Life’s pretty simple when you just have to run, eat, sleep, ice, elevate, and repeat. The 9 1/2 days spent running/hobbling the National Three Peaks feels like a blur now, but the inflamed tendons and lingering fatigue remind me it wasn’t just a dream (or nightmare).
Sharing the stories always helps with the post-challenge blues. I didn’t want this to become a plethora of whinging about how hard the challenge was (‘no s*** Sherlock!’) but instead to share what I’ve learnt about getting through the hard moments. I’ll do a separate post about the humbling support I received along the way as there was too much to possibly do it justice here.
I have never doubted myself as much as I did before running the Three Peaks Challenge – climbing Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, and running the entire distance between. This wasn’t the familiar pre-challenge nerves either. A friend on Everest once said: “if you put your head above the parapet, you WILL get shot!”, and I truly felt like I’d put my head down the cannon. Many I respected were asking “should you really be doing this?” and I’d only ran 46 miles once in training before. But I had somehow dug myself into a precarious position – this had been my focus during lockdown, I had invested nearly a year of planning, raised thousands for Mind Over Mountains and been given a wardrobe full of sponsored kit. Quitting never sat well with me – I had to follow through.
Spraining an ankle a week beforehand felt like another nudge from higher places and forced a fortnight delay to fester in the doubts even more. My physio assured the ankle was good to go but starting with an existing flaw was hardly pragmatic. I was at peak fitness, my mental psyche was wearing thin, and the uncertainty of further lockdown hung over. Sometimes if we wait for the perfect moment then we’ll never start at all.
A song by Roxanne Emery was stuck on repeat in the weeks beforehand. The lyrics “we’ve got to learn to fall before we fly, learn to live before we die” gathered some scraps of confidence. Failing spectacularly on Everest twice had worked out pretty well, so I assured myself there was nothing to lose. Equally I had to shift this failure mindset. My friend Jeff Smith gave me a pep talk: “Put all the doubts in a box and close it”. As I looked out on the train from Glasgow to Fort William took nearly four hours, I couldn’t shake the fact I’d be running the same journey within two days.
At Glen Nevis Youth Hostel my friend/support driver/ace photographer Rich tried his best to keep me in good spirits. The current mens record holder, Tom Mountney, sent a message of support, and was probably the only person in the world who understood how I felt.
There was an avalanche of relief just in starting the watch at 4:18am and heading for Ben Nevis. My ankle joint was so stiff that it couldn’t flex on inclines, and I was shrouded in both hill cloud and overwhelming doubt. Adopting the running style of an Orangutan helped to keep my foot flat and avoid the pain. I reached the summit in less than two hours and returned to Glen Nevis with a smile on my face before beginning the 42-mile run to Tyndrum in almost incessant rain/the Scottish summer.
The Lake District fells had conditioned me well and the sheer epicness of Glencoe put my worries in perspective. Day one went almost perfectly to plan and I arrived in Tyndrum by 8:15pm with 50 miles and 10,000ft of ascent in the bag. It was all downhill from here – in more ways than one…
The relentless ups and downs of Loch Lomond overcooked me but hitting the tarmac in Rowardennan waged war on my woefully unprepared feet. At least Rich was able to drive ahead in more regular intervals and we had escaped the wrath of the midges – though I was in too much pain to feel them. I only fell 6 miles short of Glasgow in Milngavie and had completed the West Highland Way in just two days, but I was much later than planned, and supermarket sandwiches, pasta pots, and Mountain Fuel protein shakes would become my typical evening meals from now on. Rich put up with my whinging as I hauled my hips off the floor and my left foot raged with tendonitis. “How the hell am I going to run 58 miles tomorrow?!”. I reached out to GB ultrarunner Dan Lawson, who I briefly supported during his record-breaking Land’s End to John O’Groats run, who assured me that day two is always the worst. ‘Relentless forward motion’ was his mantra, and one that Rich had instilled on my previous challenges, too.
Fortunately, Dan was right. My morning routine involved hobbling like Frankenstein for the first half an hour, but somehow the pain and stiffness eased like a squirt of WD40 in the joints, and I resumed a steady plod. On day three my interior left knee threw up a tantrum as I left Glasgow – but running on the opposite side of the road and some support braces brought it under control. Getting to Moffat was ambitious as I ran towards the sunset across the bleak Borders hills and called time at 48 miles. Rich raced ahead to fetch Fish and Chips and drove me to our planned B&B, where getting up the stairs was worthy of commentary from David Attenborough.
We left before 6am and driving 15 miles back to where I had finished was a rubbish start to the day. Fortunately, the knee pain had quickly subsided in what felt like a daily sweepstake on which body part would give next. The anterior tibialis tendons (which control your foot moving up and down) were protesting on the flat and stabs of pain reduced me to the routine of walking a mile and plodding a mile. But the sun was shining and I found these little things to be grateful for. I ticked the first marathon unsupported until Paul Howlett from YHA had kindly answered my pleas and took over as support driver in Lockerbie. Fraser had driven 100 miles to cycle alongside at my snail pace. The banter was a welcome distraction from the monotonous roads, and I was making steady progress until sudden dizziness and nausea hit about 42 miles in. It was likely just fuelling mistakes, dehydration, and/or going too fast, but this sudden onset quickly turned into a panic attack.
I thought back to Dan Lawson: ‘Relentless forward motion’ and decided to walk the remainder across the border. At least if I made it to England then I could quit gracefully – 198 miles in four days wasn’t too shabby. Now the familiar Lake District fells were glowing in the sunset ahead I sensed that call wouldn’t be so easy. We crossed the border at Gretna Green in comic style and called it a day at 49 miles as Paul drove me ahead to Carlisle about 10pm. You’re always burning the candle at both ends and torn between starting early or an extra hour of sleep/night sweats and restless legs.
Storm Francis woke me up on day five. After the routine Frankenstein shuffle, my swollen ankles refused to run more than ten metres without pain searing up through my shins. Each attempt was like a whack in the shin with a hammer, and regular dousings from passing trucks concluded the misery. My dad had always told me in marathons: run when you can, walk if you need to, but never stop. I had resolved to relentless forward walking, but even this had me welling up in pain.
“This is ridiculous… how the hell can I run another 250 miles?” I despaired to mum on the phone. Before I could contemplate this further, Angela jumped out of a van to join me in the lashing rain and Phil had cycled out to meet me. It was wetter than an Otter’s pocket but we were soon heading out of Carlisle on the Cumbria Way. Things must have been bad considering mum had driven over two hours with some new road shoes, a size bigger for the swelling. Not even the stubbornest adventurer argues with their mum.
My body continued to defy medical logic, or simply acclimatise to the pain, but I only hit 29 miles before getting a lift to Keswick for a last-minute sports massage. The therapist flushed out the swelling, loosened the tendons and assured there was no reason not to continue. He could have put me out of my misery but I was surprisingly relieved – I was still in the game. If this game didn’t already sound like a sequel to Mr Bean, I stumbled a few steps down the hostel stairs at 5am the next morning, landed on my worst ankle and felt a twinge in my peroneal tendon. Paul dropped me back near Caldbeck and I was happily running again, but the niggling tendon didn’t disappear. A couple of roadside builders mocked my Penguin-running style in Bassenthwaite.
“How far today lad?”.
“40 miles” I smiled.
The tendon pestered me all the way to Borrowdale where I wore an ankle brace before heading for Scafell Pike on the Corridor Route. The company of Mick was another welcome pain relief until descending alone and navigating the loose rock like a minefield. I was glad to hit the road again in Langdale and run the final 8 miles to Ambleside. But the tendon roared like fire. Bucketing rain and thick darkness masked the frustrated tears. One of my main supporters had also advised me to postpone in what felt like the final kick in the leg. Ultra-running wasn’t exactly conducive to ‘taking care’, but perhaps I had called enough favours of my body now. Right in this lowest of ebbs, a previous Mind Over Mountains participant emerged from the darkness, having waited with Kendal Mint Cake and encouragement, and unless I was hallucinating, a couple shouted from the roadside in Skelwith Bridge to hand me a £20 donation. It reminded me that I had a choice to be here, and I also had a choice to continue. This urged me onwards to Ambleside for 10pm where James took me back to my flat in Kendal.
Being at home had never felt so far away. I contemplated continuing on my road bike which was better than giving up altogether, but I didn’t have time to consider it – the home comforts threw my routine upside down and I overslept till 6am. James rushed me back to Ambleside with a half-frozen bagel for breakfast. Passing through my hometown quickly flipped my mindset with my sponsors Thomson Hayton Winkley giving me a big cheer into Kendal before a spontaneous sports massage in a pub car park. The therapist confirmed the peroneal tendon strain but plastered me up in tape and gave the all-clear. I was back on track and the record was in reach – there was no energy for a spring in my shuffle, but I had the feeling of possibility for the first time.
An entourage of support and runners carried me all the way to Garstang, 47 miles, by 10pm. I woke in the early hours on the hotel bathroom floor with the ceiling spinning above me, having passed out on a visit to the loo. This had happened before when standing up too fast and dehydrated, but it was frightening nonetheless. I downed a glass of water and relentlessly forward crawled back into bed. Tomorrow was a new day.
I felt wiped out for breakfast. A nurse friend offered more unconventional medical protocol via Twitter and I was soon on the 46-mile journey to Warrington. Tiredness had my emotions like a hormonal teenager and the concept of a roundabout flustered me, stealing more valuable sleeping time and another late finish. A whirlwind of support dragged me through Cheshire into North Wales on day eight, stopping only for a car park physio session with Jane who had the privilege of popping a blister bigger than Ben Nevis. With company it was easy getting carried away and it took discipline to keep my heart rate down, even if walking when needed. The nausea and fatigue started to emerge after 35 miles but I forced the food down – sandwiches, honey roast cashews, bananas, chocolate, jelly babies and flapjack – and stumbled over a curb into a hedge.
With the company of Steve, Rob and Steve, I opted to bank some miles past Ruthin. It was an hour before Dad and Di tracked us on the dark farm lanes. “I need food and sleep” I muttered, interrupting any apologies or explanations. Falling behind had scuppered my pre-booked hotel and the prospect of sleeping in Dad’s car was slim. The only option was Betws-y-Coed where my friend Jacha welcomed me about 11pm with a huge pizza – before asking for a lift back to the start at 3:00am. This saga had all the components of a typical Saturday night out, except I had another 42 miles to run (but probably looked equally legless).
I started strong at 3:30am and was on target to reach Snowdon before lunchtime. An otherworldly sunrise was mine alone to behold and I soon had eyes on the prize. Not long after I hit the wall in Betws-y-Coed at 24 miles. Even coffee couldn’t shake this deep exhaustion; I struggled to swallow food and singing aloud to The Proclaimers came as a slurred mess. The steady ten-mile climb to Pen-y-Pass dragged out like an eternity. I slumped in a bus stop in Capel Curig for a spontaneous snooze only to be woken by my phone alarm.
I had climbed Snowdon over thirty times in all conditions, but any sense of complacency was knocked on the head as I reached the Miners Track and changed into my Inov8 trail shoes. The last time I had felt as exhausted was descending a 7,000m peak in the Himalayas, and I was stepping a fine line with becoming a total liability so close to the finish, when most accidents happen. Scraping the barrel could muster nothing more than a slow plod. The timings were already tight, but I made the deliberate decision to abandon any record attempt – I would have a challenge just getting up and down Snowdon safely. If I kept putting one foot in front of the other, I would get there… eventually.
Luckily, I was accompanied by photographer Jon, who became more like a Sherpa coercing me onwards in a vacant daze. We were met by a Bank Holiday queue for the summit cairn. Jon wasted no time making an announcement that I’d ran from Scotland on a record attempt (I probably looked the part) and rustled some cheers from the crowd as I skipped the queue for a hasty summit selfie. Llanberis was still five miles below and I had less than thirty minutes on the clock. At least gravity was on my side.
Crossing the finish line in 9 days 12 hours 51 minutes wasn’t the moment I’d visualised. These things rarely are. I had doubted myself so much that I hadn’t even dared to imagine it. Being so exhausted had cheated any feeling of elation, joy or relief as my friends and family clapped. But in this moment, missing the men’s record by over an hour actually meant so little. Smashing my own record, the £10,000 fundraising target and proving my doubts wrong would last much longer.
Whilst resting on the laurels it’s easy to spew out the “anything is possible” clichés. But the 3 Peaks Run has truly shifted my perception of what we can endure, and how our potential is tragically often lost in fear or giving up too soon. Maybe I just got lucky. Maybe youth was on my side. Regardless, the resilience of the human body continues to astound me. The body will do whatever the mind believes, and nearly pulling the plug so many times has hot-wired my natural threshold of what’s possible, but we can’t ever take that for granted.
Whether our challenge is running 450 miles, 45 minutes, or the seemingly endless climb of mental ill health, there’s so much to be found in holding out for the next morning or even the next hour. The power of a few more steps can take us further than we ever imagined.
Relentless forward motion – run when you can, walk if you need to, but never ever stop.
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