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 ....

Monday, 26 December 2016

Death and Joy

So, did everyone have a great Christmas? I truly hope so. I always have an uneasy sense of guilt over the festive period, the knowledge that there are those out there who don't have more food than they can eat, don't have a comfy, warm and secure home and most definitely don't have the luxury of being given expensive presents by people that care for them makes me very introspective and I'd be fibbing if I said it doesn't trouble me. It's the old social conscience thing again, I know that to many my politics will seem slightly to the right of Mussolini on a bad day (not true), but actually I do feel the occasional prickle of guilt.

All this against a backdrop of George the Greek shuffling off this mortal coil and well, it's been a curious 24 hours hasn't it? Say what you will about GM, the man had God-given talent and his death is a loss to the world, I'm sure we hadn't seen all he had to give. It's slightly ironic that his passing coincides with the terrible news of the plane crash in the Black Sea, far more column inches are being devoted to his death than the other 62 unfortunates of the Red Army Choir, it's pretty saddening.  I have a little knowledge of the Red Army Choir and although I don't like the majority of the propaganda-fuelled shite they used to push out, I do enjoy some of their more dramatic and haunting renditions. Nobody does Big Sad like the Russians (and they have good reason) and if your mood is robust enough to stand it, listening to their music is a rewarding experience. Here's a link that gives an example:

The one everyone knows is "Kalinka Moya", go to about 51:40 and you'll find it. The blokey in the ice-cream suit is Vadim Anan'ev, a well-known tenor. He was one lucky lad and didn't get on the flight. Strange to think that a lot of his mates are dead now.

Anyhow, back onto Christmas. Leading up to it things went a bit wrong, we had the Tour de Helvellyn Ultra last weekend and while I was busy congratulating myself on a half-decent performance I managed to come down with a stinking cold - gracefully passed on to me by an unapologetic Helen - and that made the week a bit miserable. Things perked up for Christmas Eve, my eyes and nose finally stopped watering and although I still felt a bit crap, it meant I could come out to play. We went up to Horton-in-Ribblesdale to join our friends Stolly and Hester and a whole bunch of others, Stolly is coming up for a "significant" birthday and as a result has decided to do 60 consecutive runs up Pen-y-Ghent. Just to be clear here, by that I mean on consecutive days, but it's still one hell of a challenge and he's been at it in all sorts of diabolical weather, Christmas Eve was his 56th and we joined him. I felt pretty ropey as we started running, but that soon cleared and before long I was really enjoying myself and loving the time out on the fell. Fellrunners are, by and large, my favourite people and today only served to endorse that opinion. We got to the top of PYG in a howling wind and pausing just long enough for a few pics, turned round and enjoyed a fantastic descent off the fell, one that included a good few powerslides on my arse, shouldn't have worn my knackered old X-Talons I guess! Actually, judging by the oversqueaks and shouts coming from behind me I don't think I was alone, I looked back to see both Helen and Hester sliding down the fell in a manner that whilst swift, is not normally recommended.  Back to their house afterwards for cuppas and soup and I was in my happy place, lovely people.

Christmas Day was a lazy sort of day, we had the in-laws around for dinner so Helen was determined to pull out the stops and make it a good one, it was too. A late prezzie opening was followed by what I can only describe as a marathon eatfest, it was lovely but very indulgent. I ran out of steam around 7.00pm and slumped in a chair, I don't know how I could have eaten more. It's a bit odd really, as runners we watch our weight carefully and alarm bells start to ring if I go over the 150lb watershed. More air-raid warning sirens than alarm bells this morning if I'm honest, how can you put on that much weight in one day??? I'll run it off ..... eventually.

It was the annual pilgrimage to the Chevin Chase this morning and I felt pretty crap. It was my first day without a Lem-Sip crutch and I really didn't fancy a hard charge around the Chevin. My feelings to this race are a bit ambivalent, as off-road races go the course is very easy, it's mostly even, predictable terrain and the inclines are gentle .... so why did it feel so bloody hard? Alright, I had the excuse of a 38-mile ultra last weekend to lean on, however other people manage to recover from such things (including Helen), why can't I? Perhaps I really am just getting older and slower.  I can't use the excuse of a cold either, one of my clubmates did a fantastic time, belting round a full eight minutes + faster than me and he's been laid up with a bad chest for the last three weeks. As it was, I finished under the hour, but only just. Compare this to my 2014 time and I was the best part of six minutes slower. I really am going to have to sort myself out, one of the problems with all these long days and hill training is that although you develop endurance AND the ability to endure (if that makes sense), it sure as hell doesn't do much for your leg speed and I think that showed today. If I'm serious about a JNC* attempt next year, I'm going to have to sort this out and get some proper running in again. I'm putting today down as a FAIL.

Incidentally, Jonny Brownlee won it, but only just - Tom Adams from Ilkley gave him a hell of a run for his money and finished just a few seconds behind him, must be hard to go around with a target on your back. As a club, Harrogate Harriers did pretty well, Chris Miller came 6th overall (very good at this level) and we had some excellent vet finishes. I've missed feeling part of the bigger "club" picture of late, I suppose this is because of the lonesome nature of the running Helen and I do, nobody else is daft enough to come with us on our big days out and I can't say I blame them. This was partially rekindled at the Lee Mill relays a few weeks back, but it wasn't enough to keep the fire burning, I will have to try harder next year.

Our next race is the infamous Auld Lang Syne fell race on New Years Eve, watch this space.

* Joss Naylor Challenge

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Ancient Runner

It occurs to me that since we've lived at our current house (something that occurred pretty much simultaneously with my leaving the Royal Navy), I have become a creature of habit. Nothing dramatic, because I have a fairly chaotic nature and have to work hard to keep things on the straight and narrow, I'm talking about getting to work at a particular time, having a cuppa at a particular time of the day, getting up early to go swimming etc.

Well, on those mornings I go swimming (Mon/Weds/Fri) I'm usually out of the house at about 0620 and you tend to see the same people out and about, particularly as I head to my swimming pool via the centre of town .... I'm talking about other runners here of course. Over the years we've had the Retired Army Officer, the Librarian, Mr Bowlegged, Miss HugeArse, Mrs Beercoat and the most notable, the Ancient Runner. The "Ancient Runner" is an elderly gentleman who has been an absolutely consistent feature of my mornings over the past 8 years or so, he really is getting on a bit and I would estimate that he's in his early 90s now. I always see him coming back up the road as I'm driving into town and he inevitably wears the same kit: shapeless black baggy shorts (way too big for him) and a stripey sports shirt of the sort your granddad would wear (like a polo shirt), open at the collar and flapping on his skinny arms. Until recently, his only concession to the cold was an enormous pair of black motorcycle gauntlets, however this year I've noticed he has taken to wearing a tatty old red fleece, the old boy is obviously feeling the cold.

He moves painfully slowly, his running pace is slower than most people's walking pace, his hunched back and scrawny neck accentuate the look of desperation that seems to be fixed to his face. If I'm a bit late and he's reached the junction that leads to his house, he slows (!) and walks home. I've seen him plodding down that road in all sorts of horrible weather, he's out there no matter what and it always looks like he's about to keel over from the effort.

My heart goes out to this old gent. Nobody wants to grow old and he's doing his best to maintain his fitness and keep himself healthy, despite his advancing years. He does his training early and in private, nobody but the early birds are privy to his efforts. I wonder if that's how I'll end up? Desperately trying to keep Father Time at bay, dragging my knackered body out of bed to crawl up and down a miniscule circuit at a snail's pace.  I really admire him, I know he hasn't given up.

And there's the lesson really and something I have to keep reminding myself about. It's really important not to give up.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Frog Graham Round

Right, please grab a cuppa and something to eat, you may be here for a while.  I intended to do this some while back and  I do apologise, it’s easy to keep on putting things off and that’s what I’ve done I’m afraid.  It’s bad of me, particularly as what I’m about to waffle on about has pretty much monopolised my time over the past year and I know I’d regret not getting it all down while it’s (reasonably) fresh in my mind, so, here we go – the story of my  Frog Graham Round.

Not heard of it? It’s obviously owes it’s title to the more famous 42-peak circuit of the Lake District (the Bob Graham Round), but is nowhere near as well-known, despite being around since 2005. The guy who came up with it is Peter Hayes, a university lecturer from up Durham way; he authored a book called “Swim Hiking in The English Lake District” and this is where the Frog Graham Round – or FGR – is defined. It’s a circular route of the NW Lakeland fells covering about 40 miles and 15,800ft of vertical ascent, the tricky bit is that there are four lakes to swim across enroute to the finish in Keswick. I’d heard it being talked about a few years back, but really didn’t give it too much attention until some fell-running/triathlete friends stated their intention to give it a go and I investigated further. I was surprised to find that less than 10 people had successfully done it since Peter’s inaugural round in 2005, perhaps indicative of the severity of the task but possibly simply because the fact of its existence isn’t widely known. I was immediately hooked and thought that this was something I could do, my goal there and then was to be one of the first ten people to get round.

Details on the FGR were scarce. Peter’s book is quite hard to get hold of, although you can download it from Amazon for your Kindle. A chap named Richard Walsh maintains a website that details the basics of the round and the list of successful completers, but there’s not much more. I then looked at the people who had got round thus far and the most notable was Tim Mosedale, whose name is well known in the outdoor world.  Tim is a  four-times Everest summiter (that’s fairly hard isn’t it?), he’s also the bloke who in 2015 decided to raise some money for charity by doing the big Lakes triple – in this case that meant swimming the length of Windermere, cycling the Fred Whitton route (112 miles) and following that with a Bob Graham Round. Once I’d found Tim’s blog, I had some hard details of the FGR to go on.

I could spend a long time writing about my preparation for this, way too long. Those who know me and my fastidious nature will have no doubts that I recce’d the route thoroughly (a good part of which I knew pretty intimately in any case) and had a great time doing it, clocking up some serious mileage and making some appalling navigational decisions in the process, well, you have to explore all options don’t you? From the very outset I felt that the key to success was making it so that the four swims – across Bassenthwaite, Crummock Water, Buttermere and Derwentwater – were just incidental obstacles along the way because, truth be told, there’s actually more feet per miles ascent in the FGR than the BGR and considerably more than long, tough fell races like the Old County Tops, so survival on the fell was going to be main thing. If I couldn’t complete each swim and follow it with a hard fell section, then it was clearly going to be a non-starter.  But how to make it so that swims were just “incidental obstacles?”  A bit tricky I thought.
Carol Morgan and Myself on an FGR Recce (High Stile)
I love swimming and picked up the reins several years back when I began to compete in the odd triathlon. However, my technique sucked and although I had a useful turn of speed over shorter distances, I felt it needed to be better for an attempt on the FGR. I had sinky legs, a number of dead spots in my stroke, a rubbish catch and was prone to crossing over from the left. I eventually cured the majority of these problems, but it was a long, long and very tiring journey for a bloke whose life is already jammed full anyway. It mostly consisted of three morning sessions a week, up at 0530 to be in the pool by 0630. I was helped along the way by my swim partner Emma, but as time went on she had to give up on our sessions due to her business expanding and early morning PT clients. It was up to me and I won’t deny I found it hard to keep the momentum going, particularly over the winter. I stuck at it though and my swim stamina slowly improved and I began to enjoy it a lot more. My body shape changed and I developed some proper swim muscle, my weak left shoulder became a thing of the past and I knew I was ready when I was knocking out 3,000 metres before going to work. I should add that as the weather got better I was swimming more and more in open water, my triathlon club has access to the lake in the middle of Ripon racecourse so I was in there whenever possible. Of course, I was also swimming the lakes of the FGR as well, however this didn’t go too well when I tried to swim across Crummock Water the week after the last snow of the year – it was icy, bitterly cold and I got out of there so fast I think I just skimmed across the surface. Not a good start really and it didn’t do my morale any good. It was the Old County Tops fell race the following week and it was a  tough outing in bad conditions, so I thought a little swim the next day would give me a good idea of where I was. I decided to swim from Calf Close Bay on Derwentwater to Rampsholme Island (the last mandatory CP on the FGR) then swim back. I was absolutely knackered, it was a real fight and gave me some idea of just how bloody hard this was going to be. If I’d known just how hard, I might have given up there and then.
Contemplating the FGR post-OCT
Things didn’t go smoothly on the lead-up to my projected date at the end of June. For starters, I took a nasty fall while descending the back of Fleetwith Pike, this did some serious damage to my left knee and shin, moreover I managed to bruise my ribs into the bargain and as anyone who’s suffered this will tell you, it hurts like hell, particularly when you try to run. This little faux paus resulted in a visit to the minor injuries unit in Keswick where the very efficient nurse there patched me up. I think they’re very used to dealing with broken fell runners and I was seen and shoved out with commendable speed.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, pretty much the following week I was back in the Lakes training and following a leg 2 run, did my first training swim across Bassenthwaite in horrendous conditions. It took a lot out of me (probably more than I had to give at the time) and I can remember just sitting on the ground at Beck Wythop, too tired to get my wetsuit off and feeling that it was all too much. My companions had retired to the warmth of their car and I felt totally alone and exhausted. I didn’t know at the time, but I was coming down with some filthy cold virus and I guess that final effort across Bassenthwaite lowered my resistance to the point where it was All Systems Go for Mr Virus. It was horrible, I felt absolutely crap and it was clear that one way or another, my attempt was looking shaky. As it was, the weather came along and saved me because the week leading up to my projected date was absolutely awful and it was with some relief that I cancelled. The problem now was that I had had a load of friends booked in to run with me on the fell, however it looked very much like hardly any of them would be available in the short term. Whatever happened, I was going to have to do it with a skeleton crew.
The diary was beginning to look very full. I’d promised to help my friend Elise on her BGR attempt on the 29th July, moreover we had the dark shadow of the UTMB looming over us in late August. There really weren’t many options, so I was more or less forced into an attempt on Saturday 23rd July and this is what transpired. I put out the call for volunteers and just came up with enough bods to do it (five people), although it meant that most of them would be running two legs with me on the fell. This was important to me, from the very outset I’d decided that I wanted it to be a social occasion, something that I could share with some friends. Yes, I could have done it solo but I’m a sociable kind of bloke and it wouldn’t have been half as much fun without some company and not at all what I wanted. I would be carrying my own wetsuit on the fell and using an inflatable swim bag (a “ChillSwim“) to tow my kit behind me when in the water.
The timings on the FGR are critical. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that you want to be doing the swims in daylight, moreover I wanted to finish at a decent time in the evening so that we could have a beer and celebrate afterwards. A lot of it was guesswork, but I went out there with a schedule of 14hrs 30min and fingers firmly crossed. Perhaps that’s an understatement, because I was crossing everything that would cross, throwing salt into corners, muttering incantations and praying to my forefathers that this was going to go well.  It was too late to sacrifice my first-born, he’s appreciably bigger than me and would have objected.  In all seriousness though, I knew only too well how easy it would be for disaster to strike, I would be swimming alone and knew that later on in the round it was going to be a real effort.   I never did have any common sense, it’s sobering to think that in my advancing years things haven’t changed much.
We met Emma, Chris and Paul at Keswick’s Moot Hall at 0345 (the FGR shares the start/finish with the BGR, it also has the same first summit) and after some nervous kit faffage we were off at 0400 on the dot. Emma and Chris had headtorches, but I hadn’t packed one, banking on dawn arriving before I really needed one. That’s pretty much as it worked out, by the time we were halfway up Latrigg the first twinklings of light were breaking up the darkness and I felt relaxed and in good company. I’ve done this climb up Skiddaw any number of times and knew exactly what to do, although care was needed: I was carrying a wetsuit and heavy pack, the last thing I needed was to charge up there at BGR pace and overcook it, I needed to arrive at Bassenthwaite relaxed and in good order. Skiddaw was shrouded in cloud and I knew that it was likely to burn off later in the day, however a jacket was needed to keep the chill at bay. Everyone with me knew the ground intimately and we had no problems hitting the summit and then swiftly finding the trod off down to Carlside. Chris had very kindly recce’d this bit for me and after Carlside and the tarn he had worked out some fast lines through the bracken that took us down to White Stones and then the track at the top of Dodd Wood, from here it was a long descent down to the visitors car park, across the road then down to Bassenthwaite Church, this is the second mandatory CP on the round. No messing about here and it was straight into my wetsuit, although I have to say that this is not as easy as you might think when you’re a bit hot and sticky after a long run down one of England’s highest mountains.
Bassenthwaite at Dawn
There was a bit of faffage getting my kit and rucksack into the swimbag (forgot to take out goggles and they were at the bottom), but once sorted I was into the lake and very fortunately, it was calm and still. The others ran back to the Dodd Wood car park where Chris had his car, they would drive round to Beck Wythop on the other side of the lake (seven miles by road) and meet me there. It was an easy swim, I relaxed and deliberately took it easy, breathing every 4th stroke. Every now and then I swapped sides for no other reason than to the left you have a marvellous view of Dodd and several other Lakeland fells, it felt like I was massively fortunate to be able to do this, it was a beautiful morning (around 0630 I guess) and my spirits were high.
The Frog Emerges
I might have been a bit too relaxed going across there, because I was a minute or two slower than projected, but hey, in the grand scheme of things that wasn’t going to make any difference and I was sticking to my plan that the swims had to be “mere incidentals” otherwise the scope for disaster was huge. I crossed the A66 to the layby at Beck Wythop and Chris, Emma and Paul had just beaten me to it, Helen was there along with my clubmate Simon, both of them were going to be running on Leg 2 with me while Emma took over road transport duties. I had a bit of trouble getting my wetsuit off, the problem was that like many others I was struggling with the physiological effects of swimming with minimal leg movement, I don’t know the real reason for this but I do know that as soon as I went from a horizontal to vertical position, cramp in my lower legs (calves, feet, adductors) struck immediately, therefore it was difficult to get the bloody wetsuit off. I don’t think this is the sort of cramp associated with electrolyte depletion, this is something else entirely – I just don’t know how to combat it. Of course you can kick more when swimming and that sort of mitigates it, but the swimbag makes that much more difficult, it trails from your waist you see, so it’s the classic triathlete’s taildrag or nothing.
I eventually got sorted and on my way, the cramp stopped as soon as I began running.  Wierd eh? From Beck Wythop you cut through the woods and then come out on the Thornthwaite Road, then it’s a bit of a slog until you reach the foot of Barf, the first summit of Leg 2. I’ve stopped thinking that Barf is a funny name for a mountain, there’s nowt funny about it at all. It might be small, but by God it makes up for that in severity, it’s a properly steep climb to the top. Good potential for getting it all wrong too, the first time I recce’d this I went up via Slape Crag, this is – unbeknownst to me at the time – a Mountain Rescue black spot and I totally understand why, but that’s another story!  It was getting warm and as we laboured upwards, the cold water of Bassenthwaite became a distant memory. We reached the summit 10 minutes ahead of schedule and I stopped to take in the marvelous panorama; it’s a cracking view from Barf and if you haven’t been up there, please accept my recommendation, winter or summer it just delivers.  It was turning into a lovely day, just a few clouds in the sky and I felt like I had the upper hand, I was loving it.
Myself and Simon on Grisedale Pike
Lord’s Seat and Ullister Hill came and went in a flash, then it was down the wide, alpine-like trails to Whinlatter before a brief detour onto the mountain bike trails and then to the foot of Grisedale Pike. This is a proper climb and one I’d been dreading, but it didn’t seem so bad, I was soaking up the scenery and with Simon and Helen chattering away beside me we reached the summit at 0854 precisely, I was still 10 minutes up on schedule.

On Hopegill Head
From here it’s a rocky detour to Hopegill Head (this is the little “nobble” you can see to the left of Grisedale Pike) and then what must be shortest split on any major round, just three minutes to Sand Hill. This was all familiar territory and I was moving well, we found the rocky trod up the front of Crag Hill (or Eel Crag as it’s known) and scrambled our way up the side, saving loads of time over the more boring run up to the col between it and Grasmoor.  We flew down to Wandope and on to Whiteless Pike, by now I was about 14 minutes up on schedule and believing that I could really do this, however I knew the descent down to Low Bank and Rannerdale was likely to be very overgrown and I wasn’t wrong. No way could I take my intended line, when I’d last recce’d this bit there was barely a scrap of bracken to be seen, now it was completely overgrown and I had to take the long way round. I guess I severely underestimated this bit in my schedule, because I lost 6 minutes here, but it didn’t really trouble me, truth be told I had other things on my mind: The swim across Crummock Water was looming and my issue was my wetsuit, I didn’t want to wear it. I knew it would save loads of time not to have to change in (and out) of the damned thing, but even at that very late point I hadn’t made my mind up. The weather had been quite good that week, but Crummock Water is notoriously cold …. what to do?

Crummock Water and Low Ling Crag
Running down to Rannerdale I was greeted by Emma and made up my mind: I was now 8 minutes up on schedule and wanted to maintain my advantage, it was only a shortish swim across to Low Ling Crag, how hard could it be? Now, I have to tell you that this was a very foolish decision and could have cost me my life. Open water swimming is an inherently risky business if you don’t take proper precautions, one of those is acclimatising your body to cold water and I hadn’t, not even a bit. I jammed my rucksack and the rest of my kit and rucksack into the swim bag (it was a bit of a squeeze), on with goggles and swimcap, then away I went to worried looks from Helen, Simon and Emma. There was a diving club getting ready at the side of the water, they were all in full immersion suits and looked at me like I was mad. In retrospect, they were absolutely right.
Not One of My Better Decisions ....
Once the initial shock was over it didn’t feel too bad, but there was no doubt about it - it was bloody freezing!  I forced my face and chest down into the water to compensate for the lack of wetsuit buoyancy and tried to focus on my breathing.  It was bitterly cold though and straight away I could feel a peculiar numbness creeping across my face.  Focus.  I wanted to kick, but the swimbag behind me made it difficult, the damned thing was getting in the way.  Up the stroke rate, get the blood flowing …. got to get across quickly, I started to realise that this might not have been a smart idea, my body had definitely come to the same conclusion and had started to divert all bloodflow to vital organs and I was beginning to lock up from the waist down, heck, I knew this really wasn’t good and I was in trouble. If that wasn’t enough, I was worried that the swim bag was going to burst open, it really was packed tight with kit and even though it was buoyant, the thing was heavy enough to be an obstruction in the water.  Looking back, I have no idea how I safely reached Low Ling Crag, it would have been easy enough to panic but I had enough about me to focus on survival and just crashing out the strokes, long strokes with a high elbow and strong pull, just aiming for the other side on auto-pilot.
Rannerdale Knotts - the View From Low Ling Crag
I could see Chris and Nick waiting for me, both looked worried.  My plan to swim around the right hand side of the crag was abandoned and I just hit the crag on the nose and clung to it, my legs immediately locking solid and the pain caused me to bite my lip hard, it was awful.  Eventually I scrambled out of the water and Nick draped his jacket around my shoulders, I was shaking violently and not in a good place, I guess it’s fair to say that any advantage I’d gained in not wearing a wetsuit was completely lost, massive mistake.  The weather was still OK, so I warmed up quickly enough and I was keen to get going, so dragged my fell shoes and manky socks out and wrestled them on, to be honest it was a relief to be getting back to running mode and we set off up the side of the next FGR obstacle:  Mellbreak.
If you know the Lakeland Fells, you’ll know Mellbreak.  It’s the steep-sided monster to the North of Crummock Water, quite a plateau on top and it has in fact got two summits, the South being the “proper” one.  I’d recce’d this twice before and knew it was going to be emotional, it’s terribly steep and there are no trods or walkers routes – you go up there the best way you can and hang on for dear life.  I knew from Tim’s account that there was going to be a big problem with bracken, but I didn’t really appreciate just HOW bad it was going to be, I felt like Dr Livingstone hacking through the jungle.  It was difficult enough going up something this steep without a bracken wall to hack through.  It was murder, the swim across Crummock had done me in a bit and every upwards step felt like torture, I was totally knackered.  Eventually we got through all that crap, but things then went a bit amiss when Chris announced he wasn’t feeling too good, was turning back and would see us over at the bottom of High Stile.  He didn’t say it, but it transpired that he’d turned an ankle – that swelled up like a balloon – and I guess he just didn’t want to worry anyone.  My hero.
Nick and I carried on, finding the Mellbreak summit without difficulty and then charging on to the long descent that takes you down to Scale Beck, surprise, bracken has grown to head-height here too. We bashed our way through and it was only by luck that we found the indistinct trod that leads down to the beck, from here it’s a climb – a long climb – up to the summit of Red Pike (the Ennerdale version) before going across the rocky ridge to High Stile.  This is one of the big ones that looks so forbidding when you stare down the valley and from Buttermere, you would be forgiven for thinking it would be impossible to come down the nose via Grey Crags, however this really is the FGR route.  It’s actually faintly cairned, but it’s far from an easy descent and you really need your wits about you or you could end up getting to the bottom a bit faster than you’d want to.  In training I did this a few times as it’s by some margin the worst descent on the round and I estimated that a reasonable split on the day would be 28 minutes, it actually took me 37, sadly.  This is partly because I was getting a bit tired by now, partly because I was being very careful, but also because the lower slopes were – surprise – covered with bracken and it was a proper pain hacking through it to Horse Close.  Bracken is definitely the curse of the FGR, the lines are too seldom trodden for them to become permanent paths, so you have to take the route as it comes.
Horse Close with Buttermere behind
As we approached Horse Close (this is the little wood on the shore of Buttermere), Nick peeled off to run around the lake and there was Chris as promised.  He looked OK, much to my relief.  Buttermere is much shallower than Crummock Water and it’s the shortest swim on the round, so I didn’t have any qualms about swimming it without a wetsuit, despite my earlier experience.  I ripped off my shirt and fellshoes, jammed all the kit back into the swimbag, googles off and I was away.  I did this swim in 6 minutes in training, today it took me a little over 7, however it was with a real sense of relief that I reached the other side and was met by Helen and Em, I was 75% of the way in and still up on schedule – I was in with a real chance of getting round, the only question now was whether leg 4 would break me before the final and longest swim across Derwentwater?
Frog Inbound - the end of the Buttermere swim.
I set off on leg 4 with Em, Simon (who had rejoined us) and Nick who had just managed to beat me with a focused dash around the end of the lake.  Leg 4 starts with an unholy climb up the back of Robinson, it’s a bit testing on fresh legs and an absolute swine when you’re tired and on your chinstrap.  It’s a funny thing, Robinson (as many will know) is the final summit of the Bob Graham Round and in terms of climb from Hindscarth isn’t much at all, as you’re already fairly high up when you approach it.  This thought had lulled me into a totally false sense of security, but when I first recce’d it all that was blown straight out of the water; it’s the “Yewbarrow” of the FGR without question.  Much sweating and bad language later we hit the top and then it was a straight reverse of the BGR line down to Littledale Edge, over to Dale Head and then the race line down to Dale Tarn.  Spirits were high, Emma was running well and skipping along in front of us, we were enjoying ourselves and focusing on the job in hand.
Climbing High Spy
High Spy came quickly and we had no problem picking out the Anniversary Waltz racing lines back to Catbells.  This was one part of the round that I hadn’t recce’d under “exam conditions”, I’d intended to do it but events had sort of conspired against me, the result being was that I’d had a guess at the splits, a bit optimistic as it turned out.  We were all running well, but I still lost a bit of time enroute Catbells, my own fault I guess.  My advantage was all but lost at this point and I was about where I’d predicted, but this was, of course, on a 14:30 schedule so I had no reason to be unduly worried.   Lots of tourists on the summit, but we sneaked round them and bombed down the grassy line that takes you to the col where you drop off to the road and Old Brandelhow, the fell section was all but over.
On Catbells, all OK.  Note Islands Below
While all this was going on I’d been keeping an eye on Derwentwater below me, because the final and potentially biggest obstacle was looming and I had to get my head in the right place.  The wind had got up over the past few hours and I could see that there was quite a chop on the water now, not at all what I wanted to see and I was privately cursing.  Anyhow, we moved quickly downwards and very soon found ourselves at Otterbield Bay, the end was nearly in sight.  There’s a nice grassy bank to lean on there, so it was quickly on with wetsuit and kit packed, I told the others to get round to the Catbells carpark and not wait for me – Nick had his car there and it was their job to get to the other side in time to run in with me, it’s quite a distance by road and you have to go through Keswick you see.
I should point out that the swim across Derwentwater is not as straightforward as you might think.  For starters, it’s the longest (just over a mile) but the real twist is that you to visit three islands enroute, Otterbield, St Herbert’s and Rampsholme in that order, exiting at Calf Close Bay which is more or less parallel with the Great Wood on the Borrowdale Road.  The rules say you have to have your entire body out of the water at each island, this isn’t as easy, because the ground shoals very gradually to St Herbert’s and Rampsholme, meaning you have to snake-belly in (slowly!) and then stand up with great care, the rocks are as slimy as hell and it would be very easy and very bad to fall over here.
The Final Swim
I committed my soul to the waters once again and dived in. Fate wasn’t kind to me from the outset, the bloody Derwentwater passenger steamer chose that precise moment to come across the bay and of course its wash threw me all over the place.   If I’d known what was coming I don’t think I’d have been quite so peed-off, perspective is everything:  I reached the tiny Otterbield Island very quickly and, just as I did in my recce swim the previous week, shimmied up the slimy rock and got my body out of the water.  Straight back in, around the side and I reached out for St Herbert’s, I really wanted to do this final swim justice.
Otterbield Island
I was dead tired, that last slog over the fells of leg 4 had taken the wind out of my sails and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, I’d prepared for that though.  St Herberts was right ahead and as I cleared the bay, my problems really began: My suspicions about the surface state turned out to be entirely justified and beyond the shelter of the bay, the stiff SW wind was really pushing at the swell, creating a hell of a chop that both contrived to crash over my head and blow me off course.  It was coming from my “good” side too, which made things much worse, I can breathe bilaterally of course, but like most swimmers have a side I prefer to breath to, in my case it’s the right.  I was now being forced to breath uniquely to the left and all things told, I was having a bit of a bad time.  Sighting was a major problem, the surface chop meant I only got a second here and there to really assimilate what was in front of me and I have to say that St Herbert’s, with its dense woodland, just blended into the treeline behind it.  It was very hard to stay on course.  This was more a fight than a swim.
Eventually, St Herberts became close enough for me to easily distinguish the shoreline.  I was having to swim well to the right of my intended destination because of the bloody wind, it was incredibly draining and being unable to breath evenly took its toll.  Eventually the ground began to shoal and as I snake-bellied in, I remembered in the nick of time that there were some big submerged rocks thereabouts and it would be easy to head-butt one, that wouldn’t have been good, although I suppose it might have knocked some sense into me.   As planned, I went wide and landed on a little bit of shoreline …. I don’t think I have the words to describe how difficult it is to stand up on those slimy rocks when your body is just running on fumes and legs threating to lock solid at a moments notice. It’s a good thing that I really wanted to do this, otherwise I might have had a bit of a Sense of Humour Failure.
Back in the water, clear the rocks, get deep enough to swim properly, strike out hard for Rampsholme.  Attack the water.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Argh, waves, need air, need energy.  As I’ve said before, I love swimming but I wasn’t loving this.  As expected, at about that point I soon heard the squealing of some horrible gull above me, there is some kind of colony of them on Rampsholme and as you get close to the island they get a bit pissed-off and start dive-bombing you – I had learned this the previous week.  It might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a bit unnerving thinking that you’re going to have some big smelly bird bury its beak in the back of your head.
There comes a point in situations like this when you stop attacking and are forced to start defending, I think I was very close to that here.  I’m only flesh and blood and what I’d been through so far was enough to drain my batteries to more or less zero, I just didn’t have the energy for much more.  I tried to glide out to the front of the stroke and pull through the water, over-rotating to my left to try and get as much air into my lungs as possible.  Eventually, I could see the ground in front of me begin to shoal and soon I was skimming over the rocks of Rampsholme, pulling myself in with my hands.  My landing spot on the South shore was OK, but I still had to stand up on the slimy rocks, I was getting very fed-up with it all now.  No point in hanging around and the final stretch of water to Calf Close Bay was in front of me, I knew my friends would be waiting there for me and I was eager to get this over with.  Back into the water, clear the shallows, swim Martyn, for God’s sake just focus!  The conditions were no better on this side of the island, but I caught a glimpse of Helen waving a towel from the shoreline and knew that I was heading in the right direction, this nightmare swim was nearly over.
Chris Doing a Bit of Frog-Watching
I pushed my chest into the water and tried to concentrate on the job in hand: rotate, high elbows, clean hand entry, push to the front of the stroke, catch …. that was the theory, but the reality was that my arms felt like useless lead weights and weirdly, I couldn’t close my fingers together properly, meaning a much reduced hold on the water.  My swimming efficiency at this point was rubbish and it was costing me, I was angry and tired.  I would have like nothing more than to simply roll over and take a rest, but in those conditions it might not have been the smartest thing to do and I was worried about being hit by cramp again, something that could have been catastrophic.
It took what felt like an eternity to swim those last few hundred yards, I didn’t have enough energy left to combat the water conditions and was forced to do exaggerated rolls so that I could suck enough air into my body, more often than not a wave would crash over me making this a pretty miserable situation.  Eventually I saw the lake bottom and the ground began to shoal, it was nearly over – thank God.  Everyone had gone to Calf Close Bay so that we could run in together and I could see Chris and Nick standing on a rock by the waterside, both looked concerned …. I guess in retrospect they were right to be  I did my final snake-belly in and tried to stand, immediately the most agonising spasms coursed through my legs, not at all what you want when you’re trying to balance on slimy, slippy rocks.  It was as dodgy as hell and really didn’t want a smashed kneecap at this stage in the game.
Glad That's Over!
It took an eternity to get properly out of the water, wriggle out of my wetsuit and jam my running shoes on.  I bundled my wetsuit and kit into my rucksack and we scrambled up the dirt bank to the path that leads round to the Borrowdale Road.  Of course, the bloody cramp disappeared as soon as I got moving, don’t ask me how or why, I’ve given up trying to work it out.  The crap conditions had meant that I took much longer than envisaged getting across Derwentwater and my schedule was blown to pieces, however I was still on for a sub-15hr round and if I got a wiggle on stood a chance of beating the existing record.  There was no messing about and Helen and Emma set a strong pace from the outset, it was just two miles to Keswick but the way I felt at that point it may as well have been twenty.
The girls knew what the score was, both have been involved in plenty of Bob Graham Rounds and the final push for the Moot Hall.  I was dead on my feet, the weight of the rucksack felt like it was going to drag me to my knees and water was slowly draining from the wetsuit and trickling down the back of my legs.  I felt cold and was ready for all this to stop, but you know, it doesn’t take much to turn your emotions around and I was being pushed and encouraged to run, not allowed to slow down and told to move my lazy arse.   I hated it to start with, it’s always hard transitioning from one medium to another and I remember well how terrible the run to Keswick had been on my own Bob Graham, however this was a bit different and as the town’s rooftops came into view I could smell the scent of success and my spirits lifted.  Adrenaline coursed through me and it didn’t feel like such a big deal to run anymore, we ran straight across the roundabout and into the streets, past George Fisher’s and I was dodging around bemused pedestrians, past the Dog & Gun, I was berating and yelling at myself; "run you lazy bastard, run like you never have before, push, PUSH!"  I gave those last few yards everything and practically bounced up the steps of the Moot Hall to hit the door and complete the Frog Graham Round in 14hours, 48 minutes and 37 seconds.
One Very Happy Harrogate Harrier!
It’s difficult to describe the euphoria of situations like this.  I can remember once feeling sad because I thought I’d never again experience the joy of completing something like the BGR or UTMB.  I feel massively privileged to have been able to stand on these famous steps for a second time, it’s something very special and I was overwhelmed;  the Frog Graham Round had consumed me for most of the preceding months and I was literally beaming from ear to ear, I’d never been sure I could get round this monster – how could anyone? – because it drains you in a way that other big physical challenges cannot, but success lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.  Helen and my incredible friends Emma, Chris, Simon and Nick stood under the steps and gave me a cheer, correcting passers-by who thought they were witnessing the end of a successful BGR.  “What’s he done?  A Frog Graham Round?  Really?  What’s that?  Insane”!

Insane.  They were right.

 ** Postcript:

Since I completed the Frog Graham Round there have been over 30 further individuals who have successfully completed it and in retrospect I realise that I could have saved a lot of time on the day with a few minor tweaks to my planning, however the round was still a relatively unknown quantity at the time.  If you are interested in attempting the FGR, I recommend joining the dedicated Facebook group where you will find a lot of useful information, plus of course the Frog Graham website is the best resource available.  Good luck!

Friday, 23 September 2016

Brimham Sunset

It was one of those days yesterday, loads of stress and bad feeling at work, so it was a real relief to get out of the damned place, I don't know how I manage to keep a lid on it sometimes.  Helen wasn't on top form either, a bit wishy-washy and feeling sorry for herself, probably a consequence of the migraine attack she had on Monday. We needed to get out and I knew an effort was required. I put new batteries in our headtorches, threw a lightweight jacket in my bumbag and literally dragged her to the door, there are times when I have to make decisions for her and this was one of those times.

We headed up to Nidderdale and parked in Dacre, this village is a good centre for a number of trail runs and the Nidderdale Way runs straight through it. There was a definite nip in the air and it all felt very autumnal, one of those "I'm glad I've got me helly on" evenings .... a bit sad really, I always get a bit fed-up when summer disappears and of course, yesterday really was the first day of Autumn; I think the weather Gods were listening. I've got a nice circular route from here, so we headed up to Brimham Rocks and were treated to the most gorgeous orange sunset, I got to the fell gate first after the long climb up and just stood there watching, all of a sudden the cares of the day melted away and it was just me and the landscape, a tapestry of green fields slowly fading from view as the sun slid behind the horizon.

From here we turned around and headed South, the route takes you through some dark woods and along some truly ancient pathways, eventually finding the River Nidd and the return to Dacre. Our headtorches were reflected from the sleeping river and the calm of the place seemed to give strength to my legs, I felt strong and wanted to run and do justice to the setting. All too sudden we back at Helen's pug (her little Peugeot car) and knocking the mud off our shoes.

I think the effort was well rewarded.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Dirty Weekend

Hello, it's been a while hasn't it? I'm not going to make any excuses for my absence, although I'm tempted, particularly in view of all the nice messages I've received about people missing my blogs. It's a funny thing, the longer you go without blogging the easier it gets to make excuses not to do it and I've been making plenty. Sorry, it's the way things have been y'know: Work, training, internet politics ......I think I've got over it though.

Anyhow, yes, what have I been up to? Well, most recently I've been in the French Alps doing the UTMB TDS (a sort of self-flagellation masquerading as an ultra-marathon) and I've spent a good amount of time training for/messing about with an attempt on the Frog Graham Round, both of those are blogs in planning and I am working on them. How about the Here and Now?

Things have changed a bit hereabouts. Eldest son has got a proper job, moved to Bristol and I doubt I will see him for a millennia. Youngest son has quit his position at Newcastle Uni and is taking a year out before starting his masters, also in Bristol. Last I heard he was in some foul haunt in Bangkok, but I could be wrong. The house is strangely quiet and I'm beginning to repair several years worth of neglect [by me], indeed, only last week I fixed the leaky tap in the downstairs loo - how about that eh? On a less positive note, work is shite and the instigator of much stress. Last week was truly bloody dreadful, so it was with some relief that Helen and I quit town last Friday and buggered off to the Lakes for some much-needed solace (and beer).

We spent the weekend in our van, parked at Mardale Head. This is, as many will know, one of the bigger Lakeland 50/100 CPs and it was strange to be there in much quieter, less frenetic circumstances. We arrived late on Friday in torrential rain, but awoke on Saturday to blue skies and the promise of a great day. And it was.  We went Wainwright bagging, so around Haweswater on the Coast to Coast path, Kidsty Pike, The Knott, Rest Dodd, The Nab and then down to Dalehead (not THAT Dalehead), back up to Angletarn Pikes, Brock Crag and a seriously steep descent down the side of the fell to the Hayeswater filter station, up the side of Gray Crag and back to Thornthwaite Beacon before a stomp back down to Mardale Head via Rough Crag. Beer and chilli in the van afterwards, I nearly felt normal again.

Sunday it was a late start, but we trucked up to Nan Bield, then Harter Fell, Adam Seat (a Birkett I think), then across Gatesgarth to Branstree and then Selside Pike, before finding the Old Corpse Road and back to Mardale Head. We had cuppas and cake in the van before reluctantly returning to the world of mobile phone coverage and everyone howling for my attention.

As cures go, it was pretty good. I think I need more of the same.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Daylight Robbery

A friend of mine is shortly to do the Manchester marathon as part of a team of two, he's been telling me about some of his experiences with the organisers and I have to say I'm truly appalled. OK, so I don't run on the roads much nowadays so perhaps I'm a little out of touch with how things are, but the cost of running this race (and indeed, anything associated with it) seems nothing short of daylight bloody robbery. Can race organisers really get away with this sort of thing nowadays? Apparently so - get this:

- It's cost his tag team £50 each to enter. Yes, you heard that correctly. Fifty quid to run a half-marathon on a dull and particularly uninspiring inner-city route. Additionally, they were charged a £5.00 "handling fee" for their entry.

- It's going to cost £10 for his parking spot at Old Trafford

- If that wasn't bad enough, my mate's partner has been diagnosed with skin cancer and can't now compete, so he has found a replacement and is being charged £10.50 as an additional "admin fee". They refused to waive the fee, even in spite of the distressing circumstances.

Now, I know there is a demand for local events and I also know that people like mass-participation races like GNR, London etc and there's nothing wrong with that, but when the organisers start to take advantage of competitors it gets ugly. There are others out there that truly do exploit people, often masquerading behind a charity banner (I think the Jane Tomlinson one is the most brazen), but this particular event has shocked me. The entry fee and associated costs are outrageous and would make a serious dent in most working families' budgets. Whatever happened to running being an accessible sport for the masses? Not any more.

It really does make you wonder if some race organisers are a bit complacent? There is one well-known ultra distance race in the Lake District that is always sold-out and it's my (and others) opinion that the organisers know they've got a sinecure and treat the competitors with a level of disdain that is quite shocking. People who love the race(s) leap to their defence, but scratch a bit deeper and you realise that Joe Runner really is being treated like the proverbial dog poop. Runners are my favourite kind of people and I hate seeing them exploited. It seems this is happening more and more.

If you're daft enough to have entered the Manchester Marathon, well, I apologise if I've upset your sensibilities. Or did the organisers already do that?