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Itera Scotland 2019 – part 3

Foot stage:

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.

The first part of the final trek had some incredible views, including this waterfall

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.

Trying to get ready fast at final transition to kayak


Kayak stage:

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


Bike stage:

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


Reflections

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.

Finish line photo

If you missed part 1 – it’s here! And part 2 – here!

Photo credits to Chloe (team photographer!), Rob Howard from Sleepmonsters and Photogractif. Team videos by Jonny Collins.

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Itera Scotland 2019 – part 2

Foot stage:

13km trek / 8h45
2h sleep
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.

One of my favourite pictures – on the ridge with tennis court second blob along in front of us

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.

Rachel doing a grand job at midge central, checking we were all in the tent for the required time

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.

Stones on the beach as we rejoin a path

Episode 2 – Official Film


Bike stage:

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.

Second castle of the race, looking splendid

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.

If you want to go straight to part 3 – it’s here! If you missed part 1 – it’s here!

Photo credits to Chloe (team photographer!), Rob Howard from Sleepmonsters and Photogractif

Episode 3 – official film

Itera Scotland 2019 – part 1

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.


Bike stage:

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.


Kayak stage:

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.

Snack and water bottle refills in the dark and rain on the delightful road portage, somewhere on the west coast

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.

AJ and I haul a kayak up a hill with no path. This was the portage that broke the camel’s (or our) back!

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.

Jon demonstrates solo portage style. See how far away the sea is?

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.


Canyoning:

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.

Me abseiling the waterfall. Quite cool.

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!

Photo credits to Chloe (team photographer!), Rob Howard from Sleepmonsters and Photogractif

Episode 1 – official film

 

Itera 2019 Team Introduction

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

Team Information:

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.

Personalised team map buffs! Can’t think of anything much cooler than that.

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!

Testing out buff and making sure it was one of ‘mine’!

Loveswimrun Holy Island 2018

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.

Sunny presentations!

Ötillö Swimrun World Championships 2018

(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

Scurry to the Sea

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!

Scurry Bag

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.

High tech start line!

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!

Start line

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!

Straight up the hill in a sea of Porty vests!

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.

The face says it all …

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 🙂

First vet!

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 😀

Breca Gower swimrun

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!

Mass start

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.

View out to Worm’s Head

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 😉

There be sharks …

The coastline was pretty and we had some interesting entrance and exits from the smaller bays, like this one.

One of the exits from sea to land

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 😀

Dodge the people just having a nice day out at the beach

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!

We found this washed up barrel jellyfish before the race

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!

The beach run that went on and on

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.

Going the wrong way. See the clear coastal path on the map? That is the way!

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.

The run down to 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!

Swim exit

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.

Several swims involved going round the point to the next bay

Some of the entry spots were quite ‘interesting’ as well.

Some swim entries were interesting

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.

Checking out the race route features beforehand

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.

Trig point on the final run – the hill is a sting in the tail

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!).

All smiles at the end, sitting in shade

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 😀

Isles of Scilly Swimrun – Ötillö world series

This was the third year for us back in the Isles of Scilly. I don’t repeat races more than twice very often, but this one is special, and Izzy swayed me (it didn’t take much!).

Like last year, we put it in the middle of a week in Cornwall, reducing travel hassle as much as possible and enjoying being tourists somewhere hot, sunny, friendly and full of bees and butterflies! The flight over in an 8-seater plane was also pretty exciting.

First swim exit

I went into this race with a totally different vibe to normal. It was our first race of the year, I wasn’t sure how well recovered from UTS50 I was and we had no concerns about placing, points or qualification. Our plan was to race our best but to enjoy it too! No time targets in hand, except for the cut offs. After checking into the same B&B as last year and getting over panics about where to eat every night (the biggest stress on the island), we were ready to go.

Our private beach one afternoon

It was hot again, but we knew we could handle that from last year. We didn’t rush on the first run up the road. I had inspected the line for the first swim both from land and boat, having got it a bit wrong last year. No better this! Doing what I thought was careful sighting, I ended up with a mass of seaweed and a rocky outcrop between me and the landing point. I was pretty sure getting out and running over the rocks was against the rules, so we had to dogleg round and I gave up working out where to go, just following the line everyone else took.

Me by the ‘where’s wally thingy’ – a landmark on the St Martin’s run

On exiting, we had a mass of seaweed draped all over the towline! A short run and we were back in the sea. This took much longer than last year as we were going directly into a strong current. When we got out I was very cold, but knew it would be a matter of minutes before I thought the opposite.

And so it went on. The support this year was perhaps even better – if that is possible. The race is like a tourist event on the islands, with the Tourist Information handing out leaflets explaining what it’s all about. Everywhere we went, we were stopped for a chat about it. People we passed were applauding and shouting out, telling us we were awesome … I felt it!

Dancing dolphins on Tresco, just before a swim entry

We were warned of some currents on the shorter swims, but they didn’t seem too bad and we didn’t get stung by jellyfish this year. The two longer runs were getting hot, but we pushed on through and finally faced the last long swim back to the ‘mainland’. The marshals told us the tide was slack… a relief! Top tip if you do this race – a good sighting point (in the absence of crazy currents) are the trees that look like giant triffids on the horizon – aim just to the right of those! I never saw the buoys until we passed them, but our line was pretty good. The landing was in sight but never seemed to arrive for a long time. My arms were just about dropping off as well.

Sprint finish

Time to warm up again on the final run. Izzy had her ‘traditional’ tumble, nothing too serious, and we stopped at the feed station to pull down our suits. On we went, to and fro with some other couples we’d run with on St Martin’s as well – we were better swimmers! The last run is still one of the longest, but just doesn’t feel it. I think it’s because you know the end is close, and you’re back into all the crowds of support.

We both managed a sprint finish and after a while I was happy to get up, collect a veggie burger and amble back to the BnB to eat it in the sunshine, stopping for some chats and to cheer other racers coming in on the way, of course 🙂

We were only a little slower than last year and some of that was down to the swims. However, I didn’t tow as hard, so we reckon Izzy was faster! I think the effects of the ultra still lingered – easy to underestimate the impact of a race like that. We were 7th women’s team – a reflection of the ever increasing depth of the field. 42nd overall out of 117 starters, which still seemed pretty reasonable 😉 Results here.

We had a lovely rest of the week and can offer tourist suggestions if needed! We got very lucky with one final swim, through Zawn Pyg … nothing to do with swimrun but perhaps the most (or second most) exhilarating swim I have ever done (the other was one of the swims at Ötillö the first year we did it). Perfect end to the holiday.

UTS 50

When I first heard about the Ultra Trail Snowdonia I was immediately tempted. It ticked a few boxes for me. It was in the mountains, a new race, looked like a challenge and started almost on my dad’s doorstep. As I debated how to set up my calendar of major races for this year, I couldn’t let this one go. I went for the ‘short’ version at 50ish miles – I didn’t even qualify for the 100, let alone contemplate entering it!

Preparation

And so started months of planning and preparation. I’m no stranger to long endurance events, but I’d only done one ultra before – the Tour de Helvellyn last year, which was enough to qualify me for this. I ran a bit more and was consistent, building on what I started last year. I investigated shoes (needed more cushioning for long distance on rocky terrain – plumped for La Sportiva Akashas) and went through several kit iterations trimming a little weight here and there. Although I was going as light as possible, I actually carried all the ‘recommended’ kit as well as the ‘mandatory’. A good example was that I stowed a Primaloft jacket in – I know how cold it can get when you slow down to stop and the weather is bad.

Preparation didn’t stop at kit. I also made my way over to Wales to recce the route, making sure I was carrying full race gear and testing clothing options. First up, section 1 by myself, then meet up with Andy and do section 2. All went well and I was thinking 16 hours might be a good time for the course. Although it was hilly, it was largely runnable. Second trip down and I set up a mini expedition. Running with all the kit and testing out poles, I quickly found I made good use of them on the Snowdon ascent. The next two sections were eye-opening. In the fog and on my own, it took ages just following the line on my gps, up steep slopes and across scrambly ridges. I nearly quit at Beddgelert, but pushed on and found myself running off Cnicht in the dark and fog, head torch useless and blindly following the trail line on my watch. I had never been so glad to fall into the Red Dragon camping pod, get my clean kit on and snuggle under a duvet with a rehydrated meal. The last section the next day was more of the same, with some scary moments on the Y Lliwedd ridge. I revised my time estimates to nearer 20h.

Custom waterproof maps

Finally I also wanted a really good map. A few hours with various map software and Photoshop, plus a favour from a friend who could print in colour on A3 waterproof paper and I had a perfectly highlighted route on two very light sheets, 1:25k scale. I wasn’t about to trust a scaled down 1:50k to get me off a hill at night!

In the run up to the race, I got the usual pre-big race type problems. My knee hurt. Work was stressful and I worried I had not slept enough. I got a bug. Actually – a proper virus three weeks out that I thought would be well gone by race day, but in fact I still had a sore throat on the start line …

Registration portrait .. ah, still so fresh!

The night before, I went to bed at 22:00. I tossed and turned for a bit, fell asleep, woke up, and generally attempted to ‘rest’ until the alarm went off at 03:15. I went through my ‘to do’ list and set off with Andy to walk down through the woods to the start in the dawn light.

Section 1 – Llanberis to Waunfawr (Moel Eilio)

Leaving Llanberis and entering the hills (recce)

Quite uneventful, apart from beautiful sunrise views and my shadow appearing in the perfect circle of a rainbow formed by the mists. I ate plenty and did not get overtaken by hordes of people on the descent. Final run in was chatting with a guy talking about how long he takes to ‘usually’ run 50 miles …

The rolling hills up to Moel Eilio (recce)

At the feed station, I was half an hour up on my plan, which was concerning and put doubts in my mind. Had I gone out too fast? Also had a bit of faff with my mug, which I resolved to sort out at the next stop!

Section 2 – Waunfawr to Bron-y-fedw-uchaf (Mynydd Mawr)

Views on leg 2

It was getting hot in the sun and I was slightly stressed as three men ran on my heels full of random chat whilst I was working too hard to stay out of the way … eventually I stopped to let them past. The route was a little different here to what I had recce’d but was obvious enough and we were soon on the steep climb. I worked my way up and was encouraged to eat by another competitor, even though I didn’t feel like it.

On the trickier descent a few people came past, but I was staying calm. Over the road and into the farm for more food. Another 10 minutes faster than plan. Hmm.

Section 3 – Bron-y-fedw-uchaf to Rhyd-Ddu (Snowdon via ranger’s path)

Views of the first ascent of Snowdon (recce)

As I set off again, I walked for a while eating. It was warming up now, and I felt a bit dizzy and nauseous when I put an effort in, in a way I hadn’t earlier in the day. I tried to stay calm and steadily worked my way up. I fell in with Geoff from Manchester, who was a welcome distraction. I felt like I was clawing my way up the hill with my poles!

I tried to relax on the descent and stay focussed. There were rocky sections and I stumbled occasionally. I must be getting tired! Here I met an Irish man who I had to ask to repeat almost every sentence! 😀 He had broken his leg at the end of last year and only had it out of plaster in January. Respect.

Some way up the Snowdon Ranger path with views of the ridge we faced later behind me!

The next feed station was where I’d meet Andy and dad with my drop bag. They knew from my tracker and a text I’d sent that I was ahead of plan, another 20 minutes, so they were there when I cruised in smiling 1h ahead of schedule.

Descending the Rhyd Ddu path (recce)

I had always planned to feed up a bit here as the next leg is the hardest of the race. However, I didn’t really add the planned stop time here into the plan! Not to worry, after a toilet break, couple of bowls of soup and some homemade coconut rice with choc chips and blueberries + reload of snacks and drinks and I was ready to go again. I’d taken half an hour so was still 30 minutes ahead.

Section 4 – Rhyd-Ddu to Beddgelert (Mynydd Drws-y-coed and Moel Hebog)

Views over to leg 2 descent following the treeline (recce)

The climb out of the village is a killer – super steep. I walked up calmly, leading a few others up the way. At one point we met someone sat down declaring it was too hard and he couldn’t do it. I assured him he could and indeed saw him again much, much later in the race. At the top of here there is a sharp ridge. It was so much more fun and in some ways less scary in the sunshine than it was in fog. I clambered up and over, thinking at this point how much I was loving the race and what a shame it was that we had already done so much 😮

There was some pre-race debate about the technical sections and how difficult they were. I think this is all a matter of perspective and experience. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as easy / nothing dangerous as some did, and if you had a fear of heights or airy drops you’d struggle. On the other hand, if you took your time, all these sections were short and doable and I enjoyed them.

Feeling great approaching the Mynydd Mawr ridge

We came down to the bwlch and dropped through the old quarries. There was some confusion as the markers weren’t obvious, but a few others and I knew the way and we were soon round and starting the next ascent. My memory of this section was a little hazy from the recce and now I was finding out why. I must have blanked it from my mind! It went on and on, 2 mini peaks on the way to the beast of Moel Hebog. Now it felt like my poles were the only thing stopping me from falling backwards.

The descent was hard as well, down a zig-zaggy scree-strewn path that taxed tired legs. I was waiting for a water refill at a spring I had found on recce but in the end decided it was so close to the feed station I need not bother. I was pretty thirsty though.

Just as I arrived at the community hall it started raining. My dad was there, trying to take a photo with the camera switched off! Also, why, oh why were the women’s toilets up some stairs?! 😀

My estimated time for this section was always going to be prone to a bit more error, so I was moderately happy to see I was only 15 minutes slower than planned, despite how hard it had felt. I hadn’t intended to stop too long here, but decided I needed more soup, sandwiches and rice. 15 minutes later it had stopped raining and I was ready to go. I was now leaving exactly on schedule, 16:15.

Section 5 – Beddgelert to Nantgwynant (Cnicht)

Here comes Cnicht, looks a bit greyer, like my mood!

Somehow the break had seized my legs up and I found it hard to get running again. I felt a bit sick and something was going on in my left eye. I made use of the public toilets before the road section, but still couldn’t decide what I should do about stomach – had I not eaten enough? Drunk enough? Eaten too much too fast?

My eye was still bothering me and I realised the contact lens was not sitting as it should. Dammit, what would Izzy do?! I ran to the final junction hoping for a car with a wing mirror, but there was none. I had 4 options: do nothing and hope it settled, take it out and try and put it back in, take them both out and run with nothing, take it out and replace with a new one (buried deep in my bag somewhere!). I decided to try the second option. I couldn’t tell if it was the right way round and it was sticky and dry. A pair of runners caught me up and Sarah was very good at helping me get it back in again without a mirror. It stung like mad (dirty, salty, suncream fingers?!) but that made my eye water, which helped rehydrate it!

Off we went, at roughly the same pace. I hoped to stay with this pair, but when I stopped to refill my water bottle they got ahead and I just couldn’t close the gap. I still felt so sick and every time I put an effort in I felt dizzy, hot and sweaty again. I had to back off. Another runner gave me two polo mints and some chat up the final push, for which I am very grateful. We diverted the easier way to the summit then over the top into the boggy descent. I recce’d this in the dark and it was much easier in daylight. Despite that, the markers were very sparse (this whole section had been subject to some interference) and I went slightly awry once. Back on the main path and I was descending with increasingly sore blisters.

Someone new came up and I was able to chat a bit to Chris, which was good. Andy bounced up the road to meet us and at that second, one of the blisters burst and it was as if I had been stabbed in the heel with a hot poker. My new friend ran off and I limped into the aid station, where Andy had brought my drop bag out again. It was lucky I had asked them to bring this as it had my glasses in, so I could ditch the lenses. I also peeled off compression socks to apply a couple of blister plasters and tried to eat.

My head went down a bit here, thinking my ‘race’ was over (though I had no intention of stopping). I had taken half an hour longer than planned and was now stuck here for another half hour, treating blisters and close to tears. In reality, I wonder how much my mood dip affected the next leg – after all – my plan had been a ‘best case’ and I wasn’t that far off it.

My dad and Andy exchanged glances as I was determined to set off again but looked terrible (apparently). Several people had come and gone and I was fast slipping backwards through the field. I was really hobbling as I started, but knew from experience the pain would probably ease.

Section 6 – Nantgwynant to Llanberis (Y Lliwedd and Snowdon via Watkin and Miners’ paths)

Again, I was feeling pretty rough. Sections I had run in training I was only managing a walk, and when the path tipped upwards, I couldn’t put an effort in. My legs were fine but the nausea and dizziness kept returning. I allowed myself little micro breaks to stretch out. Even one of my shoulders was getting sore from pole use!

It was now dark and I could see the lights of other runners way, way up on the ridge above me and it felt as if they would never get closer. But eventually they did and soon I was on the scramble. It was good to be distracted and I actually found this OK. Again, we could see the lights of people now far below in the valley and dotted up the hillside as they did their final ascent of Snowdon on the Miner’s path.

The descent to Llyn Llydaw was one of the slowest and most tortuous I have done. The blisters were much more painful going down than up and I no longer trusted my legs to hold me up properly. Little steps looked like looming precipices. However, I was still making forward progress. Ally stayed with me to the end of the techy section, including a part where I may have whimpered, fearing I would slide down a slab of rock and down the mountainside! Finally I got to the easier part of the path and even managed to attempt some sort of run. I had to keep stopping to pee quite excessively though, which was slowing me down!

There was an ‘emergency’ aid station at Llyn Llydaw, where I got a couple of snacks and pushed on. I saw them note down the time. 01:00. Yikes. Next up, 3 drunk teenagers explaining to me how they were going to be the first alcoholics up Snowdon on an impromptu expedition with just their iPhone torches and asking how long it would take, was it this way and was this the steep part? Er no … I wondered if I should be assertive telling them to turn around but decided they would do that for themselves well before they got anywhere near the top. At least it encouraged me into a run to leave them behind!

A few people came past and I really longed for chat and company as I was now suffering from sleep deprivation. However, I just did not have the oomph to keep up and that frustrating dizziness was still there. I had to keep adjusting my zip and hood as I switched rapidly from too hot to too cold.

Finally, the top came and it was just one long run down to the finish. I looked back and couldn’t see anyone close behind. I resolved that no more people would pass me now. Somehow I had a revival, and started running properly. I texted Andy to make sure he’d get to the finish at the right time. The cuckoo woke up and reminded me it was morning again. I blasted through groups of mostly inattentive walkers heading up for the sunrise. I went under the railway, past the halfway house. I stumbled on a rock but saved the fall with my poles. Then it seemed to go on and on and on … I thought I was nearly there?! But I had decided to go for it and go for it I would. The road eventually came, horrendously steep on sore legs, then a trip round the back of the houses and into town.

I ran down the finish chute and fell in a heap …

Finish

I did make it in within 24 hours, finally clocking 23:41. However, I had lost over 3h compared to my plan on the last section – a combination of darkness, blisters, sleepiness and probably my mental state. Andy insisted I ate straight away, although I just longed to get my shoes and socks off and lie down. On my way to the toilet I more or less fainted, so my body was definitely having a meltdown!

We woke up dad and he came to collect us, so then I could get into a proper bed and sleep for a few hours…

Reflections

I did the race a lot slower than I had wanted and was disappointed with my time. I came 99th out of 129 finishers, 166 starters, 191 on entry list – results here. I had put so much effort into planning and preparation, so I felt deflated. On the other hand, I had seen it through to the end and learnt a lot! It was also an incredible and unforgettable experience.

It’s hard to compare this race to others. It’s not just the ascent for the distance (6000m in 89km – strava), but also the ruggedness of the terrain. A few more experienced people were commenting it wasn’t like anything else they’d done, even in the Alps. Also on the positive side, recovery seems to have been pretty good. The blisters are healing fast (they’re not the worst I’ve had!), the soreness was gone by Thursday and I haven’t noticed any ‘injuries’ as yet – even the phantom pre-race knee pain hasn’t made an appearance.

I can’t decide what had the biggest factor on performance, though I suspect I set off at ‘full health’ pace and was affected later by the lingering virus. On top of that though, there are almost certainly a few other things I could change. I’d attach my number on my bag somewhere – it was handy to see timings but it was massive and felt funny on my tummy. Food – I’d take time to ‘cook’ a proper dehydrated meal at one of the feed stations, to fuel up and settle my stomach (I had one but didn’t use it). I probably also need to find a way to eat more on the way. Drink – more water, weaker energy solution, maybe ditch the coke (but never had problems with it before). Blisters – I’d had hot spots before that didn’t turn into anything even after 12+hours. However, 15 or 16 hours in they were causing real trouble, so I should have looked after them sooner. Pacing – undecided on this one! Maybe set off a bit slower. Illness – I’d try and start at 100% health, but this is pretty difficult to control! Photos – I clearly stopped taking these the tireder I was and the darker it got 😀

This was Michael Jones’ / Apex Running first event as race director. There were a few small things I’d change for next year, but on the whole the race was very well organised. I’m ambivalent about race flags as I think people can be too reliant on them, but the course was mostly very well marked. Feed stations had a wide variety of food and didn’t run out – surplus was later donated to charity, which was a nice touch. Volunteers were unfailingly helpful and cheerful, even though some of them must have been in place for 24 hours or more! We got a decent T-shirt, a fantastic Silva dry bag, a buff and a discount at Joe Brown’s shops, which had lots of things you need for a race like this. If I’d been anywhere near them, the prizes even went down to 5th. Finally, the course was nothing if not memorable and certainly a challenge! If you had done your research and knew what you were taking on, it was awesome. Short race video here.

Thanks to everyone involved, from organiser to volunteers, other racers and my supporters. Here’s to next year – I’ve got unfinished business!

Perfect pre race food, macaroni and custard for pudding (following pizza for mains!)

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