AN ELITE mountain runner conquered his phobia of the dark to smash the record in one of the world’s toughest races.
Russell Bentley, 40, from Blaenau Ffestiniog, now holds the overall Winter FKT (Fastest Known Time) in the gruelling Paddy Buckley Round – a punishing challenge set in the mountains of Snowdonia over 24 hours.
Also known as the Welsh Classical Round, the race sees athletes covering a distance of some 100km, climbing 8,000 metres which is the equivalent of scaling Everest and taking in no fewer than 47 summits.
Russell’s nail-biting adventure has been captured in a short 30-minute film made by Caernarfon-based Cwmni Da, produced and directed by Huw Erddyn and has Llion Iwan as Executive Producer and co-director.
The film, called SOLO and UNSUPPORTED, is set to be premiered in the Cell B cinema in Russell’s home town of Blaenau Ffestiniog on March 5 in honour of his good friend, GB Team mountain runner Chris Smith, from Hayward’s Heath in West Sussex, who tragically died of hypothermia while out on a Scottish mountain run in 2020.
Proceeds of the screening will be donated to the Chris Smith Memorial Fund which helps advance the running careers of children and young people through grants and donations to assist in training.
Dad-of-two Russell, who was born in London and now lives with wife Nina and children, Jim, seven, and Emma-Layla, five, in Blaenau Ffestiniog in the heart of Snowdonia National Park, completed the mammoth challenge in 20 hours 15 minutes – shaving a full 75 minutes off the previous overall record held by Damian Hall.
What made his achievement even more extraordinary was that he ran solo and unsupported. This meant he had to carry his own food supplies and navigate the course unaided – while facing his “worst nightmare” of being alone in the dark on a deserted mountain range.
According to Russell, he was spurred on throughout the gruelling challenge by the memory of Chris.
Russell said: “Chris was always happy and had time for people but he was a really fierce runner and a great athlete. He was one of those rare specimens,” said Russell.
“He’s basically the reason for this story – I wouldn’t have done this and gone out if it hadn’t been for him.
“I got really shaken up after his death but counter-intuitively I thought, life is short, I have adventure on my doorstep and I should stop being a wuss and go for it – who knows when this could be all over!”
The Paddy Buckley Round is famous for bringing athletes to the limits of their endurance. It has a reputation for being just as tough – if not tougher – than its Lake District equivalent, the Bob Graham Round.
The route takes in the well-known high mountain ranges of Snowdon, the Glyderau and the Carneddau as well as the less visited ranges of Moel Siabod, the Moelwynion, and the Nantlle Ridge.
For Russell, there was even more reason to fear the notorious race – at least half of it is completed under the cover of darkness.
“People don’t believe me. If you don’t have a phobia it’s hard to understand. People have a fear of mushrooms and I can’t comprehend what that means but I have a phobia of the dark,” he said.
“Being on my own in the dark on a mountain is my absolute worst nightmare. I thought training for this would conquer my fear but it hasn’t. Once, I was out for a recce and I saw a head torch light – just looking at me. It was four or five in the morning out in the mountains with no human settlement anywhere. Then it just switched off and I thought ‘Oh my God, it went in the direction I’m going!”
“I’ve just had to learn to run with that fear. It’s just part of me. I’m resigned to the fact it will never go away – at forty years old it’s a bit ridiculous!”
In a previous summer attempt at the challenge, Russell injured himself when a boulder fell on his knee during a climb. He went on to successfully complete a winter round in 2020 – helping to raise thousands of pounds for the Chris Smith Memorial Fund by writing a blog – but missed out on the record by little over an hour with a time of 22 hours 45 minutes. By the winter of 2021, Russell was determined to do better.
His adventure kicked off at 7am on December 19 as he headed out into the Welsh fells anticlockwise. US Ultrarunner, John Kelly, meanwhile, set off in the opposite direction but was later forced to pull out at the Llanberis check point.
“Tryfan is the most lethal peak and I really wanted to cross in daylight so setting off at 7am meant I could do that,” said Russell, who lived in Kenya while an elite track runner and now coaches a squad of athletes in Bangor.
“Every now and then I would get the heebie jeebies! Something that does help me is having a tracker but at times I still realised I was on the mountains on my own in the darkness – that would freak me out a bit!”
Footage of his attempt was captured by a drone pilot and two camera operators who climbed to strategic points on the round, careful not to be in direct sight of Russell. Due to strict rules for solo and unsupported competitors, the crew were unable to communicate with Russell in anyway.
Huw, 36, who has worked with Russell previously taking on the Dragon’s Back Race, explained: “On the day itself the weather was glorious. In a way, because he was unsupported and the camera crew were not allowed to talk to him, it made it easier to film. Because we were restricted by the rules, we could concentrate on the visuals, but this did make capturing the story a lot harder!”
“Russell had a Go-Pro camera with him and would occasionally talk to that. The footage we got was unbelievable because it was such a nice day – absolutely stunning footage of Snowdonia.
“All the crew are very experienced mountaineers – all of us live and play in the mountains. You have to choose the right people, they’re a different breed of people!”
By the fourth leg, Russell found himself at least two hours ahead of schedule but started to suffer for his quick start.
Russell said: “My stomach packed in and I vomited. I realised I couldn’t eat. I went into hitting the wall territory. I was really struggling at that point and really thinking of packing the whole thing in with just 10 miles to go.
“At the time, I really didn’t care anymore. I wanted it to be over. That was the crux of the whole round and looking back I’m most proud of this moment.
“I knew I was doing damage to my body. My internal organs were being wrecked and I was tearing strips off myself.”
Russell successfully claimed the winter Fastest Known Time but paid the price for his heroic efforts and spent the next month recovering.
The film follows Russell’s battle to full health and his disappointment when he says the Fell Runners Association (FRA) went back on earlier guidance and discounted the attempt as solo and unsupported due to the presence of the camera crew. This left Russell with the overall Winter FKT holder instead – not what he had originally set out to achieve.
“Being supported means someone can meet you at every section so you don’t have to carry your entire amount of food – I could’ve run much quicker!” said Russell.
“I was annoyed about that. We fulfilled the criteria to the letter. However, I’m happy I did it in the way that I did as I know I was self-sufficient. Running unsupported takes a lot of training, there’s a lot more element of risk as you’re surviving with just what’s on your back.
“I’m happy with the memories and myself and my family know I was unsupported.”