ALEX STANIFORTH interview – Runner’s World, Dec 2020 issue

“There’s this massive build-up and then suddenly this big void. Mentally I do feel a kind of flatness. Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe it never will.”

Alex Staniforth is speaking to Runner’s World 12 days after he completed the Three Peaks Challenge. Most readers will be familiar with the concept – ascending the highest mountain in Scotland, England and Wales in a single outing – and some will have done it, but not the way Staniforth did. Not only did the Cheshire man climb Ben Nevis (1,345m/4,413ft), Scafell Pike (978m/3,209ft) and Snowdon (1,085m/3,560ft) in August, he ran the entire way. That’s 452 miles and 38,702ft of elevation in nine days, 12 hours and 51 minutes. In doing so he raised over £11,000 for the charity he directs, Mind Over Mountains.

Aside from the obvious physical fatigue in the aftermath, some of that mental low can be ascribed to the fact that he missed out on the record time by a minimal amount. RAF serviceman Tom Mountney ran it in September 2019 in nine days, 11 hours and 39 minutes. A combination of Storm Francis and swollen ankles slowed Staniforth up. At one point one of his sponsors emailed him to suggest he should stop, because he wasn’t going to make the record and was clearly in a lot of pain. However, in hindsight, he’s beginning to think that completing it in the way that he did is a better illustration of the message he wanted to communicate by taking on the challenge.

“In some ways it is good that I didn’t break the record, because it’s more about how you find a way through the setbacks, and that’s what I wanted to show people,” he says. “We are capable of so much if we keep moving forward and don’t quit too soon.”

Tall and thin and young for the game at just 25, he doesn’t look much like the ultrarunners who have been knocking out FKTs all over the place this year. That’s an important distinction, he thinks. “What people relate to is that sense of vulnerability. I wasn’t trying to hide how much I was struggling. Before the challenge, I was seeing ultrarunners doing these things and thinking, ‘Who on earth am I to try and do something of a similar scale?’ But everybody has those doubts and that’s what stops us from achieving our potential.”

If he sounds a bit like a motivational speaker, that’s because he is. He’s been taking on major challenges since his teens and telling the stories to schools and businesses and in two books, Icefall and Another Peak. Coping with adversity is his main theme. Two attempts to climb Everest failed in 2014 and 2015, the first cancelled by an avalanche that killed 16, the second by an earthquake that killed 21 on the mountain and almost 9,000 in the rest of Nepal.

His school years were marred by childhood epilepsy, panic attacks, a stammer and bullying. As he became more serious about running in his later teens, he developed a long-term eating disorder. “Bulimia was the main thing, and general undereating. As a runner you’re trying to keep a lean weight, and there’s a lot of self-comparison. I think there’s probably a lot more of it going on in sport than we realise. As someone who’s suffered from it for so long, I do see traits of it in men who probably don’t realise what’s going on.”

His own struggles with his mental health are what have motivated him to fundraise for a range of charities in that field. In 2017 he spent 72 days climbing the highest point in every county in Great Britain and Northern Ireland for Young Minds UK. Now he has his own organisation. Mind Over Mountains offers counselling while walking outdoors in beauty spots such as the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales. “It’s about helping to build personal resilience, combining time in nature with professional support in a safe, confidential space,” he explains.

He knows the last question before it’s asked: what’s next? There’ll be a third book, this one full of self-help advice mainly for the under-30s, and for his next physical challenge he fancies a go at the Bob Graham Round. Epic physical punishment aside, he knows that getting into the hills has huge benefits.

“Being able to stand on a hill and see the world around you – it’s hard to put into words just how good for the soul that is,” he says. “It gives you hope that things will get better. It’s the most powerful antidepressant I’ve tried.” /