Driving into Keswick is like entering an enormous theatre. Centre stage, the peaks of Grisedale Pike and Causey Pike are foregrounded by Jacob’s Ladders – the lights of the stage.
To their right and left, the house seats of Skiddaw, Blencathra and Great Dodd are cast in shadow, awaiting the actors to step forward. I get a thrum of excitement as I drive down the aisle towards the scene, inviting me to enter into its play.
Until recently, I had not visited the Lake District. Since changing jobs, I have had the pleasure of visiting Keswick twice, both visits welcomed with a view like this and departed from with excellent memories.
It gets into you, this place. I was previously dismissive of the ‘Lakeland fells’, preferring my backyard’s delights of the Scottish Highlands. Amusingly, it was the Scotland-born biographer James Boswell who wrote: “The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!”
It was against this backdrop – as the Lake District slowly wormed itself into my conscious – that another, similarly alien concept, worked itself into my brain. Namely: Round running.
Sitting at my desk in Pitlochry, I was reeling from a significant shot of Small World Syrup. I was on the phone to a colleague who, when I asked if he wanted to meet for a run while I was in his “neck of the woods” in Keswick, said: “Sadly not. I am actually supporting a Bob Graham.
“You might know him, actually. He works at Harvey Maps.”
Instantly, I had an inkling as to who he was talking about. Lewis Taylor, member of the Ochil Hill Runners, had been quietly flying through some of the best long distance events in the country.
Not the flashy ones, but the type of races that make a part-time trail runners’ toes curl and make the likes of Steve Birkinshaw nod in approval: The Great Lakeland 3 Day, Three Peaks Race, The Saunders Mountain Marathon, tough events to prepare you for one of fell running’s most revered challenges: The Bob Graham Round.
Recently, “round running” has become “cool”. Well, cool to a few people; the notion of running for nearly 24 hours, with an elevation gain bordering on Mount Everest and often through terrain preferred by goats – this isn’t your normal Parkrun.
It’s just you out there; you and your demons (and hopefully some friends).
I put this observation out on Twitter, following several weeks of (g)round breaking records set in some of the UK’s most dramatic landscapes: The Glen Etive Round, Mullardoch Munros, Ramsay’s Round.
I got a reply from Mr Round Runner himself, Jonny Muir, who said: “A boom that was triggered by a fortnight in the spring of 2016 when Jasmin broke the Bob Graham record and Nicky Spinks ran a double Bob Graham. Suddenly, round-running was cool.”
Hill running, you see, is a sport that is done for the doing of a thing, not in the having done. Round running epitomises that: One day, perhaps several days, in the mountains; running because it just feels right.
When the alarm went off at 23.30 on Friday 12 July, a million and one excuses presented themselves as to why I wasn’t going to Moot Hall.
I am actually going to a meeting at 10am now. I am not feeling so great. Sorry, I think I pulled my calf muscle again. I don’t know the terrain well (read: at all).
Once moving, though, those thoughts disappear. After all, I was running one leg of a Bob Graham; Lewis was running all five.
Leaving the B&B, I trotted down the street to Keswick’s town centre, the spire of Moot Hall ahead of me, the laughing and songs from the pubs either side barreling out onto the street.
I stopped at Moot Hall. Another group stood by the stairs, anxiously waiting for the start gun that would never sound and to begin on a journey they hadn’t paid to enter, but had spent months – perhaps years – training for.
Lewis appeared, followed by two others. Having only met briefly on a handful of occasions, I felt truly humbled to have been allowed to come along on this adventure, even if for a relatively brief time.
“Ross, this is Dan,” Lewis said, turning to the younger guy who gave a bright but bleary-eyed smile.
“This is Steve,” I shook Steve’s hand. Steve. I looked at Steve. There are times when instinct or some sixth sense catches you joining dots before you know you have done it.
There are only so many Steve’s with round glasses sat slightly askew on a face crafted by years in the mountains down this way.
We stood, watching Lewis and his dad staring down at his watch as the time slowly drifted to midnight. And we were off, running briskly down the street and into a tiny alleyway.
“Fancy a beer?” a guy asked. Later, hopefully.
When I mentioned I was running leg one during a meeting earlier in the day, I was met with a, “Oooh! That’s a tough one! The climb up Skiddaw is pretty draining, but in the dark it might be quite nice.”
She was right. From my B&B, the scar up Skiddaw shone like a lightning bolt, endlessly meandering upwards to its summit. Nowhere to hide. In the dark, though, the climb could have gone on for miles and I doubt it would have made a difference.
At just after 01.10, we touched Skiddaw’s summit.
As we had climbed, the lights of Keswick fell away, replaced by the waxing moon. Steadily we entered the cloud, the shimmering interior dancing across our head torches, sticking to our faces like cobwebs on a Spring morning.
Thank goodness for Steve. I dropped back to ask Dan if it was indeed the Steve. “Yeah, that’s Steve Birkinshaw,” he replied. I was running with a legend, but in this sport it mattered very little. It was because of this I laughed out loud when Steve relayed a story to me from a train journey of a woman asking for a selfie.
“It was really bizarre,” Steve chortled. “I only published a book about a big run I did. The rest of my time I run in the fells and study hydrology. Hardly the celebrity lifestyle!”
It was a “big run”: 214 Wainwrights in six days and 13 hours, a record that stood for five years until Paul Tierney knocked seven hours from it. Besides setting enormous long-distance records, Steve is an incredible mountain marathon runner. Therefore, his resumé certainly matched the requirement we had descending Skiddaw for someone who could navigate at 01.30 in thick clag across an unmarked moorland.
Often, the temptation of running in the hills is to conceptualise it from a detached position: Running over, on, across, on top of.
In thick cloud, landscape is everywhere; it’s in your shoes, brushing your knees, sticking to your clothes, closing in on you. What was a plain beneath you is now an entity around you. No edges, no borders.
We moved well. Lewis was eight minutes up on schedule as we touched Great Calva’s summit before entering the swirling air again. The moon shone just brightly enough to cast a moon broach around it, watching us as we covered yet more undefined ground.
In sleep, your body carries itself through rhythms. Running also provides that, perhaps heightened by it being 2am. I quite enjoy running through thick cloud (when I know where I am going), because there is no thought as to the next mile, the next summit.
All that matters is the 10 paces in front of you. For Lewis, that was all he was considering: One footstep at a time, one climb, not legs.
We left the cloud behind, which wallowed in the depression between Great Calva and Blencathra. Inversions are usually seen with the sun beating on islands in the clouds, but at night the shadowy outlines of the summits are like eerie silhouettes.
Summiting Blencathra bang on schedule, we began the descent to Threlkeld via Hall’s Fell. I was running blind, moving as quick as I could to catch the man who still had 80km to run.
Lewis’s floodlight upon his head caught the tendrils of the shimmering air, itself turned from transparent to tactile.
Within 30 minutes we were in the car park. It feels strange asking someone how they are feeling when they are barely one-fifth of the way through the event. How do you answer that? But this wasn’t a race; this was a journey.
“One foot after the other, that’s all that running is”, Billy Bland has said. At some point, though, you stop. Lewis stopped his watch at 19.22 at Moot Hall.
With that, he entered the Bob Graham Club, and I could not think of a more worthy member.
All of this meant only one thing: When would I do my round? Well, in October is the answer. My round won’t be the Bob Graham Round, though. I will be running the Abraham’s Tea Round* – 49km with over 3600m of ascent.
Think of it as the Bob Graham fun run.
It’s a distance I could muscle through, but I want to do it right. After the racing of the year is done, I will be turning my sights back to the Lakeland fells, a place that has sewn itself into my mind.
See my Strava race of leg 1.
*I am raising money for the John Muir Trust. Find my page here.