Greg James Reflects On His Sport Relief Challenge: 'I Don't Recognise The Person That Did It'

How ‘one idiot climbing three mountains and cycling between them’ became the basis for a national conversation on mental health.
Sport Relief

This time last week, Greg James had an unwinnable battle on his hands. While most of us were facing weather-related issues as the “Beast from the East” hit the UK, the Radio 1 DJ was attempting to climb the Three Peaks and cycle the distance between them for Sport Relief.

As listeners of his Radio 1 show will know, Greg was forced to call it all off on day four and after a well-earned weekend of “rest and doing nothing”, he’s busy digesting everything that happened.

“I watched some of the videos back at the weekend and it was odd,” he tells HuffPost UK. “I watched, not quite recognising the person in it.

“I can’t quite believe we managed to do what we managed to do in those few days. We climbed a couple of mountains, 300 miles on a bike. That is not me, I didn’t recognise that person, it was quite bizarre.”

Day one of the challenge - officially titled Pedal To The Peaks, affectionately nicknamed the Gregathlon - involved scaling Mount Snowdon, where plummeting temperatures and snowfall began to hinder the presenter.

“It was very difficult because it was very windy and incredibly cold,” Greg explains. “It was about -10°C on the face with the wind and it was properly steep and very snowy at the top, so we had to put our crampons on.

“That was a genuine challenge and in those weather conditions, it’s doable but you do need a team of people that know what they were doing. I was luckily with people who knew what they were doing so that made it a lot better.

“But that in itself was a very tough challenge and to then get on a bike and do 80 miles after that, was incredibly tough.

“The thing that was just mentally gruelling is that you have to concentrate at all times. You have to be looking around, looking for potholes, making sure you don’t hit a cat’s eye and fall off and be an idiot. You can get a really bad injury pretty quickly.”

From there, things only got tougher and when his second scheduled climb, to the summit of Scafell Pike, took place, “what felt like arctic conditions” had descended.

“I was absolutely fucking knackered,” he says. “It’s a hard climb, it takes about three and a half hours to climb it in those conditions. It’s relentless.

“You’ve got kit on you, I’d been cycling and I knew that I had to cycle back that day. And also that I had to then descend the mountain, it was a full-on week of having to do radio appearances - though that was the whole point of it - but you always have to be on.

“You’re always telling everyone how you’re feeling and trying to rally the troops, it takes a lot of energy.

“So at the top when they said, ‘Give us a heroic pose’, I went ‘Well that would be a lie’. I just collapsed on the structure at the summit.”

The resulting picture was posted on social media and, well, it’s pretty self-explanatory:

A post shared by Greg James (@gregjames17) on

But as things were getting worse for Greg, his drivetime show took on a different meaning as his honesty on social media impressed existing fans, and earned him new ones.

For 2018, one of Sport Relief’s aim is to highlight mental health, and encourage conversations around it. The presenter was regularly checking in with Radio 1 via phone each day, as well as updating his Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

As the weather slowly made the challenge impossible, his updates shifted focus and Greg’s feelings were front and centre, as he candidly told listeners his thoughts - and shared things like the Scafell Pike photo.

“I was realistic about it at the start and said whatever happens is the story,” he explains. “It will play out and we just have to adapt to that and talk about it on the radio in the right way and actually, it created incredible drama which you could never force or create.

“These things have a way of working themselves out and I’m really proud of how we all pulled together in the week and it was a genuine bit of drama. Take that, McMafia.”

When the time came to tell everyone that the challenge had been called off, he did so live on Radio 1, audibly on the verge of tears.

“I was incredibly upset,” Greg says. “The whole week was talking about being open with your emotions, not being afraid of showing emotion and telling everyone how you’re feeling. So it was a perfect metaphor for the mental health challenges that millions of people face.

“No matter how much you want to overcome something, sometimes you just can’t and there’s no shame in saying, ‘I’m struggling and I can’t complete this’, so the irony wasn’t lost on any of us.

“We were preaching that all week and saying, ‘If shit things happen to you, make sure you’ve got support and tell everyone how you’re feeling, make sure you can get through this with a team of wonderful people’, and luckily I could. But that was very upsetting.

“I’d been training for months, I didn’t want to let people down, I didn’t want to not complete the challenge, that’s how I felt. I was feeling great about it, I thought I could do it. So to be cut down by the weather, was very frustrating.”

“Throughout the morning, I thought there might be a chance if I could get to Ben Nevis, I could just do it,” he continues. “I said, ‘Just get me to Ben Nevis however you can, I’ll bloody well do this thing, we’ve come so far’.

“Then we saw widespread devastation, people dying, trains stranded, people unable to get water, power cuts.

“And we thought actually this has turned from a challenge where they’re taking an idiot, me, and pushing him to limits with the ‘toughest challenge ever’... But then actually it turns into he might die. And that’s not actually fun… So they had to stop it.

“I didn’t understand it at the time but now I do.”

Looking back on one of the most surreal weeks of his broadcasting career - speaking over the phone from London, where the snow has completely disappeared and his Radio 1 duties are resuming - Greg is busy catching up on messages of support.

So far, he’s also raised a phenomenal amount of money - over £700,000 and counting, for Sport Relief - and is determined to scale Ben Nevis and finish the challenge.

“The outpouring of messages we had from people was extraordinary and really overwhelming,” he says. “It proves that these things we do on the radio really work, we had people opening up to us and confiding in us, telling us their secrets, trusting a radio station or trusting a collection of DJs who they listen to every day and rely on for sort of fun stuff.

“But for that week, we got their attention to talk about something really important to them.”

“I’m about to go into a meeting now to find out a date we can do it, to see if its possible with the weather and logistics and stuff,” he says, on the topic of completing the challenge. “My plan is to absolutely do it, put it in a little box and says cheers that’s done.

“If we can leave a legacy from this challenge, it’s not ‘An idiot climbed three mountains and cycled between them’, it’s that we opened up a conversation and started talking to people about their brains and how to look after them.”

Find out more about Greg’s challenge, and donate to Sport Relief, here.


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