This was my first actual, in person race since … March 2nd 2020! Izzy originally signed up to do this with Andy, it didn’t run last year due to sea conditions. And so this year it came round, and I was the substitute partner, and it was so much fun 🙂
I actually was quite nervous beforehand, being totally out of practice with the whole process of preparing for a race day. We have a bigger (longer, larger field) race coming up, so it was actually perfect timing. It was also so good to be doing a swimrun race on our local patch in East Lothian. We do a lot of training there and it has so much potential.
The route for this event was largely an out and back, with a long swim to start with and an ascent of North Berwick Law at the far end.
With an easterly wind, the sea was quite rough. Despite doing a number of swimrun training sessions already this year, we hadn’t done anywhere near 2km in one go and we were both cold enough for the bum shake by the time we eventually got out 😀 Was fun to do such a challenging loop out to Fidra and back though.
The run and short swim to North Berwick was uneventful. The next part was unmarked, but I had gone through the route on Google street view, so we made a beeline to the bottom of the Law. Here we got mixed up in some other ultra event, but we zoomed to the top, with me doing my very best to keep up with Izzy.
It came sooner than expected, we turned around and raced back down! The final swim before the finish line was only half the length of the initial one, but we were chasing down a male pair who had just overtaken us, and also trying to make it back before risking getting swamped by the line of amassed swimmers doing the aquathlon.
We stormed out and back and made the final sprint for the line, delighted to be back racing again 🙂
Whatever way you look at we were on the ‘podium’; 3rd overall, 2nd females, 1st pair!
Thanks to Peter for putting on our first local event, which all went smoothly, to Andy for taking some photographs to record the occasion and to Izzy for being my swimrun buddy! Next stop, Cornwall!
24.7km trek / 8h55 / finish time 15:55 Thursday
A bit of a false start to this stage as we set off down the road the wrong way – transition wasn’t marked on the map in quite the right place!! That’s our story anyway, and we’re sticking to it.
We finally set off up the right path, with me still munching my breakfast and Chloe managing a lot of ankle pain. At transition we had been given information that teams were taking 3h to get to the rafting from the start of the kayak. Andrea and Jon had calculated that if we could just motor this trek, taking opportunities to jog the flats and downhills, we had a chance of making it after all.
We got into a rhythm, being smoother and helping each other with snacks and drinks and kit adjustments to minimise stopping time. Although this was the stage we had targeted for doing the long course over the Five Sisters of Kintail, we were again short course, but the route here did not lack spectacular views. The path was easy going and we made good time.
As we had to head off-piste it got harder, but I was on fire. I powered up past the waterfall with Andrea and was springing ahead on the downhill to find the best path for Chloe and Jon, whose ankle was also now sore. I thought we might make the rafting after all, and expected the second half to be easier.
As we crossed the road past the Cluanie Inn it felt we passed into a different stage. Andrea and Chloe were able to speed walk whilst Jon lagged behind and me somewhere in between. I tried everything I thought I could to get us back together and moving at a better pace. Near the first ‘top’ Chloe needed to stop and change her socks before she got blisters from the accumulating grit inside. She wanted us to go ahead and she would catch us, but we refused.
I was hopping about on the inside, worrying about the time and sensing it just slipping through our fingers. But I did not want to snap or stress anyone out. Andrea took some of Jon’s kit and we got moving again. But now we had to either go the long way up a bit more hill and further on a path, or cut across.
We followed a team taking the direct line, through peat hags and rough ground, down to a river that proved too deep to wade. As we walked along a bit we were about to decide to stuff it and swim, when the other team found a spot to wade only up to mid thigh level 🙂
The path when we re-joined it was good. The weather had turned glorious. I wanted to run down the other side but could not cajole this out of everyone. As we got to the road, we walked when we needed to run. Chloe’s partner appeared on his motorbike to say hello. It was emotional for her.
It was just before 16:00. The guy in transition told us people were making it to the rafting from kayak put-in in about 3.5h and we might just do it. We got out fairly quickly, though not as fast as the team that arrived with us. We walked down to the river when we perhaps could have jogged. We faffed about getting in and setting off.
2.8km total portage / 1h35
6.2km walk / 2h15
26.5km total kayak / 5h / finish 04:20 Friday
Although we were going down a river now, this part wasn’t straightforward either. There were some mini rapids – we nearly came out on the first set but got a lot better at coordinating and steering through the second! Unfortunately there was some more portage where Andrea and I were working our hardest to get through whilst the tendons in my wrist complained loudly and Jon and Chloe struggled.
Back on the water I was asking Andrea “where is the urgency in the other boat?”. She had no answer. We decided to offer a tow, but it was refused; ‘we are keeping up fine’. On the roller coaster of emotions I was now dejected as I knew we would not make it, our speed was just not there. We soft paddled and kept together as we made our way along Loch Garry, with Chloe and Jon falling asleep and hitting each other with their paddles.
As we neared the end of the loch everyone was hallucinating as it got gloomy. The trees formed strange animals and carvings and it was hard to keep our eyes open. I’m not sure we had warned Chloe enough about this!!
Jon suddenly came alive saying we might just make it, but we couldn’t. We arrived at 20:26 – 26 minutes too late.
Later, on the way home, I spoke to Chloe about this. It turned out she wasn’t aware of the urgency – she thought we were home and dry and there was no rush. She also believed they were keeping up, not realising we were waiting. Clearly something had gone wrong with communications and I went over this a thousand times after the race. I take responsibility for not getting us there in time. You could lose 26 minutes anywhere – the nav error on the bike for one. But I also felt I should have understood what was happening better and either found a way to keep everyone motivated and focused or established a shared agreement to give up on it. Learn and move on!
Missing the rafting prompted a slight hypothermic meltdown in Chloe. This was caused by a combination of being wet, tired, not moving, the disappointment of missing the rafting and then being told we had to walk 5km and wait until 90 minutes were up before we could continue. It was all too much and she ended up inside the bivvy bag with Jon, putting on every item of dry clothing she had. Whilst Jon and Andrea looked after Chloe, I shivered and got the kayaks ready for transport. Thanks to the marshals here for helping, and the team who provided some hot water.
Finally we set off, trudging into the dark in search of food in Invergarry. Unfortunately, Invergarry is not a hot bed of food options and by the time we arrived just after 22:00 and stumbled into the pub, we were greeted by a barman who declared he could give us tea and crisps, but he was shutting up in 20 minutes just in case we thought we might fall asleep in the corner. A team arriving after us were given equally short thrift as they had takeaway teas shoved in their hands and were told to leave.
We made the most of what we had, then decided we had to sleep. As luck would have it, we found a road bridge over the path where it was dry with a smoothish surface. We got into pairs into two bivvy bags, set the alarms for 20 minutes (or not) and went to sleep.
As I spooned Chloe I was violently shaking with cold. I was still in my shorty wetsuit, still damp. I became aware of Jon and Andrea talking about it being time to get up. This was just about my worst moment of the race. I really had no notion of whether I was asleep or awake, and kept looking at my watch, unable to decipher what it was telling me. I got my bag back together and trailed behind in a daze as we made our way back to the water.
It turned out later that Andrea’s watch had misted up so she couldn’t see it properly setting the alarm, and I had managed to set the timer for 20h instead of 20 minutes 😮 . We had slept for an hour and a half.
The rest of the kayak was an uneventful paddle down to and along the Caledonian Canal. Chloe taught us some crazy round involving fish and chips and vinegar, dustbins and bottles of beer, which we executed very badly. After a couple of ‘easy’ exits and portage round the locks, we arrived in Fort Augustus and gladly abandoned the kayaks for the last time!
In transition we had a nice corner spot. I found my second of three ticks of the race attached near my eye … and we assembled our bikes ready to go. It was late in the race and despite any rules, people seemed to be sleeping where they fell on the paths outside the door.
Episode 4 – Official Film
61.7km / biking / 6h25 / finish 13:50 Thursday
Despite faffing with lights, the darkness had lifted by the time we got away. This stage was actually the best mountain biking we had done all race and one of my favourite legs.
I was keeping an eye on navigation in the woods as we followed the ‘Great Glen Way’. At some point we ended up on the high walker’s route, which added a climb and some technicality. On a normal day it would be my preferred option, but I’m not sure it was what we needed at that moment!
I think at this point we were all a bit tired and fractious and were not riding harmoniously. We stopped for 30 minutes of kip somewhere, and again for our first café 30km from the end. The wasps were out in force and we did not hang around, thanks to some speedy service.
The final descent was one to savour, swooping down from high ground it went on and on and was a delight to ride. It landed us in the centre of Inverness, where we negotiated the crowds through the final few hundred metres on a section we had checked out before we left. I’m glad we did as we could weave our way directly to the finish line.
We were greeted by race directors with medals and miniature whisky from Glenmorangie. Jonny was there to do some facebook live videos and make sure we got some pictures! We all made our way over to eat pizza and relax over a meal for the first time in five days…
Episode 5 – Official Film
On reflection, this race was not as straightforward ‘fun’ as the one I did in Wales. The rafting deadline loomed large all race and we were under pressure to make the short course, with no room to correct for any miscalculations. It was so disappointing to miss it anyway after all that focus! To play to my own strengths and favoured sports I’d have loved more mountain biking and less portaging 😉
Team dynamics were also very different, with somewhat more conflict and less cohesion. However, racing with that little sleep under such difficult conditions isn’t exactly conducive to harmonious socialising. Everyone laboured under different hardships ranging from sore throats, diarrhoea all race (!), swollen ankles, blistered mouths and feet and who knows what else.
Having said all that, we resolved any issues and made it to the finish line together. We did really well, finishing 12th overall thanks in large part to our early strategic decisions. I learnt a lot and we achieved a lot, though it is still hard to take it all in! Some of the places on the trek stages were incredible and it is amazing to think how crazy some of the race was and what we went through with those kayaks. An unforgettable experience!
For my own part I was delighted to escape with ‘normal’ 5 day race swelling, a single blister and sore tendons in one wrist. All subsided quickly. Worse, was picking up a probable flu virus a week after finishing, which I still haven’t been able to completely shake! The race reminded me how much I do like adventure racing after several years of swimrun focus. Maybe I should look for another one to do … 😉
Many thanks to John Ovenden and support from Lochland Runner, to our live social media updaters Andy and Jonny, everyone who sent us motivational trail mail, the race organisers under Open Adventure banner James, Tom and Paul plus a special one from me to my physio Graham who over the last 10 months somehow helped me rehab my hamstring tendon sufficiently to take part with no pain.
Finally, thanks to my teammates Jon, Andrea and Chloe for being up for going on such an epic journey!
If you like numbers, this is how our race shaped up in totals – distances, times – yes, there is a spreadsheet! You can see our route here, just select our team on the right.
13km trek / 8h45
26km trek / 10h36 / finish stage 16:50 Wednesday
And so we set off up our first big mountain. Everyone was tackling An Teallach. I haven’t been there before, but it turns out it is big, scrambly and has vertiginously steep sides! We were keen to make the most of remaining daylight. As we ascended it got windier and colder. Soon I was wearing all of my clothes save one emergency thermal jacket, including my waterproof trousers. I also had my first ‘moment’ as I felt woozy and incapable of climbing a mountain. This time handing over some kit to packhorse Andrea and taking a couple of gels worked wonders.
It got dark and then Chloe had her ‘moment’, finding the exposure bringing back some difficult memories. We pulled together and made slow but steady progress until we were onto the boulder field, clambering down to the track to the bothy everyone had spotted on the map earlier. We hadn’t slept for about 45h by this point and tempers frayed a bit as we all badly needed some rest. I was worried we would find the place full, but there was only one way to find out.
It was indeed busy, but we found space on the wooden floor and crashed out for 2h, with Chloe opting to brave any midges in the more spacious outside quarters 😀 .
Up we got and we decided to go for at least one of the long course controls. It wasn’t significant extra distance, though it was significant extra climb. It was also intriguingly named ‘tennis court’ and I am a sucker for funny place names.
We were all somewhat muted to start. I was slow as we ascended and also stopped to put protective gaffer tape on hot spots developing on my feet. I wasn’t up for blisters like those I experienced during UTS… There was some ‘debate’ about which way to get to the top, slightly confused by some hints we got at a briefing. In the end, Andrea took off up a gully, with Jon chasing after to check it out and Chloe and I gingerly bringing up the rear. I was afraid of scree or scrambling at the top, and as it was we were holding onto grass as we climbed. Not the most secure, but it was OK in the end.
As you will see later, going for this control was possibly a strategic mistake in terms of race position. However, it was also one of the most memorable and amazing parts of the course that we did – so this time I am happy that we got to experience this regardless. The ridge walk was incredible, and the ‘tennis court’ itself looked like someone had just come and sliced the top off the mountain.
On the descent I came alive a bit and even ran. Or maybe jogged. Further down the views of the river cutting through Gleann Bianasdail creating swirling rock formations with waterfalls and pools looked very inviting. I’d like to go back to that and explore. The beauty was only marred as my ‘usual blister’ underneath my little toe burst causing every step to be agony for a while.
After negotiating ‘paths not on the map’ and a slightly sarcastic comment to another team about my ability to identify a graveyard (sorry), we finally arrived in Kinlochewe.
This was the first time we had access to our tent at a vaguely sensible time for sleeping, and we had to put it up and stay in it for 20 minutes anyway. We got ourselves ready for the next stage then all clambered in for a couple of hours kip. I wondered if we should have more, or less? But it was too complicated to think. As the rain hammered on the roof, and a French team swore at the midges outside, we drifted off. Not the best sleep, but we needed it.
Episode 2 – Official Film
69.3km / biking / 7h40 / finish 05:10 Thursday
We set off just after 21:30 in the dark. It was now obligatory for us to short course this stage. Before we started we had hoped to do more than this here, sketching out a couple of different options. But course changes and our slow speed meant it wouldn’t have been sensible anyway.
After leaving all the map reading to Chloe and Jon on the foot stage, it was my turn again. I confidently took the first turning, with Andrea stopping to check the map. As we waited for her to catch back up she appeared, a bit shaken from a fall as she had tried to adjust her lights. We were all tired.
Peering at the map, I had in mind ‘just follow the double track alongside the loch for about 5km’. I was trying to prove myself by navigating swiftly and keep us moving. Mistake. We passed a junction and hesitated. ‘It says cycle trails this way’ someone said … and I pushed on as that was just a footpath and we wanted the track, right? We were going up and up in a forest and it didn’t feel right. But I stubbornly carried on, not wanting to faff about. As the distance came up, we emerged from the forest. I looked properly at the map and immediately realised my error. We should have taken the path ARGH.
Jon went to investigate a possible joining path and we dithered, eventually turning back on ourselves. I thought it would be quicker just to descend at high speed to the junction, but the team were lagging behind. My adrenaline and drive to fix this was not matched! As I agitated I was annoyed with myself – not a mistake I’d have made in the daylight, and quite costly, maybe half an hour.
It was slow going along the path and I was now doubting myself about where to look for the right turn. Then there came a horrible noise from my bike. Clank! Clank! I stopped, turned the pedals. Clank! Clank! I spun the wheel without the pedals. Clank! Clank! It seemed to come from my bottom bracket but the wheel was the only bit turning. Chloe and Jon came to help – concluding it must be a disaster with my hub. Then we suddenly spotted an extremely large nail embedded in my tyre and hitting the chainstay on every revolution …
We got it out, and Chloe put her thumb on the hissing hole. By the time Jon produced a magic bung gun it had sealed, but we whopped it in anyway. With much relief we were on our way.
Nav was tricky and now I was very careful. There were many paths not marked on the map but once we got onto the Coulin Pass it was straightforward and easy going. I had run this in the opposite direction many years ago on Celtman! But remembered little!
At some point it started raining. And then it was like riding under a shower head. We were on a road by now, and my new coat did an admirable job of keeping me dry, but it was still a bit epic. Near Strathcarron we happened upon a pub with umbrellas outside. We stopped to get extra layers on, but the lady who ran it waved us inside. She had already closed and hadn’t heard about the race before a team stopped to talk to her, but was encouraging us all to make use of the toilets and the back room to warm up and change. What a lovely lady!
Shortly, we were back ascending on a fire road before going over a high point on a rough track. I was feeling optimistic because it was all downhill back to a road from here, and despite being rocky and muddy it was mostly rideable. We went in pairs; Jon and I going ahead a bit, then watching the lights of Chloe and Andrea catching us before we set off again.
The riding came to an abrupt end however, as the path got narrower and harder going. We were forced to walk again, tripping and stumbling as we pushed our bikes on through the dark.
We had made a calculation of how much time we needed from the end of the next trek to get to the rafting on time. We thought a generous 5-6h, and by calculating backwards as we stood on that dark wet hillside, I knew we needed to be starting the next trek right about now…
When we emerged on the road all somewhat the worse for wear, we felt the need for a team hug before we could get moving again. About 10 seconds later Chloe’s light went flat (she was having a nightmare with batteries all race!) but we swapped things around to get us all legal and going again.
More road, pausing at Eilean Donan castle and quickly locating the control by looking closely at the map and reading the description instead of heading straight to the castle (we had seen a team searching there for a long time…)
Next transition was difficult. It was now light, but raining, and we weren’t allowed indoors with our kit bags. We dismantled the bikes outside first. I found a seat clamp on the floor and asked the team if it was one of ours. “No!” said everyone. I wasn’t so sure. Jon and I checked – it fitted Chloe’s bike perfectly, it was next to her box … we quietly put it back on and headed indoors.
Teams were getting crotchety with each other as bags were moved and they rummaged around in them. I had to go back and forth for things I forgot first time, and despite instructions I am sure some people were using the showers in the toilets as I queued for an age just to relieve myself.
Before long though, we were ready to set off again on foot for the final trek.
Episode 3 – official film
It has taken me a while to start this report – to let the race sink in and to get over the dreaded lurgy sufficiently to have energy to write!
We were number 26, Team Lochland Runner – Andrea, Chloe, Jon and myself. We started the week well by managing to arrive in Inverness only 5 minutes apart. I had come up with Chloe and we had chatted the whole way, making wild guesses about what the course might hold in store.
The weekend was spent registering, getting maps, going to briefings, planning, sorting out kit and most importantly – eating! Pizza! Tensions did rise a bit as we fully grasped the scale of the kayaking element relative to everything else (though we had been warned) and there was a bit of drama when all our buoyancy aids failed the ‘test’. Luckily, we were 4 of many and plans were put in place to hire some out to us.
As we pored over the maps and route book a couple of key things became apparent. There were time cut offs for both a canyoning stage on Tuesday afternoon and a rafting stage at 8pm on Thursday. Both carried significant time penalties and we wanted to make them both. The rest of the race was planned around this, using the information given about likely leg times and our own experience to estimate what we thought we could do. Our plan was always to short course, but we did hope to do some of the long course options such as extra biking near Applecross and the Five Sisters trek.
After an early alarm on Monday morning, we all found ourselves on coaches heading for Dunrobin castle. It was a slightly midgey and cool wait with some confusion over the actual start time. Oh, just me? OK then!!
Episode 0 – official film
Run and kayak stage:
5.1km run / 35 minutes / finish 09:05 Monday
19.4km paddle / 3h25 / finish 12:45 Monday
The 5km run through beautiful woods and a gorge got us nicely warmed up before we jumped in the kayaks for our first taste of the sea – this time on the east coast. We were headed for Glenmorangie Distillery. The journey was fairly uneventful, apart from our first experiences with the right-veering kayaks. I developed some sort of combination of right sweep strokes and missing left strokes to keep us vaguely on course.
77.7km / 4h35 / finish 18:10 Monday
We had decided right from the beginning to do all of this leg short course. The only temptation to go longer was the fact that this would mean we were riding on roads most of the way to the next transition. Pleasant, quiet, low traffic roads; but tarmac all the same. Our rationale was that we needed time in hand to get through the next kayak stage and make it to the canyoning before the cut off.
We shot off like hares, and Chloe had to get us back on track at a more sensible pace.
Transition was a bit chaotic as we had arrived earlier than expected and the marshals hadn’t quite got a system sorted. We had beaten the first long course team in, but they were gone before you could say ‘that was fast’. As it was, I got a shock to the system as Andrea whipped us all into transition shape and we were in and out a lot faster than I had experienced in similar races. She’s raced with some top teams though, and deemed us too slow! We had a lot of information to take in before we could leave, with course changes to the kayaking adding in more distance and extra portage in order to keep us nearer the mainland in forecast strong winds.
18km total portage / 9h
46.1km total kayak / 11h10 / finish 15:55 Tuesday
We paddled off on a loch heading west into a glorious sunset. The scenery was magnificent. Although adventure racing novice Chloe was pondering whether she liked ‘AR’ yet due to the lack of adventurous biking so far, she did have to admit that as we stopped for the first portage in the dark and rain, that this wasn’t an experience she’d have had otherwise…
The changes meant this leg was going to take longer than planned. There was an optional run up Suilven which we had originally considered, but we decided now it was best to press on and make use of any time saved later in the race. Doing this plus the short course bike turned out to be a kayak-leg saver, though we didn’t know it at the time.
The first portage was only a taster of what was to come. A we inched towards the coast, we lugged a pair of 30kg kayaks, plus portage trolleys and kit over rough rocky ground in the dark and rain. We were being careful not to drag them. At times we were ferrying the kit separately in relay, with all four of us coming back to carry each boat the next section and trying not to twist our ankles on boulders or to disappear thigh deep in bog as we staggered blindly forward. When we could, we used leashes attached to the front, Andrea and I pulling our boat like shire horses over the heather. As some of the long course teams overtook us we took note of their technique …
When we reached the road it was bliss to put the kayaks on their trolleys and roll them along. In no time it seemed we were getting back in. We had half hoped for a sleep but we were wet and the two of us without dry suits got cold very quickly as soon as we stopped moving (and this was despite me wearing a shorty wetsuit). We got back in, quite literally for me as I lost my footing and was dunked, seeing my paddle nearly disappear down the river.
Finally we were back on the sea, now all the way across the country and on the west coast. This was near the Summer Isles; apparently a mecca for paddlers, but we couldn’t see anything except the dark hulks of land mass and the occasional shooting star.
Taking the risk of heading to the spot where the strobe light of a team in front had disappeared, we landed safely at the next headland, only to be greeted by a new form of portage hell. We couldn’t make progress over the bushes, so opted for the river. As it we ascended it progressed from merely rocky to mini rapids that I wouldn’t want to walk up, even without a kayak in tow. We had to anchor ourselves on rocks and haul them up in stages. We eventually gave up, clambered out on the other side and were lucky to find a path where the going was ‘easier’ before hitting the road at Achnahaird, scene of some of my childhood holidays.
It was not over yet though!
Another long sea crossing awaited. Although we could now see the various islands, we were being battered by the wind and waves. The boast continuously turned right, which was getting tedious. Our instructions were to head to within 100m of Isle Martin where a boat might indicate the turning point. I was facing a mutiny as the team got cold and fed up seeing us paddle past the place we were heading to on the other shore before we could turn and go back up.
Crossing the ferry line at our best estimate of a right angle, we neared the far shore and turned straight into the wind and tide. I was only focused on our landing spot when Andrea announced we weren’t moving anywhere. “It’s just perspective”, I said. I was wrong. We decided after another 15 minutes of fruitless paddling to head straight into the shore and see if we could walk along. Even getting there took an humongous effort and I started to panic. When we arrived we were faced with large unwalkable boulders. We considered taking a penalty if needed and getting the boats straight onto the bottom of the track marked on the map. We were desperate. But the wind suddenly dropped, the white horses disappeared and we leapt back in to paddle round the shoreline and say hello to some waiting cows.
Only to face even worse portage hell!! We must have only been in purgatory before! Where did they find this stuff? This time there were rocks, it was steep and it took all 4 of us to climb the first section. Then it was heather and uneven ground up a hill, as we dragged and swore. I practically threw ours over the fence at the top. Well, ‘threw’ is an exaggeration. We bumped down the other side for what should have been an easy downwind paddle to transition, but was a race against time to get to the new canyoning cut off (though it had subsequently been extended). It didn’t feel easy. And I still couldn’t steer us in a straight line.
After some face pulling and head shaking at Paul, a hug from James stopped some close tears from me and we were so glad to abandon those boats…
Many of the following teams got stuck close to where we did and were transported by coach from Ullapool incurring a hefty time penalty. Our choice to short course early and get through the kayaking combined with a bit of weather luck had bumped us up the standings.
We all wriggled into full wetsuits and headed up the hill for a fun interlude of canyoning, including a jump which had preyed on Andrea’s mind, an abseil down a waterfall and another where we dropped into a pool off the bottom of a rope and something I forget the name of but involved not quite whizzing down a wire and having to pull yourself over with the danger of getting your hands munched! I battered myself here and there on the way down but it was refreshing.
The transition was the best of the whole race – a great big barn with loads of space and places to sit 🙂
We had to be out before the time cut off if we wanted to consider any of the long course. As it turned out it might have been better race-wise if we had had this choice imposed on us, but we didn’t and I am not renowned for my cautiousness!
And so we set off on foot into the dying embers of day 2 (Tuesday).
If you want to go straight to part 2 – it’s here!
Episode 1 – official film
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!
Andy and I were seeking inspiration for our Sunday long run. Izzy did Scurry to the Sea last year and I liked the idea of it, but it looked sold out. However, as people cancelled and told the organiser, he released spaces … so at about 2030 on Saturday night we grabbed two spaces to do the race early Sunday morning!
This set off a flurry of activity, checking logistics and working out a route. The race has 3 checkpoints and free route choice in between. I mainly based my decisions on the route the top people took last year (via Strava stalking). Then I also had to help Andy learn how to use the route following function on his gps, as he had a minor panic about knowing the way.
And so very early on Sunday we were up, cycling over to Musselburgh to register and get a coach up to the ski centre. The route is straight up to the top of one of the hills in the Pentlands (Allermuir), then back via two prescribed points to Musselburgh at the sea, finishing with some obligatory beach running torture.
The field seemed to be largely made up of Portobello Running Club people! No one wanted to stand on the start line so I edged forward … At the starting signal off we all went, soon power walking the steep bits. I was in 5th place out of the girls and as we turned at the top, I could see there was a bit of a gap to the next. Down we went, and as the terrain got easier and less steep I could see Andy’s friend Sarah up in front. Grace, another friend, had vanished.
As I went along, my watched beeped every km and it looked alarmingly fast. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to keep this up, but it was downhill … I thought I could catch Sarah and was slowly making ground. As we got to some traffic lights and she hesitated over the route I caught up and showed the way. Out of the feed station I was slightly ahead until the next lights, and so on!
At the second feed station she accelerated away and opened a gap, which I was holding but making no impression on. She had two teammates with her too! At this point my pace dropped somewhat, though it was more of a step change and stabilise than a terminal nosedive.
All the way along the main feature had been the HEAT. I was boiling and shade seeking. Despite two drinks stops I had some of the water I was carrying ‘for emergencies’. I probably should have had a gel as well, but by the time I decided that, I just wanted to concentrate on getting this thing finished!
A familiar voice behind on a cycle path cheered me up as a cyclist I know came past yelling encouragement (thanks Sandra!). As I slowed to scale the bridge over the railway I felt quite dizzy and the only option was to keep running or slump to the ground! I gave up on catching Sarah at this point and concentrated on getting to the finish line.
As we turned onto the beach, there it was. But it took a long while to come … as I fell over the line I headed straight for the nearest shade and lay down, squirting water on my face and drinking. 20 minutes later I was feeling alive enough to get up in time to cheer Andy in.
A great little event, much more taxing than it looked on paper, as I had DOMS for a week afterwards! I was pleased to finish 5th female and 1st vet (14th overall), for which I got an Active Root bottle and sachet and a bottle of something more bubbly! Grace and Sarah were in 3rd and 4th respectively. Well done all 🙂
Full results here. Thanks to everyone involved, all the volunteers, the organiser Peter Ness and Kate Freedman who took the photos. After some post-race analysis I am tempted to do it again if I am free next year, if only because I have spotted about 5 places to take a fractionally faster route 😀
This one was the race I should have done when The Beast came and dumped snow on us instead. Fortunately, I was still able to make the new date and Damien stepped in to get me there when it turned out my lift couldn’t! We even managed to safely negotiate the clock change and arrive in very good time, if still a little bleary-eyed.
For my warm up I went and investigated the tricky singletrack section at the end of the bike leg, which I remembered from last time I did this race. Hmm, I did not do a great job, though I did see which bits I was likely to have to jump off and run down!
The start of the race was a bit of a jostle and I felt like hoards of people just whizzed away from me up the hill, which affected my confidence. All I could do was keep working at it and keep Caroline (my series rival!) in sight. Sure enough, I eventually came past her as the hill went up and up.
A flattish, bumpy and wet puddly section followed, and I hesitated as a guy came through and cut me up. I was trying to keep pedalling hard when Caroline retook the lead! More hills followed – she pulled away as I had to walk, I caught up as she walked … We entered the top of the singletrack together, which I knew was not to my advantage 😀
As she disappeared I walked / ran / scooted and sometimes even pedalled, although I also fell sideways at one point. My best moment on this part was actually riding the final corner and tree roots after working out the best line in warm up. I nearly skidded on my cleat at the dismount line and transition seemed to take forever as I fumbled into my running shoes.
I thought Caroline would be long gone, and indeed she had gained over a minute on that tricky bike section. Skills pay off! However, we were wearing matching coloured tops and I caught fleeting glimpses of her through the trees up ahead. I was trying to go fast but my shins started screaming at me. I wanted to sort of relax my legs but it was impossible, going uphill and working hard over the terrain!
The run route on this race is an out and back. We turned into the twisting uphill section through the trees and I could see no one. But when we popped out, there she was again. I think I even started gaining just a little bit to the turn and back down …
But then returning to the trees she knew where her strengths lay (on foot, as on bike!) and when we emerged she was well out of sight. I think she must have hurdled the logs I clambered over! I only saw her once more, far in the distance, so instead I focused on beating the guy I’d been going back and forth with for a while!
2nd female and 2nd in the series to Caroline, who played it smart and was better on the technical terrain than I!
I had a jolly time and was pleased to have entered again this year. Now just an Open 5 to go before all focus turns to my first big race of the year – my second ultra – 80km up and down mountains in Snowdonia. Can’t wait!
Falkirk – 24th February
Having enthusiastically ‘warmed up’ to cross country, I signed up for the Scottish nationals. They were easy to get to (Falkirk- trains every 15 minutes) and, even better, were 10km long and the same distance for men and women.
The day was bright, dry and sunny. I got there early and had time to potter a bit, peer at the map and jog a lap of the three lap course. It was mostly firm and grassy, with the occasional muddy patch and one or two little steep hills. Apparently this was very benign conditions compared to some other years!
A mass start saw everyone charge up the first hill. Someone who clearly knew me said something as she passed but I didn’t catch it! (turned out it was my friend Grace). Other members of the club were also cheering on corners which was most encouraging. As we went on, I started to pass people, each time focusing on the next person up ahead.
After 1.5 laps I fixed my gaze on a small group in front who were gradually getting closer. I decided if I was able to reach them and then hold position, I’d be happy! Someone yelled out that I was looking really strong, which made me feel great and sure enough I then caught and passed the little group.
We were now two laps in, but suddenly I felt a bit fuzzy wuzzy and knew I was pushing it just slightly too hard! The only solution was to back off a touch and hope the people behind didn’t notice… They noticed!! I was overtaken again but was getting over my wobble.
Final lap done and dusted and a strong sprint finish saw me finish in 63rd place (out of 271) and a time of 46:04 mins (I recorded the course a little long at 10.5km). Results. Pretty happy with that and think I’ll do a few more next year 🙂
Foxtrail 13km – 10th March
A couple of weeks later and the Beast from the East had been and scattered races in its wake. Andy was heading to the final Foxtrail race of their winter series, a 13km based at Foxlake. I had been due to spectate the first time round as it was the day before a race of my own. However, now I was heading over at a loose end and managed to get a last minute entry.
The weather was no longer white and snowy, but raining and windy! We all huddled shivering at the start, though the fun warm up got us all moving. I did a few of these last year, my best position being 5th, and that in the much longer events. However, as Nicola Duncan sprinted off, I found myself next to two other girls. I passed one of them on a twisting trail through the woods and was working hard to keep up with the other.
I had checked the course map beforehand and had a rough idea where we were going. Unusually, the wind was coming from the east, which meant we had a headwind most of the way out and a tailwind on the way back. I stuck behind this girl (I found out later that her name was Claire), getting as much shelter as I could. I was working a bit harder than I might have chosen, but decided it was worth it to hang on as long as I could. It turns out that her pace was strong and consistent. We steadily caught other runners as we made our way out along the course.
At some point she pulled aside to encourage me to pass, but I genuinely didn’t have the energy to do so! We met a couple of other guys and ran with them instead, turning round a field at the far end and retracing our steps over the bridge I hit my shin on during some other race … The memory of the pain still made me wince!
Now we had a tailwind and I tried to relax. I did eventually pass Claire and encouraged her to stay with me. Through some dunes, rising and falling before turning into the woods. At this point I could hear two girl’s voices behind me, so I knew I had not opened a significant gap. Then Nicola ran past! She had gone the wrong way and just come back on track. I thought I should call out and let her know she was back in the lead, but I had no breath and by then she was too far ahead to hear.
I kept working and really loved the section where the route followed a narrow and winding little path along the edge of the coast. I was nimble and my shoes were perfect for gripping the sheen of mud. I knew the course turned back on itself at the far end and was bracing myself for the return of the headwind, this time on my own 😉 What I didn’t know was that it would be on a rough and squidgy track, recently churned up by a farm vehicle!
As I took the final bend into the woods, I glanced over my shoulder. I seemed to be clear of other runners and enjoyed the last stretch to the finish.
Couldn’t believe I had managed to place 2nd female / 8th overall. Results. A lot of people hadn’t been able to make the rearranged date, so I thought I had just been lucky with who had been able to turn up. But my pace was only a touch slower than that at the XC and when I compared my time to the first 13k in the series it was still pretty good. Think I just love racing when the weather is ‘bad’!
I quickly showered and got changed into all my warm, dry clothes. I just missed Andy finishing, but hadn’t wanted to risk getting a chill. A hot cup of tea and prize giving later, and we were back on the bikes and pedalling for the train back to Edinburgh and a large café lunch 🙂
Thanks to those who took photos – from the Edinburgh AC photostream, Andy, a friend of someone at the Foxtrail race and me!
So much seems to have happened since we went down to Bowhill for the second in the series, but it was only two weeks ago! With many (fun!) races in succession and a lot of travel for both work and leisure, I’m feeling the load in life and falling behind on reports, so will keep it brief!
As I got everything ready the night before, I decided it would be best to change my front brake pads. Andy criticised me for doing so only the day before a race, I countered that this was me being organised and that in the car park on race morning would be the wrong time. In the car park on race morning, I contemplated my flat tyre, inflated less than two hours before…
Hmm, on the advice of all the engineers surrounding me, we chucked in a bottle of sealant, gave it a shoogle and hoped for the best. I decided to ignore the laughs and ‘helpful suggestions’ about the lack of bite in my front brake and the state of my jockey wheels, and set off for a warm up spin up the first hill.
Back I came, covered in mud and water splashes and I was ready to go! Paul was away, and the race was ably started instead by Diane, who gave us the usual patter, instructions and safety briefing as we all jostled on the line. Setting off up the road, the front of the pack seemed bigger than previous years and took a while to string out. Round the first bend and I was being bumped from both sides and my wheel was buzzed from behind! I got assertive, stuck my elbows out and made some comment or other which did the trick as I soon got a place in the line.
I was climbing well, and thought I was first lady for now. I could still see Jon up in front of me too. We turned onto the slidy, muddy track and I stuck to the unlikely-looking but better line that I had sussed out during my warm up. Then I got stuck behind someone slower and it was impossible to overtake! I bade my time and came round him later. A few big puddles, then the turn down a big descent.
I was taking it carefully, as mud flew into my eyes and my bike seemed to be bending beneath me. It wasn’t of course, it just felt like it! Caroline flew past and I did my best to keep her in sight as we did some twists and turns through the woods. A sharp turn up a steep bank and I heard what I thought was a female voice shouting ‘on your right!’. I moved over to the nasty rough line just as they stumbled and stopped. Somehow I managed to power up and chase after Caroline again.
I was gaining along the road, then we turned onto some more singletrack. Every tricky bit she pulled away, every easy bit I pushed hard to close the gap back up again. As we approached the house I knew we were nearly there. One last oomph to get onto the road, and I took the lead as we went into transition.
Now I was in the position I don’t normally like … running scared! I shot out of there like a frightened rabbit and started racing up the hill. Somehow though, the legs felt better than they had on the cross country the day before. It might have all been relative as this time I was passing other people instead of hanging on for grim life! I had no idea how close anyone was to me, so I just went for it.
Down the big descent and one or two people passed me. However as soon as it got easier again I overtook again. We crossed the road, tantalising close to the finish, then headed off onto a never ending fire track, seemingly in the wrong direction.
Before long though, we popped out at the lake. I could hear footsteps behind me gaining fast – luckily it was a bloke. I enjoyed this part of the run, feeling strong as we wound our way in and out of the trees. Final time up the bank and into the finish.
Woohoo, a win this time albeit falling off the first page in the overall standings! Caroline came in 2nd, not feeling her best after a bout of flu. We’re now evens in the series so it will be a head-to-head in the final race in a few weeks time!
Thanks to Marc for a lift, Marc, Ewan and Jon for bike critique 😉 and Durty Events for another smashing afternoon out!