Every year, I like to set myself a challenge that scares me enough to actually train for it. An afternoon of internet browsing over Christmas led me to stumble across City to Summit, a 155 mile run-bike-run from Edinburgh Castle to the Highlands, up and down Ben Nevis and finishing in Fort William. Just what I was looking for! I’m built for endurance, not speed, but something which had a 20 hour time limit was going to bring me to new territory, both mentally and physically.
Having signed up, and convinced Kev to coach me, my next crucial step was to buy a bike. Pedal Power fitted me out with the new Liv Langma and a basic turbo, so training started in early February. I’d never used cleats and have a terrible sense of direction, so was nervous about venturing onto the road. My April road trip to Callander saw me make a 28KM detour on the return journey, arriving back at the front door of the B&B I had left an hour earlier to cycle home! So 80-100 mile bike rides on the turbo became a Saturday evening ritual and also meant I could squeeze in a few 50 or 60KM trainings on a work morning before getting the kids ready for school.
My running also had a slow start this year, as I have long-standing glute problems and was still suffering from two sprained ankles last year. I took it easy until June, then did a day’s recce to Ben Nevis, making it comfortably up and down in less than three hours; and used ESMS’s Gray’s Games in mid-June as an opportunity to plod out 40 miles overnight for our relay team. The injuries were holding up well, and a final heavy week in Club La Santa with the tri club junior team in early July helped cement the feeling that the hard work had been done, and I now just needed to rest until the big day.
As race day approached, the nerves rose and concerns ranged from how to fix a puncture (don’t on a tubeless bike!) to how to handle a bike in the forecasted bad weather and avoid being run over, and fretting about making the 8:30pm cut-off time to summit Ben Nevis. I was estimating it would take me 9 hours for the 115 mile bike ride, so I wouldn’t have much time to spare.
The event started at 4am on Sunday morning with a 15 mile run from Edinburgh Castle to the Forth Road Bridge. The weather was a cool 12 degrees, dry and still dark. I set off with about 120 other crazy people, down towards Haymarket and along the Roseburn cycle path and before long, was chatting with other runners. That wasn’t a great idea, as a lapse in concentration made me miss the turnoff for Cramond Brig! Getting lost on my own back doorstep was not only embarrassing but frustrating to add another kilometre or so to what was already going to be a long day. I made it to transition by about 6:15, quick loo stop, complete kit change (all modesty already gone) and onto the bike by 6:27, only to take the chain off while trying to get my cleats on and covering myself in grease putting it back on! Not exactly the smooth transition I had hoped for, but I was away before 6:30, which was my back-stop time.
The road was quiet and I didn’t see another cyclist for the best part of an hour, making me worried I had taken another wrong turn. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and I quickly settled into a comfortable pace, eating every 20 mins as advised by Kev – great mix of egg mayo or almond butter & jam sandwiches, flapjacks and Snickers bars. I made it to the first checkpoint at Gleneagles just after 8am. From previous ultra experience, I know not to waste time at pit stops – loo, refill water bottles, cup of coffee to warm me up, arm warmers on, Nutella sandwich down the hatch, and back on the bike – in and out in less than 10 mins and making up a few places. The forecast was for fog on Ben Nevis by 7pm, so I wanted up there asap; I didn’t need anything else to mess with my sense of direction…
My support crew, Derek, Luke & Lochlan, were to meet me at Pit Stop 2 at Crieff between 10-10:15 with more food supplies. Having screwed up on Race to the Stones last year, when at the 50KM half way point he delivered a bag of my work clothes (dresses and high heels instead of a complete running kit change!), Derek was planning to get there early. I was having a great bike ride, and arrived by 9:50, so he had no chance. Thankfully the Pit Stops were really well provisioned by the Rat Race crew – more coffee and Nutella sandwiches, energy bar, water refilled and I was off. I’d just got back on the bike when the boys came running along the road, panic written all over their faces when they saw me already under way. I reassured them it was my fault this year and quickly grabbed my sandwiches and chocolate supplies and headed on. By the time I made it to Glencoe, the drizzle was turning to heavier rain and traffic starting to get heavy; I was glad I had shoe covers and arm warmers to keep me from getting drenched. Despite the cold rain, I felt energised by the views and immensely grateful to be able to cycle from home to the beautiful Highlands in a day. The final Pit Stop was 50KM from the end, and by now, the boys were getting very excited as they had figured out there was only one female ahead of me. As they passed me in the car, they would hang out the windows, enthusiastically waving and shouting. Overall, the drivers en route were very considerate and I didn’t feel worried at any stage about getting run over.
The last seven miles up to Kinlochleven were a bit of a killer, but I was delighted to finish by 13:40 – nearly two hours ahead of my predicted time. After yet another complete kit change, I downed some soup and an egg roll, had a quick chat with my support crew, who ably filled water bottles and tagged my race number from cycle jersey to running top, and was on the move within 25 mins.
By this stage, I was pretty cold and the rain was coming down solidly, but I was determined to get as far ahead of the 8:30pm cut off for the summit of Ben Nevis as possible. The first two miles of the West Highland Way out of Kinlochleven were brutal…uphill steps, with no pity for legs that had 130 miles in them already that morning. A few miles in, I overtook a female runner who told me I was now second woman – reinforcing the kids’ suspicion that I might actually be doing pretty well in the event. With 20 miles to go, though, there was plenty of time for that ranking to change. I had calculated I might need 15 mins per mile along this trail run, but by the time I reached the checkpoint half way in, I was 15 mins ahead of my trail run schedule. Things were looking good as I pulled out of the checkpoint, but a momentary lapse of concentration saw me miss a turn-off, and half a mile up the road, thankfully bumped into two other runners who had made the same mistake. Annoyed, I tried to stay focused as the Ben Nevis ascent started.
My early June recce had taught me miles 1, 3 and 5 from the car park are the easy ones, where a bit of running is possible; but I was thrown by coming in from the youth hostel direction and straight up the steep steps, where at best I could manage a fast march. By now, visibility was poor – I could see the path, but had little sense of location, as the fog was thick, rain coming down and temperatures were dropping. I passed a few runners coming down as I was going up – but it was difficult to tell which were the 2-day challengers versus the one-day category like me. A marshall told me I was second female and probably in the top 13-15, so that drove me on. I didn’t even stop to put on any layers until about a hundred metres from the top, when my hands had swollen so badly that I had to pull on my arm warmers just to get the circulation going in them. I summited at 7:05pm, but the weather was grim, and I didn’t hang about. I grabbed an energy gel, pulled on my jacket and asked a marshall to zip it up for me, as my hands were frozen. About 5 mins into the descent, I passed two women who were still on their way up. That was all the motivation I needed. I couldn’t let them catch me at this stage of the day, so I accelerated down the mountain, being careful not to slip on the wet rocks and only briefly looking up to enjoy the views which were appearing as the fog started to lift. About half way down, I slipped and landed awkwardly on my back across three steps – it hurt, but I got up uninjured and sent up about my 100th prayer of thanks that day, and kept going. As I passed a group of marshals near the bottom, I heard one of them say “here’s our first female”, but they also said it was only 3KM to go, which I knew wasn’t true – there were another 3 miles to go to Fort William – so I didn’t think further of the first comment. The final part of the run was mostly on roads, right until the last mile – which was a brutal uphill climb before a really steep descent. On the way up, I passed another runner who I’d been tag-teaming for the past 20 miles – adrenalin and specifically the fear that one of those two women would appear to snatch away my place kept me running both up and downhill.
As I turned the corner into the leisure centre at Fort William, the sun was shining and Luke & Lochlan were jumping for joy, cheering me loudly. I crossed the finish line, to hear the most amazing news that I had finished first woman, 15th overall, in a time of 16 hours 47 mins, earning me a First Female engraved beer mug, full of beer (which had I drunk, I’m sure would have downed me!). Tears of joy and disbelief spoiled the finisher’s photo, but what a day! First duathlon down, and perhaps the beginning of a new love affair. 🙂