Supporting Mike’s Bob Graham

When club mate, Mike asked for runners to support him on his Bob Graham attempt (approximately 70 miles, 42 Lake District Peaks, over 28,000 ft of climb all in less than 24 hours!) I was happy to help.

He was particularly looking for help on the night leg from Threlkeld to Dunmail raise, approximately 13 miles with nearly 6000 ft of ascent.  I was happy with the physical challenge having covered that sort of distance plenty of times, but what about navigating in the dark whilst trying to maintain a 24 hour pace – would I get him lost and blow his chances?

Mike & Mark, ready for the off

Mike set off from Moot Hall in the centre of Keswick at exactly 7pm hoping to be back before 7pm the next day. I started my watch and waved him and Mark his supporter off on the first leg and went back to camp to pack my bag for the next leg. It was tricky to know what pack to take as I needed to be able to carry my own kit, some safety equipment plus leaving some room for any of Mike’s kit, food and drink that he needed carrying.  Having checked all my kit including new batteries in my head-torch and tried to eat at a time when I would normally be going to bed it was then time to get to the changeover.

It was twilight at Threlkeld and torch lights could be seen descending the ridge off Blencathra as nervous supporters waited for their teams to come off the hill.  Mike arrived just ahead of schedule and managed 10 minutes of feeding and changing kit before we (Mike, Mark, Martha and myself) set off, across the main road towards the hills and on into the night.

The climb up Clough Head is steep and there is no obvious path but I knew to take a line avoiding the scree before turning to reach the top.  Just before the top the cloud came down and visibility dropped – not a good sign for the 12 miles to come.  Thankfully the navigation here isn’t too tricky and we soon picked up the trail leading on to Great Dodd and left the cloud behind.

There is something special about night running: enveloped in your own small pool of light listening to the silence, your senses seemingly more alert, the need to concentrate on your footsteps, the way that the land looms around you with even the smallest hillocks giving the impression of mountains in your peripheral vision.

Night running

The leg was straightforward from here until Dollywagon Pike with good paths meaning that only slight detours had to made to bag the summits allowing us to roll along at a good pace.

After Dollywagon we had to choose the best way to summit Fairfield, the choice being a good descent path and less well trodden route up or a grassy descent to pick up the main, loose scree path to the top.  In daylight I would have chosen the former but in darkness it would have been easy to stray into rocky ground and lose time so we opted for the main path.  This made for a tortuous climb on steep loose scree but led us safely to the summit from where we retraced our steps to a col and the last climb of the leg, Seat Sandal.  The summit was again in cloud and so we ran on a compass bearing westwards, gradually dropping towards the road.  A slight moment of worry when, with the lights of the cars in sight, we found ourselves in deep bracken, our torches illuminating a boulder field below but thankfully a short traverse brought us to a path and a swift downhill run to our waiting support crew with Mike’s fuel of choice – a Pot Noodle!
4 hours 26 minutes of night running and on schedule.

3.15 am Leg 2 / 3 changeover

After the scheduled 10 minutes refuel a new support crew took over to guide Mike on the longest leg to Wasdale.  This included the technical climbing section and he was in the capable hands of Matt and Mike G who were to get him safely up Broad Stand whilst Kirsty and Richard were to do the navigating. The sky was just starting to lighten as they set off and they would soon be able to run without torches. For me it was back to camp for some sleep. 

Dawn, high in the Lakes

After a welcome hot shower I managed a handful of hours sleep and then spent the morning drinking tea and eating.  I wondered how Mike was getting on, the signs were good with only a little low cloud on the highest peaks and it was calm and dry. Then we had a phone call to say that he had struggled a bit on leg 3 and was 30 mins behind his plan. Feeling reasonably fresh I packed a bag and drove to Honister, the changeover for leg 4 / 5. My plan was to reverse leg 5 and meet up around Great Gable.  The weather was colder now with a chilly breeze and as I climbed out past Grey Knotts I could see Gable’s summit in cloud.  On Green Gable the conditions were dramatic, one moment visibility was down so a few hundred metres, the next the cloud lifted to give fantastic views of the valleys below.

Lifting cloud revealing dramatic views

I reached the summit and decided to stay and wait for Mike and his support of Andy and Julia. I had company from spectators and marshals of the Wasdale fell race that was taking place.  Just as I was beginning to worry that something had gone wrong they emerged from the gloom looking tired but pleased to have reached the top.

Emerging from the cloud on Great Gable

The descent of Gable is tricky on tired legs – steep and rocky but after that and a short climb to neighbouring Green Gable it was an easy downhill via Brandreth and Grey Knotts, picking the best grassy lines down to the supporters at Honister where dry socks, flapjack and drink were thrust upon Mike by his crew.  Then the 10 minutes were up and the final leg back to Keswick began.  In theory this is an easy leg, a generally grassy section, 3 hills with 2500 ft of climb leading to roads and a gradual downhill into town.

Mike and Julia leaving Great Gable behind

There was a sense of optimism in the air as the merry crew set off up Dale Head, only a disaster now would prevent Mike from getting round in 24 hours.. wouldn’t it?

Mike and supporters leaving Honister

“Drink Mike, have a jelly baby, want a gel?”  The well meaning support crew were anxious that Mike kept up his energy levels but after 20+ hours of force feeding himself sugar he had had enough. He was tired, he even admitted it.  Luckily Phil insisted and he was able to manage sips of Coke and on autopilot now he continued up and over ticking off Hindscarth and Robinson, the last of the 42 hills.  Matt spotted a quick line leading to the valley and we dropped down quickly, leaving the hills behind and only the run in left to do.

A quick change into road shoes and the famous club vest but Mike was so tired, he was almost falling asleep in the chair as Simon attended to his feet like a father dressing a child! A couple of minutes and we were off, 3 miles of almost flat running and it would be over.

Left foot up, Simon attending to Mike’s footwear

I don’t know if it was the magic of the Dark Peak vest or the background as a 10k runner but suddenly Mike was looking strong, his long legs eating up the road and his sense of humour returned as he teased Dan about not being able to keep up. 
Helen was up front with the map looking for the footpath leading into town and there it was .. with a big fence and a sign saying footpath closed!  but we weren’t in the mood for any detours now so it was around the fence hoping there wasn’t an impasse further along the path.  Suddenly there were cars and pedestrians, the main street into town and the roof of Moot Hall visible 500 metres away.  A swerve through the market traders who were packing away and the glory was Mike’s as he mounted the steps where it had begun 23 hours 45 minutes before.

The final steps
Well done Daddy!

Posted in Blog, Bob Graham, Fell running, Lake District.

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