running the three peaks
Updated: May 9, 2018
The national three peaks challenge is taken on by thousands of people each year. The traditional aim of the challenge is to stand on the highest peaks of England, Scotland and Wales, and to do it all within 24 hours. Given the distance between the peaks motorised transport is used to get to each peak.
I had previously stood on top of each of these mountains on more than one occasion but never as part of a combined challenge. The three peaks challenge was something I had always wanted to tick off the list of achievements but had no intention of following in the same footsteps as the thousands before me. I began looking at ways to make the task a little more personal.
The obvious choice was to ditch the transport. Clearly it wasn't possible to complete the traditional challenge (within 24 hours) without the use of transport. But could it be done without? And if so... how fast? I estimated that if I could run 60km per day. I could complete the challenge within 12 days.
Whilst looking for ways I could make this happen I stumbled across the website of British Adventurer Jamie Ramsey. In 2016 Jamie had successfully summited all three mountains and run the entire distance between them (approx 400 miles). To this day he is still the only person I am aware of who has successfully managed to complete the challenge. In doing so Jamie set a record time of 13 days 23 hours and 40 minutes. And so my challenge was set! Could I really run 60km a day for 12 consecutive days to complete this challenge?
I started running more and more each day in preparation. My main training theory was just to run, every day. Especially when I was tired. I knew that I was going to need help so I contacted Columbia Sportswear and asked them to get involved. After I explained the challenge and that I intended to raise money for the campaign against living miserably (CALM) they were keen to offer their full support. I won't pretend that there weren't more than a few concerns about my ability to actually complete this task after barely limping my way through the OCC at UTMB in Chamonix for Columbia last summer. Regardless, whatever gear I needed, they provided.
Check out my gear page to see what I took with me.
In the next weeks I just tried to keep everything quiet. I had NO idea if I was going to be able to complete the entire route. Let alone complete it in the time frame I had allowed myself.
On Sunday 8th April my brother and I packed the car and headed towards Fort William which would be my starting point. We camped at the Glen Nevis campsite and the following morning at around 6am we packed up and I headed to the trailhead. There was still a lot of snow on the ground just a few thousand feet above us so I opted for the regular 'tourist track' to the summit. Ice and snow made the attempt a little tricky but I was prepared. I slipped on the Yak Tracks and used an Ice Axe for a little extra security and successfully summited later that morning.
After summiting the first of the three mountains I returned to the Glen Nevis campsite to re stock before heading out on the West Highland Way. This would be my home for the next few days. I'd take the route all the way down to the outskirts of Glasgow where it ends before joining side roads and footpaths for the rest of the journey. Astonishingly the record time for completing all 96 miles of the West Highland Way is around 13 hours, which given it's difficult terrain, elevation gain and sheer length is almost unfathomable.
By the end of day one I was exhausted. I reached the Glencoe ski resort (which is about 200 yards off the route) just in time to pitch my tent and get a hot meal at the cafe before losing daylight.
Day two I set off bright and early along the West Highland Way. I was feeling pretty good at this point. It took a little time to loosen up, but soon I was chewing up the miles. This section was very hilly, if it wasn't up it was down, rarely ever flat but the majority was very runnable and I made it all the way down to the Invernan campground just above Loch Lomond. I felt I was making pretty good ground but was yet to achieve my target of 60km per day. I ended day two with ground to make up. I was hoping that once I had completed the West Highland Way it would be much easier to claw some of those miles back... what an idiot!
That following morning I rejoined the west highland way with a view to reaching Drymen, which would leave me within a day's running of Glasgow. The first section of the route was slow. Tracking the banks of Loch Lomond the path weaves it's way around, over and under boulders, trees and endless tired walkers before opening up to cross croppers fields and some small towns. I reached Drymen about an hour before sunset after a very difficult day.
Because I really had no idea how this challenge was going to turn out, and because it wasn't exactly high season I had chosen not to book any accommodation in advance and to just play it by ear. By the end of day three, with my body clearly not used to this sort of continued punishment, my ankles had started to swell and by knees began to reject each step. It was time for a break. I called a nearby b&b to enquire about spending the night. Sadly they were fully booked. I asked if there were any alternatives nearby. With a noticeable concern in her voice the owner informed me that there was barely anything between where I was and Milngavie (Glasgow) Out of food and struggling to continue I had run myself into a position where I either turned around and went back or tried to continue on a further 20 miles in the dark.
Turning back had never really been an option for me so I pressed on, I booked a room in the Premier Inn so I had something to keep me going. Eventually I made it to Milngavie but at what cost?
As I entered the town I stopped at a corner shop and grabbed a few bags of ice along with all the food I could carry and hobbled on towards the Premier Inn. Checked in, dry and warm I took my socks off. My ankles and feet had swollen badly and for the first time, just three days in, I thought I might be facing the end. I stood in the bath and filled it with ice. Elevated my feet and went to sleep.
Day four, still swollen and bruised I debated waiting it out at the hotel and trying to continue once my ankles were better. I eventually decided to keep moving, and try to manage the issue. I hobbled into the centre of Glasgow where I enjoyed a pretty decent lunch before moving on. I was right about the miles being easier to cover on flatter ground but my ankles were holding me back and every day I was falling further and further behind my planned daily expectation.
Still feeling a lot like I had bitten off way more than I could chew, I stopped in Hamilton, just south of Glasgow after my shortest day yet. Feet iced and elevated overnight again, I set off for more punishment.
Between Glasgow and Carlisle there is very little. You pretty much use side roads to track the M74 and if you're lucky you'll pass one small town, and if you're very lucky, there will be a shop in it. Aside from the odd corner shop I was reliant upon visiting the M74 services where the side roads crossed the path of the Motorway. With my feet still in a bad way I resigned to shorter days traveling between service stations where I knew I could find a bed, ice and food. At around 2pm on day 5 I reached the Abington services on the M74. Knowing that there was very little between Abington and Gretna Green I had to decide on a very short day or a very long day. I opted to rest and booked a room at the Days Inn, Abington.
I was still clinging on to the hope that my ankles were going to right themselves and that I'd be able to make up all of this lost time during the later half of my challenge, but that hope was dwindling pretty fast... until day 6.
I woke up early, ate and left the hotel at around 6am. My ankles still sore but my legs otherwise in really good shape. As I continued on towards England more and more of the route became down hill. With my legs strong after lots of rest I accepted the discomfort in my ankles and started to eat up the miles. I stopped for lunch and had already covered 30 miles. Buoyed by how easily I had spat out my morning miles, I continued on. By the end of the day I had clocked up an astonishing 53 miles. Maybe resting for a few days wasn't the dumbest move after all...?
Encouraged by the previous day and excited to have finally made it out of Scotland, I pushed on into day 7. I left Todhills well behind my target but determined to give myself a chance of summiting my second mountain, Scafell Pike the following day.
That evening a little after sunset I arrived in Seathwaite. Seathwaite is one of the traditional starting points for making an attempt on Englands highest peak. I set up camp under the stars, just as the road turned to trail.
The morning brought with it what was easily the worst weather of my entire journey. The wind howled up the valley and the rain beat down. I had set my alarm to make my way up the mountain at 6am but decided to delay until the weather had calmed slightly. 7am went by, 8am went by and at 9 I realised that I was just going to have to go for it.
I packed up my bag, opted for full waterproofs and started on the trail. I battled my way through the wind and rain before eventually heading into a thick grey cloud. Visibility was almost non existent. It was freezing cold and I could barely open my eyes in the wind. But at least it wasn't raining. Although the smallest of the three, Scafell Pike is a tricky mountain. It's summit is surrounded by scree slopes and route finding can be really difficult. Particularly in bad weather. I had been to the top of Englands highest peak before but was in no way familiar with it. After a slow slog up the mountain and more than a few wrong turns, I eventually made the summit. I took a quick photo of myself next to the summit stone and made a quick exit.
The most direct route between the three mountains meant descending the mountain via a different route. I made my way towards the Old Dungeon Gyll, another popular route. Around 400 vertical meters below the summit the cloud lifted, it appears that this side of the mountain had been enjoying a summer holiday whilst I was swimming on the summit. I stopped at the hikers bar, Old Dungeon Gyll for lunch and then I was back on my way. In the glorious sunshine with two mountains behind me and only one to go.
I set up for the night just outside of Windermere. On day 9 I left the Lake District National Park and headed south. I made it as far as the small town of Garstang where I passed the conveniently placed Best Western and decided to spend the night. I took the opportunity to ice my ankles again and get a good rest. I even had pizza delivered to my hotel room!
The following morning I set my sights on Liverpool. After a long day and well into the evening I made it down to the Pier Head Ferry terminal and crossed the river. There are no bridges or pedestrian tunnels availible to cross the river so the ferry is your best option. I arrived at the Woodside terminal in Birkenhead and continued down to the Travel Lodge where I'd spend the night.
By this point I'd put in some serious miles and had clawed myself back within reach of my target. Long gone were the 20 mile days in the south of Scotland. Liverpool signaled the 'home' stretch for me as it stands just 65 miles from the bottom of my final Mountain. Snowdon.
I was determined to get as much of this covered in one day as possible and I even had a faint hope of reaching Snowdon by nightfall and making an attempt to summit that night.
Those dreams were quickly snatched from me when I left Birkenhead and reached the 'Welsh road' I've added some detail about this in the My route section. But in short. DO NOT RUN ON THIS ROAD... EVER!
I spent two hours dodging articulated vehicles and hiding in bushes as I covered the 5/6 miles of this road. It was dangerous and stupid. And probably would have been faster to find an alternative route, even if it had been 10 miles longer.
After a pretty hairy morning I reached Denbigh. Had lunch and reset. There was no mistaking that I was now in the rolling valleys of North Wales. I continued on towards the Snowdonia National Park. I know Snowdon and the area pretty well, so the thought of a night ascent didn't phase me at all, and in fact I hoped that when I got close enough I'd find a sort of second wind to help me make it there overnight. It turns out that North Wales has quite a lot of hills! At 9pm, just 16 miles from the foot of the mountain I had to call it a day.
The following morning was possibly one of the hardest. My swollen ankles had given up, my knees were fighting back and right quad had left the party a long time ago.
After a slow start I eventually got moving and tackled the hills of the Glyder forest. A beautiful area that hosted one defiant hill after another. Once I reached the top of the Glyder forest, a long downhill stretch lead me into Capel Curig. Most people who've been to the area will know Capel Curig as the last 'village' before arriving at Snowdon.
Passing through the village I started to get a little emotional. Was I actually going to do this? It didn't seem very likely after day three and four, but now I was almost there.
I gathered myself as I reached the packed Pen y Pass carpark on what was now a beautiful Friday afternoon. A quick change of clothes and I made my way onto the Pyg Track for my ascent of Snowdon. I couldn't help but smile as I passed sweaty walkers making their way up the hill. At 2:03pm on Friday 20th April 2018 I reached the summit of Snowdon and completed my challenge.
11 days 7 hours and 39 minutes after I had started at the foot of Ben Nevis, some 400 miles ago.
It has to be noted that there are likely differences in the route taken and certainly in the weight carried. However, to the best of my knowledge this is currently the fastest known time for this challenge. Check out the other three peaks records here