Up, and down, and coast to coast – Rat Race Scotland Coast to coast

Last updated on November 19, 2021

With Covid related lockdowns, it felt like this race had been booked in for a long time – about a year and a half in total. This was a ‘Monkey Business’ event – Tim and I entered as a team, with combined running, riding, running and kayaking.

This is a Rat Race event – so in theory, it’s not a race – it’s a well supported endurance event, combining an 11k run starting at Nairn just East of Inverness in Scotland, about 130km riding from Cawdor Castle to Fort William on the West coast (partially via the Great Glen), a 26km trail run from Fort William, to Loch Leven, then a short Kayak across the Loch to Ballachulish.

We’ve done a couple of events on bikes in the past few years – notably the Kielder WInter Duathlon, and the Dirty Reiver (ending up on the 130km due to a combination of mechanical issues and me not eating enough) – this event felt like a great opportunity to feel like we’d achieved something and combine our sports.

I booked it however after a healthy dose of optimism and a couple of drinks, so we ended up on the 1 day ‘Expert’ version instead of the 2 day ‘Challenger’ version with camping half way.

Our main concern initially was cut-offs on the cycling – they seemed fairly tight, with getting through the transition at Fort WIlliam at the end of the cycle stage being challenging. We’d not factored in me trying to do the event with a rolled ankle, and practice rides had suggested that whilst we’re ok in the hills, we’d have to put in some effort.

Getting up to Inverness is not a quick process – we road tripped it over 2 days to give ourselves a chance to rest, and apart from a test run at our first B&B where we probably scared a couple of locals whilst running in our tri-suits (we thought it’d help between the running and riding sections),, it was un-eventful.

There appears to be a rule – if I’m going to do an endurance event, whether it be running an ultra or a multisport event like this, it will rain. A lot. Throughout. This appeared to be the case for this event as well – the forecast looked terrible.

The usual pre-race shenanigans were observed, with added checking the bikes into transition at Cawdor Castle the night before the event started – it felt a little odd leaving the bikes there, but we were having a better time than some of the people who’d hired bikes – and there was security onsite overnight.

Up at what felt like an un-holy time of the morning (4.30am – the race started at 7am in rain), Ceri (acting as race support extraordinaire) dropped us off in Nairn – the obligatory touching the sea occured, people loosely formed up at the starting line in small groups (Covid regulations), and the event got going. The first run was un-eventful – apart from not having really woken up, it was still fairly dark, with an uneven surface – swearing behind me indicated that Tim had rolled his ankle, and I was doing my best to keep mine stable as it was still in a bad way from the month before.


Transition 1 – We got to Cawdor Castle to pick up some very damp bikes – in expectation of cycling stages that were roughly 2/3 road riding, 1/3 fire roads and gravel, we’d taken gravel bikes – in an effort to reduce the size of rucksack we’d run with, bikepacking style under saddle bags (and a tube top ‘tuck shop’) were the order of the day to hold running shoes whilst we were riding (and the riding shoes were left with the bikes). In expectation of ankle issues, I had a set of z style running poles stashed as well just in case.

I’d switched my wheels from 650b to 700c a few weeks before the race and had issues with a slow deflation on the rear (only when the bike wasn’t being ridden) – so was pleasantly surprised to find it was entirely fine. TIm’s time honoured fairly bullet proof setup on the other hand needed the tyre re-inflating when we got to it, and he had other gremlins with his saddle bag. That sorted out, we got out onto a very damp road.

I’m used to riding on my own, generally around the Peak District – I’m not fast, but I can keep on going up hills – as it turned out, an enforced couple of weeks rest due to injury meant that I was able to hop from group to group up the road – and was a lot faster than normal. I’d expected Tim to fly by me – he’s lighter and has better power to weight – but un-known to me, his tyre gremlins kept on returning, dropping him back.

The majority of the elevation on the route was in the first half, tarmac roads in the rolling hills before dropping into Fort Augustus and following the Great Glen – there was some great descents, some gritty ascents – and great camaraderie between the various people I rode with throughout this section. At Fort Augustus, Ceri was waiting – a quick hug, a sprint to the food station for a refuel (and wait to see if TIm would catch up), then the terrain became more fire track and gravel focussed, with sections similar to Kielder.

Similar to generally flying past people on mountain bikes on the road section, people on straight road bikes had an interesting time of the off-road sections – it was possible, but it didn’t look fun..

Transition 2 – Having ridden past an array of increasingly impressive houses on the way towards Fort William, I eventually reached the town – at this stage about 6 hours into the event, about 2 hours ahead of where I expected to me. The bike to run transition was at the Shinty club – Ceri was waiting there, so the bike was left for Rat Race to move, some spare clothing and gear was passed over, and I fuelled up. At this stage, I was fairly concerned as to where TIm was – and feeling guilty that he’d not caught up (I’d expected it all along) – so waiting with some food and drink for about 20 minutes until it was pointed out that i was about to run around the edge of a mountain whilst not able to actually run very effectively – so I got moving


Rapidly approaching being a zombie at this stage

Moving is a better description than effectively running – it was a combination of walking and running, depending on the terrain. The views were spectacular – running along the road that leads to the Ben Nevis car park (and eventually the Steall Waterfall), before peeling off up right and heading up hill.

I’d reached that point that I occasionally do on endurance events where gels, flapjacks and anything sweet were making me feel ill, and not generally working. I’d pre-made some potato salad, and on the walking sections uphill mixed that with some cheese to ‘reset’ the stomach – and get moving again.

This run section felt longer than it was -a combination of having been moving for 7+ hours at this point, weather chasing us up the valleys, hills and a lack of sleep were telling – but the terrain was spectacular. About 3.5 hours later, the group I’d settled into crested over the final hill into a steep, slippery grassy downhill (which caused some people more issues than the uphill had), and we descended into the beautiful view of Loch Leven, with the Isles of Glencoe Hotel (finish line) visible on the other side of the Loch. All we had to do was get down, kayak across and be done.

By this stage, my ankle was toast – strapping and running poles were basically the order of the day, so getting to the beach and into a Kayak felt like a great idea – I didn’t expect the abdominal cramping though when I started to paddle! Luckily, the other runner than i’d caught up with and was sat in the back was comfortable spelling me when I needed to stop for a few seconds occasionally.

FInally – out of the kayak – the dulcet sounds of Rat Race’s Keith commentating on the finishers, a group of supporters cheers, we (sort of) sprinted to the end, give or take the obligatory finish line push ups.

Rough timings? The first run took 1 hour 5 minutes (unless you were at the front, you were in a procession and couldn’t go much faster), transition 1 took about 25 minutes with mechanicals being sorted. The ride took about 6.5 hours, the final 26km run took about 4 hours (yes, it was hilly, but….I was running on fumes by this stage!), then the final Kayak stage was about 10-15 minutes. Including transitions and check points, total time was 11 hours 55 minutes.

It was around 160km (ish) in total, about 2000 metres of elevation.

I did not expect to make it past the time cut off at Fort WIlliam – I was pleasantly surprised to do so, and particularly by such a margin – if I hadn’t, with the injury, the run would have been a problem.

A short while later, suitably aided by soup and a beer, I waited at the finish line to look for Tim getting to the other side of the Loch – he had to get into the Kayak before sunset acted as a cut off. He made in with a few minutes to spare – and with some suitably chosen swearing on the way past (sorry for losing you TIm!), finished with mightily respectable time of 12 hours 50 minutes, having powered through the final run stage.

There was a beer or three, and some vodka after.

That was tiring – but a brilliant event to go. A point to point event, particularly like this going Coast to Coast, feels a little more special than a more normal loop or trail even. The scenery was spectacular, the route varied, the other people foolish enough to do it friendly. I’d heartily recommend to others giving it a try.


Best tips for the event:

  • Have clothes that will suit both riding an running – given the length of ride, we favoured clothing that would make that comfy
  • On an event this long, eating is a different game. I ate ridiculous amounts – flapjacks, gels, cheese, crisps, a pork pie – and had a combination of water and Active Root to keep things topped up
  • An awesome support crew is a great thing to have
  • Try not to leave your wingman behind – you’ll feel guilty about it for a long time, even with mitigating circumstances
  • You’ll make friends on the route
  • Stop and drink in the scenery during the race. It’s worth it!
  • If you’re relatively fit, you can probably do it in 1 day, and it will feel like more of an achievement. The 2 day Challenger will still be fun, but a much gentler event


Logistics

We drove up from Leeds, and had a B&B near Nairn for the start, and in Ballachulish (just up the road from the finish line hotel). The hotel at the finish looked ok, but for the cost we decided to have somewhere we could slow down for a few days afterwards and enjoy the beautiful area that is Glen Coe.

There’s a couple of good restaurants / pubs / takeaways in Ballachulish – just be careful on closing times if you’re used to living in cities!

If you can take your own bike, d0 – some of the hire bikes looked ok, but the queues to pick them up were large (possibly not helped by the Covid lockdown), and the bikes were maybe to the level that I’d have wanted.

We chose to put storage on the bikes to carry shoes, extra food and so on – it made for a lighter running rucksack (although some people simply taped their shoes to their bikes. One or two had panniers / luggage racks, some had larger rucksacks). Also bear in mind that it can get windy riding up the Great Glen, and you want decent gear for the final run – don’t skimp on layers / waterproofs.

Take more water than you expect to need on the final run – I had two 500ml bottles, which would normally be fine for that distance – but we were going slowly by that stage, with already 7-8 hours of running and riding in our legs. I didn’t have enough liquid on that final section, although apparently later on there was water available on that section of the course – I’m fairly sure it wasn’t there when going through .though.

Want to see what it was like?

All in all – good job, Rat Race – that’s a great event. Thanks to Ceri for crewing us, Tim for joining me on adventures like this, however foolish, a whoever made the beer that made me sign up for the 1 day version!


Accommodation near the start (driving needed, but you can ride to Cawdor from here – and it’s nicely fitted out)

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/37904042?source_impression_id=p3_1637278142_4D2IpW0SkXOaFc%2Bj

Accommodation in Glen Coe after the Race (short walk / ride / 5 minute drive away) – the hosts were great, there’s bike storage, and restaurants and good views in staggering distance:

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/40470389?source_impression_id=p3_1637278216_bei0JVSnuU4HABic&guests=1&adults=1

The race itself: https://ratracecoasttocoast.co.uk/

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