A couple of weeks after the West Highland Way race I was on duty as a support runner for a Bob Graham Round attempt, so it was off with the Hokas and on with the fell shoes for a week or two. The aspirants were four very fit and competent running friends; I'll let them tell their own stories if they choose to, this is just about how my day out went.
My "shift" was to navigate and pace the third leg from Dunmail Raise to Wasdale Head, around 15,5 miles and 6800 feet of ascent. The scheduled time was from just before dawn at Dunmail to a late breakfast in Wasdale, just over 6 hours. This sounds like quite a comfortable pace, and it is - unless of course you have already completed legs 1 and 2, with their combined 25,5 miles and 11,100 ft of ascent, after which anything must start to feel a bit taxing. BGR old hands will tell you that unless you're a record-breaker, speed is not the key, you just have to keep going. And don't worry too much about high mileage training - time on your feet and a steady diet of 10,000ft of uphill a week for a few months is what gets you round.
I went out to practise my Leg the weekend before. Conditions were quite bleak, visibility nil, continuous rain and a blustery wind, but that was all to the good as it allowed me to check that the navigation was OK and the pace was doable whatever the weather. It went fine but it occurred to me on Great End, where the really bouldery territory starts and I had not seen anyone all day, that this would be a silly situation in which to slip and break an ankle so I retreated back down into Langdale. I missed the bus by 15 minutes which of course forced me to while away a good hour and a half with a late lunch and a beer or two in the Old Dungeon Gyll, so the trip ended pretty well.
At 5.30pm on Friday the runners and supporters assembled in the pub next to Moot Hall (it was too wet to stand around outside). Up to this point I had been very doubtful whether the attempt would start. The weather had been bad for days, there were flood warnings out across half the country and I had passed several crashes on the M6 driving up, clearly caused by the wet conditions. The Met Office mountain page for the Lakes had amber warnings for rain, hill fog, and wind. But the runners were made of stern stuff and spirits were high so at 6pm we cheered them off.
I got myself some fish and chips then drove slowly round to Dunmail, parked up and settled down for the night. Just after exhausting my efforts on the crossword I got a text from the support at Thelkeld, the road crossing after Leg 1. I didn't get the details, just that the runners were forty minutes behind schedule, one runner had pulled out but three were continuing into Leg 2. It didn't sound good. The rain was hammering down on the roof of the car, not the sort of rain where you convince yourself that it won't seem so bad when you're outside, the sort where you absolutely know it won't. Before getting some sleep I idly re-checked the weather page on my phone. As it flicked on I could see that the amber warnings had gone but there was now a red one. Specs on to make sure I was reading this right. The red warning was for strong sunlight. By very early morning the rain would stop; contrary to all previous forecasts, Saturday was going to be a clear sunny day. I set the alarm and nodded off. When I awoke the valley supporters arrived and we waited for the runners to appear.
I later learned that their experience through the evening and night had been grim. As well as torrential rain and near zero visibility, the Skiddaw Leg had seen gale force winds which threatened to sweep them off their feet. Descending Hall's Fell Ridge from Blencathra proved impossible so they detoured off to the side, losing a lot of time. The runner who dropped out had had a migraine causing some concern but he got down safely. The bad weather continued into the first part of Leg 2, giving them navigational difficulties which cost more time, and the continual battering from the wind and rain was very debilitating.
When they arrived at Dunmail the 40 minutes lost had turned into nearly two hours and one of the remaining three had already decided not to go any further. But they had started with a fairly aggressive schedule and if they could claw back half an hour or so in the rapidly improving conditions, a 24 hour round might still be on so two runners elected to continue. We set off up Steel Fell.
Although it was still very wet underfoot, we were rewarded with one of those magical Lake District mornings when you can see for miles, the sun gradually warms you as it rises, the light shows the fells at their very best and you can't think of anywhere you would rather be. As far as Scafell Pike we saw not another soul, making me decide again that it really is worth the effort to get up and out at first light, whether there is some special event involved or not.
But it was clear from very early on that the lads were tired, the rigours of the preceding nine hours had taken too much out of them. We more or less held to schedule as far as the Langdale Pikes but we weren't gaining any back. And from then on we steadily leaked more minutes; in spite of gentle attempts to up the pace, it wasn't going to happen. Thoughts moved gradually from completing in 24 hours to maybe carrying on and completing the Round anyway, and then to the realisation that although possible this would be a lot more discomfort for a less than ideal reward. Still, we visited every top on the Leg before descending to Wasdale, rest, food and families. Theirs had been a fine effort. Two other BGR attempts had started out an hour or two later and neither got this far. The frustration to everyone was that the forecast changed so late. With a bit more weather knowledge the attempt would have started 6 hours later and in all probability would have been successful for everyone. But that's the Lake District. I think they'll be back.