The Angry Corrie 47: Oct-Nov 2000

TAC 47 Index

With Hope in your heart: the Munros run in record time

FORGET Euro 2000. Never mind the Sydney Olympics. The year's greatest athletic achievement has recently been played out, with a heartening lack of hype, in the Scottish Highlands. The middle Sunday of July saw Charlie Campbell, a postman from Anniesland in the west end of Glasgow, scamper across the upper slopes of Ben Hope in Sutherland, clamber on to the summit cairn and so complete, in 48 days 12 hours, the fastest round of the Munros.

For most people, climbing the Munros is, if not a lifetime's effort, certainly not something achieved hastily. Taking 48 years is more common than 48 days, and rounds lasting three or four decades are not unusual. Folk squeeze in a holiday Munro here, a weekend Munro there: picking their days, taking their time. Only a very few have ever been bold enough to traverse them all in a single expedition.

As many TAC readers will know, it was in 1967 that brothers Alan and Brian Ripley made the first concerted attempt on a "single take" of the hills. They failed - beaten by the weather and by physical and mental wear-and-tear after 230 summits in 89 days - but after that it was only a matter of time before someone succeeded. That someone was of course Hamish Brown, whose reputation was secured in the summer of 1974 when he used his already-vast experience to walk and cycle round the entire set in 112 days.

Brown was - and still is - a strong walker, but was never interested in "setting a time". Indeed he believes merit should go to whoever makes the slowest round, who most savours the hills. Yet his marathon inevitably set a marker, a standard, to which a straggle of strong hillgoers has aspired ever since. Kathy Murgatroyd took 134 days in 1982, George Keeping 136 days in 1984 and so on - but it was only when the super-fit hill runners became interested that times began to plummet.

The first major Munros run appears to have been made by Sedburgh-based Hugh Symonds, who covered the ranges north-south, Ben Hope to Ben Lomond, in 66 days 22 hours during a 97-day Britain-and-Ireland epic in 1990 (see his Running High for more details). Symonds shunned the option of cycling between hill groups, as did Mike Cudahy when he trimmed 15 hours from the record in 1994. But any form of self-propulsion is regarded as legitimate, and in 1992 the Scottish duo of Rory Gibson and Andrew Johnston completed a running-cycling round in 51 days nine hours 22 minutes. Surprisingly, given the quality of hill runners at large, no one bettered the Gibson / Johnston time during the rest of the 1990s, so this was Campbell's target when he set out on Mull on 29 May.

His original schedule was of Biblical proportions: 40 days in a very wet wilderness. This was always a bare-bones agenda however, taking no account of rest periods or enforced layoffs due to poor weather. Campbell knew that the inbuilt ten days of leeway might all be needed to dip under the Gibson/Johnston time. At the end he had nearly three days in hand - but nearing the halfway stage, demoralised in the Cairngorms and reduced to walking due to ankle and knee problems, the schedule was looking ropy.

"The low point came about as a result of several factors," he commented after finishing. "Poor weather, injuries, realising that I still wasn't even past halfway - and the fact that I have never really found the Cairngorms that inspiring." A crucial boost came on Cairn Gorm itself, however - and from a source which illustrates perfectly how hill runners, although fiercely competitive, also know how to look after their own. "On the way up," Campbell recalls, "I was feeling really negative, but at the top a food/fluids parcel left two days earlier by Rory Gibson was still there. It was packed full of goodies and gave a real lift. I thought: If this guy can come all the way from the Lothians to try and help me break his record, then the least I can do is to keep going and not even think about quitting."

That pivotal moment came in a landlocked hill range deep in the heart of the land, but Campbell's round will surely be best remembered for his methods on the fringe Munro islands. Whereas "ordinary" Munroists happily approach Mull and Skye by ferry, runners eyeing up self-propelled rounds tend to shun the luxuries of CalMac and make their own way across. Previous attempts had seen canoes and even yachts called into service, but the idea of swimming first arose in 1992 when Gibson and Johnston used the kilometre-wide Loch Lomond as a short cut between the Arrochar Munros and Ben Lomond. Looking to refine their methods further - and despite his claim that "swimming is my weakest triathlon discipline" - Campbell plunged in for three remarkable crossings.

The first came almost immediately, after the 4:15am start on Mull's Ben More ("a beautiful sunrise"). Having jogged down the 966m hill, Campbell cycled 21km to Fishnish and then braced himself. "I met the back-up boat and went for it at 8:55am, trying to split it round the turn of the tide. The last quarter seemed to take forever. I finally reached the main-land about 400 metres north of the old pier at Lochaline and had to cling to a big boulder and gather strength before hauling myself out the water and stumbling along the shore in a daze due to exhaustion and low carbs." It had been a long crossing - 89 minutes for the 2.5km - and not without incident. "I remember my right foot getting briefly entangled, and for the rest of the day my ankle was stinging, so I presume I got stung by a jellyfish." That same afternoon he cycled 110km to Fort William, then racked up ten Easains-to-Nevis Munros next day.

ELEVEN days and 51 Munros after his first dip he was at it again, taking half an hour to cross Scotland's largest freshwater loch from Inverbeg to Rowardennan. One of the support crew, Brian Bonnyman, recalls Campbell's assessment as he towelled off and trotted away uphill: "Less choppy than the Sound of Mull, no jellyfish to contend with, but colder than the sea". And finally - remarkably - came Skye via the fierce narrows of Kyle Rhea. The channel is scarcely half a kilometre wide, but its tightness makes for a notorious tide-race. Campbell had discussed the practicalities with local ferryman Roddy MacLeod, learnt that there were only 30 minutes of relatively slack water between Loch Alsh surging through one way and the Sound of Sleat roaring back up the other, and made it across in around 20 minutes. MacLeod believes the feat may be unique, but it was simply part of a day's work for Campbell, who "jogged over Blaven" that same afternoon before spending a dreamlike fifteen hours on the 11 main Cuillin Munros next day: "Everything just went great - perfect weather, plenty of people supporting, a good laugh."

Back on dry land - well, damp land - there were other monumental days. To come anywhere near the record Campbell needed to repeatedly double up substantial hill rounds. The huge 3800m, 47km day north of Loch Ericht was symptomatic: "In terms of distance there were about ten days of between 26 to 28 map miles [42-45km], so probably a wee bit more in reality. There were three days with over 12000ft [3650m] of climb and the average was between eight and nine thousand feet." And as for most Munros: "Two days with 11, three with ten, only one day of nine but loads of eights and sevens, etc." As almost everyone who has ever taken to the Scottish hills will know, that is a mighty big "etc".

Campbell's epic was no idyllic "day in the sun": genuine summer weather during the seven weeks was sporadic at best, such that when asked how many good-weather days he enjoyed, he gazes into the distance, does some mental arithmetic and says: "I suppose it must have been four or five - maybe". This was remarkably poor luck. Whereas southern Britain endured a dismally poor summer, much of Scotland, especially the western Highlands, basked in an exceptionally good one, with several settled spells making it a season for hillgoers to remember. For most hillgoers, that is. Time and again reports of Campbell's progress were prefaced by such as: "He's been so unlucky - very heavy rain late evening, overnight and all day yesterday", followed by a litany of localised poor weather whilst every other hill near and far was basking under clear skies. It was almost as though he had a cartoon black cloud following him around.

This, however, proved to be a partial blessing. Before setting off, Campbell was worried about sunstroke and dehydration. As it was, water intake was never a problem - half the time he merely had to throw back his head and open his mouth - but a few more days of hazy, if not lazy, bliss would have been welcome. With predictable irony, the round's end, at 4:15pm on 16 July, came in stunning weather: Ben Hope blissful, the northern Highlands spread in benign relief under a cirrus sky.

The home stretch - the isolated Sutherland summits of Ben More Assynt, Conival, Ben Klibreck and then Ben Hope - saw a single dive-for-the-line surge, running by moonlight, cycling in the dark. This became too much for even Campbell's stamina: at two in the morning on his forty-ninth and last day he had to step off his bike and sleep for two hours: "I started getting hallucinations, sheep dancing about and so on". The final dawn soon broke, however, and Campbell and his team knew he was going to make it - after 125000m of ascent, 1430km of running and 1220km on either the road bike or the mountain bike. The vanquished Gibson and Johnston, on hand at various stages, declined to intrude on the final limelight - but they remained magnanimity made flesh, stashing a bottle of Macallan in the summit rocks to acknowledge the torch having been handed over.

QUITE where extreme Munro rounds go from here is uncertain. Campbell's 48-day time, although astonishingly fast, is beatable. The man himself, typically modest on Ben Hope, thought that "40 could go". Indeed it could, although Andrew Dempster's suggestion in his 1995 book The Munro Phenomenon that "the Munros in a month has an obvious ring about it" is surely too opt-imistic. A handful of runners possess the crucial speed-stamina combination to threaten the 40-day barrier, but Campbell, by swimming the offshore sections, has upped the ante in terms of the purity of the round. Henceforth, no matter how strong a runner might be, the record will seem oceans away for anyone discomforted by swell and seaweed.

Another factor, no less crucial, is back-up. Campbell was wonderfully supported by colleagues from the Glasgow-based Westerlands Cross-country Club, without whose steady encouragement there would have been no round and no record. The vast majority of hill days and cycle sections were shadowed ("paced", in the jargon) by his fellow Westies, and this undoubtedly helped to strengthen resolve during the bleak days of poor weather. The same applies for Campbell's family, on hand through-out, zigzagging a motorhome across the glens to provide the priceless stability of a nightly base and regular meals.

Doubtless another super-fit triathlete with seamless back-up will emerge in due course, even if a further decade passes before an attempt is made. But whoever it is, and whenever, the unsung, communal nature of extreme hill running means that Charlie Campbell will surely be there to offer support and encouragement - and to wedge another bottle of whisky into the Ben Hope rocks.

Campbell ran, swam and cycled to raise money for a children's charity. To help the fund, he signed a map on Ben Hope, and this is being auctioned. See page 2 for more.

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