Wednesday, September 1, 2021

24h Munros

The challenge of the 24-hour Munro round is pleasingly simple; to climb as many Munros as possible within 24 hours, starting and finishing at the same place. With distance, ascent and terrain playing key roles, the round has fuelled discussion for decades in long distance running circles. Unsurprisingly, record attempts have focused on areas with the maximum concentration of Munros (Lochaber, Glen Shiel). In 1988 Jon Broxap ran a round of 28 Munros in the Glen Shiel area, which with the 1997 revision of the Munro tables got bumped up to 29, while at the same time Adrian Belton’s 28 Munro round in Lochaber got bumped down to 27. This record survived a couple of attempts by Spyke, standing until 2017, when legend has it that Jim Mann received a note in the post telling him to switch his focus to the Cairngorms, where he duly clocked 30 Munros in 22:05. That route was extended by Sasha Chepelin in 2020 to 32 Munros in 23:10, and again by Kim Collinson in 2021, to 33 Munros in 23:48.

(photo Graham Nash)

Against the flurry of these male records, the absence of a female 24-hour Munro round was striking. Konrad and I speculated that I might already hold it by default – for my Ramsay round (23 Munros), in 16:13, although one could argue that Helene Diamantides' Ramsay round included 24 Munros at the time it was set (the loss of Sgor an Iubhair that affected Adrian’s round also affecting the Ramsay)! Either way, it was clear that a serious effort for a female 24-hour Munro record was well overdue.

I scheduled a date for 24th July (the one week in a block of 6 during July/August that I wasn’t going to be on clinics at work and could therefore guarantee some decent sleep in the lead-up) and crossed my fingers that the weather would be kind. It was almost too good, the ground was bone-dry, and the visibility was incredible, but it was uncomfortably hot for long-distance running (Finlay Wild ran a record-breaking solo Rigby Round the same day in 16h40, and drank 16 litres of water in the process!).

It was hard to know how many Munros to aim for, since I wasn’t sure just how much long-distance fitness I’d regained since having my son Bryn (born in July 2020). With Konrad’s help, I settled on an anti-clockwise attempt, based on Jim Mann’s round, with a variety of finishing options, aiming to do anywhere from 29 – 32 Munros, or less, if time was running out.

With two small children to factor into the planning, I opted to run from midnight to midnight, which meant that Konrad could drive me up to our starting point at Invercauld Bridge (after we’d had dinner with the family and prepared the children for bed), and pace me on the first leg, before driving back to take over from my wonderful mum at home.

Leg 1 - Invercauld Bridge to Glenshee (Konrad Rawlik, Jim Mann, and Moss our border collie dog): The first leg was incredible; easy grassy running by the light of a huge full moon, with a sea of cloud inversion below us, and herds of deer streaming past in the half light. We made fast work of the Lochnagar Munros and crossed to the Glenshee group for a stunning sunrise of pink and orange, finishing the leg just one minute short of Jim’s split, in 5h38.

(photo Konrad Rawlik)

Leg 2 - Glenshee to White Bridge (Sasha Chepelin and Ally Beaven): The heat was kicking in, but I still felt reasonably good, and we made steady progress over the remaining Glenshee group and other Munro’s towards White Bridge. I stopped to lie in every stream we passed and was glad I’d remembered Vaseline to prevent chaffing – the bits I’d missed soon reminded themselves to me! The time passed quickly, chatting to Sasha about his own round, and Ally about his experiences at Barkley Marathons, and we descended to White Bridge a few minutes up on my schedule of 6h10.

(photo Sasha Chepelin)

Leg 3 - White Bridge to Corrour Bothy (Eoin Lennon and Ali Masson): It wasn’t feeling so easy anymore, and the ascent of Beinn Bhrotain was the first split I lost time on my schedule. Coming off the summit, my toe caught a boulder, and I sand-papered the skin off my knees and elbows, knocking my confidence temporarily. Nevertheless, I relished the fantastic views over the next summits lining the west side of the Lairig Ghru , especially as I’d seen so little of them on my recent clagged-out Rigby round. At the changeover point I lay spreadeagled in the river, preparing myself for the challenges I knew the coming hours would bring. At this stage I had ticked 24 Munros, and was going beyond the Ramsay total.

(photo John Ryan)

Leg 4 - Corrour Bothy to Invercauld Bridge (Graham Nash, John Ryan, Eoin Lennon): The steep gulley climb up to Carn a’Mhaim felt just as hard as it had on my Rigby round, and the subsequent pull up to Ben Macdui took just as long. At least we didn’t get lost on the traverse to Derry Cairngorm this time, although we were now losing time steadily on the schedule. Whilst I was still trying to run the flatter sections, it was clear how feeble my efforts must be, as my supporters were walking along chatting beside me. Graham guided the scramble up the summit tor on Beinn Mheadhoin, before the horrible rough descent of heather, rocks and holes, down its eastern flank. This was the point at which I needed to decide how I would finish the round, based on the time I had remaining of the day. By now it was clear that I needed to be getting back, but we opted to include Beinn Bhreac on the way, hoping that the improved descent line John had in mind would have us back on the final 14 km of flat tracks in good enough time. The line was indeed much better, but my slow progress by this stage, combined with rough and trackless ground, left things tighter than any of us would have liked by the time we reached the valley. John and Graham thrust a banana and a bar into my hands, ordered me to eat, and then set off running, telling me I needed to keep up. I dug deep, focusing on their backs in front of me, and the rhythm of my stride, thankful that we were on a track at least. At Linn of Quoich, Graham peeled off for the car, whilst John and I continued along the darkening valley, towards the lights of Braemar twinkling teasingly in the distance. We were making steady progress, and it seemed that we would reach Invercauld Bridge comfortably before midnight, but then we took a wrong turn, and ended up in a field waist deep in grass, with John telling me to ‘Turn right’, and me finding myself face to face with a 2m high deer fence and no way through. ‘Back here, over this fence!’, went the cry, and I grabbed the twine to lift my leg over before an electric shock sent me flying backwards in surprise. ‘Cross the gully!’, ‘But there’s a river there!’, ‘It’s not a river, it’s a stream!’ went our exclamations, before we finally hauled ourselves back onto a track, still trying to work out which way to run next. With precious minutes ticking by to midnight, the record seemed to hang agonisingly in the balance, but at exactly that moment the lights of two torches appeared from above, and with them the very welcome figures of Sasha and Ali. We raced along with them leading the way – I’d never have believed I could still run like that if I hadn’t needed to – passing through a field of sleeping cows, and finally reaching my starting point at 23:48 (although by the time I’d worked out how to stop my new watch it was 23:49:02, so that’s the official time).

(photo Graham Nash)

It was an exciting and memorable end to an incredible day, which I was fortunate to spend in the best of company – talented runners all, and equally great friends. I was delighted to have given it everything, and to have persevered when it started to hurt and doubts were creeping in. I’m pleased there is now an official ladies 24-hour Munro round, and I have no doubt that the figure of 29 will only be temporary, as others take on the challenge for themselves.

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