Gemma’s Bob Graham Round


Gemma’s Bob Graham Round – 14th/15th June 2019

This is a bit late… apologies. But I did the Bob Graham Round on the 14th and 15th of June and I guess it is a bit of a tradition that you tell the tale. So here goes…

Over the years, running has become less and less about racing, times and PBs for me. My love for running is all about journeys. And so I’m going to tell the story of three journeys. Firstly, and this is the one that is most difficult to say outloud, I’ll tell you a little bit about my journey to becoming a fellrunner. It’s difficult to say outloud because I still don’t really believe I am one, but I’ll go with it for now. The second journey is the 6-month journey from deciding to do the Bob Graham Round and actually doing it in June. And thirdly, I’ll tell you a bit about my journey around 42 lakeland peaks in 24 hours on the 14th and 15th of June.

I’m a relatively recent fellrunner – getting in to it probably about 5 or so years ago. I started with a few local races (the Saltwell Fell Race was my first I think) and realised that I love it for loads of different reasons. Physically, it’s probably better for you than lots of other types of running – the impact on your body is constantly changing through the ever-changing terrain, and the fact that the running is frequently broken up by the changing demands from climbing, descending, and sometimes a bit of scrambling. Linked to this, it’s less about pure physicality and lots to do with experience and mental strength. You look around at races and the people flying past you are often double your age – just look at Jim, Keith and Fred J. I also love it because the goals are so different to other types of running – it’s rarely about pace or PBs – I almost never wear a watch now (a 35 minute mile isn’t something I need to know about!) and I love that freedom. But most of all, I love it because I get to spend brilliant days with brilliant people in amazing places.

But as much as I love it, I have a healthy fear and nervousness about it. I pick my races and events carefully – looking at routes, terrain, and conditions on the day. I’m starting to embrace this mental challenge and I’m learning (slowly!) to look after myself in the hills.

So when you start getting in to fellrunning you can’t really avoid hearing and talking about The Bob Graham Round. It’s a challenge which takes in 42 Lakeland peaks, approximately 27,000ft of ascent all over a distance of approximately 67 miles. For fellrunners in England (and further afield), it’s one of the iconic challenges. And for fellrunners within Saltwell, it has a truly special history and tradition.

One of the great things about the Round is that it’s a team effort and you become part of a community. You pay forward in terms of helping other people whilst you learn about it, and they happily pay back to help you round if and when you decide to do it. It’s not just people you know either – strangers will help eachother round if they can and you become part of this special group together. Over the last 3 years, I’ve had the privilege to support Paul, Iain and Rob on their own amazing rounds and had loads of conversations with Keith, Fred, Tim, Jim and Chris K about theirs. And Saltwell love nothing more than to help one of their own.

Once you start supporting, the inevitable conversation becomes ‘so when are you doing yours’? So, in true Gemma Bradley style, I deflected this question for quite a few years, changed many a conversation and thought of loads of reasons why I didn’t need to do it. For all of the reasons above that I love fellrunning, it also massively takes me out of my comfort zone and like I say, I pick and choose what I do pretty carefully. Another BGR member shared with me recently that they feel like an imposter when they talk about the Round, as if to say ‘Why am I talking about the Bob Graham and me in the same breath’ and that’s how I felt. So that was me for a long time…a Bob Graham imposter and always with at least 10 reasons not to do it.

But then, maybe towards to end of last year a few reasons why I should do it started to form…

  1. I’m getting old
  2. Keith, Fred, Tim, Jim et al have amazing knowledge of the Round but they won’t all be fit forever (sorry lads!). If I want to do it with them involved I may have to do it soon
  3. I won’t name names but there are a few Saltwell runners who I know may be doing it in the next couple of years and we can’t all do it at once – maybe I should jump in ahead of them
  4. There is an awards dinner for successful completers every 2 years and last year the record was broken by Kilian Jornet – there’s a tiny possibility we’ll end up at the same awards dinner and I can sit and stare.
  5. Most importantly – what would I regret more, giving it a go and maybe not completing, or not giving it a go at all.

So probably by mid December 2018 my mind was made up. Alongside Jim, I sounded a few people out about it with an overwhelmingly supportive response. “Get in!”… “We 100% know you’ll do it”… “We have babysitters”… “We’re there”. So, the date was set for 14th of June 2019. It’s ages away…I’ll worry about doing it later.

On to journey 2…the 6 months of training, organising and worrying. I kept it as quiet as I realistically could do, but I needed to ask people to help and to get people to save the date. The first people to speak to were Gillian and Steve who I wanted to ask to do the road support (and couldn’t really contemplate doing it without)…without missing a beat, they were in and excited. Email sent to the Saltwell fellrunning faithful with a truly overwhelming response. Not only people saying they would help, but people genuinely excited that I was going to give it a crack and people building my confidence from minute one. You know who you all are.

And there were loads of highs and lows in the 6 months of training. Lows…verging on hyperthermia on the top of Blencathra in January, having anxiety dreams about getting washed away in the river crossing on leg 1, a comedy-style ‘if it wasn’t so funny I’d be crying’ attempt at climbing Broad Stand with Jonny and Annie, and generally feeling pretty tired constantly. My last few long training days hadn’t felt as good as I thought they should have and I worried massively during the taper too. But balance that with spending some cracking days out in snow, sun, mist and rain with loads of different mates, running further than I ever had in the Lakes42 with Rob, and generally feeling stronger than ever in lots of my racing, training and recovery. And I suppose it was a huge bonus that I arrived at the 14th of June relatively injury free. So all in all, training went pretty well.

Loads of things happened in the week leading up but one of the most important was meeting with Gillian and Steve. They didn’t bat an eyelid when I arrived at their house with the contents of my wardrobes, shoe racks and food cupboards and we meticulously went through plans for each changeover point and what to give each group of supporters. Honestly – G & S – do you know how brilliant you are at this?

So on to the last part of the journey and the Round itself. I started at 11pm from the Moot Hall in Keswick with one thing on my mind…to get back to the same place by 11pm the next day. I was supported on this first leg by Fred, Seb (a brilliant replacement for the injured Chris K) and Peter. Running out of Keswick I clearly remember Chris K saying in the background ‘I’m so jealous you’ve got this ahead of you’. I thought that was mint.

It was warm and clear for most of the way up Skiddaw but then we went in to the cloud and it became wet and very misty. In clear, daylight conditions, the path off Skiddaw is really well defined but we missed it in the mist and lost of bit of time finding our way back to the path to Calva. Losing time so early on was hard and I was starting to panic a little but Fred, Seb and Peter were really calm in some pretty rubbish conditions. We got back on track and ticked off the 3 peaks of leg 1. Seeing Lois, Lynn, Phil, Graham and John on the top of Blencathra was a massive lift (you’re mad but it was brilliant!). We lost about 40 minutes on leg 1 and people have said how hard that must have been mentally. But in a way, it sort of lifted a little bit of pressure in my head. I’m thinking, what’s the worst that can happen… I’ll just not do it in 24 hours.

After a quick pit stop with Gillian, Steve and Annie, I set off again at 3.23 am from Threlkheld and up Clough Head. For this leg, I was with Jim and Kevin who immediately got me chatting with brainteasers (who knew there are 10 3-letter anatomical terms?). The conditions were still a little wet and misty but importantly for me, it was getting light and we got occasional breaks in the cloud to capture the sunrise over the Dodds. I’d been quite nervous about this leg. I obviously run with Jim a lot and most of the time, he’s running out in front of me and I’m chasing him. And no matter how strong you feel yourself, if someone is running away from you all of the time, you start to feel a bit rubbish. But Jim did what he was told, and while he was in front and navigating, he stayed close enough to chat and I felt really strong the whole way. It’s a great leg – ticking off peaks really quickly and I think we made up about half an hour which was amazing considering the conditions still weren’t great and visibility was still poor – all thanks to Jim and Kev. I arrived at Dunmail in really good spirits…let the potato fest begin!

After a cup of tea, a bit of food (potatoes!), a change of clothes and shoes, I set off on leg 3 at 7.30am, pretty much back on schedule, with Keith, Rob and Iain.

I’d been warned that conditions probably wouldn’t be great but also reassured that it should clear later on. We set off up Steel Fell with tales from Rob about the Dragon’s Back (minus the bit about organ failure and being rescued…I didn’t need to hear that bit!). For the whole leg, I just kept following Keith’s legendary vicar’s hat whilst Rob and Iain fed, watered and chatted to me. Conditions did worsen as the leg went on – visibility became poor which meant we were moving pretty slowly and getting wet. So we needed stops to put on more clothes and waterproofs and Keith was making regular stops to meticulously check the navigation. Keith you were amazing in some pretty rotten conditions. But you were concentrating so hard on the nav that I didn’t get to put the worlds to right with you that day, or debate the latest political crisis. There’ll be other days for that! And Rob and Iain – you kept my spirits up and you kept me feeling strong. We’d moved so slowly I thought we must have lost hours, but I think in the end it was only something like 40 minutes. It was a tough leg but seeing Gillian, Steve and Chris K at Wasdale at the end was amazing.

Gillian and Steve – if I didn’t already know it, it was about here that I was realising how amazing you both are. You kind of knew what I wanted before I’d even thought of it myself – have you ever thought of taking this up full time?? So after another quickish stop and more potatoes it was off on leg 4 at 2pm with Paul and Graham. The change in the conditions was amazing – looking back at Scafell it was thick cloud, but turn your head the other way to Yewbarrow and it was sunny and clear. Thanks for ordering the sunshine Paul and Graham!

It didn’t take long before the Richardson-Stephenson double act was in full swing…imagine the song ‘On the (insert number) hill of leg 4’, to the tune of the 12 days of Christmas going up every hill. A few songs and potatoes later and before we knew it, we were back on schedule.

Paul and Graham normally fly down descents but for the whole leg they had some kind of ‘pincer’ tactic going on – Paul always in front navigating and Graham behind chatting, singing, feeding etc. Lads – credit to you, I felt brilliant the whole way. We were joined by Jim at Kirkfell and Tim at Brandreth and apart from our merry group, we had the fells to ourselves. It was towards the end of this leg that I started to realise I was going to complete the Round in under 24 hours.

Arriving in Honister was amazing, being greeted by the whole support group and my mam was just brilliant. I probably stayed for too long as I was so overwhelmed by seeing everyone but was sent on my way again and started up Dale Head for the final leg at 6.44pm with Tim, Peter, Scott and Jack. Surprisingly, I still felt great and with a cracking pace set by Peter and Jack, we went up Dale Head faster than I did in the Borrowdale! Visibility and weather were great the whole way and dusk in the last few fells felt magical. One of the really special things about this leg was watching Jack Garrett becoming a fell runner in front of our eyes – he’s a natural and was so strong.

Kev, Phil J, Graham, and John joined us at Littletown and with road shoes on, we set off on the final few road miles back to Keswick. About a mile out, we were joined by Sarah, Robbie, Harry and Rob and I headed back to the Moot Hall touching the door at 9.17pm in a time of 22 hours and 17 minutes. My mam and sister were at the end too and it was amazing to share this with them…I think by the end they were starting to understand the challenge although probably still think it’s all a bit mad.

So, without this turning in to an Oscars acceptance speech – massive thanks to Gillian, Steve, Fred, Seb, Jim, Kev, Keith, Rob, Iain, Paul, Graham, Peter, Tim, Scott and Jack. And then – massive thanks also to Mam, Kate, Sam, Annie, Clare, Lyndsey, Lois, Lynn, Sarah, Catherine, Ruthie, Simon, Jonny, Chris, Graham, Phil, John, Robbie, Harry, Eva and Alfie (and others from NS Poly who stuck around to support me back).

I absolutely couldn’t have done it without you, and wouldn’t have even thought about it. You all played such a huge part in one of the best days of my life and have given me such an amazing gift – becoming a Saltwell member of the Bob Graham Club and the gift of becoming a fellrunner.

Taking the words of Chris K, I’m jealous of those who still have it all to come… who’s next??!

Gemma x

Here is a link to a Video with some highlights of the day