A Perfect Highland Hell

Posted on August 20, 2013. Filed under: aberfeldy, Austria, Half ironman, Ironman Austria, ironman regensburg, Kenmore, loch tay, race report, race review, Schiehalion, triathlon, wetsuit |

Scotland is not a place for softies.  And the Highlands are where the really tough guys roam.  So you can safely assume that a Middle Distance Triathlon (Half Iron distance) in the Highlands is going to present a reasonable challenge.

That, of course, may be an understatement!

I first did the Aberfeldy Middle Distance triathlon in 2010 and to this day it is probably my favourite race.  The scenery is stunning – a paddle in Loch Tay, a peddle over the shoulder of Schiehallion and around Loch Rannoch, and a joggle through glorious Perthshire countryside.  At the start of this year it seemed a perfect waypoint en route to Ironman Austria, just as it was in 2010 en route to Regensburg.

Then I broke my phalange.  Oh yes, a broken big toe completely derailed my training effort but still fancying a trip to the Highlands I adjusted my entry to a relay, recruited a speedy runner and crammed in three weeks of training.  But with no open water swimming since July last year and a couple of stone too heavy to be comfortable on the bike………..what the feck was I thinking?  Well, there was some logic to the madness.

  • I have no idea how UNFIT I am.  So, Aberfeldy would give me a baseline for the coming 11 months and a benchmark against a fitter, lighter performance in 2010.
  • It’s a start line.  A catalyst to propel me towards the thousands of kilometres to come.
  • I enjoy it.  Packing the wetsuit, pumping the bike tyres – the little things bring great pleasure.

So, with the background out of the way, what the hell did I get up to then?

20130816_153644The weather forecast was for a wet and windy day.  But on Friday afternoon the weather was glorious in Kenmore on the edge of Loch Tay.  As I went to sleep the weather was still great and I woke several times during the night expecting to hear the kind of storm that would blow Dorothy and Toto straight out of Kansas.

The alarm went off just after 5 and I jumped out of bed and yanked the curtains open.  There was no rain, there was no debris, there was no devastation from the storm.  It was calm and sunny.  Don’t you just hate it when the weather forecast is wrong?

I speed porridged, grabbed the gear that I had packed the night before and scuttled along to the swim start just over a mile away.  As I wandered into the transition area I remained unhealthily obsessed by the weather conditions.  It was actually pleasant – perfectly still and warm at 6:30 in the morning.

photo (7)As I attempted to squeeze my fat ass into a rubber suit I met TrouserShoes, my team mate who sportingly had come to the start – presumably from a morbid curiosity to see what it looks like when 300 gimps slip into a Loch at the crack of dawn.  As the race briefing kicked off Pam and wee Roar arrived.  The wee fella looked totally bemused by being dragged out of his bed at this ungodly hour but he was already porridge loading for his own athletic adventures later in the day.  By the look of him he had decided to masquerade at the race as the Mayor of London – a bouffant do he calls the BoJo.


I got myself in a good position and I was probably about the fifth person into the water.  At the end of the pier a piper played Highland laments as the dullness of the dawn gave way to a brightness across the surface of the Loch.

My logic appeared sound, it was this…..  I haven’t swum in cold water since July last year – if i got in early I would  be ready and acclimatised for the off.  The water was a balmy 13.8C so I felt pretty comfortable in it.  Then a remarkable thing happened……

I would guess it took about 10 minutes to get everyone into the water which is a blink of an eye in the course of a day.  But during those 10 fleeting minutes the mill-pond surface of the Loch turned into a boiling cauldron and a vicious wind swept in from the West.  The course was a 1.9km anti-clockwise loop and I was at the outside of the loop – the starter’s boat was on the inside of the course, less than 50m away – but I was fecked if I could see it over the top of the white-horses that were now driving up the Loch.

Each of those yellow dots is a person.

Each of those yellow dots is a person.

The horn sounded and off we went for the first long drag across the Loch.  There felt like plenty of space compared to my last few swims and I got into a rhythm.  But then for a couple of strokes my left arm caught in the waves and it felt like my shoulder was coming out.  Having had it rebuilt I didn’t want to squander the excellent surgery right at the start of an Ironman campaign so I breast-stroked for a couple of hundred metres until I was convinced it was OK.  About 100m from the first buoy I re-engaged my enthusiasm but had already lost 100 places or so.

Then the fun started – after the turn we were swimming head on to the wind and the waves and the cats and the dogs – sighting was a futile exercise.  It was a physical struggle with the Loch – a wrestle, the odd punch of a wave hitting you in the face, then slapping you on the back of the head.  It was proper tough.  Ironman hero Cat Morrison summed it up much better than I ever could – “so bumpy – more like survival than swimming.”

After the last turn I regained my rhythm, altered my breathing (ie stopped breathing) and went head down, arse up to try and make up some ground.  It felt comfortable, relaxed and fast – who knows whether it was or not but in my opinion perception is 9/10ths of reality!


It was a long uphill transition run.  I ran for the first 30m or so until I remembered that I was the proud owner of a broken toe.  Then I stopped, pondered why I couldn’t feel my feet and caused general chaos and congestion.

While I was swimming I had decided that I would wear a cycling jersey and bib shorts but not a jacket – cos I’m tough innit?  Thereafter followed the ridiculous sight of a grown man trying to pull tight lycra over his head with tired arms, when cold and soaking wet.   I had literally bound and strangled myself with my own cycling clothing – only an orange stuffed in my mouth would have completed the scene.  I had no dignity left to lose.

Remarkably I managed to only spend 6 minutes in transition.  It truly felt like days.


photo (9)It’s fair to say that I wasn’t looking forward to this but I knew I had to do it.  The course is pretty much flat except for a massive climb that you do twice – once in each direction.  On the return it is steep enough to give an astronaut a nosebleed.

There’s not really much to say – after about 10k the heavens opened and stayed open until about 3 minutes after I finished.  The wind swirled – one minute it was in your face, then blowing you sideways and very, very rarely it was behind you.  The debris on the road was testimony to the conditions – sunglasses, water-bottles, rain jackets and uneaten food all dropped from cold, wet hands.  From very early on I had an awareness that I was soaking wet, cold but OK while I was moving and absolutely filthy.

On both climbs I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and when my heart rate hit 103% of my previously recorded maximum I took a quick breather which cleared my lungs and legs.   It was academic to call it a “stop” really as at the pace I was travelling at the difference was indistinguishable.  It was just lucky I never fell off!  On the flat sections, though, I was really pleased with the speed that I was covering ground – if I can just get my climbing ability to the same level I will be setting up nicely for Ironman Austria.

Even with the foul weather the scenery was stunning, often framed by a full rainbow.  The only time that the view ever troubled me was when I was passed by a mobile wardrobe malfunction – I warn you that you follow this link at your own peril.  And I can guarantee now that you may never fully cleanse your mind of the image.

The return to Aberfeldy is pretty much downhill, which was nice.  I hadn’t particularly been aware of the cold but on the return I realised that my hands were cramping.  This was not ideal on a very fast and wet downhill.  Just as I approached the village of Coshieville I tried to feather the brakes but my hands seized.  At just under 50kph I had a heart stopping moment as my wheels locked, ironically, on a massive “SLOW” sign painted on the road.  I remained upright, arse cheeks clenched considerably tighter as I rolled towards Aberfeldy a little more circumspect than on my daredevil descent.


As a team member I should cover the run.  TrouserShoes, my team mate, weighs about the same as a flimsy pair of cycling shorts and is probably just about old enough to leave High School.  But he can run quite fast – possibly because he has an aero hair-do and has run every day since he was 10 or something like that.  He is a real-life, baby-faced Forrest Gump.

Anyway, I passed the timing chip to him, had a shower (me not him) and before I know it he’s finished!  A half marathon in a very spectacularly competent 1:23 – 14th fastest run of the day!  Chapeau TrouserShoes!

We finished the day in 5:57, scraping under the 6 hours for a respectable finish.


So, how did it go?  Could have been worse I would say.  Swim was 35 minutes – bang on the same time as 2010; Bike was 3:50 – 21 minutes longer than 2010.  Given the conditions and my considerable additional girth I would say I am comfortable with this as a starting point for my fastest ever Ironman.

It was what it was meant to be – a fitness test in tough but stunning  scenery but with the wildest weather that the Highlands could throw at me?  Yes, at times it was hellish but, hey, it was the perfect kind of Highland hell!

I would love to have been fitter right now but I have a realistic assessment of what I need to do between now and Christmas before I start the final approach to Klagenfurt.  Morale is high, sense of humour remains and body is, broadly speaking, intact.

Next week – the Great Scottish Swim.  Loch Lomond, are you ready for me??


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11 Responses to “A Perfect Highland Hell”

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Sounds like a great race! I love Scotland! Congrats on your strong finish.


Thanks Sarah – you should come and do it next year!

Looking forward to getting much fitter over the next few months.


I would love too! One of the reasons I left corporate is the vacation days were terrible. I now write for a living and can go anywhere with this. Hopefully, I can make enough to save up for a trip to Europe! Good luck in your fitness journey!


That’s brilliant. I would love to write for a living.

Need a bit of practice though! ;-(


Thanks! It’s so fun! Give it a try! 🙂


D- Great to see you forging ahead! Maybe I’ll get to Scotland next year? Will be in London in September for the Sprint & OD World Championships. Should be fun. Let me know if you’re around.
Gerry from Alcatraz!


Hey Gerry! I hope things are great!

If you come to do it next year I’ll do it with you! Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be in London but I am sure they will look after you well. 😉


Thanks for the invite DC – looking forward to doing all 3 elements next year … Hunting you down after you skim dolphin like through the “swell”

Happy training!



Your swift running prowess is only useful if you make it out the swim! Keep up the lessons.

Great run buddy!


Hi Dougie,
great to hear from you and experience ironman vicariously once more. Having said that i’m doing the swim tomorrow as well (just the 1 mile) as part of training plan for Gullane Tri next month. will look out for you tomorrow. i’m off in 11am wave (pink swim cap!) – when are you off? good luck. Smarty


Hey fella – good to hear from you! I’m off at 0930 and expecting to take about an hour. Might see you after. If I can see straight 😉


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