Note: Quotes taken from race reports on www.sleepmonsters.com. Race reporting by Rob Howard, Robyn Ferrar and Gary Vallance (and race HQ - person unknown). Thank you for your reporting SleepMonsters.
This race started with a prologue event on the Saturday. Fastest teams took around 5h30 and slowest teams only reached the finish after 10-hours of staggering around the mountains of Rhum, an island just off the Scottish coast.
It was on this prologue that a number of teams - many in the upper echelon - received time penalties for missing mandatory gear (2hr time penalty), breaking the 100m rule (2hr time penalty) and "a number of teams were reported not to have run all the way to the Papadil Lodge ruin as instructed but to have taken a short cut uphill beforehand". Big Brother, in the form of the GPS tracking units carried by each team, confirmed this last rule infringement; one broken/mis-interpreted by many teams. They were slapped with a 2hr penalty too.
The competitors then spent the night "camped out on the boggy grass in front of the castle".
On the sea
History has shown - very clearly - that when a race starts with a long, long paddle stage there are going to be some issues (you'd think they would learn?).
Although the sea initially wasn't very rough, it was sufficiently choppy to capsize a few teams. A couple others were blown Southward. As the day progressed, conditions deteriorated and our own McCain Adventure Addicts,a team of strong, competent paddlers described the stage as "very tough – choppy and just unpleasant". So began Day 1.
There is something that puzzles me... I cannot think of an expedition length adventure race held in recent years in which conditions on the sea/ocean, as the race has progressed, have improved? I definitely would not expect conditions on the sea, in any UK location, to stay rosy all day.
Portage and micronav
Team got off the water, portaged their boats and put-in on Loch Morar, "the deepest body of inland water in Europe, and fabled home to the Loch Ness Monster's sister, Morag". Instead of a calm 12km paddle on this loch, which lies between two steep mountains, teams faced "a tactical battle, as the wind whistled down from the slopes and across the water, altering direction and strength with every kilometre gained; teams were constantly fighting to hold their course".
Nonetheless, the weary teams made the take-out and portaged again to reach CP4, a micronavigation stage with two course loops. They would do this on foot. The whole deal with the two loops is that teams arriving together were put on different loops so that they could not follow each other. I wonder why they didn't plan a Figure 8/Butterfly course layout?
Image showing tracking lines for Nike (brown-red) and Balance Vector (cream). Race route :blue = paddle, purple = micronav.
It was here that our team seems to have missed a checkpoint, gaining an additional 3hr penalty (on top of the 2hr one they received in the prologue). Even more demoralising is that they were also classified to the short course. I don't think that they knew about this until some time later and I have no idea why they missed the CP? Nonetheless, they were classified as short course and yet until they withdrew from the race 3-days later, they had followed the entire race route. I don't understand why they were given a 3hr penalty AND classified as short course. Surely the 3hr penalty would have been sufficient? At this stage they were in about 16-18th place.
More water, then bikes
Finishing the micronav teams were back on the water to paddle 8km across Loch Nevis - directly into the wind. For teams futher back, conditions did improve. With nightfall, the wind died down and the loch became still. First team, Wilsa Helly Hansen, reached T1 (paddle/trek transition) at Invernie just after 21h00. Our guys got in just after 01h00. This is where the first cut-off of the race was enforced.
Due to not making the cut-off, teams were sent on a more direct route to T2 - skipping the dog-leg. As you can see from the tracking lines, McCain - although listed as short course on the leaderboard - were actually still on the full course route...
During Monday conditions were "fantastic" with blue skies above. The "bitterly cold, northerly wind" took the brunt of the teams' complaints.
About short courses
I have a few thoughts about the short-coursing of 50% of the field within less than 24-hours of the race start...
A number of calibre teams were caught by the 03h00 Monday cut-off at T1. This meant that half of the field were out of the official stakes, although they remained ranked on the short course. This must have been very disappointing, especially for those with greater prowess on bike and foot than in kayaks. They could have climbed a few places over the next trekking and successive mountain biking stages.
The flip-side is that by T1 (13-hrs into the race for the first team) there were some 5-hours between the leaders and upper-middle field teams. This gap grows progressively - almost exponentially - as the race progresses, so having cut-offs and shorter routes does help to concertina the field. This means that marshals can be pulled from their position timeously, and moved to later sections of the race.
But... when you're in a 5-day event, you just don't expect to be diverted only 18-hours into the race.
The solution? Keep those early stages shorter and more diverse. This would cater to different strengths (paddle, trekking, foot, navigation) early on so that by the time cut-offs kick in - say 48-hrs into the race - teams would have had a decent period of time to prove themselves. Then put in some longer stages with options to leap-frog slower teams around the course.
From what I can see, the only "short course" route options were on that initial trekking stage (image above) and the trekking stage (image adjacent) from T7 to T8, where Balance Vector (cream tracking line) - in 6th place - and all those behind them were short-coursed for missing the Thursday 13h00 cut-off. I wouldn't count the canyoneering section (on the trekking stage after the swim across Loch Ness from T3 to T4) as a short course option. Teams bypassed this section when it was closed because of elevated water levels due to the rains.
A final point on this cut-off issue... by Wednesday afternoon, 3.5-days into the race, the front teams were 12-hours behind the expected race schedule. I would think that the cut-offs, like the one at T7 that caught Balance Vector, would have been amended to accommodate this and that the overall course would be shortened to bring the finish time for the first team back onto schedule. But that's just what I think...
Back to the race
So, from the first trek they start a long, long mountain bike ride on the "longest dead-end road in Britain" from T2 to T3 at Loch Ness. Within this mtb section there was a cut-off and "two extra disciplines"; a short jump beside Plodda Falls and a tyrolean traverse across Badger Falls.
Although race reports mention a "20-foot leap into a deep pool", it seems it was actually a 2-meter jump into the pool. McCain's Jeanette Walder, not known for loving canyoneering jumps even commented to race director Phil humphries when they reached T3, "Phil, this is great but next time you must make the jump bigger”.
It's probably a good thing that the jump wasn't bigger... Aberdeen Asset Management's Helen Jackson landed on a submerged rock, injuring her left buttock. She battled through the next three days, only withdrawing on Thursday at T6.
Back to T3... on Loch Ness. First teams were in at around 04h30 Tuesday, having spent a cold night on their bikes (that's to say little of their 2m jump into icy water - at night). It's at this time too that the rain began...
Next up was a 1km swim around a headland; 2 swimming, 2 in kayaks. In the tropics this would be welcome but in Scotland this meant a swim in 7°C water! A race report read, "There was little chance to warm up on the paddle either and no real shelter at T4 where they picked up Nordic Walking poles and set off along the tarmac road towards the canyoning stage."
10km into the trek the leading teams would begin the canyoneering section, led by guides. Again, cold water; "Teams were forced to catch their breaths in the coldest water temperatures in the race so far". I would have pleased to be one of the later teams who were able to by-pass this section when it was closed for safety reasons due to the rising water level. Teams missing this section received a 70-minute penalty (the average time taken by those who completed the section).
As the rain continued throughout Tuesday and Tuesday night, teams trekked and mountain biked. Nothing too notable on Tueday except for a widening gap between the front and the back and an increasing number of cases of hypothermia... expected in conditions of cold and unrelenting rain.
Race stats by Tuesday evening were as follows: 20 teams on the full course, 24 on the short course, 3 racing unranked (all UK teams) and 2 withdrawn.
Day 4 of the race, day 2 of the rain
Lots of rain-affected casualties; "The rain has had many casualties to answer for during day 4. With little to no shelter at transitions, teams are arriving to wet boxes sitting out in the rain."
Teams (not the leaders) were diverted on a long "short course" because of dangerous conditions in the Monadhliath Mountains between T4 and T5. Instead of trekking 40-kilometers through the mountains the teams walked about 70-kilometers on road. That's a big distance 4-5 days into the race, especially on road and in the cold and rain. Brrr...
By Wednesday night the rate of attrition had accelerated. When I woke on Thursday morning there were 19 teams on the full course, 16 teams on the short course, 3 racing unranked and 11 withdrawn. By Thursday night, following the 13h00 cut-off at T7 the status was as follows: 5 teams on the full course, 26 on the short course, 8 racing unranked and 10 withdrawn (yes, I know the unranked and withdrawn numbers don't add up when you compare morning to night - seems the status of some teams has changed to unranked). We didn't have any additional withdrawals today because the weather had apparently been "glorious".
This was a good thing for Nike and the others upfront, as they had to paddle and portage between Lochs on the way from T6 to T7; the Outrageous Portage Stage.
The race at the front
Wilsa Helly Hansen has raced a fantastic race. Nike is in the leadbut Wilsa is certainly in for a proud 2nd place. I can only say that it really is a pity that the 13h00 Thursday cut-off eliminated so many teams because now only 5 teams remain on the full-course.
As I type, Nike has left T9, the last transition for the final 15km hike to the finish at Fort William. they'll have to ascend Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Great Britain, on the way to the finishline. As always, Nike is exceptional.
My hat is off
I take my hat off to every team that just entered this race. I'd consider a 2-day event in the UK but never a 5-day race. The chance that your party gets rained on is just too high; and I'm not crazy about cold and rain. Good wet weather gear is crucial out there.
It does indeed sound like this whole area is very beautiful and scenic; a lovely vacation location. I'll definitely add to my list of "places to visit" but it will stay off my "places to race" list; horses for courses.
Well done teams. A brave effort out there, no matter how far you got.