Dean Stott joined the army at just 17 years old and, despite being told by his own father that he’d “last two minutes”, by 21 he’d completed every military course available to him — except for UK Special Forces.
He decided to apply for the SBS (Special Boat Services), which up until that point had only ever been open to Marines. After an intense 6-month selection process which has just a 4-5% pass rate, he was one of the few successful recruits who made it to the very end.
He served with the SBS for several years, which he calls the “pinnacle” of his military career.
“I was pretty much living that game ‘Call of Duty’. For me, it couldn’t get any better.”
In 2010, this career was tragically cut short for Dean.
During a HAHO jump, which is a high-altitude, high-opening free-fall parachute jump, Dean’s leg got caught up in the rigging line as he exited the aircraft. He frantically tried to kick himself free before the parachute opened, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to — meaning his leg got ripped up over his head and to the right.
“I was fortunate that my leg didn’t get entirely ripped off, because if it had I would’ve bled out by the time I got to the drop zone. I was at 15,000ft which is limited oxygen, so I was drifting in and out of consciousness, trying to stick with the team.”
Miraculously, he was able to land it — on just one leg, too. He’d torn his ACL, NCL, lateral meniscus within the knee, his calf and quad, so all the muscles that supported his knee area had gone completely. The damage was so great he had to leave the military.
That was the hardest blow of them all.
“All I’d ever know since the age of 17 was the military, and I was now 33 years old. The military feed you, they clothe you, they pay you on time. I didn’t know what council tax band I was on; I didn’t really care — I was just doing the job that I loved.”
On top of trying to physically recover, Dean then had a huge mental struggle ahead of him as he tried to adjust to “civvie” life. Almost overnight he’d gone from being part of a tight, close unit, knowing exactly what he was doing day-in, day-out, to having no role within society.
Luckily, he had an entrepreneurial wife in his corner. One night, whilst watching EastEnders, Alana helped him to set up his first private security company using just her Blackberry. He threw himself into his work, which varied from evacuating foreign embassies in Libya, to escorting royalty from UAE on their super-yacht.
Things came to a head when he returned home from a trip with blood on his shirt from a casualty. He casually asked his wife if she would be able to get it clean, and she replied that she was more concerned about how it got there in the first place.
“We sat down to talk and we soon realised I’d only been home for 21 days in the last 365-day calendar. I was trying to match that adrenaline rush I’d had when I was in the Special Forces, without actually addressing the fact I’d left the military.”
They both agreed that something had to change. Dean tried joining Alana at her property developing firm, but he struggled to stay focused during meetings about plumbing and heating systems. She quickly recognised the glazed look in his eyes and told him he needed to do something to keep himself physically and mentally engaged — without going back to the desert.
“I was fast approaching my 40th birthday at this point, and I thought, well I’ve always fancied doing a world record. Alana threw me the Guinness Book of World Records and it went from there.”
He’d started cycling to and from work, only about 8 miles there and back, but he was enjoying it and it didn’t actually hurt his knee. He decided to look at cycling records, from Aberdeen to Dundee and back. Then his wife found the Pan American Highway — the world’s longest network of roads that runs through 2 continents and 15 countries.
To put things into perspective, it’s the equivalent of cycling from London to Sydney — and then another 4,000 miles.
Dean applied for the world record, despite having never cycled over 20 miles at the time. He was successful.
He was already involved with charity work, being an ambassador for The Royal British Legion and a representative of the SBS Association. He’d also done a lot of charity work with Prince Harry, who approached him whilst he was deciding what campaign to do this challenge for.
“He told me about his mental health campaign, Heads Together. Due to the links with mental health in the military, and my own experiences, I thought it would be perfect to do it for that. I was really keen to push how physical activity helps your mental state.”
To prepare for the challenge, Dean admits he didn’t approach it as a cyclist, but instead took a military set of orders and dropped it into cycling. He read up on cycling, but also decided to speak to the people who had done the challenge before him. He planned to speak to Scott Napier who’d done the route in 125 days, but by the time he got the go ahead from Guinness, another man, Carlos Covarrubias, had done it in 117 days.
He discovered that all of their issues happened in South and Central America — bureaucracy at the borders, language barriers, spares for the bikes, the highest mountains and the hottest deserts. He didn’t want to gamble with all of this trouble during the second half, so he decided to do it in reverse, from north to south.
As well as operational planning, he threw himself into the physical training.
“Everyone told me I needed to be ‘bike fit’ and I thought, oh that will come in time. Little did I know that it meant the actual measurement to the bike. I did everything completely wrong at first.”
He also had to prepare himself for the range of unforgiving weather and climate conditions he was going to encounter. For example, he was going to be cycling through the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is one of the driest, hottest places in the world.
To be sure he could cope under this kind of duress, he went to Dubai for 2 weeks and spent 8-10 hours a day cycling at temperatures well over 40 degrees. He also trained in an altitude centre in London, to prepare for the biggest climb on the Pan American Highway, which is 67km (sea level to 4000m in a day).
During all of this, he was also trying to find sponsorship so was flying down to London to present his campaign to potential sponsors.
“It was difficult to present to these people and ask for money, saying I’d never cycled before, but I was going to cycle the longest road and raise £1 million for mental health. I think they thought I had mental health problems myself.”
Plenty of people were willing to back him though, and before he even set off he had over half the target in the bag.
On 1st February 2016, Dean set off from Ushuaia, Argentina, which is nicknamed “End of the World”. He knew there were going to be challenges, but he didn’t expect them from day one. In that first week, he battled against 40mph crosswinds which forced him to cycle at a 45-degree angle into the wind to keep straight, causing torsion in his good knee.
“I was in severe pain on day 2, knowing I had 100+ days to go. It was tough to cope with.”
He approached this challenge just as he approached his selection process for the SBS, taking each day at a time instead of focusing on the distant end goal. He broke the 14,000-mile route into days, and each day into 4 lots of 50km stages.
Staying on top of his nutrition wasn’t easy either, for the majority of his time in Argentina and Chile he had to rely on what he could get from shops and service stations, but these stopped in Peru.
“The only option we had was to eat out, which meant I got food poisoning twice. You can still cycle with food poisoning… it just isn’t pleasant.”
He was making good progress though, despite experiencing difficulties at borders and coming off his bike at almost 40mph, and he achieved the fastest time to cycle the length of South America, earning his first world record.
With this confidence boost under his belt, he carried on with renewed focus and got to North America by day 70, which was 14 days ahead of the world record. He was in a great position and thought he might even be able to take a day’s rest here or there if needed.
That all changed after a phone call with his wife.
He’d been invited to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding and in order for him to get back in time to attend he’d have to complete the Pan American Highway in 102 days.
“Before that phone call, I was 14 days ahead. By the end of it, I was suddenly 1 day behind. My plan had to completely change.”
Dean pressed on through the wind and snow in Canada and Alaska, somehow managing to claw back the days — with a lot of help from an app that allowed him constantly monitor wind speed and direction. He was back in a great position but then he got another phone call to warn him that professional cyclist, Michael Strasser, was planning to do the Pan American Highway in less than 100 days later in the year.
In his unrelenting pursuit of excellence, Dean changed his target once again. For the final stint of his challenge he cycled for 22 hours in -18°C to make sure that he came in under that 100-day mark.
“The original plan had been 110 days, but I got it in sub 100. If that had been my initial target from the beginning who knows if I would have made it, it might have been too much.”
Dean completed the Pan American Highway in an incredible 99 days, breaking a second world record. During that time, he had just 5 days off — 3 due to the weather and 2 due to logistics — so his entire challenge worked out as 147 miles per day, with an average speed of 16.8mph. More than a little impressive, right? It’s safe to say he’d come a long way from his daily commute.
But of course, the first thing people asked him when he finally returned to Aberdeen was; “how was the wedding?”