The 100 Peaks Challenge: The Epic Quest and the Scientists Learning From It

100 peaks

The 100 Peaks Challenge team

The 100 Peaks Challenge is a supreme test of endurance. The six heroic participants in this ambitious mission will set off on 23rd May, aiming to scale 100 mountains all above 610m/2000ft in just 25 days, in Scotland, England, the Isle of Man and Wales. If that’s not enough, they will travel between the peak regions by bike and kayak.

The team will cycle over 950 miles, climb the equivalent of nine ascents of Mount Everest, and kayak from the mainland to the Isle of Man and back.

We interviewed Karl Rushen, the brains behind the challenge, to find out more about why he and his team are pushing themselves to the very edge of human endurance. We also spoke with Dr Nick Tiller and David Harrison, the researchers hoping to learn more about what happens when strength, stamina and resilience are strained to the limit. Here’s what we discovered…

A tribute unlike any other

100 peaks

The route

Karl’s mission is in memory of his brother Lloyd who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011. Lloyd was just 25 days into his deployment with the SAS.

Soon after losing Lloyd, Karl began taking on challenges in order to raise money for military charities in his brother’s memory. He began with the Paras’ 10, and progressed to the “Fan Dance”, a fully loaded timed route march at just under 15 miles up and around Pen Y Fan, used for special forces training in the Brecon Beacons.

Karl decided he wanted to do something truly different, unique and memorable. He wanted an epic adventure that would provide a lasting memorial. The concept of the 100 Peaks was born.

After two years of planning, the team of six will set off on 23rd May, marking the day Lloyd was deployed to Afghanistan, and finish at Pen Y Fan on 25 days later, the day he died.

The challenge encompasses three disciplines: ‘tabbing’ (a military term for fast marching/jogging with a pack), cycling and kayaking. Karl believes this may be the most demanding endurance challenge ever staged in the UK, particularly given the logistics and tight schedule.

One of the core objectives of the mission is to raise £100,000 in Lloyd’s memory, for military charities.

Karl’s perspective: The personal journey, the team, and the road ahead

When I spoke with Karl, we discussed the inner driving force motivating him in the challenge: primarily to make a lasting tribute to the memory of his brother. But during the training period, Karl also said that he was motivated by wanting to earn a place on his own team.

“I wanted to demonstrate that I was worthy of a place. I wanted to put in more work than anyone else and be seen to lead from the front.”

Early on in planning the challenge, he put a management team in place to select the team and project manage the whole exercise. Karl was clear that all athletes on the team needed to earn their place through demonstrating their commitment to training and team work as well as through their physical ability.

In fact, the team was reduced from 12 to 6 members a few weeks before the challenge starts. This condensed it to a focused group of those who have been most willing to be transparent and share their training diaries with others, as well as showing dedication to the effort. The final six (five male, one female) are those who have shown they are fully physically and mentally up to the challenge.

Karl’s training
Karl himself has certainly been utterly dedicated to putting in this commitment.

“I train two or three times a day, trying to get my body used to being under stress. The challenge will consist of arduous miles, day after day, so I’ve tried to do this in training too. Often I’ve been out of bed at 4:45 to run a half marathon, then I see my little boy and then go to work, come home and spend time with my son again, before running another half marathon in the evening.

“I’m running around 100 miles a week, and training on a bike too. I need to do core strength work too. In the last six weeks of the build-up, I’m running five marathon events in six weeks, including an ultra-marathon in Chester.”

100 peaks

Karl: the brains and the driving force behind the challenge

In the mind
I asked Karl about the emotional and mental demands he expects to face during the challenge. He says:

“I think the first few days will be fine, and after that it will get harder. It will be mentally and emotionally demanding, not least being away from families. But it’s hard to anticipate how that will unfold.

“As a team, we’ve done some arduous challenges together already, so there’s a very strong bond. I think there will be periods of tension, but in the end everyone will pull together to get through, and that will make us all stronger.

“There are different personalities in the group, but there’s a real team player ethic. We looked for those characteristics when selecting the team. We’ll look out for each other when the days get tough. Everyone is capable of leading, and there isn’t a particular main “leader”, so anyone in the team will pick up the baton if others are struggling.”

Worries and expectations
So what is Karl looking forward to most and least?

“I’ve already lost most of my toe nails, so I’m not sure what my feet will look like by the end!” says Karl. “But I am least looking forward to 12 hours in the saddle.”

“What am I looking forward to? Having it done! I’ve been planning it for so long, I just want to get on with it now. Then I want to enjoy some normal time with my wife and little boy.

“But also knowing I’ve done something pretty special, and the reasons behind it. I hope it will create a lasting legacy, synonymous with Lloydy’s name.

“The research will be important too, and will help the 100 Peaks Challenge to live on. So in the end it will become something bigger than just me and the team.”

Karl has an ambitious fundraising target:

“We’re aiming for £100,000. We’ve raised £30k so far, or £48k including previous events I’ve done.”

The money raised will go to ABF The Soldiers Charity and Support Our Paras. Click here to donate on the team’s fundraising page.

Nick’s perspective: Testing the physical limits of endurance

As well as representing a profound personal journey for Karl, the challenge will also provide a fascinating insight for researchers studying the physical and psychological aspects of endurance.

Dr Nick Tiller, a physiologist based at Sheffield Hallam University, is the lead researcher and research coordinator for the challenge. He is an ultra-runner himself who has undertaken challenges such as the Marathon Des Sables, so he certainly has an insight into the punishing nature of pushing the body to the limit.

Nick’s research will look at physiological function under extreme endurance conditions. He says:

“There is a paucity of good scientific data on the physiological responses of extreme endurance, so this is a great opportunity to extend the literature.”

Collaborating with Nick, a team will conduct three studies, researching:

  1. Respiratory function before, during and after the challenge, led by Nick.
  2. Cardiovascular function, led by Scott Chiesa at UCL. Scott has access to world class clinical testing facilities, so will be able to conduct detailed investigations into the cardio implications of this type of exercise.
  3. Nutrition, led by Dr Justin Roberts and Craig Suckling from Anglia Ruskin University, looking at nutritional profiling including gut microbiology.

Before the Challenge
There has already been a weekend of research tests at UCL and Brunel University in London, conducted at the end of April, during which comprehensive baseline testing were done, including assessment of:

  • Heart structure and function and blood vessels.
  • Lung function: capacity, maximal load, respiratory muscle strength, airway resistance, and lung diffusion capacity (testing the lungs’ capacity to absorb oxygen into blood).
  • Nutritional aspects using nutrition questionnaires, food diaries, and blood samples to test for endotoxin profiles and gut microbiology.

During and after the challenge
Every seven days during the challenge, these same three elements (cardio, respiratory and nutritional) will be assessed again. Nick says:

“It won’t be easy conducting tests during the challenge as we’ll need to get out into the hills and travel with the team.  We have some portable respiratory devices, so we can check lung function, and we’ll take some blood samples to assess gut microbiology. We also plan to do an ECG midway through the challenge to assess cardiac function.”

100 peaks

The punishing task ahead

Likely findings?

What does Nick expect to find? He explains:

“This will be novel data on the limits of physiological function. I hope it will inform future training for this type of ultra-endurance event in future, and provide a better understanding of what the body goes through.

“I think we’ll see a trend in response as the challenge progresses, potentially with a deterioration in cardiac structure and lung function as they push themselves into unknown physical territory. But it’s plausible we might see a training adaptation, and even an improvement in physical function after 25 days.  The interesting thing about physiology is the individual response; every athlete is different, and so will respond differently to the physical stress.

“There could also be a split among the athletes in the group. Those above a critical threshold of physical condition might endure and adapt, where as those below the threshold might exhibit a maladaptive response.”

So in physiological terms, an extreme endurance challenge like this could be negative for those taking part? Nick says:

“Obviously we want to see them all get through this challenge in one piece.  But, ultimately, over-assessing the responses with numbers is not what this is about. Ultra-endurance is the supreme mental and physical test; it comes down to the decision to immerse yourself in an extreme environment and ride the line between success and catastrophe. The life experience and the adventure are unparalleled. It’s about something bigger, and the legacy of the challenge.”

(Follow Nick’s research via his Twitter account Dr_NTiller.)

David’s perspective: Mental coping strategies under duress

David Harrison is a PhD researcher based at Nottingham Trent University. His interests include studying psychological resilience in endurance sport, so he leapt at the chance to get involved with studying the psychology of the team during the 100 Peaks Challenge.

As David explains:

“This is an unusual opportunity to study psychology during an extreme endurance event in real time. psychological resilience are done retrospectively due the nature of resilience as it comprises an element of risk and adversity. This is the same for endurance sports where participants responses are investigated before and after their event. If you think about running a marathon, the thoughts going through your head when you are actually experiencing the physical effects at 19 miles are really quite different from your assessment once you’ve finished. And the following week you’ll struggle to have an accurate recollection of how 19 miles actually felt in the moment.

“But with this challenge, we can have live tracking of the team members. Each of them will make a video diary to record their thoughts and feelings. This has not been done before in this form of research – there is very limited live tracking data during a challenge – so it will be an exciting study.”

Team resilience
David explains he will be looking for the characteristics of team resilience and dynamics as well as individual resilience. He explains:

“By team resilience we mean the characteristics that allow teams to deal with pressures. Team resilience is different from individual resilience. You could, for example, have resilient individuals who still don’t come together as a resilient team.”

In addition to the video diaries, David will assess this by getting together with the team on five occasions during the challenge. He’ll have dialogues about how each person has helped the others, and will track how their assessment of this changes through the challenge. Then as part of analysing the research, David will be able to compare what was said in these group meetings with what is recorded in the video diaries.

So what will be the focus of the research study? David says

“We’ll look at how the team dynamics develop and change, and at team resilience. We’ll also focus on what resilience strategies are being used both by the team and by the individuals.”

David has also taken some baseline measures of psychology so that he understands the individual team members a little better before the challenge begins. This will enable him to spot patterns, trends and changes in individual attitudes.

And what is he anticipating finding?

“Well, I’m obviously trying to approach it with an open mind! We’ll observe and pick out the key themes in a qualitative approach. But I would anticipate there will be a major theme around control. People experience higher pressure and stress when they feel less in control.

“In terms of strategies, I think we’ll see adoption of very short-term goals as a survival mechanism. It will be about putting one foot in front of another, getting through the next mile or up the next peak. I think this will be a means of restoring a sense of control.

“It will be fascinating to see how they deal with it when it gets to the most difficult parts. There will be times when they are feeling awful. If they are proactive, they will have some existing strategies for coping but will also develop new ones when needed. So in large part, the purpose of the study is to record and track how strategies develop as they go, and to do so during the actual challenge.”

What next?

We will follow up with the challenge team and researchers when the challenge is completed. You can follow their progress on the 100 Peaks Facebook page:

The money raised will go to ABF The Soldiers Charity and Support Our Paras. Click here to donate on the team’s fundraising page.

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