Back in December last year I was looking for something challenging to do in 2016, ideally somewhere I hadn’t been before and involving something a bit novel along the way. After ruling out Ironmans on cost and originality grounds and marathons on a monotony basis, I ended up settling on the Rat Race Coast to Coast event and signed up with my mate Ross for the adventure. Part of the reason for this was that the annual pass (£300) grants you entry into all of their other events and meant I could do the Bedgebury Half Marathon, London Rat Race and Survival of the Fittest as ‘free’ added value.
As with all these things, they inevitably cost more than the face value once you’ve factored in transport, accommodation, bike rental etc but for what it is it remains a pretty good value package.
We took the Megabus Gold sleeper service up from London on the Thursday night, rolling into Inverness around 11am on Friday after a quick bus change in Glasgow. For the £15 fare we got free bottled water, muffins and even a croissant for breakfast as well as fruit scones and hot drinks on the final leg to Inverness.The full length bed was good enough for an uninterrupted 7 hour sleep which made it a crazily good value package when compared to train/plane/driving options. Highly recommended.
On the Friday night we stayed at the Westerlea Hotel in Nairn, after booking it back in January. Cheap, nice room and a great host who was up at 5am to make us porridge on the Saturday morning before driving us through town to the start line, top service.
There was the usual faffing around, registering, putting numbers on bikes, bags and kit, racking bike in transition etc that you’d expect the day before the race.
And then it was time for the main event.
Leg 1: 11.1km Trail Run from Nairn to Cawdor Castle.
After the obligatory hand dip into the frozen North Sea and quick reminder to follow the massive orange arrows along the route, the 300 or so of us doing the Expert (1 day) event were shepherded into the start pen around 10 mins behind the planned 6.45 start time and set off towards the West.
The route was beautiful, winding away from the beach along the River Nairn on narrow footpaths through the trees and alongside fields with the sun rising behind the hills to the left hand side the whole way along. It was a flat course with a couple of little ups and downs along the way and a slight kick towards the end towards the Castle.
The run went precisely to plan, if anything a bit too easy as we cruised round on 5 minute kilometres without getting too near the dreaded red zone too early in the race. This pacing left us in the top 20 or so competitors coming into T1 at Cawdor Castle and feeling fresh and ready for the bike.
Leg 2. 71km Road Bike from Cawdor Castle to Fort Augustus
After taking a bit longer than planned faffing around in transition putting the various bags into bags that you have to carry on this event to allow your kit to be moved around the course, I put my new found energy to use from the start and started the bike pretty fast, probably too fast. I unwittingly dropped Ross in the first few miles and then set about reeling in as many riders as possible up ahead, with those opting to ride on MTBs struggling to keep pace on the flat road sections.
It became apparent early on that the wind was going to be a big factor in this section. A stiff headwind was coming from the South West, right where we were heading for and this made the ride bloody hard work. After around an hour I had settled into a decent rhythm and managed to find a group of around 4 riders who were on a similar schedule and we shared the work in the wind for around 10km before falling to pieces with some disappearing off up the road ahead and some unable to hang on behind. There then followed another hour or so of solo slog into the wind before reaching the foot of the only notable climb of the day. Imaginatively named “B862 Climb” on Strava, it was 3.2km long @ 4% and into the wind, carrying a 5kg rucksack on a CX bike in a race, it was a tough test. There was though a pretty fun 60kph descent into Fort Augustus afterwards.
Leg 3. 1.6km run, 800m kayak on Loch Ness.
Hopping off the bike and into trainers is always a bit of a gamble, and it was a little disconcerting to feel quite as terrible as it did this early into the race. Hobbling with another chap called Ian, we reached the kayaks which were positioned 800m away through the town and on a pontoon. From here we paddled out, around a couple of inflatables and back to the shoreline. The kayaking part of this was quite relaxing, for the legs at least. We hopped out and hobbled back to the bikes, the whole process taking no more than 20 minutes. This point is where Day 1 ends for the ‘Challenger’ riders on the two day event.
Leg 4. 32km off road bike from Fort Augustus to Clunes
This is where things got really tricky. With basically zero experience riding off road, I had no idea how long this would or should take. The first section was just along the canal towpath and was flat, fast and easy. This respite didn’t last long, and marshalls directed us off a tiny path to the right of the road and the fun stuff began. In the first 500 metres there were 3 near vertical muddy, rocky ramps which were (nearly) impossible to get up without dismounting. From here there wasn’t anything quite so dramatic for a few Ks but there was very little flat or smooth ground to get the average speed back up on. The finale of the first half of this ride was a set of tight, muddy hairpins which tumbled down the hill to the road below. Pretty sure a number of riders will have ended up on the floor in this section, very slippery, very technical and very much out my comfort zone as a road rider.
The second half of the off-road section was on slightly wider paths alongside the Caledonian Canal which whilst on rocky terrain at least allowed periods of sustained climbing and descending on relatively straight paths rather than the fiddly first part.
Leg 5. 20km road bike from Clunes to Fort William.
After two painstakingly slow hours in the woods it was a great feeling to be back on the smooth roads to Fort William. By this point I’d been without water for around an hour and assumed there would be a little village shop or petrol station on the road to top up at. There wasn’t. 45 minutes later I rolled into Fort William particularly parched, but glad to have finished with the bike for the day without any major problems. I realised at the end that the rental bike didn’t even have quick release skewers on the wheels so no idea if I’d have been able to fix a puncture without the help of Google in the middle of nowhere.
The transition was nestled in the local Shinty club in Fort William and was next to a drive thru McDonald’s which was more than tempting by this stage. Fortunately the food and drink provision was better than expected and both energy drink and Clif bar products available (including a chocolate energy gel with the consistency of Nutella which I’ll be seeking out again in the future). This was also a 30 min neutralised zone to allow you to sort kit out, remove pedals/Garmin mounts etc. from rental bike, repack bag and discover your team Rangers has just lost 5-1 in the Old Firm derby as happened to the bloke next to me. I totally forgot to check what time I got in so only used half my allotted free recovery time.
Leg 6. 21km “Run” from Fort William to Loch Leven.
I had no idea at all how my body would react to this part of the day. I left the Shinty club around 2.45 with 8 hours in the legs already, but at least freshly replenished with food and drink. I managed to tick the first 2km off at a fairly comfortable 6min/km jog before things got hard. We turned off a path and into the hills with Glen Nevis the first target. This was around 4km of constant climbing which I soon accepted was impractical to run. A fairly brisk walk and some spectacular views made this pretty palatable as a start to the final leg.
The elevation profile suggested the next 12km or so should be pretty flat, but the reality was that they were anything but. There was no flat terrain at all, instead there were just an endless series of short climbs and descents down treacherous rocky outcrops. Once out of the woods it became slightly easier to break into the occasional jog, but impossible to find any rhythm with little rivers flowing down the mountain and across the path every hundred metres or so.
After 15km the inevitable reality of the massive final climb was looming large in the back of my mind, not really knowing where it would come or just how tough it would be. Soon enough I spotted some runners on the opposite side of the valley winding up what was clearly the way to the top. After crossing a knee deep river, the path ramped up. From here it was 2.5km to the top and it was all hard slog up loose rock and mud. This bit took about half an hour and in my head this would be basically the end of the day, just needing to trot down the other side and then paddle across the Loch to the finish line.
The reality was that the descent was twice as draining as the ascent, with boggy ground, slippery rocks and steep gradients making it impossible to get any kind of rhythm without falling over or getting stuck. I was overtaken by a couple of guys who obviously know how to handle such terrain at this point. I on the other hand was going down like a complete novice in my trail shoes which may as well have been flip flops for all the grip I was getting from them. Fortunately the suffering came to an end on the valley road below and from here it was just a half mile trot to the kayaks (at this point my jogging speed had become 8m30s kilometres).
I jumped aboard with a Scot called Alan and we headed for the Isles of Glencoe hotel, a full mile away on the other side of Loch Leven. Things started well, but around half way across I felt the first twinge of cramp in my left calf. I shifted back in the boat a fraction which brought on full, excruciating cramp in both legs. The kind of cramp you can’t get rid of because any movement one way sets off another lightning bolt of pain in the other direction. Not much fun. I managed to get by lying flat on my back, poking my head up slightly and paddling as much as possible. Alan started having similar issues shortly afterwards. After 15 mins of splashing across the Loch, the MC at the finish was shouting encouragement for the final few yards with the assembled crowd. I got out of the boat and stood waist deep in the Loch for a minute trying to get the lactate out my muscles before stumbling around the hotel and in search of the last timing mat.
In a random little side room in the back of the hotel we were given our medals and a cup of soup and duly informed that it was ‘incredibly tough conditions today’ apparently. I went straight to the bar and got a much needed beer before sitting in silence with the rest of the totally broken people slumped at the tables. That was a bloody tough day out.
Much to my surprise I ended up finishing 16th of the 330 odd who started the Expert event, about 313 places higher than I assumed I would be when I signed up.
The Sunday was a bit of a struggle to say the least, but we did make it to a pub just down the road for some replenishing haggis, neeps, tatties, beers and drams of whisky before getting the Caledonian Sleeper back to London for Monday morning.
My leg was still rather sore by Monday lunchtime so I popped to the local A&E to check nothing was too untoward. Sure enough I was X-Rayed and told I’ve fractured my tibia. Turns out when every single part of your leg is hurting it’s quite good for masking broken bones! Hopefully back up and running soon enough.
This is a truly epic event. The views are spectacular, the roads are smooth and traffic free, the trails are fun and challenging, the kayaks add a bit of novelty and the final run is downright absurd. If you’re looking for a big challenge you could do a lot worse than sign up to this event next year. There’s nowhere to hide and it does need a lot of preparation, but if you’re going to flog yourself for 10+ hours anywhere, why not do it here and have the satisfaction of crossing from one side of the country to the other in a day fully self supported.
Run 1: 11.2km – 57m43s (no timing data from this Transition)
Bike 1: 70km – 3h23m (20th/330 inc first run)
Bike 2: 50km – 3h01m (16th/330)
Run 2: 22km – 3h52 (50th/330 inc final kayak)
Final: 11h26m (16th/330).
Footnote on Bike Choice
One of the unique aspects of this event is the need to choose a bike to ride the whole event on. I opted to rent a CX bike from one of the official suppliers to the event. This was definitely the right option. It was fast enough on the road to chew up the Ks nice and efficiently, but was then robust enough off road to handle singletrack, rocky sections, tree roots and everything else that was thrown at it. A road bike would have slowed me down massively off road, hitting some of those rocks at 40kph flying downhill would have ended nastily, and a MTB would be way too slow on the long road sections.
If you have a CX bike, bring it. If you don’t, rent one. It really is the way to go.