Three Peaks by bike
A 15 day, 1,150km challenge to ride between the three peaks, climb them all and run the Edinburgh marathon.
"...at the bottom was a gin and tonic, another lasagne and a huge sense of achievement, satisfaction and amazement that I had completed this epic challenge."
Here we go then, the start of a grand adventure! Technically this all kicked off in April with a three-day cycle to Paris for the first of my seven marathons, but this trip up north was where I really felt like I had 'begun'. I suspect this was something to do with the fact I had to quit my job to do it...Leaving my workplace on my last day at 3 pm I was so eager to get going I was on the road by 5 pm, heading for Gloucester and my first wild camp on a footpath near Maisemore. My initial nerves about wild camping were dispelled quickly when I realised those torches shining on the other side of the river were not late night security looking to uproot tired nomadic cyclists but were a bunch of teenagers drinking on the river bank!
Queuing for the top
The first milestone in sight was Snowdon, around three days ride away. Struck with the best run of good weather I can remember in the UK I flew up through Herefordshire and Shropshire, camping out on a river and farmland, before making my way west towards Snowdonia.As the terrain began undulating more dramatically I took advantage of several breaks in climbing hills to do some photography, taking in the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Swallow falls before pitching up 5km from Snowdon on my third night.
The first day of hiking began at the start of the Pyg track, (a rocky but scenic route up to the summit), painfully trying to deconstruct my loaded touring bike in order to pack a rucksack for the hike. A 3-hour hike to the summit was challenging in parts due to some horrible terrain (think jagged rocks trying to roll your ankle at every step!) but the views over Llanberis and the large lake 'Llyn Llydaw' that sits below the mountain were spectacular.
One thing I hadn't prepared for was the queue for the summit which slightly took the gloss off an otherwise satisfying achievement. Of course, being British, I politely queued with the rest of the hikers to reach the summit, remarking at how ridiculous the situation was with my fellow queue mates. Patience was a virtue as I got up top and held aloft my Above & Beyond flag! One down, two to go!
Not content with finishing the day there I blasted out 60km to Rhyl north Wales, furiously devouring the largest fish and chips I'd ever seen halfway towards the coast and eventually camping in sand dunes under an epic sunset.
It's a Hardknott life
My longest day yet saw me push through Liverpool, lunching with my friend Shaun in the city who cooked me an outstanding cyclists' lunch (double helpings of pasta and pesto, fried veg, cake, tea and oranges to finish!). The afternoon took a turn when I well and truly 'bonked' (a cycling term for when energy stores are depleted and you turn in to a useless mess of floppy limbs). An early camp and 10-hour sleep was a good antidote, as was more pasta, more cake, more... of everything.
Day 6 took me into the lakes, heading towards Scafell Pike. I had time for an afternoon swim in Lake Windermere, complete with sunbathing revellers wondering why a man in lycra shorts had just run into the water fully clothed (the answer is that my kit needed a wash, obviously). My personal revelry was quickly wiped out when I discovered my 'shortcut' to Wasdale Head where I would start the ascent of Scafell Pike included two fearsome climbs up Wynrose pass and Harknott pass. Gradients of up to 33% meant a 4km stretch took me an hour and a half, walking my bike up ridiculous angles and meaning I fell 20km short of my intended finish - cue more pasta, cake and 10 more hours of sleep to right my ruined legs.
That 20km to Wasdale Head on day 7 took an age on weary legs, but the 2-hour hike up Scafell Pike went well enough. I met an Israeli woman named Hannah part way up, and we took each other's minds off the rocky ascent with a few hours discussing the state of Israel, it's politics, education, transport systems, universities and infrastructure - I was pretty amazed by Hannah who had served 4 years national service, worked as an intelligence officer and was now touring the UK before finally starting her university studies. Her conversation on the way back down to Wasdale Head was enough to make me black out the jelly that my legs were fast becoming - so yes, that evening also ended in pasta (well a massive lasagne), cake (a huge brownie) as well as ice cream and an ELEVEN-hour sleep. It's important to know when to treat yourself, or more importantly to listen to your body.
Day 8 - a 150km blast from the Lakes to Lockerbie and a wild camp on an idyllic stream with only a swarm of flies for company. The next day was a sedate 110km into Edinburgh where I would have two days off before running the second of my seven marathons.
I took advantage of the CouchSurfing network (like Airbnb but with free accommodation in return for being a sociable and interesting person for your host!) and stayed for four nights with Julia, who I had previously hosted in Bristol just two weeks before. CouchSurfing is the perfect system for travellers looking for budget accommodation, with opportunities to meet like-minded people, share experiences and stories, get involved in cooking and socialising with hosts and get local tips!
The two days of rest meant I was raring to go for the marathon. I had taken in the sights of the city and was ready to run away from them, as the route marched out from Edinburgh castle and Arthur's seat, traversing along with coast for 15 miles before finishing in Musselburgh outside the city. The race was fast and flat and I knocked 25 minutes off my PB from Paris - chuffed to bits
The kindness of strangers
Onwards via Perth to Dalwhinnie, a two-day cycle into the highlands of Scotland from Edinburgh. Of course, it was pure luck I passed by the Dalwhinnie whisky distillery and accidentally booked myself onto a tour, bought a half bottle for the road and spent the next evening camped on a Loch sipping a batch of Scotland's finest.
The Loch in question was Loch Laggan, home to the UK's largest inland beach. How I ended up there had much to do with a wonderful bunch of people I met by chance. On my 14th day, with evening approaching and a desire for coffee taking hold I realised most cafes would be shut. When hope had faded I spotted a coffee shop up a steep hill, a menu on the chalet wall and a couple sat outside enjoying a view from the terrace. Of course what I thought was a roadside cafe was someone's workshop, the coffee menu was an old road sign and my walk up the steep hill to the terrace was technically trespassing. Tony, Robyn and Jules clearly felt some sympathy for me when I exclaimed "Sorry I thought you were a cafe!" and promptly delivered me with coffee, a platter of flapjacks, a beer for later that evening, more flapjack for the next day and the best wild camping tip I have ever had.
I sat with these three for over an hour, listening to stories from Tony's travels through Asia and feeling inspired and eager to see some of these places myself (Asia is well ahead in my plans but there's no harm in some early preparation). They suggested I pitch up on the beach at Loch Laggan, and when I did so I was able to spend my last evening of camping with a hazy sunset, a free beer and not a soul in sight to tell me to not to run into the loch in my birthday suit.
And so to finish, a 1,400m ascent of the UK's tallest mountain. My Uncle Tom joined me for the final leg, supplying me with some rocket fuel in the form of a delicious lamb curry and took us on the slightly longer and more scenic route into the valley below Ben, before traversing around the whole mountain and joining the tourist route. The views were outstanding, the climbing long and tiring, and the summit had to be reached by crossing a small snowfield (in June!?). This was a valuable lesson in preparing well for mountain climbing. Despite its relatively small stature compared to the planet's other tallest peaks Ben Nevis is still a formidable challenge and despite it being 25 degrees C at ground level it was close to 8 degrees up top and required two extra layers to keep warm.Upon summiting my body relaxed (or went to sleep) and the path back down was reminiscent of Scafell Pike with my legs telling me to go away and stop standing on them. But at the bottom was a gin and tonic, another lasagne and a huge sense of achievement, satisfaction and amazement that I had completed this epic challenge.Lessons learned:
Being called crazy is a strong motivation
The UK is utterly beautiful and I have neglected an awful lot of it
I'm ready to take on Europe