On 5th August 2023, Alex Staniforth became the 168th person ever to complete the Frog Graham Round. We spoke to him about this formidable swim-run challenge, his comeback from Long COVID and the joy of being a beginner again.
What is the Frog Graham Round?
The FGR is a swim-run in the Lake District which starts and finishes at the Moot Hall in Keswick. It’s just under 40 miles of running with 15,000 feet of ascent across 18 summits and two miles of swimming across four lakes – Bassenthwaite, Crummock, Buttermere and Derwent Water. Like the Bob Graham Round, the general ethos is to be self-supporting which is what I tried to do most of the time – stashing food the day before and carrying a big pack with my swim-run suit. But unlike the Bob Graham Round, which is very well known and undertaken by thousands of people, the FGR is still quite elusive.
How long did it take you?
16 hours 57 minutes – just under my target of 17 hours. I set off at 4am and tackled the route anti-clockwise to avoid swimming Derwent Water in the dark. I probably could have broken the 16 hours 30 mark but I made some stupid mistakes.
Oh no, what like?
Well, stupid mistakes or lessons – however you frame it. Even though I recced every leg of the route, I took a couple of wrong turns. Coming out of Keswick, within two minutes, I took a wrong turn – it was 4am and everything looks different in the dark! I took another wrong turn in Whinlatter Forest, the same wrong turn I’d taken on my recce, which probably stole another five minutes. So I’d recommend recce-ing the route twice and making sure you have a solid knowledge of the start and finish.
I stashed food and drink the day before to try and improve my chances of being self-sufficient, but at one stage, I accidentally stashed food off my route, which meant I had to run an extra mile or so into Rannerdale Knots which took 15 minutes. I lost more time and energy at the end of Leg 3 because squirrels had found my energy gels – but I was having stomach problems by that point and wouldn’t have been able to eat them. So in future I need to make sure I have a better range of fuel options.
There were also some added complications due to the risk of invasive species. When going from Bassenthwaite and Derwent to Crummock and Buttermere, you have to wash your wetsuit to get rid of any invasive species – particularly New Zealand Pygmyweed. There is a convenient tap at Whinlatter which you run straight past. But the night before my attempt, I got an email from the FGR Secretary to say Crummock Water has also been infected so that I had to wash my wetsuit between Crummock and Buttermere instead. This will probably be the new protocol. But it meant having to strip off and jump in a freezing cold waterfall at Scale Force.
I made stupid mistakes. I accidentally stashed food off my route, which meant I had to run an extra mile or so into Rannerdale Knots which took 15 minutes. I lost more time and energy at the end of Leg 3 because squirrels had found my energy gels…
What are your standout memories?
I’ll give you the best and worst moments. The worst moment was coming down Rannerdale. I was still on schedule at this point, which puts you in a great frame of mind. The weather had improved. After spending hours in the wind and rain, I could see all the peaks ahead lit up with sun. But within a matter of minutes, after dropping off that final summit, it was like a different planet. Everything went black. The rain started again. Torrential rain. There was no break in the clouds. The biggest concern was hypothermia because I’m not built to swim, I’m not built for the cold, so I just remember starting to panic, shivering, while getting changed into my wetsuit, before swimming out into the abyss.
The best part, except for that final sprint up the high street, was coming down the fell towards Keswick. There was a long long descent off High Spy towards Catbells and I’ve never seen heather so colourful in my life. The sun was out. It was warm. I knew then that I was going to get across Derwent while it was light. Just legging it down these paths, seeing the entire route I’d run and dropping down into the pink.
You’re best known as a runner and mountaineer – so when did you start to swim?
I only ever used to swim to help maintain fitness when I was injured. I have to admit I never really enjoyed it. I always got really bored – that was when I used to swim indoors. The extent of my outdoor swimming was a quick dip after a long run. Deep water used to really freak me out. But I began to swim in open water last summer once I’d started to struggle with Long COVID. I got COVID in April 2022, two days after doing a 105 mile run around the Lake District, so it was probably the combination of an ultra-endurance event and post-viral infection that made it so chronic.
Because I was young and fit, I just assumed COVID was going to be like a cold, but it affected every part of my body – crushing fatigue, post-exertional malaise, which means you have a delayed onset, so if you have a stressful day on Friday then by Sunday you’ll be absolutely wrecked. Palpitations, chest pain, brain fog, joint/muscle pain. The doctors are dealing with the unknown. I kept hearing more and more examples of athletes who were literally being disabled by this. So I went from a 105 mile run in April 2022 to doing a Couch to 5k and running 30 seconds a time in February 2023 because that was all my body could cope with.
Swimming became essential for my mental health. It gave me something to look forward to – that stress release of a freezing cold waterfall. And it felt good to be a beginner again. Unlike running, I didn’t have Strava to watch. I didn’t have times and paces to match. I could just enjoy being in the moment.
Because I was young and fit, I just assumed COVID was going to be like a cold, but it affected every part of my body … I went from a 105 mile run in April 2022 to doing a Couch to 5k and running 30 seconds a time in February 2023 because that was all my body could cope with.
How did you prepare for endurance swimming in such a short space of time?
I did have a couple of lessons, which I’d recommend anyone to do. I need a lot more of them. After learning to swim as a six year old, it was definitely eye-opening to go back and have a lesson at 26. Some people might disagree with me picking the FGR as a comeback project. I even had some people who’d completed the FGR ask if this was the right time – which actually just motivated me more because we know ourselves what we’re capable of. I’d done the prep, I’d recced the route. I had the kit, I had the support team. So my advice to anyone else is never let other people tell you what you can’t do.
My main goal is to get back to full fitness. Running will always be my thing – and at the end of September I’ll be doing the 13 Valleys Ultra here in the Lake District. But I’m really intrigued as to where swimming could take me. So this year I want to swim the length of Wastwater which would be my longest swim to date and to swim at least once a week all year round.
How do you approach the line between naivety and ambition? What advice do you have for people who are looking to add a sense of adventure and challenge to their swimming routine?
My approach won’t chime with everyone because I tend to set the bar very high. After running the Bob Graham Round in 2021, for example, I ended up in hospital with hypothermia, due to a combination of bad weather and dehydration. But I’d never encourage people to get to that point. Instead, I’d say know your limits but then incrementally challenge them. When I started this, it was just about getting in the water every day for 30 days. When I started running, I entered a 10k – and before I know it, I’m running 100 miles. You’ve got to mitigate the risks to a level you’re comfortable with – so making sure you’ve got the tow float, you’ve got the right kit, you’ve got the support. Once you’ve figured out how to reduce the risk, then it’s about making a commitment. Until you set the date, nothing happens.
You’ve got to mitigate the risks to a level you’re comfortable with – so making sure you’ve got the tow float, you’ve got the right kit, you’ve got the support. Once you’ve figured out how to reduce the risk, then it’s about making a commitment. Until you set the date, nothing happens.