The second week of September saw my first triathlon of sorts. A two-day mission across Scotland from Nairn to The Isles of Glencoe, via bike, foot and kayak. The challenge is broken down into a two day 'Challenger' race and a one-day 'Expert' race. I opted for the two day challenge as it was the first time I would have cycled in a race, and I wanted to play it safe. I was shocked however by the number of nutters that had signed up for the expert variation. The challenge of Coast to Coast is as follows:
On paper, this does not seem like much of a challenge, or so I thought.
I often work Rat Race events the Friday night before a weekend adventure and this weekend was no exception. I was shocked to see how many people were taking on this event, and also shocked to see that everyone was an avid cyclist.
There were a lot of very posh bikes and equipment being dropped at the registration tent and a lot of skinny legs with popping calves. I was clearly out of my depth.
This was further confirmed when I went to pick up my hire bike. The hire company had run out of hybrid bikes and road bikes so I ended up on a fully fledged mountain bike. Naive none cyclist Emmelia did not realise how difficult this would be on the roads, but we shall get to this later. I picked my bike up, and the hire man checked it over.
It was at this point I realised the magnitude of this task and how little I knew about bikes. He asked me to cycle around to check the seat height. I did so, clumsily and nearly falling off, a great start. After all bike checks where complete he asked me about spare and mandatory kit to see if I had everything. He asked if I had spare inner tubes… I had no idea what these were. So just brushed it off with "no ill just borrow some if I need them", not understanding that this was a specific bit of kit to each bike and wheel/tyre size.
Off I popped with my new bike. I left it at the first bike transition point with my helmet and water bottle, no other kit needed in my mind.
I arrived at the start, cocky and happy. The first task was taking lots of pictures with my mother who had come to support me. She wished me luck and promised to see me at the bike transition. I went into the Rat Race starting pen, a familiar feeling of excitement and eagerness sitting in the pit of my stomach. Music in, hot men clocked, trainers tightened, I was ready to race across the Highlands.
The first section was a trail run, something I love, something I am good at. So off I went running through the forests, overtaking a fair number of people. I tucked myself behind two dashing men who were running at a good pace, and this saw a sub-hour 7-miles. Not bad at all.
Running into the transition pen, I picked up my bike thinking I was so clever for not having to change my shoes or clothes like everyone else. "I am over taking more people", I thought triumphantly. Yes, at this point I was, but I was soon to learn that I would benefit from following in everyone's experienced footsteps.
Hurtling out of the transition point I was loving life. The bike felt great, I felt great, and the views were beautiful. I felt like a proper athlete that was competing in something that could be measured, unlike OCR which had always been a bit sketchy with people cheating and getting away with it. This was either right or wrong.
The roads to begin with scared me a bit. Drivers sped past expecting me to be an experienced cyclist that knew how to get out of the way. Gaps between myself and cars at times were scarily small, but I just had to get on with it.
The cycle was enjoyable for the first 25 or so miles, and then I started to ache. It became apparent why people changed their footwear. Cleats helped people peddle with more efficiency I noted and padded shorts rather than running leggings were providing comfort to everyone else's behinds. My bottom was beginning to get sore by this point, with chaffing and saddle sores materialising.
After the marshal at the halfway cycle point told us we were halfway, I lost a bit of motivation. I stopped for Haribo in a bid to make my bottom hurt less. My legs were fine, however, so I learnt how to use my gears properly and did some standing up cycling. I fell off, ended up in a bush and decided this was a bad idea. I stuck to sitting down peddling from this point on.
Carrying on I was quite happy singing and minding my own business, people laughed at me in an affectionate way and joined in on occasion saying "it was nice to see someone enjoying themselves". I realise now that taking my time and singing to Shaina Twain was not the best game plan and that I should have been making up time and ground at this point for later on.
The further I cycled, the steeper and more frequent the inclines became. In turn, the less I sang, and the more people kept whizzing past me. I am no Olympic athlete, but in OCR it was not a common occurrence for lots of people to overtake me. Having hundreds of people fly past me was beginning to get depressing. At the top of a short but very steep hill, I stopped with some fellow none professionals and had a chat. To my dismay, one gentleman had done this race in 2016 exclaiming "oh you haven't even got to the hills yet hen!", I wanted to cry a little bit.
On seeing the first hill, I did not think much of it. I peddled my legs off up the tarmac with my mountain bike, which was heavy and thuggish by now. On arrival at the top I was a little puffed out, but nothing serious, but then I looked up to be met by the hill the man previously had been speaking about. This hill was not only steep, but it wound its way through the Highlands into the distance for what looked to be forever. Not one to be a total pessimist I got peddling.
My legs ached, the bike was heavy, and I was not far off throwing it at a passing car a few times. A lot of people got off and walked, a lot stopped, I did not. It took me a long time (people walking overtook me at one point), and my legs did not thank me for it, but I refused to get off, the hill was not going to beat me.
Met at the top of the hill by a photographer, I smiled and pretended to be having a great time. A well-deserved rest had been earned, so I ate more Haribo and had a chat with a few fellow dead leg cyclists. Once again someone relished in telling everyone that was not the final hill, I decided at this point these sorts of people should be shot.
After making my excuses and leaving everyone at the top of the hill, I began to take off down the hills. The term "take off" would suggest that I was speeding down, making up time…realistically I was white knuckled, stiff and terrified, fingers gripping the breaks to make sure I went slower than going uphill. I have had a genuine fear of going downhill on a bike since an accident in Bolivia a few years ago (separate blog post to come) which may have been a slight hindrance. However, gradually I began to pick up a bit of speed (not much) and felt a bit more comfortable on the winding downhill roads.
After another two hills on the bike and further scary downhill rides, I was met with the stunning view of Fort Augustus. Cycling through the town, any supporters left (not many by this point!) cheered me and the other competitors on as though it were the Olympics. I left my bike at the transition point and jogged off to the kayak point. Met by people whinging about having to que, I stood happily thankful for the rest and Haribo break.
Making friends with a gentleman behind me in the line we agreed that it made sense to pair up. I never think of kayaking as a sport; it always strikes me as a leisurely pastime that is easy, yes I have never seriously kayaked in my life. This view was quickly changed. The marshal told us to paddle towards a wall to beat the current, a lot of people had ended up being washed away to the middle of the loch because they had not listened. Bob (no idea what his real name is/was) and I carried out the instruction like diligent school nerds. Paddling profusely towards the wall and across the current, we overtook a lot of washed away competitors.
We picked up speed and turned around the boy to come back to the shore, paddling like people possessed. Overtaking more racers and being rather pleased with ourselves we eventually found that we could not stop. We shouted at people to get out the way; they did not, we crashed into another kayak and then a marshals shins. He was not overly impressed.
Jogging back to where I had left my bike and where the finish for the day was I took in the gorgeous town and amazing views. It is almost a shame that these runs are in such beautiful places and sometimes you forget to look around and take it all in. I crossed the line for day one, finished off the Haribo and met Mum for dinner.
We sat by the now tranquil loch watching the sunset and chatting about what tomorrow would bring, watching racers hobble around the town. It was not until we were sat listening to the band at the campsite that I realised I had not stretched and that my lower body was not thanking me for it. That combined with sleeping in a tent was going to lead to an interesting second day.
Waking up to a washout, aching and a few sores on my bum I was not overly enamoured to be heading out for day 2. Changed, hair scraped back and a bacon roll in my belly, I went off to pick up my least favourite thing in the world, my bike. I asked the hire man to check the breaks, he did, and the laughed. Apparently, I had used them a little too much, that would be the downhills I imagine. Bike parts replaced, and Mum kissed goodbye, I went off to the start line.
I could not sit down; my bottom was far too sore. Every bump in the road felt like a dagger going up my rectum, so I opted to practice standing peddling again. This helped the bottom situation a huge amount, but did not help the soreness of the legs from the previous day…catch 22 it would appear.
Opting for sore legs over never being able to sit down again, I stood at the start line waiting to be set off. Chatting with a group of men, they could not believe this was the first cycle event I had done, calling me an array of names circling "mental". It turns out they are all experienced cyclist with road bikes, and they were finding it hard. Que lots of compliments to little miss mountain bike who doesn't cycle.
Adopting my standing up cycling I felt optimistic that I was, in fact, awesome for taking this challenge on, not being bike literate and all. Cycling along the lochs feeling pretty darn bad ass I decided that I could, in fact, fit through a narrow gate like everyone else in front of me, I, after all, have spacial awareness no? The answer to that is no, and I do not on a bike. I crashed into the right-hand side of the gate, very nearly taking the lady behind me out. The guys I was talking to at the start stopped to see if I was OK, exclaiming "you weren't joking about being a beginner were you!?".
So knocked down a peg or ten and feeling less awesome, I carried on at a sensible pace into the heart of the trail cycle. This is where the road bikes began to suffer, and I made up a bit of time. A lot of people got punctures, A LOT. Slightly panicking that this may happen to me, I asked every single person at the side of the trail road if they were OK in case it happened to me and then karma would repay me. Every single person said yes and got to work changing their wheels or whatever it is that you change when you get a puncture on a bike.
I carried on, asking fewer and fewer people if they were OK and just focused on not hitting a pothole and ending up at the side of the road. Eventually, when I began to get bored at how slow I was progressing I decided to enjoy myself a bit and just hope punctures did not appear in my life. It was quiet, no traffic and the trails were not overly complicated. I began to get a bit more confident without the fear of being run over by a car and let the bike go down hills at its own accord.
I made a conscious effort to learn about the gears for downhills and changing these at the perfect time to get back up the hill without much energy being wasted. My steering was also getting a lot better. I started to trust the bike and began to understand that leaning into the bends helped steering and grip.
By the end of the trail section, I was a lot more confident, and a marshal announcing that we only had 12 miles left on the bikes was a welcome slice of information. I devoured a family pack of Haribo as a celebration.
Spirits were high, to begin with, I even overtook few people! However, it turns out 12 miles is a lot further than I thought. Around 6 miles from the end of the cycle I began to think I was close to Fort William, after all, I had been going for hours now and I really could not be cycling that slowly could I? I picked up the speed a bit, hoping I was close to the bottom of Ben Nevis and unfortunately burnt out to the point where not even Haribo could help me. My legs cycled slower and slower, hills became the embodiment of hell and people thundered past me. The views were stunning, but I had no interest in the beauty as my legs were beginning cramp and cease up. The rain and wind became stronger, to the point where it was pushing me backwards, and I was beginning to seriously question my life choices.
Feeling rather sorry for myself the paramedics began to show their faces more as I trundled down the roads in the pouring rain, meaning that there were not that many people behind me. It is usually at this point in a race where having a friend running with you helps. You motivate each other, and when one is having a down moment, the other picks them up and makes them feel better.
However, when taking on such a challenge on your own, you have to have the mental strength to do this to yourself, which is by no means easy. You question why you are doing this task if you can do it and your mind begins to play tricks on you. You start to question your ability and your metal soundness for entering in the first place.
Summoning every inch of peddle power I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and to ignore the pain in all areas of the lower half of my body. I simply could not be the last person at the transition point. I was not weak, so why the hell was I acting like it, it was time to man up.
After what seemed like an eternity the roads became wider and civilisation became apparent in the distance. Finally a sign for Fort William, 2 miles, 2 MILES!!! Happy that this was not far and that the roads were flattish I downed Haribo for emotional support and sped up a bit. The rain hammered down as I sped along the main roads of Fort William. The roads were busier than anything I had cycled on previously, and it was evident that drivers were not impressed that I could not cycle with one hand to signal.
People drove close to me when overtaking, the bike was going over puddles disguising rather large potholes, and I lost count of the number of horn honks I received, I was terrified, "this is how it ends, face down in a pothole, drowning with a lorry over the top of me" I thought. At roundabout number 8 I saw runners, Rat Race runners off on their way to Ben Nevis. Suddenly, all my fear evaporated. I did not care about cars or certain death I cycled faster than I have ever done before towards a Rat Race banner.
I did not ease off on the speed I was SO happy to be able to give this hellish contraption back to the bike hire man. A few spectators were left, and they clapped me in, it was glorious.
What was not glorious was the sudden terrain change and sharp turn into the transition point. I chose this point to forget where the breaks were and how handlebars work. I met the floor with my face, and the spectators stopped clapping, not my finest cycling moment.
After scraping myself off the floor, I threw my bike at the bike hire man and had a celebratory dance with him that I as not only alive but I had not needed inner tubes. Looking around there were a lot of people at this transition point. It would appear that people were taking advantage of the 30 minutes free time you had. However, not me, once again I had no clothes or shoes to change, so I went straight out as the sopping mess I had been all day.
Something you do not take into a count when cycling is how much your legs will resemble jello after a long stint on a bike. I always used to laugh at Bridget Jones in the bike scene at the gym in the first film where she falls off the bike due to her legs dying… not anymore. My legs did the same. I walked out of the transition point and started to jog, my legs went numb, all feeling went, and I had to stop. People were hitting their legs, stretching and doing some other odd rituals that are normal in triathlons, I tried a few and decided that I looked like an idiot.
Once my legs decided to function as close to normal as could be expected I decided it was time to crack on and this is where I could make up time. The first 2 miles were flat, boring, easy road running. There was no gentle transition into the Ben Nevis climb; it was flat tarmac to sudden trail incline in under 4 meters. This is where people slowed down. Jogging turned to slow walks and frequent stops for many, but I was now happy. I was off a bike, the feeling in my legs had returned, and I was going up hills.
Head down, arms propelling me forward and cracking tunes pumping I power walked past a lot of people. Climbing Ben Nevis the views became spectacular, people stopped to take pictures and have drinks. I did not stop, instead opting for a mini celebration in my head with every person overtaken. I was not useless!
I began to develop a game to keep me sane in the form of "target practice". Pick a person in the distance and make them my target with a time frame. I had to reach them in x minutes, or it was game over, and there would be no water and Haribo reward. This took my mind off the pain in my legs and the fact that the sores on my bottom were now rubbing against my leggings when I ran.
There were plenty of divine downhill stints through the valleys to stretch the legs out and gain some speed which were met with a sharp, steep inclines back up Ben Nevis. It was at this point I was glad for hill sprints, and interval training, invaluable for mountain climbing and trail running it would appear. It was at the 8 miles point where peoples spirits were beginning to drop. The rain was biblical, the trails were slippery and a "halfway sign" meant this trail run was going to be longer than the anticipated 14 miles.
Even I was a little disheartened at this point, despite all the overtaking of fellow racers. The hills were relentless; my legs were beginning to cramp again, I was soaked through and had run out of water and Haribo rewards. Enter the second wave of questioning myself. It was walkers on the mountains that spurred myself and probably everyone around me on at this point.
"You are amazing!"
"Well done you lunatics!"
"You are all so impressive!"
"Not too far now"
"Don't you dare stop!"
"You are awesome"
"Good job guys!"
These were a few of the supporting comments shouted at us all as we weaved our way up and down the mountains. As racers slowed down they began to talk to each other which made for a more pleasant environment and took your mind off miserable rain momentarily.
The terrain by mile 9 had gone from rocky footpaths to indescribable mountain rock and shale paths which were difficult to walk on let alone run. This became the norm underfoot as we headed downhill towards Glencoe. A lot of people ended up going slower than uphill due to the fear of twisting an ankle on the unstable footing and sharp, rough ground.
Fortunately, I am fairly used to the perils of downhill running, and I am quick on my feet. This was by far the best part of the two days. The torrential downpours died down to spitting, the clouds cleared to show the vast views down the mountain pass and I was happy to be able to overtake tentative runners. I just went for it, overtaking all the cyclists that had been flying past me hours before, it was now my turn. I tripped and stumbled a few times saving myself to "she is going to hurt herself running like that" comments, alas I did not. I trusted my feet and my eyes to pick a safe route, and they did not let me down. I forgot all the pain I was in, picking out new targets to catch up with, flying down Ben Nevis. The trail was littered with huge ponds of water and rivers across the paths from streams breaking their banks and water running off the top of the mountains. I dashed through the rivers and lept over the smaller bodies of water it was SO much fun, and you cannot help but feel triumphant when people say "Wow look at her go" as you pass them!
I caught up with two fell runners who were, like me, relishing the downhill and going for it with pace and confidence. They seemed a little surprised to see me bounding along behind them but started chatting with me eventually and were offering me tips in gait and striding on rough terrain. With my new running buddies and new found tips on not destroying your knees running downhill the three of us scurried off down to an opening above Glencoe.
Elated at this view the three of us picked our way down a very steep, narrow and slippery path towards the Loch, our speed still decent and still overtaking a few runners that had run out of steam and willpower. We cheered people on in a bid to get them to the final hurdle, bounding around happy and carefree WE WERE NEAR THE END! I imagine a lot of people hated us at this point.
At the bottom of the mountains, we were met with a small road run of 400m I sprinted towards what was the final marshal of the run. "You have a lot of energy left dear, have you missed some of the course out?" she said. No, I am just happy to see you as it means I am one kayak paddle from food and happiness I thought to myself.
We hopped on a bus to take us to the other side of the Loch where the kayaks were, which was warm, lovely and a bad idea.
Everyone seized up and could not stand up. A lot of cries of cramp and whinging about going out into the rain again echoed down the aisle but we had no choice, we had to meet our final challenge head-on in the blistering rain and wind once again.
Day one kayak was easy, pleasant, fun and I even had thoughts of taking it up as a hobby. Day two scary, difficult, painful and never wanting to get into a kayak again. As we vacated the bus, the wind and rain slammed into our faces. Everyone paired up as we wandered down the path to the shore of the Loch, I was with a man about my age who looked disgruntled and unimpressed. I found out that this race was his girlfriend's idea of a bonding experience and she had run off and left him hours ago as he was too slow. We kitted up and chose our kayak together.
Now in my mind Lochs were always peaceful and calm bodies of water, like on day one. Today the water was not dis-similar to Bondi Beach during the peak of surfing season. There were waves, there were people capsizing, and there were rescue boats speeding around dragging people out of the water to safety, it was nothing short of manic. I suddenly felt like this could be either hilarious or soul-destroying, looking at my grinning kayaking partner I knew there was nothing to worry about.
We dragged out kayak into the Loch and jumped in, he chose to tell me at this point he used to do a lot of kayaking and so he would get in the back and do the steering. A game plan, I was happy. We started to make good progress across the mile Loch towards the finish line the waves washing over the side of our kayak and up into our faces. A few racers capsized their boats falling victims to the cold Loch, bobbing up and down they awaited rescue from the speedboats. The issue with this was as soon as the speedboats came past us we were subject to potential capsizing. The boats charged around not caring who they tipped over; it was hilarious. Our kayak nearly went over a number of times, I clung to the side on occasion with the giggles but my partner barked out "keep going we are nearly there!".
We plugged on, arms heavy, cramp setting in worse than ever before. We had a rest twice on our way, but the currents would push you back, undoing any hard work, so we decided it was best to just suck up the sore arms and continue. Eventually, over the harsh wind, we could hear the tannoy at the finish congratulating finishers over the line and crowds of supporters cheering. We battled on with the wind howling around our small boat and the rain lashing into our eyes, the cheers becoming ever louder and our will to finish becoming stronger.
We passed people laying down in their kayaks with cramp and people that had given up and just drifted where the current took them. The speedboat was still dashing around helping people out of the water, but none of this phased us any longer. We finally made it to the shore, marshals dragging us out of the kayaks and spurring us on towards the finish line up a few stairs.
I thanked my kayak partner and painfully climbed the last ten steps to the finish stretch. My arms had lost all feeling; my legs were riddled with cramp, I was fatigued from not having eaten or drank for hours and the sores on my bottom were beginning to blister. I stood at the top of the steps off the shore of the Loch and just stood taking in the view for a moment. The finish was stretched out at the opposite end of the hotel garden, roughly 50 m away. To my left, a grand hotel with hoards of people cheering, to my right the chaos of the Loch met with the most beautiful backdrop to any race. The clouds were still rolling in and the rain still pelting down, but the sun was breaking through the clouds towards Ben Nevis creating a divine scene like something out of a heavily CGI'd fantasy film.
I soaked this in and then was brought back to Earth by the familiar screams of my mother. Kayak partner clapped me on the back "time to get moving you are finished champ". I started off slowly jogging towards the arch of the finish, and then out of nowhere the pain and tiredness no longer mattered, I was done. I sprinted the final 50m towards the finish and lept over the finish line in pure elation.
Medal placed around my neck, Mum came and dragged me away to get me sorted out. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off it was clear how mashed my body was and how much the temperature had dropped. We collected hot soup which I ended up throwing all over myself from shaking in the cold. In the changing rooms, I admired my blistered bottom to one lady saying " you need to invest in some cycling shorts dear" and put on five layers of warm clothes in a bid to stop shaking. Finally Mum took me into Co-op to buy the entire store, we came out with the equivalent of a weekly shop for our family of four, and I am ashamed to say it was all gone by the time we had driven, back to Inverness.
The car journey back to Inverness allowed for a lot of reflection on this event. It was something totally out of my comfort zone; I would go as far to say it was the hardest event I have ever done just because it was so different to anything I have ever done before. However, the purpose of it was to have a benchmark for triathlons and to break me into to see what doing three sports in one race was like. Truthfully, despite the pain and emotional drain, I enjoyed it. Yes, there were times when I wanted to kill people or throw myself into the middle of the main road while cycling, but for the most part, it was fun. I challenged myself in a way I never had before, and I completed it.
There were times I wanted to give up, and I did not. I was running this on my own for two days which took metal grit. Having never cycled before, bar the 15k with Bret and Simon from the gym, this was a huge race to take on from that perspective. I not only learnt that I have a lot of mental grit, but also that when my body begins to pack in, and I want to give up, I won't. Yes this was true in China also, but running I am familiar with, I felt on Coast to Coast it was easier to give up as these were disciplines that I not well versed in and having people overtake you over and over is soul destroying.
I found on the results page that at the end of day 1 I was 729th, however, at the end of day 2 I was 308th. So I overtook a lot more people that I thought up Ben Nevis. Therefore I think we can establish my running it getting there, but my cycling leaves a lot to be desired!
Lessons to be learnt from Coast to Coast: