Ryan Sandes – never more at home than on his playground on the peaks of Table Mountain. Photo: Craig Kolesky

World-class trail running performances are invariably linked to legendary and iconic trail running races. There are some hugely well-known races, like the Western States 100 miler, the Ultra-trail Mont Blanc, or Golden Series events such as Zegama and Sierra Zinal.

Wins in those races substantially elevates the status of top trail atheletes, both in terms of international rankings and peer acknowledgment. That recognition and celebrity status has also rubbed back onto the courses, making some courses celebrities in their own right.

Kenyan Lucy Wambui Murigi, winner of the 2017 World Mountain Championships, en route to victory in the 2018 Sierra Zinal 30 km in Switzerland – the third race in the GTWS series. Photo: Damien Rosso

The Bob Graham Round (BGR), where success is measured against the clock and specifically by proximity to previous ‘Fastest Known Times’, is a notable exception. The name may be lost on many social media followers but it rings loudly in the ears of seasoned trail athletes.

While ‘Fastest Known Times’ over defined segments have come into their own during a COVID year which has curtailed competitive races, the Bob Graham stands alone as the leading non-race yardstick of athletic ability for ultra-distance trail runners.  And recent BGR success by two of the world’s best trail athletes – Kilian Jornet and Beth Pascall – has elevated its status further.

Another course that found new popularity – and meaning – during the 2020 “Covid Year”, Cape Town’s 13 Peaks Challenge, could well do the same.

Developed by South African runner, Ryan Sandes, the 13 Peaks is linked to one of the world’s best-known geological formations – and one of the seven natural wonders of the world – Table Mountain. Boasting some of the most scenic mountain trails on the planet, the Challenge has already become a popular addition to the Mother City’s growing adventure tourism portfolio.

Cape Town trail runner, Meg Mackenzie runs a wet section of Table Mountain, July 13, 2020. Photo: Kevin Sawyer

Like the world’s great foot races, such as the Comrades and Boston Marathons, the primary asset of the Bob Graham is its heritage, packed with legendary tales of valour and achievement against the odds.  Many believe the Bob Graham dates from 1932 when the legendary Keswick hotelier of that name posted a sub-24 hour time ( 23 hrs 39  min ) for a Lakeland Fell Circuit requiring the ascent of as many peaks as possible. 

The 104 to 110 km challenge in England’s Lake District (the length varies depending on the choice of route for each summit) requires that the challenger summit no fewer than 42 defined peaks in under 24 hours. The estimated total ascent of 8200 meters is not far off the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest from sea-level.

Beth Pascall in record-breaking mood, running 14:34 for the Bob Graham Round in July, 2020. Photo: Sam Benard

The BGR had its origins at least a hundred years earlier when two local mountaineers clocked 18 hours for a more modest circuit, but which included the major peaks of Scafell, Helvellyn and Skiddaw. Additional summits were added with every successive attempt at the testing fell-running circuit. Graham’s 1932 attempt was impressive both for his record time of 23 hours 39 minutes and because he summitted 42 peaks – more than ever before.   

Table Mountain and Lion’s Head provide the backdrop as Jeremy Kropman, Sue Ullyett and Maxine Reillly descend from Devil’s Peak – the penultimate peak in their 13 Peaks Challenge attempt. Photo: Stephen Granger

Outdoor adventurers continued to add numbers of peaks to the Lakeland Fell 24 hour challenge and this July (2020) former British trail running champion, Kim Collison, broke the 23 year record, adding one peak to the previous 77 and completing the circuit in 23 hrs 45 min.

But Graham’s 1932 circumnavigation of 42 peaks within 24 hours became the definitive challenge, the Bob Graham Round.  Unlike the 13 Peaks, which can be tackled and recorded solo, the BGR requires the involvement of others, performing a range of duties before an attempt is declared successful.  Each summit along the circuit, for example, must be witnessed and verified, usually by accompanying runners or pacers. There is an unwritten rule is that any runner seeking to take on the Bob Graham, must first help others to succeed.

A measure of Graham’s run 88 years ago is that it took almost thirty years for a runner to improve on his time but when Alan Heaton achieved that goal in 1960 it was by the impressive margin of  1hr 21 min.  Heaton’s 22:18 stood for eleven years before Peter Walkington ran 20:43, but it was Billy Bland, whose name is legend amongst the fell-running community, who took the BGR to a new level.

Six years after setting an impressive-enough time of 18:50, Bland improved his own mark by almost five hours, clocking 13:53 in 1982.  Many believed it would never be broken and when no one had succeeded in 35 years it began to appear this might indeed be the case.  It would take an exceptional athlete running in perfect conditions to improve the mark.

Enter Kilian Jornet, in many people’s judgement the best trail athlete the world has ever seen and who has broken several “unbreakable” records in recent years.  In July 2018 the Spanish athlete did the unthinkable – he took an hour out of Bland’s time in setting another “never-to-be-broken” mark of 12:52.

Spanish super-star, Kilian Jornet, wins the 2019 Golden Trail World Series Grand Finale in Anapurna Photo: Martina Valmassoi

Local runner, Jean Dawes, was the first woman to post sub-24-hour, clocking 23:37 for the traditional BGR before Anne-Marie Grindley lowered it to 21:05 just a year later.  Several athletes chipped away at the record over the following years until the indomitable Nicky Spinks twice lowered the mark by the narrowest of margins.

In 2012 Spinks sliced just 37 seconds off the then 21 year-old record, stopping the clock in 18:12, before improving her own record by an even slimmer margin to 18:06 in 2015.

Although two athletes were soon to do a “Billy Bland” on the women’s record, Spinks had other, longer dreams. Just three weeks after elite athlete Jasmin Paris had smashed Spink’s time by almost three hours, completing the circuit in 15:24 in April 2016, Spinks became the fastest athlete (male or female) over the “Double Bob Graham”, summiting the required 84 peaks in a remarkable 45 hrs 30 min, a time which remains unsurpassed.

Many would have bet that Paris’ time would stand for many years, even decades, but just four years later Beth Pascall did the unthinkable.  The paediatrician from England’s Peak District ran 14:34 – fifty minutes faster than Paris’ time – to take the record within sight of the Round’s best overall performances. Only five athletes, including Bland and Jornet, have ever run the BGR faster than Pascall.

Beth Pascall negotiates a rocky ascent on the BGR with the help of her poles. Photo: Sam Benard

While Jornet’s performance put the Bob Graham Round on the map internationally, Pascall’s run in July 2020 elicited a remarkable response in Britain, elevating trail running into main-stream media.

“The response [by the media] has been a bit overwhelming actually,” admitted Pascall, who is also the 2019 Ultra-trail Cape Town (UTCT) champion, at the time. “It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to the fell running community, but I wouldn’t have expected it to mean so much to the wider public. I’ve been back at work this week, and it’s also been full on with so many emails and interview requests. I haven’t slept much!”

In comparison to the history of the BGR, the 13 Peaks Challenge is a baby at less than two years old, but is a similar distance (just more than 100 km), is also about summiting key mountain peaks, and appears to offer a comparable challenge… completion of the testing circuit in under 24 hours.

“13 Peaks was born from the idea of me wanting to link up some of my favourite peaks on Table Mountain and in the Cape Peninsula area,” said leading South African ultra-trail athlete Ryan Sandes of the origins of the route. “One evening I sketched those peaks out in my notepad and linked them up in a logical route that would make for a great adventure. I wanted the start and finish to be in the same place to mimic the famous “rounds” in the UK.

“I haven’t done the Bob Graham yet, but have run several of its peaks when I was there as part of a Salomon camp in 2015. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to do it one day. 

“For most people, completing the route on foot in one day is not do-able and that is why I have created one-day, two-day and multi-day categories to make the 13 Peaks possible for everyone, whether hiking or running. You could do it in a day, or complete the challenge over a year. It’s about getting out there and exploring our beautiful wilderness areas.”

From the outset, Sandes wanted to keep it simple, emphasising that 13 Peaks was about a personal adventure and experience and the onus was on the individual to run the full distance and tag all peaks.

Ryan Sandes at finish of his record 13 Peaks run, August 2020. Photo: Heleen Mills

“There are only two rules,” Sandes continued. “The first is, don’t be a chop (acting like an idiot) and keep safe and the second is, there is no time limit on the route, and as a personal challenge, you don’t have to submit proof. If you want to share your route, that’s awesome, but it’s about honesty, exploration, and the core of trail running.”

The popularity of the 13 Peaks surpassed Sandes’ expectations “It’s incredible that we are getting close to five hundred having completed the challenge. And it’s  less than two years since my first attempt with Kane (Reilly) when we ran out of daylight after twelve peaks and had to abandon!”

Since that day in early 2018, Sandes has made his mark on the circuit in no uncertain manner, improving its Fastest Known Time literally in leaps and bounds, and becoming the first and only member of the “impossible club” by going sub-14 hours, clocking an impressive 13:41:10 last August.

Karoline Hanks tagging the beacon on Devil’s Peak during her 13 Peaks run, December 2020. Photo: Mark-Sampson

As with the Bob Graham, 13 Peaks has drawn a strong response from leading ultra-trail women.

“I ran part of the 13 Peaks with (elite Dutch-Spanish athlete) Ragna Debats a few days before she won the Cape Winelands Maxi Race. She’s one of the world’s best and is keen to return to take on the full 13 Peaks Challenge sometime in the future and set an impressive FKT,” said Sandes.

Hout Bay athlete, Linda Doke was the first athlete (male or female) to complete the circuit running solo in under 24 hours. Since then, Karoline Hanks and Amri Williamson have improved the single-day record, with Hanks having recently recaptured pole position on the table, completing the circuit in 21:25:55 in mid-December.

Top Dutch trail athlete, Ragna Debats (left) on a mountain near Cape Town in South Africa, with Landie Greyling November 2020. Photo: Christian Greyling

Although Hanks holds the fastest single-day time, local athletes Hayley Preen and Kristen Heath together clocked an aggregate time of 17:15:05, running the challenge over thirty days.  Sandes feels that elite ultra-trail women could run well under twenty hours. “Knowledge of the route is very important,” Sandes added. “Karoline has spent a lot of time on the route and knows it well.  But potentially a time of 15 to 16 hours would be achievable by an athlete of Ragna’s ability, for sure.”

Pascall, who has come some distance in her chosen sport since her parents had to bribe her to climb to the summit of Scafell, is no stranger to competing in ultra-trail at the highest level, having crossed the finish line at Ultra-trail Cape Town (UTCT) in December 2019 in a record-breaking 10 hrs 55 min, just 50 minutes after the overall winner, American Cody Reed. Might she dip under fifteen hours for 13 Peaks?

Having run part of 13 Peaks during the UTCT, she believes that the Cape Town circuit could become a prestigious challenge for trail runners around the world like the Bob Graham.  “Cape Town certainly has some scenic mountain trails and I enjoyed some of these while running the Cape Town ultra.

“The unique and special thing about the BGR is all the history. As you know, fell running in the Lakes is a very grass-roots sport. The Bob Graham itself has been going on for many years now, while the 13 Peaks is just getting started. Because of that I imagine the older generation of fell runners would be offended by the comparison!

“It is difficult for me to draw comparisons about the route, but I would be surprised if the 13 Peaks was more technical than the BGR, from what I know.  There are some paths (in the BGR), but a lot of the time you’re running over heather, really rocky terrain, some grass and lots of bog. There’s a rock climb in there as well. There’s a big navigation component to it, so it’s also about getting to know the route really well.

“I’m not sure I can justify coming to South Africa just to run 13 Peaks, but if I am ever there for other purposes then you never know!”

“It would be great if 13 Peaks could attract people to come to Cape Town to take on the challenge,” Sandes continued.  “We’ve designed it to include people of all abilities, from those who might want to take on just one or two peaks while on holiday, to elite athletes who might be tempted to take on an FKT attempt.

“For me the cool thing is to showcase Cape Town and to keep it accessible and fun for people from all walks of life. For me, the biggest benefit of 13 Peaks has been to see just how many amazing stories there are out there. And I’m sure there are many more!” 

Story by Stephen Granger

© SPNAfrica News