After a whole month of gruelling days testing us to our limits, the Virgin Strive Challenge team should have been ready for the final day of our journey. But because we were in such high spirits and such good shape by this point, we thought it would be slightly easier. Not a bit of it – the final day, climbing Mount Etna, was as gruelling as any that went before.
It started with a half marathon trail run to the halfway point of Mount Etna. I’ve finished the London Marathon and have solid experience, but this was an almighty test. There were massive stones and a constant steep incline to navigate. Even for the best marathon runners, it was a challenge. The fastest Striver made it up in one hour 40 minutes, most of us were a long way back, but we all did it.
After a break, we were expecting a relatively easy hike to the top. I’ve climbed Mont Blanc and knew I had the right mindset to make it to the summit. But we soon learned it was exhausting. Hiking up through rough lava fields we had to really lean on each other, use every ounce of teamwork and the spirit we have built up during Strive to get through it together.
We made it. All the way from the Matterhorn to Mount Etna, under human power. Hiking, cycling, swimming, running, climbing, Striving. When we got to the top it was absolutely spectacular. Very few people get to see an active volcano up close. We could see the lava that had spilled out, the beautiful shrubbery growing around and ladybirds in the stones. But the best view was seeing the jubilant faces of a group of people I’m so proud to have became firm friends with over the month. We were joined by the triathletes who have been an absolute delight with us this week too. There was a lot of dancing and singing at the top.
Looking back on it, from my own point of view, I started off wounded. Would I be able to get through it? There were a few days, especially during tough days cycling near the beginning, when I wondered if I had it in me. I suffered from shooting pains up my leg. I really thought, ‘am I going to make it?’ During the swim across the Strait of Messina, I struggled with my breathing wearing a snorkel after going off too fast at the start, and Holly worried I was having a heart attack.
But it is just incredible what the body can do, and what the mind can conquer. I made it through the swim after switching to backstroke, and have kept pushing on. In the last few days I have felt so strong, I have been keeping up with the youngsters, racing them to the end and feeling like a 20-year-old. It does show that, whatever your age, if you can avoid getting injuries, you can do anything. If you get active through things like cycling, swimming, kiting, it is amazing what the body can do.
The final verdict on the Virgin Strive Challenge 2016? The bonding has been amazing. It has been incredible to see so many people pushing themselves, for such an important cause. It has been much more brutal than the first Strive, which of course ended with a helicopter rescue from the top of the Matterhorn! Everyone has found it the toughest challenge ever. But we have also found it the most exhilarating, extreme, fulfilling achievement. Will Strive go on? Of course. We’re starting to plan the next one already. Keep Striving.