She was just ten miles from the finish line when I joined her. Davina McCall was now in the final stages of a marathon, in torrential rain, at the end of a 500-mile triathlon from Edinburgh to London. It was billed as Sport Relief’s “Beyond Breaking Point” challenge and it looked like they’d done their job.
Davina was in pain and feeling sick. Every step hurt. At one point, as we were running, she looked at me with fear in her eyes and burst into tears. “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it,” she said. I grabbed her hand and together with her growing entourage of friends and celebrities, we propelled her along the streets of London, counting and chanting each step out loud as we went.
Davina had started out from Edinburgh on her bike seven days earlier. She couldn’t have chosen a worse week, with Britain gripped by the most severe storms in decades. She says it was the hardest thing she has ever done. “About five or six hours into the first day, I was battling with horrific winds. I got the beginnings of hypothermia. They had to get me into a parked car to warm me up, and I just cried non-stop for 20 minutes. I thought, ‘How on earth am I going to do another six days of this?’”
But she picked herself up, got back on the bike and finished that day’s 130-mile journey to the Lake District, the first of many arduous, long days. At her side all the way was Greg Whyte, the man who had trained her for three months. Greg has swum the English Channel, cycled across America and worked with David Walliams, John Bishop and Eddie Izzard for their Sport Relief challenges. But this was unlike anything he’d encountered before.
“These were the worst conditions I have ever had to compete in,” he says. “That first day on the bike it rained for 17 hours. That’s what made it really tough.” And the weather didn’t let up.
Lake Windermere, on day three, proved to be the low point. Terrified of swimming in open water, Davina stood sobbing in her wetsuit on the shore, live on breakfast television, waiting to swim a mile to the other side. The water was 5°C and when she finally jumped in, she says she could hardly breathe – her chest felt crushed by the cold. She made very, very slow progress. Her team watched anxiously, knowing that if she stayed in the lake too long, she could be in danger. “There’s a finite amount of time that it is safe to stay in those sort of temperatures for,” says Whyte, “and she was right on the edge of that. If it had been 100 metres further I honestly think she might not have made it.”
“I was genuinely quite frightened during those last 15 minutes in the water,” she says. “I didn’t pass out, I just collapsed. I was so cold, I couldn’t move.” The pictures of her looking almost lifeless as she was pulled from the lake made headlines. Even now Davina says she can’t bring herself to watch it.
But Davina is tough. Ninety minutes later she was back on that bike and for the next three days she battled through floods, storms and gale-force winds towards London. There were a lot of tears.
“One of my huge fears in life is disappointing people or letting myself down. I was frightened that [by taking this on] I’d set myself up to let myself down. And I just felt so tired and empty. Even the smallest thing would start me crying,” she laughs.
On the final day of her challenge, she set off from Windsor Castle to run 27.5 miles into the centre of London. Davina is not a runner. At least that’s what she has told me for years now, despite my best efforts to get her to join me. Now she was facing a painful run to Tate Modern.
“That last day I was at such a low. I’d lost it,” she says. “I was crying non-stop. I ran past Buckingham Palace and saw that the Queen was there and I cried. I sobbed all the way down the Mall. I was just carried along by people.”
She was in so much pain that she had to stop every six miles to be treated. It took her seven hours or so, but Davina made it to the finish line on Valentine’s Day and into the arms of her husband, before being thrust onto a podium and handed a Union Jack. “I’m a mother of three children,” she says. “Olympians get to hold the Union Jack. I felt so unworthy.”
She still can’t quite believe what she achieved. “It has definitely changed me,” she says. “I now know that I am capable of so much more than I ever thought I was. Every time I thought I’d got nothing left – more was in me.”
Her 500-mile challenge has already raised more than £760,000. Though it has taken its toll physically, she says it’s the most rewarding thing she has done. “There were moments of real joy, real fatigue, total, abject misery. Everything was magnified a hundredfold. It was incredible,” she says. “Would you ever do anything like that again?” I ask. “I don’t think I need to,” she replies, laughing. And she’s right.
Davina: Beyond Breaking Point is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1.