Interview with Donnie Campbell on his Munro Round record
282 summits, 31 days
On Saturday 1st August 2020, Donnie Campbell began a self-propelled Munro Round, hoping to set a new Fastest Known Time for a complete round of all 282 Munros. Running, cycling or kayaking, raising funds for British Red Cross.
The record to beat was 39 days and 9 hours, set by Stephen Pyke in 2010.
In the early hours of Wednesday 2nd September 2020, Donnie smashed it. Setting a new FKT of 31 days, 23 hours and 2 minutes.
We caught up with Donnie one month on….
How’s the recovery going?
I was hoping for the first few days afterwards to have a good recovery: have a hot bath, do plenty of stretching, keep my feet elevated and kind of work on that. But that got delayed by a week because I just got hammered with work, from being 5 weeks off work. I had to catch up on emails then a lot of media stuff, and then I had friends and family coming around at the weekend.
So essentially my recovery was delayed by a week. But since then, my initial recovery was warm baths, stretching, foam rolling, sport massage. And after this initial phase, some light cycling and light running just to get the legs moving. So very low intensity, just to get out. I can’t sit still, you know, after two or three days in the house I need to get out and get some fresh air. Cycling is good for example as there’s no impact, so I cycled around Loch Ness the other day.
What’s your approach of the recovery phase after such a big challenge?
Basically, I’ll mainly recover from now until November. This time of the year is usually my off season, when I would take 4 to 6 weeks of just down time. No structure, I go out when I want to go out and I do whatever I want to do without training structure. Come November I’ll start training for ski mountaineering races. There are a few skimo races in Scotland, so November/December I’ll focus more on shorter, harder and high intensity races. And maybe some strength and conditioning.
So that’s pretty much my recovery phase. A few glasses of red wine also help the recovery.
How did you come up with the idea for this challenge? What motivated you?
I’ve always wanted to run all the munros in Scotland, but I usually like doing the ones that are convenient or the ones that are quite technical, rocky and exposed. Coming from the west coast I developed a preference for the likes of the Cuillins or Aonach Eagach type of munros! And of course I train often in the Cairngorms because it’s quite convenient for me. But the really remote, easterly munros or the boggy ones, I had no motivation to climb them again. So doing this challenge was the occasion for me to do all the munros in one go.
This munro round has been on my mind for probably 3-4 years and it’s only last summer that I said to my wife “next year I’ll take a year off racing and I’ll just focus on this round”. So I started planning the route in September/October 2019 and we started putting a schedule together, looking at route options, logistics, etc.
I originally planned it for the end of May, beginning of June, to get more daily hours and before the school holidays so it’d be less busy on the roads and hills. But covid happened and we had to just wait and see when the restrictions would be lifted. Thankfully I was able to start on the 1st of August. A later start would have made it more difficult as we start losing daylight from mid-August.
For me doing all the munros in Scotland and driving in between would have been a bit half-arsed, should I say. Or it would have been like I’m not fully committing to the project. The previous round record that was logged in the Scottish Hill Running records was done self-propelled. Before I attempted the round, the record was held by Stephen Pyke who completed it in a self-propelled way in 36 days and 9 hours (he cycled and kayaked between the munros). And before him the record was held by Charlie Campbell (48 days) who had also cycled and kayaked between munros. It looked like that’s how most people do their round, and I felt like it would be pretty cool to travel Scotland self propelled. It’s quite a nice way to do it.
It kind of broke up the running too. The cycling was nice and the kayak was quite different so it was something to look forward to some days. It felt like a massive adventure race!
How did you prepare your body for an entire month of running up and down munros? What was your training like?
Basically during lockdown there were a lot of reps on my local hill. I stay close to Phadrig hill in Inverness, which is just under 300m high. So I was going out logging a couple of hours a day, sometimes 3-4 hours. So yeah I did a lot of repetitions on that hill to try to get as much climbing as possible. And then as the restriction lifted, we headed back to the hills and it was more about trying to get a few big days in. I tried to recce a bit of the route.
My biggest day leading into the round was probably 3 or 4 weeks out and I went to do the route I had planned for Day 3 of the round. It was around 70k for more than 5,000m of elevation around the Ben Alder area in the Grampian. It took me 12.5h to do it in training.
I was doing a lot of volume, there was very little speed work. It was just about going up and down hills as much as you can.
Did you do any specific cycling training too?
I never previously owned a bike, so last year I borrowed a bike from a friend and started doing some cycling. October/November last year I did a lot on the bike and not much running to try to get used to bikes. I was doing 100k to 100miles cycles. And at the start of 2020, over January/February, I was doing a lot of ski mountaineering because that’s what I do in the winter to keep fit. I was doing 8-9 hours days going up and down hills on skis. And then in Spring time, I started doing more cycling again leading up to the munro round, maybe once or twice a week. I’ll say that 90% of my training was running and 10% cycling.
What’s your best memory?
Yeah there’s quite a lot! Obviously, the finish was pretty cool: I finished on top of Ben Hope at 5am in the morning. That’s definitely one that sticks out.
But as a day it was Skye and the Cuillins. It’s where I got into mountaineering in the first place. It’s very technical and very scrambly, so it took my mind off how tired I was! I was up there with a few friends, nice weather, blue sky, not too hot: that was a great day. Going across the ridge didn’t feel like a challenge, so it’s definitely one of the highlights.
I could keep going as there were a lot of great moments!
What was your strategy to deal with the tough moments? Especially with the injury that you picked up pretty quickly.
On Day 6 I started getting pain on my right tibialis anterior tendon and it got really sore. I managed to get on top of it by icing and elevating my ankle as much as possible. I also had a recovery compression machine in the van (compression boots) that helped get rid of the inflammation and the swelling. So that helped me get through the injury.
I have a degree in Sports Coach & Development so I know how to deal with the tough moments. It’s all about positive self talk, breaking things down and obviously focusing on one munro at a time. My mantra going into the round was to keep doing one munro at a time and be patient. As an athlete and as someone very competitive, the tendency, especially at the start when you’re fresh, is to get the days over as quick as possible. The key for the first couple of weeks was to try to be patient and not get carried away on the uphills and the downhills. So that was my coping strategy.
Because my schedule was so ambitious and out there, I got a few comments from people saying that my round wouldn’t be possible. The stubbornness I have in me motivated me as I wanted to prove them wrong. I knew I could do it.
The messages of support were also very encouraging. Having people rooting for you and supporting you definitely helps. There will always be people that want to see you succeed and that can give a massive boost.
Speaking about support, your wife crewed you for the whole 31 days. What was her role and how did she live this munro round?
Yeah she was working just as hard as I was. Because I was following a linear route, she was picking my bike up and my bike off, and then driving in between and then making my dinner and breakfast. It was full on for her for the 5 weeks, trying to be in the right place at the right time, to hand the bike over to me. There was a lot of logistics and planning, so she was probably more stressed than I was because she was the one with the van, who had to be in certain places in time. At least if I was late I had an excuse, it’s because I was tired!
At the end of Day 8 for example, I was supposed to meet her at Glen Doll car park (coming off Lochnagar) and I arrived before she did because it took her 3 hours with all the traffic from a Saturday afternoon. I ended up walking down the road because I didn’t know what was going on and I was trying to get a phone signal to ring her.
How did you deal manage your nutrition and ensure you were eating enough calories?
I am very thankful to Run4It for backing me and giving me a lot of nutrition products – which helped massively. When I was moving I was a bit more switched on on my nutritional strategy. I was trying to get onboard at least 80g of carbohydrates an hour and sometimes a bit more, generally under the form of a Clif Bar, some Clif Shot Bloks and some Active Root. The reason for being more focused on nutrition when running was because getting more than 80g of carbs helps reduce muscle damage and that was key for me to be able to do these long consecutive days. So the Clif bars with 9g of protein were great.
And then in the evenings, I didn’t really count the calories, basically it was just an eating competition. As much food as I can take it would go in! You’d think “That sounds great” but it was awful. It was like a Christmas lunch kind of feeling: you eat until you’re full and you can’t move or do anything yourself. So I was just crawling to my bed afterwards. After a couple of weeks I got to a point where I was fed up with food. I didn’t fancy anything because I was just eating everything that you can think of.
What kit helped you achieve this self propelled Munro challenge?
Trail running shoes
First a good pair of trail running shoes. I’m sponsored by Salomon, so obviously I use their kit but I’d still be wearing their shoes even if I wasn’t sponsored by them! For my challenge, I ran mainly in the new S/LAB Sense 8 for soft grounds and the S/LAB Crossmax for boggy terrains. There’s only a couple of times when I had to switch for other shoes – when I was in Ben Lomond or around the Cuillins as it required a different type of shoe. In total, I went through seven pairs of Salomon shoes during the challenge.
Then another important piece of kit were socks. I was using merino wool socks which are great to wick moisture away, especially when you get wet feet for 12h. They were essential.
A GPS watch
The other bit of kit that was essential were navigational tools. With my running GPS watch I had the route programmed into the watch so it helped navigation wise. I could move much quicker without wondering where I had to go. And my watch has an incredible battery life (over 30h), so I didn’t have to worry about that.
A mobile phone
Also, believe it or not, my Iphone was pretty essential too because I had OS Maps downloaded on that. It meant that I could check where I was and make sure I was heading towards the right summit. The big advantage of OS Maps is that it works even without phone signal: it can locate you anywhere on the map.
A waterproof running jacket
And finally a proper running waterproof jacket was key to help me go through these 5 weeks. I had the S/LAB GORE-TEX SHAKEDRY jacket, which worked incredibly well. I was astonished by how well it protected me. On Day 4, I ran 10h in horizontal gale force winds and it didn’t let a drop of water in.
Did you experience any navigational issues during the challenge?
It went pretty smooth the whole time apart from one munro where I switched off, but I didn’t really get lost. Basically, Day 29, the day before my last fairly remote day, I was running with people and I was a bit more laid back because I knew I would get to Ben Hope (the last munro).
I was going up a munro with the previous record holder, Stephen Pyke and we were just chatting away when we got to this big, massive cairn – you’re talking about waist high cairn so not just three or four rocks. There wasn’t much visibility and we assumed it was the top. I would usually check my watch but because I was with Stephen I totally switched off. It’s only when we got to the bottom that my wife took the tracker and said that we had missed the cairn. I googled it to see a picture of the cairn and it said that the summit was two hundred meters west of the big cairn at top. So I had to do it again.
It’s the only day that I really messed up navigation wise, but it was my own fault for being switched! Normally, if I was by myself, I would check my GPX file and OS Maps to make sure I hit every summit and for this one I didn’t.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start running hills/munros?
For someone who’s fairly new to trail running my best advice would be to join a running club that has got trail runners or a trail running emphasis. There you can meet other like-minded people who will have more experience, so you can go out with them and share their experience.
You can also do trail workshops if there are any close to where you live. For instance, Salomon organise ‘How To Trail Run‘ workshops all over the UK, but other companies do the same as well. I know that some Run4It shops have their own local trail runs or running clubs. Joining groups that are more trail specific is a good way to get more experienced.
You can also sign up for courses, like navigational courses if you want to feel more comfortable running in the hills. There are paid “navigation for runners” courses in the Lakes District for example or Glenmore Lodge in Scotland also organises trail running courses. They teach you more navigation and mountaineering stuff.
We’ve seen a lot of FKT attempts this year (with the absence of races), what’s your advice to someone who wants to after one?
Plan. You really have to plan for any kind of eventuality. And you also have to try to bring in other experts that may be able to give you some advice. For an FKT for instance, try to reach out with the previous record holder(s). They will normally be happy to share information. It’s really about getting as much information as possible on the challenge.
Planning for the worst case scenario will allow you to take a lot of pressure away if anything happens during the challenge. For example, for the likes of Bob Graham or Ramsay Rounds, it can be planning what to do if one of your support runners has to pull out. Things never go 100% to plan. Meticulously prepare for things going wrong and also don’t forget to put in the training!
Has your running vision changed after this challenge? What have you learnt?
I wouldn’t say that anything has changed. I liked the mountains before I started the challenge and I still like them after completing it. But the experience has got a big impact on myself, knowing how far I can push myself. I now know for sure that I can do back-to-back big days on the hills, which, previous to the challenge, was the big question. When I was putting my schedule together, I knew that, for any given day, I could have done that as a standard one day. But the question was “could I do these days consecutively?”. Would I be able to do it after more than 20 days of consecutive running up and down munros? Now I know I can!
I know I can run big days back-to-back, I know how to do it and I know how my body is going to feel.
It required a lot of discipline. I had to stay switched on, especially in the evening. You cannot get lazy and feel sorry for yourself because you’re tired. Straight after my runs I wasn’t losing time and I was starting the recovery process.
What’s next for you?
If there’s no races because of the pandemic, there are a few things that I want to do. For example, there’s a gravel route that runs past my door called the Badger Divide and links Inverness to Glasgow. I would like to cycle it to see what it’s like to be on the bike for 20+ hours. So that’s the kind of idea that I have at the moment. I’d like to do big, link-up days in skis or just big days running.
But hopefully we’ll be able to do a couple of races next year.