Denise Mathers writes about her ‘Bob Graham Round’ for NiRunning:

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A Dark Peak Bob Graham Round – Northern Irish Style:

In May 2014, one of Northern Ireland’s most respected mountain runners, Denise Mathers (Newry City Runners), took on the infamous Bob Graham Round in Cumbria, England – an unenviable task that would require Denise, who recently collected the ‘Inspirational Runner of the Year’ award at the NIMRA prize-giving, to cover the 42 peaks in less than 24 hours.

Kindly, Denise writes about the challenge for our ‘Monthly Feature’:

Sunday 11th May 2014 1:46 am – My mission complete… the Bob Graham Round completed in 23 hours and 46 minutes. The fulfilment of a dream which deep down may have started a number of years ago but only became a reality in December 2013.

I first became aware of the Bob Graham round I suppose like most people when reading Richard Askwith’s book “Feet in the Clouds”.  However this did not ignite any ambition for an attempt at the BG – in fact quite the opposite.

Having read about the BG Round it became apparent that familiarity and navigation skills were of the utmost priority to ensure completion, so being based in Northern Ireland it seemed that this was an impossible task. After some initial investigation with Jim Patterson on his BG Rounds, my husband Dale (Mathers) set about making some contact with the Dark Peak Fell Runners Club.  The DPFR club has probably the largest number of successful BG members.  Understandably, Richard Hawkes from DPFR was a bit hesitant at first to take on an unknown from NI and suggested some support role first before a full attempt was considered.  Richard put us in touch with a DPFR member Lucy who was attempting a solo anti-clockwise BG in May 2013 and she kindly agreed to have Dale join her support team on 2 legs of her round. Note, this was our first visit to the Lakes.

On returning from Lucy’s attempt, Dale was still unsure if Richard would accept him into the June 2013 Dark Peak round, but thankfully Richard kindly agreed to Dale’s inclusion in early June 2013 – a bit late to start training now!

So, off to the Lakes again in June 2013… this was only our second visit and already we had fallen in love with these mountains.  Dale successfully completed the BG Round in what were pretty awful conditions. During Dale’s round I managed to support him on legs 1 and 5 and was in total admiration of all the contenders on that day.  I certainly came away inspired by all of the Dark Peak FR contenders and supporters, especially the enthusiasm everyone had for the BG Round.  So much was I inspired that I came back home and completed the Mourne 500’s (pretty meagre compared to the BG Round) the following weekend.

It should be noted here that I did not come away from Dale’s successful BG Round with the intention of attempting the BG myself.  It was while over at the BG Dinner in October 2013 and while chatting to the Dark Peak BG’ers that I got to hear that Nicky Spinks was planning a Ladies BG Round in 2014.

So on the way home from our weekend in the Lakes I chatted to Dale about what he thought about me attempting the BG, he knew it was a big challenge but was pretty confident that I could do it.

I knew the only way for me, from NI, to have a good stab at the BG would be to join Nicky’s team and just put in some hard training in the Mournes and then see what would happen.  So in November I emailed both Richard and Nicky asking if they would kindly consider me for a BG attempt.  Thankfully Nicky (after a little research I think) offered me a spot on the Ladies attempt which was to take place on 10th May 2014.  I decided that serious training would start in the New Year; the next decision was do I keep it quiet or not.

Nicky had requested that I bring some support runners over with me to lessen the burden from the Dark Peak supporters so I would need to ask some friends in advance to ensure they would be fit to cover 1 or 2 legs  – Therefore it would be difficult to keep my attempt quiet.  Maybe pressure would be a good thing!!! My support team was made up of William Marks, Hazel McLaughlin, Mary Mackin and Dale.

So training began in earnest in January 2014 and I was hoping for a good winter to allow me to get good training in the Mournes.  Now, the Mournes are not on the same scale as the Lakes but they do have a very handy Wall which is a 22 mile loop over 12 peaks with 10,000 feet of ascent.  So that formed my training route with variations (clockwise, anti-clockwise and various start points) along with other race routes in the Mournes.  For the past number of years Dale and I have taken part in the Wicklow Way Ultra (March) which is a 50km trail run in the Wicklow Mountains (Ireland); I did not want to miss that this year, so I did some trail running as well.  I also had entered the Highland Fling before I had considered the BG Round but with the Highland Fling only two weeks before I thought it better to sit that one out (good decision!).

So for my training – I have lost count of the number of times I have been to the top of Slieve Donard and I may have even been reported to the “men in white coats” by some ramblers who met me three different times on their single ascent of Donard.  So by the time May 2014 came around I was well pleased with my training and was relieved that I had managed to reach this point injury free – in fact I was looking forward to three weeks of tapering.

I didn’t embark on the BG Round adventure knowing I could do it, in fact I often thought I couldn’t! I always thought I’d be pushing it to get round. There were lots of times during training that I wondered if I was too slow, so rubbish on the rocks, too slow descending, not technically good enough, if I’d set myself up for a challenge too great…….. it’s not often you embark on something not knowing or being able to imagine the outcome.  Most races you have some idea of what time you will finish in and how it will pan out.  Not the BG, at least not for me.

The week prior to travelling over we all knew how important sleep was – well true to form I started the sleepless night’s routine as the nerves started to kick in.  With an early start planned on the Friday I arrived in Keswick on the Friday afternoon pretty tried.  However, I was not worried as I always arrive at new/big challenges in a sleep deprived state.  The campsite was familiar as we had stayed there when over for Dale’s round so we all got a good pitch and proceeded to get organised.  My supporters were very conscientious, I even caught Hazel and Mary taking bearings for all the peaks on the Helvylln range in case they got lost and had to make their way back to base (note not for my benefit!!).

After meeting all the other girls on the team it was off to bed early at 8ish to try and get some sleep before getting up at 1am.  Not sure if I got some sleep but lay listening to the rain hitting the tent.  This was my worst nightmare – bad weather.  All through my training back in the Mournes I never was out in really bad weather and I had been telling myself all along that this would only be possible if I had some good weather.  So while listening to the rain from inside my tent I was feeling pretty nervous about what was to lie ahead (thinking it can’t rain for all of the 24 hours!!).

Even though Dale was the only of my support crew coming on the first leg, my other supporters, William, Hazel and Mary wanted to see me off from Moot Hall.  So, at 2am after the photo shoot all five of us set off through the pink alley to Skiddaw. The rain had eased off shortly before the start but before we had finished the first leg the rain was well and truly on.  The ground over the first leg was very wet and by the time we were crossing Mungrinsdale Common, Ruth and myself had broke ahead from the rest of the girls.  Nicky did not want to hold us back so she told me to follow Ruth down ‘Halls fell’.

I knew I needed to keep close to Ruth as I was not sure of route down which proved quite difficult as Ruth flew down the steep, slippery rocks.  I looked back and could see that Dale was taking it slowly but I didn’t want to lose him either as he was carrying my support bag which my new supporters would need. I made it down to the support car and it was all action to get me sorted and back out as soon as possible.

After a quick change of clothes and some porridge I set off on leg 2 spot on schedule with William, Mary, Hazel and Ian (IanDarkPeak) up Clough Head. I decided at this stage that I would put on my heavier water proof bottoms as this rain could be on for a while. The weather was not improving much and I felt sorry for my three NI supporters as I had told them how lovely the Helvylln range would be. Needless to say not a view was to be had all day never mind the Helvylln range. It was on this leg that I was beginning to wonder what this was all about and maybe I should just pack it in at Dunmail – sure I can blame the weather. Everyone says you hit a low patch somewhere along the route but this was too early , how would I pickup and continue on. I think the climb up Fair Field was definitely finishing me off but then William came up to me when crossing over to Seat Sandal to tell me I was 15 minutes up on the schedule. I was delighted and I think that spurred me on along with all the words of encouragement from everyone at Dunmail.

At Dumail, Nicky Spinks, Richard Hawkes and David Lund were taking over as my supporters and they looked like they meant business. I don’t think they would have been too happy if I were to throw the towel in here.  So I got a good bit of food into me and set off up Steel Fell privileged to have such three highly experienced supporters along with me.  Nicky kept the pace going and I could see that she let me climb at my own pace but on the descents she took the lead and charged ahead.  Thankfully I was able to keep up and managed to make ground on both Lucy and Ruth. I was disappointed I could not see very much all day and really I still cannot picture any of the peaks I visited.  I had been wondering which way I was going to approach Scafell so Nicky took me round by Lords Rake – it certainly is not for the faint hearted and somewhere you would only go if necessary – ie on a BG round.  I was relieved to have got through that as it was treacherous in the wet conditions. It was all downhill to Walsdale and I was looking forward to the scree slope which Dale had told me about – despite having to stop and empty my shoes when I reached the bottom. It was nice having to wade through the river which was in full flow and have my shoes cleaned from the scree slope. Then down to the car park where my support crew had kindly got me a nice chip from the hotel.  Unfortunately, I only managed about five chips but I think Nicky enjoyed them! After another change of clothing I was ready for the off.  I think I learnt on this leg the importance of good gloves – my hands had got cold on the third leg and with a limited amount of dry gloves with me Nicky had kindly gave me a pair; once my hands warmed up I could really feel the heat coming into my body.

My navigator over Leg 4 was Ian Fitz who kindly introduced himself to me and along with Dale and William, we set off up Yew Barrow.  There was a slight hope that the skies would clear and maybe we would have some visibility on the tops – this may have happened for a short time (5mins) but generally the cloud remained and I could not see a thing.  Ian was very encouraging on this leg and went out of his to explain what lay ahead (trying to convince me that the climbs were not really all bad).  We met a very cheerful Willie Kitchen at the Black Sail Pass, where he gave me some jelly sweets.  Onwards and upwards we went along with fading light.  Anyway, we made it to Honister in the dark and spot on the schedule.

To my amazement, the car park was what I thought, full of people who seemed to want to give me things to eat.  My support crew of Hazel and Mary had carefully prepared pasta, soup and hot coffee and whilst I was not really interested in eating I was force feed.  My main request was for some pain killers because at this stage my quads were really sore and with no time to change any gear I set off on this leg with Dale, Hazel, Helen and Tom.

At this point I was pretty confident we had enough time to make it back to Moot Hall and I was not too anxious, however I suppose anything could go wrong and that probably was in the minds of the supporters. On the ascent of Dale Head I was soon caught by Lucy who seemed to be going strong.  She pulled away from me but by the time I was coming off Dale Head we were together again, I think it was at this point that both supporters and navigators thought it would be good to try and stay together so as not to make any navigation errors.  So we all remained together coming off ‘Robinson’ which proved to be a tricky descent.  Once down on the grassy track, Lucy took off like a rocket but as I tried to keep up I could feel some cramp coming into my calves so I thought it best to ease off a bit.

During the whole day I had not looked at my watch, but as I hit the road with about 4 miles to go I took a glance at my watch; I had 1 hour to make it from New Lands Church.  It was at this point I met Mary coming tearing towards me all eager to get me back to Keswick.  William had my Hoka shoes all ready at the side of the road for me to change into but I  ran past them as I knew I hadn’t time to change and also I was afraid I would cramp.

Helen suggested I take my coat off, so I did that and of course before too long it started to rain again but not for long.  There are two routes which can be taken to complete the BG Round so I could see that Lucy and Willie Kitchen were going to take the trail route whilst I decided I would just stay on the road.  Everyone was very quiet on the road while I walked the slight inclines and shuffled the rest until we came to the path across the field.  To my surprise Lucy came up behind me and stayed with me as we both ran over the bridge into Keswick Town.  I could not believe that this was the end and the both of us held hands as we approached Moot Hall.  Apart from the local police and local party goers, a good number of the Dark Peak FR supporters were cheering us as we both hit the green door on Moot Hall, the finishing point.

The long journey was completed successfully and after a few tears of exhaustion/jubilation, I hugged all of my Northern Ireland support team. Everyone congratulated us both and Martha kindly had a very welcome warm cup of tea.  After a few photo shoots I was glad to sit down on the street bench.  My legs were pretty shot through at this point and when Lucy invited me for a dip in the river, I declined as I really had had enough water for one day.  We then made our way back to our luxury accommodation (not) and on the way out of Keswick we got pulled over by the police – just what we needed some luxury beds in the local police station! So after a nice hot shower at the campsite I was ready for sleeping after what had been a long day out in the mountains.

Many thanks to my supporters (Dale, Willie, Hazel and Mary), who had to endure a sleepless, wet weekend tramping round the mountains of Cumbria.  It was very special to have some great friends present during this my lifetime challenge.  Special thanks to Dale who encouraged and had confidence in my ability to complete the Bob Graham Round.

Compiled and written by Denise Mathers.