It’s that time after a challenge where I can take the time to recover in my comfort zone and enjoy reflecting on what I’ve just endured, whilst reading through the plethora of comments and support I’ve been so grateful to receive. After an EPIC7 challenge I find my motivation totally sapped, leaving me with about as much momentum as a Cliff Richard concert. The simplest things become a chore. Mental reserves need to be refuelled in the same way muscle glycogen does. I’ve never been so relieved to return home before. I slept in till 11am the next day! Emblematic for a typical British teenager; almost unheard of for Alex…
It started with a bus ride up to Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel on Monday 27th October. Enjoyed a superb 2 course meal and coffee in the Mallory Cafe to passively try and comfort myself for what lay ahead. Gear organised, I headed off to sleep about 7pm. Even with a comfortable private room I tossed and turned for hours, lingering on the dangers. Unusually scared. I knew I could do this, but my body was exhausted before I’d started. This could well be the step too far; the candle had already puddled into a gloopy mess on the bike saddle. Not forgetting this challenge had never been done this late in the year, let alone solo in 3 days. Gut instinct hung like a dark cloud. When your mind forecasts something bad, you watch out for it even more.
The alarm shook me awake at midnight and I slithered into the self catering kitchen for 150g of Porridge, MyProtein TriCarb drink and coffee. But nothing could make me feel better. I headed out into the windy darkness about 00:45. Racing up the Miners track, the fog clouded both the mountain and my judgement as I achieved the seemingly impossible and lost the route- Snowdon’s equivalent to the M6. Heavy rain soon joined in. It was a relief to summit about 2:30am and utter outrage that the cafe hadn’t opened for me! To take my summit photo with flash I had to turn my headtorch off. For a moment I was engulfed in pure deep black. Driving rain and wind rattled my ears, blowing me off balance. Quite unnerving. I didn’t hang around.
Got back to Pen-y-Pass in 3 hours 20 mins, later than schedule. Retreated into the serenading blast of the drying room and shook off the water like a wet Labrador. Topped water bottles up with MyProtein CarBarley for slow release energy then threw the cycling gear on. Just before 4:45am I began the epic 10 mile downhill on the A5 to Betws-y-Coed; wind shuddering my wheels, numbing my face. For the next couple of hours through to Corwen my legs were strong, but the monotonous rhythm of gentle cycling alone in the dark had lullabied me to nodding off in the saddle, then violently shaking myself awake. Not what I needed with such a long way still to go. Near to Hawarden my mum made a surprise visit en-route to film me as I passed. Trying to be fully self-supported, I reluctantly refused the water and drinks she’d brought for me.
I was well on track – flying through Deeside then arriving at Seacombe to jump on the next ferry. The crossing short and sweet, I wasted no time finding my way through Piers Head and the busy city centre towards Preston. 90 miles to go.
I was averaging a steady 15mph on the flat roads despite lugging the 10kg strapped to the bike’s backside. Having learnt from my Chester2Chamonix ride in the Summer, I had my cycling jersey stuffed with nuts, dried fruit, MyProtein gels and snack bars plus the remnants of my lunch from the Youth Hostel, so I could eat on the go. My first scheduled refuel stop was Lancaster as I clocked a mini Sainsburys and the familiar black and orange of an Edge Cycleworks shop, who kindly let me use their loo. Well over 100 miles in and my legs felt surprisingly fresh.
I soon found myself 146 miles in on the A591 road into Windermere, a busy and poorly-lit dual carriageway. The relentless traffic was unhospitable despite being dressed like a giant glow stick. There was no cycle lane, only a gap at the edge I could just about squeeze through. On a slight downhill I gathered a good cruising speed and suddenly a small mound of vegetation jutting out onto the road caught my eye. Tried to avoid it. Too late. I was going too fast as the bike’s thin tyres lost traction then control as I clipped a cat-eye, yelled ”SH**!!!” as I jack-knifed the handlebars and flew over them- then a loud THUD as my helmet whacked the tarmac.
Dazed, I can’t remember whether I was knocked out. Only crawling out to drag my twisted bike and the pannier bags away from the middle of the road and the path of articulated lorries bellowing past. Nobody stopped to help. I staggered to my feet, my left knee on fire, felt faint and instantly slumped against the railings. Scared, panicking and light-headed, I rang home straight away. I was mostly unscathed besides a badly cut knee, a wrecked watch, broken cleats and some torn clothing. The bike’s handlebars were badly twisted and the pannier bags had snapped off, but fortunately, it too had mostly escaped. This is why I will always wear a helmet. Ironic how just a week earlier I was speaking to the British Cycling team in Macclesfield and joking about falling off.
Took some time to calm myself down before moving again, much more slowly. I eventually came off the dual carriageway, passed Kendal and crawled past Windermere through to YHA Ambleside at about 9pm. 160 miles. I’d averaged 14.5mph. The hostel was very busy and no wonder, in such an ideallic location and a warm welcome from the staff who’d kindly saved me an amazing Lasagne – just what I needed. Hobbling through the bustling restaurant with bloodshot eyes and a bloody knee brought a fair few odd looks.
Ignoring the phone calls, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. In my speaking presentations I preach about hitting fears head on, yet I’d developed a new one on the first day. I needed to think of the end goal. Had I broken something my Everest trip could have been hugely compromised. Was this worth it? I had a responsibility to my family and my sponsors, particularly Westgrove and Active Cheshire who were investing so much into my journey. ”Go to sleep and see how you feel in the morning” said the texts I received. It’s never wise to make a rash decision when emotion is raw.
I woke up at 6:30am and cursed. I was meant to have left by 3:30am. I rolled over and went back to sleep. As far as I was concerned, it was over with – no longer achievable. But it didn’t take much pondering as I gazed at the bedroom wall. ”What would my grandad tell me to do?”. Mentally you have to put yourself into a mindset and 4 days seemed pointless – like running a marathon and going home halfway. But did it really matter whether I completed it in 3, 4 or 5? I knew my sponsors would support me either way. My friend Chris told me now the story had now become the fact I was simply refusing to be beaten. My friend Ste highlighted the fact that Bear Grylls fell into a crevasse on his Everest attempt – shaken, but he carried on. One of the biggest assets to climbing Everest is being flexible and responsive to change when routine hits the fan. A strong body without a strong mind is as inept as a Lamborghini without a steering wheel.
Groaning, I grimaced as I peeled away the bloodied bedsheets that had coagulated to my wounded knee and got myself packed. This estranged kid was down – but not out.
Walking downstairs I saw happy families loading up on a hearty breakfast and having a great time. I’d have given anything to spend my day sipping tea and eating Scones in Windermere. The comfort zone is a beautiful place – but nothing grows there.
Within an hour I’d got a flat tyre. 20 mins and I was on the move again. Flew through Keswick then Borrowdale, where I’d first started climbing four years ago. Arrived in Seathwaite well behind schedule- I should have been DOWN Scafell Pike by now. Put that to the back of my mind and legged it up towards Styhead Tarn. Getting lost had been my main concern but the skies were auspiciously crisp and blue with a chilly Autumn wind. I bounced up the path still wearing my cycling lycra, but throwing on my walking boots I’d been heaving around in my panniers.
Missed the start of the Corridor route, losing about thirty minutes. Couldn’t believe that the looming far-flung rocky outcrop could really be Scafell Pike. My heart sank. Frantic texts began to flood in- my family having ignored the safety protocol I’d given them- as my tracking device, a matchbox-sized little box gadget plotting my progress onto an online map, had ran out of battery. Assuring them I hadn’t been run-over, mentally sectioned or drowned in Derwentwater, I pressed on, scrambling around Piers Gill. Sweat stung my eyes on the final crawl to the summit but legs forever sturdy I made it in about 2.5 hours with stunning vistas across the Lakes. Grabbed a photo and realised I’d left my summit banner from Hampshire Flag company in my bike panniers, locked to a farmers gate at Seathwaite. Damnit.
Down in 4.5 hours – faster than the anticipated 5 hours – but still hugely late. Called at YHA Borrowdale for a refuel and to collect some snacks. Secluded, nicely furnished and full of charm – again I’d have happily kicked up here for the night as the log fire roared in a homely wooden lounge area.
Again I tried to fathom out an action plan. I should have been on the way to Strathaven but at 4pm I wouldn’t even make 100 miles to my contingency accommodation. Wanting to kick the bucket once again – the fear of being on busy A roads in the dark overpowering me. Only I could push the pedals. Hesitantly, I knew I had no option but to push on to Carlisle, 40 miles away, but it took some persuasion to crawl out the door and push myself North. A bit like leaving Camp 4 on Everest for the summit push. The next few hours were painful, gritting my teeth as lorries shuddered past me on the A595. Time to hit my fear head on. Arriving at the hotel for 11pm relieved- grabbing only a stale sandwich from a petrol station for dinner. It was assuring to finally find someone, the dreary-eyed chap on the till, who looked closer to pushing up the daisies than I did.
I didn’t waste time taking a shower. Three litres of Espresso wouldn’t have kept me awake. Tomorrow brought two options – a 200 mile epic to Fort William to meet the challenge, or 120 miles to Dumbarton. I went for the latter.
Day 3 – at 6am the alarm went. Although I’d scraped enough motivation to push North, the bike wasn’t too keen with yet another flat tyre. Crucial time lost again. Pushed to the nearest bike shop to buy some inner tubes and pulled a thorn out of my so-called ‘Armoured’ tyres. I hadn’t got ONE puncture during the Chester2Chamonix ride. ‘You’re going the wrong way!!’ screamed the texts and tweets, with followers meticulously watching my tracker. I felt like turning the sodding thing off.
The route to Scotland was great- following deserted B roads alongside the motorway. The rain could dampen everything but my spirit as I passed over the Border through Gretna Green – making good headway at a comfortable pace. This rhythmic slogging on undulating roads eventually brought me to Lockerbie as the miles ticked by slowly. More than halfway now – and that spurred me on, especially nearing Abington services, my scheduled Starbucks stop. Awesome.
50 miles still to go. High in the Borders hills, the Autumn-spiced boost of caffeinated glucose powered a good pace until my back tyre dragged. Another flat. I was pretty thankful for the Marmot fleece hoody I’d packed ‘just in case’. I couldn’t find the thorn in the ‘armoured’ tyre and the damage on the tube looked like a ‘pinch flat’ where the tube goes through a small slit in the tyre wall. But with my 3rd puncture and only one more inner tube, do I risk putting the spare tube in the problematic tyre or in my spare (unarmoured) tyre?
I put it back in the armoured tyre. Racing down the hill, cautious but calm, I was paranoid. Then the wretched thing went again. No more tubes. The final blunder. What options did I have? How had my planning gone so astray? Pushing the bike along the edge of a dual carriageway, I stabbed at my own self-esteem and half-witted mistakes in a storm of frustration and despair. I didn’t see any choice now other than the nearest town- 8 miles away. This was my only hope as I pushed on – until I called the supermarket there about 7pm and they didn’t even sell inner tubes or puncture repair kits. My phone soon rang. ”Why have you stopped moving?”. Next I had a call from my mate Chris who’d rung around and his friend, a local Kelsall resident, was working in Motherwell. A couple hours later as I was still pushing, Richard Whitehouse had raced to Halfords, got me the offending parts, and brought them to me in Lesmahagow. An utter miracle. A true lifesaver and good Samaritan who saved the day- can’t thank him and Chris enough. Technically I was no longer ‘self-supported’ but I couldn’t have cared less. Alex and the bewitched bike were on their way. It ain’t called EPIC7 for nothing. Everything happens for a reason.
Arrived in Strathaven about 10:30pm where I took one last stop to refuel. Eating twice as much as during the Chester2Cham ride but still couldn’t meet the demand. The local hooded brethren were blatantly plotting to pinch my wheels, which would have actually done me a favour. My empty legs didn’t want to move. I’d had enough. I cycled to the nearest B&B in my contingency plan, stopped at the edge of the road and froze, glaring at the glowing windows. Warmth and comfort just seconds away. But somehow, I winced, thumped the handlebars and forced myself to carry on. The rest was a blur as the Monty Python recital began – now I really must have been tired. ”He’s not the messiah he’s a very naughty boy!” I shouted out loud over and over again, just to keep myself awake. As most people were tucking up into bed, Glasgow City Centre at 12:30am was surprisingly peaceful and quiet. Probably the safest part of the route too. Batteries on my phone and Garmin Edge were almost dead. After 115 miles they went black. But eventually, to my left was my Travelodge as I stopped like a gapeseed. Christmas had come early. Trudged inside about 1am, smiling extravagantly. Everything hurt. But only one day left – what could possibly go wrong? I didn’t dare ask…
I’d planned to leave at dusk to avoid the morning traffic but my first priority was the Starbucks next door. Only 90 miles today. But I was scared again. The entire route was on the A82, a busy major road. The day started well, no tiredness at all. Until puncture number 1. Only one more inner tube could save me after this one – in the middle of nowhere. One hell of a risk. Enjoyed the scenery of Loch Lomond even with heavy wagons careering around me. I’d been recording parts of the route on a £300 GoPro camera (movie coming soon!) until suddenly the mount sheared in half and the camera bounced into the road. I couldn’t help but look away as a number of cars passed, their tyres just centimetres away, before I could run out and grab it.
Before I knew it I was in Crianlarich. Then Tyndrum and the infamous ‘Green Welly Stop’ where I took a good 40 minutes to buy superglue (in case the tyre went), fudge, sandwiches, bananas and coffee. Only 50 miles. Moody grey skies brought miserable drizzly rain and fierce side-winds knocking me off balance. After a final steep climb past Bridge of Orchy things flattened out, despite the mountainous panoramas around me. The next couple of hours were mostly downhill. Truly epic.
Glencoe, a.k.a ‘Skyfall’ territory, appeared out of nowhere, bringing the boost I desperately needed. Three days of being on the edge now had me belting out The Proclaimers ”I’m Gonna Be 500 Miles” in an authentic Scottish accent as I swept down the roads in the hammering rain. Nobody around to hear me; I didn’t care anyway. Bidean nam Bian, Stob Coire nan Lochain, Beinn Andothaidth and eventually Jimmy Saville’s former cottage were all familiar blots on the landscape before the fog smothered me with brutal headwinds; akin to moving through treacle.
I rocketed along Loch Linnhe past Ballachulish, Onich and into Fort William. About 6pm I arrived at Glen Nevis Youth Hostel utterly drenched – I could have kept a Goldfish alive in my cycling gloves. This was it. Even with Ben Nevis still looming, the worst was done with. Things were now purely in my control – being on a mountain somewhat more relaxing without the constant objective danger of being flattened by an articulated lorry. Had a warm welcome in the cosy, popular hostel which was perfectly situated opposite from the start of the walk and a private room to myself. The food looked great but I had a job to do. First, I had to get my gear dried out. Wet clothes = cold clothes.
About 7:30pm I headed out into the darkness for the final test. This would take every ounce of strength and focus I had left. Hurtling up the Tourist path, I encountered four chaps coming down, shocked to see me there alone. ”Not very nice up there mate, you’re not on your own are you?”. I was confident in my ability. Apparantely the summit had just five metres visibility. Daunting, but I was prepared. Even with the headtorch on full beam I could see nothing but broad darkness and the path for a couple of metres ahead of me as I tried to comfort myself into some sort of bubble as the incessant rainfall battered my hood. Singing out loud to my iPod reduced the sense of eerie isolation somewhat. But the words came out as a slurred mess – not from the brisk pace, but mental exhaustion.
Making a safe decision was now paramount. A few faint turns alarmed me – a mistake could send me down into Torlundy, or down Five Finger Gully. The zig-zag path seemed endless. My mind began to create illusions – I was startled by what I thought was a huge Owl on the path – but it was just another rock. Just four hundred metres to go, I genuinely couldn’t determine whether I was cold or just tense with fear. Fortunately, the wind was mild – the lofty down jacket in my bag was only really there for an emergency. Eventually I reached the summit plateau where the path dissipates, marked only by scattered cairns. Metres to my left was a sudden gaping vortex- the 3,000ft sheer cliff drop down the North Face of Ben Nevis. Talk about living on the edge.
I turned my headtorch off and now I could just make out a dark mound about a hundred metres away. But I was hallucinating – seeing shadows and things moving around me. At 10pm I reached the summit shelter. Managing a smile, the 3 Peaks Cycle Challenge was now complete. 96 hours and 5 minutes – 4 days – from the foot of Snowdon to the summit of Ben Nevis, 1344m. I’d missed the record but it seemed insignificant. The job was not only a good un, but had really given some serious questions to the people who put obstacles and excuses in the way of achieving their dreams.
But it was far from over. I needed to get down fast before Mr Bean could strike again. A quick map-check ensured I was heading down the right way. Then my headtorch started to strobe – low battery. I just laughed in aghast disbelief – but I did have spares on me buried in my rucksack. One-by-one I stumbled into the cairns in the claggy darkness. Stop. Calm. Focus, I told myself. Don’t mess this up now.
Back on the zig-zag path, getting down was agonisingly slow – focusing hard on the drenched rocky path which was dangerously slippy and requiring care. But as I waddled through the door to the safety of Glen Nevis Youth Hostel at 1:30am, it was a feeling of pride, satisfaction and relief. I needed both arms to get me up the stairs, leaving a dripping trail of rainwater, but it was over. Although I was still pretty damn hungry… having gone without a proper meal for 3 days. But I was hungrier for success.
I’d surpassed my own expectations yet again and truly learnt what happens when you refuse to give up in the face of adversity. As I see everywhere, we’re all thrown into unfavourable situations – we can either deal with them, moan about them, or change them. At the very least, we are tested by them, and we learn from it. Most of all, I’ve learnt that no matter how much you plan- things will ALWAYS go wrong. Scraping up the grit to get up every time you’re knocked down, is the imperative thing.
Unlike The Proclaimers, after 438 miles of cycling I wouldn’t be falling down at any girls door anytime soon.
On the train home the following day, our route passed through every town I’d cycled through the previous day. For perspective – the train journey alone took 4 hours. Cycling took 9. And at work that weekend – my colleagues whinged about their hangovers, lack of sleep and being bored. If only they knew…
Undoubtedly this will all hold me in good favour on Everest next Spring.
So, a massive thanks to everyone who tweeted, donated and encouraged me. I can’t wait for you to join me on the next one. Almost £1000 raised for charity already! Special thanks of course to my head sponsors Active Cheshire and Westgrove Group who were behind me the whole way, to Ideal 365 for supplying my branded clothing, BiG Storage and Cammell-Laird who have just joined my journey as valued sponsors, YHA and SYHA for the accommodation, Nigel Cole for lending me his Garmin Edge, Richard Whitehouse for saving the day, Ste Rumbelow and Chris Spray for the social media (and moral) support, the British Cycling team for spreading the word and of course, my mum for putting up with me. I must get my perseverance off her…
Solo 3 Peaks Cycle in numbers
- Distance cycled – 438.4 miles
- Distance walked – 26.81 miles
- Hours in saddle – 31.5
- Vertical ascent (walking) – 9.826ft
- Vertical ascent (cycling) – 15,869ft
- Avg speed (cycling) – 13.5mph
- Calories burnt – faulty HR monitor on days 2 and 3 but 5995kcal on Day 1 (not including the 11 miles with a dead battery!)
- Flat tyres – 5
- Crashes – 1
- 1) Don’t do it solo
- 2) Know the mountains very well
- 3) Don’t do it!