I actually wrote this ages ago midway through June but forgot about it. Was a great experience and would love to get another opportunity to participate in the same or a similar event.
I had been standing at the window of the bathroom in my hotel room for a while, looking at the Highland village I was staying in. The view from my window was of Beauly square which was barely dark as the summer night had nearly come to an end, it being around 4 am. It had been a sleepless night to say the least, my body kept awake by the pre-race nerves which were haunting me before the race which would now start in little over seven hours. This was perhaps a useful warning that the 2017 “Highland Cross” couldn’t be underestimated, that a 20 mile run over rough hilly terrain starting on the west coast followed by a 30 mile ride back to Beauly wasn’t going to be at all easy. I eventually stopped staring at the flickering lamppost outside the bathroom window and made my way back to bed, telling myself to think positive thoughts. I must have woken up about 25 minutes later, cursing the butterflies in my stomach for causing my far from helpful sleep deprivation.
To participate in the “Highland Cross” you need to enter as a part of a team of three and pledge to raise money for charitable causes in the Highlands. I was lucky enough to be asked to take part in a team with a local to Deeside who had been competing in the Cross for many years, while also boasting an impressive set of marathon medals. In the run up to race day we had discussed the fact that he had been wanting to break five hours for the event for a while now, finishing just outside this target for the last few years. This led to discussions about completing the route as an actual team. A team that would stick together and hopefully assist in helping him achieve that elusive sub five hour time. I could feel that the frustration at coming so close to doing this was nearing boiling point, increased by the fact that when actually competing as a team before, his team mates hadn’t actually raced with him, looking for their own individual times.
His other choice of team mate was an immensely strong tri-athlete, who also happened to be a local. A strong cyclist and runner, this race looked like it would suit him down to the ground. Meanwhile, I had seemingly given the impression to the team leader that I was good at this kind of stuff, despite not having any experience of competing in dualthons. Though I knew that I did have stores of endurance, shown in the past by showings at the annual “Strathpuffer” 24 hour mountain bike race, which I felt would be beaten in terms of challenge by what was coming this time around.
So as race day finally rolled around I awoke from my disturbed sleep at around six in the morning, an early start was needed if I was going to I lot least try and be prepared. I got out of bed and checked my race bag for like the thousandth time after packing it the day before and went looking for my tight lycra which I firmly believe is mandatory. After getting my race gear on I threw on some running tights and a jumper and made my way downstairs for breakfast. One of my team mates was already there and copied he pre race food choice, thinking that he definitely looked like he knew what he was doing unlike me. As we greeted our other team mate I ate the porridge very slowly, seemingly feeling sickly with no appetite as the nerves once again got the better of my body yet again.
Once I had eventually swallowed as much of the porridge as I could, I made my way back to my room to make final preparations before we would get on a bus which would take us to the west coast of Scotland. From that point there was no turning back. Having packed and checked my race bag several times over, I couldn’t help but worry about the nausea that I felt as I contemplated the challenge that lay ahead. My mental preparation didn’t seem to be going to well. Rejoining my team mates, we got onto the nearest bus and I hoped that the knowledge that there was no return ticket would help settle my nerves. I made nervous small talk as the bus seemingly slithered its was through some of the slowest, windiest roads I had ever experienced. This wasn’t helping.
I also had the urge to go pee, and was greatly relieved when we stopped just off the banks of the world famous Loch Ness to let the athletes do what they had to do. When I got back on the bus the empty bladder and the fresh Highland air seemed to have done the job and I started to feel much better, even managing to take on a little bit of food. I felt slightly more at ease and was able to enjoy the dramatic scenery shrouded in cloud as we approached the location of the start line in wet but not cold conditions.
The journey took around two hours and when we arrived we actually had to walk about a mile to the start line. I was relieved to have arrived and felt ready despite the nervous build up. The excitement was papable as we approached the start line which had been at the front of the mind everytime I had put my running shoes on or got on the bike. The time to shine was now and wanted to everything I could to help my team mate reach the finish line in under five hours. Any worries about mental and physical weakness had to be put to the back of my mind and forgotten about as I convinced myself that perhaps missing out on some of the right type of training in the build up wouldn’t be a justifiable excuse when we returned to Beauly.
It didn’t take long to arrive at the starting point and final preparations didn’t take long. I was carrying a few energy gels, my trusted digital watch and wore a waterproof around my waist in case conditions became wetter. It wasn’t actually really raining as we jostled through the crowd to find a good starting position, though there was many a muddy puddle on the track. After situating ourselves in the middle of the massive field of competitors, it was a short wait until the staring pistol followed. The aftermath was pandemonium as near 500 runners struggled for position in what surely didn’t seem like an effort which was meant to last at least a few hours.
I was relieved that after the first few kilometers the pace settled down as the field became more spread out, as our team managed to regroup. Most people must have realized by this point that it was best just to tackle the puddles head on as we made our way North-East along the flooded path through the mountains. As we neared the ten kilometer mark the path thinned, resulting in a long line of runners as we approached the first real challenge in the form of a steep climb. However, being in a slow moving line of runners meant it wasn’t too much of a struggle and I began to enjoy the dramatic views as I passed a water station at a waterfall. The atmosphere was adeptly assisted by the mountain rescue helicopter as it roared up and down the valley.
By this point we had become separated and I realized that if we were going to support each other we likely needed to stick together. I waited for the team leader, who was a little way down the incline, at the next water station at the beginning of the descent. In fairness to my other team mate he was waiting for us at the next water station down and was looking to be in better shape than I definitely felt. In that moment I seemed to be suffering from discomfort in my knees, which seemed to get worse as we carried on. This was momentarily forgotten about when my team mate took a nasty fall, explaining that he was suffering from bad cramp, hindering his progress. After looking in absolute agony for a few moments his facial expression changed to one of determination and he was back up on his feet.
As we continued past the halfway point I attempted the difficult task of finding a softer running line than the rocky track to run on, as my knees continued to bother me. Eventually we came to the last few miles of the run, Roshan and I battling pain as I started to feel slightly envious of how content Wilbur’s running style looked. I had been warned about the last section of the run referred to as ‘The Golden Road’. A slow, undulating section on track which for a couple of miles towards the end turned into tarmac was to follow. This was becoming a real challenge, as I counted down the miles to the transition point. My Auntie Marie wasn’t wrong when she told me of her experience of wanting to get on the bike just for a seat, after the 20 miles on foot. I wasn’t comforted by the fact that Roshan had seemingly fallen silent, a unusual occurrence lets say.
I think we were all relieved when we saw all the bikes lined up along the tarmac road. After a few minutes in the transfer zone which was on quite muddy, solid ground, we set off again on our energy sapping journey across the Scottish Highlands. After the first few hundred meters it was even more obvious that Wilbur was in much better form than his two team mates as he ploughed on ahead of us. The first part of cycle was quite technical with some gravel and a rough road surface adding to an already twisting descent. I spent most of the descent focusing on my bike handling skills but Roshan was soon on my tail again as we joined some other riders.
At the bottom of the descent we finally caught up with Wilbur as he slowed to let us catch his back wheel and into his slipstream. This rest from wind resistance didn’t last long as Wilbur sped up again, making it hard to stay on his wheel. As I struggled to stay on his wheel I realized that Roshan had fallen back, and I knew I also had to drop back to help him out. This became a bit of a recurring pattern as Wilbur continue to slow and then sped up when we rejoined his wheel. I can sympathize with this as it is difficult to judge the speed that others are going out when on a bike. On the other hand it was massively frustrating for Roshan and I to watch his back wheel go in and out of sight.
After a while I realised that the best solution for Roshan and I was to stay together and help each other get across the finish line in a time under the elusive five hours. As I pulled him along at a pace which suited us both we came across other riders who had the same idea as us. Though unfortunately these riders’ idea of working together seemed to differ with each individual we encountered. Some riders in a group were happy to give fellow athletes a hand while others seemed more focused on gaining as significant a personal advantage as they could for themselves. This could likely be excused by utter exhaustion which I think we could all sympathise with after four and a bit hours of draining exercise.
The chaotic nature of these groups came to a head when we were almost involved in an accident. As a group of around ten of us blasted down the predominantly flat roads we were met by a car coming towards us. As it became apparent that we needed to make more room for it to pass on our right some sudden maneuverers were made in front of us. I know that I almost became a cropper as I hammered the brakes, avoiding the next riders’ wheel by mere centimeters, exchanging a look and a rude word with Roshan before carrying on a little shaken.
As the cycle went on I began to lose a sense of distance keeping my team mate up to date with the time on my digital watch. Towards the end of the race we were rejoined by Wilbur and were relieved and probably surprised when we saw we were coming to the last corner in a time well under the targeted five hours. After taking the last corner the group of us was lined up like a long sprint lead out as we rode the last mile into Beauly.
Getting cut up by a car and some more questionable mannouveres by other riders couldn’t take the icing of a great day as we all crossed the line around the 4 hours, 40 minutes mark. The pain had been worth it and I was chuffed that I had finished the epic event with a performance I could take pride in. The fact that I had also been there to see Roshan achieve a target which he had held onto for a fair few years was also great and I was pleased that I had contributed in some way.
My legs were shot though a seat and an ice cream soon helped me forget about the aches and pains of the race. However, as I struggled up the stairs to my hotel room the pre race nausea of that morning suddenly returned and floored me for a couple of hours, meaning I missed the main section of the awards ceremony though was fortunate enough to catch the end of the speeches which thanked the many helpers and supporters of the Highland Cross.
This thanks was the least they deserved as the support and organization of the whole event was top notch, with the money we raised for Highland charities hopefully giving a little back to communities which participated. Hopefully I’ll be back one day!