Any event where the write up takes longer to finish than the race itself means that either we’re talking about a quick 5km, or a very long race. So apologies for taking over a month to get this out here, but there were so many memories I wanted to share and photos to upload. Hopefully you’ll find it all entertaining, and I won’t babble on too much, but bear with me and we’ll make it to the end. That’s the thing with 5 day events, you just have to switch off from your normal concepts of time and distance and just let the journey take you.
So this was the big one: the reason for TotalXC’s existence. We formed 12 months ago with the sole aim of completing this race. Our aim was simple: to complete the full course. It seems straightforward but any event that covers over 600km, with over 100 hours of continuous racing, is going to throw up a few obstacles along the way. For those not in the know the race involved 36 mixed-teams of 4 setting off from Stirling Castle at around 9am on Monday 20th August. Ahead of us lay a number of checkpoints across half of Scotland. Each had to be visited in the correct order; some were compulsory, others were optional. If you dropped one of more of these checkpoints you were classed as a “Short Course” team and you incurred time penalties for each missed checkpoint. Teams that reached every checkpoint were classed as a ” Long Course” team and would be ranked above all short-course teams. So committing to the long course from the outset made the race quite straight forward; just get all the checkpoints (within any cut off times imposed along the way). Only 4 teams completed the full race. It wasn’t straightforward.
We were incredibly organised in the weeks leading up to the race. Due to a busy work schedule, my kit was 95% packed 2 weeks before the start! We arrived in Stirling on the Friday, checking into a Travelodge and after the event briefing, set about digesting the route details, along with lots of food. According to my (as it turns out, ambitious) timings, we were capable of making it around the full course, with a decent amount of sleep!
The Prologue – Stirling
Short relay race the night before the main race
The event featured a short relay race on the eve before the main race. Local teams were invited to join it and it was a good chance to push aside any pre-race nerves for an hour or so. We did pretty well, coming about 5th, and just a minute of so behind the leaders (Stu parted ways with his bike on the final leg, fortunately no harm done, just a bit of time lost). This would translate to a 3-minute penalty to be served in the main race so nothing major to worry about in the grand scheme of things.
Stage 1 – Run – Stirling
MONDAY MORNING (1 HOUR)
10km warm up from Stirling Castle, to the tower across town and back
We gathered in the stunning setting of Stirling Castle for a mass start. The first leg was a 10km run intended to split the pack up a little before the first biking leg. We took it fairly steady: being both excited and nervous for the journey that lay ahead. We were no more than a minute behind the leaders at that stage. No one was in a particular hurry: “5-days to go” was mumbled any time anyone injected too much pace.
Stage 2 – Bike – Stirling to the Hills
Monday morning into the afternoon (10 hours)
A bike out to the hills, via a castle, a bit or rowing, and 2 mountain passes
The first few hours were a bit frantic on the bikes. Teams tended to join up in small pelotons, hammering out the miles along the roads out of Stirling. There was no way we would be able to keep up this pace, but the benefit of drafting was worth the extra effort to keep up. A checkpoint at the picturesque Doune Castle, then a short row out to a runied abbey for another checkpoint gave us a flavour for the interesting sights that lay in wait. A few hours into the race we passed the first short course option, which avoided the first mountain pass. Not an option for us at this point, so up the hill we continued. I’ve erased any memories of hike a bike sections, it’s the only way I’ll consider doing another race. The first bike stage was over around 4pm, about an hour behind the leaders. Nothing to complain about so far.
Stage 3 – Canoe – Loch Tay
MONDAY Evening (1 hour)
A short paddle to the foot of Ben Lawers
Not much to report here, just a short paddle along the flat water of the loch. I was however not looking forward to another 5 hours of so of paddling later…
Stage 4 – Trek – Ben Lawers
MONDAY Night (9 hours inc. 1.5 hours sleep)
A rather hilly 25-30 km trek over some steep hills
On paper, just a 30km trek/run but looking at the contours there was not a great deal of running to be had by us. As the sun set we summited the first peak: only 3 more to follow with a checkpoint on each. Considering the height gain and overall distance we were going to be covering on foot, we elected to use trekking poles on the two main trek stages. Initially we were reluctant to carry any additional weight, cue the Black Diamond Ultra Distance poles, which are incredibly light and quickly fold down into thirds to stow away when not needed. As the race progressed, these would become increasingly essential to the team.
Fortunately the race directors, Nick Gracie and James Thurlow, had decided before the race started to cut out the furthest CP. This was to enable more teams to get around the full course before the cut off at 6am, when all teams needed to be back on the water. This was our first lifeline, without this change we would have been very close to the wire. As it was, we finished at 2:52am and elected to grab 90 minutes kip. Don’t get too excited about the sleep, we donned all our clothes we had with us (no transition bags here) and slipped into our Adventure Medical Kit Thermolite Bivvy bags. Actually, I was impressed with the durable bivvy bags: I was warm enough. However, we were lucky as the rain hadn’t arrived yet. As nice as it was to get some rest early on, I think this was our first tactical error because although we were on the water well ahead of the cut off, we were already towards the back end of the pack and on our way to chasing cut off times (even though the next cut off was still 3 days away). More on this later.
Stage 5 – Canoe – Loch Tay/River Tay
Tuesday Morning (8 hours)
40km down the Tay Loch and half way down the river, with some interesting rapids! We had done quite a bit of canoe training leading up to the race as none of us had any significant experience to rely on. (Thanks to Kelvin and John Houlihan for their coaching). Despite this, I was not looking forward to 8 hours on the water. I think it’s fair to say I’m not a big fan of paddling. Having said that, once the water got moving, I might have had a bit of fun. The water was BIG. The top two teams both went for a swim, along with many others. I’m delighted to say that we made it safely down the worst of the rapids in one piece! (Until the last rapid of the day when, for a change, Renee and Stu decided to cool off with a little swim).
Stage 6 – Bike – Half way across Scotland and back!
TUESDAY afternoon, through the night, day and finally Wednesday evening (28 hours biking + 4 hours orienteering inc. 2 x 20 min naps)
A massive bike leg, with some canyoning and orienteering to break things up.
Stage 6 was really 5 stages and it made up the bulk of the race. Leaving transition, we headed up a long and steady hill with an awesome view of the pass we were heading to. There were a number of other teams around us. The long climb was rewarded with a long, fast descent (although I did stack it into the heather at one point – and made a mental note to use the brakes more). Back on the road and then a short cut through some woods lead us to a very random meadow hidden under some electricity pylons. This was a very surreal experience: 100s of butterflies launched into flight as a rode along. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t hallucinating!
The team hit a bit of a low some time after this and we were struggling to find any pace in the increasing heat (and incline). Andy pulled the team together for a quick chat to get us focused and after a 20-minute nap by the side of the road we were on our way. On to the canyoning section of the race!
For anyone unaware, canyoning is basically throwing your self down a canyon past lots of water and rocks. If you want someone to sell canyoning to you, I’m not your man. At least it was a break from cycling. It is perhaps a step up from caving, as I could stand up for most of it. It was however long (of course) and cold. Anyway, the pictures look good. (Everyone else enjoyed it, so don’t let me put of off!!)
Without raising the unnecessary question of if we were still committed to the full course, it was time to get back on the bikes and peddle away into the growing darkness. Next phase was a huge loop out to the Far NW corner of the course through some huge long, remote valleys. Stopping to mount our Hope R4 lights was a brief affair: if we stopped for just a few seconds all the mossies in Scotland seemed to chew down on every exposed inch of flesh. Good for progress I guess. After a long steady ascent, a short push along some single track (which in the fading light was just slightly too much to ride), we cruised steadily downhill on good tracks for what seemed like forever. At some point I started to see portraits of famous film stars and american indians in the damp patches on the gravel tracks. This was a good sign that it was about time to grab some sleep. We found a lovely new generator shed that was unlocked, so stopped for 30 minutes.
Back on the bikes, and we headed for what will now always be known as The Never-Ending alley. Before the race we were told this valley was one of the nicest places on the whole route. Unfortunately for us it was now pitch black and we were pushing our bikes through boggy ground for hours on end. The bridge on the map seemed like it should have arrived hours ago, the darkness playing tricks with our concepts of time and space. This small paragraph does not really pay justice to just how long this hike a bike took us. The picture of Stu does help to give some idea about where we were on the enthusiasm scale!
It was dawn before we reached the road, and the orienteering section based out of Mar Lodge.
A fairly fast bike East, past Balmoral, and up a very long hill through some woods, then up a mountain for a very steep hike a bike to Mount Keen. Then a huge descent to transition in House of Mark (must return here to stay at the B&B one day, lovely place). That was the bulk of the biking behind us: now for the real test – the 100km+ trek…
Stage 7 – Trek – Some mountains near Glenshee
Wednesday night into Thursday night (26 hours)
We were in a rush to get up into the hills to make the most of the fading light. Transition was going fairly well until we did a kit check. Did we have our emergency phones? Of course, here you g… Oh, it’s okay we have another… Ah… So that was it, game over. We couldn’t go on. Well fortunately, because the marshalls were awesome, we were borrowed a phone and were given permission to continue (with a time penalty). Massive learning point here. Anyway, moving on.
The light faded as we ascended the hills, just as the navigation started to get ‘interesting’. Even the top teams struggled on this section: never ending peat hags, no obvious features to navigate with, and certainly no path to speak of. After a slight “how have we just gone round in a circle”, Stu took a bearing and I counted paces for 2km! Our Suunto Core‘s came in handy when trying to pinpoint our altitude. Once we were heading in the right direction, the main challenge was to stay awake. Pitching a tent wasn’t really an option until we descended a little and found some flat ground. Fortunately we found the CPs then pitched the tent for two hours kip when dawn came around. Unfortunately the light didn’t help us travel much faster as there were still huge hags to deal with (they just looked bigger now).
We popped down to the transition point the short-course teams used to enter the trek. We didn’t hang around, as there were a lot of mosquitos. This didn’t really give us the time to fully assess how we were holding up (the answer was – not well). We charged up in the direction of the scramble for a 2-hour trek with Stu on a mission towing Renee (I struggled to keep up without even taking any extra weight). But crossing the boulder field over to the start of the scramble and watching Renee hold back the signs of obvious extreme pain she was now in, lead to us to confronting the huge elephant that had been in the room for the last 12 hours or so. Our pre-race plan had always been to complete the full course until either we were timed out, or the wheels well and truly fell off – and somewhere in that boulder fields you’ll probably find a set of metaphorical wheels abandoned to the best Scotland could throw at us. Renee’s knee had been a problem since the first trek on the first night. The fact that she had continued this far was incredible but it was clear that our pace had slowed too much to make completing the full trek (another 70km) and even completing the next trek leg (some 30km) impossible. It would have caused Renee so much pain that it just wasn’t worth it.
We sat down to take in the incredible view over Lochnagar, and reflect on the bitter-sweet situation we were in. I can’t really fully describe my emotions at the time: I was so proud of the fact that we had made it there – in a way we had achieved our objective – we had continued until we had no other option but to admit defeat. But it was far from the way we had all wanted to ‘achieve’ our pre-race objective. Now we had 2 problems – Renee was at least 2 hours from the nearest road, and there were still some of us who were not quite ready to take the powered route home.
Well, fortunately for Andy and I, Stu volunteered to take Renee back down. Massive thanks to Stu for taking one for the team. I’ll leave Stu and Renee to share their journey back to Stirling (it took 3 hours to hobble down, and another day to get back to the start). So problem number 2, how would Andy and I continue? Then, as luck would have it, Dave and Neil, half of Team Accelerate, just happened to come bouncing by (their other 2 team members had pulled out). And so the team with the longest name ever “Total XC Facewest Accelerate New Balance” was formed. Introductions were quick (we’d never met before) and up the hill we went.
There was still the small matter that we were very behind schedule, and none of us were feeling too fresh. The marshal at the scramble gave us the option of having our bikes taken to the end of the next leg. After some quick calculations, we realised we had no choice but to admit we weren’t going to complete the full trek. The wind was taken out of our sails somewhat but we still enjoyed the scenery and made the most of it (there were still about 10 hours of trekking to go!)
My Montane Minimus Jacket was ideal in the showery conditions. On the whole the rain stayed away and we kept plodding on. Despite the condition of my legs (empty), my feet were actually doing okay. Bridgedale Endurance Trail Socks did their part to reduce blisters (I only had one the whole race). My ankle however was determined to ruin the party. In the second half of the trek I found it increasingly difficult to descend without pain but (un)fortunately we were all starting to slow down so I didn’t hold the team up too much.
For some reason were refused to miss the last out and back CP before descending to transition, refusing to give up on the full course until the bitter end. Arriving at the ski lodge was so welcome, and despite having to admit defeat to the full course, we were all relieved to not be facing another 12 hours or so of trekking.
Stage 8 – Bike – Glenshee to Grantully
Thursday night (8 hours inc. 1 hour sleep)
A connecting leg from the end of our trek to the start of the final canoe section.
I’m not entirely sure this stage happened, we were all so tired and sleepy I can’t tell if it was a dream or real. I do remember finding a lovely barn with actual hay bails on the floor. A 10 minute kip easily became a 1h 10 min sleep. Is was largely on road and wet. We arrived to transition in the early hours, pitched the tent for 60 min sleep.
Stage 9 – Canoe – River Tay to Perth
Friday morning into the afternoon (1 hour sleep in transition + 8 hours paddling)
50km of canoeing down the River Tay
Stage 10 – Bike – Perth to Stirling
Friday Evenning (6 hours)
The final sprint for home, on the back roads to Stirling
The last stage was a bit of a formality, to get us back to the start, but it still meant a good few hours on the saddle of our tired and weary bikes. (not to mention the riders). In fact this is probably the most dangerous leg of the whole race, as it was all too easy to loose concentration. This point was made all the more clear when we passed a team who had a rider down on the road. They waved us on, as help was on the way, but it must have been devastating to have an incident so close to the end.
As darkness fell is was time to get the Petzl Nao into action. A great head torch that automatically adjusts the level of light to suit the conditions, so when I look down at my map board it automatically adjusts. Not quite as powerful as the Hope light, but fine for the road. The finish was getting closer and closer and we entered Stirling and we passed the same route the 10km took all those sun rises ago. Let’s not mention the crash I had on the pavement, just 200m from the finish line.
The Finish Line
Friday – About 10pm (109 hours and 640km later)
Fortunately I rolled out of the crash like a ninja, no damage done, just as the finish banner came into view. We dumped our bikes and pulled of the the slowest ever fake-jog across the line. Renee and Stu were there to greet us, and to share the best ever champagne moment caught on camera.
Again, the finish line was full of mixed emotions. Great to have finished, but sad not to have crossed the line with our original team, having completed the full course. Guess this means I can’t hang up my expedition racing boots just yet!
It was great to have raced with two teams along the way, it really was like 2 races in one. Thanks to Dave and Neil for walking past at just the right moment! Thanks Andy for crossing the line with me for the second time, and Stu for taking one for the team and help Renee back safely. And most thanks of all to Renee for pushing on well beyond the limits of any sensible person.
As always, thanks to all our sponsors, not least Facewest, where all the kit mentioned above is available. If you have any technical questions, just get in touch with Stu via their website and you’ll get the best advice you can hope for.
None of this would have been possible for any of us without the hard work from Open Adventure and support from Adidas. And of course, the huge team of volunteers, including our very own team mascot, Tom!
And if you’re still reading, here is a nice little video from Dawn, filmed on her Go Pro along the course. It give you a nice flavour of the journey Dawn’s Video
Here is a link to the route we took http://www.movescount.com/moves/move7315640
Ok, I’m going to go now. This has taken long enough.