Dunc’s 2019 Great Glen blog

The weekend before last, 21-22 September was the culmination of the 2019 UK SUP endurance series with the big one – the Great Glen Challenge; 92km across Scotland … and this year, rather than the legendary downwind conditions it’s famous for, it turned out to be primarily upwind! This was certainly the most beautiful yet possibly the toughest race I’ve ever paddled, at times it was pure survival, but it actually went really well for me. I finished 4th SUP overall for 1st iSUP, so drove home a UK SUP national champion. Al finished the race 4th iSUP to claim 2nd iSUP overall for the season, Kate put in an amazing effort to finish first female and claim her national iSUP title – which meant SUPsect were awarded UK SUP Club of the Year. It was quite a weekend…

Rewind to Thursday 19th, when I started the drive up in glorious autumn weather. Scotland was the initial objective, so I decided to camp at a site not so far across the border somewhere in Lanarkshire – where I hooked up with my good buddy and 11 City campmate Martyn. Although we’re both pretty experienced endurance paddlers now, this was to be our first Great Glen as we both have similar perspectives on water conditions (basically, the flatter the better) so we set about calming each other’s nerves. Friday dawned bright but bloody freezing as a beautiful Scotch mist shrouded the valley we were camped in. Beautiful, but it did have us seriously questioning our neoprene-or-not clothing strategies. Ahead of us was the drive up to the Highlands, and it was an absolute cracker in glorious weather. Over lunch in Glencoe we dared to dream as we saw other competitors’ Facebook posts of a mirror-flat Loch Ness and read the windless weather forecasts. An hour or two later we were at the Great Glen Water Park beside a super-calm Loch Oich catching up with friends old and new ahead of registration and briefing. From the predictions and what we could plainly see in front of us, this year wasn’t going to be the big downwinder this event is famous as – I half-joked that an upwind race would suit me better anyway: be careful what you wish for!

At the briefing, initially it looked like Pete and Jo (the legendary organisers of UK SUP who do an unrivalled job for the love of the sport, as do their incredible band of volunteers) had opted to start in Inverness for an east-west crossing, but as a solid westerly wind filled in across the loch behind us the whiteboard was soon erased and eventually the ‘classic’ west-east route was decided on with a 7:30am start at Neptune’s Staircase in Fort William the following morning. By now, Martyn and I had buddied up with Al who was also kipping in his van so we had a three amigos convoy west into the sunset. Handily, as I’d expected to simply freecamp at the start before realising the facilities were for berth-holders only, Al had researched the campsites so we had a comfortable place to park up 5 minutes away before our 4:45am alarm call the following morning…

While I won’t pretend for a moment that alarm call wasn’t a shock to the system, it didn’t turn out so bad – sure, it was still dark, but at least there was moonlight. And thankfully it really wasn’t so cold. The fly in the ointment was that the trees were all rustling. Despite all those 0-3 knot forecasts, somehow it was breezy. No problem, surely just a temporary anomoly, so we swiftly sorted ourselves out and drove over to the Neptune’s Staircase lock system – and we were first there, which gave us ample time for prepping and faffing (I still had a board to inflate, so that suited me alright!) while everyone else arrived from their base 45 minutes away. Soon enough it was the briefing (who knew I’d get quite so much grief for asking whether the startline was board noses or human bodies?!?) and as the morning dawned pink on the water we were lined up and ready for the off. Yep: into a headwind! I got a decent start and we embarked on the first 10km Caledonian Canal stretch up towards the first lock I found myself chasing ‘Jersey boy’ Will and ‘Geordie boy’ Bruce, off to a flying start and already comfortably in the lead was a face I knew from the 11 City last year but a name I didn’t know on an orange 23″ JP (I got to know Armin a lot better on day 2, hence much more on him later…) Initially I was surprised not to see Norfolk winner (French Guernseyman) Fred ‘Onions’ up there too, but after a couple of minutes he drew level with me – I wished him luck and asked what he was up to? The reply came that he’d missed the start, apparently after a warm-up he’d been paddling back across the startline the wrong way when the shout went up. It seemed to give him some extra motivation though as very soon he was up with Armin and they began to extend away, out of sight around some of the corners.

Has to be said, even working into a bit of breeze, I was happy with my wardrobe choice – just shorts, rashvest and no shoes (we did have to carry a change of clothes and a jacket too, which i was dutifully doing) – as even so soon after sunrise it was already a pretty warm day. As we approached the first lock, Gairlochy just before Loch Lochy McLoch-face, I’d drawn level with Will and we even had a chance to take in the scenery and discuss the weather as we portaged. Apparently not a breath of wind now, glorious blue skies, it looked like it was going to be another fine day… Turns out looks can be very deceiving though, especially up in the Highlands! I followed my map and headed left of the lock to find the recommended beach to launch onto, while Bruce and Will took a little longer by crossing over to the right hand side – although having not quite spotted the easy beach I had a little trouble getting in off a bank, I still found myself entering Lochy McLoch-face 3rd SUP on the water – and ahead of me I could see Fred and Armin had elected to go straight down the middle of the vast body of water into a bit of a cross-headwind from the right. OK… I took a couple of deep breaths and followed suit. Until, a minute or two later I saw a big gust of wind swirling across the loch from the mountains to the right. Then I saw the gust pick Fred and his board up, turn him upside-down and dump him on his head. Seconds later Armin was swimming too. Right, I thought, I’m fucked – run away!!! So I took a hard right to head directly upwind, saw a fish-farm tucked out by the shore under the mountains maybe half a kilometre away, put my head down and selected survival mode. It was touch-and-go but I made it without a swim as my trusty 25″ Red Paddle Elite really did me proud (must confess, if anyone had shown me a picture of this weekend’s conditions I’d have gone for its bigger 27″ brother, but the 25″ was amazing all weekend long and turned out to be the right choice despite the surprise conditions: I genuinely love that board…) Anyway, at the foot of the cliffs we found a little respite and I was able to relax some and try to regain my composure as I could see we were in for an interesting hour ahead as we dealt with repeated gusts rattling down the loch. Will had followed me over to the cliffs and soon overtook, doubtless quite happy in this sort of water-state as he’s used to Channel Island conditions, then Bruce did too with his North Sea legs obviously in fine form – but no problem, it gave me someone to follow and focus on, which helped me relax and find my pace in what weren’t exactly comfortable conditions for me with gusty winds and choppy waters. Of course, I couldn’t and didn’t look back, but our route had set a theme for the rest of the fleet to follow – and not far back Al had buddied up with our good friend Kelvin (Suffolk) but taken a tumble on the way up to the fish farm, resulting in his board rolling a few times, which couldn’t have done wonders for his mindset or energy levels. Anyway, with this swirling headwind and some chop rolling down the lake the next hour or so was full focus and a balancing act between tucking close enough to shore to get some shelter yet far enough away not to catch a paddle on the big boulders submerged in the shallower water. My paddle survived but did get a gentle cheesing from a rock or two! But eventually, by maybe midway up the loch, the wind subsided and I was able to dig in and get properly back up to speed – I could see Fred and Armin off in the distance, Will was still a fair way ahead but I’d gradually drawn level with Bruce; one of the founder members of the Northern SUP Racing Team and someone I’d seen around at races but never really properly spoken to. We certainly put that right though, as we chatted constantly the whole way up to the end of Loch Lochy – and I’m not usually a talker when I’m racing! It definitely helped take my mind off things though, and by the last half hour we finally got some tailwind and even enjoyed a few little glides on some ankle-biters.

Then came the second checkpoint where it was great to be greeted by Pete (who was very kindly driving my van up to the finish for me) and the non-stop boys: Andre seemed to be in charge of cameraphone streaming live clips of day one (here’s Will, then Bruce and I coming in), it was good to say hi to Mark, plus Chris was there with his young daughter helping steer people towards the launch. So I walked through the checkpoint, saying hello and necking another energy gel – while it seems a lot of others had a stopping strategy. I was surprised to see Armin filling his water and retaping his hands as he’d been banking on an 11 City style 15-minute break at this point! Plus my new pal Bruce was obviously hungry and started eating a cheese-and-pickle sandwich as provided by his support team: great though it had been to hang out with Bruce, I wasn’t going to sit down and continue our chat so just got on with it instead… The next stretch was a little more canal between beautiful steep-sided scenery, which I took in whilst chatting to Glen non-stop veteran and endurance hero Nick who had decided to do this year’s on a surf-ski “to take in the scenery: it’s usually dark when I get here!” Has to be said, paddling alongside a sit-down was handy for keeping my pace up, and the building tailwind helped me stay comfortably ahead of Bruce, until before I knew it we were downwinding onto Loch Oich with a properly strong breeze behind us. Oich being pretty narrow there was no danger of real conditions beyond a few ripples so has to be said I really enjoyed the experience as I started to be able to count down the distance to go from my customary 15km ‘end-game’ marker. Fair enough, this can make time drag a little but I was able to take my focus to the incredible scenery, to Radio 4 on my earphone, to a quick sip of water (with temperatures well over 20°C it was properly hot, not just hot for Scotland!) Here’s a clip of me passing under the bridge at the end of Loch Oich, which should probably come with a parental advisory for bad language, then just a lock or two later I could see the finish line and maybe even better my faithful van waiting for me. Day one done and it felt good – I was third SUP home and first iSUP at just before 1pm (footage here and day one timings here), so I’d broken 5 and a half hours, and I had plenty of time to congratulate Fred and Will in front of me, Bruce and Armin behind me, talk to El on the phone, and welcome the rest of the fleet in through the afternoon… Kudos to Al who finished strong just over half an hour behind me. First woman home was our friend Sam from Bray, but Kate came in second woman overall and first woman’s iSUP – a great result on a tricky day. Before the 7pm briefing (where we were to discover where day 2 would start from – not as clean-cut a decision as you might expect given the super-light forecasts as conditions up in the mountains were proving unpredictable in the extreme) we had time to hang out, eat fish-&-chips and even an ice-cream in Fort Augustus, cheering the remainder of the racers home in the unbelievable Scottish sunshine.

It turned out that the next day was also called west-east – the non-stoppers were starting over in Fort William, while we were going with the original plan and launching straight onto Loch Ness at 6:30am for the 48km leg into Inverness. With sunrise at 7:10am, this was another rude awakening – but having camped just around the corner, Martyn, Al and I were first in the car-park again at the foot of Loch Ness. In the dark. Oh – and it was breezy. Onshore! Has to be said the mood seemed slightly subdued as the reality of the situation was plainly biting: the Met Office might have zeroes on their wind forecast, but with several knots of wind already blowing before dawn, this could be a really tough day ahead of us… Now, as I consider myself more Scottish than English due to my heritage, I’ve always been somewhat embarrassed that I can’t stomach whisky. But when a tray of wee drams arrived before we launched it suddenly didn’t seem such a bad idea – and I’m proud to say I actually quite enjoyed my pre-dawn tot of single malt. The Dutch courage came in bloody handy too as I tentatively paddled round to the startline in a small rolling windchop. Then we were off, into a cross-headwind, aiming for the southern shore of the loch a couple of kilometres away to find some shelter. (See a clip here.) I got another decent start – obviously Fred was off and flying on his 21.5″ Starboard, but I soon found myself alongside Kelvin, chasing Bruce, Will and Armin, expecting the breeze to back off any… minute… soon… Yet it didn’t, in fact it started to get breezier, so half an hour in as sunrise began to illuminate Loch Ness reality began to dawn on us: today was going to be a pure, hellish grind upwind, against the chop, maybe all the way. By now I’d dropped Kelvin and found myself at a similar pace to Armin on his 23″ JP – the several times I drew alongside him always seemed to result in him digging in and trying to get away, so eventually I thought better of it and just hung a couple of board lengths back (drafting within a board length isn’t allowed in Jo’s endurance races, so having seen a disqualification for it in Norfolk I was keen not to fall into that trap.) While there was no direct help, indirectly there’s no doubt whatsoever that having Armin to follow was hugely beneficial to my motivation in what were pretty rough conditions: a cross-headwind with foot-high chop at times. As on the previous day, tucking in close to shore was definitely the best line to try and find wind-shadows and/or wind-buffers at the foot of the mountains – but again, there were big rocks close inshore with the occasional rogue up to 30-feet out, so judging how close to get to shore was another case of Russian roulette. Maybe 90 minutes into the race, Armin’s luck ran out… It felt like we should easily be far enough offshore to be safe, yet completely out of the blue Armin hit a rock and went flying over the nose of his board, ending up startled in the water. I guess I could have paddled on and tried to hunt down Bruce and Will, but he looked shocked and even a little scared so my natural reaction was to check Armin was alright, keep him calm and stay with him whilst he got back on his board. Which he quickly did, but as I shouted encouragement to “paddle!” we soon realised his fin was still sitting on the rock, so after a little gentle persuasion we eventually freed him up and paddled on as he warmed up with a couple of primal screams. This moment cemented our new-found friendship; he asked my name, wholeheartedly thanked me for not leaving him to die alone in the wilderness, and we paddled on up Nessie side-by-side – as we would for the next four hours or so…

Meanwhile that wind was filling in, there were whitecaps out in the middle of the loch now and after the second potential ‘out’ at Foyers where many were opting to end their day after 16k it was time for us to embark on our second open-water crossing – we discussed our options, picked a point beneath the cliffs a couple of kilometers away where Bruce and Will seemed to be heading, and struck out into the cross-chop to straight-line the bay. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but again my amazing 25″ Red Paddle Elite cut in perfectly as I dug in and we charged across. Fred out in front was a speck on the horizon by now, talking to him afterwards he’d decided to engage the after-burners for this stretch and take it a little easier later, which proved a perfect tactic. We grinded on, Armin and I, working together to keep our pace up to something approaching reasonable through the worst of the wind and chop … until 25k up the loch it finally felt like things were calming down a little – and what looked like the end of the loch finally started coming into focus maybe 12k upwind. So it was time for my swim: I got a bit carried away comparing my map to the scenery before us and over-explaining our route and the eventual loch exit to Armin, when no longer paying any attention to staying upright I took a total prat-fall into the water. It wasn’t warm but it also wasn’t so bad, even just in shorts and a rashie, still it did come as a bit of a shock to the system so I’m eternally-grateful to Armin for staying put and not leaving me to die alone in the wilderness! After a couple of my own primal screams, we paddled on up Nessie side-by-side – as we would for the next couple of hours…

As the headwind and chop finally began to subside towards the top of the loch, our speed gradually started to increase up through the 7s until we finally broke the magic 8kmph in lee of the last headland before our final open-water crossing back across the loch towards the Caledonian Canal. While I was pretty sure of my directions thanks to my lovely laminated map, Bruce and Will seemed to have headed into the wrong bay so we had to ask some wild campers on the shore for reassurance that we were making the right call – we were, which meant that paddling out into the deep a couple of kilometres from shore felt much better than it usually would, bolstered by the knowledge that we’d very nearly survived Nessie. We were elated to make it out around the corner towards the lock, have to admit I was feeling a little tearful, and back onto mirror-flat water even a bit of headwind couldn’t slow us down as we charged to the final checkpoint. Warmly greeted by super-stewards Karl and Kate – and ‘Boss Man’ Chris from Paddle League with a cameraphone to shove in our faces – it was a slightly longer portage than I’d have liked, plus cubic granite rocks on the path weren’t helping my bare feet one little bit, so I soon dropped to a walk and shouted at Armin to “go go go!” to encourage him to keep running around the lock. Fair play to my new German friend, he was quite ready to stick with me for the rest of the route; but hell, I thought, we might as well have a bit of a race to the end? So I dropped in maybe 150m behind him, and dug in hard to see what I had left – there was still some in the tank, and initially I was able to make a little ground on Armin, but I knew how fast he was on the flat from the start of day one so after about half an hour and with half an hour to go I accepted that I was fighting a futile battle and switched back to cruise control for the final 4k, shouted on by the occasional Inverness jogger, dog-walker and alcoholic (who’s inspirational cry of “I’m havin’ a d-errrr-ink!” cheered me up no end…) The finish line was a welcome sight, by which time of course all of the images and footage make the paddling look glassy and perfect, but getting off was an emotional moment. Bruce had gapped me by several minutes, definitely more than the couple of minutes (half a sandwich?) I’d beaten him by on day one, so he’d taken 3rd place overall but I was perfectly happy with that as we embraced on the finish pontoon. But then Armin came over and it was full man-hug time – we certainly hadn’t talked as much as Bruce and I had the previous day, but we’d shared one hell of a journey up Loch Ness that’ll likely live with me forever; I’m not sure I’d have made it without him, and I’m pretty confident the feeling was mutual.

Anyway… It’s hard to describe my headspace after finishing this race – I was definitely more drained than ever after an endurance race, but then I’ve never been racing for over 7 hours solid before. It took half an hour to come back down to Earth, by which time Al was just about to make it home – fantastic work from one of my star coaching clients this season (do email me via [email protected] if you’re after a performance boost of your own this winter!) Further back, it turned out Martyn had hit one of those rogue rocks and taken a tumble pretty early on in Loch Ness – in fact his board and many other hardboards had proper holes in them after the race – so he stopped, wet and slightly injured as he actually fell onto the rock, at Foyers. Where he obviously chilled off, because as a former marine soon after relaunching he recognised the early signs of hypothermia were setting in, so was forced to stop again on a remote shore and seriously considered abandoning before his wife gently advised him to man the fuck up after he called her for advice. So after donning all of his warmest clothing and warming back up he got back to work, battled on and eventually finished the day … in just under 10 hours! A little while later, just over 10 hours after starting, Kate came home first women as she’d valiantly fought on when so many of her peers had elected to stop. And there were a fair few DNFs on the results list – including Kelvin, who’d thought better of it midway up Loch Ness with a rock-damaged fin and decided to grab himself a downwinder home instead… He was in exalted company, as non-stoppers Andre and Chris had similar ideas and enjoyed what they were calling classic downwinder conditions back down Loch Ness after having their fill of battling upwind. In fact, the ‘non-stop’ might better have been called the ‘stop’ this year, as only three SUPs finished the race: of course Bart won it, but he told me later it was the longest he’d ever taken to cover that distance (still half an hour faster than my combined time!) and bringing up the rear Emma kept going for a remarkable 15 hours 50 minutes! In-between, Mark gave me an insight into how your brain starts playing tricks during ultra-endurance – I’d been sent to go and pick him up as apparently he’d abandoned at the top of Loch Ness, but when I got there he explained to me he’d mis-read the time as 8:30pm rather than 3:30 so immediately called Jo to retire rather than keep everyone waiting so late! Fortunately he didn’t need too much encouragement to get back on his board and complete the race for 2nd non-stop SUP…

Later, with everyone safely accounted for and Nessie declared the overall winner (!) we all gathered at Fort Augustus village hall for the prizegiving meal and party. After some much-needed carbs, beers, a few wee drams and some delicious deep-fried Mars bars, the race podiums were called up: Fred won the men’s SUP, followed by Will and Bruce. Kate took the women’s iSUP. I was proud to win the men’s iSUP having finished 4th SUP and 7th overall (including sit-downers in their surf-skis and OCs) in a combined time of 12 hours 42 minutes, joined on the podium by Japanese 11 City non-stopper Taki in 2nd and Norfolk and Glen non-stopper Chris in 3rd. After an interlude of ceilidh dancing to a great little contemporary Scottish band (with thanks to Andre for throwing me under the bus and Sarah-Louise dragging me onto the dancefloor for that!) it was time for the overall season prizes: again Fred deservedly took the overall men’s SUP title with Will in 2nd and we were stoked to see Martyn 3rd, Andre was crowned non-stop champ, Kate secured overall women’s iSUP, and I received my second national title of this season in the men’s iSUP, with Al in a strong second place, and our Irish friend Keith 3rd. Plus to top it all off, there was a surprise final award for SUPsect of UK SUP Club of the Year!

Find full Great Glen 2019 results here – and please don’t be fooled by how lovely most of these images and the movies above look, they were mainly taken in the nice, sheltered, glassy Caledonian Canal areas. Even in zero weather and therefore tame conditions, the lochs were frankly frightening at times: I count myself lucky and honestly can’t comprehend what it’d feel like out there in ‘proper’ weather and conditions! On day 1, have to say I’d expected that this year’s Glen might be remembered as ‘the easy one’ – by the end of day 2 after a full day of headwind and so many DNFs Jo confirmed that it’s going to be known as ‘the tough one’. So I’m happy to have survived, happier to have finished strong, but happiest that I’ll therefore never to have to risk taking Nessie on again!