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Cairngorm Parkrun - Part 2 - The running

With all the plans in place, we set off up Mount Keen at 0600 on Friday 10th July. Easing into the round with a steady walk up the big track leading onto the moor. The summit shrouded in cloud was not a place to hang around for pictures, so leaving Laura to return to the van I quested off west into the mist, 1 Munro down 57 to go!

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Day 1: 

14 Munros 86km, 4058m 17.5 hours

All of the munros have well worn paths to the summits, some, like Mount Keen, you can pretty much drive to the top of. Any hopes of this round being an easy trail run were however quickly smashed. I would be linking hills together in a way that the normal munro bagger wouldn’t consider, getting between the hills was going to be harder than climbing them! 

There were a few sections that I knew were going to be rough, and this first bit, heading west towards Loch Muick looked particularly bad; 6 kilometres of deep heather and peat hags, energy sapping and time consuming at the best of times. Certainly not a confidence inspiring start to a 400+km run! To keep to my schedule I only had to average 5km/h for the first day so I knew that should be fairly achievable. That was a relief as I wasn’t going much quicker. 


The previous 2 days had been a whirlwind of organisation, sorting kit and plans, cooking food for the rest stops and messaging supporters, getting a skeleton team in place that would be crucial to the success of the project. The morning was busy too, a quick breakfast and final kit check nearly making me late for my 0600 kick-off. 

The stress of all of this came with me on the route; wanting to quickly get it done, thinking about the whole route that was to come and the massive few days ahead was the worst possible mindset. Climbing Lochnagar my legs were feeling tired already, a mountain biker overtook me - carrying his bike, the weather was turning, with cold squally showers blowing through and all I was feeling was anxious. This was definitely not fun!


Once up on the plateau behind Lochnagar the munros came more quickly, this circuit is some of the best high level trail running in Scotland, so despite some annoying knee pain I was soon ahead of schedule. Hobbling down into Glen Esk my optimism was low, this pain had come out of nowhere and felt like the kind of thing that only gets worse. I wasn’t expecting to get through 6 days without a few sore bits, but this was too much, way too early.


The first support point at the visitors centre in Glen Clova came and went in an hour. A big pasta meal, clean clothes and a painful bit of maintenance with the foam roller all drew some strange looks from the hillwalkers finishing their days out. Envious of their completed efforts, I set off again up the Kilbo path towards Dreish and Mayar 40 minutes ahead of my schedule. Full of fuel I felt stronger as I pushed up the long climb, my knee not hurting at all. 


Exactly what triggered the change I don’t know, but at last my head was in the right place. Focussed on the next kilometre, ignoring the days to come, I was able to calmly accept the task and just get on with it. This was an enormous relief, and helped me to manage my knee pain. It only hurt when I ran for more than a few minutes. This section of the route was again pretty rough, so I wasn’t able to run much anyway, so my knee wasn’t slowing me down too much. A problem I could ignore. Whether it was to get better or worse wasn’t something I could affect right there, so I put it out of my mind and just kept moving. 


Hours pouring over the maps, and aerial images online mostly paid off and I was able to make the most of stalkers tracks across the high moor and find a relatively efficient route around the plateau. It was just getting dark as I summited my final munro for the day, Creag Leacach, before doubling back to contour under Glas Maol and descend through the ski area to my first proper rest stop in Glenshee. 14 munros in the bag and as a bonus I had already set a new record for the East Mounth Munros, my mate Giles having set a ‘West Mounth round’ a few years previously. 2 hours ahead of schedule meant 2 hours more in bed, all in all things were looking good!


Day 2: 

6 hours sleep

11 Munros 51.2km, 3487m 12 hours 41 minutes

As the alarm went off to start day 2, a knock on the side of the van announced the arrival of the ever enthusiastic Joe, ready to support for the day on the hill. A speedy hill racer, Joe seemed dressed for a much faster day than I had in mind, but he was taking his job of support seriously, with experience of supporting Paul Tierney on his Wainrights last year. It was a relief for me to be able to lighten my load for the day, and good chat got me over the first few hills without trouble as I warmed up into the day. 30km shorter than day 1, but with only 500m less ascent, day 2 was all about the up and down, but while I kept putting fuel in, I was feeling strong and staying on schedule.

At Glas Tulaichean Joe headed back east towards Glenshee and again I was on my own for the final section of the day, over the Beinn a’Ghlo range. Slogging up steep heather above the imaginatively named Loch Loch I wondered if any human had ever taken that route before. 


More mentally fatigued than physically, I was ready for the day to end as I ticked off my last summit for the day. Again I ignored the good path down towards the carpark and headed north, down an unlikely looking descent on the north flank of the mountain. A final steep grassy descent took me down to the river Tilt and my support point for the night where a slice of take-away pizza and a dip in the river represented pure luxury!

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An early start on day 3

 
Day 3: 

5 hours sleep

7 Munros 72.8km, 3791m 17 hours 59 minutes

On multi-day events, I always say that the morning of day 3 is the hardest, after that you don’t ever really feel much worse. So it was some relief that I crawled out of my sleeping bag and set off up the hill, not feeling too bad, tired but so far, without any real injury concerns, my sore knee having given up complaining the previous afternoon. With 18 hours scheduled to do only 7 munros, the third day was by far the hardest terrain of the round, ticking off remote and disconnected summits. This meant crossing the wilds of the upper Tarf twice to get out to the two munros normally accessed from Glen Feshie in the north, and then back again to tick Beinn Dearg. Peat hags, deep heather and bottomless bogs made for slow going, but put me in mind of days spent racing across similar terrain on Mountain Marathon events which kept me motivated. Reaching the second summit of the day An Sgarsoch I had a great view of the Laraig Ghru and Cairngorm. With the finish line tantalisingly close I had to turn my back on it and head west, it would be another 3 long days before I got anywhere near the end yet!

Many hours passed between munro number 4 and 5 for the day, dropping into Glen Bruar, then crossing the watershed into the Gaick pass and a welcome support point. The last tops of the day didn’t come any easier. Route planning here had been difficult to pin down, at a couple of points I had to make decisions and find a balance between saving myself extra climbing, or adding significant extra distance. Steep climbing up onto the plateau that dominates the east of the A9 at Drummocter was hard enough, but having to drop off it in an out-and-back to Meall Chuaich just seemed cruel. 

Skirting around the plateau rim I eventually hit more travelled trails. The sun was low in the sky as the drizzle rolled in for my last descent of the day. Weary, but still on schedule and feeling good that I had settled into the rhythm of the challenge. 

Day 4: 

5 hours sleep

8 Munros 94.7km, 2718m 20 hours 27 minutes

For some reason I had it in my mind that day 4 was going to be a relatively easy day, a nice rest between the harder sections before and after. Starting on smoother terrain on the 4 hills west of the Drummochter pass should be easy running, then 20km on the road without much climbing to do, before the simple matter of the Monadhliath traverse and forest tracks into Glen Feshie.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Waking to rain hammering on the van roof, a quick check showed the hills were hidden under menacing low cloud. Without an option, I dressed with extra warm layers, and added a few more spares into my pack. The 4am start didn’t help my mood as I slogged up the hill for a sweaty few hours, cursing the extra weight on my back.

By the time I hit Dalwhinnie the weather had improved. Fresh dry shoes for the road section, no need to carry any kit and a takeaway coffee delivery from the Laggan stores all helped my mood. I was pleasantly surprised to still be running ok and feeling good. Although my shin was showing it’s first signs of the effects of 4 long days on rough ground.  

A short piece of estate track along the Spey brought another surprise, a kilometre of original cobbles on a section of General Wade’s Military road. A hidden piece of history and a welcome distraction as I imagined the hardships of others who have passed this way in the last 300 years. 

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Great support for the Monadhliath


Arriving at the next support point, my days of solitude in the hills came to an end just at the right time. As I sat in the sun filling up on food and sorting my feet it felt great to have the energy of chat all round me. We set off up into the Monadhliath as a team of 4 full of optimism, with a lighter bag, distracting chat and some excellent home baking to keep me going. This section was supposed to be fairly straight forward, once up the first climb, there was not much up and down as we traversed the long ridge to the east. I should have know better having been this way before, but I had totally underestimated how rough the ground is on this section, and the complaints from my shin were getting louder. Tendonitis building at the front on my ankle was limiting range of motion and starting to affect my ability to descend or run comfortably. Finally dropping down into the glen there was still plenty of knee deep heather to make life difficult as we cut through towards Kingussie as darkness fell. All that was left of the day was 10km along the road and then forest tracks into Glen Feshie where the van was waiting. Try as I might, I couldn’t get any real pace going as Ally and Karen wore out the brakes on the their bikes rolling alongside. 

Hobbling up to the van to find my dinner and my bed waiting I was empty. 94km in 23 hours, how was that a rest day!?

 

Day 5: 

7 hours sleep

8 Munros 49.4km, 2444m 13 hours 41 minutes 

Waking alone in the van before my alarm I was not in a good way. I was in pain, I was deeply tired and generally feeling pretty rough. I spent the best part of an hour in a pit of despair, feeling sorry for myself and desperately trying to come up with a good excuse to quit. If I just jumped in the front seat I could be home in 20 minutes enjoying a nice warm bath and a few days in bed. No one would blame me, I’d already put in a good shift. The idea of another 110km and 6500 meters of climbing just seemed impossible. This was such a stupid idea!

At this point I could easily have quit, had I not told anyone I was going to make the attempt. However, as it was I had three key thoughts that overrode any desire to sulk off home.

1- The niggling doubt of unfinished business that I knew would haunt me if I quit now. Could/should I have kept going. Could/should I have another attempt. The idea of having to re-do the previous 4 days was unbearable, much better to suffer for 2 days now, than 6 at some point in the future.


2- From all the messages of support I was getting as I ran along, I knew that a lot of people were watching my attempt, to quit would be to let them all down.


3- Most importantly, a big focus of my challenge was to raise some funds to help out our mate Dave, to support his rehab after he suffered a stoke after a ski accident 2 years ago. I visited Dave last year and watched him in one of his physio sessions, literally learning how to stand up again. The effort involved in rising from a seated position to standing was immense, like an absolute maximum effort deadlift you might watch at the olympics. Dave is making these efforts every day, without complaint but also without any certain outcome of where his efforts will get him, one day he may walk again, but he also may not. He has no easy option of quitting. If he can endure that with determination and good humour, another two days of walking slowly round the hills for me should be a piece of cake. I’m sure that Dave would give anything to have that opportunity again, the least I could do would be to take mine. 

It took a while to organise these thoughts, but once I had, I knew that nothing could stop me. As long as it took, I was getting to Cairngorm.


There were no more easy support points from here, we had one big day planned to get us into the Laraig Ghru, then the final day would be split into three parts, with two breaks near the Fords of Avon between them. This meant that I needed to have enough food and kit with me for a 24 hour push before anyone else was coming in to join us, including kit for a very basic camp. To have done this section solo may well have broken me. It would certainly have added another day (at least) to my overall time. 

From the outside these big rounds look like an individual achievement, but here I saw first hand how true it is that they are all about the team. I couldn’t have got to this point without Laura’s support, and from here until the end Ben stepped up and put in a massive shift to allow me to keep plodding on towards the finish.

Conscious of what a burden I was putting on Ben, basically asking him to carry kit for two people for a full Rigby round in 36 hours, I had put out a plea to other mates to see who could help out on this leg, with any help being appreciated. Mark took up the call, and joined us for the start of the day, with the idea of getting us up the big climb on to the plateau and then seeing how far he felt like going. Little did he know that he would keep saying yes to the next hill and end up doing a massive 14 hour day!

The easy chat with two new supporters, and the light bag I was carrying helped this section tick along quite nicely. It felt like I was able to trot along well on the sections of easy running, but watching Mark walk along easily beside me as I was flat out, showed how much my pace had slowed. The real challenge now were the sections of rocky ground, my right ankle had lost any range of motion, so I was peg-legged and hobbling down steps like a 90 year old. For the first time the schedule dropped away, despite starting an hour ahead of schedule, we were an hour behind by the time we crossed the river Dee and set up our beds for a quick meal and a few hours sleep. 

Day 6: 

3 hours sleep

10 Munros 64.9km, 4061m 22 hours 41 minutes

After just three hours sleep the alarm went off to start what should be the last day of my round. The start in Glen Mark now seemed part of a totally different challenge, like an event I could look back on from a year or two previously. However, out of 13 legs of my round I still had three to go, 10 munros and an awful lot of climbing and descending, the finish also felt a long way off. Ahead now was the leg with the most climbing per kilometre of the whole round, starting with the monster double climb out of the Laraig Ghru, over Carn a Mhaim and then up to Ben Macdui, nearly 1100 meters in just 9km. 

A damp midgie morning wasn’t great for motivation, but there was no point delaying the inevitable, today was going to be long and slow enough as it was. 


Despite my tiredness and immobile right foot I was still climbing well and finding a reasonable line up the steep flank of Carn a Mhaim was a good way to start the day. As we started the slog up the boulder field towards Ben Macdui I saw a figure descending through the mist, at first I wondered about stories of weary walkers seeing the ephemeral ‘Grey Man of Macdui’. I had never heard mention of him having a spaniel with him though, so this must be Ross, coming in to find us and give some more support. 

Now don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see Ross and I appreciated his early morning effort to come and see me, but what I was after was a bit more tangible; what did he have in his bag for me?! I was starting to worry that he had arrived empty handed, when the first round of veggie sausage sarnies appeared, now that was more like it! After a few hundred kilometres fuelled mostly by dry bars, nuts and a few precious cheese and avocado wraps, I was desperate for some different food. Still warm, these exotic fresh treats were little tin foil bundles of motivation. Somehow Ross continued to pull out round after round of these sandwiches as the three of us (plus a spaniel) made our way over the next couple of tops. 


The mountain feast continued as we arrived at our next support point, just south of the Fords of Avon. Here Dave C was waiting with enough supplies to stock an entire marathon aid station. In the feeding frenzy that followed, Ben and I polished of a massive tray of fresh fruit, a pot of rice pudding, several flapjacks, a bag of jam donuts and a huge flask of coffee. Suitably caffeine and sugar fuelled we raced up the next hill, just 6 to go and the sun was back out. Knowing that I was definitely on to finish that night as planned I actually enjoyed the experience for the first time since the Glenshee hills on day 2. 

Time had started doing strange things by this point of the week. The hills were coming in rapid succession and it felt like we were moving at a decent pace, yet somehow the day was racing away from us. 2 o’clock quickly became 9 o’clock and we were nearly 17 hours in to the day by the time we made it back to the Fords of Avon, already behind the time I had hoped to be on my way down from Cairngorm.

Our final supporters, Laura, Martin and Jake were prepared for anything as we arrived, all set for us to add a longer stop and get some good food and some sleep. This would probably have been the sensible choice, but I could see the finish line and any delay now was unthinkable, purely because I had had enough, I just wanted it all to be over!

 

It is hard to describe how the next 5 hours felt. We were soon joined by darkness, low cloud, drizzle and a blustery wind. My world shrunk down to the size of my head torch beam, but my focus shrunk less than that. A 2m treadmill of heather, rocks and bog. Uphill, downhill, uphill, repeated itself in an endless purgatory. Martin did an amazing job of trying to keep me engaged in chat, despite my listless responses, but I could tell that everyone following me were wishing that I could just move a bit quicker and get us all off this cold wet hillside!

 

As we trudged towards Cairngorm, the final summit of the challenge I was waiting for the surge of adrenaline that would sweep me on to a sprint finish. In previous big events I have been amazed to find my seemingly broken body finding miraculous freshness once the end is in sight, proof that our limitations are mostly mental rather than physical.  On this night, as much as I willed it on, the finishing rush never came. 


I was empty. 


Truly empty in a way that I never experienced before. Emotionally there was no reward for the effort, no sense of achievement and no elation, I just wanted to go home. I went through the motions of summit photos, and tried to look appreciative of the bottle of fizz that Laura had carried all day. 

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Approaching the summit of Cairngorm

 

I knew I was still a long way from done, I still had 600 meters of descent to do back to the carpark before I could give in to the fatigue. This descent would take me about 15 minutes on a good day, instead it was 90 pitiful minutes before I could collapse into the back seat of the car. 

 
Done, 
in every sense of the word!

 


An absolutely massive thanks to all my support team, I really couldn’t have got close to this without you all

Laura Mcauley - Van support, logistics coordinator & final night support

Ben Gibson - Rigby round support

Joe Mann - Glenshee 8 hill support

Liam Irving - Gaick Pass support

Anna Mitchell - Gaick Pass support

Ally Beaven - Monadhliath hill support

Louis Waterman-Evans - Monadhliath hill support

Karen Mcintyre - Kingussie to Glen Feshie support

Mark Chadwick - Braeriach hill support

Martin Bell - Monadhliath hill support & final night support

Jake Bell - Final night support

Ross Creber - Ben Macdui sandwich delivery service

Dave Chapman - Fords of Avon remote support

 

Another huge thanks to everyone who sent me messages of support along the way, When I could get signal I would get 10-15 minutes of effortless mileage as I caught up on them all.

 


And lastly, thank you so much to everyone who donated to the cause, it spurred me on but more importantly it will make a real tangible difference to Dave and his family. Thank you. 

 

You can read more about Dave's story here

Our fundraising page is here

 
Totals:

58 Munros

419km

20,560m ascent

141 hours 54 minutes

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