The bus let out a strained cough beneath our feet. “It just won’t start!”, called the driver. People were getting agitated.
After several more wheezes, the driver relented, and called a guy who gave the sagacious advice to “turn it off for a few minutes and turn it on again”. He gave it a shot.
Cough – spluttuttutter – gruh -gruh – broooooom! It staggered into life sounding quite hungover. “Woohoo!” we all cried. We waited a few more minutes. Why aren’t we moving?
The bus turned off. “Right”, the driver emerged again from his cabin, his face drooping. “It started” (as we all noticed) “but now I can’t get it in gear. What can you do?”
I groaned and closed my eyes. Somehow, after more than eight hours running in the fells, it was when I reconnected with humanity things started to come unstuck. Everything seemed all so peaceful 12 hours earlier.
I sat bolt upright and slapped the alarm silent. I had barely slept, my mind rolling over and over. I simply felt wide awake, adrenaline pumping me up for the excitement of the day to come.
Back in August, I wandered into the George Fisher outdoor shop in Keswick for a meeting with the marketing team there. Mistake number one: Always be on guard when meeting with a store marketing team who promote fell running.
I met Rachel Kearns, the then-marketing manager, alongside my colleague, Pete Barron. Mistake number two: Never go to a meeting in an outdoor shop that supports fell running with a guy who supported Billy Bland to his long-standing Bob Graham Round record.
We nattered for a while over coffee, chatting generally about running before the conversation turned to Pete and the BGR. Naturally, I involved myself, never passing on an opportunity to talk about hill running (as it is where I come from). I even mentioned my own interest in running a BG at some point.
And that was the moment. Mistake number three: Never mention you are keen to run a BG but that you aren’t sure you have the stamina to alongside a colleague who supported Billy Bland, and in a shop which has recently established its own round whilst in a meeting with said-shop’s marketing manager.
“Have you heard about our own round?” Rachel asked. “No”, I replied, unwittingly. Rachel then told me about the Abraham’s Tea Round: a 30(ish) mile route with around 12,000ft of elevation gain, visiting each of the peaks visible from the Abraham’s Cafe in George Fisher.
The idea intrigued me. I liked the idea of it being based on line-of-sight, thinking that, afterwards, I could look out that window and see each of the peaks I had touched.
I made several attempt to schedule a day to do it, but every time was either fraught with injury or poor weather (or simply not being bothered). That was until a weather forecast with little patches of sunshine coincided with a day off.
And so it was, on 16 March, I was banging my phone to stop its alarm at 04.30 after zero hours of sleep. We dragged ourselves out of bed, not allowing any time to get comfortable again.
My girlfriend, Bo, would be driving me to Keswick and joining me up until Robinson. After a sip of coffee and the usual porridge breakfast, we groggily shuffled into the car.
Despite the glorious forecast, the morning was grey and overcast, the top of Skiddaw capped with cloud as we drove down Thirlmere. I dozed a little, trying to keep the sea urchins in my stomach calm.
We arrived in Keswick at just after 06.00. I was adamant I needed a visit to the loo beforehand. Anyone who runs long distances knows that pre-run anxiety of having to get the pre-run-poop out the way.
I emerged from the Bell Close Car Park bathroom gruntled, though still tense. “I have never seen you this nervous”, Bo observed. It’s true: for a while I had wrestled with pre-race nerves, but had lately managed to keep them at bay.
This was different somehow. Perhaps the fact I had been mulling over it for a while, or that I had raised some money for the John Muir Trust through it put me on edge. More so, unlike a race, this was my own doing, and I wanted to do it right.
06.20 – Zero hour
When it comes to projects, I am neither an organiser nor a procrastinator. Often, during university, I would write the essay in my head and repeat the arguments so many times that I could write a 3000-word essay in a couple of hours.
Similarly, with running, I go over the plan in my head so many times – perhaps not with timings or a specific plan – that I just have to execute it. I liken it to baking: The thing sits in my brain oven for just long enough before popping out with a cheerful ‘ding!’ ready to eat.
As I stood at the George Fisher front door I knew I had to do several things:
- Take a photo of my watch with the George Fisher logo above
- Get a photo of me at the door
- Touch the door
- Kiss Bo before starting
Perhaps it is a little superstitious, but I followed this ‘premonition’ to give me a kind of net. You always have to remember your strategy for when things go wrong, though, which is equally (if not more) important than how you dream it.
I followed my steps, gave a grimace, and started the clock. We were off!
We ran along Cat Bells’ arched back. As we had passed through the woodland by Derwent Water, we had passed walkers out eager to catch the sunrise. The cloud cloaking the higher tops became lighter, Skiddaw’s prow beginning to throw off its lazy morning mist.
In a few moments, the sky turned from dark blue to pastel, soft light easing itself across the surrounding valleys and hills, lighting the way ahead. It was incredible. Marching up the final climb to the summit, we stopped several times just to look at the world and listen to the silence.
To the west, the tops of Eel Crag and Grisedale Pike remained heavily hooded in cloud, but the way ahead was clear as glass, the Newlands Valley awakening to the sounds of birds and becks.
We followed a blank grassy slope down to the little waterfall before following the crumbled path into Little Town.
The last time I had been there was on my way to support my friend Lewis on the final leg of his Bob Graham Round, in similarly exciting circumstances.
From Cat Bells, Robinson looked far away, but we trotted along the road to its foot in good time, joining the grassy gorse-lined path towards its steep flank. The gorse was starting to flower, and I expressed my excitement to Bo about the coming coconut aromas that would soon hang off the hills in spring.
2 hours 18 minutes
The day before the round, Bo and I had joined a friend, Andy, on a bike ride from Kendal to Windermere. We were joined there by Bo’s colleague, Tory, and made the rolling cycle down the lake to the Swan Inn (which I happily swanned inn-to), where I proceeded to do some carb loading.
Upon leaving the Swan Inn, Tory went for a ride around the lake while the rest of us headed back to Kendal. To say we took the scenic route is an understatement. Any turn which offered a shortened way home we eschewed, heading down south through the village of Meathop (and wondered if it was pronounced Meat-hop or Meath-op).
After a rather lumpy four-and-a-bit hours, we finally arrived back in Kendal. Absolutely, a wonderful ride, but 65km the day before didn’t sound like best preparation for my first ultra.
That said, as we crested the steep slope of Robinson and over its endless false tops, I had to thank my tired legs in a way: with luck, they might prevent me getting too excited after Bo left and help pace me better.
Speaking of which, I was somewhat thankful for these false tops: I didn’t really want Bo to leave. The nerves from earlier had returned a little. Not for any particular reason, again, but I was enjoying this time.
Anyway, some of us have work to go to so, after a slice of homemade banana bread, we split up, she heading towards Hindscarth and I down the steep descent towards Buttermere.
2 hours 50 minutes
That was steep! I hadn’t expected such a rough descent as Robinson featured. I emerged down at Hassenhow Beck and joined the road, turning right towards Gatesgarth.
The little farmstead there was still waking up, itself nestled in the crook of Buttermere water’s arm beneath Fleewith Pike.
I trotted by, feeling incredibly purposeful, just ticking over as I followed the flat path that looks out over Buttermere to the wide sky beyond to the sea.
Ahead, the next climb appeared, unsurprisingly steep again.
3 hours 50 minutes
I had broken the run down into chunks. The game plan was:
- There are 4 key climbs:
- Cat Bells
- High Stile
- Whiteless Pike
- Eat every 45 minutes
- Alternate between sugary snack and a Babybell
- Each 45 minutes should land at a key stage of the run
This last point was immeasurably satisfying, and I certainly feel like I earned 500 points for ultra scheduling. My feed points landed with almost pin-point accuracy at a significant stage: summit, descent, ascent.
Topping out on High Stile, I popped a couple Voom blocks down me as a power up for the descent down Red Pike’s russety chute into Buttermere. Meanwhile, two roaring jets streaked below, their thunder echoing through the valleys long after they had gone.
The going on the path down into Buttermere is hard on the knees – big rocks akin to those on Ben Nevis, but without the security of the grippy granite offered by the Ben. This stuff was mossy, wet and slick.
4 hours 35 minuets
I had to laugh to myself. I had been going for four-and-a-half hours now – the time it takes for a long classics race – and only covered 25km, but with almost 2000m in that time. And all before lunch.
I read a story of some people stopping in Buttermere for a bacon sarnie and a coffee, but I pushed that out of my mind lest it cause me to stop for an indefinite period of time.
From a distance, Whiteless Pike looked a very runnable ascent, and I assume it usually is, but with 2000m already in the legs it doesn’t pan out that way.
This was it, though, the final big climb: 640m straight up and over Whiteless Pike and Whiteless Edge onto the plateau that would bound me across to Grisedale Pike.
As I climbed, the wind picked up, its timing as impeccable as a Swiss train conductor, given the forecast had stated higher winds at midday. Fortunately, they were behind me for now, and I was lifted up onto the plain below Wandhope and Grasmoor.
I am dying for a cup of tea.
Genuinely – never wanted one so much.
Why? I feel a little hungover.
Going up Hobcarton Crag, the adrenaline I had been riding since the previous evening was leaking out of me. The wind was up, I was a little sick of Babybells, and I was going slow.
I did eye up a gentleman drinking a brew from his flask and was half-tempted to request a glug, but thought better of it. Instead, I shot another Voom block down me, and that perked me up a little.
It must always be windy on Grisedale – it’s the only explanation for the rather diminutive trig point on the ground. So small, in fact, I walked over it in my search.
A chap about my age was up there with his parents and asked where I had come from, so I replied with, “Keswick”.
“Wow! That’s a good distance”, he said. He seemed keen to know more, so I gave Barry and his folks a little extra information about the ATR before heading back the way I came to the absolute hump-backed whale of a thing that is Eel Crag.
6 hours 30 minutes
Of course the highest point of the round is six-and-a-half hours in. The “fast” route up Eel Crag is via the crags themselves: a steep, shingly zig-zag up its side before the long, sloping summit grind.
The wind was getting stronger. I was feeling too lazy to take my pack off to take my jacket out to then put my jacket on and put my pack back on again, so I just shoved my jacket over the top of myself and my pack so as to look like the turtle I felt like.
I was quite tired by this point. I was still enjoying myself, have no fear. Without the invisible fiend battering me, the world looked glorious. As I crested Eel Crag, I chanced a look at the Buttermere fells I had been on a few hours before – they looked miles away, and huge! I was there!
Until the past couple of summits, I had been catching sight of Keswick between the fells, checking to see if you could indeed see Abraham’s Cafe from each summit. Now, Keswick lay below in the sunlight, shining like fresh paint on an artist’s canvas.
I had one Voom block left, but figured I would save it for Barrow. Instead, I pulled out my “nuclear option” bar: the mighty Tunnock’s Caramel wafer. I chomped on its delicious energy as I scrambled down Eel Crag and over Sail.
7 hours 20 minutes
Rowling End is aptly named (though, why not Rolling End, I ask?): from Scar Crags, the final rolling path towards this jut of a top was a classic Lakeland trail. The trod to its summit is a sublime single track through the heather, almost hypnotic in the way it weaves and rolls through the brownish purple.
The bare patch of grass that marks the unceremonious top acted as the penultimate summit of the day. The last, Barrow, didn’t look so far.
I retraced my steps and descended a little down the walkers’ path before skirting around Causey Pike’s edge on a faint trod, sending the local Herdwicks in a tizzy. During her ATR, Bo mentioned this part as being quite horrible and “bracken bashy”, but I seemed to find the right line.
I was moving well now, and running! Down to the river, power hike up the bank, a quick rest, before running up the climb towards the last summit.
OK – I didn’t run all of it. But I did set a Strava PR!
7 hours 46 minutes
We made it! The final summit. And I didn’t feel horrendous. In fact, I felt strong. I took a quick look up to Causey Pike, over to Cat Bells, Grisedale to my right. This was the last part.
Even then, I didn’t feel like it was in the bag. I caught a chap to ask for a picture and turned to the joyous descent down to Braithwhaite.
I was running – properly running downhill (apart from where I fell over, but it was a quick save). I was genuinely astonished.
I had feared back in August that I would get cramp, injured, or mentally lose the will to keep running. But there I was, entering the final 5k of a 30 mile run at pace.
8 hours 11 minutes
I gritted my teeth as I came into Portinscale, throwing myself up the hill past the Farmers Arms. It seemed fitting to be finishing a run here, past the B&B I had stayed in on my first ever trip to the Lake District last May.
I crossed the bouncy bridge over River Derwent, jumping past startled walkers. I kept making horrid grunting noises in a vain attempt to say “hello” to everyone as I normally try to, but given the rather aggressive way I was saying it I decided just to shut up.
The final gravel straight lay out in front of me. I remembered back to my first run up Cat Bells, and that day running with Lewis to Moot Hall at the end of his BGR. And then, out of nowhere, a roar erupted above me as the two jets from earlier soared across the sky.
I was getting a god-damn fly-over, and I don’t accept your argument it was coincidence.
I gave myself a chance to walk and breathe as I hit the tarmac again in Keswick. Come on, I wanted a sprint finish.
8 hours 22 minutes
I gave myself a 10 second walk before picking it up. I bounced up the road, past the traffic lights, the people and shops, up the street towards Moot Hall and on up, up. Arms pumping, I was pre-empting the movements of every sentient being in front of me – adults, kids, dogs, cats, banjo player – dodging them as I rounded the corner to see the huge sign of George Fisher ahead.
8 hours 23 minutes
I slapped my hand against the shop door and stopped the clock.
It was done. I was done. I sat on the ground, legs outstretched, sucking in air.
“Have you just done the Tea Round?” a voice said above me. I confirmed, looking up to a woman holding a bundle of shopping under her arm.
“Oh! Brilliant! I could hear someone racing up behind me and I was like, ‘That’s someone finishing their Tea Round!’ How was it?”
I gave a brief summary. Turns out she did hers last year, but had been dealing with an injury since not long afterwards. Mental note: Take time to recover.
She congratulated me and went into the shop. I pulled myself upright, taking up my John Wayne walk into the store to collect my jacket and shoes Bo had left behind the counter.
The assistant handed me the drop bag and my free tea and cake voucher to produce in the cafe, which is conveniently situated at the top of several flights of stairs.
I ordered a bowl of soup, a scone with cream and jam, and that lovely pot of tea I had been craving for hours. Sitting down, I looked in front of me. Without realising, I had sat directly across from the window looking out to the fells, the peaks of the Abraham’s Tea Round painted on the wall above.
I had sat here seven months previously, and laughed at the idea of completing the round. Now, I was sat with a scone and a cup of tea, content and unashamedly proud that I had done it.
Gruh-gruh-broooooooooooom! Pssssshhhhhhhhht! I opened my eyes as the passengers cried with excitement and the bus inched forwards. Finally, it was time to head home and have a beer.
Strava trace here.
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