It’s March 2005, and one day at work, the IT Director’s personal assistant circulated an email inviting people to sign-up to enter the 3 Peaks challenge. Now I don’t usually go for things like this, as I’m not that fit and whilst I enter these things with good intentions, my actual performance tends to fall short of what’s needed.
But something clearly grabbed me about this, and I responded very quickly to put my name down. Having done no hillwalking to speak of since my wife and I climbed Helvellyn back in 1992, maybe I subconsciously seized on this as getting back to an activity I had previously enjoyed but needed a bit of a shove to actually do. Whatever, the team wasn’t over-subscribed and so there was no real competition for places, and I found myself included. More than that, the others in the team persuaded me to act as team captain, and so I found myself leading much of the planning and preparation.
Shortly after getting confirmed on the team, my wife and I headed off to the Peak District for our annual university friends reunion, where we got stuck into some hillwalks and which kick-started the process of getting “match-fit” for the challenge itself.
Back at work, I did the research into what the charity expected us to take in the way of kit, and the other information that we had to digest. About this time, I picked up my first issues of Trail and Country Walking and they started the process of me educating myself about the outdoors. Taking the charity’s gear list on board, I remember buying loads of kit, including a Berghaus Freeflow III 35+8 rucksack that is still my main rucksack today. Also a pair of trekking poles and even a knee brace! And invested in my first maps of mountain areas – Harvey’s Superwalkers for the 3 mountains. I prepared route cards and even gave a presentation to the team.
The one bit that I didn’t enjoy was the fundraising, and having registered our team quite late, we were working to an accelerated timetable to raise the stage payments for the charity. Somehow, we leant on our contacts and had over £4k pledged, which together with match-funding from our employer would ultimately take us well over £6k. By offering to have a rather severe haircut, I managed to raise over £1,000 myself.
I soon realised that the event itself was going to be a struggle physically, and started doing some training walks. But with no mountains near home, the best I could do was use the North Downs as my training ground. So one day I took the bus from home to the outskirts of Gravesend and struck out south across the A2 and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link with only a vague route plan in mind. In reality I would see how I went and as long as I made it back to the bus stop at a sensible time, I’d be fine. Ultimately, this turned into a 15 mile walk that took me all the way out on the escarpment to the North Downs Way and back.
Three weeks later, I went on my second training walk. Now the madness really kicked-in, and one Friday evening I changed into my walking gear in the toilets at work, then travelled towards home, alighting from the train two stops early to walk the rest of the way cross-country. This was about 8 miles and took nearly 3 hours, and was an ordeal as I had to fight my way through brambly fields where paths should have been. And I really had to dig deep on the final roadside slog. Walks I’ve done since in South Essex haven’t done anything to drive away this negative first impression of the state of the county’s paths, especially when compared with my birth county of Kent.
2 days later and it was a Sunday. The whole team gathered near Box Hill in Surrey for a team training walk. This was only about 5 miles and was pretty useless in terms of providing any beneficial physical training. But it did show one thing clearly, and that was that I was slow. In my defence, I was taking it more seriously than most and had turned up with my full challenge kit and was, therefore, walking with the actual load that I would be walking with during the challenge. Everyone else just had what they needed for the day. What was also clear, was that one other team member, although even more lightly laden than me, was just as slow, if not slower than me. This turned out to be an all too accurate forecast of what the actual event would be like.
The other thing that this showed was the team’s attitude to staying together, and on several occasions us two slow coaches were left trailing which the others shot ahead and then rested waiting for us, then immediately moved on as we arrived, leaving us no rest time. This irritated me at the time, but little did I know at this stage how much of a problem this would ultimately become.
A week later, I headed out for another long walk on the North Downs in a last desperate attempt to build some fitness for the event, which was now only a week away.