The Pen-Y-Fan Tractor Tyre Push
28th March 2020 will forever stand as a day I chose to follow a daydream. The outbreak of the virus COVID-19 had recently taken a hold of the world and we were less than a handful of weeks into Britain's initial wave of lockdowns in the hope reducing the impact the virus had. I like many people was going a little stir crazy but I'd decided I was going to use this time to push my mental & physical strength by getting out my comfort zone.
I began with running. Growing up as a fat kid I hated running, naturally. With no gyms open I decided I would push myself to become a better runner and set the goal of running a marathon later that year, little did I know that my years of being a strength and conditioning devote had given me a huge baseline of cardiovascular fitness compared to what I thought I had. I started with 2.5km runs but was soon onto 5km, 10km and a half marathon within weeks. During my runs I had a habit of listening to audio books instead of music. One of my all time favourites I was having my 3rd tor 4th read of was 'The World's Fittest Book' by Athlete & Stoic Sports Scientist Ross Edgley. Mid run on 28th of March I had the weird mid trance like rhythm idea for a sports challenge. 'What if I pushed a tractor tyre up Pen-Y-Fan for charity, like Sisyphus rolling a great big rock over and over' it sounded brutal. 'Don't kid yourself it's just a day dream, like being a rockstar or something. You couldn't even begin to train for that now. It would be impossible'. Out my trance I came. But hold on a second I was listening to a book where someone literally breaks down how they train for extreme unconventional sporting feats like a marathon pulling a mini.
'Well I suppose I actually could train for this, and I would, but should I ?" This thought would roll over and over in my mind for several hours that day until I caved in and said screw it, booted up GoFundMe and made the fundraiser. "Well I'm committed now!"
Training for The Push
When I first posted the plan I had initially thought I'd use the barbell my gym 'Force Strength & Conditioning' (@Forcestrength) had provided me with to do a basic routine myself, the only problem was I only had two 5kg plates giving me a meagre 30kg in total. A far cry from the 140kg - 160kg deadlifts I was training before hand. I clearly needed help so I got in touch with Force, told them my plans. We had a few laughs at how stupid is was and then they said no problems we've got you covered.
Let me introduce to you ladies and gentlemen the one and only Mr Jack Spillets (@Spillets_sandc). I'd seen Jack training clients are Force to powerlift over the past few years and was intrigued to see what he'd come up with as I hadn't even had a conversation with the dude prior to this challenge. Previously I'd been trained by Matt Jones (@Mattjones_pt) a truly brilliant coach who'd helped me develop raw functional strength and cardiovascular fitness over the past few years. Now when I first opened Jacks programme in my email inbox it looked bizarre. Due to the lower weight there were eccentric moves, pauses, and callisthenics left right and centre. The limited arsenal of equipment had Jack getting really creative and you know what? I absolutely loved every bit of it. The tractor tyre instantly became far more than this hunk of rubber you could flip and hit. It become a trap bar, a step up block, a bench seat and more. I was using the 110kg weight of the tyre to build huge strength in my whole body whilst using the lower weighted barbell for my appropriate moves like rows and presses or slower controlled Romanian deadlifts.
Jack proceeded to build all the programmes for Pen-Y-Fan in what was one of the longest pre-season preps he'd probably had to train someone for thanks to lockdowns delaying the event. We started building physical preparedness to give me a robust strong baseline before moving on to add more specificity to each block. We actually didn't need to train me too intensely to begin with only doing 3 sessions a week with me adding a run on the weekend myself to improve my cardio fitness more.
So here's the first few blocks I trained at home up until June time roughly:
The warmup stayed fairly consistent for the training. I've included it here as warming up is essential to producing sporting longevity and increased performance in an individual. The basic idea here was to get the heart pumping, then use dynamic strecthes starting less specific and working the way to more.
Here we begin with general physical preparedness to make me more robust and build a good baseline ready for more strenuous training. Please note all blocks shown were for 4 - 6 weeks but I've just included shots of weeks 1-2 as it's more efficient.
With just 3 sessions a week and 5-10km runs on the weekends I was steadily making progress.
Although the programme changed the basic idea didn't very much. More prep and a few runs here and there. During this block Jack made me an actual running routine I'll include next.
I needed my running to be more structured now. I was running too far with 10k and it was starting to show as a pain I'd had in my feet through the year skyrocket in month 3 but I'll cover than later in 'injuries'.
Now we're starting to get more specific focusing on movements more in line with moving the tyre uphill. I'd also begun using the field behind my house owned by the farmer who gave me the tyre to start practicing rolling it uphill. The gradient turned out to be a lot steeper than most of Pen-Y-Fan but not as step as the final leg where I basically started doing stood bench presses with the thing!
This was great because we could directly see how my improving strength effected pushing and we could better tell what method and muscles to train. I adopted a move similar to a landmine press mixed with a push press. Some moves were even more like an olympic snatch gripping the bottom of the tyre and driving up as high as possible.
Gyms reopened not long after this and so I retuned to make use of more equipment but somehow I kinda prefered my backyard gym, despite my love for Force, it's pain lane, sleds, arsenal of bars, kettlebells and far far more. The stripped back more basic home gym really requires creativity and keeps training more strict, this is what I think I loved. That and having a cuppa between sets.
I think at this point it's important to discuss the injury I'd slowly built up whilst training as it dramatically effected the next month of training. Over 2020 I had developed a pain in my feet like that you might get on a long shift in work but it was cropping up more intense and after exercise occasionally but once I started running it increasing built up in pain and regularity to the point I struggled to walk my dogs or around the house even. I genuinely thought I'd broken some toes or fractured them as I'd started running and in just 3 weeks progressed to a half marathon wearing barefoot shoes.
23rd of May I finally contacted Hywel Griffiths of Therapy works (@Therapyworks_) online to get some help. As we were in lockdown me and Hywel were limited to just doing zoom calls and texting but oh boy does than man know the body. Hywel has done physio for the Welsh rugby squad, Wales' own women's football team and more from powerlifters to idiots pushing tyres up mountains he's covered it all. He couldn't quite nail down exactly what the cause was as it would've been impossible over zoom but he knew I had tendonitis in a tendon called Peroneous Brevis & he knew how to treat it so I began stretching and surely enough the pain decreased a bit as everything loosened.
16th (Tuesday) July Hywel had me in for my first in person session and it couldn't have come any sooner. I had just finished completing a distance of 50% of Pen-Y-Fan's trail in a 5 hour long slog the weekend just passed along with the help of my good friends Tom Harries & Ethan Forrest who aided in flipping and dragging the tyre back down each time so I could effectively work more on pushing it uphill. Taking it down was challenging and made 50% last just 30 minutes less than the full 100% did on the day.
Hywel gave me a full body 'M.O.T' to check everything over. His suspicion of my tendon was correct but now he could find out why, turns out I had a copper deficiency so some sort of system was switching off leaving my foot's muscles half limp when running and training. That combined with barefoot shoes and you had two raw steaks slapping tarmac, it battered my feet.
A couple of fascia releases, thera guns, and dark chocolate pieces later I was done. Just eat two pieces of 70% or higher dark chocolate for two weeks roughly 12 hours before or after protein shakes or coffee and you'll be fine was the instruction. Just like that my tendonitis that caused agonising pain to the point I'd avoid walking between training sessions healed. I dropped my coffee intake to one a day and dropped protein shakes using peanut butter loaded toast or rice cakes in it's place.
After physio chaos ensued. A day or two later my body was crippled with fatigue like I'd never felt before. Everything was aching and I was zoned out all day with a sense of doom. I consulted Hywel, Jack and my friend Craig Howard who's battled with chronic fatigue. They all knew part of the cause. Jack was familiar with this fight or flight terror the body can inflict on athletes on the run up to big sports events as the more ancient parts of the brain anticipate the extreme stress the body is going to be under whilst Hywel knew he had just unclogged a whole lot of bad in my system so my body needed time to repair but it was in a fight or flight high stress mode. Craig understood what this feels like and suggested I looked at ways to calm the nervous system down. The result, I became my own worst enemy for the next few months or rather my nervous system's response to physio & fatigue did.
My mental health which had been pretty stable for the past 2 years after suffering from depression post weight loss suddenly plummeted it seemed. I was on edge all day and struggled to sleep at night. I couldn't feel happy or excited. Every single day I was getting smothered & suffocated in negativity and the worst thing was that I kept thinking about dying even though this is something that's never been a problem before. At the time I thought these were my own thoughts and so I meditated like crazy, took up Tai Chi & read into the Chinese philosophy of Taoism.
I took me almost 3 weeks to get back in the saddle with training and in retrospect I now know that the mental chaos wasn't poor mental health it was an overly stressed body that needed some care and thanks to Jack, Hywel & Craigs suggestions my body recovered well. It was a learning opportunity now, it's over and can be analysed, but it did really make me in touch with how precious life is and that it is not to be wasted. It massively increased my focus on recovery and injury prevention in the future too.
The Peronious Brevis is the little white tissue here that connects at the base of the little toe and up into the calves.
Block 4 was a disaster with my fatigued state, I couldn't do it and thus I ended up not including it here. So instead I jumped to block 5 in which Jack assembled me 16 sessions I could fit in around when I felt ready and energetic plus I was now making regular trips up to Pen-Y-Fan with mountain man Nicholas Llewelyn to survey the route and make a visual guide of how I was going to tackle each gully, Theres well over 130 of them on the way up.
This block was even more specific and used all of Force's wonderful tools to full effect. I got my strength back and began rolling the tyre uphill again instead of taking the brisk walks. My mind was still chewing away at me but I just kept going through the motions to get myself to that starting line.
Training in the farmer's field for 25% Pen-Y-Fan distance.
Image: Ethan Forrest
My feet were so bad I became super picky over the right shoes for the day. Normal trainers wouldn't grip enough and boots were heavy so I went with fell running shoes.
Image: Ethan Forrest
After 5 hours of gruelling training up & down hill for 50% with Ethan (left) & Tom (right) both tall guys that make my 5ft 9 frame look tiny!
Pre-Event Rest & Fuel
Using the data my Garmin sports watch had given me during all the pushing sessions I knew that I'd need roughly an extra 10,500 calories for the event and I was taking no short measures in giving my body what it needed now. I read up online about fuelling for Iron Mans and ultra-marathons. Most athletes pointed to the fact that the week before the event is extremely important to how you preform on the day. There's a lot of speculation here as building endurance is quite a tricky and argued subject but here's what I applied:
-7 Full days of rest, no stressful work, no training just gentle walks and stretching to keep fuel flowing
-Instead of 10,500 extra cals in one day I broke it down into eating 1,500 extra calories everyday for a week in clean nutrient dense food. Plenty of healthy plant based fats, carbohydrates, and protein.
-On the morning I stole Ross Edlgey's Great British Swim breakfast of 150g oats, 30g blueberries, 1 banana, 2 tablespoons peanut butter, 50g dark chocolate, 30g scoop of whey protein, 1 tablespoon flaxseeds,1 cup almond milk. I added some pumpkin & sunflower seeds too. I rushed it down with a cooking spoon and rolled into the car for the journey north.
Event Day - 16th September 2020
After months of planning and risk assessment meetings my support team were ready, the Breacon National Trust had arppoved everything and the team were rearing to go. We assembled at the base of the mountain:
From left to right: Craig Howarth (& Co-co the spaniel) my photography mentor & tyre transporter (with his old man Fred) , Simon Harris, Keith White, Ethan Forrest, Simon (My old man who organised & overseen risk assessment), David Crews, Sean Pepperall (and his tyre cutting tool, also a massive part of risk assessment) and kneeling Nick Llewelyn our mountain man who we couldn't have done this without (Also integral to risk assessment), finally myself & Bertha herself (the tyre). Simon H, Sean, David, and Keith all come from the South Wales Fire & Rescue department. It was truly an honour to have them besides me and we all felt the weight of mental health's impacts in our lives from direct experience to loved ones and freinds so doing this was all the more meaningful.
All Pen-Y-Fan images: Greg Beynon (@GregBeynon)
Once we set off it immediately became apparent that this wasn't the same terrain as the field back home. With a much harder surface the tyre didn't dig in and thus I had to bear hug the tyre around every turn, push press it up steep sections and keep a firm hand on it at all times.
Nick walked in front of me using the notes me and him had previously made to direct me up the path like a 747 on a runway, apart from this wasn't taking off anytime soon, just a slow steady pace. Keith, Simon H, David and Sean took turns walking either side of the tyre to insure that if it fell they could control the fall to ensure it fell on it's side and not back down the mountain crushing the climbers out that day, but I was strictly the only person to pick it back up. I didn't wan't a single movement of that tyre upwards to be generated by anything else than my own body. Ethan moved around in front and behind both ensuring there was a back stop to catch the tyre if it rolled down (Something an ex second row would be great at) and to film the ascent with a chest mounted chest camera. My old man followed suit and mostly communicated with other climbers that day to ensure they could safely get past and to inform them more if they wanted. This was great as many of the people he stopped to chat with ended up donating to the Mental Health Research UK Fundraiser later that day!
As time passed on I steadily pushed and rested the tyre against my chest and shoulders where needed. It's because of this I wore rugby chest & shoulder padding as previous training sessions with the tyre had battered my sternum. My pacing goal didn't involve time or distance at all. I simply put my watch on a custom 'tyre rolling' workout I'd custom made and just watched my heart rate ensuring it stayed below 120bpm to keep myself in an aerobic state. The push was marathon, not a sprint by any means. In-between pushes I utilised some of Wim Hoffs power breathing to keep myself energetic and focused. Big deep breathes in and relaxed exhales out with the goal of breathing more than I felt I needed. It worked a charm.
30 minutes in the tyre grinds to a halt just as we'd planned. Nick runs over with his rucksack full of carbohydrate packed goodies in the form of doughnuts, bananas, fruit loaf, and more! He also had litres of water with salts and essential minerals dumped into them for good measure.
After the 2 minute timer was up I picked Bertha back up and on we continued all the way up to the saddle where things flatten out but become dangerously close to a sheer drop.
Up on the saddle we were now high up. The pushing become a lot easier now as it was flatter but the down side was the massive sheer drop down the side of the path and it was too narrow for my mighty tyre defending team to always be there. Utilising Buddhist monk like concentration and probably a little high on oxygen from Wim Hoff power breathing I totally zoned in on what I was doing. I was hyper aware of where I placed my feet, how the tyre moved in synchronisation with me. I wasn't pushing the tyre up here, I was part of a unified moving machine of man and tyre with balance and movement entirely interconnected. okay it wasn't that zen but I was in a mental state of meditation and flow when it came to pushing now. Even with the sheer drop looming I was comfortable with my tyre.
We slowly crept along the saddle and just before we got past a large group of military personal approached as Pen-Y-Fan is famously known for it's military training, S.A.S included. I can't place where they belonged in the military be that marines or paras but I moved the tyre aside so they could pass and as I did so every single member of this unit egged me on shouting words of encouragement & congratulating my effort. I was truly humbled and surprised it was that extra bit of motivation for what lie ahead. I could soon see the final steepest and most dangerous section of the push. The final ladder between the saddle and Pen-Y-Fan's summit.
Luckily the timer was due. I raided Nick's rucksack for carbs, fat & protein with a side of sugar, salts and water. I took a couple big deep breathes to focus myself and took hold of the tyre. This was it.
The final leg of the push wasn't the landmine forwards and upwards manoeuvre I'd deployed so far. It was giant deep steps on the steepest section of the mountain that required me to basically push and muscle the tyre with all my explosive power possible. I placed the tyre against each step and squatted deep below it with my hand on the tyre rested it on my chest like a barbell. I exploded upwards with my legs driving into a jumping push and my shoulders, triceps, pectorals and every other fibre of my body engaged to push the tyre up over the step. Again, again, and again I preformed this award tyre snatch until finally the terrain began to get shallower. My legs, back, and shoulders were ablaze with lactic acid. slowly almost leaning on the tyre we rolled towards the stony pile that forms the summit.
The peak is larger and being a beautiful September day there were plenty of people sat around eating, chatting, and queuing for an elusive selfie but like the Red Sea they parted for this lump of industrial grade rubber to pass through. Bump, Bertha touched the rock pile and the team went wild with cheer. "That's not it yet" I thought, with exhausted arms I muscled the tyre up on the pile and awkwardly placed it right next to the height stone marker. Now thats the summit.
I placed one foot on Bertha and using my hand pushed myslef up on top. As I looked up every single person on the summit was locked onto me in interest, awe, and curiosity. Then it came, a full summit of people who I didn't even know clapping, whistling and cheering. It was the most bizarre thing I'd ever experienced. Not being one for the limelight I looked to my team to thank them. They were there with me every single step of the way. I had nothing but love and gratitude for them.
To ensure no damage was left to the environment or others climbing we cut the tyre into four pieces to be carried down the mountain in slings. It was cut on the summit on a tarp to collect all waste. Sean used a firefighters reciprocating saw normally used on cars in fire fighting operations to cut bertha whilst other team members took turns cutting the wire rim with giant bolt cutters. So if you ever think about dumping trash on our beautiful Welsh landscape just remember we were able take our 110kg waste home!
We raised over £2,500 for Mental Health Research UK of which they were massively appreciative. I want to thank all the following people:
Jack Spillets, my Father Simon Mason, Hywel Griffiths, Nick Llewelyn, Sean Peperell, Simon Harris, Keith White, David Crews, Ethan Forrest, Greg Beynon, Tom Harries, the whole Force Strength & Conditioning team, Hywel the farmer, Robert Reith of the Breacon National Trust, Bro Radio's Ben Dain-Smith & Eleana Skitinis for getting my fundraiser to them, Katie-Ann Gupwell of Wales Online, my family for putting up with my monk like training lockdown lifestyle and feeding requirements, and finally but not least a massive thank you to all the amazing people who donated (with special mention of Matt Smith), every penny counted.
I'd also like to thank the two great British adventurours Ross Edgley & Ant Middleton who helped stoke the fire in me and inspire this journey. They were even kind enough to congratulate my effort by which I am humbled.