Q&A with Scott athlete George Foster
Written By: SportsShoes
Interviewed by Ben Mounsey
Scott athlete and fell runner George Foster recently ran the second-fastest time in history for the UK’s Bob Graham Round in an astonishing time of 13 hours and 44 minutes. This narrowly eclipsed Billy Bland‘s long-standing former record of 13:53 set in 1982, and is second only to Kilian Jornet‘s current FKT* of 12:52, set in 2018. We caught up with George to chat about this incredible achievement.
*Not sure what an FKT - or Fastest Known Time - really means? Check out our What is an FKT & How Can You Get Started guide.
Hi George! Firstly, congratulations on setting an outstanding time for the Bob Graham! Just how long have you been planning this challenge?
Cheers Ben. To be honest I first thought about having a crack mid-way through September after the World Long Distance Mountain Running Trials were cancelled, so between then and the Round, about 3-4 weeks?
You were injured at the beginning of the year for a significant amount of time and suffered from a stress fracture. Can you tell us more about this injury and how it has affected you? Also, how did you manage to recover to then deliver this awe-inspiring performance?
Yeah so I developed a stress reaction in the foot, which was brought about by me not fuelling myself as well as I should have been. I had just had an awesome time out on the continent and in the States racing and running, and was up there with maybe the fittest I’d been for a while. I (very wrongly) equated that performance with being light (I think I was down to 69kg at one point from my usual 73kg), and totally ignored the fact I was probably fit from having spent 8 weeks at altitude training, with nothing else to do but eat and sleep! I didn’t give my body the right amount of food and recovery that it needed, despite the great advice from those around me, and needless to say that caught up with me.
I wouldn’t say that my recovery was anything extraordinary; I was out of full training for around 4 months, which is maybe about normal for that type of injury. I then had 6 months or so of excellent, consistent training in my legs leading into the BG; anyone can get fit in half a year!
Prior to your attempt I know you were confident that you could break 14 hours and challenge the time set by Billy Bland. What inspired this confidence?
I had had a great few months of training under the expert guidance of Martin Cox, coupled with a nice month away in Switzerland training and racing, so I knew that I was moving well enough on the fells and in the mountains.
I’m from Keswick so I’d say I was pretty familiar with the BG (!) and ran it myself back in 2015 or so, as well as supporting numerous attempts both in summer and winter over the years.
That said, I was definitely awed by Billy’s time; it was never on my radar prior to this. I made the most of the last two weekends in September to have a little do round the route with a mind to having a bash at the end of October. That first weekend I went round Legs 1 and 2 on the Friday, Leg 3 on the Saturday and Legs 4 and (half of) 5 on the Sunday, all in perfect weather and carrying full kit / food etc. The next weekend I went out again on Legs 1 and 2 on the Friday and Legs 3, 4 and 5 (on my tod) on the Saturday carrying full kit and food. It was this second weekend, navigating on my own and carrying that extra weight that convinced me that I could have a good crack at Billy’s time. The cumulative time over those two days was around 13hrs 30mins of running.
Did everything go to plan? Did you experience many low points? What were the highlights?
I brought the effort forward by a couple of weeks given the forecast for that second Sunday in October as it was nigh on perfect for that time of year; I don’t recall seeing the sun since! That definitely helped the time for sure and allowed pretty much everything to go to plan. In that sense it was a fairly boring Round, there were no major lows at all, just a case of getting round the thing. I was a bit annoyed at having my calves cramp up so early on, which made for slower descending than what I was hoping for, but all told I can’t complain.
There were plenty of highlights. The sunrise as we approached the summit of Blencathra was absolutely incredible, one of the most amazing things I’ve seen, likewise the ‘good omen’ of the Brocken Spectre as we approached Raise on Leg 2; we even stopped for a minute or two just to look at it.
As cheesy as it sounds the whole day was the highlight. I’ll never get that day back again and I’m really grateful for having experienced it; moving reasonably well in the mountains with a bunch of mates, eating what I wanted, when I wanted and seeing my wife and other close friends randomly at various points in the day is something really, really special.
George competing for the Scott Running UK team in the Matterhorn Ultraks Mountain Race 2020 - Photo credit to Sportograf
Billy Bland first ran the challenge in 1976 and was the 52nd person to ever complete the round. By the time he set his record in 1982, just over 200 people had achieved this feat and currently that figure is fast approaching 2500. Just how much has the Bob Graham Round changed since Alan Heaton became the first member of the official Bob Graham Club in 1960?
When I did mine first off in 2016, I was member number 2041. Even since then the Round has changed massively. I remember Dave Makin telling me of which rock to look out for to find the best line through the scree under Bowfell; there are cairns there now and a distinctive trod showing the way, and that’s just in the space of four years. I think that’s a real shame as it takes away from the ‘adventure’ of the Round and I really hope that the writing isn’t on the wall for the Ramsay Round or the Paddy Buckley.
The BG has definitely become a fell-runners ‘trail race’ with navigation requirements becoming relatively minimal compared to the Scottish and Welsh equivalents, especially on a clear day. Another point is that with over 2000 folk having done it (and those figures don’t account for those who have done it multiple times) the knowledge base is huge, with all possible permutations of lines being known and evaluated.
These factors are great for those looking for a fast time, for sure, and the relative lack of that knowledge base and marginal trod development that would have been the norm, when Billy ran his time, are probably amongst the reasons that Billy didn’t run faster than he did. If he’d had what we have today, coupled with a more solid time to aim for, then I have no doubt that we wouldn’t be talking to me now about a 13:44 time as the second-fastest time ever as the record would have been much lower than that and I would probably be scraping the top-10!
You ran very similar splits to Billy Bland when he famously set his record. Was the aim to beat his time or were you going for the overall record?
Yeah I used his splits as a guide and something to aim for but realised that, as long as I had my fuelling dialled, I wouldn’t have to stop for as long, or at all, at the changeovers. It was never my intention to go for Kilian’s record but, and hindsight is an awesome thing, I feel like in the right conditions I could take a few more minutes off the time I ran to make it a bit more respectable!
Much has changed over the years in ultra-distance off-road running – most notably significant advancements in kit and technology. Did you use poles for your attempt and how much difference do you think they make to performance over ultra-distances?
I used poles, yeah. I fully appreciate the issue that people have against them but I don’t see them, yet, as any more of an advantage that you’d get from, say, sticky rubber soles, soft flasks, energy gels or lighter shoes necessarily. None of those were available back in the 80s or 90s, which makes Billy’s time that bit more impressive. The poles helped for sure, I used them sparingly, only on those steep climbs from the valleys / roads, but I still used them.
How did you navigate the route? Did you use GPS to assist you with finding more accurate lines?
In my view there’s no place for GPS as the primary navigational tool or aid in fell racing so I didn’t use that at all. I had my watch on to show times etc but all navigation would have been by map and compass as / if needed. Again, I understand the arguments for GPS, but I don’t agree with them for racing and I approached this Round with more of a ‘race’ mindset. The accurate lines came from time spent on my feet over the years learning the route and figuring out which ones suited my strengths the best. Likewise, and going back to an earlier question, I was lucky to be able to draw on a wealth of experience from mates in the fell community to determine where I might be best able to run closer to my potential.
How did you fuel yourself for the challenge?
Good old-fashioned rice pudding at Wasdale!
I used a variety of gels / jellies from lots of manufacturers, which was a mistake! I had trained with, and gotten used to, the Mountain Fuel jellies, which I think are excellent for me. On the day I only had a few of those left so I rationed them out and made do with some others that weren’t as easy to get down or were, in one case, completely inedible. I don’t find that I need to eat a right lot any way on these sorts of things so I didn’t notice too much if I skipped a gel or two, but I was definitely conscious of the need to keep on top of things, so caught up as best I could, where I could.
What are your top kit recommendations and what items/equipment/kit proved most invaluable to you during your challenge?
I’m really privileged and lucky to be supported by Scott and so I used their kit / shoes throughout. Because I ran the BG in October, it was quite a nippy morning, so I had on some ¾ tights (women’s as they don’t currently do a men’s version), which were great for keeping the pins moving in some warmth. I had a change of shoes at Dunmail, as they were soaking wet, and also got out of the women’s clothes (I’ve not cross-dressed since I worked with the marines 6 years ago!) into a pair of shorts as the day had warmed up a fair bit by then. The shoes I used throughout were the Scott Supertrac RC 2.0; they’re a really comfortable shoe and ideal for the vast majority of what the fells will throw at you.
Currently the records for the Paddy Buckley (Wales) and the Ramsay Round (Scotland) are held respectively by native fell runners Matthew Roberts and Finlay Wild. Do you think it’s possible that we might once again celebrate an Englishman breaking Kilian’s Bob Graham record? Can his time be beaten?
For sure! To be honest I find this attention, as nice for the ego as it is, pretty bemusing! I’m not exactly winning every race under the sun and setting course records all over the place, and I doubt people even know who I am! I’m probably the ‘opener of the floodgates’ and I certainly don’t expect to still have the second-fastest BG time by this time next year. Whether anyone from the UK can match Kilian’s time? Yeah, definitely! There are two names you’ve mentioned in the question who could give him a run for his money. As for English runners, again, yes! We have a wealth of talent and ability in the English scene, I hope that if I’m good for anything it’s to inspire others to give it a proper good go. Kilian’s is an incredible record but it’s not unbeatable.
I was in the Lakes when you attempted the Round in October and the conditions were far from perfect. I was also in the Lakes watching Kilian set the record in June 2018, and the ground was bone-dry, the weather was perfect and he arguably had one of the greatest support teams ever assembled in the history of the BG. So, the big question is…will you have another attempt in more favourable conditions? And will you go for the record?
I think it’d be fair to say that he had the second-greatest support team ever assembled (or at least it’d be a cracking relay race to see who did get top honours). I was so fortunate to have such an awesome bunch of folk run round with me. It’s not everyone who gets to have the European Mountain Running Champion carry your gels for you, or have the Lakes 24hr Record Holder lump a 1.5l bottle of cola round Leg 4 at your request!
The conditions, for October, were pretty much perfect. The ground was as firm as it would be for that time of year and the rock was, again mostly, bone dry, which allowed for some faster running to be possible. I might have lost 3-4 minutes compared to more ‘summer’ conditions round the back of Skiddaw crossing that boggy stuff at Great Calva and the Caldew, but probably not much more than that. Maybe again in the conditions that Kilian had I might have gained 10-15 minutes overall but it’s impossible to say. If I did have another crack (and it’s not even remotely on my radar to do so) I’d look at going earlier in the year for the better underfoot conditions certainly. That’s not an excuse though, I chose to go then and knew what I was letting myself in for in the sense of ground / conditions. I only went in October as I hadn’t anything else to aim for in a running sense, that’s all.
Sometimes it feels like people use the ‘perfect ground conditions’ as an excuse for Kilian’s time, to almost devalue it. He did what I did, and what everyone else who wants to set as fast a time as they can would do, by waiting for and choosing the best conditions that he could to go for the record on the Round. Why would he wait for bad weather? - he doesn’t strike me as being daft?!
(L) George in action during his Bob Graham Round and (R) at the finish outside the Moot Hall in Keswick - Photo credit to Sam McNally
Much has been said about Kilian’s incredible record, but more recently Beth Pascall broke the women’s record in a jaw-dropping time of 14:34, beating the former record of 15:24 by over 50 minutes, set by Jasmin Paris in 2016. She is also currently sitting in 5th place overall on the all-time list of official finishers. Of the two current records – which do you consider to be the most impressive and why?
I think they’re both astounding times.
Kilian’s is lightning-quick but not invincible; that way of thinking would mean that it would be another 36 years before the record gets broken. We should be careful not to stick that one up on a pedestal like Billy’s was.
Beth’s is great and I do feel like that one has the potential to last for some time. The speed she brings from being predominantly an out-and-out trail-runner pays dividends on the BG in its current state, coupled with the fact that she’s barely getting warmed up over that distance, being used to 100-milers! It’s up there as one of the performances of the year for me, and what a year it’s been!
You share the same coach as Beth ( Martin Cox), any coincidence that you’ve both achieved great things on the Bob Graham Round? How much influence and impact has he had on your career?
No coincidence at all. Martin is the best coach out there in my opinion. I am the living proof that you can, indeed, polish a turd.
I began with him around 3 ½ years ago and have seen huge improvements ever since in my performance and ability as a runner in the mountains. He brings a huge range of experiences that make me into a much more rounded and robust athlete. He puts a huge amount of time and energy into my training scheduling and sessions, being able to adjust and fine tune where he feels it’s required, without being in any way a micro-manager. That way of working is perfect for me and I owe him a heck of a lot.
Do you have any advice for anyone wishing to have a go at the Bob Graham Round?
Get out and give it a go. The time you do it in is irrelevant. It can be a fantastic day that you will remember forever. Enjoy it for what it is.
Please respect it though. The fells struggle with so much footfall (I appreciate that I am also a part of the problem) and so anything you can do to limit that impact is awesome. Please pick up litter that you see and be mindful of the impact that you yourself might be having. Also respect other fell-users, we’re all just trying to enjoy the outdoors, and if people aren’t meeting the standards that you might expect for being on the fells then give them a reminder whilst being mindful that they just might not have been told any better; there’s no malice in what they’ve done necessarily.
Specifically for the BG, know the route and understand the conditions that you might be facing. Rain and wind aren’t all that bad usually, but it’s a whole other kettle of fish when you’re 15 hours into a run; people do crazy things when they’re tired and needless accidents can, and do, happen.
Do you have any advice for other runners, particularly those that are new to the sport of off-road running?
Dive in and don’t look back! Trails and mountains are far better than roads! If you’ve found yourself getting bored and uninspired by pounding the pavements then I guarantee you’ll exorcise those demons by heading off-road.
Respect the areas that you’re going into, both in terms of the people who live and work there, and the equipment that you might need to ensure that you can be as responsible for yourself as your skills allow.
2020 has been quite a year! So, what exactly does the future hold for George Foster?
Not a huge amount really! I’ll get back into the cycle of training and racing as soon as COVID allows and see what happens. I’ve got goals for sure, but I’ve learnt from this year to be flexible and not hang my hat on any one particular thing.
You can follow George and read about more of his adventures here. If George’s story has inspired you to hit the trail yourself, check out our Trail Running hub for tips and inspiration, and get kitted up with everything you might need from running shoes to packs and accessories over at our Trail Running Store.