We’ve had our eyes on the Mad Hatters races after hearing great reviews and meeting the organisers at other events, so when we saw a new long course being proposed we signed up! This was so many months / years ago though that it kind of crept up on us 😮 Luckily, we had actually done some fun swimrun adventures and a local event a few weeks before to get in the mood. We also combined it with a holiday in Cornwall exploring the coastal path and attractions at a more leisurely pace to make the trip definitely worthwhile.
The course was a linear one, starting at Portscatho and winding its way 35km along to Mevagissey.
By the time we got off the coach to the start, we were already late and were ushered to the line without ceremony and waved off! Izzy was straight out of the blocks as we dodged round a few people to get to the water and start swimming. Neither of us has done ‘enough’ swim training lately – though Izzy has done more than me and has even made it to a swimming pool! The effect of this is that we are even more closely matched than usual with Izzy definitely having a faster start, so she led off.
The race route took us in and out (and shook us all about) at some ‘interesting’ spots, including places where we had to scramble up the rocks, or use a rope to get safely down the steep slope! On one swim exit we got shouted at to go around even though we were aiming for a perfectly good looking lump of rock 😉 Another entry had a stunning little exit through a rock channel before we were out into open sea.
On the first runs, Izzy was off like a hare, showing the benefits of her interval training, so I concentrated on just keeping up and heavy breathing, no ability to chat at this stage! After the first couple of swims we started alternating, just to give the other a break, though the one behind was always getting cold as much as resting. We then kept whichever order we emerged from the water in on the run as we wound our way along the cliffs through the bracken, grass and wildflowers. It felt like a race where we really worked as a team to keep us moving through at a good speed.
As we had discovered on our mini recce trip of one small part of the course, the runs were best described as ‘undulating’ … which is to say they kept going up and down a lot: I recorded 1300m in 27km of running for the day. However, none were too long and only one had us so hot when the sun peeped out that we were grateful to get back into the water, my squealing at the shock causing some consternation 😀
My watch had a meltdown after the last event, so I had taken the opportunity to upgrade and was loving the mapping feature, helping us stay vaguely on course when there was any confusion, although it did bleep a lot to tell us to take obvious path turns.
Several of the swims involved swimming out and round a point. At the briefing we had been told that the sea was going to be very calm and perfect conditions. As it was, there was quite a swell pushing and pulling us around, which had me thinking this Cornwall lot were hard as nails describing this as ‘calm’ – they did admit later the predictions had been slightly out!
At one moment, I was leading and definitely aiming for the yellow flag. I couldn’t understand why the marshal had put it on the ground and wandered off, but was trying not to faff. Eventually realised after Izzy yelled at me that I was aiming for a lovely patch of yellow lichen on a rock instead! Likewise on another swim, I had to practically tug the cord to get Izzy to pause and agree to turn left 😀
The long 2km swim at the end had the following navigation instructions: ‘Swim out to the paddle boarder, turn left, don’t go too far out because of boats, and not too far in because of rocks. Follow the coastline until you see a beach with a flag’. We were chugging along, no beach in sight, no idea what we were aiming for but keeping the coast on our left and looking for a beach … after about 1500m we found a kayaker, who proceeded to try and educate us about currents and the tide, where to aim and the fact that he ‘didn’t think us two would make it’. This had the effect of me slightly tersely asking him to just tell us where we were supposed to be going, at which point we shot off noticeably faster 😀 . Apparently, if you’re local, you just know to aim for the colourful house on the cliff when you round the corner 🤨 !
I was still shivering after this epic when we got to run through tourist throngs in Mevagissey, swim to a small beach and ascend a very long flight of steps and up a steep road to the finish line.
Delighted to finish 5th overall and first female pair behind 4 male pairs. Even more delighted to find at the end that the sun came out, stone baked pizzas and amazing brownies from the Parent-Teacher Association were on offer and we could all lounge around outside meeting old friends and making new ones (including a large white dog that took a shine to Izzy for a while!). Many thanks to the race organisers, all the marshals and safety crew and everyone else including competitors who made it such a great day.
I really recommend this race if you want stunning scenery, a challenge and a taste of an Ötillö World Series type race in terms of length and difficulty. I also recommend that you do a proper amount of swim training in preparation else, like me, you will have difficulty putting a jumper on the next day 😀
Photo credits to James Street / Mad Hatter Sports Events – or me, if marked as such!
This was my first actual, in person race since … March 2nd 2020! Izzy originally signed up to do this with Andy, it didn’t run last year due to sea conditions. And so this year it came round, and I was the substitute partner, and it was so much fun 🙂
I actually was quite nervous beforehand, being totally out of practice with the whole process of preparing for a race day. We have a bigger (longer, larger field) race coming up, so it was actually perfect timing. It was also so good to be doing a swimrun race on our local patch in East Lothian. We do a lot of training there and it has so much potential.
The route for this event was largely an out and back, with a long swim to start with and an ascent of North Berwick Law at the far end.
With an easterly wind, the sea was quite rough. Despite doing a number of swimrun training sessions already this year, we hadn’t done anywhere near 2km in one go and we were both cold enough for the bum shake by the time we eventually got out 😀 Was fun to do such a challenging loop out to Fidra and back though.
The run and short swim to North Berwick was uneventful. The next part was unmarked, but I had gone through the route on Google street view, so we made a beeline to the bottom of the Law. Here we got mixed up in some other ultra event, but we zoomed to the top, with me doing my very best to keep up with Izzy.
It came sooner than expected, we turned around and raced back down! The final swim before the finish line was only half the length of the initial one, but we were chasing down a male pair who had just overtaken us, and also trying to make it back before risking getting swamped by the line of amassed swimmers doing the aquathlon.
We stormed out and back and made the final sprint for the line, delighted to be back racing again 🙂
Whatever way you look at we were on the ‘podium’; 3rd overall, 2nd females, 1st pair!
Thanks to Peter for putting on our first local event, which all went smoothly, to Andy for taking some photographs to record the occasion and to Izzy for being my swimrun buddy! Next stop, Cornwall!
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
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!
Following some time off after Ötillö, the plan was to do some fun bits and pieces before launching into a winter of trail running. Unfortunately, a minor hamstring niggle I’ve had for over a year flared up – a parkrun was the last overload straw. But I had already entered this event and was booked to go and see my dad and for Andy to do his first ever swimrun, so off we went!
A week of rest and I lined up at the start slightly anxiously. The first run was straight down a hill, the sun was shining, the sea was blue and the views were great. My legs seemed fine too, which was a relief!
I have done a few coastal swimruns before and I do love them. This one is a great length for beginners as well as more experienced people, and some of the swims were a bit ‘exciting’ even for me! We swam out between towering cliffs, round rocky headlands and weaved our way through buoys and across bays. The running was mostly along the coastal paths.
Homemade flapjack at the feed station spurred me on as I tried to hold off the male and mixed pairs (I had a 5 minute head start) whilst catching as many male solos (who set off 5 mins early) as possible! I met Andy just before the second swim and even got a quick kiss! I was pleased to see he was looking cheerful.
On one of the long runs, my hamstring started telling me it wasn’t better after all, but I did my best and battered on. For so late in the year, it was actually quite warm and the final climb up the hill on the road to the finish line had me huffing and puffing. My dad cheered me in and then we did the same for Andy.
A perfect day then for lounging around, catching with people and eating the wood fired pizza that came out of the van 🙂
I was 1st female, 9th overall. Results here – but you have to filter out the people who just ran all the way – yes, it was official, as they were doing the ‘Holy Trail’ race on at the same time! Andy did well too, as he was almost inside the top third and I may have even heard him say ‘it was better than a triathlon’ !! 😉
Many thanks to Jonny and Chloe at Loveswimrun for putting on another super race. Highly recommended! And you can even extend your trip and enjoy some of the other delights that North wales has to offer. Also to photographers wildmanmitchell and SportpicturesCymru.
(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
Andy and I were seeking inspiration for our Sunday long run. Izzy did Scurry to the Sea last year and I liked the idea of it, but it looked sold out. However, as people cancelled and told the organiser, he released spaces … so at about 2030 on Saturday night we grabbed two spaces to do the race early Sunday morning!
This set off a flurry of activity, checking logistics and working out a route. The race has 3 checkpoints and free route choice in between. I mainly based my decisions on the route the top people took last year (via Strava stalking). Then I also had to help Andy learn how to use the route following function on his gps, as he had a minor panic about knowing the way.
And so very early on Sunday we were up, cycling over to Musselburgh to register and get a coach up to the ski centre. The route is straight up to the top of one of the hills in the Pentlands (Allermuir), then back via two prescribed points to Musselburgh at the sea, finishing with some obligatory beach running torture.
The field seemed to be largely made up of Portobello Running Club people! No one wanted to stand on the start line so I edged forward … At the starting signal off we all went, soon power walking the steep bits. I was in 5th place out of the girls and as we turned at the top, I could see there was a bit of a gap to the next. Down we went, and as the terrain got easier and less steep I could see Andy’s friend Sarah up in front. Grace, another friend, had vanished.
As I went along, my watched beeped every km and it looked alarmingly fast. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to keep this up, but it was downhill … I thought I could catch Sarah and was slowly making ground. As we got to some traffic lights and she hesitated over the route I caught up and showed the way. Out of the feed station I was slightly ahead until the next lights, and so on!
At the second feed station she accelerated away and opened a gap, which I was holding but making no impression on. She had two teammates with her too! At this point my pace dropped somewhat, though it was more of a step change and stabilise than a terminal nosedive.
All the way along the main feature had been the HEAT. I was boiling and shade seeking. Despite two drinks stops I had some of the water I was carrying ‘for emergencies’. I probably should have had a gel as well, but by the time I decided that, I just wanted to concentrate on getting this thing finished!
A familiar voice behind on a cycle path cheered me up as a cyclist I know came past yelling encouragement (thanks Sandra!). As I slowed to scale the bridge over the railway I felt quite dizzy and the only option was to keep running or slump to the ground! I gave up on catching Sarah at this point and concentrated on getting to the finish line.
As we turned onto the beach, there it was. But it took a long while to come … as I fell over the line I headed straight for the nearest shade and lay down, squirting water on my face and drinking. 20 minutes later I was feeling alive enough to get up in time to cheer Andy in.
A great little event, much more taxing than it looked on paper, as I had DOMS for a week afterwards! I was pleased to finish 5th female and 1st vet (14th overall), for which I got an Active Root bottle and sachet and a bottle of something more bubbly! Grace and Sarah were in 3rd and 4th respectively. Well done all 🙂
Full results here. Thanks to everyone involved, all the volunteers, the organiser Peter Ness and Kate Freedman who took the photos. After some post-race analysis I am tempted to do it again if I am free next year, if only because I have spotted about 5 places to take a fractionally faster route 😀
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 😀