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Team Endurancelife Takes on ITERA Expedition Race Scotland 2019

The build-up to the race was surprisingly easy – for once I was packed, had done food shopping, bagged food into 6 hour bags and had sourced all missing kit with a couple of days to spare. An easy afternoon flight to Inverness followed, starting to get excited as Ben sent live updates from the route briefing as I sat in the BA lounge drinking champagne. Sometimes I think I’m starting to get the hang of adventure racing!

We’d tried to predict the course over the previous weeks as info started coming out about disciplines and durations, but hadn’t got much of it right! First impressions were that the foot stages would be tough – not that long, but through some of the wildest mountains in the British Isles. We would be traversing Suilven, An Teallach, the Five Sisters of Kintail and the Lithiach ridges – some pretty serious terrain. The bike stages conversely looked relatively easy – long, but nothing too technical. The kayak stages looked ok, but one involved a long series of portages between a set of lochans to reach the coast. We were assured that it wasn’t too tough, and Tom the course planner had made it through this section in an hour or so when he tested the course. Hmmm.

Ben and Lucy met me at the airport – Ben I know well having raced with him for years, but Lucy was new to the team. She was almost as I’d expected, having spoken to her on the phone in the lead-up to the race, but I hadn’t expected her to be about 9 foot tall. She towered over the rest of us, an attribute that was later to come in very useful when drafting behind her on the bike sections!

A day of kit shuffling ensued, not that we needed to do much, but Gary took full advantage of the opportunity to faff about by removing all items of kit that he actually needed and mislaying them. This later led to him wearing a full set of Lucy’s spare clothing on the first bike stage as he had failed to pack his own. Luckily Lucy’s female-specific bike shorts and Gary’s “undercarriage” proved to be a strangely comfortable match, which begs all sorts of unpleasant questions we won’t get in to here!

An early bus to Dunrobin Castle, an hour waiting in the cold wind and getting bitten by midges, and we were finally off! Started off by the Laird and his shotgun, we settled into an easy trot around a 45minute run loop, not wanting to push the pace too much at the start. A swift transition onto the kayaks, and we were away across the Firth of Dornoch heading towards the Glenmorangie Distillery in about 6th place. The paddle went smoothly enough apart from for Gary, who’d managed to set his backrest up in a position that would have better suited a hunchback. Discomfort aside, we lost a little ground to the Swedes who were very strong paddlers, but after 3 hours or so arrived at transition. This early in the race the general level of urgency was high, and transition was busy with shivering, blue hued teams in varying degrees of undress trying to ready their bikes for a long coast-to-coast ride that would take the rest of the day. Gary’s clothing dilemma aside, everything went smoothly and we rode out of the distillery feeling good. Biking is our strength, and we were looking forward to gaining some ground back on the competition.

5 minutes into an 8 hour bike ride, our buoyant spirits and my rear tyre deflated in unison. A rock had slashed the sidewall, and after 3 stops to try to get the sealant to seal the hole we admitted defeat and had to install a tube. Pumped up hard and with slightly more respect for the Scottish landscape, we pressed on once more.

The ride was a mixture of terrible hike-a-bike sections, fast fire road and the occasional bit of tarmac. We matched pace with a French team who seemed happy for us to sit behind them and draft them, so we let them put all the work in for an hour or so. Lovely. The scenery was spectacular, the weather was ok, so we enjoyed the miles as they passed, once amused by seeing another team having a full scale domestic on a hike a bike section.

All good things must come to an end, and arriving at transition in good spirits, we were told of a course change. Sea conditions meant that the paddle had been altered, and instead of paddling around the headlands of the Summer Isles, we were now to portage our boats over them. For those that haven’t had the pleasure, a Malibu2 sit on top kayak weighs about 30kg. This was not good news. We cooked up some Expedition Foods dehydrated meals as we marked the changes onto our map (bolognese, mac and cheese and carbonara – yum!) and then paddled off into the gloom as the light started to fall, thinking that this would now probably be a 12 hour stage, well fed if not very happy with the changes.

The initial paddle was good, we stopped after an hour and left the kayaks on the bank as we hiked up to summit Suilven, a brutally steep 650m peak. The weather at the bottom was nice, the weather at the top was Scottish! Having endured strong wind, driving torrential rain and low visibility on the ridge, we found the CP and set off back down again. At this point we realised that finding the kayaks on the bank was going to be tricky – it was dark, and our cunning plan of leaving a glowstick visible on the boat had been copied by everyone else. Oops.

Finding our boats at last, another hour of paddling led to the portage of doom. Or the portage of “it’s easy, I got through it in an hour” according to course planner Tom. Only later did he admit he was carrying a rubber dinghy in sunlight, not wrestling a couple of 30kg plastic monsters in the rain and the dark. We’ll gloss over this bit as I have nothing good to say about either Tom or the portage, but it was rocky, steep, wet, slippery and generally miserable.

After this, dragging the boats for 5km along a hilly coastal road felt positively fun (at least we got to use the kayak trolley!), and as day 2 dawned we paddled off once more. The day was filled with paddling against either the wind, the tide, or for bonus points, both, and alternated with dragging and swearing as we portaged the boats over yet another rainy hilly Scottish headland. Eat your heart out, Crossfit!

The 12 hour stage estimate was out of the window. We were long out of food, cold and hungry as we finally approached transition after 18 hours. Some quite seriously thought out plans for the murder of course planner Tom were derailed as he met us on the shore looking distraught, with a huge apology. The weather and tide had blown the organiser’s estimates away, and we were only the 5th team to arrive. Teams were scattered all along the coastline being unable to make further progress, and a big logistics operation was being deployed in order to collect them all. We’d actually done very well!

Good news - we were just in time to do the canyoning stage. Bad news - I was shivering uncontrollably, Lucy was having a bad 5 minutes (don’t ask!), and we were all cold, hungry and tired. After being fed hot tea by the marshals, we thawed out enough to think that jumping into cold water again seemed like a good idea (albeit Lucy was still far from convinced) and trooped off for 45min of waterfall jumps, rope descents and canyon swimming, actually good fun once we’d warmed up a bit. More hot food to the rescue – the amount of joy imparted by the rapid ingestion of a 1000kcal Expedition Foods Chile con Carne should not ever be underestimated!

Checking out of transition with a good 30 seconds to spare before the cutoff, we were off into the evening of day 2 on a 65km trekking section through Fisherfield, one of the most remote places in Scotland. A 1000m climb to An Teallach warmed up anyone that was still cold, and we summited just as last light faded having taken a great line and overtaken a few teams on the climb.

A slow and winding path along the ridgeline gave us time to think. In 5th place, we were the last full team course still standing. Everyone else had already dropped some CPs or had run foul of the time cutoff. The front teams were running nearly 12 hours behind schedule, and we seriously doubted that anyone would complete the full course. The weather forecast was atrocious, and we had been racing for 40 hours without pause by that point. Our plan had been to complete the whole trek and then sleep in transition, but that wasn’t looking likely, with what we estimated to be another 14 hours needed for the trek. Working back from the next cutoffs, we quickly realised that we weren’t going to make it. The tough decision was made to cut the trek short and to drop the next 3 CPs in favour of taking a straight line to the next transition. This would give us a good time buffer and enable us to take strategic decisions for the rest of the race instead of chasing cutoffs.

I don’t recall much of the rest of the trek, I stumbled along behind Ben in a bit of a daze, for some reason really resenting him for taking us on such a crappy path and for being short coursed. This of course wasn’t his fault at all, we’d all agreed on what to do! Weird tricks your mind plays on you when you are tired. A couple of 2 minute power naps on the trail saw us through to dawn, then a small nav error meant we took a short detour much to Gary’s annoyance!

A long road section led into transition in Kinlochewe, food (Spag Bol, Mac and Cheese and a random Raspberry Granola which had found its way into the wrong bag!) and a blissful 2 hour sleep. The boys managed to annoy Lucy by leaving her to put the tent up and take it down again on her own (sorry!) but finally we escaped the Torridon Midges, which are the worst things ever invented. Fact.

Itching profusely, we departed on the long bike stage, some 140km. Unfortunately the course organisers had now shortened the course, taking out the Lithiach Ridge trek and a bike CP which now meant we had possibly dropped too many CPs on the trek... We weren’t happy as we thought that teams behind us who had dropped fewer CPs could now probably still make the cutoffs. Cue much muttering in the team and endless discussion of scenarios.

Biking was a joy, involving some amazing singletrack on the Applecross peninsular, but as we approached the infamous Beallach na Baa road climb the heavens opened, and stayed that way for the next 8 hours. It was torrential. Darkness fell, temperatures dropped, and we froze as we were soaked to the skin, so we kept the speed high, it was good fun in a type 2 way! Only a lengthy hike a bike section slowed the pace however, but even this didn’t dampen spirits too much. Back on the road, and a last 10km led to transition at Morlich, still in heavy rain.

Unfortunately this wasn’t located in a big building, so all the kit bags were being stored outside due to lack of space. In the rain. Not a problem for us as we’d dry-bagged everything in the kit bags, but judging from the moaning all around us, not everyone had done the same. I suspect that this will be a major learning point for a few teams – there’s nothing worse than needing a sleep and then finding out that your sleeping bag is soaked through!

Time for our second sleep of the race, a planned 2hr nap became 2h40 after we collectively slept through three alarms. Oops. Luckily Thursday’s morning light woke us (day 4 already!) and sparked a frantic rush to get packed and out. Feeling refreshed we ran most of the next trekking stage, choosing to take another short course option as the bike stage had taken longer than expected, and we suspected that the Five Sisters ridge would be very slow going indeed. A steady jog saw the distance disappear rapidly until we took a shortcut, wondering why the path didn’t go the obvious straight way. Then we found The River. That’d be why, then. The River was wide, fast flowing, and an exploratory prod with a trekking pole proved that it was deep, too. Balls.

Cut to 4 mostly naked racers taking their first bath of the week. It was cold. Very cold. Lucy out-manned the boys by going first, but then ruined her tough girl image by resurfacing in a torrent of shocked un-ladylike language. Gary was not mummy’s brave little soldier here, and needed encouragement to take the plunge!

Shivering my way up the next hill, I loudly and bitterly complained about the poor life choices that had led to me swimming across a river, which left the whole team in stitches. They don’t normally find me that funny, which is their loss!

Realising we were nearly done, we jogged the last miles to a transition on the bank of Loch Broom and readied our trusty kayaks once more. Striving to make it to the rafting cutoff, we made great time with the wind and current behind us down the loch, negotiating a couple of minor rapids to reach the rafting transition. We made it! And, as it turns out, only just. We were the second last team to make it through due to rapidly dropping water levels on the river.

The rafting was fun, if a little edgy due to the lack of water. We were mildly terrified by our raft guide – no-one is that “wired” naturally! Hyper twitchy, yet looking like he hadn’t slept for days, eyeballs out on stalks, and with the attention span of a goldfish, he looked like he’d come straight from a very hard weekend of chemically-assisted raving. Still, we soon reached the end of the raft section, and so we (and he) survived to rave another day. Back into kayaks for a short paddle to Fort Augustus, where Gary’s dismay that the chip shop was closed was soothed by more Exped Food meals (Chicken Korma this time, and I think I have a new favourite!).

Only one stage to go, a 70km bike along the Great Glen Way into Inverness. Bravely spurning sleep as only being needed by losers and weak people, we set off at midnight on what was surely just a fairly easy ride to the finish. Ha. In theory the trail is waymarked for the whole length, in practice not so much! Navigation wasn’t helped by everyone being a bit(!) weary, and as we pedalled on through the night we passed team after team having to take a little sleep on the side of the track. Weak, like we said.

At about 4am, Ben was struck with the biggest sleepyhead phase I’ve ever seen. We yelled at him, filled him with unhealthy amounts of caffeine and sugar, tried to get him to sing, talk, anything to keep him awake, including explaining that he was now both weak and a loser. Nothing worked, but somehow he kept riding, admitting later that there were extended periods where he was fully asleep while riding his bike. Gary scared us all by smashing his rear wheel to bits on a drainage ditch that he failed to bunnyhop over – he broke 3 spokes and put a huge dent in the rim but somehow the tyre stayed intact and the wheel still turned, if a bit wobbly!

Dawn slowly broke with 10km to go, and we saw Inverness for the first time in a week. We’d been racing for almost exactly 4 days as we descended the hill and rode through deserted streets to the finish line in the city centre. Celebrations started immediately on the line as James Thurlow and Tom Gibbs handed out whisky miniatures courtesy of Glenmorangie. Lucy regained her tough image and set the example by necking it immediately, so obviously we couldn’t be outdone! Big thanks to Lucy for putting her life in our (thoroughly irresponsible and childish) hands – it’s always hard to be the new person in an established team, but the girl did good!

We finished 3rd overall, our best result in a World Series race to date. The team would like to thank:

  • Our title sponsor Endurancelife for their continued support and encouragement
  • Our kit supporters Montane and 2XU for providing brilliant outdoor kit that kept us as dry and warm as was possible (I took 4 waterproof jackets on this race and used every single one, that’s how wet it was!)
  • Expedition Foods for their kind support in providing the hot meals that we enjoyed throughout the race. (Ben thinks the Mac and Cheese is the best, but he’s wrong. It’s the Chicken Korma. In large 1000calorie size. Obviously!)

That’s all, until the next time… (which was going to be Sri Lanka, but now looks like being Exped Africa Lesotho!) See you then.