I did not achieve what I was aiming for on The Grand Round, but I ended up with more than I could have hoped for. I have never been more proud of a failed pursuit or gained as many unexpected positive outcomes. Of course I wish a few things had gone differently and that I had been able to finish. I’m an overly competitive goal-driven Type A perfectionist who is horrible company for a “casual” game of anything, and falling short will always gnaw at me. I went out to seek a challenge, though, and based on the criteria I laid out I got exactly what I was seeking. If everything was predictable, there would be no excitement or passion, no adventure, no exploration. In a way, the plan has to be for things to not go according to plan.
As it stands I had an incredible adventure and learned a great deal, both specific to the challenge itself and more broadly applicable to my own life. I also learned that there is at least one thing that I can reliably plan on: the passion and selfless support of the fell running community. I’m still in a bit of disbelief at their generosity, and I come from a place that I’d say epitomizes southern hospitality. I’ll tell you what, though, we sure ain’t got no monopoly on kindness.
I’d also like to provide fair warning up front: this is long. Really long. I think it’s longer than my 2017 Barkley race report. When I started I thought I’d try to keep it concise, but I also wanted to get everything down (if for no other reason than for me to look back on myself). I ended up letting things flow pretty much unfiltered, and I don’t have the time to go back and edit it down. So, enjoy. Maybe read it in a few sections over the course of multiple trips to the bathroom. 😄 But, if you would like to have a look at a much more concise write-up from someone who can say more in a sentence than I can in a page, then head over to Jonny Muir’s blog. I don’t know that anything I’ve read about my running has felt as meaningful and been as skillfully written.
About that plan
My plan was quite calculated. There are very few things I do that are not. It might seem like I showed up in the UK and just decided to do this on a whim a month later, but this had been stewing in my mind since nearly the moment I found out moving to the UK was even a possibility. I researched the terrain, the maps, pictures, the books and reports from people who had done the rounds. No one had ever done exactly what I was trying to do, though, and there were many additional variables I would have to account for.
No template existed, but as best I could I tried to calculate reasonable times for each portion based on previous data. How fast have others done the rounds? How fast am I relative to those people? How much should I expect to slow down from doing all three rounds consecutively? Which routes give me the best risk / reward tradeoff? What’s the statistical average of the weather I can expect relative to other attempts, and the wind direction on the bike? How much sleep is reasonable for this length of time?
Once I had ballpark estimates for the rounds themselves in my head, I tried to fit them around daylight. I wanted to start Paddy Buckley at first light so that I could finish, get a couple of sleep cycles in (~3 hours), and then hit the incredibly ambitious middle portion of the attempt hard: bike, Bob Graham, bike from first light on day 2 till last light on day 3 so that I would never be biking in the dark. Then the Charlie Ramsay plan was to just survive with whatever I had left.
Yes, with hindsight I now know there are things I could have planned better, but I’ll save those thoughts for the end. For now, on with the adventure.
Croeso i Gymru
As soon as I told people we were moving to England, comments about the weather poured forth more torrentially than the rains I heard stories about. In our first two months, though, the weather had actually been quite pleasant. Never hot, or cold, and really just a few days of rain. I didn’t see what the fuss was all about. And so it was on a lovely Tuesday afternoon that James Ritchie drove me through Wales to Capel Curig, where I would be starting the Paddy Buckley Round.
I opted to go up the day before and get a room at an inn, trying to ensure that I would get a good night’s sleep before starting. Lack of sleep was my biggest concern with the schedule I had laid out, especially for the biking portions. So as soon as we had taken care of the crucial task of finding some pizza, we turned in early for a solid night of sleep before the 4:30 AM start.
But as is the case with many British inns, our accommodation also featured a pub. And the pub was right below our room. Despite years of training with 3 pre-schoolers sleeping in the rooms next to me, I ended up with 3 hours of sleep at best. Then the very second we stepped outside the rain started. Brilliant, is I believe the proper term here for my attempt at British humour.
Pacers – Chris Webb, Tim Budd, Andy Simpson
Road support – James Ritchie
TOD – 4:52
After a 22 minute delay due to some gear / technical problems, we set off from Capel Curig at 4:52 AM. The rain was still fairly light, and we were treated to a beautiful sunrise as we headed up Moel Siabod. It lasted about 10 minutes, as the sun slipped between the horizon and the cloud bank. It was the only time I would see the sun – not just for Paddy Buckley, but for the whole thing.
We were moving at a good pace, pretty much on schedule after factoring in the delayed start. Chris, Tim, and Andy were spot on with navigation and I quickly learned the value of knowing not just where to go, but the exact best line to get there. I even learned a great new saying: less haste, more speed.
We deftly weaved around largely invisible bogs, splashing along as the rain and winds steadily increased. During my “recce” a month earlier it had actually been quite dry, and so I mentioned early on that I hated having wet feet and I’d like to do whatever we could to keep them dry as much as possible. Everyone got a good chuckle out of that, and I quickly learned that “as much as possible” meant none. Zero. After that initial climb any hopes of dry feet went the same place as the sun, never to be found again.
I marveled, though, as I watched feet hit the ground. The earth would sink in to a perfectly round little crater, and then immediately spring back into place as the foot lifted up. We were running on a giant sponge.
At times, maneuvering around the bogs was impossible. I thought I could still cleverly avoid them by using my poles to vault across them. It worked a few times, just enough to get my confidence up. At around the 4th one I leapt forward with my poles in front of me, thrusting them downward to push myself across the bog. They instantly disappeared into the muck and I almost faceplanted before finding myself standing in it nearly chest deep. Visions of quicksand from (mostly bad) movies I watched as a kid filled my head as I clawed my way forward to get out. At least my feet were already wet?
But no, it wasn’t all wet grass and bogs… there were plenty of rocks too! I ended up snapping a pole after pushing it forward just as it got stuck deep between two rocks. Despite the mishaps, though, we were still moving fairly well.
Leg 1 time – 5:26
Total time – 5:26
Pacers – Chris Webb, Tim Budd
Additional support – Dave Boothroyd
Road support – James Ritchie
TOD – 10:18
We started off strong on leg 2, but were immediately faced with a daunting climb. It was steep, and covered in thick, soaking wet bracken up to my knees. As we approached the top is when the weather also really started to get bad. The rain became steady, and the winds picked up massively.
I was in no mood to hang around in those conditions, and started pushing the pace on the climbs while remaining cautious on the descents (last thing I wanted was an injury with 90 hours to go). We moved from top to top, as the conditions continued to deteriorate. I’ve ended up in the same scenario countless times now, even quite recently at both the Franklin Mountains 200 and this year’s Barkley (horrible weather seems to have followed me lately).
A battle ensued in my head:
– “It’ll warm up as we get into the afternoon, and in any case as long as you keep moving forward you can finish up this leg without stopping to add layers.”
– “Idiot, haven’t you learned your lesson by now? Stop and put on some dang clothes!”
Somehow, the idiot part of me won out. I pushed onwards to the next support point, my body losing large amounts of energy just trying to keep itself warm and me starting to also forgo proper hydration and nutrition in my rush to get out of the elements instead of just gearing up appropriately for them. Chris and Tim were also feeling the effects of the cold, and by the time we finished the leg I was jealous of the trip to a warm pub they were surely about to take (which it turns out they did, as I found from Tim’s recollection of the adventure over on his blog).
Leg 2 time – 3:38
Total time – 9:05
Pacer – Damian Hall
Additional support – James Elson, Drew Sheffield
Road support – James Ritchie, Julian Jamison
TOD – 13:57
Coming in from leg 2 I at least got a giant boost from the sight of Julian. I greatly appreciated my new UK friends, but seeing a familiar face who has seen me through similar situations was incredibly uplifting. Julian lived near me in DC for years and crewed for me at 2016 Barkley and 2017 Barkley, before coincidentally moving to England at about the same time I did.
I got some good calories in me and actual appropriate clothing. We were debating whether I should add another mid layer, and finally the experienced, intelligent part of my brain won out as I tossed on a second jacket. It’s a good thing I did, as I believe I would have quickly been down for the count without the extra layer.
Damian and I took off, moving well on the initial climbs and exchanging valuable information on the best snack foods the US and the UK have to offer. He claimed he was a horrible navigator, but as with my earlier support he was invaluable in moving quickly along the best lines. Sure, I had GPS and I could have navigated myself, but not without expending considerable mental energy and time on it. Being able to put my head down and think of nothing but moving forward and snack food was a benefit that is difficult to express the magnitude of – not being able to do that is part of what makes Barkley so hard.
We worked our way up to Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa), the highest peak in Wales, where I saw… nothing. Absolutely nothing but fog and rain as I carefully climbed the final few feet through the brutal wind. According to the forecasts the sustained winds on the summits were now topping 50 mph, bringing the real-feel temperature well below freezing. Coming down from the summit the rain started falling upwards for a stretch as the wind whipped up and over the ridgeline. Every drop stung as it pelted the half-frozen skin on my face, like a barrage of BBs chipping away at a block of ice.
Still, we made good time. I had been in plenty of bad conditions before and I knew that feeling uncomfortable, no matter how uncomfortable that may be, was no reason to slow down. There are roadblocks, there are obstacles, and there are inconveniences. At this point I was wearing 6 layers but the weather was still the latter, and as we descended and finished up leg 3 we actually had a brief respite from the worst of it.
Leg 3 time – 4:18
Total time – 13:25
Pacers – Damian Hall, Michael Corrales, Tom Hayward
Road support – Julian Jamison
TOD – 18:17
But oh, how quickly that can change. As we continued I realized why the weather is such a factor and why so many great fell runners schedule backup dates for their runs in case the weather is, well, sort of like that. The rocks. We hit the Glyders, and bogs were swapped out for boulder fields. I don’t care who you are, what you’re wearing, or what you’re trying to do, you can’t run on fields of smooth, wet rocks. Not down them, not up them, not across them, not any which way if you have even the slightest regard for your own safety.
It was at this point that the idea of doing the whole thing in 100 hours went out the window for me. I knew that similar weather awaited me on the other rounds, and there was simply no way I could move fast enough in those conditions on that terrain. I stopped talking about snack food as my mind quickly turned to re-formulating the plan and re-calculating the schedule. I still wanted to at least get each round in in under 24 hours, and to give myself the best chance of that I would need to bike at a near effortless speed and target slower times on Bob Graham and the remainder of Paddy Buckley, using the buffer I had built up to conserve energy.
With the terrain continuing the way it did I really had no choice but to use that buffer anyway. As we took around 45 minutes on the wet, rocky, night-time descent of Tryfan (Michael said the record is 8 minutes! 8! But the guy who did it broke his wrists while doing it.), I slipped and banged up my knee despite moving forward with every possible precaution. I assumed it was one of those things I would be able to just run off, and we continued to the bottom to meet Julian at the final support point.
Leg 4 time – 4:52
Total time – 18:18
Pacers – Damian Hall, Michael Corrales, Tom Hayward, James Ritchie
Road support – Julian Jamison
TOD – 23:10
We lost a lot of time against the original schedule on leg 4. A lot. But for the new “just finish in under 24 hours” schedule we still had a nice buffer. And we would need it. After pushing nicely on the first climb and getting another chuckle from the natives when I asked what the lights on the hillside were (they were sheep, the creepy eyes of sheep as our headlights reflected off of them), I found that my knee was in no mood to run back downhill.
Time began slipping away, and even sub 24 was no longer guaranteed. At one point Michael stopped to warn me of this, and I at least found the energy to start pushing a bit more on climbs. But on descents, I might as well have been hobbling on one leg, my poles turned into makeshift crutches. The rocks ended, and I still couldn’t move with any sort of speed. I honestly don’t remember much else from the leg, just focusing one step at a time on moving forward. When we finally reached the bottom of the last descent I was in a bad spot, but we made it in in 23:14 just as first light began to show.
Leg 5 time – 4:55
Total time – 23:14
Support – Julian Jamison
TOD – 4:07
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a large part of me that wanted to quit. I at least had a Paddy Buckley round, and I couldn’t remember having that type of pain that early on ever before. There’s natural pain (that which is normal, and expected even when doing these sorts of things), and then there’s abnormal pain (that which is from an injury). This was the latter. I felt confident I could still do the bike portion, but what if I made it all that way only to discover that I still couldn’t run downhill and had no chance at all of finishing Bob Graham?
If it had just been me, if no one else had been a part of this, I probably would have quit. I’ve written before about the power of intrinsic motivation, and how it’s a far superior force to extrinsic motivation. But as I sat there, completely sapped of my intrinsic motivation, I realized that there are actually two types of extrinsic motivation. What I wrote about before I’ll refer to now as outside-in motivation: seeking accolades, approval, Facebook likes, etc., in essence doing something so that others give reward. What I experienced in that moment I’ll refer to as inside-out motivation: doing something so that others receive reward (or in this case really, to prevent them from receiving loss). In the right situation, I believe that could be the most powerful motivator there is.
Over two dozen people were supporting me on this adventure. People I had never even spoken to before. People who deep down inside may have thought my crazy goal was impossible yet were still taking time out of their lives to show up at all hours of the day and night in absolutely horrid weather to help some crazy American pursue that goal. And for that matter, I was fine being the crazy American but I did not want to be the “cheeky” American who came over and recklessly ran his mouth about something he knew far too little about. I was in essence, an ambassador – if not for American ultrarunners then at least for hillbilly ultrarunners from the backwoods of TN (a combo I doubt is seen all that often in the UK).
I had also failed at Barkley this year in part because I had The Grand Round on my mind. If I failed it as well it was essentially two failures in one, to stack on top of my Kona result from last year. I would have gained nothing from the Barkley failure, and even for someone like me who intentionally does things where there’s a high probability of failing, if enough big ones start to come in a row it’s natural to start to feel like a failure, a fraud. I had to get some sort of win out of this, and stopping now I would feel nothing of the sort.
So that was that. People were waiting for me in Keswick. And as long as I could still move forward I wasn’t about to not show up and let their efforts be for naught. And I wasn’t about to let this end in complete failure. To seal the deal, I still had Julian with me. This is a guy who saw me wander in like a zombie and got me turned right back around to keep going. A guy who I had once told to not let me quit between loops unless something thicker than his thumb was sticking into or out of me. As I talked to him, and inspected my body for protruding objects, I knew the choice had never even entered his mind. I was getting on my bike, and that’s the only option there was.
T1 time – 4:43
Total time – 27:57
Bike – Capel Curig to Keswick
Escape from Wales
Road support – Jim Rutherford (and son)
TOD – 8:50
I got in a few hours of sleep, actually about as much as I had the night before Paddy Buckley. It hadn’t affected me during the round, but I knew that the 2nd day is when I would start to feel the lack of sleep from that 1st night and I wanted to be sure I wasn’t drowsy on the bike. Julian and I headed back to the Paddy Buckley start to meet Jim Rutherford, who had my bike and would be providing support all the way to Keswick (with outstanding assistance from his son).
The rain had actually stopped for a bit while I slept. As soon as I got on the bike, down it came again. I just kept telling myself, “Recovery ride John. It’s just a recovery ride. A 175 mile recovery ride.” I wanted to especially take it easy out of the gate, as sometimes my body can take a while before it responds and gets going.
I struggled a bit on some of the climbs making it out of Snowdonia, but was at least able to maintain an effort level that kept me moving forward without deteriorating further. When I first met back up with Jim a couple of hours into it I took a quick 20 minute power nap to recharge. I thought it might recharge me for the big final climb I had before I made it into England.
It definitely recharged me, but it did not make the climb any shorter. After slipping and nearly falling over on a cattle grate I hit the final ascent and was putting out a huge amount of power relative to my planned effort level. Then I looked down and saw my speed: barely over 4 mph. I could walk at around 3 mph. So I did something that I have never done on a bike as an adult. I got off and walked. Like sprinting up a hill in a 100 mile race, the massive energy cost simply was not worth it to gain that small amount of speed.
I continued to fall behind the original schedule, but to be honest I was pretty happy with the progress I was making at the effort level I was giving. Whenever I started to feel good and had the urge to let loose a bit I repeatedly reminded myself: auxiliary power only, do not engage the main engines. At this point the 100 hour goal was not even remotely possible, and focusing on the rounds each under 24 hours was my driving force.
Road support – Jim Rutherford (and son)
TOD – noon-ish
I continued on steadily, navigating a maze of back roads and cycleways through Mold and Chester before arriving in Runcorn. There, I was met with a sign informing me that the bike / pedestrian bridge across the River Mersey was closed during working hours. I rode aimlessly around for a bit, thinking there must surely be another way across.
After seeing me circle past for the 3rd time a local told me that the only way across was to take a bus. I found the bus stop, and saw that 3 bikes were allowed on at once. I was 3rd in line. Phew. Waiting around also at least gave me a chance to turn my phone on and check the weather forecast for the Lake District. Sustained winds at the summits topping 60 mph. Awesome! I needed something a little extra to make me reminisce fondly on weather in Wales.
After finding the bus, waiting on it, riding it, and getting back to my route, I was finally on the way again. It had cost me about 45 minutes, but also added the frustration of having a small part of my route be motor-assisted. I had specifically planned my route to avoid such situations and have the entire thing be self-propelled. There was nothing I could do about it, though, and so I didn’t dwell on it.
But then, for a small stretch something amazing happened. It got “bright.” The sun never actually came out, but the clouds got thin enough for some brightness and warmth to get through. It felt like a tropical paradise. To top it off multiple people came out and met me along the route, some even bringing food and water for me. Again, the support was unreal.
Something that I failed to account for in my bike schedule, though, was all the stopping and turning as I made my way through the dozens of small towns along the way. In my planning, I thought “I can bike 112 miles in the middle of an Ironman averaging over 24 mph. I should easily be able to average 16 mph without expending much effort at all.” Looking back at my data, I actually wasn’t far off from that when I was actually moving. But my average speed after including all the stopping? 12. 12 mph.
Into the lakes
Road support – Jim Rutherford (and son)
Bike support – Jacob Snochowski
TOD – around 8 or so
After another quick power nap, I hit the SE corner of the Lake District. Unfortunately Keswick, where the Bob Graham Round starts, is in the NW. I had entirely avoided caffeine up until that point, wanting to save it for when I desperately needed it, but I took my first small dose to make the final push. The rains had returned, night was setting in, and I had some pretty good climbs to finish up the ride.
Just as I hit the worst of it, though, my La Sportiva teammate Jacob Snochowski unexpectedly swooped in out of nowhere. He safely guided me those final miles into Keswick. I was hours behind schedule, it was close to midnight, and it was still raining, but people were waiting for me there, and they were ready to do whatever was needed to get me out on Bob Graham in good shape.
Bike time – 14:30
Total time – 42:28
Support – Martin and Lisa Bergerud
TOD – 23:20
My original plan called for pushing through both bike portions and Bob Graham without sleep. In perfect conditions, that plan was incredibly ambitious. In the actual conditions, it was simply impossible. Amazingly, Martin and Lisa Bergerud lived just around the corner from Moot Hall (the exact starting location of the round). They had set up a mattress for me and opened their entire home to me in the middle of the night. After throwing down an entire pizza, except politely leaving one slice, I turned in for some more sleep. I got in another 2.5 – 3 hours of sleep, bringing my total over the last 68 hours to about 9 hours. And with that, I was ready to set out into the mountains for another 24 hours (hopefully a little less).
The bike had taken much longer than planned, but I had met my goal of completing the ride at minimal energy cost. I was still unsure how my knee would respond, but my muscles felt pretty good. Unlike the end of Paddy Buckley, there was never even the slightest doubt in my mind. I had come that far, I was there, my support was there, and it was time to give it a go.
Jim handed off support to his brother Adam, who had come out to drive supplies around the Lake District for me the day before his birthday. Actually, he would be a year older by the end of it.
T2 time – 4:11
Total time – 46:39
Pacer – Andy Berry
Road support – Adam Rutherford
TOD – 3:31
We left Moot Hall and immediately took a different route than what I had planned. Andy knew the route incredibly well, though, and I was just waking up with a pizza still on my stomach so I was in no mood to argue. It was also something I had come to truly appreciate about fell running: the goal is the summit not the route. It was freeing, and natural, like a kid seeing something in the distance and running off excitedly to see what it is. The journey and the exploration are a wonderful part of the experience, sure, but human nature is to seek a goal. We see a mountain and chart a route to get to the top; we don’t make a route and just hope it gets us there.
Well, when you can see the mountain top at least. We were on our way up, but as with Paddy Buckley the mountains quickly rose into the clouds, leaving no visibility. I at least had no worries of being cold, though. Given the forecast and not yet knowing exactly how things would be up top I had taken off feeling a bit like Randy in A Christmas Story. It wasn’t long before I was shedding layers and trying to stuff them in Andy’s now bulging vest. But we moved well on the first climb, reaching Skiddaw right on schedule.
Then, the moment I had been dreading. We started going down. I gingerly moved forward, avoiding large impacts on my left knee and fearful with each step that it would rebel. I ran sideways, I galloped (my right leg receiving the brunt of the downhill force), and in some places I simply pointed my toes down and slid on the wet grass like I was skiing.
But then something happened. Or rather, it didn’t. There was no abnormal pain. It was all just natural pain. I slowly ran with more confidence, and still, things were relatively ok. We finished the leg ahead of schedule, and I quickly got some extra calories, swapped out gear, and kept moving.
Leg 1 time – 3:37
Bob Graham time – 3:37
Total time – 50:16
Pacers – Paul Wilson, Darren Moore, Jeff Roberts, Rob Brown
Road support – Adam Rutherford
TOD – 7:08
I was running again. We quickly moved back up into the clouds and the weather forecast I had seen the day before in Runcorn started to prove accurate. But I didn’t care. I was running again. I had regained my confidence, and my pacers seemed to know every blade of grass on the mountain (and they were great company.). Incredibly, Paul Wilson was even coming back to support another leg later that night.
Experiencing momentary weakness makes normal feel so much stronger than it actually is, as if the body expects the upwards trend to continue. In that moment I knew that I would be arriving back at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel in a couple of days, Grand Round complete. In that moment, I was invincible.
Moments like these have always been a bit of a conundrum for me, though. Just like the lows, the highs are fleeting. Do I try to capitalize on them, risking a burnout? Or do I restrain myself, risking a missed opportunity to use my body while my mind allows it? In this situation I decided to place my bets on the former. I needed the mental boost after being pushed to the brink, and if my knee went south again I wanted to have the time buffer.
I started to fade just a bit near the end, after a particularly long climb (Fairfield) that was fully exposed to the worst of the wind. But I was still feeling good, and moved quickly through the next support point to start the all-important leg 3.
Leg 2 time – 4:13
Bob Graham time – 7:50
Total time – 54:29
Pacers – Andy Blackett
Road support – Adam Rutherford
TOD – 11:21
With the way my schedule had slipped, it was incredible to see people still there at the start of each leg. Quite a few people came out who hadn’t planned on it, or even known about it in some cases. Andy got a call that morning to see if he could come out to support leg 3, and out he came. All of this was taken care of without me even knowing about it until I got to the start of the leg and met someone new. I felt like a running back who kept scoring touchdowns but who would have been demolished in the backfield without a great offensive line (sorry, I don’t know the appropriate UK team sports analogy).
As assuredly as ultrarunning has highs; it has lows. As we reached the top of the first climb the sleep deprivation hit me and my energy level plummeted. I finally started the steady caffeine drip, but it was too late to stem the tide of weariness that washed over me. Andy did his best to keep me going and keep my mind off it, but I had already retreated deep within my own head and put whatever conversational part of my brain was left on autopilot.
Even with as strong as I felt on leg 2, I knew that this moment would come. I was prepared, and knew that as long as I could weather the storm I was still in good shape with the buffer I had built up. Time began to slip. I just needed to hold on and make it to the end of leg 3 in decent shape.
This is also where the weather can really take a toll mentally, though. With a solid roof of confidence overhead it’s easy to ignore the rain, but as soon as there’s the slightest crack water comes gushing in. When the weather is consistently bad that moment will inevitably come. At times I could lean into the wind at 45 degrees and not fall forward. But it was swirling as well. It could switch direction in a second, sending me swiftly skipping across slippery stones down the slope, desperately trying not to slip with each step. (How ya like that middle school English teachers?)
Why on Earth am I out here? I should be at home, in a warm room with my kids. Is this worth it? Who chooses to do this? What if I fail? Even if I don’t, what am I even accomplishing?
The answers do come, and it is immensely valuable to have been there before and know that they are coming. But in that moment it can be legitimately impossible to know what the answers are. The topic of family actually came up around the same time, and I had to just stop the conversation.
My family is one of my greatest sources of strength most of the time. I want my kids to have adventurous spirits, to dream big, and to see that they can make those dreams real. I want them to know that it’s ok to not live their lives as one long series of obligations and to take some amount of guilt-free time for themselves to pursue those dreams. But in that moment I struggle to not feel that guilt myself, and I question whether I should just be sitting at home on the couch. My strength becomes my weakness, and that’s when it’s imperative to have a quiver of strengths to draw from to fend off the mental assault.
Eventually, I pulled out of it. I knew it would come; I just hoped it wouldn’t come too late. We regained some time descending to Wasdale, I quickly joined a full team of pacers, and I carried the momentum on up the other side of the valley.
Leg 3 time – 6:51
Bob Graham time – 14:41
Total time – 61:20
Pacers – Brian Melia, Tim Adams, Chris Bird, Tim Wiggins, Matt Neale, Zepp (the dog)
Road support – Adam Rutherford
TOD – 18:12
Hello Yewbarrow. It’s lovely to meet you.
I salivated looking up at the climb ahead of us. If anything could regain lost time, this was it. See, I don’t love climbs because they’re fun, or because they somehow don’t hurt. I love them because they’re opportunities. If I’m racing, or chasing a time cut-off, I know that that’s where I can make the most gains. In a virtuous cycle, my mind feeds off of that for a mental boost that pushes those gains further. Between the last peak on leg 3 and the first peak on leg 4 I made up over half of the losses that I incurred during my tough stretch on leg 3.
At that point, my mind switched back into disaster prevention mode. For an endeavor like this, there’s usually a small time buffer. It slowly gets chipped away by unforeseen losses: a navigational error here, a fall there, a simple mental low spot. With luck, there reaches a point where that reserve can be safely tapped into. I could now sacrifice time to lower the risk of an injury or major problem.
Unfortunately, nothing can really reduce the risk to zero. I started to feel pain in my lower left leg. I assumed it was natural pain, and at that point it is quite natural for a number of things to be hurting a fairly significant amount. But it kept getting worse, and like the end of Paddy Buckley I was starting to struggle to run again.
Just then, as if on cue, the MVP (Most Valuable Pacer) of the whole thing ran up: Zepp. Zepp, the dog. Matt Neale had run up to meet us, carrying a hot thermos of tea all the way. I felt bad to have to tell him that I’m not really a tea drinker, but that was immediately cancelled out when I saw his dog run up. Between simply loving the company of a dog and having my increasingly delirious mind excessively amused and amazed at the dog running around loving life up there in those conditions, it was exactly the distraction and boost I needed.
Hahahaha, that was class 2 scrambling in the dark with rain and gale force winds… how did you get up here dog? You’re so funny!
Then as we made the long final descent, Zepp (who appeared to me to be a border collie) went about his calling in life: herding things down the mountain. The winds kept his tail blown completely parallel to the ground as he ran back and forth keeping us tightly together and leading us straight down the mountain with a flashing red light on his collar. I never did ask Matt if he had that planned when he brought Zepp up there, but he certainly knew the way. It reminded me of our own dog when she was young, an English Shepherd that we had to leave in the US with my parents because she’s too old to make the trip. It was one of the toughest parts of the move over here.
Sidenote: I also have a completely newfound appreciation for wool after seeing so many sheep just hanging out up on the ridges in those conditions munching away like it’s just a normal day. I have no idea what they thought about the crazy people running around… Why am I up here? Well why are you up here? You don’t even have a need for this clearly superior grass.
Leg 2 time – 5:17
Bob Graham time – 19:58
Total time – 66:38
Pacers – Brian Melia, Tim Adams
Road support – Adam Rutherford
TOD – 23:28
After a strong start and a not so strong finish, we pretty much broke even on time on leg 4. Fortunately, the reserve was mostly still in tact. That piggy bank was about to get shattered. The sleep deprivation was really starting to hit me hard, caffeine was no longer helping, I had no idea what was going on with my leg, and sadly Zepp would not be joining us for leg 5.
But I could at least still climb. Few things have ever taken that away from me. We left the final support point and made good time up the last real ascent. We only had 3 summits to go, but still some good distance to cover. By that time I was also on to Brian and Tim’s tricks:
“Only about 200 meters to go!”
*400 meters later
“Yup, only about 100 meters left!”
Finally, we made it to the last one. All that remained was a descent, and then a 5 mile run on road back into Keswick (worst, 8K road race, ever). At that point I was completely mentally checked out. I fixated on the finish, spending much of the last stretch simply repeating “touch the green door” to myself in a rather strange parallel to my “touch the yellow gate” refrain on my last descent finishing Barkley. Although I think I started singing at one point too. Christmas songs I believe. At least the weather seemed appropriate for a December night.
Once we hit the road I at least knew that the only variable left in play was my own body and my ability to stay awake. I could at least still do math, and I continuously calculated the pace we needed to make it back in under 24 hours. Once that pace exceeded walking pace, it was time to phone it in. Tim and Brian tried to keep us moving, but at that point I saw a bigger risk in me pushing it and either hurting something or falling over from exhaustion.
When Tim told me I had to still run the final stretch through the town centre up to Moot Hall, I thought he was joking. Then he told me that after touching the bottom door I had to go up the stairs to touch the top door. Also, not joking. I pulled together whatever I had left and hobbled up to those doors.
I’ve gotta say, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had from a finish. Sure, I was delirious and emotionally unstable by that point, but over the past 50 or so hours I had had considerable doubts of whether that moment would happen. Over that time period I had also come to a full appreciation of how special the rounds and Bob Graham in particular are. Also, thank you English weather. I may not have gotten to see many of the incredible views, but getting to that point in those conditions just made the finish that much sweeter. No matter where I end up, there will always be a small part of me in Keswick, running up to Moot Hall at 3 in the morning.
Leg 5 time – 3:43
Bob Graham time – 23:42
Total time – 70:21
Support – Lisa and Martin Bergerud
TOD – 3:13
But wait, there’s more! Running up to touch those doors would have made for the perfect ending. After just a few minutes to enjoy it, though, my mind turned to the next task at hand. The same thoughts that crept forward at the end of Paddy Buckley began to resurface. There was seemingly no debilitating injury, but I systemically felt shot. And I could still move forward, but could I really get around Ramsay in under 24 hours on that leg?
I didn’t know, and the only course of action where I could find out was to continue. In any case, there were people waiting for me in Scotland, just like there had been people waiting for me in Keswick when I finished Paddy Buckley. As long as I could still move forward I wasn’t about to not show up.
Martin and Lisa again opened their home to me, and I went to get the sleep I desperately needed. It was a fitful sleep, though, with random pains jumping around throughout my body and a good deal of caffeine likely still pumping through my system. I was again limited to a few hours, and when I got up I felt no better than when I had laid down. There was no recharge as there had been with my previous sleeps or even my short power naps. The only real change was that the area above my left ankle was now red and swollen and I could hardly move it.
I spent a great deal of time considering my options, trying to re-calculate a workable schedule and plan. No matter the circumstances, though, it came back down to one simple truth: I would never know unless I tried. One of the many lessons I’ve learned from Barkley is that you simply do not quit in camp. It’s too easy. The desire to quit can be an illusion, when what you really want is to appease the short-term urge to stay comfortable. If you really need / want to quit badly enough, you’ll be willing to go to the effort of doing it after you’re already back out there.
I ate a good meal, got ready, and grabbed my bike.
T3 time – 8:20
Total time – 78:41
Bike – Keswick to Fort William
Road support – Lisa and Martin Bergerud
Bike support – Craig Dring
TOD – 11:33
Martin and Lisa not only opened their home to me and volunteered to be my road support partway to Scotland, they found someone to ride the first section with me as well. It had also actually stopped raining for a bit. I still felt completely shot, but sometimes my body just takes a while to get going. Craig and I took off out of Keswick. 230 mile recovery ride.
We maintained a not all too horrible pace relative to the plan, but relative to my effort level we basically weren’t moving. On top of that I couldn’t shake the drowsiness. At this rate, if the previous bike portion had ended up at 12 mph this was going to be about 8. I’d make it to Ft William in about 2 days. Then came our first “climb.” It was maybe 200 feet and at its worst a 5% grade. It felt about like how I had always imagined Alpe d’Huez.
My body simply would not respond. It had nothing to respond with. Mentally, I was already ready to fall asleep. I stopped at a lip in the climb. I had previously concluded that there was a tiny possibility I could make it, but now I had to give serious thought as to whether it was zero possibility. I simply saw no way I could safely continue. Even if I did, and I napped often enough to stay alert, it would be in to the next week before I even made it to the start of Charlie Ramsay.
Yes there were people waiting for me in Scotland, but at that pace I felt it would be even worse to ask them to continue to wait than to tell them I couldn’t make it. By that point my family was also waiting for me, and I had obligations at work that I could not just push off indefinitely. Since leg 4 of Paddy Buckley I had clung to the idea of simply continuing to move forward, but I had to face the fact that at some point I just could not move forward anymore, at least not with sufficient speed or safety. It was over.
Bike time – 1:12
Total time – 79:53
I called Jessi and messaged the amazing support group that had formed on WhatsApp. Then I returned to Keswick where Martin and Lisa opened their home to me yet again. They had been amazing, and did absolutely everything right to get me back out there on the bike and keep me going but then being fully supportive once I did 100% for sure have to call it.
My mind was already churning with things I could have done differently, ways that I could have improved. I would have a lot of time to gather those thoughts, though. For now, it was bedtime. I was at 92 hours with 12 hours of sleep, and a bit of running and biking in that timespan. I managed to get another few hours and then turned my attention to priority #2: food. We walked back over to the town centre to get an appropriate meal: fish and chips and an enormous ice cream.
While we were out there, someone else came running up to finish a round. It was Jasmin Paris’s brother, and there was Jasmin cheering him on, baby stroller in hand. I had admired her accomplishments from afar, but had never met her or even spoken to her. It was a pretty crazy coincidence to see her there and great to get to chat for a bit. Needless to say, we have a few topics of mutual interest.
The less fortunate part of walking out there is that I discovered the issue with my leg was a bit more than I thought it was. After Paddy Buckley I had an issue that I thought might prevent me from running anymore, yet I continued. After Bob Graham I thought that I could push through the leg issue, but stopped for other reasons. At that point I knew that even if I had made it to Scotland there’s absolutely no way that I could have run Charlie Ramsay.
The next day Martin and Lisa drove me part way home, where we met Jim who took me the rest of the way. I was finally back with my family, but also right back to the real world and work. Over the course of the week my leg also got worse, and I was seriously worried for a few days that I had a tibial stress fracture rather than some sort of soft tissue damage. I didn’t run a step for over a week, the longest stretch I’ve had since after finishing Barkley. Making it even worse, my muscles felt absolutely fine. I just had a defective part. Gradually I’ve been able to get back to it and I’m in the clear on the stress fracture, but it’s still not 100%. The most plausible cause I’ve heard is tenosynovitis. In any case I have little doubt that it resulted from changing my gait after banging up my knee.
Recovery from these things is also a lot more than physical: I’m still trying to catch up on work and haven’t even had time to unpack my Grand Round bags (although I suppose I could have done that instead of writing this novella).
I’m still moving forward, though, and my mind is still churning with things I could have done differently. As for now, I still have a big summer of races planned and I’m focusing on mentally and physically preparing for that. I hopped in to a trail half marathon on Father’s Day and came away with a win, an enormous shot of confidence and a bit of a needed small success after “failing” at Barkley and The Grand Round.
I’ve now had some time to churn through all those post-event thoughts a bit more. First off, I’m immensely happy and satisfied with what I was able to achieve. When I failed at Barkley in 2016 with 4+ loops I was proud of the accomplishment but it still overall felt like a failure to me. This feels like a success (even though technically, no, it wasn’t). The logical part of my brain knows that there is almost no way I could have done better on a first attempt, especially in those conditions. If I had quit after Paddy Buckley it would be a much different story.
And really, if a challenge can be met with success the first time, maybe it wasn’t a sufficient challenge. There should always be variables to have to optimize, puzzle pieces to fit together. That’s part of the fun. When I took this shot I knew that actually taking the shot was the only way to find some of those puzzle pieces. Sure, I could have done a lot more recces and planned a bit better the first time, but I still wouldn’t have known if it was possible and there are still things I wouldn’t have known until I took the shot. Now, I know that it’s possible and I learned more in that failure than I could have learned in years of recces or successes on the rounds individually.
To stress again: of course I wish I could have finished and I wasn’t planning to fail. But not having a plan for if I failed would have simply been foolish. And now, that is resulting in a new plan. One that might actually work. For the past two years I’ve not really had anything that captured my imagination, my passion, and my drive the way that Barkley once did. At times I honestly didn’t think that I ever would. Now, I have it.
About that updated plan? Well, there are a lot of pieces to it, but here are the big ones:
- I think 120 hours is the magic number, the one that puts it just within reach of what’s possible. 100 is maybe doable under perfect conditions and perfect execution and to be honest a bit of disregard for safety on the bike that I’m not willing to take on myself or encourage others to do. 120 hours also has the nice math of being 24 hours for each portion (3 rounds + 2 bike sections).
- I’ll be looking for people to ride with me on the bike portions, both for speed and safety. I have a bit of a bad history with drafting, but that’s in the context of it being done illegally. Originally, I was reluctant on The Grand Round to even ask for support on the running other than navigational help. A week out, I was still planning on carrying all my own stuff. Even during Paddy Buckley I insisted on carrying a water bottle and the majority of the food. In things I’ve pursued in the past, self-sufficiency was a point of pride. But I had never experienced anything like this, where there was such a shared sense of pride in achieving the goal. And that’s not just for my goal. Support is given to anyone who is willing to challenge themselves with whatever their goal might be. I still have incredible appreciation for self-sufficiency, but as long as the bar is adjusted appropriately both approaches have their place. In this case the whole endeavor would have been flat-out foolish without support, and it felt absolutely amazing to feel like we were truly seeking the limits of what we could do rather than what I could do.
The other part of this is that if anyone else ever does decide to have a go at it I don’t want them to have to spend two years on a triathlon team so that they can get a super fancy time trial bike with aero wheels. That was one of the things I hated about triathlon to begin with. Being able to draft largely nullifies that advantage and makes it accessible to anyone who can afford a halfway decent road bike.
- I’ll have a few start date options and pull the trigger when it looks like maybe the weather won’t be completely horrible the entire time. I didn’t want to do that this time partly because I underestimated the effect of the weather but mostly because I didn’t want to wreck the plans of that many people and I didn’t know that I would have enough support if I moved the date at the last minute. Seeing how much people came together to still be there when my schedule changed this time, and now having shown at least that this is possible, I’m pretty confident the support would still be there. And too much would have gone into it to let the weather completely ruin any chance of succeeding.
I know I’m a bit of a broken record at this point, but I’m still absolutely blown away by the support. I kept thinking the whole time about what I could do to show my appreciation and thank the people who came out, and the people who were waiting in Scotland, and the people who were planning on coming out but couldn’t make it due to the change in schedule. It reached a certain point, though, where I realized there was absolutely nothing that I could do to pay everyone back. And it really forced me to realize, or remember at least, that that’s what true generosity is.
“If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you?” I feel like our culture has such a quid pro quo element to it that it was not only surprising at first to have this experience, but admittedly momentarily slightly annoying. “Now I’m going to have to do something in return… how am I ever going to do that for all these people?!” And it’s not that I wouldn’t if given the opportunity, but being able to accept generosity for what it is: genuine selfless kindness, makes it incredibly more meaningful to both the giver and the receiver. There’s certainly a fine line between graciously accepting it and taking advantage of it, but in the moment at least I’m going to focus more on appreciating acts of kindness rather than thinking of how to return the favor. That can come later.
I was going to add some of the slew of other things I learned through this experience, but this is already long enough (probably far too long). One of these days hopefully I’ll put those in a Things I’ve Learned from Ultrarunning post.
Gear and Nutrition
Well, there was a lot of gear for this. And a lot of food. This is a pretty stark contrast to my long string of triathlon race reports from last year where this section basically consisted of “I used the same stuff and ate the same things.”
Note: I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
The length, the conditions, and the multi-disciplinary nature of this adventure made for quite the gear list (and thus a large reason I still haven’t unpacked).
I’ll start with my socks and base layer, which were absolutely amazing. I spent the better part of 4 days nearly constantly moving and completely soaking wet, and I had zero chafing and not even the start of a blister anywhere. Nothing burned when I got in the shower, and my feet were absolutely immaculate. I’m honestly still a bit baffled myself at that second part. For the entire thing I had on XOSKIN as my base: toe socks, then a pair of regular socks over those, tights, and a form fit long sleeved shirt (I did remove the shirt when it warmed up for a short stretch of the bike). Before each of the rounds I put a bit of Run Goo on my feet and a bit of baby powder in my socks. Otherwise I didn’t do any lube or skin care whatsoever.
Over top of that base layer I mostly had La Sportiva gear, with my key items being a Mars Jacket that kept me remarkably well-protected from the elements while remaining breathable and lightweight, a Millenium Pullover that provided impressive and critical added warmth during the worst of the weather, and Stretch Gloves w/ Race Overgloves (I get cold hands pretty easily and am a bit particular about my gloves). I also had a Mistral Vest, largely for the added pockets but to be honest I didn’t use the pockets all that much.
For what I did carry, I used an Ultimate Direction Race Belt 4.0 combined with an Adventure Pocket, which remained comfortable, accessible, and had more than sufficient capacity. I also used UD FK Trekking Poles and the extremely lightweight but all-important Ultra Pant (Ultra “Trousers”). The UD FK Gaiters probably also contributed to the no blisters thing by keeping every single little bit of debris out of my shoes.
Speaking of shoes: La Sportiva Akasha the entire time. They did a great job in some tough conditions and I felt well-protected the whole time. Again there’s no magic shoe that will make running on slippery boulders easy, but I felt as confident as possible on them throughout. There was a small stretch where I wish I had opted for Mutants, as we were traversing a steep slope and the Mutants hug the foot much better in those conditions, but the Akasha are my go-to favorite in terms of runnability and versatility.
There was also the all important task of actually moving in the right direction. My navigators did an incredible job, but it was still extremely valuable to have the route and map loaded on to a Garmin Forerunner 945 for the rounds and a Garmin Edge 530 for the bike. Even under all my layers the Forerunner gave me reassuring and distinct vibrations whenever we deviated from or rejoined the planned route, and the Edge 530 saved me numerous times as I weaved my way through countless towns and endless turns. Both of them also made it through each portion without needing any recharging. For satellite tracking I used an inReach Mini, which I hardly noticed I had on me and seemed to be quite effective (other than when I accidentally turned it off for a bit on the bike).
Of course knowing the right direction does no good if you can’t see. I had a Petzl Actik Core for short period of darkness on the rounds, and a NAO+ for the full-on night legs. Both performed quite well, just as I’ve come to expect. For the bike, it was a bit of a struggle to find lighting that would work on a time trial bike, but I ended up going with a Cateye Volt 800. Fortunately I only had to bike in the dark for an hour or two, but it got the job done.
Oh, and as far as the bike goes I had a kit from Hammer, a Louis Garneau P-09 helmet and Course Air Lite shoes, and the bike itself was a Felt IA FRD with ENVE SES 7.8 wheels. LG, Felt, and ENVE aren’t listed on my Partners page, but for full disclosure that gear was obtained through relationships with them during my triathlon days as part of Team Every Man Jack.
In an Ironman, 100K, basically anything that’s around 10 hours or less, it’s pretty easy to plan nutrition out and stick to the same routine. During those events I’m boringly consistent: a bottle of Perpeteum if I leave an aid station / transition with a means to carry a bottle with me, Hammer gels throughout (my favorite is to mix raspberry with peanut butter chocolate), and then an extra little boost from Hammer bars as needed (I usually eat half a bar at a time, though, as at higher intensities I try to only eat 75-100 calories at once). Then things like Endurolytes and amino acids as necessary.
For things where I’ll be out there for 30, 60, 100+ hours, it’s a whole different ballgame. At that point I not only need fuel, but I’m missing entire meals. As I learned the hard way at 2015 Barkley the body can’t go for those lengths of time eating nothing but the same engineered foods. Fortunately I’m also moving at much lower intensities so my body is capable of processing a bit more food.
The exact same strategy as I use for < 10 hours forms the foundation of my plan, but then I build upon that. I left every support point with a bottle of Perpeteum, a gel flask, electrolytes, etc. That ensures I’m at least getting a chunk of fuel going through the optimal pathways to my muscles and keeping some level of consistency to my energy levels (spikes + crashes = no good).
After that, I have a small buffet of things that I know from experience work for me. This part will be different for everyone, but the key is to have things that I know I’ll actually want to eat and to have salty, savory, and sweet options. The body is remarkably good in those situations of craving the type of food it needs. I tend to be a bit lacking on the savory and salty categories, but that’s largely because pizza is my rock there and I don’t need as much variety to ensure there’s something appealing. Never have I at any point met a pizza that wasn’t appealing (thanks TMNT!). I’d have to check with my support crew on exact amounts, but I believe I ate at least 5 pizzas over the course of this adventure.
The other part of this that was a bit fun and a bit frightening is that I had to try to find UK equivalents for a lot of the US foods that I know work for me. Apple butter bagels? Nope, guess I’ll have crumpets and jam instead. Nutty Bars? Nope, let’s go with flapjacks. Malt bars, Jaffa Cakes, Battenberg cake? I have no idea what any of these are but sure let’s give them a go. I would highly recommend not experimenting with new items during an event if possible, but if there’s no other choice I at least try to go with things that are similar to what I know and go with a wider variety to account for some things not working after a small sample.