Day 3 Schematic
Stage 6: Bike (Machynlleth to Glasbury via Devil’s Bridge, the Elan Valley and Builth Wells)
I think our race turned a point here. We had saved up some time at last and we set off on a hunt for some controls! It was raining when we left transition and then it got worse. As we lifted our bikes over yet another locked gate and bombed along some fire roads, the heavens opened, we were soaked, it was windy and we were cold. But we were just a bit too cold to risk stopping and getting more layers on – no-one dared stop moving!! As we ‘waited for a sheltered spot’ we started going uphill again and the rain eased off. By the time it was warm enough to stop, we didn’t need to! 😀
This stage took in a big loop of the Nant y Arian mountain bike trails. The first section was a natural double track with some fun rock sections. Looking at the map later, we probably could have taken a shortcut, but we’d have had to make assumptions about the likely control positions. There were 4 controls on the route, but not marked on the map. Anyway, even now I don’t care, as I had fun here!
At one point it was my team’s turn to make fun of me. I felt behind to check my rear light was still attached to my bag, but couldn’t find it. It must have popped off on one of the rocky sections. I announced this to my team, glad that I had a back up light on my bike, but sorry to lose a decent rear light and clip! (I get sentimentally attached to objects). Paul brushed it off (he does not get sentimentally attached to objects). As I mourned, I moved in front and, to my surprise, the others told me the light was still there. I felt behind me again. I was teased for not believing them. Of course, I believed them, but needed to touch it for reassurance… and kept doing so for the rest of the ride, much to their amusement!
We zipped round a section of trail I remembered doing in the Trans Wales. Sam and Jon had also raced here at different times. Then we were out on the road sailing down towards Devil’s Bridge and the waterfalls. We were hungry again and there was a café here. We weren’t certain to make it to the Elan Valley before the place there shut at midnight so we had a bright idea. We instructed the girl that we’d like to order food now, to be ready in 30 minutes when we came back, and that we wanted it to come out all at once.
We trotted off down to the falls, collected a control and came back again. No sign of our food. 45 minutes after ordering, a soup came out but nothing else. The whole thing had got lost in translation, and although they cooked everything else as quickly as they could, we saw other teams come and go as they wolfed down fast chips. On the plus side, I had one of the best meals so far in Wales (a sweet potato tagine with rice and an orange salad, plus a huge portion of crumble). A lady with her family at the next table was entranced by stories of what we were doing and took Jon’s phone number, promising to track us throughout the rest of the race!
As we set off through some industrial landscapes, it was getting cooler as dusk fell again. Sam had found her biking legs after day one and had had no trouble keeping up. However, here on the roads her low body weight for the descents and heavy full suspension bike meant she was finding it hard going. She suggested we either slowed or she went on a tow. I was more than happy to tow as I still felt great on the bike. But Paul said I should save my energy for later and so we slowed down. This was probably one of the hardest parts of the race for me. I felt we were crawling along and I was getting cold. I had tonnes of energy but nowhere for it to go, which was frustrating.
I could tell this would be an awesome place for road riding though, and vowed to come back sometime with Andy. Shooting down a fast track in the woods cheered me up and eventually we made it to the Elan Valley special stage. Because we were a short course team, we were advised this wasn’t worth our time to do. The café was still going strong, so we had drinks and set off again. Oh how I wish I hadn’t drunk hot chocolate! The perfect sleepy drink … now I was drifting off as we rode along in the dark.
It started pouring with rain again, and as we sheltered under some big trees I began to wake up. Good job too, as Jon was suffering from the same hot milky drink syndrome as me, and we were the two in charge of the maps! Now I was on it again, feeling responsible for guiding us out of here and on to Glasbury.
We were doing the short route, on the race planner’s advice. It turned out those who went the long way had to contend with some crazy weather and waist high stream crossings, so this was probably for the best! It was a bit dull though, so we livened proceedings by making up special ‘adventure race bike riding in the rain’ versions of Billy Joel’s song ‘River of Dreams’, first line: In the middle of the night … We had only one slight hiccough in route finding, and as we neared the end I was able to shout “I recognise this church! We sat and had lunch here 14 years ago!”. Weird.
We rolled into Glasbury with Jon and Paul very grateful for making it. As Sam and I got the tent up, we conferred and confided that we both felt a bit woozy as well, but weren’t showing it as much! So we were probably all happy to fall asleep for another couple of hours. Second blog was also written here.
Day 2 Schematic
Stage 4: Paddle + bike (Tan-y-bwlch to Barmouth)
We got down to the river and looked at it, confused. We were fairly sure the sea was to our right and were looking forward to a nice, downstream paddle. But the river appeared to be flowing to our left. We double-checked the maps. Yep, we had to go right. We had not accounted for this being a tidal river, and the tide coming in. We launched anyway, and set off into the teeth of a roaring wind, which was funnelling into the valley shaped by the river and twisted as we did. Each new bend brought new paddling challenges as we occasionally struggled to make any forward progress at all.
I was relieved to get to the portage section as it meant we had got somewhere! The portage turned out to be a nightmare, as James (race director) had warned us at transition. We took the boats to a road one by one; all four of us lifting each one out at another improbable ‘get out’. We used the trolleys to wheel round the railway bridge which was under construction. Then we were faced with a flooded field, not quite deep enough to paddle. We had to pull and shove our boats across, taking care not to lose our feet in the deep and narrow underwater channels.
Then we were battling for Portmeirion. The weather conditions meant this paddle was also shortened, and we all had to be held at another time out until it was safe to cross the bay. However, we arrived relatively late due to the sleeping and hitting the tide at the wrong point. So by the time we had finished the amusing orienteering (Paul: “We have 1cm to go. The scale on this map changes with every step we take from the centre”) and partaken of the Italian gelato / sorbet (mmmm) it was already time to go again.
A short paddle and a long drag across the sands and we were back on the bikes to finish the stage. The team had mixed feelings about this kayak stage. Personally, I enjoyed the feeling of taking on the challenge and succeeding, but it was hard work!
In transition, Paul panicked when he thought he’d lost his skewers (which hold the wheels onto the bike). “I’ve left them in the car park at Ogwen!” he declared, in a state of high stress. We sent him off to enquire whether the marshals had any to spare or could help in any way. Jon, Sam and I wondered how this could have happened (Sam was meticulous at sweeping any area for left behind stuff). I knew how well daft questions went down with Paul … so I saved it and just as the marshals were telling him there was a bike shop in town, I had a little look at the bags next to his kit, ‘just to make sure’. There they were! What a huge sigh of relief! It was just one of those things that can happen when you’re tired and in a hurry.
The main road hugs the coast, but going that way would not be in the spirit of adventure racing. We rode / walked up and over a long road section, which I recognised from a tour I did in 2000. It was very wet then, today was much better weather. As soon as we reached the sea it was time to go up and descend again, this time largely off-road. A lot of this climb was rideable, which was a relief. The view at the top was stunning, and the ride back down technical. This was one of Jon’s favourite sections!
When we got into transition and saw Andy again, I felt quite teary. It had been a tough day so far, the paddle was such hard work and the bike wasn’t easy. I was also navigating on the second half of the bike stage, taking over from Jon as we crossed a page on our maps. I was acutely aware of the need to get it right first time as the team were getting tired and having a little dip.
We had a slow transition. I was naughty and hopped in the shower to wash the salt out of my hair. I felt guilty for holding the team up, but wasn’t really thinking straight. We also went to the chippy and stocked up on huge quantities of food. Paul had 4 cans of fizzy pop lined up! I settled for just one, but also had a veggie burger in a bun plus a jacket potato with beans and cheese.
As it got dusky outside it was time to set off again.
Stage 5: Trek (Barmouth to Machynlleth)
By cutting the first trek stage so short and getting a sleep, we had hoped to start this stage with plenty of time and energy to take in the big mountain top of Cadair Idris. However, the trials of the day had almost put paid to this idea, and by the time we had crossed the bridge we had decided to miss it out. As we trekked upwards I started feeling quite ropey. I think the emotions and physical exertions so far had got to me. A common thing we found throughout the week was an inability to keep our body temperature ‘just right’. At this point I was waaay to hot. I was taking off clothes but feeling uncomfortably warm. I took any confusion over the map as a handy excuse for a little sit down. I think this was the trek where we stopped in the woods for a 10 minute rest and snack stop. We all turned our torches off and enjoyed the darkness.
After one steep forest climb, we emerged onto a fire road and I just collapsed to the floor, not wanting to move. I ate and drank, and realised I was probably dehydrated as my body craved the salty Nuun solution I had made up. Eventually I got up again and went on a tow to Jon, who pulled me onwards through the darkness. I was getting some interesting ‘sleepmonsters’ now. I saw things like scary men looming out of the shadows, an imaginary dog that jumped from behind a wall and various buildings that didn’t actually exist. I also heard phones ringing and disembodied footsteps behind us.
As we made our way along a road 2.5h later, the rhythm and lack of technicality lulled me and I found myself falling asleep as we walked. We had to stop at a handy roadside lay-by with a bench and small grass section. I pulled out the small sleeping mat / back support from my bag, put on all my clothes and curled up. 30 minutes later I was awoken by a cold team and we continued. I felt much better though!
Before long we found ourselves stuck in a quarry. There were many other teams all around. We struggled to find the right path out and kept trying every likely looking track, following it until it stopped or turned the wrong way. I did a bit of digging into this after the race – look here if you want to know more! We’d been about an hour and Paul was losing his patience, suggesting we might have to just sit it out until light. Jon kept popping off into the quarry or up little paths to see if they went anywhere, while we stood together waiting for news.
As we walked back to a known spot on the map, Sam pointed to a stile we had in fact seen on the way in. “Look – perhaps if there’s a stile there, then there’s a path behind it?”. She was right, and I launched up it with enthusiasm. The others weren’t so sure, but there was no stopping me now as I marched across a recently deforested area. My headtorch picked out where it went, though it was hard to find in the dark and with the trees down. We were on a path we had seen others on earlier, but not been able to find. It was eventually even in the same place the map said a path would be 😀 . On we went, over a stile and across a bog-fest of a field. Jon announced he definitely knew where we were. Music to our ears!
As dawn broke we were in mists and light rain, contemplating a quick jaunt up a nearby hill for a control. I am still not sure if the suggestion to go up there was a joke or not. We were all pretty tired and wanted to get to transition, but again, in retrospect getting this and possibly another control on this stage might have been a smart move. We made our way down. The last tarmac section was hard on the feet. I think we all felt a bit jaded. It had been a hard day / night and, except for special stages and one that was on the short route, we had not got a single one optional control yet.
Time for another sleep in our tent before we started a “new day”, even though it was 8:30 in the morning!
So, the race I have targeted all year has been and gone. I am on a somewhat unpredictable road to recovery. It has taken a while to reflect on the race and let it all sink in. The story of 5 days / 114 hours of racing cannot be told in one report! Instead, you can look forward to reading about each day in instalments this week.
The stress of getting to the start line seems so long ago now. After last minute purchases (duct tape, extra box covering, impulse need for trekking trousers etc) I was suddenly packed and ready to go. Jon picked me up on Friday morning and off we drove to Selkirk to meet up with Paul. Despite the detailed instructions we went round in circles a bit until we found his house – was this a sign?
Of course, by the time we had loaded the giant pick up truck with all our stuff and squeezed ourselves in, we were later starting than planned. Cardiff is a jolly long way away, and the journey was made even longer when we hit Friday rush hour holiday traffic on the motorway. Finally we got there and met up with Sam, our fourth team member. Plenty of time for team tentel to bond over a Chinese takeaway and box waterproofing.
The rest of the weekend went by in a blur, as we attended briefings, got kit ready, pored over the maps, laminated them, did the prologue and travelled up to Caernarfon.
The prologue was a 10km run around Cardiff Bay, with a short white water section in the middle. In an expedition race, the usual standards of decorum (with respect to changing clothes and wee stops) are eventually thrown to the wind. I didn’t expect to do so this early in the event though. As we walked through the multi-storey car park, I realised that my shorts were on back to front. In the stairwell I hurriedly switched them over, with Sam falling about laughing and pointing at the CCTV camera. Look out for me on some candid camera show soon!
We took the run at a fairly sedate pace. Paul wouldn’t have it any other way! As we got to the white water section, the leading teams were exiting and shouting a lot, which looked a bit stressful. We had to go in pairs, one after the other. Paul and I went first. The plugs came out of the bottom of our barely-inflated boat, water spurted in and we started sinking! After we took evasive action we felt lucky to get round in the boat. By the end, we seemed to be sitting below water level and steering was nigh on impossible.
On the bus on the way to Caernarfon on Sunday, we watched videos of previous adventure races, which just made me stressed. Surely we’re not about to start something like that are we? They were supposed to be inspirational, but the story of two Aussie blokes who went to the South Pole and back unsupported was easier on the mind!
As we tucked ourselves in overnight at the Travelodge, the wind whipped up the waves in the Menai Straits. Sam and I were sharing a room and were chatting away, whilst I’m sure Jon and Paul were sound asleep next door. Eventually I said “I think we should go to sleep now”, to which the response came back “I’m trying to!”. This was the funniest thing I had heard all weekend, as I’m sure I wasn’t the only one initiating the chat 🙂 . So I enquired what she would try next to get to sleep, since the talking wasn’t working. Perhaps a spot of dancing?
Day 1 schematic
Stage 1: Paddle + bike (Caernarfon to Conwy)
The next day we had an early start. A last minute leader’s briefing brought news that because of the weather we might have a shortened paddle stage. There were a few options, but we were to get out at Bangor Pier and find out which it was to be then. We ran round the castle twice, waved to Jon’s parents (who must have had a very early start), then we were off to the beach.
All we had to do was fit our new seats to sit on top kayaks (the straps go where?!), attach our bags out of the way of our feet and launch! It was still quite choppy, but we had the tide behind us and were whizzing along. I am not normally a kayaker and throughout the race I was bemused by what was counted as a suitable ‘get out’ point. At the pier, we were directed to go past the nice sloping gangway, nose in by some steep jagged slippery rocks and try and haul the heavy kayaks up over them. I got a good dunking here as my foot slipped and I was into deep water!
We rode our bikes for the rest of what would have been a paddle stage to Conwy. I wasn’t sure if I was pleased about this or not – but was probably mostly pleased! After a section on Sustrans route 8 (which I had done in the other direction with Andy last year), we dived off onto a rather pleasant off road section. At the castle, it was hot and sunny as we ran round on top of the town walls and sought out controls hidden inside the castle. What a shame we were in a race and couldn’t stay to run up and down all the spiralling tower staircases! Our tracker wasn’t working, which was confusing people at home, so we swapped for a new one before beginning the first planned bike stage.
Stage 2: Bike + zip wire (Conwy to Ogwen)
We rode back a different way to the one we had come, passing very close but taking a hillier and more off road route. Sam admitted that our earlier pace was too much for her to maintain, so we experimented with her going on a tow behind me. I love biking and was feeling strong and perky, so actually quite enjoyed this. All the more so when she said what a difference it made to her.
The wind was blowing hard into our faces so we travelled quite slowly at some points. I hoped it wouldn’t stay like this all week! The problem with travelling in lines instead of circles is that you could face a headwind all the way ….
At Bethesda, Paul got a cramp (the team’s first and only all week), but it was perfectly timed just as we got to the zip wire centre. Here we had to serve a time out – the length of which was dictated by our speed in the prologue. We had 53 leisurely minutes to stock up from the fast food hatch (chips, egg roll or bacon rolls, depending on tastes). Throughout the race I think Sam and I carried far more water than the others, filling up from ‘official’ drinking water sources when we saw them. Jon and Paul went for streams and rivers, and Paul batted away my concerns that he had used taps specifically saying ‘not drinking water’. He didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects though! He must have a stomach of iron.
Just before we had to go again, my dad appeared! He had been watching our tracker and only lives just over the hill from where we were. It was lovely to see him even though we couldn’t stop and chat. We had to hike up to the top of an old quarry, where there was another (timed out) wait for the zip wire. People were already sleeping in the cramped space, but I was anxious to stay alert and not miss our spot in the queue! As a Frenchman got kitted out he commented “What is this helmet for? Is it for when I smash into the brick wall at the end?”. We all found this very funny!
Soon enough we were ourselves suspended face forward in a harness overlooking the quarry. It didn’t take long to get back to the bottom when we were going at 100mph, or thereabouts. What a buzz! Quick goodbyes to my dad who had patiently waited, and we pedalled up to Ogwen to say hello to Andy. Oops, no, he was marshalling and we had a job to get on with – time to pack up the bikes in their boxes and start walking!
Stage 3: Trek (Ogwen to Tan-y-bwlch)
We had already made the decision on Saturday that we would miss some of the controls on this trek and immediately become a ‘short course’ team. Due to the time outs, the wait at the zip wire and our general ‘steady’ speed, it was getting dusky already. Two of the controls had also been removed due to high winds, which meant the penalties for going the shorter route were less.
My map reading duties were on the bike. On the trek, Paul and Jon were in charge, so I hadn’t really appreciated what faced us. Despite going the short way, we still had a significant hill to climb! Halfway up it started raining so we donned coats and got our lights out. Paul’s didn’t work. “I tested them this morning”, he said. I asked: “And they worked then?” Duh – stupid question of the race! Luckily, spares were produced from somewhere and we continued on. The route was hard to pick out over the top, though Jon found it brilliantly. It was quite a sight to see the bright lights of other competitors dancing off Tryfan and the Glyders. At Pen-y-Gwryd whilst I munched on Babybels and oatcakes, we debated whether to head on down or go over Snowdon. We went down. In fact, we went short course for the whole of this leg.
We had a plan. Despite having to switch from the long course white bib to the short course black ‘bib of shame’, we hoped that we could change the moniker to ‘bib of cunning’. We didn’t want to be chasing cut offs and knew that controls later in the race held higher time penalties than those we were missing now. If we played the long game we would have more time and energy to get these controls in the second half of the race.
In retrospect, perhaps we could have been a little more ambitious on this stage, even just going for the two less committing controls with some extra climb near the end. As it was, we trotted down the road. Sam and I stared at the sky wondering if we could see dark clouds or dark sky. We were just discussing the important matter of how a certain cloud definitely looked like a poodle, when we saw the brightest of shooting stars! Amazing.
The maps marked a suggested ‘short route’, but unless otherwise specified these were not mandatory. We thought we were being smart by taking a minor road (‘A’ and ‘B’ class roads were out of bounds) and linking onto a good track via a short section of footpath. The footpath turned out to be very non-existent. In fact, its route traversed The Swamp of Doom. The further we went, the soggier it got. We tested the ground with our poles before committing the next step as we fanned out a bit. I stayed near Sam for moral support and combined safe route finding, though I’m not sure who was going to rescue who. We nearly lost her in a particularly deep wet patch! Just as my patience was wearing extremely thin, we got out of there and made rapid progress into the transition.
Here we had our first access to tents. It was still quite early in the race, but we knew we wouldn’t get them again until after the second big trek stage, in another 24h time. It was either sleep now, or sleep outside somewhere without a tent or warm sleeping bags. After a quick blog, we tucked ourselves up for 2h kip.