Artemis Great Kindrochit Quadrathlon

Six months training led to a superbly tough physical challenge. Would we make it? 

quad3This year’s Artemis Great Kindrochit Quadrathlon took place on July 11th. According to its organisers, it’s “arguably Scotland’s toughest one day event”. In a country renowned for tough one day events, that’s tough.

A 0.8 mile (1.5 km) swim across Loch Tay is followed by a 15 mile (24km) walk / run over the Seven Munros. These are seven mountains, all over 1,000m (3,280 feet). All are higher then England’s highest peak (Scafell Pike, 978m), and four are higher than Wales’ highest (Snowdon, 1,085m). Next is a seven mile (11km) kayak back across Loch Tay to the starting point. Then it’s a 34 mile (54km) bike ride around the loch to the finish line. All in a row, on the same day.

You need teams of at least two (the kayaks are two seater), so I signed up in January this year along with my most gung-ho friend, Oliver Houchell. He’s a 38 year-old Architect, veteran of two London Triathlons (Olympic distance), one marathon, six Tough Guy competitions, and myriad other races. I’m 36 and veteran of nothing relevant. We called our team Snail and Pace.

From January to July I swam, cycled, pumped iron, pranced in gym classes, and ran and ran and ran – by the end up to half marathon distances, carrying my little water-filled North Face running rucksack. I lost a stone and a half, and grew muscles where previously there were none. Still, I was certainly no athlete, and just two weeks earlier I’d failed to complete a 100 mile mountain bike challenge. I was not confident. It didn’t help that it was compulsory on the Quadrathlon to carry emergency flares, ‘survival bags’, compasses, and whistles.

The weekend came. We flew and drove up to the Highlands, stopping in the wee town of Killen to buy energy bars and walking poles. Ollie convinced me that the poles – just ski sticks really – were vital. Not just for the elderly, apparently.

The campsite’s tents were like tiny high-vis limpets clamped to the shore of brooding Loch Tay, surrounded by monstrous Highland scenery. quad1We pitched ours while a stunning array of buff men and springy women strode past, mustering their endless kit – bikes, wetsuits, waterproofs (see massive kit faff, left)…. Most of the 248 other competitors were in their 20s and 30s, with a few older, but looking very well for it.

Numbers are limited to 250 to keep the event intimate. Everyone was, indeed, effusively friendly. Over a huge pasta supper in the Artemis Marquee, we chatted to The Pompey Girls – Lorraine Farrelly and Sally Pulvertaft from Portsmouth, 42 and 49 respectively. It was their first time too, and they were in the same state of nervous but happy excitement.

We were issued with electric wrist tags, to check in around the course, and my bicycle arrived – along with 50 other rental bikes (Ollie had brought his own). We checked it, then sorted all our kit in various bags to be left in appropriate places around the course by the Mercy Corps volunteers, before climbing into the tent and lying awake for hours.

quad2At 7am the next morning, we were standing in wetsuits and yellow swimming caps in the shallows of Loch Tay, looking across black water at cloud-shrouded mountains. We were two of around 125 people (me left, Ollie right). The rest had left at 6am, a staggered start to ease crowding.

I don’t remember who told us to go or how, but suddenly I was face down in the freezing water, one of a thrashing mass of front crawlers. At point blank range, I noticed the water was brown, rather than black.

quad2aNow, swimming is my thing. I can do two miles front crawl no bother, and this was less than one. However. I don’t know if it was the thrillingly cold water, or the nerves, or the double espresso from the coffee van, but very soon I couldn’t breathe enough. I had to stop and suck in air like a dying fish. I bobbed, hyperventilating enthusiastically, feeling like I was going to faint. I’d done about 50 yards. Ollie swam back, concerned, and I was within an inch of calling over a rescue boat (there were several, and a rescue hovercraft).

I recovered and persevered, swimming a few strokes before panic set in, then resting, then setting off again. By about halfway I’d got over myself and was able to swim. By then, luckily, Ollie was slowing down – he’d been ill all the previous week – and I had to wait for him, so some balance was restored.

We were very glad to climb out of the Loch to the claps and cheers of the Mercy Corps volunteers. A robustly capable girl pulled off my wetsuit, then brought us tea an cake. After the lake’s chill darkness, she was an angel.

Off we went, at a fast stroll uphill. We had 1,000m to climb in 5km up the first Munro, which we’d resolved to walk. We’d try some running later.

We left at the same time as team Big Country – Michael Halsall and Bill Thompson, 40 and 42 years old, a hotel man and marketing company owner respectively. Despite being a huge burly Scot from the banks of Loch Lomond, Bill, like me, had had a big girly panic attack in the Loch. So we warmed to them. (Michael was a Sassenach who’d move to Edinburgh a couple of years before).

We chatted as we strode, up into the cloud and the summit, where we were met by yet more happy volunteers. They invited us to check in with our electric wrist tags, and we discussed the weather for a minute (cloudy).

Down we went – we probably should have run that bit, but conversation was flowing with our new friends and we didn’t want to seem rude (we’d got past the ‘oh do tell me more about your job’ bit, and were onto the more relaxed ‘disgustingly filthy chat’ phase. That, of course, precedes the more philosophical ‘it’s not a dress rehearsal’ type musings, which in turn gives way to useful man chat: “oh you take the A3 do you? I would have though the M3 was a better way to Portsmouth on a Tuesday evening.”) Plus, we were well on target for the next cut-off time (we had to be at certain stages by a certain time to be allowed to continue). So we walked downhill. Then it was up again, a thigh-burning march up Munro Two.

By Munro Three – a real lung buster that one, practically a climb – the cloud cleared, and the view was astonishing. If you plugged “awesomely dramatic Highland scenery” into a Google that produced real life results, you’d get what we had for the rest of the hike –wild, mountainous Scotland as far as the eye could see, on both sides. Amazing.

The walking poles too were a joy, taking the stain off the knees on the downhill, and off the thighs uphill. I’m going to have to stop sneering openly at people who walk with those.

After Munro Three, Ollie and I decided to run for a bit. We said our goodbyes to Michael and Bill, and trotted off. We couldn’t run far though – it was soon too steep, first downhill, then uphill again. At Munroe Four (Ben Lawers, the highest at 1,214m), Bill and Michael, arriving a minute later, mocked us a little about our running style (it’s difficult not to look very camp, running with poles).

We trotted off again. The same happened at Munros five and six – we beat Bill and Michael to the summits – we were quicker uphill – but somehow, despite our little runs, they were always faster downhill, and never more than a couple of minutes behind us. Whenever we stopped at the tops to check in and talk to the volunteers (about the weather), they’d appear minutes later.

We liked Bill and Michael (later we swapped email addresses and made vague plans for future beers), but we wanted to get ahead because of rivalry, and, as we made the long descent from Munro Six, because we were running out of time. We had to be a the bicycle stage by 7.15pm. It was 3pm, and we had Munro Seven, which we’d heard was the most difficult, to go up and down, and the seven mile kayak, before we got to the bikes. It was going to be tight.

After the knee (Ollie) and ankle (me) – jarring descent from Munro Six, we were pampered by the Mercy Corps Volunteer angels, who fetched us chilli, bananas and water. Heaven.

quad4Our photographer for the day, Ashley, also met us there (hence lack of photos on the incredibly beautiful, dramatic bit above). I do like having someone with a couple of huge cameras dash about taking pics of me, and I enjoy pretending that it ain’t no thing. “Oh him? That guy taking lots of photos of me? He’s just my photographer. Please just carry on, you won’t notice him after a while. Oh no, I’m nobody special.”

But, too soon, it was time to take on Munro Seven. 500m sheer uphill over a 1.5km distance. We’d seen it grow all the way down Munro Six. It was a proper, big, fat, precipitous, mountain (we were already over 500m up).

We set off with Michael and Bill (who else?). There was no path, but we could follow the tracks of the 200 or so quadrathletes ahead of us. It was relentlessly, agonisingly steep. Steeper than stairs. Up we strode, up, up. Very soon Ollie and I had left Bill, Michael and Ashley the photographer behind. Up we went.

When we’d gone as far as thought I could manage, I paused and saw that we were less than halfway. I put my head down and kept going. I filled my lumpen mind with everything bad and everything good, all my loves and my losses. I thought about the worst things that have ever happened in an attempt to not think about how brilliant it would be to stop walking. Up and up and up we strode. And up. It really was a bugger.

We reached the top after over an hour’s climb with no rest. I sat, exhausted. Recovered a little, I tried to show off to anyone that would listen that I’d spotted Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, about 60 miles away across the Highlands (very distinctive profile, Ben Nevis, looks like a Roman nose). It was a good view. Michael and Bill were nowhere to be seen.

There was no time to enjoy it. We set off downhill, back to the Loch and the kayaks, walking quickly and running when we could (left).

At the Loch we had the horror of turning down a massage. I’d though it was a mirage initially – two women in white standing at the quay, beckoning us to proper hole-where-your-face-goes massage beds. That’s the sort of thing your £210 entry fee gets you. But there just wasn’t time.
Ollie, an experienced kayaker, took the back steering position, while I took the front pace-setting spot. We powered away in our kayak, into a headwind and waves. It was hard going.

quad7There were a dozen or so kayaks about a mile ahead, skirting the edge of the tree-lined loch to avoid the worst of the wind. It was like the chase scene from Last of the Mohicans, only with fluorescent orange boats. But we weren’t catching anyone.

Sill, at least we were caning Bill and Michael. At the dock. when we’d looked back up the mountain they were nowhere to be seen. Plus, the scenery was still lovely, and the waves, washing over the open kayak – which was really no more than a big hollow plastic surfboard with seats – were most refreshing.

After perhaps 20 minutes, who should suddenly appear to port? Bill and Michael, powering past us.

Right! We thought. We weren’t going to let those buggers show us up. Over the next hour we kayaked like warriors (apart, perhaps, from the bit when we bickered about currents). We overtook all boats in sight, apart from Bill and Michael’s, which finished 20 seconds ahead of ours. We’d made the bike phase with 43 minutes to spare.

“Be careful, you may be wobbly” said the girl who helped me out of the kayak. Soon she had to bear my entire weight, poor thing (although she was lucky it wasn’t six months earlier). My legs had completely gone. Odd, considering they hadn’t been used for the hour and a half in the kayak. Or maybe it was because of that. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t great timing, since out next mini adventure was a 34 mile bike ride.

To make things a little more disheartening, as we approached our bikes, we were passed by several euphoric teams finishing the whole thing.

But it picked up. The wetsuit angel from 11 hours before appeared to cheer us up as we readied our bikes. With a bawdy guffaw, I made the suggestion that since she’d pulled off my wetsuit, she might like to help me on with my cycling shorts. When she actually tried to, I skipped away giggling like a schoolgirl.

quad10After an uncertain start, we spanked the 34 mile bike phase. I don’t know what it was, perhaps the beauty of the Loch and the mountains, perhaps the amazing fish and chips served up by yet more volunteers after seven miles, perhaps the locals, pretty much all of whom stopped and cheered as we powered past, or perhaps just the excitement of finishing, but I’m sure I’ve never cycled so fast for so long. It was long, it was hilly, it took three hours… but we did it, and we did it well. We overtook several teams, and nobody overtook us.

And we made it. As we came down the final hill to the Artemis marquees, I almost shed a tear of pure satisfaction. We held the claymore (giant sword) aloft, and cleaved the watermelon in two (the traditional finish), and staggered over the line.

We’d taken 14 hours, 45 minutes, coming 166th and 167th out of 220 finishers. Annoyingly, by the time we’d showered and put things away, we were too late for massages, and the hog roast, and too tired to enjoy the Scottish reels and even the beer.

Bill and Michael finished half an hour after us. We said that there was no pleasure in beating them, we were just really glad they’d made it round too (there was a bit of pleasure in beating them). Lorraine and Sally, who’d taken the silver route (missing out Munros Six and Seven) finished 15 minutes later.

The winners, Graham Gatherer and Graham Johnston of The Tartan Joob Joobs, took eight hours, 10 minutes, a new record. They are brothers-in-law, both local GPs, 33 and 34 years-old. They’d trained with “a lot of fell running and cycling” .

If we’d gone wrong – and we were quite a long way behind the winners, let’s face it – it was in the type of training. Really this is a race over the mountains, with three extra bits tacked on, so the training has to be hill running. Indeed, Graeme Gatherer told me that “This race is won on the hills”. Unfortunately, Ollie and I live and work in London where there are no hills worth mentioning. However, we’d both worked on fitness a lot, and that’s how we kept going for so long. That and chocolate-covered Kendal Mint Cake.

Back in London, I can’t remember the bad bits. I just remember the beauty, the satisfaction, and the intelligence of the organisation. Support was amazing – uplifting and everywhere. When I fell out of the kayak, I was caught. When I needed fish and chips, they were there. And so on and so on. So hats off to organisers, and, reader, take a look at the below weblink, and have a serious think about doing the race in 2010.
I’ve said before in the FT, when writing about the Three Peaks Challenge, that there’s no greater happiness than impressing yourself. The Quadrathlon was a lot harder than the Three Peaks, and, three days later at my desk in London, finishing this article, I am still flushed with the joy of success. And my legs still hurt.



Big thanks to Tim Kelly of Tim Kelly and Associates, a great organiser.

To enter the race, see ,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009 / Copyright pictures Ashley Coombes 2009