After what felt like a long summer of racing it was finally time to do Ötillö again. We were coming back and had something to prove to ourselves.
We had made preparations and plans. Although probably no fitter than last year, we had made several trips out to East Lothian to swimrun along the coast. As well as the obvious sea / wave swimming, this included plenty of rocky sections. Arriving on Thursday in Stockholm, we spent some time relaxing, swimming in the beautiful lakes, taking a sauna, eating veggie buffets and relaxing. I was slightly jealous of people who live here!
I also spent some time reading (most unusual for me). My pilates teacher had recommended ‘How Bad Do you Want It?’ – covering the science of mental fitness, illustrated by gripping tales from endurance sport. The general gist is that you always reach your mental limit before your physical limit, and that it is your coping mechanisms that help reduce your perception of effort and get the most from your physical ability. I had to stop reading before the race as it was hyping me up too much to sleep properly🙂
The boat ride over to Sandhamn on Sunday was far more relaxed than last time. We sat outside in the sun and chatted to a few people we knew from other races. We were not afraid, and we knew what was coming.
We had a plan:
- Conquer the rocks. To this end, we were wearing new, grippier shoes (from Icebug). These had given us great confidence in our training. We had practiced on as similar terrain as we could find despite having barnacles and seaweed instead of slippery slime. We had also decided it was easier to run these most technical sections without the tow, devising a way for me to stow it securely. Finally, we approached it with a positive attitude, bracing ourselves for the worst but knowing we could do it.
- Concentrate. Looking at our timings last year, there were two sections where we went much slower than we had planned. They were both a succession of shorter swims and runs, one coming after the hardest swim, and the other after the last cut off. We thought the key here was to stay focussed and keep pushing.
- Have target timings. Knowing how fast we went last year over different terrain, using our experience from training and other races and setting ourselves some challenges, I came up with a realistic (but not too easy!) time plan. Key points were written on my paddles so that we knew whether we were ahead or behind target.
We also had goals!
- Follow the plan
- Go faster than last year
- Arrive at the finish early enough to get a women’s t-shirt
- Be able to properly pronounce the names of some of the islands we ran over (for me)
- Stay positive (for Izzy)
I find early morning starts fairly traumatic, but got through this one and before long the dawn light was on us and we were out on the first swim. We seemed to be way off to the left of the group of competitors, but I thought we were going straight to the strobe light. Our gps track said otherwise, as it seemed we did an elegant curve, adding an extra 100m to the straight line distance.
Then we were onto the rocks. The weather had been drier than last year, which probably helped, but we also felt almost ‘at home’. The shoes and the training were paying off. We even overtook one team and certainly didn’t experience the stream of over-takers that we had last time. A few male teams were quite aggressive, pushing past, or bounding in and out of the undergrowth to get round. We had our fun, identifying pairs we thought would crash and burn, paying for their over-exertion later. Unfortunately, there was not enough room in my head to memorise their race numbers and check whether we passed them later on!
We got to the first time cut off 29 mins quicker than before and well ahead of plan. We began thinking what had been our problem last year?! We’d told a few of our friends and other teams how awful this section was – and we thought they would now be wondering what we had been going on about.
There is a swim in the next section where we follow the bank as we cannot cross someone’s land. It is murky and smells funny and we slipped in slimy grey mud on our way out. We postulated that the owner puts their compost in there all year, just to discourage us! We saw someone running back along the route, looking for a lost yellow paddle, but we had not seen it.
One of the swims was really rough. I could see the boat carrying spectators, the Silverpilen, when I turned to breathe. Izzy was trying to find the best position to swim, behind or next to me. I knew she was moving about but was not concerned and just kept swimming on. She was on the tow, so I knew I couldn’t lose her. Later she told me her goggles had even come off and she had stopped to put them back on! We had a chuckle imagining what the spectators must have made of all the shenanigans. I had one fall before a timing section. I was sore, but only bruised. Izzy fell several times and days later was covered in blue patches and had a black eye! Maybe it was from a shoe-in-face incident on this swim…
We trundled on until we got to the second cut off, which has a short out and back to a feed station. I remembered getting cheese sandwiches with dimpled Swedish bread here and wasn’t disappointed. We felt like we were ‘in the race’ this time, seeing lots of teams in both directions. It was so different. We’d also wondered how the other British/Irish women’s teams were getting on, and found out when we saw them both just behind us as we left. We had enough energy to be pleased they were doing OK, but weren’t concerned about positions for this race, only our time and ‘the process’. We stayed focussed on own race.
It felt like we had just started, had maybe done 1 or 2 hours, but I looked at the time and realised we’d done nearly 5h. Oh, I wished I had not done that, because it made me feel tired. However, we were now moving according to our planned pace, and still ahead from our strong start. We had gained another 13 minutes on last year’s time. I guess we were just fresher from having wasted less mental energy.
The next section was starting to feel tough, but I tried to buoy the mood with news of the pig swim coming up! Although this is notorious for being the hardest swim of the race, we found it very exciting last year. This year was a bit calmer, but still a challenge. Because of the currents, I did not aim for the landing point, but rather a big piece of land to the right. The new watch gets a bit upset trying to hold onto gps signal when it is choppy and rough, adding lots of little squiggles compared to the smooth straight lines of other swims! But our general direction was straight over, no bending here.
Safely across, Twix in hand, and we had done this section on plan and about the same speed as last year. It was time to focus. We had to keep moving well. Now I could see how we had slowed here last year. It was technical again and we had to find new energy to maintain momentum. We had come off the tow, to reduce stress. I would get ahead a bit and find the route. Over the race I had developed my version of a ‘gripometer’. I’d shout out one of ‘very grippy, quite grippy, grippy enough, slippery’ as I tested each section of rock!
Izzy didn’t seem best pleased about the terrain, but I asked “what do your paddles say?!” Oh … the motivational sayings she had written on them the day before had washed off. So we had to make them up … I shouted back: “Are you still moving? Are you still smooth? Are you still positive?!” “Yes!!” came the reply! Her attitude was top notch.
We approached the famous garden, where a lady and her family always come out to support. On the way in, we wondered what the skull and cross bones flag hanging above us signified?! But they had the nations flags strung along the fence, they were cheering, tooting, banging a drum and shouting out our names as we came through. A fantastic boost at this point in the race.
We were passing the time and wondering what the wildlife is on these islands, and why we hadn’t seen much. We spotted several anthills, some harmless purple jellyfish and tiny shoals of fish. Then only some quiet sheep in a field. Izzy had been reading a book before the race too. Hers was called ‘Run or Die’, by Kilian Jornet, a renowned ultrarunner. I joked that we had to keep running else when we sat down, we would die when the crazy sheep came to eat us!
We started going back and forth with team 118 (another pair of girls). We were better swimmers than them, they were better runners than us, especially when it got technical. So we kept on overtaking each other and saying hello as we alternated swims and runs. We only once lost the track where it turned along the shore after the swim, and a mixed team helped us find it. Other times, we were less hesitant than last year and just kept moving forwards.
Soon enough, we got to Ornö. We had gone another 14 minutes faster than last year. The plan was still working.
Now we had to do the long run. It was hot and I started feeling weary. I decided I had not eaten enough. Darn! This is something I keep forgetting, I need to learn this. It seems a hassle to eat along the way, but the feed stations alone are not enough. I took a gel, a soft flapjack and some Honey Stingers. We only exchanged a few words for a long time. Izzy told me she didn’t want a running commentary, and I got told off when I mentioned how far we’d managed to do! I was playing alphabet A-Z for fruit and veg, then animals. Izzy was singing her way through the Madonna back catalogue. Both of us doing it in our heads.
We’d passed the church, the official aid station, the unofficial aid station, and the cold hose shower. Suddenly I realised I had become totally spaced out. I was reading my paddles but could have been anywhere. I snapped to and made myself eat more, asking Izzy for help to get at it. We did this section a bit slower than last year (4 minutes).
I couldn’t wait to get in the cool water, and then suddenly I had energy again for the last sections. I must remember to eat more!! This was the second part where we had to pay attention. Last year we were so relieved and tired at the cut off that we slowed down and stumbled our way through the last part. This year we would stay focused.
Team 118 had only caught us at the end of the run, but we had already walked and got our wetsuits zipped back up, so we could set straight off. We did not see them again until the finish.
On some tricky rocks, Izzy had almost her only grump (about the unsuitability of a tow for the trail we were on). This is good going for anyone in such a long race, so I was happy! We laughed about it later😀 I had a faint recollection that the track got easier again, and I promised we could unclip if it didn’t. But thankfully it did.
On the long run we had lost a bit of our earlier advantage compared to the plan, but were now going faster than last year again (another 16 minutes gained). I knew we were still under our target pace for 12h, and we would make it.
We landed for the last run. Izzy asked me “So, what’s this one, 7km?” This might have been the best bit of the race, as I was able to say, “No! Less than 3.5km!!”. We set off at pace (OK, 6 minute kms), readying ourselves for the final hill. It seemed quiet coming into the last few hundred metres (we were spoilt by spectators at Isles of Scilly!), and then there we were at the arch. We danced and whooped as we had done 11h47. 72 minutes faster than last year and 12 minutes under our target time.
Our time was great, though our placing in the women’s ranking sank and we only moved up 6 spots overall. But this is because of the competition. It is getting better and better every year, and for women especially the quality is going up and deeper into the field. One hope I have is that the women’s teams can keep on getting more slots in the race now.
As for our aims:
- Follow the plan: √
- Go faster than last year: √
- Arrive early enough to get a women’s t-shirt: X – no T-shirts this year!
- Be able to properly pronounce the names of some of the islands we ran over (for me): √ (thanks Mårten!)
- Stay positive (for Izzy): √
After the finish, we pondered how we could go faster if we go again. This time it is less obvious. We have some ideas, but have time to think for a while. Qualifying to race at all is not easy in the first place! We enjoyed ourselves enough to sign up for 1000 Lakes in Germany though, and get a race per country for the World Series this year🙂
Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters, especially Head / sportextremeswimrun, Icebug UK and Gococo socks. Also to my coach Scott and everyone else who has helped us and followed progress (Andy, Jim, Helen, Ellie … I can’t list you all, but you know who you are!).
After our adventures in the Isles of Scilly, we were off on our travels again to the Engadin valley in Switzerland for another Ötillö world series event. We entered on the basis it would give us a second chance to qualify if we hadn’t already done so (which it turns out we had). We were also told it would be beautiful and that we should do it anyway!
Preparation for this race was less than ideal, especially for Izzy. She managed to pick up big holes in her arm and leg and a cold beforehand. By the time we set off, things were looking better though.
It didn’t take long to start worrying again! In retrospect, it may have been the effects of altitude. I had headaches for a day or two after arriving, plus sniffles. Izzy felt her cold getting worse. As a result we didn’t have any little practice runs or swims as planned – possibly a mistake. We did not know how it might feel. Instead we contented ourselves with viewing the race course from various angles: up on the mountain from the cable car, in the valley from the bus, and a short walk round some of the first run.
I had a race plan and a target time. I wasn’t sure how altitude would affect us, but thought the times were realistic, possibly slightly conservative. It would be enough to get us to about 5th place. If we had a good day we should go faster and maybe even challenge for podium.
The morning of the race. An early start, crammed onto a bus like sardines. We left on time, like all Swiss public transport that we experienced! It was hot though, and as we waited to go into the small drop off area I was feeling claustrophobic. I headed straight for the toilet queue before it could get too long. Already too late. Blokes were going in fully zipped up in their wetsuits and coming out dressed the same, even as Michael, one of the race organisers shouted increasingly urgently to make sure we got our timing chips cleared. I was checking my watch, 4 minutes per person?! Eventually I escaped as Michael had resorted to yelling “quick sh*t, quick sh*t!”.
The Start (08:00)
We had decided to run with our wetsuit up, but unzipped. It was only 6km to start with, after all. It was a much bigger race than the last one and the crowd bumped and jostled at the start. We took it slow and were soon winding up the hill in a line of competitors. Before long I could feel sweat pouring off my face. I checked my watch. We’d been going 13 minutes.
I was also already towing Izzy hard. Hmm, I thought, not sure I could keep this up the whole way. I tried to be sensible, stay in line and not rush to close gaps on the flatter parts – they soon closed again as we hit the ups. We started to descend and I was still towing as we struggled to pass a mixed team who were definitely flagging more than us. After an arduous time where I felt we were silently battling each other, Izzy had a minor strop and unclipped herself. I was dubious, but in fact, without having to worry about the tow as well as her footing, she flew straight off down the hill. At the bottom she was full of fight and we leapt into the beautiful cool water of the lake.
At the other side though, she got dizzy and fell backwards as we got out. We started the downhill run with her bumping into me. We were at a height of about 2600m.
I tried to encourage and said we’d keep the tow on a gentle tug. This was all too much and before long I was hearing the words “I just don’t think I can do this today”. “Yes you can”, I replied. Not long after, in a moment of stress as people overtook on a narrow path, I tripped and fell hard. Before I had time to think, a fellow competitor had lifted me bodily from the ground! Blood was streaming from my hand and knee. I did my best to wash the grit out with some of our water but my goggles were also full of blood and they had to wait for later. We set off again hobbling.
Izzy’s glutes then cramped up and we had to stop to stretch them out. This was followed by a forlorn “I’m sorry, I know you really wanted to do well today..” I said: “Shut up and don’t worry about that, it is now about survival and finishing this race”.
Our entire plan had to change, we had to set new goals. I have never had a DNF (‘did not finish’) and didn’t want one now. I didn’t say this at the time, but Izzy later admitted she hadn’t had one either and was thinking the same. I resisted panicking as we walked tiny rises so early in the race and carefully pondered what to say. “Izzy, you’re a Scot, right?” “Yes” “Well, you’ve paid a lot of money to enter this race, and a proud Scot would definitely make sure they got their money’s worth” … bingo! Turns out this was true🙂 .
Izzy had felt like this race was a simple factual physical impossibility on this day. But I thought it was a mind game, and mind games you can always win. We carried on moving.
The Middle, Part 1 (09:40)
We had been going for less than 2h and got to the second swim behind schedule and in difficulty. The results later showed we were in 120th position out of 157 starters. The water was lovely, though Izzy said later that her arms felt dead.
In all the noise and pre-race chatter about how cold the water would be, I had been oblivious to how hot the air temperature would be (despite a mention of it race briefing). 23 degrees C! OK, not hot by continental Europe standards. But hot by Scottish standards.
I started to suffer a bit. I am not good in the heat, but am getting better at noticing the symptoms! I started drinking, drinking – both from my bottle and from the lakes when they were clear and fresh smelling. Despite the hassle, we agreed we had to ‘cab down’ (the term used to mean taking the wetsuit off to the waist) on every run. The wet race bib was bliss. It didn’t seem to dry very well, instead creating a constant cooling effect on our top half. Fortunately, the route dipped in and out of the woods and their delightful shade. I aimed for it at every opportunity, and doused my head from a pipe spilling out cold water on the hillside.
At one point we passed some horses. I am normally wary of them, but these ignored us. We discussed hijacking a couple to take us down the hill, with the string of switchbacks on a tight path. I promise we left them alone though …
I was keeping an eye on my watch. I had memorised the route and had it broken down into sections in my head. I knew we were losing 5-10 minutes per section against plan, which itself only gave us 40 minutes to spare at the first cut off – which was way off at 13:45. I was worried and mentioned this briefly near the start but it had only caused despair, so I kept quiet until the final short swim and long run before the cut off.
The Middle, Part 2 (12:08)
“OK Izzy, we have 97 minutes to do this section. And at current pace, it will likely take us 85-90 minutes. But the second cut off is also very tight, so any minutes to spare, we need”. I thought we could realistically do this now, we just had to keep moving in the same way.
We set off walking up a very steep hill. We knew it was coming, which made it easier. I was towing firmly, but trying to keep exertion below the level which had nearly killed us off earlier. It was as if at altitude, you could go so hard, but no harder without it tipping you over an edge. Little swarms of flies kept appearing round our heads and we batted them away with our hand paddles.
I knew we had to go up the valley alongside a river, then cross over and back down the other side for a flattish run in. Sooner than anticipated, I could see the course turning left. I promised we could walk to the river and that then I thought it was downhill and so maybe we could ‘jog-a-log’? Izzy had coined this phrase earlier and we now used it for any running part. Time to jog-a-log again?
Thankfully I was right. Our mood was lifting and there was even some happy chitchat. The sound of cowbells drifted across a field and we imagined they were our rapturous supporters cheering us on.
The sight of kite surfers on the lake near the cut off were welcome. Suddenly we were on the valley floor again, running in the sun. I looked at my watch and couldn’t believe it. A shiver ran through me that normally only comes near the end of epic races. We were going to make it to the end. No doubt about that now. We got to transition with 35 minutes to spare. Not only had we made the cut off, but we had caught up on our schedule by a huge amount. What had happened?
So now we faced a section we were more than confident about. We were also at ‘only’ 1800m and I think the effect was noticeable. Michael said we had plenty of time, but we leapt straight in the water for the first of two long swims. Remarkably, we were overtaking a string of teams. I wasn’t entirely sure where to aim for, except ‘the end of the lake’. After I had passed everyone we were following, I headed for what looked like a female competitor taking ages to get out. It turned out to be a large orange buoy. Not an enormous lady.
As had been the case throughout the race, we passed a lot of teams at transition despite our occasional clumsiness managing the bibs and equipment as we cabbed up and down on the approach. We were also quick at feed stations as we stopped only to drink, refill bottles and grab bits of bananas or a gel to eat on the move.
Suddenly, it felt like we were ‘in the race’. Previously, it had felt like we were trailing at the back. Whether this was just mental, or also physical I am not sure. But the cheers seemed louder, the smiles of the marshals more confident, and there were more competitors around us. People yelled at us in various languages, some we understood and some we didn’t. Most yelled ‘bravo!’ or ‘super!’ or, even better, ‘super bravo!’😀
We ran with a group of mixed pairs, then in for another long swim. They had vanished and we were now with some male pairs. A very short run, then we were at the final swim in a warm peaty lake, though I shivered getting in. Maybe my body was going into meltdown. It was short though and we were soon out the other side.
The End (14:45)
Just 8.3km run, 400m swim, 2.7km run to go. We were on my race plan times, even under them! We adopted ‘ultra-running’ style. Walk every hill. Run the flats and downhills. In this way we passed a few more male teams. My legs ached. My left knee hurt from the fall and my right from the downhill impacts. But I switched off my brain and kept the same pace. Just jog-a-log. I was still towing on and off, but much more moderately now, something I could sustain.
We saw Michael again at the final cut off, we had loads of time to spare. “How are you doing?” He asked. “OK!”, we grinned. “In fact, so much better than we were before!” Kids on bikes kept riding past and shouting in French. A group of girls got to us twice and surrounded us on the path cheering more enthusiastically than anyone. Every encouragement gave us a little lift.
We were confused seeing swimmers in the final lake, but only because I had got muddled up about where the last swim went. We suddenly saw a female pair in front. I reassured Izzy: “Do not stress, I will stick exactly to what we’ve been doing”. She did not want to get into a battle. But we overtook on the swim and out the other side I was true to my word. We ran along the lake and walked up the smallest of inclines.
At a bend I glanced over my shoulder but we were well clear. Final push to the finish.
Now I was pulling hard again. Every muscle was screaming at me but I blanked out my mind. It was not that far. Round the corner, up a small hill, we ran this one, and into the finish arena.
The Finish (16:12)
We crossed the line and we were 4 mins ahead of original plan! Mats came to give us a hug, but Izzy sort of fell over in his arms and he took her to the shade of the tent. She lay curled up whilst I worried and gave her a pat. Relief and smiles when she sat up!
We placed 4th females, 52nd overall. Results here. That meant we made up 68 positions from our lowest point in the race. We had been to a very difficult place and come back. Not only that, we found ourselves competing again. We had worked together and kept each other going. It is good to have these experiences, if only to know you can do it and come out the other side fighting. Never give up. The free cake and tea at the hotel stops at 17:00 and is not to be missed.
More than a marathon of trail running (47.5km), more than the height of Ben Nevis in ascent (1500m), at altitude, in the heat. 6km of swimming, all beautiful, we’d have loved more!
Thanks to everyone who has helped us – including Head / sportextreme for wetsuits, Gococo for socks and Icebug for shoes. To the organisers Michael and Mats for putting on such a crazy race. To the wonderful people at Conrad’s Mountain Lodge for feeding us early on race day and greeting us like long-lost friends every morning. Also special thanks to Helen, my massage therapist at Physis, who somehow put me back together after the last race and expertly avoids various scrapes, bruises and wetsuit rashes.
“Reaching the Isles of Scilly couldn’t be easier” – so says the tourism website. After an evening train to London, the overnight sleeper to Penzance (enchantingly called ‘The Night Riviera’) and then a 3h trip plagued by sea sickness, we finally made it to St Mary’s, the main island, a mere 20 hours after we set off.
Luckily, we had arrived on Thursday and the race wasn’t until Saturday, so we had time to recover! It took me longer than Izzy, but by race day we both felt fine. Our B&B owner even relaxed the strict ‘breakfast at 08:30’ rule to serve us earlier and let our food settle. I appreciated the civilised race start time (10:00), but being only 2 minutes walk from the start, it did mean a lot of anxious waiting around.
Our timing chip wasn’t working and, as we waited for a new one, even one of the race directors told me to relax and not worry. I must have had ‘nervous race face’ on! Andy always tells me nerves are good for my performance though.
This was a ‘World Series’ event and the first in the UK, with qualification spots for the World Championships in September up for grabs. Izzy and I wanted to go back there and do a better job than last year – but had not been selected on merits. Qualifying was our only option; we had to be in the top two teams excluding anyone already qualified – and we thought it would be close.
I had done a lot of route studying in the days prior to the event. In my head, I had broken it down into 7 sections, memorising the run and swim lengths, target times and feed stops. This really helped me on race day as I knew exactly what was coming up, as well as our general direction of travel (the map in my head was probably as good as the one in my back pocket!). Izzy had a gps watch to give us distance checks when we needed, but I raced with a watch showing only the time of day! We were ready for our 10 runs (30km) and 9 swims (7km).
Section 1 – 2.5km run / 2km swim. Target finish: 11:00. Actual finish: 10:55
When we did make it into the start pen, we lined up ‘near-ish’ to the front – in fact, about level with the women’s team containing a current and a former world champion. We didn’t have the temerity to stand further forward than them! The starting gun went, though I didn’t hear it, and we were off. As the path narrowed, we got stuck behind a couple of mixed pair teams. I decided it wasn’t worth trying to push past at this stage (as per race briefing), though it didn’t stop a few others elbowing past. Over a few rocks on the beach and we were off through the seaweed on our first swim.
Izzy cracked a rib or two whilst out cycling 6 weeks before the race. This had interrupted training somewhat. Usually I would be reassured and spurred on in equal measure by the tap-tap of her paddles on my heels, but they weren’t there. On the other hand, our bungee tow cord was not taut, so I knew she had enough draft to keep up without any bother.
We had been told to aim for orange or red flags. I was concerned about this, as I’d had trouble spotting red flags at Loch Gu Loch. I aimed for the orange thing – though realised the next day that it was a windsock that had nothing to do with the race! Never mind, it worked well enough.
Section 2 – 3 runs, 3 swims, with a longish middle swim. Target finish: 12:00. Actual finish: 12:02
We got out for a very short run through the dunes. Dennis from Head was there and shouted to us that we were 2nd female team – woohoo! The next bit was confusing as the tide was still low and it was debatable whether we were on a swim or a run section. Others were wading, but we always swim if the water is barely deep enough. So we did, and could see we were moving the same pace as people walking around us, but I think we used less effort.
At some point on this section another female team came past us. The leaders had already got a qualifying spot, so we didn’t panic and knew we just needed to hold this new position. I recognised the team as being one that had introduced themselves earlier – we have a mutual (very fast) running friend. As we started the longer swim I could see that they were slightly mismatched for speed, with one at the front having to hold back for the other. We powered on. I wondered if their forte would be the running and half expected them to catch us on the 3km run.
In the end, they did not and as we cleared the big rocks on the exit of the last swim I could see them in the water and estimated we had about a 3 minute lead. It was here we passed a quite impressive castle, which we visited in a more leisurely fashion the next day. Unfortunately, I never even noticed it was there – but the proof was in the photos and the video!!
Section 3 – approx. 7km run. Target finish: 12:50. Actual finish: 12:43
This run passed like a dream. It was great island for spectators, as we had crossed the tip of it after the first swim and were now running round it. We also went through the Tresco Abbey Gardens, packed with tourists. I couldn’t believe the level of encouragement we were getting. Everyone was clapping and cheering and I felt like a superstar! Throughout the day, whenever someone supported us, I did my best to give them a yellow hand paddle wave😀
I’m pretty sure it was at one of these feed stations I got a rather tasty piece of cake, though Izzy’s face when I suggested she try a piece was a picture! We did a good job of moving through the stations quickly, pausing to drink and grabbing food to eat on the way out.
Finishing this longer run leg still ahead of the 3rd placed team gave me a morale boost. We were ready for the section that would test our transition skills.
Section 4 – in out, in out, shake it all about (short legs across a string of 3 islands). Target finish: 13:30. Actual finish: 13:33
One of the features of the swims in this race was the killer SEAWEED. We encountered it during a little try out the day before, but little did we realise we’d have to race through it too. It was like spaghetti, coming up from the bottom in thick strands and floating on the surface in a swirling mass of slippery stalks. It was easy to find out what it was later – it is actually called ‘sea spaghetti’! It’s even edible, so we should have had a nibble to keep us going…
Instead we fought our way through. At one point, Izzy had given my bum a hefty shove when I seemed to have stalled. I hurt my elbow a little doing some funny sculling, and realised it was better to just make the hand entry much steeper and slice through it.
We have practised transition a lot, but could probably still get better. Pushing the pullbuoys round is fiddly. We got confused at one rocky section, losing sight of the tape and marshal, but soon were on our way again. I was pleased we were hitting our target times nicely! Especially since I had confidently told them to everyone who might be at home tracking us😀
Section 5 – 7.6km run. Target finish: 14:30. Actual finish: 14:26
This run was a beautiful coastal trail winding round the island of St Martin’s. It did go up and down a little, and the tow was starting to come into play. I was still feeling strong and enthusiastic though! I was careful not to look at the view too much as, when I did, I promptly tripped over. We overtook a couple of male teams and everything was going well. I did my best motivational talk for Izzy. “You are only allowed to think positive thoughts!” I declared. To which the curt reply was “I’m trying!”. I spotted a ‘Where’s Wally’ red and white stripy lighthouse thing and instructed Izzy to view the jolly sight and smile. I was full of facts such as: ‘halfway through this run!’ and: ‘less than 10km total running to go in the race!’…
We were also filmed by an enthusiastic chap running alongside us, which was fun – you can see a clip of it in the official video :-)
Because my elbow had been sore, I was a bit anxious thinking about the last, very long swim.
Section 6 – 2.3km swim. Target finish: 15:15. Actual finish: 15:31
Before that, we had to pick up a pink tow float just for this swim, as it was the longest and most difficult. The safety kayakers had to be able to find us. Izzy was getting some food down, so I adjusted the belt and fastened it round her waist, giving her a quick mid race cuddle to say ‘we’re doing great!’.
As we got to the water, the marshal told us there was a strong tidal current coming right to left, and to aim to the radio mast, far to the right of where we had to land. I was happy with this concept, as we had had to do this a lot at Otillo. However, this time it was different. The channel was wider than anything we had crossed there, and the current wasn’t consistent.
We were also a bit confused, as we were told to aim for the mast, then were told we were too far right and to aim for the yellow buoy. Then we were told to aim for the mast again, then the beach, then the mast … I was getting too cold and tired to care much by this point, and was extremely grateful for the presence of the two chaps in the tandem kayak who escorted us most of the way across. There was an island to our right. The perspective was probably playing tricks, but it seemed we would never swim past it.
Every time I thought ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m cold’ or ‘Are we moving?’ there was no other answer that came to me except ‘keep swimming…’
I had wondered whether we were on for a sub 6h race, but you can see that this is where our timings unravelled a bit! It wasn’t just us though – even channel swimmer and ‘Mr SwimSmooth’ Paul Newsome said it was a tough leg, and all teams took longer than they expected. Our gps recorded the distance as 2.5km – probably due to our wiggles – some from direction changes and some from tidal pull!
Section 7 – approx. 7km run. Target finish: 16:00. Actual finish: 16:21
We were rather happy to finally land. The marshals suggested we take some time to gather ourselves, though I was not letting up. My concession was a walk up the beach. Thankfully the sun was now out and we warmed up really fast. At the final feed station, we were told others in front had been commenting on the difficulty of the swim, so we were buoyed by this fact.
Despite knowing we only had this one run to do, as we climbed another little hill, with the tow rope taut, I felt a sudden slump. I took an emergency gel with 20 minutes to go, and think it helped. Just after that we got onto a section we had recce’d and knew the end was almost here. On we pushed, until we rounded the corner onto the final stretch. It was lined with spectators who were all going wild, cheering and shouting and taking photos.
Under the finish arch, straight into an interview, a hug for the camera and we were done!
We slumped onto the ground, drank coke, ate some of the snacks we had carried all the way round (!), soaked up the sun and congratulated the others finishing.
Annika Ericsson and Maria Edstedt had a clear win, coming in 25 minutes ahead of us. Jenny Rice and Claire Wilson kept their 3rd spot finishing in 6h41 (their report here). We were 14th overall out of a field of 81 starters and were delighted both to have qualified for Ötillö and with our overall result. Full list here.
It also means that the pressure to qualify in our next race, in Switzerland, is off. Instead we can focus on other things about the event. This is great as Scilly played to our strengths (greater swim:run ratio) and I’m expecting to find the next one tougher. Plus, it’s at altitude, and I live about as close to sea level as it’s possible to get.
Sunday was reserved for sightseeing and more celebrity status. All weekend people (residents and tourists alike) had been stopping us in the street or when we were out eating, asking us about the race. Common questions were about where we were swimming to, whether it was really true we had to stay within 10m of each other, and whether we would be tied together!
After a trip to Tresco, the gardens, a fine lunch, the castle and back again we were off to hunt for the chambered cairn we had passed in the race. After an unplanned detour and an emergency café stop (where we picked up the best map we’d had all weekend) we found the cairn, plus a rock shaped like a camel. Then we were hot-footing it home to (only just) make the prize giving and pasty eating celebrations on time!
“Reaching the Isles of Scilly couldn’t be easier.” I thought getting there had been hard work, and we had paid extra to leave on Monday by plane and get home the fast way. Unfortunately, our flight was cancelled due to fog, we were put back on the boat (sea sickness pills duly purchased and taken) and it took 31 hours to finally get home. The only compensation was the opportunity to chat with more fellow racers and get to know them better. This included Mårten and Matti who we had met at Loch Gu Loch last year. Matti’s daughter has a great tale of leukaemia survival. This time they were racing in different pairs and raising funds via “Heja Stina!” – read more here.
Getting to the race in Switzerland will involve two planes and three trains … here’s hoping it goes a bit more smoothly!
Many thanks to our sponsors, sportextreme.com and Gococo socks (I wouldn’t race without them). Also to Icebug UK – I was racing in their shoes for the first time. Super light, super grippy, super easy to spot in swimming photos! Also thanks to the organisers for putting on a great race, the photographers and to everyone on the Scilly Isles who were so happy to have us there!
Here is the race video – spot us three times🙂
After exhausting myself in the trail race the day before, it was all I could do to eat, drag myself back to the campsite and collapse into my tent for the night. Luckily when morning came, the night time showers had passed and I had plenty of time to get ready. I made the trip back through the woods and over the hill to the festival village one last time, lugging all my gear with me.
The swim was two laps out to and around Derwent Isle. The water was reportedly 11 degrees, and when I got in it was definitely warmer than my recent acclimatisation swims. There wasn’t much jostling for the start line so I thought perhaps it would be very civilised. No chance! When the hooter went, everyone pushed and shoved a bit until we got our order sorted out.
Once we left the muddy shallow waters, it was beautifully clear. I could see random things on the bed of the lake, like an old umbrella and some railway track. Sighting as we went round the island was hardly necessary – keeping the bank a constant distance to my right was enough, plus staying in water just deep enough to avoid the occasional rock that loomed up.
I had a slight panic wondering where we were supposed to head towards the shore before going back out for the second circumnavigation. I had images of going round and round the island indefinitely … but the mass of white tents of the festival village came into view, along with a buoy marking the ‘turn’ point.
I was still feeling good and enjoying the cool water. I was also starting to close the gap on a group of swimmers in front, which is my usual style when swimming (I’m a slow burner!). As we rounded the top for the second time I felt good, and was swimming near another person. I caught a few glimpses and was fairly sure it was a girl. I kept trying to come past, but every time I drew level, she pulled away again. I was running out of juice! As we approached the shore, she and another swimmer took a different line. I hesitated but decided to be confident about what I was aiming for.
Then I was near the finish pontoon and the other two swimmers suddenly appeared just in front of me! I had been keeping it in mind that the time didn’t stop until we crossed the timing mat; which was up the shore and onto the grass. I swam all the way in whilst a man stood up and walked in unsteadily on the uneven stones. I sort of launched out onto the plastic blocks like a creature on a David Attenborough show.
I had been right – there was the guy I had just passed and the other person was a girl. Time to switch from amphibian to cheetah! I sprinted up the matting and had to make a split second decision to go onto the little stones in my bare feet to be able to overtake. I threw myself over the timing mat just in front. Paul, the race organiser, just shook his head laughing at me😀 .
We were both given the same time, but I finished ahead, placing 3rd female / 11th overall. I felt a bit bad doing that, but sometimes racing does get tactical and I was pleased to get on the podium in both races at the weekend. Though I did have to wait until prize giving to find out!
In contrast to yesterday, I measured the course a little shorter than advertised, at 2.5km. This time I don’t think I’d have minded doing another lap though😀
Next up I’ll be back to multisport at the Isles of Scilly swimrun.
After the last Open 5, I was feeling a bit grumpy and demotivated with no races in the calendar until the Isles of Scilly swimrun. So as well as the mountain bike event last week (which was just for fun), I searched around and found the Keswick Mountain Festival (KMF) had a whole selection of races. It was also well placed in my race calendar. So I entered the 25km trail race on Saturday and the 3km swim on Sunday. Might as well make a weekend of it!
I travelled by train and bus to be greeted by spits of rain. It was an uphill walk to the campsite as the rain got progressively heavier. It was a test of speed to get my tent up without the inside getting wet and before all my kit got completely soaked sitting on the grass next to it. I crawled inside and listened to the drumming on the walls whilst I put off getting all my waterproofs on to go for a final wee.
All night the wind blew hard and the rain fell. But next morning it was drier and I walked to and from registration without getting wet! No such luck for the start of the race. At the last minute I decided to carry my waterproof after all, even though I was wearing a windproof because it was really chilly. I needn’t have done. Within half an hour of starting, the sun was out and I was stripping off on the move, stuffing my jacket into my bag.
I knew the start was quite tight and there was a road crossing with a narrow gap in the wall. I got myself near the front to make sure I wasn’t held up. Past the campsite we went again and over undulating terrain, with a generally upwards trend! I was feeling good, powering over the tops of rises. But then the track got technical. There were roots and rocks and steps. I could hear people behind me and sensed the footsteps hot on my heels. This pushed me to run harder, to concentrate on keeping moving over the obstacles. Although one or two guys came past me, there weren’t many, which was pleasing.
Unfortunately, this effort was also taking it out of me and I realised I was overcooking things a bit. I was feeling a bit woozy and tired and we had only done about 5km! I slowed a fraction and made sure I was drinking.
Just after that a girl overtook me. I was pretty sure there were only two ahead of us, so that meant I had just moved from 3rd to 4th. At the feed station she stopped, whereas I ran straight through. Presently she caught and overtook me again. I kept her in sight and the gap wasn’t widening significantly, but I couldn’t close it. Up and over what I knew was the last big climb, and I had to work hard on the descent. Now people really were coming past!
We finally got to the road and a spectator confirmed I was in 4th – ‘but 3rd is just in front’ he encouraged me. I was pretty sure this is how it would stay, especially when the gap remained after the next feed station. However, the track was now easier and flatter, so I got into a rhythm and my own pace and soon I realised I was catching back up. I was feeling good again and even managed a cheery joke with a marshal about stopping at the tearoom. When I made contact I fell into the speed of the little group and ate a gel. Some more technical bits followed. I managed to trip over my own foot (to be fair, I sometimes do this on a tarmac pavement too) but after a while I felt I was ready to move on.
Nice little surprise in wait at this point as the route tipped upwards again. In my head this half of the race was more or less ‘flat’! I kept working, occasionally glancing back and seeing the gap was not much. My water was running low, and at the final feed station I stopped for an electrolyte drink. I was feeling parched and it was much needed, despite my initial scorn at why a station was needed so close to the end!
In Manesty Woods we all went the wrong way. I had peered at a junction, but with no arrow or flag in sight, carried on the main track. I was starting to worry about the lack of flags, but 400m later, the route popped out again on our left. It turns out we went the ‘long way’ round anyway. Looking at Strava flybys later, we clearly weren’t the only ones! This was the only route mistake though, as it was well signed with little red flags dancing in front of us the whole way.
‘Just’ a few km to go, but the vigour of an hour ago had left me and now it was beginning to hurt. All I could muster for the marshals was a grunt and half a wave. I promised myself the last remaining gulp of water I had left after the next km. I kept thinking, ‘less than a parkrun to go’. In some trees we turned off the main track and uphill again. The scent of flowers was heady in the air. We were twisting and turning a bit now, which was to my advantage as I would be hidden round the corners. Now when I glanced back, I could not see my rival. I dare not let up though, even though I could feel my body was flagging.
We got to some streets and had to be close to the end of the lake. Round we went, almost there. My watched beeped 24km. I had plotted the route on a map beforehand and suspected it measured long, but I kept hoping I was wrong. This was hurting so much! We seemed to wiggle and turn, avoiding every direct route back to the finish. Finally I could see some flags, but even then there was a zigzag to get to the finish arch! I was grimacing and collapsed on the floor. My watch read 26km.
After a bit of recovery (=lying on the floor groaning) I couldn’t quite believe it. This was a big race with over 200 women entered, and about 170 finishers. I had aimed for top 20, would have been more than happy with top 10, had believed at one point I’d finish 4th, and then had made it to 3rd. In fact, it turned out that another girl had been closing the gap and slipped in between myself and the person I had been racing. I had needed to keep pushing! I was 45th overall out of 421. My time was slower than expected, but I had based my target on my experiences at the Hardmoors White Horse course, which had less climb and was much less technical.
I was starting to get a bit emotional after all the effort, when I spotted my teammate Paul and got a hug off him. I never quite trust results until they have been announced and I’m on the podium. This despite everyone round the course confirming what I knew and it being on the tannoi as I crossed the line.
Happy days, just time to eat and do my best to recover before the next race! (the awesome Gococo socks went straight on).
Many thanks to race sponsors Salomon and for my cool race belt prize. Also to Paul Wildman Mitchell photography for a couple of race snaps and course director Charlie Sproson of Mountain Run. Great race this one, loads going on over the weekend for supporters / other racers, and the entry fee included porridge, pasta and a T-shirt as well.
After being involved in organising the last Scottish Mountain Bike Orienteering (SMBO) event, I was looking forward to getting back on the other side of things. Despite my best efforts to get along with Iain again, I was thwarted by a need ‘to revise’. What are the youth coming to?!
I was only going along to keep my legs spinning as my main races this year are swimrun again. I didn’t fancy the seriousness of racing solo. After a quick message to Jon (who I’ve raced with before, Itera teammate), I had found myself a friend to go round with instead🙂
The weather turned out glorious and the promise of cloud never materialised. After a trip over the rail bridge and a short spin, I was in Fife and at the event centre by Lochore. We took our time getting ready and even did a bit of general planning from the master maps (without controls).
Then we were off! No debating to start with and we scooped up our first few controls and negotiated our first set of gates and clouds of flies in quick time before pausing to debate our route through the woods. We had planned to go there first as the nav looked tricky and we weren’t sure how long it would take. But we needed to agree the precise order before we set off again. It felt like it took too long, but we didn’t stop again for a while.
Alarmingly, I could feel myself riding in the ‘final push for the finish’ position after only about half an hour. And the hills were nipping my legs. It was fun to be chasing and have Jon metaphorically pushing me hard though! The woods were a blast. We would ride along a wide track, then suddenly dive off onto a little singletrack before popping back out somewhere else. I didn’t even regret the slow rooty option we took at one point instead of the faster but longer route.
After the tricky woodland section I managed to convince Jon to go for an out and back along the road for 10 points. ‘only be 3 minutes!’ I said, cheerfully. More like 6 he said … So I timed it and it was and a bit🙂 We also got time to say hello to fellow teammate Paul going in the other direction.
Loch Gow had a difficult bit of singletrack that I was pleased to ride a lot of before we were walking again, over a fence and pushing up soft stuff that would definitely be rideable down. Finally we flew down a hill on tarmac and paused again. We wondered whether this meant there was a massive hill back to the finish as we didn’t remember going up one. Looking at our profile later, we had been gradually climbing since the start! (you can see where we went here). Knowing that the forest nav turned out OK, it might have been better for speed to have gone the other way round.
I was feeling a bit stressed about how far from the finish we were, but we polished off a handful of road kilometres in no time at all. At ‘the steps’ we found a number of abandoned bikes at the bottom … But we were on our way somewhere else, so I hoisted the bike onto my shoulders in the way that Elizabeth had taught me and up we went. Before the top we could ride again and we soon flying down in ‘finishing stages’ mode.
Unfortunately, leaving some urban streets we rode straight past an easy control. I was too busy looking out for a building that I had noted as a landmark … But it had didn’t exist any more. We were slow to correct our mistake, costing a few minutes. We would definitely be late now! The final descent had me squealing as it was steep and dusty (!) and there were walkers to negotiate.
We flew into the finish, 8 minutes late. Good enough to win the mixed pairs but missed out on 3rd overall by just 1 point. Darn that error!
I had a jolly time though, just the thing to blow away a few cobwebs, get out in the sun and enjoy the company of friends. I can also add another spot to my list of places I can easily go mountain biking car free within an hour of Edinburgh! Thanks to organiser Campbell for a great day out. Full results here.
It’s more than a bit late for this report. Life seems to have been getting in the way of write ups!
I stayed at my mum’s with my friend Jim the night before. It was an early start, driving through temperature inversions that meant we alternated between bright sunshine and fog. The race venue was still more in the latter state and there was mention of snow on higher ground. I was more confident for sun!
I was racing with Lucy again and we did debate whether to bike first, but stuck to ‘what normally works’ and ran first instead. By the end I was wishing we hadn’t, though unlike the last time this happened, it was less a strategy miscalculation and more of a ‘might have saved ourselves’ option.
Off we went, almost, but not quite last out. Straight up a hill and back down again for the first control. Lucy had the end of a cold in her lungs, but I wouldn’t have known it as we were flying along and I was breathing hard trying to keep up. Navigation in the town was tricky and we ended up the wrong side of the canal and unable to get on the bridge. I later found out there was a route through a beer garden, but we never spotted that! We lost about 5 minutes here, take note.
Onwards and up onto the hills, where navigation was a bit easier. We found a control on a footpath / stream crossing, where I’d say the ‘footpath’ was only barely hanging on to its status. We were up high and scooting along a ridge with great views. Stoodly Pike (with a great big tower) was like a siren, with a 30 point control on it.
We got another control then paused to contemplate our options. I had roughly estimated the bike length at 32km. We needed to allow 3h. Though sometimes, depending on terrain, we’d do it quicker than that. How long left for the run? 7-8km at 6-7 minutes per km. Just over 40 minutes then (see what I did there?). Lucy really wanted to go to the tower. Well, we had won the series already and it looked fun, she said. I was more anxious but, yes, the tower did look inviting, it seemed it was almost as long to take the direct route home and if we weren’t going we should have decided a control ago … so off we went.
Darn, we ran round the tower looking for a balcony, before realising it we had to go inside, up a spiral staircase in the pitch dark, no lights. This was slow!! A couple more minutes lost.
Running back down, Lucy had to wait for me, though I found my legs again on the flatter road section. It was along drag back along the canals and through Todmorden. We came in 49 minutes after our deliberations, with only 2h40 left for the bike.
As previously ascertained, there really was no other option for the bike leg but to go all the way round the big loop. I couldn’t see any other sensible alternatives, so off we went. Maybe we both already had a sinking feeling about this, as I’m not sure our usual ‘drive’ was in evidence.
I navigated well through town, only for us to promptly get confused and take the wrong bridleway, ending up pushing in hot sunshine. Studying the map very carefully afterwards, I can see the bridleway we took was on the map – I just couldn’t see it at the time. It was tricky to read due to the hundreds of paths, contours and ‘stuff’. Yes, it was hilly. We turned too early, which I kicked myself about, as usually I have an eye on the distance as well as the junctions. This cost us about 7 minutes – are you keeping a tally?
Once on the right track it was a ride / hike mixture until we hit a road at the top and flew like maniacs with a tailwind. This felt better, maybe we had enough time after all, our average speed was going up. Off road again onto a fun track to a reservoir. We were heading for a ‘permissive bridleway’ – sometimes these indicate high use paths and are better quality, but sadly, not the case today. I briefly considered going the long way round, but we didn’t – others reported doing this and having a much better time.
Anyway, after another km of pushing we finally made it to a decent track. 40 minutes left, we had to go fast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t towing territory. And besides, my stomach was not feeling great, I was queasy. Maybe I hadn’t been drinking enough in the unaccustomed sunshine! We got to the control that was missing (luckily we’d heard someone shout something about it), so we took a photo to prove we’d been there and headed off again.
We were nearing the end and got to a section with loads of gates. We were doing ‘gate relay’ – one of us go through, ride ahead to the next one, whilst the other shut the first and caught up, to switch over again. We were nearing a farmhouse and it was my turn to hold the gate. I shouted “200m past the farm, then turn left!” Unfortunately, the message didn’t land, as Lucy turned at the farmhouse and I was chasing her down the road shouting “um, I don’t think this is right!” whilst desperately trying to work out how this way went (it was a sort of square). Eventually Lucy stopped, we had overshot the alternative junction and had to turn back. Another 2 minutes gone.
Things were getting pretty bad by now, chat was rather minimal. We both just wanted to be home. It should have been ‘all downhill’, but it wasn’t. The final turning had a ‘Road Closed’ sign. “Do you want to find out why?” asked Lucy. “Yes!” I said emphatically. We really didn’t have time to faff about. I was encouraged when a group of motorcyclists roared past and when we got to the point, it was only half the single lane road dug up, so we had no problems getting through. There was a possible shortcut through town but we weren’t certain of it, so we stuck to the main road and finally drew into transition.
19 minutes late. The sad sight of only our shoes and bags sitting forlornly in transition by themselves.
This was a disappointing end to the series. Despite the lovely countryside and demanding course, I think we weren’t quite on it. Even so – frustratingly, if we had eliminated the nav errors we’d have only been about 5 minutes late – and have had an excellent score – which goes to show that it wasn’t our planning that was out as such, just our execution of it!
We came 2nd female pairs, only 5 points behind 1st (penalties go up at 5 points per minute after 10 minutes). Results here. Although this wasn’t the end I’d hoped for, we had already done enough to win the series. I had a pleasant train journey direct back to my mum’s and a hot dinner waiting for me!
Until next winter …
Pre-race preparation was perfect, with a café stop, a wander round an outdoor shop, a photography exhibition (tweed making in the Hebrides) and a pub dinner. Shame about the early start, but we successfully navigated round all the closed bridges and got a space in the village not too far from registration.
Whilst waiting for Lucy to arrive I got chatting with a few people about the routes. The bike looked fairly straightforward – with the main decision being two controls stuck up on a fell. The advantage of them was that they were on the Roman road (High Street), so visiting them would make my dad happy.
When Lucy appeared we got ready remarkably quickly and headed up to the start. But then some last minute gear fettling threatened to eat up all that spare time we had. Luckily the right screw was twiddled in the right direction first time, and we were ready to go!
Run first as usual, and we set off at pace, soon hitting a long road stretch. My shins were complaining but I just ignored them. We had to leave an out and back fairly early on – as it turned out that might have been our best chance at more points but it just didn’t seem worth it at this stage. We were soon enough heading up onto the hill and I was enjoying the softer ground, even if we had to leap over tussocky stuff.
There was a choice to be made between a straight off-track line to the furthest out controls, or a route on tracks that we decided would be faster. We also got to check out a section of bridleway we’d potentially be riding up later. Even better, we got there with a mountain biker and were able to see that a) he was riding but b) only a little bit faster than we were running.
Descending a steep bank I was left behind (as expected) but generally I was feeling good. Lucy had raced the day before as well and was only just back from the tooth infection that had done for her last month. I was keeping up without dying, which only tempted me to look at the map, which wasn’t too helpful. We stopped at a control, ‘ignored’ it, ran downstream, then back up. A mistake from a combination of the paths on ground looking a bit different to the map (which fooled me) and me distracting Lucy (who wouldn’t otherwise have been fooled by that).
She was getting a bit tetchy as we were running out of time. I hadn’t noticed, but she was right. 1h55mins gone already, and there was no way we’d be back in 5 minutes! Nothing for it though but to stick at it. I looked at the bike map to check our route still made sense in the light of reduced time and to make some comparisons between different point collections.
We flew down into the finish. The longest run time-wise in a while and I think our longest distance Open 5 run ever! Close to 20km. Off on the bikes and it was an ‘easy’ road loop to start with. The sun came out and the lanes were pretty even if they went up a hill. We feared this would be a repeat of the Forest of Bowland, where the optimal points route was short run and long bike.
However, as I pondered I wasn’t so sure. I still thought we could get round all but two controls, and maybe even out and back to one more. It was tempting as it was the one on the Roman road. We calculated 30 minutes to get 15 points, an hour to get 55. As we rode we debated and thought it would be close for the 15 pointer. We thought about other combinations – would cutting it short on another loop on the way back be worth the offset? Sadly, no, we decided it would be nuts to try and we should play it safe. Then I think we relaxed slightly, alarmed at the prospect of getting back 20 minutes early.
Realising what was happening, we changed gear again and hurried up a bit. Lucy led the way down a fun, fast rocky descent towards the shoreline of Ullswater. It was impossible to read the map at that speed with those bumps, but we pulled up just before the bridge with the control. The furthest one out was up a sharp little kick to a church. We tackled it off road, deciding it was shorter and better graded than the road – and we were right.
Typically, having gone from thinking we had loads of time we now realised we had to get a proper move on. We estimated 14km and we had 40 minutes.
Pushing the pace along the lakeside I wondered if Lucy would need a tow, but she was safely tucked in my slipstream and that was enough. Good thing too, as I didn’t have it in me to go any faster and felt slightly queasy! It wasn’t until we turned up the final hill some time later that I gave a short helping hand. There was No Way we could get back late on this one after all our earlier debates!
I didn’t dare think we were safe until we hit the final bit of bridleway, screeched down the hill, faffed with a gate and hammered into the finish. 5 minutes early! Brilliant.
We decided it hadn’t been so crazy to do a long run today after all, even if it had been slightly unintentional. It had been a race with much thinking and strategizing on the move. After so many previous events where high scores had been the norm all round, we hoped that our high score this time would be a little more out of the ordinary.
At prize giving when the scores were read out, we were mentally counting the number of people ahead of us. Gargh, missed top 10 by one place – 11th! But we had much improved and won our category, so we were happy. Results here. One more go at it this season!
A couple of weekends ago, it was the first SMBO (Scottish Mountain Bike Orienteering) event of the year. I wasn’t sure about entering because of my dodgy knee. It was complaining about cycling so racing didn’t seem too wise. However, I then persuaded Iain (14) and, more importantly his dad, that this would be an ideal event for him to come and do with me.
And so it was that I turned up at Iain’s house 5 minutes late, and we scuttled off to get the train to Falkirk. Pedalling to the venue from the station was more uphill than down, but we arrived in one piece. Lots of people I knew were there, including Jon, bearing a spare map board for us to borrow.
The twist in this event was that it was a day / night. Clue in the name. The total race time was 3 hours, but it was split into two. 1.5h to ride in the day time, then all the control values changed and we had 1.5h to ride again once it got dark!
Iain is great on a bike, but he doesn’t get much practice. He is also more than competent with a map, so we set off on the day stage with him navigating and setting the pace. There were two versions of the map – an OS one (which Iain had) and an openstreetmap one (which I had). This was handy as sometimes one had better information than the other. We wound round some fun singletrack and blasted down a hill to the canal. We were moving fast! A detour into some woods, where there were some grumbles about a ‘hill’, then back onto the canal and to the long tunnel that looked a bit dark and spooky!
We went another way, aiming for a ‘fast’ route on some tarmac, missing the turning, riding across some grass and getting tangled up in the Scottish Cross County Championships. That part might have been my fault. Iain did spot a bit of the Antonine Wall on the way though. Then off to a mausoleum. We were looking for the gate and were at the perimeter wall, when we realised we had gone the wrong way round. “Shall we backtrack on the path, or just go straight up through the woods?”, I mused. Up we went, and then down, which was a bit of a laugh, as when we got to the gate we’d gone round about two thirds instead of one third, which Iain was only too quick to point out to me.
1.5h doesn’t last very long and suddenly, when we were as far away as it was possible to be from the finish, we found we had only 24 minutes left. Unfortunately, this was also the point that the trail got really technical, then disappeared under a pile of felled trees and branches. We had to bash through to the main path then escape onto a road. Time to race to the finish! Hey, but maybe we can get that control on the other end of the canal tunnel? We started off to it, before realising it was in a deep cutaway and it was a long way round if weren’t prepared for a vertical jump.
We had already started off to it but turned around and pedalled like crazy for home. It was a good time to teach Iain the adventure racing art of being towed. His lesson took 5 seconds: ‘hold this with your hand, let go straight away if anything goes wrong, pay attention to what I’m doing!’ and off we went! Turns out he was a master at it.
We got back over 7 minutes late, which was disappointing as it meant we lost 20 points. Luckily, we still had 155 left! This is another thing I like to teach; you should always get best value for money by riding longer than you really should. ‘Oooo, my legs are all wobbly’ Iain said, as we queued to download!
It got cold quickly as darkness fell. We ate soup and cake. And a bit more cake. And maybe another piece. With our lights all set up I asked Iain if he had ever ridden at night before. No. Well, a race is as good a time as any to learn! We still had the map from earlier, but no control values. We had a guess at where the good scoring ones might be as we knew they would swap around from the day stage. We also planned two possible loops that were a bit more conservative than our first attempt! I measured them, counting as I moved my finger along the route. ‘What distance is each thing?’ ‘A thingy’ ‘What’s a thingy?’ ‘It doesn’t matter! This afternoon we rode 25 thingies, and this loop is only 22 of them!’🙂
Off we went, pedalling hard to warm up. Back down to the canal again the direct way, and we moved as fast as we had in the day on the first part, which was a repeat. Iain remarked that this time, his legs didn’t feel like they had only just started, and his bum was sore! The ‘hill’ in the woods put in another appearance, to more groans.
Then we approached the tunnel again. Now, at night, the inside looked less spooky than the outside! We rode along it, admiring how it is hewn out of the rock, dodging the big drips of water and trying to concentrate enough not to fall in.
We were now on unfamiliar territory but were following Iain’s dad’s signs for the John Muir Way. Round an estate and across a pond, up a hill with views out to the lights of Falkirk. The ground was getting frosty and we rode through a few Slush Puppy puddles. I was doing more navigation this time, with Iain keeping an eye on things. Once I told him to go ahead and get the control so I wasn’t ‘taking over’ all the fun bits, and he rode straight past it!
We used the tow a little bit, but Iain was feeling good again. We got back near the start and were on a road when I heard a clatter behind me, then silence! Alarmed, I stopped, expecting to see Iain in a heap, but in fact he was still riding along. ‘What happened?!’ I asked. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘I was just looking at Orion, swerved to the side a bit and hit this plastic thing in the road!’ … panic over.
We actually had a few minutes left, so although we were almost back, we popped into the woods to get two more controls we had saved up. They were tricky to get in and out of, as there was a little maze of forest tracks and mountain bike trails. We debated a bit which way to go to get out, but ultimately the answer was ‘towards all those lights!’.
We got back just 38 secs late, which was much better than stage one. In fact, our night performance was better all round, as we scored 224 points!
We were cheered by the tales from other people – who had got back as late as we had in the day, or gone the wrong way, or got lost. It just goes to show it can happen to the best, even my Itera team mates!😀
Points tallied, and we finished 3rd generation pair (adult with an under 18). Excellent work. This category was the second biggest on the day, with 10 entrants! Great to see so many families out. We missed out on the lights prize for being back closest to time on the night stage by 37 seconds … Never mind. Results are all here.
Time to cruise back down the hill and catch a train. At that time on a Saturday the passengers tend to be quite merry, and it turns out there were already bikes in both bike carriages. We comically ran along the platform twice before choosing our spot, jumping on, and wriggling into two spare seats.
By the time we got back to Edinburgh it was 21:30 and we were pretty peckish. Luckily Papa John’s was perfect as we could wheel our bikes right inside and sit in the warm to wait for our order. The only deficiency was that their pizza sizes were measured in slices (‘since when has a slice between a unit of measurement?’). We ran up the hill giggling, with hot smells wafting out of our boxes. Before long, we were camped in the living room, telling our tales, eating pizza and swigging coke (despite parental disapproval)!
I can’t ride the next event in April, because I’m organising it. But Iain already wants to come, so his dad will have to do the honours instead!
Many thanks to Marc and his team of helpers (young and old-er!) for putting on such a fun and accessible event.
I was searching the events calendar for a trail race of about 20km. I liked the look of one at Glentress, but it sold out before I entered, as had everything else! So my eye alighted and rested on the No Fuss Events ‘runduro’. This is a running version of a bike ‘enduro’ race. The format is that there are a number of timed stages in the race, with linking stages in between where you can relax and recover. It sounded fun, and we decided it was worth the trip up to Fort William. I tried to get a big gang together, but was happy enough with Izzy and Glen! I knew a few other people who would be there too.
The drive up took longer than expected. We finally made it to the youth hostel about 22:30. Compared to the week before, our room was spacious and the beds less creaky, so I slept fairly well. Next morning, looking out the window it was just a bit wild, with the snowline in sight but higher than we’d be going.
Off into town and we registered and picked up our dibbers. The wind was gusty and chilly, and just as we got ready to start the rain came on. We huddled under the roof of the public amenities, putting off the moment, with Andy urging us to ‘just get on with it!’. So eventually, off we went. There was no obvious ‘start line’ as the first timed stage began up the hill somewhere. We touched the flag instead, and set off.
King O’ The Hill
0.99km / 180m ascent / no descent / 10:05
Not a great warm up, as my heart was thumping just walking up the steep slope! In no time at all, we were looking at the dibber post and conferring with a few other people about the route. ‘Straight up to the radio mast there’, they said. Off we went, running at first but soon slowing to a speed walk as the path got steeper, rougher and then boggier. My feet were now wet and very cold, as I splashed through the flat top section and found the finish dib, obscured by another competitor just standing around!
I thought I should get the camera out to capture Izzy and Glen finishing, but suddenly I felt very sick and was struggling to keep my breakfast down! It was pretty chilly up there, so as soon as we all regrouped, we set off at a jog to the next stage.
1.92km / no ascent / 214m descent / 8:40
My stomach settled back down and I peered at the route guide. There were some instructions about a rough track to cut the corner, but the marshal was non-plussed. ‘Just follow the main path!’ she said. So we did. Izzy and Glen ran away and I wished, not for the last time this day, that I could run downhill better.
They both beat me, but waited for me to finish🙂 . As we jogged to the third stage, the sight of the marshal came far too early. We all groaned, stopped running and started walking. And we weren’t even halfway through yet! I was thinking that perhaps some interval training might have been good prep for this race.
1.81km / 103m ascent / 78m descent / 10:33
The printed guide and the marshal agreed this time: 1.1km, uphill then down. I was dubious about the stated 103 vertical km of descent though.
Off we went and I was pushing hard. 500m came and went. Then 700m … it was well over 1km before we turned downhill! At least I’d had far enough to get a nice cushion on the others and was able to cheer / take some snaps of them arriving.
One of the nice things about this race was how sociable it was. People would appear from behind, run with us, then leave, and vice versa. Here we met Rachel, former Edinburgh resident, who chatted with us to the feed station and the next, ominously named, stage.
To Hell and Back
1.78km / 136m ascent / 117m descent / 14:37
I was really thirsty by this point, but the best I could get was a juicy orange. It had started raining but we had to come out of the little shelter and face the hill in front of us. It was steep and rocky, and Rachel easily pulled away. I don’t know how she kept on running.
At the top, we turned onto the main Ben Nevis tourist path and headed back downhill. I had caught another girl, who was now leading the way, showing me how to skip from rock to rock! I began to trust my shoes and as it got easier, we sped up. She nearly came to grief sliding on the grass, and we had a chuckle as we flew into the end of the stage. Along with The Descender, this was the stage I lost most time on. Darned downhills!
I said hello to Jac from work, who I found at the finish dib and was just leaving whilst I waited for the others.
Up, Up and Away!
2.61km / 183m ascent / no descent / 16:30
Off we jogged again, rummaging in our pockets / bags / belts for snacks. The next stage would be the longest and was uphill all the way. Perfect! I needed to take a trip into the bushes but Izzy and Glen weren’t waiting for me to finish and gave themselves a headstart😀 . Just as I emerged a lady appeared in a van with water. I think it was for her friends / relations who were with the girl I’d ran with earlier. I was so relieved to get a drink and downed two cups before starting the climb.
It was a tough one, as first I passed Jac, then Izzy, then another friend, Fiona. She spoke to me but all I could do was grunt back! As I looked ahead I thought I could see Glen’s red rucksack as a target. I could feel the blood pounding in my head and despite telling myself ‘it’s just half a parkrun’ I was wondering if I had set off too hard. There was no turning back now though! On and on, popping out of the trees and seeing the end sooner than I expected. Glen just got there before me, but as I dibbed I could hardly breathe, let alone speak!
Short and Sweet
1.03km / no ascent / 90m descent / 4:09
We regrouped and head up the hill for the last 3 ‘easy’ stages. First, a downhill, but on a big wide track. I tried to keep up with Glen; failing, but minimising my losses. The lady with the water appeared again, and said I was cheating the system getting some twice! I was gasping though and eyeing up the muddy puddle. If I’d known there was no water en route I’d have carried a bottle.
0.97km / no ascent / 48m descent / 3:44
A big group formed here and we all walked to the start of the next stage. I was chatting with Fiona, an adventure racing friend, about race plans for the rest of the year. The 7th timed stage was undulating with a downhill finish. Again, I chased Glen. My legs were burning though, and my right quad was hurting! Izzy had been mostly taking the race ‘not seriously’, but even she found her competitive edge as she jostled for position🙂 .
0.72km / 17m ascent / 18m descent / 2:56
We decided to jog to the final stage, as we’d all got a bit chilly walking. Suddenly the others disappeared and it was just us three, negotiating the streets of Fort William and the Morrisons car park. The final sprint was the pavement along the shore, into a headwind. My gps stats are definitely a bit weird here, as there was no ascent or descent that I could see.
As I debated what order we should go in, Glen dibbed and ran off! I gave chase, catching him quickly. But every time I came alongside with the intention of overtaking, I felt the brunt of the wind, changed my mind and dropped back behind. He took a funny route, squeezing between the benches and the wall. I had to copy him, which Izzy found most amusing! He put on a final spurt and I couldn’t match it.
Finally, we limped back to Cotswold Outdoor to download and get our result slips. Comparing times, Glen and I had a dead heat on the final stage! My printout said ‘currently 3rd’, so I was in for a long wait until prize giving to see if anyone else had come in faster behind me.
After free soup and warming up in the pub, bumping into more people we knew (hello Julia!), scones and hot drinks in a café and a pleasant half hour browsing the outdoor shop merchandise, it was time for prizes. I was super pleased to have held onto 3rd senior woman, even if I was only 4th woman overall (with a vet sneaking in in front of me!). Even more pleasing was that my time was quite competitive – 28secs behind 2nd (Rachel, who we’d met on the course) and 1min54s behind 1st.
I always surprise myself if I do well in running races. I’m not a runner?! Am I runner?! I’ve had a few (probably) bike-related problems with my knee since Christmas, which is frustrating. After such a strong set of training and racing last year, it can be difficult to deal with niggly setbacks. So it was nice boost to do well.
Off we went, this time taking the scenic route back through Glen Coe, snapping snowy scenes and getting to the Green Welly Stop just in time for macaroni cheese and cake.
Many thanks to No Fuss Events for putting on a great race and making sure the weather wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Also to all the marshals who probably thought the weather was quite bad enough, and to the lady who saved me with her water supplies!
All stage stats come from my gps logging and I do not claim any accuracy, but they are probably as close to the truth as the route guide😉
Post race report: owwwww the sore muscles that lasted 6 days! Maybe I really should have done some intervals / downhill efforts in preparation. If you plan to enter this race (or any like it), be prepared that it is harder than it sounds, especially if you’re someone who specialises in starting off at one pace and sticking to it😀 .