Every journey begins with a single step, or so goes the cliché. Many times I have been asked “when did you first decide that you were going to do it?” Even today over a celebratory lunch I couldn’t quite nail the answer. Perhaps it was around five years ago. The romance of Richard Askwith’s love letter to the fells certainly had a part in germinating the seed. All I know for certain is that once the thought had infected my head I knew of only one remedy. It had to be done. Not for the boasting rights of having ascended to the summit of forty-two mountains in 22 hours and 33 minutes, but for the intrinsic pleasure of an incomparable day of my life that I will forever recall as perfect.
Some people stand out for especial gratitude because without their minor but significant input before the Jubilee weekend then the whole enterprise would have been cancelled. It’s surely natural to have some reservations about the undertaking, you would be foolhardy not to. I had allowed mine to become exaggerated out of proportion and context. Mercifully a significant number of individuals of sounder judgment convinced me that I was being ridiculous and that my only problem was from the neck up, contrary to my fear that it was from the waist down. Once able to lock the wicked doubt monkey securely back in its cage I gathered a more accurate sense of perspective. The Bob Graham Round might have preyed on my conscious thoughts and dreams for half a decade, but it was just a run.
It was with this casual attitude that I approached the Moot Hall a minute after 7 p.m. on Friday 20th July 2012. So what if we’re down on schedule already I thought, this is my day and it will begin as and when I say. A minute later, and after the ritual genuflection at the alter of the green door, Camille Askins and Shane Beaumont set off with me through the sleepy streets, over the bridge, across the park and up the lane towards the setting sun. Camille and I have history; I was the best man at her wedding and am an inadequate godfather to her sons. Our running careers started within a year of each other – it is with fondness that still I recall the moment when on completing a militarily demanding Burnsall 10 she reported that she had loved it all, and I replied “Ha, you’re addicted!” When two weeks before my scheduled departure I realised that my support on leg one had disintegrated it was to her that I turned, and she delivered an archangel from Keighley AC. Shane’s running pedigree is brief, and he shared with me how once he was a thirty-eight inch waist waggon driver with a lifestyle to match. Yet the man I met had the chiselled jawline of a drill sergeant with an insatiable appetite for masochism.
Camille suffered on the first climb and would freely admit that she saw hers as a cameo role. It was at the final gate on the ascent of Skiddaw that she cracked and, after revealing her preparedness in that she had the fair for a cab from Keswick to Threlkeld, from twenty metres away blew me a kiss and turned on her heels. Like everybody that day, she contributed something of value. In her case it was to slow me down for the first five miles, which ensured my timely arrival at Skiddaw. If she had held on until the summit she might even have prevented me from picking up the pace on the plateau, and a calf injury into the bargain.
The left calf problem emanated from a week before when, while gently striding next to my daughter on a towpath cycle ride, I felt a sharp twinge at no more than a leisurely 10-minute-mile pace. Here’s where ‘Miracle Mark’ fits in. As a former club mate at Otley AC I had learned of his healing gifts. He lives a peripatetic life and I was fortunate that he was in the country rather than following Le Tour around France. His background includes a spell in sports massage for Team GB Cycling. The man understands legs. His table was in transit from a previous excursion following a couple round France as they took on every climb that Le Tour has ever passed over, for a holiday. So on Tuesday evening I was face down on my dining room table writhing to the force of his fingers. Ice, rest and a tubigrip support meant that I was able to begin my round. But could I complete it in comfort - would the injury hold?
Shane and I descended to the cloud base that was conveniently hovering at the line of the fence crossing, from where the route became conspicuous. From this position I surveyed the course to Calva and conservatively limped down the boggy trodden path. The subsequent climb seemed to ease the tension, and while wading the thigh deep Caldew I paused to enjoy the chill of its unseasonably fast flowing waters. The slog up to Mungrisedale Common also had a beneficial effect, and by the top of Blencathra all attention was on the descent as the cloud cover magically dispersed that instant revealing a breathtakingly peaceful view of the valley floor and corridor. Shane proved himself as a gentleman sherpa and a companion of great merit, most particularly on the precipitous Hall’s Fell Ridge when for a moment I doubted my line. “You know this Simon, just be confident” he encouraged. The outcome was that I skipped down on a course that couldn’t be bettered, and kept my head. Perhaps one day somebody will ask Shane when he first settled on the idea of completing a round and he will hark back to that evening. His call for assistance is one I await eagerly.
The linchpin of my round was Hugh Pearson, who at a house gathering over Christmas had volunteered his services and the use of his mobile home as my attempt HQ. I’m still staggered by his kindness and generosity, and as many commented throughout the course of the day, what a fine facility to have had at our disposal. Come my timely arrival at the car park of the cricket club at Threlkeld and he was ready to step into action with all the efficiency of an F1 pit stop team. The impact on my performance was as equally measurable, and after ten minutes of refreshment I steeled myself for the nightshift and fled for Clough Head. In the commotion I later learnt that my dog had absented himself, causing a minor panic amongst the team until he emerged from the open cricket clubhouse wearing a sheepishly self-satisfied expression that said “I’ve snaffled the buffet”. By this time our head torch lights were half way up the fell.
As all in our community tacitly appreciate, the Bank of BGR has a curious deposit and withdraw scheme. Each pays in according to his or her means, and when the rare time comes to make a withdrawal the condition of one’s balance or creditworthiness is inconsequential, because it’s a mutual. Suffice it to say that you will never be in credit, and will be eternally grateful for being heavily indebted. It is through this scheme that I acquired my leg three support crew.
Ian and I crossed paths on the Langdales in March and exchanged numbers on the summit of Scafell later that delightful spring afternoon. That’s just the kind of way that you go about opening an account at the Bank of BGR. His successful round in May incorporated me on the second leg, together with Heather as his navigator. I took a great deal away from the experience and enjoyed a memorably privileged night on the fells. When they answered my call I had complete confidence in their backing. ‘Random Roy’ was an unknown quantity whose unsolicited contact came through my club’s website. His generosity was typical of the Bank of BGR, and after a winter of earning his spurs on the fells I look forward to returning the compliment next spring.
“I hate Clough Head”, said Ian as we ran towards its looming silhouette. Heather concurred and instinctively I came to its defence. Curiously, Roy expressed no opinion. By its highpoint I had nothing flattering left to say about the damned lump. We had been gifted ideal conditions on the tops with dissipating cloud well above the peak level, no discernible wind and a temperature that passed unmentioned. Heather approached her task with diligence and pride, creating an illusion of routine in my passage to Dunmail Raise. She and Ian also had a matronly handle on my nutrition and hydration, while ensuring that my thoughts didn’t drift off into the darkness. Ian and I traded near death experiences, his far more actual than mine, which were comically less colourful. We shared our love for the Lakes and our wives, and reached a consensus on our favourite tarn. Sprinkling. Although I would still prefer for my ashes to be scattered at Codale.
Ploughing up Fairfield I spoke effusively of my family to Heather, and at my behest she regaled me with her recent relationship history. Chief twit was the fella who thought that the most splendid place to take a fell running rock climber on a Saturday afternoon was Meadowhall Shopping Centre, for a first date. Coming off Dollywaggon Pike she and I had became separated from Ian and Roy, whose descending to Grisedale Tarn was laboured. I never got to the bottom of his difficulty, but understood that his head torch had been problematic from the outset.
While earlier cantering across the Dodds Ian had consulted my opinion on the ideal configuration of supporters per leg. The answer I now know to be three, so that someone can remain behind should any individual be caught out. In this instance it was Roy who struggled with the pace, and alas I lost touch with him on the climb to Seat Sandal. Mercenary as it sounds, I couldn’t be responsible for him and so shed the yolk of guilt off my back as I eagerly hunted down the vehicle lights nestled in the valley below that indicated that the kettle was boiling in anticipation of my arrival. Oddly enough almost exactly half a day later, between Brandreth and Grey Knots, I saw a figure of a man who as we approached called out “is one of you called Mark?” “No Roy” I chirped, “it’s me, Simon”. With that we shook hands across the fence and he heartily congratulated me.
My supporters for the next two sections were selected by dint of being the sturdiest fellsmen whose telephone numbers I possess, and they each proved to be hewn from rock. It was heartening to greet the benevolent fresh faces of Mike ‘boy scout’ Ayres and John Armitstead at Dunmail Raise. Similarly the knowledge that I was a mere seven minutes behind schedule after eight hours of running led me to take an additional couple of minutes of rest before the next test. Once again Hugh excelled himself providing a breakfast of porridge and bananas drizzled with honey and guzzled down with a steaming brew. If you can recall the Ready Brek TV advertisements of a long gone era where a lad walked to school on a bleak winter’s morning surrounded by a glowing aura then you have an accurate image of how I felt as I stepped up to the stile by the roadside and recommenced the struggle. The first two sections had been but a mere thirty-mile warm up with thirteen thousand feet of climb through the hours of darkness. Now I was going to have to prove myself, for real.
Steel Fell passed without fuss, but the night concealed the form of Calf Crag making it indistinct from its near neighbours and costing a couple of minutes in locating its cairn. The irony of the muscle group of the same name seizing here was not lost on me, but unappreciated. Once these foothills had been dispensed with we began the dawn march up to the moorscape of the Langdales. The loquacious Mike and more reserved John made an ideally balanced partnership of contrasting yet in many respects similar individuals. Both justifiably proud fathers, dependable husbands, accomplished businessmen and hardy athletes, I was protected by their presence as if their kid brother in a playground full of towering bullies. Their patience as my calf strain worsened and climbing legs weakened was near saintly and their reward heavenly. Emerging onto the outcrop of Sergeant Man the ambient light had increased sufficiently to remove our head torches and behold the wondrous dawn. If I remember nothing else of the day, that moment will be seared in my memory until my final breath. The many hews of pink and orange were ultra vivid as they reflected off the cotton wool carpet of cloud that enveloped the entirety of southern Lakeland. Every mere and dale was shrouded in anticipation of the sun’s resurrection.
This aesthetic anaesthetic worked a minor miracle on my calf, which was bothersome but tolerable. The amphitheatre of the fells at daybreak provided abundant distraction. It inspired an exchange of tales of our passion for this landscape and reinforced why leg three is commonly regarded as the best segment, despite its difficulty. On the summit of Pike O’Stickle I came to appreciate John’s choice of Blea Tarn as his favourite. The mirror like stillness of its waters reflecting the serenity of its surroundings was poetic. From this, perhaps my most treasured mountainside, I had to turn and make a choice as Mike asked whether I was willing to take the most direct route to Rossett Pike and subject my legs to a steep climb, or contour round the Stake Pass and add maybe half a mile onto the distance. Instinctively I selected self-preservation and cut out a needless loss of altitude.
Bow Fell is a magical island separating the true wilderness of Eskdale from the honeypot of Great Langdale. Its situation as a vantage point from which to absorb the full majesty of the National Park is almost unparalleled. On our arrival I suspected that my companions, much like myself, would have preferred to sit for an hour with a flask of tea and some cake. Not too long after there came a moment on the flank of Great End when, in desperate need of respite, I sat on a rock and was joined by John as we pondered the brilliance of the last vestiges of dawn.
The differing emotions evoked by great beauty and stifling pain began to toy with my sanity, but I refused to let doubt enter the arena. Mental fortitude was vital and had to be absolute. Another attempt had set off an hour before mine, and it was with a sense of sorrow that over the course of the Sca Fell massif I chased down my sole competitor, passing him on the final descent and realising that he was unlikely to make the twenty-four hour cut off. It was here that I made a deal with myself – regardless of the time, I was returning to Keswick by my own efforts and via every summit. Later Mike and John would confess that they were in doubt of my ability and wondered whether the long haul down to the valley floor might be my terminus.
Come Wasdale Head and I was ready for a shower, which along with kissing my wife’s kind smiling face was a lure that had pulled me for dozens of miles. Hugh instantly broke the rotten news that there was insufficient water in the camper’s tanks. Instead I had the pleasure of being nursed by my solicitous wife who bathed my scuffed salty skin, applied sunscreen and changed quite foul socks. All this while I refuelled, scoffing a tin of rice pudding and dunking a croissant in fresh coffee. Naïvely she enquired, “Where does it hurt?” As tranquilly as possible I responded “Everywhere!”.
That I was a total of thirty-one minutes down on schedule and had been running for near fifteen hours by now seemed irrelevant compared with the formidable task of hoisting my backside out of the camping chair and heading for the apex of Yewbarrow while carrying an injury. Joining me were two highly accomplished athletes, Andrew Robertshaw and Brian Goodison, the latter being a fitness instructor qualified in sports massage. Completely unsolicited and as an unexpected surprise Brian pulled up a seat and set about a laying on of hands that worked a miracle in releasing the tension from my seized left calf, although not without a brutal measure of pain that I shudder now to recall.
It would be deceitful of me to say that I was relishing my next steps. Nevertheless, trudging along the lane I began to realise something profound, I was about to break its back. This was my third ever ascent of Yewbarrow and even now I marvel at the fact that it was my most rapid. Brian’s encouragement had a beneficial impact on my mindset, and equally as important was the constant presence of Andrew with a liquid bottle. Whenever I paused he thrust some solution of other into my hand and injuncted me to drink.
Believe it or not there was one peak that I had never visited before I set off on the round, and Andrew guessed it instantly. Steeple. It had hardly seemed worth it, for it is in truth nothing more than a shoulder of Scoat Fell that acquires its name from its shape. Visiting it for the first time was a treat and the vista over Ennerdale quite divine. It felt an insult to have neglected such a proud cliff and to be but a fleeting tourist on this occasion. Next time I vow to take a picnic of strawberries and champagne, exactly as Brian once witnessed a party enjoy at this location.
It was noon as we rocked up at Pillar, the soles of my feet were sore from the volcanic terrain and my limbs weary from exertion and lack of sleep, but here I understood why so many people report an improvement in pace on the fourth leg. Sheer eagerness to finish and cease the torment. Brian’s line to the Black Sail Pass couldn’t be bettered – it was grassy, eliminated all needless climbs and a runnable gradient. Kirk Fell was perfunctory, but the ominous obstacle of Great Gable now needed to be conquered.
Glorious Gable is a mountain beyond compare in the district; it is in every particular exactly what one expects of a proper fell, and difficult. On a clear mosey round the tops of Mosedale it lurks omniscient, spying on the challenger like the sinister acrobatic ravens that fantasise of feasting on the eyeballs of the unfortunate. Master this mountain and one is allowed to indulge in the conceit that it is all down hill to Keswick. It was on this summit that finally, with over four hours remaining, I permitted myself to believe that it was all but in the bag. At the renowned col of Windy Gap Andrew parted company and headed down Aaron Slack to join his beloved at Styhead Tarn. His contribution to my nutrition and hydration in midday conditions had been invaluable, and as we regarded one another his cheering gaze said all that it needed to – you’ll do it.
In similar conditions two weeks before Brian and I had run the final peaks of this leg, although then I had boasted the fresher legs. That day the Saunders Mountain Marathon had been in full swing, today it was the 10 Peaks Challenge. As my mind drifted into the afternoon haze I felt a deep sense of awe for all my predecessors and peers who see such exploits as a lifestyle. I was reminded of the scale of it all while staggering towards Grey Knott. A kindly hiker jokingly hollered out “Come on, you’re not proper fell runners are you”. When Brian filled her in that I had been on the go for nineteen hours her jaw almost audibly hit the floor. Winding down the grassy trod that awaits those who venture onto the left of the fence line I reflected on the perfection of this day. It had been everything that I had hoped for and indeed much more. From then onwards Lou Reed’s most famous of songs formed a near constant emotional sound bed to the remaining journey, from time to time causing me to suppress the odd joyful tear.
Honister was bustling with vigour as Brian and I jogged past tables set out for the 10 Peaks Challenge and outside the mine buildings were greeted by the warm faces of Sharron Smith and Renee Saxton (an adventure racer who is soon due to tackle a five-day challenge that makes my achievement seem pitiful). I was then surprised and flattered to see my club mate Ben Cousen, who was supposed to have been racing Snowden. Later I learned that he had doubted his fitness for the event and so had at short notice opted to join me for a grand day out. This was a single example of the many touching kindnesses of my supporters; the cumulative effect served to provide a constant lift. Another illustration was the presence of Peter Kettleborough, who I had never run with before but who had answered my call when requesting volunteers through Otley AC. It has to be said that I had handpicked the women because of their well-deserved reputation as positively charged cheerful chatterboxes guaranteed to lighten the mood at a funeral wake.
After my devouring of a bowl of soup and bread roll Brian once more dug his digits into my troubled calf. To have made it so far and without losing any time at all on leg four was something that I largely attribute to his skills at Wasdale. The relief gained from his therapeutic touch came at an agonising cost. I was grateful nonetheless. The time had now come to embark on the glory leg.
Why I became a runner is a curious tale. On rehousing my Weimaraner his breeder instructed me that he needed at least two hours of exercise per day. Barristers tend not always to have that amount of time at their disposal and so I hatched a simple plan, I would aim to run the lad for an hour a day. That was six years ago. Since then I estimate that we have covered in excess of eight thousand miles and over a hundred Wainwrights together. You might say that we are attached. When I set off on my round without him Hugh later reported that the poor beast was obviously distressed. Inevitably he had been tapering with me over the proceeding weeks and was in need of a cathartic release. Unfortunately, and following a couple of episodes of him failing on epic fell training runs, I was forced to leave him behind on the earlier sections. It was therefore with delight that I called him along to join us up Dale Head, although within a short distance into the climb it became difficult to ignore the embarrassing fact that he was loose, and stank. “What the hell have you been feeding him?” someone asked. Maybe the caterers at the Threlkeld Cricket Club would have been in a better position to answer.
The cairn of Dale Head is one of the finest in Lakeland and was a welcoming friend that indicated an assuring fact, there were no more serious climbs remaining. The conversation picked up along the ridge route between our last two mountain destinations and each of us was enthralled by the scenic splendour. Peter and I took the opportunity to become better acquainted; Ben was clearly enjoying being in the moment and the ladies kept us in good spirits. With the loss of altitude that came from leaving Robinson I struggled to contain my emotional state. Each of these forty-two fells had acted as protagonists in the unfolding drama, and for all the punishment that they had meted out for my impudence, were going to be missed.
The serious business of returning to Keswick got underway at the Newlands Church where I was cheered not only by my wife, but also Hugh, Ian and in the layby after the bridge a small crowd of runners returning from an outing. In preparation the tailgate of the car was open with a blanket spread across the boot and my road shoes neatly paired together on the ground. With startling enthusiasm Hugh and my wife set about changing footwear, as though every second mattered. Impressive though it appeared, nothing could have affected my predicted time of arrival. “See you between half past five and a quarter to six” I said, leaving my dog behind for the road section in exchange for Hugh.
Six of us proudly sporting three club vests headed off for Keswick on a magnificent summers afternoon. In the hours before I had set off I had resolved to do one thing this day – enjoy myself and focus on living in the moment. As we collectively nattered along the winding shaded lanes of the Newlands valley I listened attentively to the choruses of birdsong, meditated to the babblings of the beck, took pleasure in the rare warmth of the rays on my back and observed the shadows cast in our paths. On our approach to Portinscale I was overjoyed to see John and Carol Armitstead link up with us on their bikes. Months earlier I had dreamed of this part of the run and envisaged being accompanied by a team of club mates suffused in halos of early evening light. That dream had become a reality.
John prepared me for the hubbub of Keswick and after the footbridge over the river Greta Renee was required to load me up with a quick sugar fix as my legs slowed to a laboured walk. By the end of the path where it meets the tarmac of the town I had found a final impetus, weaving between pedestrians and motorists with a singularity of purpose that may have seemed rude. Then on hearing distant applause I carved a route through the market square and pranced up the steps to touch the green door of the Moot Hall and bow my head in relief at 17:35 hours.
In a triumph of optimism over reality I suggested adjourning to a nearby beer garden where Mike and his wife, Sarah, soon joined us along with friends. Assembled there were nine of my supporters. I desperately wanted to ask each of them about their different perspectives on it all, and thank them for the generosity of their respective contributions. It dismays me to say that I could hardly hold a conversation, let alone hold court. Half way through my pint of unpalatable bitter the fatigue set in and all knew that the curtains of slumber were about to be drawn. With apologies to everyone I left the table and made my way to the awaiting carriage with my wife and Brian. There on the reclined front passenger seat was a pillow and a lambswool blanket. Driving out of town I was heard to mutter “I’m so pleased that I don’t have to run up or down anything else”, and with those words was enveloped by an impenetrable fog of sleep.
Whilst I write this account Bradley Wiggins is riding to glory in Paris, I am two days away from my 40th birthday, my six-year-old daughter is about to migrate back to God’s Own County from Welwyn Garden City and our nation is proudly poised to host what will be the greatest celebration of sport in our planet’s history. I have no faith in celestial superstitions or godly tales; all I am qualified to say on such subjects is that if our joy lies truly in the stars then mine have of late been aligned with pin point precision.