Fell is a word that comes from the rural northern reaches of England - it means hill or mountain - and it’s the word that forms the central part of this story. Many will say that England doesn’t have mountains, but when you stand at the base of Blencathra and look the nearly 3,000 vertical feet up to the top - you’ll agree - England has mountains. Specifically, the Lake District has them by the dozen.
The earliest documented accounts of running the fells date back to the 11th century. In the 19th century, organized fell runs began taking place in Cumbria. Locals raced each other up and down hills as humans are want to do - and a sport was born.
“Fell running is basically a mountain race - taking the quickest route possible to the summit and back through a number of checkpoints,” says Cumbrian native and fell running great, Ricky Lightfoot. ”Sometimes there’s a path, sometimes there isn’t. You might need to use navigation to find your way between points. For every race, you need to take a map and a compass and usually full body cover (pants, jacket, gloves, hat) - even in summer. If you don’t - and they sometimes do a random kit check - you’ll be disqualified.”
In 2017, Lightfoot aims to set a record on the Lake District’s biggest, most historic fell running challenge: the Bob Graham Round.
In the Lake District and the mountains of northern England, Scotland, and Wales, fell running is a sport, a pastime and a way of life for many runners. Most races are fairly short, while some head into the marathon distance and others go far, far beyond that. In the Lake District, one challenge stands above all others: the Bob Graham Round.
People have been walking and running the fells of the Lake District for centuries, but the mythology of the 24-hour attempt really seems to have settled in with Bob Graham’s round of 42 peaks in 24-hours in 1932. The lore is that during Graham‘s 42nd year, he completed a fell run with one summit for every year of his life. His route, and the summits he climbed, became the preeminent endurance feat in the Lake District.
“The basic round of 66 miles has to be completed within a 24-hour period, visiting each of the designated 42 summits with a witness. That’s it at its simplest. It’s fell running. It’s not complicated. We don’t have too many rules,” says Morgan Williams, Club Secretary of the Bob Graham Round.
Bob Graham’s record stood for years - 28 to be exact. Then it fell (1960), and then it fell by a lot. Fell running legend, Billy Bland, eventually stopped the forward progress of the record with an astounding time of 13 hours, 53 minutes in 1982. One of Bland’s chief rivals, Joss Naylor, and one of the triumvirate of Cumbrian fell running greats (with Kenny Stuart being the third) pulled off an equally incredible feat when he ran 72 peaks in 24-hours.
Both records have stood tall and strong for a generation. 31-year-old, Ricky Lightfoot, hopes to take on Billy Bland’s 34-year-old record early in 2017.
Fell runner, full-time firefighter, husband to Sophie, and father to Isobelle, Ricky’s life is anything but simple. But his love for running in the fells is just that - simple. The soft-spoken runner from the western side of the Lakes loves running and loves his family.
“When I was still only 15 or 16 years old I was at the house of the guy who got me into fell running and I saw his certificate for the Bob Graham Round on the wall - it said sixty odd miles, 42 peaks, 28,000 feet of ascent. I remember seeing it and thinking: I’ll never do that. Ever. That was the moment though: the seed had been sown. Over the years, the seed grew from ‘no way’ to, ‘… I could probably do that.’”
With the record in mind, Ricky fits his life around running but also strives for balance.
“Waking up early, structuring things so that I can fit in two runs on most days and 80-120 miles per week doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. It’s what I want to do.
“It’s hard to admit sometimes, but as a runner, it’s a very selfish sport. Everything I do is to benefit… me. It’s to make me better. It’s difficult to juggle everything at the same time, but it’s something I’m happy to do. That’s why a lot of the time I go as early as I can to prevent as much upset to the family as I can. Or at least, I try to be out when Isobelle is in bed. The rest of the time, I’m with family.
“I don’t know if I sacrifice much though - I do all the things I want. I run, I do a job that I love, and I spend most of the rest of the time with the people I love.”
Part of the mystique of the Bob Graham Round is how big of a role local knowledge of the landscape plays. In general, the Round favors the runner who spends every waking moment either running in the fells or dreaming about them. Even for someone like Ricky though - the mysteries of the Lakes are numerous and sometimes take a little outside help from a living legend to solve.
Joss Naylor is regarded as one of the all-time greats in fell running - maybe the greatest.
“I probably bump into Joss the most usually when I’m out in the fells just near his house. I can remember I was up there training on a route once, trying to learn it better. The upcoming race was a 21-mile route with 9,000 feet of climbing and starts in Joss’s valley, Wasdale. I remember being up, it was a bit misty, and I wasn’t completely sure of the route, and I was having a crack with him. I said, ‘I’m not quite sure of this bit - I’ve done it before, but I can’t quite remember where to go.’
“He looks at me and says, ‘Go to the top, get to the cairn, take 34 paces off to the right, then take a left and you’ll come to a chute - a scree chute. It will take you under the crags and down.’”
“Sure enough, he was right. I’ve used it loads of times since - I just count my paces at the top, take the route, and every time it has worked out perfectly. He said 34. I paced 34, and it was right there, perfect.”
In a landscape that can so often be beset by some of the worst weather England (and by default - the world) can muster, the benefits of intricate knowledge can hardly be overstated.
“I know exactly how long it takes to get out bed and get my kit on - six minutes. I know exactly how long it takes to get to the different car parks around - the closest is 22 minutes to the car park in Keswick. With traffic, it’s 26. At 5, there’s no traffic though.
“I know I can set my alarm, get straight out of bed, come down, put my kit on in the utility room, and be out the back door in six minutes after waking up. I have to be really careful not to wake Isobelle up though - she wakes up at the drop of a hat.
“All this contributes to getting back in time, so that Sophie can get ready and go to work. I squeeze as much as I can out of each run. If I notice that I’m going to be back ten minutes early, I make a turn and add a little bit more to it. It’s weird, it’s always on my mind. I constantly think about time - how much I have or don’t have - and where I’m going to run next.”
In the middle of a race, imagine sitting down on the side of the trail and giving your loved one a call. That’s what Ricky did - and has done multiple times.
“I’ve done it during a race in France. There was a long downhill - something ridiculous like 2,000m. The track was nearly vertical all the way down. I got to the bottom, and my legs just shut down. I was in the lead, and I only had 10 kilometers to go - just a climb and a descent. I knew my legs had gone though. I felt alright in myself, but my legs were done. I got through the checkpoint, started the climb, but then I had to sit down.
“You know how you feel like you could sob to yourself sometimes far into a workout or race, when things have gotten really bad? I sat down on a rock, and the other guys were passing me, all French guys, no one asked if I was alright, just went along with their race.
“I rang Sophie, had a talk with her. I told her how bad I was. I just couldn’t continue. She talked me through it, and I eventually got up. She was at the finish line waiting as well - so I had to get back to her. I think I still finished top ten. Times like that where it’s really hard and you have to dig a bit deeper than you usually would - it helps a lot to be able to talk to somebody, it helps the most to be able to talk to Sophie.”
The closest car park is just over 20 minutes from Ricky’s home in Dearham. It’s approximately 33 minutes to the car park at the base of Blencathra from Ricky’s home in Dearham. It’s a crucial 20 more minutes of roundtrip travel on already jam-packed mornings, which is why - for purely practical reasons - you know this is a special one for Ricky. He had an hour-and-a-half allotted for this run, and finished with one minute and 10 seconds to spare.
“I don’t have the fastest time up there. If I’m doing specific training, I’ll go up somewhere where there’s better training - to the forest where the tracks are really well kept, and I can run faster. Blencathora is more of my plaything. There are so many ways up it - and it’s a beautiful ridge. I like to explore there.
“Sometimes, I don’t mind going that little bit further in the morning. I just have to get up earlier to allow for that little bit of extra time. I went up there the other week to play around on that ridge and saw the most amazing sunrise along the knife edge ridge near the top. It was spectacular - but I got to work at 10 minutes to 9, which didn’t give me enough time really. I have to get in, get changed, shower, get ready for work by 9. It’s cutting it fine. I can just about do it. That’s the latest I can get into work - 10 to 9. ”
Ricky has already completed one Bob Graham Round and etched his name in the record books as the 1979th person to complete the round in under 24 hours. Ricky did it in the winter though - in the middle of what can only be described as some of the worst weather imaginable.
“I wasn’t prepared for that. I mean, I was, but not for that long. We were on the second leg to Helvellyn running together the three of us. I was looking down at my feet, the mist was so thick, the wind was blowing really hard, and it was raining, and hailing - we were all next to each other, head down, looking at my feet - and I lost them. We spent four or five minutes looking for each other. I could have touched them both. Literally, five meters away, you couldn’t see or hear anything.
“I didn’t enjoy it. That was one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had to deal with. Not because it was a long way, and I couldn’t handle the route. It was the cold. I couldn’t deal with it. I’ve been cold before, but I honestly thought I was going to have to stop and just die right there. I felt that bad. It went unnoticed for a while, and you know when you’re not thinking straight, I was so cold, I had six or seven layers on - four pair of pants - I was just way too cold. I never want to experience something like that again. I’ll do it again, but in summer. You just need a pair of shorts and a shirt.”
Ricky’s time of 21 hours in the dead of winter was far from a disappointment, but definitely far slower than what he had hoped for when he set off. In a way, it’s better like that. Bob Graham wasn’t even successful his first go around when he tried to do 40 peaks in 24-hours at 40 years old. It was only two years later when he got it right.
Half of the people who start the Bob Graham Round finish it. Failure is an essential ingredient.
“I think about anything and everything when I’m out on a run, to be honest. Shopping, music, Sophie, Isobelle, what’s up for the rest of the day? Will I make it back in time? How long can I run until I have to turn around and go back to be in time for work? Should I go back now? Absolutely everything. I find it a really good time to think.
“If I’m not thinking about what’s ahead or the view or something I’d like to take a picture of - I’m thinking about the next run. Later on in the day, I start to wonder when am I going to get out in the evening? How long should I leave it before I tell Sophie I’m going for a second run?
“Having a wife and a child changes it all. Having a family forces me to focus on quality not quantity. You don’t need to run five hours a day every day to be at a good standard.”
Coming about two-thirds of the way through the Bob Graham Round, Yewbarrow is a pivotal moment. Following the long descent of Sca Fell, weary runners meet Yewbarrow. It’s not the highest, nor the longest, but 30 peaks in (including the nine highest in England) and likely over half a day into the Round, the mere sight of it can crush the morale of even the toughest runners.
“The Bob Graham is still relatively small and has never really been in the media’s eye. A lot of the people from the Lakes will know what it is, especially people in the Keswick area or in the valleys around there. Apart from that, I’d say it’s probably not very well known… which is strange, because to me, it’s probably one of the toughest foot challenges you can do.
“A few years ago, Scott Jurek, came over. He has set records all over the place, won Western States like six times run 310 kilometers in 24 hours. He’s a legend. I supported him in his Bob Graham, and he said this was one of the toughest things he’s ever done. He finished in just under 24 hours. If someone like Scott can struggle on the Round, it’s kind of good to see, in a way. I didn’t want him to just breeze through it.
“Sometimes, people brush it off. It’s easy to do that - it’s this time, set by this local guy, on this local course, over 30 years ago - it doesn’t seem like it would hold up. You’d think someone would come over and smash it. That hasn’t happened. It is a world class time. It isn’t just about coming and breaking it though. You have to know the route, have to have the pacers, have to know the land. It’s more than just running fast.”
“For it to be official, you have to have somebody on each summit. When you send your form back, it says something like - I’ve completed the round in this time, on this date - you have to fill in each summit time as well. Usually, the pace is such that it’s possible for others to join you. The people that join you serve the purpose as the witnesses on each summit, but they also help to make it as easy as possible for you to get round - carrying extra clothing, food, and navigating. I had a couple on the first leg, a couple on the second, seven on the third. It’s a real mixture of people. It’s part of the beauty of it. People are willing to help out, because when they did their Round, people did the same for them. It’s a bit of a legacy really. Everyone comes to help you out, even though I didn’t really know all of them.”
In fact, there’s a sort of random video on YouTube of one runner’s Bob Graham - and in there, on the first leg, you can see Ricky playing pacer in this runner’s Round. Doing his part.
“When I did a race in Exmoor recently, a guy came up to me. I think I’ve heard of him, but never met him. It was the events timing person. He owned the company that did the timing for the event. He said, ‘If you do the Bob Graham, let me know when next year. I’d like to come up and see part of it. I was up there and helped support Billy on his round.’
“It’s weird, people coming up to you like that - but great. I’ll send him an email before I do mine next year.
“Billy Bland was there on Honister when I did mine. I think he finally knew I was tough from how bad the weather was (Billy admits to wondering if Ricky had a “screw loose” when he set off that day).
“He only had a few words: ‘Don’t think about it too much.’
“I knew what he was talking about, because we had talked about it before: when you do a slow time like that (21 hours), sometimes, you think about the number too much, you scrutinize it too much. Where could I possibly get seven hours from (to beat the record)? That’s what he was referring to. Seven hours is a lot to make up!”
“I don’t think about the Bob Graham all that much, but I think about the fells all the time. Where am I going to go next? Where am I going to go tomorrow? That’s constant. It’s always on my mind. It’s weird, isn’t it? I just want more and more. I can never get enough.
“On a normal day, my time up there is restricted by family, work, responsibilities - the real world. If I stay too long up there, I feel guilty that I’m not at home. That’s when I think about how great it would be to combine it all - if we could all go and experience this together. Even just today - a hike up. I still absolutely love it. We could just walk up and I could sit here and look at everything - the different rocks, the different formations, everything. I could just look at it forever.”
Most sports don’t require a look back to see forward, but something about the Bob Graham Round makes one look to that original lap of the Lakes to think about how different things have become in the following 84 years - and yet how much they’ve stayed the same.
“If you think about doing it now, everyone has all this amazing kit. He ran around it in a wooly jumper, hobnailed boots, probably ate jam sandwiches, boiled eggs, and drank tea.”
When asked about going downhill, Ricky laughs and immediately quotes Billy Bland:
“If you can’t walk to the edge of a roof without being comfortable, you’ll never be good at running downhill.”
Whenever Billy is asked that question, that’s always his answer. Hardly surprising, for a man who has come up with these gems:
“Quite a lot of people in my time have said, ‘Oh I could never do that.’ and I’ve said, well, yes you could. One leg past the other - that’s all running is. If you get out there are train, you might be surprised what your body can do.”
Or, on the topic of Billy Bland’s own legend:
“I was as good as I was. So what? However good or bad Billy Bland was, that was as good as he was.”
Ricky’s answer to the age old question of getting down the mountain as quickly as possible is a little simpler than testing one’s mettle on the edge of a roof.
“If you haven’t got any hills near you and can’t practice that type of terrain, you’ll never be good at it. Some people just have it though. The good ones - they make it look like they flow downhill. Like water. It’s part of them.”
Cycling has a cherished pantheon of the riders blessed with that holy concoction of daredevil nerves and the technical ability to navigate a twisting, high-speed descent. It’s the same with fell running.
“People don’t talk about it so much. It’s not recognized as a thing - running downhill. But it is. When you run fast, stuff moves more, more weight goes into the loose rock, and things get interesting. There’s a lot more to think about. I try to have the minimum amount of contact with the ground as possible. Rather than stepping down, I try to just glance over it. When it’s slippery - a normal person would probably step fully and give it their mistaken confidence, whereas sometimes when you run down you have to use it to put your foot on, but not fully step on it. It’s like you’re hovering over the ground with only minimal contact.”
“To me, there’s nowhere else that compares to the Lake District. I’ve been to loads of spots and seen beautiful places, which have amazed me. I’ve thought - I’m so lucky to be running here, but there’s nothing better for me than getting to Penrith and seeing Blencathra - that’s the first sort of big one you’re greeted with coming from the east from the motorway and the airport. Every time I come back, that’s the first thing I see.
“Sometimes, when I go up a certain way, I think that since the beginning of time, a human has never set foot on this spot. I’m surely the only person ever to stand here, because surely no one else has been stupid enough to go this way.
“I could never imagine myself being far away from these mountains. If someone said you could only play on these mountains for the rest of your life - that wouldn’t bother me. There’s enough exploring there for me for the rest of the time I’m here. Searching for different, little adventures in places you’ve been countless times before.”
The fells have brought Ricky to tears. They’ve given him some of the greatest moments of his life. The Bob Graham Round record is always on Ricky’s mind. But it’s just another thing, not the only thing. Family. Home. Community. Those are the things he loves. And when he runs, they’re the love that carries him, one foot step at a time, onward.