To the average man on the street, the term ultra running may seem like a fairly new concept. A breed of person that has somehow come about from a universal need for challenge and adventure. A strange birth of individuals that exist to do things that most would deem impossible, things that, to many of us, are beyond the realms of normality.
But the desire to push the human body to its limits is far from a new concept. For millennia humans have strived to test their physical limitations, to risk injury and sacrifice things that most of us would never dream of.
There are many races, many challenges that permeate the world of the endurance athlete. A lot of them have a story to tell. A history that grows every time someone else attempts them and grabs the attention of those in the future that want to be part of it. Few as much as the Bob Graham Round.
To explain it simply, as it is now (a full historical explanation can be found here), the round sees would-be finishers completing a 27,000 ft circuit of 42 of the highest peaks in the English Lake District within 24 hours. It’s not a race though. People hoping to attempt the challenge must organise the attempt themselves. That’s right, no marshals, no St John’s ambulance and no aid stations. Yep, it’s a pretty big undertaking.
Adam Chapman is no stranger to a challenge though. An all round endurance athlete with a history of obstacle racing, cycling and ultra running, it’s probably no surprise he was once in the army. And if that wasn’t enough he came 55th in the Marathon de Sables in 2014. So yeah, he probably knows what he’s talking about when it comes to endurance events. Now living in London, he’s set up Brocket Gear, an online store for obstacle race clothing and accessories. Which is good – if you’re running across a desert for five days you want to know your kit was chosen by someone who actually knows that it works.
Since it’s very unlikely we’re ever going to attempt a five-day race covering 3,000 feet across 42 peaks (we’re erm, focusing on our 5k times), we decided to speak to Adam to find a bit more about the challenge.
A 24hr fell run across 66 miles, 27,000 feet and 42 peaks, have you done anything previously that compares?
I’ve run a number of ultras before which are of a similar distance but the terrain and height gain in the Bob Graham make it so much more challenging. I’d been over similar terrain on courses when in the army and I’d completed the Marathon des Sables last year which I think were useful experiences for the mental aspects of completing the Bob Graham.
How do you go about training for something like that?
A lot of training and a lot of planning was involved. As an individual attempt I had to plan the logistics and put together a support team to help me. In terms of training it was a case of getting plenty of miles and hills under the belt but also looking after my body to ensure I was injury free at the start. For me, the hills are a bigger challenge than the actual distance so I went up as many as I could in training. In terms of time I’d had this as a specific goal for a year and had been doing plenty of ultras for another couple of years before hand. It was also crucial to learn the route and I spent many a weekend up in the lakes covering the ground.
The run isn’t actually a race is it? You need to organise it all yourself. How does that compare to taking part in a fully planned event?
That’s right, it’s a challenge with no t-shirt, medals or spectators. You register your interest in attempting it then it is over to you. I put together a team of strong running friends who would run individual legs with me, navigate, carry spare kit and generally provide morale on the way around. Then at the check points another team (led by my ever suffering wife) would be there to provide food, replace fluids and hand me another support runner or two. The timings of the whole thing needs to be very detailed as well as what food, drink, spare clothing etc. would be provided at each check point. It’s a very different experience to an organised race and quite stressful as things can go wrong, but I loved the team effort and having friends and family to support me. It’s the done thing to support other runners on their attempt and I’d previously supported two of my friends who supported me. I’m sure I’ll be supporting others on their attempts in the future.
Can anyone do it?
In theory yes, as long as that person is very fit, experienced in the hills (which can be very challenging in poor weather) and is mentally tough. But it is not to be underestimated and most people who are successful will have spent many years running and be at the top of their game. It is hard to compare it to other events, but the statistics speak for themselves.
What we’re the hardest bits of it? At any point did you think you may not finish it?
For me it was Leg 3 (there are 5 legs in total) as I’d been awake for a very long time, running for around 16 hours and the fatigue and sleep deprivation were combining with poor weather to really make me suffer! I lost a lot of time on this leg so by the time I got to the end I was way off schedule and the attempt was in jeopardy. I wasn’t sure how I’d make the time back over the next two legs at the point.
What did you do after you finished the race?
We went back to the cottage and opened some champagne to celebrate along with some sausage and chips. Unfortunately I’d been struggling to eat for a while and only managed a sip and a chip before retiring to a long hot shower. I was soon fast asleep in bed!
Do you have any tips for people who may be thinking about doing a race like this?
Hills, hills and more hills – preferably the ones you’ll be running across as the more you can learn the route the better.
People may look at the race and think “that’s a long way to run” but are there other parts of an endurance race like this that may surprise people?
I think the mental aspect shouldn’t be underestimated. You have a lot of time to think and it is easy for the demons to talk you out of finishing, it is tough and you really need to want to do it. The food strategy is all important. You’d think that you’d be really hungry throughout and it would be easy to eat plenty to keep you going. It can actually be quite difficult to eat as your body reacts to what you are putting it through. I mixed my food up but even so I found it very difficult to eat in the latter stages which has an impact on performance. Fortunately my support runners were very good at ensuring I ate as much whilst on the move and my road team made massive efforts to get me hot food and soup to the check points, which was a massive boost both physically and mentally.
Why do you think endurance running events are becoming so popular?
I think they are becoming more accessible and there are more of them. People are getting more and more into challenges of all sorts, be that expeditions, triathlon or obstacle course racing. Endurance racing is another aspect of that. Social media and the internet have also played a massive part in the popularity as they inspire wanderlust and inspire people. It can also show that people don’t need to superhuman to complete things.
Leading endurance runners seldom get the same level of media interest as track and road athletes. Why do you think that is?
Endurance runners are often quite introverted and not after fame, it’s a personal challenge, as it is with track and road athletes but since the professionalisation of athletics, sponsorship, media and pay are all the more important. But you’ll find most endurance runners like it that way. The growth of social media is changing this slowly though and there are a number of runners such as Scott Jurek and Kilian Jornet who are becoming more famous.
Are there any endurance athletes that you’re particularly interested in?
I’ve been inspired for years by Joss Naylor. He is 79 now but probably fitter than most people half his age. The things he achieved in his prime were very tough but he just got on and did it with no fuss. As for current athletes, Kilian Jornet is very exciting and his fitness is on another level. There is a rumour of him attempting to break the Bob Graham record which would be interesting!
With a baby on the way I’ll be happy to maintain my fitness. I’m hoping to get a place on next year’s UTMB but other than that not much. I’ll soon get itchy feet though and me and friends have discussed running across the Pyrenees or attempting the other classic 24 hour British Rounds (Paddy Buckley in Wales and Ramsay in Scotland). See how long my knees hold out….