stop fucking about, turn on the reserve tank and get moving NOW!! Or words to that effect. Looking back, I have no idea what ignited the flame, whether it was anger, adrenalin, stubborness or just the passion I have for the thing, whatever - it worked. I shook off my apathy, powered to the little shelter, touched the cairn and just pushed onwards and ran straight off on the line to Brandreth. I was going to beat this.
The rest of leg 4 is pretty uneventful if I'm honest. It's an easy climb up to Brandreth and a simple trog across some boggy ground (the place where I innocently led my pal Alix into a deep bog last year) to Grey Knotts and was all done bang on schedule. The descent off Grey Knotts down to Honister was wet and slippy and I took it as easy as I dared, as I had to save my descending legs for that last painful drop off Robinson on leg 5, God, was I really that close? I could see the support team below, they must have been feeling as relieved as I did that I was more or less on time. The van was parked close to the path and I just collapsed into my chair, I felt totalled.

At Honister Slate Mine
Phil, Dave Swift and Chris (unbeknownst to me) had also ran over from Wasdale via a much more amenable route and had got to Honister 10 minutes ahead of me, they'd had us in their sights for a good while and reported back that all seemed well and on schedule. It was raining and Dave held a brolly over me, everyone was in waterproofs but I was in T-shirt and baseball cap, I suppose my metabolism was in overdrive because I didn't feel cold at all. Helen massaged my calves as I sipped my cuppa, she could tell I was tired but I saw no concern in her eyes, she just wanted me to get up and finish it off. Mark - who was my timekeeper as well as leg 5 support runner - made the point that if I cut this rest stop to 8 minutes I would leave dead on schedule.  So, at 2.30pm exactly I heaved myself vertical and turned towards the foot of Dale Head.  I had 3.5 hours exactly to get to Keswick. Barring disasters, I was going to make it. I couldn't fail now.

To be continued - watch out for the next part!

Bob Graham Round Success - Part #3

Leg 3 Support Crew:
Dave Harrison (navigation)
Dave Swift
Phil Sturgeon
Rick Air

Mid-August is getting a bit late in the BGR season, most people try and get their attempts done in June/July when there is more light available, though I don't suppose it's a hard and fast rule.  Anyhow, we left Dunmail pretty much on schedule (2.45am) and as we started the steep ascent of Steel Fell I knew that I had several more hours of darkness in front of me.  The darkness is definitely a psychological barrier, everyone wants it to be out of the way and headtorches off, things become easier and if you're on an early-evening start (as was I), you know there's no more darkness before the end - in theory at least. Nothing much was said as we went up Steel Fell, but that's how it normally is, more often than not you're breathing a little heavily, it's a bit taxing.  Dave Harrison made an interesting point actually, everyone looks at Steel Fell as being a killer point on the BGR and I suppose it is from a visual perspective (looks STEEP!), but it's actually the lowest peak on the entire round; from the contender's point of view you've just gone down Dollywaggon, up Fairfield, down Fairfield, up Seat Sandal, down Seat Sandal - all reasonably hefty ascents/descents and now you're faced with the prospect of going up Steel Fell and it all seems totally unreasonable, that's my thinking anyhow - one of those things you have to experience (and hopefully survive) to really appreciate.  I was glad to get to the top, bang on schedule and my focus was now the long trog to Calf Crag and onwards to the Langdale Pikes. This always seems to be a bit of a camel-hike and the pitch darkness meant that Dave was having to work extra-hard on navigation, it was a real relief when we got past Calf Crag and the trudge up to Sergeant Man was out of the way, as I can remember feeling really crap at about this point on attempt #1.

It's just occurred to me that I am making a lot of references and comparison to something that is best forgotten (i.e. my first attempt), I think you're going to have to forgive me for that, it was heartbreaking, damaging and yet at the same time highly instructional, so I suppose it's only natural that I'm going to use it as a yardstick.  Off away from Sergeant Man and High Raise came in 10 minutes, Thunacar Knott in 14, this was good and on schedule, but I then went on to lose a few of minutes on Pike o' Stickle and the same going up to Rossett Pike .... this, coupled with a few minutes that slipped away enroute to Calf Crag meant that all of a sudden I was down about 10 minutes and I didn't want that, I could see that Dave knew it too and was pushing me along.  In my defence, I have to say that conditions going across the infamous Martcrag Moor before beginning the ascent up to Rossett Pike were absolutely crap, it's no wonder we lost a bit of time:  The rain from the previous day(s) had meant that the whole surface of the moor undulated with your footstep and of course, there were going to be some deep bits. I think anyone with any experience of this part of the Lakes will have seen some poor soul go in up to his/her waist (and worse).

Moi on Martcrag Moor.  The picture fails to show how truly boggy the terrain is thereabouts.
By this time the dawn had truly broken and it gave me a massive lift, I needed to make up a little time and get things back on track. We dropped off Rossett Pike and began the ascent of Bowfell and I dug in. Now, I don't know if my scheduled time of 37 minutes for this ascent is a bit soft (both Dave Harrison and Andrew Kitts think it is and they generally talk sense) but I got up this one in 32 minutes and Dave gave me a "well done" on the summit. I never told him, but that little bit of encouragement did me the world of good, I felt really buoyed up - soft time target or not - and thought that this really could be on. From that point onwards you're in high, rocky territory and I needed the rain to stay away .... and it did. OK, the ground was wet but all the rock had dried off and this was hugely important, as wet, slimy rock really slows your progress. Esk Pike, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag came and went in a flash, making up a few minutes along the way and before I knew it we were on the roof of England, Scafell Pike. It was early morning - about 7.50am - and there were just a few people on the usually crowded summit, they must have wondered why we didn't hang around to enjoy the view.  I just touched the trig point and Dave took me straight off and down to Mickledore for our transit to Scafell. I won't dwell too much on this, as most people are aware of the difficulties in getting between these two mountains. Suffice it to say that I tried out Broad Stand on a recce last year and there was no way I would try it on a BG attempt, although I'd happily climb it under normal "controlled" circumstances. This wasn't the time.

Mickledore (that is me by the way)
Broad Stand - much harder than it looks!
So that leaves only two choices - Foxes Gully and Lord's Rake and of the two I have no doubt that Lord's Rake is the faster. I had a few bad moments with LR earlier in the year, I was stuck up there in a howling snowstorm and it was pretty horrible, particularly as you moved off the West Wall Traverse into Deep Gill, it was clogged with snow and wasn't a pleasant experience getting to the top. No problems today though, I watched Dave H as he picked his way up the Rake and followed his line, it definitely seemed that there had been more rockfalls since my last visit, but it didn't matter - within 15 minutes we were on the top of Scafell and beginning the long descent down to Wasdale.

Rick ran on ahead with the food and clothing order (more mint cake needed!) and we picked our way downwards, I was very concious of the severity of this long descent and also the fact that last time I was hereabouts I managed to pick up a partial muscle hernia in my right shin that took weeks to heal. All was good, Dave knew I was being cautious and was trying to shave off corners here and there and as we neared the ridgeline across to Rakehead Crag we cut across some rough ground where I managed to catch my left foot in some deep hole with a resultant rolling somersault across the fell. No damage done, but as so often happens when you've been on feet for a long time my calf went into immediate spasm and cramped solid. I was flat on my back with my leg in the air, Phil bending my foot over in an attempt to stretch it out.  You can see this ridge from down at Brackenclose (Wasdale NT Campsite/Car park) with a pair of binos and/or good visibility, apparently there were cries of "no you silly bugger, further along the ridge" and "not there you daft sod" etc when it was observed that I had stopped. I'm sorry, but what could I do?

Waiting at Brackenclose, a fantastic morning.  Scafell in the background
 Anyhow, the scree descent went well and Dave picked up my requested line across the beck and through onto the foot of Lingmell, before long we were running into the pitstop, I was just 8 minutes down on schedule, which is absolutely nothing on a regular BG schedule.  I was very pleased with this.

Arriving at Wasdale, Dave Harrison leading
I was mightily chuffed to see Chris Rainbow there to see me (I'd seen his wife Tammy at the start in Keswick) and what a difference, last time it was concerned faces all round and I felt like death, here there was a real sense of cheerful occasion, Mark had sent Dave's daughters over to the campsite to get mintcake for me - more on this later - and the leg 4 team were getting ready for the off while Helen and Emma sorted out my legs/feet and made sure I was fed and watered.

I'd broken the back of it and pretty much set myself up for the ultimate prize, all I had to do was keep the tempo going over the mountains of leg 4 and it was mine for the taking. It occurs to me that it's very easy to sit here and type this, but the reality of the situation was somewhat different: OK, so I'd covered about 43 miles and survived the experience to that point, but there was still the small matter of another 11 mountains, 23 miles and 10,000-odd feet of climb to surmount. Easy?  You must be kidding.  Enough to freeze the blood in your veins if I'm honest.

To be continued - watch out for the next part!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Bob Graham Round Success - Part #2

Leg 2 Support Runners:
Jules Coleman (navigation)
Martin Gardiner
Dave Almond
Brian Stallwood

As we ran down the road to Newsome House, I must confess to a moment of quiet satisfaction. Not that I was in any way complacent about how things were going you understand - far from it - it was just that I knew I had an exceptional team with me and this inspires confidence. I've seen some attempts go out with quite inexperienced supporters and no matter how good a runner they might be, in these situations you need people who've been out there and got the T-shirt, I know that sounds unkind but a lot can depend on having the right person by your side, otherwise they become a bit of a liability ..... you definitely couldn't say that about this bunch, there can't have been many attempts this year with so many successful BGers as supporters.  A combination of factors (second attempt, holidays, postponement etc) meant that some just couldn't be there, but I still had a wealth of experience running with me.  If I couldn't get round with this lot, I was probably never going to.

Leg 2 Supporters - Dave A, Jules and Martin
Jules led us through the field and then up the Coach Road to my preferred ascent point for Clough Head .... this is another one of those contentious points on the BG, there are several ways up it and lots of heated debate about the various rights and wrongs of it all. My view is simple: Clough Head is a bastard of a climb - particularly if you go the "steep" way - so the best thing is to make it as benign as possible, for me this means approaching the summit via White Pike, it seems kinder on your legs (if that's possible). So, the summit came and went, it didn't feel too bad at all and was a minute or so under schedule, I felt really positive - no messing about and we were off on our way to Great Dodd. The night was completely dark, I knew there wasn't going to be a moon of any description, but given the clear weather I expected stars and nary a one was to be seen, it was blacker than Mad Black McBlack's pants (=very black) and I don't quite understand that, assume there had to be some sort of high cloud? In any event, I was grateful for small mercies, I've been out on leg 2 in some truly dreadful weather and on attempt #1 it was monsoon conditions - there was none of that here, although the ground was still very wet in places.

My friend Rich will tell you that a lot of BG attempts founder on leg 2 during the night and I know he's right, a lot of the summits are on a plateau and difficult to find when the visibility is down to 20ft and the rain coming in sideways.  There was going to be none of that tonight, we found all the Dodds without trouble and before I knew it we'd gone past Helvellyn and had done Nethermost Pike (another hard one in the dark) before heading off to Dollywaggon. A slight hiccup here - we momentarily lost sight of Jules and Stolly (who were both running well ahead) and a moment's disorientation made us think we'd missed the line off the path to the summit. Actually, we were still a good distance away, but all the same we dived off the tourist path to ...... well, nothing if I'm honest, just a few odd rocks but definitely not Dollywaggon (we were were in the High Crags vicinity). Thankfully, we realised the mistake and scooted on down to DP in a heartbeat, Dave reckons it didn't cost us more than a minute and I think he's right. At this point I normally head straight for the famous fencepost and down the quad-crushing Dollywaggon descent to Grisedale Tarn, but Jules went off way before the post and did a nice little traverse across the slope (which he claims was just an on-the-spot decision!), it seemed much kinder on the legs and this was definitely the way I wanted it, my intention was to save the descending legs as long as possible. Fairfield - another notoriously nasty climb - came and went bang on schedule and before I knew it we were climbing Seat Sandal and leg 2 was nearly over. I suppose it was around 2.00am by this point and as we ran off Seat Sandal it (oddly) began to feel very humid and we were invaded by bugs and moths! Stolly had borrowed Emma's killer Hope headtorch and literally had a performing circus of moths flying around his head, not what you need when you're trying to do a steep and difficult technical descent in the dark.

Seat Sandal (viewed from Fairfield)
I could see the lights of the support team below me and knew that everyone would be there, ready to go. I tried to relax and tell myself that it had been easy so far, this was where the fun began.  It's hard to believe that when you've just covered 27 miles or so across hard terrain with several thousands feet of ascent thrown in for good measure (perhaps an understatement), but I knew I had to, this was where my mind needed to be in order to stand a chance. Smiling faces all around as I crossed the A591, straight into my seat and Helen was there with cuppa, food and clothes.  This was probably my longest break (about 13 minutes I think) and I had time to close my eyes and focus on what was coming: This was where the wheels started to come off on my first attempt and I'll be honest, thus far my whole focus had been on getting to Wasdale (ie. the end of leg 3) in one piece and roughly on schedule.  If could crack that, then my thinking was that it was mine to throw away. Dave Harrison, Dave Swift, Rick and Phil were ready to go, headtorches burning into the darkness.  I crossed my fingers and set off, this was it, the one that would make or break my Bob Graham Round. I sincerely hoped that the bloody vicar from Seascale had remembered to say a prayer for me!

To be continued - watch out for the next part!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Bob Graham Round Success - Part #1

121st Psalm - Stained Glass in St Olaf's Church, Wasdale
Leg 1 Support Runners:
Patrick Bonnet (navigation)
Emma David

I'm not a particularly religious bloke, but there is something about the 121st Psalm that I find quite inspiring. Those that hang around in far-flung places like Wasdale may well have seen it before, because there is a tiny piece of stained glass in the window of St Olaf's chuch that has these words beneath a nice little picture of Napes Needle. It was paid for by the Fell and Rock climbing club, the same that stumped up for the Great Gable memorial in 1924.  Actually, I've just realised that on my last long training run prior to BGR attempt #1 in June I dropped into Wasdale on a gorgeous sunny day and dared to put my name in the prayer book in St Olaf's. It was something like "Please give Martyn strength during his forthcoming ordeal", so obviously something went badly wrong here.  I refuse to believe that God wasn't listening, so can only assume that the vicar of Seascale (Wasdale is too small to have its own clergyman) must have had a few too many communal sherries that morning and missed me off the list! I could have done with a bit of that strength going up Yewbarrow if I'm honest.

In retrospect, there is something about an initial failure that makes success taste very sweet indeed, but leading up to my second attempt it only served to magnify my apprehension. Would my body hold out?  Could I focus for 24 hours on moving quickly over some of the rockiest terrain in the country? Would the weather be kind to me this time?  Therefore, you'll understand my angst when the forecast for Friday 17th August slowly deteriorated and it became obvious conditions were going to be crap. I had both the Thursday and Friday off work (the intention being to sleep), a good thing too because I made the difficult decision to delay by 24 hours and spent most of the Thursday contacting my support team and trying to rearrange things. As it transpired, I was lucky ... most of the team could make it for Saturday. Also had a bit of a boost when Dave Almond (who is chiefly to blame for all this Bob Graham malarkey in any case) got in touch to say he had managed to swing the time off work and would be joining me on leg 2. A major bonus!

A BGR attempt can be a logistical nightmare, it really can. I've supported a lot of attempts and there's no prescribed way to do it, but the ones you remember are when the contender makes an effort to look after his/her support team and feed and water them properly. It's not always like this. My view is that supporting an attempt is no small matter, apart from the cost and expense of actually getting to the Lakes in the first place, there's also a high chance of intense physical discomfort over a prolonged period with little to show for it.  It's a pretty selfless task, so when you get right down to it the contender should try and make a bit of provision for his supporters.  Anyhow, Helen handled the logistics for both my attempts and I have to say she did it very well, for my latest attempt we were laden down with cake (thanks Stef/DT!), tea and bacon butties and enough biscuits to choke a horse, I sincerely hope that nobody was hungry or thirsty at any point. You know where to send complaints if you were (i.e. not to me).

Saturday came and it appeared that the Weather Gods were smiling at long-suffering Martyn and about bloody-time too. It turned into a fantastic day and as we headed up to Cumbria it was wall-to-wall blue sky, the forecast was good for the night with the possibility of rain later on the Sunday - looking good! We got to Keswick in good time and met the support team, quite a few of the people on later legs had come to see me off and I was grateful as the chatter and hubbub helped keep my nerves at bay.  Everyone kept on assuring me that it would be fine and I really wanted to believe them, a lot of time and effort was invested in this moment.  I didn't want to fail.   6.00pm came and we were off, Patrick and Emma supporting. Patrick successfully completed his BGR a couple of months back and Emma has spent a lot of time on leg 1 of late - only the previous weekend she'd paced leg 1 for our friend Carol (who got round in 22:33), so I was in very good company.

The Support Team
My friend Martin Gardiner from Dallam R.C. (who was doing leg 2) also decided to come along as far as Latrigg, so the four of us wound our way out of Keswick and very soon we were on Spooney Green Lane and heading upwards. I felt strong, I could feel the nervous anticipation in my legs and all I wanted to do was get to the top of the monster they call Skiddaw and get my teeth into it.  Who could blame me? 

Skiddaw - It doesn't always look this good!
Helen and Dave Harrison were there at Latrigg (they had taken the rucksacks up there) and I got a quick peck on the cheek before heading through the fell gate. What an evening! There wasn't a cloud in the sky and I was flying upwards and feeling that I could really do this.  The summit came in a flash and before I knew it Patrick was leading me down towards the Cumbrian way and Great Calva. The rain from the previous day meant that it was heavy going over Hare Crag, but no mistakes this time (i.e. I didn't fall into a bog) and before I knew it we had crossed the Caldew and were heading up the back of Mungrisdale Common.

I turned round as we started the traverse under the summit ridge and were treated to one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen.  I knew I didn't have time to mess about, but as the sun sank over the horizon and we neared the top of Blencathra, we were treated to a sky of burning red and oranges, it was truly spectacular and I realised just how lucky I was to be alive and capable of enjoying this, it was a very special moment. We hit the ridge about 50yds to the right of the summit, a bit of a hiccup but OK for navigation by dead-reckoning (a lesson there I suppose) and before long we were on out way down Doddick Fell, Emma's monster headtorch floodlighting the side of the mountain and the lights of Threlkeld winking below us. You could spend all night arguing about the rights and wrongs of the "best" BG descent off Blencathra, all I will say is that I've tried them all and in wet conditions the Parachute -which I used on my last attempt - doesn't buy "normal" runners like me much and possibly has an adverse affect in terms of impact on your descending muscles, as it's so incredibly steep at the top. I'm not a fan of Hall's Fell (no matter which way you go down it) so Doddick is really the only sensible option and the extra few minutes it costs is well justified. Anyhow, I pulled into the first rest stop at Threlkeld Cricket Club dead on schedule and the place buzzed with energy, everyone was enjoying the occassion and I was overjoyed to see Jules Coleman, Brian Stallwood (Stolly), Martin and Dave lined up, smiling and ready to go.

This was a lot different than my last attempt and there was a tangible sense of optimism.  I'd been here a week before with Carol on her BGR and it was a beautiful evening, tonight maybe wasn't quite as good (the stars were absent) but it was a pretty good second best.  A quick change of socks, a cuppa, a big bowl of oatmeal granola and I was ready to go. Headtorch back on and we were off down the lane to Newsome house and Leg 2, everything looking good!

To be continued - watch out for the next part!