Team OAG enters stormy 2013 Coast2Coast Scotland adventure race. Photo: Andy McCandlish
Last year Team OAG tackled the UK’s first Tough Mudder and then adventure-raced in Killarney. 2013 needed us to step up a level so Rat Race’s Scotland Coast2Coast looked just the thing.
You race as individuals or teams of two, with two race options. The “Challenger” category is a two-day 105 mile run, bike and kayak from the North Sea coast at Nairn, to Ballachulish on the Atlantic. The other option, the “Expert” category is the same course, but in one day.
Team OAG (me and Jonathan (JC), a Tough Mudder veteran and former rugby pro) carefully considered these options and decided that having travelled so far, we didn’t want the fun to end too quickly, so we entered as Challengers.
We’re sticking to that excuse, but even we ‘have a go’ types realised the one-day race was for the seriously hardcore and we’re not – yet.
Being a long way to Nairn, we travelled up by train on the Thursday and spent Friday registering; leaving bikes at the first ‘transition’; and generally pacing about wondering how this was going to go. I drank my first ever can of Diet IrnBru.
Mates and fellow racers Will and Rich spent Thursday and Friday playing Nairn’s excellent golf courses, claiming a laid back approach to C2C would payoff come race day(s). Please don’t let them beat us.
Race day dawns and as our hotel had said no to our early breakfast, so we make instant porridge in the room and tiptoe out so as not to wake our generous hosts.
We stop off at race HQ and drop our bags for onwards transfer to the overnight stop in Fort Augustus.
Trotting along Nairn’s seafront in glorious morning sunshine, we’re happy that although a bit brisk there’s next to no wind. There’s an air of nervous but upbeat expectation in the air above the 727 Challengers, who are also jogging and stretching before the 8am start.
(l-r) Will, Will, Jonathan and Rich, C2C Scotland 2013
Will and Rich touching the North Sea before the start. Or are they digging for whelks as extra race food? Photo: Andy McCandlish
The 220 Experts left at 6.30am and are long gone. Good luck to them.
Starting in the sea would mean an early chafing, so the sensible Rat Race organisers start us 50 metres inland. Good call, but in only four years of existence, C2C Scotland tradition dictates we jog down to the beach anyway and dip our trainers in the water – just to say we began in the North Sea.
We log onto the race timing system with our wrist-banded timing chips and wait for the safety brief and starting hooter, jostling a little but trying to look and sound nonchalant about the massive task ahead.
Will and Rich look ready for anything but as we’re all hemmed in at the back of the pack, they realise shoving keenly towards the front at this stage would earn them howls of derision.
Team OAG is off; our strategy is to break the habit of a lifetime and ease into the race steadily. Trouble is, everyone else is doing the same and it’s a bit of a shambles. I nearly run into a rubbish bin, unsighted as the masses spread from the beachfront onto a grassy bank.
JC and I pick up the pace realising that there’s slow, and then there’s really slow. This first running stage is seven miles tracking south along the River Nairn to Cawdor Castle; the one in that Shakespearean “Scottish play” that we can’t name as we’ll need all the luck we can get.
For once, we would have been better off getting a fast start. After a mile, the race path narrows to single muddy track through the woods along the river. Overtaking is tricky and we even come to a halt as the strung-out line of runners concertinas back and forth.
We stride out when we can but we’ve lost a lot of time. We arrive at Cawdor 1hr 11 minutes after the start.
Team OAG reaches Cawdor Castle at the end of Leg One, C2C Scotland 2013.
My decision to stuff the mandatory first aid kit, windproof and food into my cycling top back pockets was a good one, the run was easier without a backpack.
Our Scott cyclocross bikes are waiting with a bag attached containing helmet, cleated shoes, and cycling shorts. I have two water bottles in cages on the bike and a ‘bentobox’ on the top tube with gels and energy bars in it.
We change quickly and stuff down some food and electrolyte drink. Our shoes are bungeed to the underside of the saddle, pointing downwards so they don’t interfere with the pedal stroke – it works well.
We don’t hang about in transition and are on the bikes and pedalling strongly up the road. Will and Rich hired bikes and the only option there seems to have been mountain bikes.
C2C Scotland doesn’t allow you to change bikes between race days, only tyres. This makes the bike choice critical. With 48 miles of metalled roads, I know which I’d rather be on. Could be a different story tomorrow during the off-road sections.
JC is a strong cyclist and sets a good pace. We’ve practiced ‘drafting’ each other to ensure we save as much energy and go as fast as possible. As a team we’re allowed to, but try it as an individual, without agreeing to share the work with a competitor, and you break race rules and lose friends very quickly.
The rolling bike route takes us southwest along the hills running south of Loch Ness, passing Loch Duntelchaig and then Loch Mohr on our left. The views are fantastic and it’s ideal cycling weather: dry, bright, but not too hot. Rat Race seem to have got the course just right; there’s nothing too steep or long, but it’s enough to keep your heart rate up, if you’re pushing on.
Racing through the Highlands, Day One, Coast2Coast Scotland 2013. Photo: Andy McCandlish
But it’s clear how much we time lost on the run – that, or the 200 or so people we pass are good runners but pretty slow cyclists. Admittedly our bikes are perfect for the rolling roads, sometimes the surface gets a little rough but none of it is ‘off-road’.
Many people have hybrid bikes but with their straight handlebars they can’t get very low and out of the headwind. We fitted tri-bars to our bikes and keeping up a decent speed for less effort far outweighs the small weight penalty.
I know there’s a mountain pass to climb and I’m not looking forward to it. JC powers up the hills but sometimes I’m looking for one more lower gear that’s not there.
The long steady climbing soon reveals a not too distant pass with cars and vans parked up. Can that be it? It is. Result. The last climb is the steepest yet but we make it without much trouble.
JC powers to the top of the pass with team mate Will behind. Coast2Coast Scotland 2013.
For the first time outside of transition, we allow ourselves a very quick stop for a happy snap and to relish the prospect of a long descent to Fort Augustus.
I’m usually quicker on the descents than JC. Not anymore. We hurtle downhill and after one short but steep climb; I expect to overtake him on the down. I round the corner to see empty road stretching away.
Either he’s come off or he’s going like the proverbial bat.
We meet near the bottom of the B682, otherwise known as General Wade’s Military Road, and wind our way into Fort Augustus, pleasantly surprised at how suddenly transition comes into view.
We’ve caught up with some of the expert category racers who started in Nairn an hour and a half before us. Are we tempted to push on to Ballachulish? No thanks, but we get some satisfaction from catching them.
Triathletes train to overcome this, but for me, the first 100 metres of running, after just over three hours on the bike, are not pleasant. My hamstrings feel three inches shorter and it’s hard to get into a running rhythm. Thankfully it’s less than a half a mile to the kayak stage.
We’re doing OK we think, having overtaken so many on the bike stage. It also means there aren‘t many racers trying to get into the limited supply of double kayaks.
We had a Team OAG kayak practice session a week or so before the event, to get some critical things sorted – like paddling in a vaguely straight line and in time with each other.
Team OAG powers through the kayak stage, Coast2Coast Scotland 2013.
It’s a short stage of only a few hundred metres and the training pays of; we run smooth and straight – proper cockleshell heroes. We’re out of the water and starting the run back to the day one finish line in less than seven minutes.
Crossing the line at about 1pm, in a total lapsed time for the day of 4 hours 44 minutes and 51 seconds. The timing chip printout tells us we’re 40th out of 727 and are the 9th team in.
As true mates would do, we text Will and Rich to tell them how well we’ve done and send them an encouraging picture of a giant flapjack that awaits them at the finish, if JC hasn’t eaten it by the time they get in.
Team OAG’s Jonathan showing giant flapjack. Coast2Coast Scotland 2013
We strut about for a bit, then limp and then realise that we need food. Lots. Fort Augustus is a serious tourist trap but we find a relatively cheap and cheerful café serving huge baked potatoes and my new favourite tipple: Irnbru.
We meet up with Will and Rich later at their swanky Lovat hotel. It seems they’ve executed their ‘steady as we go’ game plan to perfection. Despite our tiredness, we’re all buzzing with the day’s racing and are in danger of actually enjoying ourselves.
Tomorrow’s weather forecast of gales and heavy rain comes up in conversation once or twice, but Rich has found a forecast that says it will actually be ‘quite nice’ tomorrow. That’s OK then, we can rest easy.
We managed to find another hotel that gave our early breakfast request the big Highland heave ho; so more ‘pot porridge’ and sachets of instant coffee in the room. Joy.
I’m resisting an Eeyorish slide into despondency, but as the windows shake in the wind and rain spatters against the panes like buckshot, it’s hard to remain chipper.
Day two will be just a little different: time for Team OAG to dig deep possibly.
It’s not a mass start; the course opens at 7.30am and racers log their timing chip as they go over the start line. We opt to go out in the very first batch to avoid yesterday’s overtaking problems.
So we’re standing here, astride our bikes, in the rain, shivering, and not in anticipation; waiting for the man with the mega-phone and thermos to set us off. At least we acclimatised on the sodden mile ride in from our hotel.
I’m soaked, having opted to wear my windproof. It’s very light and keeps the wind out well but breathes better than a waterproof, given the heat I’m about to generate. That’s the theory but everyone else is wearing a waterproof.
It’s a relief to pedal off along the west side towpath of the Caledonian Canal; objective: Fort William some 38 miles south.
We’ve begun the stage fast and there are serious racers among us, briefly. Even so, more people than me are harnessing JC’s cycling power.
JC powers along towpath with others in his wake. Coast2Coast Scotland 2013. Photo: Andy McCandlish
We’re heading straight into the wind on a gravelly, puddled towpath and drafting rules are being set aside. JC takes a long turn on the front and we all just put our heads down and ride.
I’m not so streamlined today; I’m wearing a pack and can feel the difference. The backpack has more mandatory gear in it for day two. It’s very light with plenty of pockets for gels and food; and has a pouch for hiking poles strapped on the outside. The two water bottles are in my bike’s bottle cages for now, but they’ll go into shoulder mounted pouches on the run – meaning you can hydrate hands-free and re-fill more easily than a hydration bladder.
Not faring so well today are my Nike Transition sunglasses. They proved excellent in the variable light conditions yesterday, going clear in the woods and dark in the bright sunshine, but in the rain they’re steaming up – as would any glasses. The problem with removing them is that drafting six inches behind a back wheel throws a lot of grit and mud into my eyes.
We hit the A82 at the head of Loch Oich and get directed up a dirt track into the woods. Uh oh.I power uphill for all of 20m and get off. A few short steps of running like some kind of Cyclocross hero and then I’m walking, pushing my bike and realising that this section is going to be tricky on semi slicks and cyclocross gearing.
Most of the others are walking too at some point, but as soon as it levels out a little we clamber on and pedal. My Shimano SPD shoe cleats are clogging with mud and grit so clicking into the pedals is tricky – and just at the moment when you most want maximum power too. I end up in a ditch at the side of the track.
Some mountain bikers come past; one is ‘derogatory’ about my semi-slick tyres. He may be right at this point, but overall? We’ll see.
Grinding up the endless gravel forest roads is tough but dropping off onto muddy, rocky, root-strewn track descents brings a different kind of problem.
Our centre-pull brakes are not as powerful as disc brakes, so not being able to control our speed, and having pretty basic bike handling skills, means Team OAG’s forest descent is terrifying at times.
A Rat Race photographer has been placed, quite by chance, at a track drop off guaranteed to produce good shots. I don’t disappoint. Just as he says ”well done”, I go over the top of the handlebars into a bush.
Team OAG’s Will about to somersault in the woods. Coast2Coast Scotland 2013
After a few miles we exit the tricky forest tracks, battered but in one piece. The run to Fort William is mile upon mile of forest road, through South Laggan Forest above the shore of Loch Lochy. We pass a team fixing a puncture, grateful that so far we haven’t had that joy.
Eventually the track becomes road, snaking along the shoreline. We pass a steady stream of cars bedecked with stubby kayaks. Today’s bad weather has delivered these guys some serious white water to play in.
A mile or two of miserable dual carriageway outside Fort William and we’re into transition at the entrance to Glen Nevis. We’ve made it in 2 hours 50 minutes.
An official tells us that we have 30 minutes “off the clock”. It sounds good but within minutes we chill down; my wet leggings and long sleeve top are draining body heat fast. We down hot drinks and (quite) a few Penguins and Club biscuits – for nostalgia reasons, mainly.
Our bikes are being loaded onto a trailer to the finish and we’ve two stages to go: 13 miles of fell running and a kayak across Loch Leven. We jog away from transition as there’s no point hanging about.
A Kiwi girl skips past us saying this section’s “a real bitch”. Much as we’d like to stride out and show her how we tame such peaks, she disappears off ahead and we’re left stumbling along wondering how we’re going to get through this. Did I say it was raining?
Coast2Coast Scotland competitors smiling through the bad weather. Photo: Andy McCandlish
The course follows the West Highland Way towards Kinlochleven and as an old military road, it never gets steep for very long. However, we’ve established that our off-road laps of Richmond Park are scant preparation for running mile after mile of this terrain.
In a fit of morale management, I suggest to JC that we break out the hiking poles. Hiking poles divide opinion amongst UK hikers, let alone adventure racers. The truth is that they reduce impact on knees and feet and if they’re as light (160gm each pole) as my hiking poles, then carrying them when you’re running is no problem.
Our routine settles into running anything level, downhill or very gently uphill. The rest of the time we power along at a fast walk using the poles. It works for us and although we’re passed by some proper runners, we feel we’re pushing hard enough for the long haul.
Will, JC and Jez running on the West Highland Way. Coast2coast Scotland 2013. Photo: Andy McCandlish
We meet up with Jez on the trail. He’s a work colleague of Rich’s who was so inspired by the latter’s heroic C2C entry that he made the race his stag party. Most of his mates were trailing behind – in protest perhaps? We weren’t sure, but we couldn’t let Jez trundle over the hills alone, so for a few miles he joins our on-off running approach.
As we put on our rain jackets to keep the cold wind and rain from chilling us through, JC looks behind and warns that seriously dark clouds are approaching fast. We’re just in time with the jackets as the hail squall hits us in seconds.
It’s hard to remember to eat and drink enough in weather like this, but it’s vital over such a long time period to get down some liquid, gels, Clifbars and even Jez’s jellybeans. Although the stages and conditions make today much tougher than yesterday, as long as we’re pushing onwards we’re fine.
Where the West Highland Way meets a remote road we see a van parked up. As we approach, a guy gets out in his parka, intercepting us with the news that the kayak stage is cancelled.
They tested it out a few hours back and the kayakers were swept wildly off-course by the wind and waves. But Rat Race has a contingency: we’re told to keep on the West Highland Way until the new finish line in Kinlochleven.
The path is doing a good job of diverting rain off the hills into a raging torrent for us to run through. It takes more concentration than usual to ensure every uneven footstep is secure amidst the loose rocks, gravel, mud and water.
Team OAG’s Will splashes through the torrents above Kinlochleven.
At last we begin the descent to Kinlochleven, the poles are helpful but the knees are getting a pounding on the way down. After what must be the longest “just 400 metres to go lads”, the hastily rearranged finish line appears and we cross it with some relief. I let JC win. It’s about 1.45 pm; we’ve done it in about 6 hours 15 minutes.
We’re bussed back to Ballachulish, given medals and a cup of chunky soup. Collecting our luggage from a packed village hall, we realise that for most, the race will continue long into the afternoon. We haven’t done badly but we really had no idea how we’d measure up in the race.
We start getting cold very quickly once the euphoria has worn off a bit, so we shower and changing into our warm kit. We then break down the bikes to fit into Bike boxes. As we’re flying, we can’t take the risk of bubble-wrapping our bikes for the aircraft hold. We’ve hired them from Bike box online and once we’ve found a missing Allen key, they pack away nicely, looking reassuringly bombproof.
Will and Rich clearly opted for a leisurely breakfast and start time – it was Rich’s birthday after all – and we don’t see them before we have to board our taxi van for Glasgow airport.
The stats take time to come through but our lack of hill running grit meant we dropped some ten places on day two. Team OAG completed the whole course in 10 hours 53 minutes and were the 9th team in. Individually we placed 45th & 46th out of 694 finishers (a 95% completion rate)
The winner of the Challenger category, Tim Hildreth, took 9 hours 23 minutes. Olivia Faul was the fastest woman in 9 hours 57 minutes (13th place).
The winner of the Expert ‘all in one day’ category, Paul Cooper, took just 8 hours 17 minutes. But of course he had the nice weather…
Did we think that with the weather-shortened race we had unfinished business with Coast2Coast Scotland? No, I don’t think so. It was epic and we thoroughly enjoyed it but thoughts must turn to a new challenge for Team OAG. Ideas please.
Will Robson, Contributing Editor, Outdoor Adventure Guide
Team OAG crosses the finish line