Walking into Caernarfon Castle for the start of the Itera world series adventure race brought memories flooding back. Nicola MacLeod came over and we tried to remember the last time we were in the castle; at least a decade ago? No it was actually a little under twelve years. Nicola and I were then finishing the first British adventure race championships; a three day expedition race starting in Porthmadog. My lasting memories of the race was running around this crazy village called Port Meirion and paddling against the tide through the Menai Straights to the finish. I had come into the race under tough circumstances. Having done a lot of running with my dad (Richard) when I was a junior and in 1998 we discovered ACE races and our adventure race careers had begun. We made a father and son team with good map skills we were competitive in male pairs events. I went off to University late in 1999 and drifted in and out of competitive sport for three years. In my final year the first British adventure race championships was born and my dad volunteered me for a team; I think he would of loved to do it himself but knew he was not too well, so I jumped at the chance. In June my dad had passed away suddenly, so when the championships came round in September I was not really physically or mentally in the best place. The memory of the adventure and the joy of reaching the finish line must of stuck somewhere in the back of my mind as a little seed waiting to germinate. I then went on a long path of self discovery for a few years which lead away from adventure racing until, in 2008, I entered my first Open 5 in Dalby Forest and the spark was reignited.
In 2014 I had decided to join the Adidas Terrex adventure race team and was selected to race in the Itera expedition race in Wales with Nick Gracie (Captain), Chris Hope and Sally Ozanne.
On arrival in Cardiff on Saturday morning we discovered the route of the race starting in Caenarfon and finishing in Cardiff using the main disciplines of kayaking, mountain trekking and mountain biking mixed in with a few special activities.
A lot of race time can be saved with careful planning and organisation of kit, marking routes on maps, and working out food requirements and your race strategy. We spent plenty of time on these activities pre race.
On the Saturday there was a prologue as a little warm up to the main race. This was a 10 km flat road run around Cardiff bay where the time lost to the winners would be multiplied by 3 and served as a penalty in the main race. In the middle of the run was the excitement of a run down the whitewater course in inflatable kayaks in pairs relay before you could finish the run route as a team.
The prologue went well and we managed to come away with the win and no race time penalty. It was also a fantastic way to relieve nervous excitement for the journey to come.
The race started on the Monday morning at 8 am with a couple of laps around the streets of Caenarfon to split the field before stage 1.
We were first onto the water and the race position we were to successfully hold all the way to Cardiff. We got to paddle the Menai Straights with the tide in our favor and a following wind made for some exciting wave surfing. The wind was too strong to complete the paddle to Conway, so we biked there from Bangor instead.
On arrival in Conway we had the first special activity of finding controls around the town walls and castle. The walls were surprisingly steep and this was a real pleasure to share this Welsh historic site with the on looking public.
Stage 2 was a bike from Conway to Ogwen cottage with a real trouser filler on route; with the lightening fast zip wire flying over a disused quarry. I could not fail to enjoy this minute long thrill giving me plenty of adrenaline to pedal the last few miles to Ogwen cottage.
I’ve always enjoy arriving in Ogwen with such stunning mountainous views and this time it was for the start of stage 3. This stage was a long mountain trek including the scrambling ascent of the north face of Tryfan, the Glyders, Snowdon, Yr Aran, Cnict and one of the Moelwyns. This was a real highlight of the race for me; high mountain terrain in day and night.
A large part of how well you do in adventure racing comes down to how efficient you are and this includes in transitions. I was now in the team who are one of the best in the world at efficient transitions and yet again fast transitions were helping the team build a gap on the opposition. Stage 4 was supposed to be a kayak to Barmouth with a stop in Port Meirion for an Orienteering stage, but the wind was still too strong for a sea paddle so after Port Meirion crossed the estuary and biked over the hills to Barmouth.
We arrived in Port Meirion at first light for a run around the little Italianate seaside town. It was still just as bizarre as twelve years ago and, like then, finding the controls on the tourist map proved very tricky. When we completed this stage we were timed out to enjoy an hours sleep in a concrete ship; this was due to a restriction on starting the next leg before 8am Tuesday morning . The stage recommenced with an incoming tide rushing into the estuary and a battle to make our way up the shoreline, before we were told to abandon checkpoint 21. We then used the flow to ferry glide across the estuary to the next transition. With a quick transition we were away from Haglofs and back on our own; biking towards Barmouth. There was a cracking long descent into the transition at Barmouth. Stage 4 was a big trek over Cader Idris and the Tarren Hendre ridgeline to Machynlleth. The long climb up from sea level to the summit of Cader seemed to drag but once over the top the rest of the trek seemed to pick up.
Once in Machynlleth the biggest stage of the race was to begin a 220km mountain bike ride across mid Wales to Glasbury. The first part through Tuesday night was on some exciting bike trails with a cracking single track descent enough to keep sleep deprived eyes open with some extra caffeine.
A short special stage in the early hours of Wednesday morning was a trip to see the waterfalls from Devils Bridge, including a 100 m descent on foot down very steep steps and back up the far side. The dawn brought a grey damp day and Sally started to suffer with a poorly stomach which lasted til the end of the race. The journey forward was a beautiful road ride through the Elan valley and a large proportion was downhill to the visitor center; we all agreed this was a hidden gem and would be back to revisit in the future.
The visitor center marked halfway in distance and the location for a 12 km trail run around a two loop course. The team found this hard with weary legs and heads (with little interest to keep the mind occupied). Due to the large number of time outs in the first half of the course race director James Thurlow had decided to equalise the differences and put the lead teams back into the correct time order on the ground; if you were in front of a team you were ahead of them. For all other teams on full course this would mean a compulsory stop at Elan visitor center; with no time to serve we justed stopped here for a short sleep to rejuvenate ourselves for the rest of the bike.
The second bike ended in Glasbury after battling the wind, rain, flooded bridleways, many hills and some lovely narrow single track down a hidden valley. We refueled in a chippy in Builth Wells, we musted have looked rather jaded as the owner wanted to give us free food, before we toiled on to the stage end. We arrived at Glasbury at 1 am Thursday morning to be timed out until 7.30 am and gain a valuable long sleep off the race clock.
Stage 7 was a paddle down the gentle grade 1 river Wye from Glasbury to Brewardine. An enjoyable affair after a nice sleep and a healthy lead.
The stage was interrupted by a short street orienteering stage using ancient maps and a compulsory breakfast at the bakery in Hay on Wye.
Stage 8 transported us on bikes via the black mountains to Tal y bont on the edge of the Breacon Beacons where stage 9 would begin. A big trek across the summits of Fan y big, Cribyn and Pen y fan starting in the fading light of Thursday evening. Once up high the ground was compulsive to good running with some awesome views on a clear night.
The first half of the trek went very quickly which then faded into a crawl with my sore feet and Chris’s stomach; deciding it did not want its contents anymore. The special cave activity was great to sooth my sore feet although there was very little crawling for Chris it was an ordeal to be survived.
Stage 9 came to a welcome end and Chris had chance to recover; I also got some treatment on my tender feet.
Stage 10 was the final ride up over the Rhigos to descend through the valleys into the finish at Cardiff bay. We left with smiles on our faces and, after some unnecessary diversions, when we reached the top of the last hill we could just keep the wheels rolling into the urban environment.
We crossed the line to win the Itera World series adventure race across Wales on Friday afternoon in 93 hours 31 mins
This was an incredible journey across the best of Wales pushing both body and mind in a test of human endurance. We were lucky enough to win but anyone reaching the finish line had completed something amazing.
I feel really privileged and proud to have achieved this success so soon after my Lakeland 50 win. It was also great to race with Team Adidas Terrex. Thank you to all our sponsors, who help make this possible.
After some good recovery I’m now starting to focus my attention towards the Adventure Race World Championships in Ecuador in November.
You can follow the team @ https://www.facebook.com/teamadidasterrex?ref=hl