I talked to endurance athlete, adventurer and EtchRock elite Frank Van Lieshout. Frank is a world-championship level obstacle runner and last year attempted the Bob Graham round in the North of England – a challenge involving 42 peaks over 66 miles in 24 hours.
Frank, how did you end up becoming an endurance athlete?
When I was younger I always liked to spend time in nature, walking in the mountains. I knew when I grew up I wanted to be a mountain instructor and after school I started at a university for outdoor adventures to learn some instructional skills in hiking and climbing. But over the last couple of years I changed my mind. There was a point where I decided I want to do something where I can push myself, find out where my limits are and see how far I can go.
What was the point that set you on this path?
The point that changed me was on a mountaineering instructor course in Scotland in February 2016. This time of year in Scotland the conditions are very bad but that was the whole point – the course was designed to test you and bring up challenges so you would be prepared for these scenarios on future expeditions. We were to be pushed to our limits and take this experience with us. I was on this course for ten days and on day five, we were climbing Aonach Mor – a mountain near Ben Nevis. It was a long day and we had started early in the morning. We went up Aonach Mor and it was incredibly snowy and freezing cold. After walking for three or four hours the snow was almost at knee height. We were making very slow progress, just one step at a time, and in the beginning it was tough but not too bad. After a few hours however, it was getting really cold, so cold my jacket was covered in ice and my CamelBak was frozen. The only way to keep warm was to keep going and there was no opportunity to stop and eat or drink. We just had to keep walking.
Suddenly everything changed in a split second. We were walking on a plateau covered in snow and all at once a massive wind blows and picks up the snow so we can’t see a thing. My instructor, who was in front, was pulled up off his feet by the wind and was just rolling around on the floor, out of control. Other people were blown off their feet and I just thought “Oh shit, what is happening here?” The wind took me next and even with a 30-kilo backpack on, the wind was so strong it picked me up and slammed me onto the ground on my knees. It was crazy. We were just stuck on the frozen ground, unable to stand up and it was freezing cold. I could no longer feel my fingers. I had no idea how we were going to get out of this.
I was just sitting on the floor with my trekking poles for support, looking around and trying to work out what to do. I crawled on the snow with my 30-kilo backpack on over to my instructor. I don’t know how long it took, but it seemed like a very long time and then we were all crowding together trying to come up with a plan of action. I remember the exact words the instructor said to us, and they’ve stuck with me ever since. “The only way to better circumstances is to keep moving forward.” We just had to keep going.
I tried to take the map out of my backpack but my fingers were so frozen it took two of us to open the zip and pull it out. As soon as I did, the wind grabbed it and blew it away. Luckily we also had GPS and so we started looking for a way off the mountain. We had already been walking for six or seven hours by this point and I was feeling tired, but when something like this happens that’s when you really know how far you can go. We walked and walked through these terrible conditions and it seemed like forever but when we made it to safety it was such a good feeling. When you really have to, when you’re pushed to your limits, you realise what you can achieve.
This point in February was the exact moment I changed my mind and decided I wanted to devote my life to challenging myself and seeing how far I could go.
So this was the start of your journey to becoming an endurance athlete. Where did you go from there?
I was looking for a sport to get involved in and so I started obstacle running. I wanted to qualify for the European championships in a few months time and so I started training and then in my first qualifier race I came fourth. I went to Belgium and Germany and did more races and came fourth every time. I ended up qualifying for the European championship and I came 19th in Europe. In October 2016 I qualified for the world championship in Canada and it has all just been incredible.
You also attempted the Bob Graham round this year, how did that go?
So I knew Michael [Michael Robbert Brans – EtchRock elite, world-record holder and three time cancer survivor who climbed Ben Nevis with one leg to raise awareness for cancer research], and I went with him to Ben Nevis to support him to the top. This was where I met Stuart and Jason from EtchRock and got talking to them about my challenges. They asked me what my next challenge was and I had no idea. They even sat down and started browsing the internet to try and find a challenge for me. They asked me “Do you know Bob Graham?” And I was like “No, who’s he?” It turned out the Bob Graham round is a mountain challenge in England that involves climbing 42 peaks over 66 miles in 24 hours. They told me about it and I thought “Yeah, why not? Let’s do it!”
I did some research and met a woman on social media who was already preparing her attempt. I asked her if I could join her. She said yes and three weeks later I was standing there in England ready to begin the challenge.
The Bob Graham round involves five legs and we began the first leg at 6pm. We were going to have to walk through the night and the following day to complete the challenge and we had a third person with us as navigator so we could just focus on the walk.
After a few hours it got dark and the navigator kept looking down at the map more and more and so I asked him if we were lost. He said no, but he has only done the route in the day time and in the dark it was a different story. But he kept checking the map and so I asked again “Do you know where we are?” “No, not really,” was his reply. I took the map and remembered we had crossed a small bridge. I could only see one bridge on the map so we headed back to it and eventually found ourselves on track again.
I gave him back the map and said “Ok you’re the navigator, you navigate.” We carried on and came to a big river which we had to cross – it was extremely cold. We kept walking and it should have been only a half hour walk to the end of the first leg where Stuart would be waiting in the car with food and dry clothes. But from the moment we crossed the river, the mist came up and it was totally dark. We couldn’t see much more than a metre in front of us. From that moment I started to get worried because I didn’t think the navigator was very good at navigating – he had already got us lost once.
I asked him for a third time if we were lost and he said “No, no we’re fine, we’ll get there,” and I trusted him and we carried on. But very quickly I started to feel we were going the wrong way. According to the map we should have been walking on a plateau and it should have been very flat but it wasn’t. I said to him “OK, it’s not a problem if you’re lost but please let me know so we can make a plan,” and then he gave in and admitted he was lost.
Often when you’re in a situation like this you start to panic and think “Oh shit we’re lost, we might never get out of this,” but I have learned to stay cool and focused under pressure and work out what to do. The woman said she lived nearby and knew the area and knew where to go. I replied that if she knew where to go then we wouldn’t have been walking in circles for three hours. I suggested we climb up and see if we can see a light or a town that we can head towards. It might be a long way away but at least then we will know where we are.
She wanted to carry on and complete the challenge, and I said that I did too but I also didn’t want to freeze to death so we agreed we would follow my plan.
We climbed higher and soon we saw the lights of a town and decided to head towards it. We just climbed down, down, down for hours in that direction. Because it was only the first leg we hadn’t brought much water, food or dry clothes because it should have been only a few hours and we wanted to pack light. But since we had gotten lost we had no water left. Luckily on the way down we found a small waterfall where we could fill up and 20 minutes after that we came to a road and worked out where we were. We called Stuart, who had been waiting for us for hours to come and pick us up and take us to the next leg. Because we had been lost for so long, we didn’t complete the challenge. But even so, having to stay focused and positive under pressure was a really great experience and in a way more valuable than if we had actually completed the challenge without any problems.
I think in future I will just have to learn to be prepared and not rely too much on other people. If I had been navigating myself or taken GPS we would have had no problem but I put my trust in them when I should have been more prepared myself.
Next year I’m going to attempt the Bob Graham round again and I’m not sure whether I should do it on my own or not. I don’t know! I like the process of being in a group with other people, and supporting each other but maybe it’s also nice to go alone.
Whatever the scale, I think there’s something very cathartic about attempting a huge physical and mental challenge, having a single goal to aim for and just focusing on this one thing. And the aim of my website is to inspire people going through difficult situations, whether it’s mental illness or a physical handicap, who feel like they are restricted by their condition. I want to use stories of endurance like yours to show people that these obstacles don’t have to stop them from achieving incredible things. So what advice would you give to someone who might be in such a situation?
Well on the Bob Graham round, I’d never really done anything like this before but I just thought I’ll try it and see how it goes. Maybe it’ll go well, maybe not – you can’t know unless you try it. If you want to do something and you’re not sure if you can make it, just go for it!