Star trek chal­lenge: Africa or bust

So you thought win­ning Olympic gold and row­ing the At­lantic was gru­elling? See what James Crack­nell is up to now

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Active -

In prepa­ra­tion for a Sport Re­lief chal­lenge, I’ve been try­ing to de­cide whether it is a bless­ing or a curse hav­ing to train for sep­a­rate dis­ci­plines. Hav­ing spent a wor­ry­ingly large amount of my life train­ing for a sport that re­quired me to be good at only one thing (row­ing), the variety has been a wel­come change, but I won’t know if I have favoured one dis­ci­pline un­til it’s too late.

I am aiming to get from Bri­tain to Africa un­der my own steam as fast as I can, row­ing the Chan­nel and land­ing at Cap Griz Nez, hop­ping on a bike and cy­cling south into Spain and down through An­dalu­cia, then swim­ming across the Strait of Gi­bral­tar from Tar­ifa on the south­ern tip of the Span­ish main­land to Punta Cires in Morocco. If I say it quickly, it doesn’t sound too daunt­ing.

I have never done any­thing re­motely amus­ing enough to jus­tify get­ting in­volved with Comic Re­lief. But Sport Re­lief? That’s more my area of ex­per­tise. This year it is Sport Re­lief’s turn to raise money for projects in the world’s poor­est coun­tries as well as in the UK. With a motto of “Rise to the Chal­lenge”, it is en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to be ac­tive to raise money.

Well, I have ac­cepted the chal­lenge — whether I can rise to it re­mains to be seen.

The project cer­tainly got off to a chal­leng­ing start. First I had to get per­mis­sion to row across the Chan­nel. Sport Re­lief has shifted its big week­end from July to March, and the French coast­guard wasn’t keen for me to at­tempt a cross­ing at this time of year.

Per­suad­ing the coast­guard was, how­ever, a damned sight eas­ier than con­vinc­ing French Cus­toms that I wasn’t go­ing to mount a one-man as­sault on France when I jumped out of my boat, on to a bike and dis­ap­peared into the coun­try­side. There was talk that I would have to go back to Bri­tain to catch the ferry across and clear Cus­toms. For­tu­nately, the good peo­ple at Sport Re­lief con­vinced them that I was rel­a­tively harm­less.

You un­der­es­ti­mate a stretch of open wa­ter at your peril, but I’ve had a row­ing boat built es­pe­cially and have en­joyed be­ing back out on the wa­ter. I have been granted a five-day weather win­dow by the French coast­guard be­tween Fe­bru­ary 26 and March 1 to try to en­sure I get a de­cent day, with a planned de­par­ture date of Fe­bru­ary 28 from Shake­speare Beach at Dover.

Hav­ing spo­ken to sev­eral en­durance ath­letes, they say the hard­est leg of the jour­ney will be the cy­cle ride. I’ve set my­self a tar­get of cov­er­ing the 1,400 miles in about five days, an av­er­age of 280 miles ev­ery 24 hours. At this stage, al­though talk is cheap, I will prob­a­bly be cy­cling be­tween 18 and 20 hours a day, and there is no way of know­ing how I’ll cope with those dis­tances day af­ter day.

The cy­cle has also been af­fected by Sport Re­lief’s date change. In­stead of a warm July evening in Bordeaux, I’ll be wrap­ping up warm and forced into a longer route to avoid high ground and snow.

The coast­guard in Gi­bral­tar was not about to be de­nied his chance to moan at the tim­ing. “No­body swims across at this time of year. Why not do it in July?” he asked. Hav­ing man­aged to smooth the wa­ters with him, the Strait will not be so easy. Al­though it is much nar­rower than the Chan­nel (about 12 miles where I will cross) the wa­ter will be rough and a cold 11C.

As the event draws nearer, the im­por­tance of the swim is grow­ing. I know the cy­cle ride is go­ing to be tough, but at least I can stop for a break. I’m not aware of a shal­low end in the Strait of Gi­bral­tar, and I have never swum this far, so when the ex­perts say it’s not as hard as the Chan­nel, that doesn’t help much.

At least I’ll have com­pany. David Wal­liams is go­ing to join me for the swim. The co­me­dian raised the profile of Sport Re­lief, a huge amount of money and the bar for any celebrity who fan­cied tak­ing on a chal­lenge when he stormed across the Chan­nel in 2006.

My main fear is that, hav­ing com­pleted the cy­cle ride bat­tling to stay on sched­ule, we will be held up at Tar­ifa wait­ing for good weather — or even worse, I will fail to com­plete the swim. It is vi­tal that I get there with en­ergy re­serves for a six- to eight-hour swim.

With less than a week to go, I am feel­ing the familiar pre-race cock­tail of ner­vous­ness and ex­cite­ment. I keep ask­ing my­self: “Why am I do­ing this?” That ques­tion is eas­ier to an­swer than it was for other chal­lenges I have done. What started as a per­sonal am­bi­tion has changed im­mea­sur­ably since I vis­ited Ethiopia re­cently and saw first-hand the ef­fect Sport Re­lief has and the num­ber of peo­ple who still des­per­ately need help. Ev­ery pound I raise will make a dif­fer­ence.

When the jour­ney gets dif­fi­cult, the har­row­ing sights I saw in Ethiopia will re­mind me how lucky I am. By mak­ing it, I hope to help peo­ple who aren’t as for­tu­nate.

Sport Re­lief week­end is March 14-16. To track James Crack­nell’s progress, guided by Nokia maps, and to do­nate to Sport Re­lief, see www.chal­lenge­crack­nell.com. Sign up for a Sport Re­lief Run at www.sportre­lief.com.

Gold stan­dard: James Crack­nell in train­ing (main pic­ture) for his gru­elling at­tempt to row, cy­cle and swim from Bri­tain to Africa — that’s if he gets past French Cus­toms

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