4:10am. Ski Centre. Cairn Gorm.
‘I’m really not sure I can do this. It is absolutely freezing, I don’t think I am going to cope with the cold. I really don’t think I can complete this. I have never seen dark like this. This is a bad idea.’
Just a few minutes later I am off.
Those were my genuine thoughts as I stood in the early hours of the morning waiting to do the run section of the Starman Triathlon. Jo from tri club had entered a relay team and her husband (Bill) was originally doing both the cycle and the run but he hadn’t done a lot of hill training so they asked if I would run. This wasn’t any old half marathon. This was a run up to the top of a Munro (mountain over 3000ft) in the middle of the night and where you will get to see the sun rise.
Of course I am in!!
Didn’t quite think it all through. At least, not until those last few minutes before I was to start. I was too blinded by the thought of seeing the sun rise on the top of a Munro. Bucket List item no 33 – check.
Jo had arranged everything. She had booked a hostel right across from T1 we could use as basecamp and we were heading up the day before. Oh did I mention? For me to start running at 4am Jo would be starting her swim at midnight. Yes that’s right. Midnight.
What the actual f……
Honestly though, how can that NOT excite you? Even just a little bit! Naturally nerves were high. This was Jo’s first race of that distance, first OW race I believe and first swim in the middle of the night. You can almost understand why she went to put her wet suit on at 9pm with nerves like that. To calm herself down she decided to post on facebook a photo of all the snacks we had ALL brought and claim they were just mine for the run. I’m still astounded that everyone in the club believed her!
There was talk of closing one or possibly even both if the summits on the run due to the high winds. Did I forget that bit as well? Oh yeah. You didn’t just start the run with a climb up a Munro. You finished it with a climb up a Corbett.
Someone with a very unique imagination had designed this course.
I prayed to the run gods I would get to run up them both. There were cut offs for both ascents and I had been over and over them. I would be deeply disappointed if I didn’t get to do both of them. It wouldn’t feel like I had completed the run. (This was obviously before reality hit me of what this run was really asking.)
At the beach for the race brief and there are just under 80 people in wetsuits, donning glowsticks from their heads like antennas, awaiting the start of the swim. It’s a very relaxed event and they advertise it as ‘not a race, an experience’. This meant that not every swimmer had to complete the 4 laps of the swim. If they wanted to get out after 2 or 3, they could. A strange concept when you are used to ‘this is the finish line, this is the distance’ but a relaxing one. I think it helped with some peoples nerves.
Then it was time for Jo to get in. As soon as she was off, she was gone. It was impossible to figure out what one she was. She also had ear plugs in and couldn’t hear a thing. Naturally I still shouted, encouraged her on, just on the off chance she heard me. She was in the last group to go in and by then you couldn’t tell what group was what. One woman came out not long after going in, it wasn’t for her. There were a few who came out after 3 laps. Jo’s personal goal was to complete it. As the swimmers came out and the numbers remaining dwindled I did start to get a little concerned. I was sure I hadn’t missed her.
To be on the safe side I took a run up to T2 and saw Bill chatting away to another cyclist. Nope. Not missed her. I ran back down and paced the waters edge.
2 swimmers stood up and walked towards the beach. I saw the green of her wet suit and ran over to help guide her up to transition. She was wobbly and disorientated but she had done it. Passing the dibber on to Bill he set off on his cycle.
It was a short walk back to the hostel and Jo told me all about the swim. Choppier than she expected, not ‘too’ cold, but challenging. She had started chatting to another swimmer and they had thought they were not going to make the cut off so nearly came out after 3 laps. I wouldn’t have let her. And she knows it. She came to do 4 laps, that was her goal. And she did it! And she did it within time. Great result!
Straight in to the trickly shower at the hostel and she was soon warmed up – ish. Then it was time to track Bill. I figured I had a solid 3hrs/3.5hrs so briefly tried to doze on a chair. My legs were feeling heavy and giving me signs to say ‘we should be resting, go to bed woman’. It was impossible to sleep but I tried. Jo kept a vigilant eye on the tracker.
About 3am and she said he was doing really well, flying past people. Now. If I’m honest. I kind of took this as a bit of ‘proud wifey’ talk. I had no idea what he was like on a bike other than what she had said and naturally she had said he was really good. Good to me meant under 3 hours on a 56 mile cycle. And this route had a horrendous climb at the end. It was also pitch black, very few street lights anywhere (we were in the Highlands) and windy. So I just gave the polite nod and ‘uh huh’ and closed my eyes again.
About 3:20am and I checked the tracker myself. I zoomed out so I could see where he was in comparison to T2.
I’ve never moved so fast to go and grab my gear. He was just down the road from where we were in the hostel and we had a 20 min drive to the change over. ‘He still has the climb’ I told myself. ‘That will slow him down’.
The wind was howling and I mean howling outside now. Do I really want to run in that? It will be fine. It will be fine. I bundle my stuff in to a bag and after 2 trips back to the room because I can’t decide what top I should go with we head up to transition. I’m convinced we are going to pass him on the road up and I think we do but it is really hard to tell in the dark.
We get out the car and I have 3 tops a jumper and a jacket on. I don’t do cold. And I most certainly don’t do cold before a race. I don’t like this. My friend messages me having set her alarm to – let’s be honest – laugh at me for what I’m about to do. ‘I don’t think I can do this’ I can tell her. ‘I’m genuinely panicking’.
‘Shut up and get it done’ is the polite version of her reply. I can’t see where I am meant to be running. I try to watch a runner go off but he disappears within seconds. I’m petrified I’m going to get lost. I’m going to be referred to as ‘that idiot that didn’t know what she was doing’. Pretty sure one or two have already looked at me and thought ‘yup, she’s going to die’.
I head inside for yet another toilet trip and turn back to tell Jo where I am running away to and almost walk straight in to Bill.
‘How the f@ck are you here already????????’
I don’t have any time to think. He passes me the dibber and I’m walking over to the start. Jo shouts for a photo and I turn round, the look of absolute fear in my eyes, and quickly turn back before I can change my mind.
50 metres in. 50 metres. And….
I’m loving it!!! THIS is what I came for! Yes it’s cold, windy, raining, but oh my god I am heading up a munro in the middle of the night! This is awesome!
I no longer fear getting lost. I’ve walked up over 20 Munros by myself and not died. I know how to navigate this. If it were following roads, well, that’s a different story. Oddly enough. I’m only overtaken by one guy in the first section (and I go past him later on). This makes me feel very good. I set my sights on the lights where I know the marshalls will be. This will be the part they tell me if I can or can’t go to the summit. I head up to them almost too nervous to ask. ‘Can I head to the summit?’
‘Yup, up you go’.
Result! I wouldn’t say I exactly skip up there but I’m certainly grinning away. Another runner falls in step beside me and asks if it gets any easier. ‘Em, not really’ I laugh back at him. He keeps up with me for a little then stops to take a break. I’m almost at the summit before I see someone coming back down.
2 marshalls at the summit and I have to admit I feel very sorry but very grateful for them at the top. They must be frozen! They ask if I am warm enough and I apologise for not bringing them a cup of tea. Then it’s back down.
Back to the intersection and the light is beginning to come up. I stop for a photo. It’s gorgeous. This is well worth it. My quads soon come to life though and remind me what it means to run hills like this – in their lovely, painful way.
I’m now back at the ski-centre where I see Neil again. He was my husband Joe’s coach for IM 70.3 South Africa and he’s a volunteer at this event. His wife – the lovely Beth – is also doing this but she is a solo entry. I go past him screaming ‘that was awesome, I loved it!’ and carry on down the hill.
When I get near the bottom it’s on to road. Tarmac. This section in trail shoes is not the best. I miss my roadies. The guy I had chatted to before goes past and I try to keep with him but his legs are the length of my entire body and I have no hope. He tells he’s been told the next summit is even worse to which I laugh again. I would rather be going up there than running on this road.
I have a few haribos and drink my juice to keep me going. Remembering my nutrition is all to pot with the different start time. I’m a lot warmer now as well and there is nothing I hate more than running in tights when I could be in shorts. I decide to stop and de-layer my top. In one sense this is a good decision as I am way too hot. But in another, it just cause me no end of grief. I am now uncomfortable in the top I am wearing with my hydration bag and running belt. I’m constantly pulling my top down, my trousers up, my face in to all sorts of frustrated emotions. Time to research some gear that will get me through running in both cold and hot weather in the one race.
Eventually I am at the start of the second summit and the winds have died down enough to keep it open. This one has many, many stone steps and boy do they kill your legs. Still, I’m not overtaken on the hill and I’m taking that as a victory. The views are spectacular. Just what you expect in Scotland. The wind is challenging but not death defying. It’s hard and unrelenting but eventually I am at the top, big smiles for the marshalls, and heading back down. I don’t charge forward as I’m not great on these sections and I have a big race in a few weeks so I go somewhat cautiously. Further down and my phone starts ringing. It’s Joe face timing me. ‘Are you still in bed?’ I ask him quite surprised and completely forgetting it’s 6:30am. He tells me later it was me that face timed him and on checking my phone I find array of weird and wonderful text messages I have sent him along with a song. I don’t even know how to send a song! Turns out I had been bumping my phone in my bag on the way down.
Last section. Almost done. It’s a quiet trail back to the Loch where it all started. Coming through the trees it’s spectacular as you head out on to the beach.
I have to say, finishing a run on the beach, in the sand, that’s just cruel! Especially a run like that! But I’m done. And Jo and her husband Bill are there waiting. We’ve done it.
4th relay team we were. 4th! A result I think we are all proud of. There was a huge contingency from Glenrothes Tri club which had a really good team feel to it. They all did fantastic. It’s had us thinking we should convince our own club to take it on next year. A little away trip near the end of season.
Would I recommend Starman? Absolutely. It’s a challenge and a half. There aren’t many races you can say you get to swim in the witching hour, cycle in the dark and see the sunrise on a Munro. So awesome.