A Bob and a Frog. So easy to say, it rolls off the tongue. But it pays no heed to the pain and suffering that is to come.
At the beginning of 2020 at the start of the pandemic, with the cancellation of all our planned races, I knew I would need something special to motivate my running. The Bob Graham Round was the obvious choice but as Ros and Jess were also planning the Frog Graham Round, I thought it was the ideal opportunity to be able to say 'I've done a Bob and a Frog.' If I could achieve it of course......
The Bob Graham Round, first completed in 1932 is a 66 mile fell running challenge over 42 peaks in the Lake District, in 24 hours. The Frog Graham, a modern take on the Bob Graham, covers 40 miles of fell running over 18 peaks but also includes swimming across 4 of the major lakes in over 2 miles. As I am not the strongest swimmer in the world or the fastest mountain runner, I knew it would keep me very busy training for both attempts. Here’s my account of the Bob followed by Ros’s account of the Frog…..
The Bob Graham Round: Saturday 19th June 2021
The route is split into five legs and the contender must have at least one witness on each summit. It's traditional to have two support runners, one to help navigate and one to carry gear, so that the contender can concentrate on running and preserve energy. It was important to me to have as many Swaledale Runners in my support team as possible but as we don't yet have enough experience to make a full team, I was very lucky to have had good friends from Todmorden Harriers to help as well. I was running to a 23-hour schedule, so I knew what pace I needed to maintain, with a little wriggle room at the end in case things didn't go as planned. I was also carrying an Open Tracking device which showed my position on the hills, helping the support crew and allowing friends and family to follow my progress from their homes.
Leg 1: Keswick to Threlkeld
At 23.50 on the 18th June 2021 a small group of people could be found in front of the Moot Hall in Keswick, the traditional start and finish of the BGR. Bob and Simon (a very last-minute stand-in) were my Leg 1 support, and Mandy, Phil and Ros were there to send me on my way. Dead on midnight, with accompanying cheers from Keswick's late-night revellers, we set off on the biggest single ascent on the round. It is about 800m to the summit of Skiddaw. About halfway up, Simon decided the pace was too much for him and Bob took on the dual role of gear carrying and navigating in the dark, reaffirming his nickname of ‘Saint' Bob. Things went well over the boggy ground to Great Calva and on up to the summit of Blencathra where Phil was waiting to guide us down the technical descent of Halls Fell Ridge. When Phil assured me that his line avoided the treacherous ground, I had to ask the question 'but isn't this treacherous ground? ', since we were descending near vertical grass in the dark above a steep drop!
The angle soon eased and I had to agree that it made for a quick descent to Threkeld, where the support crew of Mandy and Ros were waiting.
Arrived at Threlkeld checkpoint at 04.00, right on schedule.
Leg 2: Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise
After a quick bacon butty and a cup of tea courtesy of Mandy I was soon on my way with Dan and Derek. The sky had lightened and we were running through an overcast dawn. The Leg begins with a steep ascent of Clough Head then undulating terrain over the Dodds to Helvellyn. We were moving well and were ahead of schedule by about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, after Helvellyn summit the clag came in and it was tricky to locate the summits of Nethermost and Dollywagon Pikes.
A big descent to Grisedale Tarn is followed by a steep pull up to Fairfield, but I was going well and in good spirits. However, about half way up everything changed when we received a phone call from the support crew with the devastating news that the tracker showed that we had missed the true summit of Dollywagon Pike. I saw my attempt falling apart in that moment. Without ticking the true summit my round would be void, but the alternative, a 300m steep ascent back up to Dollywagon, then back down again, with the time ticking away, was almost too much to bear. I apologise to Dan and Derek, as I may have used some uncivilised language! They persuaded me that as we had time in hand, we should try to salvage the attempt and a phone call from Mandy telling me to grow a pair got me back on track. I ticked the summit of Fairfield, visiting every cairn on the plateau just in case, before painfully righting the wrong of Dollywagon. We pushed hard over Seat Sandal before dropping down to the cheering support crew at Dunmail
Arrived at Dunmail checkpoint at 09.08, 38 minutes behind schedule (nearly 1 hour lost from a simple navigation mistake)
Leg 3: Dunmail Raise to Wasdale
A quick power sob in the van with Ros where no one else could see, another Bacon roll and a cup of tea and I could face the world again. An additional boost was to see our Lakeland friends Joe, Kath and Dave, who unbeknownst to me had already been signed up for kayak duties on the Frog Graham in the few minutes that they had been chatting with Ros.
It was important not to dwell on the problem of the last leg, but just get on with the job in hand, which now was to get to Wasdale. Ian and Mike did this perfectly, never mentioning times or schedules, but just chatting away. Ian seemed to have a mobile picnic hamper on his back and fed me constantly. Mike took on the navigating and before I knew it, they had delivered me to another Lakeland friend, Mark Eddy, who with Ros had set up the ropes for a short climb up Broad Stand. This was much appreciated as this cuts out a difficult descent and reascent to the summit of Scafell and saved me a significant amount of time. Ian and Mike left me here to drop straight down from Mickledore. Sadly, there was no time to stop and chat with Mark as I had a further scramble still to achieve before meeting Ros on the summit of Scafell. She led me down, taking the scree running gully option and I was relieved to arrive in Wasdale.
Arrived at Wasdale checkpoint at 15.08, still 38 mins down on schedule
Leg 4: Wasdale to Honister
A swift turnaround to regain some minutes, stopping only to change my socks and shoes and refuel with pizza, courtesy of Caroline. I was actually feeling fine, my mood was good and I was starting to feel that I was getting back on track. The supporting runners for this leg were Tim and Daz and we gained two extra runners in Caroline and Dave G. All help gratefully received! Daz took charge of the navigating to Great Gable, and the other 3 took it in turns to keep me entertained. There are some big ascents on this leg, including Yewbarrow and Red Pike, but my uphill pace remained good. Daz and Dave dropped back to Wasdale, where they were staying and we met up with Phil for a second time on the summit of Great Gable. He was able to show us some faster lines to avoid some tricky rocky sections. Phil seemed to be doing quite a lot for someone 'resting' before an operation! Once over Grey Knotts, it was easier ground down to Honister Pass where the support crew and the midges were waiting for me.
Arrived at Honister checkpoint at 20.09, 14 mins down on schedule
Leg 5: Honister to Keswick
Another swift turnaround, cheese rolls, tea and pringles served by Ian, then I headed out of the checkpoint accompanied by Mandy, Jess, Jim and Simon. Even though it was getting late in the day, we still made solid progress up Dale Head. However, it was along this edge that I started losing my appetite, after eating really well all day. All the support runners know how important it is to keep the contender eating and Jess took on this role with vigour. 'It's been half an hour Neil, do you want to eat something? No! It's been another half an hour, what about now? No! Eat! No! Now? OK I’ll have a hot cross bun’. Which I nibbled and pretended to eat before throwing it off the cliff for the ravens.
After the final summit of Robinson, there still remains a potentially dangerous rocky ridge descent, but here our secret weapon Mandy was deployed, choosing fabulous grassy lines that avoided the difficulties. Once on the track, it was easy running to the road end where Ros and Phil were waiting. I made a quick change into road shoes. It was here that I started to feel really tired, but this may have been psychological once I knew the difficulties were behind me. Or I could have been short of fuel; why didn't Jess make me eat more? Ha ha!
Ros joined us for the final 4 miles into Keswick and I needed the encouragement that the team provided just to keep moving. A figure lurking in the shadows in Portinscale turned out to be Lakeland legend Joe. A knowing smile and a fist bump were enough to confirm that it was in the bag. The final shuffle into Keswick, surrounded by friends was the icing on the cake and I arrived at the Moot Hall doors in 23 hours and 34 minutes.
My initial feeling was one of relief that I had not let down the small army of people that had given up time to help me to achieve what is ultimately a selfish goal. There was also disbelief as I never thought that I was strong enough and fast enough to do it. I thought that at 54 I had left it too late to try and it was only the circumstances surrounding the pandemic that had encouraged me to have a go. In addition, the error on Leg 2 and the additional ascent, descent and time lost was at the time something that I didn't think I could overcome. Having supported on previous attempts i knew how difficult it was to make up lost time. It was the fantastic support that kept me focused on moving forward at a solid pace, which I achieved until the very last few miles. Many, many thanks to all involved:
• Derek Parrington
• Ian Oldham
• Mike Keavney
• Tim Grimwood
• Caroline Graham
• Jim Coldwell
• Jess Young
• Simon Hewitt
• Stuart Clarkson, Logistics Manager
• Ros Blackmore
• Dan Taylor
• Bob Halstead
• Simon Anderton
• Phil Hodgson
• Mandy Goth
• Daz Graham
• Dave Garner
• Mark Eddy
Ad Hoc Supporters
• Joe Faulkner
• Kath Jackson
• Dave Howarth
• Julie Graham
• Michelle Fuller
Frog Graham Round: Saturday 10th July 2021
Leg 1: Keswick to Beck Wythop
Keswick High Street was completely deserted as three runners waited outside the Moot Hall in the pre-dawn. Perhaps they were doing the Bob Graham Round? Unlikely, there were no support runners and they were each carrying their own slightly oversized rucksacks. No, in fact Neil, Jess and I were attempting to complete the Frog Graham Round. All that stood between us and success on this formidable challenge was 40+ miles of mountain running (carrying your wetsuit), 15,750ft of ascent and over 2 miles of swimming across four lakes. Last minute preparations were completed, rucksacks zipped up, shoe laces tightened, Garmins activated and route notes checked, so at 3.50 am there was nothing left to do but run.
Down the alley, across the car park, turn into Otley Street, left then right to the footbridge to Fitz Park. It’s a well-trodden route, the start of the Bob Graham Round and one Neil successfully negotiated just three weeks ago. It was still pre-dawn, but enough light for the three of us to cope through the woods with just one headtorch between us. Once clear of the trees, the path up Skiddaw was all too obvious so I just put my head down and followed Neil's heels, trying not to dishearten myself by looking ahead. By the time we got to the summit there was a tiny strip of sun on the horizon, just a gap before being blotted out by heavy grey cloud. The fact that Skiddaw was clear was a great surprise, as we could see summits disappearing into the clag all around. We didn't waste time but started the descent to Carlside then to the Whitestones and into Dodd Wood. We had checked out a more direct line but had decided it wasn't going to save us time as Jess hadn't done much technical descending before and it was quite extreme. It was nice to run freely through the forest down to the car park, then a pleasant run along the footpaths behind Mirehouse to touch the churchyard wall of St.Begas.
Then came the first transition of many throughout the day. We were all swimming in our old wetsuits, and would pick up our usual wetsuits after the Bassenthwaite swim. This was part of our biosecurity plan, which is essential for anyone thinking of doing the Frog Graham. Invasive species can easily be transferred from Bassenthwaite to the pristine waters of Crummock Water and Buttermere if care is not taken. You’ve not just got to love running and swimming to do the Frog Graham, you’ve got to love the environment too.
We had adapted our rucksacks into Swimsacs, following our reading of Frog Graham creator Peter Haye's description in his informative and entertaining book ‘Swimhiking in the Lake District and North East England’. We liked the idea of recycling what we already had and enjoyed some hilarious moments trying out our prototypes. One of which saw Jess's husband Gary in his kayak chasing after an errant ‘Monsters Inc.’ arm band which had escaped its mooring in the rucksack and was being blown across Crummock Water.
Bassenthwaite was a grey and a little choppy, not terribly inviting at 6.30 in the morning. It was quite warm however so in we slipped ready for our first swim. The swim sections held far more fear for me than the running as I am not very good at it. Well not very fast anyway which can make me feel a bit panicky trying to keep up. I honestly did not know if I would have the endurance for all four swims. As it happens, it was Neil that struggled to start with on the first swim, the choppy water affecting his breathing, so I was able to keep up. I was however very relieved to get out at Beck Wythop after about 35 minutes. We had arranged for our friend Stuart to meet us with hot drinks and our clean wetsuits. Our rucksacks, caps and goggles were washed in fresh water and we were good to go on the next leg.
Leg 2: Beck Wythop to Low Ling Crag
It's a steep climb up to Barf, but then pleasant running all the way down to Whinlatter Pass. Our recces paid off and we found the route down through the forest perfectly, unlike on our first recce. The Gruffalo is now an excellent waymark!
What can be said about the ascent of Grisedale Pike, except that its long and steep and ended in rain and clag. This continued over the next few hills, requiring double checking our route with compass bearings. As we descended from Sand Crag to Eel Crag, we knew we were in the right vicinity to start the scramble but couldn't see a thing. Two runners who we now know were Steph and Guy kindly reassured us and we were soon scrambling up the scree to the gully and on up to the summit. We had another little moment coming off Wandope, looking for the ridge to Whiteless Pike, so easy with visibility but conditions were not on our side. We were very wet by this stage and were wondering about our chances of completing in poor visibility as it was slowing us down. Thankfully as we left Whiteless Pike we dropped out of the cloud and could see down to the Crummock Water. Easy running at last, and before long we were sipping tea courtesy of Stu and changing again at Rannerdale Hause Point, ready for the next swim over to Low Ling Crag. I also made sure I ate well as I have a history of nausea and vomiting which has led to several DNFs on long distance events, so I was determined to keep the calories going in. We could see Jess's children and husband Gary waiting for us on the peninsula on the other side of the Lake. Jess, being a faster swimmer, took off and Neil and I arrived a few minutes later. The sun was out and it was a beautiful place to be. Until you looked up at Mellbreak that is!
Leg 3: Low Ling Crag to Hassness
There is nothing pleasant to be said about the route up Mellbreak, it’s just a case of choosing your line and plodding away. We took a rising diagonal line where we could see the bracken was not so thick or at least not so tall, which brought us out fairly high on the footpath. It was just a short out and back to the summit then an enjoyable run down to the fence line. Being a little ahead I was able to study the terrain across to Scales Beck, which was again thick with bracken and managed to pick a perfect line, saving time and effort. It’s a dull plod up from the beck but we chose to stay on the path up to Red Pike as the clag had again set in. Once we ticked High Stile in an attempt to skirt the rocky ridge to start we went too wide and had to regain the ridge down into Burtness Combe. It’s a long technical descent and was Jess's least enjoyable descent of the Frog but we made it down to Horse Close without mishap.
Conditions in Buttermere were good, the water was warm, flat and beautiful. Once again, we could see Jess's young children playing on the far shore, still having energy after their long walk from Low Ling Crag. Buttermere is the shortest of all the swims so it didn't take much more than 10 minutes to get across. Probably quicker than it took me to change on the other side. We ran up to Stu’s car in the lay-by, marvelling about how he had managed to get parked on a now sunny Saturday afternoon. Another cup of tea and another change; I was beginning to get the hang of repacking the bag by now.
Leg 4: Hassness to Keswick
It was on the ascent of Robinson that Neil's Bob Graham Round came back to haunt him. He started to flag and talked about how he should maybe stop before he slowed us down. We told him we were taking 2 minutes at the summit to recuperate, hoping that a little rest would change his mind. I think we all felt better once we were up on the ridge, on the home straight as it were, although in the back of my mind I knew High Spy could be still be troublesome.
It was evening by now and I realised that we were going to be about an hour later than planned in reaching our kayak support. A quick message confirmed that they had nowhere else to be and were happy to wait, which was very reassuring.
I remembered the line on the Anniversary Waltz fell race from Dale Head down to the tarn and then we chose a grassy line up to High Spy, missing all of the rocky steps. The summit was very atmospheric with the sun glowing through swirling cloud. Unfortunately, it was a sign of more rain, which had us once again putting on our jackets for the run across Maiden Moor to our final summit of Catbells. With some flat running, Jess showed her speed and left us for dead for a while. The bonus of arriving at Catbells so late in the day was that it was completely devoid of people, so we were actually able to touch the summit without queueing. Looking down, we could see some kayaks floating lazily in Otterbield Bay, which we hoped were for us.
A tiny sting in the tail was the steep, muddy and gravelly path that dropped from the ridge to the lower bridleway, which although not pleasant at the time, avoids the rest of the rocky ridge and leads to easy running to the road. From here it was a pleasant path along the shore of Derwent Water to the point of Otterbield Bay. Kath and Dave were there to greet us, with the added pleasant surprise of a third kayaker, Charlotte. Now we each had our own kayak support, meaning that we could swim at our own pace without getting cold or feeling under pressure. Being by the lake this late in the day, with the light fading over the flat calm water was magical and it was only the thought that we would finish the swim in the dark that convinced me to get moving.
I allowed myself time to look around as I stepped into the water, then it was head down and on with the job in hand. The first island, Otterbield, notorious for dive bombing gulls, was only about 200m from shore, but it’s part of the rules to exit your whole body from the water, which is easier said than done on sloping, slimy rocks. Luckily the few gulls were in a mellow mood but Neil was having particular trouble as he realised that his tinted goggles were not cut out for night time swimming! Luckily Kath lent him some goggles, otherwise it could have been a difficult swim. The next section to St. Herberts Island was the longest, perhaps 600m, as its easiest at night to swim to the far-left hand end to cross the narrow shingle spit, rather than a shorter swim then running across the island through the trees.
By now it was virtually dark and I was sighting on a glow stick hanging from Kath’s kayak. The distance to Rampsholme Island did not feel so long, but I was running out of energy. I was telling myself to keep going, this was the point that I really needed to dig deep, this was ‘make or break’. I could hardly drag myself out of the water to cross the spit, and kept falling over. The last few hundred metres to the shore at Calf Close Bay were very tiring, my arms were like lead but I could feel that I was getting near to achieving my goal at last. Charlotte had finished her support duties with Neil so now Kath and Charlotte skilfully guided me to land. I just had time to thank them before they shot off around the headland in the pitch black to find their launch site.
The rocks on the point were impossible to stand up on in my tired state but Gary was there to guide me to where the Neil and Jess were changing, having arrived a good few minutes before me. For the last time we rolled up the wetsuits and stuffed them in the rucksacks, but didn’t care how we packed the rest of our gear, it no longer mattered what was wet and what was dry. I started to retch at this point, clearly I was at the end of my fuel, so I forced a gel in and was soon ready to go. I can honestly say the 2 km run back to Keswick was so much more pleasant than I was expecting, we were all still actually running, if a little slowly and I wasn’t cold at all. The Moot Hall was suddenly there in front of us, and we turned the corner and ran up the steps together in 19 hours and 57 minutes, with Stu, Gary and the children cheering us on. Kath, Dave and Charlotte soon arrived to celebrate with us too. I was a little overwhelmed that not only had we achieved something that we had been planning for a couple of years, but also that we had shared an amazing day in the mountains and lakes with special friends. It was so good for the three of us to finish together as we had started, despite us all having different strengths. We accepted the offer of a drink from the kind people at The Round, but turned down a mozzarella stick from a cheering passer-by!
So that’s it, the story of our Frog Graham Round. Thanks to Peter Hayes for his inspiration in creating the round and to the committee of the Frog Graham Club for sharing information by way of the website. We are now proud owners of number 109 (Ros Blackmore), 110 (Neil Bowmer) and 111 (Jess Young) of the Frog Graham Club!
Special thanks to our friends for their support:
Stuart Clarkson, Gary, Arthur and Daisy Young, Kath Jackson, Dave Howarth and Charlotte Hattersley