Not long ago, a five-mile run seemed a decent effort. Nowadays, that's chickenfeed: anything less than 26 miles is considered a walk in the park as endurance events grow ever-more popular. This year's London Marathon was the most oversubscribed to date, with the full 120,000 applicants entering the ballot, and triathlon is one of the UK's fastest-growing sports. Meanwhile, a further category, Adventure Racing (AR), is quietly developing a dedicated following.
"It is hard exactly to define what an adventure race is, as there are so many different varieties," says Paul Pickering, the editor of the UK Adventure Sports magazine. "Essentially it is a multi-discipline endurance event which requires some degree of tactics or planning ... with some lasting several hours and some several days. The joy of the sport is that you can choose a race which suits your particular skills."
One of the larger AR organisers is Rat Race. Its founder, Jim Mee, says: "When we launched in 2004, we had a few races with a few hundred competitors each. Now we have 25,000 entrants competing in 20 events each year and there are thousands of other ones out there."
This year, he organised the Nokia Coast to Coast: a 105-mile race on foot, by bike and by kayak, from the North Sea down the Great Glen corridor to Glencoe. "We wanted to run an epic event in the Highlands where you really achieved something," Mee explains, "but which would also be accessible to those with less experience in this field." Hence they divided it so novices (Challengers) could spread the distance over two days, and experts hurtle across in a one-day assault. Like most of their events, it sold out months in advance.
Excited by the challenge, I quickly signed up. Then I began to get cold feet. What was I letting myself in for? Concerned I might not make it, I contacted Ralph Hydes, a GB triathlete and world champion coach. "Anyone is capable of finishing a race like this," he smiled. "Even if you are 40st, if you prepare for it correctly, and have the desire to do it, then you can." For preparation, he emphasised a structured approach, balancing rigorous cardiovascular fitness with strength work, a two- to four-hour cycle ride at your target race heart rate, and one day's rest each week. "If you are starting out, ideally you should find a trainer, even for a couple of sessions, as they can tailor a programme to your individual needs."
The sun caught the sea as we crossed the start, at 7am on an autumn morning. The opening leg, a seven-mile run, led through the cornfields of the Grampians and into endangered Scots Pine forest. With the adrenaline charging, it was hard to keep to a steady speed; fortunately the single-file track slowed us down. The first transition point, when we got on our bikes, was Cawdor Castle, made famous by Macbeth. As we pulled on padded shorts, it started to rain. From there, the roads curled up and down round Inverness. I slip-streamed my partner – entrance is solo or in pairs – and lost myself in the rhythm of my pedals.
Steve Hunter, an exercise physiologist at London South Bank University, believes the popularity of these races is because competitors "feel the need to take positive steps to a healthier lifestyle, and see setting such a goal as a way to begin the process".
He adds: "Perhaps they are driven by active friends or family to join in, or media coverage of peers of a similar 'type' makes them realise it is possible. It's not about being a serious competitive athlete. It's more about achieving the goal, and discovering, 'I can do it.'"
Hydes put forward a slightly different theory. "It's a mad challenge," he says. "It's something more than your workaday achievement. Most of all, it's fun."
Fun? By the time I reached the day's hardest ascent, I was not so sure. It was steep, brutal on the quads and calves. Little by little we reached the 1,300ft peak. And were rewarded by a brilliant, heart-lifting descent. Fifty-four miles and nearly six hours in, we reached Fort Augustus, and the kayak section. It was mercifully brief, a few hundred metres through the deep blue of Loch Ness, taking us to the mid-point line. Having taken it at a hard but realistic rate, I completed the first day in six hours. The Rat Race team had set up a convivial race village and after a long stretch, we joined other competitors for a jacket potato. Bill, who works in finance in London, told me: "My wife and I are going to have a baby. I wanted to do this with my mates first. It is a test of the spirit. But it is also terrifically rewarding and life-affirming."
Cleo, a barrister who grew up in the Highlands, added: "I know how beautiful this part of the world is, and I wanted to bring friends to see it. I've never done anything like this before, but I wanted something to train towards, an event that would push me. It is difficult. But I also know I can do it."
Endurance exercise has huge health benefits. "It helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, controls body weight, type-II diabetes," Steve Hunter explains. "It boosts flexibility and agility, gives all-round fitness and promotes positive body image and the confidence of personal success." It is also well suited to women, believes Nicola MacLeod, an army doctor and one of the British team that won the Adventure Racing World Championships.
"We are built for it, especially in events that last several days, with more body fat, and a higher pain threshold," she says. "A great deal of AR is in the mind: you need tenacity, you need to keep pushing negative thoughts out and being positive. Often women are tactically stronger and better organised, which counts for as much in AR as brute strength."
I worked to remember this on the cycle stretch the next morning, as it veered off into my most dreaded section: the single track through the forest, where a slight path twisted up steep banks and skidded down mud-chute ramps, corkscrewing over roots and stones. Close to the bottom I stacked into the hedge, and stayed safely there as a filthy blur of other cyclists cannoned past. Ignominiously, I plodded the last 20ft, then clambered back on, grateful for the relative calm of the gruelling but consistent forest fire-road tracks. Still, as I laboured up the vicious inclines, I was glad of my three months of early-morning training sessions.
At Fort William we ditched our bikes and tottered up the slick stones of the start of the West Highland Way, towards the buffeted moorland of Glen Nevis. After a series of false summits, we reached the high point. But the descent was equally demanding: the grass was churned up and boggy, grip impossible to find. As we approached the shore of Loch Leven, the proximity of the finish and the taste of our achievement spurred us on.
The last leg was back to the kayaks. The sea loch whipped up in the wind, but we pulled strongly to drive our kayaks through it. At Glencoe, crowds of supporters stood cheering. The moment we crossed the line, and were wrapped in foil and awarded a medal, was euphoric.
The winner, Bruce Duncan, finished in nine hours, 15 minutes, without stopping. I took just under 13 hours. As I chatted to Duncan at the finish, he told me how he relishes the outdoor aspect of AR, and the way it has taken him to remote locations all over the world. But he sounded a note of caution. He warned me it was addictive. He was right: I will be quicker next time.
Could you be an adventure racer?
* The good news is that any able-bodied person can take part, says Ralph Hydes, a GB triathlete and world champion coach.
* It may not happen overnight, but if you build your fitness in small steps, then in four to six months you could be taking part in the endurance sport of your choice.
* Be realistic about training. If you’re at a basic level of fitness, start with three hours spread out over a week, and increase by 10 per cent at a time, to give your body time to adjust.
* Proper nutrition is vital in training. You’ll need plenty of carbs for energy, about 55 to 60 per cent, with 15 to 20 per cent protein.
Original article published in The Independent, in November, 2010