Why would I want to run around 42 rugged Lake District fells totaling 105km and 8,700m of ascent/descent in winter?
I was missing something this last year. I hadn’t felt that huge sense of pride and achievement you get when you really test yourself and overcome a challenge, especially when the outcome is uncertain. My 2017 running year had been an injury disaster going around in circles to try and fix myself, ending up in a big disappointment at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (which at the time was the only real outcome). The real positive to come from this DNF was that I needed to change what I was doing. I reflected on what was different from 2015 and then used this to learn and develop; it is not in my nature to give up.
Throughout the year I received plenty of helpful advice, support and ideas and, post UTMB, I reflected and developed a multifaceted plan to rehabilitate. My first test of the success of the plan was in the middle of November at the Tour of Pendle. It was an overwhelming success and sense that, at last, I was moving in the right direction. I ran hard, raced without significant reaction, and had the excitement of fell racing again.
After the Tour of Pendle, the idea of a winter Bob Graham reemerged in my brain while listening to James Elson and Dan Lawson on the British Ultrarunning Podcast interviewing the legendary fell man Bill Williamson about the Bob Graham Round. I was inspired to try again as a few years back I had set off on a winter’s night on a solo, unsupported Bob Graham from Keswick—which ended before I had even reached Threlkeld. I then ran home to Penrith with my tail between my legs. At last it was again on the agenda, but I could not commit completely until I had the confidence of another block of training. I had identified a weekend that fitted the training and could be fresh. A week out, the long-range forecast was suggesting sunshine, but more importantly low winds; however, the forecast also highlighted that there could be a fresh dump of snow on the mountains midweek, but this made it more exciting. This was going to be an adventure.
The weather on Wednesday and Thursday laid additional snow down; Mountain Run’s winter report highlighting what we were in store for: “Striding Edge, Helvellyn and Swirral Edge, 14th December, 2017 conditions reports for runners, skiers and climbers. Observed condition: snow starts around 350m, wet until 500m. At this height it is around 10cm in depth. At Red Tarn we experienced drifts over knee deep, well-compacted wind-blown snow. Ascent to Striding Edge fine, but knee deep and hard work. Snow well-bonded to old layer underneath with crusty snow on final 100m. Striding Edge in perfect winter condition. Crampons and axe used from halfway along Ridge. Poles a bonus on the ascent. Exit from Striding Edge was very deep with snow, thigh deep in places. Felt well-bonded. Summit plateau south of summit shelter over 30cm deep in wind-blown snow, similar north of shelter but icy layer of ground evident in places. Swirral Edge great fun to descend, snow extremely deep in places. Full winter equipment and knowledge necessary for safe travel. Skiing looks great, running was tough, mountaineering great fun right now. Climbing on the Crags would most likely be more like swimming. Stay safe, have fun!”
Friday had finally arrived and James Thurlow very kindly dropped off a tracker. I must thank everyone for the messages of good luck; it definitely helped spur me on. I’d printed out a schedule for Jim Mann’s winter record of 18:18—I knew this was unrealistic given the conditions, but this didn’t stop me chasing the schedule at least to Dunmail.
Standing at the Moot Hall I knew that I wanted to give it my best and was going to go relatively hard from the gun. I had Martin Mikellson-Barron on Leg 1 with Andy Thompson, Jim Scott and Rob Brown from Outward Bound escorting me up the slopes of Skiddaw. At midnight the epic adventure began full of enthusiasm and a bounce back in my stride. I got halfway up Latrigg before the Kahtoola MICROspikes® went on, where they stayed for 90% of the day. By the top of Skiddaw, it dawned on me how much snow there was on the fell. I found the stile off the back of Skiddaw bang on but drifted a little bit on the descent to Hare Crag, and I had waves of the same mistake as last time. This time it was a minor deviation, which was quickly corrected, and I was soon back on track. By the top of Blencathra, Martin and I were glad we were in the footsteps of Matt Reedy who very kindly set off at 7 p.m., leaving a reassuring trail for us for most of the day. The descents were fun with a nice glissading action, but the uphill was slow going, sinking into soft snow.
One of my question marks was which route off Blencathra? In the end I chose Halls Fell Ridge and it was one of my highlights of the Round; there was so much snow covering the rock that it made it a lot easier and fun. Sticking to the ridge was the safest way down and I could bounce like Tigger down to Threlkeld and, to my surprise, I was 5 minutes up on schedule: 2 hrs, 57 min.
A quick cup of coffee and I was on to Leg 2 with my new support runners, Steve Birkinshaw and Anthony Meanwell. This was probably the coldest point, but I was warm, happy, and still full of enthusiasm. The MICROspikes® were on by the end of the road, hiking well up the steep climb to Clough Head, but this was going to be a lot of effort in the snow. The Dodds to Raise normally can be quick going without expending too much energy, but not this time, with large accumulations of snow to wade through. I was starting to see the schedule slip yet was still working really hard. This was fine because I was giving my best and clearly doing well as Steve and Anthony were struggling at times. Then, heading over Helvellyn, the first of the early morning snow showers made things more interesting. I picked up the summits of Nethermost Pike and Dollwagon Pike as my pacers skirted the summits. Before descending to Grisdale Tarn I collected a few gels off Steve because Fairfield was going to be a solo affair. Meeting Steve and Anthony at the saddle, the final climb was Seat Sandal—on the way up we lost Steve. At the summit, without getting my compass out, I headed off in what I thought was the right direction with Anthony in tow. You should have heard my expletive when I hit the wall and gate and realised what I had done. It could be worse, like missing a summit, but added some extra road on the way back up to Dunmail. Curse and carry on. The schedule was starting to slip, but I was still going incredibly well without any issues.
Leg 3 was the first time I had fully met my support runner, Mike Barron, and I’m extremely pleased he volunteered for this. My road support for Legs 2 and 3 was Jon Tombs; my thanks goes to him, particularly for sleeping in a car in the snow at Dunmail. It was still snowing as we weaved our way up Seat Sandal, popped out on top and started the trudge. It was slow going with mist, snow, drizzle, thawing snow and difficult terrain with plenty of hollows to gather snow, but we kept moving. Mike did a brilliant job of keeping me fed and my spirits high, trying to find the easiest route between the summits—but there is no easy route. My focus changed, I was behind schedule, and just wanted to complete in the best possible spirit. A big low point was scrambling up Pike of Stickle, when the only option was to sit down, suck on a gel, and head off again.
Thankfully, halfway up Bowfell, we found harder snow and the going became slightly easier. The mind started to pick up and I started to try and shift again—the top of England is not far away. I saw the first walkers of the day on Scafell Pike and then for the part Mike and I had been most nervous about: the climb up Lords Rake. The snow was deep, not icy, and we could climb steadily to the top. A nip up to the top of Scafell then it was down towards Wasdale. What an epic leg, and in my head realised I was going to do this! I changed thermals in Wasdale and ate well before heading out on Leg 4; I had been pushing hard. Mike did an amazing job and thanks to Sam Ware for covering the road support at Wasdale.
Leg 4 support runner was Andy Thompson and we found the first climb up Yewbarrow was slow; I was lacking energy again. On reaching the top the MICROspikes® went on and I got back on with the job in hand. This was probably the nicest leg with patches of clear sky and cracking views and we kept on rolling along with Andy feeding the machine. Climbing up Kirk Fell with the red sky was stunning, although this meant darkness would come along too quickly. Great Gable is always tough and from the top I knew we needed to take a bearing as I didn’t want to end up at Sty head tarn! We set off, me ahead leading the way, but it didn’t feel right and we were heading towards Sty Head; fortunately, it was not too late to easily solve the problem. We soon ticked off the last three tops and rolled into Honister, Leg 4 complete. Thank you, Andy. I couldn’t have done Leg 4 without you.
There was a mini-crowd to join me on Leg 5. Becx Carter was there on road support, having made it up Honister in the wintery conditions (and then safely down again). Thank you, Becx. Jim Mann joined me, having already run the Tour de Helvellyn and still had bounce. Martin was back and Scoffer even turned up to help. I was mentally stuck in no man’s land with no incentive to push extremely hard; I grinded it out and started to struggle with a painful hip flexor (not a surprise with all the stabilization needed in the snow). I came off the fell onto the final road section and reflected that eight years ago it was a breeze; however, this time around it was mentally and physically tough, and my body was shutting down. I had to shout at myself a few times, but Keswick arrived and the glorious view of the Moot Hall. A crowd had turned up to see me finish. Thank you for making it a special occasion. The smile on my face is why I wanted to run a winter Bob Graham Round.
I’m extremely happy with a 20:36 time for a full winter Bob Graham Round, and to have performed again. A great Christmas present!
Read more from U.K.-based endurance athlete Kim Collison at www.kimcollisonblog.wordpress.com