Well, that didn’t take long. At 3:06pm on June 3, a mere 39 days, nine hours and six minutes after having started on Mull on April 25, the Staffordshire-based runner Stephen Pyke – Spyke to pretty much everyone who knows him – reached the top of Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly 3,000ft hill.
He thus completed the fastest self-propelled round of the list, beating a record held for just under a decade by Glaswegian Charlie Campbell. Campbell’s effort – 48 days 12 hours – was rightly regarded as monumental, so to see Spyke carve off nine days – or 18 per cent – is remarkable.
Asked shortly after reaching the trig point whether he was glad to have finished, Spyke said: “In some ways, yes. I’ve enjoyed every day in some way. It’s been a really good excuse for 40 days on the hill, and it’s definitely been a team effort.”
The Essex-born ultra-biathlete averaged more than seven Munros per day in a extended bagathon during which he cycled and occasionally canoed between groups of hills. He shredded not just the record book but also the guidebook, racking up two 12-Munro days, five 11s, four tens, one nine, seven eights, five sevens, three sixes, five fives, one four, four threes, two twos, and one one.
The daily dozens were a sweep-up of Schiehallion plus the Carn Mairg and Lawers ranges, and a remarkable surge that took in all ten Mamores after an aperitif of the Beinn a’Bheithir pair above Ballachulish. Day 20 saw another huge effort: the Cruachan four, the Etive five, then Stob Ghabhar and Stob a’Choire Odhair.
On Day 28, the plan had been to simply cycle from Kintail to Skye, then set about all 12 Cuillin Munros next morning. But the outlying Bla Bheinn was climbed that evening, clearing the way for the traditional 11-summit exposurefest, In Pinn and all.
Thus each of Spyke’s 40 days included at least one Munro – quite possibly a record in itself. The physical and psychological strength needed for such a relentless attack is barely comprehensible. It is one thing to have a massive day in the Scottish hills, but to immediately follow it with another, and another, requires huge reserves. Apart from the evening feast and nightly sleep, there was no rest break, no downtime.
Best days? The ten eastern Cairngorm Munros in snow, the Cuillin, and the big Fannaich/Fisherfield traverses were all mentioned, as Spyke and his support team sipped champagne from plastic flutes in the Ben Hope sunshine. “An unexpectedly good day was over Beinn Dearg,” Spyke said. “The north side of Cona’ Mheall was really interesting, and Seana Bhraigh was a nice evening hill.”
There is great mutual respect in the hill-running world, and Campbell had been up some time earlier to wedge a gift-wrapped bottle of malt – The Singleton – into the cairn awaiting his successor’s arrival. Ten years earlier, Rory Gibson and Andrew Johnston, whose record Campbell had beaten, had done exactly the same (well, it was The Macallan in their case). Campbell’s bottle came with a note to Spyke: “It takes a singular determination and character to see an enterprise like this through to a successful ending, and you have done that.” He described the Munro record as “a people thing”.
If that was tradition, there was also a lovely coincidence. Chris and Jim Sharp from Edinburgh, who were climbing Ben Hope in holidaymaker mode, are friends of Gibson. “These days Rory is a busy architect and dad,” said Chris Sharp, “and as good a golfer as a skier and climber.” The Sharps had no idea that they would be on hand to witness the record change hands again until they saw the malt at the cairn.
Can the record come down any lower? Will Spyke one day return, clutching a bottle for a runner even speedier and stronger? “Someone could trim four or five days off,” he said, “but they would have to go some to do that. It could be beaten, but it would need armies of supporters setting up bivvies on the route.”
It is not his worry, though. Asked if he would have another go were someone to claim the record next year, he laughed and shook his head: “I only do things once.”
It is hard to see the Munros being done much faster than this. Over the course of almost six weeks Spyke and his team racked up high scores in each of the necessary disciplines: route planning, support logistics, luck with the weather, injury avoidance (switching to a pair of Inov-8 X-Talons put a stop to the mid-round Achilles twinge), plus the old staples of speed and stamina.
Highland weather can scupper any attempt – and Spyke had it almost as good as could be hoped for. Generally dry and no major storms (although one of his support team was blown over and injured a wrist on Ben More Assynt – she duly climbed Ben Hope with her arm in a sling), while fears about lingering snows proved unfounded.
Campbell undoubtedly had worse weather in 2000, with rain on 20 days including six utterly foul ones. He also had more trouble with injuries, necessitating a visit to Oban A&E. The great incalculable is how might Campbell and Spyke have fared given each other’s weather and injuries. Evidence suggests that Spyke would still have been the faster, but with the nine-day margin much reduced. It is worth remembering that Campbell likewise set off with 40 days in mind.
The scale of Spyke’s effort was perhaps best summed up by a walker met halfway up Ben Hope, who described it as “an Olympic level of achievement”. It certainly is – and the comparison, made by one of the support team, of a sub-40-day Munro round with a sub-four-minute mile is apt, too.
Were there any justice, Spyke would be a strong contender for the Sports Personality of the Year award – but, just as with Gibson, Johnston and Campbell before him, he won’t even merit a mention. Hill running is too niche – and perhaps too nice – to appeal to a television audience obsessed with commercialised mainstream sport.
Come the end of 2010, however, will anyone else have managed such a sustained, at-full-stretch achievement as this – and enjoyed it in the finest traditions of amateur endeavour? Unlikely.
Spyke was raising money for, and awareness of, the John Muir Trust.
The Munro record
- Hamish Brown, 112 days, finished on Ben Hope, July 24, 1974 (Brown was attempting the first continuous round, rather than trying to set a fast time)
- Ashley Cooper, approximately 90 days, finished on Ben More Mull, late July or early August 1986
- Hugh Symonds, 66 days 22 hours, finished on Ben Lomond, June 25, 1990
- Rory Gibson and Andrew Johnston, 51 days 9 hours 22 minutes, finished on Ben Hope, July 13, 1992
- Charlie Campbell, 48 days 12 hours, finished on Ben Hope, July 16, 2000
- Stephen Pyke, 39 days 9 hours 6 minutes, finished on Ben Hope, June 3, 2010
See the Angry Corrie for a more general list of continuous rounds.