The only word I have to describe my feelings ahead of this event, is “terrified”. Would it be filled with really serious cyclists? Could I complete the distance ahead of the sweep vehicle? Just how horrible would the weather be? And whose bright idea was this anyway?
It was Steve’s idea of course! Last year he got a bit over-excited after getting a new bike and decided to sign up for the Etape Caledonia. He then persuaded me it would be a good idea to join him. Since this event sells out really quickly, I had little time to think about it and, swayed by the images of smiling cyclists pedalling along by shimmering Scottish lochs, I put my entry in and decided to worry about it later. But somehow “later” crept up on me awfully quickly and with Steve pulling out of the event after cracking a rib earlier this year, all of a sudden I found myself going it alone in the biggest endurance challenge I’ve taken on yet. Eek!
Following my experience at the Tayside Challenge the week before, I did feel confident that I could complete the distance, just not necessarily in the time allowed. The aspect of this event playing most heavily on my mind was the dreaded sweep vehicle. The roads would re-open behind this vehicle and although you could continue, the event pack stated that you would have to hand over your chip and without it would not be able to access any of the race infrastructure, including the medal. As a slow cyclist, this worried me, but in the end I realised that I could only do my best and see what happened. If I ended up on the sweep vehicle, at least I would have given it my best shot and there’s no shame in not completing a challenge, indeed what makes it a real challenge is the genuine possibility that you might not manage. So I was going to turn up, get on my bike and give it my all.
We headed up to Pitlochry around lunchtime on Saturday so I could collect my race pack. This gave us a chance to discover where the event parking was (I had paid for a space in advance) and take a look around the event village. The weather was beautiful, but thanks to my keen interest in meteorology over the previous few days, I knew that was set to change!
I collected my pack and had a look around at the various stands, then we went to get some lunch while I worried about how everyone looked like “proper” cyclists and I felt like a bit of an imposter. I was also worrying about the kit I was going to need the next day to make sure I stayed warm (dry was looking pretty unlikely!) and fuelled, so we made a pitstop on the way home so I could get some extra energy bars and chews.
The evening was then spent sorting out my kit and affixing race numbers. Since we had to get up at a time of day usually reserved for catching an early flight, I didn’t want to have anything more to do than get up, layer up and head back to Pitlochry. I’m increasingly finding that cycling requires much more preparation than running, especially for longer distances, so I was glad of my “rehearsal” sportive the week before, I just had to invest the time in getting everything ready: kit, bottles, fuel, spares/tools, bike. Phew!
Surprisingly, I slept quite well, just not for long enough and awoke to grey skies, rain and wind as forecast. I had my breakfast, checked over my kit one last time then we got everything loaded into the car and set off. Once parked, there was time for a toilet stop then I made my way towards the start with Steve reassuring me that I would be fine (it was ok for him, he “only” had to go for a run!).
We were started in waves based on our predicted finishing times and I was in the last wave which was scheduled to start at the very precise time of 7:22am, but as I got closer to the start, some of us were allowed to squeeze into the back of the wave before. I was glad of this as I thought it would give me a bit more of a head start on that sweep bus I was so worried about. The weather was horrible and I was nervous, but I was hoping that I would feel much more settled once I started, just like running a marathon, so was glad when it was finally my turn to get underway.
Despite the terrible weather and early hour, I soon settled in and actually quite enjoyed the first part of the event. My plan was to stop at each feed station for a couple of minutes, just long enough for some fuel and a stretch before carrying on. I also had electrolyte drinks in my bottles and a pack on the front of my bike with chews and cut up chocolate bars to nibble on if I needed a boost. After about 2 hours of undulating terrain, I found myself at the first feed station along with loads of other riders. I was feeling pretty good so simply had a gel then got back on the bike.
There had been glimmers of sun, but almost as soon as I got underway again the heavens opened and the next 10 miles or so were pretty soggy. The route by this point was looping around Loch Rannoch and was much flatter (not “flat”, I hasten to add, but flatter). This was when I started to feel hungry so had some of my energy chews and started to really look forward to the next feed station at 43 miles where I planned on having one of my chocolate energy bars. A small thing, but this was really exciting to me at this point in the day!
At the feed station I enjoyed the break as my lower back needed a stretch and I really needed some food, especially since the next 10 miles or so were the part of the route I had been dreading – Schiehallion. For 43 miles I had been looking at the low cloud over the hills and assuming the weather would be pretty bad up there. I also knew this would be the steepest part of the route which was a bit of a concern. So far I had held up ok, but I had passed plenty of people at the side of the road who were either dealing with punctures or having to pull out altogether. I didn’t really want to join them.
There were loads of people at this feed station too, but all too soon a race official started to call out that the sweep bus was approaching. It would sit for a few minutes, but the road was due to open soon so we had to get underway. Amid much groaning, everyone got back on their bikes and set off.
It was another couple of miles before I reached the base of Schiehallion and the start of the King of the Mountains climb (king, not queen, apparently, although 1 in 5 entrants were female). There was a timing mat to cross then a steep climb to the next mat which, as it turns out, was not the end of the climb, just the end of the steepest part. I got my head down and started pedalling, but already people around me were getting off to push. Soon enough, I realised why: the wind. It was the sort of wind I can barely stand up in, let alone pedal into, and I was getting slower and slower. Eventually I realised that I was getting blown backwards and was likely to tip over as my pedalling was getting me nowhere. I’m not embarrassed to say that I also got off to push. I did get back on the bike a few times, but the wind just got worse and worse the higher I got and those who were sticking it out in the saddle were not moving any faster than those walking!
Back on the bike, I was expecting the “swooping 8k descent” I had been promised on the event website, but first there was a little more “undulating” to do. The problem is, by now the weather was so bad that I thought it might herald an impending apocalypse. The wind was fierce, the rain was stinging and even cycling downhill was hard work. What godforsaken hell was this? Had the sweep vehicle caught me at this point, I would have gladly taken my place on it, but there was no sign of it, just weary and bedraggled cyclists gritting their teeth and carrying on. I did spot one poor guy waiting to be picked up. He had been issued with a foil blanket by the support crews but he still looked miserable and I didn’t envy him his wait. I was miserable too, but at least I was still moving. Head down and keep pedalling.
And then, hallelujah, the feed station! I had reached the 50 mile point and after this feed station (which felt like it might be at the end of the earth!) I would get that swooping descent. I didn’t want to stop for long in the awful conditions, so just racked my bike for long enough to get a quick stretch and a gel. Let the descent begin!
There were some sharp bends on the descent so I couldn’t let go completely, but it was still nice not to have to pedal for a while and just let gravity do its job. I did have a bit of a problem though. My Garmin had been flashing up a warning that the lap memory was almost full and now started to just bleep constantly to tell me it had no more room. There was no way to clear this whilst negotiating a winding descent (no amount of pressing enter seemed to be enough, despite what was suggested on the screen) so I had to stop my watch until I reached the next feed station at 67 miles. This meant that for a good chunk of this section of the route I was riding “blind” with no real notion of the distance I’d gone or the speed I was doing, so I just focused on continuing to pedal and getting into a rhythm. The descent had brought me together with a few other riders so I tried to keep pace with them.
At the feed station, I had another chocolate energy bar, cleared the lap memory on my Garmin and chatted to another cyclist who was doing the event for the second time. He told me that in the past he used to run ultras. I’d have loved to keep talking to him, but the race clock was still ticking and with 14 miles left, I just wanted to get this thing done. I’d seen no sign of the sweep vehicle since the second feed station, so was now beginning to think I could actually finish this.
Garmin started again, I set off with my mind now turning to the short but steep climb I had been warned about at Logierait, towards the end of the route. The weather was getting pretty miserable again, so when I passed a sign saying 75 miles I almost wept. Soon after that, there was a tight left turn and signs warning of a step incline. Here we go!
Once more, some people got off their bike to walk, but I toughed it out and got up the hill. From this point on, we were on a narrow path leading back to Pitlochry, and just about every time I turned a corner there was another hill. Time was playing tricks on me and it seemed to take forever. I knew from my Garmin than there couldn’t be far to go, but there was no sign of Pitlochry yet. Then at last, a beacon of hope: a cyclist pushing his bike back along the path with a medal around his neck. This is usually a sign of being close to the finish and within a couple of minutes I was making the final left turn onto the main road and back to where I started. This section, wouldn’t you know it, was also “gently” uphill, but it was also lined with spectators shouting out encouragement and finding various ways to make a lot of noise so I couldn’t slow down. I pedalled as furiously as my weary legs would let me until the finish gantry came into view. I had actually done it! Finish time: 6:28:07.
Having never really considered the possibility of actually finishing, I wasn’t sure how I would feel. Would it be the wave of emotions so familiar from a marathon, or something else entirely? To be honest, what I felt was somewhere between relief and exhaustion. I had just cycled 81 miles in the most miserable weather, and nobody could have been more surprised than me that I had done it. An official directed me to slow down and dismount (which I managed without falling over) then I made my way over to the finish area to return my timing chip.
A lovely army cadet approached me and asked if I needed a hand. I did, so she set about removing my chip (which was attached to the quick release mechanism on my front wheel) whilst chatting about the event. I thanked her for her help and shuffled on to collect my medal and a bottle of water, then Steve appeared to help. I handed him my bike as I was worried I might drop it, then walked up to get a burger. Our farming friend Jim had brought his fantastic fresh beef and lamb burgers and our chef friend Graeme was in charge of cooking, so I knew I would get good quality food. We chatted to the guys for a bit then decided it would be best to just head back to the car, stopping only for a finish photo:
After peeling off some layers and sticking on some warm clothes, I inhaled my burger then we set off for home where, after the most wonderful bath, I celebrated with a huge plate of steak frites. Delicious!
I was tired and my legs were restless from the effort, but I was delighted to have finished. In all honesty, I was ready to write a quite different post to this one, and even now I can hardly believe I actually did it and have to keep looking at the photos and medal to remind myself that it really was me.
All in all, it was a great event. The closed roads meant that I felt safer and it was incredibly well supported with crews on motorbikes travelling up and down the route checking everybody was ok and volunteers at various points along the route. I tried to smile and thank them all as I passed as it was a miserable day to do their job and they would have been out there for a long time, yet everybody I encountered was smiling, friendly and encouraging. Other riders were friendly too and most exchanged a word or two in the passing, even if they were riding with a friend and chatting to them. If you like your bike rides long and scenic then I would definitely recommend this one and you can already register your interest for next year.
As for me, I do like my bike, but 81 miles is a bit further than I really want to be cycling right now. Running is my first love and training properly for an event like the Etape doesn’t fit well for me. I’ll certainly do more sportives, but I’m thinking 50 miles at most. Still, I’ve now done an event that Steve hasn’t and, given the weather conditions, feel hardcore!
I cycled 81 miles in hideous weather to raise vital funds for Macmillan Cancer Support. Every penny I raise helps to make a difference for those affected by cancer, and even in the toughest moments, remembering why I was doing it helped me to dig deep.