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!
Well, I am extremely out of the race reporting habit, despite managing a few races like Malta swimrun, Marmot dark mountains and some local trail events! Maybe I will come back to them, but I didn’t want to miss a write up of this year’s Open 5, not least because it is one I have been looking forward to for some time … more on that later!
This event was relatively close to my mum’s house, so I went down to stay with her. Lucy was otherwise indisposed and despite asking a couple of people, I ended up racing solo. I actually put a bit more effort into preparation than of late, checking maps from previous races in the same area and making sure I wasn’t about to make the same mistakes as 2018…
The weather was somewhat ‘wild’, and we drove through some big puddles to get there. A bit of rain and wind doesn’t phase me though, and I have raced in worse! After some careful map study, I had a plan and set off.
This race was unusual in that we had to bike/run/bike because the run was at a remote transition far from the centre. Pre race emails said it was about 20 minutes direct there. I was dubious since even Google suggested it would take the best part of 50 minutes. I thought I would ‘play it safe’ by going round the road at the bottom anyway, picking up a couple of out and back controls on the way.
After the first one I took a shortcut back to re-join the road, which was already a mistake as it was slow going, muddy and full of gates. Then I hit the river … well it was a river where the road should be. I walked a bit with my bike on my back, then rode a bit … and decided any more controls were out of the question. 1h25 minutes later I got to transition. I wished I had gone over the top – off road and uphill but probably more ride-able, given the circumstances!
Hey hum, the run would be better. But it took me a while to distinguish the first footpath from the river. And then I ‘ran’ along in quite deep water for a bit. Eventually I emerged onto a road and headed to a control in Goredale Scar. I found a couple of guys looking everywhere for the control. I was slightly adventurous peering over some rocks and found it, but wasn’t about to risk getting it – until a chap called Adam bounded in and leapt straight over 😮 So I decided to follow – but with a helping hand!
That was very adventurous. I was running well and was soon looping back to transition. I made a mistake missing the giant cliff I had to go round at Malham Cove, which was my first run mistake. Then I wasted the best part of 10 minutes trying to cross the river to get onto a path to another 20 pointer – I gave up in the end and missed it out. Another time when being in a pair might have been helpful …
Then the last control wasn’t where I expected . Along with group of other people we wandered back and forth over the bridge, bewildered. It had been moved from an island to a tree; we were told that at transition, but where was it? By luck, I found it just down the road, but I think it was not quite where the map suggested (on a permissive path rather than the public footpath).
Argh so much time had slipped through my fingers at the end. Back on the bike and I had another plan, doing a loop round on the hill with wind at my back.
So again, I tried to make conservative decisions, I really did. (Can you see where this is going yet?). I missed one out and back and then a second. As I did this I said to someone passing – I haven’t got time for that … I got a funny look as he stopped to peer at the map. Later I realised that was the way I should have been going…
I was looking forward to going downhill with a tailwind all the way home.
Unfortunately I turned out there was also some uphill (details, details) and some slightly tricky navigation that had me doubting my course. The descent down Threshfield Moor was a delight, interrupted only by the occasional drainage channel.
As I popped out onto the road something nasty happened with my back brake and I was already out of time. And now I had 5km into a headwind. EEK. A male pair overtook and I slipped in behind, clinging on for dear life. I was still over 22 minutes late. That might be a record for me…
So, my tactics were all wrong again, I wished I had done the off road hill option at the start and the shortcut at the end, although I did not regret getting some fun mountain biking in. With so many penalty points I was only good enough for 3rd.
However for me, the main event this weekend was my 20,000 CAREER POINTS! I’ve been working towards this for ages, just scraping over last year earning my 20,001th point. I join only three others who have racked up this many, and had my ‘first ever Open 5’ map at the ready – though it was actually an Open 5+ involving a swim to a control and some ghyll scrambling. Wait, not so different after all 😉
Many thanks to James and all of his team at Open Adventure for all the fabulous events over the years. I have been to so many different places, had a whole heap of adventures and made new friends. I still miss my winter monthly dose and the opportunity to do something better ‘next time’ – a year is too long! 😀 Until next time!
24.7km trek / 8h55 / finish time 15:55 Thursday
A bit of a false start to this stage as we set off down the road the wrong way – transition wasn’t marked on the map in quite the right place!! That’s our story anyway, and we’re sticking to it.
We finally set off up the right path, with me still munching my breakfast and Chloe managing a lot of ankle pain. At transition we had been given information that teams were taking 3h to get to the rafting from the start of the kayak. Andrea and Jon had calculated that if we could just motor this trek, taking opportunities to jog the flats and downhills, we had a chance of making it after all.
We got into a rhythm, being smoother and helping each other with snacks and drinks and kit adjustments to minimise stopping time. Although this was the stage we had targeted for doing the long course over the Five Sisters of Kintail, we were again short course, but the route here did not lack spectacular views. The path was easy going and we made good time.
As we had to head off-piste it got harder, but I was on fire. I powered up past the waterfall with Andrea and was springing ahead on the downhill to find the best path for Chloe and Jon, whose ankle was also now sore. I thought we might make the rafting after all, and expected the second half to be easier.
As we crossed the road past the Cluanie Inn it felt we passed into a different stage. Andrea and Chloe were able to speed walk whilst Jon lagged behind and me somewhere in between. I tried everything I thought I could to get us back together and moving at a better pace. Near the first ‘top’ Chloe needed to stop and change her socks before she got blisters from the accumulating grit inside. She wanted us to go ahead and she would catch us, but we refused.
I was hopping about on the inside, worrying about the time and sensing it just slipping through our fingers. But I did not want to snap or stress anyone out. Andrea took some of Jon’s kit and we got moving again. But now we had to either go the long way up a bit more hill and further on a path, or cut across.
We followed a team taking the direct line, through peat hags and rough ground, down to a river that proved too deep to wade. As we walked along a bit we were about to decide to stuff it and swim, when the other team found a spot to wade only up to mid thigh level 🙂
The path when we re-joined it was good. The weather had turned glorious. I wanted to run down the other side but could not cajole this out of everyone. As we got to the road, we walked when we needed to run. Chloe’s partner appeared on his motorbike to say hello. It was emotional for her.
It was just before 16:00. The guy in transition told us people were making it to the rafting from kayak put-in in about 3.5h and we might just do it. We got out fairly quickly, though not as fast as the team that arrived with us. We walked down to the river when we perhaps could have jogged. We faffed about getting in and setting off.
2.8km total portage / 1h35
6.2km walk / 2h15
26.5km total kayak / 5h / finish 04:20 Friday
Although we were going down a river now, this part wasn’t straightforward either. There were some mini rapids – we nearly came out on the first set but got a lot better at coordinating and steering through the second! Unfortunately there was some more portage where Andrea and I were working our hardest to get through whilst the tendons in my wrist complained loudly and Jon and Chloe struggled.
Back on the water I was asking Andrea “where is the urgency in the other boat?”. She had no answer. We decided to offer a tow, but it was refused; ‘we are keeping up fine’. On the roller coaster of emotions I was now dejected as I knew we would not make it, our speed was just not there. We soft paddled and kept together as we made our way along Loch Garry, with Chloe and Jon falling asleep and hitting each other with their paddles.
As we neared the end of the loch everyone was hallucinating as it got gloomy. The trees formed strange animals and carvings and it was hard to keep our eyes open. I’m not sure we had warned Chloe enough about this!!
Jon suddenly came alive saying we might just make it, but we couldn’t. We arrived at 20:26 – 26 minutes too late.
Later, on the way home, I spoke to Chloe about this. It turned out she wasn’t aware of the urgency – she thought we were home and dry and there was no rush. She also believed they were keeping up, not realising we were waiting. Clearly something had gone wrong with communications and I went over this a thousand times after the race. I take responsibility for not getting us there in time. You could lose 26 minutes anywhere – the nav error on the bike for one. But I also felt I should have understood what was happening better and either found a way to keep everyone motivated and focused or established a shared agreement to give up on it. Learn and move on!
Missing the rafting prompted a slight hypothermic meltdown in Chloe. This was caused by a combination of being wet, tired, not moving, the disappointment of missing the rafting and then being told we had to walk 5km and wait until 90 minutes were up before we could continue. It was all too much and she ended up inside the bivvy bag with Jon, putting on every item of dry clothing she had. Whilst Jon and Andrea looked after Chloe, I shivered and got the kayaks ready for transport. Thanks to the marshals here for helping, and the team who provided some hot water.
Finally we set off, trudging into the dark in search of food in Invergarry. Unfortunately, Invergarry is not a hot bed of food options and by the time we arrived just after 22:00 and stumbled into the pub, we were greeted by a barman who declared he could give us tea and crisps, but he was shutting up in 20 minutes just in case we thought we might fall asleep in the corner. A team arriving after us were given equally short thrift as they had takeaway teas shoved in their hands and were told to leave.
We made the most of what we had, then decided we had to sleep. As luck would have it, we found a road bridge over the path where it was dry with a smoothish surface. We got into pairs into two bivvy bags, set the alarms for 20 minutes (or not) and went to sleep.
As I spooned Chloe I was violently shaking with cold. I was still in my shorty wetsuit, still damp. I became aware of Jon and Andrea talking about it being time to get up. This was just about my worst moment of the race. I really had no notion of whether I was asleep or awake, and kept looking at my watch, unable to decipher what it was telling me. I got my bag back together and trailed behind in a daze as we made our way back to the water.
It turned out later that Andrea’s watch had misted up so she couldn’t see it properly setting the alarm, and I had managed to set the timer for 20h instead of 20 minutes 😮 . We had slept for an hour and a half.
The rest of the kayak was an uneventful paddle down to and along the Caledonian Canal. Chloe taught us some crazy round involving fish and chips and vinegar, dustbins and bottles of beer, which we executed very badly. After a couple of ‘easy’ exits and portage round the locks, we arrived in Fort Augustus and gladly abandoned the kayaks for the last time!
In transition we had a nice corner spot. I found my second of three ticks of the race attached near my eye … and we assembled our bikes ready to go. It was late in the race and despite any rules, people seemed to be sleeping where they fell on the paths outside the door.
Episode 4 – Official Film
61.7km / biking / 6h25 / finish 13:50 Thursday
Despite faffing with lights, the darkness had lifted by the time we got away. This stage was actually the best mountain biking we had done all race and one of my favourite legs.
I was keeping an eye on navigation in the woods as we followed the ‘Great Glen Way’. At some point we ended up on the high walker’s route, which added a climb and some technicality. On a normal day it would be my preferred option, but I’m not sure it was what we needed at that moment!
I think at this point we were all a bit tired and fractious and were not riding harmoniously. We stopped for 30 minutes of kip somewhere, and again for our first café 30km from the end. The wasps were out in force and we did not hang around, thanks to some speedy service.
The final descent was one to savour, swooping down from high ground it went on and on and was a delight to ride. It landed us in the centre of Inverness, where we negotiated the crowds through the final few hundred metres on a section we had checked out before we left. I’m glad we did as we could weave our way directly to the finish line.
We were greeted by race directors with medals and miniature whisky from Glenmorangie. Jonny was there to do some facebook live videos and make sure we got some pictures! We all made our way over to eat pizza and relax over a meal for the first time in five days…
Episode 5 – Official Film
On reflection, this race was not as straightforward ‘fun’ as the one I did in Wales. The rafting deadline loomed large all race and we were under pressure to make the short course, with no room to correct for any miscalculations. It was so disappointing to miss it anyway after all that focus! To play to my own strengths and favoured sports I’d have loved more mountain biking and less portaging 😉
Team dynamics were also very different, with somewhat more conflict and less cohesion. However, racing with that little sleep under such difficult conditions isn’t exactly conducive to harmonious socialising. Everyone laboured under different hardships ranging from sore throats, diarrhoea all race (!), swollen ankles, blistered mouths and feet and who knows what else.
Having said all that, we resolved any issues and made it to the finish line together. We did really well, finishing 12th overall thanks in large part to our early strategic decisions. I learnt a lot and we achieved a lot, though it is still hard to take it all in! Some of the places on the trek stages were incredible and it is amazing to think how crazy some of the race was and what we went through with those kayaks. An unforgettable experience!
For my own part I was delighted to escape with ‘normal’ 5 day race swelling, a single blister and sore tendons in one wrist. All subsided quickly. Worse, was picking up a probable flu virus a week after finishing, which I still haven’t been able to completely shake! The race reminded me how much I do like adventure racing after several years of swimrun focus. Maybe I should look for another one to do … 😉
Many thanks to John Ovenden and support from Lochland Runner, to our live social media updaters Andy and Jonny, everyone who sent us motivational trail mail, the race organisers under Open Adventure banner James, Tom and Paul plus a special one from me to my physio Graham who over the last 10 months somehow helped me rehab my hamstring tendon sufficiently to take part with no pain.
Finally, thanks to my teammates Jon, Andrea and Chloe for being up for going on such an epic journey!
If you like numbers, this is how our race shaped up in totals – distances, times – yes, there is a spreadsheet! You can see our route here, just select our team on the right.
13km trek / 8h45
26km trek / 10h36 / finish stage 16:50 Wednesday
And so we set off up our first big mountain. Everyone was tackling An Teallach. I haven’t been there before, but it turns out it is big, scrambly and has vertiginously steep sides! We were keen to make the most of remaining daylight. As we ascended it got windier and colder. Soon I was wearing all of my clothes save one emergency thermal jacket, including my waterproof trousers. I also had my first ‘moment’ as I felt woozy and incapable of climbing a mountain. This time handing over some kit to packhorse Andrea and taking a couple of gels worked wonders.
It got dark and then Chloe had her ‘moment’, finding the exposure bringing back some difficult memories. We pulled together and made slow but steady progress until we were onto the boulder field, clambering down to the track to the bothy everyone had spotted on the map earlier. We hadn’t slept for about 45h by this point and tempers frayed a bit as we all badly needed some rest. I was worried we would find the place full, but there was only one way to find out.
It was indeed busy, but we found space on the wooden floor and crashed out for 2h, with Chloe opting to brave any midges in the more spacious outside quarters 😀 .
Up we got and we decided to go for at least one of the long course controls. It wasn’t significant extra distance, though it was significant extra climb. It was also intriguingly named ‘tennis court’ and I am a sucker for funny place names.
We were all somewhat muted to start. I was slow as we ascended and also stopped to put protective gaffer tape on hot spots developing on my feet. I wasn’t up for blisters like those I experienced during UTS… There was some ‘debate’ about which way to get to the top, slightly confused by some hints we got at a briefing. In the end, Andrea took off up a gully, with Jon chasing after to check it out and Chloe and I gingerly bringing up the rear. I was afraid of scree or scrambling at the top, and as it was we were holding onto grass as we climbed. Not the most secure, but it was OK in the end.
As you will see later, going for this control was possibly a strategic mistake in terms of race position. However, it was also one of the most memorable and amazing parts of the course that we did – so this time I am happy that we got to experience this regardless. The ridge walk was incredible, and the ‘tennis court’ itself looked like someone had just come and sliced the top off the mountain.
On the descent I came alive a bit and even ran. Or maybe jogged. Further down the views of the river cutting through Gleann Bianasdail creating swirling rock formations with waterfalls and pools looked very inviting. I’d like to go back to that and explore. The beauty was only marred as my ‘usual blister’ underneath my little toe burst causing every step to be agony for a while.
After negotiating ‘paths not on the map’ and a slightly sarcastic comment to another team about my ability to identify a graveyard (sorry), we finally arrived in Kinlochewe.
This was the first time we had access to our tent at a vaguely sensible time for sleeping, and we had to put it up and stay in it for 20 minutes anyway. We got ourselves ready for the next stage then all clambered in for a couple of hours kip. I wondered if we should have more, or less? But it was too complicated to think. As the rain hammered on the roof, and a French team swore at the midges outside, we drifted off. Not the best sleep, but we needed it.
Episode 2 – Official Film
69.3km / biking / 7h40 / finish 05:10 Thursday
We set off just after 21:30 in the dark. It was now obligatory for us to short course this stage. Before we started we had hoped to do more than this here, sketching out a couple of different options. But course changes and our slow speed meant it wouldn’t have been sensible anyway.
After leaving all the map reading to Chloe and Jon on the foot stage, it was my turn again. I confidently took the first turning, with Andrea stopping to check the map. As we waited for her to catch back up she appeared, a bit shaken from a fall as she had tried to adjust her lights. We were all tired.
Peering at the map, I had in mind ‘just follow the double track alongside the loch for about 5km’. I was trying to prove myself by navigating swiftly and keep us moving. Mistake. We passed a junction and hesitated. ‘It says cycle trails this way’ someone said … and I pushed on as that was just a footpath and we wanted the track, right? We were going up and up in a forest and it didn’t feel right. But I stubbornly carried on, not wanting to faff about. As the distance came up, we emerged from the forest. I looked properly at the map and immediately realised my error. We should have taken the path ARGH.
Jon went to investigate a possible joining path and we dithered, eventually turning back on ourselves. I thought it would be quicker just to descend at high speed to the junction, but the team were lagging behind. My adrenaline and drive to fix this was not matched! As I agitated I was annoyed with myself – not a mistake I’d have made in the daylight, and quite costly, maybe half an hour.
It was slow going along the path and I was now doubting myself about where to look for the right turn. Then there came a horrible noise from my bike. Clank! Clank! I stopped, turned the pedals. Clank! Clank! I spun the wheel without the pedals. Clank! Clank! It seemed to come from my bottom bracket but the wheel was the only bit turning. Chloe and Jon came to help – concluding it must be a disaster with my hub. Then we suddenly spotted an extremely large nail embedded in my tyre and hitting the chainstay on every revolution …
We got it out, and Chloe put her thumb on the hissing hole. By the time Jon produced a magic bung gun it had sealed, but we whopped it in anyway. With much relief we were on our way.
Nav was tricky and now I was very careful. There were many paths not marked on the map but once we got onto the Coulin Pass it was straightforward and easy going. I had run this in the opposite direction many years ago on Celtman! But remembered little!
At some point it started raining. And then it was like riding under a shower head. We were on a road by now, and my new coat did an admirable job of keeping me dry, but it was still a bit epic. Near Strathcarron we happened upon a pub with umbrellas outside. We stopped to get extra layers on, but the lady who ran it waved us inside. She had already closed and hadn’t heard about the race before a team stopped to talk to her, but was encouraging us all to make use of the toilets and the back room to warm up and change. What a lovely lady!
Shortly, we were back ascending on a fire road before going over a high point on a rough track. I was feeling optimistic because it was all downhill back to a road from here, and despite being rocky and muddy it was mostly rideable. We went in pairs; Jon and I going ahead a bit, then watching the lights of Chloe and Andrea catching us before we set off again.
The riding came to an abrupt end however, as the path got narrower and harder going. We were forced to walk again, tripping and stumbling as we pushed our bikes on through the dark.
We had made a calculation of how much time we needed from the end of the next trek to get to the rafting on time. We thought a generous 5-6h, and by calculating backwards as we stood on that dark wet hillside, I knew we needed to be starting the next trek right about now…
When we emerged on the road all somewhat the worse for wear, we felt the need for a team hug before we could get moving again. About 10 seconds later Chloe’s light went flat (she was having a nightmare with batteries all race!) but we swapped things around to get us all legal and going again.
More road, pausing at Eilean Donan castle and quickly locating the control by looking closely at the map and reading the description instead of heading straight to the castle (we had seen a team searching there for a long time…)
Next transition was difficult. It was now light, but raining, and we weren’t allowed indoors with our kit bags. We dismantled the bikes outside first. I found a seat clamp on the floor and asked the team if it was one of ours. “No!” said everyone. I wasn’t so sure. Jon and I checked – it fitted Chloe’s bike perfectly, it was next to her box … we quietly put it back on and headed indoors.
Teams were getting crotchety with each other as bags were moved and they rummaged around in them. I had to go back and forth for things I forgot first time, and despite instructions I am sure some people were using the showers in the toilets as I queued for an age just to relieve myself.
Before long though, we were ready to set off again on foot for the final trek.
Episode 3 – official film
It has taken me a while to start this report – to let the race sink in and to get over the dreaded lurgy sufficiently to have energy to write!
We were number 26, Team Lochland Runner – Andrea, Chloe, Jon and myself. We started the week well by managing to arrive in Inverness only 5 minutes apart. I had come up with Chloe and we had chatted the whole way, making wild guesses about what the course might hold in store.
The weekend was spent registering, getting maps, going to briefings, planning, sorting out kit and most importantly – eating! Pizza! Tensions did rise a bit as we fully grasped the scale of the kayaking element relative to everything else (though we had been warned) and there was a bit of drama when all our buoyancy aids failed the ‘test’. Luckily, we were 4 of many and plans were put in place to hire some out to us.
As we pored over the maps and route book a couple of key things became apparent. There were time cut offs for both a canyoning stage on Tuesday afternoon and a rafting stage at 8pm on Thursday. Both carried significant time penalties and we wanted to make them both. The rest of the race was planned around this, using the information given about likely leg times and our own experience to estimate what we thought we could do. Our plan was always to short course, but we did hope to do some of the long course options such as extra biking near Applecross and the Five Sisters trek.
After an early alarm on Monday morning, we all found ourselves on coaches heading for Dunrobin castle. It was a slightly midgey and cool wait with some confusion over the actual start time. Oh, just me? OK then!!
Episode 0 – official film
Run and kayak stage:
5.1km run / 35 minutes / finish 09:05 Monday
19.4km paddle / 3h25 / finish 12:45 Monday
The 5km run through beautiful woods and a gorge got us nicely warmed up before we jumped in the kayaks for our first taste of the sea – this time on the east coast. We were headed for Glenmorangie Distillery. The journey was fairly uneventful, apart from our first experiences with the right-veering kayaks. I developed some sort of combination of right sweep strokes and missing left strokes to keep us vaguely on course.
77.7km / 4h35 / finish 18:10 Monday
We had decided right from the beginning to do all of this leg short course. The only temptation to go longer was the fact that this would mean we were riding on roads most of the way to the next transition. Pleasant, quiet, low traffic roads; but tarmac all the same. Our rationale was that we needed time in hand to get through the next kayak stage and make it to the canyoning before the cut off.
We shot off like hares, and Chloe had to get us back on track at a more sensible pace.
Transition was a bit chaotic as we had arrived earlier than expected and the marshals hadn’t quite got a system sorted. We had beaten the first long course team in, but they were gone before you could say ‘that was fast’. As it was, I got a shock to the system as Andrea whipped us all into transition shape and we were in and out a lot faster than I had experienced in similar races. She’s raced with some top teams though, and deemed us too slow! We had a lot of information to take in before we could leave, with course changes to the kayaking adding in more distance and extra portage in order to keep us nearer the mainland in forecast strong winds.
18km total portage / 9h
46.1km total kayak / 11h10 / finish 15:55 Tuesday
We paddled off on a loch heading west into a glorious sunset. The scenery was magnificent. Although adventure racing novice Chloe was pondering whether she liked ‘AR’ yet due to the lack of adventurous biking so far, she did have to admit that as we stopped for the first portage in the dark and rain, that this wasn’t an experience she’d have had otherwise…
The changes meant this leg was going to take longer than planned. There was an optional run up Suilven which we had originally considered, but we decided now it was best to press on and make use of any time saved later in the race. Doing this plus the short course bike turned out to be a kayak-leg saver, though we didn’t know it at the time.
The first portage was only a taster of what was to come. A we inched towards the coast, we lugged a pair of 30kg kayaks, plus portage trolleys and kit over rough rocky ground in the dark and rain. We were being careful not to drag them. At times we were ferrying the kit separately in relay, with all four of us coming back to carry each boat the next section and trying not to twist our ankles on boulders or to disappear thigh deep in bog as we staggered blindly forward. When we could, we used leashes attached to the front, Andrea and I pulling our boat like shire horses over the heather. As some of the long course teams overtook us we took note of their technique …
When we reached the road it was bliss to put the kayaks on their trolleys and roll them along. In no time it seemed we were getting back in. We had half hoped for a sleep but we were wet and the two of us without dry suits got cold very quickly as soon as we stopped moving (and this was despite me wearing a shorty wetsuit). We got back in, quite literally for me as I lost my footing and was dunked, seeing my paddle nearly disappear down the river.
Finally we were back on the sea, now all the way across the country and on the west coast. This was near the Summer Isles; apparently a mecca for paddlers, but we couldn’t see anything except the dark hulks of land mass and the occasional shooting star.
Taking the risk of heading to the spot where the strobe light of a team in front had disappeared, we landed safely at the next headland, only to be greeted by a new form of portage hell. We couldn’t make progress over the bushes, so opted for the river. As it we ascended it progressed from merely rocky to mini rapids that I wouldn’t want to walk up, even without a kayak in tow. We had to anchor ourselves on rocks and haul them up in stages. We eventually gave up, clambered out on the other side and were lucky to find a path where the going was ‘easier’ before hitting the road at Achnahaird, scene of some of my childhood holidays.
It was not over yet though!
Another long sea crossing awaited. Although we could now see the various islands, we were being battered by the wind and waves. The boast continuously turned right, which was getting tedious. Our instructions were to head to within 100m of Isle Martin where a boat might indicate the turning point. I was facing a mutiny as the team got cold and fed up seeing us paddle past the place we were heading to on the other shore before we could turn and go back up.
Crossing the ferry line at our best estimate of a right angle, we neared the far shore and turned straight into the wind and tide. I was only focused on our landing spot when Andrea announced we weren’t moving anywhere. “It’s just perspective”, I said. I was wrong. We decided after another 15 minutes of fruitless paddling to head straight into the shore and see if we could walk along. Even getting there took an humongous effort and I started to panic. When we arrived we were faced with large unwalkable boulders. We considered taking a penalty if needed and getting the boats straight onto the bottom of the track marked on the map. We were desperate. But the wind suddenly dropped, the white horses disappeared and we leapt back in to paddle round the shoreline and say hello to some waiting cows.
Only to face even worse portage hell!! We must have only been in purgatory before! Where did they find this stuff? This time there were rocks, it was steep and it took all 4 of us to climb the first section. Then it was heather and uneven ground up a hill, as we dragged and swore. I practically threw ours over the fence at the top. Well, ‘threw’ is an exaggeration. We bumped down the other side for what should have been an easy downwind paddle to transition, but was a race against time to get to the new canyoning cut off (though it had subsequently been extended). It didn’t feel easy. And I still couldn’t steer us in a straight line.
After some face pulling and head shaking at Paul, a hug from James stopped some close tears from me and we were so glad to abandon those boats…
Many of the following teams got stuck close to where we did and were transported by coach from Ullapool incurring a hefty time penalty. Our choice to short course early and get through the kayaking combined with a bit of weather luck had bumped us up the standings.
We all wriggled into full wetsuits and headed up the hill for a fun interlude of canyoning, including a jump which had preyed on Andrea’s mind, an abseil down a waterfall and another where we dropped into a pool off the bottom of a rope and something I forget the name of but involved not quite whizzing down a wire and having to pull yourself over with the danger of getting your hands munched! I battered myself here and there on the way down but it was refreshing.
The transition was the best of the whole race – a great big barn with loads of space and places to sit 🙂
We had to be out before the time cut off if we wanted to consider any of the long course. As it turned out it might have been better race-wise if we had had this choice imposed on us, but we didn’t and I am not renowned for my cautiousness!
And so we set off on foot into the dying embers of day 2 (Tuesday).
If you want to go straight to part 2 – it’s here!
Episode 1 – official film
Team Lochland Runner all got together for a training weekend recently. Included on the itinerary were sharing our top tips for expedition adventure racing and planning our strategy! Chloe is new to expedition events, but we have all been in different types of races and can always learn from each other.
I thought I’d share these in case you’re interested in the kinds of things we’re thinking about, or are looking for inspiration! Let us know if you have any questions or other top tips you would share 🙂
This is one we talked about many times! I for one like to know where the next meal is coming from and don’t go anywhere without snacks. However, in an expedition race you have to think about what will keep well in your kit bag for a week and make sure there are savoury items on the menu. We may also need to take opportunities that present themselves on the way. We’re just concerned about how well-endowed the race route will be with handy cafes! Since finding hidden cafe gems is one of my special skills, I will have to make sure I don’t spend the pre-race weekend researching detours …
With me being vegetarian and Chloe vegan, it is an extra challenge to think of good ideas and this is still a work in progress. Knowing that hot water is usually available in transition, some of our savoury ideas so far are:
Instant noodles, instant mashed potato, cup a soup, couscous, rice cakes, oatcakes with peanut butter, meals from Tentmeals, Firepot and Summit to Eat (I can vouch for at least one of these being very edible…), German rye bread, flavoured cooked rice pouches…
Sweet things are easier as we can use gels and bars and energy drinks in moderation. Lochland Runner are also helping us out here with Born products. Variety will be key!
… or more specifically, blister prevention!! Everyone has their own theories on this. Our consensus seemed to be:
- Get shoes and socks off feet quickly in transition to let them air
- Have crocs or similar to wear in transition
- Either talc them or moisturise them
- Treat hotspots quickly en route with either Compeed or gaffer tape
- Avoid woolly socks (I find tight fitting, quick drying compression socks work well)
- Stay hydrated
- Have a spare pair of running shoes to change pressure points
- Take sterilised scalpel blades and wipes to burst any big blisters that do appear…
CLOTHING AND KIT
Our discussion about this was more general, as we have to use what we are comfortable in and have tested well. Ideas we shared were:
- Take shoes for paddling, especially if there is any portage or walking involved (which we now know there will be!)
- Take two different pairs of shoes for running. If one pair are a bit bigger it can help with swollen feet later in the race
- Expect to be cold … colder than you expect! The effects of tiredness, night time and low food intake will all affect how warm we feel. I am still surprised how many of the photos from the race in Wales feature trousers and waterproofs …
- Have spare brake pads for your specific brakes
- Have enough battery power for your lights
- Pre-pack food into bags that will last about one stage so you can just take one out in transition
- Have a heavy duty waterproof bag to shove your backpack in and strap down on paddling stages
- Pre pack clothing into clear, labelled bags like short sleeves, long sleeves, shorts, trousers
- Pack as much as you need in transition bag, but no more! The more you have to rummage through or choose between, the longer transitions will take
- A tick remover per team is essential – they just love the damp Scottish heather and bracken. You need to keep checking and get them out within 24h to minimise risk of Lyme’s disease
- Caffeine tablets of some kind might come in handy as you pull your fourth all-nighter in a row!
- Take lip balm, you will not regret it
Well … I obviously can’t reveal too much here, it’s top secret 😀
However, my advice is to definitely discuss this and make sure everyone has the same idea about what you’re trying to achieve. You also need to be realistic about your collective abilities and what to expect from the course so that you can make smart decisions. Although you can’t predict what will happen, having a basic fall back plan and common goals will help make decision making easier.
I’d say things to think about include:
- Any aims for finishing position in the field
- Long course / short course
- How much sleep to expect, when and where
- Pacing and degree of ambition for different stages
- Towing and kit distribution
- Navigators (lead / back up and in different disciplines)
- Transition process (what order to change, eat, sleep), including ‘checkout’
- Team roles
Finally, always keep an eye on the details and don’t forget about your hairdo – no washing for a week with plenty of rain, sweat and river or sea water mixed in! I always go super short – I’d better go and get booked in for a cut 🙂
This year my main race will be Itera Expedition race in Scotland in early August. It’s for a team of 4 and we’ll be on the move for 5 days, trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and possible other modes of transport or activity that have yet to be revealed! Here’s a wee introduction to our team and our thoughts about the race.
Team Name: Team Lochland Runner
Team Members: Rosemary Byde, Jon Ellis, Andrea Davison, Chloe Rafferty
We are supported by Lochland Runner, who supply innovative brands for sports like trail running, swimrun, OCR, and orienteeering.
I raced with Jon in Itera Wales – but one of our team members was Paul McGreal who is otherwise occupied this time round (he’s one of the organisers)! Andrea is an Open Adventure regular, has expedition race experience and is making her comeback. Chloe is our secret weapon … she runs events company LoveSwimRun, lives in North Wales and can often be seen out in the mountains biking, climbing, running or swimming.
The most important thing in forming our team was making sure we had similar goals and expectations and that we all have a similar ethos and approach to working together. We’ll be putting that to the test with a training weekend later in June 🙂
Special team skills include engineering, mountain leading, sewing, an obsession with detail, a love of maps and more than one person trained in optimising solutions to problems! As the race goes on, I am sure we will discover many more talents amongst us.
Why did we choose to do this and what are our expectations of the race / Scotland?
The Scottish highlands are a wild and beautiful place and we all want to experience more of it. We know we are going to the perfect location for an epic adventure that Paul, Tom, James and the team are sure to deliver. The anticipation and excitement are already growing.
Whilst the rest of us have done similar races before, this is Chloe’s first time. She’s alternately terrified and excited and can’t wait to race as part of a team. Although the effects of sleep deprivation and how to stay fuelled as a vegan are on her mind, she has been primed for special ‘visual effects’ (sleepmonsters) and someone has promised to carry emergency flapjack supplies 😉
Even though it is the first week of the new school year, Andrea is making her expedition race comeback before she gets ‘too old’! Sleep is on her mind too, as she doesn’t want to miss out on the memories.
However, Jon and I clearly remember the fun, camaraderie and amazing landscapes we moved through last time and nothing was going to stop us entering again …
We’re all relishing the challenge and anticipating the sense of achievement we’ll get from doing the event. We’re going to be pushing ourselves and it has been the motivation for some of us to increase our training, pick up new skills or reacquaint ourselves with old ones. I for one know that whilst I still soldier on with hamstring rehab for running, my mountain bike is seeing significantly more action than recent swimrun years have afforded!
Our expectations are that we will finish mid pack. The most important things are for us to work hard, help each other, make the most of our collective abilities and never stop trying until we get to the finish line!
Finally, one person has already mentioned the dreaded ‘M’ word … we’re all hoping that we’ll be moving too fast for any midges to catch us for breakfast!
It has all been very quiet on my blog since September! I am still here and after an arduous winter am hopefully re-emerging!
After Bantham swimun, Izzy and I went off to Cannes for the inaugural Ötillö event there. My hamstring was still a concern and sitting in the airport, I felt a bug coming on. Not to worry I thought, it was warm and sunny! We cheered Andy on as a solo in the experience race, and he came back with tales of a terrible technical descent…
On our race day I was still not feeling the best as we got on the ferry, despite several trips to the bakery / almond croissant emporium since we had arrived. We were there to have fun though, and we set off at a steady pace which we kept up all race. The start was lovely – all around wooded trails on islands off the coast. We enjoyed the long swim back to the coast, benefiting from some spotting at the start of where to go. The route from there was varied – one minute we were along the promenade dodging tourists and running past the famous cinema. Then we were up into a park above town and winding back down the steps and alleys of the old part of the city before going straight up an old tramway and down the technical chute of death (as Andy would have it called). We found this OK, but got stuck behind a much slower team. There was a queue building behind and they showed no sign of letting us past. In a different race I would have shouted at them earlier, but this time we were in no rush and just persisted until a gap appeared. Later we ran past a group of proud nudists at a swim entry / feed stop (!) before winding our way back around the coast to the finish.
The hamstring was no worse, and we celebrated with ice-creams before we went off home for some deserved rest.
It had been a couple of months packed with racing, travelling and other life stressors. In the weeks and months that followed, I was plagued with a succession of worsening viruses and a general malaise that knocked me out of kilter and at one point landed me in bed and off work. I had a disaster of a trail race, couldn’t really train, wasn’t getting outside and doing the things I loved. I got scared to go out and do anything in case it tipped me into another illness and I didn’t know what was causing it. I resorted to reconnecting the x-box for amusement and am grateful to the friends who helped me out with messages, lifts and visits and generally tried to keep me grounded.
In amongst all that we had the one and only 18/19 Open 5 event in the Lake District. I was determined not to miss it and headed down to go out with Lucy, with warnings about my maximum run ability / speed (thanks to hamstring) and general effort levels (thanks to illness). Things didn’t go quite to plan as we headed up the big hill on foot (“but that’s where all the high value controls were!”) and over-cooked the bike (“because it makes a ghost shape on the map!”). We ended up sprinting back late and I was quite emotional at the finish. Luckily, our total score was enough to get me to 10,001 series points – 1 second later and it would have taken another year! I got ill again after this race so was mightily annoyed, but took comfort from the fact that my legs had seemed to work on the bike (much-neglected of late) and my hamstring did not react to our hilly run. Really, it was also a race of true Rosemary-Lucy style…
Eventually, I went to see a specialist sports doctor / consultant, whose letter finally persuaded the GP practice to test my iron levels – ferritin (iron stores) and total iron were very low despite my haemoglobin being normal. This is a known issue for athletes and can affect performance, recovery and subsequently immune function. A bit frustrating, since I had asked for this back in November! Anyway, two weeks after starting to take iron supplements, I felt like a new person. Even when I got ill again I was over it quickly and maintained a positive mood. The Dr also gave me some great general advice (‘do all this and you will be on the same regime as Mo Farah’) – i.e. one total rest day a week (really?!), check vitamin D levels (seemed OK), sleep more than 7h a night more than 6 days a week (only 7?), eat lots of fruit and veg (have you seen our veg box?) and treat a cold with zinc lozenges.
I also went on two amazing holidays. One to the Maldives for a Swimtrek – where the sea was as warm as a pool and it was like swimming in a tropical aquarium with all the fish and other sealife. Andy loved the place and cried when he left – we also had a great group of folk to share the boat and adventure with. I had hoped the sunshine would see off the bugs, but it didn’t.
Later on I decided to cheer myself up by learning to XC ski in Norway. Some of the swimming holidays pals had egged me on to do it, and I have always fancied it (I have never done any kind of skiing before). Turns out it’s a bit harder to do then I expected, and involved a great deal of falling over! However, by the end of the week I was just getting the hang of it and wished I could stay on to consolidate … already planning my trip back next year 🙂
As spring wears on and the iron works its magic, my mood and general wellbeing is taking a sharp upwards turn. Sadly I had to withdraw from UTS50 😦 on the advice of my physio because my hamstring is still not right and I am not at all trained to do it. A tendinopathy is a real pain to sort out. ‘High maintenance’ we called it – needing to be put under strain, but not too much strain … I am now back up to my ‘normal’ weekly running distance but only just adding in any big hills. 80km / 5000m ascent is not the recipe for success at this point. There are other events I need to be in good shape for in the summer, namely an alpine trail running camp in July and Itera in August!
Instead of racing at Otillo Hvar (due to bugs, hamstring and Izzy also picking up what for her is a very rare injury), I headed to my dad’s for a sunny weekend. There I met up with Chloe (of LoveSwimRun), got some great climbing tips and actually made it up and down a mountain! I paid for it with sore legs later, but was so happy to be able to start considering such runs again, albeit still slow and with some twinges (strain, but not too much!). Really lovely to make a new friend with plenty of ideas for future adventures. Also managed to repeat the mountain thing in Italy on a mini break for one of the several 50th birthdays that seem to be happening this year, accompanied by much ice cream and pizza 😮
I’ve also been conscious I need to start biking again – swimrun training does nothing for your expedition / adventure racing pedalling legs, which are key. So I’m consciously heading to work on my mountain bike and taking the scenic route home. I no longer need lights and won’t be spooking myself in the dark or getting caught out in hailstorms!
Stay tuned for more Itera news as we head for an expedition adventure in Scotland!
At Loveswimrun Holy Island, Andy Parritt asked me if I’d like to come to an invitational event in Bantham, headlined by Vivobarefoot. I was unsure. My hamstring hurt, it was a long way away and I was committed to spending that weekend with Marie. So then he invited Marie too! She was enthusiastic and I was persuaded … As time went on, I saw Graham the physio and was diagnosed with a ‘proximal hamstring tendinopathy in reactive state’, which in turn caused me to react with a high state of stress!
However, the minute I met Marie at Edinburgh airport on a wild Friday night I relaxed a bit. We would have fun. How our plane landed at Bristol, I do not know. The wings tipped and tilted, we bounced and the passengers applauded as we taxied along. As we drove to the rendezvous (‘somewhere in Devon, maybe?’ we told the car hire chap) the roads went from wide, deserted and windswept to tiny with passing places and hedges and trees forming tunnels over our heads. As the rain lashed against the windscreen we wondered where was this place we were heading to?!
We arrived and crept into the large, dark, quiet house. We had instructions on how to find our beds, where we also found an update on the race route and logistics. It suited me with a bit less running! As we lay down to sleep we could hear the wind buffeting outside. When we woke up we were greeted with a spectacular view of the estuary and the sea with gigantic waves coming in. Wow!
As everyone else started emerging it was clear we were in for a great weekend. The vibe was relaxed and it turned out I knew plenty of people. We assembled on the lawn for the start and briefing then were off along the lane and through trees covering a carpet of prickly conker shells, then out at the end of the estuary. We were 2nd but I knew there was a fast swimming team behind us!
Sure enough, they flew past and there was no way I could hold their feet this early in the race. The closer we got to the sea, the rougher it became, delivering me with a few mouthfuls of salty water straight to the back of my throat. Ugh! As we approached an area full of boats, I was confused. Which way to go? We were following the bank, as instructed, but eventually spotted the pink thatched house we had been told to look for. As we set off again, we saw a crowd coming in from our right on a straighter line. Bother!
I wasn’t letting them all overtake due to our dodgy route choice and powered ahead. As we got out, I was urging Marie on and we lost a hat, kindly redelivered to us by the team just behind! This is when we started to realise the route might be hillier than expected, as we slogged to the cliff top before looping back down. We managed to pull away again as Marie pulled me!
Across the estuary, there was a slight ‘disagreement’ as I aimed off to account for the current and Marie decided to go her own way 😀 . Then we were out and I was dragged up the endless hill on the other side before we hammered back down to the sea, wading over to an island surrounded by surfers coming out to play.
The route on the island was uncertain … but we went up to the building, looped round and down the other side. More wading and more climbing before another long estuary swim. We were getting well and truly ‘swooshed’ now, almost coming a cropper under a boat as I tried to take a better line than the first time! At great speed we aimed again for the distinctive house and the point and leapt out. ‘Only 900m to go!’ I yelled, but we were diverted onto part of the route that had been missed out on the first run due to uncooperative tides!
We picked our way over fascinating rocks that merited a return visit later on, then scrambled up a cliff and along a narrow path at the top, with Marie still trying to make me run despite the precariousness! (‘You never know who might be coming after us’, she insisted). Down the steep grassy bank, into the village and back to the lawn, touching the flag to finish!
I had a lovely time and my leg held up OK, only a bit of discomfort. The weekend hadn’t finished though, with pizzas, cider, curry for dinner and speakers. We won a pair of Vivobarefoot shoes for our efforts, only being beaten by two male pairs.
In the morning, we had the delightful experience of swimrun group training as many of us set off to see some of the planned course that had had to be cut due to conditions. Lovely cliff top running down to a bay, swimming up to a rock arch that I decided was too dangerous to swim through … this time. Tumbled and turned by rollers on the way back. More running, some jumping, a second short swim and back to the house, where brunch was spread out invitingly, just waiting for us to tuck in.
Everyone started heading home after a bit of clearing up, but we had the rest of the day to spare. We went off to Dartmouth to see the castle and go and explore the coastal walk, coves and an old fort before escaping just as it got dark and returning for leftover curry.
I had such a good time and the effect on my mood was worth more than any detrimental effect to my hamstring (which, to be honest, seemed no worse for the experience). Massive thanks to Andy and Marie for persuading me to go. Also to Andy and Nigel for persevering with putting on an event for beginners and experienced teams alike, all in the face of crazy weather and dubious coastguards. Finally to everyone else who helped make this happen, to the volunteers and other racers who were so congenial, and to Vivobarefoot for their generous support. We felt we were being treated like royalty (or rock stars, according to Marie) and it was a privilege to be there. Thanks!
Pictures from me, Marie and Vivobarefoot team.
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.