UTS (Ultra Trail Snowdonia) 2020 was postponed, hung in the balance, reduced in size and, with a week to go, cancelled. I was gutted, but almost certainly less so than the race director who had done everything he could to salvage something for the race this year.
I was all trained, tapered and ready to go. My dad was expecting me and it wasn’t breaking any rules, so I went anyway. My plan was to split the 100km route into two days so that I would neither miss two nights of sleep nor trash my body to quite the same extent. I was fortunate in that my Itera-teammate Chloe was on hand to help with road support and to join me on a couple of legs.
The route is a figure of 8, crossing over at Pen Y Pass, so I started there instead of the real start in Capel Curig, and set off on the slightly longer and lesser known (to me) part of the route at about 7:30 after a nights’ sleep that resembled a pre-race one. There was immediate faffing with shoelaces, taking photos of the already incredible views and going slightly off route. The ‘red spot’ path was easy to lose! Eventually I was on track and summited Glyder Fawr alone before descending the scree slope to Y Garn, having a natter with a very chatty lady and heading to a much busier Ogwen.
The day was hot and I was pouring in sweat as I went up to the gap near Tryfan and I knew I was way off schedule already. I still had to stop and admire the goats showing off though. I managed a trot down the other side and I felt like a celebrity as I found Chloe waiting with the chair out, dry robe ready to keep me warm, water, snack replenishment and a sandwich all ready to go! After a rapid turnaround we set off together up Pen yr Ole Wen.
I was grateful someone else was finding the way and knew where we were going as this bit was largely new to me. The views coming across the ridge to Pen yr Helgi Du were amazing, and to top it off we found a group of wild Carneddau ponies as we descended. They were totally unconcerned by our presence. At the bottom I was pleased to see that leg had been done to target time, waved goodbye to Chloe and set off on what ought to be an easy loop with little climbing.
A few minutes in and I found my Camelbak was empty and I had only a 500ml bottle of water. Hmm. The sun bore down and my motivation flagged. The Llyn Cowlyd Reservoir was beautiful but the path was rocky and I was thirsty! I was missing Chloe’s company and feeling sluggish. I refilled a bottle at a stream that was ‘probably OK’ and again at a flowing bit in a bog that was ‘bit brown, but probably OK’ and again at a fast clear river that ‘looked clean but was low down, probably OK’.
The run through the forest was awesome and I remembered someone saying how good this part would be at the end of the race. Unfortunately, just as I reached what looked like civilisation, I was faced with another hill! Torture! This whole section was a mental test that took significantly longer than planned and after analysis, was still an outlier compared to other sections. I feel I need to come back and check it wasn’t just due to terrain but also to some element of heat exhaustion / dehydration.
Eventually I jogged into Capel Curig where Chloe and a food bag of rehydrated Vegetable Chipotle Chilli with Rice were waiting for me 🙂 I charged up my watch a bit, got my lights sorted, ate and gathered myself for Moel Siabod. Chloe was despatched to the YHA to see if she could check me in and to confirm what latest arrival time would be. I was confident of the next part having done a lot of it before. My tummy was warm and I felt good again as darkness fell and it got cooler. Although I wouldn’t make it back to the YHA by 10, I thought surely I would make it to the last road crossing in plenty of time for Chloe to pick me up and shuttle me there if needed.
I hiked up Moel Siabod at speed. As the light faded, the stars and a thin crescent moon lit the way. I delayed putting my torch on and was just getting used to being out in the dusk. At that moment I put my foot firmly on what I thought was a nice solid white stone in the bog. Like something out of a horror movie, it sunk into a decomposing dead sheep and I screamed 😮 Balance restored, light on, I made it to the top and texted Chloe. She said hostel open until 11 but I was not checked in – should she see me there or the road? An extra hour should be plenty, but I said road ‘just in case’.
It was tricky to find the right direction off the top and I was getting cold from standing around. Soon enough though I was flying down a lovely grassy ridge path. This was amazing running! I would be there in no time. Shortly after, I got to a tighter part of the ridge and the path had disappeared. I was working my way along when a shape loomed out of the dark. I swore and then realised it was someone in army gear, followed by two more, creeping about in the dark with no lights. ‘’I didn’t expect to see anyone up here” I said … and got no reply. Had I just blown their cover?! Maybe the mouse I’d seen earlier had been just as shocked by my own presence.
The next section was interminable as I picked my way down rocky outcrops interspersed with boggy bits. The distance was more than I expected, the whole thing was taking forever and there was no phone signal. I had to deploy mental energy to keep moving in the right direction and not panic as time slipped through my fingers. Eventually I got to a bridleway that I knew, but it was harder to run down than I remembered or imagined! I finally got to the road to find Chloe at about 2240 … wow. She’d been worried, but thankfully had spotted my light bobbing down the hill some time earlier. We flew up to the YHA, checked in, filled a dehydrated dinner and dessert bag with hot water and I was left in my room.
I sat on the floor, peeling off clothes interspersed with forcing down mouthfuls of dinner. I didn’t really feel like it, but thought it was important to eat. Due to being covered in suncream and salt I decided to also shower and dry myself on a spare buff. Good move. Into bed just after midnight and I couldn’t sleep as my tummy staged a revolt … still not sure if this was a result of dinner, dodgy water or just over exertion!
After a few hours kip I forced myself out of bed and ordered a breakfast roll. It was a bit dry, but needed and washed down with a cup of tea. I stepped out of the door 15 minutes later than planned and immediately decided to put a waterproof on after all.
First ascent was Y Lliwedd – I have done this the other way a couple of times in recent years. Going up was OK and just needed confidence in scrambling up when the path temporarily disappeared. Along the ridge I think it was easier route finding in this direction, but the wind was blowing and the rain was persistent. It might have helped that the fog hid some of the worst drop offs as it was harder to see what was coming up and how high up I was! I made it off and texted Chloe and some friends who’d been enquiring after day 1 (no reception at the hostel!).
Again, stopping made me get cold very quickly so I set off doing something that might even have resembled running and was soon passing lots of little groups heading upwards looking warm and toasty in short sleeves … Eventually I was taking off a layer as well, as I ran through Nant Gwynant and on to the path round Llyn Dinas. This was one of the longest running sections so far! I was greeted by the crazy dogs, Chloe and dad at the end of the Llyn with unexpected snacks and encouragement. I also put in an order for coke and crisps at the next stop!
Up a small hill and down through old copper workings, the landscape here was quite different and interesting. I was warned about slippery rocks by a chap who we’d talked to at Capel Curig the previous day but had completely forgotten me! Dad met me coming up for a quick wave and Chloe also came out and ran along the fisherman’s path into Beddgelert. The soles of my feet were getting sore by now and my running was distinctly slow.
After a refuel we headed up the steep and wild slopes of Moel Hebog, with Chloe coming along and the dogs tugging at their leads and getting impatient. At the next bwlch they diverted back to warm up and I carried on alone, not seeing anyone else on the hills all the way to the finish. This was also a section I had done the other way a couple of times and I think was also slightly easier this way. However, despite having upgraded to a heavier weight waterproof I was getting distinctly chilly and eventually decided to put on my spare baselayer. Very unusual for me! It made an instant difference though and I was glad of it as I slowed right down going over the ridge of Mynydd Drws-y-coed. I slid a lot of this on my bum as the rocks were very slippery and I wanted to stay alive…
I could see my dad and Chloe parked up far below, and was feeling significantly better than I had at the start of this leg, including my feet. I bounced down the hill and was met with more crisps and an apple. My dad wanted me to call it day and finish the last bit the next day, but I knew I would definitely not want to start again then and I also wanted to complete the challenge now!
I sensed he was worried, but I was determined to push on. There was a bit of extra pressure as he would now be picking me up from the finish and didn’t want to be out driving too late. I went clipping up the Rhyd Ddu path on Snowdon with confidence, munching on my new supplies and arranging some on-the-go watch charging. As darkness fell and I ascended, I remembered with dismay that fog and headtorches do not mix. Hm, what to do? I carried on for a while, searching out the worn rocks of the path and moving ever upwards. However, I was soon tripping over stuff and still had a way to go. I had to solve this problem.
I fished out my backup torch and held it low at arm’s length. If the angle was right, this gave me 2-3m of usable light, which was a significant improvement. I managed to wedge it in my belt and felt like I had some sort of groin laser, twisting my hips from side to side to scan for the path as needed! There is a short ridge section near the top, where again I had to always remind myself that this was a very popular path and the ‘right’ way would also be smooth worn rock with no grass.
There was no queue for the summit of Snowdon 😉 , so I popped to the top and then started my way down. Texting my dad before losing signal again I gave a shortest and longest estimated time and then paid attention to finding the turn-off.
The route down was on the Pyg track which I have not done recently, but again is a well-used route. I expected this to be easy to follow … but on sections where natural rock outcropped it was easy to lose the path. I could be just 1 or 2 metres from it and not able to see it. I started paying close attention to staying on the worn rock again, sweeping a few metres either side when I strayed from the path. I felt panic rising as I stood on a particularly large slab having no idea where the path had gone to. The added pressure of getting down within the time bounds I had set when people would start worrying did not help. It was moments like these I had to push down the negative emotions and find clear thought and logic to get back on route and not wander off down a boulder field.
Soon enough the stretches of clear path got longer and then I could see the youth hostel and carpark lights. Unfortunately they were a very long way off and the distance didn’t seem to be narrowing at any speed! This descent was not as breezy as I might have anticipated, but I made it back to the car with 4 mins to spare to my latest arrival time ..phew!
Back home my feet screamed in pleasure as I took my shoes and socks off. I downed a milkshake and fell into bed, where my feet felt like they were on fire whilst my top half shivered! My tummy was fine though…
Despite missing a short section on day 1 I had covered over 100km and 7000m of ascent over some tricky terrain, so I eventually fell asleep tired and satisfied 🙂
I was super pleased with how my body held up – a couple of bruised nails and small blisters plus tired legs for a few days, but little else. I could even go down stairs normally and was not ravenous. I had protected my feet better than when I did a different version of the race two years ago. Significantly, I also ate better, taking advice from the training camp last year to heart! More than once I heard the voice saying ‘you might not want to eat, but can you?’. This was one area I had been able to practice a lot and I was so pleased it paid off. It also seemed what I’d managed to do was adequate for the legs, even if I had not been able to go to the mountains.
I’ve not really raced all year apart from a few virtual club events and have travelled a lot less (i.e. not at all), obviously! It’s been interesting having such an unbroken length of consistent training with no races and thinking about the effect that might have had on both how prepared I was and how much stress my body has been under.
I also learnt plenty for the race – not least that I need to go a lot faster on some of the early race sections if I will make cut offs. Course familiarity, marking and race day adrenaline will help with that but I have earmarked a couple of sections for repeat practice, should I be able to. This should also help my feet get more used to rocky running – the Pentlands are covered in too much grassy heathland!
Can’t quite decide whether I preferred the sun (views, dry rocks, dehydration) or the rain, fog and wind (not too hot, feels more wild, can’t see a thing).
Many thanks to Chloe for all her support with food, water, company, photos and lifts, to my dad for support and lifts and Paul for helping with the maps.
Michael the RD has designed a tough technical course, with awesome views on the right day and plenty of challenges both physical and mental. Fingers and toes crossed we can go ahead for real next June!
Well, I am extremely out of the race reporting habit, despite managing a few races like Malta swimrun, Marmot dark mountains and some local trail events! Maybe I will come back to them, but I didn’t want to miss a write up of this year’s Open 5, not least because it is one I have been looking forward to for some time … more on that later!
This event was relatively close to my mum’s house, so I went down to stay with her. Lucy was otherwise indisposed and despite asking a couple of people, I ended up racing solo. I actually put a bit more effort into preparation than of late, checking maps from previous races in the same area and making sure I wasn’t about to make the same mistakes as 2018…
The weather was somewhat ‘wild’, and we drove through some big puddles to get there. A bit of rain and wind doesn’t phase me though, and I have raced in worse! After some careful map study, I had a plan and set off.
This race was unusual in that we had to bike/run/bike because the run was at a remote transition far from the centre. Pre race emails said it was about 20 minutes direct there. I was dubious since even Google suggested it would take the best part of 50 minutes. I thought I would ‘play it safe’ by going round the road at the bottom anyway, picking up a couple of out and back controls on the way.
After the first one I took a shortcut back to re-join the road, which was already a mistake as it was slow going, muddy and full of gates. Then I hit the river … well it was a river where the road should be. I walked a bit with my bike on my back, then rode a bit … and decided any more controls were out of the question. 1h25 minutes later I got to transition. I wished I had gone over the top – off road and uphill but probably more ride-able, given the circumstances!
Hey hum, the run would be better. But it took me a while to distinguish the first footpath from the river. And then I ‘ran’ along in quite deep water for a bit. Eventually I emerged onto a road and headed to a control in Goredale Scar. I found a couple of guys looking everywhere for the control. I was slightly adventurous peering over some rocks and found it, but wasn’t about to risk getting it – until a chap called Adam bounded in and leapt straight over 😮 So I decided to follow – but with a helping hand!
That was very adventurous. I was running well and was soon looping back to transition. I made a mistake missing the giant cliff I had to go round at Malham Cove, which was my first run mistake. Then I wasted the best part of 10 minutes trying to cross the river to get onto a path to another 20 pointer – I gave up in the end and missed it out. Another time when being in a pair might have been helpful …
Then the last control wasn’t where I expected . Along with group of other people we wandered back and forth over the bridge, bewildered. It had been moved from an island to a tree; we were told that at transition, but where was it? By luck, I found it just down the road, but I think it was not quite where the map suggested (on a permissive path rather than the public footpath).
Argh so much time had slipped through my fingers at the end. Back on the bike and I had another plan, doing a loop round on the hill with wind at my back.
So again, I tried to make conservative decisions, I really did. (Can you see where this is going yet?). I missed one out and back and then a second. As I did this I said to someone passing – I haven’t got time for that … I got a funny look as he stopped to peer at the map. Later I realised that was the way I should have been going…
I was looking forward to going downhill with a tailwind all the way home.
Unfortunately I turned out there was also some uphill (details, details) and some slightly tricky navigation that had me doubting my course. The descent down Threshfield Moor was a delight, interrupted only by the occasional drainage channel.
As I popped out onto the road something nasty happened with my back brake and I was already out of time. And now I had 5km into a headwind. EEK. A male pair overtook and I slipped in behind, clinging on for dear life. I was still over 22 minutes late. That might be a record for me…
So, my tactics were all wrong again, I wished I had done the off road hill option at the start and the shortcut at the end, although I did not regret getting some fun mountain biking in. With so many penalty points I was only good enough for 3rd.
However for me, the main event this weekend was my 20,000 CAREER POINTS! I’ve been working towards this for ages, just scraping over last year earning my 20,001th point. I join only three others who have racked up this many, and had my ‘first ever Open 5’ map at the ready – though it was actually an Open 5+ involving a swim to a control and some ghyll scrambling. Wait, not so different after all 😉
Many thanks to James and all of his team at Open Adventure for all the fabulous events over the years. I have been to so many different places, had a whole heap of adventures and made new friends. I still miss my winter monthly dose and the opportunity to do something better ‘next time’ – a year is too long! 😀 Until next time!
24.7km trek / 8h55 / finish time 15:55 Thursday
A bit of a false start to this stage as we set off down the road the wrong way – transition wasn’t marked on the map in quite the right place!! That’s our story anyway, and we’re sticking to it.
We finally set off up the right path, with me still munching my breakfast and Chloe managing a lot of ankle pain. At transition we had been given information that teams were taking 3h to get to the rafting from the start of the kayak. Andrea and Jon had calculated that if we could just motor this trek, taking opportunities to jog the flats and downhills, we had a chance of making it after all.
We got into a rhythm, being smoother and helping each other with snacks and drinks and kit adjustments to minimise stopping time. Although this was the stage we had targeted for doing the long course over the Five Sisters of Kintail, we were again short course, but the route here did not lack spectacular views. The path was easy going and we made good time.
As we had to head off-piste it got harder, but I was on fire. I powered up past the waterfall with Andrea and was springing ahead on the downhill to find the best path for Chloe and Jon, whose ankle was also now sore. I thought we might make the rafting after all, and expected the second half to be easier.
As we crossed the road past the Cluanie Inn it felt we passed into a different stage. Andrea and Chloe were able to speed walk whilst Jon lagged behind and me somewhere in between. I tried everything I thought I could to get us back together and moving at a better pace. Near the first ‘top’ Chloe needed to stop and change her socks before she got blisters from the accumulating grit inside. She wanted us to go ahead and she would catch us, but we refused.
I was hopping about on the inside, worrying about the time and sensing it just slipping through our fingers. But I did not want to snap or stress anyone out. Andrea took some of Jon’s kit and we got moving again. But now we had to either go the long way up a bit more hill and further on a path, or cut across.
We followed a team taking the direct line, through peat hags and rough ground, down to a river that proved too deep to wade. As we walked along a bit we were about to decide to stuff it and swim, when the other team found a spot to wade only up to mid thigh level 🙂
The path when we re-joined it was good. The weather had turned glorious. I wanted to run down the other side but could not cajole this out of everyone. As we got to the road, we walked when we needed to run. Chloe’s partner appeared on his motorbike to say hello. It was emotional for her.
It was just before 16:00. The guy in transition told us people were making it to the rafting from kayak put-in in about 3.5h and we might just do it. We got out fairly quickly, though not as fast as the team that arrived with us. We walked down to the river when we perhaps could have jogged. We faffed about getting in and setting off.
2.8km total portage / 1h35
6.2km walk / 2h15
26.5km total kayak / 5h / finish 04:20 Friday
Although we were going down a river now, this part wasn’t straightforward either. There were some mini rapids – we nearly came out on the first set but got a lot better at coordinating and steering through the second! Unfortunately there was some more portage where Andrea and I were working our hardest to get through whilst the tendons in my wrist complained loudly and Jon and Chloe struggled.
Back on the water I was asking Andrea “where is the urgency in the other boat?”. She had no answer. We decided to offer a tow, but it was refused; ‘we are keeping up fine’. On the roller coaster of emotions I was now dejected as I knew we would not make it, our speed was just not there. We soft paddled and kept together as we made our way along Loch Garry, with Chloe and Jon falling asleep and hitting each other with their paddles.
As we neared the end of the loch everyone was hallucinating as it got gloomy. The trees formed strange animals and carvings and it was hard to keep our eyes open. I’m not sure we had warned Chloe enough about this!!
Jon suddenly came alive saying we might just make it, but we couldn’t. We arrived at 20:26 – 26 minutes too late.
Later, on the way home, I spoke to Chloe about this. It turned out she wasn’t aware of the urgency – she thought we were home and dry and there was no rush. She also believed they were keeping up, not realising we were waiting. Clearly something had gone wrong with communications and I went over this a thousand times after the race. I take responsibility for not getting us there in time. You could lose 26 minutes anywhere – the nav error on the bike for one. But I also felt I should have understood what was happening better and either found a way to keep everyone motivated and focused or established a shared agreement to give up on it. Learn and move on!
Missing the rafting prompted a slight hypothermic meltdown in Chloe. This was caused by a combination of being wet, tired, not moving, the disappointment of missing the rafting and then being told we had to walk 5km and wait until 90 minutes were up before we could continue. It was all too much and she ended up inside the bivvy bag with Jon, putting on every item of dry clothing she had. Whilst Jon and Andrea looked after Chloe, I shivered and got the kayaks ready for transport. Thanks to the marshals here for helping, and the team who provided some hot water.
Finally we set off, trudging into the dark in search of food in Invergarry. Unfortunately, Invergarry is not a hot bed of food options and by the time we arrived just after 22:00 and stumbled into the pub, we were greeted by a barman who declared he could give us tea and crisps, but he was shutting up in 20 minutes just in case we thought we might fall asleep in the corner. A team arriving after us were given equally short thrift as they had takeaway teas shoved in their hands and were told to leave.
We made the most of what we had, then decided we had to sleep. As luck would have it, we found a road bridge over the path where it was dry with a smoothish surface. We got into pairs into two bivvy bags, set the alarms for 20 minutes (or not) and went to sleep.
As I spooned Chloe I was violently shaking with cold. I was still in my shorty wetsuit, still damp. I became aware of Jon and Andrea talking about it being time to get up. This was just about my worst moment of the race. I really had no notion of whether I was asleep or awake, and kept looking at my watch, unable to decipher what it was telling me. I got my bag back together and trailed behind in a daze as we made our way back to the water.
It turned out later that Andrea’s watch had misted up so she couldn’t see it properly setting the alarm, and I had managed to set the timer for 20h instead of 20 minutes 😮 . We had slept for an hour and a half.
The rest of the kayak was an uneventful paddle down to and along the Caledonian Canal. Chloe taught us some crazy round involving fish and chips and vinegar, dustbins and bottles of beer, which we executed very badly. After a couple of ‘easy’ exits and portage round the locks, we arrived in Fort Augustus and gladly abandoned the kayaks for the last time!
In transition we had a nice corner spot. I found my second of three ticks of the race attached near my eye … and we assembled our bikes ready to go. It was late in the race and despite any rules, people seemed to be sleeping where they fell on the paths outside the door.
Episode 4 – Official Film
61.7km / biking / 6h25 / finish 13:50 Thursday
Despite faffing with lights, the darkness had lifted by the time we got away. This stage was actually the best mountain biking we had done all race and one of my favourite legs.
I was keeping an eye on navigation in the woods as we followed the ‘Great Glen Way’. At some point we ended up on the high walker’s route, which added a climb and some technicality. On a normal day it would be my preferred option, but I’m not sure it was what we needed at that moment!
I think at this point we were all a bit tired and fractious and were not riding harmoniously. We stopped for 30 minutes of kip somewhere, and again for our first café 30km from the end. The wasps were out in force and we did not hang around, thanks to some speedy service.
The final descent was one to savour, swooping down from high ground it went on and on and was a delight to ride. It landed us in the centre of Inverness, where we negotiated the crowds through the final few hundred metres on a section we had checked out before we left. I’m glad we did as we could weave our way directly to the finish line.
We were greeted by race directors with medals and miniature whisky from Glenmorangie. Jonny was there to do some facebook live videos and make sure we got some pictures! We all made our way over to eat pizza and relax over a meal for the first time in five days…
Episode 5 – Official Film
On reflection, this race was not as straightforward ‘fun’ as the one I did in Wales. The rafting deadline loomed large all race and we were under pressure to make the short course, with no room to correct for any miscalculations. It was so disappointing to miss it anyway after all that focus! To play to my own strengths and favoured sports I’d have loved more mountain biking and less portaging 😉
Team dynamics were also very different, with somewhat more conflict and less cohesion. However, racing with that little sleep under such difficult conditions isn’t exactly conducive to harmonious socialising. Everyone laboured under different hardships ranging from sore throats, diarrhoea all race (!), swollen ankles, blistered mouths and feet and who knows what else.
Having said all that, we resolved any issues and made it to the finish line together. We did really well, finishing 12th overall thanks in large part to our early strategic decisions. I learnt a lot and we achieved a lot, though it is still hard to take it all in! Some of the places on the trek stages were incredible and it is amazing to think how crazy some of the race was and what we went through with those kayaks. An unforgettable experience!
For my own part I was delighted to escape with ‘normal’ 5 day race swelling, a single blister and sore tendons in one wrist. All subsided quickly. Worse, was picking up a probable flu virus a week after finishing, which I still haven’t been able to completely shake! The race reminded me how much I do like adventure racing after several years of swimrun focus. Maybe I should look for another one to do … 😉
Many thanks to John Ovenden and support from Lochland Runner, to our live social media updaters Andy and Jonny, everyone who sent us motivational trail mail, the race organisers under Open Adventure banner James, Tom and Paul plus a special one from me to my physio Graham who over the last 10 months somehow helped me rehab my hamstring tendon sufficiently to take part with no pain.
Finally, thanks to my teammates Jon, Andrea and Chloe for being up for going on such an epic journey!
If you like numbers, this is how our race shaped up in totals – distances, times – yes, there is a spreadsheet! You can see our route here, just select our team on the right.
13km trek / 8h45
26km trek / 10h36 / finish stage 16:50 Wednesday
And so we set off up our first big mountain. Everyone was tackling An Teallach. I haven’t been there before, but it turns out it is big, scrambly and has vertiginously steep sides! We were keen to make the most of remaining daylight. As we ascended it got windier and colder. Soon I was wearing all of my clothes save one emergency thermal jacket, including my waterproof trousers. I also had my first ‘moment’ as I felt woozy and incapable of climbing a mountain. This time handing over some kit to packhorse Andrea and taking a couple of gels worked wonders.
It got dark and then Chloe had her ‘moment’, finding the exposure bringing back some difficult memories. We pulled together and made slow but steady progress until we were onto the boulder field, clambering down to the track to the bothy everyone had spotted on the map earlier. We hadn’t slept for about 45h by this point and tempers frayed a bit as we all badly needed some rest. I was worried we would find the place full, but there was only one way to find out.
It was indeed busy, but we found space on the wooden floor and crashed out for 2h, with Chloe opting to brave any midges in the more spacious outside quarters 😀 .
Up we got and we decided to go for at least one of the long course controls. It wasn’t significant extra distance, though it was significant extra climb. It was also intriguingly named ‘tennis court’ and I am a sucker for funny place names.
We were all somewhat muted to start. I was slow as we ascended and also stopped to put protective gaffer tape on hot spots developing on my feet. I wasn’t up for blisters like those I experienced during UTS… There was some ‘debate’ about which way to get to the top, slightly confused by some hints we got at a briefing. In the end, Andrea took off up a gully, with Jon chasing after to check it out and Chloe and I gingerly bringing up the rear. I was afraid of scree or scrambling at the top, and as it was we were holding onto grass as we climbed. Not the most secure, but it was OK in the end.
As you will see later, going for this control was possibly a strategic mistake in terms of race position. However, it was also one of the most memorable and amazing parts of the course that we did – so this time I am happy that we got to experience this regardless. The ridge walk was incredible, and the ‘tennis court’ itself looked like someone had just come and sliced the top off the mountain.
On the descent I came alive a bit and even ran. Or maybe jogged. Further down the views of the river cutting through Gleann Bianasdail creating swirling rock formations with waterfalls and pools looked very inviting. I’d like to go back to that and explore. The beauty was only marred as my ‘usual blister’ underneath my little toe burst causing every step to be agony for a while.
After negotiating ‘paths not on the map’ and a slightly sarcastic comment to another team about my ability to identify a graveyard (sorry), we finally arrived in Kinlochewe.
This was the first time we had access to our tent at a vaguely sensible time for sleeping, and we had to put it up and stay in it for 20 minutes anyway. We got ourselves ready for the next stage then all clambered in for a couple of hours kip. I wondered if we should have more, or less? But it was too complicated to think. As the rain hammered on the roof, and a French team swore at the midges outside, we drifted off. Not the best sleep, but we needed it.
Episode 2 – Official Film
69.3km / biking / 7h40 / finish 05:10 Thursday
We set off just after 21:30 in the dark. It was now obligatory for us to short course this stage. Before we started we had hoped to do more than this here, sketching out a couple of different options. But course changes and our slow speed meant it wouldn’t have been sensible anyway.
After leaving all the map reading to Chloe and Jon on the foot stage, it was my turn again. I confidently took the first turning, with Andrea stopping to check the map. As we waited for her to catch back up she appeared, a bit shaken from a fall as she had tried to adjust her lights. We were all tired.
Peering at the map, I had in mind ‘just follow the double track alongside the loch for about 5km’. I was trying to prove myself by navigating swiftly and keep us moving. Mistake. We passed a junction and hesitated. ‘It says cycle trails this way’ someone said … and I pushed on as that was just a footpath and we wanted the track, right? We were going up and up in a forest and it didn’t feel right. But I stubbornly carried on, not wanting to faff about. As the distance came up, we emerged from the forest. I looked properly at the map and immediately realised my error. We should have taken the path ARGH.
Jon went to investigate a possible joining path and we dithered, eventually turning back on ourselves. I thought it would be quicker just to descend at high speed to the junction, but the team were lagging behind. My adrenaline and drive to fix this was not matched! As I agitated I was annoyed with myself – not a mistake I’d have made in the daylight, and quite costly, maybe half an hour.
It was slow going along the path and I was now doubting myself about where to look for the right turn. Then there came a horrible noise from my bike. Clank! Clank! I stopped, turned the pedals. Clank! Clank! I spun the wheel without the pedals. Clank! Clank! It seemed to come from my bottom bracket but the wheel was the only bit turning. Chloe and Jon came to help – concluding it must be a disaster with my hub. Then we suddenly spotted an extremely large nail embedded in my tyre and hitting the chainstay on every revolution …
We got it out, and Chloe put her thumb on the hissing hole. By the time Jon produced a magic bung gun it had sealed, but we whopped it in anyway. With much relief we were on our way.
Nav was tricky and now I was very careful. There were many paths not marked on the map but once we got onto the Coulin Pass it was straightforward and easy going. I had run this in the opposite direction many years ago on Celtman! But remembered little!
At some point it started raining. And then it was like riding under a shower head. We were on a road by now, and my new coat did an admirable job of keeping me dry, but it was still a bit epic. Near Strathcarron we happened upon a pub with umbrellas outside. We stopped to get extra layers on, but the lady who ran it waved us inside. She had already closed and hadn’t heard about the race before a team stopped to talk to her, but was encouraging us all to make use of the toilets and the back room to warm up and change. What a lovely lady!
Shortly, we were back ascending on a fire road before going over a high point on a rough track. I was feeling optimistic because it was all downhill back to a road from here, and despite being rocky and muddy it was mostly rideable. We went in pairs; Jon and I going ahead a bit, then watching the lights of Chloe and Andrea catching us before we set off again.
The riding came to an abrupt end however, as the path got narrower and harder going. We were forced to walk again, tripping and stumbling as we pushed our bikes on through the dark.
We had made a calculation of how much time we needed from the end of the next trek to get to the rafting on time. We thought a generous 5-6h, and by calculating backwards as we stood on that dark wet hillside, I knew we needed to be starting the next trek right about now…
When we emerged on the road all somewhat the worse for wear, we felt the need for a team hug before we could get moving again. About 10 seconds later Chloe’s light went flat (she was having a nightmare with batteries all race!) but we swapped things around to get us all legal and going again.
More road, pausing at Eilean Donan castle and quickly locating the control by looking closely at the map and reading the description instead of heading straight to the castle (we had seen a team searching there for a long time…)
Next transition was difficult. It was now light, but raining, and we weren’t allowed indoors with our kit bags. We dismantled the bikes outside first. I found a seat clamp on the floor and asked the team if it was one of ours. “No!” said everyone. I wasn’t so sure. Jon and I checked – it fitted Chloe’s bike perfectly, it was next to her box … we quietly put it back on and headed indoors.
Teams were getting crotchety with each other as bags were moved and they rummaged around in them. I had to go back and forth for things I forgot first time, and despite instructions I am sure some people were using the showers in the toilets as I queued for an age just to relieve myself.
Before long though, we were ready to set off again on foot for the final trek.
Episode 3 – official film
It has taken me a while to start this report – to let the race sink in and to get over the dreaded lurgy sufficiently to have energy to write!
We were number 26, Team Lochland Runner – Andrea, Chloe, Jon and myself. We started the week well by managing to arrive in Inverness only 5 minutes apart. I had come up with Chloe and we had chatted the whole way, making wild guesses about what the course might hold in store.
The weekend was spent registering, getting maps, going to briefings, planning, sorting out kit and most importantly – eating! Pizza! Tensions did rise a bit as we fully grasped the scale of the kayaking element relative to everything else (though we had been warned) and there was a bit of drama when all our buoyancy aids failed the ‘test’. Luckily, we were 4 of many and plans were put in place to hire some out to us.
As we pored over the maps and route book a couple of key things became apparent. There were time cut offs for both a canyoning stage on Tuesday afternoon and a rafting stage at 8pm on Thursday. Both carried significant time penalties and we wanted to make them both. The rest of the race was planned around this, using the information given about likely leg times and our own experience to estimate what we thought we could do. Our plan was always to short course, but we did hope to do some of the long course options such as extra biking near Applecross and the Five Sisters trek.
After an early alarm on Monday morning, we all found ourselves on coaches heading for Dunrobin castle. It was a slightly midgey and cool wait with some confusion over the actual start time. Oh, just me? OK then!!
Episode 0 – official film
Run and kayak stage:
5.1km run / 35 minutes / finish 09:05 Monday
19.4km paddle / 3h25 / finish 12:45 Monday
The 5km run through beautiful woods and a gorge got us nicely warmed up before we jumped in the kayaks for our first taste of the sea – this time on the east coast. We were headed for Glenmorangie Distillery. The journey was fairly uneventful, apart from our first experiences with the right-veering kayaks. I developed some sort of combination of right sweep strokes and missing left strokes to keep us vaguely on course.
77.7km / 4h35 / finish 18:10 Monday
We had decided right from the beginning to do all of this leg short course. The only temptation to go longer was the fact that this would mean we were riding on roads most of the way to the next transition. Pleasant, quiet, low traffic roads; but tarmac all the same. Our rationale was that we needed time in hand to get through the next kayak stage and make it to the canyoning before the cut off.
We shot off like hares, and Chloe had to get us back on track at a more sensible pace.
Transition was a bit chaotic as we had arrived earlier than expected and the marshals hadn’t quite got a system sorted. We had beaten the first long course team in, but they were gone before you could say ‘that was fast’. As it was, I got a shock to the system as Andrea whipped us all into transition shape and we were in and out a lot faster than I had experienced in similar races. She’s raced with some top teams though, and deemed us too slow! We had a lot of information to take in before we could leave, with course changes to the kayaking adding in more distance and extra portage in order to keep us nearer the mainland in forecast strong winds.
18km total portage / 9h
46.1km total kayak / 11h10 / finish 15:55 Tuesday
We paddled off on a loch heading west into a glorious sunset. The scenery was magnificent. Although adventure racing novice Chloe was pondering whether she liked ‘AR’ yet due to the lack of adventurous biking so far, she did have to admit that as we stopped for the first portage in the dark and rain, that this wasn’t an experience she’d have had otherwise…
The changes meant this leg was going to take longer than planned. There was an optional run up Suilven which we had originally considered, but we decided now it was best to press on and make use of any time saved later in the race. Doing this plus the short course bike turned out to be a kayak-leg saver, though we didn’t know it at the time.
The first portage was only a taster of what was to come. A we inched towards the coast, we lugged a pair of 30kg kayaks, plus portage trolleys and kit over rough rocky ground in the dark and rain. We were being careful not to drag them. At times we were ferrying the kit separately in relay, with all four of us coming back to carry each boat the next section and trying not to twist our ankles on boulders or to disappear thigh deep in bog as we staggered blindly forward. When we could, we used leashes attached to the front, Andrea and I pulling our boat like shire horses over the heather. As some of the long course teams overtook us we took note of their technique …
When we reached the road it was bliss to put the kayaks on their trolleys and roll them along. In no time it seemed we were getting back in. We had half hoped for a sleep but we were wet and the two of us without dry suits got cold very quickly as soon as we stopped moving (and this was despite me wearing a shorty wetsuit). We got back in, quite literally for me as I lost my footing and was dunked, seeing my paddle nearly disappear down the river.
Finally we were back on the sea, now all the way across the country and on the west coast. This was near the Summer Isles; apparently a mecca for paddlers, but we couldn’t see anything except the dark hulks of land mass and the occasional shooting star.
Taking the risk of heading to the spot where the strobe light of a team in front had disappeared, we landed safely at the next headland, only to be greeted by a new form of portage hell. We couldn’t make progress over the bushes, so opted for the river. As it we ascended it progressed from merely rocky to mini rapids that I wouldn’t want to walk up, even without a kayak in tow. We had to anchor ourselves on rocks and haul them up in stages. We eventually gave up, clambered out on the other side and were lucky to find a path where the going was ‘easier’ before hitting the road at Achnahaird, scene of some of my childhood holidays.
It was not over yet though!
Another long sea crossing awaited. Although we could now see the various islands, we were being battered by the wind and waves. The boast continuously turned right, which was getting tedious. Our instructions were to head to within 100m of Isle Martin where a boat might indicate the turning point. I was facing a mutiny as the team got cold and fed up seeing us paddle past the place we were heading to on the other shore before we could turn and go back up.
Crossing the ferry line at our best estimate of a right angle, we neared the far shore and turned straight into the wind and tide. I was only focused on our landing spot when Andrea announced we weren’t moving anywhere. “It’s just perspective”, I said. I was wrong. We decided after another 15 minutes of fruitless paddling to head straight into the shore and see if we could walk along. Even getting there took an humongous effort and I started to panic. When we arrived we were faced with large unwalkable boulders. We considered taking a penalty if needed and getting the boats straight onto the bottom of the track marked on the map. We were desperate. But the wind suddenly dropped, the white horses disappeared and we leapt back in to paddle round the shoreline and say hello to some waiting cows.
Only to face even worse portage hell!! We must have only been in purgatory before! Where did they find this stuff? This time there were rocks, it was steep and it took all 4 of us to climb the first section. Then it was heather and uneven ground up a hill, as we dragged and swore. I practically threw ours over the fence at the top. Well, ‘threw’ is an exaggeration. We bumped down the other side for what should have been an easy downwind paddle to transition, but was a race against time to get to the new canyoning cut off (though it had subsequently been extended). It didn’t feel easy. And I still couldn’t steer us in a straight line.
After some face pulling and head shaking at Paul, a hug from James stopped some close tears from me and we were so glad to abandon those boats…
Many of the following teams got stuck close to where we did and were transported by coach from Ullapool incurring a hefty time penalty. Our choice to short course early and get through the kayaking combined with a bit of weather luck had bumped us up the standings.
We all wriggled into full wetsuits and headed up the hill for a fun interlude of canyoning, including a jump which had preyed on Andrea’s mind, an abseil down a waterfall and another where we dropped into a pool off the bottom of a rope and something I forget the name of but involved not quite whizzing down a wire and having to pull yourself over with the danger of getting your hands munched! I battered myself here and there on the way down but it was refreshing.
The transition was the best of the whole race – a great big barn with loads of space and places to sit 🙂
We had to be out before the time cut off if we wanted to consider any of the long course. As it turned out it might have been better race-wise if we had had this choice imposed on us, but we didn’t and I am not renowned for my cautiousness!
And so we set off on foot into the dying embers of day 2 (Tuesday).
If you want to go straight to part 2 – it’s here!
Episode 1 – official film
Team Lochland Runner all got together for a training weekend recently. Included on the itinerary were sharing our top tips for expedition adventure racing and planning our strategy! Chloe is new to expedition events, but we have all been in different types of races and can always learn from each other.
I thought I’d share these in case you’re interested in the kinds of things we’re thinking about, or are looking for inspiration! Let us know if you have any questions or other top tips you would share 🙂
This is one we talked about many times! I for one like to know where the next meal is coming from and don’t go anywhere without snacks. However, in an expedition race you have to think about what will keep well in your kit bag for a week and make sure there are savoury items on the menu. We may also need to take opportunities that present themselves on the way. We’re just concerned about how well-endowed the race route will be with handy cafes! Since finding hidden cafe gems is one of my special skills, I will have to make sure I don’t spend the pre-race weekend researching detours …
With me being vegetarian and Chloe vegan, it is an extra challenge to think of good ideas and this is still a work in progress. Knowing that hot water is usually available in transition, some of our savoury ideas so far are:
Instant noodles, instant mashed potato, cup a soup, couscous, rice cakes, oatcakes with peanut butter, meals from Tentmeals, Firepot and Summit to Eat (I can vouch for at least one of these being very edible…), German rye bread, flavoured cooked rice pouches…
Sweet things are easier as we can use gels and bars and energy drinks in moderation. Lochland Runner are also helping us out here with Born products. Variety will be key!
… or more specifically, blister prevention!! Everyone has their own theories on this. Our consensus seemed to be:
- Get shoes and socks off feet quickly in transition to let them air
- Have crocs or similar to wear in transition
- Either talc them or moisturise them
- Treat hotspots quickly en route with either Compeed or gaffer tape
- Avoid woolly socks (I find tight fitting, quick drying compression socks work well)
- Stay hydrated
- Have a spare pair of running shoes to change pressure points
- Take sterilised scalpel blades and wipes to burst any big blisters that do appear…
CLOTHING AND KIT
Our discussion about this was more general, as we have to use what we are comfortable in and have tested well. Ideas we shared were:
- Take shoes for paddling, especially if there is any portage or walking involved (which we now know there will be!)
- Take two different pairs of shoes for running. If one pair are a bit bigger it can help with swollen feet later in the race
- Expect to be cold … colder than you expect! The effects of tiredness, night time and low food intake will all affect how warm we feel. I am still surprised how many of the photos from the race in Wales feature trousers and waterproofs …
- Have spare brake pads for your specific brakes
- Have enough battery power for your lights
- Pre-pack food into bags that will last about one stage so you can just take one out in transition
- Have a heavy duty waterproof bag to shove your backpack in and strap down on paddling stages
- Pre pack clothing into clear, labelled bags like short sleeves, long sleeves, shorts, trousers
- Pack as much as you need in transition bag, but no more! The more you have to rummage through or choose between, the longer transitions will take
- A tick remover per team is essential – they just love the damp Scottish heather and bracken. You need to keep checking and get them out within 24h to minimise risk of Lyme’s disease
- Caffeine tablets of some kind might come in handy as you pull your fourth all-nighter in a row!
- Take lip balm, you will not regret it
Well … I obviously can’t reveal too much here, it’s top secret 😀
However, my advice is to definitely discuss this and make sure everyone has the same idea about what you’re trying to achieve. You also need to be realistic about your collective abilities and what to expect from the course so that you can make smart decisions. Although you can’t predict what will happen, having a basic fall back plan and common goals will help make decision making easier.
I’d say things to think about include:
- Any aims for finishing position in the field
- Long course / short course
- How much sleep to expect, when and where
- Pacing and degree of ambition for different stages
- Towing and kit distribution
- Navigators (lead / back up and in different disciplines)
- Transition process (what order to change, eat, sleep), including ‘checkout’
- Team roles
Finally, always keep an eye on the details and don’t forget about your hairdo – no washing for a week with plenty of rain, sweat and river or sea water mixed in! I always go super short – I’d better go and get booked in for a cut 🙂
This year my main race will be Itera Expedition race in Scotland in early August. It’s for a team of 4 and we’ll be on the move for 5 days, trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and possible other modes of transport or activity that have yet to be revealed! Here’s a wee introduction to our team and our thoughts about the race.
Team Name: Team Lochland Runner
Team Members: Rosemary Byde, Jon Ellis, Andrea Davison, Chloe Rafferty
We are supported by Lochland Runner, who supply innovative brands for sports like trail running, swimrun, OCR, and orienteeering.
I raced with Jon in Itera Wales – but one of our team members was Paul McGreal who is otherwise occupied this time round (he’s one of the organisers)! Andrea is an Open Adventure regular, has expedition race experience and is making her comeback. Chloe is our secret weapon … she runs events company LoveSwimRun, lives in North Wales and can often be seen out in the mountains biking, climbing, running or swimming.
The most important thing in forming our team was making sure we had similar goals and expectations and that we all have a similar ethos and approach to working together. We’ll be putting that to the test with a training weekend later in June 🙂
Special team skills include engineering, mountain leading, sewing, an obsession with detail, a love of maps and more than one person trained in optimising solutions to problems! As the race goes on, I am sure we will discover many more talents amongst us.
Why did we choose to do this and what are our expectations of the race / Scotland?
The Scottish highlands are a wild and beautiful place and we all want to experience more of it. We know we are going to the perfect location for an epic adventure that Paul, Tom, James and the team are sure to deliver. The anticipation and excitement are already growing.
Whilst the rest of us have done similar races before, this is Chloe’s first time. She’s alternately terrified and excited and can’t wait to race as part of a team. Although the effects of sleep deprivation and how to stay fuelled as a vegan are on her mind, she has been primed for special ‘visual effects’ (sleepmonsters) and someone has promised to carry emergency flapjack supplies 😉
Even though it is the first week of the new school year, Andrea is making her expedition race comeback before she gets ‘too old’! Sleep is on her mind too, as she doesn’t want to miss out on the memories.
However, Jon and I clearly remember the fun, camaraderie and amazing landscapes we moved through last time and nothing was going to stop us entering again …
We’re all relishing the challenge and anticipating the sense of achievement we’ll get from doing the event. We’re going to be pushing ourselves and it has been the motivation for some of us to increase our training, pick up new skills or reacquaint ourselves with old ones. I for one know that whilst I still soldier on with hamstring rehab for running, my mountain bike is seeing significantly more action than recent swimrun years have afforded!
Our expectations are that we will finish mid pack. The most important things are for us to work hard, help each other, make the most of our collective abilities and never stop trying until we get to the finish line!
Finally, one person has already mentioned the dreaded ‘M’ word … we’re all hoping that we’ll be moving too fast for any midges to catch us for breakfast!
At Loveswimrun Holy Island, Andy Parritt asked me if I’d like to come to an invitational event in Bantham, headlined by Vivobarefoot. I was unsure. My hamstring hurt, it was a long way away and I was committed to spending that weekend with Marie. So then he invited Marie too! She was enthusiastic and I was persuaded … As time went on, I saw Graham the physio and was diagnosed with a ‘proximal hamstring tendinopathy in reactive state’, which in turn caused me to react with a high state of stress!
However, the minute I met Marie at Edinburgh airport on a wild Friday night I relaxed a bit. We would have fun. How our plane landed at Bristol, I do not know. The wings tipped and tilted, we bounced and the passengers applauded as we taxied along. As we drove to the rendezvous (‘somewhere in Devon, maybe?’ we told the car hire chap) the roads went from wide, deserted and windswept to tiny with passing places and hedges and trees forming tunnels over our heads. As the rain lashed against the windscreen we wondered where was this place we were heading to?!
We arrived and crept into the large, dark, quiet house. We had instructions on how to find our beds, where we also found an update on the race route and logistics. It suited me with a bit less running! As we lay down to sleep we could hear the wind buffeting outside. When we woke up we were greeted with a spectacular view of the estuary and the sea with gigantic waves coming in. Wow!
As everyone else started emerging it was clear we were in for a great weekend. The vibe was relaxed and it turned out I knew plenty of people. We assembled on the lawn for the start and briefing then were off along the lane and through trees covering a carpet of prickly conker shells, then out at the end of the estuary. We were 2nd but I knew there was a fast swimming team behind us!
Sure enough, they flew past and there was no way I could hold their feet this early in the race. The closer we got to the sea, the rougher it became, delivering me with a few mouthfuls of salty water straight to the back of my throat. Ugh! As we approached an area full of boats, I was confused. Which way to go? We were following the bank, as instructed, but eventually spotted the pink thatched house we had been told to look for. As we set off again, we saw a crowd coming in from our right on a straighter line. Bother!
I wasn’t letting them all overtake due to our dodgy route choice and powered ahead. As we got out, I was urging Marie on and we lost a hat, kindly redelivered to us by the team just behind! This is when we started to realise the route might be hillier than expected, as we slogged to the cliff top before looping back down. We managed to pull away again as Marie pulled me!
Across the estuary, there was a slight ‘disagreement’ as I aimed off to account for the current and Marie decided to go her own way 😀 . Then we were out and I was dragged up the endless hill on the other side before we hammered back down to the sea, wading over to an island surrounded by surfers coming out to play.
The route on the island was uncertain … but we went up to the building, looped round and down the other side. More wading and more climbing before another long estuary swim. We were getting well and truly ‘swooshed’ now, almost coming a cropper under a boat as I tried to take a better line than the first time! At great speed we aimed again for the distinctive house and the point and leapt out. ‘Only 900m to go!’ I yelled, but we were diverted onto part of the route that had been missed out on the first run due to uncooperative tides!
We picked our way over fascinating rocks that merited a return visit later on, then scrambled up a cliff and along a narrow path at the top, with Marie still trying to make me run despite the precariousness! (‘You never know who might be coming after us’, she insisted). Down the steep grassy bank, into the village and back to the lawn, touching the flag to finish!
I had a lovely time and my leg held up OK, only a bit of discomfort. The weekend hadn’t finished though, with pizzas, cider, curry for dinner and speakers. We won a pair of Vivobarefoot shoes for our efforts, only being beaten by two male pairs.
In the morning, we had the delightful experience of swimrun group training as many of us set off to see some of the planned course that had had to be cut due to conditions. Lovely cliff top running down to a bay, swimming up to a rock arch that I decided was too dangerous to swim through … this time. Tumbled and turned by rollers on the way back. More running, some jumping, a second short swim and back to the house, where brunch was spread out invitingly, just waiting for us to tuck in.
Everyone started heading home after a bit of clearing up, but we had the rest of the day to spare. We went off to Dartmouth to see the castle and go and explore the coastal walk, coves and an old fort before escaping just as it got dark and returning for leftover curry.
I had such a good time and the effect on my mood was worth more than any detrimental effect to my hamstring (which, to be honest, seemed no worse for the experience). Massive thanks to Andy and Marie for persuading me to go. Also to Andy and Nigel for persevering with putting on an event for beginners and experienced teams alike, all in the face of crazy weather and dubious coastguards. Finally to everyone else who helped make this happen, to the volunteers and other racers who were so congenial, and to Vivobarefoot for their generous support. We felt we were being treated like royalty (or rock stars, according to Marie) and it was a privilege to be there. Thanks!
Pictures from me, Marie and Vivobarefoot team.
(for a taste of the race here is the official video. We star, for maybe 1 or 2 seconds near the end!)
Our fourth, and possibly final, Ötillö world champs was preceded by a relaxed few days in Stockholm, enjoying the scenery, eating and sleeping. We needed it as due to new race logistics, on race day we had to get out of bed when the night had barely started. It didn’t make a lot of difference, 03:30 is as bad as 04:30.
Our goal was to go faster than last year. We had a plan, which suggested sub-11h was realistic. Part one of this plan was a strong first swim to get in a good position on the rocks in case there was crowding (more teams in the race than ever before). At the last minute on the start line, I wonder if we were too far back. In fact, we were right at the back! But it was too late, the gun went and we were off.
We followed the long line of paced runners to the beach and as we swam across strongly, passing teams, I kept thinking about how much further up we might have been! But there was plenty of time to go.
We had discussed the need to ‘claim our space’ on the rocks, to let teams work their own way past. However, we moved well and were actually holding our position. On review, we made up a lot of time here compared to last year, helped perhaps by the dry rocks, but I think also our mindset.
On the first longer run it was time to pick up the pace. At the feed station we were 10 mins up on the plan. We were going so fast, so well, but at end I felt the tow suddenly go tight. I willed Izzy to hang on in there, promising a ‘rest’ very soon … and then we were back swimming and short runs through the woods and over logs.
At the next long swim we paused and could see everyone bow to the left. I aimed off to the right and we held a lovely direct line (as revealed by checking our gps trace later). At the time we could only ponder if we had been genius or insane as we approached the shore a very different way to our fellow competitors.
In and out we went until the next longer run. I was going to consult on strategy but Izzy beat me to it and asked me to take it back half a percent. She was still positive though, and I was happy. We held a fair speed and at the next check we were still ahead of plan by 10 minutes.
I break the race into chunks I can remember and next up is ‘more in and out and two longer swims’.
Part of the plan was to do the swims a little bit faster. This was generally the case, but the pig swim was slower. Compared to some other years, it was like a mill pond and not pig-like in the slightest. I can only imagine we had a wind or current in our favour last year!
At the next long one there was lots of discussion with a marshal about where to aim. I didn’t understand as the flag seemed clear. We jumped in, I checked for something to aim for on land above the flag and we set off. The flag did not appear to be coming into view and we stopped to check. It had vanished. That would be because it was attached to a boat … Izzy said ‘there’s the landing flag, just to the right of the gap!’. Ah yes the gap, that is what I was aiming for … Lesson in this … We meant very different things by ‘gap’! Eventually I corrected but it was not our finest line. The team to our left did much worse though… Not sure flags on boats criss-crossing the line of sight to the landing flag are all that helpful!
Just before the short swim to Ornö we met Josefine at the feed station, who was giving out hugs of encouragement – much appreciated to help us brace for the final big test!
We landed and I knew we had been losing time but only our 10 minute ‘buffer’ – we were now on plan and I said so. Izzy is surprised. This is when we needed to push on. I set off like a rabbit, but the tow immediately went tight. It was so hard. I knew I couldn’t maintain anything like this and my head needed to calm down and be sensible. Maybe we were paying for our earlier pace. I had worried about this, but if you want to achieve a time you have to commit.
The track was intermittently stony and we had to ease off. Then we got onto easier roads. We had cabbed down our wetsuits but I was so, so hot. I was not happy at all and ‘may’ have said rude things about this particular leg of the race, but Izzy did a great job of encouraging me and motivating us. It was so good for lifting my mood.
At the feed station I checked progress. We were now down on our plan, but there had been some slack in it. I say I think if we can just match last year’s speed from here, we can still do 11h. Objectively we were still doing well, it was better than it felt, we were catching a few teams and not getting caught. Mentally I was boosted, but physically the heat was still a battle and I felt nauseous. I am a bad weather girl!
Later our stats tell us we were slower over Ornö, not faster as planned. My dreams of a sub 11 or even better had faded. But we jumped into the sea with friends Christophe and Emmanuel and we all four whooped with delight and were so happy to be in the cool water 🙂
Here last year, the short swims were hell but now they were so still and easy. We tried to focus, though the technical terrain was now testing both mind and body.
Eventually we got out for the final run. Izzy said to me ‘clear these rocks then you can pull as hard as you like and I will just get on with it and whimper behind’. I check my watch. 10h40 with about 3.5km to go including some rocks and at least one hill. I say ‘we cannot break 11h but we will beat last year’. Then I go for it. I always like a sprint finish regardless 😉
(check this out – from 11:09:21)
We passed a couple of teams but stuck to our own thing. Izzy asked me how far to go. 2km. She managed to scoff an emergency gel without breaking stride! We were filmed for the live webcast for our last 4 mins … up that hill, on and on, both giving it everything we had. We crossed the line. I stopped my watch. I glanced down and questioned myself, knowing I had accidentally paused it at some point in the race. I looked up at gantry but it was true – 10:58:54! We smashed the last run and we were both so happy. There were big hugs, then tears of emotion from me. I couldn’t even breathe!
We sat and drank coke and got a shower. Everyone was so fast this year, our position felt disappointing. But we cannot control the competition or the weather. So we enjoyed the vibe and catching up with friends. And then we were on the boat heading to the airport for an early flight the next day.
We met our target, but in a slightly different way from the plan. I’ve got mixed feelings about this, but in the end we got it done and it is so good to get a time to our names starting 10 something … in 4 years we have taken 2h off our time, and that is not to be sniffed at.
The dream team will still do some other races together though – maybe even another one this year!
Many thanks to our supporters and this year especially to Matt at Improve My Running … I was trying my best to maintain form!
I also want to dedicate this report to our dear friend Jim, who died a week after the race. He was an outdoorsy sort who loved wild swimming. He was always up for an adventure and pushing his boundaries and had come with me to some MTB / run races. He followed our progress avidly and helped us with various training sessions. We’ll all miss his companionship and unique take on life. X
This race on the Gower peninsula was a few weeks ago, right in the middle of our heatwave … This time, I am going to let the photos do most of the talking!
The first run was a mass start down to Worm’s Head. It was quite early in the day, so was not too hot just yet. We’re not actually leading the race here, but I like the photographer who has made it look like that!
First swim was over to Worm’s Head – not advised / allowed unsupervised! But the race was timed to go over when it was safe. We were on the tow, but quickly changed our minds once we landed. This was the most technical part of the race, with rocks and beds of tiny mussels and scrambly bits to get over.
The next swim was across a big bay, with grand cliffs to one side. It was here I saw an actual SHARK! It was no Jaws, but was slinking along, shark-like, on the seabed. We carried on swimming and when I remembered to tell Izzy later she was quite disbelieving – until she saw one herself on the next swim! You have been warned if you fancy swimming here 😉
The coastline was pretty and we had some interesting entrance and exits from the smaller bays, like this one.
In other places, we came ashore onto wide sandy bays. Did I mention yet that it was hot? Well, it was baking, which meant there were plenty of other people just having a nice day out, swimming and paddling. It was hard to see the flags on some of the exits, so I would just aim for the place the paddle boarders directed us to, and try not to mow down any casual swimmers or paddlers on the way in 😀
I already mentioned the sharks, but there were also some truly enormous jellyfish. We had found a dead one on the beach before the race. I was glad we did, because we looked them up and knew they were harmless barrel jellyfish. Despite that, it was still disconcerting to find ourselves swimming in close proximity to so many of them that I lost count. Eek!
There were a couple of longer runs following the coastal path. Although you don’t go up any ‘hills’ (not until the end…), it is up and down all the time and the sun was really hotting up. Add to this some stony sections and the occasional big sand dune, and it was quite hard work. Pretty, though.
This run was quite hard work – all of it was along the beach. The sand was mostly firm, but also very wrinkled in a way that was not wide enough for a foot!
We were following small red arrows, minimally placed at key junctions. At one point, we were sent up a steep wee hill to a gate. We met some walkers coming down, telling us it was the wrong way and we should go along the other path, like the ‘sprinters’ had the previous day. We hesitated. The teams in front had all gone this way and not turned back. The arrow went this way and it was a different race to yesterday. In the end we carried on. It was looking unlikely as we were on a road, but still no one came back. There were no markers, but that was not unusual … I found someone’s reusable cup in a hedge so we knew at least one team had come this way!
Eventually we met a man who said we were definitely going the wrong way for Brandy Cove and he helpfully gave us directions to the quickest way there. We had added about a km to the route, but I think what positions we lost, we mainly made up for again.
By the way, GarminConnect seems to think it was 16 degrees. It is wrong. See watch temperature! This was the view when we finally found the elusive Brandy Cove.
It was always a relief to get in the water, though it was so warm we never really got cold before it was time to get out again! So we had to wrestle our wetsuits down for almost every run, else we would have over-heated. We ate and drank more than usual and I loved the salty potatoes at the aid stations. Also a word for the volunteers, who were all cheerful and amazing. The same can be said of many of the spectators too. It was fantastic at one place to find everyone on the beach clapping and cheering as we got out and ran off!
A few of the later swims were designed so that we started in one bay, and swam round some rocks into the next one along. These feel like mini adventures as you’re not sure what you’ll find round the corner.
Some of the entry spots were quite ‘interesting’ as well.
As we got closer to Mumbles (which is a relatively big town), the path was better made and we saw some ‘features’ decorating the trail.
Eventually we got to the final run. I thought we would be close to 7h. This was a number I had picked out of the air as a target time. Often I plan in meticulous detail, but hadn’t had the time or energy to do so for this race. It was based roughly on the times from people last year, and because it was a round number of hours.
As we started the final run I was unsure we would make it. The first km out of the water was up a hill and I knew there was more to come as we had checked this bit out exploring the area in the days before the race.
I thought we were doomed until we came a bit closer. I suddenly realised there was a chance we could do it, despite the fact the tow was getting tighter and tighter. I yelled encouragement to Izzy, whose retort I won’t repeat 😉 But then we rounded the corner, down a small drop, across a busy road in a fortuitous gap, dash down through the trees and round the corner …
We made it! 6:59:22 ! Even better, we were 1st female pair, 21st overall. Results here.
The finishing area had shade, a shower, barbecue (including veggie stuff) and ice cream, so we hung around for a while 🙂 In fact it was hard to leave, because by then it had become too hot to move in the sun, but it had to be done! I felt really wiped out that evening but recovered quickly, so I think it was more the effect of the heat than the physical effort (great as it was!).
Thanks to the organisers and all involved – a race I’d recommend even though I had to get up very early. Top tips – stay on the coastal path and watch out for the wildlife 😀