You couldn’t imagine the irony. I’d just climbed Scafell Pike on the Stairmaster machine of my local gym whilst the fells beckoned in the sunshine outside. A foot tendon injury was the latest setback after spraining my ankle on week two of the training plan. I was due to start my attempt to run the National 3 Peaks Challenge – over 440 miles – just six weeks later.
Our Boris came on the gym telly for his five o’clock news bulletin. “Now we need to keep people apart” he said, ordering gyms were to be closed the next day.
I wiped the sweat off my forehead but the disbelieving grin wouldn’t budge. This wasn’t another daydream triggered by the humdrum of exercising indoors, whilst the fells beckoned in the sunshine outside. I resisted the urge to get back on and climb Ben Nevis whilst I had the chance. At least the decision to postpone the challenge had been made for me.
I’m no stranger to adversity. After all – it doesn’t get much worse than two avalanches on Mount Everest in two consecutive years. By default, I quickly look for the opportunities. The sooner we accept what we can and can’t control the sooner we move forward. I exiled my road bike from Cheshire back to Kendal and quickly remembered how my legs had forgotten the art of cycling. Fortunately, the rest of the world had slowed down too, and there were few people around to witness my awkward struggles up the Lakeland passes.
Getting out each day ultimately became my saving grace, both mentally and physically. I eventually racked up six weeks without a rest day whilst cycling on alternate days, though the unseasonably good weather was partly to blame. For once this was motivated not by burning calories or a training plan but the simple joy of freedom – and the threat of it being taken away.
Feeling the rush of wind on radiant evenings and losing myself on trails through the shade of bluebell woods gave some calm and reminded me of the beauty amidst the chaos unfolding around us. An opera of birdsong took liberty of the silent roads and the riverbanks as nature was business as usual. Glowing sunsets igniting the hills put things back in perspective. These moments of clarity reassured that things would get better again and we would make it over the peak – we just had to stay safe and make sure we did, too.
The prospect of completing my 3 Peaks Run was dangled ahead like a carrot on a stick: somewhat like signing up for Parkrun then realising you’ve accidentally entered the Lakeland 100 miler. It was tough staying motivated whilst the finish arch continually shifted and the next day seemed uncertain, never mind the next week. Organising challenges has always been tough, even without waiting on three governments to ease lock-down restrictions. Breaking the law had never been a potential risk on my project plans before. Obviously, fundraising challenges paled into insignificance when thousands of people were losing their loved ones and livelihoods to Coronavirus.
When our goals are suddenly thrown into the distance, this means setting new, short-term targets instead. The situation wasn’t going to change regardless – we could sit back and blame Coronavirus, or we could make ourselves proud of what we achieved instead. Many people wait for motivation to take the action towards their goals. But it’s taking action that creates motivation and inspires us to keep taking more action.
As the race calendar was quickly wiped clear and lockdown restrictions ordered us close to home, motivation went AWOL like stocks of flour and toilet roll. Many endurance athletes raised an eyebrow at the ‘one hour a day’ recommendation and devised new regimes to entertain themselves, like running ultras in their back garden. For me, I took advantage of more time to build base mileage, test kit, fine-tune routes and trial nutrition ideas. It was also a chance to explore practically every trail in Kendal (making friends with the local farmers) and conjure up the ‘Kendal 3 Peaks’ – a 19-mile circuit of the three highest hills surrounding the town.
But sometimes being forced to stop gives us chance to reflect and confront the uncomfortable things we’ve been running away from in our busy lives. On expeditions you learn a lot about each other when you’re crammed in a tent together. During lockdown many were stuck under each others’ feet. I was stuck with my eating disorder, bulimia. It wasn’t great company and the food bill went through the roof. Last year I was forced to take a break from big challenges altogether whilst recovering and receiving therapy. If not for lockdown I wouldn’t have realised that the bulimia was still lurking around and that my coping mechanisms were fragile. Sadly there wasn’t much help or advice available beyond ‘eat lots’, which is as uselessly vague as telling people to ‘Stay Alert’). At least lockdown gave me the opportunity to take action before it stopped me doing the things that really matter.
So, on Friday the 7th August I finally begin my 3 Peaks Run record attempt, starting in Scotland at 4:00am and finishing on Snowdon under 9 days later.
The hardest part was setting the date. Waiting for the green light required me to re-write the script and adopt a whole new process. Maintaining momentum has been hard with so many false summits. The plan still isn’t perfect. Maybe that’s why I’m more scared than usual. It’s new territory. I’m not sure if I’m ready, or if I’ll ever feel ready for something this big. Sometimes you have to seize the opportunity when it comes – if we wait for the right moment then we’ll always miss the start. We had no practice run for COVID either. But if there’s one thing that gives me confidence, it’s knowing that the goal survived through lockdown – and that’s a good sign that the reason why is strong enough. This is what will keep me going when things get tough.
Four months after Boris said those words, I think it’s time to bring people back together again. But I don’t mean the crowds on Bournemouth beach, the streets of Soho, nor the recent protests. I mean bringing people together through the human spirit of adventure; the power of outdoor experiences; the resilience and generosity that have endured us these recent months.
Many people continue to struggle, and life may never be the same again. With less access to support services, coping mechanisms and social contact, we’ve had a perfect storm for mental health issues. I hope my 3 Peaks Run can raise at least £10,000 for Mind Over Mountains to support those most affected through outdoor experiences. COVID created plenty of barriers to host a group event safely, but with the name ‘Mind Over Mountains’ we didn’t have much choice but to find a way. We had our first event in the Lake District last week and it was amazing to see people smiling. enjoying the outdoors together and reconnecting after the isolation. The hills always work their magic, and it was a reminder of how important these experiences are for our mental health. I hope time outdoors can help others as much as it’s helped me the last few months.
We can’t get back the time we lost in lockdown. What matters now is how we move forward. No worthwhile challenge is ever going to be easy. But after a pandemic, injuries and an eating disorder, putting one foot in front of the other should be fairly straightforward.
There’s always going to be another peak to climb in life… or maybe three, and 440 miles between.
Would you kindly spare a few £ to make this journey count? Thanks for your support as ever!