In 2017 Alex Staniforth made the fastest continuous round of the UK's 100 county high points. Battling anxiety, depression and eating disorders along the way, the challenge became "less of a fight of man and nature and more of man and mind". He recounts the journey in his new book Another Peak. Here we join him feeling literally under the weather at the foot of Ben Lawers...
After ninety miles, a steady soreness had lingered in the back of my throat all afternoon and I'd assumed it was dehydration. Weeks of pushing had finally pushed back and whacked my immune system for good. It felt like I was coming down with something right before going up something: which happened to be one of the highest county tops of the challenge, and the tenth highest Munro in Scotland, Ben Lawers.
'Can I sleep in your car?' I croaked through a heavy chest.
My friend Richard had driven up straight from work to join me for the weekend. Luckily, he didn't object as I hoisted the sleeping bag around me, though it did little to ease the shivering and dull aches all over my body. At six-foot-four, I was hardly compact, but sleeping upright in the passenger seat was vastly more appealing than pitching the tent outside.
This was the lowest point of the challenge, and I hadn't even hit Norfolk yet
Under the dim dashboard light, Rich and I sat discussing plans for the morning. If not for someone to weigh up the options with, I could never have noticed how weak my reasoning had become, sub-consciously engineering the conversation towards what I wanted to hear, instead of what I needed to hear. I was fishing for a reason to call it a day, hoping he would agree and add weight to the decision. He didn't let up.
My only perception of the challenge was my own, and I knew my self-narrative wasn't always the kindest. I'd had little opportunity to offload my feelings face-to-face. Social media and phone calls didn't offer the same sense of connection. I'd always preferred being independent, though there was also something comforting about having someone there in the valleys of inevitable down days.
The day earlier, the county top of Mount Battock had looked painfully distant, but my friend Louise had driven two hours just to join me and chatting away continued to make time fly. We had a lot more in common than just a love of mountains. The outdoors was our weapon of choice in fighting a battle that manifested in similar ways. Her messages of support had given me hope of finding light at the end of the tunnel, and Louise was one of my biggest inspirations in speaking publicly about my eating disorder in the first place, with her own openness reassuring me that it was okay to talk, however uncomfortable it felt. It triggered the question of who I might help by being more open myself. I rarely had the chance to speak to someone who understood the irrationality and complexity of these internal wars and I wanted to make the most of it. Wow I thought – it's not just me. For her to become part of the journey for real was even more pertinent.
I'd been thrilled to have company after nearly three weeks of walking alone, and now I was more grateful than ever. After a saga of tossing and turning, the alarm hit at 5.30am. Things had only gotten much worse. A splitting headache and lethargy had me wriggling like a parasite; one arm poking out of the sleeping bag to reach for a pack of painkillers. Thankfully Rich took pity and made a dash for the stove in the boot. A hot mug of porridge only scalded my raw throat further and turned my stomach, but it was forced down anyway. It wasn't often that I managed to reject food, as much as I had dreamed of the ability. Feeling sick as a dog was even worse than binge eating through bulimia – at least I had some control over that behaviour, even if I couldn't always find it. Right now, there was no choice but to suffer. This was the lowest point of the challenge, and I hadn't even hit Norfolk yet.
The forecast had deteriorated just as quickly, and left me quite literally under the weather. Sudden downpours lashed the windscreen and dampness clogged the air like the mucus in my chest. A threatening blanket of greyness made it hard to determine whether sunrise had broken or not.
'There's always a solution' Rich assured me, leaving me to ponder the decision in my fuzzy head.
If I pushed on, then feeling rough was inevitable, but at least I would go to bed with one less problem to deal with. This dilemma reminded me of the days back home when binge eating had been the only means of motivating myself through the depression to run for a couple of hours. Something far greater had kept me going for the last 30 days and over 2,000 miles already.
The solution was simple: to keep moving. Because at least that way, we were making progress. We must have sat for 20 minutes whilst my mind swung heavy like a pendulum, building momentum, counting to ten. Then another ten. It was now or never. Eight, nine, ten. I grabbed the momentum with both hands:
'RIGHT! LET'S MOVE!' I grunted, reaching for the door handle with power. I had to move before second thoughts saw sense.
Rich smiled and quickly followed suit like a willing sidekick; probably glad to escape a car now festering with snot and pathogens. The door slammed in the wind and the cold instantly chilled my bones. But heck, I had conquered the first step, and the hardest part was done.
Climbing a simple Scottish Munro had become more dramatic than a soap opera. It was only ten kilometres – I'd be done in a few hours – it was nothing new. But in this state of lethargy, every step summoned Himalayan effort. The best we could do was put one foot in front of another. This simple forward motion took us further into fifty shades of Highland grey where the weather grew wilder and wetter. An overgrown track led through a nature trail and peat beds, with any glimpse of the sprawling mountains above cheated by a dense barrier of fog. The path climbed through ridged pastures towards a broad flank of the mountain, and straight into the mercy of the wind, where an unexpected gust nearly swept me sideways. An exposed line led to the underwhelming minor summit of Beinn Ghlas. Chatting soon turned to shouting over the groans of wind before giving up altogether, repeating 'Relentless forward motion' under my breath. As my face grew colder and my lips too numb to speak, the mantra was confined to my silent thoughts.
Sure enough, forward motion brought us to an unmistakable stone pillar that marked the summit of Ben Lawers, and the highest point of Perthshire. A century earlier, a group of local men had built a cairn of rock to try and push the height of the peak above 4,000ft. We caught the moment of success in a short film, with the words coming in slurred confusion. Even with my head in the clouds, there was no doubt that I wanted to get down before I got cold again. An ongoing ankle problem meant Rich would be slower to descend, but he was more than capable of making his own way down safely, so I hurried off down the ridge to a col, where shallow-cut trails snaked around the bulk of the mountain and back towards the car park; providing my legs didn't give way first.
Back at the car park I discovered numb fingers were as much use as a chocolate teapot on combination locks. I prised the cursed thing open impatiently with my teeth and made a dash for it, with a downhill blast that froze my backside solid to the saddle. Before I could work out what on earth would happen now, I simply had to get warm; diving into the first coffee shop I could find and clinging to a dusty old radiator. As I began a plethora of mapping calculations to work out a Plan B, the hot chocolate and cake brought core temperature back to normal, and another slice of motivation came too. The gentle patter of rain through steamed windows looked somehow less insurmountable. In meeting these basic human needs, the situation didn't seem quite so terrible after all.
Rich arrived soon after. Before even tucking into the froth of his coffee the announcement came;
'I have to get to Stirling today.'
Otherwise, I would be too far north and without chance of catching up with my schedule. There wasn't much excuse considering what we had just climbed. My body cried out at the injustice; for the last few hours I had tried to kid myself into believing I was going no further than Killin. Of course, I knew that wouldn't be the case, and there was always something left to give. Endurance was a cruel game; like teasing a dog with a slab of meat. Sooner or later my mind would stop trusting itself and stage a protest. If not for tricking myself I would probably have failed to leave the car.
Time always passed quicker when moving. My head was set only on Stirling and trying to keep the bike steady through fits of violent sneezing. A familiar tune appeared from an open window as I glanced across to see Rich belting out the chorus of "500 Miles" by The Proclaimers. Passing through Callander, I happily hollered the lyrics back at full whack. With the impressive sight of Stirling Castle coming into view I had every reason to sing out loud without a care in the world.
There were surely better ways to sacrifice your Sunday afternoon than leapfrogging a stubborn cyclist. Until today it had just been Alex and the bike on the frontline. I quite liked it that way but had to accept that taking support and calling reinforcements for a couple of days was a necessity to get the 72 days done at all. Rich waved me on outside the city before making the long drive home.
I pulled up at Stirling Youth Hostel and wasted no time with the usual evening routine: I tucked myself away in a quiet corner of the dining room to think clearly in the hope nobody would ask where I'd cycled from. Predictably someone did. Checking the weather forecast through mouthfuls of dinner, I did my best to appear interested in his delight with the Scottish Rail network and his first-class ticket from Glasgow. Only when he described the fatigue after his sightseeing tour of Edinburgh did I lift my bloodshot eyes from the screen in a second glance. He wasn't pulling my leg.
'So, how was your day?' he asked.
'Well,' I yawned. "I guess it could have been a whole lot worse.'
- Walking For Mental Health - The Adversity Adventurer 18 Jun, 2018