The National Three Peaks By Bike. A 37 year old record-breaking ride.
The National Three Peaks By Bike. A 37 year old record-breaking ride.
My Grandad said to me when I was a young lad,
“you’re blessed with a body that will do anything that you tell it to”.
And Those words have stuck with me. Ever since hearing them, I’ve done my best to see how far I can push myself.
I’ll try and be brief with the backstory. If you’re interested in my past cycling experience, then check out the training archives. The National Hill Climb (failure) is a good place to start — it’s the reason I started this blog, and partly why I’ve moved away from racing and towards endurance challenges instead. But I also wrote a few pieces about my build up to this challenge that could be interesting.
I’ve had some success racing bikes. Competing in hill climbs, time trials, and road races — but it never satisfied me. I always felt as though I had underachieved, even when I won. It often felt like a lost weekend. Sit around all day, rest, travel hundreds of miles. Then ride your bike from between 2 minutes and 2 hours — often just round and round and round the same industrial estate.
It’s not always much fun, bike racing. I’m much happier spending the weekend in the hills, getting a few hundred tough miles in my legs and seeing how hard I can push on an entire day.
That’s my strength. Endurance.
My old coach, Jody, who brought me up to near world class standard according to Training Peaks back when I was training for the National Hill Climb always said,
“Ross, you have a world class aerobic engine. You produce power quite easily. You have little internal stress for this output. Also, you are efficient on the bike and enjoy that style of riding. You are made for long distance events.”
He’s right I suppose. I do seem to be able to ride for long distances at what is considered quite a high speed. I recover well from hard efforts, and during races am normally best at holding a high tempo on tough terrain to sap the energy out of the peloton. My small size makes life difficult for any rival teams having to draft me. I also comfortably hold an average speed of around 22–23mph on a local flat loop consistently. It’s not a hard route, but it just shows that I’m happy tapping out a decent tempo, for a good few hours without having to ease off.
At this point, I was still occasionally racing, although less and less due to a lack of interest in most courses, and having a newborn son at home.
Then at the back end of last season, I had a big crash that helped me to decide once and for all to put racing on the shelf. At least for a while. It happened on a wet day in September 2016. I wasn’t racing, just riding the local Saturday morning chain-gang, as I had done most weekends that year. It was the final lap, where myself and local fast-finishing racer Richard Haughton of Fastest Highest Strongest was pulling away a bit to test the legs of the group. Or rather, Richard was the one pulling; I was on his wheel. The rain was so heavy that it left the road completely covered in standing water. I didn’t see a pothole, was flung from my bike and slid for a long time down the wet road, slicing my arm and knee open, and tearing ligaments in my calf and ankle in the process.
The crash put me in the hospital for a few days, and off racing. I knew I would be off the bike for some time, would lose a lot of fitness, and also some confidence in group riding. Especially in bad weather. At least I had some comedians in there to keep me company.
Once I was out of the hospital and back on my bike again, I got chatting to Richard about my goals and ambitions for next year. Not only does he coach riders, but we also raced on the same team at that point. He knew my riding well, only lived a few miles away, and understood what I was going through. He really helped guide me back to fitness during my recovery.
It was clear that racing wasn’t a priority for me now. Recovery was going to be a long process. And even now a year on I suffer from a stiff ankle because of the crash.
The accident left me feeling depressed. I enjoyed cycling, but the passion from before wasn’t there. As someone who had been racing fit for years, it was tough to swallow the fact that I was no longer in showroom condition. Rides or hills that had been easy were a chore, and without the fitness, it just wasn’t as fun. I found myself doing other things instead: Running, long walks, etc… which for a while I found far more rewarding than cycling. Especially the running. Where progression was quick and with my aerobic background, also came easily.
But I needed a reason to train on my bike. A challenge.
I kept riding, just not as much. Maybe only three times a week instead of 5.
I still wanted to be a good bike rider; I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with that fitness. Each year I do something fun and fast with a few of my best mates. So there was always that to stay in shape for. In the past, we’ve done Coast to Coasts as quickly as we could. Plotted routes to see how many different Counties we could fit into one ride. We’ve even just ridden a local loop as fast as possible for 100 miles. But I wanted more.
A real challenge.
One that makes you think, shit! Is that really possible?
Because of the running and long walks in the Lake District with my wife and son, Richard mentioned an Ultimate National Three Peaks Challenge. The National Three Peaks Challenge involves climbing the highest peaks in England, Scotland, and Wales. Most commonly done within 24 hours of hiking and driving. The ultimate part was because he suggested I do it by bike instead of driving.
An ideal challenge, because family walks would now become part of my training. I’d need to stay solid on the bike to ride hundreds of miles quickly, the riding plays to my endurance strengths, and some running won’t hurt to keep the legs and lungs strong. There was no talk of a record yet though, and I think we even said ~72 hours would be a good time to complete it!
It was actually when looking up the fastest time for the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge (unrelated) I stumbled upon the record for the first time. Set in 1980 by Stephen Poulton. The Three Peaks Challenge website documents it taking place on the 1st and 2nd of July and in a time of 41 hours and 51 minutes. A super high bench mark. But could it be beaten?
Planning and training
I initially pencilled in the Three Peaks Challenge for summer 2018. Giving myself plenty of time to build up the miles, and do some specific training leading up to the attempt.
I then found out my wife was expecting our second child. Due February 2018. Probably not the time for me to train and go off on a wild adventure — unless I wanted to do it divorced. Not that I would do that anyway. I like to be a hands on dad. So I scrapped that plan and moved it forwards to this year.
I had a good think. I even considered just forgetting the idea altogether but decided that y’know what? I’ve got a good five years of hard training in my legs already. If I build up the miles slightly and do some longer training rides to try and prepare for long hours in the saddle, I’ll probably be fine.
Suddenly over a year of planning and training time was compressed into six weeks. I’d need to get a wriggle on if I wanted to be ready.
First, I’d need a support crew. The difficulty might be finding people willing to stay awake for around two days, in a stinky van full of wet kit. But I had an idea of who might be up for it anyway!
I was able to quickly convince my father in law (who is responsible for my love of cycling in the first place) to help. And I also got in touch with good friend Will Horton who’s supported me before during a Coast to Coast ride to see if he was available and willing to help. Luckily he was up for it! Will’s dad has a lovely camper van, and with a little persuasion, we managed to get him on board too. So I had my crew sorted. We found a week that suited us all and the attempt was all but locked in. Now I just had to pray for a good wind between the 7th and 13th August.
Then it was time to put a route together. The last time a record for doing a Three Peaks Challenge by bike was a team effort in 2015. They uploaded their route to Strava, which was a great starting point for the one I ended up riding myself. Because it was a team record, I knew I was not aiming to beat their time, and so contacted one of the lads — Spike — to chat about his experience. He was a super nice dude, and more than happy to discuss anything I thought could help me break the record.
I grabbed the route Spike, Dug, and Andy used and began to tweak it slightly. Very slightly! I knew there was a better way through Preston, and I managed to shave off 0.6 of a mile by taking a back road in Keswick.
The full bike route came out at 430 miles. 192 from Snowdon to Scafell Pike. Then a further 238 miles up to Fort William. My longest ride ever stood at 164 miles. That was the Bowland Baddass. Not a ride I’ve done again in a hurry. So 430 miles was a little daunting. I found it best not to think about it.
Plotting the hikes was easy enough. As the three highest peaks in the UK, they are popular tourist destinations. I picked the most direct rou… OK, OK. I just copied what Spike et al. did. Why re-invent the wheel? They’d done a fantastic job with their planning.
We established a few potential problems or difficult parts of the route and set out to figure out the best time to start based on these. Stuff like not wanting to climb hills in the dark (especially Scafell Pike), or hitting Glasgow in the dark or rush hour.
I made a spreadsheet where I could try to estimate how long each part of the challenge would take. Then I could figure out the best time to set off. After some tweaking, I decided 04:30 am as good as it could get. I would begin my ascent of Snowdon in the dark, but it would soon be light. All going well I’d climb Scafell Pike in plenty of daylight, ride through the night and hit Glasgow during the early hours of the morning. That would also mean providing I didn’t grind to a halt that I’d also climb Ben Nevis in the afternoon. Job. Done!
Time to train
Actually, I did very little to alter my training in the run up to the event. I’ve got a 30–35 mile loop that I do most week days. It takes around 1:25 to complete, so I kept doing that 3 or 4 times a week.
I introduced some extra miles by sneaking out in the evening as the days got longer, doing laps of a small 10-mile loop close to home. So I could be back quickly to tend to baby business should I need to be.
On a Tuesday, I tried to get out twice. Once on my usual loop, and again to join the weekly chain-gang from Java in Lytham for another 30 miles of fun.
For the last couple of weeks, I booked Friday’s off work for a longer ride or hike in the Lakes. It’s the only day of the week I have to myself — with my son at nursery and wife at work.
One Friday I set out to run up Scafell Pike with my mate Joe. The weather was predictably crap, but I had the route on Strava (using my phone) and wasn’t worried. Anyway, of course, there’s no phone signal on Scafell so the map wouldn’t load. We had no idea where we were going and in the end took an entirely different route than I planned. The lesson learned there was making sure I have an offline map available, and double check exactly where I’m are going!
During the build up, I only did two what I would consider long rides. Both reasonably hilly and into the Lake District taking in part of the route I would ride during my attempt. At 188 miles, the first was my longest ever. It joined the A6 at Broughton and from there followed my planned Three Peaks route all the way to Scafell — and then back.
The weather for that ride was pretty grim, the wind blew, the rained poured, but my performance exceeded expectations. I wrote about it.
For the most part, I neglected any structure with my training and just rode my bike. Mostly at tempo, sometimes using Strava or ego to do some tougher efforts.
As I work for a company in Sweden, there was a week when I needed to be in Stockholm, and I made up for some lost miles on a Wattbike. Doing a similar 1 hour to 1 and a half hour workout that I would normally do mid-week anyway.
On a Sunday we would head up to the Lake District as a family and go for a ~6-mile walk somewhere in the hills. Our favourite destination is Ambleside, and we spent many hours on Loughrigg, Rydal Water, and Wansfell Pike.
Occasionally some runs crept in, but not often.
It’s best not to overcomplicate things.
The full ride is on Strava. Check it out.
The reason it’s best to cycle the Three Peaks from the South to the North is that you’re more than likely to have a good wind. Most commonly a South-Westerly. Typically then, in the week I was due to tackle to challenge it showed a North-Easterly. Luckily, the wind turned early Friday morning and looked OK on Saturday too. The forecast included plenty of rain Friday, but I don’t mind getting a bit wet.
As soon as we saw that the wind was changing, we decided it was go time. I would set off at 04:30 on Friday morning and hope to be finished sometime on Saturday afternoon.
After some last minute shopping in the morning, Will and his dad Jeremy picked Ian and me up Thursday afternoon. We made our way to YHA Pen-y-pass via the infamous “Pint and Pizza” restaurant. Where in an unseen plot-twist I had a lamb burger and some chips.
The hostel was pleasant but stuffy. We shared a room with other outdoors types. Lovely lads. I didn’t sleep well. I seemed to drift in and out of consciousness. Never completely falling into a relaxing sleep.
Before I knew it, 4 am arrived to the sound of my alarm. I changed into my cycling shorts to save time later then grabbed a bowl of trusty Fruit ‘n Fibre. I was fed and ready to go a little early so why wait around?
Snowdon 3,560 ft
Go to location
At 04:23 I set off on my first ascent. Mount Snowdon, Wales 3,560 ft.
The hike was easy. Even in the dark. Snowdon was the most enjoyable of my walks. Partly because I was so fresh, but also because the scenery is bloody stunning. The path is well signed, yet there are a few scrambly parts to keep things interesting too.
I was up and down in 1 hour 53 minutes 28 seconds. A lot quicker than I had planned, much to the surprise of Will, Ian, and Jeremy.
“We’ll have your bike and everything ready by the time you get down”, Will said as I set off.
I had allowed 3 hours for my Snowdon hike. I’d never done it before, had no idea how long it would take me. So I was lucky Will was unable to sleep and had got up early to make coffee.
I put on a cycling jersey and loaded my pockets with food as he unloaded my bike. Within ten minutes I was off on the first bike leg. In 194-miles — or nine and a half hours — I would be at the foot of Scafell Pike.
Snowdon to Scafell Pike
Someone could’ve told me how bloody hilly Wales is.
The first ten miles were great. The wind was my best friend, and if I were doing a time trial, I would’ve clocked a short 22 minute time.
After that, shit got tough. I guess when you’re looking at a 194-mile elevation profile, the hills have somewhere to hide. They were sharp, not always short, and took the sting out of my legs. Worrying considering how early into the challenge I was. At this point, I couldn’t tell, but a few hours down the road I would go through my first dark patch. That’s when the legs began to settle into that ‘numb’ feeling. On these long rides, I’m almost waiting for it. Then I know where I stand. They won’t feel any worse unless I put in a larger effort. I’ll never be fresh again, but the rough patch will slowly be forgotten. Replaced by a dull ache.
The first part of the ride wasn’t just taxing on the legs. More than a few times I found myself on stretches of road that tested my mental strength too. Expressways with lorries and cars screaming past at 90 mph, all but a motorway except for the name.
Wondering why I was finding it tougher than usual it suddenly hit me; I haven’t had any coffee today! No wonder I’m not functioning properly anymore. Next time I saw the van I asked the guys if they could pick me up a cold coffee. I watched them drive off on their quest, and it was the last I saw of them for a long time! We were approaching Preston, where I managed to get through the traffic much quicker than they did.
Then, once I was I was on the A6 I knew I could up the speed. I’m in my regular stomping ground again. I know every rise, where it’s worth putting a little squeeze on the pedals, and where I can go easy.
I got lucky with the rain. It was forecast to be heavy all day yet hadn’t hit until now. You know what they say though; when it rains, it pours.
BUT! Before my morale drowned in a grim northern downpour, a ray of sunshine appeared in a layby near Lancaster University.
Through rain-speckled glasses, I squinted as the godlike physique of Phill Sharpe emerged from the gloom. A huge smile on his face!
And I rode straight past.
Oops. I wasn’t expecting him there. But by then I was more than ready for a quick bite to eat. Luckily he hopped in his car and caught me up a few miles down the road.
We stopped. We embraced. I ate some Skittles.
It was great to see Phill. And he wasn’t the only pal who had ventured out to see me en route. Joe Moulton came flying at me from the opposite direction waving like a loony shortly after!
Until now, I had managed my effort and held a reasonable speed. I was 150-miles in and approaching the South Lakes. My average speed 20.5 mph. I was over the achy legs from earlier and feeling good. Once I was through Milnthorpe and into the Lyth Valley towards Crosthwaite, I was in for a shock.
The wind whipping around the fells, combined with the testy undulating roads of The Lakes gave me a choice; slow down or burn out. I slowed down, but still kept the effort high enough to maintain a speed of 20.1 mph as I pulled into the foot of Scafell Pike. A quick change into some waterproof walking gear and I was setting off on my second hike at 17:37. Ten hours after setting off from Snowdon.
Scafell Pike 3,209 ft
(Go to location)
The less said about Scafell Pike, the better. The weather was awful, driving wind and heavy rain attacked me as I scrambled over huge boulders to the summit. I had zero visibility and relied heavily on the OS Maps app on my phone to navigate. I took longer than I hoped to finish but was still way up on my schedule. I was down by probably 21:30, but it had taken me well over three and a half hours.
Back in the van and trying to dry off, I took my first extended rest to eat a bowl of spaghetti bolognese. It was delicious! Thanks, Jeremy.
We did some quick maths and calculated that, in theory, I could do the rest of the ride at 11 mph and still finish in 41 hours. A huge relief. The rain had finally stopped, thoguh and I didn’t want to hang around for it to start again!
By 22:15 I was back on my bike, another 238 miles left to ride.
Scafell Pike to Ben Nevis
I took it easier during the night. With some hours in the bank, I let the speed hover around 17–18 mph. No point taking un-necessary risks in the dark. My heart sank a bit as the wind turned in an unhelpful direction. I knew it was supposed to be a cross/head wind most of the second leg; I was just hoping it would never happen. It meant that even keeping up the relaxed 17–18 mph average speed would be a huge challenge itself given the fatigue already in my body.
The hours and miles slowly ticked past. I spent a lot of the night parallel to the motorway on the old road to Glasgow. It was unmaintained, rough, and difficult to ride on. But at least it was straight and easy to follow in the dark!
Because the roads were quiet the van could sit behind me for long periods of time. Useful as their headlights helped with my vision. Meaning I only hit one pothole hard all night.
It must have been about 4 am when I decided to take a quick power nap. I had a strong coffee and set an alarm for 10 minutes. Hoping that when I woke, the caffeine would start to hit. Which it did, hard. I began to suffer from stomach cramps and nausea that would stay with me for the rest of the day.
I should mention that up until now, I had been eating something (usually full of sugar) roughly every thirty minutes. It’s a lot of food, and I guess my body was having a tough time with it.
Daylight broke with me not far from Glasgow. Everything was still going according to plan. Despite the sickness and an increasingly sore backside, I was making good time. We were through Glasgow in the early hours with little traffic, and with it behind me, the end seemed in sight.
As I rode alongside Lock Lomond, I knew I only had 80 or so miles left. Another few hours and I could stop riding! I was struggling to eat enough now, only taking on food every hour or so for a while. I ended up going through a lot of Renne’s!
These were the longest hours of my life. I was probably 30 hours in by now, and everything — EVERYTHING — ached. My knees, my back, my shoulders. There wasn’t a lot left in the tank, and still, two of the biggest climbs of my cycling route left to tackle.
I was now spending more time out of the saddle to relieve the pressure on my swollen backside than I was in it. But then my legs would scream in protest, and I’d need to sit down again.
I was like a jack-in-the-box heading up the A82. I have no idea what car drivers must’ve thought, but I bet they had no idea what was really going on!
At exactly 200 miles since Scafell Pike (392 total) I found myself on the last big hill. It almost brought me to tears! But with a little encouragement, I eventually made it. I was up on Rannoch Moor and into the most frustrating headwind of the day. Even on the descents, I was pedalling with everything I had left to keep the bike going at 17 mph. Normally that would just be a nice easy spin!
Finally, I found myself with a number of miles left that I could count on my hands. I had turned out of the wind slightly, and for the last 15–20 miles I emptied the tank and pushed as hard as I could.
On Rannoch Moor, my speed had dipped significantly, and despite my support team constantly telling me I was well up on schedule and the current record, at the time I couldn’t wrap my head around the maths and was convinced for a long time that I was going to fall short. It kept me pushing on, but my legs were completely gone.
As it happened though, they were right. As the road turned out of the wind, I emptied the tank on the final few miles into Fort William. I managed to claw back some of the lost time and with only one or two miles to go all the pain in my body vanished.
Ben Nevis 2,300 ft
(Go to location)
With the bike done, I just wanted to get the final hike over with. Ben Nevis is by far the biggest of the three peaks. I scheduled four hours to complete it. I thought I was surprisingly fresh, but after only a few minutes into the ascent began to feel exhausted.
All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and know that each footstep was one closer to finishing. The record was almost mine. I had almost 8 hours to finish Ben Nevis.
After what felt like a lifetime I was at the top. And just as before, knowing that the hardest part was behind me, all the pain, the fatigue disappeared.
I began to run back down.
I ran the entire way, except for when I got held up by the crowds. It was a beautiful day in Scotland, and the mountain was busy.
On one of the easier sections of the descent, I tripped and fell, cut open my palm and bruised my elbow. Luckily by then, I was almost down. And as I attempted to sprint the final few metres I was taken by surprise with how emotional I felt!
I stopped the clock at 17:56 on Saturday. 37 hours 33 minutes total time and a new record by almost five hours!
I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and pride. I had pushed myself far beyond what I knew I was capable of. Before this challenge, the longest ride I had ever completed was 188 miles. This was 430, plus the 27 miles on foot.
For a while, I felt fine. I even thought I was in pretty good condition considering how long I had been awake and moving. That is, until I saw the pictures of myself sat in the van afterwards.
After the longest rest in days (a short drive to my parent’s house) my body began to go into shock. I tried to stand up to get out of the van, but my legs had locked. I hauled myself up and began to shake violently. I was cold. The sickness got worse. I struggled even to make it into the house.
Dinner time! Pulled pork and mac ‘n cheese. What a feast! It’s a shame I could only manage a little bit. After a shower, I started to feel better, but I was still cold and shaking. All of the sugar and effort over the last 40 hours had left me with painful mouth ulcers too. So eating was a huge chore at the time.
The time now was probably 20:00. I don’t really remember. I crashed. KO’d big time. Didn’t wake up until about seven the next morning.
Everything hurt. Everything! Stairs became a challenge even greater than Ben Nevis! Stairs were my greatest nemesis for the next couple of days.
But I’m recovering quickly. As I write this, it’s almost a week later. Nothing aches anymore. My legs feel good if anything. I’ve only ridden my bike twice and for less than an hour each time.
I still have pins and needles in my fingers though. I’ll be happy when that goes away.
All I can think of to say now is a huge thank-you to everyone involved. I couldn’t have done it without you. My wife Angela for believing in me and putting up with the hours of training and chattering that went into the attempt. Ian for introducing me to cycling. And Will and Jeremy for driving for hours and hours on very little sleep. I hope the smell of two days worth of damp, exhausted Ross doesn’t linger in the van for too long.