Aberdeen ultra-runner Alan Cormack has completed the National Three Peaks Ultra – an incredibly challenging 430-mile, nine-day race which is potentially the UK’s toughest.
Cleaning company boss Alan, 55, took nine days, one hour and 34 minutes to complete the gargantuan route, which would be a challenge over flat terrain, but is made all the more gruelling by the requirement for entrants to scale the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales – Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdown – along the way.
Alan was one of just 17 finishers from a field of 32 – including runners from as far away as Brazil and Malaysia – with every finisher in this first-ever organised running of the race beating the previous fastest known time for the Three Peaks Ultra route.
As the only athlete from Scotland among the 17, Alan, in completing the course 10 hours faster than the previous overall record for the challenge, is now the Scottish record-holder.
Failure was not an option for Alan, who said: “I was actually told by someone who was helping on the race, two weeks prior to it starting, that he didn’t expect anybody to finish it.
“That ticked me off, so I was pretty determined to do it.”
Asked if there was ever any doubt in his mind he’d complete the monumental challenge, Alan added: “The only thing that would’ve put me out was injury. I was very cautious coming down (the peaks), because I took a tumble on Ben Nevis and banged my knee and stuff. That was what I was really concerned about.
“I wanted to show people I could do it.”
Alan travelled by train and bus from his home in Aberdeen to Fort William two weekends ago, with the race starting at the foot of Ben Nevis.
After running up and down the UK’s tallest mountain, competitors took the West Highland Way trail to Milngavie, before switching to main roads en route to the Lake District and the ‘rough’ ascent of Scafell Pike.
The course then took the runners into Lancashire, past the likes of Preston, before they skirted Liverpool and Chester on their way to North Wales, where a ‘very hilly’ final section culminated with the summiting of Snowdown.
On overcoming the fearsome ultra route both physically and psychologically, Alan added: “I didn’t overthink the distance, but the crucial part for me was I had to get from Ben Nevis down to Beattock (in Dumfries and Galloway). I really had to put the foot down there, because it was 170 miles and I didn’t have a lot of time to do it.
“I think it was about 69 hours I got there in.”
A nutrition strategy built on Magnum ice creams
During more than a week of intense effort, rest and proper meals were in short supply, with Alan explaining: “We ate when we could.
“There were checkpoints, which were village halls and community centres, once a day. I was resting for a couple of hours, that was the maximum I could allow for speed. It wasn’t luxury – it was a case of chucking my sleeping bag down on the floor.”
Alan’s main source of nutrition was a novel one – Magnum ice creams.
He added: “I was struggling to eat because of the heat, but I found ice cream went down quite well. If I found anywhere that sold ice cream, I was buying those.
“I like Magnums and found they went down quite well. At least it was calories – something to eat, anyway.
“It wasn’t a huge amount, but I’d buy a box of four and wolf them down quite happily. I’d just eat them all in one go, because they obviously wouldn’t last very long.
“Tinned peaches were another favourite as they’re very easy to eat, but I couldn’t really face much else, apart from the odd sandwich.”
The journey down to Wales also included some notable moments, including Alan rescuing a lamb which was stuck in a fence.
And he says the overriding feeling on reaching the end of the race was ‘relief’.
Again, due to the small scale of events like the Three Peaks Ultra, the understated fanfare afterwards often doesn’t reflect the sheer suffering and endeavour of the runners in completing the race.
Alan – who was picked up by a taxi at the foot of Snowdown, before heading straight to a hotel for a shower he was “desperate” for and a well-earned, proper rest – said: “It was a relief (to finish).
“There was nothing at the finish, I was presented with a medal and then had to find my own way home.”
John o’ Groats to Land’s End next?
Alan, who plans to take a ‘good few weeks’ off before embarking on his next ultra, finally made it back to Aberdeen via taxis and trains on Tuesday afternoon.
A 10-year veteran of ultra races, starting with the Dee 33-mile race, Alan has also run the likes of the 99-mile Deeside Way and the Tunnel Ultra – a quirky 200-mile run along the length of the UK’s longest tunnel, Combe Down.
He has turned his attention to topping his Three Peaks Ultra achievement, but not quite yet…
Alan has a Fort William to Inverness race (70 miles) pencilled in for July, before a 140-mile race, which starts from Hull, in December.
But he has an eye on running from John o’ Groats to Land’s End ‘next year or the year after’ – which he reckons is the only route in the UK which might be on a par with the Three Peaks Ultra.
On the allure of ultra running, he said: “It’s a lot of personal time and I thoroughly enjoy it.
“Mentally, it’s a really good thing for me and is like a complete holiday from anything.
“I do a lot of thinking and I’m in a zone completely, thinking about other stuff completely away from running.
“You can look around, enjoy the scenery and the sounds – it’s really great.”