The Bob Graham Winter Round by Henriette Albon

The Bob Graham Winter Round 

by Henriette Albon

As I found myself standing in the middle of Keswick in the pouring rain, the clock struck 03:00 AM on Tuesday the 19th of December. I was giddy with excitement as I turned on my head torch, pressed the start button on my watch and ran off into the night. This was it, the beginning of the Bob Graham Winter Round: 105 km with 8300 meters of vertical gain. 

My goal was to summit the 42 peaks in the Lakes in record time. Over the next however many hours I would be breathing hard, making my way through the English fells alongside friends and local runners who had devoted their day to helping me attempt the impossible dream of completing this legendary Round. To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure I would get around the loop in one piece given the weather and underfoot conditions; there were so many unknowns as I set off that morning. All I knew is that I had a great team of people around me, a narrow but potentially adequate weather window, and a tight time schedule to stick to.

Together with my husband Jon and a local runner named Sam, I power hiked up the first hill at a steady pace chatting about how bonkers it was to be out running this early. The clouds were spitting rain as we made our way up Skiddaw, but I barely noticed as I was rather occupied with the task of consuming my meticulously planned breakfast consisting of calorific snack bars, cola-gels and a raspberry flavored sports drink.

As we crested the top of the summit the wind hit us surprisingly hard in the face and the fog made it tricky to see anything at all. Luckily Sam knew the mountain like the back of his hand, so after a couple of minutes of running in the wrong direction in what can only be described as a featureless landscape, we got our bearings right and headed towards the summit of Great Calva.

In the weeks leading up to the attempt, it had been raining non-stop and the ground was now sodden. Heading towards the final mountain of the first section of the route, the windchill removed the little heat we had left in our fingers. Despite being promised a weather window it was still raining, and we were slightly behind schedule. Jon slipped over on the wet grass coming off Blencathra while handing me another gel. It was cold and grim, and my spirits were somewhat dampened by the prospect of running for another 16 hours in these conditions.   

But as we came into the village of Threlkeld, we were greeted by a seemingly warm breeze. At the first road crossing I was relieved to see Martin who had generously offered to help with logistics on the day, shuttling support runners back and forth amongst other things. In the weeks leading up to the attempt, Martin had shared plenty of advice from his mountain running accomplishments dating back to the late 1980s. Although I hadn’t known Martin for more than a couple of weeks, our common obsession with the Bob Graham Round had created a strong bond. He handed me my spare rain jacket and asked how things were going. I tried to seem as upbeat as I could given the circumstances, intent on reassuring him that getting up in the middle of the night to support me was not wasted yet. 

The road crossing in Threlkeld marks the end of the first stage and the beginning of the second. It’s also where I would be meeting my pacers Scott and Jack who would be running with me for the coming hours, alongside Jon.

Besides carrying my fuel and spare clothing, the support runners help navigate and witness my presence at each of the 42 summits. Receiving support and help when attempting the Round is a tradition, based partly on history but also on safety. When Bob Graham first completed the route back in 1932, he had his friends pace him. Since then, runners like myself have adopted the same approach when attempting to repeat the feat. 

It was still pitch black as we waved goodbye to Sam and Martin. Sam finished just in time to start his workday while Martin would be heading to the next road crossing to greet me with a cup of English breakfast tea.

As the hours and kilometers ticked by the rain eased and the daylight gradually appeared. But with the winter solstice soon approaching, daylight was fleeting and at 03:57 PM it was again time to return to darkness. 

With the help of my supporters, I set a new winter record by completing the round in 17 hours and 55 minutes. 11 of those hours were spent with a Moonlight Bright as Day 800 headtorch lighting the way. When Martin completed his Bob Graham Round in 1987, he didn’t have the convenience of a bright light during night and had to plan his run accordingly. There’s no doubt that the modern world makes challenges like the Bob Graham Round more achievable than before. But in the end, the mountains and the weather were still there to challenge me in a similar way to those who came before me. 

I count myself lucky to have experienced the unique spirit and challenge that is the Bob Graham Round. I’m very grateful to everyone who went out of their way to help me achieve the seemingly impossible. I hope to relive the magic when I one day assist someone else as they attempt their Round. 

Until next time.