It’s been nearly two weeks since Brent and I returned from Scotland, and 15 days since we crossed the finish line of the Adidas Terrex five-day adventure race.
The prospect of writing a report of our 106 hours on the race course has me quaking in my Salomons, but since we have our next race coming up next week, I thought I’d better get started!
So, without further ado: Storming the Castle: The Adidas Terrex Adventure Race in Five Parts
The lineup: Thor, Mark, Brent, and me
Part I: The Prologue
The race began in earnest on Monday morning, August 20, but teams gathered the night before at the famed Stirling Castle for a four-leg relay. Each member had to complete one section – a trail run, an orienteering loop, a short mountain bike ride, and a longer trail ride. For us, it was a process of elimination to determine who would do what. Thor-the-H-is-silent-Egerton is a world-class orienteer from Australia. She was the obvious choice for Leg 2. Mark is the strongest biker among us. Leg 4 was his. Brent’s much faster out of the gate than I am on foot (and faster in general), and I’d been feeling pretty strong on the bike, so he would take Leg 1 and I would round out the group with Leg 3.
The event was free and open to the public, so there was a healthy mix of Terrex competitors and local orienteers and triathletes lining up at the start. With the real race beginning just 12 hours later, we made a pact to have fun and maintain an even pace. We weren’t sure what to expect from everyone else, but we wanted to avoid going out too fast or pushing too hard.
But of course, when each leg is only 20-ish minutes long and you’re in constant contact with other racers, it’s hard to pull back. Brent said he managed not to kill himself. The rest of us? We weren’t quite so smart.
We ended up finishing in just under 90 minutes, 11 minutes off the lead team from the adventure racing division. This meant that we would be serving a 22-minute penalty at a TA on Day 2 of the race. Somehow, a mandatory pause after 24+ hours of racing didn’t seem like such a punishment…
We left the castle a short time later, paused for a quick dinner, and then went back to our dorm rooms at Stirling University to finish packing our gear.
Team GOALS ARA: Supporting the shoe industry one pair at a time.
Part 2: Easing In
We returned to Stirling Castle the next morning, staged our bikes, and got ready for the first leg of the race, a 10k road run to the Wallace Monument and back. When the bagpipes sounded and the gun went off, we eased into a comfortable pace for the quick separator. We shuffled along smoothly, determined once again not to get caught up in the excitement and push the pace. “I wish we could run all separators like this,” I said to Brent, enjoying our leisurely jaunt through the streets of Stirling.
On our return to the castle, Thor started to get anxious about our overall plans for pacing. In an effort to calm her nerves, Mark suggested that they switch personalities for a day. “I’ll be the worrier,” he said, “and you can be–”
“–the flirt!” I finished for him.
Without missing a beat, Thor ran in between Mark and Brent. “Boy to the right of me, boy to the left of me, what more could I want?” she crooned, imitating Mark’s earlier assertion about the benefits of racing on a team with two women.
We laughed our way up the hill, and after a swift transition, set off for the first bike leg – a projected 80 kilometers to the banks of Loch Te.
Over the next several hours, we found ourselves storming (or walking respectfully through) castles, in search of Monty Python’s holy grail; rowing to priories surrounded by water; visiting Rob Roy’s grave; and hike-a-biking through Scotland’s rolling grass-covered, mud-slicked hills.
The ride turned out to be just over 90-k – this extra 10-k would come to be the norm of all of the bike legs, and it never ceased to be demoralizing – and we all welcomed the short 6-k canoe leg, as all four of us piled into one boat and paddled right through the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen.
From where we sat on the water, we could see its full expanse. We thought about heading off-course to find a pot of gold, but instead pushed on toward the overnight trek through the Ben Lawers range.
Because of the unique scoring system, we knew that strategically, it may have made sense to cut out sections of the course early to minimize our time on the clock. Instead, we decided that we wanted to see as much of the course as possible, taking full advantage of the opportunity to race in Scotland.
That meant we had until 10:00 AM, roughly 14 hours, to get through 30-k of mountainous off-trail trekking and 20-k of canoeing. We knew that this stretch would be our first major test.
We set off quickly, trying to take advantage of what little daylight we had left. An hour in, we said hello to Team Adidas Terrex as they bounded down the trail back toward the TA. Half a day into the race and the previous world champions were already 6 hours in front of us. Damn, they were fast.
Still, we were moving well and, more importantly, working well together. We shared weight and shared food. We pushed each other and supported each other. We had never raced together before, but we quickly found our rhythm and figured out how to move as a unit as efficiently as possible.
By 5:30 AM, we were back in TA, still on the full course and with more than four hours to paddle across Loch Te.
We would need it.
Though we’d been all but guaranteed a tailwind, we quickly found ourselves battling a persistent headwind as we paddled through the open water. After an early bout of sleepiness, we moved steadily, but it was still all we could do to maintain our momentum. We reached our target at 9:30 AM, caught our collective breath, and as a reward for our efforts over the first 24 hours, we allowed ourselves a lazier paddle down the rapids of the River Te and into the next transition in Grand Tully.
We stationed our boats, rebuilt our bikes, changed our clothes, and clocked in to serve our 22-minute penalty from the prologue. Though the TA was hopping, it was a welcomed respite, and we all managed to close our eyes for a few minutes as the time wound down.
Part 3: Riding High
The next section of the race was a monster mountain bike section, broken up into three parts. We had a short ride to the canyoning, a longer stretch to the orienteering loop, and then the final leg up and over Mount Keen and into the TA at the House of Mark. In total, we would cover roughly 200 kilometers.
First stop: The Falls of Bruar.
Someone else going through the falls. We did a good job of missing the official photographers through the bulk of this race.
Here, we were outfitted in wetsuits and PFDs and led up a trail a couple hundred meters to the jump site. From there, we would spend the next 90-ish minutes jumping, sliding, swimming, and scrambling our way through the obstacle-laden canyon. The wetsuits certainly helped with the cold when we were waiting on land, but every plunge into the frigid water took our breath away.
An hour and a half later, we were treated to hot drinks as we changed into dry clothes and debated our next step. We knew that we wouldn’t make it to the next TA at Mar Lodge, some 90 kilometers away, without sleep. We also knew that between the cold of the canyon and a fast-approaching storm, we needed to find shelter.
After several minutes of debating, we hopped on our bikes and headed off down the road. Half an hour later, we’d set up shop under a covered pavilion in a little town. Minutes after we pulled all our gear in, the skies opened. It was 10:00 PM when we curled up in our emergency space blankets, set our alarms, and drifted off to sleep. An hour in, Brent and I were awake and shivering. The two of us relocated to an unlocked trailer adjacent to the park.
At 12:30 AM, we packed up and continued on our way. We knew by this point that we wouldn’t be able to clear the full course, so we decided to skip the next checkpoint and streamline the ride to the orienteering course. It gave us a 5-hour penalty, but we’d heard that it had taken the lead team upwards of 6 hours to get it – and that was during the daylight. It was the right call.
We’d been told before the race that this next stretch offered some of the prettiest scenery in Scotland, a deep river gorge surrounded by rocky cliffs. Sadly, we missed all of it as we rode on through the night.
Other than a 5-k hike-a-bike that definitely tested my resolve (as my friend Val said after the race, never make any decisions about future racing plans during a middle-of-the-night hike-a-bike), it was an uneventful night 2.
We pulled into Mar Lodge at sunrise…
…and were greeted by an entire hall, filled with deer skulls.
Check out the ceiling.
There was an optional orienteering loop out of Mar Lodge, and though many teams elected to skip it – it carried a 2.5-penalty and would take at least that long to complete – we stuck to our initial plan of covering as much of the course as we could. There were eight checkpoints and teams were allowed to split up into two groups to collect them, so Brent and Mark took the western half of the map and Thor and I took the eastern. The boys would have less distance – about 10 kilometers to cover – but more terrain. We got 15-k’s of trails and dirt road.
It was a nice break and Thor and I enjoyed chatting as we pushed each other along. Unbeknownst to us, Brent and Mark made a bet as to how long we would take. It was an over/under of 10 minutes from the time they returned to the TA, with Brent taking the over. Winner got a guinness (this was one of many wagered guinnesses along the course). We got back with two minutes to spare. “That’s my girls!” Mark called, adding another beer to his collection.
When we reconvened, we packed up our gear and got back on our bikes for the final ride to the TA. Our nap the night before had served us well and we continued to move smoothly, pacelining along the welcomed stretch of rolling roads.
A brief break from pacelining for a group shot
Thor taught us all an R-rated song about various adventure racing woes (chapped lips, sore bum, scummy teeth, burnt cheeks), and we rode through the quiet backroads of Scotland singing expletives at the top of our lungs.
We paused in the first and only town we passed for a quick meal – our first real food in three days – and a post-lunch catnap and then made the final push.
Snoozing in a local park.
We pedaled past Balmoral Castle, Queen Elizabeth’s summer residence (sadly, she didn’t come out to greet us), and rode by lots and lots of farms before turning off onto a trail that ascended gradually for several kilometers – and those several kilometers were stretched to still more kilometers, as Mark underestimated the distance to the top of Mount Keen by 8-k.
He carried my pack up the mountain as penance.
All that separated us from the TA was one big climb, followed by a blistering ride down the other side. But at 3,000 feet high, that was quite a climb.
We pushed, pulled, and lugged our bikes up the steep, rocky terrain. Finally, we reached the top, and were rewarded for our efforts with a 360 degree view of the valley below.
But of course, we couldn’t stop long – we had a lot of racing left to do.
Though riding up the mountain was impossible, the trail down the backside made for the biggest mountain biking descent I’d ever done. The first stretch was slow-going as we had to pause every fifty meters to negotiate the constant runoff ditches, but once we passed those, the trail transformed into a series of steep, rocky switchbacks.
I gripped my brakes more than I should have but stayed steady on the bike, following my teammates’ line all the way down. By the time I reached the bottom, I was beat.
We sped through the final few kilometers and I yelled in triumph when I saw the House of Mark appear before us. It was a remote guest house, in the middle of the expansive Highland wilderness. And it was beautiful.
Our last two TA’s had been slower and we were determined to get back on track. I called out all of the reminders we’d written down on our pre-race spreadsheet and we set about dismantling our bikes and changing into fresh clothes for the next leg of the race – roughly 100 kilometers of trekking.
As we worked, the lodge owner – perhaps Mark himself? – took food orders. This race was remarkable for its amenities. At almost all of the TA’s, adventure chef extraordinaire Clive Ramsey had set up a hot food cart where racers could run a tab for the duration of the event. So far, we’d arrived at all of the transitions just as Clive had run out of food, but we knew that at the House of Mark, there would be fresh Bacon Butties available for purchase.
Bacon Butties are sandwiches consisting of – as you might guess – bacon and butter.
Now, I don’t like butter, and as a failing omnivore, I don’t like bacon either. When Thor ordered four sandwiches, I told her that I wasn’t going to have one. But when they were delivered right to our bike boxes, I found myself unable to resist. And let me tell you: it. was. good. As I bit down, the chef told me that the pigs were homegrown and humanely slaughtered. I thanked him for his assurances of sustainability and tried not to think about the pig and I ate the rest of the sandwich.
My teammates ordered a second round (I skipped that one), and we paid the man before donning our trekking shoes and setting off down the trail. It was a smooth, efficient TA. We were excited to be off the bikes, buoyed by the beautiful scenery, and filled with adrenaline. Going into night 3, we were all feeling good.
Part 4: Constant Forward Progress
The mammoth trek, like the monster ride, was divided into three parts. The first leg would take us through the night, across exposed ridgelines peppered with subtle peaks and saddles. Leg 2 would get us from Glen Muick to the Glenshee Ski Station and include scrambles up, down, and around the mountains surrounding Lochnagar. The final stretch would get us to our bikes for a short 40-k ride back to Grand Tully and our awaiting canoes.
But we had a lot of kilometers to cover before we reached those boats.
Leg 1 began smoothly enough. We continued down the road for a few kilometers before turning onto a trail, taking out our headlamps, and beginning the long traverse to Glen Muick. Before long, we lost the trail, and then the trail disappeared entirely, and it was just us, the maps, and those faint contours for the next 25-30 kilometers.
Thor, who had been serving as backup nav for some of the earlier legs of the race, took the lead here, and she led us steadily through the darkness, orienteering the team from summit to summit and saddle to saddle. It was slow-going, particularly once the fog rolled in, and we had to tread carefully through the minefield of boggy peat. I felt like we were walking on the moon.
This is the first race I’ve ever done where our team had not one, not two, but three expert navigators. Generally, the navigator works the maps and the remaining team members follow along, listening to cues and reference points and talking amongst themselves. Here, though, especially because all teams were given two full sets of maps, my teammates developed a sort of navigational shorthand as they talked through the various options. I noticed it most on this leg of the race, as I faded into the fog (meteorological and mental) and they went back and forth about the best route from A to B.
After awhile, the trek began to take its toll. While Thor held strong, both navigationally and physically, Brent and Mark joined me in my sleep-deprived haze. We knew we needed to stop, but we were either in soggy bogs or atop the wind-beaten ridge. There was no protection and no place to set up our tent.
And so we continued on.
At some point, my left foot broke through the ground and I fell into one of the peat holes. I didn’t twist or turn it, but I felt a jarring pull through the front of my ankle. I pulled it out of the hole and kept moving, aware of the nagging ache that was starting to creep in.
Not long after, another team caught wind of Thor’s navigational prowess and decided to come along for the last two checkpoints along the ridge. This provided a bit of a reprieve as the non-mapsmen among us were able to track the lights of the other foursome and gauge how close they were.
Finally – finally – we crested the final hill and saw the dirt road we’d been aiming for. It was just a couple hours before sunrise. We promptly set down our packs, pulled out the tent, and set it up right there on the road.
Brent and Thor both had individual emergency bags and Mark and I had planned to unzip my sleeping bag and use it for cover. We took off our shoes to dry out our feet and crawled into the tent for a two-hour break. We’d underestimated how exposed we would be with nothing more than the tent bottom between us and the cold, damp ground. It was a fitful, chilled sleep but a much-needed break.
When we awoke with the sun, we were all in good spirits again. We packed up and took off running down the road, eager to check another TA off the list.
We were in and out of Glen Muick quickly, stopping only for fresh water and bathrooms, and with little fanfare we found ourselves on Leg 2 of the trek. We would follow the dirt road a ways until our course diverged onto a trail, and then through a boulder field, and then up our first scramble.
I felt good when I was climbing but I began to notice some stiffness and pain in my ankle any time we were on flats and downs. It felt better shuffling than walking, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t find any real relief.
I fell back a bit, trailing behind as my teammates brainstormed about their dream adventure racing teams, from a pool of racers around the world. Fun chatter to listen to, but I was too distracted to join in. As we descended the final few hundred meters to the boulder field, I paused, pulled down my sock, and tried to bend my ankle.
And discovered that it wouldn’t move.
That jolt that I’d experienced the night before when I fell into the hole had apparently done a number on me. For the rest of the race, the range of motion in my left ankle diminished to next to nothing as I trekked stiffly through the hills.
Mark had experienced something similar in an expedition race in Australia and determined it was just acute tendonitis. I was relieved to know that it was nothing serious, but that didn’t lessen the discomfort. Each step downhill caused a shot of pain up through the front of my ankle and into my shin. Mark told me that he had cried when it came on at XPD. There was no shortage of tears here, either.
Still, we kept moving.
My teammates took most of my weight as we made our way across the boulder field.
Thor in the boulder field
And then it was time for the first scramble.
We caught a couple teams here who were each losing a member to injury and fatigue. The mammoth trek was taking its toll – and the race directors knew it. A marshall told us that we could elect to have our bikes moved to the next TA, effectively cutting off the last 20-25 kilometers of the trek. We would still be official, he told us.
But we weren’t ready to cry Uncle just yet.
“You have until the start of the second scramble to make the decision,” he said. We thanked him for the notice and made our way up the steep crag to the ridgeline.
And then we looked at the clock. To this point, we had dropped only one checkpoint on the whole course, but we knew that it was time to start making further adjustments. We were still committed to attempting to get through the remaining 50 kilometers of the trek, but we decided to let go of some of the further afield CPs en route.
First to go was the second scramble. Going up had been reasonably quick, but getting down the other side would be slow-going and painful. Instead, we would follow the ridgeline around and then descend briefly to Lochnagar before regaining the elevation on the other side for the final couple points into the Glenshee Ski Station.
We got through the next two points – both on the ascent along the ridge – quickly.
A checkpoint on the wing of an old airplane.
But as we began the descent to the lake, Mark realized that something was amiss. His feet had begun to sting, and he knew the sensation well. This past winter, during a ten-day race in Patagonia, Mark and his teammates had contracted a flesh-eating bacteria. By the end of the race, they had lost much of the skin on the bottoms of their feet.
He pulled off his shoes and, sure enough, he noticed some of the same early signs of the fungus.
There we were, 20+ kilometers from the next TA, one teammate already hobbling and a second with the potential to go down fast.
I took back some of my weight from Mark and Brent shouldered some of the heavier gear. And then it was time to move.
Mark spread iodine on the bottoms of both feet, changed his socks, and charged on. We shuffled down to the lake and I pushed the pace on the endless ascent to the next ridge, knowing that my strength at that point was in the climbs.
When we reached the top, I clipped into Brent’s tow and followed him through the next two checkpoints, whimpering quietly with each step. It was a pathetic sight, I’m sure.
Still, it never crossed my mind to stop. Two nights earlier when we were hike-a-biking along a muddy ridgeline? If someone had asked me then if I wanted to keep going, I may have said no. But here it was never a question. I’m not totally sure why.
We descended the final ski slope, talking about our various options at that point. We had roughly twelve hours to the next time cut-off, and we still had 25 kilometers of trekking and at least 40 kilometers of biking before we got there.
The best that we could hope for was that the race directors had made the decision unilaterally to move our bike boxes to Glenshee. We would suffer some sort of time penalty, but we’d be able to continue onto the river put-in entirely by bike, moving more quickly and ensuring that we’d make the cut-off. A number of other teams had already gone this route.
Alternately, we could request that our bikes get transferred there, wait until they arrived, and then continue on with Plan A, not knowing how much time we’d have.
Finally, we could make a push for the last stretch of the trek, but we all knew that our odds of getting through it in the allotted time were growing slimmer with each passing kilometer.
We limped into Glenshee just after 6:00 PM.
Our bike boxes were waiting.
I put down my pack, sat down, and cried in relief.
We’d spent the past 24 hours in wet shoes. We were windswept and sunburnt. We were red, swollen, and chapped. And we were beat.
As we sat, one of the race directors rushed into the room and called out to us. “Guys, you have to come outside.”
It’s a rare experience to spend so much time with the race director during the event. James and Nick of Open Adventure were top notch designers and directors. At almost every step, the race was well organized and well executed. By the time we’d reached Glenshee, we’d been singing their praises for four days.
Still, in that moment, we looked at him incredulously.
“No, really,” he persisted. “You need to see this.”
We joined James at the door and looked on as a man dressed in a green tutu danced down the street to the music blaring from small speakers attached to his waist.
He was Ben Hammond, and he was on a quest to set to Guinness World Record for the longest continuous dance ever. He was traveling from Lands End at the southern tip of England to John O’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland to raise money for and awareness of Burmese refugees.
And he was just the morale boost we needed.
We came back inside, laughing. Clive Ramsey was long gone by that point, but the marshalls stationed there made us egg sandwiches and a pot of rice. We decided that we would sleep for a bit in the warm hut before rebuliding our bikes and making the final push back to Grand Tully.
Mark received medical care for his feet and I iced and wrapped my ankle.
We laid down and even though I was dead on my feet, I struggled to fall asleep amidst the activity of the TA. An hour later, we got up, put our bikes together, and took off down the road.
We had a long descent, about 8 kilometers, before we turned up a trail for several more kilometers of hike-a-biking up through cow pastures and single-track riding down through mudslick.
I felt good riding, less good hiking, and pretty terrible on the single-track, where every time I wobbled (which apparently happens a lot four days into a race when you only have a bar-mount light because the cord for your helmet light never made it into your pack), I’d reflexively put my left foot down and shudder in pain.
It wasn’t so fun.
Before long, though, we were back on roads with less than 50k separating us from the final cut-off of the race. At Grand Tully, the clock would stop, and from there we’d have all day Friday to complete 60 kilometers of paddling and another 60 of gentle road riding. The TA at Grand Tully had been our target from the start, and we were so close it made me giddy.
Still, we had to get through those 50 kilometers, and when you’ve only slept for six hours over the past four days, that’s no small feat.
We took caffeine, told stories, ate candy, and chugged along through the night.
At one point, Brent got so sleepy that he resorted to snapping pictures, trying to wake up by blinding himself with the flash.
When that didn’t work, he took to snapping pictures of his teammates instead.
One final stretch of single track and a few more kilometers on roads later, we pulled into Grand Tully at 3:30 AM.
We had made it. We were off the clock.
And we had 2.5 hours to kill before the dark zone lifted and we were allowed to get on the River Te for the final paddle.
Part 5: Stirling or Bust
We took off our shoes and mended our feet. Mark’s early intervention had held the bacteria at bay. He was holding steady. My ankle had swollen too big for the first wrapping. I iced again, popped some serious ibuprofen, and wrapped it again.
We ate, finally getting the chance to enjoy Clive Ramsey’s spread. There were chocolate croissants and bowls of pasta, hot coffee and fresh fruit. We bought some of everything and passed it around.
And then we slept. It was the best sleep I’d gotten all the race – a blissful hour, uninterrupted by shivers or rain or wind. It was glorious.
By 6:15, we’d boxed up our bikes and were carrying our boats and gear the 300 meters down to the river. We punched out and shoved off, and for the next several hours we enjoyed the swift-moving water, littered with rapids.
Not us, but one of the fun rapids we passed through
Several teams flipped, but Brent and Mark negotiated our two boats well, and we made it to the take-out in the town of Perth unscathed.
We pulled out, unpacked our bikes for the final time, and set off for the last 60 kilometers of the race, a rolling ride back to Stirling to cross the finish line.
Except that I wasn’t going anywhere. By that point in the race, everyone’s bikes were a mess. Brent’s was whining, Mark’s was whistling, and Thor’s was grinding its way down the street. Mine had been reasonably okay to that point, just the occasional slipped gear, but as we pulled out of the TA I felt like I was pedaling through molasses.
At first, I thought I was just done. I thought that the last four days had drained all my power and I was riding on fumes. Mark hooked me up to his tow, but before long, he, too, was tiring under the strain. Then, Thor called from behind.
“Your momentum really slowed through that descent. Are you sure it’s not mechanical?”
“I don’t hear any scraping or rubbing,” I responded. Still, we pulled off to check it out. Mark took my bike and tried to spin the rear tire. It stopped immediately. Quickly, he worked his magic, and minutes later we were back on the road, this time with four fully operational-ish bikes. Mark put his tow away and I maintained our pace with ease.
For whatever reason, I felt pretty awake during this final ride, but some of my teammates were struggling. So as Brent navigated us toward Stirling, I sang terrible camp songs to keep everyone from falling asleep.
You know – the really terrible ones with call-and-response verses, made up words, and stupid animals doing stupider things.
But it worked.
We crested our final hill and coasted into Stirling, dodging traffic and following the yellow arrows that the race staff had strung up, just in case we couldn’t find our way through this last little stretch.
We turned onto the road where the finish line stood and were promptly directed off the sidewalk and onto one more short stretch of single track – in case we hadn’t had enough – before pushing through the last few hundred meters.
When we approached the line, we were directed to drop our bikes, take off our helmets, and run – or limp – across the line.
Thor’s partner, John, greeted us with congratulations and good cheer.
We hugged and laughed as we were handed medals and a bottle of champagne. Our friend JD, another American racing on a British team, handed us a flag.
We were sweaty, swollen, chafed and chapped. And we were done.
When the final results were tallied 24 hours later, we would come out in eleventh place. Not bad for a team that decided before the start not to worry about strategy and instead just to see as much of Scotland as we could.
“We made it,” Brent said to me as we mugged for pictures.
“And you didn’t quit,” he continued.
“It never crossed my mind.”
“Are you happy?” he asked, referencing, I knew, that middle-of-the-night hike-a-bike that had me questioning whether this multi-day racing was really for me.
“I am,” I told him.
And with that, we all finished off the champagne, loaded up our gear, and went back to the university. For showers, for pizza, for stories – and for sleep.