Not Over The Hill, Yet!
Back in pre-pandemic 2019, five middle-aged maniacs hatched a plan to take on the National Three Peaks Challenge in 24 hours. But the 2020 COVID pandemic sadly put the kibosh on those plans and they were shelved.
Wind the clock forward a couple of years and, sitting at the bar during an Army reunion (always dangerous), the “man with the plan” Richard Carman (me), somehow persuaded an old pal (Will Manners) to rejuvenate the challenge.
The Motivation behind doing the Three Peaks Challenge
It was one of the hottest days on record in July 2019 when I received a call to say my mother, Tessa, wasn’t feeling very well. 24 hours later, following an MRI, we were both sat in front of a consultant who delivered the shattering diagnosis of a glioblastoma brain tumour. Aged 81, Tessa was still full of life. She enjoyed weekly yoga classes and had a full social calendar, as well as being fanatical about her health regime. So, it was a complete shock to be told that she had a highly aggressive, inoperable brain tumour. Five weeks later she was barely able to celebrate her 82nd birthday before succumbing to the tumour several days later.
Throughout that period, we learnt a lot about brain tumours and what to expect, thanks to The Charity’s tremendous resources. With that in mind, I set about planning a fundraising event for The Charity, in memory of Tessa.
Hatching a Plan
The original plan in 2020 had been to climb the National Three Peaks and drive between them in 24 hours. However, we agreed that racing a 24 hour clock was too reliant on luck with the 450 miles of driving involved. So, replacing motorised transport with bicycles seemed like the obvious answer.
The National Three Peaks Challenge takes on each of the highest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales…
- Ben Nevis – The highest mountain in Scotland and the UK at 1,345 metres high. The longest walk at around five hours
- Scafell Pike – The highest mountain in England at 978 metres. Scafell Pike is the smallest of the three peaks. However, it is most notably ‘hard going’ and a real test of resilience
- Snowdon – The highest mountain in Wales at 1,085 metres. But, with a starting height of 359m at Pen-y-Pass it’s the quickest to conquer.
After conducting some research, we soon established that most ‘cyclists’ tackle the challenge in three to four days. However, a few elite athletes have completed it as a non-stop event. The current official Guinness World Record for a male team is 36hrs 45mins in 2020. However, the fastest (unofficial) recorded completion was by Angus Young in 2021 with an astonishing solo time of 32hrs 10mins. After much deliberation, Will and I considered that if a couple of middle-aged blokes could climb all three peaks, and cycle the 450 miles between them, in three days (72hrs), it would be a massive achievement. With the challenge set, the training began.
Putting the Three Peaks Challenge plan into action
Day 1 of the Three Peaks Challenge
Climbing Mt Snowdon from Pen-y-Pass (11.61km distance, 811m ascent)
Finally the big day arrived and we found ourselves at the Pen-y-Pass car park. Starting the climb of Mt Snowdon at 04:06hrs on Tuesday 1st August by the light of head torches. The first half-hour was hard going until we realised we’d missed the Pyg Track and were attempting to go straight up a grassy slope. A few navigational adjustments and we were back on track and moving swiftly, despite the wind and rain. A quick summit photo at 05:46hrs and with a brisker pace down, we were back in under 3hrs.
Cycling from Snowdon to Great Langdale (285km distance, 2,444m ascent)
Following a quick change parade in the car park ‘facilities’, it was onto the bikes for what would be our longest day in the saddle. The initial downhill from the car park was a very fast but very wet 350m descent to Capel Curig. Cruising at a good pace, all the way to the North Wales coast, the weather improved. A welcome tailwind propelled us up to the Wirral and on to the Mersey Tunnel at Birkenhead. Not allowed to cycle through the tunnel, riders and bikes went in the back of the support van, popping out five minutes later in Liverpool. Here we discovered our biggest bugbear, red traffic lights. These almost definitely added an hour (or more) to the total time over the course of the challenge!
The rest of the day was relatively flat, however an unwelcome wet northerly wind met us as the hills of the Lake District loomed ahead. We finally pulled into a rather damp Great Langdale Campsite after 13.5hrs on the road, 1.5hrs behind the planned schedule.
A huge plate of pasta, cup of tea and a hot shower later, it was time to get our heads down in the tent for just 4.5hrs of broken rest, listening to the rain gently tapping on the canvas.
Day 2 of the Three Peaks Challenge
Climbing Scafell Pike (20.67km distance, 1,133m ascent)
04:00hrs reveille, running gear and waterproofs on, force down a bowl of oats and out at 04:40hrs for what would be the most testing climb of the three peaks challenge. Quite apart from being a much longer route, the weather was appalling. Will and I inched across the boulder fields that approach the summit in 40-50mph wind and rain. The long section on the bikes the day before started telling. With the pace down the mountain much slower than planned, getting back to the campsite after 5hrs, a good hour behind schedule.
Cycling from Great Langdale to Strathclyde (212km distance, 1,255m ascent)
Heading off for the cycle out of the Lake District, a minor route misjudgment presented a 15% incline just 10 minutes into the ride. This seemed to be the story for the next 3-4hrs. Finally, gentler terrain appeared and we started to pick up the pace again. Thankfully, Alistair joined us for Day two. As an accomplished Ironman, he was quite happy to sit on the nose and give us a wheel to tuck behind as we tackled a brisk northerly headwind all the way.
However, day two was never flat, with the slow but steady rise from Gretna Green up Beattock Pass to Abington providing no respite. It was also the first puncture of the trip, with Will hitting a pothole and immediately pulling up with a pinch on his front tyre. By now oat bars were becoming almost impossible to consume without gagging. However, later that day the discovery of Ambrosia creamed rice with fresh blueberries was sheer nectar. Finally, with daylight fading fast, our team of three inched into the Strathclyde Campsite after a long 11hrs in the saddle, another 1.5hrs behind schedule. Alistair headed off for a warm bed whilst Will and I snatched a few hours once again in our tent.
Day 3 of the Three peaks Challenge
Cycling from Strathclyde to Glen Nevis (185km distance, 1,152m ascent)
After the late finish on Day two, and with just four hours of sleep (again), it was back on the bikes at 05:04hrs for the final 115 miles to Fort William. It was lovely and quiet through the centre of Glasgow. Which was a bonus considering the UCI World Championships were just starting and road closures were planned for later that day. The support team and growing band of ‘desktop’ followers had a minor melt-down when the Garmin LiveTrack stopped in the western quarter of Glasgow. Soon after, I succumbed to the second and only other puncture of the whole challenge. Despite that, progress was good until finally turning off the top of Loch Lomond and onto the long, slow climb into the Highlands. By now, time in the saddle was telling with ‘Baboon Bum’ the primary topic of complaint.
Climbing slowly up over Rannoch Moor and through the Glencoe Range, it was time to dig deep. Lifting heads only at brief intervals to cuss near-miss passes by impatient motorists. Special mention must go to the van driver who stopped in the middle of a steep climb to remonstrate vociferously with a motorist close on his tail who missed Will by a whisker.
Finally, at 14:35hrs, after another 9.5 hours in the saddle, two weary cyclists pulled into the Glen Nevis Car Park. Greeted by an entourage of family and friends keen to join the final ascent of Ben Nevis with them.
Climbing Ben Nevis (8.28km distance, 1,327m ascent)
It may be the highest peak of the three, and you may have to start from almost sea level, however it is an extremely well-trodden path. So finally, with our happy band of followers, Will and I set off at a pleasantly sedentary pace, recounting tales of the past three days. The lower slopes were deceptively warm, but approaching the summit in near 0oC temperatures and a howling breeze, provided a stark reminder of how high Ben Nevis really is. A quickly orchestrated photograph by the summit cairn in Brain Tumour Charity livery and it was time to beat a hasty retreat for the lower slopes to warm up once again.
The clock was stopped at 18:45hrs; a total of 62hrs 39mins after it was started at Pen-y-Pass. Beating our three day (72hr) target by a whopping 9hrs 21mins.
That night Neil and Steph provided warm Scottish hospitality, with a generous plate of chilli con carne and a celebratory wee dram, followed by a hot shower and a proper bed.
After the dust settled
It’s always good to look back and ask a few key questions after such a challenge. Here are my thoughts to a few questions about our epic journey…
Could you have done the three peaks challenge faster?
Yes, quite possibly, given better weather, more training, better route selection, better nutrition, and many other factors. But actually, at the age of 57, having only just started road cycling properly last year and having never climbed a mountain before, I’m pretty chuffed with what we achieved.
Did you ever feel the challenge was unachievable?
Never in doubt, at least not in my head!
Yes, there were times when my body felt like it was going to fail.
Yes, there were times when I was deep in the pain locker.
Yes, Will asked me this on Day two when we were struggling through the wind and rain around Gretna Green.
However, failure was never an option. Even if it meant going through the night. I can be a bit stubborn when I want to be, plus I don’t like letting people down!
What would you do differently next time?
So many lessons learned and far too many things we could have done better. But that will always be the point; you can only prepare so much. In the Army we had a saying: “Make a plan, create contingencies, and remember, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy!”. So, we learned to ‘Improvise, adapt and overcome!’ And that’s exactly what we did, which is why it worked. We smashed our goal and raised a tidy sum for The Brain Tumour Charity in the process; Job done!
Would you do it again?
Probably not, because it’s done now and it’s finished business. Time to look forward and find a new challenge. But before I do, definitely time for a break to rest and recuperate.
What advice would you give to someone else completing a challenge like this?
Firstly, do some research to find an activity that appeals to you. Last year I did the Ride London Essex 100 and also the Virtual London Marathon. So combining cycling and running this year seemed like a logical progression. Secondly, make sure whatever you decide to do is sufficiently challenging. The harder it is, the more likely you are to get sponsorship. But, most importantly, it has to be within your capabilities. And, finally, if it’s a physical challenge, create a training plan that will increase your chance of success.
The Support Act
I knew from the outset that I was never going to be able to do the three peaks challenge on my own, which is why I roped in Will as my wingman. But what you also need to understand about Will is that he was commando trained and now works as a mountaineering instructor in the Scottish Highlands.
Apart from that, he is a highly accomplished endurance cyclist and triathlete, so this was simply an extension of business as usual. It was therefore no accident that I threw him the gauntlet. I knew Will would keep me honest and, rest assured he did just that, in spades. Will, I am forever grateful you agreed to join me; thank you!
Having said that, there was no way any of this would have been possible without a support crew. In hindsight that proved to be critical for success…
Matt Garman, an Ironman, Channel Swimmer and Atlantic Rower (proper Action Man indeed) headed up the support team – ably assisted by his son, Joe, who turned out to be an absolute star! ‘Marlene’, a beautifully equipped VW Campervan, was the fabulous support vehicle. Many other supporters assisted along the way, but a few notable mentions have to be made to the following…
- Alison Manners – heading up the social media updates to keep everyone updated on progress and promoting the fundraising for The Brain Tumour Charity
- Alistair Abbott – for taking the wet headwind on the nose on day two and giving the team a very solid wheel to tuck in behind
- Neil & Steph – for their amazing hospitality, providing an exceptionally welcome hot meal and bed at the end
- Mairi Burgon – for the invigorating, if somewhat punishing, sports massage the day after!
Finally, a thought from Will, which sums up this challenge:
I was reminded before I left of a comment by @lucygossage – I can choose to suffer, others are perhaps not so fortunate.Will
How to get involved
Or, take a look at the events you can get involved in and challenge yourself like Richard and Will!