I remember Frank telling me that his other half, Caroline, thought he'd lost the plot when, 6 years ago, in his mid-forties, he'd informed her that he was going to start running. Half-an-hour later, as he lay, exhausted, on the floor of his conservatory after a mile shuffle around the block, she probably thought his announcement would be thought better of and his running carreer would be over before it really began.
I can imagine now that Caroline must feel glad that she was wrong. I can imagine also that she must have an immense pride in the incredible achievements that Frank has tallied up since that humbling introduction to long distance running.
In 6 years, Frank has completed several London marathons and raised close to £15,000 for charities close to his heart. Last year, he decided that a mere marathon wasn't enough. A couple of weeks after completing the London, he would run Wainwright's famous Coast To Coast route, crossing the English mainland from west to east. I was lucky enough to join Frank and his team - Simon, a fellow runner, and John, driver and organiser extraordinaire, at the start of this 190 mile, week-long journey. After helping them navigate the route through the Lake District for 2 days, I returned home, leaving them with 120 miles still to cover. I wasn't surprised in the slightest when I heard they'd successfully completed the challenge well under the scheduled time a few days later.
As we'd descended to Honister slate mine on the first day of that trip, Frank let us in on next year's mission. He fancied tackling the National 3 Peaks Challenge. This involves climbing the highest mountains in Scotland (Ben Nevis, 1344m), England (Scafell Pike, 978m) and Wales (Snowdon, 1085m), within a 24 hour period. The time limit means that although the challenge consists of 26 miles of ascent and descent, and is certainly a physical ordeal, thorough planning and a good driver are vital. Frank's idea impressed me, especially as he revealed an interesting twist. He would run the Edinburgh Marathon immediately before, leaving the finish line to depart for Ben Nevis and the start of The 3 Peaks. Would I be interested in joining the team? You bet.
Jump forward a year, and 5 of us are squeezed into a people carrier surrounded by running shoes, luggage, snacks and bottled water. We're en-route to the base of Ben Nevis. John is, once again, in the driver's seat. The other 3 guys - Frank, Simon and a crazy Polish new recruit to the team, Raf, are relaxing after just finishing the Edinburgh marathon. I'm looking forward to the challenge, but am a little concerned about the knee injury that had led to my decision a couple of weeks earlier to pull out of the marathon. Whilst a bit pissed off about that aspect of the trip, it's great to be with the team again. It's non-stop banter and laughing all the way to Fort William.
We set off up Ben Nevis at 7pm (my watch was 9 minutes fast all winter, but now it's BST, it's 51 minutes slow). The car's temperature gauge tells us it's still 27 degrees - incredibly hot, especially coming off the back of weeks of bad weather. We all set off over-dressed - 'it'll be cold at the top!' - and it's not long before we're all sweating our balls off and shedding layers. We pass an elderly couple sat at the side of the path after about 20 minutes. I stop and chat for a bit and the old bloke tells me his wife can go no further. They're nearly at the base of the mountain, but heat exhaustion has meant she can't go on. He tells me that mountain rescue won't be long. I relate this story to Frank when he catches up. By this time, he looks as though he may well need mountain rescue too. 'Thanks Chris,' he says when I finish talking, 'that's really fucking cheered me up.'
As we skirt Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, we all start getting to know Raf a little better. He lives in Manchester, works for the company Frank reps for, and has a vast amount of experience in the hills. He doesn't watch television, doesn't listen to music, doesn't support a football team. In fact, his interests seem to boil down to just 2 subjects - shagging and mountains. He talks about both incessantly, particularly the former.
A bit later, as we pass the tree line and start on the zig-zags to the summit, someone asks Raf a serious question. 'What's at the top mate?'
'Girls,' he replies. 'Beautiful Polish girls,' he continues, with a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye. We can't help laughing, and, as we look up the path, we're greeted by a vision straight out of Raf's wildest imagination. Descending the track are 3 beautiful young ladies dressed in bikini tops, short shorts and walking boots. All of us say hello as they pass us, except Raf, who's suddenly a little shy.
The light's almost gone as we reach the summit. Simon's shoes have survived the long ascent - even though the sole has detached from the upper, a roll of medical tape has managed to allay any further kit malfunction. We trudge through the snow towards the emergency shelter, the ruins and the summit cairn. I ring Tam and tell her I'm the highest man in the whole of the UK. Being so late at night, we have the summit plateau to ourselves. The temperature's still high and the night is absolutely still. We sit and gaze over the surrounding mountains and out to sea, alone in our magical world. After a few minutes, we pose for obligatory photographs and start down the Ben.
20 minutes later, the short-cut through the zig-zags that I spotted on the way up doesn't seem like the great idea it previously appeared to be. It's dark now - headtorches on - Fort William's lights below us as if we were approaching to land after a long flight - and the scree path is indistinct, loose and hard-going. When we eventually hit the main path, Simon and myself wait for Frank and Raf. We smile as we listen to Frank's effing and blinding from further up the hill.
Shortly after midnight, whilst crossing one of the metal bridges near the base of the mountain, we meet a party of 3 blokes heading in the opposite direction. Simon tells them what we're up to, but soon it's evident that we've been out-trumped. Starting at midnight on Monday morning, they planned to finish their trip before midnight on Friday. In the space of those 5 days, they intended to climb the 3 Peaks, cycle 550 miles between each on an old 1970's tandem and throw in a swim across Lake Windermere and back!
We eventually arrive at the car, behind schedule and starving hungry. John's sorted us all out with chicken kebabs that he'd bought from Fort William 4 hours ago. As I unwrap the soggy paper, observe the pitta dampened by fat and chilli sauce and poke the cold chicken lumps inside, I'm astounded, minutes later, that it tastes so bloody good.
It's John's time to perform now. Whilst he drives towards the border and Cumbria, the rest of us settle down as comfortably as we can and grab the most uncomfortable night's sleep possible. I keep waking to find Simon's head on my shoulder, and each time I nod off, it seems that I'm awakened by John excitedly pointing out random sights through the darkness, stags on the road or places he used to live.
It's a relief when we finally arrive in the Lake District.
We set off up Scafell Pike at 7am. It's another beautiful day. Visibility is superb and we're all in good spirits. Even though the path to the top is the roughest of the 3 peaks, it's one I'm familiar with and is a more direct route to the summit than the long march up Ben Nevis.
Frank seems revived from the few hours sleep. On the way up we're all treated to a non-stop string of motivational quotes that he delivers just in case we're feeling in need of motivation. 'Winners never quit, and quitters never win,' he tells us. 'If you can no longer run, walk. If you can no longer walk, crawl. The important thing is to never give up,' he tells us. And his personal favourite, 'If your legs are tired, it's only because they're kicking butt.' By the time we reach the top, we're almost wishing Frank had stayed in the car.
After savouring the Lakeland views at the summit, a Czech kid takes our photograph and we head back down. For a good while, I find myself walking with Raf. We chat and I see another side of him. He tells me of his dream to join the SAS which was thrawted by red-tape of some sort. He talks about his newborn son and the numerous mountaineering and survival courses he's attended. When I ask if he completed these in the Lake District, he tells me that he always goes back to Poland since 'not only are Polish men the best lovers in the world, they are also the best climbers.'
I innocently ask him, 'What's next on the agenda?' expecting him to reel off some random local 10k race. I'd forgot, however, that running, as such, is not one of his main interests. 'First,' he says, 'when I get home, I make love to my beautiful Polish wife. Then, I climb the Matterhorn.' I think he's joking until he fills me in on the details of his forthcoming trip with a fellow Polish climbing buddy. As soon as a period of good weather is forecast for that area, they'll be off.
We all reach the Brackenclose car park well up on the Scafell Pike schedule, and, after 10 minutes faffing around looking for the camera I'd thought I'd lost but later turned up, we're on our way to Wales.
My previous experience of the mountains of Snowdonia involves either darkness, dense cloud or torrential rain. Even though I've been over a few tops on a friend's Paddy Buckley Round attempts, I've never had visibility better than 20 feet. It's a revelation, therefore, to begin the last climb up Snowdon knowing that the views are going to be awesome.
We head up the PYG track, aware that time is on our side. Raf announces that he's intending a round trip of 2 hours so he can make the Manchester train from nearby Bangor. We let him go and carry on at a steadier pace.
The Snowdon climb is, by far, the easiest of the 3. I walk with Frank and Simon, then push on up the final zig-zags to the top. I wait there for a few minutes for Simon to join me, but decide to push on down before Frank arrives, having decided to take the Miners' Path on the descent and being unsure of how long it will take. We pass Frank before we head off the summit ridge and he's looking good, but his habit of stopping to chat with everyone he passes means he might be cutting the 24 hour time limit a bit fine.
Just over an hour later, we've arrived at the Pen-y-pass car park, our challenge completed. The Miners' Track had dragged on a bit, but the jog over the last 7kms, past Llyn Llydaw Reservoir and old mine-workings had been a fittingly-pleasing end to the day. We sit on the grass, wait for John to arrive in the car after dropping Raf at the train station, and wonder how far Frank is away. The clock's ticking - it's going to be close.
Frank arrives first. He staggers off the Pyg track and collapses on the grass. ,Bloody hell! I don't believe it!' he's saying, pointing at his watch. '1 minute past 7! 1 minute past bloody 7!' He's gutted. Just then, John turns up. Out the car he gets shouting, 'Well done lads - you all did it!' Frank tells him about his extra minute, but this time, fate is on his side. The official challenge clock - the car's dashboard read-out - is 3 or 4 minutes slower than Frank's wristwatch. The lucky bugger has cracked the 24 hour time limit with just a couple of minutes to spare!
We're soon on our way to the bunkhouse that's booked in Nant Peris, and the promise of a good meal and beer. Frank's in the front of the car. 'Bloody hell,' he says, 'that was the hardest thing I've ever done. A lot harder than the Coast To Coast, don't you reckon Simon?'
I remember Simon's words on the way to Snowdon's summit. He'd said exactly the same thing. He also said that this was the last time he'd ever get caught up in one of Frank's mad adventures. Mind you. he'd said the same thing last year, but when Frank had got in touch with another idea, he found he just couldn't resist.
As if reading my mind, Frank suddenly turns round and says, 'Right. I've been thinking about what we can do next year.'
Simon and I look at each other and smile as Frank begins...
So far, Frank's challenge this year has raised over £2,600 for JDRF. Well done, Mr Walsh!
His just giving page is here.