Steve Chilton interview on Billy Bland book and Bob Graham round
In this interview, I speak with author, UKA distance coach and OSM mapper, Steve Chilton.
Steve has written ‘Its a Hill, Get Over It’, ‘The Round’ & ‘Running Hard’. I most recently read “The Round in Bob Graham’s Footsteps” to give it it’s full title. A fantastic book offering a very detailed, insightful and often funny look at the many people who have succeeded in completing this iconic round. I’ve pre-ordered Steve’s new book “All or Nothing At All, the Life of Billy Bland”. A biography of Billy Bland, this eagerly anticipated book explores his life, running achievements and incredible legacy. Steve kindly agreed to an interview to explore insights on this book and his others, plus his love of running and the outdoors.
Steve, can you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself.
What would be good to know, and relevant? When I was younger I was football mad, and played all the while until my eyesight got too bad to play. I was a midfield dynamo, partly because I could run for ever. Then I had a period in life where I made a few bad lifestyle choices and drank too much and put on a ton of weight. The ‘jogging boom’ and Jim Fixx’s book inspired me and I started running, and entered the first London marathon in 1981 (aged 31). I improved in the next four London’s to end up with a 2-34-53 PB. Bored with road running I moved to fell running in the mid-1980s, having spent a lot of time walking the Lakeland hills on trips with friends before that.
That’s a decent marathon PB! And Lakeland hiking is an excellent foundation for fell running – I wish I’d done it when younger.
Out of all potential fell running legends, why did you decide to choose Billy Bland for an autobiography?
I had always admired Billy Bland from watching him and following the sport through the Fellrunner, and knowing of his incredible performances. In actual fact, I first planned to write a book about Joss Naylor, but just as I got the idea implanted in my head and thought to knuckle down to it I walked past Fred Holdsworth’s shop in Ambleside and saw Joss by Keith Richardson in the window, which had just been published. So, a re-think was required and I decided the world needed to hear more of yon Billy. I pitched a synopsis of such a book to the first publisher that I found who might be interested. They said it was too narrow a topic, but why didn’t I write a history of fell running instead. That was ‘It’s a hill, get over it’. It has taken selling a good few copies of that, and my two other books, to convince my publisher that a book about Billy Bland was marketable, and so here it is.
Many of us will be grateful for your persistence!
Billy is know for his honesty and treating anyone the same no matter who they are. How did this influence his running and those who trained with him?
One of the things I hope will come out of reading my book is a feeling for Billy’s character. In one race Billy waited for Bob Whitfield to take the win as he had followed Bob for much of the race and eventually got ahead of him. I asked Billy if that is what we should do, is that good race etiquette – and he just quietly said it didn’t feel right to take the win. He was always generous in defeat too, saying: ‘If someone was with yer and ran away from us, then that was it. I couldn’t go as far as making myself sick over it or anything like that. Common sense kicks in. You have done what you can, and you are either out of petrol or you have learnt from earlier days to know when you are buggered. If I went wrong and had petrol left, then I would chase hard. If beaten the attitude I had was to come back another day.’
His honesty towards potential training partners can appear harsh, as this story from the book may illustrate: He recalls that people would call and say, “can I train with you?”, and he would say, “aye you can come but I am not waiting on yer. You either keep up or I’ll see you when we get back”. The training had to be what Billy wanted to do. He wanted to run as he felt most of the time. Not selfish, just focussed.
Could you briefly tell us how Billy helped athletes coming through in the sport? [Photo: Pete Hartley]
Billy has always been happy to help others, saying: ‘If you help somebody along the way and they can beat you, then so be it. It was [like that] with Mike Fanning and Gavin Bland. I knew they would topple me eventually, but I was quite happy to help them.’ Another person that he helped was Scoffer Schofield, as this extract shows: Once he knew Billy, he would sometimes stay with him and they would go out training. He just got to know Billy by going to races and knowing who he was. ‘He was The Man, and I watched him and then introduced myself. If you show an interest, he will give you as much time as you want. I used to come up for weekends and go for a run with Billy. I used to sleep on his settee, or camp in his garden. “You are welcome to come with me, but I am not waiting”, he would say.’ So, the same treatment as all other training partners, even though Scoffer was really young then, being 17 or18. Scoffer does say that Billy didn’t used to rub him into the ground too much. He used to come up to Borrowdale by bike and public transport, or cadge lifts off people. Billy was tailing off really as Scoffer was getting going. But that early training with Billy certainly helped his progress. ‘The advice I got off Billy was in showing us where to go in fell races. It is just common sense with running really isn’t it. You train and you get better.’
Could you give us a hint of some new insights this book offers about Billy?
I think people reading the book will see some fresh facets of Billy’s life, some of which were not part of his public persona. I cover his family’s farming background, his own work (at Honistor quarry and as a stonemason), changes in Borrowdale in his lifetime, his generosity towards others (particularly his unheralded support roles on multiple low key Bob Graham rounds) and also his recent success as a racing cyclist. Then there are some strong opinions that he holds to get your head around. I have tried to get him to expand and justify his sometimes extreme views on the environment and fox hunting, for instance.
Three of my blog posts reveal some of the things that didn’t make it in to the final book as well as some that did:
Billy is famous as a fell running legend with an incredible race and rounds record. In your ‘The Round’ book, in talking about liking competition he said “I was brought up on defeat. You don’t win first time out.” What does that tell you about him?
I expand on that a bit in this new book. Although Billy claims his father didn’t influence him particularly as he grew up, they have similar characters. Billy comments that he did instill in him a strong work ethic. ‘You were brought up in that you would have to make your own way in life. Nobody was going to make it for you. It wasn’t a choice you were given. That is how it was.’ Neither Billy’s father or mother ever showed emotion or affection. He was not a natural runner when he was young. In his first race, as a teenager, Billy was last on to the summit but had the pleasure, on the way up, of passing another runner who promptly retired to leave Billy last into the field – an ignominy which would never be repeated. He got very nervous at races in those days, and often travelled to a race and didn’t start, because of the nerves. He was more into football at the time.
That shows some real mental strength to then turn into the runner he became.
Can you tell us a little about Jon Broxap and Billy declining his offers of drinks, butties, cakes on leg 3 & 4 of Billy’s record BG run? [Photo: Martin Stone]
This is covered in ‘The Round’ when Tony Cresswell is quoted in his report of the event that: ‘[Billy] graciously declined my offers of one flask of tea, ditto coffee, squash, milk, butties, cakes, having humped them all the way. I could have made a fortune flogging the stuff on Scafell Pike but if we stopped I must have blinked. Our time off Scafell was ridiculous and a small group was assembled at Wasdale Head. He only stopped a very short while but I recall him with a butty and bottle of Mackeson as I stood croaking behind Joss’s car. Only Joss continued with Billy on up Yewbarrow leaving me trying to flog those drinks and things to Joss’s kids.’
In ‘All or nothing it all’ I necessarily revisit the details of the fabulous record. This time it is from the viewpoint of the supporters, as I have been able to interview a pacer from each of his BG legs. On eating and drinking Jon Broxap recalls. ‘I remember trying to get him to eat, but he never really did that. He was always off for the next summit. Tony Cresswell was doing his act of trying to find us and feed him, and he wouldn’t take anything from him, unfortunately. It was full on, almost race pace.’ Unsurprisingly, this came back to bite Billy when he bonked on the descent to Honister, but he also revealed that he randomly ate other food on the round: Those supporters that were stood down at Honister could see Billy sat down and were thinking, “what you playing at, get up”. Billy didn’t plan to stop but going back to his earlier comment about ‘not being dictated to by anybody’, he felt afterwards that someone else had set that faster pace against his natural inclination, and that it had backfired quite dramatically. His refuelling at Honister rescued the day, and on a lighter note Billy recalls that he, ‘also met various people on the route, Pete Parkins at Ore Gap, and I remember having sandwiches and coffee with him. Not for a long time, just a minute or so. That was the manner that it was done in. Not like now when people think they can’t stop, I don’t go for that at all.’
Only Kilian Jornet has gone quicker than Billy with 12:52 vs 13:53. Does he think anyone will better even that time?
Billy says of Jornet, and obliquely about anyone beating his time: ‘Your body adapts to the load you give it. Individuals who go outside the box, if you like, are needed to move things on. They are not mass produced and he is certainly at a different level. I will be saying to any of our lot – you need to change your attitude. If you want to be as good as Kilian you will have to train like him. You need another individual that strong in the head to just go and do his own thing and sod anybody else and see what you get at the end of it.’
Rob Jebb was planning a fast BG the same weekend as Kilian went out (unknowingly) but bailed due to the predicted hot weather. Will he think to have a go at the faster record now? You would have to ask him, I haven’t had a chance to do so yet. But interestingly the BG has received an amazing amount of interest during lockdown, as there have been no races for folk to challenge themselves on. Witness Beth Pascall’s new ladies record time of 14-34, Kim Collison extending the maximum number of peaks achieved in 24 hours to 78, and even multiple attempts at double BG Rounds.
Yes it’s quite incredible to see what people are now achieving or setting their minds to.
In Feet in the Clouds, Joss Naylor has himself spoken about Billy putting himself “through a hell of a [training] regime”. What do you think gave Billy the drive to push himself so hard, so relentlessly in training?
Billy was a driven person. End of story really. A runner who trained at times with Billy when he worked at Honister YHA, and was a pacer on the BGR record, is Pete Barron. He recently gave me his thoughts on Billy’s strengths and weaknesses. ‘He is very driven, that has got to be a strength. Sometimes I think that if I was half as driven as Billy, I’d be doing OK. But on the other hand, there are times you can be so driven that you can be blinkered to the bigger picture. With Billy that applies to running, biking, fox hunting, or whatever. If you are that kind of person you sometimes can’t see that. There is another quote I remember from Billy. It was someone saying I haven’t got enough time for training, and Billy just said, “you can make time for what you want to make time for”. To a certain extent he is right.’
What is it you love about fell running?
For me two words sum up my view of fell running – freedom and friendliness. The people that indulge in the sport always seem to have that spirit – race hard and socialise afterwards. The ethos of record holders, and people right through the performance spectrum, helping others by pacing on even unknown people’s BG rounds is testamount to that. As for freedom, someone rightly pointed out after reading ‘It’s a hill’ that I have written mostly about the racing and record chasing aspects of fell running, something that hadn’t occurred to me at the time. But so much of the joy is just getting out on a hill and running, taking in the fresh air and the views. I attempted to rectified my error by writing about that aspect in a piece that I wrote for Like the Wind magazine entitled ‘Memories’ [https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2019/08/24/running-article-in-like-the-wind-magazine-20-for-download/]
Boff Whalley is a far better writer than me and his book ‘Run Wild’ is an excellent manifesto for running free.
Haha I think you’re being modest there Steve! So pushing you into promotion now, where can readers buy your new book?
If you are in/near the Lakes then I can recommend these bookshops: Sam Read’s (Grasmere), Fred Holdsworth (Ambleside) and Bookends (Keswick). I compiled a list of independent bookshops that I know of and gave it to my publisher’s publicist and they agreed to ask them all to stock the book, so any indie bookshop is a good bet. Then there is online of course, in this difficult lockdown situation, which many indie booksellers do well now.
‘All or nothing at all’ will be published on Thursday 20th August and can be obtained from all good bookshops and online at Amazon.
Live book launch, Thu 20 Aug 6-30pm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVbuEUURETE&feature=youtu.be
All or nothing at all: the life of Billy Bland. Sandstone Press. Format: Hardback. ISBN: 9781913207229. Publication Date: 20/08/2020 RRP: £19.99
All or Nothing At All is the life story of Billy Bland, fell runner extraordinaire and holder of many records including that of the Bob Graham Round until it was broken by the foreword author of this book, Kilian Jornet. It is also the story of Borrowdale in the English Lake District, describing its people, their character and their lifestyle, into which fell running is unmistakably woven.
Steve Chilton is a runner and coach with considerable experience of fell running. He is a long-time member of the Fell Runners Association (FRA). He formerly worked at Middlesex University as Lead Academic Developer. He has written three other books: It’s a Hill, Get Over It; The Round: In Bob Graham’s footsteps; and Running Hard: the story of a rivalry. He has written articles for The Fellrunner, Compass Sport, Like the Wind and Cumbria magazines.
He blogs at: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/
Lastly, for those of you interested, this is my 5 star review of Steve’s “The Round” book. I can’t recommend it enough if you’re interested in the BG, fell running and/or what drives people to do these immense challenges.
“Steve has written a superb tribute to the ongoing legacy that is the Bob Graham round. Covering its origins and many astonishing achievements ever since, Steve knits together details of completers of all abilities. From household names to lesser known runners, each with their personal perspective on what they achieved. There is much humour in people reliving parts of their successful BG rounds. A cracking read and highly recommended for anyone interested in Lakeland fells (running or hiking) and the human spirit.”
I hope you enjoyed this. It’s one of several author interviews coming on runeatrepeat.co.uk 🙂
All the best 🙂