In July 2017 I completed the Bob Graham Round and in doing so ticked off the “Big Three” the others being the Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds. What I learned along the way might help others in their planning.
Many people choose to start their Bob Graham attempt in the early evening with six or seven o’clock being popular start times. This doesn’t make sense to me. By that time there’s a good chance that you have been on your feet or at the very least awake for almost 12 hours before you set off on an arduous 24 hour challenge! I chose to set off at 8 am, the idea being to get a decent night’s sleep, get up early and have breakfast then set off. This allowed me to set off fully rested and following my normal body clock. I can understand the psychological benefit of getting the night time section done when you are relatively fresh but the converse to that is that when dawn breaks you still have a long way to go if you’ve set off in the evening. I finished the Bob Graham at around 5 am meaning that I’d been awake for less than 24 hours. Had I done the same time but setting off at 6 pm I’d have been awake for 36 hours!
Start times dictate when and where on the route you are going to be in the dark. For many the evening start is favoured because it means that the relatively straightforward navigation of leg two from Clough Head to Seat Sandal is done in the dark. However none of the legs are particularly difficult to navigate. I was in the dark from Yewbarrow to Robinson and other than missing the best line and spending some time amongst the boulders coming off Great Gable it didn’t feel any harder than navigating leg 2 in the dark. Remember that some people do the BG in winter when there is considerably less daylight!
Aiming for a late June attempt means that you will get maximum daylight but it is also worth looking at the phase of the moon as a full moon on a clear night will make the navigation easier. On both the Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds I set off around midday based on which sections I wanted to do at night, unfortunately the moon didn’t help because both nights were cloudy.
Bad weather is probably the main reason why people fail in their attempt. It is easy to put all your eggs in one basket and go for it regardless but if possible try to be flexible with your start date and time to account for bad weather. I put my Ramsay attempt back a couple of times because the forecast was bad and in the end was rewarded with sun and blue skies. This might not be possible for people with busy work schedules and it means that your support crew have to be flexible too, however a skeleton crew in good weather is better than a big crew in strong winds and heavy rain. If the weather is extremely hot then that is another reason why you might want to consider a morning rather than evening start. The hottest part of the day will be mid afternoon and you’ll be in better shape to deal with the conditions if you’ve only been on the go for seven hours rather than twenty.
There are plenty of resources available to help plan for the Bob Graham Round including Excel spreadsheets that allow you to calculate split and leg times http://www.gofar.org.uk/bobgrahamround.html but you need to tailor these to yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, depending how comfortable you are on steep descents then you would want to adjust the split time for the section from Scafell down to Wasdale on leg 3. Also bear in mind which section you are going to be covering in the dark and adjust your schedule accordingly. Factor in bad weather which will inevitably slow you down and remember that you will move much more slowly if the rough, rocky ground around Broad Crag and Ill Crag is wet and greasy compared to if it were dry.
It is also worth thinking about how much time you will spend at the end of each leg. Do you really need to stop at Threlkeld? On the Ramsay Round the first leg (clockwise) ends at Loch Treig dam – over 8 hours of running before getting support so I planned not to stop at Threlkeld at all, just pick up a water refill and grab some food. On the day it was absolutely chucking it down and I was soaked so I stopped for long enough to change into a dry baselayer and waterproof but then got going again straight away rather than stopping to eat and drink.
Food and Drink
Along with the often quoted advice not to eat anything you haven’t tried before I’m a strong believer in little and often rather than gorging at the end of each leg. Personally I don’t really like sweet stuff so I used baby food sachets rather than gels and had spicy pot noodle at some changeovers. I’ve been lucky in never feeling sick or not hungry during the rounds so haven’t had the problem of bonking. If you do lose your appetite it is still easier to nibble on things rather than be faced with a big serving at the changeovers.
Recce Recce Recce
It makes sense really that training over the actual route is going to stand you in good stead for your attempt. I see recces as having two main benefits. One is the actual physiological training; getting your body used to the stresses of long hours of ascent and descent over rough ground – and yes the descents are just as important to train for as the climbs. The second is that it allows you to learn the route and practise the navigation and can give you a good idea of how long particular sections will take. During any recces I took split times from summit to summit to compare them to those on the schedule. On clear days it was easy to think that the schedule was generous but in bad weather or bad visibility it is easy to see how time can slip away. This gives you a clearer picture of how realistic your schedule will be given bad conditions and will allow you to tweak the split times in the schedule as you see fit. Remember that if you use a schedule it will be based on someone else’s split times and is only a guide.
I did a lot of the recces for the Bob Graham on my own as I wanted to get a feel for the navigation myself. Personally, during a round I like to know exactly where I am and be involved in the navigation rather than putting that pressure onto someone else.
Don’t be complacent! The only section of the Bob Graham round that I didn’t recce was from Grey Knotts down to Honister. I had run it several times before (but not for a few years) and thought it would be easy. However in the dark and the rain I wasted time and headed too far west. Not a big deal but worth a few minutes. Similarly on the Paddy Buckley I reccied everything except for a small section from the final summit down to the Capel Curig road thinking that it would be straightforward. In reality I found myself waist deep in heather unable to find the narrow path that was there somewhere! These incidents only accounted for a handful of minutes and if you have time to spare aren’t a big problem but what if you don’t have those minutes to spare?!
Back to back recce days allow you make the most out of your trip to the Lake District as well as giving you the training benefit of two (or more) long days out. I’d advise that a long day out covering the route whilst walking is better training than a 3 hour run elsewhere.
Use your recce days to try out the shoes, pack and clothing that you will be wearing on your attempt. Fill your pack with the kit that you intend to carry on the day (you are going to carry your own pack aren’t you!) Work out which pocket you are going to put your food, compass, head torch etc in. Little bits of preparation can save faffing around on the day and every little faff adds time. Think – do you need to take spares of anything? Have you got a spare pair of shoes in the support vehicle in case yours split (don’t wear old shoes!) or give you blisters (don’t wear new shoes!) Have you got a spare torch? Are you planning to use walking poles? If so you need to practise running with them, and not just a few days before!
On the Ramsay Round I got lucky. I had a fully charged Petzl Nao programmed to last 6 hours on reactive mode. I was confident that this was sufficient to get me through the night. At about 2.30 in the morning the torch flashed a warning and went into reserve mode which is a dim light of around 20 lumens! I was on my own and hadn’t taken a spare. Thankfully I was on a good land rover track and only about 20 minutes from the end of the leg so was able to keep going at a reasonable pace to my support and then borrow a torch for the next leg. If I’d have been descending rough ground this would have been disastrous in terms of losing time or even dangerous – a lucky escape!
I like to mark up my maps with important details such as bearings, elevation and timings which makes navigation much quicker especially when you are getting tired. I also enlarge sections where the navigation is a bit more tricky so that I can see it more clearly. Although the Petzl Nao didn’t last the distance the Reactive setting is really useful when map reading, particularly with a laminated map which reflects the beam and can be dazzling.
I used the official Harvey maps for the planning then added my own notes to the 1:40,000 and 1:25,000 scale maps that I had on computer before laminating them to protect them. I also printed and laminated my target split times for each leg showing both the summit split times and time of day I was due there. This was useful for myself and for waiting support crew.
Everyone is different in terms of their training history and the amount of miles they have in the bank. A large aerobic endurance base and the ability to deal with steep terrain, both up and down, is the key. Spending time on your feet over similar terrain is the best way to train. Being good at fell races doesn’t necessarily translate to being good at moving briskly over mountainous terrain for 24 hours! My completions came after training for and racing the High Peak Marathon early in the year and so having a long lead in of training over rough ground. Apart from the HPM none of my training runs were much over 20 miles, instead I preferred back to back days of 5, 6 or 7 hours on the route itself. Doing the Wasdale fell race the month before the Bob Graham is useful as both a training run and a recce for leg 4!
Everyone is different and what suits one person might not suit another. I’m not claiming that my approach is “the” right way, just that it worked for me. However you go about things, good luck in your attempt!