City to Summit
The tagline "Some triathlons claim to be the toughest, this one does not claim" pretty much sums up this beast! It's an iron-distance triathlon with a run up Ben Nevis for the last 10 miles of the marathon.
- 2.4 miles sea swim in the Firth of Forth
- 112 miles cycle from South Queenferry to Glencoe
- 27 mile run from Glencoe to Fort William
Here's my race report:
I was planning to compete in Ironman Lanzarote this year, but after looking at the costs I couldn't justify it what with Laura and me getting married in July. So I started looking around for cheaper alternatives in the UK. An internet search led me to this event, which I promptly signed up for without really thinking about what it involved. A week later, I started thinking about the practicalities of running up the UK's largest mountain after doing the other legs of the Ironman triathlon. I thought back to Ironman Zurich last summer and remembered how my legs were completely destroyed by the latter half of the marathon. Yikes, I thought, I better get training!
Six months later, I'd done over 350 hours of training, concentrating on getting in lots of miles on the bike and getting my legs used to fell running. I also did a reasonable amount of swimming but this wasn't my main worry - the swim stage is by far the easiest discipline in these long triathlons and unless you are trying to win them, it's not that important to get a super-quick time. 10 days before the event, I'd bought all the additional equipment I needed (cheapest stuff that was good enough), borrowed my Dad's carbon road bike and was happy with my preparation. I was getting PBs at the pool, on the bike and running, I was as ready as I'd ever be.
I biked down to Sheffield station with a giant backpack on my back, took the train to Dalmeny and cycled down to the start line. It was a truly spectacular place to start a race, underneath the iconic Forth Road and Forth Rail Bridges. I was one of the first competitors there, so I registered, spent an hour sorting my kit into transition bags, mixing up energy tablets into water for my running backpack and bike bottles, then went off in search of food. Two highly carby meals later, I headed for my hotel room for an early night, I had to be up at 3 the next day...
03:00 is a horrible time for your alarm to go off. I had two bowls of porridge, then grabbed my kit and headed down to the start line for 4 o' clock. I should have had another hour in bed in hindsight, but it was good to be there early. I double checked the bike was working, got changed into my wetsuit and chatted to the other competitors, of which there were around 300. A lot of them were far better prepared than me, with timetables stuck to their bike tubes, telling them where they should be and when, and at what time they should be eating energy gels and bars. I planned to eat when I was hungry and perform as well as I could at all times. That said, I was going to leave something in reserve too, I wouldn't push too hard on the bike section, to ensure that I had something left for "The Ben". That would be the part of the race where a lot of time could be lost.
At 05:30 the race briefing was given, telling us that the full swim was on as the water was warm enough: a barmy 12 degrees! Last year it was less than 9, so they had to cut the swim to half-distance, no such luck this time... We walked to the start and a few of us ventured into the sea. It was bloody freezing! I couldn't keep my head underwater for more than about seconds. It would take a while to get used to the temperature.
We were off... with a massive dose of adrenaline I started wading out along the jetty and into the sea. The first 50 strokes or so were used to get my head used to the water, but after a couple of minutes I was able to swim normally... breathe right... 3 strokes... breath left... 3 strokes... remember to breath out underwater... try not to swallow any salt water... watch out for his leg... stop hitting me from behind... breathe right... ah crap I'm going the wrong way... you forgot to look up every other right stroke... aim for the first pillar on the road bridge....
After 5 minutes I was comfortably in a rhythm and swimming as fast as I could comfortably do. I felt good and was making good progress towards the speck on the horizon that was the Rat Race yellow buoy. 17 minutes after the start, I reached it, turned anticlockwise around it and headed for the next one, turned around that and headed back for the start, sometimes drafting someone, sometimes being drafted, sometimes swimming alone.
The second lap was sooo much harder than the first. The tide had picked up significantly in the 30 minutes that it had taken me to swim the first lap and I was having to work much harder to reach the buoy the second time round. It was so demoralising after every sighting stroke (where I popped my head up to make sure I was going the right way) to see absolutely no noticeable progress. It took my 24 minutes the second time to reach the buoy, which looked as though it was in the middle of a fast flowing river as the tidal current swept it's way around the sides. The leg back to the start was very fast though, with the current pushing me along. I realised that I was going to make it... and I was going to smash my Ironman Zurich swim leg by about 15 minutes! I started getting quite emotional under the water, all those early morning miles in the pool had paid off.
I passed a photographer on a boat and reached the jetty, pulled myself out of the water and ran past the clapping spectators who were doing a great job at motivating the competitors as we finished the swim. 1 hour 14 minutes... not a spectacular time compared to the quick guys (winner did it in 52 minutes) but not bad at all!
I didn't rush transition, I made sure I had everything I needed and had got ready for the bike leg. Suncream on... Chammy cream on... take out contact lenses and chuck on floor, prescription sunglasses on, gloves, eat the banana in the transition bag.. go go go.
I grabbed my bike from the transition area, pleased to see there were still plenty there and headed off on my journey to Glencoe. There is nothing like this feeling in any other form of cycling. The relief of having completed the swim, having not wasted all those training hours, and now I was on the bike. For obvious reasons my favourite triathlon discipline is the bike. Running and swimming feel foreign to me. I'm confident on the bike and it felt great to speed along, down on the tri bars to minimise air resistance. I climbed up to the Forth Road Bridge and crossed it trying to spot how many swimmers were still there but I couldn't see them from the left side of the bridge. The first part of the route took us through built up North Queensferry and Dunfermline until we reached the pretty countryside around Creif. The ride continued past a couple of large lochs, before reaching Lochearnhead, the end of the "flat" part of the ride. After that we climbed through Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park and up into the Highlands, through Tyndrum and onto my favourite part of the UK: Rannoch Moor. It's just spectacular, and every time I come here it seems to be a beautiful day. Rannoch Moor is a vast landscape, massive in every direction. It's a flat, barren, open space, but it's surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains I've ever seen. The highlight; Glen Coe, was where were heading, the giant U-shaped glacial valley. There was a headwind, but it wasn't too strong so I was making good progress at this stage. I could feel the previous 100 miles and 4000 feet of climbing in my legs, but I'd kept to my game plan, I'd never pushed that hard. I'd let a few people pass me at the beginning and not chased them, which is difficult to do! I caught most of them later though, on the climbs. I was feeling as fresh as I could have been after such a long ride. The final 10 miles or so was downhill, through Glen Coe. The munroes on either side passed by. The ski centre, the Aonach Eagach Ridge on the right (a knife-edge ridge walk I'd done a decade ago) the Lost Valley on the left (a completely hidden valley where the MacDonald clan hid their stolen cattle) and down down down to Kinlochleven (a sea loch) and the Isles of Glencoe Hotel transition after 6 hours and 20 minutes of cycling.
On the bike, I'd chatted to a few other competitors, planned my tactics for the run, concentrated on eating energy gels/bars/bananas/flapjacks as soon as I felt a pang of hunger, made myself drink every 10 minutes, checked my pace, looked at my progress on my Garmin GPS watch and watched the spectacular scenery pass by. I was never at all bored and thoroughly enjoyed it. The only worry was that my right knee started hurting on Rannoch Moor. I really hoped it would hold out for the run.
Well... run and then walk. It started out as a run and I set off at a good, but steady pace. Transition was fairly straightforward. I didn't rush, just got changed and took my time. I headed off on foot, around the edge of Kinlochleven. The route crossed the loch on a bridge then headed up the other side of the loch on a small country lane. 5 miles into the run we started climbing up a very steep slope that went on and on, to the top of the valley side. I was feeling good though, apart from my knees, which were both aching now. I passed a couple of tired looking people on the way up the valley, including the leading female athlete who'd put in a very strong bike leg. Eventually I reached the top of the valleyside with wet feet, having crossed some boggy, spongy ground. A short descent from the top took me onto the West Highland Way, which I recognised, having cycled it a couple of years ago.
The West Highland Way was beautiful, quiet and peaceful, and a lovely surface to run on. I was making good progress and still moving up the field, passing a few competitors who were walking. I wondered if I wasn't conserving enough energy, but I felt good so thought I'd carry on at the same pace. On the next climb though, after about 13 miles were up, I started feeling tired. My secret weapon helped - a mule energy shot I discovered a few months ago which contains two very sugary and syrupy double espresso shots! I descended on a forest track to the final pit stop before Ben Nevis. I scoffed loads of the food that was laid out on the tables, downed a Red Bull, and filled up my Camelbak rucksack with water before setting off for Ben Nevies.
I reached the bottom of the towering rock that lay ahead and thoroughly enjoyed the ascent. It was more comfortable to be walking uphill than continuing to run and I made good progress. The path zigged zagged up the valley and I felt good as I reached the last of the vegetation and the scree slope that begins about halfway up the climb. There were loads of people on the mountain, many doing the three peaks. On the way up, I saw the first of the athletes coming down and they were moving very quickly on the rocky descent! The two leaders were very close together and it would be a race to the finish. I saw a few other come down too, but lost count as I tried to work out what position I was in - it doesn't matter anyway right? It's just about finishing isn't it?!
I reached the snowline and was very tired by the time I finally got to the summit. It was cloudy on the top as I reached the checkpoint and tagged myself in. I put my coat on, had a Mars bar and started running down. I didn't stop... I let the gravity do the work and just concentrated on getting my feet down safely on flat ground. It would be so annoying to injure an ankle now. I passed a few more people on the way down, I still felt OK and was delighted that I still had a bit of energy left - saving energy on the bike leg had definitely been a good move. The descent lasted over an hour, but eventually it started flattening out and I could hear the crowd on the finish line. I started running as fast as I could and reached the last straight, rounded the corner and crossed the line, absolutely exhausted! 14 hours 47 minutes. I was delighted with that! I looked at the results computer - 16th place! NO WAY. That was a huge shock, I wasn't expecting that at all! What a great way to finish a wonderful day.
City to Summit was a brilliant event. To have swum under the bridges, completed an awesome 6 hour road ride, then run the West Highland Way and ascended Ben Nevis in a day was an amazing feeling. I'll definitely be back!
GPS TRACKS AND TIMES
SWIM TIME: 2.4 miles in 1:14:52
BIKE TIME: 112 miles in 6:20:10
RUN TIME 27 miles in 6:31:13
TOTAL TIME 14:47:28