Once In A Lifetime
July 2005. A friend and I are on a drink-and-other-stimulants-soaked two day bender/expedition from Edale to Holmfirth. As we stumble down the Kinder plateau at Seal Stones, a man comes towards us in running gear and then passes us again a few minutes later, on his way back down. As we approach Gate Side Clough, he appears again, on his way back up the hill.
I look at him with incredulity and ask my friend “What the hell is he doing?”.
“I think he must be a fell runner” he replies.
“A fell runner. They run up steep hills and mountains”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“He must be mad”
Fast-forward to June 2018. I am throwing up at the top of Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England, Coca-Cola dripping out of my nose, as horrified walkers look on.
“Sorry” I mumble.
“Is he all right, can we help?” asks someone.
“No, he’s fine” says Dave, one of my pacers.
“He doesn’t look it”
“This is what can happen when you’ve been running for fifteen hours, and still have nine to go”
“He must be mad”
How did I get here? The following moments in time are my attempt to understand.
Countless Wednesday afternoons, between 1977 and 1982. “Bayliss, you tart!”, “Bayliss, you waste of space”, “Bayliss, you chewed piece of string”, “Bayliss, you big girl’s blouse”. These are among the myriad insults barked at me by my PE teacher, who was kind compared to some of my classmates. I didn’t think I was bad at PE, I knew I was. The last to be picked, hopelessly uncoordinated, clumsy, weak, slow and with a desire and enthusiasm to match. The highlight of my school PE career was getting caught smoking whilst fielding during cricket.
August 2013. I am at Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast, on a family walk, and my daughters are mutinying. They are not going to walk back to the car, at least not without lots of tears and tantrums. Despite not having run in over thirty years, I offer to run back to the car and drive back down the coast to pick them up. Heavy walking boots notwithstanding, I run the 4 miles back and love every minute of it. My legs are in pieces the next day, but I know I’ll be doing it again.
August 2013. Taking my newly-acquired, box-fresh pair of proper running shoes to work, I walk/run a 2½ mile route along the beautiful (yes, really) abandoned Barnsley canal in my lunchbreak.
November 2013. I am in Accelerate to buy a pair of fell shoes. I’ve tried road running but it wasn’t doing it for me, and I thought I’d get out into the Peak District and see if fell running would be more enjoyable. Later that afternoon, I am covered in mud, running like an excited kid down hills, see some red deer and lose myself in the mist (I’ve not yet learned to call it clag). Oh boy, this is amazing.
January 2014. Nursing a truly monstrous hangover, I drive blearily to Graves park on New Year’s Day for my first ever parkrun, my first time running with others, my first race (sorry parkrun, but it was a race to me).
January 2014. On Blacka Moor on a cold night with a group of Steel City Striders led by Trevor Watson, out for a head-torch run. I am buzzing with excitement at the end. I decide to join the club.
March 2014. I run Wolf’s Pit Fell Race, my first proper race, a category AS (i.e. steep and short). Halfway up the first, brutal climb, a scouser (yes, you, Paul Stuart) sitting by a wall shouts out “Go on Strider”. What? People come out and watch and shout encouragement? This is brilliant.
April 2014. I buy a copy of “Feet in the Clouds” by Richard Askwith, a tale of fell-running obsession and the author’s struggles with the Bob Graham Round (BGR), which, I discover, is a 66 mile challenge covering 42 peaks and 27,000 feet of climb, to be completed within 24 hours. A seed is planted.
June 2014. I join the Striders Edale to Dore sunset/headtorch run, and celebrate what is then my longest ever run of 20 miles by rustling up a batch of delicious, chocolate salty balls. 😉
November 2014. I am at the Roaches Fell Race in Staffordshire, a 15 mile out and back route with 3,700 feet of climb. I set off way too fast and suffer badly in the second half of the race, grovelling home in a world of pain. Despite this, I am strangely ecstatic. I can carry on and grind it out, no matter how much my inner voice is telling me to quit.
January 2015. The weather is filthy; it’s blowing a gale, the temperature is below zero, dark clouds are scudding overhead. I’m about to run the Marsden to Edale Trigger, a 24 mile fell-race over bleak moorland in the dead of winter. Almost 5 tough hours later I finish, the first Strider. It takes me 10 minutes to get my socks off for a shower because my quads are cramping so much. This was epic. I immediately start wishing away the whole year so I can run it again.
April 2015. I’m nervously toeing the line at Loughrigg Fell Race, my first taste of running in the Lake District. The climbs are steep and nasty and go on for ever, but I love every minute.
June 2015. On a blissful Steel City Riders bike ride up the temporarily closed-to-cars Snake Pass, I first tentatively talk out loud about the slight possibility that I could possibly be persuaded to maybe consider the chance that it wouldn’t be out of the question if I turned my mind to thinking about if I wanted to ponder on the idea that I might well contemplate attempting a BGR…
September 2015. I’ve been sat on a coach for 45 minutes. It’s been put on by the race organiser to take competitors from the finish to the start of the Gritstone Grind, my first ultra. The longer the bus journey goes on, the greater the realisation of how far I have to run back, 35 miles with 5,000 feet of ascent. I set off nice and steady, but gradually start to pick off runners and finish over 6 hours later in 11th place. My mind is blown, I have never come anywhere near as high up the rankings in a race before, and it didn’t feel like I’d particularly pushed myself.
April 2016. The Harvey’s Bob Graham Round map drops through my letter box. It’s official, I’m definitely thinking about it! The received wisdom is that to successfully complete a round, a contender must put in 40+ miles per week with around 10,000 feet of climb and get to know the route intimately through multiple recces. This is a lot to ask of myself, and also of my family.
October 2016: I run the 50 mile Round Rotherham ultra and finish after just over 8 hours in 10th place. This is a massive confidence boost.
December 2016. I make the decision to see if I’m capable of a round. A feasibility study of sorts, which will involve big miles, big climbs, hard days out pushing myself.
March 2017. Trevor Burton drives John Rawlinson and myself up to the Lakes to meet a man John has met on the internet(!), the awesome Dave Teggart. He’s planning a BGR attempt for June and we’re out on a beautiful spring day to recce the first half of leg 3, from Dunmail Raise to Rossett Pike and back again. It’s the first time I’ve run any of the route, and it’s an eye opener – the first climb up Steel Fell is stupidly steep and long, and much of the runnable sections don’t follow any discernible paths at all; it’s a case of picking a good line and hoping for the best. On the way back from Rossett Pike I offer my services as a pacer to Dave during his attempt and he accepts.
May 2017. I’m running over leg 4 of the BGR with John Rawlinson. We get hit with torrential rain followed by near-zero temperatures and strong winds. Halfway round we realise we are at high risk of developing hypothermia (if we haven’t already), and decide to bail out. As we’re trudging down off Pillar we’re overtaken by a BGR contender and his support team. They carry on with the route and we take the easy way back to Honister via Moses Trod. Arriving at the slate mine carpark, we meet the contender’s road support crew, who ask us if we’ve seen their man. We tell them he’s moving well and wait with them and watch as he drops down off Grey Knotts and runs into to be fed, watered, changed and sent on his way to start the final leg. We were merely passers-by, standing around and gawping, but it is intoxicating; there is a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Despite the filthy conditions, despite the hypothermia, despite having to cut the recce short, I want this, I want to attempt a round. I know, if I dedicate myself to it and train hard and smart enough, I can give it a decent shot. It is on. I go home, and run another 20 miles in the Peaks the next day.
May 2017. Looking at Dave Teggart’s Strava, I see he has done a hill session of 53 reps, totalling over 7,000 feet of climb in 9 miles. Building mental fortitude, he tells me. This is what it takes.
June 2017. I wake up in an AirBnB room in Kendal at 3:45am, drive to Dunmail Raise on the A591 and park on a grass verge, awaiting Dave on his BGR. He had set off at 9pm the previous evening, and I am waiting for him at the end of leg 2, ready to run both legs 3 and 4 with him, carrying his food and drink and helping in any way I can. Other runners are helping with navigation and pacing. The weather is filthy with heavy rain, low clouds, strong winds. We set off up Steel Fell and after 2 minutes climb into the clag. We will be in clag for most of the next 12 hours. The weather deteriorates and we end up wearing every bit of kit we’ve got, full waterproof body cover, hats, gloves, the lot. It’s June. The weather is so bad we are the only people at the top of Scafell Pike at 11am on a Saturday. We are also the only people at the top again at 11:30am, as our super experienced navigator managed to take us off Scafell Pike in a loop and back to the bottom of Broad Crag again. Doh! None of us had noticed, the clag was so thick and disorientating. A valuable lesson learned – you can’t take anything on the round for granted. At the end of leg 4 I wave Dave off, get cleaned up and make my way to Keswick, to watch him complete his round in 23 hours and 15 minutes. Being a small part of his success, seeing a round from the inside, joining in with the celebrations at the end, it’s all good.
August 2017. I run an out and back recce of leg 2. The decision to run down the 1,600 foot descent of Seat Sandal, knowing I’m going to have to turn round and come straight back up it again, with the brutal climbs of Fairfield and Dollywaggon Pike waiting for me immediately afterwards, is one I take with little hesitation. If I can’t do that, I can’t do a round I tell myself.
September 2017. I learn that Amy Duck is also in training for the BGR – a fellow Strider to train with and share the trials and tribulations! Excellent news, someone to share the training and pain and madness and delight of it all with.
March 2018. To get used to time on feet and running when exhausted, Amy and I run the Haworth Hobble on the Saturday, and follow it up with the Edale Skyline on the Sunday. 52 miles and 10,000 feet of climb for the weekend.
April 2018. Amy and I run the Kinder Dozen together, a classic BGR training run in the peaks, which circumnavigates the Kinder plateau incorporating 12 brutal climbs. It crams 10,000 feet of climbing into 20 largely trackless miles, a monster of a day out. Towards the end, Amy and I are getting stir-crazy. Number 11 is awful, a complete and utter bastard of a climb!
April 2018. I suffer a meltdown 40 miles in to The Fellsman, a classic 60 mile race in North Yorkshire and Cumbria. Despite throwing up I ignore the voice urging me to quit, and press onwards, feeling awful, hoping it will pass. It does, and I press on.
May 2018. Amy and I enter the Old County Tops fell race, a classic Lake District route which visits the tops of the old counties of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire. It’s almost 11 hours of hard climbing on a hot and stunningly beautiful day, and we celebrate by cramming in another hard day recceing leg 1 the day after.
June 2018. I am as ready as I’ll ever be. I’ve put in the training; day after day, weekend after weekend, I’ve done the hard miles, I’ve done brutal climbs, I’ve done mind-numbing hill repeats, I done the reccies. If I fail, it won’t be for lack of trying.
That was how I got here: to the top of the highest mountain in England, throwing up and pressing onwards, to trusting myself to my fabulous support and crew, to sprinting to the finish back at the Moot Hall in Keswick 23 hours and 18 minutes after leaving it, to becoming a member of the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club.
To anyone who has helped, in any way, at any time, big or small, on my route from slob to Bob, thank you so much. I literally couldn’t have done it without your support, laughs and encouragement, and without being a member of this fantastic, supportive running club.
And you may find yourself
Living out a long-held dream
And you may find yourself
In a stunning part of the world
And you may find yourself
Above the clouds with a large grin on your face
And you may find yourself on a beautiful fell
With a beautiful life
Any you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
(with apologies to Talking Heads)