When Two Men Went Looking For An Endurance Challenge They Bit Off More Than They Could Chew – But They’re Still Going

Two men are aiming to be the first to complete a three-year triathlon, ‘Saddle, Sand & Sea’ – in 2015 it was Race Across Europe, in 2016 the Marathon des Sables, and now they’re rowing across the Atlantic – their story so far proves that getting to the start line is the hardest part…

RISING How did you come up with the concept of Saddle, Sand And Sea’s three-year triathlon? Were you just very bored at work one day? SEAMUS CRAWFORD ‘We met in our last year of University and talked about the Atlantic Row – two years later both of us felt relatively comfortable in our lives in London, felt like we were treading water a bit and wanted to do something that was extraordinary and do a big charity challenge. We were in the pub and just decided to go for it – those ideas usually have a couple of beers behind them! But the next row was too soon so we had a couple of years to make a bigger challenge and extend the whole thing into a kind of three-year triathlon with the Race Across Europe and Marathon de Sables. The best thing you can possibly do is sign up for stuff because then you can’t back out of it.’

RISING The Race Across Europe is 3000 miles, which is more mileage in less time than the Tour De France – were you cyclists beforehand? PADDY MONTGOMERY ‘No! We did the cycle as a pair with one on, one off. Within the space of nine months we both had to go from zero to hero – we had to spend a lot of time on the bike but it was a steep learning curve, getting used to the clips and the bikes.’

RISING And how well did your training prepare you? SC ‘There was one point four days into the cycle that gave me a real sense of dread. where we had gone through France and we were going through Austria and we had gone up some big hills, but we came to the first proper climb in Austria. It was at least five or six degrees steeper than any hill I had climbed in the UK and we were just at the bottom. I spent my four hour shift just desperately trying to get up this mountain. I was sat on the side of the road at one point thinking: “I’m not going to be able to do this, there’s just no way.”

I crashed at least three times just falling asleep in the saddle, in the middle of the night

RISING So you didn’t really know what you were letting yourselves in for – would you have done it if you had? SC ‘I think we went into it pretty naively. If we had both realised the amount of hours we were going to be cycling per day and the terrain, then I don’t think either of us would have thought it was going to be possible. Luckily we didn’t realise until we were in the situation couldn’t get out of it, and just had to go for it.’

RISING How did you then go on to set a course record? SC ‘Ah, that was because we were the first pair ever to finish it! I think four people have tried it solo and haven’t finished, one pair tried but didn’t finish either and there are only two teams of four who have managed to finish it. It was mind-blowingly tough – it’s quite hard to describe how tough it was. I crashed at least three times just falling asleep in the saddle, in the middle of the night.’

RISING You had to go non-stop, four hours on, four hours off, using the support vehicles to carry the resting rider – what was that like? SC ’It was so relentless – you’d come off the bike, try to eat as much as you can, try to sleep and then get back on the bike again – it just didn’t stop.’

RISING What kept you going when the penny dropped and you realised you were stuck in a sufferfest? SC ‘It was amazing too – there’s no way I would have gone to many of those parts of those countries if we hadn’t done the race. And we did draw a lot of strength from each other – you’d see the other person coming off the bike absolutely fucked, not being able to cycle any more, and that built respect in each other, and resolve.’

RISING How important was your support crew to the challenge? PM ‘We had an amazing crew of six people – it was an incredible social experiment because the first time all six people met each other was in Calais. Somehow it came together, it was all ages and on paper shouldn’t have worked but it did. Part of the reason we got to the end was because of them.’ SC ‘Yes, I remember sitting in the B&B in Calais thinking: “We have got six grown adults who have given up two weeks of their lives for free so we better bloody finish this.” We were struggling to find a team and then posted an ad on Explorers Connect.’

RISING Was there an element of luck to all this – like you had to roll the dice and hope for the best? SC ‘Yes, we used to do training rides from London down to Brighton and regularly get two or three punctures each. In 3000 miles in The Race Across Europe neither of us got a single puncture for the entire trip. We were quite lucky on quite a few occasions when things could have gone very badly wrong – the vehicles didn’t break down once.’

RISING After you finished Race Across Europe the next stage was the multi-day ultramarathon of Marathon de Sables – what was that like? PM ‘It was utterly miserable! I’m not built for running or heat – I could sweat in the Arctic. But it is an amazing thing and I highly recommend it to people. It was a pretty quick turnaround and had to change from cycling to running, which was tough.’

RISING Did you notice you were mentally tougher after the experience of Race Across Europe? PM ‘Part of the reason you do these challenges is to test yourself and we learned that when you put your mind to it and are a bit stubborn then you can get things done. So, the main thing we got out of the cycle was just proving that we could do these silly things and we were quite determined to smash the run.’

Paddy had never done a marathon before ending up doing six in a row, in a desert

RISING Did you have to deal with any injuries after the cycle? SC ‘Yes, Paddy’s knee started to go bad in the last couple of days in the cycle and that didn’t heal properly for a couple of months. We went to do a training marathon in Dover and Paddy had to pull out – if you knew Paddy you’d know that’s a pretty big decision, he’s knee was literally about to fall off. That was the first marathon I’d ever run, and Paddy having never done a marathon before ended up doing six in a row, in a desert. You’ve got to have an element of faith and just go for it.’

RISING You’ve toughened yourselves up physically but how much does the mental side count? PM ‘With all of these things there is a physical element to it, but the mental side is a shedload more important. Having done the first two we’re at a very good stage for the next one and not having the question: “Can I push myself in tough times,” hanging over you is actually quite a big one.’

We were in bits and I wrote an email home: “I’ve bitten off a bit more than I can chew here

RISING What was the biggest physical challenge of running in the desert? SC ‘We both got over the finish line on the first day of the Marathon de Sables and looked at each other with a sense of dread. You are given salt tablets to take every hour because you sweat so much but by the end both of us were just all over the place, stumbling around with mild heatstroke. We were in bits and I remember writing in an email back home: “I’ve bitten off a bit more than I can chew here.” PM ‘If if had been that tough everyday I wouldn’t have finished it – it was horrible.”

RISING So you learnt the value of looking after yourself, even when pushing the limits of endurance? SC ‘Yes – once you are in these things you have to concentrate and look after yourself in order to keep your body going. Even if your preparation isn’t totally right you can make up for that a little bit during, as long as you get your head right and drink enough and eat enough.’

RISING You’ve obviously trained for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands to the UK, burning 8000 calories a day, rowing in continual shifts? PM ‘We’ve spent quite a lot of time training on the rowing boat, getting used to living on such a tiny thing efficiently and packing stuff away. But you can never fully replicate it.’ SC ‘I feel like I’m eating for three people at the moment! It’s about five meals a day worth of food… The training programme isn’t fun, it’s pretty uncomfortable reps of leg work and lower back – six sets of 20 reps, for example, and you’re absolutely blowing after one set – you do feel the benefits on the boat though.’

RISING How have you mentally prepared for the row? PM ‘You have to get your mind mentally ready that it’s going to suck. Seamus made a point that it’s going to take us 40-50 days so there might be six times where you just want to get off the boat. As long as you appreciate you’re going through one of those six times, take a deep breath and realise that life’s not that bad, then that’s the key thing.’ SC ‘We’ve been through a fair bit together already and that will hopefully help in the tougher times that I’m sure are ahead in the row.’

RISING Do you get seasick? PM ‘I don’t usually but it’s inevitable for the first week – you’ll feel like you’re in a washing machine.’ SC ‘I was talking to one of the guys who did it last year and he said that you feel like you’re hungover for the first week – that sense of constant discomfort, waking up with a sore head and feeling like might want to be sick at some point in the day.’

RISING Did you get any top tips on how to cope? SC ‘One good bit of advice was they had a routine that if you were feeling really terrible and didn’t want to be spoken to that the would have their sunglasses on and earphones in and if those are both on then you’re not allowed to speak to them, that was their time out!’

RISING Is there a sticking point you’ve been warned about where it’s common for people to give up the row? SC ‘For the first two days the support boat says that everyone is jacked up on adrenaline and pumped but when you get to day three or four and the realisation of how much longer you have to go sets in. That’s when the sat phone starts ringing and the excuses start coming out – apparently it’s such a shock to the system that your brain almost starts inventing injuries because it’s saying: “Get me out of this situation.”

‘It’s one of those things I’m apprehensive about but also looking forward to. One of the great things about these challenges is getting through that kind of stuff – it’s an amazing experience in life. It makes you realise that life isn’t all bad, so just get on with it and you’ll be fine.’

WHAT NEXT? Find out more about the 3,000-mile [Talisker Atlantic Challenge]https://www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com rowing race and follow Seamus’s and Paddy’s Saddle Sand Sea quest as they attempt to raise £300,00 for charity.

Follow the writer @mattfitnessray