Sting in Stirling Adventure RacePosted on 2012-08-30
Adidas TERREX Sting in Stirling 18th – 25th August 2012
Team Adidas TERREX Race Report
By: Chris Hope
Team Adidas Terrex – ready for action !
I have fancied competing in a nonstop adventure race for a while now, and after completing the Coast to Coast race last year and seeing the promotional video for the Sting, I was keen for 2012 to be the year. The hardest part is getting a team together or joining the right team, so when Paul Noble suggested me to Tom Gibbs when they were a man down, I couldn’t have hoped for a better opportunity. A chance to race with and learn from Tom, Bruce Duncan and Nicola Macleod, who have all got a raft of big races and results to their name.
The decision to join the team for the Sting was made in April, so plenty of time to get the miles in and work on skills that I was lacking, particularly in the canoe. I was fairly confident that I would cope with any amount of biking that the event threw at us, as this was my strongest discipline, but I was certainly apprehensive about the very long foot stages, the canoe stages and the whole sleep deprivation thing. However, I was comforted by the fact that everyone I spoke to with experience in long adventure races said ‘don’t worry you’ll be fine’.
As the race approached, all was looking good. I had done a bit of canoeing and felt reasonably comfortable with that, had plenty of miles in my legs, and was feeling fairly fit. The rest of the team were going well too. According to facebook, Bruce was getting lots of running and biking in. Tom had won the Three Counties Tops fell race and was preparing for a fast Bob Graham round. Nicola had been to Kenya for several weeks and managed a trip up Mount Kenya, then returned to the UK to squeeze an off road iron man in followed by the West Highland way double (38 hours). Maybe I was slacking!
A month before the race I headed out to France for a family holiday and decided to do a Sky race for a bit of training. Whilst it was a fantastic race, the final 1800m decent took its toll and gave me ITB trouble which I wasn’t able to get rid of for the rest of the holiday. Even short runs aggravated my knee and with only 2 weeks to race day I was getting really concerned. However, after three sessions with Sue Reed’s magic hands and a lot of pain, I was back on it.
The week before the race saw the start of the gear faff. Thankfully, Tom sent out a very detailed spreadsheet with all kit requirements, going to the finest of details based on the information provided. This gear faff lasted for days, with packing, repacking and then a bit more repacking because I’d forgotten what I packed originally. Then when you think you’ve cracked it, there’s the food to sort – and what a lot of food you need. We had the usual mountain of bars, cakes and energy supplements, kindly supplied by Power the Machine.com, but the stuff that hit the spot was the savoury stuff – wraps, cheese and pickle sandwiches, baked potatoes and pizza. I would definitely go for more of this type of food in the future.
Whilst packing, we also checked out the numerous maps covering the race route. At first glance, the route looked fantastic, and there was no doubt about it – that middle Trek was going to be a beast. After getting our heads round the distances and doing some rough calculations it became apparent that there were going to be 2 key time outs where competitors would not be allowed on the water before specified times. Therefore, there was opportunity to make time on other teams and ‘bank’ an advantage.
So, with bags packed, canoes set up, maps marked up and a race strategy in mind we were all ready to start, but as an opener, there was the small matter of the prologue to warm us up. This was a relay event involving a run, orienteering section and 2 bike sections. Everyone agreed that it wasn’t worth pushing ourselves too hard on this as a few minutes lost in the prologue would have little impact on the overall race, but once the gun goes it is hard to stick to that plan! Tom led out on the run leg and came home first out of the competitive teams, handing the batton to Bruce, who executed the orienteering nicely and maintained our position. Although Tom looked comfortable on the run, it later turned out that he had pulled his quad and was struggling to walk – not a great start. Nicola took the 3rd leg and headed out of transition neck and neck with Mountain Hardwear’s Sally Ozanne. The pair of them took a slightly wrong line and then Nicola punctured. Again – not ideal. Nic managed a very quick fix though and only lost a few places. I then took on the last leg and tried way harder than I planned to but couldn’t resist when there were people ahead to reel in. Eventually I crossed the finish line about 1 min 30s behind the leaders Team Mountain Hardwear. This would mean we would be forced to have a 3 minute time out during the race. Three minutes would be nothing in the grand scheme of things but it certainly wasn’t the prologue that we had hoped for.
On Monday morning, day 1 of the race, the weather was perfect and teams arrived at the stunning Stirling Castle for the start.
Tom’s leg had improved over night but was still a bit painful so he was a little apprehensive about it. At 08.45 the race got underway and we set off on a 10km run from the Castle to the Wallace Monument. Again, the plan was to take it steady, but we found ourselves at the front. After descending from the monument, Tom pulled up with stomach cramps and was forced to walk. Surely our luck had to change soon. A few hundred meters of walking seemed to sort him out and we were back running, slowly moving back through the field to eventually complete the run in about 50 minutes. A very quick transition then placed us in the lead as we headed out on the 80km mountain bike stage.
The first 30km of the bike stage were relatively flat and fast so we worked as a team, each taking a turn on the front. As we approached the first check point at Doune Castle, we could see a large group fairly close behind. It contained 3 or 4 teams including Mountain Hardwear and For Goodness Shakes. They were clearly benefiting from being in a much larger group but they only caught us once we reached Lake Monteith. I suspect it was a tactical move, to try and make us do more work. At Lake Monteith, teams had to row to an island and collect the next checkpoint. Bruce and Nicola took up the challenge of rowing whilst Tom and I had an easy ride and provided direction!
We held our own in the boat and again had a fast transition, placing us back out on the bikes in the lead. This time Mountain Hardwear were a couple of minutes behind and only came into view on straight sections of track. The biking section headed off road at this point and with lots of tough climbs, there was going to be no place for teams to shelter in a big bunch. This is where we slowly started to open up a lead. We kept a steady pace on the climbs and were efficient on the technical muddy sections. After a couple of hours there was no sign of any chasing teams and it felt as though the pressure had lifted. The scenery and tracks were stunning, with a fast final decent down Glean Dubh to arrive in Killin.
Killin was the start of the first canoe section. Despite having portage trolleys with us we opted to carry our kit laden boats to the water, thinking it was only about 50 metres. This would be the last time we would carry our boats! The paddle was about 6km to the start of the Trek section and with a slight tail wind we completed it very quickly. We landed at about 5pm, a little ahead of our anticipated schedule, so, if we could move fast on the Trek section there was potential to complete it in the light. This became our challenge, as a fast circuit would reduce night navigation, provide greater rest (as the earliest we could start the next paddle was 3 am) and hopefully bank time against other teams. We opted for an anticlockwise circuit based on the fact that the final 5km would be easy running down a big track. Our pace was brisk, Bruce and Tom’s navigation in the clag was spot on and route choice was efficient which resulted in us getting back to the loch at about 10pm, so lights were only needed for the last 2km. Everything had gone to plan, and we had opened up a lead of about 1 hour 30 mins on Mountain Hardwear.
As we had expected to get some rest before going back on the water, we had carried a tent and sleeping bags in the boat, so after a quick feed, we (Nic) erected the tent and we squeezed the 4 of us in. I’m not sure that I actually managed to get any sleep that night. It was red hot, you couldn’t move, Bruce was snoring approximately 5 seconds after he lay down and my mind was racing. The alarm sounded at 2.15. Time to get sorted for a 3.00 start in the canoes.
We were first out of transition, off into the pitch black. It wasn’t long before Mountain Hardwear drew alongside us with some frantic paddling action. They had clearly been getting some coaching as they all had very short powerful strokes and changed sides frequently, which looked unusual but appeared to be effective. They made our paddling strokes seem very lazy. They slowly but surely disappeared into the night and every now and then we would catch a glimpse or hear them, spurring us on to reduce the time that they would make on us. 20km of loch paddling in the night seems to take a very long time. 2hrs 45 mins to be exact. We arrived at the end of Loch Tay at 5.45, approximately 5 minutes behind Mountain Hardwear, which we were happy with.
We were timed out until 6.00 before proceeding down the River Tay. I wasn’t sure what to expect on this section. I knew there would be rapids, but the size and difficulty was unknown. We encountered the first white water after a few minutes following MH downstream. It was all going well, until we hit the Chinese Bridge rapid. This looked significantly more fierce and half way down both of the MH boats had capsized. Oh shit – time to get cold and wet. Next, Bruce and Nic had taken on water and they were in. Tom and I got on our knees to keep our centre of gravity low and paddled as hard as we could, getting involved in the carnage of boats and bodies being bumped down the river. All of a sudden we were out the other end, and still in our boat – result! We broke out into an eddy close to Bruce and Nic and emptied our boats of water. Mountain Hardwear were on the other side of the river battling with much faster currents.
The rest of the trip was a little easier except for one final rapid which saw Nic and Bruce swim again, probably due to a weight imbalance which was corrected for the later paddle stage. MH caught us up as we came into transition. This time we used our trolleys to move the boats which made life a lot easier.
We were all keen to get stuck into the next bike section after the water, to try and get some warmth back into our bodies. Mountain Hardwear spent quite a bit more time in transition as they seemed to be suffering with the cold and we later found out that Ant Emmett had injured his leg when he fell out of his boat.
There were 3 back to back bike sections which amounted to approximately 200km. The first was only 40km but it packed a punch with a stiff climb into the mist on Farragon Hill. We soon arrived at the Falls of Bruar for some canyoning. Thankfully the sun had started to shine and we were actually quite warm and ready for a dip, especially when we had put wetsuits on. This section was included in race time so it was important to keep moving quickly and efficiently through the gorge. It was a spectacular venue with powerful waterfalls and deep plunge pools which teams had to negotiate through jumps, slides and abseils. We all managed to get through safely collecting the checkpoint at the end and despite it taking about 45 minutes, when we got to the finish, team MH were just arriving. This opened our lead up even more. Keen to maintain this lead we had a full change into dry bike kit and headed out on the next 90km bike section to Mar Lodge.
The next biking section was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The singletrack along the side of Loch An Duin was incredible. Proper mountain biking with a remote feel to it. The route setting here was excellent, as despite the stage being extremely long, the distance was covered quickly due to good tracks and sections of tarmac. As we headed through Glen Feshie, the wind dropped and the midges appeared in clouds. There was no escape. The little blighters stuck to you and went down your jersey then proceeded to eat you. The next hike a bike section proved to be easier than expected and it wasn’t long before we started on a very long decent to our next transition at Mar Lodge.
Mar Lodge is a spectacular venue with an impressive array of over 3000 deer skulls / antlers lining the ceiling – far too posh for a bunch of smelly adventure racers. We didn’t have much time to admire the surroundings before an orienteering map was presented to us. We were anticipating this stage to take about half an hour, as pre event information indicated that the course would be about 10km and we could split the controls between the team. So, we were a little surprised when we found out that the most distant checkpoints were approaching 10km away. The half an hour was revised to an estimated 2 hours, and checkpoints were split so that Tom and I completed a 16km loop which involved quite a bit of ascent and the rough terrain whilst Bruce and Nic covered an 18km slightly less hilly and more runable route. The split turned out to be a good choice as we arrived back in a similar time, and whilst it was disappointing to find out that the course was much longer, it would probably be in our favour as we completed the vast majority in the light whereas other teams would be forced to navigate in the dark.
The final section of the big bike leg was approximately 70km and started off fairly flat and fast, but the sting in the tail would be a savage climb over the 980m Mount Keen, the most easterly of all the Munros. When we left Mar Lodge, it was dark, the temperature had dropped and everyone was feeling quite tired. We weren’t tired enough to stop and rest, but we didn’t think that it would be wise to complete the full stage without stopping for a sleep. We aimed to ride through to Ballater which would take us to midnight and then keep our eyes open for a place to rest. The riding next to the river was very cold and we stopped to put more clothes on, then pushed on riding in a pack. For some reason we seemed to be descending for a long time which made us even colder and at times it felt as though we were doing well over 20 miles an hour. We started to get sleepy and the search for a place to get our heads down became a bit more urgent. We had spotted a building on the map called ‘half way hut’ which was still quite a long way away and quite a way up the Mount Keen climb. If this turned out to be locked or unsuitable, there were unlikely to be better options further up the climb, so finding shelter lower down was preferable. By chance, close to Glen Tanar we came across a farmer’s shed. It was fairly dilapidated and was full of pheasant feeders but it was dry and after moving a few things round we had enough space to lie down. With all of our clothes on and sharing the bothy bag / survival bags, we assumed the ‘spoon’ position and settled down for a well earned hour and a half of kip.
We resumed the biking again at 3.00 which worked out nicely, as the 2 and half hour climb up Mount keen placed us on the top just as it was getting light and we were rewarded with an awesome descent down to Glen Mark, bunny hopping drainage ditches all the way.
The sun was shining at the House of Mark and we had a very chilled out transition, making sure we had everything we needed for the monster 100km Trek. The marshalls provided us with a bacon butty and a brew which really hit the spot. Fully charged and encouraged by the fact that other teams hadn’t even left Mar Lodge yet we were ready for the onslaught. However, we were saddened to hear that Mountain Hardwear had decided to pull out due to Ant’s injury – it didn’t feel quite the same knowing that they weren’t chasing us. The next team to be concerned about was FGS, although we had a very comfortable lead.
The start of the trek involved some flattish landrover track, which we managed to jog, but this was soon curtailed when faced with the first steep and rough climb. The next 6 hours were probably some of the most difficult for me and the team seemed to go through a few low points. The going was very tough with few paths / trods and a lot of peaty, boggy, tussocky terrain. We were going slow and we didn’t seem to be able to pick up the pace. Five hours passed and we were still bashing through rough ground. Eventually, we reached the final checkpoint and stumbled across a good track which wasn’t marked on the map. We had a quick time out, feed and pep talk to try and gee us up a little bit before the final decent to the Spittal of Glenmuick. What a difference it made. Our pace picked up considerably and we bounded into the transition. We were then presented with fantastic news, which we had all been hoping for. Checkpoints 37 and 38 had been taken out, which cut out the final section of the trek. This again really lifted spirits.
On a high, we made quick work of the climb up Lochnagar and the subsequent scrambles which seemed to fly by. We moved onto Carn an Sagairt Mor to find the aircraft wing checkpoint by about 5pm and it became increasingly obvious that if we were reasonably quick we would get all the rest of the checkpoints before Glenshee in the light, which would make a big difference. Nicola had achilles pain and sore feet which was not helped by the rough terrain, so the next 4 hours were a really focussed effort. We opted for a long contour to checkpoint 30 to avoid a massive decent and climb and Bruce and Tom made a cracking job of the navigation. We caught up with Lastmiute.AR who were on the short course, which gave us a big morale lift and we completed the next section together before topping out on the final summit just before darkness set in. The weather had now deteriorated, with low cloud, rain and a strong biting wind. We found a contour line to bypass Glas Maol on the way to Glenshee. It was a sheep trod with a very steep slope below with no sign of the bottom. It certainly focussed the mind, as a slip onto your bum in waterproofs would probably see you reaching about 50 miles an hour into the black yonder before you had time to do anything. The next section was a good test of navigation, with even Bruce and Tom taking extra care. We now had about 4 teams with us, following our lights. Then, after a long decent down some ski runs, the lights of Glenshee ski station appeared. What a relief. Thankfully, Clive Ramsay was there serving hot food, so we each ordered a meal or two and had a good feed.
It was hard to contemplate getting back out there and doing the final 30km of trek. We discussed options and all agreed that we would be moving significantly slower if we continued without rest, particularly considering the weather and the fact that there was 6 hours of darkness ahead of us. So, with little pressure from chasing teams, we chose to have a 2 ½ hour sleep and get going again at 3.00.
We all had fairly swollen feet / ankles and Bruce was suffering from trench foot, so when we woke it was hard to get going again. A few pain killers soon sorted that out though. The weather had improved and the stars were now shining, so the climb out of Glenshee was very pleasant. We made good time to the first 2 checkpoints, but again the going was very tough. Once the sun rose, Bruce had a sleepy patch and was found walking with his eyes closed. I soon felt very sleepy too and resorted to my first caffeine pill. Tom was going strong, as ever, and made some excellent route choices to efficiently bag 3 Munros in quick succession. We topped out on our last peak at about 10.00 And then made the rough decent to the transition. For some reason, this last decent finished my ankles off and I really struggled. Thankfully, they lasted until the end of the trek.
Our bike boxes were waiting for us at Creag Loisk and all we had to do now was a 40km ride to take us back to Grandtully, where we would be timed out until 6.00 on Friday morning before getting on the water for our final canoe section. Bearing in mind it was about noon on Thursday when we finished the Trek, we were lined up to have a very long rest in Grandtully. The ride through the Forest of Clunie was beautiful with purple heather as far as the eye could see. Normally, the riding would feel easy but with tired heads, the rutted track and muddy sections made holding a line technically challenging. We collected the 2 checkpoints, opting to go in and out for 41, and then a swift decent took us on to the road where we resumed our tight team riding formation for the last 10km. Throughout the ride we discussed what we would do with all the time we had before the canoe section. Obviously we would eat and rest but the tight squeeze in the tent didn’t really appeal. Perhaps there would be some accommodation in Grandtully that we could check into?
We arrived in Grandtully at about 16:00, and as soon as we had checked in, Nic pedalled up the road to check availability in the local accommodation. She returned with a smile on her face – it was our lucky day – The Inn on the Tay had just had a cancellation and a room that slept 4 was available. We sorted our gear and had a very pleasant evening in the restaurant before getting a good nights kip.
Despite having a great sleep, the alarm at 5:00 was a rude awakening. We headed down to the transition to find chaos, as teams were still arriving. Gear was strewn all over the place and there were some very tired looking people. We loaded our boats onto our trolleys and towed them effortlessly to the start of the paddle section, passing teams grunting and struggling to carry their boats between 4 people.
Having managed to stay within the boat on the first canoe stage, the pressure was on for the 60km stretch down to Perth. Particularly, as many people suggested that the rapids were more severe on this section. Bruce and Nic swapped positions in their boat, so that the weight was in the back, which meant that the pressure was on for Bruce to steer them down the river. We took a fairly steady pace down the river and arrived at the orienteering leg safely. The orienteering was a very short course to break up the paddle. My ankles were very swollen and not keen to run, so we walked the first section whilst Nic provided me with a concoction of painkillers. 15 minutes later, the pain had eased and I was able to start jogging (sort of). The rest of the course went smoothly and we returned to the boats after collecting the 3 checkpoints. Back in the boats, many of the short course teams had passed through, opting to miss out the orienteering. This gave us teams to chase down and a focus for the remaining 40km of paddling. We slowly passed teams, and executed all the rapids well, arriving in Perth at about 13.00 without any swims.
Another portage and it was back on the bikes for the final 60km stage. This was all on tarmac and very little climbing so we were able to push the pace on. Bruce knew of a nice farm shop just outside Perth which apparently sold very tasty ice cream, and our route went right passed it. Should we stop for a quick ice cream? – why not! We pulled in and bought a litre tub of ice cream with 4 spoons and sat in the car park devouring it getting a few strange looks from passers-by.
No time for slacking, we got back on the bikes and adopted the 4 person time trial position. For some reason I was feeling fairly fresh on the bike, so we notched it up a gear and nailed it. Two teams came into view in the distance, so we reeled them in and passed them at high speed. The miles flew by and before we knew it we only had one last climb to do and one team ahead of us. We passed those guys near the summit of the climb and shortly after the Wallace Monument came into view. What a welcome sight. A swift descent lead us into Stirling for the cruise into the finish where we were welcomed by a crowd of race organisers / supporters. We dropped our bikes and mustered up just enough energy to jog over the finish line in a total race time of approximately 85 hours.
What a journey. The route was fantastic – remote, picturesque, exciting ….. and being part of the adidas team was a pleasure. We all got on brilliantly and were totally focussed on the job in hand. I loved it – what’s next?
We’d all like to thank our many sponsors for making our journey as easy as it could. adidasTERREX for providing great kit. Exposure Lights for allowing us to move at speed through the dark nights, OMM for our fantastic rucksacks, Powerthemachine.com for our energy needs, Nordenmark for our great map boards, Paramo for keeping us toasty in the canoe, Windermere Canoe and Kayak for the canoes and amazing paddles, Salewa for head protection, Nikwax for keeping us dry, and Schwalbe for keeping our bikes rolling!
Also, we’d like to thanks Open Adventure for putting on a great race and Clive Ramsey for the amazing food at Glenshee.
All photos courtesy of James Kirby and Rob Howard