Etape Loch Ness 2016

Time: 4:29:03 [Full results available here]

Medal: Yes

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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).

Hoy sandwich

Hoy sandwich

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.

No.

No.

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.

Feeding time.

Feeding time.

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.

Etape Loch Ness Elevation/route

Etape Loch Ness Elevation/route

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.

Feed station 2

Feed station 2

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.

Post dream ring sugar high

Post dream ring sugar high

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.

Mud freckles.

Mud freckles.

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!

 

Turriff Sprint Triathlon 2016

Total Time: 1:37:32

Medal: No, but I wasn’t expecting one, and I was pleasantly surprised to be handed a long-sleeved tech tee  upon registration

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With next month’s standard triathlon looming, I impulsively signed up to the Turriff sprint, gently encouraged by Ny, Eilidh, and Roz.  I figured it would be a good opportunity to get some triathlon specific experience (transition, just how disastrous my legs feel trying to run after a hard bike).

As an added bonus, Ny offered to take me out to see the bike course on Friday.  We did the loop twice, encountering sunshine, snow, hail, rain, and some bitching headwind on the downhill section.

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Fast forward to Sunday morning, and I was frantically doing the last minute ‘have-I-forgotten-anything’ rummage through my bag before Ny picked me up, listening to what I could only describe as tantric sex music. (“It’s my dad’s music, I’m not sure how to switch it off.” – Ny)

We got to Turriff at around 10:30 and registered, picking up our technical shirt and race numbers.  We also found Eilidh (who had our bikes) and started setting up our transition areas.  With Ny as my mentor, I set out my kit – shoes and socks (with talcum powder for easy application over wet feet), jacket, fleece, helmet, gloves, and glasses – next to (or hanging from) my bike.  Briefing was at 11, and then we went up to the swimming pool to get changed/watch some of the earlier swim heats.

Swim

The swim takes place in a 20 meter pool, so the 750m swim is slightly extended.  Ny and Eilidh were in the heat before me, so I went and sat poolside with the rest of their heat to watch the swimmers before them, and eventually cheer on their heat.  I chatted with Lauren, a girl who seemed about as nervous as I was, until we were called into the water.  There were 5 in my lane, and I was going second, after the only other girl.

Once the whistle went, my goal was to stick to the toes of the girl ahead, but it quickly became clear that that was not going to be happening.  I think she comfortably lapped everyone throughout the 760m swim.  After a couple of laps the guy behind me tapped my toes, and I let him him, and the guy after him pass, then held onto their heels.  We swapped places a couple of times, but by the end we had slipped into a comfortable pace, with me sandwiched between them (and drafting like a pro).

I finished the swim in 12:46, and hauled myself out of the pool.  We had to run out of the fire escape, towel off, and throw on shoes, as we had to run down some steps, through an underpass, and around the sports centre to get to transition, which added a good 2+ minutes to my swim time.

Bike

Despite going through what to do with Ny, I was rushing, and ended up putting my helmet on first, which meant it had to come off to get my fleece over my head (it was too cold to cycle in a wet trisuit, thank you very much).  I managed to get myself sorted without further incident, and ran my bike over the timing mat to the mounting zone, where I struggled for about 20 seconds trying to get my gloves over my soggy hands, watching with frustration as several people hopped on their bikes and went ahead of me.

Finally I was off!  Everyone I had spoken to had said that for a sprint tri, you should go off hard, and it should basically continue to hurt until the end.  Keeping this in mind, I turned left into the climb and ignored my heart rate monitor, instead deciding that my heavy rapist breathing was a decent indication of my effort levels at that time.

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Considering how hard I felt I was pushing, I am a bit disappointed that I managed only slightly quicker than when Ny and I did a recce, though there was a horrendous side wind on the downhill sections that warranted a bit of caution, so, yes, I have excuses prepared.  And the time also includes dismount, and what I can only imagine was a comical dance downhill in cycling shoes back to transition.

Run

I shed my cycle paraphernalia as quickly as possible, threw on my running shoes, and started running.  At least, moving with a perceived effort that matched running, but in reality probably resembled an awkward shuffle as my quads screamed out in protest.  What in fresh hell was this?  I’d done runs after a bike session before, but nothing quite compared to the jelly legs I was experiencing trying to run uphill into a headwind.  As my first outdoor run in quite some time, I had no idea what speed I was going, I just knew I was being regularly overtaken by a lot of people.  Total ego boost.  I passed the 1.5k turn off for the novice event, and cursed whoever thought it would be a good idea to leave it to taunt us.

I reached the 2.5k turnaround, and clumsily circled the cone.  About 1km from the end I passed Kevin, who later told me I looked, “like I wasn’t loving life,” which pretty much sums up how I felt, until I hit that blissful downhill section symbolizing the near finish.  Encouraged by the sight of the swimming pool up the hill, I ran hard to the finishing mats, delighted to have finished my first triathlon, as well as to have completed a 5k outdoors with no knee pain at all!

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Ny managed to better her time from last year, finishing in just over 1:34 (and coming 4th female!), and although Eilidh knocked about 20 minutes off her previous sprint time, a foot injury meant that her run let her down on the day.

After a cosy group shower, we hit up a cafe for a post race treat before heading back to Aberdeen for some well-deserved relaxation.

Overall, I’m glad I did the Turriff tri.  It was a good laugh, and probably good practice considering next month I’ll be taking on a standard distance (basically, twice as long as a sprint).  It also taught me a few things to keep in mind for any future triathlons:

  • Acquire a small box/basket for transition.  It’s much neater/easier to cart your stuff around when setting up.
  • Bring extra trainers.  I wore the trainers I was going to run in, but as I had to leave them in transition, there was a bit of walking about barefoot.  Outdoors.  In Scotland.
  • Work on transition – I wasted way too much time being uncoordinated.  Hopefully this will come with more practice/experience.
  • Bring a race belt for my number.  Having it pinned onto my cycling jacket meant I couldn’t ditch my jacket for the run, which is something I definitely wanted to do.

Thankfully I have a lot less to worry about this weekend, as I’m returning to the city where I ran my first half marathon (and marathon) – Inverness – for the Etape Loch Ness, a 66 mile cycle than finishes along the marathon route.  There are a group of us heading up in a couple of hours, and although it is currently snowing (WTF Scotland?!), the forecast suggests that at least it will stay dry tomorrow.  For someone who loves warmth and sunshine, I am obviously super pumped.

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I can relate to both Calvin and his dad.

Red Bull Neptune Steps 2016

Medal: no, though if you get a podium spot you can walk away with a snazzy trident.

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Eyeballing a computer screen, manically hitting ‘refresh’ is not how I typically choose to spend my morning break, but that’s what I found myself doing on the morning entries for the second Neptune Steps race went live, knowing that chums Roz and Eilidh were doing the exact same thing.  Spaces were limited to 200 (150 for the boys and only 50 for the girls), so there was no time to waste.  Within minutes, all of us had a confirmed entry,  within the hour, all places had been taken, and within the day, we’d all managed to push the event to the back of our minds.  Until last week.

Slightly concerned about the water temperature’s ability to affect my general survival, I was keen to take up Roz’s offer to join her and a mutual friend, Jennie, for a dip in Knockburn loch last week.  Dressed very modestly in wetsuit, neoprene boots, neoprene gloves, and neoprene hat – and having tested the hot water in the showers before even leaving the changing room – we cautiously submersed ourselves into the water, much to the amusement of onlookers.  Although body and feet were warm enough, both Roz and I were disappointed with our ‘thermal’ gloves.  In fact, my hands were so cold they were burning, and the only relief I could get was if I held them out of the water, which isn’t particularly conducive to swimming.  Jennie recommended hers, and I ordered a pair online as soon as I got home.

Fast forward to race day: Roz picked me up at 7:45, then we swung by for Ny – race supporter extraordinaire and baker of delicious raspberry brownies.  Although we left Aberdeen in a cloud of fog and drizzle, we arrived in Glasgow to glorious sunshine and blue skies.  There was no doubting where the event was taking place when we arrived at Glasgow’s number 1 tourist hotspot, Maryhill locks:

 

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Photo Source

Guided by the Red Bull tents, we parked up on a curb and hauled our gear to registration, where a queue of nervous looking people surveyed what they could of the course from where they were standing.  Not long after, our friend Eilidh emerged from the marquee looking about as terrified as the rest of us felt.  There were a lot of serious looking swimmers there sporting dry robes from last year’s event (SPOILER: we did not get dry robes this year, much to our dismay), open water club hoodies and the like.  Having scoped out the course already, Eilidh had some further boner-killer news, chiefly that one of the obstacles involved a leap from an uncomfortably high platform back into the freezing water.

Perhaps this is a good time to give a brief overview of the event.  Touted as the world’s only uphill swimming race, competitors had to swim 420 metres and climb 10.5 metres over 8 lock gates along the way.  What could be easier, right?

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After the race briefing, held in the men’s changing room of all places, we changed into our wetsuits (in the female changing room) before heading to the start to watch the first couple of men’s heats.  The fact that there were non-finishers was not encouraging, and the anxiety starting setting in.  Thankfully, we didn’t have long to wait before all the women from Heat 1 were being gathered up and counted.

Once the register was taken, we were walked down the course, eventually watching the final men’s heat start, knowing that it was only about 15 minutes before we had to set off.

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L-R: Roz, me, Eilidh

We were given a chance to get into the water to acclimatize, but we opted to dip in quickly and then get the hell out until the last possible moment.  Thankfully, the guy with the walkie talkie kept us updates on how long we had left to wait, so once we were given the 1 minute call, we got back into the bracing water and awaited the claxon.

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We even made the highlight reel!

3-2-1-Go!  The ladies were off!  I tried to stick my head underwater to swim, but it was just too cold and I couldn’t find my breath, so I stuck with the less than graceful head-above-water technique, spotting Roz on my right getting stuck in like a pro.  If When we do this again next year, I will definitely just suck it up and get used to the cold water sooner to avoid the wobbly panic of not being able to breathe, because I feel like it wasn’t until the last 2 obstacles that I felt normal.  You live and learn.

Anyway, the course starts with a lengthy swim to the first obstacle, a rope cargo net.  As we were still relatively clumped together at this point, there was a bit of treading water as I waited for a space to open up, and when one did, it involved swimming against the current, grabbing hold of anything you could, and then fighting the gushing water hitting against you to get a leg up.  At this point I remember thinking that this was a lot harder than I was anticipating.

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Once over the first obstacle, I was feeling a bit loopy, and had to take a moment to get my balance.  I ignored Ny’s  enthusiastic shouts to get moving, and butt-shuffled into the water on the other side instead of diving to avoid the shock of the cold, making it not long after to obstacle number 2 – a rope climb.  This mainly involved trying to land your foot on a metal bar just above water height, and then hauling yourself up onto the platform above.  And then?  Back into the water!

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Obstacle number 3 was a wooden ladder.  I had hoped that it would extend underneath the surface of the water to make it easier to use a bit of leg-power, but no such luck.  Here is me (and Roz) fighting against the current to hold on:

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Following the ladder was another short swim to another rope climb, and then a rope ladder, and a penultimate rope climb, at which point the obstacle I had most been dreading rose into view: the “boat”.  Eilidh and I had both expressed concern at the height of the jump, and we had decided that the best way of approaching the situation was to not think, just jump.  I saw Roz reach the top and disappear immediately, obviously going with our discussed tactic, however by the time  I was looking down it took a bit of coaxing from the marshal to finally just throw myself off.  Considering I thought it would be the obstacle that could end my race, it wasn’t too bad.

What remained between me and the finish line at this point was a final rope climb preceded by a 3 metre climbing wall, which is where I found Roz struggling.  After a moment to catch my breath (again, avoiding the spray that was aggressively hitting us in the face), I hoisted myself up and climbed to the top.  One short swim and the final obstacle down, I was on the home stretch (though looking ahead, I could see that I had definitely missed out on a top 10 finisher’s spot in the finals).  Happy just to finish, I swam the final 33 metres, finally managing to get my face in the water for a few strokes.

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I waited for Eilidh and Roz to finish, having a couple of sips of the Red Bull I was handed at the finish to kill off anything sinister that I might have swallowed along with some of the water, and then we found Ny who took a victory photo:

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We didn’t hang around too long, opting to get showered (in the weakest showers known to man, though the option of using them was appreciated) and into warm clothes, catching some of the men’s semi-finals as we left.

Roz, Ny, and myself got back into the party bus and headed back to Aberdeen, opting for a now traditional McDonald’s stop in Dundee along the way.  Because we are athletes.


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Thankfully, the following day I had a few tender spots on my legs were bruises were beginning to show, but other than that it would appear that I got through Red Bull’s second Neptune Steps event relatively trauma-free.  I even managed my scheduled cycle on Sunday (though indoors, because rain), averaging my fastest speed for an endurance ride on the watt bike to date!  Sadly, that doesn’t exactly translate to speed on the road, but whatever – progress is progress.

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Next up, a somewhat unplanned event next weekend – Turriff sprint triathlon – where I’ll be battling it out with Eilidh and Ny, while Roz enjoys a spa weekend like the delicate flower she is (not that I am at all jealous).  This time next week, barring catastrophe, I will no longer have to explain to people that I am a member of a triathlon having never actually done a triathlon.  Hopefully the endorphins will dull the shock of going back to work the following Monday.