Attempting a Triple Everest and a Guinness World Record.

It was 2.32am on a foggy night. Parked on the side of Cwm Graig Ddu, I peeled myself off my bike and informed my friends Matt and Budge that I was hallucinating. Descending 70kph in the dark, I was worried for my safety, but didn’t want to stop. The Guinness World Record was tantalisingly close and as the minutes slipped by, I knew something had to change. This was a win-or-lose moment; a transformational turning point in our 48-hour cycling elevation record attempt.

Let’s go back to the start

On the surface, this is a story about cycling. But for us, in these unprecedented times, it became so much more. It united people – often virtually – in support of an over-optimistic and under-qualified crack at a tough world record. A world record attempt that wasn’t even my idea.

The Everesting Challenge is fiendishly simple, yet brutally hard. The idea is to pick a hill anywhere in the world, and ride repeats of it until you climb 8,848m – the height of Mt Everest. I completed my first Everest Challenge in December with Ian Walker, accompanied by headwinds and heavy rain on the Tumble in Wales. Fast-forward to an indoor Everest in January, another outdoor in February, a double indoor in April and again in May and you can get a sense of how I spent lockdown when racing wasn’t an option.

Basically, I became a mountain goat. After completing the double Everest in my garage on Zwift, Matt Jones took a look at my data and discovered that my Training Stress Score wasn’t high, considering what I’d done. He suggested we attempt the World Elevation Record and, amazingly, I agreed. Little did I know what I was getting myself into, but saying yes to the crazy was part of the Team JMC ethos.

The one to beat

To succeed, I’d need to beat the elevation set by 26-year-old Californian, Craig Cannon, who held the Guinness World Record for the Greatest Vertical Ascent by cycling a whopping 29,624m in 48 hours. To do it, Craig covered 546km in 48 hours. Since 2015, Craig’s record had stood unbeaten, and here I was, trying to better it on a UK hill, rather than a more favourable 12% average Californian hill. This wasn’t going to be easy.

Location, location, location

Speaking of hills, finding the right one was key. After scouring Strava and Veloviewer and quizzing friends, my coach Oli Beckingsale suggested B4519 near Llangammarch Wells in Wales. With a 9% average gradient, good surface, straight(ish) line, good mobile reception and very little traffic, I instantly liked the look of it. I calculated that if I took the steepest section of the hill, I’d increase the average gradient to 10% and reduce the distance to 620km in 48 hours (still 74km further than the current record holder).

No man is an island

This isn’t a record one person could break alone – a team was vital, especially for safety. Challenges are also more fun as a team with friends. I was overwhelmed with the support and advice offered by the cycling community. Being a member of Team JMC – a collective of like-minded cyclists – gave me a head start. Conscious of Covid guidelines, a small team grew with established roles; Budge (Andrew Burgess) would look after evidencing the ride – vital if we were to prove to Guinness that we had beaten the record – while Matt Jones and Andy Deacon would handle performance and nutrition, with Nick Buckland and Daniel West on problem-solving duty. Which just left me to focus on pedalling.

Gearing up

Cycling the most elevation brings unique equipment requirements. As momentum gathered, I began to get offers of support, from people who embraced the idea. My local bike shop, Haiko Cycling, Portishead were first to help by tailoring my bike for the attempt. They also maintained the bike as the training load increased. Then Ryan Builds Wheels offered hand-built bespoke, lightweight wheels. This became a ‘secret project‘ pushing to breaking point the boundaries of aluminium wheels. We were searching for a fine balance between light and durable. We started with pre-production AL25 on Bitex RAF9 and RAR10 hubs. These proved too light when the rear failed after 40 hours of climbing. For the attempt, I kept the AL25 on the front and a use a new (production, not pre) AL25 rim with specially sourced washers to further strengthen the rim. Finally, Mark at Exposure Lights sent lightweight, race versions of their excellent Diablo and MK 14 light combination. I was good to go!

A false start

We’d settled on the 7th, 8th and 9th of August for the record attempt. The weather looked good, with tailwinds and temperatures in the low 20s. It started well, but four hours’ in, things started to heat up. I spent the next eight hours melting with increasing stomach issues chasing the record pace, but eventually, had to abandon the attempt altogether. The temperature was above 30 degrees – one of the hottest days of the year and far too hot for me.

{August 11th, Instagram} Attempted a long cycling challenge at the weekend. Stopped short by the crazy 🥵 weather after 12 hours 😔. This Irish boy just couldn’t take it 😓. I’ve learned from experience to embrace the opportunity to learn that failure presents. So, not let it get me down. Buoyed by amazing support, it’s time to regroup and go the distance next time! 

An Irishman living in England attempting a world record in Wales

First, I focused on nutrition and hydration. Being a plant based coeliac, I don’t rely on sports gels and drinks. Instead, I use natural food like potatoes, avocados, nuts, seeds and bananas mixed with portable gluten free and veggie bars like OTE Duo and Mountain Fuel Feel Good Bars. I also use Spring Energy sachets – who sponsor me – to give me a 100% natural boost. The key was good variety to cater for changing tastes during the attempt. Once I had the nutrition under control, I consulted the cycling legend Rich Rothwell, who gave me confidence in my plan. After one final weekend on the hill, I was ready to try again.

Take two: the record attempt

We planned our next attempt for the 25th, 26th and 27th of September, but the weather forecast and the threat of a second Covid spike forced us to move it forward by a week, halving our time to get ready and reducing the size of the team to just Matt and Budge. Rather than advertise the attempt, we set up a WhatsApp group for family and friends to keep up with the madness and send us videos and messages of support, which proved invaluable.

Day one

Matt and I travelled to Wales the night before, while Budge arrived at 7am the next morning. After our photographer, Anthony Pease arrived, we did a countdown and set off at 10am on the dot – we were off and I was thrilled that after all those weeks of training, logistics and preparations, I could finally focus on cycling. That is until halfway up the first climb, when Matt noticed a wobble in my tyre and – bang – the inner tube blew. Not the best start, but hopefully not a sign of things to come. I fixed it, returned to the start and I set off again at 10.21am with messages of support coming in thick and fast.

[18/09/2020, 20:19:19] Marco Panfilo: Good luck Alan. You are going to smash it. From Italy 🇮🇹

For the first eight hours, everything went to plan. Matt updated the WhatsApp group as we went:

[19/09/2020, 12:34:49] Matt Jones: 1600m in 2 hours

[19/09/2020, 13:43:59] Matt Jones: 2600m in 3 hours

[19/09/2020, 18:40:31] Matt Jones: 6000m 8 hours just had dinner 10min stop up on schedule still.

We’d decided to break down the 48 hours into 12-hour blocks. But nine hours in, I experienced my first inconsistent laps. Moving our attempt forward by a week had its risks, one being that I might not be rested enough. Just six days’ earlier, I’d completed an eight-hour session on the hill into a headwind, which had taken a lot out of me. All I could do was keep pedalling and listen to music to distract until the next stop – losing time now would affect us further down the line. Thankfully, that evening, we were visited by both a beautiful sunset and local cycling legend Ian Frewin, which lifted the spirits.

Night one, Everest one

12 hours after I’d set off, we hit our first major milestone by completing the first Everest – 8,848m – and promptly set our sights on the next milestone – a 20-minute nap at 3am. After I’d rested, I focused on completing the second Everest and looked forward to the arrival of my family.

[20/09/2020, 01:23:37] Matt Jones: Still going here. Battling through tough hours. Sleep due at 3.

[20/09/2020, 05:20:49] Matt Jones: Back into some improved lap times after nap and decent feed

[20/09/2020, 07:36:25] Jane Ward: Amazing. Al still smiling. Well done crew. X

Sunrise was a big lift, as was being joined by Huw Thomas. We rode together for a few hours, which passed the morning nicely, spurred on by the thought of the approaching halfway mark.

Day two

At 1pm, I passed the halfway mark and completed the second Everest – 17,696m of elevation. From here, I entered uncharted territory – none of us had ever done a multi-day event.

[20/09/2020, 13:19:06] Andrew Burgess: He’s just double Everested!!  👍💪

Thankfully, we were joined by the mighty Ian Frewin, who provided an excellent distraction. All I could hear at the top of each climb was “full gas, Al!” My wife Jane and daughters Amy and Esme had also arrived. I can’t describe how it felt to see them. They rolled up their sleeves, helped out with everything from nutrition to photography, (thanks Amy!) and even picked up a Burger King for the crew and a packet of Lockets to help my sore throat before they left.

Jane, Amy and Esme dish out the Lockets to sooth a sore throat

That evening, I hit a low. But experience taught me not to panic. Instead I’d turn my mind to ticking off the five things in my control; my position and technique, effort & power, breathing, self talk, my nutrition and hydration. This combined with positive thoughts about family, training and previous triumphs helped me push through until power returned to my legs. By this point, Matt and I were so in tune that he served up precisely what I needed every time.

[20/09/2020, 20:46:50] Andrew Burgess: Into the second evening and Al is sounding chipper despite the sheer magnitude of the challenge. There have been loads of highs and lows but he is still grinding the reps out and is just over world record target pace. Just. He’s smiling, eating & drinking to instruction, and feeling positive. Keep your fingers crossed.

[20/09/2020, 19:55:20] Tom Wewer: Great updates and support from the pit team. Keep on truckin Al! Incredible engine!!

[20/09/2020, 20:09:08] Nick Buckland: Keep it up Al! Only 50 more times up the hill and it’s done! Truly inspiring stuff

[20/09/2020, 20:20:36] Phil Stonelake: Wow, this is epic beyond anything I’ve ever heard of! I’m crossing everything available for a good night’s riding. The goal is getting so close now. Incredible inspirational stuff

Night two – the end is nigh

I hit 36 hours and another psychological milestone – it was getting tougher and tougher as we headed into a dark and foggy night. As if it didn’t feel enough like a war zone, the MOD began sending parachute flares into the night sky from the next door firing range.

The flares were mesmerizing and offered momentary distraction. Tonight, as it got tougher however, I knew I could throw everything at it; caffeine, sugar, whatever it took to get over the line. If I could make it to sunrise and stick to record pace, we had a real chance.

[20/09/2020, 22:22:34] Mary Colville: Sending you all our love you were born with courage. Love to be with you. Thanks to all for his amazing support! Dad and Mam ❤️

[20/09/2020, 23:44:48] Matt Jones: Solid lap times food going in just above pace but not much slack so time for race within the race

We’d been lucky so far with mechanicals, but in the night, the growing wind knocked the bike over on a stop. This knocked the gearing out and made changing gears noisy and irregular. It also increased my already high stress levels.

Remember those hallucinations I mentioned? They happened at 2.30am and involved long periods of déjà vu, forgetfulness and imagining I was in an animated world . I needed to stop and clear my head – it was getting too dangerous to continue. Something had to be done. After some discussion, Matt suggested a five-minute micro nap in the camper van. As soon as I closed my eyes, I was hit with a barrage of flashing colours. But as I lay there, the lights faded and my breath slowed – if there was one transformational moment in this endeavour, that was it.

Matt joins me for a few reps

I ate some potatoes and beans and my face changed from grey back to my usual Irish pasty white. I was revived and rebooted, but Matt and Budge were worried – for the first time since we’d set off, they felt the record slipping away. We needed to regroup and stabilise lap times before the final sprint. The next three hours were the toughest I’ve ever experienced on a bike.

Everest three

Not that I knew it at the time, but during the night we’d hit our third Everest at 26,544m. Once I realised, however, it was another huge lift – there are very few people in the world who have completed a triple Everest. So while I didn’t know whether we’d break the record, I did know that I wanted it more than anything, and I knew for certain I’d complete the 48 hours.

[21/09/2020, 05:51:25] Matt Jones: Some drama but focused again now

By this point, I was had taken painkillers and using caffeine as a weapon. My appetite remained good. I kept natural food going in and didn’t resort to simple carbohydrates, which wouldn’t give longer lasting energy. We knew that every minute we weren’t moving would cost us 12m in climbing, so stops were kept to a minimum – I even ate food while sitting on the toilet (the glamour!)

A new dawn

A sunrise after cycling through the night can rejuvenate the mind, spirit and remarkably the body. After 40 hours of cycling, sunrise brought a new energy. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful morning to do something really special.

[21/09/2020, 06:13:58] Matt Jones: Very tight to get record but can be done!

[21/09/2020, 06:45:34] Jane Ward: Come on Al!! Get it done.

[21/09/2020, 06:49:21] Andrew Burgess: He knows the rep times he needs to do now and is giving it his best shot.

[21/09/2020, 07:00:46] Amy Colville: Well done dad, not long to go now keep pushing so proud of you x

 The final push

With 3,000m left, it was going to be a race to the finish. I wanted this record so badly, not just for me, but for the crew, my family and everybody who had supported me. I began to dig deep, as Budge would say (being a Northerner) ‘I got one on me’. My rep times of 17, 18 and 19 minutes became 17, 16 and 15 minutes.

From then on, Budge and Matt stopped counting the rep times and focused on the laps. My confidence grew as I edged towards the world record. I was entirely present and at that moment, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. As I cut through the fog at the bottom of the hill and burst into the glorious sunshine, I could smell the finish, and even better, the world record.

Budge taking a break from the ‘calc’

[21/09/2020, 07:49:59] Matt Jones: Smashing it currently

[21/09/2020, 07:50:06] Matt Jones: THIS IS ON!!!

[21/09/2020, 07:56:38] Andrew Burgess: Feeling positive with Alan looking this strong. But it will still be a close-run thing.

At 7.56am, I took my one and only selfie. I needed to capture the exact moment I knew I’d do it. I didn’t know if I’d ever be in this position again.

[21/09/2020, 08:24:24] Matt Jones: Al has learnt a lot in the last 18 months, he is now applying that knowledge

[21/09/2020, 08:40:27] Jane Ward: Oh lord!! Tenterhooks here.

The finish line

On lap 167, and with just 1 hour left of our 48-hour deadline, Ant Pease joined me to capture the moment we hit the record.

There was celebration in the pits. Matt doused me in water and I was close to tears, but I knew I needed to get my head back down and put as many metres into the record as possible. I took my first gels of the event, just to get me over the line. Ant counted down as the clock ticked towards 48 hours.

 

When the 48 hours were up, I was halfway through lap 170. I had cycled 617km, over 30,000m, completed a triple Everest and beaten the world record.

[21/09/2020, 09:32:31] Keith Colville: Fucking hell….

[21/09/2020, 09:57:26] Oliver Beckingsale: Amazing achievement!! Al has worked so hard for this. Well done to all the support crew, fantastic!

[21/09/2020, 10:02:10] Bruce Grey: Amazing Alan 💪💪💪

[21/09/2020, 10:09:34] Amy Colville: Yes dad well done!!!!

A dream come true

I fell off my bike, Matt leapt on me and the celebrations began. We were shattered but elated – a tiny team of amateurs had just done the impossible. I’d realised a childhood dream by breaking not just any world record, but an athletic – and bloody difficult – one at that. I’d also finally proved something to myself since being hit by a truck while cycling to work in 2011, suffering a double back break, lacerated kidney and liver and losing my right glute max (the cyclist’s muscle). I’d been robbed of my sense of invincibility, and of my ability to compete at the highest level of mountain biking. When I crossed that line in Wales, celebrations and congratulations ringing in my ears, I was finally able to put to rest what had happened. I now understand – it’s my ambition that defines me, not a disability or an injury. Sitting there with my friends, on the side of that hill, I was on top of the world.

[21/09/2020, 10:31:48] Phil Stonelake: Absolutely stunning achievement. What a ride from Al and what a world class support team. I’ll be telling my grandchildren about this moment!!!!

[21/09/2020, 11:10:41] Andy Deacon: Congrats Al and team! Amazing stuff! So pleased for you all

My response the next day to all the wonderful messages on the WhatsApp group was:

[22/09/2020, 09:26:23] alancolville: There are no words 😶 I’m in tears reading back through this. I didn’t know so much of what was going on as Budge and Matt shielded me and I just kept pedalling (in between breakdowns 😂) It’s not sunk in and there’s only one thing to say, thank you Budge, Matt and of course Jane. Simply impossible without you and very entertaining also 😂 I’ll get to thanking people individually and start the process of submitting evidence to Guinness, but for now, we are World Record breakers, who’d have thought! Thanks, you all from the bottom of my heart! Until next time (too soon? 😊)

The aftermath

Of course, breaking a world record is one thing. But it’s not the end of the road. The final step is to prove to the folks at Guinness that you’ve actually done it. Below is just one piece of evidence, which is a 2 minute time lapse video of the 48 hours. We’d gathered terabytes of data, which needed to be catalogued and sent across as evidence. This took a few weeks, and meant I could never really relax following the attempt. Guinness also needed a survey of the hill, which took place on the 6th October, a week after the attempt. It was an anxious wait, worrying that the survey would come back measuring less than our Garmin and calculations.

 

But on 12.36pm, on Tuesday 6th October, I received a message from the surveyor telling me that both his measurements of the hill were 178.77m. There was relief, followed by overwhelming joy as I told Budge and Matt. This was it, the additional proof we needed showing we’d smashed the world record. Then at 1:33pm on Monday 19th October, Guinness got in touch to say they’d made the attempt the new official record! Now that it is official, we’d like to celebrate properly, but will be curtailed by Covid, so we will have to make do with virtual celebrations.

Ride stats

  • Reps of the hill – 169.61
  • Elevation gain – 30,321.18 metres
  • Distance 617.73km
  • Calories – 23,152
  • Pedal strokes – 127,074

I’m quite sanguine about the record, they are made to be broken, right? What will remain are the friendships and memories that are made when you put yourself out there, make yourself vulnerable and are prepared to fail. As well as reinforcing friendships and making memories, this epic journey reinforces once again my three core beliefs:

  • You are better than you think you are
  • You can do more than you think you can
  • We are all better when we work together

If  you’d like to know what happens next, you can follow my adventures on Instagram or invite me to give a motivational talk to your teams on LinkedIn . All that’s left to do is to say thank you.

Thank you

To Jane (my rock), Amy and Esme (my inspiration) for their patience, love and support throughout. To Budge and Matt from Team JMC, simply the best team in the world, I doff my cycling hat to you. To Anthony Pease for the amazing photography and invaluable help. To Oli and Llew for getting me in the best possible condition physically and mentally to get it done.

Also a big thank you to the countless others who helped and inspired me along the way;  Keith Colville, Ian Walker, Andy Deacon, Nick Buckland, Daniel West, Bruce Gray, Marco Panfilo, Rich Rothwell, ACG crew (Col, Tom, Neil, Adam), Robbie Allen, James Salter, Damian BrownMark Beaumont, Lara Morgan and many others, who came together to give their time and skills to support this crazy attempt. I am forever grateful.

My sponsors

  • Haiko Cycling, who kept my bike in tip-top-shape throughout
  • Ryan at Ryan Builds Wheels, who kept me rolling by providing hand built, bespoke wheels
  • Mark at Exposure Lights, who provided the best, most reliable lights for the two nights
  • Spring Energy, who provided 100% natural food
  • Kitbrix – my go to kit bags
  • Jon Pettifor at GORE WEAR who supplied kit, which I hadn’t the luxury of using during the attempt due to time

Strava files