With Open Adventure's 5 day adventure race returning to Scotland in 2019 I had a look back at my experience of 2012, with many lessons learned that have fed into my swimrun journeys.
THE BEGINNING When my friend Dan Graham, who was inspired after completing the Coast to Coast race, asked if I fancied doing a 5 day expedition race in Scotland I said “Yes”.
It was only during the event that I realised that most competitors had at least done a 1 day adventure race before. Many had done 2 or 3 days, and quite a few had done 5 day races, some had even competed in the World Championships.
I’ve experienced some suffer-fests in my time, and been on many multi-day expeditions where the focus was on the journey, a summit attempt, getting from A to B - not transitions, check points, “dibbing”, wearing bibs, race marshals, trackers, making sure you had the right helmet in the right transition bag, along with the required food (calorific intake) and emergency equipment for specific legs of the race.
For me the Adidas Terrex Sting was a baptism of fire into the world of Adventure Racing - just the way I like it.
Our team evolved from Dan, Jordan, Abby and myself. Jordan dropped out due to life commitments (or something), so Dan’s friend Dom stepped in.
We had a training “weekend” in Wales which involved some canoeing on the Dyfi (Dovey) Estuary (a big thank you to The Outward Bound Trust, Aberdovey, for loan of their canoes), mountain biking somewhere (I missed this due to work), some trekking in the middle of the night finding imaginary check points (including a quick summit up Cadair Idris at 3am), followed by some multi-pitch rock climbing at the little known crag of Bird Rock.
Dom later dropped out due to injury. With 3 weeks remaining until the start of the race we were short of a team member. Dan G managed to recruit Dan Carrivick via an Adventure Race forum. Magic.
It turns out that Dan C was relatively experienced in such races, and looking back perhaps I shouldn’t have completely ignored his spreadsheet of recommended calorific intake.
So we first met as a full team in Stirling 24 hours before the start of the “prologue”. The prologue is pre-race race. When Dan told me of this “prologue” a few days before heading up to Scotland I said “What?”. He said “Yes, it’s a relay race before the actual race.” I said “What?”. The conversation continued in this vein.
THE PROLOGUE The prologue was actually a lot of fun. Abby kicked us off with a flat out foot-race around Stirling. She got us off to a solid start and passed the baton (tracker) to me for an orienteering leg. I collected the orienteering map and set off at full speed as if I was running a 400m track race. It was only after I had taken a few turns that I remembered I was actually meant to be orienteering and not just legging it around the streets of Stirling. The first check point took me by surprise, especially as it had the number 5 on it - I thought it was going to be number 2. This was a key turning point. Now I knew where I was. I quickly engaged my brain along with my legs, dibbed at all the checkpoints and handed the tracker over to Dan C. He blasted around a golf course on a mountain bike. Apparently that was what he was meant to do, but I’m not so sure. Dan C returned and handed over to Dan G, who had more of a brutal mountain bike leg to complete, taking in the William Wallace monument. We finished somewhere between 1st and last position, just like we planned.
THE START So with the prologue out of the way we kicked off the actual race on Monday morning. Half way to the start line I realised that I had forgotten my bib. Not a problem I zoomed back to base camp and got bibbed up. As I look back now, after 5 days of constantly taking the bib on and off to layer up/delayer, I wish I’d left it where it was. However I’m pretty sure not having a bib is severely frowned upon.
THE 10km RUN - Stirling Easy. However during the run it dawned on Dan G that he had packed the helmet he was going to use for the canyoning section in the wrong bag. This added a faff factor and a delay to our race. I think we probably would have won the race had it not been for this delay. 80km MOUNTAIN BIKE - Doune Castle and The Trossachs Not too painful, apart from when Abby went over her handlebars and smashed many parts of her body on rocks. A little blood, a massive thigh bruise, nothing broken. This bike leg also saw our one and only puncture of the race, and a lost wheel nut from Abby’s “wonder bike”. A big thanks to the marshalls who sorted out a replacement nut in time for the next MTB leg Oh, just remembered the lovely rowing part of the race that was squeezed into this 1st mountain bike leg. Apparently it was across Scotland’s only lake. Relatively relaxing. Got to the first transition at Killin, my first experience of a race transition ever, it was great. We put up the tent and then sat down. Dan G told us all to consume complex carbohydrates. I needed tea, and lots of it. I also scoffed some of my mum’s cake, then more tea with some good sitting down, before hitting the tent around 23:00.
46km CANOE - Loch Tay, River Tay Tent down at 01:45am, some calorific intake and we’re off. No time for tea this morning. We were on Loch Tay at 02:28am and it was beautiful. Pitch black, no wind, an amazing introduction to the first canoe leg. By 08:00am (ish) we were glad to see the back of Loch Tay. We cruised down the rapids of the River Tay feeling good. I wondered why the race marshalls seemed so anxious, with lots of shouting and pointing at each rapid. We later heard that many of the top teams had capsized, and one had had a foot entrapment. We found this encouraging, not the foot entrapment, but the fact that we might be able to make some ground on teams ahead of us.
30km MOUNTAIN BIKE - Grampian Mountains The sun was out and big climbs were the order of the day. A grueling uphill slog into the mountains, which was remarkably enjoyable, followed by a fast, bumpy descent with no casualties.
CANYONING - Bruar Falls We were all looking forward to a good soaking in cool mountain water. The canyoning featured in the trailer for this race was probably the main appeal to me, I am at my most comfortable in and amongst rushing, cold water. In the end I found it a little bit odd in the race format. As a team we were good in water and we had hoped that we could make up some ground on the less “water-comfortable” teams. However because of the safety involved in the canyon it became more of an activity we were doing in the middle of the race, and not the actual race. Nevertheless it was great to have a wash and soothe the legs.
40km MOUNTAIN BIKE - Cairngorm National Park Although this was probably our hardest MTB section, I enjoyed it the most. It started on road, then on track, then on bridleway, then through swamps, then across increasingly deep rivers. Somewhere between the bridleway and swampy sections it turned dark, I loved the dusk pedaling, spurred on by the prospect of being midgey-fied if you slowed. As darkness took hold there were some tricky carry/push your bike sections. Once through the swampy bits we hit a 4x4 track around about midnight, we took a moment to turn all of our lights off to appreciate the silly number of stars. Then away at a remarkable pace - my first experience of mountain biking in the dark and it was great, the river-crossings were particularly fun. We finally reached smooth smooth tarmac and blasted into transition at Mar Lodge. Mar Lodge was a lovely building in which I sacrificed some sleeping time in order to take on my required amount of tea. Unfortunately I lost my Leatherman here. Gutted. In tent for 02:00am.
40km MOUNTAIN BIKE - Balmoral Castle and on to Glenmuick Tent down at 04:30am and away. By now we were all pretty comfortable at just getting on the bikes and pedaling. This section started quite pleasantly. As we passed Balmoral Castle a policeman informed us that we had just missed The Duchess of Cornwall, I know her as Camilla. The last 10km into transition started to drag, but we pushed on in the knowledge that soon we would be able to enjoy the simple freedom of walking in the mountains.
25km TREK - Lochnager & Glen Shee After midge-fest transition we were glad to be on the move again. The weather was good and it was great to be out of the saddle. We got to the first scramble which was great fun and pretty loose. Bagged a few Munros and did some dibbing at various check points, a second scramble up an exposed pinnacle that was even better than the first one. Big shout out to the race marshall at the bottom of the second scramble - she had a box of Celebrations. Awesome. At some point before the Celebrations we were overtaken by the Adidas Terrex team. They brought with them the attraction of a film crew in a helicopter, we let them passed as we didn’t want to show them up. As night and cloud fell some rock-solid navigation was needed to find the last checkpoint. Dan C’s “lighthouse” head torch was particularly useful. As we started to descend to Glen Shee in worsening visibility a team approached us with a definite look of “we are lost, cold and tired but we’re reluctant to admit it”. The final 30 mins before reaching transition at Glen Shee was my most tired. After much eating I had the most complete shut down for a solid 5 hours in the warm smelly Glen Shee ski lodge.
20km TREK - Cairnwell After that fabulous sleep we awoke at 05:30am as new people. The coffee from the mobile caterer (Clive Ramsey, legend) served to lift our spirits even higher as we stomped up into the second half of the trek. Moving at a good pace, chatting lots, and generally very cheery, we had a great morning on the hill. Until a long trudge along a track took us to another midge-infested spot, to re-build our bikes, and get back into the saddle.
25 km MOUNTAIN BIKE Getting on the saddle felt great, particularly as we were getting away from the midges. But also because we could begin to smell the finish. We blasted this leg that ended with a tricky single track section through plenty of gorse bushes.
60km CANOE No problem. Apart from a partial capsize whilst taking a sketchy line down a strainer-strewn side of an island. Apart from this we had become such canoe monsters that we could even urinate on the move. Yes, when an athlete can relieve themselves on the move they know that they are performing at their best.
60km MOUNTAIN BIKE We were “in the zone”. Dan G led us like Hell’s Angels out of the Perth traffic. I think we all enjoyed this mountain bike leg, all the way back to Stirling.
THE END We finished fit and strong. We drank what remained of the Champagne after Abby had sprayed much of it on someone’s laptop. I got a fantastic assisted stretch from my new favourite marshall and we all slept soundly in the sports hall. It felt odd to have finished as we were just getting into a nice rhythm. Thanks to Dan Graham for asking me to join his team and thanks to James Thurlow and his team at Open Adventure for setting it up. Suggestion for the next race - have the finish by a cold lake/river/sea so we can run through the finish line and jump straight into the water. Actually, maybe have the finish line in the middle of a lake so we have to swim through it! This will actually speed up our muscle recovery as well as being fun! Check this research out from The University of Western Australia: http://ww.jssm.org/vol10/n4/10/v10n4-10pdf.pdf No worries.