I’ve always had way too much confidence in my physical ability. It stems from the fact I was super-fit as a youngster when I was heavily into athletics, swimming and tennis. Ever since I’ve blindly and ignorantly assumed there’s no physical challenge I can’t take on and pull off with more than a little style.
Some years ago we were staying at Jessie (wife’s) parents’ house in Glenfinnan, Lochaber at the time of the annual Glenfinnan Gathering. A friend of ours and a few of his pals were due to meet us on the games field at some point in the mid-afternoon. When making the arrangement he suggested we should compete in the hill race. I laughingly said “yes,” assuming he wasn’t being serious – I’d envisaged an afternoon of watching the strong man events while supping cans of Tennents Lager.
I should have twigged though. He was, after all, a former Scottish under-21 fell-running champion.
On the day of the games I was in relaxed mood through the morning and had totally forgotten my commitment to the hill race. Well, I didn’t think I’d made a commitment actually. I enjoyed a fine lunch: a large venison and cheese burger washed down with a couple of jumbo sized cans of the aforementioned Tennents Lager. The day was panning out nicely. But, just as I drained the contents of can two, our mate bounced into the beer tent wearing only the skimpiest pair of shorts and a running vest. My heart sank.
“Alright guys,” he said. “Fergus, take it you’re ready for this race? Start is in 20 minutes.”
The words that formed in my head were, “Nah, sorry to let you down but I don’t really feel like it today and, besides, I’ve just drunk a litre of beer and consumed half a deer.” The words that actually and inexplicably came out were, “For sure, I’ve just got to go and get my trainers.”
I didn’t have long so I had to jog back to the house to find a pair of trainers and some shorts. By the time I got back I could already feel my lunch swilling dangerously inside me. I barely had two minutes to pull on my shorts and pin a number to my chest before the participants were called to the start line.
Luckily for me the Glenfinnan hill race is a real sprint so I didn’t have to endure the pain for too long. But considerable pain is what I went through to somehow get back to the games field in fourth place (our pal had won by miles, much to the chagrin of the crowd he had beaten the local hero and defending champ.) Initially I received a number of pats on the back for a solid effort in the face of adversity. I felt pretty cool. But then the adrenaline wore off, my stomach went into spasm and I had to go and spend two hours lying down in the Red Cross tent – not so cool.
It turns out I didn’t learn from the experience. A few weeks ago I received an email from my friend Tom – a veteran of numerous endurance events (including an Iron Man) – suggesting we take part in a “winter duathlon” being held near Arisaig.
On paper it looked ok – 8km run followed by 25km bike followed by 5km run. I’ve been running and cycling a bit recently so, without really thinking it over, my fingers began typing…. “Yes, sounds like a good idea, let’s do it….” SEND….. Wait a minute, I’m not going to be very fit compared to Tom…. Wait another minute, Arisaig in mid February?…. Wait a further couple of minutes, 25km on roads and I only have a scabby old mountain bike…. RECALL, RECALL, please RECALL… Too late.
So I was in and, with only a couple of weeks further preparation time, I set to work. Well, I went on a few jogs and out up into the hills on my bike once. Tom also, very kindly, said he would find me a racer for the day.
We travelled over to the West Coast the evening before the race where Tom, and his friend Chris, joined us at Glenfinnan for a last supper. I had promised myself I wouldn’t drink the night before the event and I did fairly well, limiting it to one weak gin and tonic and four glasses of red.
Through the night the wind was howling and hail thrashed against the bedroom window. I lay there for hours contemplating my position and wondering how I could politely withdraw without losing face. I knew deep down though that pulling out was never going to be an option.
The morning dawned with the wind still raging and with squally, wintry showers blowing aggressively up Loch Shiel towards the house. Tom wondered if the biking section would be off – too dangerous in such high cross-winds. I must confess I wasn’t distraught at this prospect as I looked out towards the bike rack on Tom’s car. It suddenly dawned on me that I’d never properly ridden a racing bike before and it did have very thin wheels.
There was no time for doubts though and we struck out for Arisaig into a swift mini-blizzard. Tom kept spirits high by reciting his motto – “Remember guys, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” Oh yeah, I’d forgotten that.
When we got to the registration area and start point, at the Sunnyside Croft just before Traigh Golf Course, (oh how I wished I was going for a quick nine holes,) I actually felt strangely calm. I think it was because I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. I just followed what the other competitors were doing: putting their bikes in racks, pulling up their running tights, going for a little jog etc.
Then we were off. The pace was decidedly steady. I actually found I could keep up with the lead group. No, I should be honest, there were in fact two whippets who darted off ahead, but they were clearly in a different league from the rest of the field so I’ve discounted them mentally.
But I paced along happily and found myself ahead of Tom and Chris after a few km. Something told me they knew something I didn’t. As I began to get closer to the transition area I began thinking – “Hmm. I’m ok, but that’s not the finish I’m approaching, that’s the start of a 25km bike… then I’ll have to run over half this circuit again.” I suddenly realised I was breathing more heavily.
It was on the bike leg I properly struggled. Not just because I had some technical issues – I couldn’t really figure out how the gears worked on a racing bike and I couldn’t comfortably get my feet in the toe clips – but also because of the wind. A long section of the 12.5km loop (that we did twice) was straight into the hurricane blowing down the main Mallaig road. On the uphill section, with 50mph gusts buffeting me head on, I found it hard to even make forward progress. More experienced cyclists (Tom included) whistled past me on a regular basis which I must confess, did little for my morale.
By the time I got back to transition again I’d dropped from fourth to 14th. Jessie was there to give encouragement – “What took you so long?” she asked. “Tom was here ages ago.” Thanks darling, morale levels further diminished.
Setting out to run again was an incredible experience – I’d never tried to run after a hard cycle before and my legs just did not want to do it. They felt like they belonged to someone else and I had to summon all my strength just to put one foot in front of the other.
I think you could describe my final 5km as a “plod.” I had thought I’d try and regain a bit of ground, but with two frozen lumps of meat for legs, it became more about finishing than improving my position.
I made it eventually, and even overtook one chap who seemed to have even heavier and deader legs than me – I hope he’s not still out there. When I crossed the line I had hoped to feel a sense of elation. All I actually felt was, “Where is our car? … “Must sit down,” “Must get warm.” The picture above gives an indication of this.
Through the two hours it took to complete the event, and in the immediate aftermath, I must confess I didn’t glean a huge amount of enjoyment. But, half an hour later, sitting with a pint in the Cnoc na Faire pub, I did experience that much anticipated feeling of elation. The sense of achievement, even in a relatively easy endurance event like this one, is tough to beat.
And there was great camaraderie too. Almost all those who took part headed to the boozer for soup and sarnies and a few pints to compare tales of their battle with the elements.
Yes, I got a lot out of it. But I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to enter another endurance event. Well not until someone asks me to and my strange inner override system accepts, without consulting the rest of my brain and body.
Note: The Winter Feast Duathlon was organised by No Fuss Events – www.nofussevents.co.uk They do a number of nutty events throughout the year: running, mountain biking, river rapid riding.. all sorts. Check them out.