Talking hills with record breaking long distance fell runner Stephen 'Spyke' Pyke
On Thursday 3rd June 2010 Spyke, 45 and originally from Staffordshire, reached the summit of Ben Hope to claim one of the biggest prizes in fell running, a continuous round of Scotland's 283 Munros in the record time of 39 days, nine hours, six minutes.
Spyke, who will be speaking at this year's Sheffield Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF) March 6th, is no stranger to epic challenges. Previous achievements have included a 2007 record of 20 hours 23 minutes on the Scottish 4000ft peaks (nine mountains, 85 miles and 17,000ft of ascent). Later that year, with Mark Hartell and Lizzy Hawker, Spyke shaved five hours from the next-best time on the gruelling Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu route, taking an impressive 3 days, 2 hours and 36 minutes to cover 190 miles.
'We did something like 10- or maybe 11,000 metres of ascent' recalls Spyke 'but I'm a bit vague as the maps we followed are none too clear' Perhaps it's worth noting that's a lot more more uphill than the summit of Everest from sea level.
On the Munro round a bike was used between hill groups, and a kayak between Mull and the Mainland and across Loch Lomond, making this the entirely human-powered effort needed for claiming a record. Outside the world of fell running the achievement was largely unsung, though it arguably bears comparison with leading performances in any sport. A few stats hint at the scale: Roughly 1400km in the saddle and the same on foot; an estimated 120,000 metres of ascent; three 12-Munro days, four of 11 and four of 10; only one single-Munro day, Bla Bheinn on Skye, which also included a 50-mile cycle and a six-mile walk-out to Sligachan.
'The new speed record for the Munros set by Stephen is a truly outstanding display of human fitness and mental strength' claims Munroist (and UKC/UKH regular) Steve Perry, holder of a Fellrunners Association (FRA) long distance award for his Winter284 walk of 2005, the only continuous winter Munro round on foot to date. 'Dividing Stephen's figures by 39 days is truly staggering. In terms of physical effort he was doing much more than a marathon every day for several weeks, over Britain's highest mountains. His ability to just keep on covering the distances required puts him at the pinnacle of long distance fell running'
'The new speed record for the Munros set by Stephen is a truly outstanding display of human fitness and mental strength'
Given this punishing schedule it's probably no surprise that few ultra distance runners have attempted to race the clock on a continuous self-propelled Munro round, and before June last year the previous record of 48 days, 12 hours had stood for a decade. The 2000 record holder Charlie Campbell offered pre-run advice and encouragement to Spyke, and rewarded his efforts with a bottle of single malt stashed in Ben Hope's summit cairn, just as his own predecessors had done for him.
'Stephen showed huge motivation and a desire for pushing the limits, combined with a love of the hills and the great outdoors in general' says Campbell 'I found my round tough, especially on the psychological front, so goodness knows what he went through being over a week faster.'
In tribute to his precursor Stephen omitted Sgurr nan Ceannaichean, recently demoted from the Munro tables, to leave Campbell's record for 284 peaks technically intact.
'As someone who loves to roam in the mountains and wild places the challenge is to see how far and fast I can go' Stephen explains, in something of an understatement. 'I've loved the Scottish Highlands since climbing my first Munro, Buachaille Etive Mor, in 1999. But I only completed my first round of the Munros two weeks before setting off on this run, with a recce of the Cuillin Ridge'.
Redundancy from a job in renewable energy technology gave Stephen the necessary impetus to go about planning his Munro attempt. A degree of planned-in flexibility was essential to cover bad weather delays, possible fitness issues and any potential injuries. It was clear he'd need strong logistical support too.
'Fortunately a retired running friend John Clemens volunteered to drive a camper van for the duration, and act as communications hub to keep my blog updated and coordinate with any friends who planned to join me on hills.'
John also kept him supplied with mountains of food – roughly 8000 calories per day. Spyke generally went lightly equipped on the hills, meeting his support at pre-arranged locations (if not always on time) each evening. Most nights were spent in the van, though it was never used to cover ground.
'In total I was joined by someone on 140 of the Munros, and I was touched and inspired by the messages of support from both friends and total strangers. Of course John was critical in making sure this all worked well.'
Scotland's unpredictable weather always has the potential to throw a curve ball or two. After one of the hardest winters in recent times an early start date of 25th April gave rise to initial concerns about the quantity of residual snow, and several days were done in winter conditions. 'Even as late as 29th May I was slipping about on the rocks of Liathach on thick, fresh, slushy snow. But luckily overall precipitation was lower than normal and I didn't really experience the sort of continuous driving rain that could have turned whole days into a washout.'
So was it actually any fun?
'I had surprisingly few lows, and can genuinely say I enjoyed some part of every day' he remembers. But it wasn't all plain sailing. With so many back-to-back hill days longer stages could inevitably drag, as with the eight Munros of Knoydart and the Rough Bounds. 'I started from Barrisdale at 08:30, and didn't top out on my last hill, Gairich, until just before 23:00. It was already dark, but I still had a 7 or 8km bog trot to meet the camper van at the Loch Quoich dam.'
And next day of course he'd be doing it all again. But real doubts only set in when an inflamed right achilles tendon became progressively worse over several days.
'The discomfort forced me to take an easier day, the first time I'd done less than my schedule. This was a worry until it dawned on me that the culprit was a heel tab on my shoe, that would catch at my heel on steep descents. I cut it off, and the inflammation gradually subsided.'
After that he was confident that the record would be broken, the only uncertainty being by how much.
He recalls many highlights along the way – low cloud and sunshine painting the much maligned Monadhliath in spectacular colours; late evening arrival at Seana Bhraigh with its huge steep sides casting shadows down the glen; a 15-hour epic on the 10 eastern Cairngorms in full winter conditions;
'I was shattered by the end of that, but the views and the vast wilderness feeling these hills give you were worth it'
That sense of the value of wildness gave theme and purpose to the whole effort. Through his run Stephen aimed to promote the activities of landscape conservation charity the John Muir Trust, to help encourage donors and new members.
'My journey over the Highlands has for me emphasised the importance of the work the JMT does in campaigning, protecting and restoring wild land' he explains 'Despite what people might see as a vast, untouched wilderness there is clear evidence that the Highlands are under threat from many angles such as pressure from excessive deer numbers and visual intrusions from inappropriate developments on the fringes and, sometimes, even through the heart of wild land.'
Finally the all important question - could 39 days be bettered? Charlie Campbell thinks so;
'I had always believed the forty day barrier was a goer, and planned for that target back in 2000, but thanks partly to weather and injury it wasn't to be. In one fell swoop Stephen not only gubbed my time but proved that forty days was a real target, by becoming the first to dip below that mark. To do better still it would take someone with supreme fitness overall, and especially ultra hill endurance; meticulous planning; great back-up & support; a long period of cool/clear/dry weather, and a rather large dose of good luck. Now we are getting nearer to a possible 35 days there must surely be some nutcase out there brave enough to be thinking of the magical Munros in a Month.'
'Any record can be broken' agrees Stephen. 'To do so you could look at my route and work out where unnecessary distance and re-ascent might be avoided. But the most important attribute would be having a good knowledge of the Highlands, and a love of being out in the hills, because ultimately this wasn't a race so much as a personal challenge.'
Spyke's Munro kit list
- 20l running sack (200-300g)
- Lightweight waterproof top (350g)
- Lightweight waterproof pants (200g)
- Long sleeve thermal (200g)
- Light fleece (300g) – worn more often than expected
- Thermal hat
- Waterproof mitts
- Running tights
- Map, map case, compass, whistle
- Head torch
- Mobile phone – generally switched off to avoid distractions
- 500ml water bottle
- 1kg-2kg food including 6-12 rounds of bread with high calorie fillings, trail mix, flapjack, eccles cakes etc
- Lightweight ice axe on four days earlier in the season
- Innov8 shoes: starting with two pairs of Roclite 315, then switching to two pairs of X-Talons 'These were still going strong at the end of the round, although the studs were a bit worn on the pair used for 12 hours on the rough gabbro of the Cuillin Ridge'
For details of the John Muir Trust or to make a donation see JMT website
Stephen Pyke will be speaking at this year's Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, March 6th. Full listings at ShAFF website
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