“Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(Getting that “feet in the clouds” feeling!)
Last weekend, my world was centred on a little holiday flat in the Lake District, where thirteen of us had gathered for what promised to be an unforgettable weekend. Armed only with our fell running shoes, a wooden relay baton, a plethora of maps and timetables and a seemingly endless supply of crisps and cookies, we had joined forces in order to take on the mighty Billy Bland Challenge (a relay of the infamous Bob Graham Round).
The location of our base camp could not have been more fitting for our amazing adventures, as we stayed on the dreamy shores of Ullswater and in the shadow of Helvellyn, one of the highest mountains in England. The latter had a special meaning for me, as in 2010 I had attempted to climb the mountain in winter but due to deteriorating weather conditions had abandoned my bid for the summit shortly before reaching Swirral ridge – only to find out the next day that two walkers had died on the mountain shortly after I had made my retreat. The experience served as a sobering reminder that we must always respect the mountains (as an extension of nature in general).
But just before we embarked on our very own running adventure across the fells of the Lake District, it just so happened that someone else’s were coming to their own incomprehensibly epic conclusion. On the same night that saw us enjoying our pre-run pasta orgy in Glenridding, Steve Birkinshaw was due to complete his titanic run of all the Wainwrights; a route which saw him running a total of 515 km (320 miles), across the summits of 214 fells with a total ascend of 36,000 m (118,000 ft). I genuinely can’t think of any adjectives that could adequately enhance my description of this truly epic feat, so I’ll just leave you with the facts and trust that your minds will boggle just like mine has done (and still does!). He completed the round in 6 days and 13 hours, and in doing so not only broke Joss Naylor’s record which has stood since 1987, but also raised many thousands of pounds for individuals with Multiple Sclerosis, a condition which his sister suffers. I wouldn’t have missed the chance to see him finish his incredible journey for the world, so late at night, when everyone else was being sensible by climbing into their bunk beds and sleeping bags, I made my way to the Moot Hall in Keswick to cheer this legend of a man across the finish line.
(A night to remember: the legend that is Steve Birkinshaw)
So when Louise and I (cheered on by the rest of the team) found ourselves standing on the steps of the very same Moot Hall the next morning with our minds on a mission to blaze the trail of Bob Graham to Honister Pass (i.e. leg one of an anti-clockwise Bob Graham round), I can’t deny that it felt rather iconic and special. We were about to step into the footsteps of many, many incredible athletes who have tested themselves on the fells of the Lake District before us.
Our original plan was to begin our journey at 7am, but because we were all a bit nervous, we did what nervous runners do best, and at 6:45 we all embarked on a warm-up relay to and from the parking lot loos, which we finished in an official record time of 20 minutes.
Then, finally, at 7:05, Louise and I dashed off down the High Street of Keswick, which much to our general amusement elicited precisely absolutely no reaction whatsoever from the locals who were setting up their market stalls. Clearly, they are used to this kind of behaviour from obsessive fell runners and have taken to politely ignoring it. Our plan was to blast along the 6 mile road section to the base of our first hill as fast as we could; an objective which we more or less achieved, despite two seriously adversarial forces acting against us. Firstly, the “road” we were running would be the perfect setting for a most masochistic hill sprint workout, and the sun itself had risen with a fierce determination to fry us up for breakfast at 7am.
(And we are off!)
But we kept our heads down and carried on, and soon enough we reached the base of Robinson. A stiff climb and a scramble later, we stood at the summit of our first fell. From then on, the going was a lot easier, and we could simply cruise along the flanks of the mountains to the next summit on our route, Hindscarth.
Although our task was to keep shifting, I still had plenty of time to enjoy the stunning views from the top of the world. The sun was out to get us with a vengeance, despite it still being very early in the morning. Dripping in sweat, we were near the summit of Hindscarth when we commented on the fact that we seemingly had the fells to ourselves that morning.
(Reaching for the sky)
I can only assume that it was precisely because we said these words out loud that we encountered at least 50 hill walkers on the summit of Dale Head. They were all wearing event numbers and were very official looking. On the plus side, though, I can’t deny that a very wicked part of me derived a great about of pleasure and satisfaction in charging past them down the slopes of the mountain.
Although I was a little sad to not have spent more time in the mountains, it was awesome to be welcomed and cheered into Honister Pass by our team after 2 hours and 34 minutes. We exchanged some quick hugs and cheered and hollered the next two runners up the steep slope of Grey Knotts. The running part of my journey was over as quickly as it had begun.
And breathe. I returned to the headquarters and showered and ate cookies and crisps until I felt vaguely human again. Back on the ground, the atmosphere was abuzz with maps and timetables and code text message such as “Pillar 12:03”. However, there wasn’t much more for me to do at this point; as I was a last minute addition to the team, I had not been planned in for any duties in terms of logistics or support. I felt a little bit bad about that, but upon eating my eights cooking of the day I remembered how nice it felt to be cheered on at Honister Pass and decided to nominate myself as the official team cheerleader.
As it was, the official cheerleader started by failing miserably at the first hurdle. I sadly missed the next handover entirely; partially because eating cookies took longer than I thought, and Wasdale Pass happens to be a long drive away from the shores of Ullswater. But most importantly, Caroline and Louise had seemingly soared across the fells and had covered their part of the route in a magnificently quick 4 hours and 6 minutes!
There was not much for me to do but to guard and periodically quality control the cookies and crisps at operation headquarters for the rest of the afternoon, look at more maps – or rather, the same maps over and over again. Slowly and subtly, I felt a shift in the mood of our little troupe… At the start of the day, our general agreement had been to just enjoy the challenge and see what happens. However, due to the fact that we were covering the ground faster than we thought, by the time dusk arrived it began to dawn upon us that there was a possibility that we could complete the challenge in 24 hours…
I’m pleased to report that the official cheerleader was actually present at Dunmail Raise, where I witnessed the very exciting descend of Anita and Liz on the tricky slopes of Steel Fell and cheered to be best of my abilities when they handed the baton over at 8:13 pm. I won’t deny that I felt a little envious when I watched Moira and Cathy trek into the sunset; the gorgeous day was promising to turn into an even more stunning night for us all.
But for now, we headed back to headquarters for about an hour of sleep and more crisps and cookies. A few hours later, we got a text message (“Clough Head 0:52”) which sent us driving across the Lake District at a speed that would surely have left Buzz Lightyear a little green around the nose, as the leg 4 runners had kept to the general pattern of the day and had exceeded all expectations. The final handover at Threlkeld was rushed and there wasn’t much cheering either, despite the presence of the world’s worst cheerleader. It turns out that apart from those who are loopy enough to take on the Bob Graham loop, most people in the Lake District prefer to sleep in silence around 2 am in the morning.
(Sleepy cheering on the verge of dawn)
If I was jealous of the evening runners, it was nothing compared to what I felt when I saw the headlights of Ally and Charlotte fade onto the slopes of Blencathra. Despite the fact that it was stupid o’clock, the first signs of light were glistering on the horizon and the night was illuminated by a sickle moon.
Another hour of sleep and more cookies and crisps and brewing over maps at operation headquarters later, the joyous text message of “Skiddaw 6:03” sent us all on our way to Keswick once more.
Now, I realise that there is nothing that can possibly excuse what I did next. I would nevertheless like to reiterate that it was very early in the morning indeed, and those of your who know me should realise by now that I cannot be passed for a human being before 10:30 am on any given day. I’d enjoyed a full two hours of sleep during the previous night and had left the flat before even contemplating breakfast (apart from crisps and cookies, but I stopped counting them long ago). Furthermore, I had not taken anything with me, as my plan was to head up Skiddaw to meet the last runners, fulfil my cheering duties and accompany them on the last kilometre of their journey, perhaps offering to carry one of their backpacks down the mountain.
It was another glorious morning, and a zombiefied me greatly enjoyed a little morning jog out of Keswick and up into the mountains once more. I stopped after about 20 minutes of climbing and turned around to marvel at the views of yet another magnificent break of day. Beneath me, Derwent Water lay sleepily in the valley, and a glance to the right revealed the inviting flank of mighty Skiddaw… Wait, what? Embarrassingly slowly it dawned upon me that this made no sense at all. Why was Skiddaw on my right? No person in the world with a sense of direction vaguely superior to that of a piece of plywood (or myself for that matter) would journey from Skiddaw down to Keswick via the peak of Latrigg, which is where I had finally derived that I must be standing…
Having sacrificed my dignity at dawn to the sun god on the wrong mountain top – not to mention the fact that there was now absolutely no doubt whatsoever that I had earned myself the world’s worst cheerleader badge – I commenced my trot of shame back to the Moot Hall in Keswick, where in a very awkward twist of events, the final runners were the ones who were waiting for me.
Ally and Charlotte had made it back to Keswick at 7:11 am, which meant that we have completed the Billy Bland Challenge in 24 hours and 6 minutes! Naturally, all of us simultaneously blurted out all sorts of suggestions of how we could have run our particular leg a little faster. I’m sure we can do it, although I’m not quite sure how, as everyone talking at the same time isn’t conducive to actually taking anything in. In reality, I can safely say that nobody was even remotely disappointed. I think the challenge so immense that an old cliché couldn’t have been more true; the journey had meant more to us than the destination ever could. Besides, it just means that we will have to do it all again next year!
(Full circle: 7am (again) at the Moot Hall (again)!)
I want to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to my fellow runners: Louise, Caroline, Lou B, Liz, Anita, Moira, Cathy, Ally and Charlotte. You ladies are amazing! Also, we couldn’t have done this without our incredible support crew, consisting of Adrian, Bill and Graham; all of whom possess athletic prowess that put us all to shame but who were nevertheless more than willing to just support us and let us enjoy our moment. Thank you all for letting me be part of this adventure, for a wonderful weekend of teamwork and for being part of memories which I am sure will stay with me for a very long time!
As for little old me, my own journey was not quite over yet. Despite the severe lack of sleep and directionally challenged start to the day, I felt ready and downright needing to embrace the last day in the Lake District. Thus, I turned to face the shadow behind us. A nice and easy jog up Helvellyn seemed like a fitting way to take some time to reflect upon and celebrate my own journey in these mountains.
(Relaxing on the summit of Helvellyn: A wild kind of relaxation.)
After scrambling down Striding Ridge, I once again couldn’t resist the pull of gravity and blazed down the mountain with legs as fresh as they had felt the morning before. About half-way through my charge down the mountain, a middle aged man stepped aside a I passed him and saluted me.
“I wish I could do what you are doing”, he said. I stopped and turned to look at the summit of Helvellyn behind me, with the Red Tarn at its base and the two dramatic ridges leading to peak. In comparison to the day before, it all seemed to tame now.
“Why don’t you?” I smiled back at him. He told me that he “only” runs marathons, and I told him that I find marathons really, really hard! Then, in a moment of supreme immaturity (because some things never change), I blurted out, to a complete stranger, on the slopes of a mountain, what we had been up to the day before.
His response? He shook my hand. It doesn’t matter how far you run, or how fast, or on what surface. Runners just get each other.
“While it is well enough to leave footprints on the sands of time, it is even more important to make sure they point in a commendable direction.”
– James Branch Cabell