Interview: Colin Donnelly, a Fell Running Greatby Calum Muskett Nov/2013
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Colin Donnelly is among the most prolific of British fell runners. Although not as well known as Joss Naylor or Kenny Stuart he is acknowledged by peers as one of the greats. He's a quietly spoken man, but his CV speaks for itself: three times British Fell running Champion; veteran 40 World Champion; winner of the Snowdon Race and Ben Nevis Race and many more. Several of his 1980s records still stand today. Most memorable is the Welsh 3000ers, which he ran in the astonishing time of 4hrs19mins in 1988 - 28 minutes faster than Joss Naylor’s 1973 record. In the decades since, his record has comfortably withstood the few serious attempts on it.
To appreciate the scale of this achievement see this UKH Route Card to The Welsh 3000ers.
Now over 50, Colin still runs well, regularly competing and winning races - a mark of his enthusiasm for the sport and love of the mountains. I caught up with Colin when he made a recent trip to North Wales.
How did you get into running?
We used to play football and rugby in school sports fields about a quarter of a mile away and the first one back was the one who got the hot shower. I began to realise that there was a real advantage to getting back first and if you did a bit of training you could get fit. Unlike a lot of youngsters I just started myself; nobody pushed me into it or decided for me.
When did you start getting serious about your running?
The turning point was when I was running for my Glasgow club ‘Cambuslang Harriers’. I made the first team and after that it was out every day. I won the county championships one year and realised it was something I could do well. A lot of people go through school and they’re not really good at anything which was like me; but I was good at running, it was nice to be good at something.
"I didn’t fancy running the same roads every day so decided I'd do a bit of this mountain running"
How did you get into mountain running?
I started mountain running initially as a dodge to get out of doing a track race for the club. I did the Ben Lomond race and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I came 22nd, it was the top race in these days and 22nd wasn’t too bad, nothing great but no matter what position I’d have still enjoyed it. That summer I left school and got a summer job as a waiter up in a wee place called Achnasheen. I didn’t fancy running the same roads every day so I decided I would do a bit of this mountain running. I would run up Fionn Bheinn, sit up at the top for a couple of minutes and look at the view and then bomb it down thoroughly enjoying the adrenalin of the descent, that more than anything else got me hooked on mountain running.
Why do you think running appeals to you?
Because there’s virtually no extraneous equipment. If you want to run you just go out there any time of the day. The equipment’s absolutely minimal and there’s a fantastic sense of freedom. The world’s your oyster, you can run mountain, cross country, tarmac, there’s much more freedom and flexibility plus you’ve got the ability to push yourself hard in a nice environment with fresh air.
Where do you find your motivation?
Well I think you’ve got to have something in your life that really turns you on. For a lot of people it’s their careers and for other people it might be a particular sport. I’m not interested in a career whatsoever; it’s a method of earning money. Running is my motivation. It keeps me fit, gets me out to fantastic areas of the country because part of my running enjoyment is an exploration type thing. I like to get into the wild areas and explore, and I do that by running.
Any running heroes?
People like Billy Bland, great guys in their day with fantastic records that still stand from the 1980s. Kenny Stuart’s another one. Kenny was very fit so he was a top marathon runner never mind mountain runner. These people are heroes. The speed some of the Kenyans run at nowadays is just unbelievable too.
What do you consider to be your finest running achievements?
Overall mountain running’s been my strongest but I’ve had a great love of cross country right from the early days. I finished 4th in the Scottish championships one year which isn’t my finest achievement but I’m very proud of that and of course winning the British mountain championships three times. Winning the world champs Over 40’s one year, I’m very proud of that. The 1000m 12 times, I’m very proud of that indeed, I love that race. I think undocumented things would be the big rounds. I’ve done most of the big ones in Britain, the Charley Ramsay, the Paddy Buckley, the Bob Graham and all the South Wales 2000ers. These are the sort of things I like from the mountain point of view and from the peak bagging point of view. It’s a different sort of satisfaction I get from holding a record or winning a championship. Other things are the (Welsh)14 Peaks, I’ve got the record for that. To be honest I’m surprised I’ve still got the record but I’m very pleased at that and I’m glad I motivated myself to have a serious stab at it. It’s quite nice to have things that’ll go into posterity.
Your 1988 record for the 14 Welsh 3000ft Peaks was an amazing 4hrs19mins; was that a long term ambition and how did you prepare for it?
Well it wasn’t at the time a long term ambition. I’d read the original book about Thomas Firbanks, the man who wrote ‘I Bought a Mountain’ and he’d written about doing the 14 Peaks. I thought it was quite an eccentric route from the top of Snowdon to the top of Foel Fras instead of say from Llanberis to Llanfairfechan which would be aesthetically a bit more pure. However everybody did it that way because he set the record that way. Ken Jones mentioned the idea that I was fit and capable enough to have a crack at the record. I chewed it over and thought maybe there’s mileage in this, why not? I was very fit that year, I’d won the British Championships and I thought I’ll have a crack. So the preparation was just a matter of months, it was going over the course, telling the pacers what I expected of them, looking into different routes and then I just waited for the day. The plan was to do it in May or June. I got a nice day in the end and it worked out great.
The climb up Elidir after the descent from Snowdon can be a gruelling trudge for mere mortals. How do you cope with the big ascent after a large descent?
That sort of event with lots of big climbs and descents can be very tough mentally. When you’re going for a record you’re relying on pacemakers. I'd left instructions for Don Williams to set off several minutes in front of me from Nant Peris. I had a rest in Nant Peris and a wee bite to eat. In the meantime Don set off and unfortunately he set off like a rocket. I'd reckoned that chasing him would be my motivation, but he was going so well I couldn’t catch him and he got to the top in front of me. That wee psychological trick didn’t quite work; I think I should’ve told Don to slow down a bit!
What were the high points and low points of the run?
There were two high points. The first was the sense of exhilaration from being really fit, having a fantastic day and belting down Snowdon and Crib y Ddysgl and rocketing over the ridge just fearlessly, going for it without any thought whatsoever, putting 100% into it. The second high point was that last wee bit coming towards Foel Fras when I realised I was clear and touching the trig and realising that I’d done it. Coming close, there were quite a few people who had congregated there as a welcome party. Although I was absolutely knackered the running community was there and I was getting acknowledgement from the people that I’d run with, and it was just a great feeling of togetherness.
There were two low points. There was going up towards Pen yr Ole Wen which dragged on forever. I hit a bit of a wall going up there. I was suffering and it’s just not a very nice route at all going up the ridge. My second low point was coming off Yr Elen and starting to climb up Carnedd Llewelyn and without warning I got very bad cramp which caused me to writhe around on the ground. The muscle was spasming to such an extent that I thought I might not be able to continue. I’d only a few wee moorland peaks to go and I was there and yet this threatened to put an end to things.
"I’ve always thought the Welsh 3000-ers record is there for the taking. It will be broken without a doubt and I think somebody can get quite near to four hours"
In hindsight, do you think there are any quicker lines/route choices that could be found on the route?
In preparation I spent quite a while looking at all the lines over and over again. The only one thinking back that might be quicker would be starting from the west side of Ogwen and going up the ridge instead of the east side as I did. Everything else though was what I thought to be the optimal route and I don’t think there are any better lines.
Do you think that you could have shaved any more time off your record?
There’s always potential to shave a wee bit more time off your record because things are never going to go 100%. They went very well but the two bits I remember were that I ran out of steam going up Pen Yr Ole Wen, maybe not taking on enough food at that point, there’d have been time to be saved there, at least five minutes. The second one was losing that couple of minutes on Carnedd Llewelyn with cramp and I had to stop and take fluid on-board. There’s maybe a total of ten minutes to be saved if things are going absolutely perfectly, but things rarely go absolutely perfectly.
Your record hasn’t been seriously attempted in over 20 years, do you think it can or will be broken?
It surprises me that people haven’t really had a crack. People have come to me over the years asking for a schedule or asking for hints and I’ve always given them as much advice as possible. I’ve always thought that it’s a record there for the taking. I think it will be broken without a doubt and I think somebody can get quite near to four hours.
You won the vet 40 WMRA world mountain running championships in 2001, what did that mean to you?
I finished second in the world senior championships one year and I was well beaten, but that was the fittest I’ve ever been and I thought well I’m a fit vet, I can probably give anybody a run for their money so I’m gonna go for that. It meant a lot for me winning that and I was absolutely delighted. Billy Bland once told me 1st is 1st, second is nowhere. The guy that finished first is the one on the winners list for all time.
Do you have any favourite mountain areas?
It’s so hard to choose. I love the Lake District, but I can’t abide the crowds there, it would be my favourite otherwise. I love Sutherland; the wildness and remoteness. I like the Cairngorms, but they’re a wee bit crowded. Wester Ross, I love the sci-fi mountains of Wester Ross, Stac Pollaidh and Suilven they’re magnificent. They’re not runner’s mountains as such but I love mountains anyway. I’ve just been up earlier in the year to that area and I never get tired of it.
In your training schedule, what proportion of time is spent on the fell as opposed to road/trail running?
Zero proportion of my time is spent on the road. Most of my running is trail running and the minority will be hill running. I like peak bagging, I’ve done all the Munros and Corbetts, most of the Marilyns and another category of mountains called Yeamans but they’re fairly easy runs. I’d maybe do that two or three times a week maximum and the rest of the sessions are either trail or running around the Shinty pitch in Fort William for hard sessions. I don’t spend too much time on the hills. If you look historically at the top mountain runners most of them have been the same, some of them actually spend very little time in the mountains and most of their time is spent doing hard runs on the road, trail or cross country.
Do you keep a strict training schedule in terms of miles run or mountains ascended?
Over the years by trial and error I have found what my body is capable of taking. I trialled 100 miles a week in the 1980s, which wasn’t at all unreasonable, people were advocating that you do at least 100 miles a week if you’ve got ambitions to do well in road races, half marathons and such like. Some were even advocating that you should do 150 to 200 miles a week. If you can get away with that it can be remarkable but I don’t think the body’s meant for that amount of miles per week. In my case it certainly wasn’t meant for 100 miles a week. I tried it for four weeks and I got extremely tired and started picking up niggles and eventually I just couldn’t do it. I realised that my body was capable of taking around 50 to 60 miles per week and if I went over that I was starting to get problems. I think everybody has to find their niche. Nowadays I’m quite happy doing 50 miles a week, if I can do 60 that’s great, that’s pretty well all I need. I’ve got my own objectives for climbing; I try and do 365,000 feet of climbing a year. I manage that every year, in fact I’m usually over 400,000 feet of climbing. I think it’s a good idea to have a lot of ascent just to get your muscles used to climbing. I think you’ve got to know what you’re aiming for and what your body’s capable of doing.
In the quarter of a century since Colin Donnelly's Welsh 3000-ers record, no runner has come close to equalling his time of 4 hours and 19 minutes. Film maker Alun Hughes was on hand back in 1988 to capture footage of the run, and this short film is just one chapter of his classic outdoor film '80s Birth of the Extreme':
The full film is available for download on Steepedge
Calum Muskett is a 19 year old Outdoor Instructor and sponsored hot shot from Bethesda. Check out his website here.