Jonathan Whitehead’s Bob Graham Round 12th July 2008

On Sunday June 13th 1932 a guest house owner from Keswick went for a long run in the Lake District hills. He had planned to go the weekend before, but bad weather had made him postpone it by a week.

The run was to celebrate his 42 birthday.  Leaving Keswick Town Hall at 1.00 am he was joined by a couple of friends on different parts of the run. The weather was fine, with good visibility.  Following a clockwise route he ran over 42 of the Lake District hills, and arrived back at Keswick Town Hall (now known as the Moot Hall) at 00.39 hrs on Monday the 14th June.

His name was Bob Graham.

The route he took covered about 74 miles and 29000ft of climbing and descending.  It would be 1960 before this feat would be repeated by Alan Heaton of Clayton le Moors Harriers.  During the following decades the number of people who completed the round within the 24 hour time limit grew from a trickle to a couple of dozen or more each year.  At present there are probably about 1300 people who have completed the round.

Times have become faster since 1960.  Billy Bland set a record of 13.53 in 1982. Mark Hartell attempted to break this record in 1999, but only managed 14.54 to record the second ever fastest time.  While some went for fast rounds, others seeking a more severe challenge added more miles, more climbing and more peaks to the round. While not able to break the record for speed Mark Hartell does hold the record for the most number of peaks with an amazing 77.  You can check out his schedules on Macclesfield Harriers website.

The rules for completing the standard round are fairly simple.  It should start and finish at the Moot Hall in Keswick, take less than 24 hrs, and for an attempt to be recorded there should be a witness to confirm that you have visited each summit.  The route can be attempted either clockwise or anti clockwise.  There have been endless arguments over the years, usually in a pub, as to which way is best, and the best time of day to start.  There is still no agreement.  Anti clockwise used to be most popular in the early days, but in more recent years almost every one goes clockwise, the same way as Bob Graham.

Starting and finishing in Keswick and with 4 road crossings at Threlkeld, Dunmail Raise, Wasdale, and Honister Hause the route can be divided into 5 sections.  Normal practice is for someone attempting a complete round to be supported on each of the sections by 1 or more runners who will carry food, drink, spare kit and help with navigation.  There are some who are almost professional pacers. They have a knowledge of one or more sections that is second to none and can cross the fells with precision in the worst of weather or at night, or both.

Most people who have completed the round usually started by supporting others on one or more sections. There is an unwritten rule that you help those that help you.  It is also an excellent way of learning the route.

My own involvement started back in the mid eighties when I started supporting others. My first completion was achieved when supporting another runner who dropped out at Wasdale on a Clockwise attempt, while I carried onto finish in 23.16.  14 days later I went round again, anti clockwise this time in 23.07.  I was to go round again in 1990 and there were 2 more solo (unsupported) completions in 1991.  The problem with supporting others, or solo unsupported attempts is that you have to carry all the food and gear you need for the round (and if supporting another runner some of their stuff as well).

By the mid 1990s I was rarely visiting the Lake District.  Munro bagging, house moves and niggly injuries that reduced my hill running kept me away.  It wasn’t until 2006 that work took me back to Cumbria and with some overnight stops in Keswick, and evening runs on the hills started me thinking.  An invitation to help with an attempt in 2007 made me think some more.  I decided I would try and go as far as I could on the 2007 attempt just to see what happened. A fall and a badly twisted ankle at Threlkeld after only 4 hours put a rather sudden stop to that idea. However, a walking holiday in autumn 2007 that covered most of the route made me think I might be able to do it.

So the summer of 2008 would have to be the next attempt.  Some ultra distance fell races early in the year, combined with recceing and helping with other BGR attempts and a Ramsay Round attempt got me into a reasonable state of fitness.  But nothing like as fit as I should be when compared with 1989.  All those I consulted had no doubts that I could get round.  I was not so sure, but decided to try.  As long as I was not injured I would carry on, even if it was to take more than the 24 hrs.

After several weeks of poor weather, a good weather window opened for the weekend of July 12 – 13.  So at 00.00hrs on July 12th I ran out of Keswick not knowing what might happen in the next 23hrs 59 mins.

The round was not without some incident.  The cloud base was down to about 2000ft until around 7.00 in the morning.  The rocks on Halls Fell Ridge and Broad Stand were desperately slippery.  One slip and that would have been the end of everything.  Some supporters on the hills were left behind, unable to keep up.  Some didn’t make it to the start point of their section in time, but still set out in a valiant attempt to catch me up and help.  From late morning on the Central fells to sunset the weather conditions were perfect, with views for great distances in all directions (not that I spent much time admiring them). Although time had been lost on the first leg, this had been made up and I was just ahead of schedule by the end of leg 2.  Gradually over the rest of the round time was gained, and I ran back into Keswick at 10.38 on the Saturday night, in a time of 22.38 only 10 minutes outside my PB set 19 years before.

It took some weeks for this to sink in.  In the weeks leading up to the attempt encouragement from those who knew what I was planning was tremendous.  Those whose opinions really mean something to me were absolutely sure that I could do it.  If you happen to read this you may not know who you are, and even though you might not have been on the hills, or at the road crossings waiting for me, you made a big difference.  If you thought I could do it, then it must be possible.  Those who came on the hills with me were excellent. Without your support, however big or small, I would not have got round. Thank you to you all.

So what next? Who knows?  Plans are being made for something in 2009.  If you fancy having a go at the BGR yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for any help. As Bob Graham said in the years before Alan Heaton succeeded in 1960 “anyone should be able to do – provided they’re fit enough”.

For the record my rounds (so far)

1989            Clockwise                          23.16
1989            Anti clockwise                   23.07
1990            Anti clockwise                   22.28
1991            Clockwise             Solo      23.15
1991            Anti clockwise      Solo      22.50
2008            Clockwise                          22.38  (schedule details here)

Recommended reading:  Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith.

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