Findhorn is a small village in Moray famous for it’s eco-living and for the Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual community. It’s also has one of the nicest beaches on the Moray Firth.
Ease of Access: There’s plenty of parking beside the beach although a sign does warn that parking costs £1. However, as there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to actually pay a pound, I’ve never paid it and I’ve not seen anyone else pay either.
There’s plenty of grass beside the car park and it’s easy to walk to the beach, even barefooted.
Water quality: Very clear when I was there at end of July. There’s also plenty of room to swim before the beach starts to drop away. You can easily move away from shore and still, not only see the bottom, but also find places to stand and keep your head above water. The water temperature was c15 degrees.
Swim Quality: Excellent – at high tide, the sea was calm and there were views straight across the Moray Firth. Watch out for the estuary though – it looked too calm to be natural so I assumed that it was full of undercurrents. Afterwards someone else told me it also had a “whopping great whirlpool”, not sure if that’s true but I’d definitely avoid swimming near it and head east instead along the beach only.
Other People: Findhorn Beach is popular but, at more than five miles long there’s plenty of quiet spots away from entrance to the car park.
Would I go back: Yes. Though I would like to see it on windier day to see how conditions compare.
I think it was Rod Stewart, rock star, famous Celtic fan, and a man who now asks “Do You Think I’m sexy?” as a rhetorical question, who passed on this tip when you go to the pub. Always buy the first round, said Rod, that way everyone will remember you’ve bought a round as, once the drinking starts, no one will remember who bought the second or third round. And, because you bought the first round, no one will ask you again because you’re the only one they’re sure has had a turn.
The same thought applies to the Ramsay Round. A hill climb of 24 Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet) in 24 hours that starts or finishes with Ben Nevis – depending on whether you run it clockwise or anti-clockwise.
It’s named after the first person to run it successfully. And, after Ramsay’s Round, only a further 159 have managed to successfully run it again. Of those, only a handful have managed to complete it in Winter rather than Summer, when crampons and ice axes are as essential to any runner as a pair of trainers.
Yet, despite it challenge, despite the brave stories of those who’ve managed to run it, I struggle to name any runner’s round after Ramsay. And that’s despite reading about – what feels like! – all of them in Jonny Muir’s ‘The Mountain’s Are Calling’.
The Mountain’s Are Calling is a comprehensive and detailed history/biography of the hill running in Scotland and the Ramsay Round, in particular. It’s well written, extensively researched and contains many first hand interviews with the most successful hill runners of the last 20 years including Finlay Wild, the undisputed king of the Ben Nevis Race, and Jasmine Paris, who, until recently held the record for the Ramsay Round. Yet…
It’s just too much!
The mountains, the people, detail upon detail obscure the joy of running in the hills. And it seems ironic that a book which celebrates the hill runners who eschew gadgets, Garmin, records to run as natural as possible and a book which celebrates the “doing something, not the achievement of something being done”, should be so baggy.
While individual chapters, most dedicated to one athlete or one race, are complete in themselves, each chapter taken together becomes a slog. Much like the Ramsay Round. No sooner have you completed one hill then another presents itself and then another – and another.
A particular low point is the chapter covering in page after page the detail not just of a race but watching Twitter updates about that race.
While the book does make me want to try more hill racing – and I’ve marked the entry dates to try and get a spot in the Abernety 5 in my diary – largely it succeeds in showing you how much of a slog an actual 24 hour challenge would be. Which was maybe the point. There’s a good reason only 160 people have completed the Ramsay Round.
Blair Atholl Horse Trials. As far as I can tell there were twenty three guilty, thirty six not proven and one mistrial for a case of mistaken identity with a Shetland Pony.
I admit may not have understood what was going on around me…
The Blair Atholl Horse Trials are an annual event, held in the grounds of Blair Atholl castle. But they may as well be called the Blair Atholl Dog Trials given the number of dogs in the grounds. Or the Blair Atholl Land Rover Trials given the number of Land Rovers in the car park. Or even the Blair Atholl Barbour Jacket & Welly Boot Trials…
Basically, I’m saying there were a lot of farmers, people who wanted to be farmers and dogs who wanted nothing more than to run around a farm chasing sheep all day.
Don’t worry if you don’t have the right gear. There’s loads of stalls selling everything you need to look the part. Though I was a bit taken aback by the large sign for Welligogs – which was a spoonerism away from selling a KKK robe.
The Trials take place over four days – Thursday to Sunday. We went on Saturday to see the main cross country and show jumping.
I admit I know nothing about horses but my wife has been learning to ride so she explained what was happening and that while her jumps may be smaller, the technique was exactly the same.
She said this as we watched one rider fall off.
“Is that what you do?” I asked.
“Exactly, the same,” she said, “I’m just closer to the ground when I fall!”
There’s plenty to see throughout the day as the cross country course has different types of jumps, some water hazards and is long enough that it’s a ramble in itself to move from one place to another.
Every five minutes a horse would gallop along the course with riders with different expressions of happy, joy and positively please make it stop screams of terror depending on how experienced they were.
One thing to watch out for though is that the tickets were cash only. Unless you do what we did and bought the ticket on our phone then showed the phone to the staff at the entrance. A long walk back to Blair Atholl avoided – until we worked out that most of the stalls were cash only and that we’d need to scavenge for food for lunch.
I like seeing new sports and, with a sunny day, some action at all times, and a loudspeaker that blared across the course in an upper class accent updating everyone on the scores, there’s plenty to do.
Would I go back? Probably. But with cash. And a tweed Land Rover.
The Hebridean Triathlon is the remotest triathlon in the UK. It was started by the Western Isles Triathlon Club as a trial event for 15 people three years ago and has gradually increased the number of people to almost 40 this year. With a small band of volunteers it’s a small but enthusiastic race.
The race starts and end at Shawbost School and set up and registration is informal and thoughtful – with rain forecasted, the organisers provided everyone with clear plastic bags to store their kit at transition so it would be dry despite conditions.
My legs were still heavy three weeks after Roth but I thought I would still be okay to take part.
The swim leg takes place in a loch about 2km from Shawbost School. A mini-bus takes competitors while bikes are transported to transition. It’s a simple system and easy to manage. Even easier if, like one woman, you don’t even wear a wetsuit.
“Are you not wearing a wetsuit?” someone asked her.
“There’s not much point,” she said.
“Aye,” said the other, “I forgot, you’ve swung the English Channel!”
Which is a bit like Jasmin Paris turning up for 10k. Or Ronaldo appearing at fives. However, as it turned out, the English Channel may have been good preparation as the course felt longer than 1500m. I thought it was closer to 1800m, and even longer for me as I managed to follow the wrong feet almost to the opposite bank to where we were meant to be going!
The water was warm, almost 19 degrees, but very dark, heavy with peat. One of the bouys had blown away but the organisers had roped in (no pun intended) a replacement at short notice. The original bouy was found a kilometre down the road having lept three fences and numerous crofts. Luckily, there wasn’t any breeze for the race and the water was flat calm. Unluckily, no wind meant midges were out in force turning this triathlon in to a quadrathalon – swim, bike, run & scratch, scratch, scratch!
Normally on an out and back course you have a ride of two halves. One fast, into the wind. One slow, as you battle it. However, with no wind, their was only the numerous hills to battle.
The thing you have to know about roads on the Isle of Lewis is that they are lumpier than school custard, including one short sharp 15% at the turning point. Thankfully, the turning point is also the Callanish Stones so you have a cracking view as you make your way back to transistion 2.
Given it was only a few weeks since Challenge Roth, the bike leg felt short. But then, after 112 miles, anything feels short.
I’d misread the run route. I thought it too was out and back. While the first five kilometres are generally uphill, as there’s no flats on the run route either, I thought the second half would be easier as we’d be coming back the same way. The only doubt I had was that I hadn’t seen anyone running back to the start. That should have been a big clue.
Instead of doubling back the route takes a left turn and returns through a single track road surrounded by croft houses.
By the 5km point a few drops of rain had become a downpour and, while warm, it was good to see the finish and, finally, a downhill sprint to the line.
A cracking race that deserves support as it expands. As the remotest triathlon in the UK you do get a real sense of being on the edge of the world as the bike course takes you through crofting towns, views of the Atlantic, and the Callanish Stones.
Plus you get a fantastic buffet at the end!
And with a small field you have a good chance of making the top 10 – or, worse, as in my case, you can be fourth fastest male AKA the fastest loser!
Whenever you enter a race you will need to travel. Unless you live by the ocean or a loch with enough space for a transition area then you’re going to plane, train our automobile it. Last week, I looked at planes – don’t fly! – and this week, I look at what you need to know about catching the train…
The problem with traveling by train is that the train has other people. Adults talking; babies squalling; lads drinking; mobile phones blaring; laptops glaring. It doesn’t matter what carriage you get, or how long you travel, there is one thing guaranteed: you will always be sat near a knob – and it’s time we told them to shut the hell up!
But we have a problem. We may want to tell the dick on the train* that they are being a dick, but we are scared that if we tell them to shut up we will ourselves become… the dick on the train.
Psychologically, you have become victim of a ‘double dicking’ i.e. by telling a knob to shut up you become twice as big a knob.
Double dicking in action
“Did you see what that man did, Mummy?”
“Yes, dear, he tried to stop those nice young lads chanting a catchy song about their rival football team’s sexuality, that we were all secretly rather enjoying.”
“What a dick!”
“Exactly, dear, let’s glower at him to show our disapproval!”
What can we do?
We need an anonymous way to inform the dick on the train that we are watching them – and we don’t approve!
We need… a dicklight!
It’s simple. Every seat will have a large blue light. Every other seat will have the power to switch on that light remotely from a special keypad.
This may be expensive to install in every seat but, trust me, it’ll be worth it.
Once the dicklight is installed, if you act like a dick in seat 45, the passenger in seat 78 can just just switch on your dicklight and the spotlight of shame will shine upon you!
Dicklight version 2.0
But, what if the dick doesn’t know why they are being a dick? What if you just want to tell them to nip to the loo and have a wash under theirs arms to get rid of their bad B.O.? Sometimes dicks smell.
Simple – along with the dicklight we have dick text – an anonymous inter seat texting service. Shine a light and send them a message: “You smell!”
And, if you see a pretty lady, why not try dickflirt?
The only thing trains won’t have is dick flashing, because that sounds dirty, and children will just giggle.
A true story
Now, if Scotrail had introduced the dicklight two weeks ago, I would not have had to suffer silently when I saw, through a gap in the seats in front of me, a middle aged man watching pornography on his laptop. Sweaty hardcore pornography.
I could have switched on his dicklight! I could have sent him a dicktext! Because just as I caught a glimpse of a XXX double dicking, he switched it off!
And then he put on Mrs Brown’s Boys!
What a dick.
Don’t leave your house!
*The dick on the train is a distant cousin of Jasper Carrot’s nutter on the bus
Whenever you enter a race you will need to travel. Unless you live by the ocean or a loch with enough space for a transition area then you’re going to have plane, train our automobile it. Over the next three weeks I’m going to share my thoughts on travel...
I used to be scared of flying. Really scared. The kind of fear that makes you think twice about going to the airport. It was irrational. It was stupid. And I needed to find a cure so I checked out a website which explained in forensic detail the purpose of every single knob, button, indicator and screen in the cockpit. Knowledge is power.
The website was meant to reassure the nervous flyer. Failsafes knobs catching failsafes buttons catching failsafe indicators showing on failsafe screens. A pilot would need to be dead, dumb and blind not to know something was going wrong – and every button would have to fail before you ran out of buttons that could save you.
And, as yet another failsafe, you can be confident that your pilot is alive and is not dead, dumb and blind because they definitely test for that in pilot school. In fact, pretty much every airline insists on all of their pilots having eyes, mouths and ears. It’s not the law though, so, just as a precaution, before boarding a Ryanair flight, I’d check if the cockpit contains a kennel, just in case the pilot needs a spot for their dog.
And with this basic check complete, you can be confident that there are over 200 knobs, buttons, indicators and screens making sure we don’t fall from the sky. Who couldn’t be impressed by all the measures in place to ensure we can fly safety while eating a free bag of nuts? It was a revelation. It cured my fear of flying because, after checking out the site I realised one simple thing – NO MAN CAN REMEMBER ALL THOSE BUTTONS! THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF THEM?!!! IT’S IMPOSSIBLE. HE’D NEED TO BE MR MEMORY! AND WHAT IF HE CAN’T GET THE INTERNET WHEN HE’S FLYING THE PLANE? IN FACT, HE SHOULDN’T BE CHECKING THE INTERNET WHEN FLYING! HIS PHONE SHOULD BE ON FLIGHT SAFE MODE!!!! OH GOD, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!
And that’s why I no longer fear flying because under no circumstances will I ever get on a plane again.
I wanted to wear the shirt of shame. Iain’s Norseman run top from last year, the run I didn’t manage to complete myself two year’s earlier. It would remind me to keep going. To complete this.
But first I needed to ask someone the time.
After a quick change in transition, as one volunteer takes your bike and racks it, another volunteer helps you find your bag and help you unpack your run kit and pack it again with your cycle kit.
As soon as I left transition I asked another competitor if they had the time. 1540, they said. Excellent, I thought, I had been aiming to start between 4 and 5pm so this was a bonus to be out so early.
I also felt good. Legs were fine and I didn’t have any of the feeling of trying to adjust from cycling fast to plodding along and wondering why I was no longer moving as fast as I’d been 10 minutes earlier.
My plan was to run to 10k, then walk a bit then run as much as I could until the half way point.
(Also my plan was to work out how many kilometres there were in a marathon as I’d been relying on my watch to tell me and I’d never checked the metric equivalent of 26 miles – for half the race I thought I was running 44 kilometres as I’d miscounted).
My plan didn’t last long though – it lasted until 2km when I saw Iain. He had a Twix. I almost gave in. I almost ate it but I thought – be good, keep going, you don’t need this!
Then 2 km down the road as we started to run down the canal I thought. “I want a Twix!!!!”
On the canal, you run south for around 4 kilometres, then north by around 10 kilometres then back south again by 6 kilometres. A long straight flat course along the banks of the canal and over white, light, dirt trails.
Every kilometre is signposted. Every two kilometres, if not sooner, has a feed station. At this point I switched to a run/walk strategy.
I played the Dariusz Dziekanowski* game. Along the bank are green and white poles and I would run between them and then walk for a minute then run to the next pole again.
(A Polish Celtic player. Geddit?)
I would also stop at every feedstop and have a bite of something and a cup of something. At first, just water, electrolyte drinks and a pretzel, then, as the feed stops got more elaborate, a choice of:
Cups of salt water
Slices of bread with liver pate!!!
This was less of food stop and more a Continental cafe.
To keep us going on the canal, there was a band playing rock covers. Stripped to the waist, the middle aged singer was belting out Highway To Hell…
Who said the Germans don’t like a laugh?!
As the canal section finished, and the second half of the race began, I knew that there was still one thing missing. Luckily, I saw Iain again and he had…
The second half of the course is hillier, I walked more, and you could see my time per kilometre drop by minutes from the start of the run. I didn’t mind. I’d never trained to run a marathon, I trained to run a half marathon and then take however long it might take to complete the rest.
The second half takes you back through Roth and along the main streets. Pubs blared music – more AC/DC – people cheered and the atmosphere is fantastic.
Until you get to 10 kilometres to go and you realise there’s a long, long hill to climb before you return to the finish line.
I didn’t run at all on the hill. Instead, I’d picked up my phone from Iain, along with the Twix, and listened to a Podcast interview with the comedian Lee Mack. Headphones are allowed on the run course at Roth so this was a welcome change after hours with no conversation.
At the end of the hill, there’s a great turning point around a pond, with flags and posters designed by school kids. One of the last posters was of the Scottish flag so I tapped it for good luck and began the final plod back to the finish. This time, going downhill. I could start running again, and I was able to keep a good pace back round to the finish where I met Iain. He said that he could run in with me, which was great, as I didn’t know you could be accompanied.
I now had a second wind (or fourteenth wind after hours of swimming, cycling and running) and was able to jog to the finish line.
The stadium was noisy, chaotic and, while I kept thinking I needed to make sure I had a decent finishing photo I also now had my time and saw that I could finish below 14 hours if I could finish within the next few minutes.
Across the line, a medal and then a quick trip to the finisher’s tent to get changed and back out to meet everyone else. On my way out I checked my final time and found out, without my watch, I’d got my times completely wrong, I hadn’t been running to finish within 14 hours, instead it was 12 hours 53 minutes.
I didn’t mind losing my watch for that! Well, almost!
According to Strava it has 1900 metres of climbing, which is not flat, but…
If you cycle in Scotland, and around Glasgow in particular, then 1900 metres is not particularly hilly over 112 miles. In fact, apart from the two named climbs, I struggled to think of anything else I would consider to be a hill. Some slopes, yes, but hills? Something requiring your lowest gears? No.
Instead, there a long stretch on perfect flat roads or gentle up or down gradients. Plenty of time to try and work out a good position on the tri-bars (something I maybe should have worked out beforehand…) and plenty of time to see the spectacular German…. tarmac. With so many kilometres in the tribars it was hard to look up and see anything but road.
And I was trying to look up because, without a watch, I was riding with no idea what time it was, how far I’d gone, or how fast (or slow) as I was going.
I had to cycle by feel. Never flat out, fast enough to keep moving, and with plenty to eat and drink to keep fuelled.
Luckily, the food stops are regular and often, with plenty to chose from – water, sports drink, gels, fruit, rice cakes and plenty of volunteers so if you missed one chance to take something you had another chance 10 meters up the road.
By this stage, the weather was perfect, warm-ish but with 100% cloud cover to keep the worst of the sun away. There was barely any wind, with it only picking up on the second loop.
With closed roads, people out in every town we passed through, and a strict policy of breaking up anyone drafting – I saw one Marshall shout at a pair of cyclists riding too close – it felt like a true race. You vs the course.
And to make it feel more like a race, there was the Solarberg.
First, you can hear cheering. Then music. Then the drumming of a thousand clapper balloons. Then folk gather at the side of the hill screaming at you to go higher, climb faster, keep going – and then you realise that this is just a slope before the solarberg. There are two climbs. One as you come into town. Then once you pass it, swing right and see the actual climb you can’t hear a thing because of the noice of five thousand Germans screaming just for you.
It felt emotional riding through it. This is what I’d been training for over the last ninth months. This moment. And I wanted to savour it. I rode slower. Sat up. High fived a spectator. And enjoyed it.
After that it was back to the start, another loop and still no idea what time it was or how fast I was going.
But, a thought had started to percolate, maybe losing the watch was a good thing. If I had the watch would I have been checking times and speed and distances and thinking about how far I had to go? Instead, riding on feel I was comfortable, I wasn’t counting down miles and, on the second lap I was able to pick spots from the first lap and count them off instead: a clown dancing in a lay-by; an Isreali flag flying beside a field; the Greding hill climb to signify the bottom of the course; the Solarberg again before the sign returning us to Roth and a last few miles of downhill before transition 2.
I rode into transition 2, happy, elated, and with no idea how long I would have to finish the run…
Solarberg: A Warning
If the Solarberg is Hogmany in a hill climb then the second time you go round it’s New Year’s Day. The party’s over. A few folk remain but most have moved to Roth to get ready for the finish.
For 140 years, treasure hunters scoured the coast of Georgia in the United States for the SS Republic, a paddlewheel steamship that sank in 1865 in a hurricane with a reported $400,000 in gold and silver coins on board. In 2003 the ship was located and more than 50,000 precious coins, worth an estimated $75 million was discovered.
While the Challenge Roth canal may not contain millions of pounds of lost confederate gold, if there are any treasure hunters looking for a fortune then they need look no further than 50 metres from the start line – as that’s where my £500 Garmin 945 now lies.
It was a stupid mistake. One I’d even predicted. I’d bought the Garmin a few weeks ago so that I could play music at the end of the run. I’d changed the wrist bands to quick release straps and, during a race simulation at a training swim, Iain had pulled the watch accidentally as he tried to swim in front of me and it had fallen off.
I’ll be clever I thought. I’ll put the wetsuit over it and that way it’ll be safe.
I was wrong.
Just after the start, just as everyone was jostling for position, someone accidentally caught my arm with their stroke and ran their hand along my arm catching the watch.
Which was more than I could do. As I felt it slip, tried to catch it, but only managed to grab hold of the straps. The watch was gone! And with it my only way to know the time, my speed and how far I’d gone as I was relying on the watch to last all day. I had no back up.
And now no choice. I had to complete Challenge Roth entirely on feel.
Saturday was nearly 30 degrees with clear blue skies but the weather forecast for the race was for the heatwave to end and for rain to clear the air. We woke at 430 a.m. with the intention of collecting another athlete (a former member of Glasgow Tri Club) at 5 a.m. That left 30 minutes to dress, eat something and try not to think about the fact it was actually 3:30 am in UK time.
The drive to the start involved a missed junction, which wasn’t a problem for me but for Iain it meant we’d have to take the next junction and a car park which would be shut until 11am while the bike course was closed.
Getting round was okay though. Iain dropped us off at transition and then went to park while we checked the bikes and dropped off the swim and race bags. The swim bags needed to be dropped off by 6:15 but other than that we were free to enter and leave transition, even after the race had started.
A cannon signals the start of each wave with the rain stopping just as the professionals started. There were thousands of people around the canal, more than I’d seen at any other race.
Every five minutes another wave would set off and another blast of the cannon would sound.
I was swimming at 8am, the second last wave, and it was easy to get lined up. Swimmers could wait near the start and when your wave was called you were directed into a pen as volunteers checked your swim cap to make sure the time printed on the side of it matched your start time.
Once everyone was in the pen, the previous wave would start and you were allowed to enter the canal and line up.
I stayed near the centre, as it was quieter, and hung back so as not to be swum over by the faster swimmers. I thought I had it sussed. I would avoid a melee and be able to find my own pace. But we all know how well that went…
The race started. There was the usual flurry of legs and limbs but no fighting for position, just the accidental crossing over of a few hundred swimmers in a few short metres.
And the less said about the next five minutes the better…
The water was warm. Almost 25 degrees, and just shy of banning wetsuits all together, but it was calm and swimming was as easy as swimming in a swimming pool.
Sighting was easy too. There was very little need to look forward as you could always judge if you were swimming in a straight line by looking at the side of the canal. Provided you could see the bank, the people and the trees, you always knew if you were getting closer or further away.
Because of that, I swam most of the way in the centre of the canal. The side is reportedly easier but it was quieter in the centre and it gave me free reign to carry on at my own pace and just count out the strokes. 1. 2. 3. 4. Breathe. 1. 2. 3. 4. Breathe.
You swim around 1500 metres to the next bridge, then around 1700 back to the bridge overlooking the start before swimming under it and doing a u-turn back to transition.
I felt strong throughout, and the fact you’re always swimming to something – bridge, then bridge, then under bridge, meant the swim was broken up and didn’t feel like one long slog.
There are also metre signs on the bank but I didn’t look out for them. I prefer not to know how far I’ve swum when swimming. And, thanks to my accident at the start, I would also find out what it was like to cycle and run without knowing how far I’ve gone either. Damn!
This was the bit I was looking forward too. I’d read that the volunteers in transition will help you get out of your wetsuit – something I always struggle with as I can never get the wetsuit off my legs. Prisoners in shackles have more chance of getting free than I do with rubber wrapped around my ankles.
And it was true. As soon as you grab your bag from the ground as you go into the tent – each bag is laid out in numerical order – a volunteer starts to help you strip, empties your bag and hands you everything you need.
Except a watch.
Sadly, they didn’t have a spare Garmin.
I changed into full cycle gear and eight minutes later (a new record for me) l was on my bike and away.