C&C Billy Bland Challenge 2017
Saturday 24th June 2017
At midnight on Saturday 24th June 2017 in Keswick, C&C ran its 3rd 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.
We had a good number of new recruits this year and some had not been able to recce the legs that they were running on the challenge day itself, so I know there were some anxious runners that day. Despite that everybody put in amazing efforts to make this the first time C&C have been able to complete the challenge within the rules! (we have completed it for the last two years within the time but not within the rules). The most important of those rules being to have two runners on each leg, for safety and to witness the achievement of each peak. Fell running is 'old fashioned' in that it eschews modern GPS technology and depends on honesty in bagging each peak.
Below is a write-up of each leg contributed by the runners on that leg. We all had a great time and have made new friends and fell runners. All agreed they would like to do it all again next year, so if you would like to join us you would be very welcome!
Leg 1 – Amy Buchanan-Hughes & Simon Warburton
5hrs 13mins – Keswick 00:00 to Threlkeld 05:13
14 miles / 5,500ft ascent (Skiddaw, Great Calva, Blencathra)
After the balmy weather in Cambridge during the week it was quite a shock to arrive in Keswick to 10 degrees and rain – the weather proved almost too much for Neville and his shorts as he changed in quick order. By the time we had pitched tents at Burns Hill Farm, eaten in Keswick (arriving to displace Scott, Charlie, Steve, Rosa and Isabelle from their table….and steal their left-over cheese) and then got back to the campsite it was almost time to leave for Moot Hall again – no sleep before our leg (that was fine, too nervous/eager to sleep).
Kris drove Amy and I to Moot Hall in contemplative silence. Amy had tackled most of the recce runs in preparation but I had only managed three quarters of leg three as practice. As a result, I had not run leg 1 before, nor run in the dark….but, we are all still relative fell running novices, so we were both looking forward to getting the relay under way for the rest of the team.
It was fantastic to lead off from Moot Hall – a sort of Mecca for fell running. There were a couple of BGers ready to leave at the same time as us so at least, when the clock ticked over to midnight, we knew we were going to set off in the right direction. I even chuckled a bit when one of the guys ahead of us could be heard chastising his partners to steady up, “We’re not racing you know”.
We made our way to the foot of Skiddaw well and it was not long before the incline started and the street lights faded away. It can really get dark when there is no moon and the light pollutions lessens and even though you are running to a path it soon proved a challenge enough to make sure we stuck to the path and didn’t wander off it. We were grateful to be caught up by a BGer who had a much better idea of where the path was and we kept with her for quite to the top of Skiddaw. In our enthusiasm to snap a selfie, despite being pitch black, our “guide” seemed to have disappeared off the summit and left us in complete darkness. With no moonlight and plenty of cloud it’s impossible to take bearings so we relied totally on the GPS and I relied totally on Amy who was doing a superb job of navigating us off Skiddaw and down towards Great Calva.
We were confident that we could make good progress to Great Calva but we ended up having to trek through knee high heather as it was impossible to find the path. In fact, I really hope there is no path rather than believe it could have helped our progress up the mountain instead of wading through heather. If the plant life wasn’t hindering our progress too much it was certainly taking the skin off Amy’s knees. The combination of heather and hidden streams took their casualties as well, Amy fell to an unnerving “crack” only to ease my panic and tell me that her compass had borne the brunt of the fall, I misplaced my footing and fell completely from Amy’s view to fall in lovely, soft, comfy heather…..I was almost tempted to stay there.
Great Calva cairn is a bit unloved and just as well we visited in the dark…not a photo stop really. However, the descent is worth keeping your eyes wide open on as there were bits of exposed metal fences sticking out of the ground at bizarre angles. So if the descent doesn’t catch you the impaling fences will. The run from Calva to Blencathra is simple…in theory. You follow the fence to the apex of a river, cross the river, (fell face-first in that one) then start the relentless, seemingly-never-ending run up to Blencathra. We had left the heather, thankfully, and progressed to the bogs of Mungrisdale Common. Not that the bogs mattered, I was still soaked from the river and Amy was grateful to have got through the heather before she got to the connective tissue of her knees. Blencathra is stunning, particularly in the emerging sunlight of the day. You aim for the left-hand shoulder of the mountain and, in true fell running style, just when you think you are near the peak you must veer to the right to scale the peak in a completely different part of the mountain. Amy navigated this bit superbly and we arrived at the peak of Blencathra to witness a stunning view of Threlkeld and the valley below. Now the descent….
We looked at Halls Fell….no thank you. The parachute drop, very nice but not going near that even with a parachute. So we veered to the left and headed to Doddick Fell. What an amazing run this was. Despite the miles and elevation we had covered so far we whooped as we ran down this snaking path, winding its way through rocks, gravel and ferns. Steep bits still checked our progress and the pair of us 'enjoyed' the odd lost footing but we emerged on a relatively flat part of the path, through the bracken and still managed to knock off a 4:03 min/km in our haste to get to Rob and Rosa waiting for us in Threlkeld.
Leg 2 – Rosa Sampson-Geroski & Rob Moir
3hrs 59mins – Threlkeld 05:13 to Dunmail 09:12
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)
We started at 05:13am in dry light overcast conditions but no sunshine. A couple of Bob Graham groups had already passed through the carpark and started their tracks towards Clough Head. Rosa and I were slightly caught off-guard at how soon Amy and Simon appeared across the road from the Threlkeld carpark; we could see they were moving quickly but their actual location was obviously slightly ahead of the tracker position.
We set off running as fast as we could along the roads and tracks to the start of our first steep ascent, Clough Head. As we ascended to the East of us the sun poked through the cloud a little and it was a glorious if strenuous early morning.
Clough Head summit was a relief and we made good progress through the following peaks, high fiving each other at each. We could see we were catching one of the Bob Graham groups and this gave us a determination to push harder. We finally overtook the group, a team from Nottingham, around White Side. A fierce wind from the West came into play on the long ridge and it got close to freezing in the cloud on the higher peaks around Helvellyn.
Nethermost Pike was the most difficult to make out in the cloud so we made sure we ‘visited’ every cairn in the vicinity; we didn’t won’t to scupper our chances through an avoidable cock-up!
Due to the strong winds we’d made a decision to descend from Dollywaggon Pike down to the South West of Grizedale Tarn and slog it up Fairfield via the path. At the end of the Tarn we realised if we could complete the rest of the leg in an hour we’d be around the four hour mark so we gave ourselves a target of fifteen minutes up Fairfield, fifteen minutes down and the same again for Seat Sandal. So that’s just about what we did but it wasn’t easy and we both had tired jelly legs around Seat Sandal but made it back to handover to Kris and Steve in three hours fifty nine minutes. It would have two or three minutes faster if Rob hadn’t have taken a tumble and roll down the final descent and turned back for a quick look for his navigation device and water bottle!
Leg 3 – Steve Bland & Kris Semple
6hrs 15mins – Dunmail 09:12 to Wasdale 15:27
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)
After arriving at the changeover in good time, we watched Rosa and Rob fly (and roll) down to the changeover having made excellent time on leg 2; selfie-time was over and we had 15 Fells to beat! The short, sharp shock of Steel fell was a fairly intense warm up, but after that we made fairly steady progress across to the Langdales. As we skirted the ridge towards Rossett Pike and Bow Fell, the wind began to pick up but we did see a friendly face whilst out there (Rob had told us his friend would be out on the fell today but we probably wouldn't see him because we had no idea what each other looked like, but we did!). As we made our way towards the Scafells my progress slowed across the boulder and scree fields. By the time we reached Scafell Pike, the cloud had come in to such an extent I lost Kris before the summit. Then it was only up the Lords Rake and Scafell and the descent to go! Looking back, I only wish i had more energy at this point to capitalise on what was/is an amazing scree run down to Wasdale Head. At at that point, we handed over to Scott and Charlie and I had a well-earned cup of tea.
Leg 4 – Charlie Ritchie & Scott White
4hrs 19mins – Wasdale 15:28 to Honister 19:47
11 miles / 6,500ft ascent (Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Steeple, Pillar, Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Green Gable, Brandreth, Grey Knotts)
The hills looked claggy and windy all day, but Steve and Kris descended from the Scafell cloud in fine style, and by the handover the tops were clear. Scott set a firm pace up Yewbarrow, briefly exchanging greetings with a guy on the way down, who turned out to be the Bob Graham Round 24 Hour Club Chair. As a first timer, I took that as a good omen, but the next ascendants we spotted, on the way up Red Pike, topped that. What I took from the distance to be a very gangly youth turned out to be yer actual Joss Naylor. OMG! Scott had a chat, and Joss gave a drily affectionate nod to our mate and supporter Pete Nelson. You are not just running hills here; you are running in a community. He wished us ‘a good’n’.
Once I stopped my jaw hitting my knees I tried to concentrate on keeping Scott’s heels in view, no mean task. The wind was firm but not really inhibiting, and skirting round Scoat Fell the views were thrilling and intimidating in fine balance. A delicious out and back on Steeple, where the visibility really helped. Lots of pretty tough ascent, but some fine running too, across Wind Gap and Black Sail Pass, and amazing views back to Wasdale and ahead. We hesitate in a slippy gully on Kirk Fell, Scott frustrated at losing precious minutes, me with my best ‘cautious, sensible’ face on (inwardly relishing the brief breather). Not long before Scott is encouraging me to give it one last push up Great Gable, I am really losing the pace by this stage, but the back of the round is pretty much broken. And the time is good. The hills are alive with other runners by now, 10 peak challengers, other BBers, and one guy and his mates doing a ‘55 for his 55th’(!).
Not having actually recced the far side of Grey Knotts I have built it up in my head to a punishingly long grinding finish…. but Scott takes a direct line to the grassy spur (unlike some of our hillmates), and after a splashy start the descent is pretty cool really. We run through a car park full of various challenge supporters to the more exclusive YHA option featuring our very own Izzy, Nev and wonder chauffeur Rob Moir. They look particularly wonderful.
.....We had ‘a good’n’.
Leg 5 – Isabelle Lemasson & Nev Hawkins
2hrs 29mins – Honister 19:47 to Keswick 22:17
11 miles / 2,500ft ascent (Dale Head, Hindscarth, Robinson)
Leg 5, the glory leg! The practicalities of this actually began with a long long wait… And a slight sense of guilt, sending Amy and Simon in the mist and then going to bed. In the morning, listening to the tales of our friends successfully returned from the night legs, we still had the whole day ahead of us before starting our own leg. As the team was behind schedule because of the difficult overnight conditions, we started to feel the pressure of having to finish before midnight. We started to wonder if the head torch would come of use, and as the day passed, we kept an eye on the cloud level, hoping they would lift enough to allow us a good visibility. As the afternoon was coming to an end, we were raring to go.
Rob drove us in plenty of time to the start of our leg at Honister. Scott and Charlie seemed ready for a very fast leg 4, and the last thing we wanted was to disappoint them by not being at the changeover on time. Then began the game of trying to recognise Scott and Charlie amongst the runners coming downhill. Honister pass was actually quite busy with the 10 peaks race. Suddenly they were there, and at last we could go!
All of this accumulated adrenaline pushed us to a very fast start up to Dale Head, our first peak. Burning legs and heart rate to the roof promptly made us calm down a bit… The particularity of leg 5 is that it is shorter than the other legs on the fells, with “only” 3 peaks relatively close to each other. The summit of Dale Head seemed to come rather quickly. Followed by a nice run on Hindscarth edge, and a short climb to Hindscarth. On the weather side, we were really lucky since visibility was much better than earlier in the day. It was windy on the tops, as expected, but the temperature was quite mild. After Hindscarth we enjoyed a nice run downhill and onto the edge on our way to Robinson, our last peak. We did cut our way up to Robinson on the direct path, which made the uphill quite intense! And there we were, on the top of Robinson, enjoying a nice view of Derwent water in the evening night.
We then started the drop down off Robinson, thankful that the wind had dried the rocks, so that we had enough grip to avoid sliding our way down! I (Isabelle) was at that point extremely focused about my footing since recovering from an ankle sprain and dreading to twist it again… My ankle did hold the steep downhill beyond expectation, but it is Nev who encountered foot issues, first with a rock that got in his shoe. He then turned his ankle in a hole. The worry soon dissipated, since after a few steps with one of my trekking poles, he was running at full speed again.
At this stage, the difficulties of the terrain were over, allowing us to significantly increase our pace. We raced down to Little Town. At this point begins the second part of leg 5, which consists of about 5-6 miles on the road. At Little Town, our support team (Rob) was waiting for us with our road shoes. Rob pointed out to us that the Fish and Chips shop was closing 35 min later, so we felt a bit pressured to speed up to Keswick ;-)
Soon after the shoe swap, as we were racing on the road, we passed a proper Bob Graham attempt challenger with his support team. This allowed us to reflect for a second, we have done all of this way, in the same time, but it was ten of us!! Tremendous respect for everyone doing the round on their own, it surely demands a completely different level of fitness and training…
As we were trying to maintain a good pace, the legs were reminding us they had just been on the fells and were far from fresh! A few hills on the way also reminded us in which part of the country we were… Coming into Keswick, some people started to cheer us, the joy of the coming finish line gave us a final push to the Moot Hall, where the rest of the team welcomed us. About 22h20 after starting the relay, the team had completed the challenge! A whole team of flatlanders from C&C.
There were just the regulation ten of us on challenge day this year so as well as running we also had to do the support from within the team. Thank you to all the team for making the organisation so straightforward. Everyone showed great enthusiasm and commitment to completing the Billy Bland Challenge. Well done team!