The hour was approaching midnight as the car swept westwards along the A66. Headlights momentarily illuminated a road sign: THRELKELD. We had entered the realm of the Lake District's legendary running challenge, the Bob Graham Round. Wiping condensation from the windows, we looked out and up, peering into a heaving maelstrom. The darkness was vast and perpetual; Blencathra was engaged in battle with a furious monster.
Someone was up there though. Someone, somewhere. A fell runner. The woman had left the traditional starting point of the Moot Hall in Keswick four hours earlier. She would have paced nervously through the alleyways of Keswick; she would have climbed the stony slopes of Skiddaw, the fourth highest ground in England, where the wind would have sought to whirl her away; she would have paused at the summit, checking her watch, making a mental note of the split; she would have dropped into a boggy trough before rising again to Great Calva, reassured by a line of old fence posts that lead the way to the cairn; she would have forded the surging River Caldew and with water slopping in her shoes started the long ascent of Blencathra.
About now, she should be descending that stupendous mountain. Threlkeld waited for her, as one day it would wait for me. We looked again to where Blencathra should be, seeking the starry glare of a head torch. The car bucked. The window wipers thrummed from side to side in a frantic, thrashing action. We looked again. Nothing.
There were four of us: Robin Sanderson and his wife Shayda, Duncan Steen and me. What would Joss Naylor – whose valley we would steal into tomorrow – have made of us: an IT specialist, a tax consultant, an energy consultant and an English teacher, driving 300 miles in Friday night traffic from London, fuelled by a tray of Marks and Spencer sandwiches?
"What use was a mechanical engineer or an IT consultant or an English teacher in the chaos of a Lakeland storm?"
Duncan and I would share a tent, pitched on liquid ground in a Borrowdale campsite in the early hours. A little over a year later, this then-stranger, who I first encountered on the forecourt of a Chiswick petrol station, would stand by my side on the summit of Robinson, the last hill on a clockwise Bob Graham, gesturing manically to the south and east, bellowing into the wind: ‘Look at these hills; you own them.’
Joined by Adam Stirk, an IT project manager, and Andy Higgins, a mechanical engineer, in the watery light of morning, we went for a run, first over a mountain pass apparently haunted by a thirteenth century ghost named Bjorn, before sweeping downhill to the single-track road that punctures Wasdale. We came to a halt by a rickety wooden gate. ‘This is it,’ Andy said knowingly.
‘It’ was the start of a path to the top of Yewbarrow, rising some 500 metres above our heads. Yewbarrow is a middle-sized Lakeland fell, overshadowed by illustrious neighbours, Great Gable and Scafell Pike. Yet in the context of the Bob Graham, Yewbarrow is an appalling proposition. Put yourself in the shoes of an aspirant. You have run continuously for 12 hours, probably through part of the night, possibly in incessant rain, over 30 peaks, including the nine highest summits in England, covering 40 miles, when you are faced with Yewbarrow – the third longest and one of the steepest ascents of the round. Attempts founder here for good reason. The fell had claimed another victim that morning: the woman we had hoped to see descending Blencathra. Somehow, she had made it this far.
We went up, first to Yewbarrow, then to wonderfully-named places like Steeple and Pillar, with rain starting to fall as we reached the pinnacle of the latter. Weather in the Lake District has a knack of accelerating in seriousness with alarming alacrity. A fine day can evolve into an abominable one with merciless speed. And so it did. Light rain became heavy rain; heavy rain became hail. Visibility of miles was curtailed to a few yards. By the time I located a waterproof jacket and turned it from inside-out while it flapped madly in the wind, I was soaked. The spare kit – hat, gloves, thermal top – contained in my rucksack was also rapidly gaining moisture. Such was my fell running naivety, the notion of placing these in a waterproof bag had not occurred.
"That is when you know you are obsessed: when the chronic fear of failure overrules the urgency of common sense...'
Over Pillar and on the long descent to Black Sail Pass, I began to shiver in a way I knew would only worsen. I was a featherweight then as now and the cold seemed to tear at my core, making every step a small agony. We passed a walker going up, swaying in the wind. ‘It’s gone a little bit wrong, hasn’t it?’ he yelled. I sensed panic in the group. We had stopped eating and drinking; hunch and hope had replaced rationality. In our haste, we overshot the summit of Kirk Fell. We looked back forlornly, instantly dismissing the prospect of returning, and blundered on towards Great Gable. We had very quickly become imposters. What use was a mechanical engineer or an IT consultant or an English teacher in the chaos of a Lakeland storm? It was, in hindsight, an unwitting examination – one that we would all just about pass.
There was no requirement to proceed to Kirk Fell or Great Gable that day. We could have changed course at Black Sail Pass, retreating to the safety of valley floors at Ennerdale or Wasdale. What would have made us descend? A broken leg? Hypothermia? Concussion? Being cold, tired or disorientated were unsatisfactory excuses. Choosing what appears to be the logical or sensible option is not the prerogative of a contender seeking to accomplish the Bob Graham within 24 hours. Ironically, the psychologically easier solution is to continue the set course. That is when you know you are obsessed: when the chronic fear of failure overrules the urgency of common sense. So we stuck to the plan: running the entirety of the ten miles of the fourth leg, however horrible it was.
My teeth chattered as we ran in a line down Green Gable. My hands, bare and wet, were blue- white. I clapped them together, then created a cup, blowing hot air into the barrels created by my curled fingers, creating momentary relief. Once over Grey Knotts, the final summit, the land fell sharply. Ahead, the air cleared for a moment, revealing a shiny coil of the Honister road pass, only for the mist to slam its door. Seconds later, we punched through the clag. The world had come back to us. Honister lay beneath our feet.
We traipsed into the shelter of the mine museum that occupies the pass. Someone unearthed a collection of coins, enough to pay for a mug of tomato soup between the five of us. Still shuddering, I found the gents and stood slumped by the hand dryer, repeatedly pressing the button to start the air, before Andy came to tell me we had to run a further four miles to the campsite.
Many years later, my wife and I would debate the purpose of doing anything: watching television, going to work, running in the hills. ‘Because you enjoy it; there must be an element of fun,’ was her argument. ‘I don’t enjoy everything I do,’ was my retort. That exchange summarised my feelings on the Bob Graham. Having entered a circle of fascination, I could not extricate myself, even if I wanted to. Enjoyment – or lack of it – was not the point; the Bob Graham had quite unexpectedly become imprinted in my consciousness. The calling demanded an answer.
About The Author
Jonny Muir is an Edinburgh-based writer, mountain runner and speaker who in 2006 visited all of the UK's 92 historic county tops in a continuous 5,000-mile cycling and walking adventure – a journey you can read about in Heights of Madness, the first of his four books. His latest book, The Mountains are Calling, is available from Standstone Press.
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