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Aviemore mountain guide shares the experience of his #inspiredbydave Cairngorm Parkrun


By John Davidson

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Ian Stewart finished the six-day Cairngorm Parkrun challenge on Cairn Gorm.
Ian Stewart finished the six-day Cairngorm Parkrun challenge on Cairn Gorm.

Anybody who has climbed on the Munros in the Cairngorms knows there are quite a few of them. Taking in the whole of the national park, there are 58 of them, in fact.

"It was a couple of years ago, we were just chatting about silly adventures and ‘wouldn’t it be good if someone did this’ and ‘could you do that’ – just one of those stupid ideas that you come up with when you never really think that you’ll have to go and do it."

Ian Stewart, a mountain and trail running guide from Aviemore, explains where the notion to tie them all together in one epic adventure came from.

It was an idea of Highland Hill Runner Ally Beaven, who works at Glenmore Lodge and once held the record for the Cairngorm 4000ers – five Munros over 4000ft in the northern Cairngorms. But Ian ended up running the Cairngorms Parkrun, as his 58-Munro mission became known as, solo because, in his words, he's more organised than Ally!

Asked to sum up his experience of those six days in the hills, he says simply: "Long." The stats back up that assertion – Ian (37) covered a total of 419km with 20,559m of ascent in a time of 141 hours and 54 minutes.

"Psychologically the first leg was the hardest.," Ian said. "I think because the couple of days before it had been super busy getting organised for it, then we drove round to Glen Mark [below Mount Keen] and didn’t quite get up in time for the start, so it was all a bit rushed and panicked. The first leg was super stressful, my head was not in it at all.

Ian battles through the last few yards to the summit of Cairn Gorm, his 58th and final Munro.
Ian battles through the last few yards to the summit of Cairn Gorm, his 58th and final Munro.

"I’ve done enough long runs now and you don’t think about what’s coming up, you just get into the rhythm, just get on with the bit that you’re doing. But that first bit I was really panicking about what it was I’d signed up for and if my legs felt good for it or not, then I ended up getting a bit of a sore knee on that first leg, so coming down into Glen Doll for the first break I was not enjoying it – that was actively unpleasant!"

Things improved mentally for Ian after that; his knee also felt better and he said he felt strong up the next hills and found his rhythm. But there are large tracts of featureless land to cross in order to link up such a big route.

"Those big gaps were the hardest bits really, just the rough ground linking it all together," Ian explained. "The top of Glen Tarf I had to cross twice, in both directions, and that is the middle of nowhere, there’s just nothing in there at all apart from heather tussocks and peat hag."

At those low moments, it was important for Ian to remember why he was putting in this mammoth effort. His challenge was raising money for his friend and fellow mountain guide Dave Hollinger from Carrbridge, who suffered a horrific skiing accident in March 2018 followed by a brain stem stroke.

I felt a bit rubbish, but Dave would give absolutely anything to swap and be able to get up those hills

Dave is now based in Sheffield where he is undergoing intense physiotherapy, as Ian explained. "I guess the biggest thing about his rehab is that his best case recovery scenario is completely unknown. There’s absolutely no way of knowing what he’ll be able to rehab to. But every day he’s doing loads of physio and a bit part of how well he will recover is how much effort he’s putting into it.

"Initially he had absolutely zero motor control at all; for the first few weeks he could move his eyes and that was it, so he started from zero.

"He’s got enough movement in one hand now that he can just about use a computer mouse and he can lift things with that right arm. His new party trick is that he can reach down and pick a pen off the ground from a seated position, so you know, it’s a long way off being a mountain guide."

That knowledge of Dave's plight really helped Ian battle through the tough times during the Cairngorm Parkrun, which he began on Friday, July 10 at 6am and finished at around 4am on Thursday morning, July 16, after a long last day.

"My lowest point was waking up in the van in Glen Feshie on Tuesday morning. I’d done 21 hours the day before and then knowing what I was heading into, so I was in my little well of despair in the van," he said.

Looking after his feet in the van during a support stop.
Looking after his feet in the van during a support stop.

"If I’d have just been doing my own thing and hadn’t told anybody about it, it would have been pretty hard to get up and get going at that point, but knowing that folk were watching and it was helping support Dave, that was a big motivating factor.

"But also just knowing that, OK, I felt a bit rubbish, but Dave would give absolutely anything to swap and be able to get up those hills. It took away any excuses really."

Ian battled on and after a three-hour sleep in the Lairig Ghru on Tuesday night set off on his last day, taking in the northern Cairngorms and finishing with Bynack More then Cairn Gorm.

"Up until setting off from the Lairig Ghru that morning we were bang on the schedule," Ian said, "which would have had us finishing at around 9pm on the Wednesday, but the only reason I’d kept to that schedule up until then was shaving a couple of hours off some of the rests.

"I was going pretty slow after that, so that last day ended up being around seven hours longer than was planned."

After all that, how did it feel to get to the top of Cairn Gorm, the final Munro of the 58?

"A massive anti-climax," Ian said. "I was just too knackered! When I’ve done big stuff before you’re always surprised that you can put in a little sprint finish even though you weren’t expecting to, you get that last-minute surge of adrenaline and end up running the last bit.

"So slogging up Cairn Gorm I was kind of expecting that same feeling, and it just didn’t happen – I just wanted to get home. I was pretty empty."

Getting set for another night-time section.
Getting set for another night-time section.

The first Cairngorm Parkrun may be one for the record books, but Ian doesn't expect it to become the next big hill running challenge.

"It’s pretty big, so the pool of people that would want to do it is relatively small, I think. There are definitely people out there who could come and do it quicker, but whether anybody will or not I don’t know."

Ian is now resting at home before heading back to to the hills for work next week as director of Trail Running Scotland and Stewart Mountain Skills, which he is looking forward to after months in lockdown.

But initially, he says, "I got home and got the crutches out of the loft!"

To donate to Ian's #inspiredbydave Cairngorm Parkrun, visit www.gofundme.com/cairngormparkrun

Heading up Mount Keen at the start of the challenge.
Heading up Mount Keen at the start of the challenge.

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