Meet The Man Who Trains Celebs For Comic Relief: 'They Give Me Their Reputation And That’s What I’m There To Protect'

"The one thing I can't build into them is experience."
Greg with a triumphant Davina in February 2014
Greg with a triumphant Davina in February 2014
Dave J Hogan via Getty Images

For 13 years, Comic Relief has had Professor Greg Whyte on speed dial.

If you’ve ever seen a celebrity tackling an endurance challenge for the charity, you can almost guarantee he was cycling, walking or swimming (or all of the above) alongside them.

Greg James’ Pedal to the Peaks, the original Kilimanjaro climb in 2009, Davina McCall’s 500-mile triathlon, John Bishop’s Week Of Hell – the former Olympian was there every step of the way, from creating the first training plan to crossing the finish line.

But how do you get a celebrity – or in the case of Kilimanjaro, nine of them – ready for a challenge more commonly associated with adrenaline junkies or committed sports enthusiasts?

First of all, you hope there’s enough time to train them.

The Kilimanjaro 2019 call came in just before Christmas, which meant that when training started he had “six to eight weeks to prepare” a group that included a Love Island winner, a former MP, two pop stars and Strictly Come Dancing’s head judge.

“It would have been better to have longer,” Greg, 51, admits. “But that’s life really. It’s my job.”

His first job sounds simple, but given the sheer ambition of the challenges, it can be hard for Greg to make sure participants realise the scale of what they’re signing up for.

There are six environments on the earth's surface – and Greg had to prepare the nine celebs to face them all
There are six environments on the earth's surface – and Greg had to prepare the nine celebs to face them all
Handout via Getty Images

Firstly, it’s understanding what the challenge is,” he explains. “That seems like a curt thing to say – obviously they’re climbing a mountain, but it’s really understanding the determinants on that mountain.

“The one thing I can’t build into them is experience. Once they have experienced something, they can understand or have a greater understanding of it.”

For Kilimanjaro, there are three big issues. “Number one is the physical conditioning,” Greg says. “It’s a marathon walk uphill, so there’s a physicality to that, and actually it’s not just a walk uphill, you’ve got to walk downhill to descend as well.

“You’ve then got coping with altitude, [I need] to understand who’s going to cope well and who’s not, also giving them strategies. We can train before we go up in altitude, particularly with those that are going to suffer the most.

“The third thing, which is very difficult and I think a lot of it is psychological, is the living conditions.

“There’s no running water, no toilets, no shower block, nowhere to plug your hairdryer in. You’re sleeping in a tent on a very thin rollmat on rubble.

“The one thing I can’t build into them is experience."”

“I think some people’s view of camping is glamping and this is as far away from glamping that you can possibly get.”

Unfortunately, the team of nine wasn’t quite assembled and one presenter was added to the list of climbers with just a fortnight to go.

“This year, Anita Rani joined the team two weeks before we set off on the climb,” Greg says, adding with a laugh at the madness of it all: “Which is way too short.”

Thankfully that is enough time to visit the altitude chamber for some training, before receiving all the medial checks necessary for getting the green light to climb.

Team assembled and as ready as they’ll ever be, it’s time for the challenge to start.

Once on the mountain (or on the bike, in the lake – delete as appropriate), he provides a calm voice and professional opinion, offering encouragement and support as well as practical medical advice.

On Kilimanjaro, the worry about altitude sickness, which Greg says strikes everyone (himself included) at some point, is almost as paralysing as the illness itself.

“What you’re trying to control is anxiety and fear,” he says. “Once you experience altitude sickness, you’re all of a sudden very afraid of it.

“And then that fear drives anxiety and that’s counterproductive to what you’re trying to achieve.”

“Two of the things don’t affect me – the physical and the environment, sleeping in a tent and using a portaloo doesn’t bother me at all,” he continues. “But altitude affects everybody.

“That can make it a bit miserable and tough. Experienced or not, when you get affected by altitude you’re affected.”

Greg – who is incredibly modest about his list of impressive feats – insists the real triumph is not his, and manages to talk about teamwork without sounding cheesy (also not an easy feat).

“You get the potential leaders but then the leaders falter because of altitude sickness and you find other people stepping into that role,” he says. “What’s really interesting is you would apportion certain roles: mother of the team you might think Shirley Ballas.

“But Jade [Thirwall] and Leigh-Anne [Pinnock], especially on one particular occasion with Dan Walker, were absolutely fantastic.

“It does evolve as you go up, people’s roles within the team do change. My role in that is to try and consolidate that team cohesion, to get them working and operating as a team.

“The best support they have is amongst each other and my role to some extent is to facilitate that.”

“The pressure of delivery grows every time because of the success. It doesn’t get easier, it gets harder."”

When a famous face is taking on a solo challenge, things are a little different. Summing it up by referencing Zoe Ball’s five-day cycle for Sport Relief 2018, he says: “With Zoe last year, I was her team.”

“It’s different and it’s the same,” he continues. “The same is my job is to get them from point A to B as safely as possible, but there’s no success unless they get to the top.

“The pressure of delivery grows every time because of the success. It doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. Expectation is high.”

The way Greg see its, all of these celebrities entrust him with something incredibly important and the faith they place in him has meant endurance challenges have turned into enduring friendships.

“They give me their reputation and that’s what I’m there to protect,” he says. “Everyone wants to achieve the goal, everybody wants to get to the finish, it’s their reputation which I hold.

“I have the ability to improve that reputation or damage it. I think because of that trust, you do create some fantastic bonds and they are properly good friends of mine now.

“When you do something with people you share a really great bond.”

At the time of our interview, Greg’s riding high off the success of Kilimanjaro – and getting ready to start a 24-hour danceathon with Claudia Winkleman and Tess Daly – but things don’t always go smoothly.

Almost exactly a year ago, he was cycling alongside Radio 1’s Greg James, when unprecedented weather and police warnings forced the Pedal to the Peaks (or the Gregathlon, as it was affectionately named) to end early, with the DJ tearfully announcing the news on national radio.

“It was heartbreaking to stop,” Whyte says. “It’s the one thing nobody wants to do.

“It was one of those things, the Scottish police issued a red weather warning on the roads and that was the first time ever they’d issued a red weather warning for snow. I didn’t believe it, I spoke to the police there and they said, ‘No it’s true’.

“It would have been irresponsible to carry on and there were avalanche warnings on Ben Nevis [the third and final peak to conquer], so even if we’d got there we couldn’t have climbed it.

“It was disappointing but my god he did such a good job to get where he did.”

A week later, the DJ got back on his bike and completed the challenge – but due to a tight Sport Relief event schedule, Greg was unable to join him.

“I was on The Mother Of All Challenges with The One Show,” he laughs. “So he got to finish it and I didn’t.”

The Gregathlon is the only one of the 32 challenges Greg has been involved in that has been called off, but when it comes to the question of which has been the hardest, there’s one that pips it to the post.

I think if you push me for one it’s David Walliams swimming the Thames,” he says. “It was 8 days of purgatory.

“The weather was horrendous, the water was incredibly cold, he got sick on day three. It was a war of attrition.”

When he’s not whipping TV stars and Brit Award winners into shape, Greg is a professor at Liverpool John Moores University, teaching and researching, and runs his own Harley Street Clinic, where “we effectively apply the same model that I do to celebs to the general population”.

And when he’s not doing all that, Greg squeezes in… more challenges. “I haven’t got the time,” he starts to say, when I ask if he has his own bucket list of things to achieve. “But I do them actually… This year I’m doing the Norseman, which is the toughest triathlon on the planet. I’ve ran Marathon des Sables, I’ve done the Race Across America [a cycle race] and [swam] the English Channel.

“I have got a list and I’m working through them when I’ve got the time. I always think you have to lead by example.

“I think it would be erroneous to push everyone else to their absolute limit without continually doing it myself.”

Not much then. Honestly, I feel tired just thinking about it. “So do I,” he laughs, before remembering the small matter of the danceathon which starts in a few hours’ time.

“Staying up for 24 hours is easy,” he says breezily. “It should be fun, they’re a good pair. They haven’t done much training but we’ll get them through it!”

And get them through it, he did. On Tuesday night, the Strictly pair completed 24 hours and five minutes of dancing, raising a total of over £1 million for the charity and broke a world record in the process.

Hopefully the two presenters are enjoying a break right now. We would say the same for Greg, but something tells us he’s probably out for a run and busy wondering what the next Comic Relief challenge might be. Bring on number 33.

Kilimanjaro: The Bigger Red Nose Climb airs on BBC One, Wednesday 13 March at 9pm.


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