Colin Donnelly Interview

Colin Donnelly is one of the most prolific of all British fell runners. Although not as well known as Joss Naylor or Kenny Stuart he is rightly acknowledged by his peers as one of the fell running greats. A quietly spoken man, he let his running do the talking, and his CV speaks for itself: three times British Fell running Champion; veteran 40 World Champion; winner of the Snowdon Race and Ben Nevis Race as well as many, many more. Several of his records still stand today. His most memorable, however, is the 15 Peaks (Welsh 3000ers) record in Wales, which he ran in the astonishing time of 4 hours and 19 minutes in 1988, 28 minutes faster than Joss Naylor’s record set in 1973. His record has comfortably withstood the few serious attempts on it over the last 22 years.

Colin, now over the age of 50, is still running well, regularly competing and winning races, a mark of his enthusiasm for the sport and love of the mountains. I caught up with Colin when he made a brief trip to North Wales to ask him a few questions.

Colin Donnelly reaching the summit trig point of Foel Fras at the end of the 3000ers. Photo- Alun Hughes
Colin Donnelly reaching the summit trig point of Foel Fras at the end of the 3000ers. Photo- Alun Hughes

How did you get into running?
We used to play football and rugby in school sports fields about a quarter of a mile away and the first one back was the one who got the hot shower. I began to realise that there was a real advantage to getting back first and if you did a bit of training you could get fit to run back fast. Unlike a lot of youngsters I just started myself; nobody pushed me into it or decided for me.

When did you start getting serious about your running?
The turning point was when I was running for my Glasgow club ‘Cambuslang Harriers’. I made the first team and after that it was out every day. I won the county championships one year and I realised it was something I could do well. A lot of people go through school and they’re not really good at anything which was like me but I was good at running, it was nice to be good at something.

How did you get into mountain running?
I started mountain running initially as a dodge to get out of doing a track race for the club. I did the Ben Lomond race and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I came 22nd, it was the top race in these days and 22nd wasn’t too bad, it was nothing great but no matter what position I’d have finished I’d have still enjoyed it. That summer I left school and got a summer job as a waiter up in a wee place called Achnasheen. I didn’t fancy running the same roads every day so I decided I would do a bit of this mountain running. I would run up ‘Fionn Bheinn’ sit up at the top for a couple of minutes and look at the view and then bomb it down thoroughly enjoying the adrenalin of the descent, that more than anything else got me hooked on mountain running.

Why do you think running appeals to you?
Because there’s virtually no extraneous equipment. If you want to run you just go out there any time of the day whatsoever, the equipment’s absolutely minimal and there’s a fantastic sense of freedom. The world’s your oyster, you can run mountain, cross country, tarmac, there’s much more freedom and flexibility plus you’ve got the ability to push yourself hard in a nice environment with fresh air.

Where do you find your motivation?
Well I think you’ve got to have something in your life that really turns you on. For a lot of people it’s their careers and for other people it might be a particular sport. I’m not interested in a career whatsoever; it’s a method of earning money. Running is my motivation. It keeps me fit, gets me out to fantastic areas of the country because part of my running enjoyment is an exploration type thing. I like to get into the wild areas of the country and explore and I do that by running.

Any running heroes?
People like Billy Bland, great guys in their day with fantastic records that still stand from the 1980s. Kenny Stuart’s another one. Kenny was very fit so he was a top marathon runner never mind mountain runner. These people are heroes. The speed some of these Kenyans run at nowadays is just unbelievable, nobody had the concept that times would be so fast nowadays.

Walkers descending the North Ridge of Crib Goch. Photo- Calum Muskett
Walkers descending the North Ridge of Crib Goch. Photo- Calum Muskett

What do you consider to be your finest running achievements?
Overall mountain running’s been my strongest but I’ve had a great love of cross country right from the early days. I finished 4th in the Scottish championships one year which isn’t my finest achievement but I’m very proud of that and of course winning the British mountain championships three times. Winning the world champs Over 40’s one year, I’m very proud of that. The 1000metres 12 times, I’m very proud of that indeed, I love that race. I think undocumented things would be the big rounds. I’ve done most of the big ones in Britain, the Charley Ramsay, the Paddy Buckley, the Bob Graham and all the South Wales 2000ers. These are the sort of things I like from the mountain point of view and from the peak bagging point of view. It’s a different sort of satisfaction I get from holding a record or from winning a championship. Other things are the 14 Peaks, I’ve got the record for that, to be honest I’m surprised I’ve still got the record but I’ve got it and I’m very pleased at that and I’m glad I motivated myself to have a serious stab at it. It’s quite nice to have things that’ll go into posterity.

In 1988 you set the new record for the 14 Peaks at 4 hours 19 minutes, was that a long term ambition and how did you prepare for it?
Well it wasn’t at the time a long term ambition. I’d read the original book about Thomas Firbanks, the man who wrote ‘I Bought a Mountain’ and he’d written about doing the 14 Peaks. I thought it was quite an eccentric route from the top of Snowdon to the top of Foel Fras instead of say from Llanberis to Llanfairfechan which would be aesthetically a bit more pure. However everybody did it that way because he set the record that way. Ken Jones mentioned the idea that I was fit enough and capable enough to have a crack at the record. I chewed it over and thought about it and I thought, maybe there’s mileage in this, why not? I was very fit that year, I’d won the British Championships and I thought I’ll have a crack. So the preparation was just a matter of months, it was going over the course, telling the pacers what I expected of them, looking into different routes and then I just waited for the day. The plan was to do it in May or June and I got a nice day in the end and it worked out great.

Colin flying over Crib Goch. Photo- Alun Hughes
Colin flying over Crib Goch. Photo- Alun Hughes

The climb up Elidir After the descent from Snowdon can be a gruelling long trudge for mere mortals. How do you prepare your body (and mind) to cope with the big ascent after a large descent?
That’s very tough mentally. That sort of event where there is a lot of big climbs and big descents can be very tough. When you’re going for a record you’re relying on the pacemakers and what I did when I got to Nant Peris was I’d left instructions with Don Williams, he had to set off several minutes in front of me. I had a rest in Nant Peris and a wee bite to eat. In the meantime Don set off and unfortunately he set off like a rocket. The plan was I was going to chase him and that was going to be my motivation, but he was going so well I couldn’t catch him and he got to the top in front of me, but it was a way of motivating me. That wee psychological trick didn’t quite work; I think I should’ve told Don to slow down a bit!

What were the high points and low points of the run?
There were two high points. The first was the sense of exhilaration of being really fit, having a fantastic day and belting down Snowdon and down Crib Y Ddysgl and rocketing over the ridge just fearlessly, going for it without any thought whatsoever, putting 100% into it. The second high point was that last wee bit coming towards Foel Fras when I realised I was clear and touching the trig and realising that I’d done it. Coming close there were quite a few people who had congregated there as a welcome party. Although I was absolutely knackered there was just a sense of community. The running community was there and I was getting acknowledgement from the people that I’d run with and it was just a great feeling of togetherness.
There were two low points. There was going up towards Pen Yr Ole Wen which dragged on forever. I hit a bit of a wall going up there. I was suffering and it’s just not a very nice route at all going up the ridge. My second low point was coming off Yr Elen and starting to climb up Carnedd Llywelyn and without warning I got very bad cramp which caused me to writhe around on the ground. The muscle was spasming to such an extent that I thought I might not be able to continue. I’d only a few wee moorland peaks to go and I was there and yet this threatened to put an end to things.

In hindsight, do you think there are any quicker lines/route choices that could be found on the route?
In preparation I spent quite a while looking at all the lines over and over again. The only one thinking back that might be quicker would be starting from the west side of Ogwen and going up the ridge instead of the east side as I did. Everything else though was what I thought to be the optimal route and I don’t think there are any better lines.

Do you think that you could have shaved any more time off your record?
There’s always potential to shave a wee bit more time off your record because things are never going to go 100%. They went very well but the two bits I remember were that I ran out of steam going up Pen Yr Ole Wen, maybe not taking on enough food at that point, there’d have been time to be saved there, at least 5 minutes. The second one was losing a couple of minutes on Carnedd Llywelyn with cramp and I had to stop and take fluid on-board. There’s maybe a total of ten minutes to be saved if things are going absolutely perfectly, but things rarely go absolutely perfectly.

Your record hasn’t been seriously attempted in over 20 years, do you think it can or will be broken?
It surprises me that people haven’t really had a crack. People have come to me over the years asking for a schedule or asking for hints and I’ve always given them as much advice as possible. I’ve always thought that it’s a record there for the taking. I think it will be broken without a doubt and I think somebody can get quite near to four hours.

You won the vet 40 WMRA world mountain running championships in 2001, what did that mean to you?
That meant a lot to me. I finished second in the world senior championships one year and I was well beaten, but that was the fittest I’ve ever been and I thought well I’m a fit vet, I can probably give anybody a run for their money so I’m gonna go for that. It meant a lot for me winning that and I was absolutely delighted. Billy Bland once told me 1st is 1st, second is nowhere. The guy that finished first is the one on the winners list for all time, so it meant a lot to me.

Do you have any favourite mountain areas?
It’s so hard to choose. I love the Lake District, but I can’t abide the crowds there, it would be my favourite if there weren’t the crowds. I love Sutherland; I love the wildness and remoteness. I like the Cairngorms, but they’re a wee bit crowded. Wester Ross, I love the sci-fi mountains of Wester Ross, Stac Pollaidh and Suilven they’re magnificent. They’re not runner’s mountains as such but I like it because I love mountains anyway. I’ve just been up earlier in the year to that area and I never get tired of it.

The Glyders. Photo-Calum Muskett
The Glyders. Photo-Calum Muskett

In your training schedule, what proportion of time is spent on the fell as opposed to road/trail running?
Zero proportion of my time is spent on the road. Most of my running is trail running and the minority will be hill running. I like peak bagging, I’ve done all the Munroe’s and Corbets, most of the Marland’s and another category of mountains called Yeaman’s but they’re fairly easy runs. I’d maybe do that two or three times a week maximum and the rest of the sessions are either trail or running around the Shinty pitch in Fort William for hard sessions. I don’t spend too much time on the hills. If you look historically at the top mountain runners most of them have been the same, some of them actually spend very little time in the mountains and most of their time is spent doing hard runs on the road, trail or cross country.

Do you keep a strict training schedule in terms of miles run or mountains ascended?
Over the years by trial and error I have found what my body is capable of taking. I trialled 100 miles a week in the 1980s, which wasn’t at all unreasonable, people were advocating that you do at least 100 miles a week if you’ve got ambitions to do well in road races, half marathons and such like. Some were even advocating that you should do 150 to 200 miles a week. If you can get away with that it can be remarkable but I don’t think the body’s meant for that amount of miles per week. In my case it certainly wasn’t meant for 100 miles a week. I tried it for four weeks and I got extremely tired and started picking up niggles and eventually I just couldn’t do it. I realised that my body was capable of taking around 50 to 60 miles per week and if I went over that I was starting to get problems. I think everybody has to find their niche. Nowadays I’m quite happy doing 50 miles a week, if I can do 60 that’s great, that’s pretty well all I need. I’ve got my own objectives for climbing; I try and do 365,000 feet of climbing a year. I manage that every year, in fact I’m usually over 400,000 feet of climbing. I think it’s a good idea to have a lot of ascent just to get your muscles used to climbing. I think you’ve got to know what you’re aiming for and what your body’s capable of doing.

In the quarter of a century since Colin Donnelly’s Welsh 3000-ers record, no runner has come close to equalling his time of 4 hours and 19 minutes. Film maker Alun Hughes was on hand back in 1988 and captured footage of the run, and this short film is just one chapter of his classic outdoor film ’80s Birth of the Extreme’. The full video is available for download on Steepedge.

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