Ultra-marathon runner and endurance athlete Donnie Campbell knows all about toughing it to achieve what he wants. Having completed some of the most ferocious endurance races in the world, the phrase “giving up” is not one that appears in his vocabulary. Speaking to him about his story, ‘Reaching my Peak’, we heard about the strategies Donnie employed as he set the record for Scotland’s Ramsay Round (a race which sees competitors climb 24 mountains in 24 hours) and the psychological training he uses to push himself to his limits during races.
I have always been able to push myself to my limits. I don’t know if it’s determination, stubbornness, or simply my ability to suffer, yet keep going. I suppose most competitive people possess some of these attributes. I recall playing Shinty for Skye in my teenage years. As horizontal wet sleet teemed down, players were coming off the pitch due to the conditions. But me? I scored four goals in quick succession. I was able to thrive in the elements when everyone else was suffering.
Growing up, my main sport was Shinty rather than running. I had represented Scotland in Shinty at under 18 level. Running wasn’t something I properly got into until 2008/2009 when I was getting fit to play Shinty again after University. It was at this point, that a friend suggested a 150-mile race over 5 days on the Isle of Islay and Jura in 2009. I loved the race and the training for it. In the end, I finished 4th and that was my first step into ultra-running. I never got back to playing Shinty as ultra-running became my passion.
Ultra-running is a great way of exploring the hills and taking in amazing scenery. I like how it gives you the opportunity to explore yourself and your limits and keeps you honest and humble: if you don’t respect the mountains you’re running in, you soon get into trouble.
I realised I had the potential to improve and get more competitive in ultra-running, when I finished 4th in my first race in 2009. It was not until 2012 though that I started performing consistently and winning competitive races. Racing in particular is an easy way of exploring your limits – you just turn up and run as fast as you can! There is limited planning or logistics involved so all your efforts can be channelled into the actual run. I have continued to push my limits with every race I have taken part in. I have always been curious about how far I can push myself, so it has just been a logical progression for me to keep pushing my endurance limits.
In my experience, pushing endurance limits is about having a high level of motivation and controlling your mind. If you know how to control your mind and you are highly motivated then you will suffer longer and push your body further to achieve your goal. During the Ramsay’s Round, I was the most motivated I had ever been and it really showed throughout the run. The Ramsay Round is a race that sees competitors climb 24 mountains (known as Munros in Scotland) in 24 hours. And I completed it in winter!
The Ramsay’s Round required me to use all my powers of mental endurance. At one point, I remember running along a road in the middle of nowhere, shouting at myself as loud as I could to keep pushing and maintain my pace: “I HAVE GOT THIS!”, “I CAN DO THIS!I remember sitting on a frozen rock high up on the Grey Corris, an unforgiving mountain range, in the West Highlands of Scotland. It had taken me 17 hours to climb over 7,000 metres, I had already bagged 18 of its 24 mountains. The nausea had put me off eating, and the vomiting had ensured my stomach was empty, while the agony of the Morton’s Neuroma – a type of inflammation of the nerves – was making every step feel like someone stabbing the ball of my foot with a roasting hot iron. To complete the challenge, I had to dig deep and hold nothing back. When I finally got to the finish, I was laying crumpled on the tarmac – barely able to move.
Fortunately, I had already experienced the feeling of pushing myself to the limit on a number of occasions, the Transvulcania Ultra Marathon was another one where I was destroyed at the end of the race. It involved about 74km with 4000m of climbing. Although, not the toughest or longest race I have completed, the year I ran it they made an error about distances between aid stations so I ran past one aid station thinking the next one was only 5km up the trail. It turned out to be about 14km by which point I ran out of fluid and was severely dehydrated. I filled up my water bottle at the aid station and kept going but I ended up staggering the last 30km to the finish line where I collapsed and got rushed off to the first aid tent. I was put on a drip and given some drug to stop my body cramping. What got me to the finish? Probably my determination, will to succeed and refusal to quit!
In most cases though, my coping strategies involve more than just pure determination. I have always used positive self-talk when exploring my limits of physical and mental performance. It has been shown in numerous studies to increase performance and is widely accepted in sports psychology as a great coping strategy for when things get tough. On top of this, there is goal-setting; breaking the run into smaller manageable chunks and focusing on those alone, one at a time.
For me, motivation, determination and coping strategies are about pushing myself to a new limit. After I did the Ramsay’s Round, I had nothing left, I was unable to respond to those wishing me congratulations. I gave it everything I had. That for me, means success, it’s not about breaking records or winning races, it’s about the adventure, the challenge and exploring my own physical and mental peak.
Now, I have my eyes on a new way of exploring my physical and mental peak: the Tor de Geants, which I have entered this year. It is a 330km with 28000m of climbing nonstop race around Valley Aosta in Italy. I am really looking forward to experiencing this race and seeing if I can be competitive over this distance. There are loads of other races I would like to go and experience and race but for the moment I can’t really think of anything past the Tor de Geants.
To read more about Donnie’s story and his endurance racing, click here.