Coast to Coast: Nairn to Glencoe

Take a deep breath before reading. It was a long day.

The first Nokia Coast to Coast took place last weekend and saw nearly 1000 adventurers making the journey from Nairn to Glencoe by foot, bike and kayak. The race was split into three categories and the 100 or so miles could be done over two days (challenger) or over one day (racer or expert , with the expert throwing in an epic 11mile kayak down loch ness). While I make no claims to be an expert, I really wanted to do a race with challenging paddling and also liked that fact that the expert class is supported and this means you can swap between road and mountain bikes for different stages. So I bit the bullet and entered myself in the expert. 50 people entered this category, 40 showed up on the day (only 4 of them women) and only 35 would finish.

The race started as the sun was rising, with a rather muddy but interesting 7 mile run from Nairn to Cawdor castle. Spirits were high and there was a lot of friendly chatting and joking. Noone was going to risk going out too fast at this stage and I finished it in just over an hour, having had a good chat to two of the other women racing. The field started to disperse a bit on the next stage which was a 34mile road ride, although the weather and mud did somewhat stretch my definition of 'road riding'. It was still early and when the rain started I was glad to be carrying a waterproof. My hands were soon frozen and unable to function so I pretty much gave up braking or changing gears and managed to drop one of my cereal bars when I tried to unwrap it. By the time I reached transition I was cold and hungry but in a far more fortunate position than several others. One man was so cold that he had to sit in his support car for nearly 40min to heat up and I could see others were suffering already.

Neil (loyal support crew) had to do up the fastening on my buoyancy aid and help me on with my cap and spraydeck. He told me I looked like a paddler which was definitely what I needed to hear as I don't feel like one and was incredibly nervous about this stage. Anyone looking at the splits in the results will be able to tell kayaking is not my forte and the intended training never really materialised. Luckily, I'd borrowed a fast boat, or I'd be writing this from somewhere on loch ness. An 11 mile paddle is quite committing and the way my body feels right now probably reflects how people who have never run before feel after doing the Glasgow half marathon on a drunken whim three days before.

3hrs of battling and swearing my way up loch ness followed and anyone behind me in the field managed to pass until all I could hear was the steady hum of the safety boat behind. I found out later that a couple of people dropped out on this stage, one of them having taken a swim, so at least I managed to stay upright. I just wished the stupid thing would point in the right direction without me having to fight against it. In true Pollyanna style I tried to think of all the things to be positive about. Every 'glad' thought was rewarded by an M&M and these ranged from 'isn't my paddle a fetching shade of lilac?' to 'pogies rock' (if you don't know what these are but kayak you should find out, they're great).

Eventually, feeling utterly exhausted and frustrated (and having decided that no, jumping in and swimming wasn't a viable option) I decided that noone was looking and it would be ok to have a bit of a cry. Obviously that was the point where the safety cover came to check I knew where exactly on the shore I was headed for. I should be going more starboard he other starboard. I'm not sure after that he needed any further evidence of my land-lubberliness after that. I knew then that my race was over and I wasn't going to make the cut-offs later that afternoon. Still, I had to keep paddling.

After several hours of going nowhere fast, I could see Neil jumping up and down on the shore cheering me. Since all the toys were already out the pram I'd nothing left to throw and settled for a whimper. I think he'd already got the picture from people before me that it was a tough paddle. Seeing my tear-stained cheeks but no evidence that I'd fallen in or whacked myself with a paddle he couldn't understand what was wrong. Then he realised that my watch was hidden under my kag and I hadn't clocked I was actually well ahead of schedule. The cut-off was still within reach and the game was back on.

Anyone will tell you I love my mountain biking and this is where the race came alive for me. Despite the tipping rain I just seemed to get stronger and started catching people in the racer category (who had overtaken while I was out on the paddle). It was great to be in the thick of it again rather than lagging at the back and I started to think maybe it wasn't quite so utterly ridiculous afterall that I was doing the expert class. We had a few fun technical sections and I just concentrated on getting myself to Fort William as fast as humanly possible, no thoughts of pacing, to hell with what was ahead.

Arriving at transition well in advance of the cut-off was a massive boost and I started out on the final run / trek stage feeling good and also confident that I'm strong on hills and have a lot of experience on rough terrain. As we climbed up the first section of the Ben I was having flashbacks to the Ben Nevis tri and was glad I didn't have to go the whole way to the top. This run was a similar sort of distance (14miles) but was presumably easier in that it wasn't going up the highest mountain in the UK. I think 'easier' is quite hard to define unfortunately. It certainly wasn't flatter and the terrain and weather weren't friendlier. I'm still feeling shell-schocked at just how hard the next 3.5hrs proved to be.

The path towards Kinlochleven just seemed to go on and on forever. I forced myself to run as much as I possibly could. At one point I realised I was weaving from side to side but felt a bit better after a gel. Everyone around me seemed to be in a similar sort of state and each time I passed someone I tried to make sure they were ok. A lot of people were wearing shorts and windproofs (I was in tights and a waterproof jacket). As night was getting closer it was beginning to be really cold and I saw one man trying to fit what looked like a legwarmer over his head. Was this his interpretation of the mandatory warm head gear on the kit list? Another woman was hovering at the side of the path, rummaging through her bag. I rubbed her arms to try to get some blood back in and told her to put on all the clothes she had in her backpack and get moving. There was still a long way to go.

Just when we thought it couldn't get any better there was a knee-deep wade through an icy torrent followed by another whopping great hill. I passed the girl who I knew to be in third place and pushed on up the hill, telling myself my back couldn't possibly be in screaming agony as I had only been going for less than a day and surely I'm tougher than that? Sometimes I take a lot of convincing. I was very, very glad to see the end of that run and find Neil on the shore of Loch Leven. Just one short paddle across the loch then a crawl to the finish.

Much to my dismay I entirely misunderstood Neil's description of where the finish line was and my paddle was much longer than it should've been, with Neil frantically jumping up and down and pointing and yelling from the other shore. This was the bit where the third place girl sneaked past me, to finish just four minutes ahead. But I don't really think places matter. At 13hr29, I made all the cut-offs and finally finished the first ever Coast to Coast. Seb described it as a grand day out. Ask me in a week or so.


trio said…
wow! very impressed.
kate said…
fantastic! bloody fantastic!'re totally right not to worry about places. you had a really tough day and kept going and still got a brilliant time. i am in awe :)
Te├árlach said…
Awesome girl, truly awesome!
kate said…
also, meant to ask, when did you do the ben tri? how much open water swimming had you done? ...just curious, ya know ;)
Elizabeth A said…
Ha ha, nobody is 'just curious' to ask questions like that. It's a brilliant race. I'm a rubbish swimmer compared to triathletes but wasn't too bad compared to a lot of people who entered the Ben Nevis tri. I think you need to have done a good number of sessions outdoors to get you used to the cold and the dark, not panicking and understanding how to sight/ swim in a crowd and cope with pacing, feelings of breathlessness or dizziness (usually when you get out the water). Going out half a dozen times in the summer before the race would be a good start (as in, only going out once isn't really a great idea). I'm sure there will be a local tri club you can go with. Do it!
Elizabeth A said…
ps. you can hire wetsuits for the season from triuk for not too much money.
kate said…
hmm, that wasn't quite the answer i was hoping for ;) get practicing then

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