Date: Saturday 12th & Sunday 13th September, 2015
Start kms: 7,075.5km | End kms: 7,199.5km | % complete: 72%
Destinations: Nairn - Cawdor - Fort Augustus - Fort William - Glencoe
This addition to 10,000km is different.
Its beginning is different; it all started with a run.
The terrain was different; 55km of off-road riding in the Scottish highlands.
The bike used was therefore different; there was no way a road bike could have handled 60% of the terrain we crossed.
Even the company was different; I’d managed to convince my cardiovascular-shy brother, Stuart, to compete in this with me by buying it for him for his 18th birthday.
There were no doubt times that he wished I had chosen to give him nothing at all instead.
The Coast to Coast Challenge was a two-day race that spanned three different disciplines: running, cycling and — a little more obscurely — kayaking. Beginning on Scotlands east coast in the small town of Nairn, we had 48 hours to make the 170km journey to The Isles of Glencoe on the other side of the country. On both days we were expected to complete all three disciplines. On day one, that meant a 12km trail run, a 77km bike ride and finishing up with a 3km run and kayak.
A little more than an hour into the race, and before either of our backsides had touched a bike seat, we had an injury. Stuart was bleeding from his foot to the point where a large, scarlet stain had formed on his (incredibly impractical) light grey trainers. He was momentarily glad to seat himself on the bike, but that soon changed.
It had been a long time since I’d ridden a mountain bike. Having spent so much of the year on a zippy, nimble and responsive road bike, I took hold of the wide handlebars. As I worked through the pedals and the gears to build up enough momentum to offset the friction between the fat tyres and the tarmac, I can only imagine this is what it would be like to get out of a Formula One car and step into a tank.
From the moment we got into the saddle, we were working our way uphill and that didn’t stop until we hit 62km. Our surroundings were incredible, but they were also bare — the further we went, the fewer signs of life we saw (unless you count livestock or roadkill, both of which were abundant throughout). The higher we climbed, the fiercer the weather got. With headwinds howling into our faces, we hunkered down over the handlebars knowing the best we could hope for was for that to turn itself briefly into a crosswind.
Instead, we got a brief onslaught of rain.
At the top of the penultimate climb, Stuart stopped and I joined him. Shouting over the wind, I advised he pedal down the decline as fast and hard as his tired legs would allow him in order to propel himself as far up the climb that was staring us down up ahead as was physically possible. He did just that and I followed, but the wind meant that despite our best efforts we were hardly moving.
Stuart caved to the will of the hill and the weather and dismounted. Seeing how drained he was, I decided to do the same. Even walking up this wasn’t particularly easy.
Riding down it was though, and that’s what the final 10km entailed — a steep, fairly straight, unobstructed and wide ride back down to sea level and the shores of Loch Ness. Bikes racked and helmets off, we followed the curve of the lake until we arrived at a line of docked kayaks. Pushing ours off the pebbled bank of the dock took us knee-deep into the cold, fresh water of the Loch, ensuring our shoes would be suitably damp to begin tomorrows racing.
Making our way back from the orange buoy that marked the half-way point, we paddled into the surprisingly choppy waters. As the wind picked up, water spilled into the boat and covered our legs, making me wish I’d packed a second pair of pretty much everything I was wearing.
Heavy-footed, we took ourselves across the transition line to end our first day and, over a bowl of something hot, filling and fairly nondescript, we prepared ourselves for day two, which we knew would prove the real challenge.
It was a relief to begin day two on the bike — if nothing else, the bright dry morning was an opportunity to dry our still-damp kit. Immediately off the road, we rode to the soundtrack of a constant and satisfying ‘crunch’, as our wheels span over the loose stones. Less distance meant less climbing, but the overall gradient for the second ride was more severe than day one and made all the harder by the the loose and unsteady terrain. Getting out of the saddle to hammer up a climb would get you nowhere.
As frequent as the climbs were the downhill sections, which were unbelievably fun. Hammering down gravel tracks and over bumpy surfaces whilst the mountain bike just soaked them up was a surprisingly welcome change. To race headlong towards a section of lumps, bumps and rocks and lean closer into the handlebars in excitement — rather than retracting, tensing up and gritting my teeth whilst hoping for minimal damage to fragile wheels and a rigid frame — was one of the many joys of mountain biking I’d forgotten about.
My impatience at some of the more timid riders on the narrow sections and steep hairpin turns made me wonder if a season of cyclocross might not be on the cards in the not too distant future.
The weekends greatest test came with 25km left to go. Having covered 55km on bike, it was time to take on all but 1.5km of the last remaining distance on foot. Exhilarated by what felt like a strong start to the day, we stopped just long enough to throw back some food and set out into a run.
I don’t think Stuart will mind me saying that he is not built for running, or many other cardiovascular-based activities for that matter. Almost two days of it had left him incredibly tired and, as the ground beneath our feet took only one direction — up — within 2km of starting out, his run became a jog before that jog transcended into a slow, heavy-legged walk.
The further we walked, the further behind we left any form of civilisation. Surrounded by the towering hills of the Highlands, it didn’t take us long to realise the only way out of this now (other than in a helicopter) was to make it out the other side. It was also the first time in the entire race that we understood why we’d been made to pack survival blankets. The route might have been well-marked, but one wrong turn and it would have been incredibly easy to have become completely lost. Our surroundings were not only stunning, they were ubiquitous. In my tired state, it wouldn’t have taken much to leave me disorientated, lost and with zero phone reception.
His eyes pointed directly at his feet, as if willing them to move just one step further, Stuart asked me how far we’d gone. Having yet to break double figures on a 23km trek, I didn’t have the heart to tell him. Instead, I offered to take his backpack for a while. This helped, but not for long and I watched as he shuffled on with a tired, glazed, almost drunken look on his face. I dug into my pocket and pulled out my last CLIF bar to give to him. Of the two of us, he was going to need it just to keep him upright.
It did the trick for another 5km, not only increasing his energy levels, but the frequency and pace at which he spoke and even his stature — within 20 minutes, he looked to have grown two or three inches in height. With a renewed energy, we powered on but our joy was short-lived. Rounding a bend, we saw a stream of ant-sized people traipsing up the side of a steep hill. For a few blissfuly naive moments, we were unsure whether we had not long completed that climb ourselves or if we had yet to face it.
We quickly established that we had not and that we were about to.
Tricky underfoot with lots of loose rock and boggy mud, we dragged ourselves to its top, both of us internally chastised our idiot past selves for ever thinking a route like this could be run from beginning to end.
Our feet groaned. Our legs groaned. We groaned.
The thought of spurring Stuart on to the end kept me positive, at least in a shallow, surface-level kind of way. Whilst I waited for him to catch up at various points, I stopped to take some photographs of the awe-inspiring scenery beneath us. Each time I did, I'd become engulfed inside a cloud of midges as they gathered round me like a group of hungry buffet-goers.
Any hope of the journey down from the top to the bottom being a case of ‘all downhill from here’ were soon dashed as we travailed it’s slippery backside. Long, deceptively dry grass offered no clue to the deep and sticky mud and puddles of water that lay beneath them. What’s more, the by now well-trodden route had become more slip-and-slide than walkable path. The possibility of covering more of the final few kilometres on our arses than our feet was not so much possible, but inevitable.
Perhaps the cruelest element of the entire event was to bring us so tantalisingly close to the finish line, but to leave a seemingly endless body of water between us and it.
Coming to the edge of Loch Leven, we could see our end point. We could see the hotel where we’d be staying the night. we could see the inflatable arch marking the races end. We could even hear the commentator congratulating competitors over the finish line. Yet there we were with paddles in our hands and pushing our kayak out onto the crisp waters of the lake. Trying to find the energy to establish any form of rhythm, we counted and shouted and reminded one another — and ourselves — that we were very nearly there.
The voice of the commentator became louder and then clearer, until we could begin to hear the cheers of the spectators. We doubled-down for one last push and propelled ourselves forward until the kayak skidded to a bumpy, noisy and slightly uncomfortable halt on the banks of Glencoe.
Clambering up onto the grass bank outside our hotel, we did our best to finish the final 50 metres strong with an obligatory overly-conscious, head-up, chest-out, I’m-not-that-tired-honestly run. In hindsight, it was probably more of a waddle, but it got us where we needed to be: on the other side of the finish line with the two of us completing every leg and each day together.
A couple of hours later, splayed out on our beds and consuming any form of chocolate, cake or biscuit that happened to come within reaching distance, we looked out of the window. We’d spent two nights before the event in this same room, admiring the views out onto the lake. Not once did it dawn on us that we’d be powering ourselves across it. Neither did we think we’d be running across the grass just below us in order to claim our medal and complete the challenge.
Or maybe we did and didn’t want to dwell on the idea.
Amongst a sea of M&M’s and raisin and oatmeal cookies, we began to reminisce about our favourite parts of each day, the difficult and challenging parts of the race already beginning to fade away — as they so often do — to make room for the rose-tinted highlights that inevitably persuade you to sign up to another equally sadistic event.