A Bloke and the Bob Graham Round

A look England’s original ultramarathon, the Bob Graham Round.

By on December 28, 2011 | Comments

The Victorians have a lot to answer for. Whilst I am not going to suggest they invented ultrarunning, anyone wanting to understand the genesis of England’s Bob Graham Round (BG for short) must head right back to 1864 when the Rev J M Elliott traversed the high fells around the Wasdale valley in the English Lake District in 8.5 hours.

The same group who invented rock climbing, and who were “slaying dragons” in the Alps, were also putting themselves about on their home mountains in fast and light style. My good friend Bob Wightman’s research has produced a summary of historical developments between Elliott’s short round in 1864 and the more expansive efforts of Eustace Thomas in the 1920s.

Bob Graham Round map

A map of the Bob Graham Round.

But it was in 1932 that Bob Graham, a Keswick hotelier, who took fast and light to a new level when he traversed 42 peaks in the Lake District in 23 hours and 39 minutes. The pioneers believed the distance was 72 miles, and it packed in a whopping 28,000’ of vertical ascent. (GPS now suggests a distance of perhaps 66 miles is more accurate, but those old guys could count their contour lines just fine!

In essence what Graham did was to see how many peaks or tops in the Lakes he could climb in a 24 hour period, something that the Victorians had clearly seen as a challenge fit for their efforts and attention. The Lakes is a compact mountain area by Continental or US standards and allowed the linking together of various groups of peaks and tops in a continuous “round.” As the district was also crisscrossed by a number of roads, these made for 4 useful points to pause for refuelling and to change supporters. Right from the outset, having some support was an integral part of the thinking for these long days out. Graham used the term “pacer” for his 1932 effort.

The impact of World War Two might partly help explain why it took almost 30 years before anyone was able to repeat (never mind improve on) Graham’s feat. The severity of the challenge may also have had something to do with it!

In 1960, Alan Heaton of Clayton-le-Moors Harriers in Lancashire, repeated the 1932 round in a faster time and his brother Ken planned and executed a round of 52 peaks in 22:13 in 1961. By then the expression “Lake District 24 Hour Fell Record” had come into use and a progression of this record was kept for both men and women.

The current men’s record rests with Mark Hartell, a man with a few US miles on his clock and a Hardrock 100 victory to boot, with his 1997 effort of 77 peaks in 23.47 involving by his calculation 109 miles and 39,900’ of vertical ascent. Any takers?!

In 2011, the BG has become the classic long distance right of passage for British fell runners. In 1972 a club, the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club, was formed with the somewhat stiff entrance requirement of repeating the 1932 round of 42 peaks within 24 hours starting and finishing from the Moot Hall in Keswick. As at September 2011, membership stood at 1,710 people of whom around 110 are women.

As of September 2011, there were no US-based or resident members of the BG Club.

Enter stage left, Nick Clark. I spotted reference in Nick’s blog to the thought that the BG in winter would be a suitable challenge for him, his British roots making themselves felt. I made contact with Nick by email. (I could have collared him at UTMB when we passed in the street but the BG had not surfaced then.)  We chatted by email and I posted him a map at 1:40,000 scale of the route.

I then started to pull together road and hill support teams of suitably experienced people who might be able to help on a weekday just before Christmas! Luckily, I was able to prevail on Wynn Cliff and Ian Roberts to help with road support. Both are Associate Members of the BG Club (a special category of membership awarded for service to aspirant members way above and beyond the call over many years) and are past masters at recruiting pacers and navigators

A schedule was of little use to someone who had never been over the ground before, but we produced one anyway. Assuming good ground conditions, we “guessed” at a completion time of 20 hours for someone of Nick’s ability.

Chats about gear options continued by email as we tried to piece together the hill support team. Inevitably, seasonal colds and injuries took their toll, in a couple of cases rather at the last minute, but by 2:00 a.m. on Wednesday, December 20 we had a navigator and pacer for each of the five legs or sections and it was game on. I took the navigation duties for the final leg, thinking that some pep might have been taken out of the Clark legs by then and that I should be able to keep up!

Having driven up on Tuesday the 19th to spend some time chatting with Nick and looking over the set of 1:25,000 scale maps of the ground to be covered, I could see what looked like considerable snow cover at higher altitudes. Underfoot conditions are a key factor in these winter rounds. Nick never asked me, but if he had I would have given odds of 70:30 against a completion. 66 miles/28,000’ of vertical in snowy conditions, thawing as well, on sight and pretty much straight off the plane from the Western US; not much of an ask! The man has cojones.

Fortunately, to spare you my own cobbled together view of events, the man himself has recorded his thoughts of his BG adventure on his blog.

Nick Clark Bob Graham Round

Nick Clark on the Bob Graham Round. Photo: Bill Williamson

Nick’s report gives some understanding of just how difficult winter mountain running can be in the British Isles, but more settled conditions do occur and can give fantastic winter days of crisp snow that will take Kahtoola Microspikes and see you covering the ground in fine time. But the prevailing Westerly weather gives us amounts of precipitation, even in summer, that can be alarming and can destroy the preparations of the fittest and most experienced runner.

Winter Bob Graham Round

A view from Nick Clark’s winter Bob Graham Round. Photo: Bill Williamson

I sincerely hope that Nick returns to the Lakes, perhaps in the summer, to have another attempt at the BG in more clement weather. It was a delight to have him visit. And if anyone else has had their appetite whetted, and who can justify the time to come across the Atlantic and rub their noses on the small but fantastic “little” mountains of the Lakes, I would be delighted to hear from them. Email contact details on the BG Club site.

Call for Comments (added by Bryon)

  • Are there any Bob Graham Round finishers among iRunFar’s readers? If so, please share some of your memories.
  • Any finishers of any other Rounds? If so, please tell us about the particular Round you’ve run?
  • Any Americans or US-residents tempted to give a go at joining the Bob Graham Club?

Bonus Videos (courtesy of Bill Williamson)

Nick Clark in the Snow on Bowfell

The Bob Graham Round near Mickledore

Morgan Williams
Morgan Williams is a fell and mountain runner who lives in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in England. He is a member of Ambleside AC and member number 371 of the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club, where he acted as Secretary for 13 years. His first fell race was the 1984 Langdale Horseshoe and since then he has run anything from the Wasdale Show Fell Race (2.4 miles, 2,300 feet of ascent) to UTMB. He is a former Secretary of The Fell Runners Association, which manages the sport of fell running in England and served for a decade as a trustee of the John Taylor Foundation for Young Athletes, a grant-giving charity. These days he runs when the fancy takes him.