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Ramsay's Round, Winter, a Q & A
Reaching my Peak – Donnie Campbell

Scottish Hill Runners – Q & A

A winter round of summits in the Highlands, where the objective is to finish in under 24 hours, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But for Donnie Campbell, endurance running is a way of life. Setting a new record for the Winter Ramsay Round, Donnie finished in 23 hours and 6 minutes, covering the 24 summits despite suffering from Morton’s Neuroma and severe nausea. We spoke to Donnie to hear more about the round in his story “Reaching my Peak”, and to understand more about the techniques he uses for endurance running.

You grew up in Scotland where there is lots of access to the outdoors. Did you come from a very active background? Were your family into the outdoors and motivating you to pursue a sport?

Yeah, I grew up in the Isle of Skye, so I am used to a bit of weather as well! Growing up, my main sport was Shinty, it was not really until I was 17 that I became more interested in outdoor sports as I was preparing to join the marines. Skye was an ideal playground for preparing for Marine training. My parents were into Shinty hence why that was always going to be my first sport - my dad coached our primary school team and he played himself when he was younger so yeah, they had an influence in my sporting aspirations.

When did you first get into running? At what stage did you decide to take it to the ‘next level’?

I properly got into running in 2008/2009. I started running more after University to lose some weight and get fit again so I could get back into playing Shinty to a high standard - I had represented Scotland at under 18 level before joining the Royal Marines. It was when I was getting fit a friend suggested a 150-mile race over 5 days on Isle of Islay and Jura in 2009. I agreed to it, loved the race and the training for it and finished 4th. That was my first step into ultra/mountain/trail running. I never got back to playing Shinty as trail/mountain running became my passion.

Do you remember the race where something clicked, where you knew you had a real talent in this area? And what triggered that migration into real endurance running?

Finishing 4th in my first race in 2009 made me realise I had the potential to improve and get more competitive. But I also realised I had so much to learn. It was not really until 2012 that I started preforming consistently and winning competitive races. I have always been curious about how far I can push myself so it has just been a logical progression for me to keep pushing my limits of endurance.

Let’s talk about the Ramsay Round. An incredible achievement! Can you talk us through the challenge a little bit?

The Ramsay Round is a 24-hour challenge, taking in 24 mountains and covering 98 kilometres. It requires 8,500 metres of climbing - the equivalent of ascending Mount Everest from sea level. It had taken me 17 hours to climb over 7,000 metres and I was able to take a moment of reflection on top of the 18th Munro. I was incredibly nauseous and the vomiting had ensured that my stomach was empty. My legs were heavy due to the snowy conditions underfoot and I was suffering from Morton’s Neuroma (a type of inflammation of the nerves) which was making every step feel like someone stabbing the ball of my foot with a roasting hot iron. I still had six Munros left to climb. At that point, I did wonder how I’d ended up in that situation!

But I knew if I wanted to win, I had to push myself and it would be the toughest push of my life. I hurtled down, trying to stay on my feet through the ice. It was time to completely empty the tank and hold nothing back. I splashed full speed into River Nevis and seconds later I was lying crumpled on the finish line tarmac. I’d given it everything I had – and I’d broken the record.

Clearly the physical toll this run takes on your body is immense. How can you cope and carry on running during these times of huge physical strain?

Mental strength, toughness and experience. If you have a high level of motivation to succeed you will normally find a way to keep moving. Sometimes it involves a real battle with your mind but if you know how to control your mind then you can normally make the right decision and keep going. A book I find really helpful in winning that battle is “The Chimp Paradox” by Dr Steve Peters who has worked with Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton.

On that point, the psychology of endurance is clearly something that interests you. What do you find most interesting about it?

How incredibly complex the subject is. I am really interested in how far we as humans can push ourselves to achieve incredible feats of endurance or survival. Just look at some of the early exploration to the south pole with Shackleton and the feats of human endurance/survival is incredible. I read a lot of literature about the psychology of endurance in order to understand where my limits lie and how I can push them or get close to them.

Why do you think some people have the desire to undertake punishing endurance exercises like you do? Do you think it’s something that everyone has in them, or is it a certain type of person who would do it?

That’s a really hard question. Everyone is individual so everyone will have their own reasons for doing what they do or not. People who tend to do well in endurance sports are highly motivated individuals who seem to have a high level of enjoyment for the endurance sports they partake in. I think there are several core values for endurance athletes though, and they are very similar to those of a Marine (probably why I fell into endurance racing after the Marines). Those values are determination, courage, unselfishness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity and are all intrinsically linked to endurance performance.

What would you say is the most challenging race you’ve done and what got you through it? How do you keep positive and keep going when you haven’t got anything left?

The most destroyed I have been at the end of a race was Transvulcania Ultra Marathon in 2014. It’s not the toughest or longest race I have completed, it is about 74km with 4000m of climbing. The year I ran it they made an error about distance between aid stations so I ran past one aid station thinking the next one was only 5km up the trail when it turned out to be about 14km, by which point I ran out of fluid in +30C and was severely dehydrated by the time I got to the aid station. I can remember just taking all my gels at that stage just to get some fluids in! I filled up my water bottle at the aid station and kept going but it was too late and I was never going to properly recover. I ended up staggering the last 30km to the finish line where I collapsed and got rushed off to the first aid tent. I was put on a drip and given some drug to stop my body cramping, which was happening uncontrollably. What got me to the finish? Probably my determination, will to succeed and refusal to quit! I’m very competitive by nature and am curious as to how far I can push myself physically and mentally, so that has always been a key motivating factor for me.

Considering your experience as both an endurance athlete and a running coach, what would be your advice for any budding athletes out there?

As I said before, everyone is an individual so will have different motivations for wanting to complete a race. As a coach I try and find out what their motivation is and then encourage them in that and get them to buy into their training which will also help increase their motivation. But it’s also important that people get out there, have fun and enjoy the experience. So many memories can be created during these times!

To read more about Donnie’s experience in the Ramsay Round and his strategies for endurance racing, click here.
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