It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.
Sir Edmund Hillary
66 Miles. 42 Peaks including the highest mountain in England.
28,000 ft of climb – equivalent to scaling Mt Everest.
One team of Hyde Park Harriers.
Non stop in less than 24 hours?
If you were to rank all the things it’s possible to do in the Lake District the Billy Bland Challenge may not immediately be the first that appears on the list. Named after the current record holder* for the Bob Graham round, the challenge sees teams from all over attempting to beat Billy’s individual record during the month of June (a nod to the original record date).
A Bob what?
In 1932, a hotelier from Keswick broke the Lakeland fell record by traversing 42 fells in less than 24 hours. Starting and finishing in Keswick, Bob Graham traversed a circular route for 66 miles taking in many famous fells along the way including Skiddaw, Helvellyn and Scafell Pike. Ever since, fell runners from around the world have attempted to repeat Bob’s achievement with, on average, only 1 in 3 succeeding. The mountainous terrain, steep climbs and changeable weather can be the better of even the most experienced fell runners. So serious is the risk that solo attempts do not qualify for membership to the Bob Graham club. A perfect challenge then for a predominantly road running club from inner city Leeds.
After 8 months of planning, several recce trips during the Beast from the East and the delivery of a GPS tracker in the post it was time to pack the fell shoes, the raspberry and white chocolate cookies and Mo the Hyde Park Harriers teddy bear and head north to the land of lakes and mountains.
From Friday lunchtime the team gradually descended on Keswick to complete a final recce of the fish and chip shops, browse the beer in Booths and fully contribute to keeping a small baked goods establishment in trade for the rest of the season. (Apparently chocolate eclairs are ideal fuel for the 700m climb up Skiddaw).
With the majority of the group assembled at Moot Hall, photos were snapped, Facebook live transmissions were sent, final assurances were gained that the leg 2 lads were Cumbria bound and the clock struck 5pm (well the watch, it would appear the one on Moot hall needs a new battery). To the sounds of a lone opera singer busking on the high street the leg 1 lovelies bounded down the road, dived to the right through the arcades and began the ascent of Skiddaw.
Leg 1 – Emma, Honor, Naomi & Jo (words By Honor Baldry) Friday 8th June 17:00 – 21:40 Distance 21.18 Elevation 1546m
With bellies full of butterflies and Keswick’s finest baked goods, the four Leg 1 lovelies (Emma, Naomi, Jo and Honor) assembled in the afternoon sunshine, waved goodbye to the Moot hall and kicked off the challenge – to get back to Keswick before the fish and chip shop shut.
Surviving a close shave in the Keswick car park (that would have been embarrassing), we made good time up to Latrigg where we were cheered on by the support superheroes – a nice little boost ahead of tackling Skiddaw.
After establishing on the way up Skiddaw that we collectively wanted a carrot, satsuma, fizzy water and some cucumber (none of which were readily available on the fells), we pushed on and made the summit in our allotted 1:35.
A quick descent off Skiddaw saw us soon climbing again up to Great Calva, counting down the metres on Emma’s watch, honking the 100m, 50m and then 10m to go sirens, finally making the summit bang on schedule at 7.30pm.
After dropping off Great Calva and crossing the river, we faced our leg’s nemesis – Mungrisdale Common – a never ending wall of tussocky, grassy grimness.
We started to really slow at this point with Naomi’s stomach sloshing and any singing attempts from Honor doing nothing to lift the mood.
After breaking the news to Naomi that there was still 300m left to climb, we made the very tough decision of splitting up – with Emma and Naomi heading back along the river, leaving Jo and Honor to tackle Blencathra.
We started power walking, very pleased to say a final goodbye to Mungrisdale, get some signal to let everyone know we were OK and start climbing Blencathra proper.
Reaching the summit at around 9.12pm we’d long accepted that we were likely to fall behind our target of getting to Threlkeld by 9.40pm.
However, a dream of a descent, with glorious sunset light and every line in the right place saw us soon back on level ground, hopping (well, clambering) over a few gates and powering down the road back to the A66.
Cheers from the support superheroes gave us another boost to race to meet Aaron and Jack at 9.40-something, switch the tracker and wave them on their way.
Naomi and Emma weren’t far behind us having successfully navved their way to Blencathra field centre and been picked up by Toby.
So while it got hairy in places we did all meet our goal – of getting safely back to Keswick for fish and chips before closing…
** While the Leg 1 lovelies were flying towards Skiddaw the support team nipped up Latrigg to wave them by as they tackled the 700m climb. Once they disappeared into the distance it was off back to Keswick to memorise the timings sheets, dish out liberal doses of Deet (100%, 50% just doesn’t cut it in the Lakes), refuel at the fish and chip shop then fly out to the first rendezvous at Threlkeld.
Leg 2 – Aron & Jack (words by Jack Rose) Friday 8th June 21:40 – Saturday 9th June 02:10 Distance 22.57km Elevation 1751m
To put it simply, Leg 2 was brilliant. Aron and I set off right on time with the last bit of daylight left having received the tracker and bag from Jo and Honor who raced down unbelievably quick from Blencathra. By the time we had scaled our first climb to the top of Clough Head, we were welcomed with the most serene twilight view.
We managed to get 30 minutes ahead of plan pretty quick and we were both feeling pretty strong for most of it. We lost all light by about halfway as we were climbing Lower Man Helvellyn, now relying completely on head torches, maps and GPS. The last two climbs up Fairfield and Seat Sandal were a bit tricky as the steep descent of Dollywaggon Pike (in pitch black, which is quite unnerving!) sapped the energy from our legs. Then we couldn’t find the route off the last summit!
The descent started with unmarked or trodden open moorland before looking for a trod to descend the steep hillside. We couldn’t find the trod meaning we ended up slowly attempting a steep fairly treacherous rocky and bracken descent, eventually we found the path and sprinted to the stile to handover to Steve, Alex and Adam having lost all our previously built up time. The last descent ended up probably taking 40 minutes to descend when it could probably be done in 10! Nonetheless, we arrived with 1 minute to spare vs the plan, feeling tired but very proud, relieved and buzzing.
The night running was exhilarating and gave a huge sense of achievement at the end. We were treated with unbelievable nighttime skyline, stars and a very real sense of remoteness often difficult to find in this country. I’d recommend the event to anyone wanting to experience a liberating, fun and exciting challenge.
**In the middle of the night the support crew gathered at Dunmail Raise when some head torches appeared descending the final hill. Is that our guys they asked? “Oh f******g hell” came a voice across the dark. “Yeah that’s Aron.” They had missed the path for the descent. Followed by another group completing a Bob Graham, Leg 2 arrived and Leg 3 departed with some fine words of encouragement from Cara. “Do NOT let them* catch you Steve (*other words possibly removed…)
Leg 3 – Steve, Adam & Alex (words by Steve Rhodes) Saturday 9th June 02:10 – Saturday 9th June 08:08. Distance 25.5km Elevation 2127m
Leg 3 (Adam, Alex and Steve) sat at Dunmail Raise with Cara waiting expectantly for Aron and Jack’s headtorches to appear up above them at the top of Seat Sandal. We watched the telly on Cara’s phone until we saw their headtorches coming down the hill. What a great run the pair had in the dark. We knew it was them when we heard Aron swearing when he stumbled in the bracken.
Then we were off. A fast pace up steel fell fueled with adrenaline put us up for the leg. We then worked our way across trods that were tricky to follow in the dark until we reached the Lansdale pikes. A bit of scrambling got us up Harrison Stickle and Pike O Stickle. Then 2 long climbs found us on Bowfell and now we were properly in daylight.
We worked well as a team. Adam started to cheer up or wake up and we ploughed our way through the tonnes of his excellent flapjack. Alex just kept on pushing. All of us were psyched to do our bit.
The next few tops went without incident and we climbed up to Scafell Pike. There were more people about at the top. 1 group asked us to take a photo of them. Could they not see that we were part of an elite team of crack runners from an inner city running club on our way to its first Billy Bland round and had no time to take bloody photos?
The descent to the bottom of Lords rake is a bit dodgy; as is the climb itself. We moved as quickly as we could and soon crawled out at the top of the crag. The last peak was done and we blasted down the huge screes.
We pushed on hard as Alex and Adam ran fast down the last path. We were now aiming for sub 6 hours and sprinted down to the car. There we were met by a happy Laura, an over excited Tom who was trying his hardest not to wet himself, a cool but apprehensive Scott and a lost Paul who had come all this way to wander up the wrong path.
The tracker passed over to leg 4. It was a brew in the car park and chat chat chat about how great we were and what a fantastic place Wasdale was.
**At 5am, in deserted and still asleep Keswick, Paul and Laura set off for the short drive to Honister pass to wake and collect the Leg 3 team. Due to a shortness of accommodation, the boys had built themselves a man cave in Scott’s car. (Duvets, Drinks, Food, Mock the Week and access to “the best toilet ever”). Despite Honister and Wasdale only being 8 miles apart on the map even the mighty man cave wasn’t able to traverse Great Gable for the Wasdale changeover so the intrepid team headed on a 90 minute drive via Sellafield skillfully avoiding numerous sleeping sheep and rabbits with a death wish on the quiet backroads of Ennerdale. In a flash Leg 3 arrived down the descent of Scafell and Leg 4 bounded off up the vertical ascent to complete the inaugural Yewbarrow Fellrunning Parkrun (with a few extra miles – it was after all nearly 9am on a Saturday Morning)
Leg 4 Tom & Scott (Words by Scott Watson) Saturday 9th June 08:08 – 12:37 Distance 18.02km Elevation 1794m
The great pace set by the previous legs was incentive for Tom and Scott to continue pushing on for leg 4, which ran from Wasdale Water, through to Honister Pass. Setting off just after 8am in glorious conditions, they tackled the 18km, 1,800m elevation gain section of the route with a lot of enthusiasm, which Tom especially is known for, starting with an ascent of Yewbarrow. The Wainwright fells Red Pike, Steeple, Pillar, Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knotts all followed, as the guys completed the leg in around 4 hours, finishing just after noon and an hour and a half ahead of the overall team schedule.
Sunshine followed them for most of the way round and provided great conditions for a speedy, smooth first half. Tom was strong the whole way round and was a brilliant support for Scott, who after a good first half found the going really tough after that halfway point. A 10 minute stop for Scott to strap a twisted ankle slowed them down a bit but didn’t prevent them pushing on and Tom led the way, ultimately flying down the final descent of Grey Knotts and bounding to the changeover point at Honister Pass. Scott was less than bounding to say the least but made it and was grateful for the hugs, coffee and soup at the end.
Overall, the team was now well up on the target time, with the final leg 5 runners heading off to complete the Billy Bland challenge
**Once Leg 4 had bounded off into the distance Alex headed back to Keswick to get some well-earned kip whilst the support crew and remainder of Leg 3 downed a coffee and bacon butty then set off to meander up the valley back towards Honister. The sky was blue and the sun beamed down as they trekked up the ever increasing wall of Gavel Neese towards Beck Head to intercept the Leg 4 guys and ply them with fresh water and Jelly Babies before taking Moses Trod to meet the team at Honister – in a feat of epic timing both the support crew and Leg 4 team bounded down parallel slopes into Honister to release the final leg.
Leg 5 Amy, Becki, Ellen & Robin (Words by Amy Young). Saturday 9th June 12:3714:24 Distance 17.8km Elevation 708m
After various parkruns, breakfasts and lie-ins, the leg 5 ladies jumped into super-supporter Cara’s car along the road from Keswick into Honister. We were an hour earlier than planned thanks to the incredible efforts of the preceding teams. After a couple of photos of the views down the valley the rain started to come in, so we quickly dispatched Toby to fetch his Dry Robe who then proceeded to stand at the bottom of the mountain path with his hood up like the Grim Reaper on the lookout for Scott and Tom. Not long later, Laura and Adam bounded down the hill – they’d walked over from Wasdale that morning. Soon after them, Ellen’s incredible eyesight spotted two very fast moving runners coming down the path where we were watching eagle-eyed for them to appear. Steve and Paul appeared on the path to the right, who had also been walking that morning and supporting the leg 4 boys.
Panic quickly began to ensue amongst those of us gathered under the awning at Honister as we took our raincoats off; packed our bags and swiftly gathered for a group photo with Mo the bear before Tom and Scott joined us for, what was, in Steve’s opinion, a few too many long winded hugs and words of congratulations. As such, we swiftly got the gist that we were holding everyone up and hot-footed it across the road and up the path in the light rain up towards Dale Head. With a lot of huffing and puffing and Amy moaning that her calves hurt, we reached the peak of Dale Head in 26 minutes and were pleased to see that the visibility across our whole route was clear. The path then wraps round the side of Dale Head, down a ridge then up the side of Hindscarth. We said some friendly ‘hellos’ to some ramblers, who looked at us like we were mad women. We reached the top of peak 2 in 38 minutes, about 12 minutes ahead of schedule for our leg. Conveniently, there was a well-placed man who took a quick photo for us before we moved on again. We’ve never really found the right path coming off of Hindscarth, so we divided and conquered for a few minutes, and ended up meeting back and then starting the climb up Robinson. A few minutes of huffing and puffing later and the top of Robinson came into view. We had a few snacks and then began the descent down into the valley towards where we knew the support crew would be waiting to take our bags and switch our shoes and give us a bit of a boost before the long road slog into town.
Sure enough, after a clamber and some elegant (or less elegant for some) downhills, we joined the road and the support crew came into view. Their cheers of encouragement pushed us on, we quickly changed our shoes, drilled out bags and then scooted back out, with a deadline of 2:30pm given by Steve to be in Keswick.
After recceing the route previously, I think we all agree that we were glad to know what was coming this time. The hills were less of a surprise and the road part passed fairly quickly (if not fast-paced and exhaustingly!) and before we knew it we were coming into Portinscale. The mountain festival had a 25km race, some of whose runners were starting to come into Keswick via the same route. We gladly took the cheers of support to egg us on over the bridge and into town. The last few hundred metres passed with a blur, but involved a near-miss tumble off of a curb; a closely avoided trip over a dog lead; too many kids with ice cream not watching where they were going; and finally a great smiling screaming bunch of Hyde Park Harriers with cameras and proud faces! We got to Moot Hall at 2:24, finishing the whole relay in 21 hours, 24 minutes and 34 seconds having had the most amazing incredible time in the process.
Of course, in true runner style, we made an urgent dash to the nearest pub, where we sat smugly in the sunshine and the shadow of the mountains which we had climbed for the rest of the evening as the beers kept arriving. Well done to an awesome team and thanks to everyone who sat and watched that little red dot with earnest for 21 hours.
And soon it was over.
Suddenly it was Sunday and the celebratory beers and tiredness had kicked in. Some of the team had already headed off to complete fell running leader courses or the Leeds Triathlon (if you do both it would seem you get to run extra distance in the tri…) others went for a lovely meander up the gentle bracken lined slopes of High Rigg and only as the last cars departed Cumbria did the heavens finally open after a weekend of glorious weather.
The aim was under 24 hours. The time? 21 hours, 24 minutes and 34 seconds. Everyone from runners to support left Keswick with beaming smiles and a massive sense of achievement.
The final note should go to Steve Rhodes, without whom the whole adventure would not have been possible. From coaching map reading and compass bearings (don’t use a sheep!), leading recces in the snow, packing exactly the right survival equipment and convincing the support crew to go on “a little walk up a valley”, Steve moulded an eager band of road and trail runners into a team of fell runners . They all left the lakes with beaming smiles and much excitement.
A weekend that will last in the memories forever. That weekend the Hyde Park Harriers conquered more than just mountains.
See our official result here: http://www.billyblandchallenge.org.uk/?page_id=524
Since the majority of this blog was written the mountain legend Kilian Jornet has just taken an hour off Billy Bland’s record causing much excitement back at Harrier base. Will they return to beat their own record? Will a new band of soon to be fell runners be inspired to tackle the challenge?
To be continued…. (possibly).