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Bobbing around Great Britain, the birthplace of mountain running
Photo by Kevin Trautman
Scott’s normally tall frame is hunched over his trekking poles as he hobbles along, breathing hard through his pursed lips and clenched teeth.
Slowly, he breathes in.
The Spartathalon, Badwater, Western States … if these brutal races have left Scott Jurek with one thing, it is an acute ability to endure. He stumbles over a rock and into a bog that swallows his leg below the knee.
Slowly, he breathes out.
His foot slurps its way out of the green-brown pool of peat and decomposing bracken. I cross my fingers in hopes that there is still a size-13 shoe on his foot.
We are descending Broad Crag en route to the 3,209-foot summit of Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England which, unlike the other 27 desserted peaks we have tagged over the previous 14 hours, is covered in fell walkers—moms and dads, elders and children, eating, drinking and basking on the roof of England on this atypical sunburn spring day.
Martin Cox and Scott Jurek pause to decipher the shapes of the fells around them. Photo by Ricky Gates
In this 66-mile mountain-running challenge, we are at the confluence of suffering and despair—that point in a really long day out when your body feels the miles that you have covered and your mind is now aware of what remains. Wondering how we could have improved our situation we quickly decide that the fell race a couple of days earlier probably didn’t help our causes. Nor did the preceeding 80-some-odd miles through the rolling British fells. Maybe if we’d actually trained for the brutality of tackling the Bob Graham Round, which the Round’s late historian Harry Griffin described as “the most demanding test of physical and mental stamina available to British athletes or mountaineers,” we’d be in better stead.
“My proprioception is completely gone,” Scott grunts. Scott is perhaps the only person I know who can still use a five-syllable word while suffering at his worst.
Two more legs to go, I think to myself. Road crossings help to break up the Bob Graham Round into five comprehensible sections or “legs.” We are most of the way through the third leg.
Not long before this trip, deep in the Himalayas, Scott celebrated his 40th birthday with his wife, Jenny. A light peppering of grey across his curly dark mess of hair helped usher in the new decade. I think about the few trophies Scott has chosen to keep around his house back home in Boulder, Colorado—trophies with cougars and bears and bighorn sheep on them. And the belt buckles … enough belt buckles to outfit a Mexican wedding. Now in that pro-athlete’s purgatory where his records are being broken and race wins are sporadic at best, Scott is contemplating, more than ever, what running means to him.
The Irish Sea glimmers below us to the west, where the sun is making its descent toward the Isle of Man. To the north, an extension of Scotland reaches out toward the estranged island as though to lend it some comfort in this normally grey and hostile land.
I think back to a summer day in 1932 when a fit and determined guest-house keeper from the heart of the Cumbrian Fells set off in plimsolls, baggy shorts and a button-down flannel shirt to tag one peak for each of his 42 years. 23 hours and 39 minutes later, Bob Graham returned triumphant. Little could he have known that his day in the fells would spur thousands of aspiring fell runners and walkers to attempt the same feat, that there would someday be a Bob Graham 24-Hour Club.
I look at my watch, do some simple miles-per-hour, hours-left-to-go math and let Scott know that we’re cutting it close, which, of course, he already knows. “If we get back to Moot Hall in 24 hours and 1 minute,” I proclaim, “we’re coming back and doing this all over again.”
I look back at my watch and with a tinge of shame, wonder at what point I should leave Scott in order to selfishly squeak under 24 hours myself.
The Welsh Fells that once gave refuge to fire-breathing dragons and boulder-tossing giants now encourage men and women to test their endurance through wild, rugged terrain. Photo by Ricky Gates
Whether it is mechanics, architecture, knitting or running, pursue something long enough and you will get philosophical about it. If running provides an added element of intrigue, perhaps it is because in this age of automobiles and mechanical advantage, the question of “why” becomes all the more important. “Why do we run?” is a question that gets to be asked again and again with every generation, each time yielding different answers, or variations of the same answer, as I’ve come to learn.
The seed for this trip had been planted several thousand miles away and nourished by a mutual curiosity about the pursuit of running and how it manifests itself differently in cultures all throughout the world. On training runs, Scott and I reminisced about our various running adventures, from the hills of Addis Ababa to the depths of the Copper Canyon, from the bear-infested wilds of Alaska to the frozen vastness of the Antarctic Plateau. One thing we could both agree on is that Great Britain’s tradition of running is one of the greatest in the world.
Over many miles on separate runs, I explained to Scott that my interest in British fell running comes from a decade of racing and training with some of Britain’s top runners. One day it was explained to me that “fell” is an Old Norse word that has survived in Scandinavia and parts of the British Isles—a word that translates as mountain, but implies much more. “So they are mountains,” I would say. The Brits would hesitate and decide that no, they are not mountains. They are fells.
Martin Cox leads Scott Jurek up Skiddaw and above Derwentwater and the small town of Keswick in the heart of the Lake District of Northern England. Photo by Ricky Gates
Conversation would then turn to fell races, which they insisted were different from European trail races and vastly different from anything in the States. Then, heroic stories of the previous generation of fell runners—Iron Joss Naylor, the gaunt sheep farmer who extended the 24-hour peak-bagging challenge to 72 peaks; Kenny Stuart, a quiet and petit gardener whose records up and down Great Britain’s tallest and highest-profile mountains still stand nearly three decades after they were set. They would talk about the great talent of fell runners—men and women who could fly up and down mountains but could hardly be bothered to travel beyond the county line.
Fell-running conversations have a way of meandering toward Bob Graham. “66 miles, 30,000 feet of climbing,” a guy from Leeds told me. “72 miles, 28,000 feet,” another told me. “Bogs, bracken, piss weather and hope you don’t get lost,” they both agreed. Invariably, they would mention Billy Bland … King Billy, the stone mason with soft red hair who in 1982 ran the Bob Graham Round in 13 hours 53 minutes—a record that is generally considered one of the greatest achievements not only in fell-running history but also in British athletics in general.
In April 2014, what had been curiosity and conversation an ocean away became reality as we pulled away from the Manchester airport in a rental car. We fled the city quickly, whiteknuckling along the left side of the road.
As we drove along the north coast of Wales, I admitted to Scott that I actually had no idea what we were doing in Wales.
“Don’t they speak Elvish and believe in dragons?” I asked.
“I think they speak Welsh,” he replied. “And, yes, there is a dragon on their flag, but I think they’re extinct.” The reason for this detour to Wales, he explained, was to check out the Paddy Buckley Round.
“Who’s Paddy Buckley?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But the Round seems to be based off the Bob Graham Round. About 100K, about 10K of vert. Complete the Round and you’re in the club. Do it in under 24 hours and you get an extra pat on the back.”
“Is Paddy a man’s name or a woman’s name?”
“I don’t know.”
We pulled into Llanberis (pronounced thlan-ber-ris) at the base of Snowdon. Quaint buildings painted uniformly in primary colors lined the street and, just beyond town, slate-wall farmhouses surrounded by dry-stone walls extended toward the flanks of the mountain.
As we stared up at the shrouded summit over three thousand feet above us, I was reminded of an Arthurian legend that told of Rhitta Gawr, the mountain’s resident giant, who wore a cloak made of the beards of his enemies. As legend tells, following a greusome battle and subsequent defeat by King Arthur, the monster’s body was laid beneath a heap of stones on the summit.
Thirteen centuries later, more reliable sources put Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the slopes of Snowdon during preparation for their 1953 Mount Everest Expedition. Then, four decades later, 122-pound Kenny Stuart famously sprinted the 10 miles up and down the mountain in 1:02:29.
The following few days were spent chasing sheep, tagging summits, mangling the Welsh language and then returning to the youth hostel for more “hostile living,” as Scott would refer to it. After we battled for kitchen space, snuck beers into the dining room and braved the peaty inferno that was the shoe drying room, our separate attempts at sleep were all that remained.
Following a leisurely breakfast, we trotted away from the hostel and into the hills where, almost at once, you are above the town. Soon after, you are level with the other mountains, and not far off in the distance is the Irish Sea, the source of the incessant and ruthless wind. Plentiful trails and rounded mountaintops provided immediate access to an environment that primarily wants to make you cold and wet.
At once, the Paddy Buckley Round’s thousands of vertical feet and dozens of miles of trail, bracken, boulderfields and bogs proved to be a great reason for spending long days out in the fells. The Round sends you over rock-scramble ridgelines, up slate-mine staircases and through seemingly bottomless bogs—some of which are rumored to have taken the lives of full-grown men.
By chance, one evening, I came across a 1982 essay written by Paddy Buckley himself, titled: “A Long Day in Snowdonia: Notes on the setting up of the Welsh 24-Hour Round.”
Bob Graham never said very much about his round. “Anybody can do it,” he claimed. And with perhaps a tinge of bravado added, “Provided they’re fit enough.” Not long after fell runner Paddy Buckley completed a sub-24 hour Bob Graham Round, he set out to create and write about a round of his own in the equally impressive fells of Northern Wales. In doing so, not only did Buckley help define what the Bob Graham Round was, but also what a round could be and should be.
“The round should be the region’s showpiece,” Buckley wrote, “giving variety and interest.”
“[The round should be possible] not just for supermen,” he continued, “but also for those ordinary mortals, who are determined enough and fit enough for the task.”
Though it took several years for a person “fit enough for the task“ to complete the Paddy Buckley Round in under 24 hours, by the end of 2013, nearly 100 “ordinary mortals” had left their toenails in Snowdonia after successfully following Paddy Buckley’s recipe.
Jurek tests his weight on the Cantilever Stone near the summit of Glyder Fach along the Paddy Buckley Round. Photo by Kevin Trautman
With our shoes still boggy and our fatigue fresh, we got back on the road and headed north on the M6 toward the Lake District, England’s undisputed fell-running Mecca, where workingman heroes concentrate and the race to the top of the hill is as old as memory itself.
As the Rift Valley belongs to the Kenyans, and the Copper Canyon belongs to the Tarahumara, so the Lake District belongs to the Fell Runners.
An agreed-upon story puts the first official fell race at the Grasmere Games in the 1850s. In addition to wrestling, hound racing and falconry, the county fair decided to include a foot race from the fair grounds to the summit of a nearby fell and back down. In the race’s inaugural years, the first man back to the fairgrounds was greeted with a full band playing “See the Conquering Hero” just for him.
A winding 13 miles north of Grasmere, we arrived in Keswick, where the elusive English mountain runner Martin Cox guided us up Skiddaw and through the first leg of the Bob Graham Round. It was Martin, in fact, who, during his ex-pat years in the Alps, explained most everything fell running to me, long before I even set foot on the British Isles. He explained to me that races are so much more than a just a test of who’s fastest—they are also about knowing the lay of the land. They are about picking a line and running it fearlessly. They are legendarily tough.
As we ascended Skiddaw, the lakeside town’s 3,000-foot backdrop, Martin pointed out other sections and summits of the Round—Blencathra, Helvellyn, Dunmail Raise, Bowfell, Scafell, Great Gable. Everything Martin pointed to, as far south as the eye could see, was part of the Bob Graham Round. Green Gable, Bandreth, Honister, Hindscarth. Martin’s hand swept around to point out the final few miles on tight, paved farm roads, along the lake, into the outskirts of town, onto the cobblestone pedestrian mall and finally back to the green wooden doors of the clock-tower assembly hall known as Moot Hall. Martin told us about a guy who, after a successful 24-hour attempt, had “Moot Hall” tattooed along the full height of his back.
The following day we dabbled in the Coledale Horseshoe Fell Race—an eight-mile loop with 3,000 feet of up and down, two check points, no set course or course markings. Scott and I were seemingly the only runners not affiliated with a local running club. I tucked behind the modern fell-running legend Rob Jebb, who led me through the entire course, then out-sprinted me at the end.
Following some post-race beers, we retired to the Derwentwater Youth Hostel where my friend and Salomon teammate, English fell-running champion Ricky Lightfoot, was waiting for us with “King” Billy Bland himself. Now in his mid-60s, still with a tinge of red hair, dressed in gumboots, corduroys and an old rain jacket, Billy greeted us with a stone-mason’s handshake and a soft grin.
Bob Graham, center, at age 42 with his pacers at the time of his 1932 run. Photo courtesy of the Bob Graham Round Club
Over the next of couple hours, Billy chatted about his time at the top of the sport. He routinely chalked up his success to hard work and plenty of sleep. “I used to beat the kids to bed. Pull the curtains. Up the next morning. Full tank of petrol.”
When asked about his record-setting Bob Graham Round, he grinned a moment, as though he knew we’d ask.
“Well, away we went. Went around as I felt. Kenny Stuart helped out.” Billy talks about people and mountains. Back and forth. People and mountains. “Me brother Stuart. And then ol’ Joss. And then back into Keswick.”
“We were thinking of running the BGR in a few days,” I mentioned. “But given the amount of miles we’ve already put in this past week and today’s fell race …”
“Well,” Billy’s hand clapped my shoulder. “You can’t really do the Bob Graham when you get home now, can you?” he laughed, and it was settled.
The following day we rested, ate and slept. At 10 past three the next morning, there was little fanfare as we checked our watches, snapped a photo, patted the hollow green doors of Moot Hall and set off, with Lightfoot as our navigator, through the cobbled streets and alleys of Keswick.
Little time is wasted on the summits of the BGR—maybe a photo and a glance at the watch. “One summit down, 41 to go,” I said. None of us laughed.
As we skirted our way around to the west, the moon set, the sun rose bright and we knew that it was going to be a beautiful day.
At the first changeover Ian Mulvey, his partner Emily and Murphy the Dog greeted us with hot coffee and the food we’d packed to be sent ahead. We relaxed a moment, petted the dog and chatted about the next leg. From the small town of Threlkeld we carried on up the steep, grassy climb of Clough Fold, Clough Head and on to the Dodds, where we rapidly ticked off nondescript summits with dull-sounding names: Great Dodd, Watson’s Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd.
More bogs, more strangely named summits. We stopped counting summits and focused on the number of sections. As we peered at Skiddaw, off in the distance, and the many more mountains to be climbed to the west and north, the vastness of the route started to settle. Harrison Stickle, Pike of Stickle, Rossett Pike. Sergeant Man. Scafell Pike—England’s tallest mountain, marked with a cairn the size of a grain silo.
At the next changeover, Lightfoot handed the navigational reigns over to Ian as Scott and I calorically prepared for the third and most challenging leg.
Out of Scott’s earshot, Ian asked if he was all right and I replied that he was fine. “His proprioception is gone,” I said. “Once we get him to some runnable terrain, he’ll be back to normal.”
Ian paused. “There is no runnable terrain,” he said. “Not until the final few miles.”
It was around this time that I realized we weren’t going to make it back to Keswick in time for a beer and a basket of chips. We were going to be pushing it pretty close to the 24-hour mark.
Jurek and the author navigate the rocky and unstable terrain synonymous with the Lake District. Photo by Ian Mulvey
On the fourth leg, a fresh set of pacers joined us. One of them pointed out the southern coast of Scotland, to the northwest. He showed me the rest of leg four: Red Pike and Steeple along the same ridge to the north of us, then the flat-top summit of Kirk Fell to the east and a beast of a climb up what looked to be a volcanic plug—Great Gable.
“Once you get to the top of Great Gable, you’ll have cracked it,” he said.
“You’ll have broken it’s back,” another pacer echoed.
We paused to take in the moonrise over Great Gable, and began to absorb the cycle of the entire route. Why 24 hours? I thought. What’s wrong with 25 hours? 30 hours? The air was dead calm and just cool enough to make you keep moving. Because a day’s a day, I thought. Same time, same place, which made good sense to me and still kinda does.
The rocky descent off Great Gable had Scott cursing. We clicked off another couple of peaks—Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knotts—before descending into the Honister Pass slate mine, where the map printed especially for the Bob Graham Round notes, “If time is tight, don’t stop—eat on the climb up Dale Head.” We took our food to go and hurried into the final leg.
The moon was good and bright at this point and we didn’t need headlamps. Scott was looking better, but still moving pretty slowly. A rebound from an eight-hour bad patch doesn’t equate to much given all the damage already done to the body.
“Forty-two done. Zero left to go,” I said. Again, nobody laughed. The light glow of Keswick shone in the distance, some seven miles away. Scott looked down the final, rocky descent.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he muttered.
Moonlight filled the hills and sprinkled down through the oak as we ran on pavement for the first time in close to 60 miles. Bright white farmhouses. Sleeping lambs, a ghostly silence and nothing. The only applause came from the automatic porch lights abruptly illuminating small portions of the road as we passed.
As we ran by Newlands Church and Little Town, Scott’s form began to return.
I realized that I hadn’t really seen trees at all today.
Our pace quickened: eight-minute pace, 7:30 pace, seven-minute pace, past a half dozen sloops docked on Derwenter lake, moonlight splashing about their hulls.
Through the small town of Portinscale where the buildings are packed tight, two or three stories tall. I felt as though I’d been away from civilization for some time.
Over a footbridge and into the fields outside Keswick.
The final moments were cobblestone, silence and joy. We touched the hollow green doors as Ian clicked his watch.
He looked at it, held up his wrist and smiled.
12 minutes to spare.
Jurek ascends Halls Fell Ridge beneath Blencathra, the third summit of the Bob Graham Round. Photo by Ricky Gates
Forty-eight hours later we are on United Airlines Flight 80 to Newark. Scott is in first class; I’m in coach writing down an account of our Round as requested by the venerable Bob Graham Round Club. My body is aching tremendously.
I am thinking, perhaps a bit too metaphysically, about it all—the simplicity and perfection of an endeavor where, if all goes well, you will end up right where you started, tired, beat, blistered and sore, yet filled with an immense purity and happiness.
For many, the Bob Graham Round is the culminating achievement for a lifetime of running. For others, the Round is life: You start off fresh and full of ambition, scared, but also a little curious for what the future has in store for you.
I think about the many cultures that have adopted the simple practice of moving around something in order to better communicate with both yourself and God. In Islam it is called tawaf. In Buddhism it is called kinhin. In Hinduism it is called parikrama. Western culture knows it best as circumambulation.
As we soar over the white icefields of Greenland, my mind’s eye wanders the Elk Mountains of Western Colorado—the mountains of my youth and my unfaltering source of inspiration. My imagination travels quickly up trails, along ridges and over passes, tallying miles, elevation and hours.
What would be my round?
One that anybody can do … “provided they’re fit enough.”
This article originally appeared in our April 2015/DIRT issue.