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Shane Ohly sets solo, unsupported winter Bob Graham Round record

Written by Fiona

February 24 2021

Shane Ohly on Fairfield Summit as part of his solo, unsupported winter Bob Graham Round

Shane Ohly has become only the second known person to complete a solo, unsupported winter Bob Graham Round. He also set a new fastest time of 23 hours and 26 minutes during his December 2020 run.

Shane, 44, of Kendal, Cumbria, is known to many people as the founder of Ourea Events. He is a former professional climber and elite runner and he has a string of successes to his name, including many podiums in mountain marathon races.

However, a number of years battling back pain and sciatica saw Shane unable to run and compete to his previously high level. It was in May 2019, after 18 months of injury, that he was finally able to start running and training again.

The Bob Graham Round had long been on his bucket list. The Bob Graham Round is a classic mountain route in the Peak District. It comprises a traverse of 42 Lake District peaks, starting and finishing in Keswick.

The 106km route with 8600m of ascent is named after Bob Graham, who became the first person to do the route in less than 24 hours in 1932. His record stood until 1960.

The aim for many runners is to complete the round in less than 24 hours. There are various ways to complete the challenge, too. A Bob Graham 24 Hour Club believes the “ethical and practical approach” is to run with pacers and support. 

Read about the record setters:

For other people, it’s the attraction of a “pure” round that sees them attempting solo and unsupported rounds.

Shane Ohly on Scafell Summit as part of his solo, unsupported winter Bob Graham Round
Shane Ohly on Scafell Summit as part of his solo, unsupported winter Bob Graham Round

Solo and unsupported running

Shane is drawn to what he calls the “purer” approach. He quotes Carol Morgan who summarised her desire for adventure after completing a solo and unsupported Bob Graham in July 2020. Carol said: “I wanted this to be as scaled back as possible: just me, absolutely no support, no GPS, map and compass only and no watch. Just me, challenging myself in the big hills.”

Multiple record holder Finlay Wild enjoys solo and unsupported challenges. Read about his Summer 2020 of record breaking Scottish runs.

The “type” of winter conditions was also critical for Shane. The Bob Graham Club defines a winter round by the date it takes place, that is between December 1 and the last day of February, and a mid-winter round as being completed between the “weekend before the shortest day through to the first period of decent weather after the shortest day but no later than 10 January”.

While Shane agrees with the above dates he adds two further and “critical” requirements: The mountains must be in winter condition i.e. snow covered and winter skills and/or equipment must be essential to complete the round. i.e. the requirement to use an ice axe to ascent/descend.

However, Shane does realise there is a degree of subjectivity to his definition and he is quick to point out that his definition should not diminish the incredibly fastest winter rounds that have been completed in less severe conditions.

Shane Ohly in the Dolomites Skyrace in 2016.
Shane Ohly left and Duncan Archer right OMM Elite winers 2017
Shane, left, and Duncan Archer racing to become the OMM Elite winers 2017.

Martin Stone’s winter round

It was Martin Stone, an authority and custodian of long-distance UK mountain running records, that set a record time of 23:41 for a solo, unsupported Bob Graham Round in 1987. In fact, until Shane’s finish, he was the only other person who is known to have achieved this feat. 

Surprisingly, Shane was not aware of this when he set off at night on Wednesday December 30 from Moot Hall in Keswick, nor did he know Martin’s time. He said: “I was genuinely unaware of what Martin’s time was and that no one else had completed a solo and unsupported Bob Graham in the winter.

“I just assumed that there must be a handful of other (solo and unsupported) people who had completed this, because I knew of good number of supported winter rounds.”

Shane Ohly Steel Fell fell race 2016
Shane Ohly in the Steel Fell race in 2016.

Shane’s winter Bob Graham Round

Shane had wanted winter conditions and he got them. He describes them early on in the challenge as “wintery and far from optimal”. He adds: “Most of the snow was loose and unconsolidated and about 15cm deep above 300 metres.” This meant the ground was not solid and it was energy-sapping, like running on a sandy beach.

There were also periods of thick mist on the first night, which Shane described as frustrating because the forecast had been for a clear sky.  The mist made route finding trickier.

Soon after the start, he also took a slightly wrong turn and later, as he descended Halls Fell with an ice axe in hand, he fell. He reveals he had been slower than expected with ice-covered rocks lying just under the snow and he had to hold back on his usual enthusiastic descending.

But as he left the snowline, he relaxed a little and was immediately punished with a heavy fall on an ice-smeared rock on the path. He fell hard, bashed his shin and winded himself. But after a short time on the ground to access if he was ok, he decided he was.

The Covid pandemic was at the forefront if his mind as he fell, too, and he knew he needed to take extra care to avoid becoming a hospital patient.

It was as dawn came that Shane’s spirits lifted. He describes how he was enjoying the “very personal” adventure and especially because “I was not stressed about chasing a time”. He was not aware at this stage of any previous records and he was deliberately not checking his split times between summits.

However, he does say that he knew he was slower than he had been expecting. He had even thought about giving up.

He says: “The soft snow and poor visibility throughout the night had sapped time and energy and I wasn’t sure I could be bothered to carry on when I was moving this slowly. 

“I could feel myself wavering, right on the brink of calling it. However, it was clear that the day was going to be a stunner. Blue skies had emerged from the monotone pre-dawn and a bright winter sun was already casting fantastic light across the fells. 

“I knew, however, that to continue would all but guarantee I’d run out of food because I was only carrying sufficient for 20-hours maximum, such was my confidence when I packed.”

At 08:42 on December 31, Shane called his wife Heather and said he was going to carry on, but that 23 hours was a more realistic schedule now. He asked her to meet him a little later than planned back in Keswick. 

Few other people knew about Shane’s attempt, except for Heather, Martin and his friend and ultra runner Jim Mann. 

But John Kelly is running, too?

Then, as Shane approached the summit, Sergeant Man, a man popped up from the cairn and said: “Well done John.” Shane was confused until the stranger said he was following the tracker of another runner. 

In another twist to Shane’s tale, he discovers that John Kelly, a successful ultra runner, had also chosen the same day to attempt a solo, unsupported winter Bob Graham.

At the time, Shane felt a mix of emotions including disappointment, despondency and anxiety. He explains that his heart sank “with the news that John Kelly is chasing me down”. 

He writes in his blog: “This is not the Bob Graham experience I signed up for. I imagine a social media dot-watching-frenzy and could feel the growing humiliation of being caught, of the trod of shame leading back into Keswick somewhere behind the triumphant John. 

“I really, really didn’t want this experience to be about racing. I didn’t want my experience to be tainted by someone else. I feel irrational ownership of the Bob Graham Round: Today it is meant to be mine.”

He then admitted to himself that while he was enjoying the mountains, he was having a  “really lacklustre run”.

After finishing the round, Shane said: “One of the lows of the round was when I learned that John was also attempting a solo and unsupported round. 

“The idea that got stuck in my mind for quite some time was that I was being publicly ‘chased down’ via John’s Tracker. In fact, very few people knew John was attempting a winter round and the idea of a dot watching media storm was in my head only.”

And so after some time battling with his emotions, Shane decided to continue. Later, as it turned out, John did not end up completing the round.

New record holder: Shane at the finish at Moot Hall, December 2020.
New record holder: Shane at the finish at Moot Hall, December 2020.

High after the low

Shane was boosted by text messages throughout the challenge from Heather and Jim. After reaching Scafell Pike and texting Heather, Shane receives a message from Jim. It reads: “Great work – keep going, you’re well on track for it.”

Unbeknown to Shane until this point, Jim had been chatting to Martin throughout the day and then debating with Heather whether to tell him what the current solo and unsupported winter Bob Graham record was. 

It was after this, on the ascent of Yewbarrow, that Shane was sure he would finish. As dusk started, another message came from Jim. “Fun fact: Only Martin Stone has completed a solo, unsupported winter BG – it was in 1987 and took 23:41.”

Shane by now had been on the go for more than 18 hours and he was running out of food. Yet, he also realised that he was on track to finish in around 23 hours and as the second only person to complete the feat. 

At Honister Pass café , which was closed, Shane sees he has run out of food. That night, the temperatures dropped and the snow hardened, making some of the underfoot conditions a little easier. 

In his blog, he writes: “I can feel the fatigue in my legs. That’s only pain and I know I can push through that. More worryingly though I can sense acutely how low my energy reserves are now. One minute I am running and then suddenly I become aware that I am walking. There is no conscious choice to change, it just happens. 

“I push the accelerator again and think about some of the completely ruined and exhausted runners I’ve seen at my events, particularly the Dragon’s Back Race®, who have pushed and pushed themselves until they collapse and need medical attention. 

“I wonder if that will be my fate on the road into Keswick;  found in the verge by a passing motorist.”

He also hallucinates, “with all kinds of different animals and creatures appearing on the fringe of my headtorch light”. 

Finally, exhausted, hungry but delighted, Shane reaches Moot Hall again. His time was 23 hours and 26 minutes.

John Kelly’s round – and praise for Shane

John revealed on social media that his solo, unsupported mid-winter Bob Graham Round “didn’t end up as I planned”. John is an experienced ultra runner and completed a self-named Grand Round last summer.

He added: “I was having a ton of fun, until I wasn’t. I was moving extremely well through the first two legs, but most of my planned water sources were frozen or dry and I slowly became quite dehydrated (I should know better for winter run planning!).

“That led to nausea and the last actual food I got down was around 10 hours into the run. I thought I could still make 24 hours, using the buffer I had built early on, but part way into leg 4 the severe lack of input fully transferred to my output and I had a gag reflex even trying to sip water.

“Trudging through the soft snow had really started to take its toll on me, too. I got myself to the end of the leg and only had three small peaks left, but in the category of ‘not worth it’ I stopped there 21 hours into it.

“I had fun, I learned, then both of those things stopped so I did, too.

“I can’t blame it on the conditions, though as Shane Ohly started just a few hours before me and made it around solo unsupported in less than 24 hours. Huge congrats to him on an epic run.”

Read Shane’s full blog about the solo, unsupported Bob Graham winter round.

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