Monday, 14 September 2015

Suffering Part 8; Swim Run UK (plus a few days in the Orkney Islands)

Swim Run UK

Last Friday, after a tough 4 weeks on a new rota at work, I finally started a week of annual leave!  Obviously I'm not great at just 'relaxing' so this involved a swim-run race in Loch Lomond, followed by cycling from Inverness to John o'Groats, before then heading up to Orkney for a few days of exploring.

So what even is a swin-run race??  I'm sure you are all wondering!  Don't worry though, it's a relatively new type of race, with this being only the second held in the UK to date.  The original swim-run race (the ö till ö; meaning 'island to island') started in Sweden; it was actually a challenge between friends, thought up during a stag-weekend!  It involved travelling from one end of a chain of islands to the other, by running across the islands and swimming between them.  The ö till ö is particularly gruelling, with 10km of swimming, and 65km of trail running.  Swim-running is increasing in popularity quickly in Sweden, with more and more races springing up.

I first heard about the ö till ö in July last year when my friend Nicky gave me a book of 'the world's hardest challenges' after I completed my first ironman.  We were both very excited about the prospect of such a race!  When I heard about the Loch Lomond Inch-by-Inch race I couldn't wait to enter!  Unfortunately Nicky wasn't so keen (I really don't know why??) so I was desperately trying to persuade one of my friends to join me as it involves racing as a pair.  I couldn't persuade anyone, but then a friend suggested someone else; 'she loves crazy stuff like this!!  It'll be great!'  A few messages exchanged and we'd signed up!  What wouldn't be fun about running in a wetsuit and swimming in your trainers??

A couple of training weekends together to get to know each other and come up with a plan, then the race quickly came upon us.  We had opted to swim (and run) attached to each other by a bungee cord.  This meant we stayed together, could draft each other in the swim and didn't split up on the run.  We both had different strengths, Anna being a strong swimmer, and myself being the stronger runner.  I think this must be the first race I've raced as a pair, and it didn't exactly go to plan.  We finished, and we weren't last... that's something at least!!

I guess it's hard to race with someone you don't know; I wasn't sure how much I could push Anna on the run; I'm sure she didn't appreciate being pulled up Conic Hill; I like to think I was giving positive encouragement, although I'm sure Anna would disagree!

The race was in beautiful surroundings, and it was a real privilege to be racing over and around the islands of Loch Lomond.  The race was well-organised, and on a whole a great experience.

Lessons I've learnt?
  1. Don't race with someone you don't know.  Working well as a team is key to racing well.
  2. I'm more competitive than I like to admit.
  3. Stick to triathlons/solo events next time!!
Meeting Ruth & Cate on their way down Conic Hill

Running towards Cashel Campsite

At the end of the longest swim (I think)

We did it!!!  7hr42... phew!

The Orkney Islands

After Loch Lomond I headed north, and spent the night in Helmsdale with Jan & Barry, the lovely B&B owners who looked after me last time I was up, when I became unwell during day 7 of LEJOG and had to stop.  The next morning I continued further north to deposit the car in Thurso (left headlights on; idiot!), and then back down to Inverness, ready to re-ride Inverness to JOG in the next day (see previous blog post).

On Monday evening, after 9 hours in the saddle I arrived in JOG, before continuing on to Thurso to discover a flat car battery, pick up a rucksack of stuff, and head onto the ferry for Stromness.  Arriving in Stromness shattered, I met a Kiwi who insisted we must celebrate my finishing LEJOG!  A couple of beers later I was well and truly ready for bed!

I had been up to Orkney and Hoy in May to climb the Old Man of Hoy and had been dying to return.  I don't know how to express it, but there's something about the Orkneys that I find so thoroughly relaxing.  I find the peace and solitude amazing.

Tuesday meant a ferry over to Hoy.  I cycled across the island to Rackwick; a stunning bay surrounded by hills on either side that roll down into the sea.  There are a few cottages, but mostly the bay is quite remote and isolated.  I headed over to the bothy and was disappointed to see smoke coming out of the chimney; I'd hoped to have a few days by myself.  Instead I met David, a czech guy who had been travelling around Scotland.  After a quick sea swim, we headed up Ward Hill; this is the highest point in all of Orkney, with views over all of the islands (on a clear day...), and then stopped for a second swim in Sandy Loch, a small loch on the way back to the road.  A quick cafe stop too, before heading back across the island, picking up dry wood along the way.  David managed to get the fire lit (very good considering how wet the wood was!), and we sat up chatting by the fire for a few hours.

On Wednesday I headed around Hoy on my bike, biking down to Lyness and then Longhope, and back up to the ferry at Moaness.  The roads were stunning to bike on, and incredibly quiet!!  They were surprisingly smooth given the little amount of traffic, so I had a fun 45 miles blasting around on them.  Wednesday afternoon I caught the ferry back the Orkney mainland as high winds were forecast for Thursday, and I didn't want to risk getting stuck on the island if the ferry couldn't dock the next day.

Back in Stromness I spent the night camping with David.  We had cooked inside the town hall to avoid the wind, and stumbled upon a church singing group.  Their hospitality was touching, offering us to use the kitchen and making us tea and coffee!

On Thursday we headed in different directions; David off to Kirkwall, to continue on to Shetland, and me off on my bike.  I had planned to do a long ride around the mainland, but the headwind plus tired legs meant I was going nowhere fast!  Plan aborted after only 25 miles, I spent a nice afternoon in Stromness instead.

After hearing rumours of the northern lights, I had an early start (3am!) to try and catch them on Friday morning, before catching the first ferry back to Scotland.  I was sad to leave Orkney, and I'm sure I'll come back again and again.  The islanders are so welcoming, and the surroundings so beautiful.  It's hard not to feel at home.  I've had a look and there is a hospital there; it even has a small A&E I think!  So maybe I'll come to live and work for a period of time in the future.  I'd strongly recommend a trip up there with bikes to explore to anyone with some free time.

As always, it's the people you meet that help make a trip what it is.  Jan, Barry and Rob in Helmsdale were incredible (again).  Sharing the bothy with David was good fun; it was refreshing to hear about his dreams and aspirations for life.

Friday involved a long drive home!  I stopped in Edinburgh to ride over the Forth Road Bridge as it had been shut to bikes when I rode through during LEJOG.  I joyously broke the 15mph speed limit for bikes, and felt happy knowing I had cycled every little bit of LEJOG now!  A short run around Edinburgh to wake me up, then I picked up Dan, my co-pilot, and kept driving, arriving home at about midnight... a long day!!

Now it's back into another 4 weeks of rota, before my next chance to escape!  I'll be heading up to the Lake District to swim the length of Ullswater, then having a few days in North Wales catching up with friends and during various forms of exercise (you know me; you can rest when you are dead!).

Theodore waiting for a ferry on Hoy (shortly before getting soaked by waves)

Looking over to Hoy from Orkney mainland.

Sunrise over Hoy as I sailed away :(

Dawn over Orkney mainland
The final piece!  The Forth Road Bridge

Big grins!!
Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags; an evening run.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Unfinished Business; LEJOG Day 7; Inverness to John o' Groats

After failing so close to the end during my LEJOG attempt earlier in the year, I knew I had to come back and finish what I had started!  In June I became unwell on my final day, managing only 70 miles from Inverness, before having to end my journey early in Helmsdale, only 51 miles from the end.  As soon as I got my rota (with it's fixed annual leave), I started planning a trip back up north.

After a night in Helmsdale with Jan and Barry (the lovely B&B owners who looked after me when I was unwell in June), I had a day of logistics, taking my car up to Thurso* before getting a train back to Inverness.  Sunday night, 3 months after my previous stay, and I found myself back at Inverness youth hostel.  Fortunately I was feeling somewhat better than last time!  I met Mark and Bella to go out for dinner again (as I had done in Perth), but this time we avoided an Indian, and went for Italian instead.  I didn't dare risk another bout of D&V!

Since my LEJOG trip, I now have a new bike; Theodore; a custom built steel-framed beast!  He is a stunner!!  Felix has taken a fair hammering over the last few years, and with multiple bolt-holes failing, I felt I could finally justify a new stead (don't worry, Felix hasn't been retired, he is still being used for commuting!).

Introducing Theodore...

An early alarm (5.50am!!) on Monday morning saw me climb out of bed, scoff some porridge, and roll out of the door by 6.30am.  So began my journey north.  The miles rolled away easily as I watched the sun come up.  It was a stunning day as I followed the A9 north surrounded by beautiful scenery.  (Forecast black clouds and a strong head wind!)   To an extent I remembered the roads as far as Helmsdale, although any hills seemed much easier this time!  After a quick toilet and bottle refill in Goldspie I arrived in Helmsdale at 11am, ahead of schedule and pleased with my speed. The roads had initially been busy (well, it was a Monday morning before 9am; to be expected), but they soon quietened down.

Dawn start in Inverness

In Helmsdale I headed to Thyme and Plaice.  This is the cafe where my journey ended last time; I was in tears and absolutely broken!  Rob, the kind cafe owner, had tried to feed me, then recommended a B&B, and driven myself and Felix up the hill to said B&B.  The cafe was closed today, but being the super kind Yorkshire man that he is, Rob came to meet me anyway and make me some lunch.  "Bloody Doctors, they're always early" he said!  Perhaps the Scottish NHS is better than in England??

I was on my way again by 12 o'clock, with 50-55 miles to go (depending on which signpost you used!), and the real hills started!!  I climbed up out of Helmsdale, stopping to remove a layer, before eventually whizzing down into Berriedale.  Of course this is followed by a big up (with hair-pins and everything!!!).  It was stunning!  Retrospectively, there was no way I would have gotten up here last time around.

Up until Helmsdale I had been fortunately sheltered from the forecast Northerly winds, but as I progressed further north they began to rear their ugly head!  Leaving Wick with about 20 miles to go, I really felt their force, and my speed definitely slowed (but not too surprising given I was past 100 miles already for the day).  I had generally not been paying too much attention to the ascent profiles of each day of LEJOG, but had been forewarned about the final hill before JOG.  It isn't steep, but man is it a slog!!

Coming over that final summit, and seeing John o'Groats in the distance was emotional to say the least.  I spent most of the day smiling, really enjoying the ride (even in the head wind).  Speeding off downhill towards John o'Groats I had tears in my eyes.  Reaching the end meant a lot to me.


Big grins :)
Setting off 3 months previously, to cycle end-to-end in 7 days, I think I had underestimated the seriousness of the challenge I had set myself.  125 miles a day, for 7 days.  It was tougher than I thought!  It was hard to fail last time, but I know I could not have tried any harder or gone any further on that final day.  It is a relief and a joy to have finished the journey finally.  I haven't put it to bed though (so to speak).  As Tom reminded me, I've done the final day on a different bike!  And I haven't done it all in one go.  I'll definitely be back to ride the trip again.  Maybe I'll go solo over 6 days next time.  Or maybe a more leisurely schedule with Tom for company (not on a tandem, sorry!).  This trip helped me to realise what is physically possible.  For me the answer is more than you think!  It also helped me to raise A LOT of money for Orchid, a male cancer charity, as my Dad had testicular cancer last year.  Thank you to everyone to sponsored me; if you haven't yet but do want to you can at

Now I'm sat in Orkney, drinking a pale ale from the local brewery, after a blustery day on the bike.  Once back to city life I'll blog about my swim run race, and also about exploring Orkney and Hoy.  I'll also add some pictures of Theodore looking good at Inverness and JOG!

Still to come in my 'year of suffering', I'm planning to swim the length of Ullswater (approx 8 miles), and then in my November week off I am hoping to run the Thames path over 7 days (so approximately a marathon a day for 7 days).

*If you wonder whether you have left your car lights on or not, don't reassure yourself that you haven't, go and bloody check!!!  My car is currently parked at Thurso train station with no battery...