Donnie Campbell recently set the winter record for the Ramsay’s Round, a challenge which sees runners attempt to conquer 24 Munros in under 24 hours.
An endurance runner and coach, Donnie is used to pushing his body to the max, long past the point where most people would decide to give up. But how does he do it? We spoke to Donnie to hear more about his story ‘Reaching My Peak’, to understand more about how he motivates himself during these intense challenges and competitions.
When did you first get into running? And when did you start taking it the ‘next level’?
I properly got into running in 2008/2009. I started running more after University to lose some weight and get fit again to play Shinty to a high standard, as I had when I was younger. It was when I was getting fit in 2008 a friend suggested a 150-mile race over 5 days on the Isle of Islay and Jura. I agreed to it, loved the race and the training for it, finished 4th and that was my first step into ultra/mountain/trail Running. I never got back to playing Shinty as ultra/trail/mountain running became my passion.
What is it about running that you really enjoy?
That’s a hard question! There is so much I like about trail/mountain running. It is a great way of exploring the hills and taking in amazing scenery. I like how it gives you the opportunity to explore yourself and your limits and it also keeps you honest and humble. If you don’t respect the mountains that you are running in, you can soon get into trouble. Trail/mountain running for me is also a way of de-stressing, clearing my head and connecting with nature. On the other hand, I find road running boring, I have only ever run two road races and it was during the second road race I almost stopped – even though I was in the lead – because I was bored. I vowed then that I would never run a road race again.
When did you realise you have a real talent for endurance trail/mountain running?
Finishing 4th in my first race in 2009 made me realise I had the potential to improve and get more competitive, but I had so much to learn. It was not really until 2012 that I started performing consistently and winning competitive races. I have always been curious about how far I can push myself, so it has just been a logical progression for me to keep pushing my limits for endurance.
You generally run in properly managed and organised races rather than individual expeditions. Is the racing element of endurance running something that motivates you to push yourself even further?
For me, racing is what gives my training focus, motivation and an excuse to travel, as I normally choose races in places I want to go and explore. Racing is also an easier way of exploring your limits as you just need to turn up and run as fast as you can, in comparison with solo expeditions where you have the added stress of planning and logistics to think about.
What is the most challenging race you’ve done? And how did you manage to get through the race?
The most destroyed I have been at the end of a race was the Transvulcania Ultra Marathon in 2014. It’s not the toughest or longest race I have completed, it is about 74km with 4000m of climbing. The year I ran it they made an error about distance between aid stations, so I ran past one aid station thinking the next one was only 5km up the trail. It turned out to be about 14km by which point I ran out of fluid in +30c and was severely dehydrated. I can remember just taking all my gels at that stage just to get some fluids in! I filled up my water bottle at the aid station and kept going but I was never going to properly recover so I ended up staggering the last 30km to the finish line where I collapsed and got rushed off to the first aid tent. I was put on a drip and given a drug to stop my body cramping, which was happening uncontrollably. What got me to the finish? Probably my determination, will to succeed and refusal to quit!
How can you carry on running when you’re under such physical and mental pressure?
Mental strength, toughness and experience. If you have a high level of motivation to succeed you will normally find a way to keep moving, sometimes it involves a real battle with your mind but if you know how to control your mind then you can normally make the right decision and keep going.
Why do you think some people like yourself enjoy taking themselves to such extreme levels of endurance?
It’s a really hard question. Everyone is an individual so everyone will have their own reasons for doing what they do. I would say that people who tend to do well in endurance sports are highly motivated individuals but who have a real love for the endurance sports they partake in. Why else would they do it!
You joined the marines when you were 17, straight out of school. How do you think the values instilled in you during your time as a marine compare to those necessary for being an endurance athlete?
I think the values are all very similar – being a marine is basically being an endurance athlete. The four elements of the commando spirit you learn in training are – courage, determination, unselfishness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity. These are all translated into being an endurance athlete as well.
What would you say your proudest moment is, as an endurance racer?
The Ben Nevis Ultra in 2017 was an incredible experience and to have family and friends at the finish was really cool to share that experience with. I would have to say though that when I ran from Glasgow to Skye for charity raising over £22,000 for a local cancer charity is probably what I am most proud of as my running was able to help people and their families suffering from cancer.
What ambitions do you have? What races do you still want to run/win?
I have entered the Tor de Geants which is a 330km with 28000m of climbing non-stop race around Valley Aosta in Italy this year. I have had my eye on this one for a while so, I am really looking forward to experiencing this race and to see if I can be competitive over this distance. There are loads of other races I would like to go and experience and race but for the moment I can’t really think of anything past the Tor de Geants.
Finally, as an endurance running coach and someone with so much personal running experience, what are your key lessons to endurance running?
To improve stamina and endurance in running terms requires consistency in training and a gradual progression. When it comes to racing and pushing themselves, I remind my students how important the brain is in the process and how sports psychology can help them push a bit harder.
To read more about Donnie’s experiences with endurance racing, click here.