I've been walking up a lot of hills recently as training for my latest attempt on the UTMB at the end of August, because the UTMB is mostly walking up hills and I don't expect to run much of it. To make a change from my local Welsh peaks I've been taking the extra hour and going up to the Lakes more often, using the Bob Graham Round route as the basis for some good days out. In 1932 Bob Graham covered his circuit of 42 summits (he was 42 years old at the time) starting and finishing at Keswick in just under 24 hours. Since then around 1500 runners have repeated his trip "officially" (recording and validating their times at each top, and joining the Bob Graham Club) and an unknown number unofficially, just doing it for their own satisfaction. The actual distance and ascent is the subject of some debate, and ultimately depends on the exact route you take to join up the summits, but it's somewhere between 60 and 70 miles and around 27,000 feet of up; it can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise, each direction having its fans. I once thought I might have a go, but after trying one or two sections I became convinced I couldn't do it.
For the non-superhuman of us, and assuming the normal objective stuff like maximum daylight and good enough weather, getting around the BG requires three qualities:
1. To be able to do the climbs - this is just about getting fit and getting the miles in.
2. To know the route. Some is on conventional paths, but a lot of the ground is generally covered only by runners engaged in this particular project, so learning the best "lines" is crucial - again this is just practice.
3. To be able to descend rapidly, even when tired, over a lot of steep and virtually trackless ground, rocky ridges, boulders, scree, steep grass, deep heather, you get the picture. This was where my problem came.
When I was a young (and maybe not so young) mountaineer I used to pride myself on my confidence and lightness of step, getting down things fast was not a problem. Then a bad ski-ing crash 15 years ago left me with a pathological fear of breakable crust and a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee. The surgeon who cleaned up the resulting cartilage damage explained that ligaments are tricky things to fix, and if I was a fifty grand a week footballer he would probably have a go but as I wasn't he wouldn't. I should be able to work on the muscles to compensate for most of the loss of stability, and I should try and prevent any unexpected over-rotation. So I wear a hinged brace for ski-ing, but it's too cumbersome for general mountaineering and running. In the early days I had one or two "unexpected over-rotations" which resulted in quite a lot of ouch and several weeks of not doing very much afterwards. Since then I've been more careful, much more tentative going downhill.
I couldn't make the Bob Graham descent times; Blencathra to Threlkeld should take 30 minutes, I was nearly 45, Seat Sandal to Dunmail should be 15, I couldn't break 25, and so on. So I accepted the inevitable and contented myself with using the BG as a nice route to walk and train on.
Then a couple of weeks ago I parked in Langdale at around 10am with the intention of exploring some of the Wasdale to Dunmail section. The day intially looked good, but by the time I reached Sty Head on the way over to Wasdale, the mist had come down to around 2000 feet or less. I didn't want to slow down navigating over Sca Fell, so I went up the good track to Great Gable and back, hoping it might clear. It didn't, so still without any fixed plans I followed the Corridor up to Scafell Pike and then the main path back towards Langdale. Shortly before Esk Hause a young lady came running towards me out of the mist at a fair pace. Had she come from Great End, I asked. Yes. Was she on a bearing, or did she know the ground? She knew the ground, why, was I on a Bob Graham recce? Sort of, I said. Well, I'm doing a solo Round today, she said. Did she know a good way from Bowfell to Rossett Gill, and if so could I tag along for a bit? No problem; she seemed glad of the company, she'd been on her own since leaving Keswick at 3.30am.
Her pace up Esk Pike was slower than I expected. No problem, she said, this is a good pace for the Round. Down the other side was a different story, and I had to work to keep up. I was starting to get a bit concerned about the Bowfell descent but I couldn't back out gracefully now. We boulder hopped up Bowfell then back down to the col; she went a short distance further then plunged over the edge, I clung on about 10 feet behind her trainers (we were both wearing road shoes, agreeing later that the comfort was worth it) as we crashed down steep grass, rocky outcrops and odd bits of scree. By not having to think about the route, I could keep up. Brilliant I said as we hit the flat ground at the bottom. I know a good line on the next bit too she said, are you coming? The day was looking up now, sun starting to break through and I was enjoying the ride, so I carried on. Over the long wet moor to the Langdale Pikes we went, the high plateau from Thunacar Knott to High Raise and Sergeant Man, then gradually down with only bits of track here and there over Calf Crag to Steel Fell and Dunmail Raise. I paced the ups at the speeds she wanted, and she showed me the way over the trackless bits and led the downs, on which I was surprisingly getting more and more comfortable and having more fun - I had no choice on the pace here, I just had to go. We chatted about the solo Round. Well you don't go on the official list she said, but you know you've done it and that's the important bit, quite a few people do it this way nowadays, less hassle to fix up, less guilt if you decide it's not your day. She had arranged to meet a friend for the last section so she wouldn't have to do it alone, at the end of a long day and in the dark.
She had a bag stashed with food and dry shoes at Dunmail. Sure you're not tempted to carry on, it's a nice evening now? But I had promises to keep, so I left her still on schedule to tackle the bracken slope of Seat Sandal while I trotted off down the road to a pint at the Travellers Rest then the last few miles back to my car.
I took stock as I jogged the last bit. My Garmin showed 30 miles and the best part of 10,000 feet, but more importantly I had somehow rediscovered some confidence in going downhill like you should. I'd taken a quick look at my watch before we started the last steep descent off Steel Fell to Dunmail; just over 10 minutes to the road, the BG schedule says 12. Maybe I will have a go next year after all............maybe.