The Great Glen Ultra is a 92km race across Scotland, following the Grand Caledonian Canal - a series of three lochs connected by rivers that link the east and west coast. The race can be either tackled as the ultra one day, or split over two days. I was taking part in the one-day race.
The race started at 6:30am at Neptunes Staircase, a series of locks in Fort William marking the start of our journey across the Caledonian Way. With light rain but a forecast of clearing skies and sunshine, we all enjoyed a wee dram of whisky before taking to the start line for the mass start.
The start signal sounded and we were off! I’ve always been fascinated around the psychology of paddlers at the start of an ultra event. With adrenaline pumping, there is a tendency to go out of the traps a little too quick - but on the flip side a positive start can also send a signal to the others of your intentions. But having done a few starts like this, I’ve settled with just ensuring I don’t sit back too far to avoid having to deal with the turbulent water that can put you in the drink before you have even put together a few paddle strokes.
Over the first 10km or so the field started to stretch out, and its at this stage that you really need to ensure you manage your pace, and stick to your race strategy. It’s tough not to get caught up in what others are doing, how fast they may or not be going etc. Find your rhythm, stick to your battle plan!
We reached the first checkpoint at Gairlochy before starting out on our first loch, Loch Lochy. We were advised in the briefing that the loch is prone to high waves in high wind conditions, but today, unusually there was hardly a breath of wind and the loch was flat. This is where I started to doubt my board choice - I had opted for a more ocean / down winding board that I knew wouldn’t be as fast on the canals, but could really come in to its own on the lochs if they had waves and a push from the wind.
The paddle across Loch Lochy was relatively uneventful and before long we reached the checkpoint at Laggan, 27km from the start. This checkpoint had food and drink for paddlers, but my strategy has always been to take everything I need with me and to not waste time at the checkpoints. I find it’s all too easy to lose track of time if you stop, chat with the marshals and other racers, eat something etc. and before long 10-15 mins has passed. In the later stages of a race you can also start to cool down and cramp up if you stop for too long.
In the pic above, my dry bag has two x 1 litre bottles (one containing electrolytes, Precision Hydration 1500, the other liquid carbs), my PFD has a two litre reservoir in the back with two chambers and two drinking tubes. Again one has electrolytes, the other liquid carbs (Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy). I have a Patagonia waist pack with 1.5 litres of water in and my PFD is stuffed with energy gels (Precision Hydration 30g carb gels). Finally in the dry bag I have some real food (sandwich, protein bars, bananas, kit kat chunky and pork pies!).
I left the checkpoint and made my way down the canals, heading for the next Loch, Loch Oich.
Again Loch Oich was uneventful - it‘s 6km long and very sheltered; it wasn’t long before I reached the other side and was closing down on the next checkpoint at Fort Augustus.
I reached the portage at Fort Augustus, which was just under half distance, and was feeling good. The challenge with this portage is that the pull out point is nearly 1km from the put in point. That’s a long way to walk with your board and all your kit!
Support was allowed, indeed some paddlers had a support crew that carried or even drove their boards 1km down the road (the only rule is the paddler must walk and cannot get a lift). I had no support, but I had brought a SUP sling strap from Northcore the week before. This meant I could hang the board over my shoulder and leave my grip and forearms to get some rest, but it was still a bloody long way to go! 1km down the road and it was time to enter Loch Ness.
Loch Ness is 34km long and only has a handful of safe pull out points. The loch is prone to big waves and with wind would present an amazing downwinding opportunity. I had banked on this by selecting a downwind ocean board, my strategy was to lose a little pace in the canals and the smaller flat lochs but make it up on the mass expanse of Loch Ness. Well……this is what Loch Ness looked like when I set off…
At this point I started to accept that my strategy wasn’t going to reap any rewards today, and it was now a case of pushing on and making it to the finish. Loch Ness is HUGE, and on such a clear calm day you lose all sense of distance and perspective - for hours it felt like I was making no progress on reaching the far side. The flat water seemed to suck the board to the surface and each stroke felt like trying to paddle through honey, with very little glide between strokes. Over the course of a few hours staring at the same spot on the horizon it was a case of battling the mind as much as the body. What was I doing? Was this really worth it? Why not just call it quits here and paddle to the side and call a lift back to base? But I kept pushing on and as the sun started to dip behind the mountains I cleared the loch and was on the last 10km push to the finish.
In the past I have experimented with different types of gloves but always ended up getting blisters when I was paddling more than a few hours at a time. This time I used my Ocean Specific paddle wax. Just rub it on the shaft and handle and it creates amazing grip, even when sweaty or wet - you really feel connected to the paddle, and it keeps your hands soft and supple! I recommend everyone has a block of this in their kit bag
The last 10km again were uneventful as far as paddling went, I spent too much time staring at my SpeedCoach watching the km’s tick down slowly. The light was going so I busted out my waterproof speaker which had disco lights on the ends and that really picked me up - I must have been a right sight in almost pitch black, with the water lit up in multiple flashing light colours with some loud dance music blaring out. And then, that was it - I came around a corner to see my pathway blocked by a lock gate, and I realised I had reached the end. I saw the crew on the pontoon cheering me on and a few more strokes and I crossed the line, just under 14 hours from starting.
What an amazing event - the location was stunning, the organisation faultless, the camaraderie incredible. A perfect example of just how special the SUP community is. I got my training and nutrition strategy spot on, and whilst I was initially frustrated with my board choice, it just made the event a different kind of challenge for me, and the extra time on the water was great practice for the daily paddling on the Yukon 1000 next Summer!
Congratulations to everyone that took on the Ultra; I hope it was as special for you as it was for me, and I hope to share a start line with you all again soon!
If you are interested in training and nutrition plans for ultra SUP events, get in touch!
A massive thank you to Andrew Turner from SUP Sect for the loan of the One Ocean Sport Evo Pro 2.0!
Picked up by the drone somewhere in the middle of Loch Ness