INTERVIEW: Running the Corbetts with Manny Gormanby Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com Nov/2012
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In summer 2009 Kingussie-based Council Maintenance Officer Manny Gorman ran, cycled and sailed a continuous non-motorised route around Scotland's (then) 219 Corbetts, notching up a total distance of 2408 miles and 543,642ft of ascent in just under 70 days. The Corbetts are Scottish mountains between 2500-3000 feet, with a 500-foot drop on all sides. Being far more widely scattered than the 3000-foot-plus Munros, a continuous Corbett round is a major achievement, and Manny's was probably a first. He recalls it here with Dan Bailey.
What's your background in the outdoors, and how did you first get into running?
I've been hillwalking ever since I was young but my running only began to develop at high school, starting with cross country. Most people dreaded it, but I enjoyed it and was usually first. It was the marathon boom time and my Dad had been running races all over Britain, and started trying a few hill races in Scotland which led him to the Ben Nevis Race. He kept at the Ben for 21 years and was awarded the famous Connachie Plaque for that special achievement. In the interim I had tried road running for a few years with Springburn Harriers, but my knee didn't like the tarmac pounding, and once I tried the hills I was hooked. My first Ben race was in 1986 at the tender age of 18. I was awarded my own Connachie Plaque a few years ago, but am still running the race annually. It was this background that led me into the many other forms of hill running.
'Compared to a continuous round of the Munros this was considerably harder'
Was the Corbetts run a one-off, or are you particularly into bigger days out?
I've been hill running for over 25 years and have run in hundreds of races. I get do particular satisfaction from mountain marathons and the long hill races such as Jura (16 miles & 7500ft ascent), Arrochar Alps (15 miles & 7900ft), or The Scottish Islands Peaks Race (65 miles & 12,000ft). I also started making up my own challenges away from racing, big hill routes I enjoy running myself against the clock or multi-day runs with a light pack to tick off a few Munros. My first in 1998 was Ben Hope to Ben Lomond, the most northerly & southerly Munros, taking in 110 more along the way, in 21 days covering 450 miles & 165,000ft. In 2001 I tackled a coast to coast route solo, Ladhar Bheinn to Mount Keen, the most westerly & easterly Munros and the nine 4000ft Munros in between, over 200 miles in 8 days. And in 2006 I ran solo the 200 mile boundary of Badenoch & Strathspey – the watershed of the River Spey, across some of the remotest and roughest ground imaginable, through the Cairngorms, Drumochter, Corrour, The Monadhliaths and of course covering all the highest points along the way with about 15 Munros and countless other tops. I get a real buzz from huge routes like that and the solitude it brings.
Had you done more conventional – ie. incremental - Munro or Corbett rounds before the 2009 run?
No. I only finished the Munros in 2011, and it took me 35 years! The Corbetts – well when planning the Round I was surprised how many I had actually done without knowing they were Corbetts! Even during the run I would stand atop an occasional summit and realise that I had been there many years before. But still most of them were unfamiliar.
Why choose to do the Corbetts in this continuous way; was it something you'd long dreamed of?
One reason for choosing to run the Corbetts rather than the Munros was that it was mostly new ground to me. There were other factors. I definitely didn't want to do the Munros in a one-er. My good friend and clubmate Charlie Campbell at that time held the remarkable Munros record of 48½ days, and his was (and still is) unique in that he swam all the water crossings, Mull to Lochaline, Kyle Rae to Skye, and across Loch Lomond to Ben Lomond. It was so special I didn't want to be the one to try and break it, it meant too much to Charlie and the rest of Westerlands Cross Country Club who'd supported it. Also, the Corbett Round was supposed to be a holiday. Someone recently asked why I hadn't run in between the hills instead of using a bike. Frankly I don't give a damn about purity, it was simply my version, without an engine, and I wanted to have fun. If I had run the 1400 miles in between the Corbetts I would still be out there and my employers would have sacked me long ago!
'Would it be feasible to do the whole thing on foot? It would take a special kind of lunatic'
Continuous self-powered Munro rounds have obviously been done by walkers and runners, but I don't recall anyone having done the Corbetts before; is that right?
I like doing new things, not just copying others, so I did a good bit of research beforehand and couldn't find anything recorded. However a while after I'd finished Charlie Campbell came across a tiny snippet in the The Angry Corrie from a bloke who was claiming a continuous 138 day round, presumably walking, but unfortunately absolutely no details of how he moved between the hills and islands. It's a pity because it must have been a great trip and I would love to compare experiences, albeit from a very different approach; so in answer, no, I don't think anyone has ever done a continuous un-motorised running round before.
Due to their generally stand-alone nature and less-trodden paths, is it fair to suggest that bagging the Corbetts – even in a conventional way - is at least as hard as the Munros?
No, it's considerably harder. The Munros tend to collect in convenient groups, linked with lovely high ridges, with only a sprinkling of individual mountains. Hill folk speak of The Fannichs or the Cairngorms or the Aonachs etc - all big groups. The same is not true of Corbetts. These are very much individual characters, with the regular groupings being only twos or threes; the single biggest group is the five north of Tyndrum. In practice running the 219 Corbetts meant more total climb than the 284 Munros, and since they are scattered further across the country, from Galloway to the Western Isles, there was a larger total distance to cover too. It all made for very difficult but great fun planning, coming at mountains from odd angles, many of these routes certainly not featured in the superb SMC Corbetts guide. And yes, the majority of Corbetts tend to lack the well trodden footpaths found on their Munro cousins, which again makes it harder going - but with a feeling of remoteness that is getting rarer every year.
Munro rounds have been done entirely on foot but on the Corbetts you covered a lot of ground on two wheels; would it be even vaguely do-able to run/walk the whole way?
Phew! It's certainly not my cup of tea. I'm in it essentially for the mountains, therefore generally allergic to all things tarmac. My route included about 1400 miles of biking, 1100 of which was on a road bike, so it would take a special kind of lunatic to marry both the hill and road running together, and crucially still enjoy it. Sure it could be done, with a lot of time off work, or if retired, but I'm not sure those who love the hills enough to take on a challenge like this would want to jeopardise the joy of it with the boredom or sort of repetitive strain injuries that can easily be picked up on roads by foot – even walking. Even with a marathon 26 miles every day, you would have to allow at least another 55 days, and I just don't think anyone of sane mind is up for that!
How did you decide where it was appropriate or advantageous to cycle versus travelling on foot?
It was a continual reassessment process for the road bike – whether to go shorter but slower on foot to the next hill, or a longer route by bike. It depended on my original plan, on my legs, the weather, and there were a few occasions when I changed my foot option to take the road bike instead, generally to rest my legs. The mountain bike use was more straightforward. It was used for access going in or coming out from specific points and it demanded a lot of effort from my supporters to get the bike to these locations in time for my arrival - sometimes halfway up the hill. On one memorable day a local friend drove a 4x4 to the top of my home Corbett above Kingussie, Carn an Fhreiceadain, and left his very expensive mtb unlocked all day for me to find near the end of the day. I enjoyed a splendid whiz 2000ft all the way down the estate track to our house!
'Even if the rest of the Round had failed, it would still have been worth it just for the sailing alone'
What was it like sailing to Arran, Jura, Rum, Mull, and Harris? Sounds like a dream come true to me...
I said when we finished the sailing leg at Troon, that even if the rest of the Round had failed, it would still have been worth it just for the sailing alone. It really was the trip of a lifetime, not just for the hills, but the craic on board with the crews and the skipper, the wildlife, and it helped that we got a relatively kind period of weather on the west coast at that early spring time of year.
The yacht was called Finlandia and was almost brand new, bespoke built for the Skipper, John Allen MBE, recently retired Cairngorm MRT leader and an inspirational character in his own right. John has an unquestionable love of the hills but unfortunately his knees had prevented him from walking and climbing in recent years, and now he preferred to enjoy his mountains from sea level. Still learning his marine trade he was interested in my quest and we arranged some sailing friends as two separate crews which would change over at Tobermory on Mull. I have sailed a little over the years and just about know how to pull a sheet (rope) when someone shouts at me, or duck when the boom comes zipping over, but this beautiful boat and trip was not designed for speed, rather for enjoyment, and so it was for 10 marvelous days.
How did you go about training for the run?
I didn't. I just had my general fitness, which is pretty good anyway I suppose, and was far too busy with final preparations; but previous experience taught me that I would get fit, very fit, during the run, and that eating would become my own Olympic event. I happily stayed fat after the previous winter, instead of my usual pre-racing season preparations. I knew I'd need every ounce of fat reserves during the trip.
How much of a difference do you think prior knowledge of an area makes on a journey like this?
If you're after fast time it will make a big difference to know the land, but not half as much fun. The joy is in exploring new hills and countryside, so I didn't reccie any of it. To me that's the whole point of the exercise and what hill walking or running is all about, the journey and adventure.
I did ask advice of a few experienced friends of how to link together a few hills here and there, or access points, or good biking tracks, potential landowner problems etc, but for the most part it was simply planned straight off OS Landranger maps, with the SMC guide and the book Scottish Hill Tracks as valuable resources.
Did it all have to be plotted meticulously in advance, or did the route and logistics morph a bit as you went along?
I needed the basis of a semi-solid plan and schedule for logistic purposes, but again from previous experiences, I knew it would change from day to day, and sometimes hour to hour. A good friend, club captain and hill obsessive, Chris Upson, suggested and set up a blog, primarily as a record of the trip, but as the days progressed it became a vital communication tool too for friends and club mates trying to hook up with us along the route. My partner Brenda or I, or anyone else, could update any particular day's progress and friends knew exactly where to find us when coming along to support.
I had 2 sets of 52 maps, fully marked up with the route, and pick-up or drop-off points. Navigation was entirely by map & compass. A friend lent me a GPS to carry and record the final route, but it stayed in my bum bag for the entirety simply because I didn't know how to use it!
We had our campervan as our base and the journey would have been impossible without it, never mind avoiding weather & midges! A shower at the end of every day was pretty essential both for morale and hygiene; and hot food & drinks on tap were what kept the wheels turning, not just for me, but for all the supporters who came along. It was our home for over two months and was comfortable enough to feel like real home, where Brenda and I could catch up on the day's events together. It was a great social place too, with my sponsors Cairngorm Brewery kindly supplying me with copious amounts of fine ales which were enjoyed every night with friends.
'The journey and the adventure. It's what hillwalking and running is all about'
What about logistical support from pals?
That was priceless. My clubmates had happy memories of supporting Charlie's epic Munro Round in 2000, and so were keen to get out again and get a piece of the Corbetts action with me and Brenda. There were many other hill running friends who contributed days upon days of help, not just with me on the hills, but also with Brenda in the supporting role. Brenda was the mainstay of the whole operation – without her the event would never have got past the first week. Not only catering for my every domestic whim and driving the van for 3000 miles, but continually directing the dozens of running supporters, and still finding time to squeeze in 37 Corbetts herself – incredible.
Did you have much company on the hills? Do you find it helps with morale and pacing?
I enjoy my own company for long periods, and had plenty of opportunity to do so, but I also really enjoyed the craic with friends on the hill, and company for this event was invaluable. I would use pals as mules to carry gear, or as psychotherapists if I was having a bad day, or just to catch up on news from the racing circuit which I was missing out on. Because I ended up getting incredibly fit 14 hour days were normal for me, but not for my pals, and inevitably I would burn them all off! Sometimes I would get sucked into running too fast for early spells, but after seven or eight hours on the go the perpetrator would usually fade away while I was still going strong.
Did you ever carry overnight gear, or was the priority to travel light at all times?
There were only a couple of occasions when I had to stay away from the van overnight, the first for a night in the fabulous Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, and later for two nights in Knoydart. I had a massive 16 hour day around the end of Loch Arkaig at Glen Dessary, and then hoofed into Sourlies bothy at about midnight waking up everyone else there to make my dinner. I didn't have the heart to answer entirely truthfully when one of them asked, "Where have you come from?"! The next night I spent at one of the Inverie bunkhouses before meeting up with the van the next evening at Kinloch Hourn. I would have enjoyed more bothying or camping out, but the route didn't lend itself to that.
Could you give us a quick rundown of clothing and gear on a hill day?
The weather and route dictated what I would wear and take on the hill, generally variations of t-shirts & shorts. Sometimes individual hills in good weather were done simply with a bumbag, with a windproof, and maybe a Helly top in the bag; if poorer weather maybe a lightweight Gore-Tex jacket, trousers, hat & gloves would go on. On longer stages of multiple hills I would carry a light daypack with maybe leggings, an extra top and waterproof trousers, but generally the extra space was for additional food, and lots of it: Complans, pork pies, crisps, breakfast bars, filled rolls, jelly babies, rehydrate sachets... Of course there would be the usual map & compass, tiny survival bag, sometimes the mobile phone, and always loo paper and Vaseline!
How many pairs of shoes did you trash?
Initially I had four or five different pairs but after a while I settled into just two identical pairs of Asics trail shoes, which had a good mix of an aggressive grippy sole unit for the hills and still well cushioned for tracks. Unfortunately the soft uppers didn't like the rough hill terrain or sharp rock, so both pairs were pretty wrecked at the end of the trip.
What would a typical day look like in terms of number of summits, distance, ascent?
The only thing that was typical was the hours, 12 to 14 hours on the move, sometimes more or less depending on natural breaks and parking for the van. I would also sometimes shorten days so that we could eat in pubs to relax and minimise the amount of work for Brenda, and only ever in real ale pubs for a decent pint – it was meant to be holiday after all! Hill days could vary wildly from doing just a couple of Corbetts, to maybe doing six in one day, and some days perhaps linked with a lot of biking miles. On other days I traveled over large tracts of remote land, like Fisherfield. There was a two-week spell on the west coast when I was doing steady days of 20+ miles & 10,000ft, plus many miles of biking, and often even bigger days up to 30 miles on foot or 12,000ft of climbing.
'Beat my time? No problem. Someone will do it if they really want to, and I'll show them how if they like!'
Did you manage to keep the stages relatively similar in difficulty, or were there any particular stand-out epic days?
There were certainly some massive ones. Scorching hot Torridon easily springs to mind with Beinn Dearg, Beinn an Eoin, and Baosbheinn during the day then Ruadh-stac Beag and Meall a'Ghiubhais from Loch Maree in the evening; 25 miles and 12,000ft on foot, and 22 miles of biking, topping the last hill just as the sun dipped below a Lewis horizon. It was a day shared with a couple of friends, on new mountains in probably the most dramatic scenery on the mainland, and an extremely close encounter with a Golden Eagle to cap it off nicely. Special.
In a complete contrast, but still vivid, was the day before when I had 20ft visibility over Beinn Bhan, Sgurr a'Chaorachain, Sgurr Dubh and Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine. It was really intense work; total concentration for hours on end, pacing out distance, feeling the contours beneath the feet, the elation of finding a top or the exasperation of having to relocate when there was no sign of a feature. It was totally exhausting, but no question that it was enjoyable and satisfying ticking off four Corbetts in one day, when no one else could possibly be out on the same hills.
How did you fare with the weather?
Classic Scottish weather – all four seasons, often all at once. The islands section was mercifully kind with just one really nasty storm on Skye, but once we hit Troon into the Borders and north to Arrochar, all hell broke loose. For six days the rain was incessant and the wind chill was enormous. Notable was Hart Fell & White Coomb where I took one of the worst pastings I've ever had on the mountains and was lucky to get off the hill with only hypothermia. I also got a prolonged periods of stunning weather later on; but one thing I never complained of after the Borders was being too hot!
What about the dreaded midge?
It certainly paid to keep moving, but there were a few windless warm nights where they were so bad that we had to tape up the air vents in the van to stop them flooding in; we were glad of the on-board loo.
Pick up any injuries?
Ahh, a subject close to the heart! A trip like this virtually guarantees injuries of some sort. It's a matter of spotting the early warning signs and of how you manage them. I had few minor, but incredibly irritating conditions – worms and mild trenchfoot, but thankfully not at the same time, and both easily treated with drugs or dry socks. The first real problem was after three weeks with tendonitis in my right leg and it quickly turned spectacularly bright red. I saw a Doctor on the route in Kinlochleven who was so impressed that he took a photograph for his "Wee Book of Sick" as he called it! Next, and closest to complete disaster was falling off my mountain bike in Ardgour, when I seriously messed up my left knee. This required an enforced rest of three days for intensive physio and a few big days chopped up into smaller pieces to break back into the rhythm again. It was touch and go whether I would actually get moving again; a very depressing and worrying few days, after a completely stupid mistake entirely of my own doing – mind you, it took my mind off the tendonitis!
Worst by far was what happened with only one day left. I was on top of Arkle and Foinaven with a club mate having a life or death epic in a crazy thunderstorm when I got a phone call to say Brenda had seriously injured herself in a bike fall. When we got off the hill she'd been driven off to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness with a totally destroyed shoulder. She would not be there for the last day – I was finished. It took a lot of phone calls from friends via Brenny in hospital to persuade me to keep going, and there was no sleep and far too much beer that night. When I finally summited Ben Loyal the next day, Brenda was on the operating table getting 13 pins and 7" plate fitted to her shoulder. I was in tatters.
Blimey! But you must have some magic memories too?
Loads. My friend Alan Smith, the Reindeer herder from Glenmore, saying "adder!" just as I looked round to see my mtb wheels run over a big snake (unhurt, but seriously pissed off). Or sitting on top of Ben Resipol with my damaged knee in agony, looking over the most amazing west coast sunset and wondering if that was the end of the trip. Maybe the very first day when a complete stranger, Alan, an old climber from Sheffield, walked with me up the first hill, An Clisham, and we had a fantastic few hours. How about the Force 8 sail back to Troon from Arran, or teetering on top of The Cobbler with trembling knees, or the total madness of heading off to see AC/DC at Hampden Park with only a few days to go (we were supposed to have been finished by then!) A life time of memories in 70 days.
So what's your favourite Corbett?
I don't have one, I have many. Garbh Bheinn in Argour is beautiful and interesting to climb from all angles; it's been a favourite for many years. Beinn Dearg Mor & Beinn Dearg Bheag with its fantastic ridge walk and amazing view of An Teallach across Loch Na Sealga. Most of the island peaks are worthy candidates with their extraordinary views and setting.
2408 miles on foot, on bike and by boat, and 543,642ft of ascent. Seventy days all-in ...how feasible would it be to beat that time?
No problem. Someone will do it if they really want to, and I'll show them how if they like! We wanted to complete it by enjoying it and we achieved our goal. I reckon 50 days is ultimately possible, if absolutely everything went right - along with a huge slice of luck, but realistically 60 days will be the next goal from someone, sometime...
Do you think anyone's likely to try?
Absolutely, yes. There's an ever growing need for escapism and challenge in our completely screwed up world and society, and a huge increase in interest in our mountains, both walking and running, with more people from the running world in particular setting bars ever higher. But I would hate to see our Scottish wild landscapes blighted like the Lakes or Snowdonia with armies of booted ants marching relentlessly onwards and upwards, with enormous spider webs of paths all over the hills. It's a purely selfish thing, but I guess completely natural.
What about future challenges – do you have your eye on anything big?
I always have a few things bubbling in the pot, but at the moment we have two-year-old Maisy Mouse to keep us fully entertained, and a hard-pressed employer to persuade first.
Any last thoughts?
The Corbett Round was about the journey, an adventure. Any record was a nice bonus. It was about the people who took part and soaked up the atmosphere and spirit of the occasion. My role was to persuade people to join in by simply keeping going myself. One of the biggest compliments anyone has ever paid me was running friend Stuart Simpson, who posted on my blog site during the Round, "You're an idiot, but a truly inspirational one!"
For a day-by-day breakdown of the trip see Manny's blog.