In September 2018, we took part in the Rat Race 'Coast to Coast' challenge, a two-day, 105-mile cycling, kayaking and running journey across the Scottish highlands. Here is how we got on...
Just over 18 months ago, Greg and I sat down after his last round of Chemo and discussed how he wanted a challenge to focus on getting fit again. If we could raise some money along the way, for Macmillan Cancel Support who have such an amazing role with people diagnosed with cancer, that would be great too.
I had previously seen the Scottish Coast to Coast rat race and thought it looked amazing, however there would potentially be a lot of running involved! To my surprise, Greg thought it was a great idea, it would have running in it, but also a lot of cycling, a bit of mountain biking and kayaking. So in October 2018 we booked it as a team – there was no going back and it relied on both of us being fit enough to achieve it, as we had to be within 50 meters of each other at all times.
So the training started, soon after we booked it in November, we started to run, neither of us have ever been runners. I had never run more than a 10km and that was only once, and the event had two running sections, one of 7 miles and one of 14. Greg had never run more than half a mile before in his life! The running sections were really playing on our minds, but we had a plan: we would run three times a week; one run would be interval training, one at a moderate pace and one long run. We also realised that we would need to have the ability to recover quickly as this was a two day event, so we both took up kettlebells twice a week. This really tested our commitment, as it's such hard work!
We both built up our running with a lot of walking in between, and Greg was getting stronger and the walking started to become a little less, when he was hit with a bout of shingles. His immune system was still pretty low after the chemo, so a rest just before a snowboarding holiday (all in the name of training!) was needed.
April was a turning point, where our runs become runs, Greg ran his first 2 miles non stop, and this was such a huge confidence boost. We had always been pretty confident with our cycling , so most of our training focus was on running. Over the next few months, our runs became longer, and we went up to 12 miles in July.
Six weeks ahead of the challenge, Greg started to have problems with his ankles and calves with a lot of pain, which meant that his running was put on hold. This, however, did not stop the cycling or kettlebell classes! Two weeks from the challenge, I hurt my back, so I was forced to rest! Going from workouts most days to none, was very hard, especially as psychologically I felt this was the time I should be at my fittest.
Our amazing friend Colin drove us up to Scotland and looked after us through the weekend. On the journey up, the ten months of training was about to come to fruition – had we done enough to finish? Will we actually going to enjoy it? A lot of nervous and excitement energy was in that car!
On the Friday afternoon, we had to register and drop our bikes off at the first transition at Cawdor Castle. This is where we got a first glimpse of the other competitors and their bikes - did we bring the right ones?!!. We did not know who were the Experts - tackling the challenge in one day - and who were the Challengers - doing the challenge in two days like us. It was a nice mix of people and bikes, and we and our bikes seemed to fit in – which was a nice confirmation – but looks can be deceiving!
We then spent a good 30 minutes faffing! We had to decide ahead of the Scottish weather what to leave with our bikes, and what we would carry with us on the first 7 mile run in the morning. This was the only time that we had the chance to run with a light rucksack. We ended up leaving only our bike kit (helmet, shoes, pumps, etc) and deciding we would carry everything else. With the packing and the bikes put in to the T1 compound, we headed for our accommodation in Nairn and to check out where the start was. It was a lovely evening and we discovered that the start line was right on the beach. With some food in us, and a lot more faffing, we headed off to bed.
On Saturday we woke up three hours before we had to be at the start, to get some food down us and drink quite a few cups of coffee and ponder, for the 100th time why this was such a good idea, the answer always came back to, helping Macmillian provide to others what they had for us. This was our driving factor throughout the whole weekend.
We checked the weather to ensure we were carrying the right waterproofs – it was to be sunny all day, this is always good news!
The start of the challenge was in three waves for the Challengers, we were in Wave Two, and had lovely orange wrist bands denoting this. At 8:45am we were shepherded into the starting pen, and given our brief, and off we went for the run. Our run plan was to start slow and stay slow, as we did not want to risk Greg’s past injuries flaring up or to exhaust ourselves. We stuck to this plan so well that I think we were the last in our wave to get to our bikes in T1! The run took us along the river and through the woods, with a constant uphill gradient for all 7 miles. It was so peaceful and we met very few other people on the track.
When we got to T1, we swapped out shoes and leggings for cycling shoes and cycling shorts and headed out on to the bike ride. It was a lovely start to the bike ride, and this is where our strength showed as we soon started passing a lot of other people, who had been running ahead of us, while eating our honey and banana sandwiches - no sickly gels for us! This continued for about ten miles, when I started getting really bad pains in my inner knee. The only thing I could think of that would have affected this is that I had been playing around with my seat height, and had set it too high - rookie mistake! So down it came, but the damage had already been done, and then next 38 miles were painful. We had to
stop a few times so I could stretch out the leg, but we still managed to keep passing people, and the ride was very enjoyable. The scenery was amazing, and we used the words ‘beautiful’, ‘wow’ and ‘amazing’ to describe the landscape we were cycling through more often than I can count!
We were both really surprised how quickly the 48 mile cycle ride had gone. When we got in to Fort Augustus for the optional kayaking on Loch Ness, the clock stopped when we racked up the bikes. Now neither Greg or I have done much kayaking, and we thought the idea of us managing to co-ordinate a kayak between us was amusing! As this was the optional element, we decided we need to practise for the timed one the following day. We gingerly got into the kayak and pushed off, and the conclusion was – it was a lot of fun, and we could do it pretty well!
When we finished the kayaking we headed off to find Colin, and off to our cabin in the woods! The first day had surprised both Greg and I, because it was a lot more achievable than either of us had imagined, and it gave us a little bit of hope for the following day, that if we took it steady we would be okay. This was being optimistic, as at this point I had ice on my knee!
With another early start on the Sunday, my knee felt really good when walking, but we knew this was going to be the tougher of the two days. With the emphasis on the 14 mile trek after the cycling. It turned out that it was going to be hard for both of us in very different ways.
Upon waking, the first change from Saturday was the weather - it was pouring with rain. We made our way to pick up the bikes and get ready for the 7.30am start.
The cycle ride was a combination of 21 miles off-road and 13 miles on road. The first mile was lovely along the canal path, but then my knee started to hurt, to the point that any pressure on the downward stroke would virtually bring me to tears. This is where I was thankful for all those horrendous kettlebell classes and squats – as I cycled the next 30ish miles using one leg, and walking up any hills that the one leg could not handle – sadly it meant we weren't as quick as we would otherwise have been.
The route off-road was stunning, we followed the forestry tracks, and went up and down some lovely trails, passing people who were mending their punctured skinny road tires, which confirmed we chose the right bikes! Once the forest was behind us and we were back on tarmac, we could move on a bit more easily with me trying different pedalling techniques to relive the pain. The route down to Fort William took us past some lovely lochs, and the weather was starting to come in waves of rain rather than a continuous downpour.
When we got to the transition in Fort William, we had 30 minutes off the clock, to change, eat, and place our bikes in the right zone for transport to the finish line. We had decided that we would try to be as quick as possible in the transition zone, as we did not want to get cold, and we really had no idea what awaited us on the 14 mile run/trek. We grabbed some food and Colin met us and sneaked in some Haribo for us! So we set off, this was the part I was dreading, how would me knee hold up after the pain I had been in during the morning? The conclusion – it did not hurt to walk or run on! My pain for the day was over whereas Greg’s was just beginning.
The start of the trek was on road for about a mile, so we ran this section, and then we were confronted with a track that was covered with loose stones, and a long steep climb, so we reverted to good old trusted fast walking. Looking around, everyone else had the same idea. We were thinking this will soon end – nope, it was like this pretty much for the next 16 miles! There were very few places we felt comfortable enough to run without the thought we ere going to twist our ankles. As you would have noticed, the mileage has gone up from 14 to 16 miles. This was due to rerouting because of bad weather, although we did not know this
at the time. Within a few miles, Greg was starting to struggle with his
breathing and also his ankles and calf injuries, and so running was reduced to only where we were sure no further damage could be done, he was in a lot pain to walk.
We got to about mile 7 and saw a marker for 8 miles which did not make sense! Surely we were over half way? At this point we started to wonder if the route had been changed, and so when I was expecting a large climb around mile 12 and it did not happen, it confirmed that the route had changed and neither of us knew how much longer we would have to go on for. When we start to descend the loose stones made way for small boulders which were wet and slippery, but at least did not move, we decided we might as well jog and keep balance, rather than try to pick our way down. Before we knew it we were back on a road, and we were both looking out for the kayaks - but all we saw instead was a bus .
The bad weather had not only rerouted us, but had cancelled the kayaks due to the high winds on the Loch, which was disappointing to hear, as our experience on the Saturday was so much fun we were really looking forward to finishing the day doing something that hopefully neither of us would be in pain doing, and which involved sitting down! As we approached the busses, we were told this is the end, here is where the clock would stop, and we would be bussed round to the actual finish line so we could cross it.
Sitting in the warm, dry bus, we slowly came to the realisation that we had done it. For ten months, our thoughts, spare time, even eating had been consumed by us getting to this one point of finishing and we had both managed it. It was a sense of relief, disappointment, achievement and pride all in one.
Relief that we had finished!
Disappointment that it was all over!
Achievement at being fit enough to enjoy it, and raising more than we ever imagined for Macmillan, from the support of our family and friends who recognised in us that we could achieve it.
Pride: feeling so proud of what Greg had gone through, physically and emotionally with cancer in the last two years and to be able to drive himself in a fitness regime to ensure that others can get the support we had, through Macmillan. It still brings me tears to think about the exhaustion, frustration and determination he has gone through and has shown in the last ten months to finish this challenge.
We did get to cross the finish line, the bus dropped us about a hundred meters from the finish line, and we got to cross it and get our medals, which are now proudly hanging in the toilet!
A week later as I write this, Greg's ankles and calves still hurt, and my knee still hurts, but there's nothing that some rest won’t cure. The sense of relief, disappointment, achievement and pride have not dwindled at all, and I think we may be on a little high for a few more weeks.
Greg and I are so appreciative and cannot give enough thanks for all the support we have received; either from motivating us though such kind donations, driving us to Scotland, words of encouragement, gifts of equipment, advise with training, words of encouragement, and even a bottle of ‘Skin so Soft’ to fight the midges in Scotland! The smallest of words, thoughts and actions in letting us know you were rooting for us made all the difference. Thank you all!