The morning after we arrived I was woken by a man knocking on the van door holding our awning by one rope with it flying behind him like a kite, all my gear everywhere. I look up at the cloud line now, which has lifted a little higher up the slopes, and wonder what lies in wait this morning. This is the morning I have planned and trained for since before I had surgery on my shoulder in November to attach an artificial ligament - replacing the one that came off when I crashed out of the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross. I have done twice weekly Sufferfest sessions on the turbo trainer, including this year's Tour of Sufferlandria in full. I have been getting up every morning and running hill repeats for an hour and a half at five in the morning, I've been working on my speed endurance at the track on a Tuesday and trained alongside some running greats. I've got a Greenhead Monsters running vest to start in to remind me of the work I have put in on the track alongside, well usually behind, a pretty special running group. If it all works out I will finish in my Bingley Harriers vest as I have on my previous rounds.
I've arranged to meet outside the Youth Hostel at about 11:15 so I set off walking on my own to get there. People start gathering and the pre-event feelings grow. The feeling is a mixture of dread, anticipation, fear, unworthiness and reluctance. What makes me think I can do this? What am I doing here?
I have managed to add pressure on to myself by wanting to complete this first time so all three have been completed at the first attempt. I can't think about that though. That's no way to prepare and there is no helpful side to that thought, I am not running all three today, just this one - and then only one Munro at a time.
Even running through my preparation and planning doesn't help. I will be fine once I have set off. We have some photos taken and I notice Ian, who I will be setting off with although we are independent of each other, has his poles with him. I must have spent several hours considering whether to take mine (borrowed) with me or not and have decided not to.
I like attention to detail on these rounds. It's the details that ultimately count. Seeing Ian with his poles immediately makes me realise I have made an error not starting with them. I have support enough that they can be carried if I don't need them but I know they will make a difference to how I feel. I jog back to the van for them, laughing at this little warm up I am doing for a 24 hour run. Smiling at how, even with my obsession with detail, I have made this change at the last minute. But it feels right.
Leg 1 - Ben Rowley and Pawel Cymbalista
We set off up Ben Nevis at a steady clip, heading in to cloud and wind just after Red Burn. It gets increasingly busy and I climb the steps to the summit and photo bomb a couple of family snaps, touch the summit and go. Once down the steps I've lost sight of Ben and call out a couple of times. There he is, and we're off.
Down the wet rock, into the wind we go. I'm on Ben's heels, I like wet rock and can maintain a quicker speed over it than a lot of people I know. Not as quick as Ben though who dances over it as we chat/shout to each other about 50 mph gusts and the accuracy of forecasts.
Carn Mor Deag is summitted and we seem to have lost Pawel. I find out later that he has stayed with Ian but Ian has sent him on as he is part of my support team. He catches us up and we stop to put our over trousers on before the climb to Aonach Mor. This is a good call from Ben and I will not take them off all day. Already I have had to adjust my gators and I decide I will adjust them only once more before ignoring them. They slide from under my shoe almost as soon as I think this so put them from my mind..
Ben points out a deer, it is camouflaged well and has furry antlers. It watches us running by and then disappears as we climb back into the cloud and wind. Conversation so far has has been somewhat limited due to the conditions. Hoods up, rain and wind are not overly conducive to meaningful chats with running partners. Despite this Ben and Pawel have been working well as a team. I am fed every half an hour, Pawel either getting what I ask for or choosing something for me to have and getting it to me on the move.
My food is in bags, each bag has enough in it for about 5 hours of running. That's ten things, one to be taken every half an hour. There is a mix of cereal bars, Torq gels, sugar in the form of Dextro tablets, Kendal Mint Cake and Nut Bombs - which are just sweet enough to be moreish but just savoury enough to be palatable all day. Little and often works for me and I am well practised now in eating every half an hour and on the move. There are sachets of energy drink in each bag as well just in case I can't eat and need liquid energy early on.
What I don't realise until a few days later is just how much filming and photography
Pawel has been doing. He will create an amazing record of this first part of the journey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYPab9EpzrE
Ben stops to tie his shoelace and sends me on to the summit cairn of Aonach Mor. Helen is there waiting with a bag for Ian and she shouts encouragement while sheltering from the wind. Brilliant. Seeing people makes such a difference when you are out for a long time. Having said that I don't stop and touch and go. On the way down I see Ian coming up and wish him well. He looks focused.
I realise that because I am not carrying the tracker, Ben has it in his pack, it will have missed this summit. Never mind, it is not about the tracker as I have company and I am carrying my own Garmin for a trace of the round. The tracker proves invaluable all day - providing accurate information for my support team as to where we are and where we are likely to be at what time in order to meet. It also provides the opportunity to follow from afar which may parents are doing (although I don't know this at the time) and by the end they are trying to work out if the distance I have left can be covered in the time limit and just what am I doing going the wrong way at the end? (I wasn't carrying the tracker then either!) Cover My Tracks have provided the tracker - based in Fort William and highly recommended.
In my mind I have divided leg 1 in to three parts. Ben Nevis, CMD, Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag then the Grey Corries to Stob Ban and then Stob Coire Easain, Mheadhior and down to the dam. After the first four I am about 15 minutes up on my own schedule. I have written my own schedule based on my recce times and experiences running. Some summits have extra time built in and a couple of them are quite tight. The plan is working so far and I know I have allowed time ahead for me to gain before Fersit and heading in to the night.
We drop down from Aonah Beag and then I take the lead as Ben and Pawel stop to fill up with water. I create the fiction in my head that I am running them off my heels. It's a nice fiction and helps me contour round the lump before the next summit. Ben comments on my contouring speed and I smile - I was enjoying myself immensely and the poles are helping to remove the extra weight on my ankles, adding stability.
It has definitely brightened now. The cloud is definitely lighter in colour and more wispy the further east we travel. This is a fine way to run the Grey Corries, grey now for a different reason than the rocks that cover their peaks. I love the undulating, rocky ridges and paths with not a false summit in sight. What you see is what you get - when you think you're there you are! We zig zag up Stob ban - zig is in to the wind, zag is wind assisted. It's over before it's really started and I'm feeling good.
Earlier I mentioned to Ben that on the way to Easain I will put my music on, a mixture of Adele and Kasabian, in order to get me through the long climb up and balance the effort against the dread. Coming off Stob Ban though I realise I don't need it! I shall save it for later when it might come in useful. The wind drops as we drop to the river and start the climb up and we can chat properly for the first time. Ben points out cloudberries, among other things, and Pawel and I take note. Then Pawel and I start chatting about fishing, forestry, teaching and food. He casually drops in that this will be his longest run. I am stunned - I have met him only once before (and seen him rather than met him) yet he has extended his own limits and looked after me at the same time. Ben and Pawel, who do know each other, have been the perfect team and as we descend to the dam, seemingly forever in the cloud, I realise I will be 50 minutes ahead of schedule.
50 minutes. Wow! I have not pushed too hard, I have been travelling at a conversational pace even while not being the conditions for conversation. This is at least 10 minutes ahead of my most optimistic projection.
We see someone ahead waving and then running off. It's hard to see who but at least there is advance warning we are on our way. As we turn on to the track towards the dam my mind clicks in to 10 minute stop mode and I start to take off the tops I will change and bark out instructions and questions to Sally who is waiting. Coffee, beans, Cornish pasty, new team, mittens, tops, head torch, hat, go. Brilliant.
Leg time 8 hours 6 minutes Clock time 20:06 Schedule 20:56 50 minutes up
Fersit - Sally Parkin 10 minutes
Being 50 minutes up here is great news, when I reccied this part the clag was down and I spent the whole day thinking I was going in the wrong direction. Now I have additional daylight for the first summit and the cloud has cleared for the first time from the very tops as I have been coming down to the dam. I stash my poles with my support as I will be concentrating on the navigation - neither Robert (who I have literally just met) or Joshua (who I ran from the railway bridge to the end with previously) know this bit. It never ceases to amaze me that there are so many people who enjoy giving their time and help so freely to help others. I know everyone gets something out of it but in the cold light of day this is a 6 hour leg, finishing at around 2am if all goes to plan, followed by a 3 mile walk back to a car driven by a stranger for an hour back to base. It's one of the things I enjoy most about these rounds, both supporting and doing them, the gathering of like minded people.
Leg 2 - Joshua Jardine and Robert Crawford
Across the dam, chatted introductions along the railway. Joke about watching out for trains. Then get out of the way as the joke falls flat and a diesel thunders past, horn reverberating around the valley. We laugh heading up the hill, what a start!
"Go the way you know" becomes something of a mantra for this leg. I point out different lines where I know them but keep adding "But I haven't reccied that way so we're going this way". Joshua takes the lead and despite not having done this leg before needs very little direction to hit the perfect line. I'm not quite sure how he's doing this but it's very impressive. Sgriodain is a climb I have been dreading and although steep, scrambly in places (I think I went wrong there, sorry guys!) and relentless we gain it in good time and in clear daylight. It makes sense to me now the lines I took on the recce, because I can see! On the way to Chno Dearg the cloud comes back and darkness falls.
As we look back we can see the torches of Ian and Zoe approaching the last summit together. Very impressive. As we gain the summit of Chno Dearg I give the cairn a little kiss - it's summit number 12, the halfway summit. I keep us together and let them know that now in the cloud and dark the ground is going to suddenly disappear down a vertical semi-scree slope. It does and my leg immediately cramps, I am fed a handful of peanuts which I wash down with water. It's not a long round unless you get cramp somewhere. It's a bit dicey in the cloud and dark and I am beginning to realise my head torch is not nearly as bright as my two companions. Last time I ran at night I enviously compared my own torch to others but I've not done anything about it.
I'm a little worried by the river, given how much rain we have had today and over the last week, but this worry is unfounded and we cross easily. Now it's just up and along, up and along, up and along the steep climb to the more undulating summit plateau. I glance behind at one point and see a light coming up the shoulder of the mountain. Good, Ian is on his way. On the way off the summit I decide to change my batteries and that improves matters no end! Maybe I was being a bit harsh on my head torch after all.
As we cross under the railway bridge Joshua pulls out a can of coke. This is just what I need and I neck it. This is a long, mainly uphill drag now to Loch Eilde Mor with another river to cross. "I've got skittles for later on as well". Brilliant! Joshua and I ran this bit together supporting Ben and Adnan so he drops in to the lead again and path finds. Robert and I chat and he keeps on top of offering me food and water. We slow to wait for a herd of giant cattle who are in our path at one point. "Hup, Hup" and they move on at their own pace.
Robert and Joshua have been good company and a good team from the start. A steady mix of food, support, positivity and conversation as we get to know each other. This is a real boost when running and especially now I am so far in to the run. It all lifts my spirits and there is a tangible 'can do' spirit which permeates everything we do. Head torch going? No problem. Lost the path? No problem. Raging torrent to cross? Ah.
The river has been sounding pretty intimidating as we have run alongside it in the dark and when we get to where I crossed previously it is plainly not possible. We run on a bit then Joshua jumps in to try and find a place. He settles on a stretch with just one deep section in the very middle where he falls forward and goes up to his chest at one point but gets across. I make my way to the edge of where the deep section is and put one foot out. Even in the dark Joshua clearly sees the abject terror in my face and he reaches out a hand which pulls me across. He then does the same for Robert and we celebrate with a handful of skittles and a swig of water.
Now we head to the track, and that sounds great but the track is broadly uphill and a pain. It's also a longer way than it feels like it ought to be! I keep expecting to be able to see lights from the camp by the ruin but we are upon it without any warning.
Leg time 5 hours 59 Clock time 02:15 Schedule 02:47 32 minutes up
Loch Eilde Mor 10 minutes
Mick Watson, Helen Smith and Louis Parkin
Mick, my father in law, walked up earlier in the day with Louis (my 6 year old) to set up and wild camp. Louis is asleep and wants to stay in his tent but before I go I push my head through and give him a cuddle to which he smiles and then burrows down deeper in to his sleeping bag. What a boost the simple things in life give.
Coffee is on hand and Helen has done a brilliant job of getting Andy and Dave here on time for me, following the tracker. I'm not changing anything here. Kit the same, shoes the same - it's working well so don't mess with it. I give out the food I want carrying, take in coffee, ask for my Bingley Harriers vest to be taken for later and generally bark out orders! The ten minutes feels like a long time as I am not changing and I enjoy the rest. I use it to set myself against Sgurr Eilde Mor - the first climb that will take just over an hour. I put it to Andy and Dave that this first climb is important to get us off on the right foot. There is still a lot of running left to do but with this ticked off and daylight not far away it will be a real achievement.
I give Dave the Garmin to carry, it is his after all, and although neither Dave nor Andy know the way I am confident of my own knowledge of this leg to lead as long as they keep a check that I'm making sense. Before the first climb I ask for the poles unpacking. Over an hour, straight up - there will be no hiding place on this climb and I don't want to start losing minutes now. In truth I am realising I have under allowed for the effect of darkness, not by much but by enough for me to know I need to concentrate. On several of the summits ahead I have over allowed so there should be some easy wins there in terms of time, but they lie ahead and even though I am starting the final leg it's still over 9 hours of running.
Leg 3 - Dave Stephenson and Andy Gibbons
Dave and Andy I know well, I have run with them many times and know they will set me straight as we get closer to the end and I start calculating for each summit. Right from the off they are giving me summit time, schedule time and the difference. On the way to Binnein Beag I confide in them that I feel like I am losing minutes due to the wet conditions. This is not the dry grass that Adnan and I bounded down but wet, slippy and horrible with equally wet and slippy boulders hidden and still a shroud of cloud moved on by a swirling wind. They take it in their stride and say "we'll check at the top". Turns out I'm up again, only a minute or so on this summit but it puts my mind at ease.
I am running to my schedule, based on my times and my running. I have worked hard for this to make sense per summit and have adjusted it to take account of the increasing tiredness I expected to feel at this point. It feels good, to know that I am running to the schedule, minutes are not being lost and I am able to maintain this speed. The wind and cloud are still about but diminish as daylight brings with it spectacular, if brief, views. "I ran over all of them yesterday" I point to The Grey Corries.
On the way up Sgurr Eilde Mor I thought I had seen Ian arriving at the Loch below and expect to see him at various points but don't. I suspect he has called it a day. Binnein Mor is hard work and the first part of the climb to the ridge is very steep, but Dave reminds me that this bit's supposed to hurt. "Is this a segment?" Andy says. "I hope so", shouts down Dave from way up high ahead of us. It would be tempting to think that this is nearly done but leg 3 is at least progressing well.
As we come off Na Gruagaichean and head up the path towards the summit of Stob Coire A'Chairn I realise we should have started contouring earlier. Only a little earlier but it's a reminder that I still need to remain focused, this is my round and I am the one who knows the way. The wind has dropped completely now, perfect timing as I was worried about both the out and back ridges but they are taken in our stride.
The conversation is varied and entertaining and once again the team is working well as a pair. Dave leads and Andy is sat on my shoulder, shepherding me along and in my ear about eating, making me laugh and adding up the distance run and feet climbed. Along Devil's Ridge we can see figures below. Kate was to meet me by the lochan before Stob Ban with the rocket fuel I will need to finish - Coke, Iron Bru and Tangfastics.
11 hours in 11 minutes
On the way down to them I start to well up. I allow myself to think about finishing. I'm really going to do this. I check and I have maintained my 35 to 40 minute cushion all the way through this leg, never dipping below 30 minutes and never losing significant time per summit or feeling that I would be unable to continue. The cushion has allowed me to relax, OK maybe not relax but not obsess about summit times and splits and just concentrate on running.
With Kate are Ben, back for more, and Kieran, Ian's son. Kieran confirms what I suspected, Ian called it a day at Loch Eilde Mor. "You're doing amazing" says Ben. "I'm going to do it aren't I?" It's more of a statement than a question but I have to voice it. Ben was worried we might have gone off too fast on leg one but is happy I've kept the gap through the night and I tuck in behind him, Kieran is good company and keeps darting off this way and that - he's like lightning!
I don't really stop at the lochen - Kate has walked up the climb and waited and I'm through in about 10 seconds. I feel bad but also know I can't stop now, I might not start again. My legs have two more climbs in them and I bully them to the top of Stob ban. "You know you've been out for a long run when there's two Stob Bans in it" says Ben and I laugh.
The final summit cairn is reached and I kiss it and look at my watch. I have an hour and a half to get down. On my schedule I have allowed an hour and five minutes, and that was taking it slowly. I have reckoned without my legs though! They don't want to go downhill. At all. It's rocky, then grassy, then boggy and Andy is right - take it steady on this part, there's no point twisting an ankle now, and run in along the track to the finish.
I cry for most of the descent. Every time Andy tries to talk to me I well up, unable to speak. We get to the track and I ask for my vest. Ben paces me along the track to the finish. This will be the fastest of my three rounds if I maintain this pace. Kieran waits to direct Dave and Andy through the wood to the road. We seem to have lost them in the cut through the first section of trees. When I look at the trace later I see they have stuck to the track all the way along before turning back left again.
They catch up by the cattle grid and we arrive together at the Youth Hostel to a wonderful reception from friends and family.
23 hours and 40 minutes. It is my fastest but has also been the hardest. I paid more attention to the details and I had an amazingly strong team of pacers working as perfect pairs and a ground support team second to none. I trained to be strong enough to do it come what may weather wise and this is just as well. My schedule worked for me - it allowed me to get ahead of 24 hours and stay there. I think I under allowed for the effect of darkness, but not by much, and the buffer I had early on allowed me to be in control of this all the way round. It sounds so obvious but preparation is everything.
Thank you to my team. Each person involved was positive in outlook, practical in nature and totally committed to getting me round. Without them this would not have been possible for me. I still can't really comprehend that I am number 94 on the finishers list, one of only 10 so far this year and that this year is the first year completions have run in to double figures.It also puts me at 44 on the Big 3 finishers list. That, to me, is unbelievable. 44! Just after Adnan, who I supported, and just before Jasmin who I followed in awe from afar.
I look at the names on those (short) lists and see race winners and fell champions. Giants of mountain running. I have raised myself to be among exalted company indeed. Not only that but I am also proud of the fact I have completed each round at the first attempt, with both the Paddy and the Ramsay run in testing conditions.
I started this journey because I thought that running was such a fundamental part of our history, of our evolution, that I wanted to know if I was capable of doing more. Could I reach further than I could grasp? I have my answer - yes I can; and in answering for myself I am convinced the answer is not just yes I can but yes we can. It just depends on how much you want to.
So what next? Coming down that last descent I wasn't sure I was ever running again. Later that day Sally said to me "I was talking to Ben's mum and dad and they did mountain marathons together - we could do that couldn't we?"
Sounds like a plan...