Race Day Review... Glory in the sunset or failure in the highlands?
In the weeks leading up to the race, I had reviewed what I wore the previous year and the mistakes I made, and then worked out all the kit I needed and the various weather options. I was pretty confident in my planning this time around. One minor scare in that my bike doesn't fit my brilliant new box, but luckily I found this out on the weekend before, so I was able to arrange to borrow a soft bag and I had my bike and kit organised well ahead of time.
We flew up to Inverness on the thursday and met my mum and dad who were helping us out and providing driving and support on the day. I put my bike together and we settled in to the B&B that overlooks the start area,the beach and Moray Firth - beautiful!
Friday was final kit packing and then registration at Cawdor Castle, leaving my bike, bike gear and day pack with everything in it. I knew I'd got the training miles in my legs, I was just hoping I would have a good day and also that the weather gods would be kind this year.
The forecast was pretty good - grey, chilly, occasional showers but light winds from the north... fingers crossed.
There was a change in the event this year and it had come about as a direct consequence of 2016. The weather in 16 and the delayed start meant that over half experts were timed out. The race organisers want the challenge to be really tough, but also for it to be more achievable, so this year they removed the middle run/kay/run break at Fort Augustus. For me, this was a good opportunity to have a break from the bike, but it did add at least 30 minutes time to the day.
Taking this out meant an unbroken ride of 75 miles - the cut off time at Fort William remained the same at 16:00.
Early Start Saturday - 6.45am
First it was breakfast... the B&B put on a lovely early morning spread of porridge, toast and strong coffee... brilliant.
I wore a compression tri-suit and as the weather was true to the forecast, grey and chilly, I went for my UnderArmour heat baselayer to make sure I didn't get cold on the bike and I also decided to wear my very thin Ron Hill running jacket.. I've had it over 10 years, and it acts as a windbreak to again make sure I didn't get cold..
Being so close to the start, I was able to wander over at 6.30 after final prep and a gentle warm up...
7 miles along the beach, then cuts inland from Nairn to Cawdor along the path of the river. Quite a few stretches of single track, but also enough places to pass if you need to.
My plan was to run steady and as the morning was quite cool, it took a while to warm up properly and as we went I chatted to a couple of people I'd met at registration the previous afternoon.
The only slight mishap was being bitten or stung on my leg by something. I was plodding along when I felt something land on my calf and as I looked down it took a bite! It was painful enough for me to make a bit of a noise and as I tried to swipe it, it just flew off.
That aside, the first 7 miles passed well and I came into Cawdor Castle feeling pretty good, and knowing I was up on my time last year.
Cycling through the Highlands.. SMASH IT!!
That was the plan... well not really - it was push pretty hard all the way to make sure I hit the cut off at Fort William. Taking out the middle section meant it was 42 miles to Fort Augustus and then another 33 to Fort William.
The first bonus was the weather. The roads were wet, very wet in places, but it must have been from an earlier shower, as the day stayed dry. It was cool enough for me to keep my thin jacket on and I joined the long stream of people taking the back roads to Fort Augustus on the south side of Loch Ness.
The scenery is amazing and this year I took it in properly. There was a light wind from the north, but compared to the headwind of 2016 it was such a different ride. Even the long drag up to the ridge by Fort Augustus was done with a smile and I whizzed into the canal loch area feeling pretty good, and knowing I was well up on time for the cutoff.
I had a quick stop at Fort Augustus to see if I could meet Kim and Mum & Dad, but they couldn't park so we both carried on.
I had a proper stop at the Pit Stop about 5 miles further along with most other racers. Rat Race had laid on tea, cold drinks, biscuits, sweets, crisps and all sorts of goodies for us, and it was the right point to take 10 minutes out of the saddle.
As I then continued on towards Fort William, the sky started to brighten further and glimpses of sun came out.
I had a quick stop to finally take my thin jacket off and really enjoyed this second part of the bike course as it winds to the north side of Loch Lochy. We rode along the towpath, fire trails and some rougher tracks, but with the loch below us at times, and then as we get closer to Fort William, you then get a great view of Ben Nevis.
I felt good through the rest of the cycle and pushed for the last section to get into transition at about 2pm - 2 hours ahead of my time in 2016.
I was given a big cheer by Kim, Mum and Dad and while I faffed around with a cup of tea and all my bits of kit, I was able to eat something, drink some more water and then get myself ready for the last section.
Hike/Run - 14 miles up Glen Nevis and along the Great Glen Way
Full of food and tea, my plan was to walk the first section out of Fort William and then go to the plan of:
Uphill - walk fast ; Flat - Walk fast, jog ; Downhill - jog
5 minutes in, change some bits in my bag as they were clanking together.
10 minutes in, stone in my shoe..
15 minutes in start walking uphill... and keep walking uphill for the next 45 minutes as we go up Glen Nevis.
It does give a great view across the valley to Ben Nevis, but I had forgotten quite how high these parts are and how long you can continue going up.
Near the crest of Glen Nevis, our route takes us along the West Highland Way and we are then travelling towards Kinlochleven. This is where my plan to jog downhill should have kicked in, but I quickly found I had 2 problems... namely my 2 feet.
While I love my Inov8 shoes, they just aren't designed for the rocky paths. The soft/flexible soles meant that within the first mile jogging downhill, my feet were red hot and sore on the balls and the soles and I couldn't really do anything about it. It's not a problem I've ever had before but it just meant I had to slow down to walk downhill and pick my steps a little carefully.
If I was racing I would have been frustrated or annoyed at the poor choice, but on the day I was ok with it and by walking steadily I was able to eat properly and felt strong all the way through.
Before we get to Kinlochleven, we take a near 180 turn and have a long climb up a high ridge, where the top overlooks the final loch and the finish area. The long slow climb is through many small running streams and I found the cold water really quite refreshing on my feet and the general change of terrain off the rocky paths is a welcome change.
Falling Down the Hill.... Pole Magic
From the top of the ridge, the last section of the hike has got the steepest, boggiest, longest, most slippery slope you can imagine. You get a fantastic view at the top.. but you have to get to the bottom first!
It must take 30 minutes to come down and is a constant battle to stay on your feet. Even on a lovely dry day, every second step you are over your ankle or up to your knee in boggy ground.
My decision to practice running/walking with poles and using them on the day really paid off, as during my 4 limbed descent I must have overtaken 20 people.
I still fell over - once just a gentle slide, once as a full on tip over, but for the main part I was able to move pretty quickly down the hill.
About 3/4 of the way down, you just want it to be over, or to start going uphill again - legs are aching, I know there is a mile on the road to go and then the kayak.
It's taken me about an hour more than I thought to get here... but I know I'm going to finish!!
I know I've made it now...
but how much will this Kayak Hurt??
The final part of the hike is actually a flat section of about one kilometer along the loch side road. I start to jog (slowly) and realise I'm feeling pretty good. I get to the transition area on my own and after packing my poles and a quick sort of my bag, I get the buoyancy aid on and get myself in the kayak.
At this point, I know I'll finish and I can take in the day. It is now clear blue skies and the loch is nearly mirror flat, with just the ripples of the tide showing - absolutely beautiful.
I'm pushed off, and start paddling out towards the mid point island. The kayak just glides through flat water and I feel fantastic and get a good stroke going. I'm waiting for the hip flexor pain to kick in, but it doesn't and I am able to paddle smoothly across the lake.
By the mid-point I've overtaken one pair and I can see the hotel and finish in sight. All the work in the gym has paid off as I continue to feel strong and overtake another pair. As I get to within 50 yards of the finish I see Kim, Mum & Dad on the side and give the "Paddles in the Air" wave.
Paddling in to the side, I'm helped out, bouyancy aid off and then it's a 50 yard jog down the finishing chute.
I love this race... I love the highlands.
This year I was able to pace myself well and with the poor choice of shoes, while it slowed me down, I was able to keep a steady pace, ate and drank sensibly and finished feeling strong... I drove to the B&B, showered and changed and was eating at the finish hotel within 45 minutes of crossing the line.
If I did the race again... I would:
- First run a bit harder (and put on some anti bite/sting cream!!)
- Cycle a bit harder early on through the road section
- Take a 2 litre bladder for Fort William and make sure I drink loads while there..
- Different shoes.. they were just the wrong choice...
- Take my poles... well worth it for the final climb and fall...
But the thing is, I know I won't do it again..
I aimed to finish.. and I did, and I'm proud I did.
Definitely tougher than an ironman - cut off times, landscape, carrying all your kit, highlands weather.. there is no desire to try it again and race!