Friday, 4 December 2015

Rough Bounds: Running the Wainwrights.....

Chris Bland points the way from Greatrigg Man-Fairfield.Original photo R Douglas
At 18 minutes to 4 on the morning of Saturday July 4 1981, Chris Bland and a couple of companions trotted through the darkness up to the gates of Lorton church and stopped for a breather.It was the end of one of the most remarkable fell runs ever accomplished, a pounding, punishing, week-long slog all over the Lake District, the equivalent of a double-marathon a day for seven consecutive days, only harder than that because Chris was running on the roughest and steepest ground in England. It was typical of the man — and of the sport — that no fuss was made. Chris went home to bed for a few hours. The local papers gave a few column inches to the run. The national papers and other media made no mention at all. They devoted their sports space to the antics of a young American athlete who had spent the week shouting abuse at the Wimbledon officials. Chris Bland's aim was to 'run Wainwright', to see how quickly he could attain every summit mentioned in Alfred Wainwright's Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. There are more than 200 such summits and the distances between them add up to 337 miles and involve more than 110,000 feet of ascent.

The ground-rules were simple. He would try to knock them off at the rate of one area, one guidebook, a day. Since there are seven guidebooks, it would clearly be neater, and a bit more of a challenge, to do them on consecutive days, so that the whole Wainwright round might be completed in one week. Then he added one further complication. Chris is a churchwarden of Borrowdale church and the church badly needed re-roofing. So Chris was persuaded to make it a sponsored run, all proceeds to go towards a new church roof, and in acknowledgement of this he decided to start each day's run at a valley church and end the day at another. In the best tradition of modern adventure sport, he set himself an outrageously difficult target, then went to a lot of trouble to make it as easy as he could. The routes for each day were worked out carefully. The help of friends and fellow fell-runners was enlisted. They had to make themselves familiar with certain routes or sections of routes. It would be their job to lead the way, to keep Chris going and cheerful, and to carry all the gear.

Chris would travel light, carrying nothing but himself. If the weather was hot, he would run in shorts and a sweat shirt. In the event it was a cool dampish week and he was mostly in his track suit. On his feet he wore a battered pair of running shoes. He aimed to average 3-4 miles an hour, moving in spells of three hours or so, then resting for 20-25 minutes. Each night he would be driven home for a few hours sleep in his own bed in the house he built himself at Stonethwaite in Borrowdale. He did not sleep a wink the night before the big run - he was too nervous, he says. Too afraid of disappointing all the expectations he had raised. He was up before 3 and at 4 minutes to 4 on the morning of Saturday, June 27, he set off from Matterdale church with Chris Dodd. Half an hour later they were on the first summit, Great Mell Fell. The game, as Sherlock Holmes would have said, was afoot.

All went well the first day. All 35 summits in Wainwright's Eastern Fells, including Helvellyn, were visited in a round of 55 miles and over 17,000 feet of up and down. Just before 8.30 p.m. the two Chris's —Chris Dodd was with him all the way —reached Threlkeld church. It had been a 16+ -hour day with four stops for rest and food. Day Two was very different. Judging by the statistics, the Far Eastern Fells should have been rather easier — not quite so far, not quite so much ascent as the day before. Chris got another early start, at 4.35 a.m, but 12 hours later he was struggling. 'I got into the wrong state of mind' he says, wasn't enjoying myself. I kept thinking of the five days still to go. I couldn't see how I could keep going that long'. When the week was over and he had kept going, he came to the conclusion that his big mistake on the second day out was not eating enough: `When you're burning up energy at that rate you have to keep shovelling the fuel in. I soon got sick of chocolate and that sort of stuff but found I'd a great appetite for tins of macaroni pudding and fruit salad.

After the second day I ate tremendously. But on the second day I didn't and I ran out of steam. If I'd rested another half hour and had a couple more tins of food, I'm sure I'd have been able to complete the course' . Instead, he called it a day just before 6 p.m, leaving nine summits un-visited.Psychologically, this was the crunch moment of the week. He was feeling low, disappointed with himself. There was no way now he could hope to do all the Wainwrights in the week. But he decided to press on and do as much as he could. Next day, luckily, was the easiest of the week, southwards along the Central Fells between Borrowdale and Thirlmere, on to the Langdale Pikes, then down the declining ridge to Rydal, a matter of 41 miles and a mere 12,000 feet of ascent. It was done in 13+hours and Chris recovered his spirits. Day 4, by contrast, was to be the most challenging.Wainwright included in his Southern Fells the biggest area of all and the highest mountains, from Coniston Old Man in the south, by way of Bowfell and Glaramara and many intermediate high-points, then west to the highest hills in England, Scafell Pike and Scafell — more than 60 miles altogether and well over 20,000 vertical feet, for most of the way on steep and broken ground.

The Coniston Fells. Painting-Delmar Harmood-Banner
And on the appointed day, June 30, a thick blanket of dank mist covered all the ground above 1,800 feet, turning route-finding into a nightmare task, making it dangerous to move at any speed. Pete Parkins was his companion all that day. They ran into mist on Wetherlam and soon realised they would have to abandon the bigger mountains further south, including Coniston Old Man. They turned north hoping the mist would clear, but there was no wind stirring and by the time they gained the summit of Great End in the late afternoon it was plain that any attempt to reach all the remaining tops would take them far into the night. In the interests of safety and sanity, Chris decided to lose the Scafells and the summits further west and drop down instead by way of Glaramara to his home church in Borrowdale.

It meant more summits missed from the Wainwright canon, in terms of distance and height gained only half the day's programme accomplished. Even so they had been on the go for nearly 13 hours. The next two days were plain sailing. The Northern fells, just under 50 miles, were knocked off in 14+ hours. Then the North-Western Fells, nearly 47 miles and 15,000 feet, took just under 16 hours.

God rested from his labours on the seventh day but there was no such relief for Chris Bland. The last day was also the hardest, more than 50 miles and more than 21,000 feet of ascent. At 7.55 a.m. on Friday, July 3, he left Ennerdale to climb a little-known mountain called Grike. By mid-day he was looking down on Wastwater from the summit of Buckbarrow, the southernmost of the Western Fells. From there the route swung east-wards to take in the big hills of the Mosedale Horseshoe via Scoat Fell, Steeple and Pillar. By mid-afternoon he and his guides were on the stony summit of Great Gable. By early evening they were high above the lake of Buttermere, with the long humpy ridge stretching before them to the north-west and the setting sun. It was dusk when they left Red Pike.

His companions for the final miles were Pete Parkins and John Bulman and they escorted him carefully through the darkness along the smaller summits at the end of the ridge, across the road at Loweswater, up Low Fell and Fellbarrow, then down to the last valley to reach Lorton church with just 14 minutes to spare before the week was up. In those seven days Chris Bland had a climbed 192 mountains, run 310 miles, ascended and descended the equivalent of 99,000 vertical feet — well over three times the height of Mount Everest. And even though the last day was the longest, he found himself going as well on the final slopes as he had on the first. In fact, he found he got stronger as the strenuous days passed. He got heavier too, consuming so much macaroni pudding and other tins of sustaining stodge that he put on three pounds during the week.

On the last couple of days he felt a little soreness behind one knee and a touch of strain inside one thigh but they were not serious and nothing else went wrong. Throughout the whole of his massive marathon, moving at speed over broken ground that was often steep and often slimy, he never slipped and does not remember ever even stumbling. When he a got home each night he had a long soak in a hot bath, ate a big hot meal, then slept for four hours or so. He is not normally good at getting up in the mornings but he had no difficulty that week. Two thing about it give him special pleasure. The first is that it earned him a word though not much more — of praise from his sternest critic, his father.

The other is that all the complicated arrangements for meeting guides and cars, picking up food and flasks, worked perfectly. Everyone and everything was there on time and a lot of people turned up to give extra unscheduled support. When you talk to him about the run, Chris spends most of the time saying how marvellous all his helpers were, how he could not have done it without them, how that should be emphasised rather than anything he did himself. He was driven home on the Saturday morning and slept for a couple of hours. Then he got up to go to Keswick to watch his daughter taking part in a dancing display.

He raised something between £4,000 and £5,000 by his run but not a penny for himself. He did not seek publicity. And when it was all over his only words of criticism were levelled at himself, that he failed on the second day because he ran out of determination. He is not a natural athlete, 40 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, a compact 11-1/2 stone. He took to fell-running some 7 years ago when he found himself sadly out of condition, nearly 14 stone and soon breathless. The sport was just beginning to be popular in the valley so he and his younger brother Anthony and their cousins, Stuart, Billy and David, all had a go. The other four quickly showed great talent — Billy became the British champion — but Chris found that he always came in, as he still does, well down the field. He was fast enough uphill but could not hurl himself down steep slopes with the kind of controlled abandon you need if you are to finish among the leaders.

He carried on fell-running because he enjoyed it, he liked the easy camaraderie of the sport, and it felt good to be fit again. And he gradually realised that what he lacked in speed and agility, he made up for in physical stamina and — more important — in mental powers of concentration and determination which enabled him to go on and on and on again when most men, even the hardest of them, would rather lie down quietly somewhere and die.

He does not give the impression of a man with any compelling hang-ups. There does not seem to be anything particular he feels he has to prove. But he has these qualities, especially, as he cheerfully agrees, this kind of extreme 'bloody-mindedness' and he likes to exercise them. Is he going to have another go at the Wainwright round? `No', he says firmly, 'I'll find something else to try. I've set up a target for better men to beat and my great hope is that the idea catches on and that others come along and do better than me. They can try to beat my times for the five days when I completed the round, or they can try to do the whole lot in the week and see if they can include the tops I missed. I'll be glad to help anyone who wants to have a go' . You get the feeling that Chris Bland is not altogether sorry that he did not succeed completely, that he left room for others to overtake him.

Alan Hankinson: First published in Climber and Rambler: December 1981