Geoff Pitter’s 1977 challenge
A letter to the organisers - written by Geoff Pitter prior to the 2005 challenge.
“As one of the 3 Peaks pioneers, I am thrilled to learn that this is now an annual event.
I thought that you might be interested in the recollections of my record attempt in 1977.”
“It started for me one winter’s day in June 1977 when as a student in the UCT library I was looking at some old Mountain Club journals (not studying obviously!). I came across an account of Scheewberger’s 3 Peaks record of 1897 and how Sandy Trimble had bettered his time in 1927. It occurred to me then that 1977 would be the 50th anniversary of this event. I was always looking for a physical challenge and this seemed to me one that was achievable.
These were the days before the running boom and running was seen then as something quite esoteric – the preserve of school kids, students and the really talented athletes. I was just a fun runner. I had started running in the seventies and joined Celtic Harriers, at the time that Don Hartley had his magnificent wins in the 2 Oceans, and though I completed a marathon in 1973, really had then not discovered how to run properly and was just dabbling doing about 35-40 kms per week. However, I was an enthusiastic hill walker and loved being in the mountains. I loved the exhilaration of running downhill at breakneck speed. I was only a modest runner but felt that to break the record would require a combination of both being able to run and also being at ease on the mountain.
The report that I had read of the earlier records merely stated that the attempts had started at the Johannesburg Hotel and returned there after each peak. There was no description of the route used or the location of the hotel. So I first I had to investigate where the Johannesburg Hotel (I don’t know why they had a Johannesburg Hotel in Cape Town!) had been. From research in the library, I found an old street directory showing that it had existed at 106 Long Street. I imagined that in the 1920′s access to the mountain would have been more direct but the roads would not have been so good. I set about plotting the best route realising that the most direct route was not necessarily the quickest.
It was fun working out the best routes. From my records, I see that in preparation I ran up Lions Head once, Devils Peak twice and one occasion did both Devils Peak and Maclears Beacon. I would take the train to Cape Town station on a Saturday and run from there. On Sunday I would do a long walk on the mountain. I would normally run about 7 kms each week day. I recall that it was one of the wettest winters for many years and that on one occasion there was a light covering of snow on the Table top. (You’re very wise to have the race later in the year now). During my training, I developed a healthy respect for Sandy Trimble. I soon recognised that it would be no mean feat to improve on his time though I had the advantage in that Sandy maybe didn’t push himself so hard once he knew that he was well within Schneeberger’s time.
So it was with some trepidation that I set off at 7h30 on 25 September 1977- just me against the clock. I was supported by friends and family who met me en route. My Mum and brother stayed in Greenmarket Square. Another brother met me on Tafelberg Road before going up Lions Head. My Dad and a colleague were at the summit of Devils Peak and then went up Ledges to meet me at Maclears. My goal was obviously to break the record but I had no idea exactly how long it would take. My best estimate if everything went perfectly was 5h45, the worst was just scraping under the record of 7h17 but my expectation was about 6h45. In retrospect I must have been really psyched up and set off much too quickly. I ran to Tafelberg Road in 34 minutes and reached the summit of Devils Peak in 76 minutes and was back in Long Street in exactly 2 hours. This was 7 minutes faster than any of my previous individual trips up Devils Peak and well ahead of my predictions so I knew that I would pay for it at some stage on the other peaks. I was feeling heavy-legged going up Platteklip and was back at Long Street after 3h02. I had been able to run all but the very steepest parts but once I set off for Lions Head I really struggled. The mountaineers had come across from Maclears and down the cableway to meet me at Kloof Nek. They were quite despondent seeing my slow progress up Lions Head but running downhill is my strong point so I knew that if I could get to the beacon I would pick up speed on the way down. In training, I had climbed Lions Head on its own in 1h47 and I had 2h15 remaining to break the record. As it happened I climbed it in 1h49 to be back in Greenmarket Square in 6h51, a 26 minute improvement on Trimble’s time.
I am proud of my achievement – but the most satisfying thing for me was being able to achieve a goal. I always knew that once a good runner had a serious attempt that the record would go. I am pleased that the record survived one running of the race and that even after some 355 completions my time is still amongst the top twenty. I would have loved Don Hartley to better my time but having a runner of the calibre of Danny Biggs break the record is no mean substitute.
The Cape Argus reported the details of my run and I wrote an article for the Mountain Club journal of 1977. In those times, running on the mountains was frowned upon and to be discouraged, so I ended my article rather prosaically with the line “… I hope that in 2027 a mountaineer of a generation yet unborn will better my time”. Indeed, when the journal came out the following year, this point was made in the Cape Times editorial of 27 December 1978 entitled “No Example To Follow” which said “who can plumb a human being’s need for self-expression”. Well, I think anyone who runs will know why they do it.
I have been living in Leeds, England since 1987 and continue to run though even more slowly – 35 years of pounding the roads have taken their toll on the legs! I returned to Cape Town in 2001 shortly after my 50th birthday to run the Two Oceans which was my 50th marathon. I’d love to try the 3 Peaks Challenge again myself before I get too old. Good luck with this year’s event.”