Well, I am extremely out of the race reporting habit, despite managing a few races like Malta swimrun, Marmot dark mountains and some local trail events! Maybe I will come back to them, but I didn’t want to miss a write up of this year’s Open 5, not least because it is one I have been looking forward to for some time … more on that later!
This event was relatively close to my mum’s house, so I went down to stay with her. Lucy was otherwise indisposed and despite asking a couple of people, I ended up racing solo. I actually put a bit more effort into preparation than of late, checking maps from previous races in the same area and making sure I wasn’t about to make the same mistakes as 2018…
The weather was somewhat ‘wild’, and we drove through some big puddles to get there. A bit of rain and wind doesn’t phase me though, and I have raced in worse! After some careful map study, I had a plan and set off.
This race was unusual in that we had to bike/run/bike because the run was at a remote transition far from the centre. Pre race emails said it was about 20 minutes direct there. I was dubious since even Google suggested it would take the best part of 50 minutes. I thought I would ‘play it safe’ by going round the road at the bottom anyway, picking up a couple of out and back controls on the way.
After the first one I took a shortcut back to re-join the road, which was already a mistake as it was slow going, muddy and full of gates. Then I hit the river … well it was a river where the road should be. I walked a bit with my bike on my back, then rode a bit … and decided any more controls were out of the question. 1h25 minutes later I got to transition. I wished I had gone over the top – off road and uphill but probably more ride-able, given the circumstances!
Hey hum, the run would be better. But it took me a while to distinguish the first footpath from the river. And then I ‘ran’ along in quite deep water for a bit. Eventually I emerged onto a road and headed to a control in Goredale Scar. I found a couple of guys looking everywhere for the control. I was slightly adventurous peering over some rocks and found it, but wasn’t about to risk getting it – until a chap called Adam bounded in and leapt straight over 😮 So I decided to follow – but with a helping hand!
That was very adventurous. I was running well and was soon looping back to transition. I made a mistake missing the giant cliff I had to go round at Malham Cove, which was my first run mistake. Then I wasted the best part of 10 minutes trying to cross the river to get onto a path to another 20 pointer – I gave up in the end and missed it out. Another time when being in a pair might have been helpful …
Then the last control wasn’t where I expected . Along with group of other people we wandered back and forth over the bridge, bewildered. It had been moved from an island to a tree; we were told that at transition, but where was it? By luck, I found it just down the road, but I think it was not quite where the map suggested (on a permissive path rather than the public footpath).
Argh so much time had slipped through my fingers at the end. Back on the bike and I had another plan, doing a loop round on the hill with wind at my back.
So again, I tried to make conservative decisions, I really did. (Can you see where this is going yet?). I missed one out and back and then a second. As I did this I said to someone passing – I haven’t got time for that … I got a funny look as he stopped to peer at the map. Later I realised that was the way I should have been going…
I was looking forward to going downhill with a tailwind all the way home.
Unfortunately I turned out there was also some uphill (details, details) and some slightly tricky navigation that had me doubting my course. The descent down Threshfield Moor was a delight, interrupted only by the occasional drainage channel.
As I popped out onto the road something nasty happened with my back brake and I was already out of time. And now I had 5km into a headwind. EEK. A male pair overtook and I slipped in behind, clinging on for dear life. I was still over 22 minutes late. That might be a record for me…
So, my tactics were all wrong again, I wished I had done the off road hill option at the start and the shortcut at the end, although I did not regret getting some fun mountain biking in. With so many penalty points I was only good enough for 3rd.
However for me, the main event this weekend was my 20,000 CAREER POINTS! I’ve been working towards this for ages, just scraping over last year earning my 20,001th point. I join only three others who have racked up this many, and had my ‘first ever Open 5’ map at the ready – though it was actually an Open 5+ involving a swim to a control and some ghyll scrambling. Wait, not so different after all 😉
Many thanks to James and all of his team at Open Adventure for all the fabulous events over the years. I have been to so many different places, had a whole heap of adventures and made new friends. I still miss my winter monthly dose and the opportunity to do something better ‘next time’ – a year is too long! 😀 Until next time!
24.7km trek / 8h55 / finish time 15:55 Thursday
A bit of a false start to this stage as we set off down the road the wrong way – transition wasn’t marked on the map in quite the right place!! That’s our story anyway, and we’re sticking to it.
We finally set off up the right path, with me still munching my breakfast and Chloe managing a lot of ankle pain. At transition we had been given information that teams were taking 3h to get to the rafting from the start of the kayak. Andrea and Jon had calculated that if we could just motor this trek, taking opportunities to jog the flats and downhills, we had a chance of making it after all.
We got into a rhythm, being smoother and helping each other with snacks and drinks and kit adjustments to minimise stopping time. Although this was the stage we had targeted for doing the long course over the Five Sisters of Kintail, we were again short course, but the route here did not lack spectacular views. The path was easy going and we made good time.
As we had to head off-piste it got harder, but I was on fire. I powered up past the waterfall with Andrea and was springing ahead on the downhill to find the best path for Chloe and Jon, whose ankle was also now sore. I thought we might make the rafting after all, and expected the second half to be easier.
As we crossed the road past the Cluanie Inn it felt we passed into a different stage. Andrea and Chloe were able to speed walk whilst Jon lagged behind and me somewhere in between. I tried everything I thought I could to get us back together and moving at a better pace. Near the first ‘top’ Chloe needed to stop and change her socks before she got blisters from the accumulating grit inside. She wanted us to go ahead and she would catch us, but we refused.
I was hopping about on the inside, worrying about the time and sensing it just slipping through our fingers. But I did not want to snap or stress anyone out. Andrea took some of Jon’s kit and we got moving again. But now we had to either go the long way up a bit more hill and further on a path, or cut across.
We followed a team taking the direct line, through peat hags and rough ground, down to a river that proved too deep to wade. As we walked along a bit we were about to decide to stuff it and swim, when the other team found a spot to wade only up to mid thigh level 🙂
The path when we re-joined it was good. The weather had turned glorious. I wanted to run down the other side but could not cajole this out of everyone. As we got to the road, we walked when we needed to run. Chloe’s partner appeared on his motorbike to say hello. It was emotional for her.
It was just before 16:00. The guy in transition told us people were making it to the rafting from kayak put-in in about 3.5h and we might just do it. We got out fairly quickly, though not as fast as the team that arrived with us. We walked down to the river when we perhaps could have jogged. We faffed about getting in and setting off.
2.8km total portage / 1h35
6.2km walk / 2h15
26.5km total kayak / 5h / finish 04:20 Friday
Although we were going down a river now, this part wasn’t straightforward either. There were some mini rapids – we nearly came out on the first set but got a lot better at coordinating and steering through the second! Unfortunately there was some more portage where Andrea and I were working our hardest to get through whilst the tendons in my wrist complained loudly and Jon and Chloe struggled.
Back on the water I was asking Andrea “where is the urgency in the other boat?”. She had no answer. We decided to offer a tow, but it was refused; ‘we are keeping up fine’. On the roller coaster of emotions I was now dejected as I knew we would not make it, our speed was just not there. We soft paddled and kept together as we made our way along Loch Garry, with Chloe and Jon falling asleep and hitting each other with their paddles.
As we neared the end of the loch everyone was hallucinating as it got gloomy. The trees formed strange animals and carvings and it was hard to keep our eyes open. I’m not sure we had warned Chloe enough about this!!
Jon suddenly came alive saying we might just make it, but we couldn’t. We arrived at 20:26 – 26 minutes too late.
Later, on the way home, I spoke to Chloe about this. It turned out she wasn’t aware of the urgency – she thought we were home and dry and there was no rush. She also believed they were keeping up, not realising we were waiting. Clearly something had gone wrong with communications and I went over this a thousand times after the race. I take responsibility for not getting us there in time. You could lose 26 minutes anywhere – the nav error on the bike for one. But I also felt I should have understood what was happening better and either found a way to keep everyone motivated and focused or established a shared agreement to give up on it. Learn and move on!
Missing the rafting prompted a slight hypothermic meltdown in Chloe. This was caused by a combination of being wet, tired, not moving, the disappointment of missing the rafting and then being told we had to walk 5km and wait until 90 minutes were up before we could continue. It was all too much and she ended up inside the bivvy bag with Jon, putting on every item of dry clothing she had. Whilst Jon and Andrea looked after Chloe, I shivered and got the kayaks ready for transport. Thanks to the marshals here for helping, and the team who provided some hot water.
Finally we set off, trudging into the dark in search of food in Invergarry. Unfortunately, Invergarry is not a hot bed of food options and by the time we arrived just after 22:00 and stumbled into the pub, we were greeted by a barman who declared he could give us tea and crisps, but he was shutting up in 20 minutes just in case we thought we might fall asleep in the corner. A team arriving after us were given equally short thrift as they had takeaway teas shoved in their hands and were told to leave.
We made the most of what we had, then decided we had to sleep. As luck would have it, we found a road bridge over the path where it was dry with a smoothish surface. We got into pairs into two bivvy bags, set the alarms for 20 minutes (or not) and went to sleep.
As I spooned Chloe I was violently shaking with cold. I was still in my shorty wetsuit, still damp. I became aware of Jon and Andrea talking about it being time to get up. This was just about my worst moment of the race. I really had no notion of whether I was asleep or awake, and kept looking at my watch, unable to decipher what it was telling me. I got my bag back together and trailed behind in a daze as we made our way back to the water.
It turned out later that Andrea’s watch had misted up so she couldn’t see it properly setting the alarm, and I had managed to set the timer for 20h instead of 20 minutes 😮 . We had slept for an hour and a half.
The rest of the kayak was an uneventful paddle down to and along the Caledonian Canal. Chloe taught us some crazy round involving fish and chips and vinegar, dustbins and bottles of beer, which we executed very badly. After a couple of ‘easy’ exits and portage round the locks, we arrived in Fort Augustus and gladly abandoned the kayaks for the last time!
In transition we had a nice corner spot. I found my second of three ticks of the race attached near my eye … and we assembled our bikes ready to go. It was late in the race and despite any rules, people seemed to be sleeping where they fell on the paths outside the door.
Episode 4 – Official Film
61.7km / biking / 6h25 / finish 13:50 Thursday
Despite faffing with lights, the darkness had lifted by the time we got away. This stage was actually the best mountain biking we had done all race and one of my favourite legs.
I was keeping an eye on navigation in the woods as we followed the ‘Great Glen Way’. At some point we ended up on the high walker’s route, which added a climb and some technicality. On a normal day it would be my preferred option, but I’m not sure it was what we needed at that moment!
I think at this point we were all a bit tired and fractious and were not riding harmoniously. We stopped for 30 minutes of kip somewhere, and again for our first café 30km from the end. The wasps were out in force and we did not hang around, thanks to some speedy service.
The final descent was one to savour, swooping down from high ground it went on and on and was a delight to ride. It landed us in the centre of Inverness, where we negotiated the crowds through the final few hundred metres on a section we had checked out before we left. I’m glad we did as we could weave our way directly to the finish line.
We were greeted by race directors with medals and miniature whisky from Glenmorangie. Jonny was there to do some facebook live videos and make sure we got some pictures! We all made our way over to eat pizza and relax over a meal for the first time in five days…
Episode 5 – Official Film
On reflection, this race was not as straightforward ‘fun’ as the one I did in Wales. The rafting deadline loomed large all race and we were under pressure to make the short course, with no room to correct for any miscalculations. It was so disappointing to miss it anyway after all that focus! To play to my own strengths and favoured sports I’d have loved more mountain biking and less portaging 😉
Team dynamics were also very different, with somewhat more conflict and less cohesion. However, racing with that little sleep under such difficult conditions isn’t exactly conducive to harmonious socialising. Everyone laboured under different hardships ranging from sore throats, diarrhoea all race (!), swollen ankles, blistered mouths and feet and who knows what else.
Having said all that, we resolved any issues and made it to the finish line together. We did really well, finishing 12th overall thanks in large part to our early strategic decisions. I learnt a lot and we achieved a lot, though it is still hard to take it all in! Some of the places on the trek stages were incredible and it is amazing to think how crazy some of the race was and what we went through with those kayaks. An unforgettable experience!
For my own part I was delighted to escape with ‘normal’ 5 day race swelling, a single blister and sore tendons in one wrist. All subsided quickly. Worse, was picking up a probable flu virus a week after finishing, which I still haven’t been able to completely shake! The race reminded me how much I do like adventure racing after several years of swimrun focus. Maybe I should look for another one to do … 😉
Many thanks to John Ovenden and support from Lochland Runner, to our live social media updaters Andy and Jonny, everyone who sent us motivational trail mail, the race organisers under Open Adventure banner James, Tom and Paul plus a special one from me to my physio Graham who over the last 10 months somehow helped me rehab my hamstring tendon sufficiently to take part with no pain.
Finally, thanks to my teammates Jon, Andrea and Chloe for being up for going on such an epic journey!
If you like numbers, this is how our race shaped up in totals – distances, times – yes, there is a spreadsheet! You can see our route here, just select our team on the right.
13km trek / 8h45
26km trek / 10h36 / finish stage 16:50 Wednesday
And so we set off up our first big mountain. Everyone was tackling An Teallach. I haven’t been there before, but it turns out it is big, scrambly and has vertiginously steep sides! We were keen to make the most of remaining daylight. As we ascended it got windier and colder. Soon I was wearing all of my clothes save one emergency thermal jacket, including my waterproof trousers. I also had my first ‘moment’ as I felt woozy and incapable of climbing a mountain. This time handing over some kit to packhorse Andrea and taking a couple of gels worked wonders.
It got dark and then Chloe had her ‘moment’, finding the exposure bringing back some difficult memories. We pulled together and made slow but steady progress until we were onto the boulder field, clambering down to the track to the bothy everyone had spotted on the map earlier. We hadn’t slept for about 45h by this point and tempers frayed a bit as we all badly needed some rest. I was worried we would find the place full, but there was only one way to find out.
It was indeed busy, but we found space on the wooden floor and crashed out for 2h, with Chloe opting to brave any midges in the more spacious outside quarters 😀 .
Up we got and we decided to go for at least one of the long course controls. It wasn’t significant extra distance, though it was significant extra climb. It was also intriguingly named ‘tennis court’ and I am a sucker for funny place names.
We were all somewhat muted to start. I was slow as we ascended and also stopped to put protective gaffer tape on hot spots developing on my feet. I wasn’t up for blisters like those I experienced during UTS… There was some ‘debate’ about which way to get to the top, slightly confused by some hints we got at a briefing. In the end, Andrea took off up a gully, with Jon chasing after to check it out and Chloe and I gingerly bringing up the rear. I was afraid of scree or scrambling at the top, and as it was we were holding onto grass as we climbed. Not the most secure, but it was OK in the end.
As you will see later, going for this control was possibly a strategic mistake in terms of race position. However, it was also one of the most memorable and amazing parts of the course that we did – so this time I am happy that we got to experience this regardless. The ridge walk was incredible, and the ‘tennis court’ itself looked like someone had just come and sliced the top off the mountain.
On the descent I came alive a bit and even ran. Or maybe jogged. Further down the views of the river cutting through Gleann Bianasdail creating swirling rock formations with waterfalls and pools looked very inviting. I’d like to go back to that and explore. The beauty was only marred as my ‘usual blister’ underneath my little toe burst causing every step to be agony for a while.
After negotiating ‘paths not on the map’ and a slightly sarcastic comment to another team about my ability to identify a graveyard (sorry), we finally arrived in Kinlochewe.
This was the first time we had access to our tent at a vaguely sensible time for sleeping, and we had to put it up and stay in it for 20 minutes anyway. We got ourselves ready for the next stage then all clambered in for a couple of hours kip. I wondered if we should have more, or less? But it was too complicated to think. As the rain hammered on the roof, and a French team swore at the midges outside, we drifted off. Not the best sleep, but we needed it.
Episode 2 – Official Film
69.3km / biking / 7h40 / finish 05:10 Thursday
We set off just after 21:30 in the dark. It was now obligatory for us to short course this stage. Before we started we had hoped to do more than this here, sketching out a couple of different options. But course changes and our slow speed meant it wouldn’t have been sensible anyway.
After leaving all the map reading to Chloe and Jon on the foot stage, it was my turn again. I confidently took the first turning, with Andrea stopping to check the map. As we waited for her to catch back up she appeared, a bit shaken from a fall as she had tried to adjust her lights. We were all tired.
Peering at the map, I had in mind ‘just follow the double track alongside the loch for about 5km’. I was trying to prove myself by navigating swiftly and keep us moving. Mistake. We passed a junction and hesitated. ‘It says cycle trails this way’ someone said … and I pushed on as that was just a footpath and we wanted the track, right? We were going up and up in a forest and it didn’t feel right. But I stubbornly carried on, not wanting to faff about. As the distance came up, we emerged from the forest. I looked properly at the map and immediately realised my error. We should have taken the path ARGH.
Jon went to investigate a possible joining path and we dithered, eventually turning back on ourselves. I thought it would be quicker just to descend at high speed to the junction, but the team were lagging behind. My adrenaline and drive to fix this was not matched! As I agitated I was annoyed with myself – not a mistake I’d have made in the daylight, and quite costly, maybe half an hour.
It was slow going along the path and I was now doubting myself about where to look for the right turn. Then there came a horrible noise from my bike. Clank! Clank! I stopped, turned the pedals. Clank! Clank! I spun the wheel without the pedals. Clank! Clank! It seemed to come from my bottom bracket but the wheel was the only bit turning. Chloe and Jon came to help – concluding it must be a disaster with my hub. Then we suddenly spotted an extremely large nail embedded in my tyre and hitting the chainstay on every revolution …
We got it out, and Chloe put her thumb on the hissing hole. By the time Jon produced a magic bung gun it had sealed, but we whopped it in anyway. With much relief we were on our way.
Nav was tricky and now I was very careful. There were many paths not marked on the map but once we got onto the Coulin Pass it was straightforward and easy going. I had run this in the opposite direction many years ago on Celtman! But remembered little!
At some point it started raining. And then it was like riding under a shower head. We were on a road by now, and my new coat did an admirable job of keeping me dry, but it was still a bit epic. Near Strathcarron we happened upon a pub with umbrellas outside. We stopped to get extra layers on, but the lady who ran it waved us inside. She had already closed and hadn’t heard about the race before a team stopped to talk to her, but was encouraging us all to make use of the toilets and the back room to warm up and change. What a lovely lady!
Shortly, we were back ascending on a fire road before going over a high point on a rough track. I was feeling optimistic because it was all downhill back to a road from here, and despite being rocky and muddy it was mostly rideable. We went in pairs; Jon and I going ahead a bit, then watching the lights of Chloe and Andrea catching us before we set off again.
The riding came to an abrupt end however, as the path got narrower and harder going. We were forced to walk again, tripping and stumbling as we pushed our bikes on through the dark.
We had made a calculation of how much time we needed from the end of the next trek to get to the rafting on time. We thought a generous 5-6h, and by calculating backwards as we stood on that dark wet hillside, I knew we needed to be starting the next trek right about now…
When we emerged on the road all somewhat the worse for wear, we felt the need for a team hug before we could get moving again. About 10 seconds later Chloe’s light went flat (she was having a nightmare with batteries all race!) but we swapped things around to get us all legal and going again.
More road, pausing at Eilean Donan castle and quickly locating the control by looking closely at the map and reading the description instead of heading straight to the castle (we had seen a team searching there for a long time…)
Next transition was difficult. It was now light, but raining, and we weren’t allowed indoors with our kit bags. We dismantled the bikes outside first. I found a seat clamp on the floor and asked the team if it was one of ours. “No!” said everyone. I wasn’t so sure. Jon and I checked – it fitted Chloe’s bike perfectly, it was next to her box … we quietly put it back on and headed indoors.
Teams were getting crotchety with each other as bags were moved and they rummaged around in them. I had to go back and forth for things I forgot first time, and despite instructions I am sure some people were using the showers in the toilets as I queued for an age just to relieve myself.
Before long though, we were ready to set off again on foot for the final trek.
Episode 3 – official film
It has taken me a while to start this report – to let the race sink in and to get over the dreaded lurgy sufficiently to have energy to write!
We were number 26, Team Lochland Runner – Andrea, Chloe, Jon and myself. We started the week well by managing to arrive in Inverness only 5 minutes apart. I had come up with Chloe and we had chatted the whole way, making wild guesses about what the course might hold in store.
The weekend was spent registering, getting maps, going to briefings, planning, sorting out kit and most importantly – eating! Pizza! Tensions did rise a bit as we fully grasped the scale of the kayaking element relative to everything else (though we had been warned) and there was a bit of drama when all our buoyancy aids failed the ‘test’. Luckily, we were 4 of many and plans were put in place to hire some out to us.
As we pored over the maps and route book a couple of key things became apparent. There were time cut offs for both a canyoning stage on Tuesday afternoon and a rafting stage at 8pm on Thursday. Both carried significant time penalties and we wanted to make them both. The rest of the race was planned around this, using the information given about likely leg times and our own experience to estimate what we thought we could do. Our plan was always to short course, but we did hope to do some of the long course options such as extra biking near Applecross and the Five Sisters trek.
After an early alarm on Monday morning, we all found ourselves on coaches heading for Dunrobin castle. It was a slightly midgey and cool wait with some confusion over the actual start time. Oh, just me? OK then!!
Episode 0 – official film
Run and kayak stage:
5.1km run / 35 minutes / finish 09:05 Monday
19.4km paddle / 3h25 / finish 12:45 Monday
The 5km run through beautiful woods and a gorge got us nicely warmed up before we jumped in the kayaks for our first taste of the sea – this time on the east coast. We were headed for Glenmorangie Distillery. The journey was fairly uneventful, apart from our first experiences with the right-veering kayaks. I developed some sort of combination of right sweep strokes and missing left strokes to keep us vaguely on course.
77.7km / 4h35 / finish 18:10 Monday
We had decided right from the beginning to do all of this leg short course. The only temptation to go longer was the fact that this would mean we were riding on roads most of the way to the next transition. Pleasant, quiet, low traffic roads; but tarmac all the same. Our rationale was that we needed time in hand to get through the next kayak stage and make it to the canyoning before the cut off.
We shot off like hares, and Chloe had to get us back on track at a more sensible pace.
Transition was a bit chaotic as we had arrived earlier than expected and the marshals hadn’t quite got a system sorted. We had beaten the first long course team in, but they were gone before you could say ‘that was fast’. As it was, I got a shock to the system as Andrea whipped us all into transition shape and we were in and out a lot faster than I had experienced in similar races. She’s raced with some top teams though, and deemed us too slow! We had a lot of information to take in before we could leave, with course changes to the kayaking adding in more distance and extra portage in order to keep us nearer the mainland in forecast strong winds.
18km total portage / 9h
46.1km total kayak / 11h10 / finish 15:55 Tuesday
We paddled off on a loch heading west into a glorious sunset. The scenery was magnificent. Although adventure racing novice Chloe was pondering whether she liked ‘AR’ yet due to the lack of adventurous biking so far, she did have to admit that as we stopped for the first portage in the dark and rain, that this wasn’t an experience she’d have had otherwise…
The changes meant this leg was going to take longer than planned. There was an optional run up Suilven which we had originally considered, but we decided now it was best to press on and make use of any time saved later in the race. Doing this plus the short course bike turned out to be a kayak-leg saver, though we didn’t know it at the time.
The first portage was only a taster of what was to come. A we inched towards the coast, we lugged a pair of 30kg kayaks, plus portage trolleys and kit over rough rocky ground in the dark and rain. We were being careful not to drag them. At times we were ferrying the kit separately in relay, with all four of us coming back to carry each boat the next section and trying not to twist our ankles on boulders or to disappear thigh deep in bog as we staggered blindly forward. When we could, we used leashes attached to the front, Andrea and I pulling our boat like shire horses over the heather. As some of the long course teams overtook us we took note of their technique …
When we reached the road it was bliss to put the kayaks on their trolleys and roll them along. In no time it seemed we were getting back in. We had half hoped for a sleep but we were wet and the two of us without dry suits got cold very quickly as soon as we stopped moving (and this was despite me wearing a shorty wetsuit). We got back in, quite literally for me as I lost my footing and was dunked, seeing my paddle nearly disappear down the river.
Finally we were back on the sea, now all the way across the country and on the west coast. This was near the Summer Isles; apparently a mecca for paddlers, but we couldn’t see anything except the dark hulks of land mass and the occasional shooting star.
Taking the risk of heading to the spot where the strobe light of a team in front had disappeared, we landed safely at the next headland, only to be greeted by a new form of portage hell. We couldn’t make progress over the bushes, so opted for the river. As it we ascended it progressed from merely rocky to mini rapids that I wouldn’t want to walk up, even without a kayak in tow. We had to anchor ourselves on rocks and haul them up in stages. We eventually gave up, clambered out on the other side and were lucky to find a path where the going was ‘easier’ before hitting the road at Achnahaird, scene of some of my childhood holidays.
It was not over yet though!
Another long sea crossing awaited. Although we could now see the various islands, we were being battered by the wind and waves. The boast continuously turned right, which was getting tedious. Our instructions were to head to within 100m of Isle Martin where a boat might indicate the turning point. I was facing a mutiny as the team got cold and fed up seeing us paddle past the place we were heading to on the other shore before we could turn and go back up.
Crossing the ferry line at our best estimate of a right angle, we neared the far shore and turned straight into the wind and tide. I was only focused on our landing spot when Andrea announced we weren’t moving anywhere. “It’s just perspective”, I said. I was wrong. We decided after another 15 minutes of fruitless paddling to head straight into the shore and see if we could walk along. Even getting there took an humongous effort and I started to panic. When we arrived we were faced with large unwalkable boulders. We considered taking a penalty if needed and getting the boats straight onto the bottom of the track marked on the map. We were desperate. But the wind suddenly dropped, the white horses disappeared and we leapt back in to paddle round the shoreline and say hello to some waiting cows.
Only to face even worse portage hell!! We must have only been in purgatory before! Where did they find this stuff? This time there were rocks, it was steep and it took all 4 of us to climb the first section. Then it was heather and uneven ground up a hill, as we dragged and swore. I practically threw ours over the fence at the top. Well, ‘threw’ is an exaggeration. We bumped down the other side for what should have been an easy downwind paddle to transition, but was a race against time to get to the new canyoning cut off (though it had subsequently been extended). It didn’t feel easy. And I still couldn’t steer us in a straight line.
After some face pulling and head shaking at Paul, a hug from James stopped some close tears from me and we were so glad to abandon those boats…
Many of the following teams got stuck close to where we did and were transported by coach from Ullapool incurring a hefty time penalty. Our choice to short course early and get through the kayaking combined with a bit of weather luck had bumped us up the standings.
We all wriggled into full wetsuits and headed up the hill for a fun interlude of canyoning, including a jump which had preyed on Andrea’s mind, an abseil down a waterfall and another where we dropped into a pool off the bottom of a rope and something I forget the name of but involved not quite whizzing down a wire and having to pull yourself over with the danger of getting your hands munched! I battered myself here and there on the way down but it was refreshing.
The transition was the best of the whole race – a great big barn with loads of space and places to sit 🙂
We had to be out before the time cut off if we wanted to consider any of the long course. As it turned out it might have been better race-wise if we had had this choice imposed on us, but we didn’t and I am not renowned for my cautiousness!
And so we set off on foot into the dying embers of day 2 (Tuesday).
If you want to go straight to part 2 – it’s here!
Episode 1 – official film
Team Lochland Runner all got together for a training weekend recently. Included on the itinerary were sharing our top tips for expedition adventure racing and planning our strategy! Chloe is new to expedition events, but we have all been in different types of races and can always learn from each other.
I thought I’d share these in case you’re interested in the kinds of things we’re thinking about, or are looking for inspiration! Let us know if you have any questions or other top tips you would share 🙂
This is one we talked about many times! I for one like to know where the next meal is coming from and don’t go anywhere without snacks. However, in an expedition race you have to think about what will keep well in your kit bag for a week and make sure there are savoury items on the menu. We may also need to take opportunities that present themselves on the way. We’re just concerned about how well-endowed the race route will be with handy cafes! Since finding hidden cafe gems is one of my special skills, I will have to make sure I don’t spend the pre-race weekend researching detours …
With me being vegetarian and Chloe vegan, it is an extra challenge to think of good ideas and this is still a work in progress. Knowing that hot water is usually available in transition, some of our savoury ideas so far are:
Instant noodles, instant mashed potato, cup a soup, couscous, rice cakes, oatcakes with peanut butter, meals from Tentmeals, Firepot and Summit to Eat (I can vouch for at least one of these being very edible…), German rye bread, flavoured cooked rice pouches…
Sweet things are easier as we can use gels and bars and energy drinks in moderation. Lochland Runner are also helping us out here with Born products. Variety will be key!
… or more specifically, blister prevention!! Everyone has their own theories on this. Our consensus seemed to be:
- Get shoes and socks off feet quickly in transition to let them air
- Have crocs or similar to wear in transition
- Either talc them or moisturise them
- Treat hotspots quickly en route with either Compeed or gaffer tape
- Avoid woolly socks (I find tight fitting, quick drying compression socks work well)
- Stay hydrated
- Have a spare pair of running shoes to change pressure points
- Take sterilised scalpel blades and wipes to burst any big blisters that do appear…
CLOTHING AND KIT
Our discussion about this was more general, as we have to use what we are comfortable in and have tested well. Ideas we shared were:
- Take shoes for paddling, especially if there is any portage or walking involved (which we now know there will be!)
- Take two different pairs of shoes for running. If one pair are a bit bigger it can help with swollen feet later in the race
- Expect to be cold … colder than you expect! The effects of tiredness, night time and low food intake will all affect how warm we feel. I am still surprised how many of the photos from the race in Wales feature trousers and waterproofs …
- Have spare brake pads for your specific brakes
- Have enough battery power for your lights
- Pre-pack food into bags that will last about one stage so you can just take one out in transition
- Have a heavy duty waterproof bag to shove your backpack in and strap down on paddling stages
- Pre pack clothing into clear, labelled bags like short sleeves, long sleeves, shorts, trousers
- Pack as much as you need in transition bag, but no more! The more you have to rummage through or choose between, the longer transitions will take
- A tick remover per team is essential – they just love the damp Scottish heather and bracken. You need to keep checking and get them out within 24h to minimise risk of Lyme’s disease
- Caffeine tablets of some kind might come in handy as you pull your fourth all-nighter in a row!
- Take lip balm, you will not regret it
Well … I obviously can’t reveal too much here, it’s top secret 😀
However, my advice is to definitely discuss this and make sure everyone has the same idea about what you’re trying to achieve. You also need to be realistic about your collective abilities and what to expect from the course so that you can make smart decisions. Although you can’t predict what will happen, having a basic fall back plan and common goals will help make decision making easier.
I’d say things to think about include:
- Any aims for finishing position in the field
- Long course / short course
- How much sleep to expect, when and where
- Pacing and degree of ambition for different stages
- Towing and kit distribution
- Navigators (lead / back up and in different disciplines)
- Transition process (what order to change, eat, sleep), including ‘checkout’
- Team roles
Finally, always keep an eye on the details and don’t forget about your hairdo – no washing for a week with plenty of rain, sweat and river or sea water mixed in! I always go super short – I’d better go and get booked in for a cut 🙂
This year my main race will be Itera Expedition race in Scotland in early August. It’s for a team of 4 and we’ll be on the move for 5 days, trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and possible other modes of transport or activity that have yet to be revealed! Here’s a wee introduction to our team and our thoughts about the race.
Team Name: Team Lochland Runner
Team Members: Rosemary Byde, Jon Ellis, Andrea Davison, Chloe Rafferty
We are supported by Lochland Runner, who supply innovative brands for sports like trail running, swimrun, OCR, and orienteeering.
I raced with Jon in Itera Wales – but one of our team members was Paul McGreal who is otherwise occupied this time round (he’s one of the organisers)! Andrea is an Open Adventure regular, has expedition race experience and is making her comeback. Chloe is our secret weapon … she runs events company LoveSwimRun, lives in North Wales and can often be seen out in the mountains biking, climbing, running or swimming.
The most important thing in forming our team was making sure we had similar goals and expectations and that we all have a similar ethos and approach to working together. We’ll be putting that to the test with a training weekend later in June 🙂
Special team skills include engineering, mountain leading, sewing, an obsession with detail, a love of maps and more than one person trained in optimising solutions to problems! As the race goes on, I am sure we will discover many more talents amongst us.
Why did we choose to do this and what are our expectations of the race / Scotland?
The Scottish highlands are a wild and beautiful place and we all want to experience more of it. We know we are going to the perfect location for an epic adventure that Paul, Tom, James and the team are sure to deliver. The anticipation and excitement are already growing.
Whilst the rest of us have done similar races before, this is Chloe’s first time. She’s alternately terrified and excited and can’t wait to race as part of a team. Although the effects of sleep deprivation and how to stay fuelled as a vegan are on her mind, she has been primed for special ‘visual effects’ (sleepmonsters) and someone has promised to carry emergency flapjack supplies 😉
Even though it is the first week of the new school year, Andrea is making her expedition race comeback before she gets ‘too old’! Sleep is on her mind too, as she doesn’t want to miss out on the memories.
However, Jon and I clearly remember the fun, camaraderie and amazing landscapes we moved through last time and nothing was going to stop us entering again …
We’re all relishing the challenge and anticipating the sense of achievement we’ll get from doing the event. We’re going to be pushing ourselves and it has been the motivation for some of us to increase our training, pick up new skills or reacquaint ourselves with old ones. I for one know that whilst I still soldier on with hamstring rehab for running, my mountain bike is seeing significantly more action than recent swimrun years have afforded!
Our expectations are that we will finish mid pack. The most important things are for us to work hard, help each other, make the most of our collective abilities and never stop trying until we get to the finish line!
Finally, one person has already mentioned the dreaded ‘M’ word … we’re all hoping that we’ll be moving too fast for any midges to catch us for breakfast!
For the last in this year’s short series, we were in Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. My mum gave me a lift over and spent the time pottering around the village, going for a walk in the nature reserve(not yet in flower due to long winter) and watching a team practising a rescue in the falls.
Meanwhile, I was off on the usual 5h of MTBing and running. Sadly, Lucy still did not feel confident enough to race with me, so we both went solo. I felt a bit stressed looking at the MTB map, but as I walked back to the start I formulated a definite plan and felt better.
Off I went, confidence high. However, I soon was riding along and saw what looked like a control on a post. I hesitated but knew it wasn’t the right place and assumed it was a run control. On I went to the right place – no tape, no little box! I dithered, took a photo*, dithered some more, realised what I had seen couldn’t be a run control (wrong bit of map), wondered about going back, thought what would Tom Gibbs do (certainly wouldn’t have still been standing there), and eventually left up the hill.
Now I was anxious and when I saw a public footpath signed that didn’t seem to be on my map I worried further that I was somewhere totally wrong! I also seemed to be slogging up a very long climb off road, and wasn’t seeing any other racers. Hmm. That should have told me something 😉 Over the top and I was definitely in the right place and carried on directly to a control the other side.
The rest of the route seemed to go quite well, but I left a short road out and back and later on another longer loop to leave time for some running and to ‘be sensible’.
My mum cheered me through transition, telling me she had done the same for Lucy! The run was actually pretty good. I was keeping a close eye on the map to avoid making mistakes. I did not cheat at the all-too-easy shortcut across a field where you could see the control tape fluttering and not even a fence across, but was not a right of way or open access.
One small overshoot on the road then up into the woods. I was very careful here as it was a maze of paths, but I was dead accurate, if a little slow. Up onto open ground I realised I had a lot more time than expected and could do a larger loop. At this point I heard a shout: ‘I could do with a tow now please!’ It was Lucy coming up behind! We chatted briefly, but I was moving faster up the hill.
On I went, past James for a photo and into an old house to find a control on a roof beam upstairs. The dead sheep by the stairwell gave me a right old fright though … Then it was downhill return to the village. Again I was checking the route carefully- maybe too much. At the bottom I debated one final out and back and Lucy caught me up – she had flown down a LOT faster. I decided against and we jogged back in. I was 6 minutes early!
On review, it turned out my bike route choice was really quite daft. Everyone else went the other way round, got 50 points I left out climbing a road with a fast descent back down, and then leaving an out-of-the-way control, ascending the other way on tarmac where I had faffed around on the moors. I also missed a couple of spots where I could have used that time to get at least one more control, despite my odd route choice. Hey ho, I think I took ‘the MTB day out route’ … which meant I was thoroughly beaten by Lucy and many others! I know I can make really good strategic decisions (like in Edale a couple of months ago), but sometimes one iffy decision near the start can throw it all way off.
I was a bit disgruntled about my poor choices, but I had enjoyed the day out anyway 🙂 I was also super-fast in transition! Back to my mum’s with a fine piece of fruit cake in hand before a trip to Wales for a recce of a large portion of the UTS50. It’s my next race and has been my main focus for a few months!
As always, thanks to everyone involved for more great racing this winter.
* I think is what you’re supposed to do, and don’t worry – I was credited with these points later!
Lucy had to choose between Open 5 and a holiday (skiing) and picked the holiday. Hmm, I wondered who I might persuade to race with me. I asked Elizabeth who agreed! Hurrah, we were off, but due to other commitments, only for the day, checking in at a nearby BnB for the night and stuffing our faces in one of the many nearby pubs the night before.
As we went to sleep, the wind rattled the windows. On waking, snow was falling from the sky and it looked wild outside. Dinner had been massive so I wasn’t really hungry at breakfast, which is unusual. Off to the start and we were almost last into the car park that was free, but which came with a walk to the hall. We wisely took all our stuff with us.
Time seemed to fly by between registering and it being time to go. We had decided on the long drive down that it was better to bike first. This was Elizabeth’s forte and we would favour more of that and less of a run. Plus, if it was going to get cold and snowy we’d be warmer starting dry and the paths might be less obstructed. By the time we had come up with a vague plan, left the coziness of the hall, dusted the snow off our saddles and made it to transition we had 1 min to go until latest start.
An easy beginning along the road before we turned off uphill on the rough stuff. I slowed to check for features and when / where to look for the control, and looked up to see Elizabeth already powering away. Despite recently coming off worse in van vs Elizabeth, you know that someone who can finish the Highland Trail 550 will be a biking force to be reckoned with. I worked really hard to catch up. It was properly snowy and fun over the top, then slippery on a descent where I lost contact and had to shout ahead to make sure we didn’t miss a control. A descent followed that I’d not be able to ride on a good day, but I remembered it from a previous event and was ready to walk.
Then we were off along an easy track and all was going well. Into a small settlement and I was pondering our original route choice. We were making good time but checking the distance, realistically, that 15 pointer in Bradwell wasn’t worth it after all. Decision made without debate, we moved on quickly, heading straight through Hope and up the other side of the valley.
We passed some 4×4 cars coming off road the other way, with one woman behind the wheel with a smile as broad as her face! Then we caught up Ali and Barbara. This surprised me, but I hardly had breath to explain that I had to keep up before the next control!! From there it got very snowy. It was hard to tell the difference between the track and the road, both covered in snow. I cursed not checking on the start line whether we could use the road and cut onto the path further up, so we took the path and were soon walking.
Then we passed the cut through, easy to use, bother! Maybe cost us 5 mins at most though. It was slightly uphill and the wind was blasting us so hard that even when it looked vaguely rideable, it wasn’t, as the wind would push us off line and into a drift. Last race here I’d been just as cold, but with sleet instead of snow and we were at least riding then. As it flattened off and after what had seemed an age, we finally got back on. It was only now that we finally left behind a man out for a walk who we’d first caught up with about 5km earlier! Soon we were out on what was theoretically tarmac under the snow, and at the top of the broken road.
There was a 35 points down the hill. When we got there we were both frozen and my teeth were chattering. We talked about putting an extra layer on but decided to see if the climb back up would be enough to warm us up. I was looking at another 30 point control and debating the bike / run balance, but then decided no, not worth it. I warned Elizabeth we had a long fast road descent which would almost certainly be unpleasant and not in the slightest bit ‘warming’.
As we crested the top in silence, the blood was coming back into my hands and I was groaning with the pain. I think it was as nothing to what Elizabeth felt as we came into transition. With a recently healed broken collarbone and a still not happy broken finger, her whole arm was going through some sort of torture. We grabbed our stuff, got out of the field and dived into the hall. I heard later that we were not the only ones to nip inside!
I couldn’t help with the pain so got on with sorting out the run map, where all the score markings had washed off. The most important thing when we went out would be to keep moving, so this was time well spent nailing down where to go. After a toilet trip (me) and half a cup of hot water (both of us), we were ready to go back outside. Bizarrely, I still wasn’t really hungry and I think I only ate a couple of bananas all race.
Within 20 mins of the run, the gloves were off and sleeves rolled up. Running is really a magic body warmer-upper! The first part was an easy, if sometimes muddy, run in the valley. The map had a slightly awkward distribution of scores, but we had agreed before that going up worked better for us than running fast on the flat. So we committed to up, taking the fast route on the road we had so recently descended.
Onto the ridge and we had met my calculated ‘cut off’ for diving over the top for a sneaky bonus control at a small quarry worth 15. Back up to the ridge and after we had cleared the slippery steps to the trig point, the running was glorious. We had snow and views and were making great progress. Although it seemed a long way to the next control, it was totally worth it as we dropped down, searching for the right tree.
Then it was a cruise back to the road and a couple more controls before heading with a little sprint into the finish chute. Less than 4 mins late, 8 penalty points, the 15 had been worth it!
Having started last, we also got back last and had barely downloaded and grabbed some chilli and hot tea before it was prize-giving time. As some of the other classes were called out before ours, we realised we had a good score. We won the female pairs, but also came 9th overall, a rare feat! Results here.
It only reinforced my belief that ‘bad’ weather races favour me 😉 Biking first was definitely the right choice, especially when trail conditions unexpectedly deteriorated, as we were able to cut short without over-running our planned time too much. The art of keeping moving and not letting our pace drop after map checks was good discipline. We probably also took fewer risks … which paid off this time!
We regretted our laidback departure, as upon leaving the snow was coming down again. We couldn’t get out over either of the passes towards Manchester and ended up diverting via Sheffield and Leeds … Um .. Not the plan. We did discover though, that you can get a good curry and rice at Wetherby services, and I introduced another person to the pleasure that is Rheged services, just off the motorway at Penrith and easily overlooked. I just missed a train in Glasgow and had the joy of waiting on the platform with the other assorted 23:30 passengers before finally making it home just before 1am. Think that is a record!
Race 4 of the winter was the first Open 5 of the season, based in Coniston. On Saturday, I took advantage of the location to recce the part of the Tour De Helvellyn I hadn’t visited recently (the race I’m doing next). It was snowy, icy and cold and progress was slow, even on my bike! I nearly ran out of time to get fed at the café, but luckily just made it.
Lucy had been properly ill with pneumonia and wasn’t sure if she would race. We arrived together on Sunday morning still undecided! I thought she would go with me … she asked ‘what if we had to finish after 3h?’ I admitted I was happy to go slow, but wanted to be out for most of the time. She decided to go solo and I last minute paired up with Jon instead. I joked that she had better not beat us …
So after planning, Jon and I set off on the run, hoping the ice would melt a bit ready for the bike whilst we were out. Straight up a hill towards the coppermines, catching a few teams and soon hitting the snow line. I thought I’d run quicker than Jon, but he was running easily as I breathed heavily. Just warming up, I told myself.
We could see Phil and Jackie up in front and we were catching them. After a delightful snowy track traversing the hillside we got to a decision point: straight across and risk getting caught in a quarry, or round the paths? We went round and soon met them coming the other way – wrong choice for us – we were 4 minutes slower!
Running along I was opening my legs out when just in front Jon skidded and thumped onto the floor. That’ll be ice beneath us then. Bit of hopping across semi frozen bogs, reeds and long grass and it was my turn to fall forwards. It was a soft landing in heather and snow, but surprisingly cold!
My tummy was rumbling, which is quite unusual mid race and suggested I really should eat. A full flapjack went down the hatch. Now we were heading off the hill and I thought it was time to go fast. I pushed myself to keep speed on the techier bits, using the sound of Jon’s footsteps just behind to spur me on. I loved running through the woods. We got to the lake and dashed back along the shore, suddenly popping out in a campsite I recognised from a race where I had totally overheated! Very different now.
I sensed Jon was dropping a little, so I backed off the pace and started looking at the bike route. It was tricky to decide which way to go round. We spent some time in transition discussing. What with that and having to take my gloves off to undo shoelaces, my fingers were frozen by the time we left.
We headed off up a road which soon became a long hill. Jon was really pushing the pace and I was working hard to keep up. Just what I needed to get the blood back in my fingers! The first half of the bike went well, nipping in and out to controls and making good progress. I was trying hard not to look at the map and to let Jon get with it instead of getting left behind. We had a slight altercation with a lady who didn’t want us on her drive (turned out this was due to a hitch in communications). I felt sorry that someone would get so emotional all day just for a few riders coming past.
We got to a control where the route to the next one was up a hill. It was a long push-up slog, through mud and ice and rocks and roots. We spent over 20 minutes getting to the control at the top of the hill and it somehow robbed our momentum. The sign on the gate saying ‘warning cattle grazing’ was true – as we came across the strange sight of some ‘panda’ cows grazing in the woods … The descent was very icy and we came down cautiously, though mostly on two wheels rather than two feet. Somehow that was another 30 minutes gone, though at least it made me ride some really rough bumpy stuff, just because I was so grateful whenever I saw an ice-free patch!
I was worrying about time, Jon less so. But then we went wrong in the quarry, mistaking the path for a river, wasting about 5 minutes. We needed to smash it, but as soon as we got to the road there was yet more ice. Oh no… This was so different to what we’d found in the first half of the ride. We had to forfeit a 30 point control near the end and still came in just over 8 mins late / 18 point penalty.
Somehow I felt a bit flat. Just when I’d wanted to let rip, we’d had to ride cautiously and it seemed we could have done better. Looking at Lucy’s score, we only got 12 points more! This despite running much further, getting wet feet and riding almost the same route backwards half an hour faster! Ach well, it was all good training, and I had a lovely day out in good company 😀 And we still did enough to get 3rd in mixed pairs. Results here.
Lucy won female solo with a score that would have won is female pairs as well. I felt sad that she didn’t feel she could have raced like that if we had been together. Though as she pointed out, a lot of the pressure comes from the self not wanting to let the other down, even if they say they’re happy to bimble. For Lucy not to race with me, I knew it must have been serious as we have got through a lot of events together ‘sub-par’!
And then we were off on the long drive home. I can recommend the services at Rheged for good food! Many thanks to all involved as always – Open Adventure (event), James Kirby (photos), Nav4 (food), Lucy, Jon and Andrea (assorted accommodation, lifts and racing with me!).
At the end of Ötillö 2016 we asked ourselves: ‘how could we go faster again?’ This was knowing we had picked off the easy changes. Not all of our races this season had gone to plan and I had doubts creeping in. Two weeks out and the time for fitness training was done. The only gains that could be made were mental. So we went out and had a couple of good sessions along the East Lothian coast. We ran on the rocks to find confidence, we swam in the sea, we tried out a new tow arrangement, we had fun, smiled and ate cake afterwards.
On our last session Izzy had a shoe crisis! The hole in her trusty Icebugs had significantly widened over the last two hours … We googled and thought about it and finally worked out we could order a pair for collection from the Addnature store in Stockholm…
So we arrived and made our way straight into town to pick up the new shoes! This was followed by café stop number 1 and an enormous cardamom bun. We got to our accommodation late but managed a nice run round town in the gathering gloom. No matter that my sense of direction went slightly awry and we did 5 miles instead of 5km.
Stockholm feels familiar to us now, helped by the fact we went back to stay at the same place. We had a lovely few days and managed to get ourselves out to the Tyresta nature reserve for a walk, beaver hunting, a swimrun session focussed on technical aspects and another splendid café. Saturday just time for fancy café number three, a swim at Hellasgården and a sauna, complete with cold lake dips.
Helen Webster, the 220 Triathlon journalist had asked us a few pre-race questions and something in Izzy’s reply got me thinking. Over the couple of days before the race, we devised a cunning plan. It looked like this:
- Rosemary eat more and Do Not Bonk
- Run the little bits and the technical bits at the same speed as last year
- Run the three longer sections at a minimum average of 6:30 / km
- Go 5s/100m faster on the swims – whether by swimming faster, going in straighter lines or quicker transitions
I would be allowed to tow as hard as I wanted on the easy terrain, without creating pressure on the trickier stuff. 6:30 / km sounded a breeze, just like a very relaxed training run without hills – how hard could it be?
Izzy is the master weather checker and the closer we got to race day the more it looked to be moving in our favour. We willed the temperature to drop and the wind speed to rise.
The day before the race we all boarded the boats to Sandhamn. We sat outside as it got progressively windier and wavier out in the channel! Helen came up to do an interview, by which time we were the only ones left on deck… We are hardy having trained all year in Scotland, and were looking forward to some exciting swims like we had in 2015 🙂
At the briefing it was apparent the weather was causing the organisers some serious concerns. I did not realise how close they had been to changing the race until later. However, they didn’t, and I am so glad! This is why I love swimrun more than triathlon. It is up to you to look after yourself and your partner and make your own decision about whether it is safe for you to continue. Nature and the conditions it creates are part of the race and the experience.
All night as we tried to get some sleep, the wind blew and flapped things outside. As we woke up, bleary eyed, it was also raining on and off. Izzy had eaten her soaked overnight oats already and we trotted over for me to get breakfast. I asked for the porridge. There wasn’t any. I was sitting there at 4:30 am eating cheese sandwiches and wishing I had brought my own cereal with me …
It was nearly time to go but I was hoping for one more toilet break! I faffed around trying to do what I could as I really didn’t want to stop mid course 😉 Izzy was waiting outside wondering what on earth I was up to and by the time I scurried out we had to line up right at the very back of the gaggle. Oh well, plenty of time to get back to the front again 😉
The gun sounded and off we went. Someone fell over in the rush before we had even gone 100m. Soon we were at the first swim. We had come to look at this the day before and been left mystified as to where we were going. Turns out I’d been looking at the wrong island. Now we had a strobe light to aim for, 1700m away. This swim is sheltered but was still fairly rough. I thought this may mean later swims would be ‘interesting’. At some point the tow popped off Izzy – we’re not sure why – but she managed to grab the end before I swam off and gave it a good tug so that I stopped!!
We landed and were onto the fabled rocks. Because of the rain they were wet and slippery again, like they had been our first year, except now we had our grippy shoes on. There were more teams in the race and we could feel it, as we got caught in a few short queues. I would skip and bound and nip through a gap, only to find I was separated from Izzy. I kept to my promise and waited, and she kept hers, maintaining a positive outlook. Despite other teams coming between us and slipping and sliding more than once, she did not let it affect her mood.
On one tricky bit, I heard a cry out and looked back. Izzy was sliding down the steep rocks towards the sea! I quickly assessed the situation. There was nothing I could do to help, and at least she was heading feet first … Luckily she came to a stop before she hit the water and we were off again. But it was easy to see how several teams we saw during the course of the day needed medical attention. It’s always a balance between risk and speed.
Into the second swim and I remembered it was better to head right. However, we got in to the left and weren’t tethered, so it was hard to change direction. I was also edging away from Izzy and was concentrating to make sure we stayed together. As we got out I was kicked in the face by the person in front. I thought I might finish the day with a black eye but it wasn’t so bad after all 😀 . We slid and slipped and I was all over the place as Izzy headed up the rocks!
It felt like we were losing time compared to last year and failing even at the first hurdle of our plan. We got to the first longer run and headed for the feed station and cut off. Here I checked the time and was surprised to find we were still on target!
I started thinking OK, so maybe we have a chance this plan will work after all, but we have to push on with the easy runs to do it. It felt hard and I reminded myself it was a race, and was meant to be hard work! I had belief that our timings were feasible, and that we’d done enough work and other races that the legs would know what to do without fear of suddenly fading.
The second cut off had been revised due to the conditions and was 45 minutes earlier than previous years. If we’d had any issues it might have been tight, so I was keeping an eye on it. However, we sailed through, still within 1 or 2 minutes of our plan.
This cut off is at an out-and-back so we could see from the teams immediately in front and behind that we were very much mid pack for the girls. Our friend Jenny had had to look for a last minute replacement partner and was racing with a girl called Cat. Cat had never done a swimrun before (!) so we were delighted to see them heading in together behind us! I thought if they had made it this far they’d be able to finish.
Along the way we saw a bit of wildlife, especially a deer and Bambi jumping across our path. I also spotted an anthill and several harmless jellies the water. However, at dinner another British pair said they saw a dolphin, or was it a shark?! I think I was too preoccupied on the swims to have seen such a creature even if it had been right beneath me!
We had also been trading places with Marie and Malin just as we had last year, but this time we pulled away on the easy run. I expected to see them again later, but we never did.
Onwards we went. At some point we slowed to eat and get ourselves sorted at the start of a longer run. Teams passed us but we did not react and kept to the plan. It was important for me to eat! As soon as we settled into our pace again, we would overtake and make up places.
One half of a mixed pair had fallen and was crying on the ground beside us. Her partner said maybe she had broken her ankle and we promised to get help. I knew we were close to a swim entry but there was no marshal and I didn’t think to use my whistle to get the attention of the nearest boat. It was a short swim and immediately the other side there was a film crew and I gave them the message.
Soon enough, we passed through the garden full of noisy and musical supporters and then we were at the infamous Pig Swim. It looked rough like it had the first year we did it, but once we were in, the current did not feel so strong. It was windy and there was a lot of chop and white horses. The waves were coming from our left and I often felt like they were assisting with ‘good body rotation’, except sometimes this ‘help’ went too far! Sighting and breathing were difficult and unpredictable but we got straight over and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, if a little cold. We grabbed our Twix and kept moving.
The next 1km swim actually felt more difficult. I was cold and it felt rougher. The water during the race was 12-15oC depending on the swim, but I think our state of fatigue and nutrition had an effect on how this felt. We made it and the next big stage was the half marathon, where we would really face the crux of our plan.
Just before that we caught a clutch of female teams at a feed station. We all jumped into the 300m swim together and headed off. I was shivering hard but it was short and we’d soon warm up. I think we swam faster than they did, and headed off at speed on the other side. We definitely didn’t want to ‘cab down’ yet, and in fact didn’t need to for the whole run.
Now we had to try and average 6:30 / km for an extended period. In doing so, we would make up a lot of time on our previous two attempts and this was the easiest place to do it. I had forgotten how rough the start was though, and we were barely averaging the right speed, before we suddenly got an 8:11! I wanted to panic and push on and tow hard, but I remembered the plan, and to do so was not in the plan where the ground was more difficult. We had also accumulated several minutes in the stages immediately preceding this, so we had some ‘in hand’. I waited until we got to the wide track and then went for it.
I was pretending I was out for a long steady training run. I tried to relax, to run tall and look ahead, to use my arms and to trick my mind into thinking I had just stepped out of the door and really hadn’t been racing for 8h at all. As my watched beeped and the km ticked over I was feeling good – now we were comfortably going under 6:00 / km!
The roads go on and on but it was drizzling with rain and nice and cool. This was easier than in scorching sunshine. We ran fast in our suits which have very thin and flexible legs. I remembered to eat, feeling like I was going overboard but knowing I really wasn’t. It made such a difference, I kept my head and did not feel like having a little sit down!
With two or three km to go I felt that the tension in the tow cord was getting stronger and more persistent. We hadn’t been talking much as there was no need and it was better to concentrate on what we were doing and where we were putting our feet. I silently willed Izzy to keep going and told her how far it was. She didn’t quite believe me, because this run is a little shorter than advertised, so you have to trust experience!
It was true though, and we were so delighted to finally get to a swim, chattering excitedly to the marshals. We remembered these sections as a series of short, easy and refreshing swims with some fiddly running in between. The marshals told us to look at the current – it was like a river running left to right. The coast jutted out to our left, so I followed it as far as possible before launching ourselves across. It was hard work but not too bad in the end. I was happy my arms did not feel as tired as they had before we did the long run!
We approached the next swim – 350m. There was no marshal but we could see the current again. It looked so strong and this time there was no protection. I hesitated, not wanting to get in. We looked across and I decided to aim for a small hut to the left of the flag. The swim seemed to start well, and I sighted often to make sure we were still on track.
Suddenly, about 50m from shore, the current accelerated and seemed to catch us without warning. We were sliding to the right at high speed! I pulled with all my might and could feel the tow going tight behind me. I was picturing Izzy swinging away from me in the current. We passed the flag where we needed to land and the adrenaline was coursing through me. As I breathed to the right I could see the island does stick out a little – I thought if we could just get in line with those rocks then if we got pulled along we should hit them – if we didn’t get washed around instead! I didn’t want to find out and in my haste started to kick my legs. It might have been counter-productive as then my pull buoy popped out and was bobbing next to me – still attached but ineffective and in the way. I could see the bottom but couldn’t reach it. Izzy told me she tried to put her feet down and failed. There was someone standing on shore but I didn’t pause to look if he had instructions. I daren’t stop throwing my arms over, knowing that as soon as I did we’d be pulled away from where we needed to be without any chance of swimming against the current.
With a super human crazy strength I finally got close enough to grab the rocks with my hands. I hauled myself up, and helped Izzy behind me. Oh my goodness! What a total relief. The marshal was full of praise and admiration as he ran along to show us the way. There was no time to stop, but I was jabbering to Izzy. I am not easily scared but that was SCARY. What happened to straightforward finishing swims?!
I feared what might come now between us and the final run. They are all less than 200m, but still … at one swim we couldn’t read the water and when we got in we could see the bottom but were not moving anywhere.
Finally they were over, and we double, triple checked with the marshal. YES this is now the final run!
At the last timing station I checked how we were doing against plan. We’d lost some of our advantage with those difficult swims, but we were still ahead. We were going to make it, we were going to hit our ’20 minute faster’ target, but could we even make it 30? Izzy tells me to go for it and she will hang on. I say ‘it’s only like two laps of Porty parkrun’. Except then we are faced with a hill we don’t remember …
We got up and over and went for it. We put in a sub-5 min km as we smashed it. Only one ‘Porty parkrun lap’ to go. The final road climb came suddenly. Someone walking back said ‘you are 4’ … eh? ‘Yeah, we’re number 404’, I think to myself. We worked and worked. We nearly caught the male team in front with our sprint finish and I could hardly breathe. Not quite 30 minutes faster than last year, but 28:15. Final time 11:18. Result! Michael Lemmel is ready with the hugs and tells us we’re 4th females. Whaaat?!! We cannot believe it and are super, super happy.
We were so early we managed to get changed, eat, drink beer (Izzy) and still make it to prize giving. Just time to buy a t-shirt and go through all the facebook notifications – it had been going wild with friends back home tracking our progress! Results here. We were 15 minutes away from 3rd – close enough to feel we were not miles off the pace, but far enough to know it was not just out of grasp! In fact, we lost all that time in the first 4h and then held the gap. The weather helped us – when the wind was roaring in our ears it felt just like a jaunt down at Gullane. Some other fast teams did not start, or had to pull out due to injuries or sickness. But it didn’t stop us being over the moon.
For a 5 minute edit of the live coverage, including some cool coverage of the water conditions, check out this video:
For me, this was a remarkable case of following a plan and getting our minds in order. It is so much better to race this way, to both be on the same page and to maximise performance.
Cunning Plan – The Results
- Rosemary eat more and Do Not Bonk:
I ate 3 gels, half a Clif bar, ¾ a chia Charge, a pack of Honey Stingers and generally two things at every feed station! (banana, homemade energy balls and energy drinks)
- Run the little bits and the technical bits at the same speed as last year:
- Run the three longer sections at a minimum average of 6:30 / km:
Run 1 (8.6km) – 6:02, Run 2 (8.0km) – 5:52, Run 3 (17.7km) – 6:34
- Go 5s/100m faster on the swims – whether by swimming faster, going in straighter lines or quicker transitions:
Total swim time 2016 – 3:20:18, 2017 3:15:56 = 3s / 100m faster
It’s nice to go to races now and know quite a few people. Special mention to Cat and Jenny who did finish. Even more remarkable when I found out that Cat had never swum more than a mile nor in the sea before… not really recommended but she had a fantastic attitude and trusted in her partner. Her report here.
Also want to say thanks to…
- Scott, for coaching and making sure I don’t go too ‘bonkers’, like him.
- Grace, whose nutrition analysis was spot on and helped me get to the start line 4 kg lighter than last year.
- Ellie, for her amazing pilates classes that help my strength and balance.
- Alan for stroke analysis to help me swim faster, or at the very least, more efficiently.
- Staff at Physis for keeping my body together, especially Rachel for massage and Graham for physio – I know I can rely on you.
- Andy, for putting up with all my training and away weekends.
- Izzy, for getting it together and racing her heart out on the big day.