Sunday 26th June – Saturday 2nd July 2022
Loch Ness – London
What, from Scotland, through England and ending in London? All in one go or over a couple of weeks? Do you sleep? Where do you sleep? How do you eat? How long did it take you? Did you finish? Did you ever want to give up? How many toys did you throw out of your pram? Is it a race? Are you timed?
These were just some of the questions that people asked me upon finishing the self-described, UK’s hardest triathlon. So, before going on to try and answer some of the questions, let’s break it down and outline what was involved. Over the course of seven days, I swam over 5km (5,107m according to the always accurate Garmin) in dark, choppy, windy 12-13 degree waters of Loch Ness, cycled over 1,000km (1,021 to the much preferred Wahoo) with 27,000ft ascent over 41hrs from Fort Augustus to Slough and then ran 51km in 5hr 15mins from Slough to Richmond.
Then I had a nice, long bath, had a few beers and collapsed. I have not done any form of meaningful exercise since.
Rewind to June 2021 when my brother, Ben, floated this event past me as something different that might interest me. Knowing that it would be highly unlikely I would consider a ‘normal’ triathlon or certainly a branded Ironman/Challenge event, the scratch started to itch. My last triathlon had been Alcatraz in June 2019 and my last ‘big’ event had been Seville Marathon in February 2020, literally just before the world went into meltdown. Therefore, unlike many other weekend warriors I was fortunate that I had managed to get my challenge out of the way and had no plans to race during lockdown. I was just happy to enjoy self supported rides and individual challenges and I loved it. I dabbled in a bit of sprinting but quickly realised that a 42 year old body would need a lengthy period of adjustment to avoid constantly breaking down so knocked that on the head pretty soon after.
But the call from Ben came at the right time and after both clearing it with the powers that be, we were both signed up, locked in and up for it.
Next issue, how to train for an event like this though? Whilst I love triathlon and everything that goes with trying to peak in three different disciplines, it’s not my life. So, from last summer until the end of 2021, I still ran and cycled but mostly for leisure and enjoyment. I still played (some would say participated) football and I still ate and drunk what I wanted. Nothing serious at all. I got back in the pool, after an 18 month absence in about November in an effort to try and hit the ground running in the New Year.
Next phase, January 1st until Sunday 27th March – gradually step things up, increase the consistency, start to mix the sessions up a bit, introduce some strength and endurance based work, treat the body a bit more seriously but still play football and have fun.
It all changed on Monday 28th March though – the start of the serious twelve week programme taking me up to the event. Football was banned, drinking limited (although West Ham’s extended European tour hardly helped on this matter!), sleep prioritised and all the focus was about getting to that start line fit, healthy and in reasonable shape. An achilles injury sustained playing football (landing awkwardly from a header nonetheless, something I do about once a year…) in March meant any decent running wasn’t able to take place until the end of April which wasn’t ideal but I was able to push increased levels of swimming and cycling.
I know many others have similar or more (really?) commitments but balancing training with work and organising the logistics of two sporty kids who play cricket on both Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer as well as numerous athletics fixtures and school commitments is tough. I want to see them play/compete whenever I can so it’s often a case of me warming up whilst they are going through their own team or individual warm ups at cricket and then waiting for the result of the toss – if their team are batting, I then settle down away from other parents to allow my stomach to play butterfly tennis. If they are fielding, grab the trainers/bike or find the local pool and off we go for a session. In the very rare occasions when we are able to watch as a family then I will be able to cycle to the ground and back and get some miles in.
Long and short of it, it’s relentless, hard work, sometimes quite stressful and needs almost every hour planned for. Not one day was free or clear but if you want to achieve something you don’t make excuses and just get on with whatever cards you’ve been dealt with.
In conclusion to the training, in this period I was swimming three times a week – twice with my triathlon club, Optima Racing Team and once on my own. This was the long swim session which was initially in the pool but then in the open water as soon as the lakes were warm enough, or more accurately, I grew some balls to get in them. These were regularly over 3.5/4km and I topped out at 4,800m a couple of weeks before the event to ease the temperamental right shoulder. It was impossible to replicate the bike mileage of the event so I concentrated getting solid miles ridden in chunks of days to try and get the legs used to cycling on tired legs. There were a good few back-to-back 150-180km days but only once was I able to get a 200km+ day in. Running had to be carefully managed and I was very stringent in wanting/needing two days rest for my achilles between sessions. I probably ran three times every ten days – a mixture between an Optima interval track session, a long run (peaked at 3hrs/30km) and either a super easy or tempo run depending on how the body felt.
To the week of the event, Monday 20th July. I felt in really good shape and most importantly, completely injury and niggle free. Training had been uninterrupted for the final 10 weeks and I felt ready for the adventure ahead. I was fortunate to be able to drop my bike off at the organiser’s offices in south west London on the Wednesday and they were able to transport the bikes up to Scotland so we didn’t have the hassle of flying up with them. Ben and I flew up to Inverness on Friday lunchtime, got the bus across to Fort Augustus and was all settled in at the B&B by late afternoon. All very easy and stress free. Saturday was spent chilling, taking a boat tour across Loch Ness and preparing for the week ahead. Truth be told, we didn’t really need that extra day but it was insurance should anything happen to luggage/kit which thankfully we didn’t need. Other people were not so fortunate, however.
Day 1: The swim (& bike), Loch Ness
Probably the most important point about this event is that it is an actual ‘event’ and not a ‘race’. It is not timed, you don’t have positions and you can start each day when you want within about an hour time window. This won’t suit everyone (those d*ck swingers can stop reading now…) but it does help generate a great, supportive, relaxed vibe (check out that Love Island reference) within the group. Hardly any egos or excessive testosterone swilling about.
The event started at the very reasonable hour of noon on Sunday so plenty of time to faff around and get your bags ready for the team to transport to the next hotel. This is another key point about the event – the fabulous team took care of all your belongings every day and when you arrived at your new hotel every afternoon your key was waiting for you with bags having already been taken to your room. A very welcome and nice touch after a hard day in the saddle.
Participants (not competitors) arrived, mingled, were briefed and before we knew it were told we could set off. The event team opted for 10 laps of 500m which not only required a switched on brain to keep counting but also the mental skills in being able to break it down and keep motivated. The water was choppy, very dark, not hugely welcoming and ranged between 12-13 degrees which in itself isn’t that cold but it can shrink the meat and two veg a little if you are in it for 1hr 45 mins which I was. I needed about 50m doing a mixture of front crawl, water polo and Grannie swimming before I got comfortable and used to the temperature. A cheeky wee was had by a buoy halfway through to warm up the wetsuit and a quick gel for a little boost. No sightings of Nessie, although I don’t think he would have been scared with the speed I was going at
I was happy with the time and how I coped with swimming over 5km but a nice cup of coffee and peanut butter sarnie was very welcome afterwards.
We then had a short 50km cycle across to Fort William but were able to leave whenever we were ready/had warmed up. We were in no rush and I must have minced around for half an hour getting myself ready. Because we’re in Scotland, of course there was drizzle for most of it and a ten minute downpour so we arrived at the hotel wet. And of course the radiator in the rooms didn’t work. I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t feel a million dollars on that ride but it must have been three years since I’ve had a spin after a swim so I put it down to that rather than being crap at cycling.
Day 2: Fort William – Glasgow
174km, 6.5hrs riding time, 4,000ft climbing
A bit about the cycling leg – after breakfast every morning you could generally set off when you wanted, normally between 7-8am. The slower/less experienced cyclists were encouraged to set off first so everyone roughly arrived at the destination hotel at about the same time. There were three feed stations every day so you really didn’t need to take much with you and you also had the option of packing an emergency bag which was available to use at the lunch stop (a good idea when the weather conditions was mixed or if you needed a re-lube…). You really couldn’t fault the service or quality throughout the week and a mechanic and medic was available at most of those stops or at close hand throughout the day.
This first full day of cycling was split into thirds with the first taking us through the stunning Glencoe Pass. I enjoyed that bit and unusually joined a group for most of it where I hid more than Otto Sanhuber (look him up). The second third took us along the shores of Loch Lomond where the weather was more changeable than my daughter’s mood. I got caught out by a torrential downpour about 1km from the feed station which obviously really helped my mood. A refuel and a pep talk (don’t be a d*ck) and the last 60km was lovely and off that bloody A82 and back on Ben’s arse. A bit of bike path action so imagined being back on my lovely gravel bike.
Day 3: Glasgow – Carlisle
203km, 6,500ft climbing, 40 mph constant headwind gusts and utterly relentless, pissing down rain, 9hrs 10m riding time.
Quite simply an absolutely brutal day on the pedals and one of, if not the, hardest ever. Lunch stop was like a war zone with temperatures being taken, people being pulled into the broom wagon and everyone trying to warm up and encourage each other. Dug really deep with that one and went through all sorts of strategies to get me through it. I will remember that day for a very long time.
Day 4: Carlisle – Haydock Park
199km (I’m not a Strava w*nker so didn’t round it up), 6,500ft climbing, 8hrs 15mins ride time
The bike felt lighter with most of the toys being thrown out on the previous day so it was a good day. Great ascent and descent of Shap Pass, got some ok hills t’up there to be fair. Legs generally felt ok throughout the day, certainly better than the old gooch but Mr Lube and I started becoming best buddies. I spent most of the day in a great group of six where I tried to avoid sticking my nose in the air too often. As we were in the north of England, of course it rained but the sun did make its monthly appearance for a few minutes. How does anyone live up there..!
Day 5: Haydock Park – Droitwich
208km, 4.000ft of climbing, 7hr 45mins riding time
Lovely route today, really enjoyed that ride for most of it. Rolling first 120km before a lumpy back half through the Shropshire hills. Nice to see my Uncle Phil at the first feed station for a little pick-me-up. I hid more than one of Fritzel’s kids (too much? Apologies x) in a pack for the most part and nice to have a few chin wags in amongst clinging on to that elastic. The body was generally holding up ok but my pesky left knee caused a few issues in the last 10km which was treated with a bit of ice and ibuprofen that hopefully helped calmed it down. Onto Windsor we head…
Day 6: Droitwich – Slough
187km, 5,000ft climbing, 7hrs 45mins riding time
Solo day today and the chance for some peace and quiet and to reflect on what we’ve been through and prepare for the last little slog. I really enjoyed some headspace and also a listen to the test match on TMS. Managed the knee and kept the old power down to 320W as opposed to high 300s…Cracking route through Shakespeare country and into the Chilterns, ending in the less than glamorous Slough. Never before have I been so glad to see the sign for such a sh*t hole
Great to see still the best training/racing camp buddie, Justine, and grab some maltesers from her. Best of all, had a surprise visit from the wife at the last feed stop just to check I wasn’t taking any short cuts. She must have loved that sweaty, smelly hug.
Day 7: Slough – Richmond
4hr 15min marathon and 5hr 15 min for the full 51km.
Not going to lie, I was really chuffed with that time and how I felt for most of it, especially after the week we’ve all had. There were a couple of low moments but generally felt pretty strong and didn’t walk a great deal (bridges/feed stations apart). Due to that achilles injury, I thought I was about 3-4 weeks shy of a full run training programme but it just goes to show that it’s best to be a bit under cooked than knackered or carrying a little niggle. It was great to run part of it with the wife and the final few miles with a fellow coach and friend, John. The wife and brother-in-law were waiting at the finish which was a brilliant moment, as was Ben who had finished a good chunk of time before me and had had a storming run.
It was great to spend the next couple of hours hanging around the finish and welcoming everyone through the finish line. We had all been on a journey, our own little individual journey but within the confines of a group so it was great to support everyone through to a conclusion.
It was a fabulous journey, a great challenge at times which tested me physically and mentally like never before. It got me well out of my comfort zone and challenged me more than anything I’ve done before.
In some kind of way, I felt guilty about not doing it for charity but (perhaps fortunately at this stage) I didn’t feel close enough to a cause to commit to something. However, if I can inspire just one person (youth or adult) to do or try something different or out of their comfort zone then I would be chuffed. Life is about taking risks, screwing up and trying again. It’s not about doing the same things year in, year out and expecting the same results. Live a full life and if in doubt, regret something you did do rather than what you didn’t.