Covering more 5,000 miles on bike, foot and kayak over the duration of 72 days, 22-year-old Alex Staniforth became the fastest person ever to summit the highest point of the UK’s 100 historical and ceremonial counties. Such challenges have taught him the benefits of getting outdoors to those affected by mental illness.
Climb The UK challenge
Everyone has their Everest in life, but people with mental illness have an Everest to climb every single day. I wanted to spread a message to every corner of the UK that together we can climb ANY mountain, and that talking about mental health is a sign of strength, not a weakness.
Unlike my previous adventures, I was looking for a challenge closer to home so that others could take part too. Finding new ideas is difficult, but when a friend first suggested the idea of climbing the highest point of all 100 UK counties over a roast dinner, I discovered it had only been done once before in one continuous trip. Initially I didn’t think it would be hard enough, but it turned out to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done.
Alex braves the weather atop Ben Nevis ©Alex Staniforth
Logistically, the trip took four months to plan, but as a competitive runner and cyclist I decided not to do any specific training. This was clearly a mistake. My knees weren’t used to the weight of a touring bike and I paid the price with a muscle strain and crippling pain just five days into the trip.
My longest day was 18 hours, my greatest distance on the bike 122 miles and my longest walk/run over 20 miles. In spite of all this, the challenge was mostly psychological, and ‘relentless forward momentum’ quickly became my mantra. If only I could have prepared for the saddle sore…
Bound to his bike for much of the journey, Alex became accustomed to the adversities of saddle sore ©Richard Ellis
Travelling over 5,000 miles by bike, foot and kayak revealed what an amazing country we live in. Everyone makes fun of Norfolk for being flat, but having 29 local students join me on their highest point, Beacon Hill, was a real highlight. Most had never walked it before, so getting them outside and achieving something in the process was so rewarding.
Celebrating at the top of Beacon Hill in Norfolk ©Alex Staniforth
Seeing the turquoise coastlines on all four sides from Ward Hill on Orkney was unforgettable, and I have to mention Yorkshire too.
Stunning views of the Orkney coastline ©Alex Staniforth
The UK was full of surprises and countless highs and lows (literally), from kayaking the Solent Straight to the sunny Isle of Wight where I spoke to 100 kids at a primary school, to being soaked by penetrating Scottish rain in a remote glen, forced to change in a phone-box. I felt more like a drowned rat than Superman.
Wet, wet, wet ©Alex Staniforth
It was the support and generosity that kept me going through the toughest moments, like Ben Lawers in Perthshire when I came down with a chest infection. In my weakest moment, I had to force myself outside at 6:00am in atrocious weather, shivering and aching all over. My friend played Morecambe and Wise on the next summit to boost morale – it was priceless.
Adventure and the outdoors is such a powerful outlet for mental wellbeing. The environment gives you something positive to focus on, milestones boost self-esteem, and harsh conditions build mental resilience to cope better with tough situations. Mental illness can make it a challenge just to get out of the front door, but once we do, we are already winning.
Alex’s Climb The UK challenge ended at Moel Famau in north Wales ©Jonathan Davies
Having experienced these benefits myself, I want to inspire more people with mental illness to get outdoors. Right now, I’m enjoying the freedom to recover and do nothing for a while, but soon I’ll start work on my second adventure book, an account of Climb The UK.
This challenge will be hard to top, but there’s no point in aiming small. I wonder what ideas the next roast dinner will bring?
Find out more about Alex – including adventures, inspiration speaking and fundraising – here.