Billy Bland Challenge
Saturday 25th June 2016
Starting at midnight on Saturday 25 June 2016, C&C ran its 2nd annual Billy Bland relay. For those unfamiliar with it, this is a fell-running challenge over the five legs of the 24-hour Bob Graham round, a circuit of 42 peaks in the Lake District covering about 66 miles with 27,000 feet of climbing. Last year we completed it in 22hrs 5mins, but with more experience and better weather this year we had set ourselves a more aggressive schedule of 20hrs 24mins, which we actually managed to beat to go sub-20hrs :-)
Below is a write-up of each leg contributed by the runners on that leg. Ideally we should have had 10 people in the team (2 for each leg) but we were short on numbers – if you are interested in fell running then please get in touch for next year!
Leg 1 – Scott – 3hrs 23mins – Keswick 00:00 to Threlkeld 03:23
14 miles / 5,500ft ascent (Skiddaw, Great Calva, Blencathra)
The weather on Friday evening was looking stunning, with clearing skies and minimal wind – a big improvement on last year when it was constant rain with zero visibility. We turned up outside the Moot Hall in Keswick about 15 minutes before midnight to find it crowded, with five other Bob Graham / Billy Bland attempts getting ready to set off! Three of these left in staggered starts before I headed out. I’d been raring to go for several hours so started strongly and passed the others before reaching the slopes of Skiddaw. I knew one of the other relay teams should be moving fairly quickly, which gave me a good incentive to push hard so I had the mountains to myself. Conditions were fantastic, and enhanced by the appearance of the waning harvest moon. The ground was wetter than expected due to recent rain, which slowed me a little through the boggy sections between the peaks, but the rocky descent of Halls Fell ridge was thankfully dry, and I reach Threlkeld 18 minutes ahead of schedule.
Leg 2 – Lee & Isabelle – 3hrs 57mins – Threlkeld 03:23 to Dunmail 07:21
14 miles / 6,000ft ascent (Clough Head, Great Dodd, Watson’s Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise, White Side, Lower Man, Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywagon Pike, Fairfield, Seat Sandal)
It was a fantastic night to be out! When I say night, not really actually, the sky was so clear that it didn’t get completely dark. After no real sleep due to excitement and the early start, we arrived at our change over at Threlkeld around 3:15 am. Turning to Blencathra to look for Scott’s head torch, we realized how busy the Bob Graham round was that night. A series of head torches were aligned like shooting stars. We identified rapidly Scott’s as he was the only one by himself, and he was literally flying down. Just the time to blink and he was here and we were off. Starting full of energy, trying not to head off like crazy, we started the first part of the leg which is the long ascent of Clough Head and then Great Dodd. The landscape revealed was simply gorgeous, the sky getting red on one side, and the lights of sleeping Keswick on the other. We passed Great Dodd just after 4:30 am, and then had our magic moment, the sunrise! As we ran in the middle of sheep, the sun rose and all at once we felt its warmth on our left, and saw our shadows appearing on our right. And at that time everything was just perfect and we wanted to be nowhere else.
The second part of the leg follows a long ridge, and is a series of peaks which pass quite quickly, most of them allowing proper running. We saw a lot of sheep, but also other runners/walkers out, some supporting Bob Graham / Billy Bland rounds. At the top of Helvellyn, we met a guy camping with his dog, who asked which club we were from. When we said Cambridge and Coleridge, he replied that he was a former member of the club! What a small world! But there was no time to chat and we continued our leg, enjoying both the running and the stunning landscape. After Dollywagon Pike starts the third and last part of the leg, which is also the hardest: a very steep downhill on grass, followed by a very steep ascent in lose stones to Fairfield. A beast of a peak! Then starting to get excited about the approaching end, we had another downhill followed by what appeared quite an endless ascent to Seat Sandal, the last peak! Negotiating the last downhill slope as we could with tiredness, we soon arrived at the changeover just under 4 hrs, to let Scott begin his second leg of the day. When we came back to the campsite, the day was just starting, campers were just getting up, we had all the day ahead of us, quite tired but very happy with our leg.
Leg 3 – Scott – 5hrs 30mins – Dunmail 07:21 to Wasdale 12:51
16 miles / 6,500ft ascent (Steel Fell, Calf Crag, Sergeant Man, High Raise, Thunacar Knott, Harrison Stickle, Pike of Stickle, Rossett Pike, Bow Fell, Esk Pike, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag, Scafell Pike, Scafell)
Having had a few hours recovery kip in the van, I was again raring to go and made a good strong start up the steep but short climb of Steel Fell. Progress was steady through to the Langdale Pikes, where I started to encounter a number of other runners competing in the 10 Peaks race (another fantastic event for anyone that’s interested). It was getting quite warm, and I hit a bit of a low energy patch, so took a minute or so to rest while refilling my water bottles before tacking Rossett Pike. My concentration was still a bit off, and my line up Bow Fell was not the best, but I still seemed to be shaving time off the schedule and it was a big mental boost to reach the summit exactly 3hrs in, knowing that I was more than halfway. A bit of cloud and drizzle arrived while crossing the Scafell range, and the highest point in England was surprisingly unpopulated, so I pushed on through the rollercoaster of Lord’s Rake and then the seemingly endless steep descent off Scafell into Wasdale valley – for once having enough left in my legs to enjoy the fabulous 500ft scree run! 26 minutes faster than schedule for the leg, making the handover almost 1 hour ahead of plan.
Leg 4 – Kris & Katie – 4hrs 40mins – Wasdale 12:51 to Honister 17:31
11 miles / 6,500ft ascent (Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Steeple, Pillar, Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Green Gable, Brandreth, Grey Knotts)
We got to Wasdale with plenty of time because Scott was on for a good time and the last thing you want is to disappoint Scott when he's just bust a gut on the fells. The beautiful clear blue sky had gone but that wasn't such a bad thing. A bit of cloud was obscuring a few of the tops but the temperature was now perfect for running. We saw a BG runner come through making us want to get on with it, and there Scott was on the ridge, it must be him moving that fast!
And before we knew it we were off and all that adrenaline blasted us up to Yewbarrow. It was the latest in the year that I (Kris) had done this climb and I noticed the change in the bracken cover and the profusion of tiny beautiful flowers on the mountain, no time to stop and identify them though. The cloud started to come down on us as we climbed to Scoat Fell reducing visibility to only a few metres. We went through the wall on our way to Steeple and found a new fence, this threw us and we went off in the wrong direction for about 50m. We corrected and went tentatively on to Steeple, the cloud giving a very eerie feel to the crags and drops. The cloud fooled us on Pillar too, which is potentially fatal, corrected again and as we went down the cloud cleared and we were able to relax into the wonderful downhill stretch to Black Sail Pass. Kirk Fell seemed to arrive much sooner than I (Kris) anticipated, I had bailed out at this point on the last recce because it was really hot that day but today it was perfect and I still felt great, unfortunately Katie was feeling a bit icky. The views across to Red Pike were spectacular and then Kirk Fell was done too, now onto Great Gable a huge brooding mass that was Katie's nemesis from last year. There were a lot of runners about in the saddle where there was a checkpoint for The Lakes 10 Peaks race, one desperate hobbling soul begging us for codeine! Maybe that made us feel sprightly by comparison or maybe it was the glucose tablet but we were at the top of Great Gable before long and that was the back broken of the leg. The last few peaks came quickly now and then we were on Grey Knotts and into un-recced territory for me (Kris). This was the only stretch of the BG route that I hadn't run. Now the thought of getting to the café at Honister spurred us on to the changeover where our amazing support team cheered us in.
Leg 5 – Nev & Harry – 2hrs 24mins – Honister 17:31 to Keswick 19:55
11 miles / 2,500ft ascent (Dale Head, Hindscarth, Robinson)
After a day killing time and eating well, Kate and John took us to the start of leg 5 at Honister. According to reports the team was picking up time on every leg, so we made sure we arrived good and early. Lee and Katie appeared at 17.30 and off we went with local guide Kate. Steady up to Dale Head, with Harry pushing ahead, we got to the top in 28 minutes, one minute ahead of schedule. Then, bounding across rocks to Hindscarth, Kate helped a lot, showing us the easiest paths. Up until now the weather had been showery, but nothing to worry about and not enough to justify waterproofs, but as we started to turn north towards Hindscarth the rain got heavier until finally we decided to stop and cover up. Good job we did! While donning our top-layers the heavy rain turn into heavy hail. The operation cost us a few minutes and in shorts without overtrousers the final run up to Hindscarth was painful on the legs. Again Harry went on ahead, so when Kate and Nev reached the summit, Harry was nowhere to be seen. It turned out he had his eye on a cairn beyond the summit, so Kate and Nev sheltered at the top waiting for him to realise and come back.
Next up to the final peak of the whole route: Robinson. We were a few minutes behind schedule now due to the hail and the extra bit of route, but this climb was easier than Dale Head as we were properly warmed up by now. Once complete, the rest of the leg was downhill, but as any fell runner will tell you that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. It turned out that while Harry was good at powering up the hills, Nev came into his own bounding down. Again Kate showed her worth guiding us round paths which avoided the worst crags and cliff-scaling. Before we knew it we were off the mountain and running along the river back into Little Town, where according to Kate, Harry and Nev “went haring off”. A quick stop at Little Town to dump bags and change shoes lasted a little longer than planned while Nev tugged at a wet shoelace trying to get it undone. Then the final race into Keswick had Lee opening the gates for us as we went. Spectators and marshals for a cycling event knew what we were doing and shouted all kinds of encouragement along the way. One of the spectators was heard to say to a friend, “These fell runners are crazy”. Well I can’t entirely disagree… Harry had a head start due to Nev’s shoelace problem, but Harry slowed up a bit so that we could arrive in Keswick together, where we found that the team had laid on a Rock Concert to welcome us home. Our thoughts were how to get through the crowd to the steps of Moot Hall, but no worries, the team had that sorted and the crowd parted, giving us applause as we collapsed on the steps. We were 12 minutes behind schedule, but without the hailstorm and the small diversion at Hindscarth the timings would have been spot on.
A fantastic effort by the entire team to complete the challenge in 19 hours 55 minutes – more than 2 hours faster than last year. Many thanks again to Pete, John and Kate for contributing their local knowledge during recces, to Kate for pacing leg 5, and to John and in particular Wendy & Dave for fantastic road support.