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(Not) Keeping up with Kilian!

On the 8th July 2018, history was made in England. The record for the Bob Graham Round, a fell-running challenge in the Lake District comprising 66 miles of rough terrain traversing 42 summits, was emphatically broken. The previous record set by Cumbrian fell runner Billy Bland in 1982, a blistering time of 13hr53mins, stood unchallenged for 36 years, leading many to believe that it would never be broken. Pretty lucky then that on the eve of an attempt by the best mountain/ultra-runner the world has arguably ever seen I happened to be staying just 2km from Keswick, where the challenge starts and ends…

I arrived in Keswick early Saturday afternoon, up for a few days for a family holiday. With my main target race of the year coming up in two weeks, the Snowdon International Mountain Race, I was planning a run early Sunday morning up the steep slopes of Skiddaw, a climb of similar length and steepness to the one which I will be racing up in Wales, as it would be a perfect opportunity to get in a good race-pace effort on a long, sustained climb. I knew I would have to be up early to get my run in as we had planned a family walk Sunday morning. With the run down to Keswick, going up and down Skiddaw itself and the run back to the campsite, I reasoned that I would need to be setting off around 6am to complete the 13mile/21kmish run in 2hrs or so and be back by 8am. Whilst pondering all of this in my head and dreading the early alarm, I received a message in a running group chat that Kilian Jornet, who that week had posted an image of himself ‘enjoying the fells’ in the Lakes on his instagram, was setting off on a Bob Graham Round (BGR) attempt on Sunday morning at 6am. The first summit of the BGR is Skiddaw, a 5mile/8km climb from the Moot Hall in Keswick. What a coincidence! My planned trip to the lakes had somehow come at the perfect time; I could get my tempo run up Skiddaw in whilst running with (read: behind) the best mountain runner in the world. I knew that keeping up with Kilian Jornet would be no mean feat, especially given I had heard that top-class English fell runners had been drafted in as pacers as no one else would be able to keep up; the likes of Carl Bell and Rob Jebb for example. However I thought that if he was going at a pace he would have to sustain for 13hrs, I would maybe be able to keep up for just the first 5 miles to the summit of Skiddaw if I was going all out! I decided to go for it, how often do you get a chance to run with Kilian Jornet (hell, how often do you get the chance to run with Carl Bell either!)?! I packed my running rucksack and set my alarm for 5:20am, excited for what tomorrow would bring and wondering if Kilian would actually be at the Moot Hall in the morning.

Morning came. I flew down the trail to Keswick and arrived at the Moot Hall to a small gathering of folk, maybe 15 people, with the small, unimposing figure of Kilian Jornet stood arms crossed, looking calm but eager to start. Carl Bell stood alongside, proudly sporting his Keswick vest, ready to pace Kilian around the first leg of the round from Keswick to Threlkeld, ticking off the summits of Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra. The fact that England’s current best long distance fell runner (Carl won the latest round of the English Fell Running Championships, the long counter ‘Darren Holloway Memorial Buttermere Horseshoe’ fell race, by a massive 9 minutes and broke his own record in the process) was Kilian’s pacer for the first leg shows the talent he possesses, and made me seriously wonder the hell I thought I was trying to run with them!

6am came and Kilian jogged down the steps of the Moot Hall and followed Carl through the ginnel next to Sweet Temptations cake shop and out towards Skiddaw. No one followed. I waited until the camera crew had gotten their shots of the pair heading down the alleyway, and then once they had moved stormed after the best mountain runner in the world and arguably the best fell runner in England in hot pursuit, not wanting to lose them before they had even left Keswick! I caught up to them, and hung back for a bit whilst trying to decide how I was going to proceed; should I just run 20m behind them so as not to disturb of put them off, or should I go and ask if I could run alongside them? I opted for the latter option, which I saw as more polite and respectful, and found myself running alongside Kilian Jornet, a surreal experience given I have seen countless videos of him running with his effortless style in various mountains the world over. The conversation was brief, and went something like this:
Alex: do you mind if I run with you guys up to Skiddaw?
Kilian: no, come along!
Carl: alright mate!
Alex: eyup mate!

Told you it was brief. I was elated that they were fine with me trying to keep up with them, though from following Kilian online I never expected him to react in any other way; his deep passion for mountains and his enthusiasm for sharing experiences such as these with others is no secret. We covered the first kilometre in 03:57, a blistering start for a 66mile/102km run with 8,000m of climb, but then again this is Kilian Jornet and he is no ordinary runner. I was feeling good at this point and enjoying the experience of running alongside two legends of fell and mountain running, day dreaming about what it would be like if this was a race and I was competing with them for the win of a huge international race. Back to reality and we started on the first real uphill, up Spooney Green Lane as we traversed around the side slopes of Latrigg. The pace up this section was relentless, and as we went through the 2ndkm which had 128m of climb in 06:06 (Grade adjusted pace 03:32/km) my heart rate had crept up to 190bpm, AKA my full on, out and out race pace! Looking across at Kilian and Carl, I saw relaxed, composed expressions and couldn’t hear any of my strained breathing replicated. Uh oh, maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew! Still, I hung on in well and as the trail flattened off I was breathing a little easier and my heart rate reduced to L3 effort, meaning I was still working hard but not flat out.

We reached the car park below Latrigg and were greeted with photographers and supporters, and passed a runner coming the other way who clearly had no idea of just who he had run past. I’m sure with the publicity around the attempt that came out as the day went on he must have realised at some point. We were now 4km in and I was beginning to feel it, having been in my L4/5 HR zone (read: hard/very hard effort) for a good 20 minutes with no sign of respite. I had planned on running up to the summit of Skiddaw, then perhaps giving Kilian a celebratory high-5 as he continued on what was sure to be a historic run, but this vision suddenly became a pipe-dream as we hit the start of the steep, steep path up Skiddaw. We began climbing up slopes of 20-30% grade, with this 5thkm climbing a whopping 270m. I stuck with Kilian and Carl for a couple of minutes with my heart-rate going through the roof, reaching 195bpm; for context, my maximum is 204! At about 4.3km in, the gap between me and two runners in a completely different league began to widen and it dawned on me that the rest of the climb would be a lonely affair. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring thing about the whole morning was the ease at which both Kilian and Carl could just keep moving so lightly, effortlessly and efficiently up the steepest of climb; I remember reading in the book ‘Born To Run’ about how the author had been given the advice of ensuring his stride was ‘light and fast’ before worrying about pace, and to me, watching Kilian and Carl easily pull away, they seemed the embodiment of ‘light and fast’. Meanwhile, 30m back down the hill, I was more the embodiment of ‘heavy and slow’, as I resorted to power walking up the hill. I stuck in as best I could with the intention of trying to stay as close as possible, arriving at the summit in around 55 minutes. Kilian and Carl had arrived nearly a full 4 minutes prior, in 51:17 (see Kilian’s blog here https://fastmountains.com/2018/07/10/bob-graham-round/ for all splits and his thoughts on the day). Kilian and Carl completed Leg 1 in 2hrs 7 minutes, and by the time Kilian finished leg 2 (which Carl also ran) in an accumulated time of 5hrs 38 minutes, he was well up on Billy’s record. Billy had cycled out to Dunmail Raise to shake Kilian’s hand and wish him well, highlighting the class and grace of the man.

I kept up with the attempt via social media throughout the day, where Kilian continued to make up time on Billy’s record. I went down to the Moot Hall to watch history being made, with hundreds of people clapping Kilian in as he completed the Bob Graham Round in 12hrs and 52 minutes, accompanied by an entourage of local runners, including young runners from Ambleside AC and Keswick AC, who had ran the final few kilometres with him. A truly fantastic performance from an extremely talented runner, probably the best mountain runner the world has yet to see. It was an absolute privilege to be a part of it for the first 20 minutes, and to be there as history was being made – what an inspirational day!

Running with Kilian and Carl on the lower slopes of Latrigg!

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