Chasing Summits: 42 Peaks in 54 Hours

A weekend race against nature and the Monday morning punch clock.

Written by
Matt Maynard
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The UK's near-mythical Bob Graham Round is a 66 mile off-road running challenge taking in 42 summits in the English Lake District. Steeped in ninety years of fell-running history, the BGR is not a race. Instead, individual contenders handpick a support team then pick their own time, start date and chosen route between the peaks. The Lake District often suffers from atrocious weather. Just to recce the route takes many would-be-contenders years of commitment before they are ready to attempt it. With just a weekend at his disposal, adventure photographer Matt Maynard set out last summer with his friend James to see if they could tick off the 42 peaks in a 54-hour weekend round trip from London Euston. 



The plan for the weekend on paper was simple: Explore on foot the classic fell running challenge known as the Bob Graham Round in the English Lake District and make it back to work in London on Monday without getting fired. 

In 1932 a seemingly equally time-pressed hotelier from Cumbria gave himself just 24 hours to tick off as many mountain tops as possible, starting and finishing in Keswick High Street. Bob Graham left the mark at 42 peaks, including England's highest, Scafell Pike. 

Since its inception, his "Round" has gained notoriety among fell running enthusiasts. Runners compete to discover quicker and often unconventional routes between the peaks. The challenge involves covering roughly 66 miles and ascending an elevation equivalent to 3,000 flights of stairs.

In the modern era, on dry summer weekends around midnight, head torches and short-shorts mingle with crowds outside The Round Pub on the hallowed steps of Keswick´s Moot Hall. Only 3,000 odd runners have officially ever managed to make it back by last orders the next day to claim their free pint and join the Bob Graham Club 24 Hour Club. Membership comes with an invitation to a biennial dinner.

"The challenge involves covering roughly 66 miles and ascending an elevation equivalent to 3,000 flights of stairs."

I bet that, despite not having enough fitness or knowledge about the Round to complete it in a single day, I could still manage it over a weekend. To do this, I planned to bring extra Snickers bars, use ultra-lightweight gear, and have a friend who is experienced with the Round carry most of it for me.



My train departs from London Euston at 5:30 pm on a Friday in early July. Rain streaks down the window of the northbound buffet cart as it accelerates. Although there are a few unappetizing, shrink-wrapped sandwiches available, I'm relieved that my sleeping bag and technical gear have already been handled by James, my running partner based in Cumbria. 

By 8:11 pm, we're in a hired van at Oxenholme station, driving through Kendal, passing quaint tea shops in Windermere, and speeding along the northern shore of the lake to Ambleside. Reaching Grasmere, we enter the serious hills and the heart of Round territory. At an unremarkable layby, I stash bags containing socks and more sandwiches under some nondescript ferns. By 9:15 pm, we left the van in the Threlkeld Cricket Club public car park and hopped into a local taxi. As dusk falls, we descend into Keswick. The experienced driver takes us directly to the steps of the Moot Hall.

Our ambitious plan is to start at 10 pm, tackling the first of Bob Graham's five legs overnight, covering 12 miles. After summiting Skiddaw and Great Calva, we'll return to the van at 2 am below Blencathra for a few hours of sleep in the Threlkeld Cricket Club car park. We'll resume at dawn for legs two and three. Another rest awaits us 28 miles later in the remote Wasdale Valley, before we complete the final 21 miles of legs four and five on Sunday, circling back to Keswick.

Real contenders attempt this in one continuous effort. James climbs the steps to set his watch and position himself at the start line. Beneath the eaves of the Moot Hall, he stands in the revered space of trail running. I nearly bail out, tempted to escape to the M25 in embarrassment, when a few inebriated onlookers start cheering. Fortunately, their focus is on another group attempting a proper 24-hour Bob Graham challenge. 

The stage is set for the gauntlet that awaits through the Bob Graham Round's five legs, where the distinct challenges and experiences of each segment will be uncovered.  



Leg one from Keswick to Threlkeld is a long pull to the first of the 42 summits, some 830m of climbing from Keswick to the top of 931m Skiddaw. The wind is picking up, but I cower in the lee of James, and he lets me in a little on the lore of the Round. 

Whilst running races are usually solo affairs on pre-marked courses, Bob Graham attempts are traditionally team affairs, often requiring a rugby-squad-sized logistics team. On the hill, this involves accompanying your runner for one or more of the BG's five legs where you will carry their water, force-feed them sandwiches, tell crap jokes, lie about how well they are doing, wipe away tears, and crucially guide them to the top of each peak. 

At the end of each leg, tired support team members pass on their runner to fresh members of the crew like a relay baton. It's an unwritten rule that to attempt the Bob Graham, you need to first "crew" for another contender on their own attempt. James has crewed on dozens of Bobs and is earning even more Brownie points tonight.

In 2021, he ran his own Round in a very swift 21 hours and 5 minutes. For our attempt, he has generously allowed stoppage time for sleep, but the movement time between them is a standard 24-hour Bob Graham schedule, giving us just 85 minutes to climb to the top of Skiddaw. With hail cutting into our faces and mist whipping across the short-sighted beams of our head torches, he assures me that we are at the summit, and that we are already five minutes behind schedule.



Leg two, from Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise, is a stiff climb up 726m Clough Head, and our bags are heavier now with an albeit ultra-lightweight overnight kit including sleeping bags, an inflatable mattress, and a tarp.

Rain is hammering on the van at 5:30am. We've had two hours' sleep and washed away self-pity and doubt with a Red Bull and a can of cold baked beans. There's no time to make coffee. 

The Round, I'm learning, is as much a secretarial challenge as a physical one: tick a peak, pop some energy in your mouth; incoming rain, make the effort to get the waterproofs on; fantastic views, don't stop there's no time. 

It might seem strange rushing to cram 42 peaks into a weekend, but as we jog along the undulating rain-swept ridgeline above Ullswater and Thirlmere with James signing out, 'Great Dodd, Helvellyn, Fairfield' as each successive summit comes and goes, before dropping so precisely upon our stashed bags in those ferns to resupply and change sodden feet, the adventure of it has me gripped.



We climb into gun-metal clouds towards Steel Fell at the start of Leg 3, from Dunmail Raise to Wasdale. Next level unlocked. We traverse dark crags, cliffs, marshes, and scree slopes. Visibility is down to arm's length by Esk Pike and Great End. 

We stumble onto the summits, eyes glued to the navigation on our watches, tumbling almost into Scafell's rock turret on England's highest mountain. Time is gushing away from us. But after twenty hours of movement and just two hours of sleep, concentration must be sharp. The Broad Stand rock climb separates us from today's final 964m peak, Scafell.

We scuttle onto it, gripping sodden moss and jamming our feet in dripping cracks. In August 1802, the trembling opium eater and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge mistakenly authored this climb when getting off route, his diary recounting a mixture of shame, pain, and fantastic pleasure at the prospect of being just an uncurling fingertip from inevitable demise.

"Tick a peak, pop some energy in your mouth; incoming rain, make the effort to get the waterproofs on; fantastic views, don't stop there's no time."

The wind at the summit is nearing gale force, yet it's just mild enough to allow for a 3G connection, enabling us to Google and make a call to the Wasdale Head Inn situated about 900 meters below us. "Chips. Anything with chips!" we shout into the phone. Ahead of us lies a challenging descent in the dimming light, down to the shadowy sheep pens and the verdant plains of the Wasdale Valley. When we arrive, the chips are still deliciously hot.



Leg Four from Wasdale to Robinson begins as we wake in a field at dawn in one of England's most remote valleys, nursing a mild hangover, equipped with new rations of pickled eggs and crisps, and facing 12 more Lake District mountains to climb with 24 hours until Monday morning's alarm. 

Our tarp, stretched over trekking poles, is quickly dismantled, and we pack our sleeping bags and deflate our mats faster than it would take to make morning coffee. However, there's no coffee - just a caffeine energy gel before we're back on the trail. 

We ascend through a forest of ferns, with wisps of mist clinging to the sheep pens below. We traverse Yewbarrow and Red Pike, skirting the rocky rim of a great cauldron, once sculpted by a mighty glacier. This is the heart of the English Alps. Yet, there's no time for photos, only the ongoing query at each summit: can our legs carry us to the next peak?

"The ongoing query at each summit: can our legs carry us to the next peak?"

Civilization greets us at Honister Pass with an intensity akin to stumbling upon a Disneyland gift shop during a silent meditation retreat. Leg five commences here, not with an unappreciated coffee, then offers distant views across Derwentwater to Keswick, and even features some Instagrammers in their underwear on Robinson, our final and 42nd peak.



Leg Five from Robinson to Keswick unfolds as James guides me down the final hill, expertly navigating the veins and creases of the landscape to find the swiftest routes. These 'trods' serve not only fell runners but also the working life of perhaps the sport's most celebrated runner, upland sheep farmer Joss Naylor MBE. 

As we make our way along the rolling country road to Keswick, with its ancient cottages, dense woodlands, and age-worn bridges over tinkling brooks, it's easy to envision the Lake District as experienced by Coleridge or a young Joss Naylor. The 87-year-old is famed for running not 42, but 72 Lake District peaks in 24 hours back in 1975, and later, in 2006, he linked 70 peaks in under 21 hours to mark each year of his life. Today, he still lends a hand at fell races and supports BGR attempts. James himself ran 10 mountainous miles with Joss just a few summers ago. 

Beyond the numbers, as we proudly complete the circuit and savour our chips on the steps of Moot Hall, celebrating our successful completion of the run, there's a fleeting sense of the raw, gruelling beauty in venturing into the hills with nothing but a rucksack filled with the bare essentials, to test how many of the land's contours your legs and mind can endure. It's something primal and vulnerable.

Yet, merely two hours later, amidst the buzz of the fast train returning to London, these thoughts of our achievement become as blurred as my outrageously unsociable attire. I know I must return, a bit lighter, a tad quicker, ready to fully embrace the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club.









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Author Bio

Matt Maynard

Matt Maynard is a British adventure film-maker, photographer, internationally published writer, mountain leader, once-competitive ultra runner and MSc climate scientist. Since 2014, he has been based permanently in the central Andes mountains above Santiago, Chile.

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