The Mountains are Calling: Running in the High Places of Scotland

The Mountains are Calling: Running in the High Places of Scotland is a new book that explores the sport of hill running.

As well as characterising a sport that eschews commercialism and heralding its characters and culture, the book covers the history of Ramsay’s Round, Scotland’s 24-hour classic mountain run. In this guest post, Jonny Muir, the author of The Mountains are Calling, explains what it takes to be a ‘Ramsayist’.

Ramsayist (noun) – A person who has completed Ramsay’s Round

Ramsayists (collective noun) – The 105 people who have completed Ramsay’s Round

The Mountains are Calling cover

As the minutes ticked down to midday on 9 July, 1978, Charlie Ramsay tore down the lower slopes of Ben Nevis. He crossed a footbridge over the River Nevis and halted by the glen’s youth hostel. The clock stopped. In the previous 23 hours and 58 minutes, the runner had passed over the summits of 23 Munros – Scottish mountains of at least 3,000 feet (914 metres) – in an immense loop, starting where he had finished. No-one had climbed so many Munros in a day; nor would anyone do so again for almost a decade. Scotland’s classic 24-hour round – encompassing 60 miles of rough and wild mountain running, and an Everest-amount of ascending and descending – was born. Unashamedly, the originator called it Ramsay’s Round.

Nine years passed. Others tried; they all failed. Finally, in 1987, a second runner, Martin Stone, closed the circle, and by the end of the 1980s there were a further four successes, taking the number of completions to six. At the same time, 656 people had already achieved the Bob Graham Round, England’s equivalent 24-hour mountain running challenge. At the start of 2000, Ramsayists numbered just 26, with every victory in these capricious mountains hard-fought. Nine of the 20 completions in the 1990s took at least 23 hours. The first winter round came in 2002 – in an astonishing 55 hours. It would be another 11 years before anyone could breach 24 hours in the winter months.

Ramsay’s Round is, indisputably, the hardest of the three classic rounds – the jewel in the crown: the highest, the hardest, the roughest, the toughest, a place of superlatives, a place of devastating unpredictability at any time of year. Today, there are 105 Ramsayists. Even then, the round has never been accomplished in March, October or November. Some years – most recently in 2001 and 2012 – no-one made it around. Of the 105, only five – a hill running who’s who: Belton, Spinks, Bragg, Ascroft and Paris – have dipped under 20 hours.

So what does it take to be a Ramsayist?

The would-be contender need not look beyond the preparation of the round’s pioneer. After switching from the road, Charlie Ramsay ran the Bob Graham Round and twice completed Tranter’s Round. He was highly-competitive in hill racing, finishing the Ben Nevis Race in a time that would place him in the top 10 in recent races. In the six months prior to his attempt, Charlie amassed 1,600 miles of running and walking, and climbed a cumulative 80,000 metres, with much of his training spent in the high mountains of Lochaber rehearsing his pathless route. Even then, Charlie was two minutes from being timed out.

There is no secret to running Ramsay’s Round – 105 people have proved that. It is gained by effort, by resolve, by obsession – and a willingness to suffer. There is no other way it can be done.

In the list of Ramsayists, Charlie is number 1; some 39 years later, I would become number 101. After 14 hours, as I began what is known as the Lochaber Traverse, the eight-Munro stretch from Stob Bàn to Ben Nevis, I was suffering in a way that was both predictable and awful. I was sleep-deprived, weather-beaten, utterly exhausted, frustrated and unable to stomach food. I struggled on, over Stob Bàn, then down and up again to the first of the Grey Corries, Stob Coire Claurigh.

As I touched the highest stone on the cairn, I was imbued with a sense of certainty. The idea of returning to the start within 24 hours – a notion that was preposterous an hour earlier – was suddenly no longer a question. There seemed no way I could not do it. At the time, it was as if a decision was made there – as I lingered on the quartzite crown of Stob Coire Claurigh. The reality was far more complex. This ‘decision’ was the consequence of hundreds of decisions: the many hours spent in these mountains, the thousands of miles over two decades of running, and countless metres of ascending – always ascending. Ultimately, it boiled down to those three words: effort, resolve, obsession – and an acceptance that the doing would hurt.

Ramsayist number 100 is Alicia Hudelson, an American ultrarunner who finished her round some six hours before me. She is another who knows what it is to suffer. As she made her way along ridge and rubble between Carn Mòr Dearg and Ben Nevis, she too wondered how she would ever make it back to Glen Nevis. Again, there was no secret. ‘Sometimes even the boring approach of simply trying harder can work,’ she concluded.

When I spoke to Robbie Simpson for The Mountains are Calling, in the months before he had even gained a qualifying time for the Commonwealth Games, let alone clinched a bronze medal, he offered a metaphor for the sport of hill running – and Ramsay’s Round in particular. ‘If was easy,’ he said, ‘everyone would do it.’

It is not easy – but to be among the company of Ramsayists is not the preserve of a hill running elite.

In 2016, John Parkin, a West Yorkshire primary school teacher, came to Glen Nevis seeking to complete the ‘big three’. His hopes seemed fanciful: he had concluded Bob Graham and Paddy Buckley rounds with just 20 minutes to spare across the two. However, descending Mullach nan Coirean, the last summit on a clockwise round, John realised he was going to get around within 24 hours, becoming the 44th person to complete the three classics.

‘I look at the names on those short lists and see race winners and fell champions,’ he reflected after. ‘I have raised myself to exalted company.’

John Parkin was not in exalted company. He was exalted company. He was a Ramsayist.

photo of Runners on Ramsay's Round

Runners on Ramsay’s Round (Mark Hartree)

About the author:

Jonny Muir was a nine-year-old boy when the silhouette of a lone runner in the glow of sunset on the Malvern Hills caught his eye. A fascination for running in high places was born – a fascination that would direct him to Scotland. Running and racing, from the Borders to the Highlands, and the Hebrides to the hills of Edinburgh, Jonny became the mountainside silhouette that first inspired him.

His exploits inevitably led to Scotland’s supreme test of hill running: Ramsay’s Round, a daunting 60-mile circuit of twenty-four mountains, climbing the equivalent height of Mount Everest and culminating on Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak – to be completed within twenty-four hours.

While Ramsay’s Round demands extraordinary endurance, the challenge is underpinned by simplicity and tradition, in a sport largely untainted by commercialism. The Mountains are Calling is the story of that sport in Scotland, charting its evolution over half a century, heralding its characters and the culture that has grown around them, and ultimately capturing the irresistible appeal of running in high places.

Jonny Muir, author of The Mountains are Calling

Jonny Muir, author of The Mountains are Calling

 

Additional information:

Jonny Muir is a writer, runner and teacher. He lives in Edinburgh. The Mountains are Calling is his fourth book.

The Mountains are Calling is available from Amazon, and other good bookshops e.g. Waterstones

I completed the Charlie Ramsay Round myself in 2016, you can read about my experience here https://fellrunningguide.co.uk/charlie-ramsay-round/

Bob Graham Round – schedule and planning

Last summer I completed the Bob Graham Round and in doing so ticked off the “Big Three” the others being the Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds. What I learned along the way might help others in their planning.

Timing

Many people choose to start their Bob Graham attempt in the early evening with six or seven o’clock being popular start times. This doesn’t make sense to me. By that time there’s a good chance that you have been on your feet or at the very least awake for almost 12 hours before you set off on an arduous 24 hour challenge! I chose to set off at 8 am, the idea being to get a decent night’s sleep, get up early and have breakfast then set off. This allowed me to set off fully rested and following my normal body clock. I can understand the psychological benefit of getting the night time section done when you are relatively fresh but the converse to that is that when dawn breaks you still have a long way to go if you’ve set off in the evening. I finished the Bob Graham at around 5 am meaning that I’d been awake for less than 24 hours. Had I done the same time but setting off at 6 pm I’d have been awake for 36 hours!

Start times dictate when and where on the route you are going to be in the dark. For many the evening start is favoured because it means that the relatively straightforward navigation of leg two from Clough Head to Seat Sandal is done in the dark. However none of the legs are particularly difficult to navigate. I was in the dark from Yewbarrow to Robinson and other than missing the best line and spending some time amongst the boulders coming off Great Gable it didn’t feel any harder than navigating leg 2 in the dark. Remember that some people do the BG in winter when there is considerably less daylight!

photo of Bob Graham Round runners

Where do you want to be in the dark? Changeover on the Bob Graham Round

Aiming for a late June attempt means that you will get maximum daylight but it is also worth looking at the phase of the moon as a full moon on a clear night will make the navigation easier. On both the Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds I set off around midday based on which sections I wanted to do at night, unfortunately the moon didn’t help because both nights were cloudy.

Weather

Bad weather is probably the main reason why people fail in their attempt. It is easy to put all your eggs in one basket and go for it regardless but if possible try to be flexible with your start date and time to account for bad weather. I put my Ramsay attempt back a couple of times because the forecast was bad and in the end was rewarded with sun and blue skies. This might not be possible for people with busy work schedules and it means that your support crew have to be flexible too, however a skeleton crew in good weather is better than a big crew in strong winds and heavy rain. If the weather is extremely hot then that is another reason why you might want to consider a morning rather than evening start. The hottest part of the day will be mid afternoon and you’ll be in better shape to deal with the conditions if you’ve only been on the go for seven hours rather than twenty.

Schedule

There are plenty of resources available to help plan for the Bob Graham Round including Excel spreadsheets that allow you to calculate split and leg times http://www.gofar.org.uk/bobgrahamround.html but you need to tailor these to yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, depending how comfortable you are on steep descents then you would want to adjust the split time for the section from Scafell down to Wasdale on leg 3. Also bear in mind which section you are going to be covering in the dark and adjust your schedule accordingly. Factor in bad weather which will inevitably slow you down and remember that you will move much more slowly if the rough, rocky ground around Broad Crag and Ill Crag is wet and greasy compared to if it were dry.

It is also worth thinking about how much time you will spend at the end of each leg. Do you really need to stop at Threlkeld? On the Ramsay Round the first leg (clockwise) ends at Loch Treig dam – over 8 hours of running before getting support so I planned not to stop at Threlkeld at all, just pick up a water refill and grab some food. On the day it was absolutely chucking it down and I was soaked so I stopped for long enough to change into a dry baselayer and waterproof but then got going again straight away rather than stopping to eat and drink.

Food and Drink

Along with the often quoted advice not to eat anything you haven’t tried before I’m a strong believer in little and often rather than gorging at the end of each leg. Personally I don’t really like sweet stuff so I used baby food sachets rather than gels and had spicy pot noodle at some changeovers. I’ve been lucky in never feeling sick or not hungry during the rounds so haven’t had the problem of bonking. If you do lose your appetite it is still easier to nibble on things rather than be faced with a big serving at the changeovers.

photo of Paddy Buckley food stop

Bombay Bad Boy!

Recce Recce Recce

It makes sense really that training over the actual route is going to stand you in good stead for your attempt. I see recces as having two main benefits. One is the actual physiological training; getting your body used to the stresses of long hours of ascent and descent over rough ground – and yes the descents are just as important to train for as the climbs. The second is that it allows you to learn the route and practise the navigation and can give you a good idea of how long particular sections will take. During any recces I took split times from summit to summit to compare them to those on the schedule. On clear days it was easy to think that the schedule was generous but in bad weather or bad visibility it is easy to see how time can slip away. This gives you a clearer picture of how realistic your schedule will be given bad conditions and will allow you to tweak the split times in the schedule as you see fit. Remember that if you use a schedule it will be based on someone else’s split times and is only a guide.

I did a lot of the recces for the Bob Graham on my own as I wanted to get a feel for the navigation myself. Personally, during a round I like to know exactly where I am and be involved in the navigation rather than putting that pressure onto someone else.

photo of runner in Scottish mountains

recce day on the Charlie Ramsay Round

Don’t be complacent! The only section of the Bob Graham round that I didn’t recce was from Grey Knotts down to Honister. I had run it several times before (but not for a few years) and thought it would be easy. However in the dark and the rain I wasted time and headed too far west. Not a big deal but worth a few minutes. Similarly on the Paddy Buckley I reccied everything except for a small section from the final summit down to the Capel Curig road thinking that it would be straightforward. In reality I found myself waist deep in heather unable to find the narrow path that was there somewhere! These incidents only accounted for a handful of minutes and if you have time to spare aren’t a big problem but what if you don’t have those minutes to spare?!

photo of runners in fog

recceing in bad weather is great navigation practise!

Back to back recce days allow you make the most out of your trip to the Lake District as well as giving you the training benefit of two (or more) long days out. I’d advise that a long day out covering the route whilst walking is better training than a 3 hour run elsewhere.

Equipment

Use your recce days to try out the shoes, pack and clothing that you will be wearing on your attempt. Fill your pack with the kit that you intend to carry on the day (you are going to carry your own pack aren’t you!) Work out which pocket you are going to put your food, compass, head torch etc in. Little bits of preparation can save faffing around on the day and every little faff adds time. Think – do you need to take spares of anything? Have you got a spare pair of shoes in the support vehicle in case yours split (don’t wear old shoes!) or give you blisters (don’t wear new shoes!) Have you got a spare torch? Are you planning to use walking poles? If so you need to practise running with them, and not just a few days before!

photo of runner with poles

to pole or not to pole? If so then practise!

On the Ramsay Round I got lucky. I had a fully charged Petzl Nao programmed to last 6 hours on reactive mode. I was confident that this was sufficient to get me through the night. At about 2.30 in the morning the torch flashed a warning and went into reserve mode which is a dim light of around 20 lumens! I was on my own and hadn’t taken a spare. Thankfully I was on a good land rover track and only about 20 minutes from the end of the leg so was able to keep going at a reasonable pace to my support and then borrow a torch for the next leg. If I’d have been descending rough ground this would have been disastrous in terms of losing time or even dangerous – a lucky escape!

I like to mark up my maps with important details such as bearings, elevation and timings which makes navigation much quicker especially when you are getting tired. I also enlarge sections where the navigation is a bit more tricky so that I can see it more clearly. Although the Petzl Nao didn’t last the distance the Reactive setting is really useful when map reading, particularly with a laminated map which reflects the beam and can be dazzling.

Ramsay round map

route notes marked on the Ramsay Round map

I used the official Harvey maps for the planning then added my own notes to the 1:40,000 and 1:25,000 scale maps that I had on computer before laminating them to protect them. I also printed and laminated my target split times for each leg showing both the summit split times and time of day I was due there. This was useful for myself and for waiting support crew.

Bob Graham split times

laminated split times for each leg

Training

Everyone is different in terms of their training history and the amount of miles they have in the bank. A large aerobic endurance base and the ability to deal with steep terrain, both up and down, is the key. Spending time on your feet over similar terrain is the best way to train. Being good at fell races doesn’t necessarily translate to being good at moving briskly over mountainous terrain for 24 hours! My completions came after training for and racing the High Peak Marathon early in the year and so having a long lead in of training over rough ground. Apart from the HPM none of my training runs were much over 20 miles, instead I preferred back to back days of 5, 6 or 7 hours on the route itself. Doing the Wasdale fell race the month before the Bob Graham is useful as both a training run and a recce for leg 4!

photo of Bob Graham route

leg 4 of the Bob Graham round

Conclusion

Everyone is different and what suits one person might not suit another. I’m not claiming that my approach is “the” right way, just that it worked for me. However you go about things, good luck in your attempt!

Kahtoola & Chainsen Snowline Microspikes Review

Running in icy conditions can be hazardous but thanks to Microspikes you can still enjoy those cold, crisp winter days.

What are Microspikes?

Basically they are a form of crampon designed for walking or running rather than climbing. They consist of a set of small, stainless steel spikes connected by chains and attached to a piece of tough rubber (an elastomer). They are designed so that they can be worn on your footwear simply by stretching the rubber cradle over your shoes.

photo of Microspikes attached to a running shoe

Microspikes attached to a running shoe

Microspikes attached to a running shoe

Microspikes held in place by a strong rubber cradle

Kahtoola microspikes are probably the best known brand but I also have some Chainsen Snowline Snowspikes which are virtually identical (but a bit cheaper!) I have the Light version which only weigh 235g for a Medium sized pair. The Kahtoolas are slightly heavier at 338g. They are available in different size ranges, I’ve found that you need have them quite tight to prevent them coming off whilst running through deep snow.

Chainsen Snowline Microspikes on scales

The Chainsen Snowline spikes, 235g size Medium

What conditions are they for?

The sharp spikes grip really well on smooth ice and hard packed, frozen snow. It takes a bit of time to build up your confidence but after a while you realise that you can run at your normal pace, even on the iciest of surfaces. Whilst they can be worn in snow they don’t really offer much more grip than a running shoe with a good tread.  They also work well on frozen ground such as grass and mud, even if there is no ice cover. You tend to find that you alter your stride slightly and land more flat footed than you would ordinarily do. Whilst they aren’t uncomfortable initially they can start to hurt a little if running for long periods on very hard surfaces. I once ran for about 15 miles wearing a pair and the soles of my feet were a bit sore afterwards!

photo of runner wearing Microspikes

Microspikes work best on hard ice

Most winter runs involve a variety of conditions; you might be running through fresh snow where few people have been but then encounter a well walked path where the snow has been compacted and refrozen. The first part wouldn’t require spikes but the second bit could be pretty treacherous. The good thing about both Kahtoola and Chainsen Microspikes is that their size and weight means that they can easily be carried in a bumbag or running pack and it only takes a few seconds to put them on. So you can take them on a run, put them on if you encounter any icy stretches and quickly take them off afterwards. The Chainsen spikes even come in a tough little pouch to prevent the spikes from damaging your bag.

photo of Chainsen Snowline with sturdy pouch

Chainsen Snowline with sturdy pouch

I have used them for winter running in the Peak District and also on a recce of the Charlie Ramsay Round in spring when conditions were still wintry. (note Microspikes are not suitable for ice climbing!)

runner wearing Chainsen Snowline spikes

I used Chainsen Microspikes whilst recceing the Charlie Ramsay Round

Are they worth it?

At around £40 a pair they are worth getting if you intend to continue running outdoors throughout the winter. They don’t need to be confined to running, they can be worn over walking boots and even shoes meaning that you can tackle the icy pavements with confidence. I know people who’ve worn them for a trip to the pub!

So, if we continue to have cold winters a pair of Microspikes are a good investment, allowing you to enjoy running safely in conditions like this!

photo of running wearing microspikes

safe running wearing microspikes

The video below shows how easy the spikes are to put on and how effective they are on icy terrain:



CEP Compression Socks Review

Compression socks are a bit like Marmite; some people love them, some people hate them (even if they’ve never worn them!) There are plenty of claims by manufacturers that wearing compression clothing can result in: “increased blood flow, faster clearance of lactic acid, reduced swelling, reduced post race soreness, faster recovery times” etc etc however it is hard to find any scientific studies that prove that compression socks actually improve your performance. So why wear them?

I’ve recently been using CEP compression socks and calf sleeves for some of my runs. I must admit that a couple of years ago I was in Marmite camp 2 – thinking that compression was for the European Ultra runner and was worn more for fashion rather than function. Now though I can seen some instances where wearing compression socks is beneficial.

blue sky, blue CEP socks

blue sky, blue shoes, blue CEP socks

My first impression on opening the packet was “wow, funky colours!” Most compression socks I had seen before had been black but not these. Lime and Hawaii Blue “great they’ll match my Trail Talons” Sunset and Hawaii Blue “yep got some X-Talons in orange and blue” Lime and Pink!!… (yes they do women’s and men’s versions) A cursory glance through the accompanying literature had me smiling when I saw that there were instructions for putting them on; I’m an adult, they’re a pair of socks, how hard can it be! Ten minutes later I was rummaging through the bin looking for the instructions as I was having difficulty getting them on! The trick is to start with them inside out – obvious now. Once on (eventually) the 85% Polyamide & 15% Spandex socks give a snug fit around the foot, being shaped to fit left or right feet and there are compression bands around the midfoot, ankle and calf that target the compression to specific areas. They feel snug, comfortable and well made. It’s important to get the correct size by measuring your calf’s circumference rather than shoe size.

CEP compression socks

matching shoe / sock combo – very important!

The first few runs with them I was a bit self conscious, I noticed adults having a surreptitious glance at my legs whilst young kids just openly stared. (they are available in plain black if you are really that concerned) So other than wanting to be the brightest clad runner in the Peak District when else would I choose to wear them?

Chilly mornings. I prefer to run in shorts rather than tights, even in winter unless it’s really cold and a knee length compression sock helps keep the calf muscles warm. This is especially important if I’m planning on running fast or steeply uphill where the calf muscles will be contracting more forcefully.

CEP compression socks

CEP compression on a chilly spring morning

Extreme weather. At the 2017 Marsden to Edale “Trigger” race I wore a neoprene sock over compression socks. This combination gave some protection to my feet and lower legs from the numbingly cold snow melt streams that had to be crossed. Thankfully this meant that once across the streams I could run straight away as I was still able to feel my legs and feet. Long socks also give protection against the cold and abrasions when running in snow.

Montane Fang in use

cold legs! definitely not ideal for racing

Long mountain days. I wore compression socks when completing the Ramsay Round and also whilst supporting others on their rounds. The long climbs take a toll on the calf muscles and I like the feeling of a tight sock (I don’t claim that the sock makes the climbs any easier though!) They also offer protection from stones whilst ascending and descending scree and whilst negotiating pathless sections of knee deep heather! Also they can help guard against ticks especially in areas of Scotland where they are prevalent.

wearing CEP compression on Ramsay Round support

wearing CEP compression on Ramsay Round support

Recovery runs. I often get sore / tight calves especially after races or hard, hilly training so I often wear calf compression the following day on an easy paced recovery run. This isn’t down to believing that wearing compression will speed my recovery – it might or might not – it just feels comfortable.

CEP compression on an easy paced run

his and hers CEP compression on an easy paced run

As well as  compression socks CEP also make Calf Sleeves. What’s the difference and why would I choose one over the other? The socks offer compression around the foot and ankle, the calf sleeves only around the calf. The calf sleeve is a bit easier and quicker to get on. The socks get wetter and sweatier and so need washing more often whereas the calf sleeves can be worn a few times before they need washing. Calf sleeves can be combined with neoprene or waterproof socks for winter running whereas the sock would be too thick. The calf sleeves are cheaper.

CEP full sock and calf sleeves

CEP full sock or calf sleeves? – your choice

The case for CEP compression socks:

Well made
Comfortable
Supportive
Protective
They look great!

The case against CEP compression socks:

Expensive
No firm scientific evidence to prove enhanced performance / recovery
Tricky to put on – read the instructions!
Tan lines!
They look ridiculous!

The verdict:

CEP compression socks and calf sleeves offer support and protection in a range of funky colours. Other compression products may be cheaper but CEP feel like a quality product and made to last. They may or may not enhance your performance but they are guaranteed to enhance your appearance (fell runners take their appearance very seriously!)

RRP – CEP Run Socks 2.0 £39.99 CEP Calf Sleeves 2.0 £29.99

CEP compression socks and calf sleeves are available from Millet Sports

 

Charlie Ramsay Round

The Charlie Ramsay Round is a running challenge in the Scottish Highlands, the aim being to cover 56 miles, 24 Munros (mountains over 3000ft) with a total of over 28,500 feet of ascent in under 24 hours.

Ramsay Round

56 miles, 24 Munros 28,500ft

Standing outside Glen Nevis Youth hostel on a sunny day in late May I was feeling a little nervous.  The plan was to tackle the “round” with my mate Ian with only limited support; a couple of people meeting us at Loch Treig (about eight and a half hours into the run) with food and supplies for the next leg, and someone at a remote point by Loch Eilde Mor another 6 hrs later, again with food and enough supplies for us to get to the finish.  We would have no support on the hill so would have to navigate ourselves and carry all our own kit.  This also meant that we would have to “manage” ourselves i.e. keep an eye on our schedule, make sure we were eating and drinking enough and motivate ourselves when the going got tough.

a flavour of the Ramsay Round scenery

a flavour of the Ramsay Round scenery on a previous reccy

My main concern wasn’t the physical difficulties of the Ramsay Round but the fact that I’d only managed one reccy of it and had no knowledge of the route through the Grey Corries. This was going to make route finding a bit more difficult and meant that we hadn’t had chance to check out the quickest lines. I was pretty confident that we could navigate the route but we couldn’t afford to spend lots of time studying the map. Choosing a bad line would be costly.  Not having run the first section also meant that it was difficult to know what schedule to use as we had no idea how hard it felt.

Starting the Ramsay Round

and they’re off! Leaving Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (photo Masa Sakano)

We set off clockwise just after midday on Monday (our original plan for a weekend attempt had been postponed by bad weather) in warm sunshine. The forecast was for dry weather and equally importantly light winds. After 15 minutes of jog / walking up the Ben Nevis tourist path we passed a group of lads looking hot and tired who asked us “how far to the summit?” Not sure they believed our “a few hours!” reply!

Things went well for the first few hours, the rock was dry, visibility was good and navigation was straightforward. After Aonach Beag we found a good line down “Spinks’ Ridge” named after the line Nicky Spinks took on a previous round. We were slightly behind our schedule but had heard that it wasn’t a big deal to be slow on leg one and not to worry if we were 15 minutes or so down. However towards the end of the leg Ian wasn’t feeling too good and by Loch Treig we were over half an hour down. Helen and Pawel our 2 support crew were sheltering on the dam wall from the un-forecast rain shower (thankfully the midges hadn’t yet emerged) with our supplies and we were soon wolfing down some real food.

pit stop at Fersit

pit stop at Loch Treig (photo Pawel Cymbalista)

Ten minutes goes very quickly and no sooner was my chilli con carne scoffed than it was time to go again, picking up fresh drink, food, map and head-torch for the night leg.

We’d had the chat beforehand about splitting up if one of us was struggling and so as we headed up the lower slopes of Stob Choire Sgriodain Ian did his “Captain Oates” impression and urged me to press on. That was definitely the lowest point of the round, leaving my mate who was struggling and heading off into the gathering gloom alone. It was going to be a long night!

I hit Sgriodain on schedule and turned my torch on. The good news was that I was back on schedule for that summit and confident that I could make up lost time, the bad news was that low cloud was covering the summit and navigating to Chno Dearg was going to be tricky. I wasn’t looking forward to the next section, I had reccied it and knew it involved a rough, steep descent off Chno Dearg and an awful, steep climb through heather up on to Beinn na Lap. In daylight I had been able to pick out the lines of least resistance but it would be harder in the dark.

Coming off Beinn na Lap in the dark I was trying to run on a compass bearing but managed to get myself into some thigh deep heather with large boulders that hadn’t been there on my reccy! Thankfully it didn’t last long and I was soon on the good track leading to Loch Treig and I knew I could make up time with some fast running. I’d opted for support at the ruin at the NE end of Loch Eilde Mor which meant crossing the river (Abhainn Rath). I hadn’t reccied this bit but had marked the exact crossing point on the map based on a friend’s attempt. Once I’d successfully negotiated this I could again run quickly on a good track to the support point. I was relishing the thought of a welcome brew when my head torch flashed, warning that the battery was failing! I was still a good 10 minutes away from support, track or no track; “Please don’t fail on me now!”

Masa had cycled in from Mamore Lodge the previous evening and was waiting by the ruin in his tent with hot water and my supplies for the next leg. I struggled with my ration pack bacon and beans but the licorice tea was fantastic! I had made some time up on the previous leg despite being solo in the dark and with a grey hint of dawn in the eastern sky I knew that the worst was behind me. I’d reccied almost all of the next leg through the Mamores and as long as I kept eating and drinking I felt I could continue to make up time.

brew stop at Loch Eilde Mor

brew stop at Loch Eilde Mor (photo Masa Sakano)

Refreshed and resupplied and with Masa’s spare head torch I set off on the long haul up Sgurr Eilde Mor. By the summit the torch was off and I’d whacked 9 minutes off my schedule without killing myself. With the night behind me and the sun rising into a cloud free sky I knew that I could do it. It was just going to be a long run, in lovely weather in the glorious Scottish mountains – what was not to like!

The Mamores passed without incident apart from meeting two people!  At each summit I looked ahead and identified my next target, then looked at the schedule and said to myself “No way!” The time allocated seemed impossibly short “It will take me loads longer than 35 minutes to get up there!” But it didn’t, I was knocking time off at every Munro. Feeling strong towards the end I was able to push on and when I managed to take 12 minutes off the Stob Ban split I knew that barring disaster I was home and dry.

Equipment I used:

a selection of the equipment & clothing carried on the Ramsay Round

a selection of the equipment & clothing carried

The route is a mix of different terrain: rocky, heather, track, short grass so for footwear I chose Inov-8 Mudclaw 300 which I knew would cope with everything. My feet were sore at the end and I had a couple of bruised toenails but no blisters. The only time I noticed my feet hurting was coming along the hard track and road at the end – you could possibly consider changing into something more cushioned for the last 30 minutes or so.

Running for over 23 hours with a backpack means that it needs to be comfortable! I used the Montane Jaws 10 which was big enough to fit in enough kit for a solo attempt. Mine is the older version with rigid bottles and I carried one bottle which was easy to refill from streams. The front pockets carried my compass, folded map and emergency phone whilst I adapted the pack by using an attachment from another bag to carry my Garmin Etrex GPS.

I wore a short sleeved cycling top with rear pockets to carry my food for the hill and long socks to protect my legs when in long heather (also in case I encountered any snow patches, again to protect my shins). Shorts were Ashmei 2 in 1 Merino (expensive but wonderfully comfortable!)

I chose the Petzl Nao head torch for 2 reasons; its long battery life and its reactive capability which would make map reading more comfortable (it automatically dims and so doesn’t dazzle with reflected light from the map). Unfortunately I made the mistake of selecting high power reactive rather than low power reactive which meant I only got four and a half hours from the battery rather than the anticipated 6 hrs +. Thankfully it got me through leg 2 – just!

I carried OMM Kamleika waterproofs (top & bottom) and had to wear the jacket (smock) when it started raining towards the end of leg 1. I kept this on until dawn, the deep zip allowing me to vent the smock when working hard. I wore thin gloves for the night leg and carried a buff (not worn). I carried an OMM Rotor Smock as an emergency layer as well as a long sleeved base layer (not used). Other emergency kit incluced a SOL emergency bivvy along with a small first aid kit comprising of bandage, plasters, paracetamol and 2 sheets of toilet roll – not needed! – and a mobile phone. I also took 2 spare batteries for my GPS.

I laminated sections of map, annotated with route notes and compass bearings. Having these back to back meant that I needed 5 separate maps for the whole round.

Ramsay round map

laminated map with route notes

I recorded the run on an old Garmin Etrex hand held GPS (I changed the batteries after 15 hrs) and recorded the split times on both a Garmin 910XT (which lasted about 16 hrs) and a Polar 610 sports watch (non GPS).

Food & Drink

Being unsupported on the hill meant carrying my own food and so was a balance between taking enough and being overloaded. I found on the Paddy Buckley round that I took too much and the same was true this time.  Food for the hills was a mix of Nakd bars, Aldi pressed fruit bars, Cliff Shot Bloks, assorted gels and my secret weapon: baby food in the form of Ella’s Kitchen pouches. I used Elivar Endure and Hydrate Plus powder mixed with water that I found on route and from the 2 resupply points. I ate “real food” at the resupply points: Adventure Food chilli con carne with rice and bacon and beans.  I was planning to have my favourite Bombay Bad Boy pot noodle in the middle of the night but as I was behind schedule I didn’t want to wait for it to rehydrate (it tasted good at the end though!) I had a bottle of Lucozade at Loch Treig support point and cup of licorice tea at Loch Eilde Mor. Water was plentiful on the route. I started fully hydrated and rather than carrying drink from the start I put powder in my bottle and filled it when I got to the Red Burn.

Navigation

This was by good old fashioned map and compass with pre prepared maps annotated with split times, heights of significant points, important compass bearings etc. I also had most of the summit waypoints loaded onto my GPS so that I could confirm that I was in the correct place if needed.  I only used this twice, to check that I had reached Chno Dearg in the dark and clag and to confirm the correct location for the river crossing on the night leg. There was still a bit of snow on the Ben and on a couple of north facing slopes but nothing that caused us to deviate from the planned route.

Schedule

We planned to start soon after midday going clockwise. The thought process behind this is that you’re starting having had a decent night’s sleep and have only been up for 4 hours or so (an evening or early morning start means that you’ve been up for hours already and are starting “tired”). A midday start also meant that we would run the long flat section after Beinn na Lap in the dark. Navigation on this section would be easy and the terrain conducive to fast running, lessening the need to slow down in the dark. Also psychologically dawn is a good morale boost which is more welcome after several hours of running. We were hoping for a 23.30 round looking to start on schedule and pick up time on the last leg. The chart below shows the schedule times and indicates where I was behind (red) and up (blue) on schedule.

Ramsay Round schedule

schedule with split and actual times

Lessons Learnt

The schedule wasn’t realistic. In hindsight I’d add time to leg 1 and take some off leg 3.
Know thy torch! I chose the Petzl Nao for its long battery life – having it on full power defeats the object!
I took too much kit. I could have done away with the long sleeved top and about a quarter of the food.
It is very unlikely that two people running on the same schedule will be evenly matched; one may be finding it easy whilst the other is struggling so it’s good to have a plan for that situation.

Low Point

Leaving Ian, behind schedule and setting off alone into the night.

High Point

Approaching Binnein Mor around 5am and getting back on schedule. The sun rose into a cloudless sky and a little bird was singing away. I felt then that I was going to do it.

Thanks

A big thank you to Helen Smith and Pawel Cymbalista for supporting us at Loch Treig where they waited in the rain, optimistically arriving early in case we were up on schedule! Also to Masa Sakano for cycling in to Loch Eilde Mor at night with a tent, stove and food for both of us (and for loan of his torch) and for waiting for Ian to arrive and lending him his bike to get back to Kinlochleven. Also thanks to Ian Loombe for his company on leg 1 and for encouraging me to press on when he was struggling.

Ramsay Round finish photo

back where it all began 23 hrs 18 mins later (photo Masa Sakano)

Map used:

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fell running guide

Petzl Nao

Petzl Nao (2014) 575 Lumen Headtorch

Some types of trail and fell running only require a modestly bright head torch giving a couple of hours battery life.  For more serious ventures you need a torch with a bit more power and one that gives you several hours of battery life on a bright setting.  For example an overnight event such as the High Peak Marathon requires runners to spend upward of 8 hours in the dark during which they must navigate across the notoriously difficult Bleaklow, whilst 24 hour rounds such as the Bob Graham require route finding in the high mountains during the hours of darkness.  In these situations, having a powerful head torch to see the route and not having to stop to change batteries saves both time and hassle.  So is there a head torch that is up to the task?  Step forward the new Petzl Nao 575 lumen.

Petzl Nao 575 lumen head torch

Petzl Nao (2014) 575 lumen head torch

The first version of the Nao got good reviews for its brightness and Reactive Lighting feature but fell short of expectations on battery life.  The 2014 model not only has an upgrade in brightness from 315 to 575 lumens it also gives a much better battery life.  I tested Petzl’s claim of 8 hours on constant lighting at 120 lumens and the battery lasted 7 hrs 50 mins before the torch flashed a warning and dropped to Reserve Mode (a dim light of about 20 lumens which should last for an hour)

Reactive Lighting – is it a gimmick?
When I heard about this my first thoughts were yes.  However I then found myself navigating on a night run and being dazzled by the glare from my laminated map and having to manually adjust my torch’s brightness.  When I tested the Reactive setting on the Nao I didn’t think it was working – the change in brightness was instant as I looked down to open my bum bag and then looked up again to continue running.  I also realised the other benefit of the Reactive Lighting function; improved battery life.  As you look at close objects such as the ground immediately in front of you the torch dims, thus saving battery life.  Only when you point your head to the distance does the torch illuminate on full power.  If you don’t want the feature you can simply twist the switch to turn it on to constant lighting with a choice of two brightness settings (the default settings are 480 lumens or 120 lumens but can be altered using the OS software)

I’ve heard stories that the reactive lighting gets confused in foggy conditions or by your condensing breath in cold, damp conditions.  I haven’t really found this to be a problem although the torch was affected by the glare from the reflective trim on someone’s rucksack when I was following them and it kept flaring from bright to dim.  I don’t feel this is a major problem because if it annoys you then you can simply switch to constant lighting mode.

Programmable Power
A clever feature of the new Nao is that you can customise the brightness using Petzl’s OS software.  You simply plug the torch into a computer with the supplied USB lead and you can change the torch’s settings.  For example if you know that you are going to need the torch for five hours you can tweak the settings to allow this.  The software allows you to set up different profiles for different activities.  To be honest, unless you are going to be in darkness for over 5 hours you probably won’t need this feature.  However for an overnight event such as the High Peak Marathon it is really useful to know how long your battery is going to last! Many people won’t use this software but the techie minded may love it!

customising the torch using Petzl's software

customising the torch using Petzl’s OS software

How easy is it to use?
Some torches can be quite confusing to operate requiring a sequence of press, double press, press and hold etc to select the desired light but not the Nao.  One big button needs a single twist to turn on (from the locked off position which prevents accidental turning on) and another twist to change between brightnesses.  A long twist changes from constant to reactive mode.  One thing I really like is that the big button is easy to find and twist even when wearing bulky gloves.  This is a huge advantage that the Nao has over Petzl’s other Reactive torch the RXP which is terribly fiddly to use.

A feature that is missing is a flashing / strobe. It’s probably the least used function on your torch but considering that the Nao is the type of torch that you are most likely to take on remote runs I’m surprised that it is missing.

The Lithium Ion battery pack is easy to disconnect and recharge, it simply plugs in to a USB charger (so can be recharged via 12v socket in a car).  A full recharge takes around 5 hours and three green LED’s indicate battery level.  These also illuminate briefly when the torch is turned off so you know how much battery is left.  In an emergency the battery can be replaced by two AAA’s but this gives reduced brightness and no Reactive Lighting functionality.

recharging the Nao's battery

recharging the battery (note the green LEDs)

The Nao is comfortable to wear and well balanced.  The whole unit weighs 185g with the head and battery units being connected by a simple elastic and cord system.  An additional over the head strap is supplied but I didn’t feel the need to use it.

Petzl Nao head torch

well balanced and comfortable

Performance
I’ve been using the Nao over the winter for both guided running and training.  I was particularly impressed when on a trip to an unfamiliar forest I was able to run on wet, technical, narrow trails at full pace; it was leg speed rather than illumination that was the limiting factor!  As much as the brightness it is the wide pool of light that the Nao gives off that is impressive.  Some torches give a narrow beam but the Nao allows you to use peripheral vision rather than you having to turn your head to see objects at the side.

I chose the Petzl Nao for my Charlie Ramsay Round. I needed a torch with enough power to illuminate the rough steep terrain (especially the descent off Chno Dearg) and yet enough battery power to last through the night with no faffing with battery changes. The reactive function also really came into its own, dimming every time I looked at the map then seamlessly brightening as I looked back at the terrain. I also pre-programmed the torch to give me 5 hours of battery life so I knew that it would last until dawn.

brew stop at Loch Eilde Mor

brew stop on the Ramsay round

The power and spread of the Nao’s light is really noticeable when you compare it with other torches. When running in a group one thing you need to consider is that if you run behind someone with a dimmer torch you will put them in their own shadow!

the Nao outshines lesser torches

the Nao outshines lesser torches

Is it worth it?
Over £100 is a lot to pay for a head torch especially as there are some decent torches around for less than half the price.  But having used the Nao and got used to how comfortable and easy to operate it is and how it literally outshines the opposition I’d say it is definitely worth it. For serious winter fell running or for anyone considering night runs where both brightness and long battery life are important factors, the Petzl Nao is a great choice.

Nao 2014, good choice for serious fell runners

Petzl Nao 575 lumen, a good choice for serious fell runners

Verdict

Pros: Great battery life, easy to use whilst wearing gloves, simple sequence functions, reactive feature is excellent when map reading.

Cons: Expensive, no strobe function.

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Fell Running Guide

Baby Food for Distance Runners?

Do you use energy gels for your long distances runs and races?

I do but I tend to find them a little too sweet and sickly.  I use Science in Sport gels and like the fact that they can be taken without a drink making them easy to swallow; particularly important when racing as I don’t like chewing things when I’m breathing hard.  However, sometimes I would prefer something that gave me the energy but with a less sugary taste. Also some people find that gels have a tendency to upset their stomach – ever seen people disappearing into the bushes or diving behind a wall on a long race? Not ideal is it!

So, is there an alternative to energy gels?

One thing that I have found to work quite well is baby food!  Yes those little pouches of mushed up food that I always thought must taste disgusting.  Well a little bit of trial and error with the flavours has led me to one that is actually quite pleasant!

baby food for runners

baby food for runners!

I have tried several brands and prefer Ella’s Kitchen; I particularly like the mango, yoghurt and rice baby brekkie. The mix of fruit and yoghurt gives a tangy rather than sweet taste and the rice means that is slightly thicker than a SiS gel (which is designed to be taken without water) although they are still easy to swallow. It has no added sugar and the 100g pouch contains 112 kcal compared to 87 kcal in a 60ml gel.  They cost around £1, the same as a gel and the twist top means that you can reseal the pouch if you don’t want to swallow it all in one go.  This also prevents the remnants leaking out into your bag when you’ve finished it.

baby food for runners

baby food: 112 calories and 20g of carbohydrate

SiS gel

Gel: 87 calories and 22g of carbohydrate

I use baby food as fuel on long training runs and also on very long races such as the High Peak Marathon whilst on both the Paddy Buckley and Ramsay rounds I carried baby food pouches as an essential part of my nutrition strategy. There are other flavours and other brands, I suggest you check which has the most calories per 100g.

High Peak Marathon equipment

essentials for the High Peak Marathon include baby food pouches

I put the baby food to the test on a long run, you can see what I found in the video.  Before you go though, a quick word of warning – give the fish pie and mashed potato pouches a miss – YUK!!

 

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fell running guide