After a long summer watching our racing colleagues partake in some epic expedition races it was finally our turn to tackle the Highlands of Scotland to race The Sting in Stirling. It was a bit arduous just getting us finally there. I had switched jobs (twice) in the month leading up to it, Leanimal and phatty had just moved to France a few months prior (with only 1 mtb; ahem) and Relentless had been really busy with work. The timing wasn’t perfect (is it ever?) but here we finally were – in Scotland (aka the “homeland”) about to race some of the top teams in the UK and Europe.
The days leading up to the race were the usual – several trips to grocery stores to stock up on food some light gear checks, registrations, maps and team meetings. Several things really made this race top-notch – to me anyway:
1. Maps were superb technically/topographically and they were giving us TWO sets. This would allow two of us to navigate if we wanted or provide a team with a backup map should one go missing. They also had pre-plotted CP’s and recommended routes (on most of the bike). I’m all for route strategies in a race especially off-road but having recommended bike routes instead of pouring through all the road maps I really liked. You still had to navigate your way along the routes so it wasn’t like it was marked.
2. Hot food – WTF!?!?!? – along the route?? In cold, rainy Scotland?? Yep. A local chef with a passion for cycling and adventure followed along in a food truck providing takeaway Mac & Cheese, Spaghetti Bolognese, Espresso, Croissants – everything you would damn well want while cold and hungry! Not only was it fast and hot (heated in his mobile microwave) it was DELICIOUS! Serve this on a plate in most high end gastropubs and you’d be happy.
3. The race organizers – awesome. After hearing them speak you know they wanted to provide everyone with the best race possible. I/we were a little concerned about the shortcourse options being advantageous over doing the full route (with time credits) but after the race briefing and some explanations all was understood – their passion for wanting to provide the best experience for everyone was obvious. Add in every logistical details dialed in and you have one epic race ready for you.
Course route (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
The race officially started with a prologue Sunday night at Stirling castle. It would be a relay race of all 4 members with 2 runs followed by 2 rides. We unleashed Relentless on them for the initial ~4K hilly run. While we agreed to not kill ourselves physically Relentless came back in a heap of exhaustion setting the tone for the rest of us. Next up was Leanimal who ran through the castle using an old (100 hundred years) map orienteering. After that phatty set off for a quick loop around the golf course before handing me the GPS-enabled baton for my sprint to the Wallace Memorial and back. We finished somewhere in the low teens I think, losing about 4 minutes to the leaders (which would then be served later at double time penalty in the race). We’d gone pretty hard out of the gates and couldn’t even crack the top-10 – this was going to be a tough one.
Prologue start at Stirling Castle (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
Monday morning was the ‘real’ race start. After a somewhat ceremonial 8-10K / 1hr city run following the route I had cycled the day prior in the prologue we hopped on our bikes and headed off on an 80K mountain bike ride mostly on open roads. We decided to join forces with a French team and the Irish (Moxie Racers) to share pulling (although we didn’t do much thanks to the French who didn’t want to drop back). I screwed up on the bike nav not noticing we had a CP at Doune Castle much to the confused look of my teammates. We eventually caught our friends back at the old castle while getting the mandatory CP while “walking-only”.
Another lightning fast transition? (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
After another short ride we were once again off our bikes in the throngs of other teams while attempting to row an old dory on Scotland’s only lake – Lake Meinteth. Phatty was the only one with rowing experience so the three of us sat back and watched the magic unfold. Unfortunately one man could only do so much so after a failed attempt by Relentless to join I gave a quick go which worked out ok. We lost a few spots but not too much time overall.
Little resemblance to our national rowing team (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
Back on the bikes and now with the few fun and historic site CPs over it was time for some slogging and some climbing. We hit some energy sucking, nasty, muddy, singletrack, hike-a-bike amidst some hot temperatures – we were now starting to suffer like we expected - now we were racing! We moved slow through this bike, although most teams did and eventually made our way into the TA at Killin.
We did a quick transition here since we were on borrowed time with daylight and had an orienteering section upcoming. We paddled 6K on Loch Tay before reaching the next TA at Ben Lawers for the o-section. Another quick TA and we shuffled off keeping a moderate pace on the roads to clear the section using a clockwise route. We thought the 2 toughest CP’s would be the westernmost since there was many cliffs nearby and little/no trails.
Ben Lawers trek (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
All went well and we nailed them well before darkness fell. We milked the last lumen of daylight until finally reaching for our headlamps around 10pm while enroute to the next 3 CPs. After some big climbs, a few run-able trails and some really sketchy descents we made it back to the paddle TA several hours before the dark zone would be lifted. Free bonus time – sweet.
In the TA we used Relentless’s C4 design borrowed off Gstix/Frankenjack which they used at RtNX. It took a while to get it fit due to some oddly shaped gunnels on the canoes but still allowed us about a 15min nap (which I don’t think anyone actually got) before the paddle opened. While we didn’t catch the lead 2 teams we made quick work of the others behind us and moved swiftly on the Loch before doing the quick disassembly once we hit the River Tay CP at Kenmore.
Relentless' crafty C4 tow (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
We were on the River Tay for only a km or two before the first rapid under a bridge which was being directed by a marshal in a kayak. We hit the spot where she told us but took on a massive wave that filled the boat half-full with water. From this point on we just tried to stay afloat long enough to get to shore – however – a few more waves combined with the instability of a waterlogged canoe and we went under a few meters from the land marshal. We looked back at Lee and phatty who basically did the same thing. The marshal told us 5 of the previous (top-teams) 6 boats had also went under. Oh boy – I hope everyone has their mandatory dry gear!!!
After finally purging the boats of water (wasting 15mins+) we went back on the water – all shivering, praying the river wouldn’t be like this for the remainder of the paddle (thankfully it was not and that was our only tip of the race). The rest of the river was CII which moved well and made the 37K paddle go by fairly quickly.
At the bike TA we assembled our bikes, took in some hot food and headed out on the “monster bike” 220km section. Settle in!
The ride wasn’t quite 220km non-stop. There were several quick stops – including a canyoneering and orienteering section. The canyoneering was fun although banged us up quite a bit. I think our experience (or lack thereof) probably cost us 15 minutes in this section due to navigating the slippery rocks and hesitation jumping off 20+ foot cliffs into tiny raging pools of water.
phatty's human washing machine impression (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
After the canyoneering, which was thankfully during the hot part of the day (as the water was freezing!), it was back on the bikes for a big ride to the next orienteering stage. The riding was tough – lots of climbing and descending. I was beginning to regret my decision to ride my hardtail for this race as my wrists were killing me on all the rocky jarring downhills. However, once we got into the hike-a-bike my regret vanished hauling my light bike around.
Cycling the calm before the midge storm
Somewhere shortly before a massive hike-a-bike we started noticing these tiny bugs called midges. There wasn’t just a few of them – they were in the hundreds – if not thousands – in every cubic metre around you. Their bite wasn’t bad but since there was so many it was constant-even on the bike going 20+kph. At most points riding it felt like you were riding in tiny raindrops. Because our helmets have vents they would get in those and bite our heads. A typical 5 second iteration of this ride would be – shield your eyes, rub your head, rub your eyes, repeat for about 5-6 hours. It was similar to riding through a blackfly cloud in N. Ontario, except those are typically ‘pockets’ of blackflies – here it seemed the entire Cairngorm National Park, through which we were riding, was entirely blanketed with these nasty little buggers.
By the time night rolled in we were DREADING taking the time to put on our lights because you literally had 5 seconds before every exposed inch of your body was covered. When we did make the move to lights I almost lost my mind. I am pretty sure every expletive was shouted while transitioning to the dark. Once we did get our lights in order it was a hike-a-bike section so trying to lose the relentless little buggers was also out of the question.
Finally we made it onto a road gaining enough speed to drop some of them and into the orienteering section at Mar Lodge (a cool lodge in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of dead animal heads on the ceiling). And thankfully – for some reason (geography perhaps?) - that was the last we’d really see of those midges again. Worst 12 hours of bugs EVER.
Mar Lodge (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
We’d now been racing for 42 hours, on our second night, and figured it time for a nap before we split up on the orienteering section. We set the alarm for 2 hours, which was tough in the TA with all the noise and commotion, but we probably managed to sleep half of that. Actually I slept through my alarm and phatty had to hunt me down to wake me up – however – since I woke up 20 minutes later than everyone I was so confused about what was going on. By the time phatty and Leanimal headed off I was still sorting out my mandatory gear with no idea where we were going. Lee and phats left 10 minutes before us so Relentless and I ran for the almost entire 2 hour orienteering. We had one bobble (out of the 3 CPs) due to a small misplace on the map (which I still should have nailed quicker due to CP description). Unfortunately for me my feet were already starting to blister – mainly from all the hike-a-bike – so I’m not sure ‘hammering’ the o-section was a good idea in hindsight – especially when we came in 15 minutes before our other teammate pair. My feet were getting bad and we hadn’t even started the monster 100+km trek.
For the last section of the big bike we had a brutal climb up Mount Keen, a munro (3,000+ ft mountain) – mainly hike-a-bike straight up 600m on a rocky steep ‘trail’/gully. The descent was amazing and we had the helicopter shooting footage of our downhill. Relentless got a pinch flat but we had a speedy change and were back on the descent within 5 minutes.
Brutal Mount Keen climb up
At the bottom of the munro we rolled into the TA at the House of Mark - a remote B&B – where the host treated us Bacon Butties – some sort of bacon sandwich. We had to have 2 each given our Canadian heritage and love of bacon – although I think the local pooch may have cut phatty’s ration in half while he was putting away his bike!
Finally we were on the monster trek – the part of the race most figured was the crux and given the dark zone for a paddle we anticipated to hit in a few days – the last big part of the race. It started out slow for us as about 10 minutes into the trek I was already feeling hotspots on my feet. In fact the entire bottom of my feet felt blistered and red. I taped them up and hoped for the best but I was really worried about doing 30+hrs in them starting out this bad... But what can you do? Get on with it and see how it goes.
The landscape of the trek was stunning, very picturesque rolling hills with little signs of civilization other than the rare stone or wire fence for sheep. We moved along pretty well discussing our position and assessing the teams around us; most of which were short-coursed teams and not direct competition for us. We knew we were somewhere between 3rd and 6th battling Endurancelife, a French team and the Irish (Moxie Racers). At the manned CP26 we ran into Endurancelife before putting on our lights and helmets and off into the direction of the 4 marshalled scramble CP’s. It lit a fire in us seeing our competition right behind us so we kept moving as fast as we could and toward the Lochnagar corrie area.
This boulder-strewn bowl with an inland lake would have been MUCH easier in the daylight but we had a lot of difficulty in here finding the exact route to get to the bottom of the rock scramble. Frustrating. When we made it there we tried calling up to the marshal to confirm this was the route but they could not hear us. We dug in using our hands and feet and clawed our way out of the bowl obtaining the CP. Once there we had a short traverse off to another similar sketchy scramble.
The first scramble - we climbed up that sliver of green near the back... at night (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
It was now raining (sideways) and foggy which made the scramble difficult with slippery rocks and sand – however – that paled in comparison versus the difficulty in sighting some easy hilltop CPs. As the rain and wind beat down on us (conditions like Patagonia), I was a little worried about the potential for hypothermia but luckily when we descended a few hundred metres the severity decreased and things were fine.
We pushed on into the night, now on our 3rd night of the race with about 1-2 hours of sleep each. As we traversed a faint trail along a mountain we all started getting really REALLY sleepy. I could barely walk more than 5 seconds without falling asleep. I knew I wasn’t moving fast but my teammates must also be in the same situation if they aren’t bumping into me. It went something like this:
1. Where am I – oh I am doing a race in Scotland
2. What do I need to do – oh just keep walking on the trail ahead - thats it, it’s not rocket science here
3. Fall asleep
4. Almost fall off the trail
5. Repeat step 1-4 about 100 times at 10 second intervals each.
Looking at the map we saw a small building enroute to our next CP so we hoped something would be open for us to sleep in since we did not want to crack open Tiny’s tent and waste time packing/unpacking it (not to mention it is a 2-man tent realistically)!
After trying the first two buildings unsuccessfully the third was a charm reading “Mountain Bothy” over the door – sweet bliss!!! Inside featured eight mattressed bunks. We hunkered down for a much needed two hour rest.
Once awake we set off to capture a few more CP’s before running into Endurancelife. We ran/trekked with them for the next few hours of the trek, trading leads and chatting when beside one another. We eventually distanced ourselves from them descending into the Glenshee ski area. At this manned CP we grabbed a few meals from Clive Ramsey’s awesome food truck and moved out quickly before we could let our friends on Endurancelife see us there.
We had a few more CP’s to grab, in any order, before the next cycling TA. By now almost all of our feet were mashed and Relentless was having calf issues preventing us from running. A poorly chosen route featuring 9K of road didn’t help matters since we could only manage a fastwalk/shuffle pace. Enroute to the TA we saw a volunteer van looking for Endurancelife which had an injured teammate and was dropping from the race. It was unfortunate to hear the team we’d been racing for the last few days was now out. Apparently the French were also out probably leaving us comfortably in 3rd. However – given Relentless’ injury we weren’t even sure we would be able to finish. This trek section of the race was really hammering the competitors, they seemed to be dropping like flies at this point.
Monster trek (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
When we finally walked into the bike TA Creag Loisk shortly after dusk Thursday (night 4) we felt like we were on the homestretch of the race. Our feet had made it (barely) and we were pretty sure Relentless could muscle through his pain/injury. All we had was a measly 40km bike to the paddle dark zone and the last race day Friday which was mainly paddling and biking.
After another one of our speedy transitions (please note extreme sarcasm here) we set off on the bike and into the driving rain. We slowly made our way along the recommended route as the trail deteriorated. We were barely riding 10kph and many sections we needed to get off our bikes. We were also getting sleepy again. What we envisioned as a quick 4 hour ride (which would lead us to a 4 hour sleep at the paddle TA) turned into a 7 hour SLOG. The rain-soaked trail was barely ride-able and extremely slow moving. When we descended out of the Forest of Clunie area and onto the road I was in a severe sleepy state again. Was a bit scary given we were now road cycling and cars were going by. I’ve never been so tired biking before and I dozed off countless times before ‘catching’ myself and finally made it into the paddle TA back on the River Tay.
I figured since we barely made it before the paddle cutoff we MUST be the last full-course team – however – according to James the RD and the live-tracking GPS they had available on the plasma at the TA – the Moxie Racers were still on full course and not far behind us. Fack! I was really hoping we could just put on the water (required by 8am) and then pull off shortly upriver for a quick nap and being the last full team not have to worry about anyone passing us at that point. But this was not meant to be that easy so we shoved a bunch of coffee and caffeine pills in us and went out onto the river while Moxie Racers transitioned in while we transitioned out. They too looked exhausted and we had a near 2 hour time bonus from earlier – but we still had one full day left of racing and we were pretty banged up!
I had been dreading returning to the river that dumped us earlier, partly due to time loss dumping and partly due to hypothermia – however this section of river was much tamer and easier to read. After about an hour paddling we came to a short orienteering section in Dunkeld where I’m pretty sure I would have had the worst Thomass result if it were that type of race.
Regardless of my inefficient choices and our slow movement we didn’t get passed by the Moxie Racers so we knew we still had a comfortable lead.
After several more sleepy hours and paddling alongside with the remaining members of Endurancelife we had our final TA at Perth onto the bikes. A few more caffeine pills and a few more climbs and we were back in Stirling and into the finish at the PEAK sports centre.
What a great feeling finishing this one. Not sure any of us has ever raced so hard on so little sleep (3 hours of sleep over 5 days). All of our feet were mashed, we ached and were exhausted.
We hit the nearby pub and gorged on a bunch of deep fried haggis and beers. It was delicious. Then back to the University and our accoms for some much needed SLEEP!!
The next day we had the awards, packed up and headed into Glasgow. Our party night with phatty’s cousins were cancelled – which was probably a good thing – given our lack of sleep and early morning flight back.
The next day... still tired... (photo courtesy Open Adventure)
Really really enjoyed this race! The organization was spot on, one of the best (if not the best) I’ve ever dealt with. Instructions/maps/volunteers/communication all dialled in. The team was great. Phatty did most of the nav and nailed all of it. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a race that long that was navigated so cleanly. Lee was strong throughout especially near the end and Relentless was great as always carrying extra gear/packs. Other than my feet, which thankfully didn’t spiral downward too much, I felt decent throughout and didn’t have any blowups or bonkage which I was happy with.
Probably ranks as one of my favorite races. The history and scenery of the area, the organizers/volunteers, great teammates and solid race result made this a special race. Looking forward to the next one (although glad the training for 2012 is over!).
For full results, images, etc please see the Open Adventure's Sting in Stirling webpage: http://live.adidas-ar.com