Loch Gu Loch
Less than 3 weeks after finishing Ötillö, we were on the start line for Loch Gu Loch, a Scottish Highlands version of the same race. Why? Because we wanted to do at least one of the new UK races this year and this is the only one we could make. Plus, it was run by the same people behind Celtman, so we knew it would be a good event. It’s always nice to be at the first edition of a race that could become iconic 🙂
Our accommodation and race HQ was at the stunning Highland Club, an old monastery at the southern end of Loch Ness. Sadly, we had to leave our cosy beds far too early in the morning to make our way blearily to the boat that would take us to the start, leaving at 5:30 am. Our table top doubled up as a full ‘info board’ and another time I’d have pored over it. Sadly, we couldn’t see anything outside because it was dark, and I was too preoccupied eating last minute snacks (BeetIt bar), queueing for the toilet and smearing myself with chamois cream.
Urquhart Castle was the majestic setting for the start. Now it was just about light and we could admire it perched on an outcrop overlooking the loch. Once bags were dropped and photo shoots were done, we got into the allegedly very cold water. I was ready to go, but there seemed to be a long gap between getting in and the starting horn …
The general route of the race is to cross Loch Ness, climb the hill on the other side, then work back to the start, covering various smaller lochs before a final uphill sting, a trip via the many small islands of Loch Tarff and a descent back to cross Loch Ness to the finish. Total stated distance about 8km swimming and 47km running (we measured it 7.5km / 50km).
I found the first leg particularly stressful. Unlike Ötillö, there had been no run to spread us out. I tried to follow the feet of Dechlan and Lyndsey (who were sharing our apartment), but they were just a touch too fast. Not to worry, they had bright green wetsuit arms and were perfect to sight off. I know Dechlan and trusted he would go the right way.
Later I tried to draft a guy with big blue paddles, but almost got whacked in the face. Izzy had been tapping my feet, which is normal. But then suddenly it seemed as if crowds of people had swarmed up and were about to overtake us. I was panicking, thinking I was swimming like a snail, and tried to speed up. I was swallowing water and felt a bit sick. As we came in to land, Izzy swam up beside me. Turns out she was caught up in the excitement and trying to beat some people next to us!
We were on dry land and Paul (one of the organisers) shouted a well done at us. We were off up the hill. Now I had terrible stomach cramps, one ear was full of water so I couldn’t hear properly, and my feet were so cold I couldn’t feel the ground. Izzy was great, running alongside and encouraging me along. One by one my problems subsided. I shook my head a few times and managed to unblock my ear. My feet gradually came back to life. And Izzy demonstrated how to do magnificent burps, so that my own eventually eased my stomach distress!
Towards the end of the first run, a few teams were catching us. We swam a small loch and got a cheer from my coach, Scott, who was on kayak duty. Next run, a few more teams came past. It seems we had been faster swimmers and now the good runners were making their mark.
As we approached the first swim across Loch Mhor, we were ready to go. Our exits from the water still need a bit of polishing, but our entries are slick! We passed several teams milling about zipping their wetsuits up and getting kit sorted. We were straight in and swimming. We passed a couple more teams at the next aid station as we did our usual: drink a couple of cups and grab some food to eat on the way out. The piper appeared here, signalling our approach. Loved him, he kept popping up all over the place round the course!
Next up we reached Andy, marshalling a swim entrance. I knew this was the half way point. He told us what was going on at the front of the field, confirmed that we were first female pair and said we were about 8th overall. We were enjoying the swims and the terrain, which were very similar to what we’d trained on – unlike the trials of the slippery Ötillö rocks!
I think the pressure of knowing we were up front was stressing Izzy a bit. As we got to the next swim a marshal said cheerfully “first female pair!”. “Not any more!”, she blurted, as a mixed pair caught us up, with the chap having long hair! She apologised profusely … 😀
Another run and swim, and we started the longest run of the day: 16km of mixed off- and on- road, with a significant climb in the second half. Logic was telling me that our position was probably fairly secure. No other girls had caught us by the halfway point, the other people we’d left behind weren’t making ground – and if any other female pair were going to catch up, they’d have to be storming through the field to get to us. Our slick transitions and feed stops had given us an advantage, and now our endurance was kicking in.
Still, you can’t bank on anything in racing. We stayed alert to all the course markings. Some teams went wrong at a few places, but we didn’t have any difficulties following the course. Not only were we eagle eyed at every junction for potential arrows, I had also spent a lot of time memorising the map. It wasn’t a precise ‘photograph’, but I knew all the section lengths, major turns, terrain type, elevation profile and general direction.
As we climbed gradually on a section that pretended to be flat, we could see the scar of a road cresting a pass up ahead. I pointed, saying “I bet that’s where we’re going” … and so we were. We approached from a fire road and a nice path that zig-zagged up towards the viewpoint before continuing up and over the high point of the race. I’d been noting our pace and splitting the run into 5km chunks. I thought it was good news when I announced we probably only had 20-25 minutes to go to the swim. “25 minutes?!” shouted an exasperated Izzy, almost stamping her foot … Er, oops, sorry, that was meant to be encouraging!
There were beautiful views, but I was mindful of my footing. I wanted to let loose on the descent, but Izzy was more wary and was having a sugar slump. Luckily, we could see Loch Tarff below us and knew the feed station was right there.
We were both tired now. A kayaker shouted at us – “head for the green arrow!”. But it was a small arrow, and I couldn’t see it! Still, we got there and fought through heather and bracken to get over and into the next bit. We clearly had some supporters here, with one guy singing ‘here come the giii-rls!’ and shouting our names – we don’t know who you were, but thanks!! Also Scott and Judyta were here again. Scott said we looked strong – I said we felt wasted! Later he said, if you felt like that, you should have seen how the people behind looked …
We finished the penultimate swim through a dark swampy, reedy mass, emerging to face the final 6km run.
6km, doesn’t sound like much, does it? But we were soon moving only slowly round the loch across trackless heather. We saw one of the big blue arrows on a white board up ahead pointing left, then could pick out a string of red arrows dancing straight up the hill. A team in front (the ones with the big blue paddles from the first swim!) went straight on, but they were out of earshot as we shouted out to them. As we started going up, they reappeared, having realised their mistake and corrected.
Now I was using my hands and could really feel our cord pulling. Suddenly Izzy had a mini meltdown. There were threats to unclip the cord (“what good would that do?”, I say), I got shouted at when I tried to push, and offers of food were useless as she felt sick and dizzy. We slowed and I just went at her pace. So long as we kept moving, I was happy. It wasn’t far to go. I think we both kept thinking, who might suddenly appear behind us?
We got to the top and the panoramic vista laid out below us was amazing. We could see the finish, and emotion welled up in me! A suggestion to start jogging this downhill bit was met with a positive response, as was a soggy packet of Honey Stingers. We were back on it!
A couple of teams had overtaken, but as we got to the fire road, we ate and drank again, then passed them. We even drew close to blue-paddles team again as they hesitated about the right way to go. We had our doubts too, as we went through someone’s gateway and across what looked like a fancy drive. Just as we started to wonder what to do, we saw a bit of tape in a tree. Phew! Down and down we went, this run was turning out to be longer than the stated 6km. 7.1km according our gps – cheeky!
My big toe joint was killing me, but I ignored it. We jumped into the final swim just behind team 45, aka blue paddles, Jan and Matus Kriska. They were heading off at a funny angle, so I double-checked where we had to aim. We were told: just left of the abbey, the red flag. Well, red was pretty hard to see … but left of the grey towers of the abbey I could just about deal with. “So, not where they’re going?” I asked. No. So, off we went. My calf kept threatening to cramp, and I had to stop pointing my toes. Not very streamlined, but necessary!
Eventually we drew close. And then we grounded. Argh! We stood up and waded a bit, before I decided it was deep enough to swim again (i.e. knee deep). Then we swam to shore. I looked around for the dibber but was told, no not here – run for the finish! Andy was taking pictures. We took our hat and goggles off and organised ourselves for a side by side run up the steps and across the lawn.
Look at that! A tape! I’ve never got to break a finishing tape before! What excitement.
We were soon wrapped up in foil blankets, drinking hot drinks. I was feeling all emotional again, but had to laugh at Andy wearing fine moss hair under his cap. We were astonished to find we were 5th overall. In the end, it was worth almost more than the win in our class, which turned out to be emphatic. Full results here. Short film here – see if you can spot us wading at the end!
Great support from the marshals and people we knew on course. Also to other competitors we made friends with or chatted to along the way. I couldn’t get over how many people thanked me or remarked on our top tips and videos – it’s great to know people found them useful, though I apologise for not remembering or knowing who you all were! 🙂
Quite a few people have asked us how this race compares to Ötillö. I’d say it’s easier. This race is shorter and the swims are less difficult and dangerous. The terrain is more forgiving (providing, perhaps, you’re used to heather and bracken!). For comparison, we finished over 4h quicker despite ‘backing up’ with Ötillö, and our average speeds were higher. There are fewer transitions, so it’s easier to get into a rhythm. Having said all that, Loch Gu Loch has lots more hills, the swims are cold and it still counts as ‘tough’ in my book. I’ve heard it might be in the summer next year, which could make it a perfect preparation race if you happen to be doing Ötillö! It’s also a fine challenge in its own right.
Time now to let my sore toe get better, wait for the tiredness go away and dust down my mountain bike 🙂