Modern Era (1975 - present)
Part four of the history of the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record, from Joss Naylor's 1975 record to the present day, including, of course, Kim Collison's 2020 record.
Smith, North, Murray, Blair-Fish, Hudson and Bland [end31a to end31i]
Mark Hartell goes one further [end33]
Birkinshaw's attempts [end33a, end33b]
Adam Perry's attempts [end34, end34b, end34c, end34d]
Kim Collison [end35]
Ryan Smith's attempt [end36]
SMITH, NORTH, MURRAY, BLAIR-FISH, HUDSON and BLAND [end31a to end31i ]
Part three of the history ended with Joss Naylor's remarkable tally of 75 peaks. Many at the time said it was an unbeatable record.
While this did not stop others from taking on the challenge, Naylor's record proved difficult to best. Over the next ten years, six men made attempts - and none succeeded.
The first was Bill Smith, famous historian of the sport and an excellent runner in his own right. His first notable endeavour took place in 1975. It is not entirely clear whether the record was in any way in his sights, but he completed 55 peaks in the 24 hours [end31c]. He is said to have wanted to at least try and complete Alan Heaton’s 54-peak circuit, adding further peaks if time allowed.
He lost time ascending Scafell as he ascended by Lord’s Rake (feeling too tired for Broad Stand). Smith recounted that he found Yewbarrow to be the toughest part of the course and would have done better to take the Dodds section in the night.
Bill set out to go further in July 1976 [end31a]. He secretly prepared a schedule for 77 peaks, but it is unclear how realistic this was. He succeeded in a round of 63 peaks – still highly impressive given only four men have ever completed more (Naylor, McDermott, Hartell and Collison). He completed his anti-clockwise round with only five minutes to spare.
A small point to note is that Fred Rogerson belatedly adjusted Smith’s total to 64 summits, because he covered both Aiken Knott and Ard Crags. This accounting would fall foul of the Fell Record’s modern-day rules for which peaks can be included.
The second and third were John North and Paul Murray in 1979 and 1981, respectively [end31e, end31f]. There is only the briefest of references to these attempts in Stud Marks on the Summits; no other sources log them.
The fourth was John Blair-Fish, a seasoned fellrunner with two Bob Graham completions and a previous editor of the Fellrunner magazine. John made three attempts across 1980 and 1981. The last was in June 1981 [end31g], following two earlier attempts which had to be aborted due to poor weather [end31h, end31i]. Bill Smith writes that he went on an anti-clockwise circuit, which re-introduced the transition via the Langdale valley from Pike O' Blisco to Pike O' Stickle. The route decision was apparently made by his pacers, but "Blair-Fish himself [was] not too happy about it and afterwards considered it detrimental to his attempt" [p.104, id018]. This was also where he started to slow and, in the end, he could only complete 62 peaks in the 24 hours (missing out the northern fells). However, it was still 'third' place in the 24-hour rankings of the time.
The fifth was Martin Hudson, who made an attempt on 75 peaks in 1982 [end31d], following a schedule developed by Fred Rogerson. He made good time over the first two legs, although he worried whether the pace was sustainable (Billy Bland was running alongside and perhaps pushing too hard). Unfortunately, Martin then suffered from cramp on the descent to Seat Sandal on what was proving a very hot day. By High Raise, it was clear that a record was far from on the cards and so he "hobble[d] down to Langdale [to] retire" [p.105, id018].
The final man was Billy Bland himself. Thanks to Steve Chilton’s research in his Billy Bland biography, we know that Bland attempted the record in 1983 [end31b]. From Billy’s description of the attempt, it reads as if his heart was not truly in the endeavour – he retired halfway round.
MARK MCDERMOTT BEATS THE UNBEATABLE [end32]
Date: 18 June 1988
Start / finish: Braithwaite, 5am / 4.26am [23 hours 26 minutes]
Route: Clockwise round of Naylor’s 72 peaks, plus Bowscale Fell, Bannerdale Crags, Whiteside and Ladyside Pike
Contender: Mark McDermott
Support and pacing included: Colin Valentine, Dave Hall, Mark Rigby and John Blair-Fish
After Naylor’s round in 1975, progression beyond the 72 peaks was said to be impossible. But Mark McDermott was able to raise the bar in terms of both peaks and dedication to the effort.
His attempt was planned in meticulous detail, involving multiple reccies of every section at race pace and poring over maps to work out the best route to take between the different fells. He drew on a team of 25 pacers.
In addition to adding four peaks, McDermott made two main variations to Naylor’s route. The first was to gain Great Calva after Skiddaw (taking the BGR line) instead of after Little Calva, Great Sca Fell, Knott and Coomb Height. The second was to summit Rossett Pike between Bowfell and Esk Pike, rather than between Pike O’ Stickle and Pike O’ Blisco. Joss was known for some pretty brutal transitions between fells (eschewing contouring) and so it is not surprising there were some more efficient options. Steve Birkinshaw was able to do a similar exercise with his Wainrights route.
Mark was the first to start clockwise at Braithwaite and, since then, every men’s Fell Record attempt has done the same (even though there is no requirement to do so). The logic was to be able to run the road section to the base of Skiddaw Little Man while the legs were still fresh.
Conditions were very good when he set off at 5am. He and his team arrived in Threlkeld in less than four hours, having added Bowscale and Bannerdale Crags to the round. No new fells were added on leg two to Dunmail or leg three to Langdale.
According to Chris Brasher, the lowest point on the round was during the transition across Langdale valley (from Pike O’ Stickle to Pike O’ Blisco), when the heat was sapping Mark’s energy and yet he was not half way through. After taking on some additional food, he soon felt better. On Crinkle Crags, Mark has asked if he was doing a Bob Graham Round. “I wish I was!” he exclaimed.
Mark arrived at Wasdale around 7pm with nearly 50 summits claimed and 10 hours left on the clock. He continued to make good progress. By the time he reached Grisedale Pike, it was clear that the record was in the bag and he was able to enjoy the sunrise and pause for congratulations.
Reflecting on the achievement, Martin Stone wrote: “[Mark’s pacers and supporters] witnessed Mark’s ruthless determination to succeed and also learned a valuable lesson, one should never underestimate a person’s will to achieve, nor should any record, however remarkable, be deemed unbeatable” [id005]. Fred Rogerson remarked: “Never under-estimate a man’s determination. Here was an ‘unknown’ whose schedule and actual times never varied by more than two minutes over 24 hours” [id092].
Over 30 years on from the achievement, it is difficult to imagine that some in the fellrunning community questioned whether McDermott had really achieved the record or whether he had only succeeded because he somehow ‘optimised’ the route with a computer. Both claims are laughable, especially when considered in hindsight. Let us hope all doubt has now been completely extinguished.
MARK HARTELL GOES ONE FURTHER [end33]
Date: 14 June 1997
Start / finish: Braithwaite, 5am / 4.47am [23 hours 47 minutes]
Route: Clockwise round of Mark McDermott’s 76 peaks, plus Catstycam
Contender: Mark Hartell
Support and pacing: A team of 23 people, including Mark McDermott and Anne Stentiford [the then men’s and women’s 24-Hour Fell Record holders]
Hartell’s first attempt was in July 1993. Poor conditions meant he had to retire at Dunmail, eight hours into the round, 20 minutes down on schedule and having missed a peak in deep mist. In the words of Martin Stone, “[he was] beaten by the Lakeland weather rather than the size of the challenge” [id142].
His next attempt was in June 1994. In Mark's own words, the weather was “dubious” (according to Hartell) and navigation went wrong on Coomb Height.
After a period away from the record, he came back fitter, more prepared and more confident.
He set off from Braithwaite in tricky conditions and initially lost some time in the northern fells due to wind. But he made back the time and was only one minute down on schedule when Threlkeld was reached. From this point, he tried very hard to stick to schedule rather than run to feel (the antithesis of the Billy Bland approach, but probably necessary for a Fell Record attempt).
Catstycam was added as the 77th peak on this leg, with the dog-leg taking less time than scheduled. Mark arrived at Dunmail ten minutes up on schedule. This bode well given past attempts, despite the fact the weather was still poor. Mark McDermott had flown in from Middle East and was waiting at Dunmail to wish him well.
Mark was known for his ‘rolling stop’, which he learnt from Martin Stone. He spent no time at all at these so-called rest points. Leaving Dunmail, he took a diagonal traverse to Steel Fell. By the time he reached the Langdales, he was starting to feel his efforts, but the weather had cleared, which made for better going.
That was until the grease of Broad Stand. He was pushed up by his pacer, Bob Berzins. It was initially unclear whether Bob could follow him, but it all came good. They used the West Wall Traverse in descent.
Despite jetlag, McDermott paced from Wasdale. The much-feared Yewbarrow passed without incident and headtorches were required from Great Gable. Mark prudently decided not to take in Fleetwith Pike, meaning it would be 77 peaks and not 78.
Onto the final leg and there was still time in hand, but not much. He then lost ten minutes alone on Grasmoor, which cut margins fine. It was getting tense on the approach to Grisedale Pike - another navigational error could have brought the whole attempt crashing down. This agitating endgame was in stark contrast with Mark McDermott, who was able to take time to celebrate on the last top.
Mark sprinted the final 300 yards and nearly 20 people in Braithwaite were waiting to receive him at 4.47am. Reflecting afterwards, he thought he was “foot perfect”, implying that he squeezed everything out of himself [id092]. The record would stand for 23 years.
BIRKINSHAW'S ATTEMPTS [end33a, end33b]
On 23 May 2009 [end33a], Steve Birkinshaw set out at 3am from Braithwaite, but was forced to drop out at Wasdale after 16 hours. Poor conditions meant he was around one and a half hours down on schedule by this point. A combination of pushing too hard over leg two (after being 20 minutes down on the first leg), wind and sodden ground all contributed.
Steve set out again the next year [end33b], paced by Mark Hartell. Unfortunately, he had to drop out between Wasdale and Honister, this time because of poor fuelling. He had 23 fells left to go.
ADAM PERRY'S ATTEMPTS [end34, end34b, end34c, end34d]
Adam Perry and Alan Heaton should surely jointly hold the title for most dedication to the Fell Record. The cruel difference is that Alan took the record on 3 separate occasions, while Adam did not succeed on any of his four attempts. The irony is that Adam’s achievements would have been more than enough for the record in nearly every previous decade – the fact that the envelope has been pushed so far means it is exceptionally difficult to improve upon.
In 2014 [end34], Adam managed 77 peaks but was not able to finish within the 24 hours. If he had completed in a time quicker than Mark Hartell’s (23 hours and 47 minutes), he would have taken the record. During the round, he added Ullscarf as an intended 78th fell. But with time running out, he was forced to skip Ladyside Pike and instead race to the top of Grisedale Pike. He reached the summit in 23 hours and 59 minutes, but this (self-evidently) left scant time to return to Braithwaite. Still, it was a phenomenal achievement for a first attempt.
In 2015 [end34b], he had to retire on Yewbarrow in the heat. Again, the aim was for 78 peaks, or for a quicker time for 77 peaks.
In 2016 [end34c], the attempt was going well in the early stages but Adam developed a stitch over leg two. This took some time to go away, but he fought hard to stay close to schedule. Despite rain setting in over the Scafell massif, Wasdale reached at the appointed time. Haycock was added as the additional peak but the scheduled time for the new transition was ambitious and it took some effort to make up the deficit by Great Gable. Three quarters round and largely back on schedule, this was a good place to be. But in an agonising twist, a navigational error off Green Gable meant he and his team missed the route to Base Brown. It simply took too long to contour back to the ridge. While Adam reached Honister feeling strong, the deficit was too great to make up and so he retired.
The 2017 attempt [end34d] was the final and perhaps closest of them all. It was good running until nearly the very end, often in poor weather. But he lost around ten minutes on Hopegill Head and Whiteside, due to the weather and slippy rocks. He reached Grisedale Pike, the final peak, at 3.47am, but timed out one mile from Braithwaite on the descent. He finished in 24 hours and 15 minutes.
KIM COLLISON [end35]
Date: 11 July 2020
Start / finish: Braithwaite, 3am / 2.45am [23 hours 45 minutes]
Route: Clockwise round of Mart Hartell’s 77, plus Fleetwith Pike
Distance and elevation: 96 miles and 12,000m
Contender: Kim Collison
Support and pacing: A large, socially-distanced team, including Adam Perry
To the best of my knowledge, this was the first and only record attempt which was instigated by a global pandemic. With nearly every race cancelled and very limited opportunity for travel, Kim Collison looked for a challenge consistent with the 'stay local' advice. In the year of the FKT, he alighted on the Fell Record. He made a firm decision to go for the record only four weeks before he set off.
Embarking from Braithwaite at 3am, 40-year-old Collison followed Perry’s refinement of Hartell’s and McDermott’s route: “There were a few tweaks Adam Perry had made which I also followed. For example, switching the order of Little and Great Calva and changing the descent route into Langdale.”
Once he was away, he stopped momentarily on only two occasions, merely long enough to remove stones from his shoes.
The weather was fine and the first legs went very well. He was 11 minutes ahead of schedule at Threlkeld and 14 by Dunmail. By Wasdale, he was nearly 30 minutes up and had never deviated by more than two or three minutes on the scheduled time for each peak. On most fells, he gained a minute on the schedule, which led to the healthy time cushion.
Ascending out of the valley, Kim recounted: “around 14 hours into the round, as I started up Yewbarrow, on a steep ascent from Wasdale, my stomach started to give way. I felt like I was hitting the wall and this is when it became much harder.”
Before setting out, Collison had made three plans for how to break the record. Plan A was to add Haycock to the round, plan B was to add Fleetwith Pike, and plan C was to go quicker than Hartell over 77 rather than 78 fells. Clearly, plans A and B were by far the preferred options.
Following the first few fells after Wasdale, plan A was discounted: it was too soon to risk taking time out the bank. But by the end of the leg, adding Fleetwith felt viable and so plan B was put into effect. (As it happens, Kim added an extra peak and ran a faster time than Hartell overall, so plans B and C were both fulfilled).
The additional peak now secured, he just had to keep to Hartell’s times to make it back before the 24 hours. However, progress became harder when darkness set in over Newlands, with the 13 peaks of the Grasmoor massif to go. This is when the mist started to descend, which made for some stressful transitions, eating in the time up on schedule. The experience of Adam Perry must have weighed heavily.
But while the stakes were high and the navigation was tricky, it all came good. Collison reached the summit of Grisedale Pike with 40 minutes left to make the descent to Braithwaite. It was only then that he knew he was going to do it. He used 25 of these to make his way to the village, returning to the start point after 23 hours and 45 minutes.
What an achievement!
RYAN SMITH'S SOLO ATTEMPT [end36]
Date: 3 June 2022
Start / finish: Braithwaite, 7pm / 10.03pm [27 hours 3 minutes]
Route: Clockwise round of Kim Collison's 78, plus St Sunday Crag
Peaks: 79 [outside of time]
Distance and elevation: 97 miles and 37,000ft of ascent
Contender: Ryan Price
Support and pacing: Solo and supported at road crossings
Ryan is a Colorado-based ultra runner, relatively little known on the fells. Back in 2017, he completed a hugely impressive 14 hour and 17 minute Bob Graham Round with little specific recon. It is still the fifth fastest BG ever.
The plan was an ambitious one: to add two fells to Kim's record (St Sunday Crag and Haycock), despite having planned the majority of the attempt from the other side of the Atlantic.
He set out from Braithwaite at 7pm and was atop Lonscale Fell a mere 48 minutes later. This was some 6 minutes faster than Kim, whose record he was chasing. Alas, it would prove Ryan's biggest peak-to-peak gain for the rest of the round.
By Threlkeld, the cumulative balance had switched in Kim's favour, although only by 3 minutes – the game could go either way. But each fell over the Helvellyn ridge gradually increased the gap such that, by Dollywaggon Pike, Ryan was 20 minutes down overall. It says a lot that he still chose to head to St Sunday Crag to add a further fell to the record. He did so at a 'cost' of about 30 minutes, which gives a sense of how hard it is to bring in additional peaks.
Sadly, the game was up for Dunmail. The margins on the Fell Record mean that any double digit deficit is near impossible to reverse, let alone a gap of an hour. Nevertheless, he pressed on to see out the round in its entirety. The majority of the peak-to-peak splits were very close to Kim’s times, some slightly faster. But overall Ryan was still losing around 20 minutes a leg.
By the point that the outcome was certain, it was a glorious day in Lakeland. But the night had been nothing of the sort, which goes some way to explaining the time lost over leg 2. Amazingly, Ryan was also running solo, supported only at road crossings. This fact merits some context: since the mid-nineteenth century, there have been close to 100 separate attempts on the 24-Hour Fell Record by men and women of amazing abilities. Of these, I am aware of none that involved the contender travelling solo over all the fells. His big challenge would have been finding the perfect lines between those peaks not on the Bob Graham Round, where there are fewer trods to follow. Most record-holders benefited from the opportunity to go over their precise course on multiple occasions.
It is also relatively rare to see a contender complete a round when the outcome is so clear. In this regard, Ryan reminds me of Alan Heaton, who timed out atop Skiddaw Little Man on his final attempt on the record in 1974. He ran back to the finish point all the same, even turning a sprint at the end for his supporters.
Kudos for trying and kudos for seeing it through. With luck, perhaps we’ll see another attempt one day.