Rat Race Coast to Coast Scotland, 2015

On 29th September 2015 by Rachael

105 miles by foot, bike and boat in two days…?

I’ve completed sportives of 100 miles, mountain bike races, triathlons and more running races than I can shake a Rocktaped leg at, but I’d had my eye on this from event organisers, RatRace for a few years. It was the price tag, from around £200 even at an early bird price, which had deterred me. Factor in the  cost of travelling to Scotland and I thought it was too much money. But a spate of challenge settings saw me finally throw financial caution to the wind and I entered in January.

Good job too, because if you pay for things bit by bit, you can convince yourself that it’s not costing you that much. Which of course it does. Particularly if, like me you decide to combine it with a trip to the Michelin starred, Boath House, near the start line and vintage clothes shopping in Glasgow. But, more of that later.

Day One – Nairn to Fort Augustus 

Warm, cloudy and no rain. It was the kind of weather I was relieved to wake up to on the morning of race day one, although we’d been warned of extreme weather at Fort William which would hit those who were doing the event in one day. Which thankfully, was not me.

There was an excited crowd gathering in front of the beach at Nairn as we got ready for the first part of the event, a 6 mile trial run to the beautiful transition at the 17th century Cawdor Castle where I’d left my bike racked the night before.

Looking sprightly on the start line

After being scanned in, our numbers noted and a debrief from the race organiser, we were off, running along the tarmac path of the seafront before turning off road for a meandering trail through woods and fields.

If you’re a fast runner, get out in front, because it narrows to single track making it difficult to get past people, particularly as the route is uneven. I was fortunate to have dashed out with the front runners and didn’t get too stuck, although I missed the views as I concentrated on not tripping. I arrived at transition near the front of the pack in under an hour.

The first transition counts as time on the clock so I peeled off my running kit and changed into bib shorts and cycle shoes, knocking back some water before unracking my bike. Alongside me were two athletic looking men, both of whom were about to set off on  cyclocross bikes, designed to be good on road and trails.

‘Have you done this before?’ I asked one.

He’d done it five times and told me the first year he’d ridden it on a mountain bike.

‘It was a nightmare,’ he said, eyeing mine as I set off to ride 47 miles on road.

I understood what he met when, within the first ten miles, any lead I’d had in the run was eaten up by cyclists streaming past me on cyclocross bikes into a fierce head wind.

It was a hard slog along quiet roads, the hills and mountains ochre and grey against a gunmetal sky, heavy with rain which threatened to unleash itself every hour.

At times, I cycled through flat meadows dotted with isolated granite built shacks and houses dark amongst yellowing wheat fields, while at other times mountains veered up either side.

Riding that far on road on a mountain bike is a pain, add an uphill of around 700 feet with gusts of wind  of around 18 mph, and it was horrific. The wind swept me and the other cyclists sideways across the road like skittles.

Taking my life into my own hands I managed to cast an occasional glance over my shoulder to see the stunning view behind, dramatic Scottish hills and fells, pockmarked with the flouro jackets of heavily breathing cyclists coming up behind.

AT the top, Suidhe Viewpoint at 393 metres,  I took a quick photograph but it was too cold and windy to stay still for long and I was off, down the other side, finally grateful to be on my mountain bike with disc brakes. It was glorious as I raced down super smooth roads to Loch Tarff,  its waters midnight black below a foreboding sky.

Not taken on the day. Image by Jane Carr, Glencoe Camera Club

Not taken on the day. Image by Jane Carr, Glencoe Camera Club

 

My hands sticky with race gels, and aching from wearing not very well padded shorts, I could not wait to get off the bike when I finally arrived at transition in Fort Augustus, although I felt like I was on the runway of a very busy airport with marshals shouting to those running out to the kayaks, some running back, and bikes whizzing in too.

Racking my bike, I ran down through the tourists to Loch Ness, and the final kayak stage on water being swept and buffeted by the wind.

‘You’d better find someone to kayak with,’ the marshal advised as I grabbed a life jacket and a paddle.

Fortunately, I teamed up with another solo racer, Christian. Luckily, he had kayaked lots and could steer and add power.  After managing to stay dry all day, I had to tramp through the water in my trainers (take two pairs!)  although I’d had the foresight to take my bike gloves off so they didn’t get wet too.

Finally, after just under five hours moving time, I finished day one. With the wind picking up, the sky growing darker by the moment, I was so relieved I’d not decided to take it on in a day.

 

Rainbow over Loch Ness at the finish of Day One

Rainbow over Loch Ness at the finish of Day One

Day Two – Fort Augustus to Glencoe

Waking at 5am to tents being unzipped, sounding  like firecrackers going off in the early morning stillness was not how I’d wanted to wake after a cold night wrapped in a polyester sleeping bag (if you decide to book a Tangerine Fields tent, take your own sleeping bag). Thankfully, the catering tent was serving hot porridge where I sat with the other racers while wearily wiping sleep from my eyes and contemplated another 37 miles on the saddle, with a 14 mile trail run and final kayak to the finish.

Thankfully, the grey sky had given way to blue, although it was a cool 14 degrees with a strong wind.

Having repacked my pack with a hydration sack, dry clothes and running shoes for the final run, I gave my overnight bag to the van who were transferring baggage, grateful to be able to walk away from the tent and not have to repack. Despite tired limbs, everyone was in good spirits as we lined up to cross the starting mat for the last day.

Two of my friends from Brighton, Paul and Martin, were determined to beat me on the second day. They were in with a good chance, both being far better cyclists.

This event really plays to the advantage of cyclists. Fast as you may be on two feet,  you will never get as big a lead as you can if you are a good cyclist. Which I’m not.

Although we were told not to draft on this race, with the wind gusting down the Caledonian Canal (which I’d run during the Fort William marathon five weeks before), I tucked in behind them and tried desperately to cling on to their back wheels.

I failed. Within three miles, I watched them ride off into the distance as I was left to struggle on through the wind.

Much like yesterday’s run, it really is worth getting up EARLY on the second day and getting out there first. The bike route narrows to single off-road track. Although there were a lot of good cyclists competing, there were a lot of people who had little, or no off road cycling experience.

The race organisers recommend that if you were slow on day one, you should start off early on day two. I understand the reasoning but with the race being at the beginning of September, there is enough daylight for the slower riders to complete the event without setting off early and making it virtually impossible for you get past if you’re more experienced.

It was frustrating to be stuck behind a snaking line of cyclists walking their bikes down single track. And from talking to my friends, it was also unpleasant for them to have faster cyclists trying to edge past and making them nervous.

For all that, I was pleased to finally be off-road, experiencing what I’d been hoping for from the Scottish Coast to Coast, out in the wilds. Of course, the weather helped with the sun sending shards of golden light through the trees, lighting up the occasional mist of drizzle.

Cycling past bothys, and lochs with wild geese landing on the water, it was beautiful.

The only down point of the ride was hitting Fort William and having to ride along busy roads into transition, where hastily written signs in black marker pen directed you to tea, which I never found.

Taking my bike bib shorts off, just as the video crew decided to film the transition area was probably not my best move but by now I was beyond caring. All I cared about was staying light, and I considered leaving my backpack, hydration and extra clothing. I can run 14 miles off road without water, I thought.

The only reason I didn’t was because the organisers state that an emergency blanket, waterproof jacket, water and first aid kit are mandatory on this part of  the race. Thank god, I didn’t leave it.Off road running on the South Downs is not like off road running in Scotland.

As I set off out of transition and hit the off-road route, I was the only person running. After three miles, I understood why.

My legs were tired but my calf muscles were screaming.  As the trail headed ever higher, I realised there was no way I could run it for 14 miles and decided to fast walk the up and run the downhill and flat.

It was a good strategy and as we turned off fire roads onto small single track with  rocky steps, I loved it, speeding down and leaping from rock to rock. Well, at least I did in the first seven miles.

This ‘running’ section is tough. Just when you think you’re doing well, the trail ascends upwards, resulting in an overall elevation gain of 2463 feet.  And at the top, the weather closed in, with a jet-black sky, a fierce wind and rain.

All I could think about was the racers who’d done it on that first day, when by all accounts the weather was even worse. Tucking my head into the hood of my OMM jacket, I wished I’d worn leggings and ploughed on.

Wait until everyone drops over the hill and then take a picture so you look like you're first

Wait until everyone drops over the hill and then take a picture so you look like you’re first

 

I past a lot of people who said hello but it was a lonely 14 miles. And so when I finally came over the top and looked down upon Glencoe and the final loch crossing, I was so happy to see Martin and Paul who I’d last seen at mile three at 8am that morning.

From there it was a run and jump downhill, although the ascent was so steep in places, I could feel the  inner linings of my shoes being pushed right down to the toes. All the way up, I’d not needed trail shoes but here, you really need them. I had worn Salomon Speedcross, which have aggressive tread which were the perfect shoe to wear.

Hitting the road at the bottom, it was another mile or so until transition to the kayak and the final paddle across the still Loch Leven and a final sprint across the finish line.

With the finish  line right at the Isles of Glencoe hotel, it was a relief to be able to sit in the conservatory with a beer and chat to the other finishers as I waited for my friends to finish.

Was it worth the money? It is fantastic and something that you could do on your own but it is the people that you meet along the way which elevates this event. (I’m hedging here as I’m still undecided but if I’d known the tips I’ve provided below to make it cheaper, then yes).

This is a tough endurance event that requires mental fortitude as much as anything else and it was inspiring to watch all the different shapes and fitness levels of the racers who crossed the finish line, some with sprints, some with limps, and even one couple who got engaged on the finish line.

If you really want to do something out of your comfort zone, in the wilds of the countryside but with the support of doing it amongst others, this is an incredible event. Just book it early before the price goes up.

If you’re thinking of doing it next year, here’s what I wished I’d known to make it both easier – and cheaper…

HOW TO DO IT 

Rent or take a cyclocross bike 

Most of the cycling is on roads, and so if you want to make your time shorter in the saddle DON’T use a mountain bike. A cyclocross bike will enable you to do both sections fast. If you have one, great, if not, rent one.

Fly to Inverness..

And then take the transfer bus on Friday to registration in Nairn and stay overnight there. Book the transfer bus on Monday from Glencoe and it will go via Inverness Airport where you can be dropped off (including your bike if you take it with you).

Do stay the night on Sunday…

And don’t be tempted to return home that night. You want to make the most of your achievement – and having a beer and a warm plate of food at the finish line at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel (talking of which, book it early before it sells out).

Take two lots of everything

Unless you don’t mind running in wet clothes and shoes or cycling with wet gloves. In which case, fill your boots.

 

Event breakdown

The Good

  • The other racers ‘make’ this event. Right from arrival day when we had trouble putting our bikes together, other racers (in fact, two competitors who came in the top 10!) stepped in to help. Whether you are fast or slow and just doing it for the experience, those around you help to lift you and make it the experience that it is.
Doh!

Doh!

 

The Bad

  • Appalling race registration with a line that snaked out of the door, and staff who had not been briefed correctly and could not answer your questions. One of our racers left registration only to find they had not been given baggage labels, another no race number.
  • Tangerine Fields.  This organiser was meant to have the tents put up and ready for our arrival in transition. They were still being erected and cleaned when we arrived. Not what you want when you’ve been up since 6am.

The Ugly 

  • Terrible transition zone. With the price that is charged, I would expect the organisers to have professional signage rather than a board with marker pen.  And not having any food left to buy in the transition zone (and anyway, couldn’t they have gone for a free cup of tea?) was terrible.

Race Bag: Hoard of Heave?

In our race bag at registration, we were given a itchy, cheap race t-shirt in fluoro yellow and a buff. I kept the buff. I think that says it all.

On the finish line, a medal, bar of chocolate and water were appreciated although the hot soup was the winner in my book.

Verdict: Medal worthy but that’s it.

Prices for Rat Race Coast to Coast start from £215 going solo over two days and increase to £295 for entries nearer the event. For more details visit http://ratrace.com/coasttocoast2016/

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