- Dave Atkinson, Louise Wilkinson, Sharon McDonald, Joe Faulkner
We had a ball. The terrain we covered and the countryside we saw made for a very enjoyable journey. Expedition racing is often like a big game of patience – sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the first moves you make don’t help and you can undo it....
Our prep had gone well – basing ourselves at The University and having an apartment for the four of us really paid off and we were well rested and prepared. The prologue wasn’t quite the smooth affair that we had hoped for; Sharon had severe attacks of cramps from the frantic dash downhill on the trail run and I was nursing a knee injury and not wanting to run anywhere. Doubly annoying, I over shot an Orienteering control when going very well for a good ‘clean’ run and had to re-locate losing a good five minutes along with a very confused young lady who was helping me look for a different control. Hey-ho.... it’s only the prologue!
OK, Monday Morning - Let's Race
Monday Morning Start and a 10km run. It was good to see Mountain Hardwear ease into the race just as we did. Exped racing is all about pacing (or so it should be) and so we adopted a steady pace for the first MTB ride. I was shocked at the speed of some teams coming past us on the road, each with one or even two team members working hard to stay on the wheel of their team mates, at the back of the groups that formed. Typically we tend to over take them with good navigation, but perhaps we had the pace wrong and they the strategy right? Was this a stage race in disguise?
Good things come in small packages. Rowing is easy – if you have two people with the same sense of rhythm and stature. Dave and Sharon were our key rowing pairing. We had decided to drop two early MTB controls both located on cols which would require ‘hike-a-bike’ sections and accept the 2x 90mins penalties. The alternative was a quick spin up the glorious Sustrans trail along the old railway line which put us at (Trans 1) Killin well up with the leading (full course) teams, and in much better shape for the trek stage to come.
Trekking is our forte and we cleared this with ease, enjoying the Tarmachan ridge in daylight and meeting Adidas Terrex coming the other way, and shortly afterwards FGS. We rightly assumed Mountain Hardwear were ahead of us and going clockwise on the trek, hence their is no correct way to do this stage. A quick exchange of ‘Well Done’ to both teams and then into the darkness passing several slower and less navigationally able teams who had short routed the trek. We cruised back down into transition to snatch some sleep before the 3.00am opening of the Loch Tay paddle stage. Unexpectedly we later learnt we had a 46min time credit for clearing the stage and arriving early; a factor we hadn’t expected.
Initially paddling on the Loch was great fun, as it was very dark and calm, with a small moon and a long way to go. Paddling with torches off was mellow and surreal. Our paddling skills are good, especially our technical moving water skills (thanks to Distant Horizons, for coaching and training input) although we suffered during the cold dawn of a flat water paddle on Loch Tay and the inevitable ‘sleepmonsters’ which required a twenty minute power snooze on the Loch shores. Here, I tried to develop the technique of sleeping with my thumbs up as whilst it was nice to know that other teams and safety crew were concerned for us in our four man bivi-bag, we didn’t need rescuing or assistance, and their constant – ‘oh look another team ... are you OK’ prevented any proper sleep.
Lesson 1 – don’t ask a team who are sleeping – 'Are you OK?'
Note to self – find a more secluded spot and take a big sign saying ‘We are OK’ ?
Note to self – find a more secluded spot and take a big sign saying ‘We are OK’ ?
The River Tay was great fun. It was raining fairly heavily during the river section and it was a relatively high level and so easier than our recce trip (by complete chance we had done this section before) Dave and Wilko are a regular paddling partnership and having paddled miles together they work really well, look great and take some excellent lines. Sharon also proved to be an excellent ‘bow person’ and although we hadn’t paddled together as a pair before the race, she dug in and performed excellently. We all enjoyed the fast descent and arrived in Aberfeldy in good spirits, especially as we didn’t need to paddle the Grandtully rapids like last time we were here.
MTB to Bruar
Another quick transition and we were off on the bikes on what became an irritating beast of a climb over a col. It was the sort of track that you would cleanly ride on during a day ride but not in a race of this nature, in our condition. Overall our pace was good; steady and sure with clean navigation and only a quick puncture repair to interrupt us.
Next stop – Falls of Bruar and The Canyoning stage. Due to a slow loch paddle and sleep stop, we had slipped towards the back of the ‘peleton’ but had a comfortable amount of time to do this stage in an hour or so, rather than take the four hour penalty. Canyoning (ghyll scrambling in reverse) is a fairly perverse occupation although the benefit is that you get a good wash. It is a very dramatic gorge, and with quite a high water flow quite demanding at times, but there is always the nagging doubt that a careless knock to a knee of ankle could have serious consequences. It is fun, but doesn’t require a great deal of technical skill, unless of course you are required to over come fears and traumas such as Sharon’s previous accident which has left her suitably nervous and guarded.
As I say, the advantage is a good wash, so suitably refreshed it became apparent that we should ride the ‘short’ MTB section up the River Tilt valley, as we did not want to be chasing cut-offs and the penalties for missing next control on the ‘long’ route seemed justified. We had a good ride up The Tilt. I realised I was riding my new full –suss bike in the dark for the first time, the team were riding well and in good spirits on a route which climbs steadily, and we passed one or two teams who seemed to be having a hard time. Navigationally interest was maintained as we didn’t actually have a map for the middle section and there was a 12km section between the maps we had on the map boards. This was due to us originally intending to ride the long route, hence we had packed the short route maps away. However, it is a massive valley, generally straight and difficult to veer from and I’d first walked this way thirty four years ago and a few times since. The Falls of Tarf are a very distinctive land mark and featured on the next map section and so our arrival gave us a true fix of where we were. It was now the wee small hours of a very dark night. The terrain over the watershed became more broken, boggy and tedious but we plough on passing another team who were hesitant in the wilderness. We appeared to ford the river several times before beginning the descent down in the Dee valley and the obvious features of Linn of Dee and then Mar Lodge.
I must mention that The Team were magnificent during these last few hours. I was out in the front, navigating and pushing the pace but aware that we were getting cold; there was a lot of unspoken communication as we knew we just had to get to Mar Lodge to get warm fed and sleep.
At Mar Lodge I needed sleep – good sleep and so the tent went up and we slept for about 90mins. I do find it difficult to sleep during races, especially in transition. I woke to find Dave and Sharon raring to go on the Orienteering stage, and as better runners they took on the bulk of the 10km(?) course with Wilko and myself dong just two controls in an out and back route. Overall it was a good plan. Wilko and I were back early and had time to sort ourselves out, change the tube on the suspect slow puncture, and fettle all the gear, including food for the incoming Dave and Sharon. It was during this time that were learnt Mountain Hardwear head pulled out of the race and Kim and Alex had taken over three hours to clear the ‘O’ course. With a time penalty of just 2.5 hours we had clearly made a strategic mistake but I was more worried how Dave and Sharon would feel and what mood they would re-appear in. Suffice to say they came back buzzing from a good run, and we took only positives from the stage. Our overall stop involved food, drink, sleep and recovery and set us up for the next part of the race.
The next stage was a long MTB over Mount Keen, with the first part being a very enjoyable picturesque ride down The Dee valley passing Balmoral, and onto Ballanter. A good lunch was call for at Ballanter – excellent cafe bistro just by the river, and we bought some bike lube, got some air into Wilko’s dodgy tyre thanks to the nice shop keeper and his track pump. Oh and bought some more recreational drugs..... (Solphodine Plus)
Passing the short cut option to Glen Muick, I had a sense that we had chosen the wrong option for T6-7 in terms of racing strategy but we didn’t want to miss out on biking over Mount Keen, and it was too late to reverse our decision as the bike boxes had already gone to House of Mark. We had a good ascent, again passing teams, although it was sad to see Ben ‘Monkey Boy’ Shannon suffering with an injury which would result in a ‘DNF for him and Shona Robertson. A nasty cold squall prompted a brisk and amazing descent to House of Mark, and we were all going well. Another efficient transition, lubricated by a very nice and luxourious fried egg but set us up for the start of the big trek.
Trek of Darkness and Bogs
Initially we seemed to go well, but as darkness fell the navigation wasn’t easy and I was struggling to cope with a lack of sleep. One or two poor lines convinced us to have a sleep and so we put the tent up (well just the one Lazer) and tried to get some sleep. Another team came past us, think the glow of lights was a checkpoint before carrying on into the gloom. Sleep was difficult; Dave can sleep anywhere and is as warm as a radiator, soon pushing out the ‘zzzz’s. Sharon managed some sleep but Wilko gets cold easily and I was on the outside, trying to keep us from sliding down the hill and increasingly spooning with Wilks to try and get her warm, Indeed lying on top of her seemed to work the best!
Trek Part Two – Big Sunny Cairngorms
Just before dawn we packed the tent away and proceeded at a better pace and very efficiently. Unfortunately the next control, (25B) had been taken away by a previous team under instruction from the race control, as they thought we had passed by. But, it was a difficult thing to accept, it did affect our morale but we didn’t waste much time but it indicated that were very much at the back of the field and our race plan was going too well. We went strongly through Glen Muick and up to Lochnagar passing another team and an ad hock pairs. Just before the descent into the corrie of Lochnager we made the difficult decision to bin the scramble as it just appeared that the time involved would be greater than the penalty. It was then confusing as to whether the adjacent controls were ‘valid’ .... but the weather was good, scenery stunning and we took a fairly direct line to Glenshee and the safety control on the road crossing. Our mood was good. We were managing blisters and ailments well, still eating good food, and descended to Glenshee fast. Here, the Race Director was offering teams the option to bike from here over to Aberfeldy rather than do the last section of the trek. However, we are strong at trekking and believe in doing as much of the course as possible (even if it transpires that a short route option is more pragmatic) Off again on the west side of Glenshee we completed the trek with some strong lines through difficult terrain before an horrendously steep, wet and boggy descent into Glenfernate and the last few kilometres to transition. Fortunately, our navigation was good and relative to other teams we were in good shape; Wilko’s blisters were getting bad but were containable and we were soon off on the bikes for what we thought would be a quick tarmac spin to Grandtully. Unfortunately, the sleepmonters kicked in and I sent several minutes convinced I was on solo cycle touring on the island of Mull before waking up and getting a grip. The last bit of this ride over into Grandtully was a nightmare as it was difficult to find the start in our befuddled state and the trail was a lot worse than expected.
Sleep; Paddle The Tay
Our planned sleep time had been eroded to just another 90mins in the tent but did set us up for the last long paddle section down the Tay. Once again we were paddling well, with good technical skills but we were slowing due to tiredness and somewhat due to motivation. It was an enjoyable paddle; scenic and not to boring on the flat bits. We opted to bin the Orienteering stage at Dunkeld shortly after starting it as I decided it would take more than the 1.5 hours penalty awarded to it, especially in our sorrow state. I was humbled by Wilko’s effort to get out there armed with her trekking poles but it just looked too technical, and my choice of foot wear (crocs and wetsuit socks) not suitable for the off-road terrain. Team ‘Scarfe’ were just finishing and I think Jackie said they had taken 1hr 20mins, so I think it was a ‘good call’, even if it was not very satisfying.
MTB to Stirling Finish
Back on the river the enjoyable paddle continued past some very grand houses until a relatively sudden arrival in Perth. Another quick transition (paddle bags and team ‘wet’ bag really helped through out) and we were out on the bikes for the undulating ride mainly on small roads. This was a pleasantly and surprising good section. The tarmac ride allowed use to ride close together and enjoy each other’s company rather than battle single track stuff. We were able to help each other and navigate on the move very efficiently. A last little hill over and into Stirling was a fitting finale, but too much speed and complacency led to a small error as we dropped into Bridge of Allan opposite the Cafe Bistro we had eaten lunch in nearly a week before, so we had a couple of kilometres along the road instead. The full course team Salomon / Running Free came alongside us on the proper route and we rode with them for a while before pulling back and letting them have the moment of glory on the finish line. We cruised in a few minutes later, all in good spirits, a little battered and sore, but overall pleased with our expedition.
This was a very good team performance with a good application of skill, strategy and pace. It wasn’t our finest result but that’s somewhat irrelevant. We had a great time and went to some amazing places. We will go back and complete the bits we missed certainly the MTB ride into Glen Feshie, and it has inspired me to get back into the bigger mountains on bike and on foot.
NAV4 / Distant Horizons