It wasn’t meant to end like this: bent double in a pitiable heap, legs and arms tied in constraining knots of fern root, mouth full of sweat and mud. On an August night in 2015, 20 hours into the endeavour, my body had seized up with insurmountable cramp. My head-torch had broken and, with only the distant glow of a slate mine for reference, I had drifted like an errant moth into a ravine of rock and bog. I was utterly finished.
The challenge had always seemed perverse: to run within a day a circuit from Keswick in central Lakeland over 42 mountain peaks, including the three highest massifs in England, climbing over 8,000 metres and traversing some 67 miles of turf and stone. Put another way, it’s a run from London to Dover, but over the unwelcome obstacle of Everest. This is the Bob Graham Round, the most serious outdoor challenge in the UK, and I had been foolhardy enough to attempt it.
The round was first conceived and completed in 1932 by a local hotelier, Bob Graham, then aged 42. This ‘long walk’ was accomplished in tennis shoes and a pyjama top. Few could believe his achievement, which was not replicated for nearly 40 years. Once it was shown to be more broadly feasible, attempts increased: the tenth successful round was made in 1972, with the first female completion five years later. Subsequent successes have occurred at a steady trickle: this summer the ‘most exclusive club in England’ gained its 2,000th member.
Life membership of the Bob Graham Club is earned by successful completion of the round in under 24 hours — at any time, with any company, clockwise or anti-clockwise, provided that every summit is witnessed by a fellow runner. (Those attempting the round are accompanied by a series of ‘pacers’ who take turns on different sections.) It is not a race, nor a communal endeavour, but a private mission of endurance. Flat and gently undulating terrain is run; steeper climbs are tackled with strides and lunges, often with hands on thighs, rocks or tussocks; descents are hurtled down to gain any speed lost when climbing. There is no given path to follow and for those of moderate pace (i.e., me) there is no time to consult a map or compass. The route, from both sight and Ordnance Survey maps, must be seared into the brain, but each footfall is chosen on its merits.
Fell running is sublime. Its intrinsic nature is pure freedom. All are equal on the mountains: it is perhaps the only place where it is still de rigueur to greet any stranger. The prattle of phones, emails and cynics do not venture beyond the foot of the fell. The sport’s ethos, inherited from 19th century shepherds’ meets, remains unspoilt and uncommercialised: no fuss, no paperwork, no media. Any fell race ends, as all proper sports should, with beer. The Bob Graham Club meets only biannually, but the fells are a perennial clubhouse. Heroic names are uttered with reverence — Jos Naylor, Billy Bland, Nicky Spinks, Jasmin Paris. But their superhuman achievements remain little known beyond the community.
The round is no typical athletic slog. Startlingly juxtaposed with the lung-bursting, muscle-sapping suffering of it all is the spectacular beauty of the terrain: sparkling tarns, gushing becks, grey slate and purple swathes of heather punctuate the gentle green-browns of the fellside. The enigmatic names of Blencathra, Sergeant Man and Dollywaggon Pike afford glorious views below and above the cloud line, often flanked with knowing smiles by the high-fell sheep, the Herdwicks.
As a Cumbrian I feel drawn to the fells. But a home and career in Cambridge, flatter than an unambitious pancake, gives scant opportunity for hill running. A little up-and-down, however, lurks in car park stairwells, and the ‘Underround’, a loop of London that descends- and ascends 42 Tube stations. Though by no means a runner, I resolved in 2014 that the seemingly impossible round could at least be attempted. 2015 put paid to that, with three grim failures to my name, each of a distinct but brutal character: beclouded bewilderment, benighted hypothermia, and cramped immobility in that ravine.
Yet this St George’s Day I gave it one last stab. After a late but earnest appeal, a small team of friends and acquaintances was scraped together from the random corners of the country where their careers had dropped them: as is usual for round attempts, the pacers were either fitter than the challenger or better versed in-‘fellcraft’. Other long-suffering friends were assembled at the four scheduled road crossings, including the graveyard shift of 2 a.m., to administer support, sustenance and spare socks. A 5.30 p.m. start was rewarded with evening serenity on the Skiddaw range, leaving the night phase over the Helvellyn ridge lit by the twin beams of head-torch and full moon. A spring dawn eventually rose on the slab of Bowfell, and from Scafell Pike, the capstone of England, the entire north-west unfurled — the Isle of Man to the west, Scotland across the Solway to the north, the northern Pennines to the east, and Morecambe Bay to the south, with Blackpool Tower pricking the horizon beyond.
But for all this beguiling scenery, every round holds its nightmares. Low cloud cuts visibility to a few yards, throwing off even experienced navigators; cramp cripples muscles until defeated by a combination of stretching and punching; sickness and nausea take hold from the unyielding consumption of Snickers bars and sickly liquids. Amid such problems, the last third of my round attempt is difficult to describe. Limbs slowed, joints were in agony, thoughts became sluggish and primitive and the vision tunnelled. Fitness was now an irrelevance: clichéd and intangible qualities — drive, grit, endurance — were the sole currency. With each peak looming larger than anticipated, the head needed to stay stronger than the body. Pacers offered verbal encouragement but were powerless to move another man’s legs.
This is not the place for a glib and hackneyed ‘be the best’ or ‘beat the rest’. It is simply about pushing yourself to do all you can. The fells are so remote that there is no scope for compromise or passing the buck: whether or not you do sit down and cry, you need to get back to civilisation yourself. I had chosen this torment: it was for me to end it. Through the intense pain, several flashes of inspiration — birdsong at 2,000ft, the humbling second world war memorial on Great Gable, spotting my eight-month pregnant wife 60 miles in — mollified the grinding toil and kept legs swinging. And then somehow, with 14 minutes to spare, I managed to get round.
For someone of average fitness, and a more than average interest in wine and beer, this remains a profound but pleasant shock. For all that the Bob Graham Round is a mad and irrational challenge, it is immensely beautiful and richly rewarding. It is open to all and, like the silent fells it traverses, lies patiently in wait for whoever next wishes to try their hand.