Damian Hall recently completed a record breaking winter Paddy Buckley Round, finishing in a time of 21:20:30 - seven minutes ahead of Jim Mann's previous FKT (fastest known time). As if this weren't impressive enough, Damian approached the round in a solo, unsupported style, further adding to the difficulties. There is another dimension to Damian's round, which is his environmental approach. He arrived in Llanberis via public transport, and forewent products wrapped in plastic packaging, meaning gels and - worse - Tunnocks Caramel Wafers, were off the menu.
We caught up with Damian to ask him a bit more about the round itself, why anyone would put themselves through it in winter, and whether or not it is possible to survive 17hrs of running on 20kg of homemade brownies alone.
Due to darkness, and generally unfavourable weather, winter rounds are never going to be easy. Did you intentionally seek to complete the round whilst there was snow on the tops to make it even more difficult? If so, why (aside from the fact that it's clearly way cooler). I'm curious as to whether this was accident or design?
Yes, I wanted that perfect day that feels like real winter, both brutal and beautiful, but is somehow safe too. I wanted an adventure. But I also quite like having eight fingers and two thumbs. Winter round records are more problematic than summer records, because conditions can vary more wildly. But I can't think of a better solution than the current idea it's a round between 1 December and the end of February.
What we think of as true British winters are growing more elusive, but yes I definitely wanted snow on the ground, for credibility and for my own satisfaction. I had a week set aside and hoped for the best/worst. The anticipation of a round is a wonderful, anxious, exciting time. So much kit rethinking, brownie baking and weather forecast-app refreshing. The forecast was for a wind chill factor of –8˚C in the morning and it felt that way. The wind was unnerving at times and the snow definitely slowed me up and hid the paths/trods. There was plenty of white stuff between Llanberis and Capel Curig (going clockwise) and a bum-sledging descent from Glyder Fach to Tryfan was quicker and more fun than normal. But then as the day warmed slightly, not much more snow other than on Moel Siabod and Snowdon, which were both feisty in the wind. Of course, my good friend Jim Mann was quick to tell me he had plenty more snow when he ran a winter Paddy just seven minutes slower in 2017 (as part of an incredible winter hat-trick of rounds). Jim's a huge inspiration to me, as a runner and a person, and was one of the first to congratulate me.
You hold the summer record for the Paddy Buckley, so is it fair to assume that you were going for the winter one too when you set out on Wednesday - or were you just keen for a bimble?
I tried to tell myself the record was secondary to just having a good old British winter adventure. But I would have been disappointed if I hadn't broken it. Primarily I like adventures, but better still if they have a bit of a competitive element thrown in. Jim's record was supported, so I added some spice by going solo and unsupported (full disclosure: Lee from inov-8 met me twice to take photos/video but gave me nothing other than encouragement. Though come to think of it, I'm not even sure he gave me that!). But I definitely relaxed at times, took photos, daydreamed, texted my wife a couple of times to let her know all was well, forgot about my schedule (it blew away anyway). I had a blast. A really memorable day. I've lived abroad long enough to realise that I really love British winters.
With the above in mind (and assuming the answer is yes, you were going for the record), what made you opt for a solo/unsupported style given that it isn't necessarily going to be the best way to get a good time?
Hmmm. I don't exactly know. A friend suggested I should get a team together and "smash" the record. But that didn't seem as appealing. I don't think I necessarily wanted the best ever time (which is so dependent on conditions anyway; you might be mega fit and have an elite team of supporters, but never get a weather window…). Perhaps I should be more ambitious? But also I've never done a round with supporters and the idea of organising people to carry your sandwiches seems a little bit unnecessary and a big bit stressful. To be honest, going solo and unsupported also took some pressure off and meant if my time wasn't as good as Jim's I had a ready excuse. It does seem a bit of a shame now not to have shared the day with friends. But it was still fun too. I had a special time getting intimate with some of my favourite bogs.
A question was raised the Forums regarding the exact definition of 'unsupported'. Does it mean completely unsupported (i.e. no friends on the road crossings with food and drinks), no food stashes etc…, or does it simply mean no pacers?
I tend to follow fastestknowntime.com's definitions. So supported means you can have a crew (runners and/or people waiting to give you pies and change your socks); self-supported means you can pick up supplies en route (use shops, cafes or food stashes – stuff that's available to anyone) but don't have any pre-arranged help from people (this method isn't common in fell running, but is more common in wider FKT culture); unsupported means no help from anyone. I've also checked these definitions with Martin Stone and Paddy Buckley.
For my summer record, I did food stashes and had one support runner, Michael Corrales, for one leg – which made it supported. For my winter record I was unsupported, so I only used what I carried (plus water from rivers). A really kind guy called Nick left a Tunnock's bar on a wall for me at Nantmor and I had to resist it. My toughest moment.
You had a film crew with you courtesy of inov-8, did this change the dynamic and/or the experience at all?
Lee Procter and his smartphone would be flattered to be called a film crew. I'm aware people may question whether I was unsupported in the truest form, as Lee met me twice, but if there was any advantage it was merely a small morale boost (or rather, as he scooted up the hill ahead of me so fast it was actually a bit demoralising). I got a similar emotional boost from a handful of other people who turned out unannounced to cheer me on, for which I was grateful and you can't police really, nor would you want to. I saw less than 10 people all day – all around Capel Curig/Moel Siabod, plus Nick – and certainly felt very alone at times. In a good way.
Before starting out on the round you published a picture of your kit on Instagram, which looked pretty minimalist. Do you factor extra kit so that there is a margin for error if things do go wrong?
I'm really glad to be asked this, so I can clarify. I do like to travel minimally, but I did take more clothing than that. I did a kit test on Moel Ellio the day before my attempt and swapped in a few items post-photo, such as wearing inov-8's excellent Winter Tight and Extreme Thermo Socks, which are neoprene and kept my toes warm in icy bogs. I had thick, Extreme Thermo Mittens as well as fleece gloves, waterproof trousers (unused), two midlayers, two buffs, a merino baselayer and inov-8's brilliant Stormshell waterproof. I also carried running crampons (unused), two Petzl headtorches and a spare battery, an emergency bivvy, ample food, a whistle, two Suunto GPS watches, a fully charged smartphone (with mapping apps), two trackers, three people had my schedule and an emergency plan if I was seen to have stopped moving. Oh, and an Extinction Rebellion flag my kids made me (which could have worked as extra mid layer if needed!). I also know the route well now as this was my third complete Paddy within 12 months and I've been over some parts of the route six-seven times. I know I've sort of helped glamorise getting out into mountains in rough weather, but be careful out there folks! It was still unnerving for me at times.
Time-wise you started (very) early in the morning. Could you tell us a bit about why, given that you're inevitably going to have to contend with >15hrs of darkness anyway - why not just wait and get the extra sleep?
This was another part of the big fun puzzle. I've never been a fan of the idea of starting a round at 12-3am type of times, because I think good sleep in the nights before a big challenge can be key. However, I realised if I started as late as 4-5am (I started at 3am, getting up at 2.25am), I might still be out on the hill, very tired, in dark and biblical weather at 1-2am. I figured being out in the dark when fresh was better than being out in the dark wrecked.
When you're running for 21 hours you're bound to go through some highs and more lows. Were there any particular 'stand-out' moments, either in terms of their brilliance or awfulness, aside from finishing alive and in one piece?
The first bit, Llanberis to Ogwen, was really special. That crisp white crunchy swooshy ground. The cold air in my lungs. The sinister wind. The uncertainty and excitement of not knowing what was possible. I'd lost a little of that naive wonder when I found myself hugging a big rock like a koala on Glyder Fach. Then dawn, while climbing Pen yr Ole Wen, and all that glorious rocky whiteness. And the wind, making off with my map. My biggest low was on Snowdon. I'd run out of fuel, slowed and got cold, just as fresh weather hit. My mind went straight to 'get home safe' mode. I ran off it fast, to warm up, which worked.
Not only does he run a record 21hrs 30mins winter Paddy Buckley Round... @ultra_damo also takes photos along the way! . Updated story 👉 VIA LINK IN BIO . . #inov8 #GetAGrip #GrapheneGrip #ultrarunning #ultra #fellrunning #trailrunning #running #snowdonia #wales #paddybuckley
Following on from The Spine Race there were a lot of questions regarding tactics for keeping your feet warm, dry, and blister free. What tends to be your approach, and any top tips for our audience?
Feet is a very individual thing and I'm not sure I've nailed it (arf). I've done the Spine twice and had two blisters; one from a stone getting in and other, I think, from not realising a lace was undone. Rule number one is try lots of sock and shoe combos out in training and for the seriously long stuff comfort is always the number one priority, over grip or weight or drop or whatnot. Some people use Vaseline or similar or pre-tape. I have used something called Camphor Spray with success and waterproof socks, too. But I've had success without them both as well. What works for one might not for another. I think gaiters are under-rated. Little bits of grit can create all sorts of havoc. As mentioned, inov-8's Extreme Thermo Socks worked a treat on my winter Paddy.
A question from the specialists: there was a lot of discussion on the Forums regarding the route choice between Tryfan and Pen yr Ole Wen, with opinions divided between the East Ridge (which you took) and the South Ridge (which others - myself included - have taken). Whilst it seems like much of a muchness, was there a reason why you opted for one and not the other?
If in doubt on a Paddy, I ask myself, 'What would Nicky Spinks do?' If she takes one route, then it's probably the one for me, too. The fact opinion is divided means there's probably no much in it and I believe in those little psychological elements. I've been up the South Ridge and it's a slog. I prefer a climb where I feel like I'm moving well and if you're going for a record, those small tidbits can be key.
You mentioned in the Pre-Challenge Blog that you carried 'approximately 20kg' of vegan brownies. Was this all you carried food-wise (please say it isn't so!!), or did you pack a selection of savoury delights too?
As an experiment, I was on a low carbon diet, so no animal products or plastic waste, which rules out some of my usual faves such as Tunnock's and salt and vinegar crisps. I had a big block of vegan brownies, several chocolate bars in recyclable packaging, a big bag of salty trail mix (from dispensers) and lots of penny sweets from my local post office. I'll take more penny sweets next time.
As part of your commitment to reducing your carbon footprint you travelled via public transport from your home in Wiltshire. All of this is to be applauded, yet inevitably people try to pick holes. Why do you think this is?
Great question, and one I've been pondering. Firstly, I'm aware I'm not single-handedly saving the planet by eating one less gel (and in truth I may need some gels again when I race next). Secondly, our climate and ecological crisis has to be solved on a political level not a personal level. I believe our efforts are best used pressurising politicians and those funding fossil fuels to make the systemic changes urgently, urgently needed. I've found Extinction Rebellion to be a lovely, welcoming, inclusive, hopeful bunch of people and their tactics seem to me to be the only viable method for the changes we need now. Thirdly. Let's not let cynicism mask inactivity. Here's what haunts me: my grandchildren asking, "Granddad, what did you do about the climate emergency back when you had a chance?" I want my answer to be a bit better than, "Er, well, I did squabble with a couple of people on Twitter".
Now you've got the Paddy Buckley out the way have you got any plans for a winter Bob Graham or Charlie Ramsay Round, or are you going to thaw out a little before committing?
Haha. I hadn't even thought of that till just now! Nah, I'm thawing out. I'll leave that particularly special hat-trick for Jim Mann for now...
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