Race Review - Rat Race Coast to Coast 2017, Scotland
The fertile lands east of Inverness, neatly tended fields set in hefty stone walls, generally go undisturbed by the outside world, at least since 1746, when the Jacobites were run to ground and routed at Culloden. It was the last pitched battle on British soil and ended Bonnie Prince Charlie’s claims to the throne. So it’s a surprise to enter the gates of Cawdor Castle to find a vortex of activity and abnormally bright clothing: purposeful-looking people passing left and right or tending ordered piles of kit, shuttles beetling here and there, a multi-coloured parade of florescent rain-jackets… (well, this is Scotland). And about a million bicycles. All the normal activity at Registration for an adventure race in other words.
I had not entered a Rat Race event before and I was surprised to see so many people, particularly for an event as long as the Coast to Coast. In fact there were nearly 1500 bicycles, that’s 1100 plus entrants for the two-day Challenger event, and around 350 Experts who were to make the 105-mile crossing to Ballachulish in one day.
Registration may have taken place at Cawdor Castle, but the start of the race, on Saturday 9th September, was on the Links in the town of Nairn, a sedate stretch of grass just behind the beach with a band-stand and a range of solid Victorian houses and hotels. Again, rarely does it see so much lycra, as the various groups of runners arrived, milled about, entered the corral at the start and then streamed forward, cutting right and heading along the embankment.
Ours was the last group, which departed at 9.30 am. Three hundred of us probably. There were plenty of Scots voices of course, but it was a surprisingly varied field. I could hear Aussie and Kiwi accents, French, Norwegians and Danes and that was within just a few feet. The characters came briefly into focus, too. Of course there were a few people, probably not Scots, with mock tartan tam o’shanters and an explosion of unruly orange hair, but three Scots guys were taking it to extreme. They were dressed in leather jerkins, each with an axe hanging off the back of a home-made leather knapsack. And they were wearing minstrel-style leather shoes, with about a micron of sole. Blimey, I didn’t fancy their chances on the West Highland Way… At 9.25 we got down to business. A quick brief reminded us of safety procedures and a closed road, and then with a cheer, we set off, shuffling over the start line.
We were to be back at Cawdor soon enough. This seven mile running section of the course follows the banks of the River Nairn. We left the town in the river gulley, passing beneath houses, a bridge and through a small park, and emerged into fields, the beaten earth path meandering along the river's broad bank, weaving around hefty riverside trees and up and over embankments. The dark water flashed in and out of view.
Patches of the trail were worn down by previous runners, but although there had been some rain, it wasn’t wet underfoot except in a few boggy sections which saw people slithering all over the place. It was a little hard to pass other runners for a while (one poor dog-walker found themselves waiting for rather a long while as runners streamed past), but it was a pleasant enough run all in all, with only one road to cross. Towards the end we entered forest plantation, where the going was good.
Actually reaching Cawdor wasn’t soon enough, of course. I spotted the tower house, with its saw-tooth gables and conical turrets, about three miles off… and it simply hung there in the trees, refusing to get any closer despite my efforts. Eventually it vanished in the trees altogether, only re-emerging when I came through the castle gates to find myself right beneath it. A Japanese couple were taking some photographs and politely stood out of the way as the stream of desperate-looking runners trotted past.
We were soon into the whirlwind of the bicycle transition, fitting cycling gear, packing away running gear, or at least stuffing it as well as possible into backpacks. (This is where a support vehicle, which many competitors and teams have, comes in handy. You can hand kit over to them and reclaim it at the next transition. Meanwhile I proceeded with kit tied to the back of my rucksack a bit like an itinerant tinker.) And after chugging an energy gel we were off, on the 48 mile ride to Fort Augustus.
The weather in Scotland is nothing if not unpredictable. And having started under a grey and threatening sky, I feared the worst as we headed inland. But precisely the opposite occurred and the sun began to poke between massive stacks of cumulus clouds. Then it came out almost completely, leaving us more in danger of sunburn than being rained on.
We passed through farmland and miniature villages, up hill and dale, momentarily touching moorland, often on single track roads – interestingly for a Saturday morning there were very few cars. Suddenly, out of a broad valley a fantastic sight arose - the Clava or Culloden Viaduct, a run of 30 slender arches on which trains from Inverness travel south.
The choice of bicycle in the Coast to Coast is vital and there is a lot of discussion about it. The organisers recommend a cyclocross or gravel bike, with thick-tread road tyres, possibly with nobbly bits on the sides, but you see every variant. Many people have drop handlebars, which are extremely useful for the first day, when you are generally face into a headwind, but less good on the forest tracks on the second. About half of the Challengers wear cleats. We came with regular, robust town bikes and they turned out to be fine for the first day on the roads, though the sit up position did caused wind resistance. On the second day I was waiting and waiting for the disadvantage to return to us (no nobbly bits on the tyres…) but it never came. Perhaps the forest tracks would have defeated the tyres on a wetter day. At any rate it was clear that around us the mountain-bikers were having a tough time on Day 1.
All in all, the cycling course on the first day was unexpectedly flat for Scotland, with just a few short hills. Until we approached Fort Augustus, that was, when we looked up and saw a proper hill stretching into the distance, remorselessly up and out of sight. Well, the race wouldn’t be a proper challenge without it, I suppose…
And anyway, what goes up generally comes down, so the last three or four miles into the town were spectacular. A stretch of brand new tarmac weaved down the hill, past a lake and viewing points, and then suddenly emerged right above Loch Ness. Not that I spent much time looking at it. At a gradient of about one in ten, I was moving rather quickly, enjoying the wind in the hair, but concentrating hard.
After dropping the bikes there remained a quick run to the shore of Loch Ness and a very short kayak leg. This was the only section of the course I found disappointing. The kayak felt a bit 'token' (it is not even included in the Expert race, in fact) – just out, around a couple of buoys, and back to the same point, about 500 yards in all - and there was no attempt to justify the times of people who were forced to queue in order to get afloat.
But the day’s activity was nearly done. It was a quick run (or a shuffle in my case) back to the bike drop, which turned out to be the overnight camping area. Phew!
To link to the Rat Race Coast to Coast website, click here...