© Aaron Rolph
Adventure-loving Emily Scott has an impressively diverse endurance CV, which includes everything from swimming 14km in open water to completing a six day adventure race, scaling Mont Blanc, finishing 7 Ironman triathlons and running the 155km West Highland Way in less than 3 days. No stranger to dreaming up her own adventure challenge, last year Emily embarked on a four-month continuous Munro bagging round, scaling all 282 of Scotland’s munros (mountains above 3000ft) in a self-propelled expedition which covered 2600km by bike, 2200km on foot and three kayaking stints with a total elevation gain of 150,000m – all self-supported.
Emily, who is based in Morzine where she works as a ski instructor, is part of the British Adventure Collective, a collaboration of UK athletes and photographers looking to explore and share their adventures to inspire others. In this Q&A she chats about her love of endurance sport and her experience bagging 282 Munros.
You’ve done a lot of endurance events and challenges – have you always been active?
I grew up in the countryside in rural Northern Ireland and was lucky enough to grow up with horses at home. As a child I used to ride a lot and spent a lot of time outdoors, but never really considered myself particularly outdoorsy or sporty. I used to compete in Pony Club tetrathlons (involving swimming as far as possible in 3 minutes, running 1,500m cross-country, pistol shooting from 10m and then cross-country jumping on horseback), but I hated running!
When I was 14 I broke my arm playing leapfrog and had a couple of months when running was all I was allowed to do in PE. I got roped into some school cross-country races and soon realised that running wasn’t actually so terrible after all. Given I’m pretty stubborn, it soon transpired that I tended to do better the longer the distance of the race.
Since then you’ve finished more than 20 marathons! Which was your first?
I toed the line for my first marathon when I was 17 at the race based on the original route taken by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC. It took me 5 hours and 2 minutes. I swore never again, but two marathons later I realised I quite liked them. There followed a few years where I was racing fairly prolifically and my marathon count is now in the 20s, with a PB of 3:25. However, that was back in 2014; I’d be very pleased with a sub-4-hour time now that I don’t race as often. As my life has become more nomadic, I’ve found it harder to commit to races and I am much more constrained by money – or a lack thereof!
You’ve got 7 iron-distance triathlons under your belt. When was your first triathlon?
I entered my first race in April 2012 at Eton Dorney and was hooked straight away. Over that summer, I ended up doing nine triathlons, racing up to half-iron distance. I bought SPD pedals about halfway through the season and learnt how to ride with cleats, fed up by how frequently I was being overtaken on the bike!
I stepped up to my first full-distance triathlon with Midnight Man, a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km run, but with an extra twist: it started at 6pm and went through the night. There was torrential rain on the bike and pretty much every competitor punctured, myself included, with many people dropping out. Somehow, I pushed on into the next morning and managed to not only finish, but finish as first female. After that I did Ironman Wales and set myself a goal of completing an Ironman every year for the next 5 years until I was 30, so after Wales I did Barcelona 2014, Nice 2015, Bolton 2016 and Zurich 2017, and ended up donning a GB tri suit with Scott emblazoned across my bum before racing Challenge Weymouth in 2015.
During Challenge Weymouth, I was desperately trying to run a sub-4-hour marathon at the end of the race, but after having pushed so hard on the bike, it just eluded me, clocking in at 4:02! However, I snuck in under 12-hours for the whole race (11:58:57) and somehow managed to win my age group! Standing on the podium the next day was a rather proud moment; I’m never going to be more than an average athlete, but it really demonstrated to me that hard work pays off.
You’re now based in the French Alps. Do you think this helped foster your love of adventure?
Definitely! If I’m at home in Morzine, I wake up and the first thing I do is look out the window to Nantaux, one of the 2000m peaks that dominate the town. If I can see the top I know it’s going to be a good day! During the winter and the spring, I’ll get out skiing, normally lift-assisted, but sometimes touring, or occasionally snow-shoeing. In summer and autumn, I’ll be hiking, trail running or out on my bike exploring the alpine roads. I’ll sometimes scare myself on the via ferrata and I’ve started rock climbing outdoors, but without a regular climbing partner, it’s hard to progress.
Having competed in so many different sports, do you have a favourite sport?
As a ski instructor I should probably say that skiing is my favourite sport, but really I’m generally just happy to be outside, especially if I’m in the mountains! There’s a massive buzz that comes with racing, although I haven’t done much lately and I’m neither as fast nor fit as I used to be. I want to start racing again this year, but need to find a race to aim for which fits with everything else I want to do.
Ultra-distance endurance challenges feature heavily in your adventure CV. What is it about them that you enjoy?
I mainly enjoy the fact that, after a certain point, challenges become so much more mental than physical. Of course, the physical side of things does play a big part, but once you get beyond a certain point, I find mind-over-matter truly comes into its own. I love reaching the point where you think you can’t go any further, but then you take another step, and another, and before you realise it, you’ve gone further after all. The mind is so powerful and whilst fitness no doubt helps, self-belief and mental resilience to keep pushing on when things are tough are more valuable tools in my opinion.
In September you finished your Project 282 Munro challenge, covering 2,600km by bike, 2,200km on foot and three stints of paddling – congrats! Where did the idea come from?
The idea for Project282 actually came about really organically. It was like a little seed planted itself in my head and kept taking form when I wasn’t looking. I started ‘Munro bagging’ when I lived in Edinburgh and I would escape to the Highlands maybe once or twice a month to add another few hills to my tally. I started to think it would be pretty cool to climb them all, but then wondered about doing a continuous round. Then I think my multisport background got involved and added in cycling and paddling between them. I didn’t want to have a support vehicle with me, partly because of the extra headache with logistics and cost, but also because I wanted to do a big adventure for a while and going solo and unsupported seemed to fit the bill!
How did you prepare for it – did you train specifically?
The short answer is no! I’ve done enough endurance challenges to feel like I was mentally tough enough, but I’d never done anything on this scale before and didn’t really train specifically for it. I knew avoiding injury was going to be crucial to my chances of success, and I understood that I’d get much fitter and conditioned as the challenge went on. There’s no way I would’ve been able to do the days I was doing in the last week if I hadn’t had the preceding three months to build up to it.
When I decided I was going to have a crack at it, I figured I should get another few Munro days in as practice. I’d recently done my Mountain Leader training course in Snowdonia, so was keen to hone my navigational skills and log some of the necessary Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) required before assessment, so I headed to the Highlands twice in sleet, cloud, rain, darkness and sunshine to bag some Munros and spend my first night in a bothy alone.
Did anything come as a surprise regarding the physical effort?
When I was considering distances and ascent for the bike legs, I thought about what I’d do on my race bike with nothing more than a few snacks and spare inner tubes, thinking 25-30km/hour is a realistic pace to be able to hold for a long ride, and then maybe added about 30%. The reality was closer to 10km/hour though – a pretty unpleasant realisation when I was cycling with a trailer weighing goodness knows how much trundling along behind me. I ended up sacking the trailer, and moving to cycling with my expedition backpack and everything on my back, and then finally to panniers which made life much easier. If I’d have done more specific training I might have been able to save myself all the trailer hassle and gone straight to panniers in the first place!
Did your Project 282 experience turn out as you’d expected?
I didn’t really know what to expect and had been quite careful in the run up to my departure to try not to either get my hopes up too much, or to scare myself with the size of what I was trying to do. Instead, I would just try and take each day or hill trip as it came. Before I started, I told myself that it was going to rain the whole time and if it wasn’t raining I would be being savaged by midges. Expectation management is key!
Project282 was essentially a solo mission and the bulk of the challenge was motivating myself to get out and get going each day on my own. Very few individual days were that massive and most people with a general level of fitness could have easily come along for a day, but it was the continued effort of having to repeat that each day that made it tough. Being unsupported meant that I could be pretty flexible, but it also meant I had to think ahead, primarily in terms of food supplies and laundry! I definitely had a few occasions where I didn’t want to stop as long as I did, but my stench was offending me and I just needed a shower and a washing machine.
Where did you sleep?
I mainly camped but I was fundraising for the Mountain Bothy Association as part of Project282 (and Mountain Rescue and the Air Ambulance), so I tried to stay in as many bothies as I could. These are simple shelters in the wilderness, without electricity or running water, but they have a roof, they’re weatherproof and are very welcome, particularly in bad weather! Whilst I like camping, when the rain is lashing down and the wind is hammering at the window, being in a bothy with a fire lit trumps a night under canvas and is worth adding extra distance on for.
I also stayed in youth hostels and the odd B&B and hotel thrown in when I really needed to shower, wash my clothes and dry my kit. Thankfully, the weather was largely kind to me, so for the first 3 months I was maybe sleeping in a bed for a night or two a week. However, in September, I was up against it with long days out in the hills, bad weather almost every day and shortening hours of daylight. I had a few sense of humour failures and effectively gave up camping, choosing instead to exercise my credit card!
Were you ever uneasy sleeping on your own?
There was only one occasion when I felt a bit uncomfortable on my own. A couple of weeks in, I’d been trying to make some miles on the bike after dinner before setting up camp. I had stuffed my face at the Shieldaig Inn and had my first pack-raft paddling experience on Loch Torridon, with two guys I’d met at the pub. After we bid each other farewell, I pedalled off along the single track road towards Loch Carron, eventually deciding to camp up at the side of the road next to a passing place bay at about 1am.
I’d just finished pitching my tent and crawled inside ready for sleep when a car came down the road. As it drove past my tent, I could hear it slowing down, before coming to a stop and reversing back to the layby I was next to. I felt my heart in my mouth wondering why on earth it had decided to reverse back to me, how quickly I could escape from my tent and whether I would run or try and fight were something untoward to happen. I was so aware of my own vulnerability at that point. However, the car then just carried on and after a few minutes, my breathing returned to normal, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and was out like a light.
Can you remember a particular high point from your challenge that you can tell us about?
There are so many! The Far North was amazing – I’d never been up there before and was blown away by the scenery and I had phenomenal weather too. I definitely want to go back up and do more exploring. The Fisherfields and An Teallach up by Dundonnell were amazing: two very special days on some very remote hills with a stay at the beautiful Shenavall bothy: a definite contender for my favourite bothy.
The Mamores were amazing: a long and tough day interspersed with some very heavy showers, but amazing atmospheric views and my biggest day on the Munro count, bagging all 10 in one go, before crawling back into my tent at about 2am to brie sandwiches and G&T left over from a girls’ weekend.
Ben Lomond was of course very special too, being the last hill. But what made it special was the people who joined me on it. Each hill was different and I would be surprised if I don’t revisit them all again at some point, even the ones I hated at the time.
Which was the most challenging period during your Project 282 challenge?
The final push was really hard work as the weather was generally pretty grim and I’d decided to set myself a finish date. Three weeks out, I decided I would finish on 22 September, but I’d only climbed 216 Munros at this point (over 99 days) and had 3 weeks to climb the remaining 64. I knew it was going to be tough, with big day following big day, but I’d worked out that it wouldn’t be too bad. However, I effectively lost a day because it was so wet that I decided a rest and planning day would be a much better use of my time. I then lost two more days by getting blown off the hills.
It meant over my last three days I climbed 14 Munros, covering 100km and 9,700m of climbing on foot – plus cycling 115km between them before my final transition to stand-up paddleboard across Loch Lomond to the final Munro, Ben Lomond. I think I had about 5 hours sleep, an hour of which was snatched in my bivvy bag in all my clothes next to a big rock trying to hide from the howling wind and driving rain in what felt like quite possibly the worst night of my life!
What was a typical day like during the challenge?
I’d love to say I got up at the crack of dawn each day, however, the reality is that I am more ‘Night Owl’ than ‘Early Bird’. I would be feeling pretty smug for the rest of the day if I managed to be packed up and heading into the hills by 9, but some days it was much later. My days were pretty similar and pretty simple, with a combination of some or all of the following: Wake up, breakfast and pack up, load bike/bag, cycle/hike, climb some munros, eat, return to bike, cycle some more, hike some more, pitch tent/set bed out in bothy/treat myself to a bed (which would add: shower, wash all clothes in sink and hang to dry overnight!), eat, get ready for bed, read Kindle whilst dozing off, sleep, repeat.
How did you feel at the end of Project 282?
In all honesty, like a zombie! The final push had been really tough and had taken a lot out of me, and when I got off the stand-up paddleboard at Rowardennan on the shores of Loch Lomond about to climb the final Munro, I was completely overwhelmed and a bit like a space cadet. I was really touched that a group of people came to join me for Ben Lomond: some old friends, some friends of friends and some people I’d met along the way who came to share the finale. I really wanted to be fun and on form, but I felt like I was so exhausted I plodded my way up the hill and didn’t talk as much to everyone as I would have liked given the effort they’d all made to join me there!
What kit did you find indispensable during the four-month trip?
I carried a Spot Gen 3 GPS tracker with me throughout the trip. I didn’t use it on track mode, but I would send a pre-programmed message when I was atop a Munro and when I was at my base for the night. It also had an emergency SOS button which would have transmitted my GPS location to the relevant Mountain Rescue team had I needed to press it. This offered huge peace of mind, particularly when I was without phone signal for much of the time.
In August and September, my Rab Firewall shell jacket and trousers were well used and kept me safe from the elements. The Rab Kinetic Plus jacket wowed me again and again: so comfy and light, but yet also waterproof. Amazing bit of kit – I think I wore this jacket everyday and I’m still completely in love with it!
Hiking poles! I started with a pair of poles that I strapped to my bag and carried around until I reached the top of my 15th Munro. Then I got caught up in my first significant rainfall and tried to get my poles out to help me with a speedy descent. It turned out they were broken. I didn’t manage to buy some new ones until I was about 80 Munros in, but what a game changer! After that point I pretty much always used my poles and boy did my knees thank me. I’m not sure I would have managed to get the whole way without them!
My MSR Windburner stove, which has proved itself time and again – I splashed out on that stove a few years ago, but I am impressed by it each time I use it. Very light and compact, as well as quick to boil water. Without it, how would I have made my breakfast delights of Mars bar porridge and evening feasts of ‘pimped-up Super Noodles’? I feel like I want a ‘TM’ there. Pimping Super Noodles just involves some Babybel and Pepperami!
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
No, but I’m open to opportunities!
You can follow Emily’s endurance adventures via her Instagram: www.instagram.com/adventure_scottie.