A question of how: running the Ring of Fire

‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it,’ sang Ella Fitzgerald in the late 1930s (and, much later, repeated by a collaboration of Fun Boy Three and Bananarama), with the chorus ending resoundingly: ‘And that’s what gets results.’ There is a metaphor for life – and for running around in the hills.

Having completed Ramsay’s Round, I was regularly asked in the months that followed ‘what’s next?’ I would shrug. Logic pointed to the Paddy Buckley Round – for me, the final jigsaw piece of the trio of classic 24-hour rounds – but the Welsh route had not captivated my imagination like the English and Scottish equivalents. As for logic? What place does logic have in our sport?

Gradually, ‘what’s next?’ became not a question of what but how.

Style: that is what I sought. When Colin Donnelly ran Ramsay’s Round in a time several hours slower than his ability as a three-time British champion would suggest, he was not the least bothered. ‘No fanfares, no fuss,’ he remarked. ‘Perhaps how these things should be done; just for the challenge.’

Completing the rounds were not merely my successes. People helped to feed and water me, navigate for me, motivate and encourage me, think for me. This is no diatribe: there is definitely nothing wrong with supported rounds, for they symbolise the altruism of hill and fell running. For some, they make the impossible possible.

Yet a supported round (or any supported long-distance run) is the achievement of the many. I know I will rely on that network again one day, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I did not need the ‘fuss’, that I could run and eat and drink and navigate and motivate and think all on my own.

‘Nothing worth doing is easy,’ Glyn Jones once told me. As a runner, Glyn’s legacy is centred on two groups of Scottish mountains. The summits of Lochaber repeatedly called him – and he willingly answered, becoming the first to succeed in winter attempts at both Tranter’s and Ramsay’s rounds.

But his reputation is forged on the closer-to-home hills of Galloway, hundreds of metres lower than the peaks of the Highlands, but still imbued with complexity and challenge.

In 1996, Glyn (along with Paul McClintock) linked the Corbetts of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn, Corserine, Merrick and Shalloch on Minnoch in a 27-mile, eight-hour winter expedition.

In 1998, Glyn ran a 70-mile route connecting the 36 Donalds (the hills in Lowland Scotland that exceed 2,000 feet in height) of Galloway in 23 hours and 45 minutes in the days before ultrarunning was even remotely fashionable.

However, it is the so-called ‘Ring of Fire’ that continues to stir the imagination of runners. Following the traditions of British hill running, the Ring of Fire – named for its volcanic significance – is a round; you start where you finish. The journey, therefore, is everything, not the destination. A route that carried the hill-goer over 21 Donalds (and 30 summits in all) in the Minnigaff Hills, Rhinns of Kells and the Range of the Awful Hand was the idea of Andy Priestman, but it was Glyn who ran it first – a ‘leisurely’ 22-hour effort that was solo and unsupported in 1990. The ‘record’ changed hands seven times between Ronald Turnbull and Glyn, before the latter laid down a definitive marker in 1996 – 14 hours and 44 minutes. Solo and unsupported, of course.

I had no affinity with the hills of Galloway – but this was not a question of what, it was a matter of how. And few sets of hills offer as formidable a how as those that rise in Galloway. ‘Much of the terrain is trackless, remote and exceptionally arduous making access difficult for both support parties and rescue services!’ notes the GoFar website, the only source of online information on the round beyond historical forum postings. The exclamation mark intrigued me. Was it a warning? Or the opposite? A sarcastic laugh in the face of a warning?

With a hand on Bruce’s Stone above Loch Trool, shortly after five on a still, midgy morning, I departed, travelling solo and unsupported. Everything I needed – apart from the water from burns and lochans – was on my back and waist. Failure would be my doing; glory my exclamation mark.

Very soon I left the easy track of a forestry road and guessed at the best way through the stumps of a mutilated forest, reaching upwards to open hillside buried in calf-deep vegetation as I fought a way to Muldonnoch.

In the closing hours of John Fleetwood’s 27-hour Assynt Traverse earlier this year, he noted arriving at a ‘familiar inflection point… at which enjoyment passes to grinding perseverance. There may still be moments of bliss, but as the body degenerates, omnipresent fatigue exacts its toll.’

The trick in long-distance mountain running is to arrive at this moment as late as possible. My moment came far too soon. I was descending the grassy north slope of Larg Hill, only the second summit, when I rolled my right ankle. I have twisted the same ankle so many times that I know almost instantly the extent of the injury. Even the sharpest, purest pain can quickly dissolve to nothing within 60 seconds. After years of doing the same thing, somehow I just know. And I knew I had not got away with this one. Although the sprain was a common inversion, it seemed to have pulled tendons on the inside of my ankle. I walked up Lamachan and carefully moved into a downhill jog towards the waiting Curleywee. The ankle went again. I was on the floor again. This time, swaddled in early morning mist, I swore over and over again, and felt moisture gathering in my eyes. A ring of fire was boiling in my right ankle.

I was at my ‘inflection point’. I knew that in going on my fate was to suffer more than I had anticipated, but it would be more painful to concede defeat. Perseverance was not a choice; it is an imperative for the solo, unsupported runner.

What else could I do? After all, these things are not meant to be easy. Besides, the Galloway hills come with a bold reputation: they are, I was told, rough and trackless, smothered with heather and tussocks. Runners in various mountain marathons that have visited these hills speak of a special kind of underfoot horror. The going had undoubtedly been rough. There was no path up Muldonnoch but then trods emerged to Lamachan and Larg Hill. I started to doubt the stories.

In The Mountains are Calling, I describe the sport of hill running as ‘beautiful madness’. Those words are fitting too to describe the ground of the Minnigaff Hills and the initial summits of the Rhinns of Kells. There was purpling gorse, swaying grass, pretty little pink flowers, blue flowers on gangly stalks, delicate cotton grass, masses of blaeberries, slivers of glossy fern that seemed plastic, bales of white tussock with rampant green haircuts in need of a trim. Occasionally, I would notice a caterpillar shinning up a stalk of something. It was verdant, luxuriant, beautiful, some sort of demented Eden – and utterly, infuriatingly exhausting to travel through. I wondered: had anyone even been here since 1996?

The irony of being alone is you spend a great deal of time thinking about others. First Glyn, then John, then – as I moved deeper into the Rhinns of Kells – Martin Stone, another of their ilk. ‘What kept me going,’ he wrote in respect of a winter Bob Graham, ‘was the confidence that it was going to be better further on.’

It was. I could run again – albeit consciously watching the placement of my right foot (I had turned the ankle for a third time on Meikle Millyea) – and I swept (in predominately power-walking fashion) over the middle section of the Rhinns of Kells.

The problem with the Stone philosophy is that while he is right, things will indeed get ‘better’, things get worse too. While the heathery out and back to Cairnsgarroch from Meaul was a psychological what-am-I-doing-this-for? blow, the later summits of Knockower and Black Craig at the northern end of the ridge felt like a crevasse might to the polar explorer. I was back in Eden, every step finding ankle-deep, energy-sapping vegetation, like walking through brittle snow. Eventually, my way dropped south-west from Black Craig summit towards a forest I had no idea how to breach. There was no path, naturally, and my direct line took me first into a hellish field of tussocks that had formed deep roundabouts, then head-high bracken. If this had been the first hour of my journey, I would have turned back immediately, but after eight hours I somehow craved it to be harder. If it is to be hard, I thought, make it really hard.

Over the tussocks, through the bracken, across a stream, I slipped into the forest. ‘What is the terrain like in the fire breaks?’ I had asked Glyn the previous evening, knowing the likely answer.

‘Terrible,’ he had said. Had Glyn written it down, I wonder if he would have added an exclamation.

After some minutes – time becomes hazy on these ventures – the fire break opened, with the turning circle of a forestry road emerging in a clearing and a gravel line snaking downhill to the edge of Loch Doon. It felt like cheating.

The rest, following a six-mile stop-start trot along forestry roads, was an unpretty, getting-it-done slog. Once on the summit of Shiel Hill, the first peak of 10 on the Range of the Awful Hand, I had 4 hours and 40 minutes to return to Bruce’s Stone to overcome Glyn’s record – and I felt ashamed for even contemplating the notion. You take whatever motivation you can, however, and this was sufficient.

What a ridge line this is, even in my fragile and fading condition, throwing views west to the dome of Ailsa Craig – a Fleetwood moment of ‘bliss’ – and east to the hills I had already overcome, all bathed in brilliant sunshine. The water in the lochans was lukewarm and ruffled by the touch of wind. I counted off the empty digits that seemed, like a literal hand, to cradle me, carrying me home.

The ascent of Kirriereoch was steep and rocky, out of place even among these peaks, but once on its hefty shoulders, Merrick appeared above the rollercoaster of Little Spear. On I went: a little jog, a purposeful walk, a hobble and a wobble. Momentum: that is what matters most, and beyond pausing very briefly to collect water or check the map, I had not stopped since 5am. It was now closing in on 6pm. Gaining Benyellary from the col beneath Merrick should be easy, but nothing is easy after 13 hours, yet as I found the tourist path that drops to Bruce’s Stone having picked off Bennan, the last hill, my legs responded with movement of freedom and ease, like I could run forever.

I was back where I began, 14 hours and six minutes after I had left, a palm on Bruce’s Stone, a 48-mile ring closed, staring across Loch Trool to the scar on which I had started to ascend Mulldonoch. I had seen four people in the hills all day; I had spoken to no-one. That there was no-one here now was joyous.

When Ally Beaven ran a winter Bob Graham in December 2017, he only realised he had missed the summit of Sergeant Man by around two hundred metres when he examined his GPS trace after the ordeal was over. He had succeeded within 24 hours, but there was no round: he had not visited all the summits. Shortly after he commented on Twitter that he had nonetheless got what he wanted from the run – or words to that effect.

I was puzzled. He had failed, hadn’t he? I suppose it depends what we mean by success and failure.

Ally later elaborated: ‘I think there is a certain romance in such a marginal failure. Endeavours like this are pointless. To borrow a phrase from mountaineering, it is the conquest of the useless. Take the conquest away and only the uselessness remains. Days of anxiety, miles of driving, 24 hours of physical slog, and for what? I have nothing to show for it all, not even a certificate to hang above the mantelpiece. I think that’s great.’

That is how I felt as I lay back on the boulder that supports Bruce’s Stone. That the previous 14 hours were so imperfect – an eggshell for an ankle, the prolific vegetation, my erratic pace, running in a circle to get nowhere – paradoxically made it perfect. I had the ‘result’ I wanted from the how not the what. Everything else was gloriously irrelevant.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Brilliant read all through. Quotes from friends that stand the testement of mountain running.
    I tried to do this when Glyn was organising the event along with Bruces Crown. I underestemated it and gave the midgies a good feed and scratched it.
    Well done I may be compelled to read your book also. Belting!!

    1. heightsofmadness says:

      Thank you. They certainly are committing hills. I didn’t mention the insects. There were no midges, but bugs everywhere whenever I stopped for a moment. Good motivation to keep going!

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