Reaching My Peak – Donnie Campbell

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Ex-marine and endurance running coach Donnie Campbell knows a thing or two about pushing himself to his limits. Competing in the Ramsay Round, Donnie used every ounce of self-control and determination he had to get him to the finish line in record time, running solidly for 24 hours. We spoke to Donnie to hear about his story “Reaching my Peak”, to understand how he can push himself to the max when every part of his body is begging him to stop. 

It had taken me 17 hours to climb over 7,000 metres, but I’d bagged 18 of the 24 Munros in the race. I was attempting the Ramsay Round: 24 Munros in 24 hours. The nausea had put me off eating, and the vomiting had ensured that my stomach was empty. My legs were heavy due to the snowy conditions underfoot, while every step felt like someone stabbing the ball of my foot with a roasting hot iron. As the sun began to set, I could see the six remaining Munros left to climb in the distance. Soon it would be dark, and I would be facing another freezing winter’s night in the mountains. My mind began to wander. How did I end up in this situation?

Growing up in Skye, my main sport was Shinty. I recall playing in my teenage years, representing Skye. As horizontal sleet teemed down, players were coming off the pitch due to the conditions. But me? I scored four goals in quick succession. This was not down to my skill, but because I was able to thrive in the elements when everyone else was suffering. Skye was an ideal playground for preparing for the marine training which I would later pursue.

Being a marine was basically the easiest option as a 17-year-old deciding his future. And as it turns out, there are a lot of parallels between being a marine and an endurance athlete: courage, determination, unselfishness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity. These are four of the main values of the Commando Spirit – values that endurance athletes draw on during their more difficult racing moments as well.

I properly got into running in 2008/2009. I started running to lose some weight and get fit again to be able to get back into playing Shinty to a high standard. A friend suggested a 150-mile race over 5 days on Isle of Islay and Jura in 2009, I agreed to it, loved the race and the training for it, and managed to finish 4th. That was my first step into ultra/mountain/trail running. I never got back to playing Shinty as trail/ mountain running became my passion.

It was not really until 2012 though, that I started performing consistently and winning competitive races. Finishing 4th in my first race in 2009 made me realise I had the potential to improve and get more competitive, but I had so much to learn. 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 limit.

Running races to this level obviously requires a huge amount of training. I find that the anticipation of a race gives my training focus and motivation. Racing is also an easy way of exploring your limits. For the Ramsay Round, I was going to have to dig deeper than ever before, push my physical and mental endurance to the very limits and boy, was it going to hurt.

My university studies in sports coaching and development have allowed me to apply physiological and psychological theory to help me understand how even as a teenager, I was able to push myself to almost breaking point. To discover the method in the madness, if you like. I’ve always been interested in the power of the mind, and how it can impede or improve physical performance. There is a lot of evidence to suggest the brain is the limiting factor when it comes to physical performance – not the body – so that is how I condition myself to race, utilising my mind and mentality as much as I can. And that is certainly what I had to do during the Ramsay Round.

If you have a high level of motivation to succeed you will normally find a way to keep moving. Sometimes it involves a real battle with your mind but if you know how to control your mind then you can normally make the right decision and keep going. I have used positive self-talk when exploring my limits of physical and mental performance time and time again, because during these races, there is no one to motivate you but yourself.

As I stood on Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, I had just 55 minutes and 1,345 metres of quad thrashing descent standing between me and the new winter record – I knew I could do it. I hurtled down the Ben, trying to stay on my feet through the ice. My heart was pumping, the adrenaline was rushing through my veins and as the rocks kick up off the mountain I kept pushing harder.

Moments later, I was lying crumpled on the finish line tarmac. I had nothing left, unable to respond to those wishing me congratulations. I’d given it everything I had, I’d pushed myself to a new limit. I completed the Winter Ramsay’s Round in 23:06, setting a new fastest record but for me it’s not about breaking records or winning races. It’s about the adventure, the challenge and exploring my own physical and mental peak.

If I were to give advice to any budding endurance athletes, it would be, have fun, enjoy the experience and create memories as that is what you will remember. When it comes to racing and pushing yourself, I remind my running students how important the brain is in the process and how sports psychology can help them push a bit harder. Personally, I am curious as to how far I can push myself physically and mentally. As American philosopher and psychologist William James once observed;

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push ourselves through the obstruction”

To find out more about Donnie’s experiences with endurance races, click here.