Ladies & Gentlemen, Welcome to the Pudsey & Bramley Travelling Bob Graham Circus!

Running is not, as it so often seems, only about what you did in your last race or about how many miles you ran last week. It is, in a much more important way, about community, about appreciating all the miles run by other runners, too.”

(Richard O’Brien)

It was always going to be an entertaining affair. We’d heard about other clubs – Dark Peak, Clayton Harriers – and their super-efficient Bob Graham ‘Machines’, huge juggernauts of rolling assistance, crack navigation and gourmet refreshment, where a single runner can be supported by up to thirty helpers. Fantastic, obviously, but not Pudsey & Bramley.

It’s our centenary year. We’ve had the T-shirts printed and held the Club Dinner. What else? Well, there’s always the Bob Graham Round. The myth, the legend, the once-in-a-lifetime challenge that, in general, Pudsey & Bramley runners just don’t do. We’re a racing club, bred on Yorkshire’s short, sharp fell races – in our 100-year history we’ve had just three Pudsey & Bramley athletes who’ve completed the Bob Graham. Now this is all going to change. Roll up, roll up.

August 2009 and there’s some hesitancy amongst club runners when the idea is first mooted. Everyone is waiting to see if someone else has put their name down. (“Is Brian doing it? I’m not doing it if Brian doesn’t do it.”) Not surprising, really – this is a club whose general view of long-distance challenges was once summed up by Paul Stevenson (lifelong Pudsey member) in a letter to the Fell Runner in its September 1988 edition: “The FRA magazine has boring articles on people plodding around mountains or hill ranges, dreaming up obscure events whilst on a wild night on the beer. Let’s have articles on short races like Burnsall, Pendle etc. I would like to stress I have very strong backing from my club members.”

But as soon as we get a couple of names, the rest follow – only those challenging for the English and British Championships quietly (and rightly) exempt themselves – and what we have left is a fifteen-strong bunch of athletes meeting in pubs and dreaming of a plod around England’s highest hill range. Sort of. Most of ‘em – from the top runners and race-winners to the novices and enthusiasts – are scared stiff. All of them throw themselves into the challenge knowing that, this being P&B, there won’t be any of that ‘machine’ support and something will probably go wrong. At our final curry-house meet-up, our Big Top Clown Shane Green likens it to a big party on the mountains, but I know, deep-down, he’s bluffing: there’s a nervous edge to his laughter. A manic, smile-in-the-face-of-danger laugh. A “Help, what have I let myself in for” laugh that dies away into another mouthful of nan bread.

Ask yourself: ‘Can I give more?’ The answer is usually: ‘Yes’.”

(Paul Tergat, Kenyan marathon runner)

Many meetings and debates later, we’re gathered around Kewsick’s Moot Hall on a beautiful early-summer Friday evening. The weather forecast’s good, there’s half a moon about to switch on, and the last of the Vaseline has been applied. Fourteen, not fifteen runners, ready for the off – Jon Aylward’s travel plans have failed and he can’t make it on time. Watches synchronised (look how organised we are!) and they’re off, 7pm on the dot. The food and equipment support team consists of myself, Johnny, Angie, Gillian and Tim, and (I can say in retrospect) we’re none of us quite aware of how much of a slog it is to drive around the Lake District for 24 hours on no sleep seeing to the needs of fourteen knackered runners. Steve Bottomley – dissuaded from setting off on his unicycle – is nevertheless taking it all in his stride. He decides to spend the first section of the Round (Keswick to Threlkeld via Skiddaw and Blencathra) picking up litter. He carries a large black bin bag and stops every few minutes to gather discarded spit-laced chocolate wrappers and walkers’ used plasters. By the time he reaches the car-park on the lower slopes of Skiddaw his bag is half-full.

Three mountain peaks conquered and darkness sets in as pacer Charlie Johnson leads the way down Doddick Fell – much quicker in a group than Hall’s Fell – from Blencathra. Charlie drags everyone ahead of schedule due to being pumped full of adrenaline from arriving (as sole navigator for the first leg) at Moot Hall with minutes to spare before the off. The fact that the group decide to avoid using headtorches even when it’s practically pitch-black makes their appearance at Threlkeld all the more of a surprise for the support team. Just a five-minute stop here and they’re off again into the night, the Helvellyn ridge silhouetted in the moonlight. It’s perfect weather for night running – well, that’s what us non-runners decide, sitting in our folding-chairs watching the string of lights head off up Clough Head.

Those runners who haven’t put in the training or had enough fell experience now begin to understand how hard the Bob Graham Round actually is – it being not only about fitness and stamina but about a mental will; a will that’s learned from experience. In the run-up to these long-distance challenges, the body has to get used to being fatigued, being ready to stop – only to have the mind tell it to stop moaning and get on with it. The Bob Graham – home of countless gems of cod-philosophy and running wisdom. What else is there to do up there, in the dark, inching up and along those mountains?

Actually there’s plenty going on up there. From nowhere, a bunch of Bingley Harriers appear wearing strange black gear and offering home-made cake to our runners. Richard Pattinson is prepared to believe he’s hallucinating, but then realises that the hallucinating comes later, somewhere around Great Gable. From Helvellyn they follow Niall Bourke’s navigation onto the last stretch over Fairfield and Seat Sandal. I always thought this detour to Fairfield particularly cruel – the old suggestion to “dump your bag at the bottom, save yourself carrying it up, pick it up on the way back” is scant reward for a mammoth vertical scramble at 2 o’clock in the morning.

At this point some of the runners begin to tire. Charlie Macintosh, fairly new to fell-running, pauses at Grizedale and debates with himself whether he might not be quite ready to complete a Bob Graham. The ayes have it. He heads down the valley to Dunmail, knowing he’ll be back for another go next year. Andrew Birkenshaw and Alex Jones are determined, but keeping latched onto the back of the group is getting harder and harder. Colin Walker and Paul Stevenson are pragmatic in defeat and join them in jogging off the back, allowing the main group to keep on schedule. Led down by Alan Greenwood and John Heneghan, they collapse into chairs at Dunmail looking like death warmed-up; though, disappointed as they are, all gather themselves enough to lend support for the rest of the Round.

The schedule! Ah yes. We’re on a 23-hour schedule, but obviously with this many runners there’s a temptation to split. No two runners are alike, some set off quick, some finish well; some are good descenders, others practically wet their pants at the sight of a scree-run. What to do? We decide, at one of our pre-Round meetings, to stick together. Don’t split up. Keep more-or-less to the schedule, don’t get too far ahead of it. No good having one runner at the front clipping two hours off the schedule whilst those at the back miss out by five minutes. It’s a club run, we stick together. Plus, we simply haven’t got the support for more than one group of runners – neither navigators nor roadside support.

So now 9 runners head off from Dunmail up Steel Fell, a mixed bag of optimists and pessimists into the dawn mist, Steve Bottomley by now having abandoned any notions of picking up litter – from now on, as the sun comes up on what looks like being a blazingly sunny day, it’s about survival.

Brian Stevenson is the quiet Ringmaster of the team. He’s done the recceing, attended all the meetings and been involved from the off. His calmness and tempered confidence is a boon for the younger runners – baby-faced Ed Melbourne, relatively new to the club, looks like a schoolkid who’s sneaked into the Big Top, looking round as if he might be about to get caught. Stuart Walker is the only non-Pudsey & Bramley runner on board. A Pudsey Pacer (don’t ask), he suffers the taunts with a smile and faces the long day looking as nonplussed as someone wearing a rival club vest could look.

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.” 

(Bill Bowerman)

Halfway along the next leg to Wasdale, supporters Jean and Andy are up at Rossett Ghyll with sacks full of liquid as the sun turns up its temperature to boiling point. It’s these mid-leg appearances that the runners love – up there, you begin to think everyone down at ground level might have forgotten about you. Might be sitting in some Keswick pub drinking pints and chatting about what’s on telly. “Oh is that the time? Oops, we missed meeting those clowns at Wasdale. Never mind, sure they’ll cope. Now as I was saying about Britain’s Got Talent…”

Paul Sheard is the next, and last, to call it a day. Admitting to himself that he just hasn’t done the miles, he refuses to let the rest of the group talk him into carrying on after Rossett – for someone who gatecrashed the attempt at the last minute, he’s done well to get this far. Besides, it’s turning out to be one of the hottest days of the year and Paul fears for the suncream supplies. “I’m going for a wee. I may be some time,” he says, as he heads off the mountain with Andy and Jean.

Leg 3 navigators Ali, Rhys, Robb and David (we aren’t taking any chances on this one – P&B’s reputation with a compass is well-known; never, ever follow a Pudsey vest) shepherd everyone around Foxes Tarn, noting that they get round faster than other groups using Broad Stand. See, all the hours of debate we’d had about the choice of routes here paid off! Down the harsh red scree to Wasdale, where the group are divided into three. There are those stocking up on Johnny’s infamous Cornish pasties, changing their socks and looking at their watches; those who sit motionless, dazed, ashen-faced and wide-eyed and who have to be force-fed pasta and coffee; and those who jump around, giddy and delirious. Actually there’s only Shane in the latter group, and either he’s realised they’ve broken the back of the Bob Graham and now can’t fail – or he’s suffering the acid-trip-like consequences of heat exhaustion and low blood-sugar. It’s hard to tell with Shane, frankly – he’s like this most of the time.

There’s an amount of care being taken at Wasdale to make sure everyone feeds and drinks and changes. It’s at this point that runners can be apt to sit alone, get lost in the group, and forget all about Johnny’s pasties, Angie’s soup or what day is it and who am I and what am I doing here? Chi Trinh is starting to worry that he’s holding everyone back – which isn’t the case, since the whole group are up on schedule and perfectly willing to make sure Chi gets round. He smiles constantly, as if on an annual kids’ seaside trip to Blackpool as opposed to a horrendous climb up the face of Yewbarrow.

Now others might disagree, but I reckon the climb up Yewbarrow is the clincher. It’s make-or-break. It’s the pivot on which any Bob Graham attempt rests. Sat at its foot in the shade of Wasdale’s few trees, trying to force another mouthful of tepid pasta past your bloated tongue and realising you don’t actually have the co-ordination to pull off your own sock and examine that two-inch blister, you can look up at Yewbarrow and admit defeat. There’s a long way to go. It’s hot. And you could just say the word now and you’ll be able to lie down, close your eyes and let it all drift away…

Conversely, as you somehow fifty minutes later manage to push your body up onto Yewbarrow’s tightrope summit ridge, you can look back and see the incredible distance you’ve just travelled, and can sense that you’ve turned a corner, you’re on the way home now. Done. Dusted. Just seven hours to go.

My body is screaming at me to stop – and it would always win if it did not have a mind to play tricks with it, boss it around and delude it.”

(Bernd Heinrich)

Somehow they get up, gather and even smile for the cameras as they trot off up the fell and into the distance. From here it’s clear that these eight remaining runners will finish the round. If not because of their training and recceing but because they know they’ve broken the back of this thing, they’re up on schedule (almost 30 minutes) and are defiantly part of a group.

According to sources close to those up on the mountains, several of the group take turns in becoming either emotional, delusional, hallucinatory or just plain out-of-it. As they stumble awkwardly down from Grey Knotts behind navigator Jon Wright of Todmorden and towards the final road-crossing at Honister, all this is put away and forgotten as the road-support team has now swelled to around three million strong (well, eight or nine at least) and everyone’s too busy forcing yet more of Johnny’s pasties down their throats. Scoffer and Danny Hope are buzzing around looking like proper runners whilst those formerly known as proper runners change their socks one last time. Brian Stevenson remains placidly focussed; Steve Bottomley does an impersonation of a ghostly rabbit caught in someone’s headlights, somehow plucking up a smile when required by the sudden appearance of various cameras. Nick Hart’s carefully-arranged system of gels and tablets gives way to desperate glugs of soup as he whispers something along the lines of, “It’s tough. Really tough. Really really tough.”

With time to spare, Chi opts to run the last leg with pacer Niall Bourke in order to let the main group steam ahead led by Holmfirth’s Jon Ewart. Chi needn’t have worried – they’re all as knackered as he is. Imagining their collective bambi-legs waddling off the last of the Bob Graham mountains reminds me of the last P & B disco – agadoo, doo, doo all the way down to the final road section and the crippling last few miles into Keswick. Fortunately Jon knows a pretty-much off-road route and so, 22 hours and 19 minutes after they’d left it, Pudsey & Bramley hit the crowded Keswick market square, battling through the shoppers to touch the Moot Hall wall, acrobats, jugglers, clowns and all.

Predictably, the aftermath is messy – Nick makes the mistake of sitting down in the main street and realising that, no, thankyou, he can’t get up. He’s fine just here and will gladly wait here until next Thursday, or the Thursday after that, or the Thursday after that. Down an alley beside the nearest pub, Brian and Richard drink pints and smile the smiles of people about to be sick. Richard has completed the round on willpower and Red Bull, and is now in danger of a caffeine-induced trip from which there is no return. Meanwhile, Ed collapses spectacularly and doctors and nurses rush up from all sides. Shane takes control: “Stand back! I’m a qualified Idiot!” before stuffing Ed’s mouth with a Mars Bar. It does the trick and Ed jumps up, looking at his watch and wondering when the next leg sets off. Stuart and Chi grin like they’ve been grinning all day (“this smile masks my inner pain”) while Steve Bottomley, revived, goes back to his litter-picking. Mummy, the Circus has come to town.

And there you go. Fourteen starters, eight finishers. A great day (and night) out in the Lakes, and a lovely way for us and our (little) club to celebrate our hundredth birthday. Finally, a brief mention to all the helpers, feeders, navigators, pacers, jugglers, acrobats and stilt-walkers who made it all possible. To name a few: Runners Charlie Johnson, Mick Hill, John Heneghan, Niall Bourke, Alan Greenwood, Jean Shotter, Andy Hauser, Ali Welsh, Rhys Findlay-Robinson, Rob Little, David Alcock, Jon Wright, Danny Hope, Scoffer, John Ewart – and the cooks, cheerleaders and general dogsbodies Gillian Gaskin, Tim Taylor, Angie Pattinson and Johnny Parsons. Oh, and the Bingley lot up on Helvellyn, and all those lovely people on the last leg who I didn’t know, and probably various others that I’ve forgotten.

In the words of Alfred Hitchcock (in the shortest-ever Oscar acceptance speech), “Thank you all very much.”

Boff Whalley – 2010