A white-shirted runner tiptoes across the welter of rubble littering a Welsh mountainside. He reaches for the concrete of a summit triangulation pillar, slapping the top with both palms. The clock stops: four hours, 19 minutes, 56 seconds. The year is 1988; the runner is Colin Donnelly – an athlete at the peak of his physical powers. That year, he would win a second British hill running championship. While the names of champions of yesteryear fade into cluttered memories, some things are more permanent – like that run of June 1988, and that time.
The clock had started on the summit of Snowdon, before Colin went on to climb every 3,000-foot mountain in North Wales. From the roof of the country he then called home, he proceeded over Garnedd Ugain and Crib Goch, lost, then gained, 900 metres to Y Garn, tamed the Glyders, climbed onto the Carneddau, and continued east, relentlessly forging a legend with every step. His time for the 24-mile route was bewildering – or ‘inhuman’, as the British Mountaineering Council has called it. As a comparison, mountain guides in North Wales typically budget a 24-hour period to walk the Welsh 3,000s – or even a ‘leisurely’ three days.
‘The record is there for the taking,’ Colin, who was inspired to tackle the route having read Thomas Firbank’s I Bought a Mountain, has insisted about a mark he took from Joss Naylor (and was previously held by another great, Eric Beard). But as the 30th anniversary of the record is marked this month, it still belongs to a man now on the cusp of his seventh decade.
The video is, inevitably, of its time. It has none of the swagger and capital of Salomon TV, for instance, or the benefit of modern drone footage or the point-of-view GoPro. The soundtrack is archetypal ’80s electro pop. But Alun Hughes’ 12-minute movie does not pretend to be anything other than the record of an outstanding feat of endurance – the iconic hill running film? I would say so, for what matters here is substance, not style – and so it synthesises a sport.
‘This particular run to me symbolises all that’s best about mountain running,’ Colin says in the opening sequence – and he is right, of course. The video celebrates the freedom of the mountain runner, the extraordinary theatre of our sport, a sensational concoction of exertion and risk.
The footage was shot on Colin’s original run, I had always assumed. Others, I realised, agreed. We had no reason to doubt its validity. This is not a sport, after all, known for dishonesty and subterfuge. When those palms touched the trig pillar of Foel-fras, that was it: the denouement of a chapter in mountain running history that is yet to be rewritten.
I am sitting next to Colin Donnelly at his home in the Scottish Borders when I mention having watched the film. He cuts me off, chuckling to himself.
‘One thing I have to tell you,’ he says, ‘before you talk about the video. It was not actually the attempt itself.’ He pauses, glancing sideways at me. ‘A lot of people have thought that.’
‘Oh?’ I reply, pausing open-mouthed, then trying to look unsurprised.
He nods. ‘I just went off, got together a wee team of pacers, and did it. It’s one of the few things I’ve really done seriously and properly, and thought, right, I am going to go for the record, eyeballs out, recce the whole thing, do it properly, no buggering around, really go for it 100 per cent – and I did.’
So what about this video?
‘It was a year later when one of the club guys came up to me after a race, and said, “Colin, there’s some bloke I met in the pub yesterday and he was asking about your run, and asking whether there was anyone who could pretend to be Colin Donnelly because he wanted to do a video.” He said, “well, Colin Donnelly is still around, why don’t you speak to him?” He gave me Alun Hughes’ number and I got in touch.’
Colin laughs again: ‘I was to play Colin Donnelly.’
He continues: ‘You know how filmmakers take a bit of artistic licence? I was on Crib Goch. I didn’t run down the North Ridge. Joss Naylor did. He had actually got stuck, cragfast. I didn’t want to run down the North Ridge. I looked at the route and thought if you double back over the pinnacles, go around the pinnacles, you get to this wee, dark, grassy gully. I think that’s faster. I think I did get down there faster. If you come off the North Ridge, it’s scree and rocky, and you could take a tumble. When it came to the video though, Alun insisted I go down this bloody North Ridge because it was a better shot. “I won’t get the long shot if you don’t go down there,” he said.’
A bemused Colin hit back: ‘But that’s not the proper route, Alun.’
‘That was quite funny. If you knew the route I did, you would say there’s something wrong here. That’s not Colin Donnelly doing the actual thing.’
What the filmmaker wanted was the image above – an ever-widening long shot of Colin plunging off Crib Goch, later captioned (but not by Alun), ‘Try this yourself one day. You will realise how hard and dangerous it is.’
‘We did it over a week,’ Colin says. ‘That was one whole day doing the filming for the North Ridge. Alun got me running along the edge of Crib Goch. It was a bit tricky, actually. He said, “can you go a bit faster?” I thought, I’m going to tumble over the edge here.’
‘Yeah, but it looks good for the camera,’ Alun replied.
‘We did all these takes,’ Colin explains. ‘Alun was a perfectionist; he wasn’t quite happy. Then there were these tourists coming up, and they were sort of buggering around.
‘”Colin,” Alun said, having seen the tourists, “I want you to bomb down here. This is just perfect. So, I’m striding down… Alun says, “That’s perfect…” I thought, I need danger money for this.’
Alun was indeed a perfectionist; that is precisely why the footage appears authentic. In the 12-minute montage, the weather is the same and Colin wears identical clothes.
‘It’s not a fraud,’ Colin insists. ‘It’s the equivalent of artistic license. It was the spirit of recreating what I did, but we don’t necessarily have to go into exact detail.’
Indeed, information relayed on screen explains that the footage was shot in 1989 – a year after the record. The words, however, are in Welsh.
What is striking about the film is the speed at which Colin is moving. As he describes, his pace on Crib Goch borders the reckless; when he meets the road at Nant Peris, it is like he is sprinting.
The speed, he remembers, at least early on, was realistic. ‘Latterly, I was not going as fast that. In the Carneddau, I tired and cramped at one point, and I was running much faster in the film than I was running at the time. The pace was similar earlier, as I did the Snowdon section quite fast – and I was going well on the Glyders.’
And that memorable conclusion? ‘Right at the end, I got to the trig at Foel-fras and thought, I’m finished now.’
Alun had other ideas. ‘He said, “Colin, just do that again, and hit the thing hard.”‘ Colin retraced his steps, turned and faced the trig again. This time – in Colin’s words – he ‘battered the top’. Alun was right again. The gesture was a fitting end to a run, and a fitting end to a film that will inspire anyone with even the remotest interest in mountains for another 30 years.
Update – 16 May 2019: Finlay Wild broke Colin’s 31-year record, stopping the clock on Foel-fras in a time of 4 hours 10 minutes 48 seconds.
Stills taken from video footage here.
Read more about Colin Donnelly in The Mountains are Calling.