Russell’s Scotland Coast to Coast Experience 14/9/19

In September 2019 I took part in the Rat Race Adventure Sports Coast to Coast event in Scotland.

I’ve taken part in a few events like this over the years. Since getting injured 13 years ago, I’ve always struggled with short, sharp movements but found that I could “move the goalposts” to create new challenges and new ways to test myself both physically and mentally.

I started running, mainly half marathons and smaller distances but it always felt inevitable that I would have to take part in a marathon at some stage just to “tick that box”. In 2013, spurred on by friends also looking for a challenge I signed up for the Wales Ironman in Tenby. This was a big step up from half marathons but with a bit of planning and dedication, I completed the training and survived the day and it felt great to be able to put that medal in a drawer and have that box ticked.

Since then, I’ve only completed smaller events, always with a feeling that I would again try and take on a challenge one day. I found the Rat Race brand and they have many events throughout the UK and the World. I opted for the Coast to Coast event in Scotland for 2019.

This is an A to B race starting in Nairn on the northern coast of Scotland and finishes 105 miles away on the southern side of Loch Leven at The Isles of Glencoe Hotel. It consists of a seven mile cross country run from Nairn to Cawdor Castle, 48 mile road cycle to Fort Augustus, 21 mile off road cycle and 13.5 mile road cycle to Fort William. Then a 14 mile trail/trek through Glen Nevis to the northern shore of Loch Leven and a final one mile kayak across the loch to the finish line at The Isles of Glencoe Hotel.

Although I had around a year to prepare, I never felt fully convinced that I could complete this event. It was a tough undertaking with a lot of unknowns. There is a one day option and a two day option, I’d opted for the one day option and had spent the last year mulling over that decision. It is possible to take part in this event on your own, Rat Race will transport you and your equipment around Scotland so that you are reunited with your stuff and end up where you started. Alternatively you could have someone with you who can drive from the start to the finish and collect you and your things there, luckily for me, I had my one man support crew Jamie, so when I got to the finish, I knew he would be there and we were checked into the hotel at the finish line and I could collapse and relax and not worry about getting back to Nairn to get my car etc.

One of the biggest decisions and much debated amongst the Rat Race community was which type of bike to use. The 21 mile off road section is rather uneven and was a bit of an unknown quantity for me, the other 62 miles of cycling is on roads. I opted for my slick 23mm road tyres and I was just going to hope for the best along the off road section. I reasoned that it was only 25% of the ride and I’d benefit more for the 75% of the cycling. When I arrived in Scotland and saw everyone else’s bikes, I spent a lot of time looking closely at the bike choices and I was definitely in the minority with many opting for a cyclocross style and quite a few with fat-tyred mountain bikes, so that played on my mind for the 24 hours prior to the start of the race.

I arrived in Cawdor Castle the day before the race and went through all the registration procedures and left my bike and rucksack with the team ready for me to reunite with after the initial 7 mile run from Nairn the following morning. The registration locations are always a bustling place where lots of worried looking people are milling around checking they have everything, thinking things through over and over to make sure they’ve not made any silly mistakes. One chap had driven from London with his bike, only to realise on arrival that he hadn’t put the chain back on his bike – luckily I was a tad more prepared than this. Rat Race place a heavy emphasis on safety and there was certain mandatory kit you had to have with you at all times to ensure if you got into trouble, you could get yourself out of trouble again. I had all my gear, left it there and headed to Nairn for the evening to relax, eat some food and prepare for the 6.45am start, still thinking about my bike choice.

The Scottish weather is always something that’s hard to predict, it has the ability to change the face of any outside activity undertaken and this type of event is no different. Especially with the direction of travel consistent. So, if we had a wind behind us from North to South it could really help (although potentially rather cold). Alternatively if we had weather from the South which is more likely, it meant we would be heading into it for the majority of the day. The long range forecast for the weekend had been generally good but as the time got closer, it was clear that there would be a spell of bad weather coming through Scotland from South to North. As it turned out that would be from about 9am on the day of the event until late evening. Pretty much the entirety of the race. Fun.

This forecast only confounded my thoughts that it would be a tough challenge to just get to the end, let alone aim for a strong ‘time’. There were strict “cut-off” times at the end of the cycling/start of Glen Nevis (4pm in Fort William) and again at the end of Glen Nevis/start of the kayak section (7.30pm) for safety reasons, to ensure participants aren’t stranded in a section of the event where they are unlikely to finish in daylight hours. I knew what sort of speeds I was capable of and knew it could be tight, especially with a headwind and with my bike choice potentially letting me down on the off road section.

I woke up to almost perfect weather conditions, no rain or wind, cool and calm and didn’t need many layers on to stay warm. Could the forecast be wrong or will it all miss us entirely? We shall see …

I started the event with a bunch of people who all looked like they knew what they were doing, every bit of kit you could imagine, did I have too much? not enough? Only time would tell but it was too late to change my mind or back out now.

The first part was the 7 mile cross country run back to the registration point at Cawdor Castle where my bike, rucksack and food was waiting for me. The terrain was a bit wet from overnight rain and I tried my best to avoid landing in wet sticky puddles because I wanted to keep my trainers dry for the run stage through Glen Nevis later on that day and knew if my feet got cold and wet, it could only make things worse. I managed to negotiate the 7 miles relatively dry and got to Cawdor Castle around my expected time, had a few snacks and started to drink from my rucksack bag and was ready to take on the cycling.

Within about 5 minutes of being on the bike, a fellow competitor came up alongside me, took a look at my bike and kindly said “bit brave isn’t it, those tyres will be interesting on the off road section later” – A great little confidence booster that I had made the right choice. I was now anticipating a scenario where I would be off my bike, walking it through rough terrain with my SPD bike shoes on, but that would be a problem for later in the day, for now, I had 48 miles of decent surface to make good time and get to Fort Augustus for a pit stop before taking on the off road section.

I still had my waterproof jacket and trousers in my rucksack, I didn’t need them and didn’t want them on unnecessarily as I wanted to feel unrestricted and able to cool down whilst cycling whilst I could. Within an hour of cycling the wind had picked up and I was starting to drop below a pace that I was aiming to maintain, there wasn’t much I could do apart from keep going and focus on getting to Fort William before the 4pm cut-off. There were around 270 participants aiming to complete the course in one day, I knew I was somewhere in the middle after the first run. As a few of them came past me on the bike, it was a good opportunity to tuck in behind a few riders to “draft” along with and stay out of the increasing headwind. These moments were great and I started to feel that if I could spend some miles in a group then my pace may increase enough and I could conserve energy and that I could get to the cut-off in time.

As it was, there was no chance to hide from the incoming weather for any of us for the entirety of the road section and the rain soon joined the sideways wind directly into my face. I found myself pedalling hard even when I was on a down slope just to keep my momentum going. There were some very exposed sections on this road and it was difficult to maintain balance yet alone speed on the bike, I was being blown left and right and fought with my bike to stay close to edge of the road to allow cars to pass. The whole route was open to the public so I had to remain vigilant and aware of my surroundings as well as the conditions we were being dealt.

There were 2 or 3 moments along this road section I had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to finish, I was already preparing what I would say to family and friends about the terrible conditions and I just didn’t have enough in the tank. I was nearing my way to Fort Augustus where the 2-day eventers would be sleeping for the night and where I could have a break, quick snack and drink and crack on with the final push off road and back on the road to Fort William. I knew I’d get to Fort Augustus and I knew I would pedal on to Fort William irrespective of the timing but felt quite sure I’d get there with a steward informing me, my race was over and I couldn’t do the mountain section of Glen Nevis.

With around 5 miles to Fort Augustus, the wind and rain beat me. I hopped off my bike, had a quick snack and needed to walk up the remainder of the biggest climb on an exposed section of road where I felt that I would probably be moving faster on foot than if I stay pedalling on my bike into the wind. At least at the top I could sit back on the bike and cruise down the hill to the pit stop. Of course there was a photographer near the top of the hill who was all too ready to take a pic …

Capturing the face of someone being beaten by the weather. I got to the top, clipped back into the bike, and cruised down the next 5 miles to Fort Augustus. My hands were too cold to change gears and pull the brakes comfortably. I was starting to think the half way point would be the end of my race.

I got to the Fort Augustus pit stop, pulled in, put my bike down and tried to shelter from the wind. The pit stop was a bloke with a van full of crisps, nuts and flapjacks and a coffee urn. What I ‘liked’ about this event was that it was designed to be tough, it was designed to be relatively self-sufficient. There were no little luxuries to help, there was no base camp to dry off, no community hall to rest and recompose yourself. The idea was to stop for a short period of time and just get going again. I used my time here to get my weatherproof jacket on and my thick gloves that I had brought to use for the trek section. It took longer than it should, my hands were already too cold to comply with simple instructions. I struggled but I managed, wiggled them on bit by bit, strapped the cuffs around them and immediately felt better. Emptied my lucozade from my drinks bottle on my bike and replaced it with hot coffee. Warmth was what I needed more than anything right now and I had plenty of energy in the food I was carrying. After a few minutes here I was ready to get going again and attack the next section, the off road 21 miles.

It started relatively well, the track was a firm gravel path alongside a canal. The bike rolled well and I thought if it stays like this we could be more than ok. The biggest benefit in this section was that now, the route was sheltered by trees and the wind was no longer holding me up like it was on the exposed roads. Within 5 miles I had cycled past 3 competitors who were fixing their bike, presumably these were punctured tyres from the rough ground, I was taking extra care to avoid ruts and big stones. It was going to take a fair bit of luck and judgement to get through this 21 miles without having to deal with a puncture.

The miles were ticking away and as it turned out there were only 2 small parts of the off road section where I had to unclip my feet and walk up short, sharp gravel sections where the tyres were just spinning through the surface. Once past these, the bike coped fine and I was soon back on the road with just 13.5 miles to go to Fort William. According to my watch, things were looking good, I had nearly two and half hours to get there before the 4pm cut off. Perhaps I could complete this whole thing after all.

I rolled into Fort William with the rain still lashing down, it was coming up to 3pm so I knew I’d be allowed up the mountain to make a start. I got off my bike, packed up anything I didn’t need and left it with the support crew. I now put my water proof trousers on and put my “dry” running shoes back on ready to walk/run/shuffle my way to the finish. I was just about to start when I heard my name being called, it was Jamie. He’d managed to find the remote car park and it gave me a boost knowing he’d made it down to here through the difficult driving conditions and that we weren’t far away from getting to the finish.

I started to shuffle along the gravel track, legs were not agreeing with me but I wanted to make a start. Just up the road was the final pit stop where again it was similar to Fort Augustus, a few snacks and small kettles on the go providing a quick warm cup of tea and a little booster to carry me along the final section. I asked the steward if we were likely to make the 7.30pm cut off for the start of the kayak section and he said the kayak had been cancelled due to the weather – two foot waves on a loch were not ideal conditions to have 270 out on the water in poor visibility. I was disappointed, I wanted to complete the course as it was designed but the lack of a kayak finish was replaced with a different route on the trek and so it would still be a tough effort and we could only do what was in front of us.

I wasn’t completely confident with my footwear choice either, I was back in my running shoes that I started the day in, they were dry but this wouldn’t last long. Much of the trek had become a stream and my feet were about to spend 8 out of the 14 miles consistently underwater so keeping them dry hadn’t made much difference. Everyone around me had trail shoes on which looked much more suitable, but they were comfy for now and felt a lot better than my SPD bike shoes.

With the amount of rain that had been falling, the scenery had come alive. The Glen on both sides of the valley were pouring with waterfalls running down to the valley below and often crossing the path we were on. These waterfalls often started tracking along the path we were on before rerouting back down towards the basin below. My feet were cold and wet but it was manageable. There were sporadic moments where I could see a marshall up ahead – I thought one of them would just say “that’s it, the race is done, it’s too dangerous ahead and we’re taking you all to the finish from here”. But no, each time I passed a marshall, they just told me how much further there was to go … it was kind of reassuring to think that no matter what, we would be heading to that finish and would overcome these adverse conditions. Each person that passed me or I passed made a comment about the conditions. There were certainly not many from the general public up here for a walk today.

With a few miles to go there was a strong waterfall that had gained in strength across our route. There was a fence across this point and we needed to brace ourselves against the fence to prevent being swept down the falls. Luckily there was a marshall there with a stick who could point to the best route to head through.

Just past this point we started to head down off the Glen and into Kinlochleven, our new finishing point. The trail was wet but safe to descend at a decent speed. I got back down to firm ground and shuffled along the road for the last mile looking for the finish. The last marshall pointed me around the corner and said “that’s your finish over there”. I kept going and made it to the back of a building where a lady was waiting with a clipboard to mark me off and take my tracker from me. I was glad to be finishing but it felt rather anticlimatic. I wasn’t expecting a fanfare but the original finish line is laid out on the banks of Loch Leven and I’d been aiming for this from the start. I walked inside, grabbed a hot drink and was told to wait at one end of the building and a minibus would take the next batch of 8 competitors back to the Isle of Glencoe Hotel – our original finishing line.

And so that was it. Done. I thought about those choosing the 2 day option, they were 50 miles back up North tucked in a tent with basic provisions and had to get the rest of this done tomorrow. As it turned out the weather made a U turn and the next day was delightful and I spent the day sat in the hotel with my feet up, watching the 700 two day competitors kayak across the lake in glorious conditions to the finish line.

I spent a few days recovering and felt myself yearning for the next thing, the next event to challenge me. I ended up on a few blogs and websites linked to Rat Race. I read a few stories and adventures and saw an open invite for something in July 2020. I made my enquiries and decided quite quickly I wanted to do this.

I’m heading to Dominica to cover 115 miles on foot over 4 days. Jamie has also agreed to come on this trip and take part this time. I will talk about our training and how we prepare and complete this next challenge throughout the next 10 months.

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