Sunday, 27 December 2009

Post script: Recovery and reflection

I wanted to write the midwinter round up in such a way as to celebrate what we did. and rightly so. I think the write up of the round (the post beneath this one) reflects the difficulties and the spirit of that amazing day.

But I don't want to hide from the fact that I didn't get under 24 hours, nor do I want to miss out on the small-ish window of time where the memory is fresh enough to capture what could have been done differently on that day to perhaps enable me to dip underneath 24 hours.

I also want to finish this blog by reflecting on what I might do next...

So, what did I learn?

Lesson one - Choosing the right shoe when the ground is hard

I did the round in 2 pairs of Innov8 x-talons. One old pair for leg one which I knew were going to be soaked during the Caldew river crossing, and a new pair (worn for one long run only beforehand) for the rest. I chose them for their grip mainly - their sticky rubber being perfect I thought for the likely challenges of ice and snow covered grass and rocks.

What I have learned is that winter conditions like those I had means the ground is hard all the way round. X-talons, even a new pair, offer next to no cushioning and support (that's not what they are designed for) and all the hard ground on the typically downhill runnable sections means that your quads are having to deal with quite a lot more impact on each step than in the summer, when much of the impact is dissipated through the softer ground. All of that extra impact adds up.

I should have worn my Roclites, which are slightly more cushioned and whose grip would have actually been fine. They are a great shoe for longer stuff. In fact I did much of my training in Roclites and should have kept faith with them.

I think this went some way towards my bad patch on the descent from Scafell, something I'm not sure I fully recovered from afterwards.

Lesson Two - The cold just slows you down

I rarely felt cold on the round, despite the minus plenty temperatures. But I was breathing in cold air continuously. The temperature never went above freezing throughout and the cold air you inhale means your body has to work harder to keep you warm. A buff or face mask may have helped but there was never going to be much I could do about this.

Lesson Three - Take warm drinks on the hills, not just at the road crossings

I knew that I'd need more calories on a winter round than a summer round. I like to try and get calories from the drinks as well as the food, and the 4:1 sports drink is something I tend to get on well with. So, I took plenty of it with me on the hills.

On every leg, the bottles started to freeze. This meant that shards of ice were forming inside the bottles and I was drinking them. Not only did this chill me from the inside, it unsettled my stomach, esp on leg 2 and 3 when temperatures were really low. This meant I was reluctant to ingest anything, food or drink, and this is not good news when on a 24 round. I did not eat or drink enough and I felt ill for long periods - and that took its toll.

What I would have loved was a warm cup of tea or soup. I should have ensured we had a half litre flask or two on each leg. It would have been easy to get a pacer to run ahead, pour it out and wait for me to catch up and swig it. It would have been better for mind and body. Seems obvious now but I decided to drink hot drinks at the road crossings only and this was not enough.

Lesson Four - Play to the strengths of your supporters on the hill

Putting your less quick runners (albeit runners with terrific mountain experience) on leg one when you are fresh to ensure you don't go out too fast doesn't work and isn't fair on them. It's leg 5 where you need a steady hand and someone who wouldn't be afraid of telling you straight that you're falling back on schedule but can also encourage you with humour and a bit of compassion. You shouldn't 'waste' them on leg one. Leg one is best for people who are pretty quick and are willing to act as packhorses. Richard and Clive were perfect for leg five and I should not have put them on leg one (as it was, Clive did leg five too and proved my point, he was terrific!).

I also should not have asked clive to run leg one and do broad stand. As it was, he wasn;t feeling great after leg one and i'm so glad he didn;t go and set up BS. But that was too much to ask. I was staggered, in a good way, when Clive arrived at Honister to do leg five. Looking forward to supporting him on his round this summer.

Lesson Five - Plan your rest stops as much as your time on the fells

Alison and Rob were brilliant as road support - they were where i needed them to be, when i needed them to be there and with food and drink to hand. But i hadn't given them a list of exactly what i needed to do. I relied upon myself to remember and sort it myself - silly. I wanted to take pruffen at each one and forgot at all of them which i'm sure would have helped. I wanted to change socks and base layer. I should have had a selection of food that i;d tried, but i didn't. Rob and Alison were great, but i didn;t think enough about what i needed from them to get the most out of their efforts. So they put everything out that i gave to them and I winged it. I should have given them a checklist - take pruffen, change socks/top, replace batteries in torch/GPS, replace gloves/hat if used on previous leg, provide food/drink etc etc. I didn't and the rest stops were more more stressful for me that they should have been.

So, plan your rest stops meticulously.

What next?

I'm still not sure how i feel about those extra 22 minutes. Perhaps I could go again before the end of February to get a winter round in under 24 hours? OK it's not midwinter, but I'm content that I've done a tough mid-winter round. But it's an itch I might have to scratch one day....

Problem is, I don;t want to drag loads of supporters up there again. It could take the pi55 a bit with people. I'm also really taken with the idea of a solo round. I love the idea of having a big, solo day out on the hills.

I like big days out alone, looking after myself. I loved the support i had for both my BGRs but solo seems to be the next step.

On balance, the appeal of doing a solo round is much stronger than re-doing a winter round and finding those 22 mins. I think doing another winter round would potentially detract from the achivement of the mid-winter epic that is still leaving me feeling pleasantly tired of an evening. I loved that day out and wouldn't want to just try and repeat it.

Problem is, if i'm fit, and there's a mild period of benign weather towards the end of February, could I resist the lure of sneaking in a solo sub 24 hour winter round?

Hmmm, not sure...

But why the BGR, again?

I could do the Paddy Buckley, the Ramsey, the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc? There's a big wide world out there.

I may well end up doing those things, but i;m a sucker for the lakes. It's always been and will always be my favourite place.

There's Steve Parr's 2500' summits round, a 36 hour epic i like the look of. Maybe i could do that as a build up to something even bigger. For me, the ultimate goal would be to do the Wainwrights in one continuous trip, a la Joss Naylor. I couldn't hold a candle to him of course, but I've always liked the idea of that trip as a multi-day epic.

I'm not sure that's one for 2010 though, i think a number of 24 hour rounds need to be bagged before I can contemplate that.

I do like the idea of the Paddy Buckley, esp as it's closer to home (the Carneddau are an hour from my house). Perhaps I could do a solo BGR in the late winter/spring as part of the build up to a summer PBR. Then maybe the Steve Parr round in 2011 and the Wainwrights in 2012?

That could work....

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

In the Bleak Midwinter - the Story of the Round, 18/19 December 2009

The final strides towards the summit of Scafell Pike. Temperature: -14 Celsius, approx. From here on, things changed... Photo - Bob Wightman


I suppose the purist in me should be reporting a failure - a completed mid-winter round, but in a slovenly, non BGR-club compliant 24 hours and 22 minutes. I guess what this account should place emphasis upon is why I didn't make the time and to provide some kind of lessons learned report.

But this isn't a project. It's an intense physical and emotional experience. It also contained the achievements and successes of many people. Now is not the time for some kind of post-mortem. It was one hell of a day and it's worth recording and celebrating. That's what this account is going to do - to celebrate a brilliant day, shared with many brilliant people - old friends and new.

Leg One - Keswick to Threlkeld. @8pm - midnight. 13 miles, 5200' ascent

Summits - 3 - Skiddaw, Great Calva, Blencathra

Support - Clive King, Simon Martland, Richard Kenworthy

You know you're in for something of a day when two complete strangers wander up to you and ask with incredulity whether you're about to do the Bob Graham. Yes, now. Today. In a minute in fact. Yes really. I'd been trying to hide the enormity of the prospect from my brain and just focus on Skiddaw, the first ascent. That was blown out of the water when the two guys wandered off towards the pub shaking their heads in disbelief. It was here at last.

It was also cold. Minus 2 in the car in Keswick and dropping by the second. I knew that standing around was the last thing I should be doing and so with my support team of Richard, Clive and Simon all present and correct, we set off at 7:53. No point hanging around until 8pm. Adjust your schedules accordingly....

We moved through the streets of Keswick, towards the Fitz Park footbridge (thankfully open after the floods) and away to Latrigg. I was taking it pretty easy, walking the ups and jogging the rest. It was getting colder as we climbed, but I was working up quite a sweat. I noticed that my pacers were also getting a little hot and bothered.

25 minutes and we were at the car park below Skiddaw - an easy pace. As we moved towards the first, formidable climb up Jenkin Hill on Skiddaw, we split quite quickly. It grew colder and Clive was hanging onto me and feeding me drinks. Simon caught up at the fence but Richard seemed to be struggling a little. Was the pace too hot? I'd asked these guys to keep me on a four hour pace for leg one, a slow, steady start. I was worried I was doing too much at the start.

We reached the top of Skiddaw after 82 minutes and it felt very easy to me. We regrouped and jogged off the summit in search of that trod on Hare Crag. Navigationally, this is the key to leg 1. I was worried about Richard, who I feared we would drop, and I didn't want anyone on their own in this cold on these hills. So, we agreed he would miss out calva and meet us at the river crossing point at Calva's base, a point that I knew he had stored in his GPS. This also had the advantage of giving us a light to aim at when coming off Calva through the heather.

Off we went up Calva and made that summit just 40 minutes after leaving skiddaw. It was very cold. Wasting no time, we moved down the heather towards the big bend in the Caldew where it's easiest to cross. I hoped that Richard would be there waiting for us. As we approached, it was clear that there was no light to guide us in. My GPS got us bang on to the bend in the river and the shouting started in trying to locate Rich. Thankfully, we saw his light approaching. He looked a little way off and so I asked of Simon and Clive, "Who's got the food?". Clive had it and so we two pushed on towards Blencathra. I was worried about Richard and was glad that Simon agreed to wait for him. I was looking back every few steps, craving to see their two lights moving together towards us - a sign that all was ok. Duly, this happened and I knew we didn't have to stop and help, something that would always take priority over a 24 hour round. If Simon had have indicated a problem I'd have gone to Richard's aid in no time - no round is so important that to put your friends at risk. It turns out that Richard's chest was playing up and he was just having a bad day (night!). We'd done the leg together before and I knew he was up to it but it was one of those occasions. I'm grateful for Rich for being prepared to come out and help when he was struggling (runners are the worst people to admit things are up in advance) and I'm very grateful to Simon Martland, who was terrific in helping Richard complete the leg half an hour behind us.

Clive and I pushed on up Blencathra at a good pace. Clive was working hard but I kept telling him that this was the last climb and he was moving well. He fed and watered me well, even though he seemed on his limit.

As we moved past the top of Mungrisedale Common, the starscape just blew us away. The ground flattens a little for a time and a track helps progress, so we turned off our headtorches and just gorped at the stars as we walked. I have never seen a night sky so festooned with stars and galaxies. It was bitterly cold, but I felt priveleged to be out in this.

Blencathra drew nearer and the steep climb towards the top provided a scary moment. Clive paused to lose a layer as his Buffalo was baking his torso, despite the cold. He was working hard. I pushed on and as I reached the summit, I looked up to see no clive and no light. A little wisp of clag parted us and I worried that I'd conspired to lose all three pacers! I saw his light - and he has a really posh expensive headtorch (version 4 of something most gear freaks seemed to have version 2 of, more than that I could not tell you!). I shone my light towards him and shouted but he could not see me. I jogged back down a few yards and there he was, plodding upwards looking resolute. As soon as he saw me, he offered me food and water. He was looking tired but still was pre-occupied with my welfare.

Blencthra's top was even colder, and there was plenty of ice underfoot. I decided that Hallsfell Ridge, the direct route down, would be unsafe in the dark, and so we jogged along to Doddick Fell, a parallel ridge down which is a little longer but much safer. I enjoyed this descent and found it effortless. Clive was still feeling a little hot but got down ok. I was still worried about Simon and Richard and suspected they were finding an easier way off the mountain (in fact they took the same route as us, just a way behind us).

Arrival in Threlkeld was odd. I was baking hot and yet everyone was wrapped up well. It was good to see my terrific supporters for sure. As they emerged from their cars, they reported a temperature of minus 6 in Threlkeld. Heaven knows what that meant for the tops. Clive pulled alongside me and his leg one was done. He looked tired but had done a good job keeping me company.

I changed shoes and socks, had tea and rice pudding and was soon on my way. I felt good. I wanted an easy paced leg 1 - something around 4 hours. We did it, detour and all, in 3:55. Part of me wished it was faster, but with the fast trio of Peter Taylor, Simon Ellis and Ian Lancaster ready to take me on a starlit tour of the Dodds, I realised that a leisurely leg one was no bad thing as speed would not be lacking over the next four hours.

Leg 2 Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise. Midnight - @0430. 16 miles, 6200' ascent

Summits - 12 - Clough Head, Great Dodd, Watson's Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise, White Side, Helvellyn Lower Man, Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Fairfield, Seat Sandal

Support - Ian Lancaster, Simon Ellis, Peter Taylor

Once we moved onto the marshy ground below Clough Head, moving at a good rate and with food and drink easy to hand, it felt like the round was starting in earnest. Leg one was about getting through intact and roughly on time. Leg two was about getting to Dunmail in good shape with at least a little time in the bank.

So as we moved along, I felt good, like I was getting used to the cold. That north face of Clough Head is always pretty cold but it seemed ok. Simon and I chatted as we climbed, Peter and Ian chatting behind us. It felt easy, but not that easy, like I'd moved up a gear from leg 1 but there were several gears left.

As we gained more and more height and reached the upper reaches of Clough Head, I was feeling really confident. Just as I felt like i was adjusting to the increasingly cold weather, I suddenly felt really hot in my chest. Just as I was about to panic, I heard my phone ring in my chest pocket! At just before 1am. I dutifully answered it. It was Wayne Percival, a friend of Simon's who I had never met but was willing to walk from Honister to Black Sail later on and provide some food. He was ringing to check I was actually going ahead with this so he could set off from Warrington with certainty! I said yes, even though Black Sail on leg four seemed a long long way off, too far off to comfortably think about.

Clough Head summit came after a tough climb, not flat out but not easy either. We topped out there 50 mins after leaving Threlkeld which I thought was good going. I ate plenty of food at the road stop and on the way up and as we ran from the top of Clough Head, I started feeling sick in my stomach. I asked Ian, Simon and Pete if we could walk some of the down to Calfhow Pike as I was getting bad stitch. I figured we could borrow a minute or two of the time we gained on Clough Head. So, walking a down that would normally be run and then climbing Great Dodd at a steady pace, I expected to be well outside the 29 min split. I was amazed to find that we were inside it, just by one minute, but it was an encourgaing sign that I was going well.

The Dodds and other summits on that lofty ridge came and went with no difficulties. It was the most serene section of the whole round. The three guys were feeding and watering me and we made up time on the schedule. The water was feeling colder and colder. Ice appeared in two of the bottles and it started playing havoc with my stomach again. As we climbed Fairfield, I had a mini bad-patch. I felt ill rather than tired, and wanted to just throw up. I drank some of Ian's bottle, which he had stored inside his sack and not on the outside. It was warmer and I felt a bit better after that. We pushed up that climb and despite the dodgy stomach, I was up there in schedule time, despite a slowish, slippery descent from Dollywaggon and an iffy stomach. This meant I was still going well.

Descending Fairfield was fun, the usually loose scree all frozen together and making for harder ground but faster running. I started thinking of Dunmail and more rice pudding. I couldn't face the idea. Food was what I needed, but the last thing I wanted, something which can be really dangerous. I felt sick again. I'd also gone a bit quiet, which Ian had noticed and we all upped the conversation somewhat over Seat Sandal. That climb seemed to go well and we picked up a decent line off towards Dunmail. Despite not finding the trod on the west ridge until some way down, we made good progress and I was sad in many ways that leg 2 was coming to an end. The lights on Dunmail were unmistakably for us and despite having a very cold, efficient, successful leg, it was good to sit in that chair.

Arrival at Dunmail was presented with a surprise. My big brother Graham, and fiance Rachel were there as surprise supporters! Graham has no idea about the whole fellrunning thing really, never mind a 24 hour, mid-winter round. I'd never even met Rachel. And yet there they were! It was a real boost, more so for I was feeling fit, albeit a bit sick. They'd driven up from Derby, slept in their car and waited in the middle of nowhere for my arrival. It was brilliant. This was to be a day full of people going the extra mile, Graham and Rachel included. They got in there, got cold, got to know everyone, helped me and helped the helpers....thanks Bruv...

A bit of food was forced down. I was not feeling good. It was time for the toughest leg, Dunmail to Wasdale. After over eight hours out and with 28 miles and 11,000 feet climbed, there were still three hours of darkness to go before sunrise somewhere near Rossett Pike. I had no choice to push the bad feelings to one side and to move. I was getting cold, everyone else looked freezing, and there was one hell of a job to be done.

Leg 3 Dunmail Raise to Wasdale. @0430 - 1100. 18 miles, 7000' ascent (when done via Foxes Tarn)

Summits - 15 - Steel Fell, Calf Crag, Sergeant Man, High Raise, Thunacar Knott, Harrison Stickle, Pike o'Stickle, Rossett Pike, Bowfell, Esk Pike, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag, Scafell Pike, Scafell

Support - Dave Hindley, Alan Lucker, Will (sorry mate, never asked for your surname!), Bob Wightman, Ian Charters

Leg 3 is a long way and can break many a BGR. It's important to have good support, especially when half of it is going to be done in the darkness.

I had arranged support with a mixture of people I knew and people I didn't. All were keen to help. Because of the perils of injury, I was now facing a leg supported by people that I had either barely or never met. When my support fell through for leg 3, I turned to the FRA forum for help, and Ian Charters, Alan Lucker (who bought his mate Will) and Bob Wightman (he of the BGR website and general all round oracle) jumped to my aid. Dave Hindley was already down to help, but I didn't know Dave that well either. I was so chuffed and grateful to them all, but here now, at 0430 with a critical period ahead, was it too risky a move to entrust this leg people who I didn't know?

Short answer was no, it was not risky - I was in excellent hands. Everyone on that leg was more than competant in the mountains, and they were all good souls to boot! Ian Charters and I had met in much warmer circumstances on the Lake District Mountain Trial when we both overheated somewhere around Seathwaite Tarn. We're also both serial bloggers (see link to Ian's blog on the right hand side of this one). Alan I'd never met, but we had a mutual aquaintance in Simon Ellis, who reassured me that Alan was top draw, being a veteran of the BGR, Ramsey Round and the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc. It helped that he was a cracking lad too, as was his mate Will who joined the party. Bob Wightman had also volunteered to join us via the FRA Forum. He is the BGR oracle, some would say (not him though, far too modest!). His website is the source of advice, information and his famous schedules which capture the learning from umpteen previous rounds. I felt like I was in illustrious company, despite not knowing any of these lads too well. Dave Hindley is a mate of my good friend Dave Sykes from Tattenhall Runners. Dave's a top bloke who is aspiring to do a summer round in 2010 having failed to make it in 09.

That steep and sharp climb up Steel Fell was a time for introductions. It was weird, but not unpleasant to be doing this on your own round. It certainly took the edge of that horrible pull up Steel Fell to the ridge - a 1000' grind up a steepening grassy slope.

As we moved, I was worried that these guys would feel my pace was too slow. Sure enough, two of them ran off ahead and I feared frustration would set in for them. It turned out of course that I had no cause to worry. Alan and Will were simply pathfinding on that stretch between Steel Fell (which we ascended bang on schedule) and Calf Crag and beyond to Sergeant Man. They were brilliant in those darkness hours in showing the way, filling water bottles at opportune streams and being damn good to have on a round.

Gathering some chilly streamwater early on leg 3. Photo - Ian Charters

I was feeling fairly numb for the darkness section of leg 3, until Harrison Stickle at least - not good, not bad, just able to move well enough without too much strain. The group got a little ahead of me coming off Harrison (most missed it out and went to Pike o'Stickle) although Alan stayed with me. At least I think it was Alan. This was the problem. I didn't know who anyone was! Whoever it was was great and escorted me to Pike o'Stickle, still some way back from the group. I could see them waiting at the start of the section to Martcrag Moor and so Alan and I climbed Pike o'Stickle's last few rocky, scrambly and entertaining few metres. The ice was increasingly evident and we needed to take a little care getting off.

Climbing Pike o'Stickle, still in the dark. Photo - Alan Lucker

We caught the waiting group and I felt slow. Not a bad patch exactly, just a lowreing in confidence perhaps. Bob soon announced that I was halfway (I always thought Rossett Pike was halfway, although we were on our way there so I'm splitting hairs). You'd think this would make me feel better, as though a milestone had been reached but I felt ill at ease. Why? I ran along Martcrag Moor, for once a joyful place to run for being frozen (it's usually an unpleasant, energy sapping section that's wet underfoot). I soon realised as we approached the beck below Rossett Pike that I really needed a crap, and I wasn't feeling great because I was carrying, ahem, some extra weight! I became convinced that doing what needed doing would make me feel much better. So, tissues in hand, I found a spot and did what I needed to do, making use of the ample snow around to, erm, cover my tracks.

Rossett Pike came soon enough and I did start to feel much better. This might have been to do with the intestinal relief I was feeling, but I am sure it was mostly to do with the fact that the blackness that had been with me from mile 1 was looking distinctly cobalt - the sun was coming up.

And boy did it come up.

Sunrise on the flanks of Bowfell. Photo - Ian Charters

Sunrise from Calf Cove, near Great End. Photo - Ian Charters

Rosy pink rocks on a cold Esk Pike. Photo - Ian Charters

I have never seen a sunrise like it which, combined with never having been so desperate for the sun to come up, made for a magnificent experience. Arguably the highlight of the round. The photos are great, but they don't capture the glory of it. Nothing could. I am so grateful that the sun rose whilst the skies were still clear.

Needless to say, it provided a boost, and I found myself motoring well inside the schedule from Bowfell through to Scafell Pike, even running some of the ups. I was really enjoying this and it was a privelege to be out in such fantastic, if a little cold conditions.

Distant temperature inversion over Windermere. Photo - Ian Charters

"Running the ups" on Great End. Photo - Alan Lucker

Cold and clear - Dave Hindley's sweat icicle! Photo - Ian Charters

As we approached the summit of Scafell Pike, we entered some clag which we'd seen coming in off the sea towards the fells of leg 4. It was clear from looking over to leg 4, towards Mosedale, down to Eskdale and even back the way we came that the weather was starting to change and the round was entering a new phase. Bob decided he was going to head down to Wasdale and miss out Scafell. Perhaps he too had noticed the subtle changes that were afoot. I reflected on having enjoyed Bob's company as we bid him a safe trip to the valley.

Here comes the weather - clouds rolling into the Mosedale fells awaiting us on leg 4. Photo - Ian Charters

A weak sun tries to penetrate the gathering clouds - near Scafell Pike. Photo - Ian Charters

The final few meters of Scafell Pike from Broad Crag. Photo - Bob Wightman

As we left Scafell Pike in a thin clag, sans Bob, we went astray by drifting too far right. A quick check of my GPS revealed we needed to traverse left. We did so to find ourselves some way below the stretcher box on Mickledore on the Eskdale side and Scafell Pike's rough flanks. We had received word earlier in the day that Broad Stand was not going to be set up as Clive was not feeling great after his leg one exploits - a lesson there perhaps in terms of over committing supporters? With Foxes Tarn our next target, we aimed across a rough traverse to find ourselves on the loose path from Mickledore to the Foxes Tarn outlet.

Going astray (slightly!) coming off Scafell Pike. Photo - Alan Lucker

We reached the foot of the obvious gully that guides the outflow from Foxes Tarn. The usual practice is to follow this up to the tarn before striking up the path to the summit of Scafell. I wasn't too worried about missing out the shortcut that is Broad Stand as we were slightly ahead of schedule and I felt ok. Just a simple climb and before I knew it I'd be descending towards Wasdale and some food, a sit down and a nice cup of tea....

The Foxes Tarn gully was full of ice. Lots of really iffy water ice which takes extra time and extra energy to negotiate. We ended up climbing out of the gully and into the grassy slope on the left. It took ages, or it seemed to. I actually quite enjoyed it, I like a bit of a scramble. But then I realised that I was dropping time and losing energy. I had somehow stopped eating and drinking since Broad Crag and when we finally topped out on Scafell, 47 minutes after leaving Scafell Pike (not bad considering!), I was starting to feel tired. I was climbing well, but the descents were starting to hurt. The descent from Scafell is the single biggest drop on the round and so this was the worst place for this to happen.

Descending Scafell in increasing pain. Photo - Alan Lucker

The further we dropped, the more the team just pulled away. Ian stayed with me but I coud see his increasing concern as I slowed and slowed, quads just pleading with me to stop. I entered into a very very bad patch. How can I get down? How on earth can I keep going? I usually use the scree run down Rakehead Crag but ice meant that was out of commission. So the one bit where the ground might ease the burden was out of bounds, and so down I went via the longer route. Slower and slower.

It usually takes me less than half an hour to get down from Scafell's lofty summit. This time it took me 45 mins. I was behind my schedule now but roughly on Bob Wightman's 23.5 hour schedule. I just kept trying to keep moving, not eating or drinking. I was getting worse.

We hit the valley and a short run to the waiting deckchair along the flat provided some small hope. It didn't feel that bad! But the bad patch was doing its damage and I sat down at Wasdale convinced that I was not going to make it. I was holding back a tear or two. An hour ago, and every hour before that, I felt great. Why were the wheels now coming off?

Alison, Graham and Tanker Rob were all trying to make me feel better. I was close to tears. I focussed and drank water, 4:1, tea, nuun and shoved a little pasta down. I could see my Tattenhall friends waiting to take on on a tour of the Pillar and Gable ranges on leg 4. They were looking at me with some nervousness - how on earth can we pick him up? My leg 3 supporters had delvered me in good time to Wasdale and I wish I was in better shape.

Leg four was going to be make or break as it often is on BGRs, but perhaps today in these bitter conditions more than ever...

Worried faces at Wasdale. Photo - Alan Lucker.

Leg Four - Wasdale to Honister. @11.30 - 17.00. 12 miles, 6400' ascent

Summits - 9 - Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Steeple, Pillar, Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Green Gable, Brandreth, Grey Knotts

Support - Dave Sykes, Paul Miller, Andrew Gooda, Nick Holmes

Yewbarrow. Never easy, but coming straight after a bad patch it seemed impossible. I had hoped to knock a cheeky 5 minutes off the standard schedule time when I was sat in my lounge supping tea in Rossett, but now I wanted to make the standard 50 minutes. It was cold and I was feeling really low on confidence. We set off and I decided not to think about how I felt. No point dwelling on it. Dave Hindley decided to join us having done leg three, but changed his mind pretty quickly on Yewbarrow. Oddly, I felt better for that, much as I like Dave's company. It just made me realise that I was going ok again.

Andrew gave me a litre of nuun electrolite drinks on the way up. It worked. 50 mins dead and feeling better. Red Pike took 48, 2 mins up. Steeple 18 mins, 6 mins up and then Pillar, 30 mins, 4 mins up. Despite the mist and cold, the leg four boys were feeding me and gently urging me on, and I felt better and better.

Smiles on leg 4.

Moving together well on leg 4. Photos - Dave Sykes

As we ran off Pillar I rejoiced. I was actually running off Pillar, just like I wasn't doing when I descended Scafell. There, I felt like there was no way I could get round. Here, I felt like there was no stopping me.

Things then got better still. Having seen very few people all day other than my supporters, a chap came flying past suddenly. "Are you Mark?". Memories of my early phone call on Clough Head came flooding back as Wayne, proprietor of the newly established Black Sail canteen reassured us that sustenance awaited us at Black Sail. He'd actually missed us on Pillar, somehow. We pushed on. I didn't know Wayne from Adam. But WHAT a star. We arrived to soup, food, more food and tea and coffee. They must have been so cold, Wayne and his son. I think Wayne's done a round and his lad is keen to do one soon. I'm not sure I made for a good advert. Still, as Nick rejoiced at the 'sports eccles cakes', I got two cups of soup down me and felt like the world was a cheery place!

Thanking Wayne, whilst not quite believing he was ever there, we set off up Kirk Fell via the rocky rib (actually, a bit to the right...) and soon arrived on the top. The weather then turned, having already drifted into being a bit iffy. If was now getting wild and cold. We were still making some good splits but it couldn't last. Gable lay ahead and a turning point. From there, it's easier ground and the home straight. However, that turning point meant turning north, which is where the gale and snow were coming from.

We reached Gable in good time (40 mins from Kirk Fell) and I was climbing well. But it was really cold up there. I was tiring again and felt like I needed a hot drink. I could also sense it was getting darker, everso slightly. My spirits dropped.

A freezing Gable summit. Photo - Dave Sykes

I didn't seem to slow down as we bagged Green Gable and the last two peaks, but I felt like time was slipping away. I think I was just finding the strong headwind and falling snow more tiring than I thought I would. By the time I reached Honister, I was starting to feel scared. The darkness was very pronounced and the snow was becoming a blizzard. These were serious conditions and I was a tired bunny.

Just above Honister, Pete Taylor appeared with my brother Graham. Just 200 feet above the slate mine. We skipped past as they shouted their encouragement. Graham has just had knee surgery and I wondered how he was going to get down.

When I got down, it was clear that I couldn't stay long. I had just over three hours if I was to meet the 24 hour target. The conditions and my quads were not producing good odds. It was time to start reassessing goals.

First thing's first - drinks. Graham and Rachel, brilliantly, got me a Costa Coffee (a latte in fact) from Keswick and delivered it warm, complete with take-out cup to my grateful hands at Honister. It was bloody lovely. We joked about this beforehand, but they sorted it out for me and it was one of those simple things that really moved me that day.

Something else that moved me was the fact that several people were ready to go with me into a blizzard in the pitch black to knock off leg 5, including three from leg 4. I was frightened as these conditions were really getting silly, but friends showing such support helps you find courage.

Leg Five - Honister to Keswick. 16.50 - 20.12. 13 miles, 2500' ascent

Summits - 3 - Dale Head, Hindscarth, Robinson

Support - Dave Sykes, Paul Miller, Andrew Gooda from leg four plus Clive King (from leg one), Jen Taylor and Gaz Evans

Leg five started with more nerves than leg one. A blizzard, darkness and the start of the realisation that 24 hours was going to be tight. I could barely eat at Honister and didn;t drink too much either. I was numb and it was wild.

The climb up Dale Head is one I've done several times, but not like this. We started on the left of the fence, didn;t cross and actually bore the brunt of the wind for too long in a slightly more exposed section. We crossed the fence and the going got a little easier. Paul and Dave were ahead, showing the way whilst Jen and Clive fed me and tried to protect me from the wind - a noble and selfless act! I just plodded, drinking icy 4:1 and chewing sweets.

I locked into autopilot and counted my steps, trying to create a noise in my head that would drown out the fierce wind. I noticed a new and odd noise. It sounded like cardboard rubbing against cardboard. The wind and sudden drop in termperature had frozen my clothes to such a degree that they were rigid. The noise they made was quite disconcerting, so I focussed harder on counting steps.

Sure enough, Dale Head summit arrived, 36 mins after leaving Honister. I had dropped 1 minute on the 23.5 hour scehedule but I considered that not bad given teh weather. Hindscarth followed and the snow got worse. We made that summit a couple of minutes under the schedule and I felt amazed. I was still climbing well.

The final climb up Robinson is 500', just enough to require a bit of mental effort. I counted steps again and followed the lights ahead. It felt harder than the other climbs but arrival on teh 42nd and final summit came soon and I was frantic, checking the watch and doing the maths.

I had 98 minutes to get to Keswick. the 23.5 hour schedule allows 100. I had a chance, but it was a narrow chance. The darkness, snow, wind and ice were all conspiring against me. So were my quads. We dropped down that ridge, having to pause to check the route on occasion, and eventually made it to the rock step that I remember bounding down on my summer round. Not this time matey. It was icy as hell and slow going. I felt the time slipping away. By the time we descended off the main ridge and down to the track, I knew the 24 hour target was remote.

We jogged slowly (but we didn't walk) to Newlands. The track seemed to go on forever. I asked Paul how long the track was. He must have sensed I was a bt desperate.

We got to the road and the cars and before I knew it, my road shoes were on. I annouced that I was going to finish, no matter what the time. I had 42 mins to run 4.5 miles, and yet i knew it was too much.

My legs were shot, my right knee was gone and there was black ice everywhere. Running was nigh on impossible. Despite Rob, Alison, Andrew and my brother Graham trying to get me to move faster, it became clear that completion on a tough day was going to be the achivement today, and not a 24 hour round.

We crossed the pedestrian bridge that was in danger of collapse. A sign heart-heartedly said the bridge was closed, but there were no barriers and the sign looked like it had been moved asid. I just didn't care to take a detour and across I went! "Take me now" I thought, not caring if the bridge collapsed, tempting fate like only a weary man can. I was just so tired. The 24 hour deadline came up just short of the suspenstion footbridge and I was mentally spent.

And so we walked. Keswick beckoned, less than a mile away. I stopped and had a pee. Time didn't matter now and I was really uncomfortable. My supporters were patiently waiting. We hit the streets of Keswick and I could see my fantastic supporters gathered by the Moot Hall. I ran, somehow, the last 5 yards and touched the railings, 24 hours and 22 minutes since setting off.

People were cheering, but there was a palpable sense of disappointment. Everyone was at pains to point out that it was an achivement to be proud of. No-one said 'never mind'. Everyone was just brilliant to me.

I was upset, inwardly. I was not going to bring this day down for everyone. I could only manage a meek wave and a few photos were taken. My brother was lively and so proud, as was Alison. Andrew Gooda, who is a dream BGR supporter amongst many here today and who had accompanied me from Wasdale, uncharacteristically stuck an arm round me and said he was proud of me. That almost set me off - a very human and kind gesture, perfectly pitched. Peter gave me his down jacket, 'pre-warmed' as he put it - the coat off his back. I saw Alison and Tanker Rob, the road crew, looking real tired. They had been very selfless and I couldn't help feeling i'd let them down. I was touched and decided that these people deserved this to be an achivement to celebrate, not a failure to analyse.

All over now!!

So, we decanted to a pub. I felt more sore than tired, and my knee started to swell up. Someone got me a cup of tea and everyone settled in. A great atmosphere developed as everyone compared notes about their various 'bits' of the round. Wayne appeared with his young lad and was full of praise rather than any sense of pity or commiseration. I couldn't understand why he was impressed though, I was still thinking about the 22 minutes and not the 24 hours.

I got changed and reappeared from the toilets to a cheer. Jen Taylor, who ran really well on leg 5, gave me a hug and said lots of very kind things. I began to feel much much better and resolved there and then to write this up as a wonderful, collective achievement, which is precisely what it is.

Monday, 21 December 2009

24:22 - I did it

A fuller report will follow soon, but I wanted to report that I did a full on mid-winter Bob Graham Round.

I had full winter conditions, with intense cold and clear weather (my guess is minus 15 on Helvellyn, given the minus 6/7 valley temp) giving way to blizzards and heavy snowfall. I may have missed the 24 hour target for BGRs, but given I've alrady done a sub 24 round in summer, for me this counts. Putting it another way, I am not going back to try again to recover those minutes.

My supporters on road and fell were magnificent, and there is a real story to tell. Thank you to all that helped from the bottom of my heart. I will do that over the next day or so, but I just wanted to post something to say it was over and to illustrate the day with a fitting photograph or two.


Peering down into Eskdale at sunrise. Photo - Ian Charters.

Running on the Scafell range. Photo - Alan Lucker

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Thursday 17 December - Stop Press

Just had a simple little text message from Clive King. Two little words that make me realise that the conditions could well be bang on.

The text read: Broadstand OK

Clive has typified what never seems to amaze me about fellrunners - their willingness to go to quite considerable lengths to help complete strangers. He's gone up to the lakes early whilst I'm sat here packing boxes and writing labels such as 'leg one food', 'Dunmail Box' etc.

Boxfest - the day before.....

I should add, I've only met Clive for about five minutes before a race. He's going to run leg one and rig up Broad Stand for me too. He followed up that text with one saying that he couldn't see any water-ice around. That's brilliant news. Makes me feel so much better. Clive, you're a star.

I'm now pretty much packed, GPS is loaded, food and drinks prepared, support all secured (thank you all so much in advance, and apologies in advance for the moodiness!). Phew...

It's weird in many ways because I don't think I'm quite as nervous as last time. When I did the BGR in summer 2007, the 24 hour thing was unknown. Now, I know I can handle that and that i'm probably a bit stronger too. I also know the fells even more intimately than before and my support is even more experienced.

We're ready!

So, if 'Broadstand ok' is the guide, we're set for a long dark brilliant day. I really cannot wait. See you on the other side...

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Wednesday 16 December - Major doubts

It's quite natural for dark thoughts to creep in about this sort of thing when the time approaches. And this is no exception. But it's not so much about whether i'm fit enough and or prepared enough. It's not even about the weather, well, not the atmospheric conditions anyway.

What I'm really worried about is the state of the ground.

It's been a cold week. The fells are going to be frozen over the weekend. So, with so much darkness, it's likely that the tops at least are going to be dodgy underfoot and hard to see just how dodgy. Descending at some speed into unseen patches of water ice which can be really dangerous at worst, and it can slow you down too much at best, rendering a round impossible. One thing's for sure - if it looks dodgy, I'm not risking the safety of those grand souls that are coming to help me for my own vanity and ambition.

I'm going to get up to the lakes as early as I can on Friday. I'll have a good look at the fells, esp Blencathra's south ridges and the slopes around Dunmail Raise.

If it comes to it, I'll call it off.

I've been really worried about this today, even though it's something I can't control. What's good about that is it means i've not been worried about that things i can control - they are all ok.

I;ve been spoilt by a successful summer round at the first attempt (albeit in awful weather) and supporting lots of other successful summer rounds. What does occur to me tonight with two days to go and a cold looking forecast is that there is every chance that this round will not succeed.

Success in the mountains owes a lot to judgement, more so as the conditions deterioate and aims rise. Success could mean getting round, or it could mean decding not to start and staying safe. We'll see.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Saturday 12 December - Best bits.....

One week to go and now im resting - no more runs...
When you're not training, you're reflecting on your training. Here are the best bits.

The start of the summer training, yes summer - Dave's BGR in early June - me at the summit of Esk Pike in a freak dawn snowstorm. Dave (in the background)flew round in less than 22 hours and showed us all how much fitter he'd become. I was made redundant a month after this but the storm clouds were gathering and I and was already starting to think about time on my hands and a winter round

Snow gully on Pillar - December 09. The last really long day out, with clear weather and whiteouts. A landmark training run - not least cos I felt brilliant for the whole 9 hours. This was the run that gave me the confidence that I could run well in winter for a long time.

Oct 24/25: The Original Mountain Marathon, day one - Paul Miller and I competed in the Long Score event, finishing 42nd from 250 teams. I felt strong, despite the tussocks and marshy ground. I loved that weekend in the remote Elan Valley in mid-wales.

One of the best shots of the whole campaign - Great Gable and the Scafell Range from Kirk Fell in the snow. It was really really really cold that day! December 2009.

Another great shot on a moody autumn day - Paul Miller running towards Haweswater from Nan Bield. We did a 9 hour day, about 25 miles and 10,000 feet around the far eastern fells. Great to run on some lakeland hills that aren't of the BGR.

Nick Holmes on a glorous freezing day on Arant Haw, Howgills. We had a superb run that day and I felt brilliant from start to finish.

The Nantlle ridge, snowdonia - a tough run on rough ground in a new area for me. I like the way this photo leads your eye frmo front to back.

A beautiful dawn on a generally foul day. I was out for 13.5 hours, starting in the dark and finishing in the dark. This dawn over Mickleden revealed itself so suddenly and vanished pretty quickly. It was a stunning moment on a long hard, lonely day.

I love the fells, and I have a soft spot for Landrovers so running past a landrover on the open fell was a sight that made me smile! There was no driver in sight near the summit of Bera Bach, Carneddau, Snowdonia. I really love this shot.

The war memorial on the lofty, frozen summit of Great Gable. This is the site of a remembrance day service each November. A month on, the poppies were still there.

Running up and down Penyolewen three times from Ogwen is a headbanging session. It does offer a brilliant view of Elidir Fawr though.

Just a few highlights from a really enjoyable period of fellrunning during autumn/winter 09.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Friday 11 December - And relax.....

Well, maybe not relax but the time has come to stop training.

It's at this time before any big race or event that you start to ask yourself whether it has been enough. Am I fit and strong enough physically to keep going for 66 miles, climbing 27,000 feet over 42 mountains? Am i mentally ready to keep going? Have I done enough to prepare for the darkness and the cold? Have I got enough support? Do I want this enough? Have I missed anything?

Training wise, I think I'm there. It's been a pretty solid four and half months of training, with every week (bar two) seeing 10,000 feet of climbing, usually more. I've not had the mammonth days out such as the Fellsman which I had for my summer BGR in 2007, but I've had a few days of 10ish hours, and one 13.5 hour day so that'll be ok. I've spent many many hours on the fells this autumn, more than last time so the legs and lungs are strong enough - if i rest from now that is...

On Wednesday this week I got my warning to rest and not run. I did my last pre-midwinter BGR run - an 18 mile outing in the Yorkshire Dales. I decided to run there as I had a job interview in Leeds on Thursday morning (went well, second interview promised in January) and wanted to be in that area on Wednesday night. I also wanted to go easy and pack less climbing in which made what Mike Harding refers to as 'the Striding Dales' a perfect choice with the peaks seperated by miles of rolling moorland. Of course, if you're not climbing up steep slopes, you're running and running is something i;ve done far less of than climbing - as i found out!

I ran up Penyghent, running every step and made the top in 40 mins. That's race pace but i did feel like i had another gear. I kept running at that sort of effort level until Ribblehead, making that in just over an hour from Penyghent. That was way too fast. I realised, as i stopped for a bit of food that my training hadn't really included much running. The BGR requires lots of strong climbing, which is fast walking really - lots of it up huge slopes. This is what I've been doing and consequently, I was knackered at Ribblehead and was disappointed at my apparent inability to run. Still, I had just run for 1:45 at race pace on muddy ground with a full pack so what was i expecting? Fed up, I turned left to climb Ingleborough and found myself climbing really quickly up Park Fell, an outlier of Ingleborough. I was relieved - it's important to know I can climb well on tired legs. I reached the summit of Ingleborough and then ran down that long descent to Horton. In all, I was out for 4 hours and covered 18 miles and 4000 feet ascent/descent.

I had planned to run again after this but realised at a stroke that I was really tired out. Not just from the run, not even simply from the 20,000 feet i ascended last week, but from the quarter of a million feet of ascent and descent that i've done since I started training for this in late July. For the first time since i started training, i felt like i'd had enough for now and needed a rest. So, as i sat drinking my chocolate protein shake in the boot of my car outside the Penyghent cafe, i decided that was it for the training. No more running, at all, until 20:00 - 18 December.

That decision still feels right, 2 days later. It's Friday morning and I'm going to spend the rest of the time between now and then getting the prep right.

The following is my to do list:

- Food plan - what i will eat beforehand, on the hill during each of the 5 legs, at each of the road crossings etc.
- Sort out road crossing arrangements - Alison and Tanker Rob are going to need clear instructions - where, when, what to takem what to feed me and the pacers, what to give to my hill support, what to take from them, what gear to have ready for me (down jacket, towel, fresh socks, mug of warm tea etc!)
- Finalise hill support - a few injuries mean a change of plan and some juggling of runners from leg to leg if they are willing to change
- Kit list - the monster list of everything i'll need on the hill, in the hut, the day before, the night afterwards. Don't forget the sleeping bag and fluffy pillow!
- Hill support information - specific instructions for pacers (timings, bearings, route notes, when/what to feed me, what gear of mine to take etc)
- Mega itinerary - single list of who needs to be where and when - including cars, runners starting and finishing, other support (black sail tea stop!, broad stand) - this is the main bit of info
- Shopping list - food and other bits i need to get for everyone else

Struth - good job i've stopped training!

The whole thing is starting to feel real now. Nothing brings that home more than the long range weather forecast which sees rising pressure and a cold week. It's likely the fells are going to be frozen, which is good for the marshy bits (Martcrag Moor, north of Clough Head, Calf Crag, much of leg 1) but is far less good for the rocky bits (second half of leg 3, bits of leg 4) and even less good for exposed sections (Halls Fell - Doddick Fell looking likely now; Broad Stand - really having reservations about this, despite a bloody generous offer to go rig it up). My hope is that the ground conditions allow the tricky bits and the good bits to balance out and that we get gorgeous cold, clear weather. Would it be too much to ask for a temperature inversion with clear air above and warm (relatively) fell tops and cold (absolutely) valleys??? The idea of a stunning cloud filled valley with peaks sticking out the top is a real possibility at this time of year and I'm starting to hope for that now that i've seen the forcast...although it could be banked out with snow rendering a round impossible. We'll see....

So, loads to do, no time to train. Lots of time to bring this event alive and get everything sorted. Hopefully that'll help me feel slightly less nervous and slightly more confident....