Fastest woman over Britain’s mountains reflects on her latest record-breaking run
The last time I did the Bob Graham Round (a 66-mile circuit over 42 of England’s highest summits including 27,000ft of elevation gain) I ran 18hrs 12mins to set a new women’s record. However, that day two years ago things didn’t go according to plan. The weather deteriorated badly as we ran over Bowfell, the rope was in the wrong place on Broad Stand (a slab of imposing rock that represents a shortcut between the summits of Scafell Pike and Scafell) and I suffered with sickness, a lot. At one point I was 30 minutes up on my 18hr schedule. A completion time of 17hrs 30mins was on the cards… until things took a turn for the worse. Ever since then I have wanted to have another crack at the Bob Graham with the aim of running it even faster.
My desire to run a faster Bob Graham heightened last year when, shortly after my Ramsay Round completion (in a women’s record time of 19hrs 39mins), I was made aware that I held the third fastest cumulative time for the three most famous mountain running challenges in Great Britain -the Bob Graham (England), the Ramsay Round (Scotland) and the Paddy Buckley (Wales). My combined time of 56hrs 53mins put me behind Chris Near (56hrs 03mins) and Mark Hartell (56hrs 28mins). I got to work on the maths and figured out that to topple Chris I would need to run my Bob Graham in a time of 17hrs 21mins or faster. The challenge was officially set.
I chose the Easter weekend for my attempt in the hope that the weather would be favourable. Summer was not really an option. All my life I have disliked the heat -and even more so following my hysterectomy as I now lack basic heat control as well. I despised beach holidays as a teenager and now, aged 47, I dislike running under the sun. When I get too hot I begin to struggle both physically and mentally. Easter also provided me with a longer weather window and suited in terms of availability of my pacers and roadside support team.
The weeks leading up to Easter were very stressful as there was lots of snowfall over the Lake District. However, with a high-pressure front forecast I stuck to my plans, changing only the start day, from Friday to Sunday. I chose to begin my Bob Graham at 4am, meaning I would only run in the dark for two hours at the start and then, if on schedule, an hour at the end.
I spent Saturday night at the nearby campsite. The atmosphere was good and I felt relaxed. Unfortunately sleep proved hard to come by. I gave myself a good talking too and eventually got my head down for a couple of hours. Arriving at Moot Hall, Keswick, just before 4am, I felt nervous. I was worried about the tendons in my right foot, which I had damaged three weeks previous at the Howarth Hobble ultra. I taped up my foot and laced my Mudclaw 300 shoes loosely, meaning I didn’t feel any discomfort.
Joined in the centre of Keswick by my Leg 1 pacers, roadside support team and the camera crew, I waited for it to strike 4am. It was quiet all around us. I was ready and keen to get started so I could settle into the pace required on a 17hr 15mins schedule. I knew the split times well -they were the same times I had run on my 2012 Bob Graham… well, up until Scafell that is. My new splits for the sections after Scafell were quicker than the actual times I ran two years previous. It was always going to be a really tough schedule to run too but I was more than up for the challenge.
A bloody run in with the ‘parachute drop’
The first ascent to the summit of Skiddaw passed without incident and we arrived at the top a couple of minutes up on schedule. Determined to eat regularly and ensure I stayed fuelled for the day ahead, I tucked into some food. Everything was going well. I felt strong and we picked perfect routes. Even the underfoot conditions were better than I’d expected. Wet, yes, but at least there was no snow! The sun rose slowly and as we summited Blencathra we were treated to a spectacular panoramic view. Stopping for a brief moment to take it all in, we looked across at the Helvellyn and Scafell mountain ranges rising out of the cloud inversion. It was stunning. Leaving the summit, we descended into a gully known as the ‘parachute drop.’ A bit of zigzagging followed before I found the perfect line down this steep, rocky section. Upon reaching the narrow path in the bottom, I tripped. I have no idea how or why I did, but I hit the ground. Thankfully, or so I thought, I managed to get my left hand down first, thus stopping myself falling back into the gully. Straight away I felt an excruciating pain in my hand. I looked down. It was disgusting. I’d suffered a horrible cut on my thumb muscle about 1cm deep and 4cm long. It began spewing out blood.
I grabbed the wrag that had been keeping my head warm and wrapped it around my hand to try and stop the flow of blood. In the meantime, Jasmin Paris, one of my pacers, was sent ahead to the road crossing at Threlkeld to find the “very useful bag” which contained tape and dressings. Arriving at Threlkeld to some worried looking faces from my road support team, I was taped up and sent on my way.
Pushing the pace in the race to clock 17hrs 21mins
I knew I had lost time getting my hand taped up, but what I hadn’t realised was that my watch had been damaged in the fall and the timer had reset itself. I set it going again and headed off onto Leg 2 with fresh pacers. I felt like I was running well on the climb up Clough Head but on reaching the top there was massive confusion as to whether we were up or down on schedule. I was stressed. To make matters worse, my watch then reset itself to 10am on 01/01/2010! It was deemed officially broken! This was a massive blow. I was no longer able to accurately monitor my pace. I tried to eat, but struggled to do so because of the stress. I looked for positives and thought about a nice warm cup of tea or coffee at Sticks Pass. Unfortunately, upon reaching the guys at Sticks Pass I discovered they didn’t have any warm drinks. I was now questioning everything: my hand, my split time, my pace, my churning stomach. Too much had gone wrong already. I was really worried. I had another go at eating and found a bag of salt and vinegar crisps, washed down with some water, helped my spirits -and my stomach!
The summit of Helvellyn came and went before we tackled the big climb up Fairfield. Despite the increasing morning heat, I felt okay and was encouraged at how well I seemed to be climbing. Off Fairfield and onto Seat Sandal, we were amused by the flying drone above our heads, following our every footstep and capturing what will hopefully prove to be some great film footage. Descending down to Dunmail Raise to once again meet the roadside support team, I felt much happier.
The team worked quickly to re-tape my hand and get some food down my neck. I was just about on schedule and set off up the steep flank of Steel Fell on Leg 3 knowing that the 17hrs 21mins clocking I so dearly wanted was achievable. Alongside new pacers, I ran strongly over the top of Steel Fell, High Raise and the Langdale Pikes. Having a hot drink at Angle Tarn gave me a real boost before we got stuck into the big ascent of Bowfell. Climbing Billy Bland’s Rake, I was unable to use my left hand to steady myself on the rocks. I began to worry about how on earth I was going to get up Broad Stand later on Leg 3. We also began to make slight errors. My pacers took direct lines over the unstable rocks higher up on Bowfell and Esk Pike. I followed, but struggled. The fear of falling again was slowing me up and had me swearing out loud. The sun wasn’t helping either. I knew I was too hot, but gained comfort in finding small patches of snow that I picked up and then used as a cooling aid on the back my neck.
‘Joss would be proud of you’
The rocks caused me further problems on Eel Crag and Broad Crag. My left hand was basically out-of-action, so it made climbing steep, rocky sections difficult and descending darn right scary. The upper part of Scafell Pike -the highest point on the route -had snow on it, resulting in a detour across the rocks to the summit. Apologies to the little girl, whose summit picture I think I accidentally photo-bombed! Down to a mist-engulfed Mickledore we went. Ahead I could hear cries of ‘she’s coming, get out of the harness’. I was guided through the crack in the rocks and helped into the harness. The rocks proved to be slippery, so I was glad I had opted for the harness. Jim Paxman shouted climbing instructions at me, but I just couldn’t use my left hand. I rested my weight on the side of my left hand, put my foot as high as I could and hauled on the rope with my right hand. It worked. Jim was fantastic; shouting orders and making me feel safe.
With my pacers still at the bottom of Broad Stand, I went on alone in search of the summit of Scafell. The gully I had planned to use was full of snow. It was a blow but I just had to get on with it. I zigzagged back and forth, kicking steps in the snow and driving my fingers in until it was too icy. The nearby rock slabs were clear of snow but too wet and slippery. It was really hard to find good routes and I was forced into a lot of detours. Upon touching the summit cairn I heard someone say ‘Joss would be proud of you’. It was misty on the top, I had no idea who that person was, or what the exact relevance was… obviously it had something to do with legendary fell runner Joss Naylor… but it was really nice to hear and I said ‘thanks’.
Behind on schedule and facing the brutality of Leg 4
Running down the path towards Wasdale on my own it was pleasantly quiet. I knew I had lost time on the schedule but I was happy in my surroundings – it was just me and the mountains. Suddenly Stuart Walker, one of my pacers, came crashing down behind and lead me down the scree gully. We descended together into Wasdale to once again meet the roadside support team. I was about 10 minutes down on schedule.
I emptied my shoes of stones and changed my socks. Perhaps, in hindsight, not a good use of time, but I knew I couldn’t run fast with stones in my shoes. I was still eating well. Beans, gels, crisps and coke all went down the hatch. More tape was applied to my hand.
Now 15 minutes down on schedule, I knew I had to make up time up on Leg 4. The problem was that the split times for Leg 4 were already fast enough! The split for the first climb up Yewbarrow was 48 minutes from bottom to top. We did it in less than that. I was happy but at the same time very, very hot and because of all the sweat, the tape on my hand had peeled off. Pacer Adam Perry then had a brainwave idea of using a waterproof mitt, which was great. It covered the wound without sticking to it. I wore it to the finish. Thanks, Adam! We made up a couple of minutes on the run across to Red Pike but after that I began to struggle.
Finding the inspiration to carry on running when your body has shut down
Still unable to use my left hand and fearful of falling, I continued to find descending really tricky. I then jabbed my hand a couple of times. It began to throb. Having supported lots of friends on their Bob Graham rounds, I know the type of things pacers say when things aren’t going to plan. And while I appreciated the kind words of encouragement, I knew I wasn’t going fast enough. Pillar, Kirkfell and Great Gable came and went before we summited Green Gable. By now it was approaching 7pm. The schedule had me down as leaving Honister -the next roadside support stop -at 7.05pm. I was way behind schedule. In truth, I’d had enough. It had been a long day, most of it hard. While everyone else had been enjoying the views, I had been constantly battling time -making it, then losing it.
And then, as if to rub salt into the wounds, I began to projectile vomit. I thought of stopping at Honister. Why go on any further? I was now so far behind schedule that if I carried on I might not even better my 2012 time of 18hrs 12mins, set in bad weather conditions. What was wrong with me? I tried to think of reasons to carry on and then remembered my online JustGiving page, on which I have been raising money for Odyssey. This is a charity that helps adults who have had cancer rebuild their lives and confidence. I can relate to this, as back in 2006 when I was officially discharged after having breast cancer, I found it hard to know how to resume normal life. I recalled all the kind donations and thought ‘Well, even if I don’t better my old time, these people have given money and deserve to see me finish’. Plus, I thought, it will make a rubbish film if I don’t finish! So that was it, decision made. There was just time to be sick again before we headed down to a misty Honister.
A new women’s record time for the Bob Graham
There was lots of food options at Honister. I went for some soup and beans. It was almost a foregone conclusion that it would come back up. And it did. Setting off on Leg 5, I was again joined by new pacers, including my close friend Helen Elmore, who knows me very well. Just 200m up the hillside we emerged from the mist to be greeted by the most stupendous views (SEE VIDEO ABOVE). The cloud inversion below us, combined with the sunset, was simply stunning. I asked Helen about the possibility of me still running a sub-18hr time. She said it might still be possible. Darkness fell but we were moving well under the light of our head torches.
Descending off the final summit of Robinson, we reached Newlands. All that remained was five miles of road running back to Keswick. There was lots of applause from the support team at Newlands but we didn’t have time to stop. I thought to myself ‘Even if I can’t break 18 hours, I must be able to beat 18hrs 12mins’. Helen kept updating me on the time as we ran, until finally we reached the last stretch of road to Moot Hall. Greeted by a big crowd and lots of cheering, I touched the hall. 18hrs 06mins after starting, I had returned. What a day of ups and downs! My time was just six minutes faster than I did in 2012 -pretty unbelievable given the bad conditions that day two years ago. Maybe I should do it in bad weather next time, if there is a next time…