In the month that the Ramsay Round turned 40, it also saw its first double round courtesy of Nicky Spinks. Jonny Muir takes a look at the classic Scottish 24-hour hill running challenge.
As the minutes ticked down to midday on 9 July, 1978, Charlie Ramsay tore down the lower slopes of Ben Nevis. He crossed a footbridge over the River Nevis and halted by the glen's youth hostel. The clock stopped. In the previous 23 hours and 58 minutes, the runner had passed over the summits of 23 Munros – Scottish mountains of at least 3,000 feet (914 metres) – in an immense loop, starting where he had finished. No-one had ever climbed so many Munros in a day. Scotland's classic 24-hour round – encompassing 60 miles of rough and wild mountain running, and an Everest-amount of ascending and descending – was born.
Nine years passed. Others tried; they all failed. Finally, in 1987, a second runner, Martin Stone, closed the circle, and by the end of the 1980s there were a further four successes, taking the number of completions to six. At the same time, 656 people had already achieved the Bob Graham Round, England's equivalent 24-hour mountain running challenge. At the start of 2000, Ramsayists numbered just 26, with every victory in these capricious mountains hard-fought. Nine of the 20 completions in the 1990s took at least 23 hours. The first winter round finally came in 2002 – in an astonishing 55 hours amid 'classic' conditions. It would be another 11 years before anyone could breach 24 hours in the winter months.
Ramsay's Round is, indisputably, the hardest of the three classic UK rounds – the jewel in the crown: the highest, the hardest, the roughest, the toughest, a place of devastating unpredictability at any time of year. This July, as the 40th anniversary of the round is marked, there are just 109 Ramsayists – three of whom have succeeded on multiple occasions. While there is scarcely a weekend that someone is not attempting the Bob Graham Round, Ramsay's Round has never been accomplished in March, October or November. Some years – most recently in 2001 and 2012 – no-one made it around. Of the 114 rounds, only five – a hill running who's who: Adrian Belton, Nicky Spinks, Jez Bragg, Jon Ascroft and Jasmin Paris – have dipped under 20 hours.
So what does it take to be a Ramsayist?
The would-be contender need not look beyond the preparation of the round's pioneer. After switching from the road, Charlie Ramsay ran the Bob Graham Round and twice completed Tranter's Round. He was highly-competitive in hill racing, finishing the Ben Nevis Race in a time that would place him in the top 10 in recent races. In the six months prior to his attempt, Charlie amassed 1,600 miles of running and walking, and climbed a cumulative 80,000 metres, with much of his training spent in the high mountains of Lochaber rehearsing his pathless route. Even then, Charlie was two minutes from being timed out.
At the top of Ben Nevis, the final summit on an anticlockwise round, friends handed him a lifeline of sweet, hot coffee, but there was scarcely time to drink it. Charlie's fate lay in the glen, three-and-a-half miles away – and he had 35 minutes to get there. Running three-and-a-half miles in 35 minutes for Charlie was a mere jog; he would scarcely break sweat. But three-and-a-half miles down a steep mountainside of rubble, falling 1,300 metres? Three-and-a-half miles of knowing that one slip, one twist, one fall, meant it was over? And three-and-a-half miles after 23 hours of running?
'I knew the way down very well and still felt I could beat 24 hours,' Charlie said. 'With ten minutes left I could see the youth hostel and the finishing line. Finally, I left the tourist route and linked up with the path that leads to the hostel. Once over the footbridge I had a mere 25 yards to go. With minutes on the clock I had cracked 24 hours.' Charlie had made it down in an astonishing 33 minutes.
As Ramsay's Round intrigued its originator, so it bewitches those who continue to be called to the mountains of Lochaber. It was poetic, therefore, that days before the 40th anniversary, Nicky Spinks sought to become the first person to complete a 'double' Ramsay's Round within 48 hours. As is often the case, her hopes hinged on the weather, but ironically it was heat – not wind, rain and clag – that tipped the Yorkshire farmer into a third day. She was 'disappointed', inevitably, but perhaps this in itself is poetic, for it was a reminder that it is the mountains doing the conquering, not us.
The calling to these high places is perhaps best summed up by Glyn Jones, the man who accomplished that first winter round in 2002: 'In this country, where the silence is music, an old man's spirit can dance unfettered. The glory is in the doing not in the having done.'
There are 109 people who understand just that – the 'glory' that comes from embracing the audacious challenge of Scotland's superlative mountains.
Jonny Muir is the author of The Mountains are Calling: Running in the High Places of Scotland (published by Sandstone Press)