2020 and the Rigby Round: the year of the almost-FKT

I am the keeper of the records for the Rigby Round, an entirely self-appointed role and inherited from no-one, but inspired by the desire to maintain a list of those people who succeed in the dogged task of running a continuous loop of 18 Munros of the Cairngorms, ideally within 24 hours.

The Rigby Round was conceived and first completed by Mark Rigby in 1988; it took him almost 23 hours, a couple of which were spent in a bothy sheltering from the fury of a storm. By the end of 2019, only 21 people (that I know of) had repeated his feat – with good reason: these mountains are rocky and rough, high and capricious, remote and unruly.

Despite the spectre of Covid-19 and consequential travel restrictions, 2020 – in Rigby terms – was a busy year (well, four months of the year): five people successfully completed the round, taking the total number of finishers to 27. The Rigby Round is in danger of becoming popular.

Ian Stewart was first up in early June, finishing in a romantic but no doubt nervy 23 hours and 57 minutes – a run that was merely the warm-up for something much more extreme: some six weeks later, over a five-day period, Ian would successfully link together the 58 Munros of the Cairngorms National Park. Writing on his round, Ian captured both the brilliance and difficulty of Mark Rigby’s innovation: ‘Because of my route choice, the section up to Beinn Bhrotain took me into some really wild terrain. This is pretty much as far as you can get from a road in the UK and isn’t on any of the normal ‘Munro-bagging’ routes, so it is not impossible to imagine that I might be the only person to pass that way this year.’

Alastair Hubbard, like Ian Stewart, has the good fortune to live very close to the Rigby summits, thereby overcoming any travel bans. The Braemar resident became the first person to commence the round at Linn of Dee. (All other rounds have started in the Glenmore/ski centre area apart from my 2019 round that began in Glen Feshie.)

‘I’ve lived in the shadow of the Cairngorms for over 25 years on both the north and south side,’ Alastair said. ‘It is probably this reason that it has taken me so long to do the round – it is close to home and can be put off to another time. I guess like many of us Covid has forced us to explore our local area and seek challenges on our doorstep. I’m just lucky enough to have the “connoisseur’s” round on mine.’ Alastair became the 24th person – and the 24th connoisseur – to complete in a creditable 22 hours and 39 minutes.

When a travel window opened in July and August, runners seemed to go elsewhere: except, that is, for Sam Alexander. Starting from the Norwegian Stone and running anticlockwise, Sam blasted around in 19 hours and 36 minutes – a gut-wrenching three minutes slower than Paul Raistrick’s 2012 fastest time. So close. Hill runners will understand how close.

In the best part of 20 hours, three minutes can be lost so very easily: a poor line, a momentary lapse in concentration, unnecessary faffing. There is no shame in that: no Rigby Round could ever be perfect. Its unofficial requirements – solo, unsupported, on-sight navigation – appeal to the purist only. To run the Rigby with a convoy of supporters and navigators is not, arguably, in the spirit of the round; better to run in that spirit – like Sam and come as near as he did – than smash a record while following a GPS trace on your wrist.

In normal years, that would be it. But there would be another first: Dark Peak duo Lawrence Piercy and Maja Kunicka would complete the first September rounds in these mountains in 28 hours and 15 minutes.

So, unlike seemingly everywhere else, there was no FKT on the Rigby Round. Finlay Wild was presumably too busy in Lochaber; for others too far from the Cairngorms, the golden time of May and June was lost.

Coincidentally, I am part-way through reading Ally Beaven’s Broken, a book that tells the stories of some of the athletes who notched FKTs in the summer of 2020, with Ally’s assault on the Big 6, the seven – not six – highest summits of the Cairngorms, afforded its own chapter. If there is an athlete capable of a FKT on the Rigby, it is Ally. Not only does he live in the park and knows only too well the vagaries and moods of the Cairngorms, he has twice shown in record-breaking performances on the Cairngorm 4,000s and the Big 6, he is – when he puts his mind to it – capable of eclipsing half-myth, half-man Paul Raistrick.

The question is, should the Rigby be subjected to the attention of ‘FKT’ – an issue never more topical than in 2020 – by anyone? Is being the fastest more important than tradition, more important than doing it in the way of your predecessors: of Alexander, Raistrick, Rigby, and 24 others?

It is a debate for another chapter – and another year.

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