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.
I last went to Slaidburn 5 years ago and it was memorable for several reasons. I stayed for a long weekend. Andy came with me, and finally got back in the pool after years out. We got wet and cold more than once and had an ‘interesting’ ride in and out from the nearest (not very near) railway station. Meanwhile, at the Open 5, I did my first ever event as an anxious solo competitor. My pedal fell off halfway round the bike. My write up reports that I had “been working hard on my running over the summer” … some things never change!
This time round, I got a lift down with swimming pal Jim again. The road over the moors was rather too exciting at night in driving rain, but we arrived in one piece, just in time for dinner at the pub and a little walk around in the pouring rain to explore the village. It is small, so didn’t take long!
The next morning dawned … DRY! This was a surprise as the forecast 24 hours earlier had been for heavy rain all day. Registration / breakfast logistics were slightly complicated but I ended up studying the map quietly over my cereal with plenty of time to think clearly.
Someone was betting Lucy and I would start at 09:59 and 59 seconds. We were getting chivvied along a lot, both at registration and up at the remote start area. We confounded everyone’s expectations by starting at 09:55. Ha!
We chose to run first, as usual. Due to weather and ground conditions, the bike course was more ‘road’ than usual and had lots of exit options. What I didn’t notice when we started and I marked up the bike control values was that there were high value points on both main loops and that made it committing in a different way.
We set off running happily. I had a slightly dodgy tummy, but both of us had legs that were feeling good at the same time for once! Despite some wet and muddy conditions, we were mostly on paths and moving fast. We caught up male pair James and Chris. Lucy chatted tactics briefly before pulling away. They kept getting closer on the downhills (my fault) but we were faster on the ups and flats. Great motivation. Unfortunately, we then ran straight past a control and had to double back, costing us a couple of minutes. Darn! They ran by laughing!
Lucy was on a mission to catch them up as we hammered down a fast track. I was at my limit, hanging on for dear life, but up for it! Up onto a grassy hill and we reeled them in again, joking. Final stretch and we found ourselves in a wood peering at the map. Uh-huh, we’d taken the wrong footpath. We re-emerged, seeing Chris and James ahead in the distance. One final push and we caught them again on the final hill.
As Lucy said, we proved our point and they proved theirs. What an effort! It was one of our longest Open 5 runs together so far, we only missed one control and we came in spot ‘on time’ at 2 hours. This is usually a good split of time to aim for in one of these events.
Out on the bike and we decided to go up and down a hill for the first 30 points. Then we headed across a field of mud and onto the bridleway over the moor. We knew the top and far side was ‘boggy’ enough to be marked as such as on the map, though we hoped that we wouldn’t be hampered too much by choosing to approach it downhill.
But first we had to get up and it wasn’t the rideable track we were hoping for. Instead we had to push and push and carry and haul our bikes up what had turned into a rocky streambed complete with icy cold water. James and Chris were just in front, carrying their bikes on their backs (an art I have not yet mastered).
Suddenly, up at the top, Lucy took a step into some soft green stuff and disappeared up to her thighs! Luckily, her bike did not 😀 . I stayed on firmer ground, grabbing both bikes and offering a shoulder for her to haul herself out on. We both were glad we weren’t crossing this alone. We might have sunk without trace!
Finally we came down the far side, half running, half stumbling until we reached a track we could ride. Then we hit the roads. I had had some woozy moments at the start of the ‘ride’ due to lack of food and the effort we’d put in on the run. I managed to eat some more and was now feeling good. Where we had long flat or uphill stretches we joined up with the tow to stay together and make efficient progress.
A couple of out and backs were nice and quick – no more nasty surprises. But the moor hike and taken an age and we were running out of time. After concluding we could not do the final loop and would have to drop 65 points as a result, I was peering at the map and starting sentences with ‘maybe if we just … ‘ – which were quickly quashed!
At least the weather was still being kind. The occasional hail shower, a nippy wind and, remarkably, enough sun at one point for me to see my shadow cast onto the hedge at the side of the road.
One final long out and back and we were smashing it up the final hill. We overtook one of the tandem teams, people Jim and I had whiled away the time with the previous night. They joked and shouted at us, then laughed even harder as they flew past on a slight downhill! We repeated this a couple of times before we finally overhauled them on the run in to the finish.
Well, it was a novelty to get in under 5 hours for once … this might almost be a first for us. We thought our score was pretty good and we had raced really hard. But once back at download we could hear everyone else’s chat and knew scores were high all round.
Whilst in the queue for a cup of tea we had another look at the map and realised that one small strategy mistake had cost us a lot of points. This was the day when we should have cut the run short, come in after 1.5h and saved the extra time to get more bike controls. Swapping 30 points on the run for 65 or possibly even 75 on the bike would have shuttled us back up near the top of the leaderboard. At least the post mortem was quick and straightforward 😀 .
As it was we only finished 22nd overall. We held on to 1st female pair but it was a tight race as we were only 10 points ahead of Jill and Sharon, snapping at our heels! However, we both agreed that we had put in the sort of effort that we haven’t managed for a while. Now we just need to combine that speed with the right tactics to see what we can achieve. Three more chances in this series!
After months of preparation we were on the start line for Ötillö at 6am in the gloom of early morning light. We’d already had two nights of ‘feels like we hardly slept at all’, experiencing an almighty thunderstorm back in Stockholm and an early start and nerves on Sandhamn. In our 3 days in Stockholm we had eaten enough to sink two battleships, had a delightful costume-only swim in a lake, kicked back in a sauna, gone for a 5km jog, contorted ourselves on a portable foam roller and met up with friends who popped over from Finland. We had left strange piles of empty beetroot juice bottles by the bins and scribbled all over my hand paddles. We were ready.
As several mixed couples had a pre-start kiss I felt left out … so I got a cheek-to-cheek and air kiss from Izzy! Then we were off. After running in silence for a minute or two Izzy said: “Thanks for doing this with me. I thought I should say it now in case I feel differently later”. I was equally grateful to be racing with her and couldn’t believe our moment was finally here.
As we got to the beach we looked across the expanse of sea to the next island. 1.7km, just over a mile. There was a strobe light, but as soon as we got in, I lost sight of it and just aimed for a suitable looking bit of land. We had plenty of other racers around us and were overtaking those who had set off fast. I got disorientated part way over, seeing rocks on the seabed below us. How was it so shallow in the middle?! The first time I got a taste of the water I was pleasantly surprised. It was almost like a salty sports hydration drink, and did not induce the sort of sounds that we get from North Sea mouthfuls (think; cat with a fur ball in its throat).
As soon as we got out we were in for a shock. It doesn’t matter how many photos you look at, how many videos you watch or how many people you speak to who have been there before. You can’t know how the terrain really is until you experience it. Slabs of wet, slippery rock and boulders. I am not the most sure-footed and Izzy felt worse. Our practice attempts at uneven get-ins and outs were no match for this!
Team after team streamed past us. I tried to stay calm and kept moving until the next short swim, when I slipped forwards. I could feel myself going and did a ‘superman’ move to distribute the impact, bashing my knee hard and scuffing my palms. Someone helped me up and we jumped right in the water. I felt a bit shaky and my knee was sore. I imagined I had cracked my knee cap, until I realised that was probably ridiculous and I had better just get on with the job in hand.
Some time later we had just 4.5km run to get to the first checkpoint. I checked the scribbles: we were well off our target pace. But, hang on! I suddenly realised we were cutting it fine to even make the cut-off, something I had not anticipated at all. We had 35 minutes, no problem for a normal run, but we had no idea what the terrain would be like and we had already been on the move for 2.5 hours. There was no way we could allow ourselves to go out of this race, let alone at 9am.
Soon we were breathing heavily and finding it hard to talk. When I asked Izzy to check our pace on her gps watch we were under 5 minutes / km. Panic spurred us on and we fell into transition with 14 minutes to spare. Little did we know it, but we were almost at the back of the field, with only about 15 teams behind.
From that point on I kept an eagle eye on the time cut offs. I knew we had to build more of a buffer. The effort had taken a lot out of us and we were using the tow. I was worried because I knew I couldn’t pull for the long 20km run to come. Izzy later said she had been feeling low as well, demoralised by our difficulties on the rocks.
Although the first swim had felt fairly tame, things were going to get more interesting. Several of the crossings had strong crosswinds, currents and waves. I am sure if I had been on holiday and stood on the rocks looking out to sea I’d have decided it wasn’t possible (or safe) to swim. But here we were, clambering in and setting off towards another elusive strobe light.
We already knew that small-looking waves on land can seem huge when you’re in them with just your head above water. But these appeared quite big to start with! A few times I’d turn to breathe and almost roll over, getting a wave right over my mouth and missing a breath.
We also had to aim to the right of where we actually wanted to go. This was quite fun, as you could physically feel the angle of the wind and currents against you, and by keeping this angle constant go in a straight line. It almost reduced the need for sighting! Which was useful, since half the time all I saw when I lifted my head up was water …
It felt dangerous and it felt exhilarating. Most of the time we were strong and effective and knew we were passing or leaving teams behind on each swim.
I did have one aiming glitch, when we came the wrong way round a rocky outcrop and got grounded in shallow water. After one swim I felt tired, so we swapped the lead for the next – and I apologise to Izzy for my inability to follow properly!
The second cut off came and went and now we started making good time, moving at the pace we had hoped to go at from the start. We still only had 31 minutes in hand though. We tried to be efficient in feed stations, stopping to drink two or three cups of water or energy drink and picking up food to eat whilst we walked out and kept moving.
The infamous ‘pig swim’ loomed large. I almost wished no-one had told us anything about this difficult swim! But in the briefing we were informed some people might take an hour over it. Really? For 1400m? At any rate, I was determined this would not be us and set my stop watch as we got in.
We emerged smiling and triumphant on the other side after 29 minutes of swimming. My swimming mojo had returned 🙂 . We had spectators here, cheering and handing us a Twix bar. Izzy asked me something but I could only say “I’m trying to climb up these rocks, eat a Twix and do a wee all at the same time … but I will answer when at least one of those things is finished with!” We passed through the third cut off with 61 minutes to spare.
The next section of the race is a bit of a haze. I am not sure what happened, but we slowed down somewhat. My knee was sore from both the fall and the slight injury I was carrying from an adventure race in Ireland 5 weeks earlier. We were tiring of the hard conditions underfoot. We were also moving inexorably closer towards the 20km run section, which I was more afraid of than the pig swim.
Finally we were there, 55 minutes before the cut off. I was doing a lot of mental calculations about how fast we needed to move to make the final time cut. I knew it should be OK but also knew we were both tired. Our legs were sore and quads were burning. I burbled out loud to Izzy who pretended to sound interested, in much the same way as she had when I tried to describe our swims against the wind in terms of vectors of the forces acting against us relative to our direction of intended travel …
The result was that we had to run each km in at least 8 minutes. I decided to set my stopwatch and ask for a distance check every 8 minutes. All very well in theory, though by the time we were getting to 12 x 8 and beyond, the maths was making my head hurt. Not to worry; it was a great distraction.
After 8 minutes we’d done 1.3km. After 16, 2.5km. Then a tricky section where we only covered 1km in the time slot. Soon we were back on wide tracks and asphalt roads. The km ticked by and we gained 200-300m every 8 minutes.
We rewarded ourselves with a pack of Honey Stingers (pomegranate) halfway to the first feed station. We passed through someone’s back garden and a lady with a team list shouted “Go Rosemary! Rule Britannia!” – now that’s dedicated supporting! Small children sat on the verges shouting “Heja! Heja!” and our feet fell into the rhythm of their chants.
As we stuck to our own pace, we steadily passed teams. 10 of them, in fact. I’m sure I saw a snake as we tripped along, but Izzy was beyond caring (unless it ate her, in which case, she stated, she’d be pleased it had ended the run). Enthusiasm was dipping somewhat but we pushed on, maintaining an average speed of 6:09/km, which I was pretty pleased with considering we were already nearly 50km in to this race at the start of it! To Izzy’s displeasure I insisted we wriggled back into our wetsuits before the start of the next swim, on a section that had us walking anyway. And soon we were back at the sea, the final cut off, 39 minutes to spare.
After a moment where I celebrated and Izzy greeted a playful dog, we just had the final section to go. We were going to do this thing. A bit of running, a bit of swimming.
The trouble was that we no longer trusted our legs. They were wobbly on the uneven stones and refused to work as we hauled ourselves out of each swim. The transitions we’d practised so often were getting slower and more fiddly and no sooner had we got our legs working on the ‘runs’ (walks?) it was time to swim again. Finding the route, watching for the colourful marker strips in the trees that had shown the way like a dance all day. Sometimes we couldn’t see them even as they were right in front of our eyes. Our pace had dropped again. Perhaps without the focus of the cut offs our minds were less strong to will our tired bodies on.
At last we started the final 3.2km run. We forced ourselves to ignore our screaming muscles and run properly. As we looked up ahead I remarked “oh, a phalanx of teams”. We drew closer and saw that Pippa Middleton (celebrity sister of Kate Middleton, royal, in case you’re not up with these things … ) was amongst them. Our friends had urged us to make sure we beat her, and I admit we were surprised she had still been in front of us! We might have sped up somewhat as we gunned for the line. 1.5km more and we were faced with a cruel uphill finish. Then we were there.
We celebrated, we moved forwards, I collapsed onto a bench and started crying from all the emotion. We had actually made it! We had (as is my wont) under-estimated the difficulty of the undertaking. We had our highs and lows, times when we felt weary and wondered how we’d ever finish in time, and times when we were high on the craziness of what we were doing. Now we had done it. We had finished a World Championship race and we were proud.
I won’t lie. The week after has been tough … talk about post-race blues! The body and joints are tired and achey, my knee hurts and my emotional state is unpredictable at best 😉 . The thoughts of ‘we could have done better’ are creeping in, and we have moved from ‘not next year’ to ‘maybe next year, if we could get in again’. We both want to conquer those slippery rocks that drained us of so much physical and mental energy and time at the start!
Izzy is emphatic that it is the toughest thing she has ever done (despite several Ironmans and Celtman under her belt). I probably agree: multi-day adventure races are a test of sleep deprivation and endurance but the intensity is much lower.
I still keep reminding myself that only 1 in 4 people who want to do this race are selected to start. We swam 10km and ran 65km in one day. Two things I have never achieved before. I will hold onto those facts, even though they seem unreal 🙂 .
Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters for this race: Head (wetsuit and goggles) Gococo socks (blister free compression heaven) and BeetIt (nitrate power). It has been pointed out I should thank my long-suffering colleagues, friends, family and boyfriend for putting up with almost a year of Ötillö chat, trials and tribulations. Also my coach, Scott, for his sage advice. And finally, my straight-talking physio Graham, who has endless patience, a cheeky sense of humour and without whom I might not have even made it to the start line.
Now all we need to do is recover enough to do it all over again at Loch Gu Loch – a Scottish equivalent based around Loch Ness, but slightly shorter. Then I can get my bike back out and slide gracefully into winter racing.
On Wednesday the week before the Selkirk MTB marathon I fell into a metaphorical hole. My ride to work felt laboured and the easy lunchtime run might as well have been a hard race. Thursday was no better; I missed out the end of our running intervals session and wrote ‘felt bad’ in my training log – two things that never normally happen!
I took emergency measures. I went to bed early on Thursday night, took Friday off work and spent the morning packing for the weekend, cooking up snacks and generally getting on top of a few things. Marc and Ewan picked me up at lunchtime and we headed down.
Although we didn’t need to arrive so early, it meant we got our pick of the camping spots and I had a wonderfully relaxed lead in to the event. 30 seconds of high speed racing on the rollers against Paul (organiser and Itera teammate) straight after I had eaten probably wasn’t wise, but I got over it!
The Selkirk MTB marathon incorporates the British MTB championships, as well as offering a sportive version of the full course and two shorter options as well. I had only entered the sportive, as I didn’t want to pay extra to upgrade my British Cycling membership and buy a race licence just for this one event. However, I was keen to get into a good position at the front of the rest of the riders as we rolled out of the town centre. The ‘racers’ get a short headstart and were already out of sight as we turned into Bowhill estate, off the roads and onto the first climb.
The route for this is course is amazing and I really recommend it! Almost all of it is off road, there are 4.5 big climbs and there is a mix of fire roads, moorland paths, built singletrack and muddy natural stuff. 75km of riding, 2100m of ascent. I dibbed in and out for the timed enduro sections, but I’m not sure why as I really didn’t enjoy them and fell off on the first one, quite badly bruising my inner thigh and knocking my confidence a bit. On the second one I decided it was quicker and safer just of get off and run down!
After 35km and two climbs I was beginning to feel a bit weary. Goodness me – we weren’t even halfway! Luckily, I caught up with my friend Caroline here and we rode along chatting for a bit. She needed to stop and stretch, but just after that I hit a singetrack switchback climb through the forests, which I really enjoyed.
During the ride / race my plan was to work at a hard but sustainable effort throughout and to play it smart. This meant out of the 4 feed stations I only stopped at the third (to refill my empty Camelbak bladder, eat a banana and reorganise my remaining snacks). That took 7 minutes and my gps showed I was stationary for 15 in total. My guess is some of those were when I was reduced to pushing up one of the steepest hills too slowly, or when I was busy falling off! I overtook a lot of people at the first two feed stations, most of whom didn’t catch me back up.
I was also testing out some more feedzone portables. For the whole race I only ate these and a banana and drunk water. I think it was a successful combination! This weekend’s portables were: banana and walnut almond milk pastry mini pies (slightly under-done, but tasted good nonetheless), spinach and courgette frittatas (a well-tested favourite) and peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwiched between layers of sticky rice. These last were new to me and I was unconvinced at first. However, during the race they were fantastic! Salty and sweet, sticky and easy to eat. The also didn’t need an oven to cook, so were quick to prepare.
Although my descending is passable (compared, say, to a roadie ha ha!), it is by no means up to the standard of most of the girls there. This meant I caught people on the climbs and was passed on the downhills. By the time we got to Innerleithen at the bottom of the last big climb, we had done 51km and I was beginning to feel a revival.
As I’ve said before in this blog, the climb up to the top of Minch Moor is one of my favourites. I started with a few other people and as we powered up I lost all but one of them, and caught a couple of others. They paused to take in the views at the top (and they are worth taking in), but I was on a mission.
My legs were feeling good now and with the incentive not to get caught, I sped along the Southern Upland Way until the final descent, which I’m sure I took faster than I normally would! Zooming under the finishing arch in top gear, I was all smiles 🙂 .
This event wasn’t one of my targets and was more of a test / training run for Itera in August. After the way I felt Weds and Thurs I was actually pretty pleased with how I rode and how the eating plan went. Out of a combined total of about 30 girls who did the long course (race or sportive) I was firmly middle of the field with the winner nearly 2 hours quicker than me! A reminder that there’s always plenty of faster people.
One final note. Marc and Ewan were the best support crew ever. They were there to organise the SMBO event on Sunday. As well as driving me down on Friday, they: adjusted my suspension forks (rebound and sag), helped check my brake pads, let me sit in the van while it rained, gave wise advice on clothing choices (short sleeve jersey and gilet, despite the forecast rain), lent me a big down jacket to ride up to the start in and throw back at them just before we left, were there as a welcoming party at the finish to say well done and take photos and, finally, stood in the slow moving queue to get my bike washed whilst I showered and changed. Awesome!
After an early dinner it was off to sleep ready for the next event – 3 hours of mountain bike score orienteering.
After months of training and anticipation the Celtman finally landed on Saturday. Although it actually felt like it started on Wednesday, when two of my supporters (mum and Andy) arrived and I had the stress of kit checking and packing. Kate turned up on Thursday looking remarkably bright, given she had left home at about 5am!
It was a long drive north, but we took the scenic route and got to Torridon just in time to register. There were lots of people I knew milling around, which was comforting.
We headed back to the B&B which had awesome views of Loch Shieldaig and was very comfortably appointed. Andy decided to test the water temperature in his underpants and stayed in all of about 10 seconds. Not very encouraging!
At breakfast on Friday we bumped into Izzy, who was staying the night before moving to a cottage with some other people form the club. Upstairs from us there was a French family – the dad Eric was also racing. We had booked a dinner from our obliging hosts and when we wandered in we found yet more people we knew doing the race already happily munching! I wonder whether there was anyone staying in the villages who wasn’t a Celtman racer or supporter that weekend?!
A ‘quick trip’ round to Applecross for lunch on Friday was probably a mistake as it tired the drivers out, though I was happily admiring the views :-). We ended up racing to the briefing, arriving 1 minute before it started! The only thing my mum noted down was the name of the nearest hospital …
More kit checking and logistics back at the B&B and by then it was all getting a bit much. I was glad to get into bed, but I felt bloated and like I had eaten too much. During the night I imagined my feet were hurting, my head was thumping and I was coming down with a dreadful lurgy. At 3am the alarm went off and I leapt up. Somehow I got my contact lenses in and ate some muesli before venturing out to sign on, rack the bike and get on the coaches to the start.
I sat next to a friendly Norwegian who mused about how bad the ‘midgets’ were and how cold the water might be. There was a long wait at the beach but it passed quickly, chatting to people I knew and being interviewed by the Adventure Show crew. By the time I got to the water it was minutes from the start time and I hardly made the line before the klaxon went off! The swim was shortened to about 3.2km due to the cold, so we struck straight out for the other side.
First shock of the day – the sea was full of jellyfish! I have a bit of a thing about jellyfish, and squealed a few times when I hit one with my feet or they floated up near my face. As usual I started at the back, and spent the whole time moving up the field. Every time I tried to draft someone I would overtake, be drafted for a bit, then move on to the next person. That is, when I wasn’t veering wide to get a nice clear view of where I was going!
My day-long tummy problems started halfway over when that muesli nearly came back up – and every time I swallowed a mouthful of salty water I nearly gagged. Still, it was a race so I kept going. I was 22nd out of the swim, which was pretty good.
After the transition my supporters went to relax over some brekkie for a bit, whilst I set about cycling 202km. I felt really nauseous for at least 20 minutes and was convinced this had never happened to me before. Then I remembered it has happened at least twice before on a swim to bike transition! After a while I settled down, probably too much, as I covered the first 60km at 30km/h.
By this point I was running low on fluids and desperate for my support crew to arrive. When they did I was so relieved! This gave me a temporary boost, until I started getting terrible stomach cramps. I also really needed to pee, and had to stop. This pattern continued for the next 5 hours! The cramps were like nothing I’ve experienced before – I was doubled over whilst still trying to pedal and I still have sore tummy muscles 3 days later! Still, I got into a more sustainable pace and really enjoyed the longer climbs and descents in the second half of the course. I was also lucky to be playing leapfrog with Izzy as it kept me motivated and meant I had her supporters cheering as well as mine :-).
At T2 it was chaos. People were shouting, a car reversed into our boot lid which was up in the air, I chucked a sock onto a burning midge candle in the back of the car and midges landed in their hordes! I was glad to get away, and even more glad of the portaloo. That job done and standing upright again at last and my stomach felt a hundred times better. I set off running up the hill, swigging a Frijj and with Andy on his mountain bike. It was great to have company and someone to natter to again 😀 .
The scenery was lovely, and I cheered Izzy on as she passed on the downhill, thinking that was the last I would see her. The last 5km along a tarmac section was tough going, and when I arrived at T2A I was very glad to switch to walking. The first section had been 18km, which is about the furthest I’ve run in one go in recent times – and that’s only been in adventure races!
Now Kate joined me and we set up off the hill, me with my walking poles and a new companion to chat to. It was fun hearing tales of the supporters’ day in the car and some of their crazy overtaking and reversing antics! Kate asked me if I was eating and my answer must have sounded highly unconvincing as from then on she kept taking food off me and giving it back to me in bite size morsels at regular intervals – often directly into my mouth, so I had no excuse!
We passed the people from the Adventure Show again and I did another interview, this time on the move. I tried to think of something intelligent to say, other than ‘it’s amazing, fantastic’! Kate said I was too articulate to be working hard enough and kept the pace up afterwards! It was just after this we passed Izzy again. I was surprised, but I think ups are my forte, and maybe my adventure racing experience was good for me here.
The tops and the ridge were covered in dense fog. As I kept telling anyone who would listen, Kate is a top mountain marathoner, and knows what she’s doing when it comes to mountains and route finding! We negotiated the elusive sheeptrack to cut a little uphill corner, got straight to the peak, down the scree and across the boulder fields. At this point we had a little trail of people following us; I think we all knew we were onto a good thing! It was also fun to have new company and it spurred me on to keep the pace up a little bit. When I checked the gps it was 17km to go. My heart fell that it was so far – but then I thought about the fact that was still less than the first leg, and I felt better.
As the road neared we could hear cheering and it was very exciting. Andy was there with a group of others, who had apparently been hanging around for hours! I threw my bag to him as I didn’t need to carry it any more, but ignored him yelling at me to give up my poles as well. I can be Nordic and ‘European’ as Kate put it … we set off plodding and the endless view down the road depressed me. Then Andy reappeared and said Izzy was just 4 minutes behind. This had a magic effect on me as I’ll always put up a fight at the end of a race :-).
Kate ran in front of me so I could draft in the headwind, whilst I shouted things like “Faster! No, not that fast! You’re dropping me! Now, faster again!” I also whacked her with my poles as I drifted off my line (I was tired) and kicked her heels with my toes when the pace wasn’t quite right. She endured all this without a word of complaint as we blasted back into Torridon. Eric at breakfast the next day was very proud of his 40 minute final run, until I told him I had done it in 36! Mind you, he did finish 1h40m ahead of me :D.
Amazingly, I think I finished 52nd on the run, compared to 60th on the bike, which just goes to show maybe I’m not so bad at running any more, at least, when it involves mountains and comes at the end of a very long day ;-).
Overall, I was 2nd female (54th overall out of 128 starters) and finished in 16 hours and 23 seconds. I was over the moon, as this was way beyond my expectations going into the race. Izzy was 3rd female, and it was great to have another clubmate in the top 3. I think we probably spurred each other on. Elizabeth was the last person to make the high mountain cut off (with a minute to spare), but stormed over the hill overtaking more than 20 people! All nine girls finished and it was great to all get a mention and applause at the ceremony on Sunday. Full results.
The overall winners were Alex Glasgow (12:09:48) and Susanne Buckenlei (13:55:33 – what a machine!).
I can’t thank my supporters enough. For what they put up with on a very long day, with all their driving, pandering to my every need (I don’t get this sort of pampering on an adventure race), accompanying me on various legs and cheering loudly! My mum presented me with a gold chocolate medal and a signed certificate, which was a lovely touch. Also to my coach for getting me through the training and everyone who was there from ERC, racing and supporting, plus various other people I have only met in the last few weeks who were so friendly and welcoming.
Lastly to the organisers, including Stuart McInnes and Paul McGreal, for putting on a great race!
Epilogue: After driving hundreds of kilometres over the weekend, the car broke down 3km from home. My mum was driving, we called out the AA on Kate’s policy, it was my mate’s car … but he was in Croatia. Andy said it was nothing to do with him. The AA man took all this in his stride and told us we needed to find the towing eye somewhere under the mountain of luggage in the boot. Amazingly, we succeeded. But as I sat up front in the big yellow van, and Kate steered the Doblo behind, she realised that yet again she was finishing a race being towed around like a medium dog …..
This race won’t be the longest I’ve ever done. I expect it to take about 18 hours, though I’m still finding it hard to judge my bike pace. This compares to four 24 hour races I’ve done in the past. The difference with this one is the fixed distances and strict time cutoffs! I won’t be able to rest between laps or miss a few checkpoints and still be able to finish.
The race is also unusual for me because I’ve invested more time and effort into it than anything else I’ve done before. I’m not sure why – except that my Ironman-finisher friends got me scared way back in November and made me feel like I had better put in some really hard work!
It’s been fun though. I‘ve got used to swimming (rather than just squawking and playing!) in waves and finding out what it’s like to swim to a distant point that never appears to get any closer.
On my final big training weekend I celebrated the Queen’s jubilee by making the most of the amazing place I live.
I did a delightful 165km loop over the Lammermuirs. This is the view up Redstone Rigg, which I have only discovered this summer.
And later I persuaded Chris (a car-owner!) to take me further north to some inviting Munros. I did 5 of the summits on the Ben Lawers ridge. I set off a bit scared about tackling such big looking mountains by myself in insubstantial running gear and carrying my small pack containing the mandatory race kit list.
Here’s the ridge:
It was much colder up at the top than down at the bottom and I was glad of my woolly hat and gloves, even in June ;-). The route I took was from MunroMagic and was a good one – not too many crowds except for the stretch between Ben Lawers itself and Beinn Ghlas. One of the best feelings about this day was being fit enough to enjoy such an adventure so easily.
After helping some girls with a photo, I took off down a tussocky grassy spur with no path. Even with my poles I managed to nearly twist my ankles several times before making it to the bottom in time for a quick dip in Loch Tay to cool off!
Several stiff days followed, so I am under no illusions as to how long my legs might hurt post-race!
And now I am into ‘tapering’. I was warned I might feel rubbish in these two weeks and it’s true. I get paranoid when I meet an ill person, I freak out every time a car drives too close to me, I imagine I am coming down with ‘something’ every other day and my body is throwing in aches and pains pretty much everywhere!
I am trying to stay calm and get plenty of sleep. This weekend I had fun swimming up at Thriepmuir Reservoir in the rain with some fellow racers and then getting totally lost running on Arthur’s Seat. People who know Arthur’s Seat will realise this was a bit ridiculous – but the fog was right down, I couldn’t see any of the usual landmarks and I lost all sense of direction! Luckily in the race, Kate will look after me on the mountain should a similar situation arise :D.
And so with 5 days to go I am into final preparations: buying my favourite foods, making lists and waiting expectantly for my supporters to arrive. Hurrah!
My mum decided that if there was one race I needed support at this year, it was this one. I think she was right! After following a rigorous training plan (ahem), I was all set to go on my last big race of the summer.
It all started at the sort of time in the morning that no-one should be awake. Unbelievably, the nice lady at the B&B seemed to think nothing of getting up to give us breakfast at 5.45am! I ate my muesli and toast unenthusiastically and then headed down to the main transition areas to set up my kit. By 6.45 I had my wetsuit on and was as ready to go as I ever would be, but it still wasn’t really light and we weren’t allowed in the water yet.
I had written off the swim as unimportant in the grand scheme of things; if it was only going to be half an hour, and the rest took about 9.5 hours, then it wouldn’t really matter, right? In the end, I was proved wrong and I am very glad that I took it seriously and put a bit of effort in. After my recent dip in Threipmuir Reservoir last week, I found the water to be ‘quite warm’ and ‘lovely and clear’ ;-). I didn’t do too badly at following other people’s feet for a while and I even struck a lead out through the mass of half-distance competitors who set off just as we rounded the buoy for our second lap. I bridged the gap to the front swimmers up ahead then got out of the water in 9th, with just one other girl already in transition.
This started off up a long road climb. Easy enough. Then we branched off onto a deceptive track that looked easier than it felt – some people were already walking, and the fine, sandy sort of surface mixed with little rocks took effort to ride over. However, it was all rewarded with a swoopy fast and fun downhill trail :D. What comes down must go up, and this was followed by a seemingly endless undulating fireroad climb. It was here on the first lap that the eventual female winner, Hannah Barnes, overtook me. I tried to keep up for a while which was an interesting lesson – we were the same speed up the hills but she kept getting away on the downs because she carried on pedalling – isn’t that cheating?!
I felt rather queasy – I think this is an effect of swimming then biking. Or maybe swimming in a wetsuit and then biking. In any case, I couldn’t eat anything until after a short technical section of trail down through some mushroom woods to a road. A banana was scoffed as I spun my legs out down to the start of lap 2. It was unfortunate that by this point I already felt really tired, because I wasn’t even halfway! The other laps passed fairly uneventfully, except for a tumble on the technical section and noisy brakes. I kept the speed up and played yo-yo with three other racers.
Ben Nevis loomed ominously above, mostly shrouded in swirling clouds. I tried not to think about it too much.
As well as taking photos and cheering me on, my mum was letting me know where the other girls were. My main aim for this race was to get under 10 hours, but if I could get on the podium as well it would be a bonus. I finished the bike still in 2nd place, but Marie was hot on my heels, maintaining the gap at only about 12 minutes. I was scared of the run, but tried to tell myself I wasn’t too bad on the ups, just the downs, and maybe I could hold it together.
I had been warned that the run was more of a walk than a run, so I set off rather nervously. I managed to keep some sort of jog going to perhaps a third of the way up, when the gradient got too steep and I got too tired. One of the half-distance guys passed and cheerfully told me it was still ‘miles and miles’ to go, but to ‘keep going anyway!’ – no deceiving ‘nearly there’ platitudes :-). I’m not sure it was wise to push on so hard as I felt rather spaced out approaching mid-way and the start of the scree slope. I’m grateful to Matt, another competitor who had caught me up and kept me company for some time before pulling away to the summit. I was getting colder and colder and with the advice of a friend ringing in my ears, I finally stopped to don my waterproof, woolly hat and thick gloves. Eventually I made it to the top, though I somehow missed the path and veered rather close to some very steep cliffs, which alarmed the marshals! Then the sun came out, I glimpsed some amazing views and it was back to running.
Just 6 minutes after I left the top, Marie passed me going the other way, so I knew I didn’t have much of a gap and was just as brave as I could be on the descent. I started feeling stones prodding the soles of my feet, which I thought was weird until closer inspection showed that my shoe had fallen apart! I kept pushing on, taking the shortcuts, and trying to dodge the hordes of charity walkers spread across the path. Just as I emerged onto the road at the bottom Marie caught me up! I grabbed a cup of water (I had run out of drink), and set off after her. She was suffering a bit from cramp and I felt sorry for her, but I couldn’t give up after all this time! I dug deep and ‘sprinted’ onwards for the last 3km, opening a small gap. This last effort totally finished me off and I collapsed over the finish line making some very strange noises.
Marie came in 2 minutes later, all credit to her for her performance. And so it was that the 7.5 minutes I had gained in the swim stage 10 hours earlier came to give me second place on the podium. Hurrah! Hannah thrashed us both, finishing in 8h25m and beating all but 4 men. The statistics tell me everything about which part of which discipline needs serious work …
This ranks up there as one of the hardest races I’ve ever done. It was also one of the friendliest – when else would the leader high five you on their way past back to the finish?! If you want a challenge to test you to your limits I would highly recommend this race. If you can get someone to give you moral support and drive your aching body home, all the better!