Adventure Racing the Coast 2 Coast

Wainwright set the way for the famous coast-to-coast route in England, covering a distance of 192 miles from the northern shores from west to east. Many walk or cycle this route, but the Open Adventure Coast to Coast takes a multisport approach, covering approximately 200km over land and water by way of running, biking and kayaking. In 2012, I eagerly agreed to support my then boyfriend in his feat to win the race, giving me the taste and hunger for taking it on as my own personal challenge in 2014.

Once entries became available, the reality of this commitment set in. With encouragement from my fellow solo female racer Helen Leigh, I pressed the enter button to seal my fate and promptly took to finding myself a surf ski kayak to get the much needed training in and begin the process.

Having followed the route as a supporter, thankfully I’d been witness to the journey and had been able to recce the sections in the 2012 race. With this fading knowledge, I pledged most weekends to my bike and kayak, but sadly not so much to running (due to a constant injury) and by race day, was confident I’d scoped out the terrain enough to know what I was in for.

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Day 1

Race day comes around, as it does, in a flash. Weeks before I’d found my dream van and patiently waited for Stuart at SJ Campers to do his magic and transform it to a luxury racing pit stop! With my boat firmly tied to the roof and a military take on box packing, Lucy my willing and experienced support and I left for Keswick. We made a late night stop over next to the Pilkington family en route to the intrepid start at the salty seafront town of Whitehaven.

The waves were wild. Having tried and failed an attempt with Helen to even corner out of the harbour some weeks back, racers waited expectantly to hear the decision of the organisers as to whether we’d be a sea start or made to run the beautiful coastal route to St Bees. With a lack of distance in my little legs and knowing I was up against some wiry runners, I secretly hoped for a battle with the ocean. Despite the crossed fingers, the decision was to take the run, which is in no way a shame. With a steep start up the coastal path, it winds round the white cliffs, allowing little surrender, as it’s undulating profile turned my legs to lead and let me lungs know the race was on.

The run was followed by a bike leg, which finishing with some super fun descents and loose rocks, to take you into transition and onto the Crummock and Buttermere paddle stage. This time the wind was wicked. Grabbing my boat, I was in second place but struggled with my 6 metre long ski to get to the shoreline. Fighting every step of the way and trying not to take off into the sky, I made it but was faced with impossible waves turning my ski so I couldn’t get inside the cockpit. I have to admit, I’d never expected it to be so bad…

Within moments I’d clambered into the ski, made some tentative strokes only to cautious make it out towards the middle of the lake. Not for long. My ski turned and I flipped in to the water. Desperately,  i watched my boat make its way towards the edge of the lake and back to the start. No leash. Oops.

I tried not to panic. Swimming as best I could in my BA, I made it to the shoreline to chase my boat down, crossing fingers and toes it wasn’t going to break and leave my years of anticipation and training wrecked at the first transition. Luckily it survived, and as I fixed the rudder by the side, saw Steph and Sue join the fun on the water. They had sea kayaks, a much more sensible decision on reflection. Sue was amazing, she paddled towards me, helped me into the ski and set me off – I owe her a huge thanks. Once at the bottom, it was a tricky and labouring haul of the V8 towards the next lake, covering nearly a kilometre onto a rocky and uneven bridleway. Shattered from the shock and hustle in the water, I managed my boat eventually to then next lake.

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To finish the day, a stunning but altogether gut wrenching run over Robinson set the scene on leg 4. Tough but rewarding, this was certainly the most spectacular of views to dull the pain. The route takes you over to Catbells and looks out to Keswick and Derwent Water, where my last dunking of the day would take place with a 500 m swim to finish.

Lucy was waiting for me at the other side and smiling, ran alongside me as I got to the finish – 3rd solo female of the day and happy to rest my body and eat the same weight in food. 

Day 2

Lashing rain greeted us at the start and I set off with weary eyes for the short bike leg to Thirlmere. As I pedalled I was hoping the wind had done it’s worst and I’d be safe from a soaking. I love the perspective of the mountains from the kayak; being at the centre of the Lakeland fells and the rhythm of stroke after stroke. At the end, another heavy carry of the kayak and I was off up to the summit of Hevellyn. The great thing about the second day is that they start the fastest last, so you’ve got the motivation to keep pushing and not be overtaken, whilst getting to interact with all levels of racer through the day.

As the clouds formed on the summit, Bruce who was storming the lead, gave me a helpful steer down the steep and jaggy Swirl Edge, and I watched him bound down, like the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk, in about four long strides,  disappearing suddenly. I took it slightly more cautiously, more creeping than bounding. A long run down from the ‘Hole in the Wall’ and it was a last paddle effort over Ullswater to get to Pooley Bridge and onto the bike. Summer rain thrashed at the racers on the transition field. I warmed up for a little time once out the water and set off for the final destination: Kirby Stephen.
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The finish delivered us sunshine and a chance to do what this race does best; smile and chat amongst friends and compare stories from the day. This is no po-faced affair. The next morning would be the somewhat tricky stage to Nine Standards, a route that’s welcomes you mostly with thigh high bog and if the cloud is down, a test of your bearing abilities.

Day 3

Luckily for us, the sun shone and we relaxed at the start, know that we’d be somewhat safe on the route. Up to the stones, I could feel my legs struggling from the lack of distance and the draining mud that drags your feet step after step. Steph flew past me just as we summited and that gave me the boost to get my knees up and descend to the well-known transition, where supporters can be treated to homemade scones by the local farmhouse. Once in, I grabbed the bike and pedalled (always up hill!) onto the rolling bridleway. A little hike-a-bike for most, this route is a tough leg, and was where my moment of nerve kicked in as I’d gambled with a Furious Fred Liteskin tyre on the rear. It was akin to driving over eggs shells and not expecting them to brake… Sure enough, almost at the end, rocky descents took no mercy on my meager tyre choice and slashed it beyond immediate repair. Now being a solo female has it’s advantages. Despite my ability to change a tyre, two Kiwi racers, Dave and Chris came to my aid, both keen to sort my hissing, sorry state of a tyre back to full health. With what felt like my second disaster of the race, Sue passed by me again with a sympathetic shout out. Before not too long, it was patched and I took care to make my way to the last transition – albeit a bike-to-bike stage. Once in to see Lucy, she set about to pump it full of air and on a wing and a prayer, I rode off to Northallerton in the sheer hope of not puncturing. I knew there was good reason to pack the spare!

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Day 4

Fixed and ready to go on Day 4 was a short bike ride followed a misty run on the Cleveland Way.  Despite having ran this leg a few years prior, I slowed more to check my map and take caution not to have a third strike from the failure fairies. You follow mostly a slabby path of stone to the transition, which by this point has teams and fellow competitors cheering and offering words of encouragement so close to the end. There’s a huge respect among racers alike by this stage too.

Into the transition and Bruce’s support, my good friend Rachel, was with Lucy to sort me out and send me on my way. Slight waning due to exhaustion and brain drain from the navigation, I set off on the bike, yet another bleak affair that I’m thankful I’d ridden in an earlier adventure with friends to complete the C2C challenge on mountain bike. I missed the shorter route by the pub, but resolved without too much damage and met up with Alex as we both came into final transition together. Alex and I have raced previously together and he has been a huge support to me in my training and confidence building, so it felt lovely to have his superb windshield qualities as we rode in to the school. I’m lucky to have such quality kit and wrapped in my Ghost Whisperer jacket i pervaded the cold.

Into transition, Lucy was impressed by my mood and condition, many were hurting at this stage and the lack of protective gear against the elements had taken them by surprise. Off for the final stage, a run along the coast to see the sea at Robin Hood’s Bay, I felt a slightly emotional tear. This was a cathartic journey for me, a test of mettle; both physical and mental. Reaching the end, I flashed back to the first time I’d stood here as the supporter and felt so proud to be crossing the line, hugging Lucy my incredible support crew at the finish. Taking 3rd place, it was a great to immortalize my moment of pain, joy and reflection by way of a plastic placard! I cheered on Helen and Steph too, taking 1st and 2nd place and so happy for them to have completed the journey. Helen was an incredible winner and deserved every moment of first place.

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Thanks to Lucy, Helen Jackson, Sally and Helen Leigh for all their support to get to the finish line. Credit to James Kirby for the photos.

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