An experts guide to failure

Last year I went out to run the Bob Graham Round; solo. I failed.

This is not a story about how I failed but really I succeeded; about finding a greater meaning; about failure being a state of mind or about how the only failure is the failure to try; this is just a story about failing.

For those very few people in the world who don’t know the Bob Graham Round is a very big circle that people in the lake district like to run around. It include 42 rather random bob grahamsummits, 28,000ft of accent (and decent) and was first run by a man in plimsolls with a scotch egg in the pocket of his pyjamas (which for some reason he was wearing at the time). The challenge is to manage all this in under 24 hours (the scotch egg and pyjamas are optional).

Last year I failed because it was too hard for me; because I wasn’t ready; because I didn’t prepare well enough; because I didn’t train hard enough. I have run the Bob Graham before; I know what it takes to get round; I know that I can do it. But solo was harder in so many little ways that I had not truly imagined. The pack was heavier, the ground was wetter, the wind over Skidaw was colder and hung onto me with a wetness I couldn’t escape. Hare Crag was a bog that sucked at my shoes until I was knee deep in cold peat bog, the Caldrew river was thigh deep where it is usually a shallow stream, and Halls fell was slick with the grease of not-quite-rain.

And then there were the Dodds. Rounded, indistinct hills that in daylight and good visibility are benign, barely peaks at all. But covered in a nighttime mist that ate the light from my head-torch, and left me with my hands too full of map and compass to manage food,  The Dodds ate me up in a dense, sodden, timeless loneliness of an unexpectedly cold July night.

Above all else what made the round harder than the last time, and harder than I expected-  was the absolute loneliness. I run at night, alone a lot – I had spent the winter heading out on dark nights in the snow and rain, coming home often after midnight feeling like I had some how stolen time that I was not supposed to have. Yet being on the Dodd’s that July night, questioning my compass, feeling sick at the thought of food- was just plain lonely. I knew the Round was over well before the night was over, and well before I was any where near being able to stop. I still had to get back to the car.

Three cold hours later I had finally crossed the Dodds, and gone over Helvelyn and dropped out of the cloud. The car lights I watched judder across Dunmail Raise finally broke the isolation – the first moving thing, the first change of view I had seen since I started up Clough Head some time yesterday. I found a picnic rug in my van and slept till the sickness passed and I could drive home – then got into bed still wet and muddy- and didn’t even wake as the kids crashed their way through the morning and off to school.

Apart from discovering that I’m not quite as tough (yet) as I thought – I did learn a few other things from failing to run a solo Bob Graham: First- other people just don’t care. My friends sent me messages and congratulations and wine; they were impressed and apparently inspired – and however much I kept saying ‘but I didn’t actually DO it’ the difference between achieving it and trying it seemed like a mere detail, hardly big enough to be noticed and certainly not worth worrying about. For everyone else the difference between running 64 miles with 8000m of ascent and trying to run 64 miles and 8000 meters of ascent is just not that significant. So what I learnt is that if I want to impress my friends, get lots of attention (and wine) all I need to do is set grand targets, ridiculous goals and then fail to reach them. Which in truth is probably a lot easier than achieving them- so next year I am thinking of becoming prime minister, running the coast to coast and winning the Great British Bake Off (and doing a solo Bob Graham).

Second, when my husband suggested leaving the van at Dunmail ‘just in case’ he was right (he usually is). (he made me say that)Third – to fail feels bad. I told myself off- I didn’t train enough, I didn’t train in the right ways, I didn’t prepare enough, I didn’t pack the right food, I made a lot of mistakes, I got lost – (yet I can navigate well)- I got cold, (because I wasn’t focused enough to keep my clothes dry when I waded an early river), I was tired because I hadn’t rested enough – but mostly I just hadn’t tried enough. And that is what really felt like a failure; but I know how to change that.

Failure wasn’t glorious; it wasn’t success in another form. It was just wet cold failure. But  when failure became something to do and nothing to fear what bold, ridiculous adventures am I able to imagine that are (maybe) possible, (maybe) worth trying and (maybe) worth failing at?


Just another training run


Looking for a hero?

Sometimes running gets boring.I go out alone a lot; and whilst the peace, the wildness, the weather and the contents of my own head can be all consuming company – sometimes its just long hours of wet feet and leg sapping hills. Often I listen to music – tunes to run down hills and (on the top of Little Heart) to dance to. The other day, for the first time, I had a podcast – one about work (NPR Ted Hour).

I learnt some interesting things about chickens, the price of ugly origami, how the human soul is not nourished by working on a production line  – and most amazing of all met Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley. Her story includes setting up a software company in 1962 -when people would have thought that meant underwear not programming – she then employed ONLY woman (until the 1975 sex discrimination act ended that), took on jobs as big as the programming for concorde’s black box, grew the company to being worth over £1 BILLION, made a fortune of £150 million (give or take a few million) and so far has given most of that away – (predominantly to autism related charities). Add to all that she was a refugee on the Kindertransport escaping the Nazi’s when she was just 5.How have I lived to be 40 without knowing about her? How is she not on a banknote? How is she not an every day every body hero?

And then I get home to this Tories vote no to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees and the world seems a strange and arbitrary place. We look back now on the Kindertransport as something humane in the midst of so much that was cruel; something to be proud of (if we ignore the fact families were forced to separate, that adults were deemed ‘unworthy’); something that it seems unimaginable that anyone could have ‘opposed’, though they did. And now with the dubious chance to turn all that nostalgia into action a majority of our politicians say ‘no’, decide that 3,000 unaccompanied children already stranded in Europe should be just… left. Just as those children have names so do those MPs here they are.

Somewhere in all of that i ran over another three Wainwight hills – which was lovely but doesn’t seem quite that important



A Tuesday morning

At the start 214 did not seem that many hills to get up. But after 3 and half months of lots of trips out in the wet the cold the dark and the snow and with still 140 ‘Wainrights’ to go 214 now seem like an awful lot.

Took a break from work and from having the flu to take a slow trot out from Mungrisedale and over Bowscale Fell, Bannerdale Crags and Souther Fell. These Northern fells have a quiet ruggedness to them, a slightly ignored corner of the Lake district without the walkers or the tea shops of the central fells. Altogether a suitable averageness for an unspectacular Tuesday morning.

Due to flu and fears of ‘pericarditis’ I took a heart rate monitor with me for the first time. This worked very well for measuring heart rate, but as I had no idea what ‘normal’ was or ‘bad’ might be was less good for telling me anything useful. However I can report that I have not had a heart attack.

Steel Knots

I am not a spiritual person. I tend to believe in the things I can touch and feel and rationalise; I live in the limits of my head and my body.

Yet running in the dark- on paths and hills I have known since childhood but now rendered unknown by the dark and the snow; with stars and moon bright enough I don’t need a head torch; and the tight little world of colour inside a black and white landscape when I do turn it on – these things awaken something that is not of the body, nor a product of reason. Something as real and tangible as the bruised toe nail on my right foot, the pain in my left knee and the tightening of cold air as I breath in.

This is Steal Knots. It sits above the hamlet of Howtown-where my grandma grew up, and where 4 generations of my family now live, and where I have spent a life time of holidays. On top of Steels knots sits the oddly named, un cumbrian sounding ‘Pikawasa’ an outcrop of crag that has got smaller as I have got bigger. Shrinking from an intimidating rock climb in Wellieboots to a balance problem in fells shoes with just enough chance of a broken ankle to be interesting. But still with its out of place name.

I used to come up here with my grandfather; mostly we would go the opposite way round to the way I head tonight; coming first up Fusedale and then heading north to Steel knots. And always we would be talking; about science and poetry and photography and birds. Him mixing in stories of growing up in Ireland and moving to the UK with a cardboard suitcase –of meeting my grandma, and marching the wrong way on the parade ground in the RAF. A mix of the past and the imaginary which I never untangled and all of which was infinitely serious. But most of all we talked about mountains and mountaineering. Pretending we were mountaineers scaling high peaks; on one occasion both of us crawling the final meters to the summit, shouting over the winds that pored down from the plateaus of Tibet, struggling to breath in the thin air and grateful for the efforts of the sherpas we had left at advance base camp.

Years latter he went to Nepal and sent me a photo from his a flight over Everest. It has moved houses with me many times since, and though it’s in a frame and I can’t read the words on the back – I know what they say: “I beat you to it“.

The mighty (wrong) Wansfell

For 8 years I have worked in an office at the foot of Wandsfell. Long lunch breaks and hungover mornings after the christmas party have been filled with assents of this mighty peak. Only in turns out we were going up the wrong hill; turns out that the ‘real’ Wandsfell is about half a mile to the north.

On a snowy Sunday afternoon Dan and I ran into the dark and up the ‘real’ Wandsfell, which Wainwright describes as “an unattractive place, rarely visited, better is the rocky top of Wansfell Pike which is mildly interesting and unique in possessing an iron gate” and onto Wansfell pike. I would agree with Wainright, an iron gate is indeed more interesting than the rounded top the ‘real Wansfell’. So to all those who have never heard of Wandsfell and all those who have never been up the ‘real’ one at least you now know you are not missing out too much.

(no photo due to Dan dropping his phone down the toilet)


Blogging, running and cold feet

Only slightly less successful than my attempt to run all the lakeland Wainright fells in the winter, has been my attempt to blog about running all the Wainrights in Winter.

I have managed 3 outings (all shorter, wetter and windier than planned) and a whole 15 extra tops since my last blog. All of which leaves me a mere 43 summits behind target.

An (almost) Kentmere round- 6 December 2015

There was a strange quiet to waking up on that sunday morning; waking without the sound of the rain driven against the windows and hurrying down the drains and over the roofs. The night before Kendal, and much of Cumbria had been flooded. The highest river levels in a lifetime. Our bridges closed, facebook full of pictures of houses submerged to the windows, cars full to their rooves; a man opening his washing machine to a flood of dirty brown water; a friend paddeling a dingy round her kitchen; high viz jackets and police tape decorating town as over dramtic christmas decorations. And all this under blue skies and a benign december day; the climatic version of a toddler after a tantrum who is trying to pretend nothing has happened.

Despit the benign weather Kendal was now an island – cut off to the north and the south by flooding and collapsed bridges. I made it to Kentmere and the quiet fells where -once above the valley bottom there was no real sign of yesterdays drama- but no one else out either. The Yoke, Ill Bell, Foswick, Thornithwayie Crag and Mardale Bell. Running off the fells in the dark, with a bad a head touch and an encounter with a very grumpy farmer.

Dow Crag and a failed attempt on Coniston Old Man- a Saturday in December some time

Luckily the snow started just as I got up to the Walnscar Carpark- as this is at the top of the steepest public road in England and is not a good place to leave your car when it is snowing. I drove back down the steepest road in England, parked the car (as it turned out not quite low enough) down the road. The Plan was to head up to Coniston Old man Via Goat’s Tarn – over to Brim Fell and then back via Dow crag. But the snow was thick and wet and my feet go colder as the winds got higher. By the coll between Dow and the Old Man i knew i needed a shorter day and a serious shopping accident to buy warm clothes / gloves / better socks (or do they make running welly boots?) – Despite nearly getting blow off the top of Dow Crag and a navigation error that would have sent me into the wrong valley I made it back to the car and a very slippy drive down the rest of the ‘steepest road in England’. I still have not found any warmer or drier socks.

Dow Crag

Dow Crag

Cold feet

Cold feet

Coledale round (29 December 2015)

Post christmas and a need to prove i could manage more than one Wairwright per outing and also run off some cake and a few mince pies. The Coledale round takes in some of the more popular fells in the Lakes – looking down onto Keswick this is the chocolate box heart of the Lakes. But it was Keswick, and the village of Brathwaite where we started, that were some of the worst hit parts of the lakes during the floods. Fences ripped out and flattened by the the flood water, others full to their barbed wire tops with the debris they had caught- and now had no way to release , a mountain of rubble the size of a house, diggers and the village shop rehoused in a shipping container provided a confusing set of clues to what had been.

This was my first non solo outing – and it was more fun and with better food than any of the others.IMG_2094 Part of the challenge with running all the Wainrights has been to go out and have odd, unlikely adventures with (sometimes Odd) other people, and this was a day of fun and laughter to close off 2015 and feel excited about what more can be found in 2016. Grisedale Pike, Hopegill head, Whiteside, Craghill(El Crag), Sail, Scar Crags, Causey, Outerside and Barrow. 9 fells on a day for post xmas recovery, as the fells were full of people enjoying the brief stop in the rain and pretending not to notice the gusting winds and driving hail




Getting started

Back in sunny Rwanda it seemed like a good idea; a way to celebrate turning 40 and being back in the UK. The ‘seemed like a good idea’ was to run all 214 Wainwright’s between the clocks going back and the clocks going forward (6 months). 3 weeks into the challenge and finally on top of the first (and one of the smallest hills) with hurricane Barney for company, early stages of hypothermia and just 213 hills to go I was remembering why we moved to Africa in the first place.

Alfred Wainwright was an eccentric and rather grumpy man who between 1955-66 hand wrote and illustrated a set of seven guides to the lakeland fells. These guides cover 214 fells and somehow it has become a ‘thing’ to go up them all. For some people this is a decade long project, or for others it is one very long run out (the record stands at 6 days and some hours ) . For me trying to do all 214 in six months seemed like a way to get out on the hills near home, to make myself go out when the weather is bad, to go out with friends, to go out alone and just to go out.

A challenge like this needs lots of planning. So far I have managed to: buy a book, divide 214 by 25 weeks, and spend most of the first part of November back in Rwanda. This level of planning tells me I need to do 8.54 hills a week – or 35 a month; so having managed 2 in the first three weeks I am a mere 23.5 hills behind target.

Today’s hills were Sour Howes-of which Wainright wrote “Sour Hows is a fell with no obvious appeal”  and Sallows which also is “not worth the detour” Unfortunately the rain was too heavy, the mist too thick and it was too cold for me to find anything to challenge him – but I did manage to get out, get lost, go somewhere new and get so cold it took 2 hours and a shower to get back to room temperature- and most of all I did GET STARTED –  now just 212 to go.