What I should have been doing this weekend was celebrating the Jubilee with my old uni mates at a relaxing 10 year reunion in the valleys of the Peak District. However, some 10 months ago I’d met up with 3 local racers; Stu, Renee and Andy, and we’d agreed to form totalXC and work towards competing in the adidas TERREX Sting. So here I was, on that journey, stood on the starting line of the Sting’s little sister, the Swift. Ahead lay some 300km to be covered in around 48 hours on foot, bike, canoe and dangling off ropes.
Getting to the race was fairly straight forward, just an hour from Stu’s house in Ilkley. We’d done a lot of preparation in the weeks leading up to the race, which although a headache at the time, had meant the night before and morning of the race was fairly relaxing.
The maps were sent out a few days before, so I had had a chance to study in detail, and the event briefing just helped to clarify a few points.
Stage 1 – Run – Kirby Lonsdale
Run around the town to the start of the canoe section. 12km
Real time starting stage – Saturday 09:00:00
Race time starting stage – 00:00:00
Leg time - 00:51:06
All competitors were picked up from Settle at 07:30 and bused down the road to Kirby Lonsdale. It seemed like the whole town along with brass band had turned up to see us on our way, but as it turned out they were all just waiting for us to get out the way so they could take a town jubilee photo in the town square. It did make for an exciting start, as we set off on a 12 km run around the town and along the river Lune to the start of the Canoe stage.
As there has not been much rain for the last few weeks, the section of the river directly below Kirby Lonsdale was too shallow to paddle, hence the slightly longer run than originally planned. We settled into around 5th place in the pack and eased ourselves into the race.
Stage 2 – Canoe – River Lune
30km down the River Lune, through Lancaster to Glassdon on the coast.
Transition time - 00:07:43
Real time starting stage – Saturday 09:58:49
Race time starting stage – 00:58:49
Leg time - 04:20:05
The first transition went pretty much to plan, Stu’s meticulous kit planning was already paying off as all the kit we needed to pick up was nicely sorted and ready to go. A short portage to the river bank and we were away alongside FGS! Nectar. TERREX, Mountain Hardware and FGS! SuperBerry were all ahead of us.
Before this year, none of the team had much experience in caones. We have tried to spend some time practising with Leeds Canoe Club, but despite this, Andy and I still managed to capsize. There was a flow of water coming in from the right, I could see it coming and knew I should do something to counter it, but before I could figure out what I should do, we were upside down. As the weather was pleasant, it wasn’t the end of the world as we soon warmed up, however, my lovely new Julbo sunglasses had vanished. Despite losing a very nice piece of kit, it also presented a bit of a problem as the sun was out and my eyes soon became tired. We also lost sight of FGS! which left us on our own for pretty much the rest of the paddle.
We negotiated the rest of the river without problem, and after a loooong slog across the mud flats to the sailing club on the coast, it was time to get back on dry land and onto our bikes.
Stage 3 – Mountain Bike – Forest of Bowland (plus MTBO)
73km along roads and bridleways to Malham, via Gisburn Forest for an extra 16km of mountain bike orienteering.
Transition time - 00:20:29
Real time starting stage – Saturday 14:39:23
Race time starting stage - 05:39:23
Stage time - 06:24:39
I was quite looking forward to getting on the bike, because it meant we we heading in the general direction of the finish, which is always a good thing. The stage went much quicker than expected, mainly because the majority of the route was on fast bridleways and road. The main off road section was along a remote pass through the Forest of Bowland, which is actually a large expanse of moorland, and not a forest at all. After a significant mechanical, which left Renee with half a front brake, we were moving well. We were passed by Endurance Life, which dropped us back to 6th place.
The mountain bike orienteering was a welcome change, as it meant I had to switch to micro nav mode for a while. Fortunately I know the woods pretty well, and I’m pretty confident we took the most efficient route with little time wasted. As we arrived, Adidas TERREX were leaving the woods, with Mountain Hardware in hot pursuit. The race at the front was hotting up.
A short marshy bridleway and a bit more road later and we were soon in Malham, and a chance to stretch our legs.
Stage 4 – Trek – Malham
16km up to Malham Tarn and back down Malham Cove.
Transition time - 00:22:48
Real time starting stage – Saturday 21:26:50
Race time starting stage - 12:26:50
Stage time - 02:48:26
Transition was negociated in a respectable time, considering Stu managed to fix Renee’s brakes and oil our chains, and as we left again we passed the leading two teams who had just finished the stage. This time they were less than a minute apart, and looking rather exhausted. It was great to see the race playing out in front of us, but we also had an eye on the teams just in front and behind us as 7th place arrived in transition just as we left.
It took a while to get our legs moving, but we soon settled into a steady pace as the night drew in and our Hope R4 head torches switched on. We didn’t push ourselves too hard, becuase we were very aware that we wanted to minimise any risk of aggrevating any niggling injuries before the final mammoth trek stage at the end of the race. Again, the navigation was not too taxing as Malham is well known to us, having raced an Open 5 here in the past.
Stage 5 – Mountain Bike – Wensledale (plus Abseiling)
85km (113km for the long course) from Malham to Hawes via Swaledale valley, with an abseil down Kilnsey Crag.
Transition time - 00:25:33
Real time starting stage – Sunday 00:40:49
Race time starting stage - 15:40:49
Stage time - 12:17:18 (inc. ~50 min rest/sleep and ~45min cafe stop)
None of us were looking forward to the start of this stage, climbing to the top of Malham on foot is one thing, but having to do it straight after on a bike is no fun. Without us really noticing, the weather was starting to come in too. FGS! SuperBerry teams were in our sights, which must have meant we were moving at a decent pace, or they were fading. We arrived at the abseil CP together, but they were faster in getting their kit sorted, so we would have to wait for them to finish their descent, which meant we could take our time getting to the top of the crag. The abseil was off a huge overhang, which was quite dramatic when lit up by our powerful head torches, definitely a highlight.
Into the night we continued, and up a particularly gruelling rocky ascent. We caught FGS! again as they took shelter in an abandoned cottage. We considered joining them, but decided to push on a little further. It later transpired that FGS! SuperBerry were in fact struggling with sickness, and shortly after pulled out of the race, which was a great shame. In hindsight, sleeping for a hour or so and waiting for the weather to pass might have been a good move, but we did not realise how hard it was going to get. We passed the first ‘short course’ option and continued to the next check point, located high up on an exposed moor. The cold wind and steady rain took an ever increasing toll, and as we eventually reached the top and after putting all out remaining layers on, we turned head on into the wind. It took a good hour or so to descend and upon reaching the bottom of the hill, as the sun rose, we decided to take shelter and discuss our options. I’d not fully realised, but we were struggling to keep warm. We found a chicken shed and cracked out the 4 man bothy. We took a 30 minute nap in rather cramped conditions, but we were so tired it took minutes to fall asleep.
Upon waking, we discussed the option of heading straight to Hawes and skipping the rest of the bike. This would have had a serious impact on any hopes of a top finish, but survival was also a serious consideration. We had all our layers on but we were still cold. If we were to slow any more, perhaps as a result of a crash or injury, then we would be in trouble. At this point the owner of the chicken shed turned up, and was very relaxed about finding 4 soaked strangers in her shed. She even asked if she could be of any assistance, which was very nice of her. We thanked her for the shelter and got moving again. At the next key turning, we had another chat. The rain has eased a little, and we were feeling slightly better after the nap. We opted to continue on, and discuss again at the next key valley junction some 2 hours away.
We had another chat when above Grinton, and finally decided that we would miss the furthest 2 check points. There was a lot of climbing and distance involved, probably 6 hours. If we would have had our more substantial waterproofs and were warmer, it might have been an option. We headed to the cafe at the Dales Mountain Bike Centre and were made to feel very welcome as we took over the entire room. MOXIE racers caught us and joined in the soup action. We also bumped into Endurancelife as they were leaving the pub next door after tucking into a full English.
So we took the valley road and all that stood between us and the final stage was a very long and steep final pass. MOXIE racers also took the same decision, and we traded places all the way into transition. The rain had passed, but the bitter wind continued.
Stage 6 – Trek – 3 Peaks (plus caving)
65km and a lot of hills, from Hawes to Settle via the long way round the 3 peaks and some caving at Calf Holes.
Transition time - 00:45:54 (how long?!)
Real time starting stage – Sunday 13:44:01
Race time starting stage – 28:44:01
Stage time - 16:31:08
We always knew the trek would be the crux of the race for us. 65km is long enough on fresh legs (the furthest I’ve trekked to date in one go is probably about 50 km), but after so much distance it is a real challenge. Learning from our earlier kit experience, we packed extra layers this time. After around 5 hours we summited Whernside, then rather than take the usual route directly to Ingleborough, we had to descent via the long tail some 8km out the way to a distant CP before turning back towards the 2nd of the three peaks.
As night fell, we summited Ingleborough. There were 2 route choices to descend, both approximately the same distance, and I think we chose the wrong one. The route that looked most direct was along a permissive track, the other taking the established path back to Horton-in-Ribblesdale before heading North towards the caving CP. Taking the main path would have probably been a safer and faster option. Our route actually included a little height gain which is never a good thing.
When we eventually hit the valley road, I started to get a little tired. Obviously this is not uncommon in such a race, but rather than being a temporary blip, it was taking me a long time to wake up again. I asked Stu to take on the nav and give me a tow for a while. Sometime later and things were not improving.
We had a slight hiccup finding the caving CP, and at this point I was no use whatsoever. I had no idea what planet I was on, let alone where to find a check point in the dark. But after a few minutes I realised that I was letting the team down. My main role in the team is navigating, everyone else is physically fitter than me, but it’s my job to make sure we waste no time getting lost. So I woke up, figured out where we were, where we needed to go, and 5 minutes later we were at the start of the caving special stage.
I’ve not really considering going caving before. Being 6’5″, the thought of crawling underground through streams and narrows has never really called out to me. But the great thing about AR is that it gives you the opportunity to try new things. I now know that caving is definitely not for me. The instructors gave us a brief briefing and essentially said “keep moving down stream until you get to the end”. A short abseil into a stream and straight into a tunnel about 4 foot high. My legs were not loving this already. The tunnel continued along for too long, then gradually got narrower and I was on hands and rather painful knees. Eventually we reached what appeared to be a dead end, the only way through was to squeeze through a hole about the size of a loo seat. The rest of the team were ahead of me, and Stu was telling me to essentially bend my knee backwards in order to get through. The whole time I was expecting to cramp up and get stuck forever. I can see how people get a bit panicked in such situations. Anyway, we eventually found the end, dibbed, and got the hell out of there. We were at long last on the final “dash” for home. I was awake again and all was good – for now.
The only obvious route to Pen Y Gent was via a permissive path. Path is probably the wrong word; permissive bog from hell is a more accurate. It took much longer than expected to reach the last summit, and I had descended into cuckoo land again. Stu did a fantastic job of navigating while towing me. I was unable to focus on anything, and I kept falling down holes. I was also convinced we were missing the 5th member of our team (of 4). Renee forced me to keep eating, but I was massively dehydrated and struggled to chew and swallow anything. After a slight paddy about the lack of gels and chocolate available, we were at the final summit and all that remained was a downhill ‘jog’ for ~12 km to the finish. As the morning light broke through I woke up slightly, but still managed to fall asleep while walking a few times. For some reason we had a little sprint finish and the race was over, 45 hours after it all began.
The Finish Line
Real time finish – Monday 06:15:09
Race time finish - 45:15:09
At the finish line, we were told that we were sitting in 6th place. We were the top ‘short course’ team, 2 teams had already completed the full course (adidas and Mountain Hardware) and 3 teams remained on the long course. It looked like FGS! Nectar and Endurancelife would be back in time, but CamRacers were along way from home still. They had some balls to go for those far mountain bike CPs, and I hoped they would have enough in the tank to get back in time. Unfortunately, they didn’t and had to miss out the final 2 peaks and caving. Also MOXIE racers had pulled out just after we passed them on the way up Whernside, which was a great shame. This left is as the highest placed ‘short course’ team (anyone who misses a CP is classed as short course), and with just 4 teams completing the full course, left us in 5th overall. Although slightly disappointing not to have completed the full course, we were more than happy with our overall result. I really enjoyed racing teams throughout the race, it added an extra dimension to the who experience and I look forward to competing again at the Sting is a few months time.
The race timings and course tracking can be found here. As always I’ve done a bit of analysis with the numbers. The big question; could we have completed the long course?
Well according to the trusty spreadsheet; yes, with 1 minute to spare! Okay, so that might have been pushing a little, but assuming we took the same time as CamRacers to get the additional CPs, we would have saved the hour it took us to cut along the valley, but we would have had to take an extra hours sleep somewhere to be able to continue moving as a decent pace. That all adds up to an extra 6 hours 44 min of racing, which would have had us finishing at 12:59, or 1 minute before the course closed. Now that would have been an epic ending, arriving just in time for prize giving!
Okay, okay, I know it’s not as straight forward as that, another ~7 hours of racing would have taken it’s toll, would we have been able to complete the trek, would we have bailed out etc, but still it’s going to stay at the back of my mind should a similar situation arise at another race. I’d adamant that we are capable of completing a full course; fingers crossed for the Sting…
There are endless people who have all helped us get this far, and who continue to help us on our way to Scotland in August.
Our sponsors who have been so generous in kitting us out for these events, to make sure we have everything we need to get around in one piece, as fast as possible. Now we just need to make sure we put the right kit in our bags! In particular, a massive thanks to Frontier Investment Management for assisting with our entry fees.
Jon Dakeyne and Leeds Canoe Club for the loan of their canoes. Kelvin for some expert canoe coaching, although we still have a lot more to learn!
Everyone who tracked our progress online, it’s like having supporters all the way around, knowing that you are watching from a far.
Rob Bridges for abseiling coaching/certification. How long until we see you on the AR circuit?
My uni mates for not giving me too much of a hard time for missing our 10 year reunion to do this race. Friends and family for not moaning too much that training generally takes precedent over most other social obligations.
Mike and everyone at Crossfit Leeds for motivating me to keep up my strength training (with the hope of avoiding injury – so far so good). My physio, Graeme Everard at Carnegie Physiotherapy, for whatever you did that stopped my legs from falling apart.
Open Adventure, Adidas, planner Dave Johnson, Tom (Logistics) Needham and all other volunteers and organisations who helped stage the event. James Kirby, Rob Howard (Sleepmonsters) and Dave MacFarlane for race photos.