Team Mountain Fuels historic Billy Bland Challenge race sees six records smashed
On Sunday 25th June 2017 I was lucky enough to be part of the Mountain Fuel team which made Fell Running history. The team’s were announced a few weeks ago. I recognised many of the names on the team lists as they included some of the top runners around. I had read their blogs, and already followed many of them on Strava and social media in order to try and replicate their training. I felt out of my depth and like I didn’t belong around those guys which made me slightly nervous. I was down to run the last leg in a predicted time of just under 1 hr 40 min and didn’t want to let them all down.
It was the first time anyone had gone head-to-head and raced the Billy Bland Challenge and we managed to break the overall mixed team record along with another six records for the fastest legs. The challenge is based on the famous Bob Graham round and is a 66 mile, 42 peak challenge with a 24 hour time limit. It is considered one the biggest challenges in English Fell Running. It has a staggering 27,000 feet of ascent. It starts with Skiddaw, Blencathra, then over the Helvellyn range, the Langdale pikes, Scafell, Wasdale and Great Gable, starting and finishing at the Moot Hall in Keswick.
The teams were made up of runners who all represented Team Mountain Fuel which included men, women, vets and open runners. We went head to head with the aim of beating the mixed team record of 16hrs 49 minutes with hope of also running one of the fastest times and getting close to legendary fell runner Billy Bland’s time of 13hrs 53 minutes on the Bob Graham Round. To think it was going to take five pairs of runners to get close to this record is mind blowing and just goes to show how good he really was.
Both teams consisted of 10 runners, with two runners each running one of the five legs together. The team was made up of a collective mix of ultra, trail and fell runners, including local Keswick AC runners (some of whom hold individual leg records and were part of the Keswick AC record breaking time of 12hrs 25 minutes) along with other Team Mountain Fuel runners from around the country, including some Team GB Mountain Running representatives.
Despite being a mixed team which also included vets my team managed to record the second fastest time in the history of the Billy Bland Challenge in 12 hours and 51 minutes. The other team also smashed the record, running the third fastest time ever to be recorded in 13 hours and 1 minute. On top of this, a record was broken on every leg by one of the two teams.
It was a damp, cloudy and windy start at 5am with leg 1 starting from the Moot Hall in Keswick, crossing three fells and finishing in Threlkeld. The first leg was a battle of the over 40 vets (closer to 50’s for 3 of them) and saw co-owner of Mountain Fuel, Rupert Bonington run with Kirsty Hall a British Champion Fell runner versus local Bob Graham legends Andrew Slattery and Steve Angus. After slogging it out over 12 miles and 5500ft of ascent over fells, bogs and a river the race came to the final descent and around 1 ½ miles where both teams chose to race down the steepest slope of Blencathra, the route is aptly named by locals as the Parachute drop due to its steep nature. After running down rocky scree, sliding down steep grass and stumbling though heather and bracken then fording back and forth across steep mountain streams Rupert and Kirsty completed the leg in 2hours 40 mins to record the fastest time for a mixed pair. Unfortunately, due to a sprained ankle injury Steve and Andrew finished the leg a few minutes behind in 2 hours 43 minutes.
Leg 2 has plenty of good running despite its steep climbs, once up top you run across the undulating Dodd fell tops to Helvellyn and finish with a couple of steep sharp climbs and descents to Dunmail Raise. The leg saw fell running champion Ben Mounsey and local top fell runner Calum Tinnion versus international mountain trail runner Alex Pilcher and Ultra Runner Mārcis Gubāts. Ben and Calum’s fell experience proved its worth as they were able to work together to navigate the leg at break neck speed knocking 7 minutes off the leg record finishing in 2 hours 20 mins some 40 minutes ahead of Alex and Marcis who unfortunately had navigation issues. This leg is around 13 miles and 6000ft of ascent and covers 12 fell tops.
Leg 3 is a tough one with every type of terrain that the Lake District can throw at you, including a climb if you choose to scramble up the nerve jangling Broad Stand (Thank you to Keswick AC ladies who had a handy rope set up for their record breaking attempt). This leg also includes Englands highest peak, Scafell Pike. James Appleton and Mark Lamb had it all to do as their team was some 45 minutes behind the pairing of veteran Phil Winskill and Mark McGoldrick, however somehow they managed to close the gap between the teams to 5 seconds by the time they sprinted into Wasdale in a record breaking time of 3 hours 2 minutes, this knocked 8 minutes of the previous record which James was also a part of and now also means that mark hold the fastest mens times for Leg 1 and Leg 3. This was a phenomenal feat having ran 15.5 miles with 7400ft of ascent while ascending and descending 15 fell tops. Phil and Mark completed the run in a fast 3 hours 45 mins.
Leg 4 climbs out of the Wasdale valley up the steep face of Yewbarrow and it was here that the chase was on. Having a 5 second lead meant that the teams ran head to head with the lead changing hands over and over again until Jacob Snochowski and England Mountain Runner Nichola Jackson managed to pull away between Kirk Fell and Great Gable. By this stage, Ultra Running veteran Dave Troman was struggling as he’d had to run so fast he’d not drank his energy fuel, his fell running partner Lee Newton, had managed to drink both his bottles and was still going strong so turned his attention to Dave and through sheer grit and determination they battled on scrambling up and over the rocky terrain.
Jacob and Nichola were incredible beating the men’s record by 19 minutes at 2 hours 36 minutes with Lee and Dave also coming in under the record in 2 hours 41 minutes. This time was an hour quicker than when Dave had last run it as part of the vets team and 29 minutes quicker for Lee in comparison to his time the previous year! The teams ran just over 11 miles with around 6200ft of ascent while ascending and descending 9 fell tops.
I was on Leg 5 with Ste Lord who was hoping for a fast time. That nearly went out of the window as we nearly missed the change over. We arrived at the start of our leg early and decided to walk up the first climb as a warm up. We got half way up and decided to take a few mountain selfies not realising how quickly the runners on leg four had been travelling. We had been with out signal and weren’t expecting the guys in for another 30 minutes. Luckily we turned around rather than proceeding to the top and reached the bottom just in the nick of time. We had just walked into the cafe at Honister slate mine when Ben Mounsey ran into fetch us. He even had to help Holly get my bottoms off which as they couldn’t get them over my trainers. I was shouting just rip them and Ben was shouting to Ste to fetch the tracker. It didn’t make for a good start.
We are both experienced Ultra Runners, but by no means Fell Runners and we had to run well and not make any navigation mistakes as we were up against veteran ladies and GB vest Mountain Runners Sally Fawcett and Julie Briscoe who assured us they knew all the best lines. The final leg consists of 3 fells and a 10k road section and while being marginally the shortest is equally brutal due to the transition from fell to road and the speeds you can travel. I managed to recce the leg the previous morning as neither of us knew the route. We ran an incredible leg based on our experience and worked to each other’s strengths. The highlight on the leg for me has to be descending the final summit. There is a steep scree section into the valley and Stu was shouting behind me “it’s like being Killian!” just before he fell flat on his face. We managed to touch the Moot Hall door finishing our leg of the challenge in 1 hour 28 minutes having managed some sub 6 minute miles across the 11 miles journey and 2400ft of ascent. This is the second fastest time to be recorded on that Leg. Sally and Julie were equally amazing creating a new fastest ladies time of 1 hour 35 min
The welcome we received is something that will stay with me. We were roared home by everyone involved, from the team who were up on the fells filming and photographing to the friends who drove runners around the Lakes, this was a special moment for everyone. This is not a race were you win a medal or a t-shirt, there is in fact no official race. This is a challenge for clubs or teams that allows them to have a fantastic time on the fells and attempt to post fastest times. Completing the run as a head to head race certainly helped the teams run faster and made it more of a spectacle for everyone to watch.