Whilst supporting an aspiring Bob Graham member he asked me, ‘if you were feeling fit, how long do you think you would take to complete a Bob Graham Round now?’ I mulled over the question for a brief moment, conscious that I didn’t want to lessen our pace as we headed towards High Raise. The manner in which the question was put indicated anything more than 20 hours would be met with disappointment. ‘Well of course, I couldn’t see the point in doing it again unless I could get around faster than I did all those years ago,’ I replied. A cop-out of an answer in anyone’s book. What I was really thinking was, ‘have I still got it?’
By the beginning of July I was still wondering ‘have I still got it?’ The answer was quite simple, no. And it was a long time since I had had it! But with some focus, could I get back to a reasonable fitness, that would resemble some kind of movement, that could traverse Lakeland fells without too much trouble?
Although I was aware of the Joss Naylor Challenge, I had never been in a prolonged discussion about it and only knew of a couple of people who had made a successful crossing of the 48 miles, 17,000 feet of ascent, that takes you from Pooley Bridge in the east of the Lake District to Wasdale in the west. To be honest I had probably seen it as a bit of a day out for ageing fell runners.
Eventually I took the bait, and an email was dispatched seeking support for an attempt of the Joss Naylor Challenge on Saturday 2nd September 2017. Having turned 55 in July, I thought I should at least make an attempt at doing the crossing in under twelve hours, the time allowed for those men aged fifty to fifty-four. Fifteen hours for a fifty-five-year-old seemed a bit generous, but I didn’t think twelve hours appeared to be too difficult either; was I in for a rude awaking!
The plan was to train throughout the summer holidays, giving me 6 weeks. I would train for an eleven-hour forty-minute crossing. I had barely run on the fells during the previous twelve months, so I knew I would have to be committed. That lack of Fell running would show up on my first recee of the Joss Naylor Challenge. The first leg from Pooley Bridge to Kirkstone Inn is a relentless up-hill sixteen mile. My schedule told me I had two hours forty minutes.
When taking on this type of challenge, it is a priority that you get the best support around you if your challenge is to be successful. Just as with my Bob Graham twenty-three years earlier, my wife Tracey was the foundation stone of that support. Keen that the training got off to a good start she booked us into the Inn on the Lake for three days. Soon after arrival she dropped me off at Pooley Bridge. It was 3pm, and I planned to get the last bus back from Kirkstone at 6.10 pm, so Tracey could go and relax in Glennridding; I’d be back in time for dinner. Fortunately, Tracey’s faith in my athletic prowess had diminished over the years. Just as well, because I missed the last bus by over an hour. Tracey was waiting patiently! The challenge was now on and it was clear, this Joss Naylor Challenge is no gentle jaunt for old men and women looking for some last hurray.
Training intensified, regular sorties to the Lakes and when time was tight, the Cheviots, were completed and a family holiday was quickly planned, which could double as a training location.
‘I know, why don’t we go to Corsica?’
With five days to go I was feeling good, training had gone well and I decided to recee the first section again. I needed to complete this section in time with the schedule. I asked a good friend and very fast fell runner Phil Pearson to run with me. Later that week, Phil would be confirmed runner up in the English Fell Running Championships for his age group. We worked hard and kept up a relentless pace despite a bit of a head wind, but not fast enough, thirty-six minutes down. I would have to re-assess my capabilities!
Feedback from posts on the Joss Naylor Challenge blog said the twelve-hour schedule was equivalent to an 18-hour Bob Graham round. I no longer thought it was possible to get under twelve hours. I re-scheduled my start time from 07.00 hours to 06.00 hours, informed my pacers of my doubts about going under twelve hours, but in the spirit of the challenge we would stick to the eleven-forty schedule.
It was important to me, to invite those who supported me on my Bob Graham to assist this time round. Ian (Johnas) Johnson would again act as timekeeper and Man In Charge at the road crossings. Satch would again take obligatory photographs and drive me at 05.30 hours on Saturday 2nd September from Patterdale to the start at Pooley Bridge.
The morning mist on Ulswater created a photographer’s dream shot. I stared out into this surreal setting with ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Mark Knophler playing in the background, memories took me back to 1977, when Satch had previously driven me to the start of what was, in reality, the beginning of my affiliation with mountain running. Back then the background music was ‘I am a Rock’ by Simon and Garfunkel and the event was the Boys’ Brigade East Kilbride Hike. While the rest of England was transfixed with celebrating the Queens Silver Jubilee, I would be one of three young lads from Wrekenton, Gateshead to become the first Englishmen to win that event. But that was then, and in a few moments a new challenge was to begin.
At 05.55 hours I informed Ian we would start at 06.10 hours. I felt in total control, so much so it felt a little unnerving. There were no nerves, not even excitement, as I approached the bridge with my pacers Rob Brooks and Chris Kennedy. A shake of the hand and a cuddle from Steve and Gillian Donaldson and then a quiet ‘Go’ from Ian and we were off.
The name of the first summit had a touch of emotion attached to it. The previous September my father Arthur passed away and it suddenly dawned on me how many summits are called Arthur; Ben Arthur, Arthur’s Seat and here I was heading towards Arthur’s Pike. Rob took the first photo as I reached summit number one bang on schedule. Twelve hours was now on the cards. As the mist evaporated from the surface of Ulswater and the sun broke over the distant Pennine Chain, Rob and Chris maintained enough pace that allowed for a temporary pause as we marvelled at the magnificent Corrie that is Hopegill Head. After meeting our first morning walkers at Thunder Knott we were soon heading towards Kirkstone.
One of the exciting things about fell racing is looking for the best lines, it can be a bit risky, but if it comes off you can gain distance and time on your competitors. Approaching St Raven’s Edge, I felt it was time to take one of those risks. The path from the summit of St Raven’s Edge which follows the wall to Kirkstone Inn makes for slow going. And although I’ve always taken that route, it was now time to find a faster more direct line. ‘Rob, just follow me’ and he duly did. A gap in the wall prior to the summit, allowed for a diagonal line with a bit of contouring, but much easier ground to cover. Sixteen miles completed and only three minutes down on an eleven forty schedule. A sixty second pause to thank pacers and supporters before setting off with my new pacer Ben Abdelnoor.
Red Screes was knocked off in 18 minutes but the descending line down to Scandale Pass was slightly off course and the first of a number of tumbles ensued. Ben confirmed what I knew, tired legs!
I needed to concentrate and not worry about Ben moving along without his heart rate increasing or perspiration appearing on his brow. He is after all, one of the country’s top fell runners. The climb up to Hart Crag was tough, but Fairfield Summit brought renewed optimism, I was still on schedule and once both piles of cairns had been touched on Seat Sandal, I sent Ben ahead with instructions for the support team waiting at Dunmail Raise.
Tracey and my two daughters, Jane and Kate, received Ben’s message, ‘he wants a cup of tea, beans and his hat, he said you would know which hat.’
Twenty-four miles covered, half way and still only 3 minutes down on the schedule. Deck chair was ready and as I sat there, Jane’s boyfriend Ben handed me the tea and beans he had patiently being looking after and Johnas and my brother-in- law David worked on my cramped calves.
Support is essential for these rounds, but it is also a great way to spend time with friends. Three of those who had gathered at Dunmail Raise were at that event in 1977. Paul Revill, Tommy and Derek Brownlie were the main competitors back then, competing for the 1st East Kilbride Boys’ Brigade. The fierce competition between us, turned into committed friendship and I was delighted that the lads had managed to get visas to travel across the Border to wish me well.
I’ve supported many a Bob Graham from Dunmail to Wasdale, so I was familiar with most of next section to Styhead Tarn, with the exception of the route from High Raise to Stake Pass, but due to lack of training time this meant I was doing this section for the first time on the day.
I set off up Steel Fell with Iron Man Competitor Graham Stephenson. Despite the steep incline ahead, I was confident I would make good progress, these types of climbs seem to suit me and I was confident we would soon catch up with Jim Thompson and Tim Forster. I was working hard and to be honest, expected to push ahead of Graham. When this didn’t happen, I was hoping Graham was working flat out to stay with me. The reality was, I wasn’t moving that well and only just managed to reach the summit on schedule.
The terrain over to Birks Gill before the climb up to High Raise allows for good running, I was picking good lines but knew I wasn’t moving quick enough and the ascent to High Raise was a tough slog. I really wanted a rest and the opportunity came with the need to stop and take a compass bearing and discuss and then choose the right line over to Stake Pass. The downside was adding minutes to those extra ones I’d already acquired since leaving Dunmail. Once at Rossett Pike, I demanded to know from Jim how the schedule was going, emphasising, ‘I don’t want any bull.’ I was well aware that pacers will say anything but the truth to those who are struggling, I’ve done it myself. Jim without any emotion, calmly informed me I was just over twenty minutes down. I needed a second wind and it came on the ascent of Bow Fell. I finally began to feel I was moving out of first gear. Tim, one of those who was in that minibus in 1977, decided to head straight to Great End and join us on the descent to Styhead Tarn.
On the climb to Bow Fell we met a bloke doing his Bob Graham Round, he was having a hell of a time. I shook his hand, wished him well, but couldn’t help having a wry smile at what this challenge was doing to him. I hope he got to Keswick in time.
Bow Fell was reached one minute faster than the schedule, the pace had picked up. Jim and Graham however, were concerned that I needed to get more food into me and insisted that I sit down and eat a sandwich. I didn’t want to sit down but out of respect I did what I was told, what they didn’t say was for how long! I scoffed half a jam sandwich then I was off. I knew I had to get some time back and couldn’t afford to lose anymore. Jim and Graham weren’t too happy but hey ‘it was my party.’
Esk Pike came and went and we were now descending the tricky route to Styhead from Great End. No sign of Tim, he must be at Styhead. ‘Take your time Keith,’ hollowed Jim. If there is a good line on this descent we weren’t on it. I was going as fast as I could while trying to pick a line through the boulder field. Loose rocks were falling everywhere. ‘He’s going to….’ And as I tumbled forward, I stretched out an arm to break my fall, but not fast enough. My body hit the rocks with such a force, I momently felt myself passing out. I was conscious enough to hear Graham continue his sentence….’I knew that was going to happen.’ Once Jim swivelled by body around and the blood began to flow again, I lay there thinking, ‘this is it, challenge over.’ My knee was knacking, it had taken the full brunt of the fall. Jim helped me up and we gingerly made our way down to pick up the path and onto Styhead Tarn, twenty minutes behind schedule, but still on for twelve hours. No sign of Tim.
Gillian and Steve greeted us and handed over beans, drink and clean top. The fall was in the past, the banter and laughter was good, and I was easy meat for micky taking. The day was going well. The East Kilbride boys were there too and I took the opportunity to introduce them to the assembled crowd, which included the general public. I particularly made a point, of telling them of the legend that was Paul Revill. Back in 1977, Paul was the star athlete of East Kilbride and revered by all of us from Gateshead. Ten years later we would compete together in the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon.
While I finished off the beans, Peter Mullarkey and Paul Richardson set off up Great Gable. Gemma Bradley would take over from her fiancé Jim and set the pace up Gable, we had four hours to get to Greendale Bridge.
In the Borrowdale Fell race five weeks earlier, I had gone from Styhead to Great Gable summit in twenty-five minutes ten seconds. Today I had thirty-four minutes. There aren’t many climbs tougher than Gable after a long day on the fells. I could see Peter and Paul ahead and with my signature Panama Hat secured firmly we were off, working as hard as we could to catch them. There were plenty of walkers descending the path, I must have looked a rather obsessed ignorant figure as I stared at each step in front of me. Gemma tried to give me a drink, but I resisted the temptation to interrupt my pace. She persevered, I accepted and she got me to the top in twenty-six minutes, good effort. The only disappointment was that we only caught Peter and Paul a few metres from the summit!
Paul took over navigation, Peter dropped off the pace and would make his own way to the finish line.
As we approached the summit of Kirkfell I was reminded to take all of this in. The visibility was superb, the mountains spectacular, the company was good and I was having a great day out. Paul was doing a fantastic job picking some excellent lines off Pillar and Gemma was plying me with food and drink, I was amazed where all the drink was coming from. I was certainly being well looked after. As we approached Steeple, Paul ran off to find a good decent off Haydock and Gemma took the opportunity to rest awhile as she watched me dash across to the rocky outcrop that is Steeple. Gemma was setting an amazing pace, we were knocking minutes off the scheduled times as we passed over each summit. Descending Haydock, we spotted Paul, unable to find the scree route but he had a found good line down and across the wet ground of the Pots of Ashness, before the penultimate summit of Seatallan. After forty odd miles this is a monster of a climb, I pulled on all the reserve I had left, each step seemed like my movement had reverted to slow motion as I ascended this whale backed shaped mountain.
I glanced at my watch more than once, trying to work out if I was going to make twelve hours but my brain was going slower than my feet. Gemma offered encouragement and drink every other step. I took the encouragement but declined the drink. That would be my reward when we got to the summit. ‘Keep it going Keith,’ I kept telling myself, this is the last of the hard climbs. As we reached the trig point I gratefully accepted my reward from Gemma. We both looked out towards the Irish Sea and the lowlands of Cumbria, we were at the western edge of the Lake District. It didn’t matter which way you looked the views were magnificent.
I turned and glanced across to Middle Fell, the last summit, then looked at the watch. I had 70 minutes to get to Greendale Bridge and a twelve-hour crossing. This was the first time I knew I was going to make the schedule. At Middle Fell I insisted we had a few minutes to soak up the day and take a few photos. As we descend down to Greendale Bridge I could see my support team gathering, ‘I hope Tim is there!’
After eleven hours and twenty-eight minutes I was met and congratulated by a shepherd’s hand.
What a privilege to have Joss and his wife Mary meet me at the finish.
‘Well done lad, that’s a good run you’ve had, you have obviously got a good support team with you.’
‘I couldn’t agree with you more Joss. We have indeed had a great day.’
And then Tim turned up!
Later that day the great day was completed, when we gathered for food, friendship and fellowship in the Santon Bridge Hotel.
As part of my challenge I raised £1,300 for Daft as a Brush, Cancer Patient Care, based in Newcastle which supports patients across the North East and Cumbria.
I would like to sincerely thank my wife Tracey, and my daughters Jane and Kate, who make life so easy for me when it comes to running in the mountains. And to the following, in order of appearance; Ian Johnson (Johnas), Stephen Millen (Satch), Rob Brooks, Chris Kennedy, Gillian Donaldson, Steve Donaldson, Phil Pearson, Tommy Brownlie, Derek Brownlie, Paul Revill, Ben Abdelnoor, David Watson, Katherine Watson, Ben Connelly, Jim Thompson, Tim Forster, Graham Stephenson, Peter Mullarkey, Paul Richardson, Gemma Bradley and Jimmy and Debbie Smith. Without your support and commitment on the day and prior, with your own training and preparation, this day would not have happened, I am most grateful to each of you.
Saturday 2nd September 2017