Project Vertical with Fergus Crawley and Jonny Pain
To ascend 42,200m (26.2 miles) in elevation on foot as a continuous effort.
Have you ever hit rock bottom? If you have, you’ll know the only way is up.
Fergus Crawley and Jonny Pain are going up, 42,200m up to be precise. Their self imposed challenge is to ascend Ben Nevis (1352m on the mountain path) 32.5 times, over 10 days - a world first. But what goes up, must also come down and there's no train on Ben Nevis.
The extreme physicality of their endeavour is only half the challenge, the motivation to get these machines of men up the mountain, more than three times per day, is to make a tangible difference to men’s mental health and suicide prevention. Movember is a cause very poignant to Fergus, not because he’s lost a friend to suicide, but because in 2016 he attempted to take his own life. Here, in his own words, is what happened.
We caught up with both Fergus and Jonny to find out more about the challenge ahead and their motivations behind Project Vertical.
Have you both always been involved with ultra endurance sport?
Fergus: In short, no. Three concussions in 4 weeks ended an aspirational rugby career in my late teens, so I plowed my efforts into personal development, powerlifting and I qualified as a Personal Trainer in pretty quick succession. It wasn’t until after uni and a serious injury that I decided to compete in an Ironman to rebuild my aerobic capacity. The Ironman training showed me the benefits of being a hybrid athlete and that specificity in sports training can be a blinkered approach to being a fitter, stronger athlete. “Do the work, reap the rewards”
Jonny: I’ve been a professional coach for hybrid athletes for over a decade, but my own sporting history started in what is now MMA, as a way of controlling my fear and personal demons. I still compete in BJJ and thought I should practice what I coach with Fergus, put my “athlete” boots on and step up to this awesome challenge.
Why a Vertical Marathon?
Jonny: Fergus is no stranger to unique world records from his past Movember endeavours, so we wanted a challenge that had never been done before as a set out event. I say that as there are fell runners out there that have probably clocked up the height over distance and many Munros but not as a considered ‘thing’. Because it has never been tackled before, it does make the logistics of the event much harder to plan; from nutrition and fuelling our bodies to the kit we will need to carry. We’ve calculated that we’ll burn around 10,000kcal a day, so we’ve reserved engineered what we’ll have to take on board to sustain the physical onslaught. We’ve backed our decisions with science, but if we look at James Lawrence (The Iron Cowboy) who completed 50 Ironman Triathlons, over 50 days across the 50 states in the US, we know that his nutrition plan went out the window and it just became about the calories he needed to consume.
The first couple of days on the mountain will be our biggest test in terms of how we will complete Project Vertical, there’s no blueprint to follow. Much like training for a marathon, you don’t actually run the total distance before the event, the same applies here. We’ve had some great training weekends where we’ve summited Ben Nevis 2/3 times in a day but we won’t really know how everything will work until we are in the midst of it all.
Fergus: We know we have the physical strength to carry our bodies up the mountain, our strength training in lunging forward and the pounding step movement is there - also no one feeling lasts forever. It’ll be the mental battles that will define this challenge for us. We wanted to find something that would be just as much about a mental fitness test to a physical one. The narrative behind ‘Climb Your Own Mountain’ is about emphasising that no matter what your mountain may be, from an actual mountain to getting out of bed in the morning, it’s about setting a goal in what feels like an unachievable situation and achieving it against the odds.
The life I have now almost didn’t happen. If I can show that, a young man who fell by the wayside, can achieve anything with a re-found purpose and use the framework I learnt from my deep depression to tackle this mountain and help one person like me, then this will all be worth it.
You’ve both been very honest and open about your own mental health struggles, what do you hope to gain from Project Vertical?
Fergus: Human exploration; having a greater understanding of my own limits and how to to push them. To challenge myself to be honest about what’s going on. To highlight the need to talk more, listen more and support one another. This is the first Movember event that I’m doing with someone else and I’m really glad to have Jonny along for the journey - it’s going to be a bloody dull, monotonous, brutal task so have someone to share that experience with is vital.
I hope that the scale of this challenge will provide the opportunity to springboard consistent projects in the future and it should galvanise a robust system of help.
Jonny: Put simply, to normalise mental health and to be honest enough with yourself to talk and ask for help without fear or stigma. I know from my own past struggles, lots of folks ‘medicate’ with booze or other substances rather than face their reality, I’d love to use this challenge to show the benefits of moving your body as therapy. Being outside, moving our bodies and doing that with other people has been a huge help to both Fergus and I, to the point where if I’ve not been in the hills for a while I feel the difference.
As we’ve already said, if seeing us put ourselves through this challenge helps just one person, then it’s all been worth it.