Scarpa Athlete Tom Hollins is always up for a challenge, but a vertical marathon may be his most ambitious yet.
Tom has an impressive record in some of the UKs toughest races, but it is his personal challenges which are even more impressive – especially in some extreme conditions.
He’s completed a mid-winter’s day Bob Graham (in high winds and snow), double Bob Graham (solo), Wainwrights round (high winds and rain) and Dales Mountains 30 (solo).
Tom’s plan to run a vertical marathon (the 26.2 miles of a marathon in ascent) would prove to be even tougher than anything he has attempted before…
Here is Tom’s report on how the challenge went:
On 8th October I set out to attempt a vertical marathon – climbing the steps on Pendle Hill 223 times consecutively to do the same ascent as a marathon – 26.2 miles (138436ft). With equivalent height to 4.75 x Everest.
Why did I want to do the challenge?
I have spent most of this year recovering from sciatica in my right leg which came on in January. For anyone else who has had this problem they will be fully aware how it can linger. Although the sciatica had settled by the start of May I was still left with a numb right foot and a right leg that didn’t want to fire. Every time I tried to run a long distance the achilles tendon would start to play up. I was getting bored of doing calf raises and had found that long days of hill walking was just as good as building back strength and the right calf.
Whenever I was tempted to whinge about this problem I kept reminding myself how lucky I had been over the previous 2 years compared to others, having had a very fortunate passage through the covid pandemic.
First, as an NHS worker I was given a purpose and able to work where so many others were having to stay at home because they were vulnerable, or needed to protect the vulnerable. I know I would have found staying at home very difficult.
Second, I didn’t catch covid for two years and when I did, I got a mild cold and was back out running two weeks later. Similarly, I had no one close to me who got severe disease. So many others died, or developed long covid, or had family and friends who were affected.
Third, I was still able to run or cycle to work, whereas I remember friends doing marathons in their own back gardens to avoid going crazy and to keep their fitness up. As someone who likes the variation that running through the hills brings, I’ve never thought I could do a backyard ultra with endless repetition, and I was impressed by every runner that stayed at home and did this.
The Vertical Marathon Project
The vertical marathon project started with this thought – To many who have long covid climbing a flight of stairs is like doing a marathon. The ability of the NHS and social care to meet the needs of those with long covid is stretched and some charitable organisations have stepped into this gap to help support sufferers. It would be good to raise money to help support this work whilst also putting myself into the place that other runners had to during the pandemic – a backyard ultra of some kind. Maybe some gnarly hill reps….
Whilst In Ireland for the It’ll Be Grand Round I noticed an Irish runner (Rikki Wynne) had done 24hrs on Croagh Patrick to raise money for the fight against Motor Neurone Disease and to set a 24-hr record for most vertical ascent (12000m – 39370ft). Although I was able to find other higher totals by European runners (Aurelien Dunand being particularly impressive), I was unable to find a higher 24-hr vert total for a UK or Irish runner. I don’t have the turn of speed to beat Aurelien’s time but I do have the ability to go long and I started to wonder what I could do if I targeted Rikki’s vert total and then just kept going. How far could you go?
I have completed a few races and challenges with 100000ft of ascent including the Lake District Wainwrights but had never gone much beyond this. I wondered how far a marathon was in feet and found it was 138436ft. The concept of taking what is the iconic endurance distance and then making it vertical really appealed.
Although that meant I would be travelling less distance than the wainwrights, the greater ascent and continuous up and down would mean the risk of injury and a DNF would be higher. Good job I had spent most of this year building up with some strength and conditioning.
I tried out a few routes and soon realised having steps going up and a runnable trod to run down gave optimal conditions. I was running out of time before the end of the year to do this and hadn’t yet organised any support. That meant it would be good to stay close to home. Pendle Hill became the obvious target. Pendle is a popular place for hill reps with the Tour of Pendle being an infamous race. Sara (Tom’s wife) calls the hill ‘her nemesis’, and refuses to ever do the Tour again. That reputation made it all the more iconic for this plan!
A bit more research on hill rep records bought me to the Everesting website and I discovered that although cycling multiple Everest heights was getting pretty popular, very few people had registered running multiple Everest heights on foot.
Rik Goris from Belgium had the fastest times for double Everesting (51 hr 47mins) and triple Everesting (82hr 16mins) and no one had as yet done a quad Everesting. Targeting these things on the way to the vertical marathon would help to keep me motivated as well as draw more attention to the fund raising.
That would also mean following the Everesting rules. A continuous attempt on the same section of hill every time (that was already planned) and no sleeping during the first Everest and a maximum of 2 hrs sleep each Everest thereafter. Sleep deprivation is common in these long races and the brain fog this gives you can produce difficulty with overcoming routine everyday tasks. Brain fog is a common side effect of long covid, and adding this difficulty seemed to fit with the nature of the challenge.
So, reckoning It would take me around four days, (I was wrong!) I set off at 8am on the 8th October having sorted (at pretty short notice) bottom of the hill support from some absolute heroes for all except half a day (during which I was planning to self support).
Runs of this length are usually amazing and awful in equal measure – and that’s with the variation of running through beautiful landscapes. Fellow runners I had told of this challenge had responded with ‘why?’, ‘sounds grim’ and ‘you wouldn’t catch me doing that’. With all those motivational speeches fresh in the mind what could go wrong?
The Vertical Marathon begins…
Saturday 8th October was a beautiful autumn day. Sunny skies, a lovely temperature. I started with good pace and was really enjoying the views. That was all good. However, I wasn’t the only one that wanted to enjoy the views. Pendle Hill was rammed. I had usually run there on a weekday and when I went on a weekend it was usually to the other side of the hill.
The steps are a popular walker’s route, and everyone was out. This made it pretty friendly, and I was enjoying saying hello and trying to raise awareness of covid aid and what I was up to. The problem was I kept stopping and losing time at the two gates on the route and it being early doors in the challenge I was either apologising all the time trying to get in front of walkers or vaulting the farmers gate next to the foot gate (as you do at the start of a four-day run…) In reality this was mentally tiring more than physical. I was still pacing myself pretty well, but I did feel tired in the head already by the end of the first day. Of course, that wouldn’t have been helped by the endless repetition of the activity.…
The first night was particularly strange. I was on Pendle Hill of witches’ legend heading into Halloween season. It was a lovely night, and the hill was still busy. A few people smoking dope, some more using a Ouija board and some others out with what looked like a divining rod looking for ghosts. If it had been night four I would have thought that I was hallucinating! I was also finding that breaking the overall task into individual Everests wasn’t helping much. That was still 47 reps at a time and the first one took me over 17hrs 23mins. That did still leave me time to get over Rikki’s ascent total, but it would mean holding pace in the dark.
With a little help from my friends
That was when I started to realise what a great bunch of people I know. And also the advantages of doing an event close to home. Friends started to ‘pop out’. Either to say hello at the bottom of the hill or to run a few reps. I had spent a bit of time alone that first day but from the first night onwards I had someone with me pretty much every step 24hrs a day. The mental boost of that was enormous, and very much appreciated. Especially at night time.
At 23hrs 57mins I got to the bottom of my 64th rep taking my vert total to 39808ft and just over Rikki’s. This gave me a real boost and kept me going to finish my second Everest in 36hrs 46mins prior to my first 2 hour sleep, and just prior to the first rainfall which I managed to miss the worst of in bed. Nice timing.
The next Everest was a real slog. There was nothing to break it up, as there had been at 24hrs, and I felt pretty tired. Starting in the night time and the first time the ground was wet underfoot was difficult, and despite pushing on OK during the day I didn’t manage to finish this Everest until the next nightfall in 62hrs 24mins.
Up again after 2 hors and back out into some rain and mist for the 4th Everest things really started to slow. The descent, although on the whole a nice little trod, meant contouring against the hill with my right leg uphill every rep. This repetitive action started to take its toll and the ligaments around the upper part of the right tib/ fib started to swell and become sore.
I started to vary the descents by coming back down the steps, but this slowed me down a lot as they are far from even underfoot. After 24hrs I realised I was too far away from completing Everest 4 not to have some rest. Every step started to have a face in it. Fortunately, they were all friendly. No witches or ghosts! I was slurring my speech and starting to fall over a lot. Taking safety first and knowing that no one had yet done a 4th Everest on foot, so I had time, I took a couple of hours sleep early in the night before heading out.
The final push
Feeling much better I managed to finish the 4th Everest in 91hrs 46mins. Although to complete the Marathon was only another ¾ of an Everest, I had left myself with an Everest number of reps to do from my last sleep as I hadn’t completed the 4th before bedtime. With that in mind I took a 30 minute sleep 12 hrs in when there was some more rain coming in at lunchtime which worked out as a really good move and kept me going all the way to the finish.
I finished the Vertical Marathon challenge at 0005 on Thursday morning after 112hrs 5 minutes. 193.29 miles run up and down a 28% gradient and local legend status for Pendle Hill steps surely secure on Strava for the next 90 days. It was a proper festival that final evening with several friends out taking it in turns to do reps and then everyone coming out for the last couple.
It felt amazing. And overall, I really hadn’t noticed the repetition of the hill. The varied company of some amazing people had carried me through. At the end, due to the brain fog, I had no idea when friends had come, in what order, or half of what was said to me. But what I do remember was that feeling of being safe, that someone had my back, and cared enough about me to be there.
Plus we had had a few good laughs despite the repetition. Those people were Sara Hollins, JP Hopkinson, Paul Carman, Jann Smith, Tim Pigott, Gary Chapman, Gary Bradley, Dougie Zinis, Mick Plummer and his better-looking twin Stephen, Angela White, Chris Wright, Joe Mellor, Johnnie Watson, Tim Ward, Kelly Bullough, Stuart Morris, Vicky Jones, Jonathan Carter and last but not least John & Julie Carman. Thank you all, you were amazing.
So, writing this a week on from the event I am struck by how rapidly I have recovered with swelling going down and head cleared after a few good night’s sleep. Those with long covid are on a longer journey to recovery than mine and still need our support.
Tom’s Vertical Marathon was to raise money for Covid Aid – you can donate here: