A Fellish Idea
Matt Maynard

How to tackle the UK´s premiere 66mile off-road running challenge in the English Lake District on a 54-hour weekend round trip from London Euston

The plan for the weekend on paper was simple: Explore, on foot, the classic fell running challenge known as the Bob Graham Round in the English Lake District and make it back to work on Monday without getting fired. In 1932, a seemingly equally time-pressed hotelier from Cumbria gave himself just 24 hours to tick as many mountain tops as possible, starting and finishing in Keswick High Street. Bob Graham left the mark at 42 peaks, including England´s highest, Scafell Pike. Since then his ¨Round¨ has become infamous in fell running circles, with aspirants vying to find ever-faster and often off-piste lines between the peaks, running approximately 66miles and climbing the equivalent of 3,000 flights of stairs along the way.

In the modern era, on dry summer weekends around midnight, head-torches and short-shorts mingle with crowds outside The Round pub on the hallowed steps of Keswick´s Moot Hall. Only 3,000 odd runners have officially ever managed to make it back by last orders the next day to claim their free pint and join the Bob Graham Club 24 Hour Club. Membership comes with an invitation to a biennial dinner. I waged that – lacking the fitness or familiarity with the Round necessary to bite off the challenge in just one spin of the planet ­– by packing a few extra Snickers, sourcing ultra-lightweight gear and recruiting a BG veteran pal to carry most of it, just maybe I could sneak my Round in over a weekend.

By 8:11pm we are in the hire van at Oxenholme station before revving through Kendal, coasting past tea shops in Windermere and gunning it along the northern shore of the lake to Ambleside.

ON TRACK

My train pulls out of London Euston at 5:30pm on a Friday in early July. Rain sleeks down the accelerating window of the northern-bound buffet cart. There are a half dozen sweaty shrink-wrapped sandwiches to pump into my stomach, but fortunately all sleeping bag stuffing and technical kit has been taken care of by my Cumbrian-based running partner James. By 8:11pm we are in the hire van at Oxenholme station before revving through Kendal, coasting past tea shops in Windermere and gunning it along the northern shore of the lake to Ambleside. By Grasmere we´re into serious hills and Round country. At a non-descript layby I´m told to throw some bags containing socks and yet more sandwiches beneath some indistinguishable bracken. By 9:15pm we have dumped the van in the Threlkeld Cricket Club public car park and jumped into a local taxi. Dusk falls as we drop down into Keswick. The driver has seen it all before and takes us straight to the steps of the Moot Hall.

HALLOWED STEPS

Our mad-cap idea is to start at 10pm, completing the first of the Bob Graham´s five legs (see Bob Graham Fun-Size) overnight and running 12miles. After ticking off Skiddaw and Great Calva we will hop back in the van at 2am beneath the final peak of Blencathra for a couple of hours´ sleep at the Threlkeld Cricket Club car park before continuing on at dawn for legs two and three. We will sleep again some 28 miles later in the remote Wasdale Valley before finishing off the 21miles of legs four and five on Sunday to close the loop back to Keswick. Real contenders do it in one continuous push. James tramps up the steps to set his watch and toe the start line. Under the eaves of the Moot Hall he´s in the FA Cup throne-room of trail running.

I almost hop in the taxi and wing it to the M25 out of embarrassment when a few drunk blokes begin to cheer. Luckily their attention is on another group of runners who are here for a proper 24hour Bob Graham attempt. With our heavy looking bags, we pretend we are support runners for a real contender, then sleek off down an alleyway rich with vomit and chips and into the night.

With hail cutting into our faces and mist whipping across the short-sighted beams of our headtorches, he assures me that we are at the summit, and that we are already five minutes behind schedule.  

NIGHT SWEATS

It´s a long pull to the first of the 42 summits, some 830m of climbing from Keswick to the top of 931m Skiddaw. Wind is picking up, but I cower in the lee of James and he lets me in a little on the lore of the Round. Whilst running races are usually solo affairs on pre-marked courses, Bob Graham attempts are traditionally team affairs, often requiring a rugby-squad sized logistics team. On the hill, this involves accompanying your runner for one or more of the BG´s five legs where you will carry their water, force feed them sandwiches, tell crap jokes, lie about how well they are doing, wipe away tears and crucially guide them to the top of each peak. At the end of each leg, tired support team members pass on their runner to fresh members of the crew like a relay baton. It´s an unwritten rule that to attempt the Bob Graham you need to first ¨crew¨ for another contender on their own attempt. James has crewed on dozens of Bobs and is earning even more Brownie points tonight. In 2022 he ran his own Round in a respectable 21 hours and 5 minutes (including time for pizza and beer at most of the road crossings). For our attempt he has generously allowed stoppage time for sleep, but the movement time between them is a standard 23-hour Bob Graham schedule, giving us just 85 minutes to climb to the top of Skiddaw. With hail cutting into our faces and mist whipping across the short-sighted beams of our headtorches, he assures me that we are at the summit, and that we are already five minutes behind schedule.

NO TIME TO STOP

Rain is hammering on the van at 5:30am. We´ve had two hours´ sleep and wash away self-pity and doubt with a Red Bull and a can of cold baked beans. There´s no time to make coffee. Leg two is a stiff climb up 726m Clough Head and our bags are heavier now with albeit ultra-lightweight overnight kit including sleeping bags, an inflatable mattress and a tarp. The Round, I´m learning, is as much a secretarial challenge as a physical one: tick a peak, pop some energy in your mouth; incoming rain, make the effort to get the waterproofs on; fantastic views, don´t stop there´s no time. It might seem strange, rushing to cram 42 peaks into a weekend, but – as we jog along the undulating rain-swept ridgeline above Ullswater and Thirlmere with James signing out ¨Great Dodd, Helvellyn, Fairfield¨ as each successive summit cairn comes and goes, before dropping so precisely upon our stashed bags in that bracken to resupply and change sodden feet – the adventure of it has me gripped.

Wind on the summit is tipping gale strength but is blowing enough 3G to Google and then call the Wasdale Head Inn, some 900m below. ¨Chips. Anything with chips!¨ we bellow into the phone

GIANTS AMONG FELLS

We climb into gun-metal clouds towards Steel Fell at the start of Leg 3. Next level unlocked. We traverse dark crags, cliffs, bogs and scree slopes. Visibility is down to an arm´s length by Esk Pike and Great End. We stumble onto the summits, eyes glued to the map and compass, with more than occasional checks of the GPS watch, tumbling almost into Scafell Pike´s rock turret on England´s highest mountain. Time is gushing away from us. But after twenty hours of movement and just two hours of sleep, concentration must be sharp. The Broad Stand rock climb separates us from today´s final 964m peak, Scafell. We scuttle onto it, gripping sodden moss and jamming our feet in dripping cracks. In August 1802, the trembling opium-eater and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge mistakenly authored this climb when getting off route, his diary recounting a mixture of shame, pain and fantastic pleasure at the prospect of being just an uncurling fingertip from inevitable demise.

Wind on the summit is tipping gale-force but is blowing enough 3G our way to Google and then call the Wasdale Head Inn, some 900m below. ¨Chips. Anything with chips!¨ we bellow into the phone. It´s a long technical descent in fading light to the shadowy sheep pens and grassy plains of the Wasdale Valley. And the chips are still hot.

 

INTO THE ALPINE

We wake in a field at dawn in one of England´s remotest valleys with a mild hangover, new rations of pickled eggs and crisps, some 12 more Lake District mountains to climb and 24 hours until Monday morning´s alarm. The tarp stretched over our trekking poles is down and our sleeping bags packed and mats deflated in less time than it takes to make a morning coffee. There´s no coffee though. Just a caffeine energy gel, and then back on the trail for leg four. We climb through a forest of bracken and whisps of mist clinging to the sheep pens below. On to Yewbarrow and Red Pike, tiptoeing around the rocky edge of a great cauldron, carved out once-upon-a-time by a great glacier below. Here we are in the heart of the English Alps.

No photos though. No time. Just the continuous open question at the top of each peak of whether the legs can reach the next one. Civilization hits us at Honister Pass like a Disneyland giftshop at a silent meditation retreat. Leg five begins here with not-to-be-snubbed coffee (my first since a fairly mediocre effort aboard the north-bound train some 40hrs earlier), then distant views across Derwentwater to Keswick and some instagrammers in their underwear on the final and 42nd peak, Robinson.

But two hours later in the chatter of the fast train back to London, these thoughts are as muddied as my wickedly anti-social attire

FOLLOWED FOOTSTEPS

James coaches me down the final hill, knitting together the veins and creases of the landscape that make for the fastest lines. These ¨trods¨ are thoroughfares not just for fell runners but also in the working life of perhaps the sport´s most celebrated runner; the upland sheep farmer Joss Naylor MBE. On the rolling country road section to Keswick with its ancient cottages, woodland and mouldering bridges spanning tinkling brooks, you can imagine yourself in the Lake District of Coleridge, or a young Joss Naylor. The 87-year-old shepherd most famously ran not 42 but 72 Lake District peaks in 24 hours in 1975, and then, in 2006, linked 70 in under 21 hours to celebrate each year of his life. Today he still helps out at fell races and supports BGR attempts, lending his name to another  Lakeland Challenge along the way. Just a few summers ago James had the honour of running 10 mountainous miles with him.

Beyond the numbers, there´s a fleeting feeling, as we close the loop and eat our chips on the Moot Hall steps, about the hateful brilliance of heading out into the hills; with a rucksack full of the absolute minimum, to see how many contours of the land your legs and mind can stand. Something primitive and vulnerable. Another two hours later, in the chatter of the fast train back to London, these thoughts become as muddied as my wickedly anti-social attire.

I´ll have to come back. A little lighter. A little faster. And join the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club proper.

BITE-SIZE BG

Each of the Bob Graham´s five legs make a high-quality mountain hill day in itself. Bite of a smaller piece of the challenge by trying one leg at a time.

Leg 1 Keswick to Threlkeld 12.28miles. 1,562m of ascent
Leg 2 Threlkeld to Dunmail 12.87miles. 1,835m of ascent
Leg 3 Dunmail to Wasdale 15.2miles. 2,024m of ascent
Leg 4 Wasdale to Honister 10.26miles. 1,477m of ascent
Leg 5 Honister to Keswick 10.53miles. 709m of ascent

Stats from UKHillWalking.com

STAND OUT STATS

Fastest ever Bob Graham Rounds: Jack Kuenzle – 12hours 33minutes; Beth Pascall – 14hours and 34 minutes
Sub 24 hour round attempts in 2023: 190
Successful 24 hour round attempts in 2023: 94
Total number of Bob Graham registered completions (2022 end): 2713

Stats from BobGrahamClub.org.uk

KIT LIST

Matt Carried:

Kamleika Jacket | Core Jacket | Long sleeved Tee | Flash Tight 0.75
Classic 25 | Mountain Raid 160 | Fusion Gloves | Ultra Flexi Flasks
Alu Poles | Bivi Bag | Inflatable Mat | Headtorch

How to tackle the UK´s premiere 66mile off-road running challenge in the English Lake District on a 54-hour weekend round trip from London Euston

The plan for the weekend on paper was simple: Explore, on foot, the classic fell running challenge known as the Bob Graham Round in the English Lake District and make it back to work on Monday without getting fired. In 1932, a seemingly equally time-pressed hotelier from Cumbria gave himself just 24 hours to tick as many mountain tops as possible, starting and finishing in Keswick High Street. Bob Graham left the mark at 42 peaks, including England´s highest, Scafell Pike. Since then his ¨Round¨ has become infamous in fell running circles, with aspirants vying to find ever-faster and often off-piste lines between the peaks, running approximately 66miles and climbing the equivalent of 3,000 flights of stairs along the way.

In the modern era, on dry summer weekends around midnight, head-torches and short-shorts mingle with crowds outside The Round pub on the hallowed steps of Keswick´s Moot Hall. Only 3,000 odd runners have officially ever managed to make it back by last orders the next day to claim their free pint and join the Bob Graham Club 24 Hour Club. Membership comes with an invitation to a biennial dinner. I waged that – lacking the fitness or familiarity with the Round necessary to bite off the challenge in just one spin of the planet ­– by packing a few extra Snickers, sourcing ultra-lightweight gear and recruiting a BG veteran pal to carry most of it, just maybe I could sneak my Round in over a weekend.

By 8:11pm we are in the hire van at Oxenholme station before revving through Kendal, coasting past tea shops in Windermere and gunning it along the northern shore of the lake to Ambleside.

ON TRACK

My train pulls out of London Euston at 5:30pm on a Friday in early July. Rain sleeks down the accelerating window of the northern-bound buffet cart. There are a half dozen sweaty shrink-wrapped sandwiches to pump into my stomach, but fortunately all sleeping bag stuffing and technical kit has been taken care of by my Cumbrian-based running partner James. By 8:11pm we are in the hire van at Oxenholme station before revving through Kendal, coasting past tea shops in Windermere and gunning it along the northern shore of the lake to Ambleside. By Grasmere we´re into serious hills and Round country. At a non-descript layby I´m told to throw some bags containing socks and yet more sandwiches beneath some indistinguishable bracken. By 9:15pm we have dumped the van in the Threlkeld Cricket Club public car park and jumped into a local taxi. Dusk falls as we drop down into Keswick. The driver has seen it all before and takes us straight to the steps of the Moot Hall.

HALLOWED STEPS

Our mad-cap idea is to start at 10pm, completing the first of the Bob Graham´s five legs (see Bob Graham Fun-Size) overnight and running 12miles. After ticking off Skiddaw and Great Calva we will hop back in the van at 2am beneath the final peak of Blencathra for a couple of hours´ sleep at the Threlkeld Cricket Club car park before continuing on at dawn for legs two and three. We will sleep again some 28 miles later in the remote Wasdale Valley before finishing off the 21miles of legs four and five on Sunday to close the loop back to Keswick. Real contenders do it in one continuous push. James tramps up the steps to set his watch and toe the start line. Under the eaves of the Moot Hall he´s in the FA Cup throne-room of trail running.

I almost hop in the taxi and wing it to the M25 out of embarrassment when a few drunk blokes begin to cheer. Luckily their attention is on another group of runners who are here for a proper 24hour Bob Graham attempt. With our heavy looking bags, we pretend we are support runners for a real contender, then sleek off down an alleyway rich with vomit and chips and into the night.

With hail cutting into our faces and mist whipping across the short-sighted beams of our headtorches, he assures me that we are at the summit, and that we are already five minutes behind schedule.  

NIGHT SWEATS

It´s a long pull to the first of the 42 summits, some 830m of climbing from Keswick to the top of 931m Skiddaw. Wind is picking up, but I cower in the lee of James and he lets me in a little on the lore of the Round. Whilst running races are usually solo affairs on pre-marked courses, Bob Graham attempts are traditionally team affairs, often requiring a rugby-squad sized logistics team. On the hill, this involves accompanying your runner for one or more of the BG´s five legs where you will carry their water, force feed them sandwiches, tell crap jokes, lie about how well they are doing, wipe away tears and crucially guide them to the top of each peak. At the end of each leg, tired support team members pass on their runner to fresh members of the crew like a relay baton. It´s an unwritten rule that to attempt the Bob Graham you need to first ¨crew¨ for another contender on their own attempt. James has crewed on dozens of Bobs and is earning even more Brownie points tonight. In 2022 he ran his own Round in a respectable 21 hours and 5 minutes (including time for pizza and beer at most of the road crossings). For our attempt he has generously allowed stoppage time for sleep, but the movement time between them is a standard 23-hour Bob Graham schedule, giving us just 85 minutes to climb to the top of Skiddaw. With hail cutting into our faces and mist whipping across the short-sighted beams of our headtorches, he assures me that we are at the summit, and that we are already five minutes behind schedule.

NO TIME TO STOP

Rain is hammering on the van at 5:30am. We´ve had two hours´ sleep and wash away self-pity and doubt with a Red Bull and a can of cold baked beans. There´s no time to make coffee. Leg two is a stiff climb up 726m Clough Head and our bags are heavier now with albeit ultra-lightweight overnight kit including sleeping bags, an inflatable mattress and a tarp. The Round, I´m learning, is as much a secretarial challenge as a physical one: tick a peak, pop some energy in your mouth; incoming rain, make the effort to get the waterproofs on; fantastic views, don´t stop there´s no time. It might seem strange, rushing to cram 42 peaks into a weekend, but – as we jog along the undulating rain-swept ridgeline above Ullswater and Thirlmere with James signing out ¨Great Dodd, Helvellyn, Fairfield¨ as each successive summit cairn comes and goes, before dropping so precisely upon our stashed bags in that bracken to resupply and change sodden feet – the adventure of it has me gripped.

Wind on the summit is tipping gale strength but is blowing enough 3G to Google and then call the Wasdale Head Inn, some 900m below. ¨Chips. Anything with chips!¨ we bellow into the phone

GIANTS AMONG FELLS

We climb into gun-metal clouds towards Steel Fell at the start of Leg 3. Next level unlocked. We traverse dark crags, cliffs, bogs and scree slopes. Visibility is down to an arm´s length by Esk Pike and Great End. We stumble onto the summits, eyes glued to the map and compass, with more than occasional checks of the GPS watch, tumbling almost into Scafell Pike´s rock turret on England´s highest mountain. Time is gushing away from us. But after twenty hours of movement and just two hours of sleep, concentration must be sharp. The Broad Stand rock climb separates us from today´s final 964m peak, Scafell. We scuttle onto it, gripping sodden moss and jamming our feet in dripping cracks. In August 1802, the trembling opium-eater and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge mistakenly authored this climb when getting off route, his diary recounting a mixture of shame, pain and fantastic pleasure at the prospect of being just an uncurling fingertip from inevitable demise.

Wind on the summit is tipping gale-force but is blowing enough 3G our way to Google and then call the Wasdale Head Inn, some 900m below. ¨Chips. Anything with chips!¨ we bellow into the phone. It´s a long technical descent in fading light to the shadowy sheep pens and grassy plains of the Wasdale Valley. And the chips are still hot.

 

INTO THE ALPINE

We wake in a field at dawn in one of England´s remotest valleys with a mild hangover, new rations of pickled eggs and crisps, some 12 more Lake District mountains to climb and 24 hours until Monday morning´s alarm. The tarp stretched over our trekking poles is down and our sleeping bags packed and mats deflated in less time than it takes to make a morning coffee. There´s no coffee though. Just a caffeine energy gel, and then back on the trail for leg four. We climb through a forest of bracken and whisps of mist clinging to the sheep pens below. On to Yewbarrow and Red Pike, tiptoeing around the rocky edge of a great cauldron, carved out once-upon-a-time by a great glacier below. Here we are in the heart of the English Alps.

No photos though. No time. Just the continuous open question at the top of each peak of whether the legs can reach the next one. Civilization hits us at Honister Pass like a Disneyland giftshop at a silent meditation retreat. Leg five begins here with not-to-be-snubbed coffee (my first since a fairly mediocre effort aboard the north-bound train some 40hrs earlier), then distant views across Derwentwater to Keswick and some instagrammers in their underwear on the final and 42nd peak, Robinson.

But two hours later in the chatter of the fast train back to London, these thoughts are as muddied as my wickedly anti-social attire

FOLLOWED FOOTSTEPS

James coaches me down the final hill, knitting together the veins and creases of the landscape that make for the fastest lines. These ¨trods¨ are thoroughfares not just for fell runners but also in the working life of perhaps the sport´s most celebrated runner; the upland sheep farmer Joss Naylor MBE. On the rolling country road section to Keswick with its ancient cottages, woodland and mouldering bridges spanning tinkling brooks, you can imagine yourself in the Lake District of Coleridge, or a young Joss Naylor. The 87-year-old shepherd most famously ran not 42 but 72 Lake District peaks in 24 hours in 1975, and then, in 2006, linked 70 in under 21 hours to celebrate each year of his life. Today he still helps out at fell races and supports BGR attempts, lending his name to another  Lakeland Challenge along the way. Just a few summers ago James had the honour of running 10 mountainous miles with him.

Beyond the numbers, there´s a fleeting feeling, as we close the loop and eat our chips on the Moot Hall steps, about the hateful brilliance of heading out into the hills; with a rucksack full of the absolute minimum, to see how many contours of the land your legs and mind can stand. Something primitive and vulnerable. Another two hours later, in the chatter of the fast train back to London, these thoughts become as muddied as my wickedly anti-social attire.

I´ll have to come back. A little lighter. A little faster. And join the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club proper.

BITE-SIZE BG

Each of the Bob Graham´s five legs make a high-quality mountain hill day in itself. Bite of a smaller piece of the challenge by trying one leg at a time.

Leg 1 Keswick to Threlkeld 12.28miles. 1,562m of ascent
Leg 2 Threlkeld to Dunmail 12.87miles. 1,835m of ascent
Leg 3 Dunmail to Wasdale 15.2miles. 2,024m of ascent
Leg 4 Wasdale to Honister 10.26miles. 1,477m of ascent
Leg 5 Honister to Keswick 10.53miles. 709m of ascent

Stats from UKHillWalking.com

STAND OUT STATS

Fastest ever Bob Graham Rounds: Jack Kuenzle – 12hours 33minutes; Beth Pascall – 14hours and 34 minutes
Sub 24 hour round attempts in 2023: 190
Successful 24 hour round attempts in 2023: 94
Total number of Bob Graham registered completions (2022 end): 2713

Stats from BobGrahamClub.org.uk

KIT LIST

Matt Carried:

Kamleika Jacket | Core Jacket | Long sleeved Tee | Flash Tight 0.75
Classic 25 | Mountain Raid 160 | Fusion Gloves | Ultra Flexi Flasks
Alu Poles | Bivi Bag | Inflatable Mat | Headtorch

Matt Maynard is a British adventure film-maker, photographer, internationally published writer, mountain leader, once-competitive ultra runner and MSc climate change scientist. Since 2014 he has been based permanently in the central Andes mountains above Santiago, Chile.
Matt Maynard is a British adventure film-maker, photographer, internationally published writer, mountain leader, once-competitive ultra runner and MSc climate change scientist. Since 2014 he has been based permanently in the central Andes mountains above Santiago, Chile.

If you have a story to tell, whether it’s from the OMM, another race or challenge or just how you use our kit, get in touch! Just pop an email to james@team-ark.com and who knows, you might just earn yourself some free kit!

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