Fitness guru Ross Edgley has just completed a triathlon carrying a 45kg tree. It was his first triathlon, but Ross is no stranger to bizarre challenges. He’s already run a marathon pulling a MINI, climbed a rope to the height of Everest and taken part in 24 hours of sport. His latest madcap adventure took him to the Caribbean island of Nevis to raise money for eco-charities and to highlight the island’s aim to become the world’s first carbon-neutral island by 2020.
We caught up with Ross after completing what's become known as the world's first tree-athlon.
Ross, how was it?
It was awesome. The whole island came out. I’ve just heard that Prince Harry is out there at the minute and apparently one of the first things he said was: “Is it true that some lunatic was running around here with a log on his back?”
Where did the idea come from?
It all came about when my friend [Ironman champion Jane Hansom] told me about Nevis and the island’s environmental goals. She knows that I’ve done a lot for wildlife and eco-charities and asked if I'd ever done a triathlon. She suggested doing one carrying something heavy, which seems to be my unfortunate USP at the moment. We threw around some ideas. She said a tree and I said tree-athlon – it was like the stars had aligned.
Nevis is trying to become the world’s first carbon-neutral island. If Nevis is able to do it I think the ramifications for the rest of the world will be amazing. I also wanted to show how adaptive the human body is – human biology and physiology is amazing and we’re still exploring it. I like the idea that you can just create a weird sport and adapt and train for it. As weird as it sounds, the body will find a way to get through it.
How did you train?
With the help of the Royal Marines, so a huge shout out to them. Training for a triathlon is very different to training for a tree-athlon in terms of getting used to carrying the weight, so I was open to their ideas.
I'd been trying to put the tree down my pants and balancing it on my head!
The Marines are used to carrying missiles and equipment, so they’re experts in this. They came back to me and said have you thought about “top flapping” the tree and me had no idea what that was. I now know it’s where you take a marine backpack and put a missile horizontally across the back. Then, bang, you put the flap over the missile and do it up very securely.
The swim was always going to be OK because the tree floats but on the bike I would be heading downhill at 25 miles an hour [40kph]. If it went wrong and the tree came off, I was going to be found wearing the tree and my bike at the bottom. The marines were amazing and they taught me how to ride with a tree on my back.
How did you balance on the bike?
It was horrendous. The bike was definitely the hardest bit. There’s a winding hill called the Anaconda on the island. It is a 5 kilometre climb with a 12 percent gradient, it’s just relentless. I'd done it a few times without a tree on my back and it was hard. On a usual bike ride I can pull on the handlebars when I’m going uphill to get some momentum and leverage. However, if I pulled on the bars with the tree attached it would swing to one side and I would completely lose my balance, so I had to keep my core completely stable, I couldn’t use my upper body. My legs were full of lactic acid and I was breathing harder because I was going uphill. But I still had to tense my core and breathe. My body was like, ‘What are you doing?!’ Then there was the chafing into the shoulders and the sun beating down. But it’s crazy how the body adapts. Now, if I cycle or run without a tree I’ve got a spring in my step!
How did you choose your tree?
Nevis is so small that when word got out that there was a strange Englishman on the island and he needed a tree for a triathlon, everyone came out to help! People were offering me trees from their gardens and ones that were on the beach. In the end the owner of Oualie Beach found a tree that I thought was perfect. It wasn't wide enough to take out spectators, but it was still wide enough to look good. It was very heavy so we had to shave it down to 45 kilograms. Unfortunately, it was very absorbent so when it came out of the water I am sure it wasn’t 45 kilograms! It was like carrying a different tree to the one I started with.
How did you manage the transitions, did you have any help?
With difficulty and very slowly. I was very keen to be self-supported. I actually came out of the water in a pretty decent position as I’d managed to overtake a few people. Part of me just wanted to go for it, but my support crew told me to ease up and make sure it was all strapped on properly. I had a lot of people pass me in the transition.
The swim was alright, because all I needed was a rope attached to the trunk and it just floated behind me. I couldn’t really kick my legs because I ended up kicking the rope. I had a proper head-to-head battle with one of the local triathletes in the water. I finally overtook him and all I could hear was: “Noooooo, I’ve been overtaken by a man with a tree.” But he beat me on the bike.
How did your competitors react when you turned up at the start line?
Some didn’t know I was taking part. One guy just looked at me with an expression that said ‘What is this guy doing?’ What was amazing was how welcoming the triathlon community was. Triathlons are so hard and I have so much respect for people who do them. So many people finished before me and they stayed in the baking-hot sun and clapped as I came in. I got so many punctures on the bike because of the weight and people would stop and ask if I had inner tubes or if I was alright. It was amazing.
What time did you do it in?
I still need to find out the exact time, but it was so slow.
The locals wanted selfies and pictures – even the police escort wanted a picture.
Although I started out in the water thinking that I could get a decent time, after the swim, I thought that it’s not about me. I thought that if I stopped for every person that wanted a selfie or picture and the message of the tree-athlon gets out then that would be a success – not me beating people.
Did anything unexpected happen on the route?
Yes, there were more punctures than I expected. It got so hot in Nevis and there was no shade. The energy drinks turned into a warm syrup.
I was really dehydrated and with a weight on my back everything was amplified; fatigue, breathing, oxygen consumption.
By the time I got to the run I was overheating and the sun was coming up. I had to decide if I would try to finish it as quickly as possible and really go for it or if I should pace myself but stay out here until 11 or 12 when the sun is at its hottest. It was a real dilemma. I was getting to drink stations and didn’t know whether to drink or pour it over my head.
How does it compare to your other challenges?
With the world’s strong marathon I just got so heavy and was dragging the weight behind me. With the rope climb the fatigue was so localised – in my biceps, tendons and grip strength. With this one, because I was carrying weight it was full body fatigue so in many ways it was the hardest one.
Any plans for another triathlon or tree-athlon?
Within half an hour of finishing a friend of mine suggested doing an Ironman next year. It’s been amazing how people have got behind the concept of a tree-athlete and tree-athlon. If a weird Englishman running around the island brings attention to the great work they’re doing I will be that weird Englishman – I will wear that hat with pride.
Ross Edgley is an athlete adventurer, chief sports scientist at THE PROTEIN WORKS™ and considered one of the world’s foremost fitness experts.
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