My Bob Graham Round

by Jacob Tonkin 

Whenever I tell people I’m a fell runner they ask me “Have you done the Bob Graham?”. It is, after all, one of the biggest and hardest challenges out there.

I’ve grown up listening to the stories of my Grandad from his round, and all the stories he’s got from helping others. As soon as I’d done my first fell race, and classed myself as an actual ‘fell runner’, I wanted to go out and help on peoples BG attempts. The ethos of the round is “if you help people, and they’ll come help you”. The first time I supported someone was on Leg 2 (Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise) in August 2016. Despite me not knowing what I was doing, or how to help, it was a brilliant night. I well and truly caught the bug for helping people. Since that night I have lost count of the amount of times that I’ve helped people with long distance fell running challenges. I’ve now realised that I, like my Grandad, have my own stories. Times where I got people (slightly) lost, by taking an obscure line off Blencathra. The time I got told off by Sabrina Verjee for taking her to the wrong fence post on her Wainwrights attempt. Or the time Matthew Atkinson changed his shorts in Wasdale, and forgot to take his tracker out. The shorts went back to Keswick via Cockermouth. Those watching the tracker thought he’d been picked up by the Mountain Rescue.

I found that if I did a leg early on I’d often sneak out and do some more, or wait up to see them come in. Long distance challenges really do suck you in. 

I felt ready to have a crack at the Bob Graham in 2020. Sadly though that never materialised. However, I did manage a successful Frog Graham attempt. It was my first experience of nervously standing at the Moot Hall ready for a big adventure of my own. Although the Frog Graham is a self sufficient round, I was joined by a lot of good mates. The main memory I have was running the last leg with my beloved dog, George. Going up to High Spy he managed to find some fox poo to roll in. He came back to us bright orange and stinking. A smell that you don’t want to encounter when you have a belly full of lake water and already feel a bit sick. My mam had to give him a wash in Derwentwater, whilst I swam over to Calf Close Bay. I made it back to the Moot Hall in 14 hours and 2 minutes. Which was (at the time) the 10th quickest attempt. The memories of that day are made more special as I had George out on the fells with me, and at my side as I ran back into town. 

Tragically, we lost George less than two weeks after. I have never experienced a heart break like that. In his short life he did more for me than I could ever begin to explain. I just hope he enjoyed his time with us as much as we did. 

The next few months were hard. My motivation for running disappeared. On wet miserable days I’d stand on the porch, ready to go out, then decide “sod that!”. Whereas with George, he needed the exercise, so we had to go out. We’d get back in, dry off and he’d have a sleep. Wet and windy days made me miss him the most. I really struggled that autumn and winter. I just could not see the point in being out in crap weather without him. A few of my friends commented about my sudden hatred of running in crap conditions. I’ve never admitted the real reason to them until now. I can only apologise to the likes of Craig, Martin, Matthew, Kat and Ivan for always seeming like I was in a grump. It has just been very hard for me to process it all.

In November, we brought a little four legged friend home with us. His name is Hector. I was on the fence about getting another dog. But when I learnt that he is actually George’s nephew, it felt like it was meant to be. It did bring up a lot of emotions for me. It was always going to be tough for the family, but one I felt was necessary to help us recover. I’d always wanted to get a second dog, so George had a friend. 

Hector is a very very excitable young man. He’s a real ratch! He’s very good around sheep, like George. But unlike George, he’s not scared of the bath! It’s been lovely to watch him grow, and he’s been a real beacon of hope during the last two lockdowns. Hector is now big enough to be coming on a few runs a week. I love being out on the fells with him. He’s taken to sliding down the descents like a snake. Whilst he still has much to learn about being a fell runner, he’s a great addition to the family. 

The Bob Graham was the first thing I wrote in my 2021 calendar. 26th June, the Saturday after the longest day of the year. Time to get training! 

Having helped so many others in the past, I’d seen what did and didn’t work. I had a very clear image of what I wanted and how I was to do it. For starters I wasn’t going to do it with anybody else. I’ve only helped on one round where a pair set off and they both finished. I did mean I had to apologise to a few people who had asked if they could do it with me. The second main point of my round was, I was going to go…. Anticlockwise! I was told countless times “that’s the wrong way round!” This change of direction made all my recces a lot more fun. After all, we all know it so well these days. Approaching fells at a different angle makes the views different, the route choice different and the adventure greater. The main reason for going “the wrong way round” was that my grandad, Peter Parkins, did it that way in 1980. After an unsuccessful clockwise attempt, he changed directions and stormed around in 21 hours 24 minutes. Having read his handwritten report, it became clear that if he’d not stopped for so many flasks of tea, he’d have done it much faster!  

 

I had every intention of having a quiet working week leading up to the round. Though that wasn’t really the case. At least being busy at work would stop me worrying about it all. Hector and I had an easy run out on Tuesday with my mate Tom, and Hector’s best friend Kili.

Wednesday was a little wet. I did become a little worried, and checked the weather forecast in every gap between patients I had that day. On my lunchtime stroll with Hec, I came up with 5 reasons why rain wouldn’t be a bad thing. 1, More water in the becks. 2, Softer ground, making it easier on the knees. 3, It would be cooler. 4, less chance of experiencing my Ennerdale chafing nightmare from a few weeks ago. My legs were bleeding! 5, it would be more of an adventure. With these points in my mind I felt a lot more positive and was ready to tackle any weather. Afterall, it couldn’t rain all day, right?! 

 

On Thursday night I had a quick run through the road crossings with Mam and Rachael May. Discussing the schedule, what I’d want to eat, drink, who needed to be where. It all looked so simple on paper. It all started to feel very real from this point onwards. That night I asked myself “What would the likes of Carl Bell and my Grandad do?” The answer, of course, was to have fish and chips for tea. 

Friday was exceptionally wet. I was praying that it would rain all day, so there wouldn’t be any left for Saturday. I went up to see Nana and Grandad for some last minute motivation. Grandad told me that the day before his round was equally wet. Nana told me that “at least there wouldn’t be any snow!” I kept my eyes on the forecast and tried to get some sleep. At about 7 we drove into town to have some dinner with my Mam, before trying to grab a final few more hours of sleep.

My alarm went off at 11pm. It was time. I got dressed, and gathered my composure. I’d decided a few months ago that I’d wear George’s name tag around my neck for some secret motivation. I managed to hold back the tears as I went down the garden to see him. Told him I was ready to go, and I would not let him down. Then I walked down the street to the Moot Hall. I was greeted by my Aunty Dell, Uncle John and cousin Cairns, along with a few mates, and my leg 1 pacers. Unfortunately, the gps tracker I’d been given was a complete waste of time. As it had been sent out to me with a dead battery. “Not to worry” I thought, it would make the round a bit more dramatic (and stressful) for my support team. 

Midnight struck. I was off. I was joined on leg 1 by Craig Marsh, Ivan Holyrod, Holly Wootten, Harrison Street and Boris Psodorov (on his bike). We cruised through to Little Town with ease. It was a fantastic start to have Craig, Ivan and Boris with me. These are three of my best friends, and always look after me, no matter what I’m going through. If you ever need a motivator or words of encouragement, Boris is your man! Boris cycled back to Keswick from Little Town, though I was sad to see him go, I was glad to get off the road and on the fells. On our way up Robinson the visibility became poor. We struggled to find the top for a moment, it’s very easy to do! Then coming off Dale Head we were way too far to the right. Luckily Craig and Ivan managed to sort it out and we had a good descent down to Honister. Young Harrison also did very well, as it was his first proper night time run. We arrived a few minutes later than planned. I grabbed a cold slice of pizza, thanked the leg 1 lot and set off up Grey Knotts. I’d given the tracker to Rachael May so she could try and charge it. Hopefully I’d be able to collect it again in Wasdale. 

For Leg 2, I was joined by Matthew Attkinson, Mingma Sherpa, Kat Downie, Joe Morrell and Tom Sabey. The clag was making navigation rather tricky. We had an enjoyable descent off Great Gable, until we realised we’d almost come down to Windy Gap. It was at about this time Mingma was trying to force feed me a sandwich. I was already feeling a bit sick having tried to eat a fair bit in the first few hours. He kept saying “Your mum is going to kill me if you don’t eat all this food!” At 4 in the morning, the last thing I wanted to do was eat. But I managed to force it down. We were moving well and gaining time on my schedule. It was a real boost when the head torches were turned off, hopefully we’d not need them again. 

I’m a big fan of this leg going anticlockwise. From Steeple it’s practically all downhill. The descent from Yewbarrow was good fun, and for the first time of the day we actually had a nice view. 

We were early arriving in Wasdale, so we actually caught them off guard a little. I had a quick outfit change, some pasta and said thanks to Joe, Kat and Tom for their help. I was feeling very positive, and strong as an ox. 

I was very excited about leg 3. We’d be joined by my good friend, the crowned prince of Borrowdale, Martin Mikkelsen-Barron. Someone who is always up for helping me on my adventures, but will then often complain about how slow I’m going! He’s one of my favourite people, and I always feel better having him around. Matthew and Mingma would also carry on to Dunmail. We had a much more enjoyable climb up Scafell than we thought we would. I felt very happy to have gotten the biggest climb of the day done, even though we were back in the clag. I was thrilled to be out there with 3 of the strongest runners I know. All was going well.

Until….

Coming down Lord’s Rake, Mingma managed to have a truly spectacular fall. The rain the day before had made the rock very greasy. Only the other week I marvelled at how good Mingma is over rough ground when we went to recce this very section. He overtook me as I was descending the middle section of Lord’s Rake. Then all of a sudden he was down. Lying face down, there weren’t any signs of life. I honestly feared the worst. After he stopped sliding down the scree, I rolled him over to see his face very badly damaged. I screamed at Martin to get help. Mingma lay there for a minute before somehow getting himself up. Martin was on the phone to the mountain rescue. Somehow, Mingma carried on to Dunmail. He wasn’t making a lot of sense. I kept telling him how I wasn’t happy with it and we should get down to Seathwaite, but he could not be stopped. The last thing on my mind was my round, I just wanted to make sure he was ok. 

Martin hadn’t realised that I’d picked up his pack. He went back to retrieve it, and we didn’t see him again. Visibility had become that poor that we were always going to struggle to regroup. So after spending some time trying to find us he made the decision to head back to his folks in Rosthwaite. Matthew then spent the next hour trying to get hold of folk to let them know that Mingma was able to keep going, and to stand the Mountain Rescue down. 

The rest of the leg ended up going pretty smoothly. Once I knew Mingma wasn’t going to die, I felt a lot calmer. But Matthew and I were keeping a very close eye on him. Going anticlockwise does make leg 3 a bit easier, in that once you’re on Bowfell there are no big climbs. The last few miles were done with ease and we arrived at Dunmail up on the schedule. 

At Dunmail there was a pretty good crowd of folk to see me come through, including my Nana and Grandad. It was a big thing to see them here. At this point I was aware that I could do it, as I had 12 hours to get back to Keswick. Mingma was then taken to the Keswick Cottage hospital, where they took one look at him and sent him to Carlisle. 

I was joined on Leg 4 by Toast, Mark Lamb, John Battrick, Sam Stead, Howard Dracup, Max Driscoll and Paul Fullwood. The start of this leg was by far the hardest part of the whole round. Each climb felt a real drag. I remembered my Grandad’s advice of not talking too much, to save energy. Tried to get my head down and grind out the climbs. I didn’t feel comfortable till I was on top of Dollywaggon Pike. The lads did a great job of looking after me and keeping me going. I was completely unaware that I was about 20 mins up on my schedule. The rest of this leg is what I would class as my back garden, so it was a real psychological boost for me to be on home turf. I knew that those fells would not let me down. There was a bit of discussion about which way I should come off Clough Head, as my quads were becoming a little unhappy on the descents. I could add on a little bit of distance for a more gradual descent if I wanted.  I took a quick breather at the top and decided to just plough straight down the front. Sam Stead managed to link up a few very mossy patches which made the descent much easier. We trotted along the Newsham lane to find a big crowd of people in Threlkeld, who had all come out to cheer me through. 

I sat down and had a bag of crisps, trying to get some salt in. I had a final outfit change, putting on my Keswick AC vest. My Nana came over to give me a hug, which quickly prompted me to burst into tears. I told her that I was going to do this, and now I wanted to try and beat Grandad’s time. I had a hug from Mam, Rachael May and my Aunty Kath. Then wolfed down some more food before we set off up Halls Fell.

I was joined on leg 5 by Mark Bullock, Sam Hooper, Chris Richards, my sister Evie, Sam Stead (who’d decided to carry on from leg 4), Craig Marsh (coming out for his second leg of the day). But the thing I was most happy about was that Martin MB was coming along too. I’d not seen him since Lords Rake, so I was glad to see he was alive and in one piece. 

The climb up Blencathra was fun. With the amount of pacers I had, it was fantastic crack. 

We were at the top before I knew it. Glyn Jones was at the top waiting for us. From that point on it became like Forrest Gump. More and more people joined in the further we went. The quads still weren’t very happy going down Mungrisdale Common, but we were managing to move well. Mark Bullock asked me “how badly did I want to get under 20 hours?” The thought of which had never really crossed my mind till then. I said “I just want to enjoy it as much as I can mate”. The climb up Great Calva was over pretty quickly, Chris Richards had finally opened his bag of wine gums, which I was happy about. I shoved a few in my mouth, then enjoyed the spongy descent. It felt marvellous on my legs. 

Ivan and Holly were waiting at the bottom. Originally Ivan was going to be on Leg 5 with me, but he had a wedding at Lodore. I asked him how it had gone and he said “it was the quickest 3 course meal anyone has ever had. I was throwing the food at them, so I could come back out and see you!”

The climb up Skiddaw took forever. We were back into the clag, looking up every now and then hoping to see the fence, which meant we were nearly there. It felt like an eternity, but eventually we saw it. Mark Bullock asked me what I was thinking. I told him (whilst crying) that I wish George was here to do this last run in with me. I’d just finished crying when I saw Hector, my youngest Sister Esther, Harrison and my oldest friend Joe, standing at the top. I cried again! Gave Joe a hug and told him to hold on tight during this descent. I’d seen that I might actually be able to sneak under 20 hours. 

The descent felt fast, but I felt comfortable. It was probably the best I had moved downhill all day. At a few points I thought I wasn’t going to make it down in time, as a 3000ft descent at the end of a long day is hard. Owen Mills was on Jenkin Hill on his mountain bike to open every gate on the way down for us all. 

I got into Fitz Park and had a final glance at my watch. Put your foot down and run, I thought. As we came into town a few of the lads stopped the traffic for me. I ran into town and received a brilliant reception. It was a very proud and emotional moment to climb the steps of the Moot Hall to successfully complete the Bob Graham Round. I made it in 19 hours 57 minutes. I touched the doors and burst out crying like a baby. Boris came up to give me the customary pint from The Round. I dried my eyes, and stood up to receive the best round of applause I’ve ever had. 

I hobbled down the stairs, everything was very sore now. Went over for a sweaty hug from my family and friends. I went over to see Nana and Grandad, I thanked Grandad for inspiring/making me do it. To which he responded “I didn’t MAKE you do it! Welcome to the club” This of course made me cry again. I later realised that it was exactly 10 years to the day since Nana and Grandad had their car crash at the side of Thirlmere. To have them both here, along with all my other family members and friends, to see achieve a life goal was an indescribable feeling. Amidst the tears, I thanked everyone who played a part in the day. 

I had a sit down to enjoy my well earned pint, and let it all soak in. Despite my health issues in recent years, I was now a member of the Bob Graham Club.

I’d not have made it around without all the wonderful support I had to keep me going. To my pacers and road support, to everyone who came to see me run through the road crossings and at the Moot Hall. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

The morning after I went back down the garden at mam and dad’s, to tell George all about it. Once again, I cried. My only wish is that I could have my two boys together for the final descent down Skiddaw.   

 

That round was for you George x

 

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