The light was fading fast. Two hours behind schedule meant I was flirting with swimming in the dark. John was there in his sea kayak and Jayne accompanied me in the water. We made quick work of the first kilometre, but the final 500m became an epic journey of getting lost in thick reeds experiencing leg cramps that made me cry out in pain. Rydal Lake – and The Frog Whitton, in particular – was proving a bigger challenge than I could ever imagine.
EVOLUTION OF AN ADVENTURE
In 1932 Bob Graham completed his round of Lake District peaks, which has since become the Holy Grail of fell runners. The 106km and 8,200m of climbing still only has 2,000 completed Bob Graham Round journeys with Killian Jornet setting a new record in 2019 of 12:52hrs.
Some 67 years later in 1999, a Lakeland cycle challenge was created in memory of Fred Whitton, the racing secretary of the Lakes road club. Every year, 2,000 chosen lottery winners get to take part in the circuit that covers 183km of Lakeland roads and six of the highest passes in Lakeland (with a total ascent of 3,700m).
By 2005, Lakeland author Peter Hayes thought it would be fun to create another Lakeland fell circuit, but this time including four swims. The Frog Graham event was born, with 65km of running (boasting 5,000m of ascent) and 4km of swimming in the North Lakes.
In 2018, Staveley cyclist Ben Dowman watched Dan Duxbury’s Chasing the Frog film at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival. It got him thinking about what a swim-cycle challenge in the Lakes might look like. Thus the lovechild of the Frog and the Fred was born: The Frog Whitton.
166KM OF BEAUTY AND PAIN
The Frog Whitton is 156km of cycling most of the Fred Whitton route with the addition of 10km of swimming in four of the most beautiful English Lake District lakes: Ulswater, Derwent, Crummock and Rydal. Unlike the Frog Graham, where the average swim is about 500m, the swims on the Frog Whitton are significantly longer with Ulswater some 3.1km, Derwent 3.4km and Crummock 2km. Rydal at the end is 1.5km but, after taking on the Lakes’ two highest passes, can feel as long as the others.
And me? I’m 55 and always looking for a physical challenge that’ll keep me feeling alive, engaged and excited. My first tri was at the age of 47 and the sport soon filled the gap that 30 years of football had previously occupied. I worked up from sprint through Olympic, Helvellyn and Ironman UK in 2018. Now it was time for a new challenge. Fell running was out of the question because of a dodgy knee, but then I read Ben’s Frog Whitton story. There was something appealing about being one of the few people to complete a new challenge. This was the one.
So, in September 2019 I took my dodgy knee up to Buttermere, and my wife Theresa and I spent three wonderful hours tackling the Frog Graham’s younger sibling, the Tadpole. It was a beautiful Lakeland day – blue sky, scudding clouds and an incredible skyline. We completed the crossings of both Crummock and Buttermere in washing-machine conditions. The run around the two Lakes was fantastic – all flat, a course designed for younger swim-runners but ideal as a Frog Whitton appetiser.
FROM LOCKDOWN TO LAKELANDS
Lockdown hit in late March. I continued (with due diligence of lockdown rules) to enjoy the local lanes and hills on my bike, and the swimming ban was lifted in late May so I set myself a target of completing the Frog Whitton in July.
The weather turned, from weeks of sunshine to weeks of rain but I finally spotted a day that was dry, the 16th July. The car was packed the night before. Reserve bike on the back, paddle boards for the support team of my wife, Theresa, and son Joseph.
An important aspect of Lakeland swimming is the issue of biosecurity. There are still pristine lakes in Lakeland, ones that haven’t been invaded by species from elsewhere. As a result, we have strict procedures about kit that gets used in lakes, which means you need to either thoroughly check, wash and dry your kit between Lakes or use different wetsuits. As a result, the car was pretty full with different swim bags for different lakes.
THE DAY HAS ARRIVED
I set off from Grasmere at 5am on my Willier GTR, making reasonable time along the side of Grasmere and Rydal, through Ambleside, the first hill of the day to Troutbeck before the first major pass: Kirkstone. Mercifully, the route doesn’t go up The Struggle and I flew down to Glenridding 30mins ahead of schedule.
Wetsuit on and swim bag in tow I set off into the calm waters of Ulswater (pictured above; image: Joe Dickson). I had it all to myself at 7am and it was a magical experience. John appeared to my right in a sea kayak, my son Joe to the left on a paddleboard. The sun rose over the ridge, the cloud wrapped itself majestically around Striding Edge and a gentle breeze whipped up some small waves; all was right with the world. As I neared the jetty at Aira Force it felt like the 3km had gone well. I’ve never swum more than the Iron-distance 3.8km before, so I really was going into new territory. The second swim would be the test. Could I swim iron distance three times in one day?
Then began the first of the challenging transitions. I hadn’t bargained on how tedious and difficult transitions are when you’re cold, wet and regularly changing from swimming kit to cycling kit. My support team became my dressing team for the day. Without them I’d still be halfway out of a wetsuit now! By the end of the day, I’d have spent 3hrs getting dressed and undressed and I hadn’t factored that into my times.
CHANGE OF MOOD
After a strong-ish cycle, I made it to the shores of Derwent water a little behind time and was again facing a 3km-plus swim. The sky was now heavy and brooding, the colours muted, and this swim suddenly felt laborious. The last kilometre took forever but I still felt fresh as I made land at Kettlewell.
The dressing team got to work and my friend, Charlie, was here to cycle with me for the rest of the day. Charlie always brings cake – this is good – and she also happens to have many world mountain bike orienteering championships beneath her belt.
Honister Pass is steep, but the view’s stupendous. In no time we were racing past Buttermere and down to Crummock. This is the point where biosecurity is key. Derwent isn’t a clean lake. It’s infested with non-native pygmy weed and we work hard to keep it out of the other lakes. Hence, taking 30 litres of water to wash our core kit, alternative swim accessories and to have a new support paddleboard.
Crummock (pictured above; image: Joe Dickson) is a cold, beautiful lake. I knew that by the end of this swim that the swim part of the challenge was mainly over. It would be the cycling that stood between me and finishing. Once my support left, there was only one way to return to Grasmere and that was on my bike. At 80km, leg seven of the circuit is the longest by far, and the part I was least looking forward to. I hit the hard moorland climb of Cold Fell and my spirits dropped.
GUIDED BY FRIENDS
Two cyclists approached from the south. I realised it was two good friends who had set off from Windermere to help guide me home. Emotion got the better of me as Lofty and Milly joined us to ride through to Eskdale. This was possibly the strangest moment of the day as Charlie produced a cake made from cheese and peas. This helped me laugh my way up the desperately hard passes of Hardknott (pictured above; image: Charlotte Somers Cocks) and Wrynose. But my legs were shot – at times, I had to get off and walk.
The final sting in the tail – the ascent up to Blea Tarn – was next, but I managed to savour the last few miles, albeit it was a relief to arrive at Rydal and once again slip into a wetsuit. After losing my way in thick reeds and suffering from severe cramps, it was time to exit the waters. By now it was 10.30pm and pitch black. With only 3km to the finish, I decided to just put my helmet and shoes on and ride in my wetsuit.
It was cold but, at 11pm, I reached the finish of Grasmere from where I’d set off at 5am. I could’ve murdered fish and chips and a beer but nowhere was open, so it was more cheesy-peas cake and some water. And I did get a celebratory Frog Whitton special-edition beer from my little friend Evie. What more reward could you ask for? We packed up and parted. Lofty wound down his car window and said, “That was a lot better than a bloody Zoom call!”
I finished the circuit in 18hrs. This was 10hrs longer than Fraser Millican, who’d broken Ben’s record just the weekend before. It was an amazing day, a fantastic journey in a stunning landscape with some of my family and best friends. It’ll live with me forever.
If you decide to have a go at the Frog Whitton then details are available here: www.frogwhitton.co.uk. All we ask is that you respect the landscape. And my advice is don’t do it alone and, if you really want to enjoy it, ask Charlie to send you some cheesy peas cake!