The 5am alarm goes off and it is time for a pint of strong tea and a can of cold rice pudding before taking down my wet tent and walking up to the start line.
This start line is very different from your usual, there is no hustle of excited runners, no banners or logos of the event organiser, no loud music, cheering crowds or countdowns. Just me, alone in the dark with my thoughts. At precisely 5.47 and a bit I start my watch and get on with it, an attempt at possibly the hardest mountain running challenge of my life.
For the last 10 years, living in Scotland I have been slowly ticking my way through the list of Munros, the mountains over 3000 feet. There are 282 in total and have given me some very memorable days of running, walking, climbing and mountaineering. At the start of the day I was down to 9 to go, 8 of which are in front of me now on a route of my own imagination, a giant round connecting all of the Munros on the Knoydart peninsula in the west Highlands.
It is no coincidence that the last big chunk of my Munro list are in this collection. Whilst planning routes a few years ago it occurred to me that all of the Knoydart Munros formed a natural loop, centred around Loch Quoich, 8 on the south side of the long single track road to Kinloch Hourn, 3 on the north side. It would be a monster, 75km and 7500 meters of ascent, with 3 climbs of nearly 1000 meters from sea level. But something about it caught my imagination and stuck.
As well as a massive personal day this could be my contribution as a classic 24 hour round, along the lines of a Bob Graham or Ramsey round. The stats for my round are a bit short of these big rounds, both of which are over 100km but not far behind in terms of ascent and I know the terrain is rougher and more remote than either of these well-known rounds.
So the seed was sown, I had my ambition defined and would pour over the maps, fine tuning the route choice and imagining what could be. All I needed was an opportunity to go for it.
To even think about setting off on a day as big as this a lot of things need to come together; good weather, time off and of course fitness and motivation. A few times I had it penciled in for an attempt; in the autumn when work was a bit quieter, in the spring as final preparation for the Cape Wrath Ultra, in the summer when the hills are dry and I had Cape Wrath fitness in my legs. Each time something came along to scupper my plans; bad weather, a work offer I couldn’t refuse, fatigue, lack of fitness or any number of other excuses.
A week at the end of September gave another opportunity, but again a week of heavy rain and freezing temperatures made an attempt look unlikely, but hang on, a 24 hour weather window on Friday could be worth a go.
So here I was, finally on the start line, feeling like committing to the challenge and putting my money where my mouth is could actually be the hardest part of the whole day. Conditions and my preparations were far from ideal, but at least I had a chance.
After crossing the dam I immediately got a feeling that this wasn’t going to be an easy day, the path diverged into a maze of lines of water and mud around the headland. So much for the nice running warm-up, instead freezing water soaking my socks suggested trench foot could be a real possibility!
I pushed on in the dark, careful to take my time and stick to a pace that I could keep going all day as well as fighting any negative thoughts about the magnitude of the challenge, just being patient to take my time and see what happened, walking up the zig-zagging path along the ridge line to the first summit of the day, Gairich as the sun came up behind me. There was no spectacular sunrise for me though as I pushed on into the cloud, checking the map carefully so as not to make a navigation error in the poor visibility.
Next was a long descent and all the way back up again to the long ridge connecting a Corbett and the next four Munros. Already my average speed was falling below what I had anticipated for the day. Slow and steady was fine for the climbs but I wasn’t making up time on the descents, the ground was rough, no surprise given Knoydart’s name of the ‘Rough Bounds’ but also the recent heavy rain meant that the ground was saturated and extremely slippery. Still, slow descents saved energy so I stayed positive and just kept moving, knowing that without a positive mentality the day could quickly become overwhelming and the few escape routes would become too tempting.
The long descent to sea level at Carnoch was painfully slow, followed by a cold river crossing and some bog to negotiate before the biggest single climb of the day, 950 meters straight up to Meall Buidhe. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t really starting to feel the day's efforts in my legs by now as I clocked up 4000 meters of ascent by the summit. Despite my best efforts to keep eating well during the day I was feeling low on fuel and had a slight niggle in the back of one knee, nothing that couldn’t be ignored though. However this was the point that the weather intervened with heavy rain, winds picking up and poor visibility adding to the already cold temperatures. Although I was travelling light, I had enough equipment to not be unsafe, but it certainly very quickly stopped being fun.
The decision to bail on my round and get off the hill was an easy one. Of the two remaining Munros before Kinloch Hourn, the next one I had done before, so could easily skip, and the last, Ladhar Bheinn would mean another hour or two up high in this weather. Not a great idea, but also a real shame for one of Scotlands most spectacular Munros. I was tired and I think if the weather had stayed ok I would have been able to keep pushing on, but I was happy that this was the right decision.
Deciding to give up didn’t bring an easy end to the day, I was still at the top of one of Scotland’s most remote mountains, with a complex decent needed to Mam Barrisdale to access the rough, undulating 10km path that works its way back to Kinloch Hourn, so it was a couple of hours later that I finally made it back to the road and a seat in front of the fire at the excellent Kinloch horn tea room. This gave me time to reflect on the failure of my attempt.
My first reaction was disappointment at having failed without even getting close to achieving my full goal, as well as the two Munros that I had missed, there were still 3 to go on the north side of the road. This round that I had designed had turned out to be much harder than I had imagined. It was supposed to be a 15 hour day, but I had done over 12 already to get to this point.
Next was frustration that the weather had been worse than forecast and had scuppered my primary aim of completing my remaining Munros, meaning another trip was needed and the bigger goal of finishing them all was moved forwards into the unknown again.
As I reflected I also assessed things surprisingly objectively, analysing what had led to this failure. My preparation hadn’t been ideal, my running over the summer had been more about distance than ascent, I couldn’t remember the last proper mountain run I had done. The weather played its part, and I knew at the start of the day that the forecast was marginal at best, so that was no great surprise. What I had achieved was still massive, nearly 50km and 4500 meters of ascent is a big day in anyone’s book, and actually was probably the second biggest single mountain day I have done, after my Bob Graham round in 2012. I had done it solo, onsite, unsupported, without any reconnaissance and on an amazing route I had designed myself.
Disappointment and frustration comes as a result of expectations not being met. But realistically, did my expectations meet my preparation and leap into the unknown with this route? Probably not. So expectations aside, I had had an amazing mountain adventure and really my performance, both mental and physical hadn’t let me down too much.
Adventure, by definition, comes with an uncertain outcome, so you can’t be too upset when the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for. If you want a challenge you know you can complete, then it isn’t a challenge. I will try this route again some day, the outcome will be no less certain but it will be a good adventure I’m sure!