Update: A film on this adventure is now available on youtube.
I’ve had the draft of this post open on my computer for over a week, the relentless cadence of the blinking cursor mocking me as I sat here idle, unable to figure out how to even start. Do I start with a simple summary, repeating the same old statistics on distance and elevation? Or maybe I should wax philosophical on one of the many things I wrestled with or discovered on this journey. The literal journey itself – the incredible places and landscapes I got to explore… surely a remark on that would be a suitable start. And of course I would be horribly remiss to not lead with a mention of the amazing support I received throughout, without which none of this would have been possible.
The truth is, none of those things alone would sufficiently reflect the experience I had. In fact I’ll go ahead and say that I’m incapable of putting it all into words even with a full write-up. So I’ll skip the whole synopsis bit and get right to it, with everything included in due course. You can find a recap of each section over on my Instagram starting here if you would rather have a brief summary or don’t have time to sit down to the ensuing novella (this is the longest report I’ve written by a wide margin, and I’ve written some long stuff). If you’ve fully exhausted your Covid19 Netflix watchlist and are in for a full binge reading session, there’s also a prequel trilogy on why I decided to do this in the first place, how that first attempt turned out, and what was different going into this second attempt.
But I am a data person, so you know I can’t resist those stats. 😄
|Section||Distance (miles)||Ascent (feet)||“Summits”||Elapsed time (hh:mm)||Total elapsed||Total Sleep||Moving time* (hh:mm)|
|Paddy Buckley Round (run)||66||28K||47||22:07||22:07||0:00|
|Capel Curig to Keswick (bike)||167||8K||12:44||39:36||1:45||9:59 (16.7 mph)|
|Bob Graham Round (run)||66||27K||42||23:40||67:55||4:30|
|Keswick to Fort William (bike)||231||9K||19:02||92:29||9:45||13:06 (17.6 mph)|
|Charlie Ramsay Round||61||29K||24||34:43||130:43||12:00|
|Total bike||398||17K||31:46||3:15||23:05 (17.2 mph)|
* actual time on the bike, not counting sleep and other prolonged stops
But, can’t I sleep a bit longer first?
The Grand Round was a package deal this year as part of my Hartley Slam, with my start date coming exactly one month after finishing my run on the Pennine Way to break Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record (which was then broken again by Damian Hall a week later). I had worked with my coach, David Roche, to try to strike a balance between recovery and preparation during that period – maximizing sleep and focusing largely on the bike to rebuild my fitness there while letting my legs recover from the impacts of running 260 miles. I felt we had done as well as possible. I’ve found it quite surprising how quickly I’ve been able to regain a large part of my bike fitness when needed, fitness that took me years to build initially. I had managed to slip in a few good reassuring run workouts too.
Still, I had a pretty insatiable appetite for sleep and my resting heart rate, which I often track to monitor recovery, was around 10% above normal (it had spiked to around 50% higher immediately after the Pennine Way). But these things are never about seeking the absolute perfect conditions; they’re about making the absolute best of the conditions we’re given. With Covid19 lockdowns early in the summer, and a baby arriving at the end of the summer, my window of time to get out into the mountains was short. I had controlled all the variables I could, attempted to mitigate the ones I couldn’t, and not wasted energy on the ones I couldn’t do anything about. It was now or never.
The weather forecast was questionable enough that if I had been going solo I probably would have delayed 2 days, but it wasn’t bad enough (or reliable enough) to justify trying to reshuffle the schedules of everyone who would be supporting me. So on August 16th, a Saturday, Tom Hayward picked me up and we headed to Betws-y-Coed, where I hoped to get a good night’s sleep before starting the next day.
Paddy Buckley Round
Leg 1 – Capel Curig to Aberglaslyn
Pacers – Jack Scott, Mark Davies, Tom Hayward
Road support – Jen Scotney
Start time – Sunday, 11:00
I didn’t get the amazing night of sleep I was hoping for, but the 6-7 hours I managed was a huge improvement over the 3 I had last year. Most accommodations in these places are pub/inn combos that seem like they’ve been there since before America existed, so there was still some noise to contend with, but since I wasn’t aiming for a 4:30 AM start things were a bit more calm by the time I went to bed. Then in the morning I had time to enjoy a good breakfast in the pub, get to the start, and be sure everything was ready to go. All the preparation, planning, and training was done. Now for the big adventure!
Amazingly, the weather was fairly nice. I was highly skeptical that it would last. At this point I guess I’ve taken a fairly British outlook on the weather: expect it to be horrible and then allow myself to be pleasantly surprised if it’s not. I’ve also learned my lesson on the underfoot conditions. I had no delusions this year of keeping my feet dry. Whoever bet 52 minutes for “how long until my feet become permanently soaked for the next 5 days” won the jackpot.
We moved at a solid pace, and were well ahead of schedule up the initial climb to Moel Siabod and along the first ridge. This leg contains a lot of ridge running where some of the “summits” are little more than bumps along the ridge. One of them doesn’t even have a name.
I hadn’t wanted to be ahead of schedule this early on; I had a rather long way to go and my entire strategy revolved around getting myself to Scotland with enough left in me to do Ramsay. But it felt like a good, relaxed pace. Anything slower would have felt very forced. So we continued, and finished the first leg over an hour ahead of schedule. The only real issue was turning my ankle on the first descent. Amazingly it’s the only time I recall doing that throughout all 3 rounds, but it was a quick and sudden reminder how easily these things can end despite all that preparation, planning, and training.
Leg time – 5:43
Total time – 5:43
Leg 2 – Aberglaslyn to Pont Cae’r Gors
Pacers – Damian Hall, Jack Scott, Mark Davies
Road support – Jen Scotney
Time – Sunday, 16:43
Fortunately, despite our early arrival my support was ready to go for leg 2. I basically just grabbed some food as I went by and continued on, in and out in about 2 minutes. The support points are naturally the spots that transition between ridgelines and thus drop low enough to be accessible, so the biggest climbs of each round are generally the ones leaving those points. The climb coming out of Aberglaslyn happens to be my least favorite of I think any of the rounds – covered in heather and other obstructions that make it slow going and generally unpleasant.
Somehow, though, the weather was still nice. It wasn’t raining and it was right at that temperature where I was slightly warm down low and slightly cold on the tops, but not enough in either direction to need to add or remove layers. The cloud cover was even high enough to allow some expansive and far-reaching views, the likes of which I had really never seen before on the rounds.
But then, then came the conditions I know and love. As the clag rolled in I immediately jumped to the conclusion that the torrential rain and gale force wind wouldn’t be far behind. The temperature was still pretty reasonable, though, and we were still making good time. We were gaining time on the schedule, closely mirroring my splits from last year when I had started out with a much more aggressive goal for the round. It gave me comfort knowing that even if, like last year, conditions did become absolutely horrid and I wrecked my knee on top of that, that from my current position I could still finish under 24 hours. One day I’ll no longer have the benefit of viewing past performances as my floor, but for now it’s a required mindset.
We finished the leg an hour and a half ahead of schedule, early enough that we didn’t even need to get out our lights. I quickly grabbed what I needed and continued moving. I wasn’t quite as efficient this time, spending 4 full minutes at the support point. I guess that water on my head was pretty costly.
Leg time – 3:32
Total time – 9:15
Leg 3 – Pont Cae’r Gors to Llanberis
Pacers – Damian Hall, Andy Ford, Paul Swindles, Mark Davies
Road support – Jen Scotney
Time – Sunday, 20:15
It turned out that the best part of being ahead of schedule was getting to witness an incredible sunset on the climb up Craig Wen to start leg 3. The sky exploded with red and orange hues that slowly shifted throughout the climb, with the clouds providing perfect accents and the colors reflecting off the lakes sitting at the base of the hills behind us. We stole every glimpse we could and at times briefly turned to admire it in its entirety, but I was not yet comfortable enough to waste much time. I remained skeptical of the conditions, and the rock-strewn Glyders and the treacherous descent of Tryfan still lay ahead.
Now with that whole beautiful sunset thing out of the way, on to Yr Wyddfa, AKA Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales! As we pulled out our lights it began to drizzle. I was still comfortable, but knew that the rocky sections ahead would now be slippery and slower going. Our advantage still continued to grow, over 2 hours ahead by the time we reached Snowdon and up to nearly 3 by the end of the leg. Like a safety net, I clung to the thought that if I finished last year in the conditions I did then barring complete disaster I would be fine. So naturally, the priority became to avoid any disasters.
Leg time – 4:11
Total time – 13:26
Leg 4 – Llanberis to Ogwen
Pacers – Michael Corrales Mills, Paul Swindles, James Ritchie, Mark Davies
Road support – Jen Scotney
Time – Monday, 0:26
I was quite thankful my support was there when I arrived, rather than sleeping and expecting me to show up later. I was also starting to become a bit skeptical of the schedule itself. I felt that we hadn’t been pushing or moving all that fast, yet were still way ahead. I took a bit of extra time for food and to get updates on the forecast. After 7 minutes we were moving out of there and up through the abandoned quarry.
I believe the climb out of Llanberis* is the biggest of the round, but I think it’s fairly easy going with good footing and a clear path. It’s one of those sections that I actually view as a good chance to recuperate a bit: a mental break, a long stretch without running, and a good chance to get some extra calories down.
As we went up, the rain came down. If it hadn’t have been for the upcoming rocky sections I wouldn’t have minded at all. Wind, cold, and fog all concern me more than rain does. But I definitely planned on using a bit of my time buffer for extra caution on the wet rocks.
* One of my lessons learned from all this: the double L is pronounced as ‘cl’ in Welsh
As we approached the Glyders we began losing chunks of that buffer, again closely mirroring last year. We lost nearly an hour getting across them and up Tryfan, and then another 20 minutes on the slippery steep rocky descent to Ogwen. There’s a race each year down Tryfan, and the record is a bit over 8 minutes. The person who holds that record broke both his wrists doing it. Michael, my lead navigator for legs 4 and 5, has the fastest time without breaking any bones at around 10 minutes, still absolutely mind boggling. We picked our way down in 43.
Leg time – 4:47
Total time – 18:13
Leg 5 – Ogwen to Capel Curig
Pacers – Michael Corrales Mills, James Ritchie, Suzy Whatmough, Mark Davies
Road support – Jen Scotney
Time – Monday, 5:13
I arrived at Ogwen at nearly the exact same time as last year. But unlike last year, I could still use both of my knees. So I liked my chances. I was becoming increasingly skeptical of the schedule, though, and it finally hit me what was likely going on. Anyone planning their own Paddy Buckley should take note of this.
The schedule calculator for Paddy Buckley is based on average splits of everyone who has previously completed it. I had assumed that those averages would be done separately depending on each person’s starting location. I’m fairly confident now that everyone is averaged together regardless of starting location. Most people start at Llanberis, making my legs 1-3 their legs 3-5 and my legs 4-5 their legs 1-2. That would explain why, despite what felt like a steady effort and solid pace, I gained time on legs 1-3 and lost time on legs 4-5 both years. Most paces / efforts aren’t steady (including my own for anything relatively long). In any case, even if the schedule was quite optimistic for the last leg, I still felt good about having nearly 6 hours to do what was scheduled for a bit over 3.
We started the last major climb just before dawn. It wasn’t long before we were able to remove our lights. I was still feeling good, but had zero desire to expend any extra energy at that point. We methodically made our way up Pen yr Ole Wen, and after losing a small chunk of time due to a wrong turn we continued on across the Carnedds and on to the last 2 summits. The clag had returned and the temperature had finally started to drop. For the first time I added a jacket.
It wasn’t long before we were headed back down. We made our way through one last boggy section near the bottom, with me not really caring what I stepped in at that point, and then hit the road for the final little stretch back into Capel Curig. I came in at 22:08, over an hour faster than last year. The entirety of that difference was due to me not hobbling around with a bum knee on the final leg. Mark Davies, who had been one of the main navigators at the start, had stuck around and also done the full round – even tougher than solo unsupported because he was carrying a lot of my stuff!
Leg time – 3:55
Total time – 22:08
Paddy Buckley Summary
I felt pretty good about Paddy. It was a solid time but it felt like an appropriate level of effort. I didn’t want to waste energy going faster than necessary but I also didn’t want to waste time going slower than necessary. The weather had been fairly kind as well, at least better than expected. Maybe this is a situation where I’ve been forced into incredibly low expectations and anything better than awful is great, but if I could have that for all 3 rounds I thought I had a good chance.
The chart below shows how I steadily gained and then lost time compared to a 23 hour schedule, but I don’t think this is due to any change in my effort or fatigue, but instead due to what I mentioned earlier about how the schedule was calculated. I think that my splits would be a pretty flat line compared to a realistic 22 hour schedule starting in Capel Curig, and I’ll definitely rethink how I do my schedule for any future Paddy attempts.
|Clogwyn Bwlch y Maen||0:16||1:03||12:03|
|Carnedd y Gribau||0:09||1:12||12:12|
|Mynydd Llynnau’r Cwn||0:06||2:24||13:24|
|Moel yr Hydd||0:08||3:31||14:31|
|Aberglaslyn – Arrive||0:47||5:43||16:43|
|Leg 1 Total||5:43||5:43||16:43|
|Aberglaslyn – Depart||0:03||5:46||16:46|
|Moel yr Ogof||0:19||7:18||18:18|
|Mynydd y Ddwy Elor||0:09||8:04||19:04|
|Trum y Ddysgl||0:24||8:28||19:28|
|Mynydd Drws y Coed||0:07||8:35||19:35|
|Pont Cae’r Gors – Arrive||0:28||9:15||20:15|
|Leg 2 Total||3:32||9:15||20:15|
|Pont Cae’r Gors – Depart||0:04||9:19||20:19|
|Crib y Ddysgl||0:13||11:27||22:27|
|Llanberis – Arrive||0:32||13:26||0:26|
|Leg 3 Total||4:11||13:26||0:26|
|Llanberis – Depart||0:07||13:33||0:33|
|Ogwen – Arrive||0:42||18:13||5:13|
|Leg 4 Total||4:47||18:13||5:13|
|Ogwen – Depart||0:06||18:19||5:19|
|Pen yr Ole Wen||0:58||19:17||6:17|
|Pen yr Helgi Du||0:34||20:53||7:53|
|Pen Llithrig yr Wrach||0:29||21:22||8:22|
|Capel Curig Arrive||0:46||22:08||9:08|
|Leg 5 Total||3:55||22:08||9:08|
|Capel Curig Depart||4:43||13:51|
Support – Jen Scotney
Time – Monday, 9:08
The problem with finishing Paddy Buckley a bit early is that I couldn’t really shift my schedule forward. I planned to bike through the Queensway Tunnel between Birkenhead and Liverpool, and it didn’t open to cyclists till 8 PM. I hoped that maybe I could use the time to get a bit more sleep, though.
So I made quick work of nearly an entire pizza, and then headed into the van for a nap. It was pitch dark, and I was comfortable, but unfortunately I had opted to have the van moved from what I thought might be a noisy car park to a spot along the road. Every time a vehicle went by the noise was paired with a gust of wind that slightly rocked the van. I also just wasn’t all that sleepy yet. I knew that even just resting my body was beneficial, but it’s one of my worst nightmares in these things to waste time trying to sleep unsuccessfully.
It goes back to Barkley, where every single minute is precious and attempting to sleep without actually benefiting from it can end a race. So generally I only sleep when I feel like I can no longer stay awake. But in this case I couldn’t sleep just anywhere, and I didn’t want to need sleep once the clock was ticking on a round, so I had to make the best use I could of these windows where I was off the clock and had somewhere to lay down. In laying there for a few hours, unfortunately I don’t think I got more than 45 minutes of sleep.
I at least still had my appetite. Before laying down I had requested a burger and fries. It was an odd craving, one that I never imagined I would have during an event, but it was a strong craving. I still get surprised sometimes by what my body suddenly wants or doesn’t want. Fortunately it was a big burger, with a nice thick bun and double cheese. I downed everything, switched into my bike kit, and finished getting ready for the ride to Keswick.
Leg time – 4:43
Total time – 26:51
Leg sleep – 0:45
Total sleep – 0:45
Capel Curig to Keswick
Leg 1 – Capel Curig to Birkenhead
Pacers – Gav Roberts
Additional support – Dave Boothroyd
Road support – Jen Scotney
Time – Monday, 13:51
I left just 9 minutes ahead of the original schedule. It had started to rain again, but I hoped it would at least stay moderate without any strong winds. One big change from last year was support riders joining me on the bike to help with navigation and yes, drafting. I also found quite early on that it was mentally beneficial and helped keep me alert to have something in front of me to focus on. I met up with Gav, my first support rider, and we headed out of Snowdonia towards England.
The route to Keswick is pretty flat for most of the way, but the climbs coming out of Wales are some of the toughest of both bike sections combined. After descending from Capel Curig there’s about 15 miles of fairly steady climbs going up over 1,000 feet, followed by a descent and one more steep climb near the English border. Then once over the top we flew down through Mold and had a brief section of dual carriageway that bypasses the alternative of slowly weaving between sidewalks, car parks, and bike paths. It was a bit unnerving but we kept to the shoulder where the biggest danger really was an increased risk of a flat.
The weather had cleared up by that point and we made good time over the final stretch to the B&M in Birkenhead just before the Queensway Tunnel. We arrived right on time, taking just 1 minute more than the planned 4 hours for that section.
Leg time – 4:01
Bike time – 4:01
Total time – 30:52
Leg 2 – Birkenhead to Lancaster
Pacers – CJ Johnson
Road support – Martin Stone
Time – Monday, 17:52
I now had a couple of hours to kill in a car park. At that point I had a completely out of control craving for ice cream. Fortunately we were right next to a McDonald’s. They might not do much very well but McFlurry’s are top shelf. But I didn’t stop there. For the first time since probably high school I got a full meal from McDonald’s. Food. Calories. Must, have, all of it. Confused and amused shoppers went about their daily life as I sat there and devoured it all.
With that task checked off I used the remaining time to try to get more sleep. I was much more efficient and successful this time, banking nearly an hour from 70 minutes in the van.
Just before 8 PM I hopped back on my bike so that we could hit the tunnel right as it opened to cyclists. We arrived and were stopped at the entrance. The tunnel was closing to all traffic, at 8 PM. We hadn’t seen that on the website, or had any advance notice that this was a possibility. My mind flashed back to last year, arriving at the Runcorn bridge to find it closed, desperately biking up and down the river looking for an alternative before having to wait for a bus to get across. I had chosen this route specifically to avoid that problem, and now here I was, facing over a 30 mile detour to get to that very bridge in Runcorn and over the river.
Then, in one of those moments of impeccable timing that really seems to only happen in action movies, the man who stopped us turned and saw a supervisor approaching in the distance. Without hesitation, she motioned for us to go on through. Before anyone changed their mind we were off, with me putting out a good deal more than my “recovery ride” level of effort to get to the other side of that tunnel as quickly as possible. At the other end cones had already been set out to block all lanes of traffic. If we had gotten to the tunnel 5 minutes later I’m not sure what would have happened. I like to think that we could have explained what I was doing and pleaded our way through, but I’m glad we didn’t have to find out. I had conquered the Mersey River, apparently one of the mightiest obstacles of the entire Grand Round.
Once we made it through Liverpool I was excited for smooth sailing all the way to Keswick with mostly open, flat roads, light traffic, and minimal red lights, turns, or roundabouts. Then we came to Preston, where our navigation took us on a bike cut through what had apparently once been a road and is now blocked to vehicular traffic by a nice big curb. I made the turn and noticed the curb too late, going over my handlebars and looking back at my bike in panic before I even hit the ground. I felt much better at that point about my odds of repairing myself than repairing my bike. Fortunately the only noticeable damage to either was some light scrapes on my hands. But after that… after that it was smooth sailing.
Leg time – 5:25
Bike time – 9:26
Total time – 36:17
Leg sleep – 1:00
Total sleep – 1:45
Leg 3 – Lancaster to Keswick
Pacers – Bruce Gray
Road support – Martin Stone
Time – Monday, 23:17
Again I arrived at the next scheduled stop with timing so good I can’t claim luck didn’t play a small part. I was now over 36 hours in and just 2 minutes off the schedule. It had started to rain again, so I added a layer or two and headed back out. Next stop, Keswick!
One thing I had been a bit fearful of, and that had been a big influence on my schedule last year, was biking at night. Turns out, it’s actually very enjoyable. It was calm, peaceful, and I wasn’t feeling drowsy at all. In a way, it mirrored the feeling I get running through snowy woods at night. If done properly I’m now also fairly certain it’s safer. I was decked out with more lumens than a lot of cars have, and my visibility to those cars was I’m sure much higher than during the day.
We made good time to the Lake District, but the climbs over that final stretch started to get to me. I was needing to put much more effort into them than I wanted to expend on the bike. But then, suddenly, they were done. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought I was reaching the top of a climb only to get there and find myself staring up at another immense slope. Every now and then, very very rarely, the opposite happens. I was struggling up a big climb in the fog, thinking I still had a few more to go, when I reached the top and suddenly recognized it: Dunmail Raise! It was mostly downhill from there into Keswick, and I flew right towards it and the food and bed that awaited.
Leg time – 3:28
Bike time – 12:34
Total time – 39:35
Bike 1 Summary
Last year one of my big problems was poor route planning for the bike, and even poorer time estimation over that route. This year I absolutely nailed it, with every section of the bike within minutes of the plan, leaving the necessary time before and after for sleep.
Another big goal for the bike was to treat it as an unreasonably long recovery ride, expending absolute minimal effort. It took a while for each of my support riders to realize that when we hit even the smallest climb I was going to drop into the lowest gear I had and pedal up it just above the speed required to keep the bike from falling over. 🙂 For the most part I succeeded in that goal, but again the last stretch definitely took a bit out of me.
The last goal was to treat it like an on the go buffet. Without the up and down stomach sloshing that running causes I can get down a lot more calories on the bike, generally around 500 an hour if need be. So I wanted to use those hours to try to pay down some of the caloric deficit built up while running. Minimal energy out, maximal energy in. Again I feel I did quite well. So far everything had been a stark contrast to a month earlier… I probably ate more between Capel Curig and the Queensway Tunnel than I did for the entire final 200 miles of the Pennine Way.
Support – Martin and Lisa Bergerud
Time – Tuesday, 2:35
Once again Martin and Lisa Bergerud, who live a short walk from Moot Hall, generously opened up their home to me. For this, and the entire week, we took every precaution we reasonably could concerning Covid19. People inside were kept to an absolute minimum, and even outside we tried to maintain spacing wherever possible.
I was immediately treated to yet another pizza and to an incredibly refreshing shower before taking my familiar spot on an air mattress in their living room. I think I enjoyed the pizza and shower a bit too long, and realized that I had cut into my sleep time some. I really wanted to give myself a chance for 3 hours, so I asked Martin to push the Bob Graham start back by 30 minutes (I had a bit of buffer built into the overall schedule for exactly these occasions).
After about 2 hours and 45 minutes I woke up on my own. I refueled more with some delicious food from the Bergerud’s kitchen, then suited up to head to the start of round number 2.
Leg time – 4:40
Total time – 44:15
Leg sleep – 2:45
Total sleep – 4:30
Bob Graham Round
Leg 1 – Moot Hall to Threlkeld
Pacers – Paul Wilson, Matt Neale, Zepp the Collie
Road support – Martin Stone
Time – Tuesday, 7:15
Relatively speaking, under the circumstances, I felt pretty good heading to the start. I could definitely tell I wasn’t fresh, but I had high confidence that Bob Graham wouldn’t be a problem. As we headed up Skiddaw, the first and also actually the biggest climb of the round, my legs still felt strong and I had minimal tightness that I needed to work through after the rest. The conditions were good, and daresay I was feeling pretty optimistic.
We also had my all time favorite pacer with us: Matt’s dog Zepp. Fearlessly leading us over hill, through heather, and across streams, Zepp was loving life with the kind of infectious joy that can really be needed at times. We were 11 minutes ahead of schedule up Skiddaw, and continued gaining ground with each of the 3 peaks on the first leg. I had managed to forget to bring my tracker, but Paul was recording each of the times and of course I had my watch recording as well.
The clag was pretty heavy on the tops and there was some drizzle, but again conditions seemed fairly reasonable. We comfortably made it to the end of the leg half an hour ahead. Again, though, that wasn’t all that far off my splits from last year and I wanted to be picking up a bit more of an insurance buffer in case any problems arose.
Leg time – 3:28
Bob Graham time – 3:28
Total time – 47:43
Leg 2 – Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise
Pacers – Darren Moore, Matthew Beresford, Richard White, William Laye
Road support – Martin Stone
Time – Tuesday, 10:43
Unfortunately that’s right about where those problems would start. The forecast looked grim, and as we made the climb up Clough Head the temperature started dropping. The drop was soon accompanied by my old friends wind and rain. I tried to pre-emptively layer up to prevent any dips in my own temperature.
We were still moving well, though, particularly on the climbs. Then up top I started to have trouble with my left knee. Some issues like that can come and go; others unavoidably get progressively worse. I felt this was the former, an aggravation rather than an injury, and I just hoped that it would go away sooner rather than later. Unfortunately it was an inopportune time. Large stretches of leg 2 are quite runnable, with smooth footing and moderate grades, and instead of capitalizing on that I found myself grimacing and moving frustratingly slow for much of it.
Fortunately the navigation was spot on despite the visibility, and we were able to save a good bit of time just by taking the most optimal lines. We descended to Dunmail Raise, where I had biked through about 12 hours earlier, having gained another 20 minutes on the schedule to be nearly an hour ahead in total.
Leg time – 4:14
Bob Graham time – 7:42
Total time – 51:57
Leg 3 – Dunmail Raise to Wasdale
Pacers – Marcus Scotney, Sally Fawcett, Elaine Bisson
Road support – Martin Stone, Jen Scotney
Time – Tuesday, 14:57
Apparently the weather wasn’t content to make things merely uncomfortable. Even at the lower elevation it was starting to get cold. I was about to set off on the longest and highest leg, crossing the tallest peak in England. Before heading back up I added a mid layer, my heavier Gore Tex shell, waterproof pants / trousers, and a pair of gloves, all the while reminding myself that it was still in fact the middle of summer.
I was determined to not lose my hard-earned advantage on leg 3. Last year it had all melted away, and I arrived at Wasdale behind schedule. If I could just keep my buffer through this leg, then legs 4 and 5 would be relaxed and easy going. We started off well, with good solid splits through the first few peaks. But then, it started to imperceptibly slip away. 5 minutes here, 7 minutes there… at the halfway point my buffer had shrunk all the way down to 18 minutes.
There wasn’t any sort of major problem, no disaster or big mistake. Navigation was good. It seemed I had just slowed, my body losing its sense of urgency and perhaps me losing some of my excitement, energy, and joy as the conditions worsened. I had the realization that, for the first time in my life, I was cold in August. Not chilly, or a little uncomfortable, but all out ‘I need to put on more clothes or I’ll get hypothermia’ cold. I thought about how I should be sweltering in a triple digit heat index (40+ C). I should be hopping in a refreshing lake to cool off. But being wet was not my friend at the moment. I could deal with the cold, or the wet, or the wind, but it’s the confluence of the three that gets me. And the drain is significant, both physically and mentally.
The realization that I was starting to fall behind provided me with a temporary boost, and I clawed back 10 minutes over the next 3 peaks. It didn’t last long. After going over Scafell Pike, up the steep scramble taking Lord’s Rake to Scafell, and then down the scree chute to Wasdale, my buffer was gone and I had fallen behind the 23 hour schedule. I was once again in nearly the exact same position as last year.
Leg time – 7:05
Bob Graham time – 14:39
Total time – 58:54
Leg 4 – Wasdale to Honister Pass
Road support – Martin Stone
Time – Tuesday, 21:54
I took solace in the fact that Yewbarrow lay ahead. Most people hate the climb – it’s the make or break moment of many rounds. But if the schedule is based on averages of others, then personal strengths and weaknesses are amplified. A long steep climb with simple navigation where the mind can basically be switched off? For me, yes please. The forecast also looked like conditions would be improving soon, with lighter rain and wind and warmer temperatures.
We pushed up Yewbarrow and on to Red Pike, pulling back to even with the schedule. But the high was short-lived. We quickly began falling behind more quickly than we had caught up. The weather had not improved at all, and visibility was next to zero. We kept looking for the right line, losing valuable minutes with each hesitation or error. For the first time, I started to feel true urgency and pressure. I couldn’t afford to lose any more time and I refused to fail at that point. I was in a bad spot, sure, but the outcome was still in my hands.
It’s of course beneficial to be able to take the best line, and critical to avoid any impassable crags, but at some point the time spent finding the best line is greater than the time saved once on it. I had learned this lesson many times over at Barkley. And this wasn’t trail running. It was fell running. The objective was the peak, not the path. So I began chasing the peaks, zigging and zagging to stay on decent terrain and headed in the right direction. It wasn’t optimal, but I was moving forward, constantly making progress.
In the process, I managed to get separated from my pacers. I suddenly found myself ascending Kirkfell with no one in sight (which at that point basically meant no one within arm’s reach). At the top I hesitated. I had no food, no water, no extra kit. Navigation was limited to my watch and my own memory of the maps and terrain, and my watch didn’t have the summits marked on it. I felt I had a choice. Continue on and give myself a chance while risking spectacular failure. Or wait, and essentially assure myself of slight / moderate failure. Clearly, I chose the former.
My path resembled a bumble bee’s flight pattern, seemingly random but always fixated on the next target. On top of Great Gable there were little craters in the otherwise solid rock surface. The rain had filled them to the brim. Only momentarily pausing again to consider my situation, I dropped down to my stomach and sucked the water straight out of the puddle. Not only was the drink refreshing, I had regained time getting to the top.
I continued moving inefficiently but quickly between the remaining peaks. I used my memory, my schedule, and sudden turns in the GPS track on my watch to alert myself that I was probably near a top that I needed to search for and tag. I figured that the track wouldn’t sharply change course unless it was at a peak and turning to head to the next one or at some major impassable terrain feature that I would notice. At last I had ticked the peaks off and all that remained was the descent to Honister Pass before I could get food and rejoin my support.
The fun wasn’t over, though. Charging down the descent I suddenly found myself chest deep in bog. I couldn’t reach firm ground and had to apply one of the many “hopefully I don’t have to use that” lessons I had researched and learned – slowly laying backwards until my legs started to raise and I could slightly float. I then had enough reach to grab the other side of the bog and pull myself out. Then I discovered I had pulled myself not across the bog, but onto an island. I didn’t have my poles to test out the ground, so I carefully tested with one foot until I found a spot where it was just normal mud underneath water. I made my way across and restarted my descent.
I arrived at Honister Pass and my surprised crew hopped out of the warm car once they saw that the single light that had just come down the hill was me. Since the separation, I had only lost 2 additional minutes. I was behind the 23 hour schedule still, but with only the short 5th leg to go I was still in good shape for the ultimate goal of sub 24.
Leg time – 5:29
Bob Graham time – 20:08
Total time – 64:23
Leg 5 – Honister Pass to Moot Hall
Pacers – Paul Wilson, Matt Neale, Brian Melia
Road support – Martin Stone
Time – Wednesday, 3:23
I had undoubtedly put out a bit of a surge to make it through leg 4. Now with only 3 small tops ahead of me and the weather actually starting to clear up the sense of urgency was waning. I fought to keep myself from getting a false sense of security and slipping into complacency. I tried to restock some of the calories I had just burnt through in over 3 hours without food, but there’s no way I could do that in the amount of time I had there at the support point. I got down what I could and continued on; lack of forward progress was still my greatest enemy.
I was just 6 minutes behind where I was last year, but last year I had finished with just 18 minutes to spare. I made it up the first climb in good time, but it wasn’t long before I fell into the hole I had dug for myself on the previous leg. For the first time I really started to feel a bit of exhaustion, struggling on the small remaining climbs and mentally losing focus. I would have resorted to caffeine at that point, but I didn’t want to ruin my post-round nap. As I touched Robinson, the final peak, first light was starting to appear on the horizon. I hoped it would give me the energy to get back to Moot Hall.
On the final descent I felt a rather concerning feeling in my right leg – something that could be just a bit of a strain but was more likely the onset of tendonitis. It was mainly just a nuisance at that point, but I knew that wouldn’t be the type of thing that would come and go like the earlier knee pain. It would gradually progress from nuisance, to painful, to debilitating. It shouldn’t be an issue on the bike, but the problem was that I still had an entire additional round to run after that bike.
I made it to the bottom with sufficient time to spare for sub 24. To make it to the finish I still had what I’ve come to know as the longest most agonizing road 10K in existence, and I decided to try to minimize any further aggravation to my leg (although I wasn’t very capable of running hard at that point anyway). It was at least nice to enjoy a beautiful sunrise and to finish in daylight this time. I arrived at Moot Hall in 23 hours and 40 minutes, a massive 2 minute improvement.
Leg time – 3:32
Bob Graham time – 23:40
Total time – 67:55
Bob Graham Summary
It was slower than I planned, the conditions were worse than I hoped for, and it took more out of me than I wanted, but I had made it through it and was still in the game. Wales had pleasantly surprised me with conditions that made it over the incredibly low bar that my expectations were set at, and I foolishly got my hopes up a bit. The Lake District proceeded to smack me in the face with just the kind of weather I should be used to by now.
Of course the leg 4 scenario is something I would never hope for, but after the fact it’s one of those things that really adds to the story and the adventure. Like mistakenly thinking a light behind me is a competitor in the Spine, or having absolutely no idea what happened during the 20 minutes after I got my final page when I finished Barkley. Adversity is rarely something anyone would wish for, but overcoming it is perhaps the most rewarding and valuable outcome possible.
There were a lot of extra variables that affected my splits, but the graph below of my pace relative to the schedule is an absolute perfect picture of how degradation tends to happen in an ultra. Of course we start out feeling great, and then inevitably we start to fatigue. But it doesn’t always get worse! We have a resurgence and rise to another peak. It’s probably not as high as the first one and might not last as long, and then we start to degrade again. But it’s not an endless descent, just another valley! We soon rise to another peak, just again slightly lower and not sticking around for as long. This pattern continues to repeat until eventually the peaks do disappear entirely and we fall off the cliff of no return.
I wasn’t off that cliff yet. And I had some sleep and a long bike ride to try to recharge the running part of my body a bit before heading back out.
|KESWICK – Arrive||2:45|
|MOOT HALL – Depart||0:00||7:15|
|THRELKELD – Arrive||0:31||3:28||10:43|
|Leg 1 Total||3:28||3:28||10:43|
|THRELKELD – Depart||0:02||3:30||10:45|
|DUNMAIL RAISE – Arrive||0:20||7:42||14:57|
|Leg 2 Total||4:14||7:42||14:57|
|DUNMAIL RAISE – Depart||0:04||7:46||15:01|
|PIKE O’ STICKLE||0:18||10:09||17:24|
|WASDALE – Arrive||0:52||14:39||21:54|
|Leg 3 Total||7:05||14:39||21:54|
|WASDALE – Depart||0:06||14:45||22:00|
|HONISTER PASS – Arrive||0:16||20:08||3:23|
|Leg 4 Total||5:29||20:08||3:23|
|HONISTER PASS – Depart||0:08||20:16||3:31|
|Leg 5 Total||3:32||23:40||6:55|
|KESWICK – Depart||5:32||12:27|
Support – Martin and Lisa Bergerud
Time – Wednesday, 6:55
My Bob Graham time may have been similar to my previous attempt, but I felt I was in a much better spot. As I walked with Lisa back to their house, she agreed: I looked remarkably better. There had been no time at all sitting on the steps of Moot Hall contemplating my life decisions and what on earth I was doing. My biggest concern was the tendonitis that seemed to be developing in my right leg (anterior tibialis tendonitis, for anyone interested in such things). I was also a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to fully recharge from the extra exertion, stress, and depletion on leg 4.
But I didn’t dwell on these things long. My mindset throughout had been to forcefully ignore anything I had already done, even at the start. When I started Paddy Buckley, it was just a Paddy Buckley Round. It wasn’t shortly after doing the Pennine Way. When I started Bob Graham it wasn’t after Paddy Buckley and a 170 mile bike ride. It was just a Bob Graham Round. The same would need to be true when I arrived in Fort William for the Charlie Ramsay Round. Looking too far back can make it easy for the mind to make excuses, to say, “look at what’s already been done… it’s fine to let up or stop.” These things have to be mentally broken down into manageable chunks, and the time for holistic reflection can come once it’s all done (i.e. now as I write this). Of course looking too far forward is a problem as well, and can be overwhelming and discouraging. Once started I never think about whether I can finish because I don’t think about the finish, just whether I can do the next chunk… until eventually the next chunk is the finish.
At that moment the chunk I needed to worry about involved eating, showering, sleeping, and then eating some more. I think I got down some eggs and another pizza before the nap, then probably around 3 hours of sleep (interrupted by one thing or another in my body or mind every 30-60 minutes). Then some fish and chips, and it was time to hop on my bike and head to Scotland! This, by itself, would be the longest I’ve ever biked in one go.
Leg time – 5:32
Total time – 73:27
Leg sleep – 3:00
Total sleep – 7:30
Keswick to Fort William
Leg 1 – Keswick to Ecclefechan
Pacers – Sam Booth, Lee Wright
Road support – Martin Stone, Lisa Bergerud
Time – Wednesday, 12:27
Part of the challenge in multi-day events is getting the engine restarted after a rest of any significant length. The body can go into recovery mode early and feel completely sapped of energy, incredibly uncoordinated, or stiff as a board. The mind can parallel that pretty directly. It can make it seem like the rest is counter-productive. But eventually things loosen up and wake up, and the new reserves of energy that have just been stocked up become available. This process is fairly constant, but its exact timing, effects, and how to best get through it vary significantly across individuals. I’ve learned what to expect for me by now, and knew that getting out of the Lake District would be a bit of a drag, possibly with another dip or two before I felt good again. Fortunately the weather had swung back in the right direction so I at least wasn’t fighting that at the same time.
Once we made it out of the Lakes we had a mostly downhill cruise through Carlisle and across the Scottish border. That was easy enough to make good time on, but my mind and my energy levels still weren’t where they needed to be. I started to get that drowzy feeling that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with on the bike. We weren’t far from our planned stop so I pulled out my bag of tricks to keep myself focused and alert, with squirts in the face from my cold water bottle doing the job for most of the way there. Amazingly we finished the leg right on schedule and arrived at Haggis Playpark in Ecclefechan (yes of course I chose it because of the name).
Leg time – 3:00
Bike time – 3:00
Total time – 76:27
Leg 2 – Ecclefechan to Blackwood
Pacers – Martin Bergerud
Road support – Martin Stone, Lisa Bergerud
Time – Wednesday, 15:27
I’ve found that sometimes my mind just seemingly has an error starting back up after a long rest, and I have to reboot and try again. Martin and Lisa’s hospitality had taken to the road and I now had a bed in their camper van instead of their living room. I went down for a 30 minute nap and woke up ready to try for a fresh start.
It wasn’t long before I was back at it – awake, alert, and energized. It still wasn’t raining and the road was quite nice, fairly smooth and clean and running parallel to the motorway where most of the traffic was. We had about 20 miles uphill ahead of us, but it was a gradual climb and honestly I wouldn’t have even remembered it if it weren’t for looking back at the ride on Strava. We made the best of the all around decent conditions and I enjoyed the scenery and open landscape. I remained in pretty good spirits and physical condition through the entire leg, and considering the lengthy stop at Eccelefechan we made it to the next planned support point in good time.
Leg time – 4:01
Bike time – 7:01
Total time – 80:28
Leg sleep – 0:30
Total sleep – 8:00
Leg 3 – Blackwood to Inverbeg
Pacers – Martin Bergerud
Road support – Martin Stone, Lisa Bergerud
Time – Wednesday, 19:28
We stopped at Our Lady and St. John’s Catholic Church in Blackwood. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was Wednesday evening and they might be having some sort of service or activity. A few interested onlookers asked what was going on, and upon learning one lady gave some money for my fundraiser for Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. The priest then volunteered his personal facilities if I needed them, which was an enormous help (unlike running out in the hills, you can’t just stop and take care of business wherever on the bike). I put on my mask and was welcomed into the church filthy, disheveled, weary, and in spandex. Just how Jesus would have wanted. Well, maybe except that last part. Probably indifferent on that.
We got back on the road, approaching the true north and the long night. The temperature seemed to be dropping quickly. It wasn’t long before I wished I had grabbed a bit more kit prior to entering Glasgow, where we were unlikely to see road support for a while. It was slow going working our way through the city streets. I felt as if I were a ghost, wandering around seeing people going about their every day lives and observing the real world, but not actually a part of it.
As we approached a roundabout, the fourth wall was broken. Debbie Martin-Consani and Colin Anderson were there cheering, cowbell, sign, and all. There had been a number of supporters cheering along the bike routes, all incredibly appreciated and a big boost, but this one in particular happened to be in a spot where I had started to slip. I was entering that zombie-like state, mindlessly moving forward but starting to forget basic essentials like warmth and food. I actually stopped, and they pulled me back into the real world and even had just the right food – one of those food options I never would have brought myself but in the moment my mind immediately said, “yes that’s perfect, I want that!”
I was in a slightly better mindset then, but as we left the city the temperatures dropped again, the winds picked up, and the rain started. Martin kindly lent me one of his jackets until we were able to meet back up with support and I could add more layers. We were then on A82, the road that would take us the rest of the way to Fort William. Based on descriptions I had heard I was a little worried about biking on it, but doing it at night proved beneficial. There wasn’t much traffic and our lights made us highly visible.
Leg time – 4:14
Bike time – 11:15
Total time – 84:42
Leg 4 – Inverbeg to Bridge of Orchy
Pacers – Jack Peasgood, Martin Bergerud
Road support – Martin Stone, Lisa Bergerud
Time – Wednesday, 23:42
For really the first time, I was off schedule on a bike leg. I hadn’t properly accounted for just how much winding through Glasgow would slow us down. With the rain really starting to come down, we arrived at a pull off in Inverbeg. It was right on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, and the song would proceed to be stuck in my head for the entire remainder of the adventure. And afterwards. And, now again because I’m typing this. It’s quite the rousing, inspirational tune, though… I suppose there’s definitely worse that could happen.
With the low stretch I had gone through, the rapidly deteriorating conditions, and the clock moving past midnight, I decided it would be best to guard against disaster and take the time to warm up, get food down, and grab some sleep. Lisa woke me up after the requested 30 minutes with some bad news. There was an overnight road closure just before Glencoe. I was given two options: try to time my arrival perfectly so I would get there when they let traffic through once every two hours, or take a detour of ~27 miles. I chose option three: go back to sleep long enough so that when I arrived it would be morning and the road reopened. I woke back up a bit after 2 AM to continue on. I wouldn’t get as much of a rest in Fort William before starting the Ramsay Round, but I hoped that that sleep would get me through the remainder of the bike leg and on to morning.
Jack Peasgood had joined us at the last minute to replace someone who was unable to make it. Martin was continuing with me (he went the full ~180 miles from Ecclefechan to Fort William!), but having an additional rider in those conditions and to take over lead was incredible. Again I was amazed at someone being willing to come out on short notice to a remote area at that time of night in those conditions. I felt rather bad that he had showed up only to wait around while I slept for nearly 2 hours.
Things got rather interesting from there. We had two big climbs ahead of us, and the rain and wind became heavy – standing water on the road in places and crosswinds that could turn my fancy aero bike and deep rim wheels into a kite. I started to get a little cold near the top of the first climb, but we continued on steadily. I was thrilled to crest the summit and be on my way downhill to the next support point. I let out an authentic hillbilly yee-haw and let go of the reins on my bike, flying towards the warmth and food that was waiting at the bottom.
Leg time – 4:41
Bike time – 15:56
Total time – 89:23
Leg sleep – 1:45
Total sleep – 9:45
Leg 5 – Bridge of Orchy to Fort William
Pacers – Jack Peasgood, Martin Bergerud
Road support – Martin Stone, Lisa Bergerud
Time – Thursday, 4:23
After refueling and yet again adding more layers we were off for the final stretch. There was one last climb. As we made our way up it daylight arrived and I was treated to my first real view of the Scottish highlands. I was surrounded by the mountains that make up the Glen Coe Skyline route, and I immediately saw why the race is so popular. The landscape was stunning, open, and massive. The elevation might not be all that high, but the prominence of the summits was magnificent.
On the descent I again let my bike run free, and it topped out at 50 mph as I passed through the section where I would have been stopped for the road closure earlier. It was about time my lazy upper body did some actual work – fighting the crosswinds to keep the bike stable and negotiate the curves. The rain continued, but it wasn’t as heavy and the fog lifted to provide a clear view out over the tumultuous sea waters of Loch Linnhe as we made our way around from Glencoe to Fort William. I felt a bit of surge in energy with the finish so close, and we kept a steady effort right up to the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, where I would be starting my final round just a few hours later.
Leg time – 3:06
Bike time – 19:02
Total time – 92:29
Bike 2 Summary
Moreso than the 1st bike portion, the ride to Fort William was not entirely a nice relaxing recovery ride. This was to be expected, given it was 64 miles longer, after I had done much more, and with bigger climbs at the end. That’s before factoring in the unpredictable parts like the nasty conditions on the second half and the road closure.
I still kept effort level to a minimum and we made good time given that and the weather, with an average moving speed (not factoring in stops) of 17.4 mph over the 231 miles. I had picked up some sleep along the way and arrived with time to recuperate just a bit before the Ramsay Round. In the end that’s what it was all about – setting myself up to have a chance. Also, I was absolutely thrilled that across both bike rides I hadn’t gotten any flats or had any mechanical issues other than dropping my chain just one single time. With cycling becoming so popular during Covid19 all the bike shops in my area were booked up for at least a month and I had done quite a bit of work on it myself in preparation. Looks like I’ve learned a thing or two over the years to be a not entirely incompetent bike mechanic after all.
Support – Spook Munro
Time – Thursday, 7:29
Martin had a friend near Fort William and again I was incredibly fortunate to have someone generously offer a shower and a bed that I could use before the round. I hesitated to use it, as it was a 15-20 minute drive away and I didn’t know if I wanted to sacrifice that much time there and back that I otherwise might be able to use sleeping in the van. I rationalized that I could use the time to eat and get all of my gear sorted on the way there and then to eat and get all of my gear on me on the way back.
It was well worth it. The warm shower was incredible, and the bed felt like I imagine one of those ridiculous $2K / night Manhattan luxury hotels would (like in Home Alone 2!). I slept for maybe an hour and a half, well short of what I had originally planned, but at least some of that time was used for sleep along the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond (dangit, not again!). Then it was some more fish and chips, some ice cream, anything else I could get in my mouth, and back to the youth hostel for the start.
My goal after finishing Bob Graham had been to at the least feel like I had after finishing Paddy Buckley last year. My goal now was to feel like I had after arriving in Keswick last year. Both of those things would tell me that I still had enough left in me to finish what remained. I can’t say that I quite met those goals, but I don’t think I was all that far off. The most concerning thing was still the tendonitis, which hadn’t really bothered me on the bike, but that I could still definitely feel whenever I flexed my ankle too far. I knew it wasn’t something at risk of causing long term damage, though, so if I could get another 24 hours out of it then it could quit working entirely for a while as far as I was concerned.
Leg time – 3:31
Total time – 96:00
Leg sleep – 1:30
Total sleep – 11:15
Charlie Ramsay Round
Leg 1 – Glen Nevis Youth Hostel to Abhainn-Rath
Pacers – Bill Johnson, Paul Wilson, Jayson Cavill, Brian Melia
Road support – Martin Stone
Time – Thursday, 11:00
I started right on time so that a 24 hour round would put me at my original total goal of 120 hours. I waited a few minutes for 11 AM, and joked that maybe I should have gone ahead and started to get a few additional minutes of good weather. The forecast didn’t look good, and I could tell that people were hesitant to tell me exactly how bad, but I hoped that it at least wouldn’t be any worse than what I had already seen.
I set off feeling pretty capable, and had a nice jog on the flats and a steady rhythm on the climbs. We reached the first top 7 minutes ahead of my 23 hour schedule. I wanted to try to bank some time in case conditions did get bad or I ran straight into an impenetrable wall of sleep deprivation. We continued along – 9 minutes ahead, 12 minutes… my confidence rising with each top. The views were incredible, and it was quickly becoming my favorite of the rounds. It was easy to ignore the dark clouds approaching.
Then, those clouds made their presence known quite forcefully. I would find out later that this was Storm Ellen. Ellen apparently wasn’t satisfied with just being a normal major windstorm, and had decided to also absorb the remnants of Tropical Storm Kyle. I suddenly found myself fighting a battle on three fronts: fatigue, sleep deprivation, and atrocious weather. My body could apparently still handle two of them; we were five hours in and I was still ahead of schedule, a 23 hour schedule that included an hour for potential rest / sleeping. So really I had a two hour buffer and was still ahead.
I tried to fight it off. I think I made it another peak or two without losing ground. Then near the top of Binnein Mor, I broke. I don’t mean that I slowed down, or gave in, or decided maybe I should back off a bit. I was shattered. Mentally and physically shattered. It was as if I had blinked and found the light had disappeared when I reopened my eyes. It was the deepest, lowest point I remember ever encountering; surely this was rock bottom.
We moved to a sheltered spot slightly off the crest of the ridge. Jayson violated every social distancing rule there is and wrapped himself around me while everyone got out extra layers to put on me. My body was depleted, and losing its ability to regulate its own temperature. At that spot, over 100 hours into it, I was forced to accept that my goal was no longer in reach. I could not continue through those conditions at the required pace. In that moment, those with me saw me in probably the most raw state that I’ve ever been in. Fortunately the rain masked the full extent of the exhausted, emotional trainwreck I had become. I think.
My mind was still coherent, though. For as much as it has of course slipped during these types of challenges, it has never once fully checked out and abandoned me. Desperation told me I needed it, experience told me I could still trust it. I had a decision:
- Carry on and see how far I could make it at my current effort level, hoping that maybe the weather would ease up and I could recharge before the next leg, but knowing that if conditions continued then at some point I would inevitably become too fatigued to carry on.
- Back off and protect the precious few resources my body had left, using the reserves to literally weather the storm but knowing that I would be late to the finish.
- Turn the other way and retreat down to Kinlochleven.
It didn’t take long. Option 2 was almost instinctual.
Option 3 was never really an option. As long as I could do so safely, I would continue one way or another. The remaining two options weren’t dissimilar from the choice I had when separated from my pacers on the Bob Graham Round. But here the circumstances were different. On Bob Graham I was still feeling good, the conditions weren’t as bad, and backing off would mean that I would have fallen short of something I had already done last year. There was nothing to gain and everything to lose. Here, backing off would mean still finishing the entirety of the Grand Round, just a bit slower than my own arbitrarily defined goal. There was everything to gain and little to lose. And at that point even if the conditions didn’t last long the chances of success with option 1 were abysmal. The risk / reward equation simply didn’t add up the way it had on Bob Graham. I had come that far, and I would complete the round. I owed it to myself, those supporting me, and anyone else who might want to take on their own seemingly impossible challenge.
I would continue moving, and do whatever it took. I would move just fast enough to stay warm, and slow enough to ensure I wouldn’t completely burn out.
Leg time – 8:53
Charlie Ramsay time – 8:53
Total time – 104:53
Leg 2 – Abhainn-Rath to Fersit
Pacers – Ally Beaven, Martin Wilson
“Road” support – Martin Stone
Time – Thursday, 19:53
Unlike Paddy Buckley and Bob Graham, a support point on Ramsay doesn’t mean a road crossing where I could hop in a warm van if I needed or grab from a full buffet of food options. It means a spot where it’s slightly less inconvenient for people to hike in and meet me. Unfortunately for them it also means then waiting around in whatever weather and swarms of midges the day happens to bring. I added even more layers, some of them not even mine at this point, got down what food I could, and carried on.
And so began the longest night of my life. Figuratively anyway. It was really only dark for 7 hours or so. We had a pretty flat 10K ahead of us, and early on in the round I had been looking forward to this section as somewhere where I could open up a bit and gain a good amount of time. I had shifted fully into preservation mode, and was in no shape to do more than an occasional shuffle. The footing, at least on the line we were on, also was not as runnable as I had hoped. Sleep deprivation was hitting me pretty hard and I was trying to focus just to keep moving.
At the end of this stretch, on the shores of Loch Treig, there was a bothy (one of many little refuges scattered throughout the Scottish highlands). I insisted we go in, where we found something that resembled a horror movie set rather than a simple bothy. It appeared it had been something more at some point, a fairly nice lodge. That point appeared to have been around 80 years ago. I laid down on the rusty springs of what had once been a mattress, hoping I could get some sleep. Sure, Freddy Kruger might show up, but at least I was safe from the wind and the midges. Despite my exhaustion it didn’t happen. After about half an hour wasted, we were moving on.
We didn’t make it far before I stopped again. We were crossing under a railway, after which we would be headed back up into the hills. I hesitated, a bit scared to be honest. The small bridge gave us the choice of getting under it out of the rain or standing next to it out of the wind. We chose the latter while I deliberated on the situation.
I was uncomfortable, but by no means dangerously cold. My concern was whether the former would turn into the latter as we left the valley. I felt confident that I could still climb well, and work up a good amount of warmth in doing so. I also felt getting away from the loch would ease the chill of the wind slightly. If things did get bad I could still make it back down to the horror movie bothy or down the other side to the rail station. Ally and Martin were both very experienced, and had extra kit and emergency shelter on them. When it came down to it, I had been in much worse situations before and there was nothing here that put the risk at an uncontrollable level. I felt bad for Martin, though, whose bare legs were seemingly oblivious to the cold. He now had been company for my worst stretch on both the Grand Round and on the Pennine Way (the overnight Cross Fell section). Also, there were really a lot of Martins involved here.
After another 15 minutes wasted, I got up and we continued under the bridge, walked through the hills, and were kissed by the wind. (As tempting as it is to do the rest of the report only in RHCP lyrics, I’ll stop there. I wouldn’t want to drive Loch Lomond out of anyone’s head.) There was no longer time pressure, no sense of urgency, no schedule to check. All that remained was to move forward, and I really wasn’t thinking any further ahead than my light could reveal (which wasn’t far).
There were only 3 peaks on the leg, making each one feel like a huge milestone not only towards completing the round but towards reaching dawn. The weather let up slightly, and I even removed my outer layer at one point, but the visibility remained next to zero as we made our way across difficult terrain and at times struggled to find the true summit as the hills leveled off at that top. I at least felt alert, whether Ally and Martin would agree with that assessment I’m not sure. Something I originally found at Barkley is that needing to stay mentally engaged on something like navigation in low visibility can actually provide a great deal of benefit. Physically, I was starting to feel quite fatigued and noticing the inevitable progression of the tendonitis.
Leg time – 9:10
Charlie Ramsay time – 18:03
Total time – 114:03
Leg 3 – Fersit to Glen Nevis Youth Hostel
Pacers – Finlay Wild, Graham Briffett, Alex McVey, Luke Arnott
“Road” support – Martin Stone
Time – Friday, 5:03
We arrived at Fersit absurdly late. I was supposed to take about five and a half hours on leg 2. I had trudged through it in over nine. But Martin was there waiting for us, with an all-star cast of experienced Scottish hill runners there ready to go for leg 3. In that situation, in those conditions, there are very few people who would have the experience to know what’s needed. There are fewer still who would also have the network and the ability to gather what and who is needed and be there waiting. Without that, and without the team he had assembled, I don’t know that I could have physically continued on, much less felt safe enough to do so.
One of my biggest worries at this point was how the slowdown would affect my support – the schedule had shifted and those out there were going to have to be out there longer. If I had sensed any hesitance or restlessness at all on their part, that doubt could have easily spread in my mind and made the first crack in my determination to finish appear. Once that first crack appears it’s nearly impossible to mend, or to stop its growth even. No one at Fersit even mentioned the possibility of quitting. No one was pushing me to go on or to do something that I didn’t have the mental willpower or physical energy left to do; there was just zero mention either way of whether I should continue on. It was business as usual, and we went about things the same as if I had arrived four hours earlier.
I got some food down, took a much needed 30 minute bivvy nap, sprayed on my best backwoods Tennessee DEET mosquito spray to keep the midges off, added another half dozen layers or so, and it was time to continue on. I had made it through the long night. I had made it through 114 hours, run up 103 summits, and biked 400 miles. All that remained was one leg, of one round, with 10 summits.
I was shivering from having stopped for so long. I had to get moving. Heading out of Fersit I had a baselayer, two mid layers, and seven jackets, three of them Gore Tex. That was with 3 layers on my legs, my winter over-mittens on top of my gloves, and a partridge and a pear tree. I wouldn’t lose any of those layers until the final descent, except for momentarily to insert two more mid layers for one stretch. If need be, there were even more layers available. No, it wasn’t an arctic expedition. It was cold, and wet, and extremely windy, but no one else had on nearly that much. My body simply could no longer manage its own temperature; I had to do it manually. On long climbs that were sheltered from the wind I would unzip my 7 zippers. Then we would get to the top and back into the wind, and I would zip them all back up.
I was extremely drowsy, and reaching that state where I felt I could fall asleep on my feet. But I couldn’t stop moving, and my support runners wouldn’t let me. I had to stay warm. But I also had to get that reboot, as I had in Ecclefechan on the bike. Just a short one. I pushed through it as best I could. I was told there was a bothy a bit off the route in a valley after the first two peaks. It would have added a significant chunk of time to get to it, though, and despite the schedule being meaningless at that point I had no desire to spend an hour and the extra physical effort in order to get 15 minutes of sleep. I convinced them to let me get a dirt nap near the bottom of the valley, sheltered from the wind. I had to convince them it was safe, and that I was warm. I did have the experience and the clarity to know I could do it and how much it would help.
I had taken some caffeine before going to sleep, and when I woke up I was reborn (well, compared to 15 minutes earlier at least). We moved up the hill and to the next peak. All of the big climbs were now behind us, with 3 moderate climbs left moving between ridgelines. It really wasn’t the climbs that concerned me, though. The tendonitis had moved from nuisance to pain and now to hindrance. I was having significant trouble moving downhill, and my poles, which I hardly used on Paddy Buckley, had become indispensable crutches. Oddly enough, it was about 24 hours into the round – the amount of time I had asked my leg to give me at the start.
But we kept moving, I kept unzipping and re-zipping all my jackets, and still I tried to stay focused on just what was in front of me. The countdown had begun in earnest – 7 to go. I was eating well, and I was still feeling awake and alert. At least that’s one small silver lining of pain and poor weather. We made it up the second ridge, and there at Aonach Mor, the 3rd to last peak, was Ry waiting with two double cheeseburgers. If you had told me a week earlier that someone would bring me McDonald’s up the mountain, I would have laughed and thought, “wow, what a waste there’s no way I would touch that.” But there I was, and there it was. And it was delicious. Both of them.
Going down that ridge, I had completely lost the ability to run. It wasn’t a matter of I could run it just hurt really bad, or I could run just not very fast. Either my brain had reached that point where it absolutely disallows something no matter how much I consciously tried to bend it to my will, or the tendon had become so inflamed that it physically could not move. Every now and then my toe would catch a rock and bend my ankle further than the 5 degrees it was capable of moving. Eventually my pacers became conditioned to the yell I would let out when it happened. Onward we went. I could feel, it seemed like even hear, the tell tale creaking of the tendon moving along its sheath. In a way, it was good. It confirmed with absolute certainty my diagnosis, and I knew that it wasn’t a stress fracture or something else that could cause long term serious damage by continuing.
I could still climb well, and I asked if there was a route we could take that was uphill the rest of the way. Unfortunately, we had much more down than up left. We made it up the last ridge to Carn Mor Dearg, and then there was one: Ben Nevis, the highest point in the UK. Similar to when I finished Barkley, I had imagined this great moment on the final summit, looking out triumphantly at the land below and basking in a glorious day. And like Barkley, I was met with fog, rain, and cold.
Still, the triumph was there. And the despair. And the happiness, anguish, determination, disappointment, gratitude, and everything else I had felt over the past five days. It was all there at that marker sitting on top of a clagged in barren summit. It was over. I had completed it. That moment was the other emotional extreme compared to what I had experienced earlier going up Binnein Mor after Storm Ellen first hit. The two should have been complete opposites, yet they were inextricably linked. One could not exist without the other. And under the surface, there was more in common than I ever would have imagined.
The easiest way to quit now was to simply finish. All I had to do was get down from the mountain. Surely I would be there by dinner time and enjoy a nice evening reliving the adventure. Due to that whole thing with my leg we opted to stay on the nice easy, winding tourist path. In hindsight I wish we had taken the straight shot over the rocks and grassy banks (except the one that people aren’t allowed on). Every step was agonizing even on the nicer surface, so I might as well have gone the way that involved fewer steps.
The rest of my body still felt fine, relatively speaking. I was completely awake and alert, with decent energy, and none of my muscles were sore or incapable of running. I had all the motivation I needed just knowing that the faster I moved the faster I could stop moving and get out of that weather. I felt like I was in a nice car with a flat tire. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely couldn’t have taken off flying down the hill, but I could have managed a pretty nice jog.
I had been desperately wanting to get out of the clag, until I actually did and saw how far down I had to go. The situation was made worse by the fact that they had laid stone all along the lower part of the path. It made it harder to use my poles and to land with my foot at the least bad angle. I kept telling myself that people hike this path all the time. If they can do that, and it doesn’t take them all day long, then I can still do this. One step / hobble at a time. I was starting to count down the distance remaining in tenths of miles, and how many laps around a track I had left.
Some races and events I’ve done have had joyous finishes, running along trails or through towns at speeds that seemed inconceivable just moments earlier. The Pennine Way. Tor Des Geants. Barkley. Then there were times like this, or The Spine, when the final stretch seemed like a never-ending march of misery. Maybe it means that in the other case I hadn’t tried hard enough, that I had too much left in me. The commonality I see, though, is my physical condition. In all the examples of joyous energetic finishes I was of course incredibly fatigued, but I had nothing that could have been considered an injury. I’ve come to believe that in moments of extreme euphoria and adrenaline, the mind can overcome even major levels of fatigue for a very short time. Some things, though, simply cannot be overcome, no matter how much the mind consciously or subconsciously wants to. This was one of those times. I think the only thing without limits right then and there is what I would have given to have Fort William magically rise a few thousand feet in elevation (it’s nearly at sea level… right next to the highest point in the UK).
Finally, I actually made it. The finish really did exist. I made it across the bridge and over to the sign in front of the youth hostel where I had set off over 34 hours earlier. At the time it almost seemed like that memory wasn’t real, that surely that must have been a different person from long ago or something that I imagined. I took a seat on the rocks, people there I think expecting me to say something, or to have some big reaction to the moment. My moment was on top of Ben Nevis, the moment I knew I had done it. Getting back to the hostel was just a long, tortuous formality. My mind had moved on from that moment and now was focused on the essentials, my post 130 hour adventure hierarchy of needs. Food. Shower. Dryness. Warmth. Sleep. Other things would gradually bubble to the top of the priority list, and eventually I would process my thoughts and have a few things to say (or a few dozen pages of things to say). But right then, just rest. Rest is all.
Leg time – 16:40
Charlie Ramsay time – 34:43
Total time – 130:43
Leg sleep – 0:45
Total sleep – 12:00
Charlie Ramsay Summary
From the beginning, I knew that the Ramsay Round was the big question mark in my plan. Everything else was positioned to set myself up to have a chance at it. In the end I fell short of my original goal of sub 24 hours. Of course I would’ve liked to hit that target, but it was also largely a carrot on a stick to get me to the finish. And I made it, while knowing I gave it everything I had to get there. So for that I have no regrets, no second guessing, no sense of failure. It was an epic adventure and I obtained everything that I was truly seeking out there.
Likewise, on the surface Storm Ellen might seem like an unfortunate circumstance. Of the four named windstorms that had hit the UK this year up to that point, I had been in the mountains during three of them (Brendan during The Spine, Dennis during a February trip to Scotland, and now Ellen). And I had only been in the mountains half a dozen times all year. I do statistics for a living, but I don’t even want to start to calculate how small the odds of that are. The pattern was largely a repeat of last year. It’s been incredibly frustrating at times, infuriating even. But in this case I probably owe Ellen a thank you. It ensured that my limits were fully stretched, that I was completely stripped down to my inescapably raw and authentic core, that I was forced to face the questions, thoughts, and emotions that came along with those situations, and that my finish was built upon all of that.
My support might not agree regarding Ellen, so apologies to everyone who got dragged into my mountain weather luck. In all seriousness, I do still get overwhelmed thinking about the Ramsay Round support in particular – the lengths Martin went to to adapt and organize everything perfectly, the people who came out on short notice in those horrible conditions for long stretches, the shop that must have donated their entire stock to get enough jackets on me. The people out there with me on leg 3 were with me for over 16 hours. Finlay went back a week later and set an incredible new record for the round, doing the entire thing in 2 hours less than he spent watching me hobble around on just that 3rd leg.
Weather and fatigue aside, I think Ramsay was my favorite of the rounds. It was wild, and things just felt bigger. All the summits were entirely legitimate. It was the first time in the UK that I’ve felt like I was fully out in remote wilderness, like in the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada with no sign of civilization or human activity for miles (other than that bothy). One day hopefully I’ll get back to give it a proper go (but no, Finlay’s record is quite safe – that was an amazing performance from a great athlete with an intimate knowledge of that land that very few other people will ever have).
The Ramsay pace chart shows me clearly falling off that cliff of no return I mentioned earlier after the Bob Graham round. What’s surprising to me is how linear the graph is for legs 2 and 3. What that shows is that once I decided to conserve and protect, to slow down and ensure I would finish, I was actually able to keep a very steady pace. That pace was just well below 23 hour pace. The exception is at the very end where the slope of the line clearly gets steeper and my relative pace much worse, coinciding with the start of the Ben Nevis descent.
|Glen Nevis Hostel – Arrive||7:29|
|Glen Nevis Hostel – Depart||0:00||11:00|
|Mullach nan Coirean||1:25||1:25||12:25|
|Sgurr a’ Mhaim||0:45||2:48||13:48|
|Sgorr an Iubhair||0:25||3:13||14:13|
|Stob Coire a’ Chairn||0:28||3:58||14:58|
|Sgurr Eilde Mor||1:10||7:54||18:54|
|Abhainn-Rath – Arrive||0:59||8:53||19:53|
|Leg 1 Total||8:53||8:53||19:53|
|Abhainn-Rath – Depart||0:17||9:10||20:10|
|Beinn na Lap||1:36||13:14||0:14|
|Stob Corie Sgriodain||1:05||16:47||3:47|
|Fersit – Arrive||1:16||18:03||5:03|
|Leg 2 Total||9:10||18:03||5:03|
|Fersit – Depart||1:00||19:03||6:03|
|Stob a’Chorie Mheadhoin||2:24||21:27||8:27|
|Stob Coire Easain||0:27||21:54||8:54|
|Stob Choire Claurigh||0:56||25:18||12:18|
|Stob Coire an Laoigh||1:05||26:23||13:23|
|Sgurr Choinnich Mor||0:55||27:18||14:18|
|Carn More D.||1:23||31:00||18:00|
|Glen Nevis Hostel||2:40||34:43||21:43|
|Leg 3 Total||16:40||34:43||21:43|
Wait, we have to drive how far to get home now?!
After biking and running for so long, it was quite the trip to get back home. We had a relay of sorts, with Martin driving me from Fort William to the Lake District, and then Phil driving me to Birmingham where Jessi was able to meet me and drive me the rest of the way home. It was great to be able to spend some time chatting about the adventure and sharing what had been going on in our respective minds. It was not so great to sit in a vehicle for that long and then try to get out and walk.
Like fatigue during the event itself, recovery from these things isn’t exactly a steady process. Muscle soreness is actually usually the least of my concerns. It’s the mental recovery, sleep deprivation, and completely overwhelming feelings of exhaustion that are the biggest hurdles. Then there are fun “minor” things like headaches, tongue ulcers, GI issues, and night sweats (with a general continued inability to regulate body temperature). The best part this time around was now having to worry that every symptom, even being a completely familiar part of the recovery process, was a Covid symptom (nothing actually was).
But gradually things return to normal. I got to enjoy my big meal, and really every other food that came within sight for a couple of weeks, and struggled through my final 50 miles of the Great Virtual Race Back Across Tennessee (virtual races don’t generally get me excited, but “running” across my home state while living in another country was pretty fun). Those miles were entirely shuffling along on the treadmill or family walks (e.g. Pokemon catching expeditions with my son). I’m now back to normal sleep and even actual running, outside on trails. I am (three weeks later) still dealing a bit with the tendonitis and some knee pain, but those too will pass. Unlike after the Pennine Way, I’m in no hurry to fully get ready to go again this time and I plan on a nice extended down period to fully recuperate before taking on the next challenge. Physically recuperate at least. I don’t expect I’ll be fully recuperated for a while with a newborn arriving in a few weeks.
Deep thoughts while exercising for 130 hours
A lot of these things aren’t new thoughts that I’ve had, just expanded or framed differently. Much of it fits the same themes I laid out in Seeking Grand Challenges: explore your unknown, create your passion, and adventure is everywhere. But I’m constantly referring to how these challenges bring with them self-improvement, realizations, and an opportunity to better process and understand my own thoughts, so I thought I’d share just a few highlights of that. Plus, I need to remind myself of these things fairly often to get them through my own stubborn head.
I supported John and all I got was this lousy birch
There’s really nothing I can say or do to sufficiently thank the people who supported me on this. Dozens were involved in road support, carrying my stuff around the mountains, pointing at the right pile of rocks for me to touch, making sure I didn’t get hypothermia, etc. People came out at horrible hours in horrible conditions to help me tackle this challenge. Perhaps there’s not much better I can do here than to refer to the Joss Naylor quote below. That also extends to my family and coach and all who helped support my preparation for this challenge.
Something I first realized on my attempt last year and that played an even bigger role this year is what an incredibly powerful motivator that support can be. I’ve written before about intrinsic (benefit from self) vs. extrinsic (benefit from others) motivation, and how much more powerful and necessary the former is, but there is clearly a 3rd type of motivation I hadn’t originally considered when I made that post – benefit to others. I think I might start referring to the 3 types as domestic, imported, and exported. 🤔 The best way that I could “repay” and show appreciation to my support was to not let their efforts be in vain, to show them that they had chosen a worthy effort to contribute to – one where I would give everything I had to complete the challenge and reach towards the goal. In the end, they each own a chunk of the success.
On a more tangible level, before starting I reached out to Trees Not Tees to arrange planting a tree for everyone who provided support not only for this year, but also for last year (which was the foundation for this year’s success) and for my run on the Pennine Way. Getting to offer even a tiny token of gratitude while supporting a great cause seemed like a win-win. And it also made me stop and think more about gifts in general, how we’re largely obsessed with getting people more things, whether they really need them or not. Perhaps a more meaningful way of showing appreciation is to take that person’s goodwill and amplify it, supporting things that they’re passionate about and that not just they need, but in most cases we all need. I know I’m not the first person to have this thought and it’s not any sort of extraordinary action, but I believe the more we share these sorts of thoughts the more they can spread.
Plus, that’s all part of my ploy to turn Scotland into Appalachia. One thing that’s quite clear here in the UK is that there aren’t enough random forests for me to run through. 😉
Although they weren’t explicitly listed as support for any particular leg I also owe a great deal of thanks to Phil Hill and Jon Fairey (PH Balance), who were out there for the entirety documenting the adventure and providing support along the way when needed. They’re putting a film together that I’m thrilled to see and that I will undoubtedly cherish getting to look back on many years from now (I’ll post release information when available). Ry Webb was out there on all the rounds getting footage for them, and Stacey and Max Holloway (Way Outside UK) were doing the same on the Ramsay Round, essentially doubling as crew at times. Ry also went further with me than any other person on the Pennine Way – I think he’s now seen more of my full spectrum of physical, mental, and emotional states than anyone (the possible exception being Gary Robbins). 😅
Excuses why this wasn’t a failure
The goal I made up and set for myself was sub 24 hours on all the rounds and sub 120 hours total. So based on that, I failed. But despite that whole thing about horseshoes and hand grenades, success is rarely a binary outcome. It’s rarely even assessed by a single measure.
We set discrete goals and seek all or nothing rewards because a well-defined target is a powerful motivator. If we approach something with the intent of just seeing how well we can do, then it’s easy to stop at any point and just think “well, I guess that was my best.” This is especially true for anything that requires long-term commitment and perseverance. What I thought I was capable of 7 years ago when I started running again doesn’t even register on the same scale as the things that I now know I’m capable of. I never would have even imagined things like The Grand Round, much less given myself the slightest chance of doing it. Without powerful, personally meaningful goals (e.g. Barkley) it would have been easy to stop anywhere along that journey and say, “yeah, this feels like about as good as I can do.” We all have limits, but until we really try to find them we have absolutely no idea where they are. With time and hard work we are all capable of so much more than we can imagine.
So to me success is not a yes/no question of whether I reached those goals; it’s about how much further did I get from where I started. The best goal then is the one at the outer edge of the Goldilocks difficulty, which forces us to reach to our current limit. From there, we can regroup and look around to see if we can then reach even further. For that reason, I would rather my goal be slightly too hard and I come up short than have it be slightly too easy and I achieve it but without successfully reaching as far as possible. One of the more interesting things I’ve heard laz say about Barkley (and he’s said a lot!) is that the finishers are the only ones who don’t get their reward – who leave still wondering, “could I have gone further?”
Last year the goal was too far out of reach, and it forced me to stop early and reassess my plans. This year it was just out of reach but within sight – right within that zone I target. It kept me motivated to the finish and forced me to reach as far as I could. And I still did something no one ever has: a self-propelled completion of the big 3 rounds (all in one go and travel between them under my own power). I hope that in doing so I not only broadened my own horizon for what I believe is possible but can motivate others to expand their own as well.
Now with all that said, do I wish I could have gone sub 24 on Ramsay? Of course I do. Dragging myself across that bridge at the end to touch the sign in 23:59 with absolutely nothing left in me would have been the outcome in a perfect fantasy world. And that of course leads to the question: do I still think my original goal is possible? Maybe. Without the tendonitis and with non-horrid Ramsay weather I believe I could’ve come within a few hours this time. Better conditions throughout (5 straight days of good UK conditions… alright now we’re really in a fantasy world), no road closures, not doing the Pennine Way a month earlier, etc. and the math starts to add up to maybe being able to actually make it across that bridge in time. But the equation is far too complex to know the answer (that’s why it’s fun). Maybe with better weather I could have kept myself on the brink without falling off the cliff of no return. Or maybe it would have just happened a bit later. Maybe the midges would have pushed me off that cliff. In any case, I think it’s still a good goal.
I wish I wasn’t mountain running so I could do these things I think of while mountain running
In the darkest depths, who or what will I turn to for light? How will I respond? In that moment on the Ramsay Round, when Storm Ellen hit and I was completely shattered, mentally at rock bottom and facing the fact that I could not continue on pace, all I could think about was how much I wanted to be home with Jessi and our kids. It continued for hours. Even in the moment I recognized the irony – the thing that put that thought so strongly in my mind was the very reason I wasn’t home, and it was something I had not only chosen to do but had created myself so that I could then choose to do it. On the summit of Ben Nevis, what should have been a polar opposite experience, many of the same thoughts flooded my mind.
The truth is that usually, in the moment, not much about running makes sense. Nothing was chasing me. I didn’t need to be anywhere. I wasn’t accomplishing anything truly of value or directly tackling any of the truly meaningful obstacles that are out there – a pandemic, systemic injustice, climate change, political corruption, and the few million or so other things that provide more direct value than running around a bunch of mountains. But those are huge problems, and solving them requires each of us to be at our best.
At this point I feel kind of cliché and corny saying this, but running allows me to continually evolve towards the best version of myself. The stuff of reasonable distance of course allows a recharge and a much needed disconnect from every day stress. The massive challenges like this, though, are where I truly discover how I can try to improve – how can I best use my strengths or mitigate my weaknesses, what do I truly value or take for granted, how can I best respond to the real problems that life brings and form plans and goals to solve them, where do I seek refuge and what is my source of courage. It is when all of the noise, all of the pretense, and all of the luxurious comforts are stripped away, and I am left to my bare essentials and unavoidable truths, that I feel I can best answer those things. Mountain running allows me to reach that point doing an activity I love in a relatively low consequence environment (if I fail, it’s really not a big deal).
So in the moment, maybe running around mountains isn’t the best use of my time. But in the long term, I believe the benefits from it make the rest of my time so much better that it more than outweighs the time lost. And as far as my family is concerned, I will value all of that time and I hope inspire my children to never be afraid to go after their goals or whatever challenges life brings their way.
More recently, I’ve also started to try to connect my running to causes that are more meaningful. As part of The Hartley Slam I was raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which helps disadvantaged youth get off to more of a fair start in life and pursue a career of their choice. This not only drives more direct benefit from my running, but is another big source of inspiration to not give up out there. Thank you so much to everyone who has contributed. The fundraiser is still ongoing and any amount of support is incredibly appreciated. As of writing this, it’s just over 90% of the way to the goal… maybe I chose a goal slightly out of reach for it too, but I think we can get there! 🙂 Based on previous stats, even £1 per click on this post would get us there. This isn’t something I just thought would be cool or look good to attach to the challenge; it’s a cause I care deeply about. Jessi and I have contributed ourselves by matching the largest individual contribution made to the fundraiser so far. The link is below, and any necessary currency conversions will be handled by JustGiving.
If someone takes your record just make up a new one
I guess this is a record? No one has done it before and I largely made it up. “Only known time” – OKT? In any case, I don’t really expect anyone to do it faster soon. I hope that one day someone does, but it requires a somewhat unique set of skills and passions. And that’s really what this was about – creating something that aligned with my individual passions that I could truly enjoy and that would motivate me through to the end. So even if no one does this specifically, it would be incredible to see more people create, pursue, and achieve things that are personally meaningful and challenging to them. Races and other managed events are great, but we’re all unique and need challenges that reflect our individuality to best foster personal growth. If someone finds that this particular challenge resonates with them, they at least have a blueprint here… a very verbose, overly documented blueprint.
Who needs those other mountains anyway
Countless people have had things canceled this year due to Covid19 – a trip, a race, an event. After doing our best last year to capitalize on our time living here and explore places we’ve always wanted to see both in the UK and in mainland Europe, we haven’t crossed the channel a single time this year. Now with a baby arriving soon we probably won’t be doing much of that even if a vaccine does become widely available. So we’ve refocused our family plans and I’ve refocused my running goals to mainly be right here in the UK. And we’ve come to the realization that that’s really not bad at all.
Between the Grand Round and the Pennine Way I explored a pretty large section of this island, and it was incredible. There are so many more challenges here that are equally as exciting and that I will never have the time to do, so why spend the time and resources to constantly go everywhere that I’m not? For everywhere I’ve lived, I can think of more than enough things to do at any of them. I believe that for many things the reward in having great depth of experience can vastly outweigh having greater breadth (the large exception being diversity in thought, culture, and perspective, but if we use the internet to seek rather than just receive then it can actually work quite well for expanding our breadth there!). That’s not to say I’ll never go anywhere or that that’s not fun and exciting to do, but I think there is a bit of a “the grass is greener” effect that causes us to shift the balance further in that direction than it needs to go.
Adventure really is nearly everywhere; sometimes we might just have to look a bit harder, explore, and use our creativity to find it. In those cases I’ve found that the appreciation and enjoyment is even greater.
One of the most frequent questions I get asked these days (aside from the still reigning champion of how do I apply to Barkley?), is what’s next. Well, we have a baby arriving in the next few weeks, and that’s pretty much my horizon at the moment in terms of plans I care about and am taking seriously. I just had the adventure of a lifetime, and now I’m just hoping I can start her on a lifetime of adventure. My body also obviously needs a good bit of time to recuperate after The Hartley Slam. Of course I have a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head, and a lot of things I would love to do, but I’ll have to take time to figure out how those best fit together and nail down what any plans are.
I also get asked how I’ll push things farther, or what the limit on these things is. I believe that’s a very individual question, and is a matter of balancing the benefits of doing these challenges with some of the opportunity cost I described above (e.g. missing time with family or doing more directly meaningful things). At some point there are clear diminishing returns to the benefits, and personally, I don’t see myself really taking things further or longer any time soon. More challenging in a different way maybe, or just a different experience, but these things aren’t really about just taking it further and further until something breaks. That’s just one variable in an incredibly complex equation.
Will there be a Grand Round 3.0, or 2.1 even? Again not in the near term. I have many challenges I want to take on and places I want to explore. I feel that I did quite well given the conditions, and the risk is pretty high that if I were to attempt it again I could get even worse conditions, get a worse injury, etc., and end up with a worse performance. But I wouldn’t rule it out ever. At its core I chose this challenge because it was one I could enjoy. It truly was a grand adventure where I got to explore some incredible places and spend time with a lot of amazing people. I think that aspect would only be magnified without the stress and pressure of wondering whether I can finish it at all. And if others want to do it without that pressure I think it would make for a wonderful bikepacking / hiking trip – taken at a leisurely pace and opting for some longer but less congested routes for the cycling portion (and stopping to enjoy some of the places along the way!).
Gear and nutrition
Note: I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
This is one part of the plan that didn’t change a huge amount from last year. I believe the biggest change is that I switched from La Sportiva Akasha to Mutants. These have long been my go to for steep technical terrain, and after becoming better acquainted with the rounds last year I decided they would be a better choice. They provided great stability and traction throughout and I’m glad I switched to them. I used one pair on Paddy Buckley, a 2nd pair on Bob Graham, then switched back to the 1st pair for Charlie Ramsay.
Underneath those shoes I again had XOSKIN: a pair of toe socks with a pair of normal socks over top. After 3 full rounds and being soaking wet for the vast majority of 130 hours, the only blister I had was a tiny one on the side of a toe where my neighboring toe turns into it a bit (I should probably start taping that spot). I’m sure my feet have also toughened up a bit over the years, but I continue to be amazed by how well my feet do each time it happens, which is now every time.
I wore an Ultimate Direction Race Belt 4.0 with an Adventure Pocket, where I kept my schedule, gloves, and a few other small odds and ends that my pacers didn’t carry. I used a pair of FK Gaiters as well to keep stuff out of my shoes and contribute to that whole no blisters thing.
The conditions varied so much that it was hard to keep track of my outerwear – especially on the Ramsay Round where everyone was tossing a jacket on me and I largely have absolutely no idea what I was wearing. For more “moderate” conditions I heavily relied on my La Sportiva Run Jacket and my Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket.
Coros sent me a Vertix to use for the Pennine Way and Grand Round, and I was pretty excited to try it largely for the long battery life. Even with heart rate monitoring on I had no worries of the watch dying during any of the rounds (although Ramsay was cutting it a bit close given I took so long 😅). I’ve also come to really like the interface, with a touch screen where I can swipe between data fields even while the auto lock is on and preventing me from accidentally hitting buttons. The navigation has also been good, and I largely relied on it for the section of Bob Graham where I was separated from my pacers.
Lighting for this was crucial, and something I was especially a bit concerned about on the bike as I didn’t have a great deal of experience riding at night. On the rounds I used a Petzl NAO+ for long periods of darkness, and a lighter Petzl Actik Core for shorter stretches. I’ve come to rely heavily on these models over the past year and they didn’t let me down. Their easily rechargeable batteries are also a huge benefit. On the bike I had enough lighting for a carnival. I had 3 rear lights including the helmet mounted Cateye Volt 400, which also provides forward illumination that I combined with a base bar mounted Cateye Volt 800 or 1300 (swapped back and forth to maintain a good charge on the battery). Finding lights that work on a time trial bike isn’t very easy. I did prepare my bike ahead of time with a bit of bar tape and electrical tape that would keep the light at the correct angle, but everything I had stayed secure throughout. Riding at night was actually quite nice.
The bike itself was a Felt IA FRD with ENVE SES 7.8 wheels, and I had Louis Garneau Course Air Lite shoes and a Course helmet. I used a Garmin Edge 530 for navigation, speed, and such. These companies aren’t listed on my Partners page, but for full disclosure that gear was mostly obtained through relationships with them during my triathlon days as part of Team Every Man Jack.
Nutrition in something this long is always interesting. It’s almost impossible to predict what you might start craving or what you might start hating. For the most part, the body is remarkably good at craving things with the nutrients it needs (salty, sweet, etc.). I’ve learned to listen to it, without letting it fully take charge and ask for things that would end poorly or try to ask for nothing at all. My stomach behaved fairly well, though (definitely much better than the Pennine Way!).
For nearly 5 years I’ve relied on Hammer (now with a UK distributor!) to provide the foundation for my nutrition. I left nearly every support point with a bottle of Perpeteum and also had Hammer gel and bars. It’s also key to replenish more than just calories, and Endurolytes, Endurance Amino, and Fizz (which can also add a great taste after days of nothing but water) have also become a big part of my regular intake.
My “irregular” more unpredictable intake is quite broad. Pizza has always been my go to savory item, and there’s no telling how many of those I ate over those 130 hours (actually I had it for dinner each of the two nights before too…). Then it again goes back to what my body craves and what I can get down. Some forms of calories are better than others but any calories are better than no calories. Fortunately I have a pretty full knowledge of UK snack foods at this point and also still have the support of Jessi’s lovingly homemade treats, including the old reliable salty maple nut bites and snickerdoodles (next to A Christmas Story, the second biggest thing missing from the UK during Christmas).
No matter how good fueling is during something like this, it’s impossible to fully replace everything that’s being burnt. So during any of my short breaks between running, sleeping, or biking I tried to get down full meals as much as possible: burgers, fish and chips, entire pizzas, etc. I think this was pretty important in being able to continue through to the end.
Oh, and about those boxes of Krispy Kreme? Well, that’s another thing that sometimes the body craves and sometimes it doesn’t. I only had one doughnut the entire time. I think the rest were enjoyed by my crew. 🙂
20 thoughts on “The Grand Round 2.0”
A great report John, thanks for sharing it. I have returned home today from working in Fort William and looking up at the Ben i did think about you on your Ramsey Round. It looked the brooding lump it always does. Looking forward to your next adventure. wishing you and your family all the best on your new arrival. Best regards.
Thanks very much, and glad to hear the Ben is still there waiting. I might have to pay it a return visit. 🙂
Fascinating and engaging – a great read! I never cease to be amazed and inspired by your exploits, and the honest and humble way that you recount them. Very, very well done to you (and your amazing support team!)! All the very best to you and your family.
Thanks Jon, and all the best for you own adventures!
Well done John. This is an incredible write up and so fascinating to read.
Thank you Owen. Glad you made it through and enjoyed it to the end!
An extremely comprehensive and fantastic read. A truly epic achievement from yourself and the team as a whole. Your achievements are truly inspiring, can’t wait for the next one. For now rest up and good luck with the impending new arrival. Although bringing up 4 children is a big achievement in itself. Although on that score I beat you as I’ve got 5.
Thank you, and all the best to you and your family! I think you’ll always have me topped on the kids count. I hope. 😉
Great read as always and what an amazing achievement.
I cheered you through South Side of Glasgow and continuing to follow your dot over the next 36+ hours I struggled to comprehend how you could possibly still be moving forward…
Good luck to you and the family with the baby and I look forward to whatever (&whenever) comes next…
Thanks so much for coming out to cheer; I needed it through there! I think I remember someone standing with a bike around that area?
Dr K, this is an amazing post about an incredible achievement. Proof that it is mind that matter.
Having started running er … 35 years ago I have had an extended dry spell due to an Achilles problem. Reading about your exploits on the Pennine Way, piqued my interest and made me see the light. So as a born again runner, I thank you for the inspiration. My warmest wishes to you and yours on your next adventure.
Thanks very much Richard. I hope you’re able to sort that Achilles problem and get back out there exploring and doing what you love!
Amazing adventure…Although the real adventure will start with your fourth child. Splitting time between the gifts that God has blessed us with is quite the dilemma that we all face. Spending time with each gift does make us a better person. Maybe your next challeng could be a backyard challenge running around your home with a different child on your back each lap, better do it while they are small!
That would be quite the challenge! Maybe a relay instead. 😉 Thanks very much and all the best.
Absolutely phenomenal effort from you and your team and a really interesting write up. We loved following the tracker and now it’s great to get all the gory detail. All the best to you and your family for the new baby.
Thank you very much and all the best to you too
Superb read, as always. There’s been a lot of dot watching over the last couple of months…
Your original goal time before your attempt last year was 100 hours. Given what you know now, do you think that’s humanly feasible given perfect conditions, perfect support, and nothing going wrong?
Thank you. I believe it would only be possible if someone were able to go 5 days with next to no sleep, and in the transitions between bike and run basically just changed kit and kept going without any break. And then yes perfect conditions as well. Possible, and safely possible are also two different things here.
Thanks John for all the dot-watching and the inspirational write-ups. We have a couple of things in common – a disdain for tomatoes and BGR times (23:39, 30 years ago) but I don’t have the excuse of all that preceded your round. One of the many differences between us is I went the other way round the BG to avoid Yewbarrow climb and to get the road section done at a decent pace while fresh, reckoning I would be able to jog down Skiddaw no matter how knackered I was (and I was!). I was going to attempt the Joss Naylor challenge this summer but Covid got in the way, the efforts of you, Damian and Sabrina etc have got me really fired up for next year, all being well…
Thanks Pete, and yes I’ve thought about going the other way on BGR (especially after this one!). Jogging down from Skiddaw sounds much better the Robinson descent and that long 10K back into Keswick. All the best for your future challenges and hopefully I’ll see you out there sometime!