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 🙂
Day 4 Schematic
Stage 7: Paddle (Glasbury to Bredwardine via Hay-on-Wye)
This was actually a fairly uneventful stage for us. We negotiated the slightly tricky bits with only a minor incident – Paul and I got grounded on some rocks! After he got out and pushed the boat around a bit we were able to set off again, without leaving him behind … In Hay-on-Wye (book town, and just before the border of our English sojourn) we said hello to Andy again and used a very old map to collect control points. We stopped at a promising looking café, dripping wet. Luckily Sam and I had kept our buoyancy aids on for warmth. Paul hadn’t though, and was getting very cold. We don’t seem to pick cafés well, as this one took an age to serve our food, much to our impatience (especially Sam’s).
Then we paddled and paddled until we got to the final optimistic ‘get out’. This one was so unlikely we needed ropes to help haul the boats out.
Jon has a reputation for being good at fixing stuff up. I didn’t realise this also extended to people. He was the only one in the group who had thought to bring lip balm, and by this stage we were all stealing it off him at every opportunity. I am not sure how, but here I seemed to get almost half a stick on my face and was left wondering how I could save a chunk for later 😀
We were all pretty cheerful and the marshals commented on what a good state we were in, which only made us feel even better!
Stage 8: Bike (Bredwardine to Talybont-on-Usk)
After persuading the naturally-conservative Paul that we were going for some more extra bike controls we set off up a steep road hill. From day 1 there had been evidence of the ‘arrow club’. Paul and I were definitely in. Jon was definitely out and Sam hovered on the sidelines. The arrow club applies on road climbs of a certain grade … but if I told you how to get in, it would be breaking the rules.
What followed was another of my favourite parts of the race. First there was good fortune. As we finished the road climb towards a mast, we saw the man with the TV camera. And just at that point, a double rainbow appeared! What luck, and a reward for the rain shower! As we rode past he got a few good shots – and if that doesn’t make the opening credits, nothing will.
A little further on Sam had a mechanical issue which I thought would scupper us. Her front brakes made a terrible noise. Now, Jon the fixer was immediately inspecting it, and he found that her brake pads had worn out. Sam was fuming, as she had asked the bike shop to put new ones in while she was away (she had only been back in the country a few days before the race). We rode on with Sam on back brake only and us shouting out when we slowed for bends. To her credit, she did the rest of this stage and all of the final one with only one brake, and you’d hardly have been able to tell the difference.
Paul took advantage of the pause in proceedings to invent a new bike clothing accessory. A T-shirt was folded and stuffed down his shorts to act as an extra cushion for his bruised derrière. Apparently it worked; at least, he was happy!
We rode over a grassy field that turned into some lovely tracks crossing the border just as the sun was low and golden in the sky. As we got to control number 52, the views were breathtaking. I certainly felt a tear in my eye, I was so happy and taken in by it all. It was magical. Paul and Sam felt similarly. We asked Jon, surely you feel something? He replied “well, I suppose it is quite a nice view” !! So, with three of us on a high, we trundled around collecting all the controls that were still in play for this stage. I wondered if some extra up and down on the roads would have been faster, but we were having fun on the bridleways. We came across a box marked ‘cold drinks, donations to mountain rescue’. Some of us tucked in!
Again we finished in the dark, but came into transition buzzing. James (event director) seemed a bit bemused as we raved on about what an amazing stage it had been.
The end seemed almost in sight now. At least, we could comprehend what we had left: a trek and a bike.
We popped the tent back up but limited ourselves to 40 minutes sleep. None of us wanted to wake up after that, but we did and were soon setting out into the cold night air.
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.
As regular readers of my blog might have noticed, I have been getting ready to do my biggest race of the year; the Itera. This is a 5 day adventure race going from top to bottom of Wales in a team of 4. We’ll be kayaking, “running” (more likely, trekking!), mountain biking and probably a few other exciting things along the way. Maximum total distance is 660km with 18,000m of ascent. There are short course options though, which we’re likely to end up taking one or two of. We are called ‘team tentel’. Tentel are a new start up telecommunications company run by cool people who like adventure racing! They sponsored us to get some matching kit, for which we also got a discount from Outside Edge in Oban.
In the winter, the race seemed a long way away. I found, and wholeheartedly adopted, a great method of taking my mind of what was coming up. This was to enter lots of other races, as I can only concentrate on the next thing coming up and not much further! Some people have asked me if I have done anything different with my training. Well, I changed the type of races I entered (almost no short, fast stuff) and did less interval work and more longer distance things. But I also distracted myself with longer triathlons and the open water swim a couple of weeks ago. If you’re busy thinking ‘when and where can I swim outside again next?’ then you don’t worry so much about ‘how will I last more than 24 hours, let alone 5 days?’.
April and May were good months for mountain biking, when I deliberately entered events such as the Selkirk MTB marathon and three of us got together for an overnight mountain bike / bivvy ride. In the last few months I have panicked slightly about my lack of time spent on foot in the hills. But over June and July I did get out for 5 longer sessions (3 were races!). I don’t normally spend any time kayaking. This isn’t because I don’t like it, but for more practical reasons. Like, where would I keep a kayak? And how would I get it anywhere? I like to tell myself that doing plenty of swimming is good substitute training, as it’s sort of the same arm action … who knows if this is true, but I have a good time all the same! And I have generally done remarkably well on kayak sections in races. All things considered.
My team mates for this race are Paul McGreal, Jon Ellis and Sam Rose. I raced with Paul in a similar event (the Terrex) two years ago. We were still talking to each other at the end of it and he enjoyed himself enough to want to do it again. With a team of two we set about persuading Jon that he really wanted to race with us. I have competed with Jon a couple of times before, but many years ago when we didn’t really know each other. We’ve kept in touch and met up quite a few times since then though. He has loads of expedition event experience and did very well at the Terrex last year with his ‘last minute’ team. When he finally gave in to our pestering, we were three and only needed one more.
Luck would have it that at this point Sam emailed Jon asking if he knew any teams she could join. With a mutual friend’s endorsement (thanks Elizabeth!) we thought she’d be a good match. As soon as we said ‘join us’, she hesitated! Having spent 8 months off work travelling the world, she seemed unsure of her fitness. However, having heard tales such as these, I am feeling confident of her ability and suitability for our team. In fact, she may well be the one waiting for all of us!
“I raced for two days on a broken ankle last time”
“We hunted out Koh Si Chang Island’s only kayak yesterday, which was a 100 year old sit on top and paddled it round the bay for a couple of hours until it sunk”
“I’ve spent the day being kicked to condition my muscles and crawling down steep stone steps head first on hands and feet”
“This week was three days kayaking in the Marlborough sounds and yesterday I biked the queen Charlotte track”
“I’m currently cycling back from Italy to try and get miles in my legs”
Emails are all I’ve had to get to know Sam, as we won’t meet until Friday evening before the race begins. However, this hasn’t been my biggest concern at all! In fact, much more stressful has been trying to organise and coordinate kit requirements, social media and logistics. All made much more difficult by the fact that I lost internet access at a critical time and have been offline for over a week! Many thanks to the various friends who have let me squat at their houses using their facilities (Robert, Hayley, Vicky, Glen). Apart from all that, this week’s training has mostly revolved around getting plenty of sleep and eating good food – kale pizza saved for my last night at home!
I am confident that once we start, I will enjoy it. Before that we have a prologue to do on Saturday (10km run round Cardiff bay, with a white water boating thing in the middle) and much planning and kit re-packing and organising once we get the route maps at registration. Then we will be ‘whisked’ up to Caernarfon on Sunday for an 8am start on Saturday. When I say whisked, I mean we will crawl up north on a 5 hour coach journey with the promise of selected DVDs to entertain us. Hmm!
My dad lives just 20 minutes drive from the start, but won’t be there to wave us off! (he’s away for the weekend). However, it does mean I’m relatively familiar with the area I expect we’ll be in for the first couple of days. We’ve been given an idea of how many stages there are and their length and height gain, but no other clues as to where we’re going. I love to play ‘guess the route’, even if it is only speculation and probably a waste of energy. For me though, it’s part of the fun! I have something in mind for the first 5 ½ stages, but then my knowledge of Wales gets a bit too hazy! One of the pictures in the montage gives you an idea just for the record, but only if I’m right. If I’m wrong, then it’s just a pretty picture. I have made sure to maximise the number of castles en route, so it’s a good one even if it’s not the right one 🙂 .
What seems fairly certain is that we will spend some time paddling round the north coast of Wales, go on a big mountain trek in Snowdonia, paddle again and do a long bike ride across the middle of Wales to get us back down south for some fun on the Brecon Beacons. I might spend half the week saying ‘oh, I’ve been here before’ as we cross and join either the routes from the Trans Wales event I did a few years ago, or my Cardiff-Holyhead Sustrans cycle tour from even further back.
I expect to be providing some blog updates as the race progresses. They won’t be posted here, but on the live race website here. This is also the place where you can track our progress against other teams or leave messages of support. If you’re on facebook you can also like our public team page here. We’re hoping to be able to publish a few updates about how we are. Since we are not allowed access to things like phones, these will come from our supporters interpreting the maps and reading between the blog lines for you, and from my boyfriend, who is working as a volunteer / marshal for the week.
The field for the race is truly international. This is fantastic. It does mean we don’t really have a clue how well we might do. Out of 36 teams I have estimated that top 20 would be an achievement, anything higher a bonus. Before that though, even finishing together still smiling and full of tall tales of derring-do and adventure will make it all worthwhile.
See you all on the other side!
My adventure started on Wednesday evening with The Packing Challenge. Although I was getting a lift down to Wales, I had a 10km ride to my pick up point and I was catching trains later in the week so I couldn’t sprawl too much. Luckily, by Thursday evening after a hectic day at work, I had a wind-assisted cruise along the coast to meet up with Jon and family. My holiday had started!
Our location was Trawsfynydd, in North Wales. Friday afternoon was spent with my dad investigating old viaducts, coach roads, Roman roads and an amphitheatre on a hill. Then it was time to set up camp and commence battle with the midges :-).
The race started on Saturday with an early morning briefing and handout of the maps for the day. First of all we had to get to the start line – a 45 minute cycle away, over that old coach road my dad had showed me!
The first race stage was a 2h run. I have got used to racing with Lucy, but today I was on my own. I set off confidently, found the path shortcut that most people missed and then took a sort of invisible path to find my first checkpoint. It wasn’t there! I wasted too much time bashing around in dense forest. I could hear voices just the other side of some thick undergrowth, but couldn’t fight my way through. Eventually, covered in scratches, I gave up and came out of the trees the way I had come, set off up a fire road and … found the control. It was later confirmed that it had been misplaced.
After that I was more cautious, which slowed me down a bit. The going was tough anyway, with lots of footpaths barely visible on the ground and lots of paths on the ground not on the map. I was careful to use all the clues I could; streams, walls, contours. Things were going OK until near the end, when I crossed a river on an unmapped bridge. I lost more time going the wrong way before I was off again. Running hard now – I had rapidly gone from feeling I had loads of time, to knowing I was likely to be late!
Penalties in this race are harsher than an Open 5. 2 points a minute for 5 minutes, then 5 points a minute for another 5 then it’s straight up to 10 points a minute! I squeezed in just over 5 minutes late = 15 penalties. Not too bad, and some people were caught out much worse.
I was looking forward to biking, though a bit apprehensive about how hard the navigation might be in the woods. We had an hour’s break to eat, drink and plan some sort of route. It went very quickly and soon it was time to go again. I settled down into the 5h stage and was loving riding my bike! My legs were feeling fantastic and I was whizzing up the hills. I was a bit slow with the map, but there was a lot of detail to read.
We had to get back to the campsite to finish, backtracking the way we had come in earlier that morning. I wanted to leave 40 minutes for this. About an hour before the end I got lost in the forest when a bridleway I was happily bouncing down disappeared. I righted myself eventually and was faced with a choice. Go the other side of the main road and pick up at least one control, or head straight back.
I made the wrong choice! And I knew it as I was slogging slowly up another fire road on the other side of the road. When I eventually passed the start area I only had about 30 minutes left. I scoffed a gel and got ready to ride as hard and as fast as I could. The last haul into the campsite was into a headwind and not entirely flat. My legs were on fire and I skidded into the finish over 13 minutes late. Darn! 75 penalties!
Next up was the 1.5h night stage on foot, though we had to wait for it to get dark. I got some route tips from Lucy, who was marshalling as she injured her ankle last week. All that was for nothing though, as I made an elementary mistake at the start. We had to run up a footpath flanked with ‘out of bounds’ areas. I didn’t think in advance how to spot when I came out of that into the open land. I was following other people and not keeping an eye on the map. When they all went through a gap in a wall, I blindly followed.
Although it was soon clear we had gone wrong, I couldn’t work out where exactly I was on the map. It was dark, there were lights everywhere, the midges were biting and I panicked a bit. I backtracked and found team FGS who assuredly said they were on the footpath as they zoomed past. I managed to relocate and from then on doggedly did my own thing, actually used my powerful light and did a little safe loop without futher incident.
Although that went well, I had lost a lot of time and second placed female, Sharon McDonald, was catching up fast! Time for a short sleep and ready for the next day.
We had a 1.5h kayak to start with. I haven’t been in a sit on top by myself before, and it was quite hard work! After the first two controls, I had a good idea how fast I was going, and it wasn’t quick enough to go all the way round the lake. I cut across and had another mini panic when I couldn’t work out what the lump of land in front of me was. I had mis-aimed slightly, but once that was sorted I was on my way again.
There were two solo females in front of me and I was trying to catch them up. I also got a little spurt of energy when two teams passed me – first Mountain Hardwear whooping at me to go faster, then FGS suggesting I get in their slipstream. (I tried and failed!). Rounding a point it was all out for the finish. I actually went faster than expected, came back early for the first time all race, and got a really good score compared to the other solos.
Just like last year, I had come into my own on the kayak leg, which just isn’t right, considering I never normally go kayaking!
Final effort was the 17km trail run. I was really looking forward to this. Not much navigating to mess up, no strategy, just go as fast as possible to the end. It would be a good test of my improved running fitness. I started off in a little group with Sharon, the FGS team and a male pair. We kept changing the lead as we worked our way to the top. Despite slipping in bogs I felt good, except when I went over on my ankle. Ow! But the pain was short lived. Phew.
Going downhill another couple of teams came streaking past. When we got to a long road section, myself and Sharon stopped duelling and ran along chatting instead. We steadily made ground on the teams that had overtaken and were all back together again as we turned off road.
As we splashed through a stream some of the others stopped to wet their heads and necks. I thought, nah, why waste time doing that, I’m keeping going … About 5 minutes later I started to feel very bad. I felt sick. Then I started shivering. Hmmm, since it was about 30 degrees C and we were in direct sun, that wasn’t right! I slowed down and Sharon stopped to ask if I was OK. I wasn’t really. She tried to get me to stop, or sit in the shade, or take a tow off her, but I was being stubborn. I wanted to finish, and finish quickly! We had 3km to go.
I tried drinking more and it might have helped a little. Sharon gave up arguing with me and ran on ahead to send the medic. I had had a chance to dip in a couple of streams by the time he met me though, and the route had become a little shadier. I had a tiny revival and made it to the finish line, where I collapsed. For the first time ever, I was sent into the lake on medical grounds suffering from heatstroke! Some time later I seemed to have cooled off to something approaching normal temperature and got out to have a picnic lunch with my dad.
I had kept onto my lead in the female solos (results here), but must say a massive thank you to Sharon who looked after me instead of racing away on the final stage. It was a morale boost to have her with me and if things had got worse I’d have needed help.
Overall, the weekend proved that I am fit and fast, but out of practice with strategy and racing solo! That’s what triathlon training does for you.
Many thanks to all the people who helped transport me to and from the tricky-to-get-to race location. Jon, Andrea, dad, Stu, Ian, my brother – epic logistics!! Also to Open Adventure for a great weekend’s racing with plenty of time to catch up with friends in between stages.