Picture this. You are traversing Scotland’s roughest, most remote terrain, battling gale-force winds, horizontal rain and knee-deep bogs. No one has run this particular route before. You’re in pain and you are miles from Mountain Rescue. Do you give up… or carry on?
This is what Scottish running coach Donnie Campbell, 35, faced when he took on the UK’s toughest challenge in August 2020. His aim? To bag all of Scotland’s Munros in just 33 days.
‘Bagging a Munro’ involves running or scrambling up one of Scotland’s 282 mountains with a height of more than 900m. Completing one or more of them is physically gruelling but bagging all 282 requires a whole other level of pain tolerance, with the added logistical challenge of trying to tick them all off within a set – and rather ambitious – window. No wonder many thought it an impossible feat.
I like proving people wrong. That gave me motivation to prove it was possible. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. I just knew I had to finish what I set out to do
On September 2, 2020 at 5.02am, Campbell found himself rounding the summit of his final Munro – Ben Hope. He covered 833 miles in 31 days, 23 hours and two minutes, smashing the previous record by an incredible eight days, set by ultrarunner Stephen Spyke in 2010.
This is how he did it...
It took 12 months of planning
Hailing from the Isle of Skye, ex-marine Donnie always wanted to complete a round of Scotland’s Munros. “As an athlete, I looked at the record – it was incredible – and I thought, on a good day, I could potentially go quicker,” said Donnie. An entire year of planning went into the five-week adventure. “I can run for 12 hours, covering around 70km a day. The big question was, could I do it consecutively?”
There is no set route for summiting all 282 Munros in one go. Two months were spent pouring over Ordnance Survey maps and contacting fell running friends for advice. When he put the schedule together, it worked out as 33 days, six days ahead of the previous record set by Spyke in June 2010. It would be the fastest self-propelled, non-stop attempt to ever take place.
He climbed the height of Mt. Everest more than 14 times
Mountains that are 900m high might sound small compared to 4,000m Alpine peaks. But that's before you consider that Donnie summited multiple peaks in one day – and 282 in total. Over the course of his journey, Donnie ascended 126,143m, which is equivalent to more than 14 ascents of Mt. Everest. In addition, he also cycled 896 miles between the Munros, climbing a total elevation of 14,251m.
He cycled and kayaked between each Munro
Logistically, the terrain is so remote that Donnie worked out he would need to run, cycle walk or kayak between Munros in order to complete the course quickly.
“My wife Rachael was my support crew, carrying my bike on our campervan, so it meant I could follow a more linear route,” said Donnie. “I didn’t have to go back to the start to get my car. I could keep going and just stop at the van to sleep at night.”
Early starts and plant-based carbs were crucial
“Generally the mornings were 5am alarm, breakfast of toast and almond butter, chocolate biscuits and a can of Red Bull. I’d have a Red Bull every morning just to help me get going,” Donnie explained. He eats a mainly plant-based diet to fuel his adventures.
Lunch varied. “Once I was out the door at 6am, I often wouldn’t see my wife until 14 hours later.” So, on those days, he would fuel himself with energy bars and carbohydrate drinks. On mixed days of climbing and cycling, Donnie could check in with his wife, scoff two plant-based sausage rolls and biscuits, before mounting the bike again. Dinner was spaghetti or risotto, anything carb-heavy to replenish his energy.
He was burning around 7,000 calories per day. “I was just eating constantly,” said Donnie. “It was more of a chore. I was sick of eating, but it was just something I had to do to fuel up for the next big day.”
He slept for an average of eight hours each night
Generally the mornings were 5am alarm, breakfast of toast and almond butter, chocolate biscuits and a can of Red Bull
Sleep was a priority. Every evening, Donnie would head back to the van, wash off the daily mud and sit with his legs in a recovery pump (inflatable boots that use compressed air to deliver pressure to muscle tissue) for an hour, before eating dinner and heading straight to bed. “I got on average about eight hours' sleep per night across the whole adventure,” said Donnie.
He trained by lapping his local hill
Most of Donnie's training took place in lockdown, so it was spent pacing his local hill, Dunain in Inverness. “It’s only 288m high but there’s lots of mountain bike tracks, so I could do lots of reps up and down it.” He’d average between 20 and 30 hours of training per week – 90 percent was running and 10 percent on the bike. His biggest week of training – 30 hours -– didn’t even come close to his easiest week during the Munro challenge, which was 75 hours of moving time.
It required an enormous amount of mental determination
“Running for a month was like my job,” explained Campbell. “Get up at 5am, running at 6am, no matter what – hail, sleet, rain. That was my job.” But even for a mountain lover, this particular job had its hopeless moments.
“Day 17 was definitely my lowest day, mentally. I’d been doing 12-14 hour days consecutively and I was still so far from the finish. I lost focus. I couldn’t see the end in sight. I came over the second Munro and I was like, 'this is rubbish. I’m in agony. I’ve been suffering day in, day out'. It was like Groundhog Day. You think to yourself, 'What’s the point?'"
I knew that if I made a mistake, I was hours and hours away from Mountain Rescue. Once you’re in, there’s no easy way out
Yet Donnie persevered. “It’s like when you have a bad day at work, you complain to your partner, but the next day you’re back in, knowing it will improve. I like proving people wrong. That gave me motivation to prove it was possible. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. I just knew I had to finish what I set out to do.”
Even best-laid plans sometimes go awry…
Donnie mostly stuck to his plan, but Scotland's volatile weather meant, in some instances, he needed to adapt. Day 21 was particularly tough. “I was on a very remote peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. I was doing big 12-14 hour days leading into it. I was lacking sleep and my ankle hurt. It took me 14.5 hours to do over 60km on very rough terrain,” said Campbell. “I knew that if I made a mistake, I was hours and hours away from Mountain Rescue. Once you’re in, there’s no easy way out.”
The next day, Donnie faced the same terrain with worse conditions – horizontal rain and wind. “I thought, there's no point battling the weather to tackle really tough terrain, and then doing an easy day when the weather is nice.” So Donnie changed his plan, saving the harder climb for fairer weather.
Agonisingly, on day 29, he climbed the same Munro twice, due to cloud cover and lack of concentration, adding another 90 minutes and 600m of ascent onto an already long day.
It was a team effort
Rachel was working just as hard as I was, driving the van, cooking dinner, cleaning up after me, getting the shopping in
“I could not have done it without Rachael and my support team,” said Campbell. “She was working just as hard as I was, driving the van, cooking dinner, cleaning up after me, getting the shopping in.” Company was a real morale boost for Donnie, too. Runners joined in to cheer him on and a specialist team supported him kayaking across Mull. “I look at it as a successful team event, rather than me as an individual.”
He felt sad when it was all over
When Donnie reached Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly Munro, he felt mixed emotions. “I’ve been training all my life for this challenge. Being used to the wet and cold, and all my running experiences pulled together helped me to achieve my goal. It felt surreal to finish it.”
There was a hint of melancholy at leaving behind the simple routine of eat, run, sleep, though. “It’s a really nice way to live. You don’t have to worry about the mortgage or bills for a month. I miss that lifestyle already.”
While he currently doesn’t have any fresh challenges lined up, Campbell is heading back to his day-job as a running coach and hoping to get a puppy soon. “I’d like to train the puppy up to join me on my next adventure.”