Last year I was introduced to a new endurance race, The Great Glen Paddle. This paddle travels coast to coast in the Highlands of Scotland, along the Caledonian Canal and across the legendary Loch Ness . Therefore, the challenge is not only the endurance distance of the race (93km) but also the inclement weather. The race covers 21.5km of canals, 61.5km of open water and 10km of river.
Winter training did not go to plan due to the constant storms in the UK, very little chance of any distance training. No time to worry about that, best just go and get it done.
As we arrived in the Highlands on Friday afternoon we were greeted by extremely heavy snow. That is when I realised the weather in this challenge could be the big killer. On the drive to the race start Mark Slater, Adam Chubbock and myself found ourselves performing a strange pre-paddle warm-up – we were pushing a van, full loaded up a snow and ice covered hill as we could gain no traction on the snow. If we did not get this van to the top of the hill we were never going to get to the race start. Huge thanks to Simon Helmsley, who was part of my much needed support crew for helping push that van up the hill and get us to the start line.
At 2am, with safety checks and board checks completed by the organisers, it was time to hit the water. First 11km was on the canal, so perfect flat water and low wind conditions, Good fast paddling and surprisingly mild. Then came the first portage and it was a killer, climbing up a steep snow covered hill carrying my board and paddle, then a 500m walk to the drop in point. Back in the water and I was ready to hit the first Loch. I had not anticipated being so scared, I found myself paddling completely on my own with extremely limited visibility due to mist and heavy snow. I had no idea if I was going in the right direction or if I was paddling along the correct shoreline. My only choice was to keep paddling and wait for daylight. At 5.45am I passed a checkpoint at the end of the Loch, I was certainly happy to see that checkpoint as it meant I was still on track.
At 6am time for the second stop and portage, yet another killer of a portage, 500m long and a K15 to carry. Food and fresh hydration on board and I was ready for another stint on a canal, perfect break from the open water of the Loch. This stretch of the paddle was extremely enjoyable I had met up with my friend, John Siggs, and we paddled together. Paddling a distance is so much more enjoyable when you have company. Next portage was at 48km and the half way point, this portage was 750m long. At this portage I needed to rest for a while as I was just about to enter Loch Ness and I had a feeling it would be tough, I actually had no comprehension of just how tough. After 20 minutes break it was time to head out onto Loch Ness, I left smiling, well that smile was going to be wiped off my face very quickly!!!
Loch Ness is 38km is length and we paddled the whole distance, wind was high gusting 35knots but in a favourable direction. The first 10km was enjoyable but tough, I chose to paddle a flat water board and in these conditions it was clear I had made a huge error on board choice. I had chosen one rest point along Loch Ness and I could not get to it quick enough. 18km into the Loch Ness distance I was needing that break. I was horrified to see the stop was actually on a rocky bank with a climb up a rock face to get to the toilet and the van for food and shelter from the weather. Had to jump into the water up to waist height to enable me to guide the board in over the rocks , thankfully On-line Extreme Wear provided me with an amazing dry suit so no problem with putting myself in the water. The rock face was horrific in neoprene boots but if I wanted hydration and food then I had no other option.
Pit-stop over and back to the Loch. Another 20km to go and the wind was not letting up, swell was waist height and the Loch seemed to be never ending. As there were no other points for me to rest on the Loch it started playing with my mind that I was just about to start the worst leg of the paddle. This was now survival of the fittest, my legs were burning by the constant movement on my board to keep me standing and out of the water. 8km before the end of the Loch my husband was standing on the shore to check I was ok, at this point if I could have gotten off the water, I would have, I was broken and my mental strength was at a serious low. Loch Ness was destroying me.
As the end of the Loch was getting closer my spirits started lifting and I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Only a 1km cross wind paddle to do at the end of the Loch and I would be back onto flat water.
Once back on the river and one more stop to go, I knew I would need a 15 minute break at this one. I was so hungry and now felt ready to eat, the challenge of the last 38km had taken it out of me and I needed to re-address and finish strong. At this stop I had a huge smile on my face and was feeling great. Loch Ness had not beaten me.
Back on the water and 500m from the finish line it was time to end this race like I would finish every race, get a sprint on. I saw my husband, Pete Vale, on the river bank and I have never needed a hug so much in all my life. I just wanted off the board.
Back on dry land, Great Glen Paddle done. Overall time 13hrs 37 minutes, 70 minutes of this this time was rest stops and portages. So paddle time 12 hours 27 minutes to complete 93km. I was DONE.
Huge thanks to Black Project Fins, On-Line Extreme Wear, Starboard UK and ZRE paddles for supplying me with great kit, which saw me through this huge challenge.
Time to find the next one.