Time: 4:29:03 [Full results available here]
First of all, what better way to kick start a weekend away cycling than by popping into a new cycling shop and hanging out with British Olympic gold medalist, Sir Chris Hoy? Lost for an answer? That’s because there isn’t one. Roz and I had the pleasure of listening to Hoy answer questions and perch atop his still-substantial thighs before grabbing a few last minute essentials for our journey (including scoring a free goodie bag for being one of the first 100 customers).
Back home, I triple checked I had everything I needed (including every thermal shirt I own) for the Etape Loch Ness, before waiting for Claudia to pick me up.
The journey to Inverness was marred somewhat by tractors and lorries on the single carriageways – not ideal when you’ve got a deadline to register and make 6pm dinner reservations. There was definitely some backseat (or, more appropriately, passenger seat) driving. And swearing. Our mood was not elevated by the snow and hail being blown horizontally across the road by gales.
Finally, we made it to Inverness, and registration. Picking up race numbers was relatively quick (just find out your number and queue in the appropriate line), and then Claudia dropped me off near my hotel, where I met Roz and Ny, agreeing to meet downstairs for a drink as soon as I’d dumped my stuff in my room.
Quite a few of us were staying up for the ride the following day, so Roz had booked dinner for us all. Unsurprisingly, we all opted for all three courses, even asking for a trough of extra pasta to be brought out.
After dinner, Aynsley and I went to Roz and Ny’s room for some telly and popcorn (and ‘scary’ stories), before we all decided that we should get some sleep. I went back to my empty room, as Eilidh had turned down my offer to share a double bed (devastating), so I had to starfish all on my lonesome. Tiny violins.
Sunday morning was a bit of a struggle to get out of bed, partly due to it being ridiculously early, and partly due to the fact I had cracked the window before I went to sleep and my room was freezing. I used this is a guide when choosing my clothing for the day: thermals, thermal bib shorts, jacket, balaclava, winter gloves, thermal socks, extra socks, windproof socks, plastic bags around my feet, overshoes, extra overshoes…. And sunglasses.
We had agreed to meet – ready to leave – at 5:45, and once ready we cycled to the race start, which was about 1km from registration. We were in wave D, leaving at 6:21, and we were ushered into a holding pen until all earlier waves had been set free!
Although we had initially planned to take this as a casual ride, Roz and Sarah seemed keen to go all out (skipping the feed stations/cake stop), which Ny was not happy about. As soon as we crossed the line, Roz and Sarah shot off, followed closely by Ny, as Aynsley and I fell behind. After a few minutes, however, Ny reappeared, and thus began the Etape Cake Train.
The route is relatively flat until you pass 30 or so miles, which is when you hit the one main climb on the course. Thankfully, we had plenty of time to warm up before then, and we took full advantage of getting pulled along by some of the faster riders when we could. Although it was dry with little wind, my feet were screaming, and I was looking forward to the first feed station at around 27 miles to check them out.
We made it to the first feed station in about an hour and a half, and while Ny and Aynsley attacked the cakes, I stripped layers off my feet and tried to massaged some life back into them. Around this time, Claudia, who started in a slightly later wave, arrived at the feed station, and once everyone was fully kitted up, we set off for the hill!
Within about 5 minutes, Claudia had zoomed off into the distance, but the three of us chugged on towards the starting mat for the King of the Mountain. As the incline hit, Ny told me she’d wait for me at the top (where I believe there was a spread of cakes), and I watched her butt fade into the sea of lycra above. We had all made a pact not to get off and push our bikes, but I didn’t find the hill too steep, just a slog. I was quite surprised at just how many people were walking though.
The hill hits you in three stages, with some downhill relief in between. Thankfully someone had mentioned that already, so I wasn’t too traumatized when the second and third sections came into view. It was a nice surprise, however, to hear the piper signifying the end of the climb, and the beginning of familiar territory.
It was here in September, 2012, that I started my first marathon (and my third, tugging a husky-laden sled in 2013), and I was a bit emotional reliving one of the most memorable running events in my life. From here to the end, I knew exactly what to expect. I saw Ny at the side of the road and we decided I’d wait until feed station 2 to stop for water, so we set off on one of the most enjoyable downhill sections I’ve ridden. The sun had come out, the hill was over, the views were beautiful, and I was flying!
It was almost criminal to hit the brakes and waste momentum to hit up feed station 2, but we did. Not long after Ny and I arrived, Aynsley appeared, and just before we set off, Claudia emerged from the crowd.
The four of us set off with feed station 3, and the mythical Harry Gow dream ring, on our minds. Clearly Ny was the most excited, because she set off with a punishing pace. I managed to catch her once, but couldn’t hold on. Instead I enjoyed the course, and the fact that on a bike you get enough momentum to ride over the undulations without too much effort – much easier than running! I passed the layby where I pulled over my sled for lunch at mile 15 of the marathon, and then saw the luminous signs for feed station 3 up ahead.
As sure as the sun rises in the east, Ny was clutching a dream ring with a smile on her face. She was even taunting the cyclists who were skipping the feed station by waving it around in the air shouting, “WHY ARE YOU SKIPPING THE DREAM RINGS?!” I tucked into one myself (verdict: they were pretty amazing after 50+ miles of cycling, but maybe a bit much for a light snack), during which time Aynsley, and then Claudia arrived.
With around 10 miles to go, we left the station. Ny flew out in front and I tried to tag along. I’d been pushing a bit to keep up with her ‘leisurely’ pace, but that dream ring must have worked a treat, because I started feeling a bit stronger. I managed to catch her up by weaving through cyclists on the now somewhat more congested road, and settled into a steady pace.
We passed a sign for Dores, and I knew that another hill was in store for us. After the hill it was down and flat to the finish, so for the first time all day, I went in front to tow, and managed to grab onto the wheel of a couple of guys who overtook us. After the Tesco at the roundabout I was on even more familiar ground, and pushed ahead of the two guys, again weaving round other cyclists. For the last couple of miles I found another person to draft, and I stuck in behind him until the bridge came into sight. Expecting a surge from Ny, I went nearly flat out from the bridge to the finish, but rather anticlimactically she had been held up behind other cyclists, finishing seconds behind.
We rolled through the finishers area, picked up our medal and goodie bag, and then waited for Aynsley, and then Claudia to come through. Not wanting to be in the way, we decided to just head back to the hotel – where Roz, who had destroyed the course in a shade over 3:45, was relaxing – for a shower and see if anyone wanted to grab a beer/lunch.
There was the traditional thawing-out-the-feet-in-the-shower dance, before getting into some warm clothes and watching the elite runners finishing the London marathon. Roz and Ny had to head back to Aberdeen, so Aynsley and I walked to a local cafe to meet a couple we knew for some lunch. Eventually, we were joined by Claudia before heading back to the hotel to pack up the car and head home ourselves, taking the ‘scenic route’ (we missed a turn off).
Overall, a very pretty course. Slightly undulating with one big climb, weather that was very accommodating considering the temperature, and good company. That and my fastest average speed for any cycle I’ve ever done! Chris Hoy was merely the cherry on top of a fantastic Etape weekend!