Race Review - Rat Race Coast to Coast 2017, Part 2
Day 2 of the Coast to Coast promised quite a bit of cycling to start and then a rather longer section of running than on Day 1, some 13 or 14 miles of it with, significantly, considerably more elevation gain. A proper mountain run, in fact. With another small kayak leg to finish off.
It also promised atrocious weather.
‘You don’t even want to know what the forecast is for tomorrow’, we had been told the previous evening
We decided to set off early. There are plenty of reasons for this, other than being the keen people at the front (not normally my style). Perhaps the course will get churned up. Perhaps the weather will worsen. Perhaps they’ll run out of coffee and Smarties at the transition. Perhaps the showers at the end would be cold by the time we arrived… etc etc. And hey, we had a bus to catch in Ballachulish, without which we wouldn’t have a chance of getting back to Nairn the same evening…
So we were at the flight of locks in the centre of Fort Augustus by 7.30 am, the earliest start time. It was spitting with rain. Dreech as they say in Scots. Actually slightly worse than dreech – passing rain-showers. It wasn’t a mass start (we were wearing time-chips, of course, so it didn’t matter). Instead we were released in groups of about 20, in order not to crowd one another on the canal path. We set off at good lick. One reassuring thing about canal paths is that you know they are going to be flat, so it was easy to keep up a pace. And this early in the day it wasn’t as though yesterday’s fatigue was going to cut in.
Perhaps this would be the moment when our distinctly ‘towny’ tyres would come back to haunt us? But no, the canalside track was firm and there were no stones to cause a problem. The distinctive feature of the canal path turned out to be the chalky mix in the gravel. In the low-level rain, everyone ended up with a white stripe up their arse and back. And obviously there wasn’t much drafting, either.
The track switched sides when we reached the delightfully named Loch Oich (useful if you ever need to clear your throat quietly in conversation) and we rode down what looked like an old railway track on the southern side of the loch, among deciduous trees already were turning autumnal. The track rose and fell (not steeply, given the railway gradient) and it was a little rougher, but still the tyres still held firm. Eventually we emerged at a tiny settlement called Laggan, crossed back to the northern side of the Great Glen and continued on the northern side of Loch Lochy.
Most cyclists have probably noticed that B roads are harder work than A roads – corners are tighter and inclines are steeper. And a C road is correspondingly harder work. Next there’s a D road (yes, they really do exist apparently). But imagine a Z road (well, any letter beyond a U Road, which is the only other actual classification), ie the narrowest, loveliest, most ‘single-track with passing places’ sort of a road, with grass growing in the centre of the tarmac. That’s what we took between Laggan and the equally tiny Kilfinnan. It was so up and down that it felt a bit like a fair-ground ride (except on the thighs).
It was extremely pretty however, in the seconds that we permitted ourselves to look around. Close at hand were fields with Highland cattle, and behind the navy-blue loch to our left stood unutterably massive green and curvaceous slopes. And to the right trees stretched up and away almost at the vertical. Occasionally the mountain heights beyond them would appear, assaulted by the clouds.
Then, after a final farm, the road finished altogether, and turned into a forest track. Surely now our townie tyres would be the finishing of us. But no, they coped fine even in the grit, chipped rocks and puddles of the logging tracks. Again the loch flashed by between the tree trunks and in places the smell of cut wood hung in the humid air. It was a little harder keeping up the pace with the varying climbs and descents, but it was the most interesting biking section of the day. Fun, basically.
Eventually we emerged onto tarmac again, at another hamlet called Clunes, as remote as it gets. So remote that the Marines did their secret training here in World War II. One of their boats is still there amazingly, abandoned at the roadside, metal frame quietly mouldering away in the undergrowth. I’d like to say that it was a quick run down to the transition in Fort William, but it took an hour or so – more C and D roads and the previous day’s exhaustion was beginning to cut in after all after 30 miles.
It’s tempting to linger in transition areas, to take a little longer than you strictly need. To take a seat, in fact, and watch the world go by for a few minutes. And let people bring you coffee and chocolate biscuits and little paper tubs of Smarties. (The staff were happy to look after us, and I was delighted to take advantage). And generally hide from the rain… But one of the secrets of adventure racing is to maintain momentum, so soon enough we had changed our kit, dropped our bikes (for delivery back to Nairn) and we were jogging through the alleys of Fort William, then along the road to the south. After 20 minutes we left the tarmac and turned into another forest.
The climbing started at once. It was on a logging track, so it was not impossibly steep, but clearly everyone found it more comfortable to walk than to run. After a couple of miles and some final hair-pins we found ourselves on a very different type of track, out on the open mountainside. And in a rainstorm. The West Highland Way, once a cattle droving route, is now mostly a single-track long distance walking path, and much rougher underfoot than anything we had encountered so far, with broken rock protruding from the path. It is repaired in places, with stone slabs as steps in some steep sections. Elsewhere it is simply cut into the hillside so you are walking on beaten earth, occasional roots and protrusions of the bare rock.
For all their efforts though, sections of the path become a stream in the rain. Which it proceeded to do - by the time we reached a section of double track (six or seven miles in) it was running on both vehicle trails. The mountaintops had disappeared into the cloud and the wind was getting up. It was pretty familiar stuff for the Highlands, but with one saving grace. It wasn’t cold.
There was a foreboding beauty about it too. To our right a massive, land-locked, glacial valley opened up, bald green slopes rising in sinuous curves and culminating hundreds of feet above in heather and rock, and clouds. At the foot of the slopes lay a serene by somehow threatening loch called Lochan Lunn da Shra. We ran on, little suspecting that we would be climbing the far slope above the loch just a few minutes later.
This involved a switch-back turn, off the West Highland Way, a wade across a stream and an incline heading diagonally up the mountain. Now the rain really started to bucket down. At one moment it seemed that the whole peaty hillside was on the move across the path. We clambered, scrambled and lumbered our way onto the shoulder of the mountain, seeing no further than 200 yards in the mist and rain, looking out for the orange trail markers.
There were actually some safety staff up there. Hats off to the poor bloke who got the top spot. He loomed out of the mist like a lone turquoise scarecrow on the mountain top, shouted us a cheery ‘Just a few hundred yards to the col now, lads, and then it’s all downhill…’ and stayed rooted to his post. At least we, soaked through as we were, were moving. [Evidently they didn’t like what they saw, because this section of the course was closed a while later, forcing later competitors to take a more sheltered route, with less climbing but apparently four miles longer].
And eventually, eventually, downhill we went. And some. Steep downhill and with no functional grip, more like. The path, cut into peat, became a highway of slime. Before this gets too melodramatic, I should say that it all adds to the challenge, of course, and we know we wouldn’t have it any other way… On one occasion I fell on my backside and slithered a full twenty feet before managing to stop myself. At least the wet didn’t matter. We were soaked through already.
And then, around a corner, as we emerged beneath the rain and cloud, suddenly the whole valley was laid out before us. Loch Leven, Glencoe, Ballachulish, even the finish line on the other side of the steel-grey loch. Was that a tiny ray of sun penetrating the clouds? No, I don’t think it was. We continued scrambling and sliding downhill, making it eventually into a sunken lane that had turned into a small river, and finally to the road. Just a kilometre left to run, along the loch-side road to the final kayak leg.
The kayaking proved a joy after the soaking running. (Actually I was rather sad that there wasn’t a bit more kayaking in the event altogether, but I guess it is nigh impossible with almost a thousand people needing to use them). Within fifteen minutes we had covered the mile to the Isles of Glencoe Hotel. Then it was a quick run along the front and we were over the finish line. Phew!
The Bath-Tub Test
There was no formal bath-tub test on this occasion, or not for a few days at least as it took me a while to get back to an actual bath, but what impression did the Coast to Coast 2017 leave? Well, it’s well organised, slick in its admin and logistics (given the number of participants involved), and I was impressed with how well the course was marked (particularly the ‘reassurance markers’ following a turn). I would have liked a bit more kayaking as I mentioned, but generally as a series of back to back sports it works well. It’s not cheap, particularly if you’re a last minute type of a person, and there are plenty of add-ons which can build the cost up further, but they do offer good infrastructure and facilities - hot showers, beer and a band included. And of course it is set in one of the most magnificent parts of the country. As a challenge it is suitably demanding for teams that aren’t able to train a huge amount together, but they are catering for people who are out for a relatively leisurely crossing of Scotland too. The one-day event must be a considerably more demanding outing. Perhaps that’s one for next year.
Read Part 1 of the Rat Race Coast to Coast 2017 Race Review here. And for a more personal take on the event, see our eccentric 'Training Journal'.