So, if you ever get a phone call on the Tuesday before the Highland Cross, asking you to join a team with Brian Bonnyman and Sam Alexander, then my advice would be to take the opportunity, regardless of whether it clashes with The Brack hill race….That’s what happened to me last week.
Highland Cross is a charity event that involves running (or walking) and cycling from Morvich, in Glen Shiel, to Beauly, near Inverness, in teams of three. It’s 50miles in total. 20 miles on foot, along the Affric Kintail Way, then 30 miles on road bike, through the beautiful Glen Affric.
Credit has to go to Scott Sneddon, whose team we were running in, for giving us the rare opportunity to get an entry without having to apply for the ballot every year. You see, the way the Highland Cross seems to work is, if you’re good at raising money from sponsorship, then, chances are you will get to get an entry for the next year’s race.
Sam and I drove up to Inverness on the Friday afternoon, at which point we dropped off our bikes at the lorry depot, before we met Brian at the hotel in Inverness for some food. The whole event is so well organised it’s unreal, they even had a couple of private helicopters flying about above the race to check everything was going to plan. Helicopters! Genuinely!! Needless to say, we were very well looked after from start to finish by the marshals and volunteers who make sure it’s as simple as possible for the competitors. All you have to do is number your bike, number a bag of bike kit, and get up in time to get on the bus they arrange to take you to the start line, which takes about an hour and a half.
Bus journey was long enough to have a wee nap, get a bite to eat, and have some banter about who would be the first Westie home and, whether anyone would get overtaken on the bike, or if the race would already be over after the run…. Towards the end of the bus journey it was becoming clear that the visibility on the route was going to be decent, and there’d be virtually no chance of rain since it felt about 15 degrees when we started at 11am.
First 5km or so was pretty flat landrover track, so Sam joined people like Joe Symonds and Sam Hesling at the front of the pack. I tried to do the same, but found they were just a bit too quick. Next, you get to an absolutely fantastic section of single track that lasts for about 5km as it climbs up between Beinn Fhada and Ciste Dhubh – definitely the highlight for me. The rest of the run is mainly on landrover track that follows the River Affric, then you get another really scenic section at Loch Affric.
By the time I got to Loch Affric, I was pretty gubbed. Despite taking on loads of water and Gatorade at each of the water stations, the heat, pace and sheer distance of the race was just too much. Time to rest before the bike route. About 500m before the transition, Brian caught up with me and we entered transition then started cycling together. In a way, I was glad I’d stopped running – something I’d been looking forward to since the Glen Affric Youth Hostel – but in a way, cycling was actually much much worse.
Running for 30km before starting a bike race basically means you get cramp straight away when you start to pedal. If you’re lucky, it’s just your calf muscles, or if you’re like me, it’s also in your hamstrings too. Eventually you find a cadence that works and keeps the cramp away, but it’s still hard. Things like standing up on the hills, freewheeling downhill, or even slowing down to drink are risks that could cause a lot of pain. Luckily the scenery in Glen Affric itself is pretty beautiful, which makes it all worth it.
Brian and I worked together for about 20 minutes, before he dropped off a wee bit and I found myself with another rider who was roughly the same speed as me. We worked together and got through it, overtaking 4 or 5 folk near the end, and managing to finish just under 4 hours. Job done!
Brian wasn’t far behind me, and it turned out that Sam had finished fourth (!) by basically nailing the run and the cycle! Our combined times on the day meant we finished as the fastest Open men’s team on the day.