Late Summer Madness?
Early September 2016, we spotted the Rat Race ‘Coast to Coast’ event was imminent and decided we liked the look of it with its: 7 mile trail run starting on the east coast of Scotland at Nairn, followed by a 48 mile cycle course leading into Fort Augustus at Loch Ness where a quick 1 mile run and kayak leads to the end of day one and the start of Day two’s 21 mile off road cycle; 13.5 mile road cycle bringing us to Fort William ahead of a 14 mile slog, sorry, trek/run up through Glen Nevis and over the hills to Glencoe where the final 1 mile Kayak and short sprint to the finish takes place at the Isle of Glencoe Hotel.
When I said, “we liked the look of it”, something happened that none of us can really pinpoint (or frankly, properly understand!) but at some point, a week before last year’s event, we decided that we’d undertake this in September 2017 and promptly signed up!
So… what’s it all about?
Well it’s all in a good cause, and that’s the start and the end point here. It’s for the UK Children with Cancer charity. In total, we raised around £3k for the charity – a healthy ‘chunk of change’ for a really important cause. With a purpose in mind, it then became a challenge we could get behind, giving us a purpose to train and the ability to spend a year biting nails over whether or not we’d make it around this tough triathlon of types in the Scottish Highlands. From the east to west, battling wind, rain and the Sun supported by a cast of millions… millions of Midges that is, our plan was little more than to have fun and finish in one piece.
Train, train and train a little more….
The scene is set and challenge is known. We all had our own ideas of training and what we needed to do. Running, cycling and perhaps even the odd trip to the river for a lesson in Kayaking seemed like order of the day but our extended team comprised locals living in the Campsies, city dwellers from Glasgow and Edinburgh and people from as far afield as London and Chelmsford.
What was most noticeable during training was that everyone has their own views and everyone you speak to about the event has their own training tips to throw into the mix. Our advice? Read race reports, speak to previous finishers and find what works best for you. Then stick with it! Don’t bother training for the transitions, they are untimed (more on that later) but do train cycling after a run and running after a cycle ride as the most common moan by all was… “awh no, my hip flexors have gone”. This itself might be survivable but trying to helm the Kayak when you can’t sit up is a real challenge as we witnessed by the number of people attempting to do the crossings lying down!
When it came to running, building up to the ability to run 15k comfortably seemed to work well for the team. Most of us, however, didn’t manage enough cycle training, whether or not this was because there so few local highland like hills on which to push yourself or just because of apathy and a view that the cycling would be easier it’s difficult to say.
Kit, bikes, bags and kayak
The biggest surprise is how much money you end up spending… Hiring a bike is fine but it’s still a three figure sum and there is limited guarantee you‘ll end up with a Cyclocross or hybrid bike unless really early in the queue after registering. Even then, it might not be what you’re used to. Some of us built up bikes for the event. Given that a heavy mountain bike can feel like cycling with a small child on your back when you’ve trained on a road bike, it pays to think carefully about this. Our London/Chelmsford sub team, travelled up with their own bikes to avoid ending up with a heavy mountain bike. These were racked to a camper van which worked well until there appeared to be a problem getting a space on the bus.
(Logistics note here: You deliver your own transport to the finish line then travel with Bike on coaches with bike carriers following behind – we had two such spaces but needed three. We emailed and were told there was no space for the extra bike which meant having to travel to the bike transition point for day one, rack a bike then travel to finish and leave the van – an extra 2.5 hours driving on top of the trip up from London. Disappointingly, the bus was only half full and there was in fact more than enough spaces to accommodate our extra bike!).
So why the expense on kit? Well you’ll need the mandatory kit, taped seam waterproof jacket, head torch, small first aid kit, warm layer, cycle helmet, leg cover: waterproof or windproof, warm headgear, warm gloves, survival bag or blanket, whistle, additional upper body thermal layer, food/spare food and water (see below – nutrition). Remember its essentially an unsupported event when you get going so you carry what you need.
For some, this meant a dash to buy a decent waterproof jacket, new running tights, survival bag etc. For others, it was an excuse to upgrade kit. We had a mixture in our team with specialist endurance running kit through to a small day bag and bladder to support their efforts. As a footnote here, invest in a waterproof pouch for your phone!
Then comes the tough part! Get it all and your civvies and anything else you need (like beer) into a go bag small enough to travel on the trucks between start and end of day one and from start of day two to the finish line. You’re told a maximum of 70 litres but there were some with more. Rat Race seemed quite relaxed about this and a few of us used 50 litre bags and strapped other items in compression sacks to the side. If you don’t have one, add it to your list – Choices, choices, choices: Buy a tarpaulin North Face base camp bag if you can afford it and Mountain Warehouse (just as good but a fraction of the price) if not!
When it comes to the bikes, you’ll see road cyclists passing mountain bikes on the road and mountain bikes avoiding punctures on the off road. It not really technical off road tracks, it’s rough terrain and double track at worst. But there were plenty of people changing tubes at the side of the track. Some of us choose to run tubeless and use Stan’s notubes fluid. Amongst the six of us, we had no punctures on the event (quite a few in training). Take a bell – it is genuinely valuable when passing on the off-road sections when accompanied with yells of “on your right”.
So, to running kit… We mostly ran in off road fell running trainers (Mudclaws, Salomon and the like) – great for day one, even worked well with good quality flat pedals on the bike. However, with hindsight perhaps a pair of Brooks Cascadia or even HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR would have been more suitable – oh dear, that’s going to hurt a wallet or two next year). Add in to the mix the usual, base layer (long sleeve recommended – particularly to combat midge bites) and for some of our team, Triathlon shorts (long course – enough padding for the cycling distance but comfortable enough to run in) which helped provide a degree of compression which possibly contributed to the fact we still felt human after each day’s effort.
Finally, if you haven’t done it before, an afternoon of Kayaking is thoroughly recommended since this helps understand more about how to steer the damn thing effectively and also the subtle nuances of dealing with the Kayak when one is nursing a sore hip flexor.
So… fitness is key, but we all agreed that the two other components of success for us here were mind-set and nutrition.
Mind-set is more a lifelong pursuit – having that “can do” approach, but nutrition… well that was down to what works best for individuals. It was estimated we’d need around 6,000 calories on each day, that’s 3,500 over normal adult male intake. A typical day’s intake over and above breakfast and dinner would be Cliff Energy Bars, Bananas, Cliff Bloks and Zero tablets in water. Spaced out little and often during the event, it worked particularly well and no one reported feeling nutritionally challenged.
We used both caffeine and non-caffeinated versions of Bloks and Zero and ensured we took in caffeine at regular intervals to help with the kick (staying off caffeine for a couple of weeks before helps with this). This food was more than adequate to get you around and the Bloks were particularly good – especially if you are not a fan of the energy gels.
Friday night in downtown Inverness
We’d elected to stay in an AirBnB in Inverness the night before and head to the start early Saturday morning. This was a great choice as any last-minute purchases for food (all the main supermarkets), clothing (Blacks, Mountain Warehouse etc.) or in fact anything (phone shops for forgotten chargers etc.) could easily be made and Inverness is a beautiful city.
We headed down to Cawdor Castle for registration. Bit of a queue but all were in good spirits. They checked the mandatory items, gave us our race numbers, timing chips and emergency information then it was off to the bike racking at T1 to check all was good with the steed.
Book a restaurant for the Friday night if there are a few of you – it was rammed in most restaurants in Inverness, very busy and difficult to find a place for six to eat (at least to eat together). We ate in an Italian restaurant and shared a couple of Pizzas and big bowls of Pasta, lubricated with beer and red wine. Stuffed and hardly able to move, it was off to the supermarket to sort breakfast for the next morning.
A pleasant walk back to the AirBnB, quick kit check and then an early night.
Saturday morning at the Beach
Up at 05.30, a quick look out the window revealed a view of light drizzle and early morning overcast cloud – ideal running weather. Not too cold, not too hot and an ongoing light drizzle as we climbed into our pre-booked taxi for six at 07.15 and we were off.
We arrived early in Nairn – at least an hour before our wave started. We dropped our go bags on the correct truck then we headed off to the high street and into a small restaurant/bakery/coffee shop. Time for a second breakfast and some caffeine (see nutrition).
Back to the start and we were ready to go. We joined the back of our wave (mental note, try the front next time since it gets crowded on the trail run) and off we go. The run starts along the coastal footpath with a mixture of paved and grass surfaces before we turn inland and run alongside a river. Soon the paved surface is replaced by gravel paths and single track surfaces, and as we run along beside the river and along footpaths it’s all quite pleasant with a little time for the inevitable banter about “why didn’t you go before we left?”. In places, the path gets very narrow and there are a lot of areas of uneven surface and stumps/roots which leads to a little congestion and a lack of passing places. Good practice if you are passing is to indicate which side you are coming through on!
Soon we’re crossing a road we were on the day before and rapidly heading into the T1 transition at Cawdor Castle. The transition is untimed, so plenty of opportunity to take on water and food ahead of un-racking bikes and heading off – just be careful where you walk if you want to avoid your tracking chip registering you as ‘leaving T1’. Some of the team changed into shorts and clipless bike shoes some of us were ready as we were. We left T1 and we were off – still drizzling and now onto a wet road surface for the 48 mile on road cycle.
It was stunning – and as the morning progressed, it became sunny and bright with some fantastic dark clouds on the horizon to produce a real picture postcard view. It wasn’t long before the team had split up to pursue their own pace but the route was well signposted and there was always someone to talk to. Some very challenging terrain covered here where we thankful of the 42-tooth cog on the cassette! Hills that never ended which made for very tough going to climb, but great fun to descend at great speed. It was windy, very windy and mostly a head wind. At times, it was hot and other times, it was just wet but the views more than compensated for this.
We arrived at Fort Augustus on Loch Ness and into T2 to time out of the ride and rack the bikes. Again, it was an untimed transition so a casual rack of the bike followed by an attempt to free oneself of lactic acid then it was off to ‘time-in’ again and then run to the Kayaks. We timed it badly as the bridge was open which meant we had to run a little further up the lock to cross it on the footbridge then back down the other side to head to the Loch itself. Only added a few minutes but when tired, every extra yard was burning your hip flexors! We arrived at the Kayaks to join a long queue – some ten minutes later (a welcome rest) we were on the Loch in bright sunshine paddling out and back, then back on two feet for the run to the campsite. We timed out and then off to collect bags, claim our tents and then shower (fantastic showers!).
We headed off for something to eat in the food tent and waited for the rest of our team to arrive. When all were in, we headed out into Fort Augustus for more food and some Guinness!
After more beer and a quick kit turnaround for day two, we called it a night and headed back to the tents. Not everyone on the campsite followed this pattern and so, we had a mixed night’s rest as some continued to party until around 02.30 around which time it started pouring down with rain which seemed to send the last stragglers off to bed.
Damp Day Two
Waking at around 05.30 meant free choice of the facilities which was a good move as queues soon formed! A quick shower and a change into day two kit then it was off for breakfast. A cooked breakfast followed by some porridge for good measure then we dropped our go bags on the truck to the finish then it was off to collect our bikes. It was raining, solidly. Waterproof jacket on, hat and gloves on, then off. The actual start was down by Loch Ness rather than at the campsite. A short ride away but just far enough to deal with damp brakes and adjust to the inevitable slight saddle soreness.
We waited our turn and listened to the briefing about the ride then it was over the timing mat and off we went. Along the side of the Loch for a little while before cycling through a shallow ford then into the woods., the hills and beyond. It was great, but not really single-track or technical sections. Despite this, it was challenging enough. The undulating hills, the views the climbs and even more fun, the rapid decent that followed each climb. This section was 21 miles and you could really feel it. It was a good pace that we set but the hill climbs were a challenge. We passed quite a few road bikes upturned at the side of the road for impromptu puncture repairs but nothing like this plagued our team.
Some parts of the off-road were narrow and sometimes you’d find it hard to get past others or hear the call of “on your right” before someone would cycle through and throw muddy spray all over you and others following. It remained wet for the whole day and it wasn’t long before shoes were soaked. Gore-Tex socks helped but with as much water coming over the top as through your shoes, your feet just became resigned to being wet. The off-road section finished with a slog of a climb. When at the top there was a great, fun downhill just like the day before into when we descended into Fort Augustus and then without any real drama, we were onto the road section. 13.5 miles to go left on the bike. Once again beautiful views and countryside but a bit of a challenge with some narrow roads, hills and occasional fast moving traffic to contend with. The rain was relentless, feet were soaked, legs were tired and overall, we felt quite cold. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. We cycled heading to Fort William and the time passed quickly compared to previous cycle sections.
As we closed in on today’s T1 transition, the traffic become more urban and with a clutch of roundabouts to deal with it felt a little hard going but you couldn’t fault the locals for their tolerance of around a thousand rat racers and the inevitable impact on the traffic. We finally reached the transition and timed out. Some scenes of chaos as some returned hire bikes and others racked their bikes on the transporters to send them to the finish line. Time for food, drink and a final mandatory kit check before departing for the run/trek.
It was hard going and still raining, more like a gently rain soaked jog through a local housing estate in then up through the forest at Glen Nevis. The climb was immediately steep and slowed us down. The climb was hard and the rain and mud prevailed. We carried on running where we could and trekking the rest. Feet wet, legs tired and many hills ahead, you could understand why some might drop out. We were tired, it was hard and there were 14 miles of this ahead.
We joined the West Highland Way and headed up. And then up again, and then up again. No really, it was all up. When it did level out, we could run and run we did, but it wasn’t for long before we’d hit a section of more ‘up’. Sections of single track prevailed and it was back to indicating which side you’d be passing on as we continued to make progress.
The surface was hard going, rocky and uneven. Trail running shoes really didn’t work here. Something to absorb the sharp uneven rocks was needed. Despite this we pressed ahead and realised that the path was actually turning into a river! We waded through dozens and dozens of streams crossing the path and with each, one’s feet just got wetter and wetter. Soaked and a little cold, it kept you going to see the resilience of others and the thought of a warm and dry bar and an extremely wet and cold Guinness.
Our GPS indicated that we’d reached the half way point on the trek/run which meant we were fast approaching the 100 mile mark. We carried on for another mile or so then met with some marshals who indicated we were now actually half way although we were confused as the sign at this half way marker said 8 miles to go! It was only later we discovered that due to flash floods, we’d been diverted onto the non-Kayak course which we believe diverted us for a couple of miles further. We continued, there was no getting around this, the soles of our feet hurt, we were still wet and still struggling to get a pace up. With every hill ahead of us, we started to think that it would yield a steep downhill to the finish. But it didn’t. Up, down, up down and up and down again. Still nowhere near the eventual finish. The last few miles were brutal and were taking their toll on the tops of our feet due to the underfoot instability (see kit above). The rat racers thinned out and we eventually started down towards water and civilisation. This was even harder going. Stepped, very steep and extremely greasy is the best way to describe the surface we were descending. Tough, dangerous and easy to lose control on.
We made our way down and we made it into another housing estate as we moved towards the finish. A little disappointing to arrive at the so-called finish to be told that we just completed the diverted route and that the Kayaking was still on but we’d have to wait for transport to the crossing opposite the Isle of Glencoe. We waited for an age and then jumped into a seven seat Discovery. The driver asked one of our team where we were going and eventually he found his way to the Kayaks. We’d lost thirty-five to forty minutes waiting, getting colder still and then travelling to the Kayaks. It was only afterwards we found that this isn’t netted off our time and as we were timed in it did make for a waste. Bizarrely, some of our team where allowed down the reopened original course after we’d passed through and not only did a shorter trek/run, but also didn’t have any waiting time!
So… we can now see the finish. Sort of. The weather had really closed in by the time we were in a kayak, bags between our feet, paddles in hand and hoods up, we set off. Aiming for the right-hand side of the island, we gradually made our way to left hand side of the island, yes, the tide really was that fierce. Raining hard, with rough waves, we made steady and sure progress but it was hard going. A mile over so-called flat water that with its waves, resembled the hills we’d just climbed and descended was all that stood between us and the finish. We landed on the banks of the hotel having almost forgotten there was a ‘sprint-finish’ ahead. Hey-ho, in for a penny and all that. Off we went.
To the finish… and beyond!
Finished and what fun it was. 105 miles (or in the case of some of our team, closer to 107 miles tracked via Strava), It was a real challenge and our respect goes out to all the participants. Our thanks go to the race marshals, organisers, people of the Highlands who enthusiastically cheered us on and our families for supporting the training effort and the weekend of hell itself.
Medal in hand, photos taken, it was off for a warm bath, food and time to pull up a sandbag and tell our war stories.