They say that God made the Earth in 6 days and on the 7th, once he’d had a decent practice, then made the Scottish Highlands. It was this fabulous venue that hosted the UK’s most challenging Swimrun event; Loch Gu Loch. The event covering 8km of cold water swims and 47km of mixed terrain running all set in the most beautiful scenery to be found anywhere in the world.
So I thought I’ll have a bit of that, I’d already dragged Adam to the Highlands once this year and with his dodgy back he wouldn’t be up for this either. So I called on my local training partner (when I used to train) Andy “Strath” Strathdee to join me. Having read about OtilO I knew it was going to be more than a triathlon without a bike or some weird aquathlon and was really interested to find out how it felt to go from horizontal to running and back and whether or not is was actually safe to swim when tired.
Anyhow, I didn’t enter the team and then I got very fat and unfit and just let it slide, I’ll do it another day, when I get some work-life balance back. Then Andy sent me an email asking “are we doing this or not?” So I entered and embarked on a 3 week panic training plan “zero to survival”. And it was just to survive, I knew I’d get round with a few swims and runs under my belt but it certainly wouldn’t be quick – I didn’t expect it to be so slow but I should have been more realistic as to the size of the challenge.
Race HQ and the eventual finish was at the Royal Highland Club at Fort Augustus where most competitors were also staying, a stunning venue right on the edge of Loch Ness and with a fantastic renovated abbey that would be used for the briefing and prize giving. Andy and I were staying in the slightly less salubrious venue of the living room of Andy’s good friend and MTB monster Ben who lives in a field somewhere near Fort William and about 45 minutes away from the race start by car. Ben and Fiona have two gorgeous young kids but both have bad sleeping habits. So after the pre-race meal of sausages, stew and a glass or 4 of red it was off to the couch with the alarm set for 4am. At 3am Strath and were roused with “Mum, Dad…is it morning yet?” so we got up and left slightly earlier than anticipated to head to the start.
The weather was set to be perfect. Very little if any wind, dry, some cloud cover and around 12 degrees, so pretty comfortable for running in a wetsuit. On the subject of wetsuits, we were lucky enough to get hold of the new Zone 3 Evolution Swimrun wetsuits and I can honestly say they are fantastic. The front zip and rear pocket are brilliant and neither of has any chaffing despite being out there for some considerable time. Full review on Triathlete Europe.
The event starts at race HQ with a long ferry ride up Loch Ness to the start point. The ferry means a 05:15 start but it does make for good time to mingle with friends and chat to your fellow competitors, so whilst a couple of coaches would have been quicker, they wouldn’t have the same atmosphere or coffee shop and toilet facilities so on reflection it was quite nice way to start off.
I was keen to look around to see if there was anyone less fit looking than myself and seeded myself somewhere in the middle of the group, which is pretty unfair on Andy as we should really have been somewhere near the front if I’d had any fitness at all. The ferryman started telling everyone the water temperature was 6 degrees, all I knew was that it was going to be cold but I was going to find it a damn site more comfortable than most and there was also a distinct possibility of Strath pulling out through hypothermia.
Knowing I was in “just get round” swim shape I held to the back of the pack as I knew I wasn’t going to be setting any records today. Immediately Strath was off and I lost contact, for the next 2km Strath did his seal impersonation bobbing up and down every 200m waiting for me to catch-up. I wasn’t sur at the time if he was swimming harder to stay warm as it would have been quicker for both of us for him to provide a draft but on dry land and through the shivering he told me he simply couldn’t believe I was swimming so slowly.
Once we got out the water there was a slight rise up a woodland trail and I noticed my calf muscles had really tightened up in the cold water as well as the top of my foot. So a pattern of job stretch started with a lot of walking on anything over 3% incline; I think it struck Strath there and then that this was going to be a long day out in the countryside.
There were 4 aid stations on the course so I thought there was no need to take anything barring a couple of gels and all the cliff bars I had left from a stage win in the Tour De Freespeed (thanks Rich for the race nutrition). On paper 12, 26, 31 and 47km sound fine but with the aid station being at the end of swim 2 I found myself using this leg to rehydrate myself as I did with swim 4 (which was pretty murky). Ideally there would be a couple of more aid stations before swim 2 would have been great but with a race in the middle of nowhere getting things set-up and manned isn’t easy, nor is driving a van to the edge of a Loch in the middle of nowhere. So if you’re going to do this race and take all day as I did, then maybe some hydration would be a good idea for the first half of the race.
The running was fantastic, covering trackless heather moorland, rocky trails and everything in between. Due to a long forest rail being closed there was a large section of road running which was probably the low light of the route. Poor Strath having to wait for me anytime the gradient rose in the slightest and my calf muscles starting to cramp at every opportunity.
Another issue I sometimes get is with blood pooling in my hands whilst running. Something that I only really noticed when out with arm warmers during a race, now with wetsuit sleeves and during the long run section my hands started to become painful, so a quick strip down to the waist and we were off again and the problem relieved; more relief was to come when we passed all the portaloos left out for the Loch Ness marathon start the following day. It was shortly after this toilet stop that we missed a marker post and headed off down a long rocky path. The race briefing had warned us that there was going to be long stretches of unmarked paths but where it was obviously just keep going in the direction you were heading; so that’s exactly what we did, until the path stopped!
Strath and I had thought we’d gone wrong and we reached for the map, which was to be stored in a waterproof carrier.
Thankfully there was just enough of the map intact to see we were off to the right of the route and shortly afterwards we were joined by another team who’d made the same mistake. Over the air we made out the sound of a bagpiper and we headed across bogs and deer fences in search of Loch Tarff.
Loch Tarff (swims 7-12) is definitely the most enjoyable part of the route with 5 little islands meaning its in and out in short little hops. The last swim or mud bath is just a bog underfoot and when I tried to stand up, my leg just sunk in. I then fell backwards result in a huge cramp down my right calf. I’d like to say I handled it well but could be heard screaming for miles away and Strath had to wade back in to drag me out sideways.
Cramp attack over it was a ginger hike up a steep hill where I wondered when my calf would finally explode then a frustratingly cautious descent for Strath before jogging the last 6km to the final swim across Loch Ness.
Those in front of us seemed to be drifting off to the right but Strath lead across perfectly, a quick photo at the finish and off to the showers with Strath to ward off the shivering.
Post-race food was in the local restaurant and was a fantastic cooked to order meal, just what was needed.
Having decided to drive back the same evening to Edinburgh I headed to the car for an hour’s kip before the prize giving and finishers t-shirts were given out.
This is a fantastic and rugged event and is a great excuse to get outside in the wilderness and do something new. The team behind Loch Gu Loch are launching a new event on the Outer Hebrides with a crazy 2km swim between islands in the Atlantic. My promise to Strath – when we do this next year I promise it to be in race shape as never wish to do an event like this whilst unfit every again!
If you fancy a go next year head to the website