Itera is a 5 day non stop expedition adventure race for mixed sex teams of four. The race format involves navigating over an unmarked wilderness course whilst running/trekking, mountain biking and kayaking. The race is held in a different part of the British Isles every 2-3 years and in 2019 Scotland was the host country
I raced Itera in 2016 with TriHarder AR when it was held in Ireland. The weather was brutal that year and it was a real war of attrition but our team had a truly memorable race and finished after 144 hours in 13th place. Sadly my TriHarder teammates were busy with other projects this year and it was looking like a return to Itera would be unlikely for me. That was until June when I received an email from Stefan inviting me to join the Swedish team 24HR Adventure Meals. Since last November, I had changed my training to focus more on endurance and I was happy that I had enough done so I didn’t have to think twice about accepting. It’s exciting to join a new team. It’s hard to know how you’ll all get on when you’re tired and cranky and things are not going well but we all had the same objectives and goals and I’m a pretty easy person to get along with!!!
Before I knew it, August had arrived and I found myself on the boat to Scotland. I stayed with my aunt in Edinburgh for a couple of days before driving to Inverness where I met up with the rest of my team. Stefan and Mikael had both raced together before and we were joined by Brian with whom I raced the Beast adventure race in 2017.
Image: Open Adventure Facebook
Inverness was a hive of activity as all the teams prepared for the challenge ahead. There’s a lot of gear to be organised – food and clothes have to be divided up for each stage and packed away in the correct bag, all the maps need to be laminated, bags have to be labelled and put on lorries, bikes have to be packed up and the kit that gets lost at the airport has to be replaced. Several teams had bike boxes that got lost in transit and Stefan unfortunately lost his paddle and the paddle bag that his Mum made for the team. It was in his bike box and it’s likely that when customs examined his stuff they forgot to replace the paddle bag. Luckily for us Stefan was able to get the loan of a paddle from one of the British racers.
It’s always exciting when the course is finally revealed and the maps are given out. This happened on the Saturday and it was clear that we were going to have to race hard from the start in order to make the cut offs.
Stage 0: 5k run
Dunrobin Castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sunderland since the early 1300’s. It was used as a hospital during WWI and WWII and has also been used as a boarding school before reverting back to a family home.
The castle resembles a French chateau and with its towering conical spires, it rises above the North Sea like an illustration from a fairytale. It was the ideal backdrop for us to begin our adventure and at 8:30 am on Monday, August 12th, 38 teams containing racers from 12 different countries, gathered in front of this majestic building. With a blast from a shotgun we were sent on our way.
It was an uneventful run which brought us along a forest path down to the coast. Stefan was the only one carrying a backpack with our tracker. The rest of the bags were with the boats, ready for the next stage. When we got to the boats we grabbed the next two boats in line, which unfortunately didn’t have clips for all the back rests, and got ourselves ready for the next stage, a 20km paddle. We put on our wet gear, placed our rucksacks into waterproof bags to keep them dry in the boat, and got our food and water ready to go. Then we carried the boats down to the water.
Stage 1: 20km paddle
There were some rapids to be negotiated as we headed down the coast, past Dornoch, to reach the Glenmorangie Distillery at Tain.
Stefan and I coming through the rapids. Video: Mikael
Conditions were perfect with a rising tide which made for an enjoyable paddle. The only time in the race that paddling was enjoyable!! I was in the front of the boat with Stefan and Brian was in front of Mikael and we soon roped the two boats together to keep the speed even. We were in the company of 3 or 4 teams as we progressed down the coast, among whom were the South African team Blood, Sweat and Beers who I knew from racing Expedition India in 2017. It’s always nice to have teams around you as it keeps you focused on racing. We kept a good line to the distillery and it was nice to jump out of the boats, dib into our first control and have another stage done. There was no alcohol for the racers as we pulled off our wet gear and got our bikes ready to go but Glenmorangie Distillery very kindly provided all the racers with miniature bottles at the end.
Stage 2: 110km Bike
Across the North of Scotland, from the East Coast to the West Coast this bike took us through the Morangie, Diebidale and Arnat Forests to Strath Oykel and then onto Ledmore in Assynt. There were 4 controls on this section and the first one was a bit tricky as it was off the main trail on a Bronze Age hill fort. Towards dusk, we were getting bitten by midges and when we stopped to take out spray hordes of them descended on us. I’ve never experienced anything like it. They get into your ears and up your nose and they’re just a constant, incessant irritation. As fast as I was wiping them off my arms, they were being replaced by dozens more. I sprayed so much insect repellent on my face that for hours afterwards I could taste it in my mouth. The only consolation was that it kept us moving forwards.
This was quite a long stage. A lot of it was unrideable and we had to push, pull and carry our bikes through bogs, bracken and gorse over rotten boardwalks and through ditches. Hike-a-bike at it’s finest! Brian and Stefan were super strong on the bits we could ride and Mikael and I were often on the receiving end of a tow. We finished the bike at a small village hall near Ledmore. We took our bikes apart, packed them back into the boxes and loaded them onto the lorries. Then we got back into our wet gear, grabbed some kayaks and set off on the next stage – a monster paddle made even longer because the forecast wind meant we’d have to stay closer to the shore adding about 2 hours to the original route.
Stage 3: 55km paddle plus ascent of Suilven
I can’t remember the start of this stage too well. It must have been about 9 or 10pm when we left transition and I don’t think the first bit was too bad. I was in the kayak with Stefan and we were paddling pretty well. There might have been another team with us. It’s all a bit hazy. There was an option to climb the Suilven mountain which we had decided to do as there was a 4hr penalty for not doing it and it’s always good to get a break from paddling. Suilven is one of the most distinctive mountains in Scotland. It forms a steep-sided ridge some 2 km in length and lies in a remote area in the west of Sutherland, rising almost vertically from a wilderness landscape of moorland, bogs, and lochans.
Suilven looms large in the distance.
It was dark when we reached the point where we were to leave our kayaks but there were loads of other teams there before us and you could see the lights twinkling up the slopes of the mountain. The ground was wet and marshy and it was raining but it was nice to be out of the boats and trekking.
Start of trek up Suilven
Marshy ground and lights
More rain and bog
We met lots of teams coming down as we were going up including my South African friends from Team Adventure Life. They were flying it. It’s funny how you recognise voices in the dark! As we got above halfway the ascent became more difficult and it was getting much colder. The last bit seemed to take ages. When we got to the top it took us a few minutes to find the control. The wind was howling and it was pitch black. The darkness and the wind was disorientating and care was needed as there was a vertical cliff on one side.
View of cliff edge on Suilven. Video: Mikael
We got slightly confused by a false flat near the summit butbafter we realised that we needed to go higher, we quickly found the control on the trig point.
Dibbing in at the control point. Video: Mikael
Now it was time to get down the mountain out of the freezing wind. I always prefer to go up rather than to come down and although I had brought my trekking poles in my backpack, I didn’t use them because I needed to keep my hands free to grab onto heather and rocks. I had to stop to change the batteries in my headlight but apart from that we made steady progress on the way down. We met a couple of teams who were on their way up but mostly all the lights had disappeared and Suilven was shrouded in darkness, although the dawn was now breaking
View coming down Suilven. Video: Mikael
The next 22 hours were grim. Kayaks were designed for the water not to be dragged up mountains, through rocky riverbeds and valleys and along roads. These things are super heavy especially with all the wet bags and seats in them and although we had trolleys, these can only be used on tarmac roads, which were few and far between. It was physical and mental torture and all the time the clock was ticking and we were having to re-evaluate our race plans. First off we were going to miss the canyoning section which was disappointing as it looked fun and we got an 8 hour penalty.
End of the river bed. Video: Mikael
Taking our kayaks for a walk. Video: Mikael
Finally we made it to the sea where we met the water safety officer. We were all secretly hoping the kayak had been cancelled so it was with profound disappointment that I listened to the water safety officer tell us that we had at least another 5 hours paddling ahead of us and the best route would be to stay near the coast instead of taking a direct line. Queue flashbacks from Itera 2016 when we paddled the Atlantic for 12 hours in a 4ft swell and gale force winds. This was only a slight improvement. We normally paddle a kilometre in 10 minutes. It was now taking us an hour. Paddle, paddle, paddle. Wave comes, pushes you back. Paddle, paddle, paddle. Go nowhere. Moving down the coast inch by inch. It’s depressing stuff. After a few hours we were met by another race official on a boat who told us that there was no more teams being allowed onto the water. We were aiming for the lighthouse which was maybe a couple of kilometres away and instead of carrying on we decided to detour to a nearby island. My understanding of it was that even if we made it to the next checkpoint we wouldn’t be allowed back on the water to finish the kayak.
When we got to the island we dragged the boats up the shore and up onto the cliff edge
Video of the beach: Mikael
There was a couple of other teams who followed us onto the island. I think in the end there were 4 teams. We all did a full gear change as we were all soaking wet and freezing. Then it was into the sol bags to warm up while we decided what to do.
Getting some body heat back. Video: Mikael
Brian used the emergency mobile phone we have to carry to phone the organisers who told us that we needed to make our way to the camp site in Ullapool where we would be picked up by bus. This meant hauling the kayaks cross country, then getting back on the water for a short kayak to the other side where we would reach the campsite. Thankfully once we got back on the water, we were now in a sheltered bay and were able to progress much faster.
We had to wait for about an hour for the bus. The boys got into their sol bags and tried to sleep but the wind was howling and I was too cold so I went and sat in a utility room which was quite warm because the sun was coming in through the window. After a while a lady from another team came down and told us that there were loads of other teams in the cafe so we went there and had tea and cake. When the bus came it was a 56 seater coach and full of people. We were confused. Who were all these people? The smell when we got on the bus told us they were all adventure racers! Some had been pulled off the paddle further in front of us and some lucky sods weren’t allowed on the sea at all.
The bus brought us to the transition in Ardessie. I think it was like a farmyard barn. We didn’t delay too long there as we needed to be out on the trek in order to make the cut off for the rafting. Even if we had wanted to rest, sleeping was forbidden in transition so we would have had to put up the tents and it wasn’t worth it
Setting off on the Stage 4 trek. Video: Mikael
Stage 4: Trek 45km
It’s late Tuesday evening when we set off into the Fisherfield Forest. It’s nicknamed The Great Wilderness as the area is entirely devoid of any permanent settlements and it contains the remotest Munros in all of Scotland. The terrain consists of steep heathery hillsides, scree, boulderfields, narrow ridges, broad grass slopes, some easy scrambling and some of the worst sections of bog you can imagine! We have decided to just get the two mandatory control points, the first of which is the trig point at the summit of An Teallach at 1,062m. We made good time on the way up but I found the descending hard. My quads were in bits from the descent of Suilven. We were passed by the lead team Columbia somewhere in the valley. They were towing Caroline which means there was a rope between her and one of the guys to help her move faster. It’s similiar to the bike in that it keeps the team speed more even. Brian thought this would be a good idea for us to try as I was falling behind at times. It sure made me go faster – it’s much easier to keep your balance and you have a lot more motivation. We got some funny looks from some of the other teams though!
The last third of the trek was a bit of a death march. Brian started to have trouble with his feet and we nearly lost him on a descent when he stopped to fix his socks and the rest of us went out of sight. I got kind of cranky when he stopped for ages a second time because we all have blisters on our feet and we just need to get this trek done. I feel like I’m getting a fever and bronchitis so I take some anti-inflammatories. The last 10k of this trek was character building! I knew we’d make it back to transition at some stage, I just wasn’t sure what day it was going to be!!
When we got to transition in the village hall in Kinlochewe, we were told stage 5 and 6 had been cancelled so our long bike was now an even longer bike. At this transition we were required to set up our tents and stay for at least 20 minutes in them so Brian and Mikael put up the tents while getting savaged by midges and Stefan went to buy burgers from the nearby restaurant. The atmosphere in the team was a bit chilly but thankfully we had decided to sleep for 90 minutes in this transition and I was confident when we’ve all had a bit of sleep, we would all be buddies again! As soon as I close my eyes I’m asleep but I only managed to stay in the tent for 27 minutes before I started to feel claustrophobic. There weren’t too many teams in the hall so I built a little shelter out of our bike boxes and slept there instead.
Stage 7: 140km+ Bike
Stefan had his timer set to wake us up and we were soon getting organised to set out on the bikes for the village of Applecross. It’s late Wednesday morning and we’re in good spirits even though it’s raining.
Getting ready to leave transition. Video: Mikael
We cycle up the road a few hundred metres and then realise that Brian has no helmet on. Helmets are mandatory equipment. We turn around and peg it back to transition but unfortunately the lorry that has our gear on it has left. One of the volunteers rings the lorry driver and gets him to stop and then drives Brian out to meet him in his car while Stefan, Mikael and I sit in transition and wait.
When Brian arrived back we set off looking to make back the lost time.
Biking in the rain. Video: Mikael
Luckily the bike is one of our strongest disciplines and we soon caught up with and passed a number of teams. This was, without question, my favourite part of the race. Often in adventure races, there are stages where one or more of the team is just not feeling it but on this stage we were all on fire. We had passed a heap of teams by the time we reached the section of single track which travels along the coast. The single track was super fun in the dark especially if you’re an adrenaline junkie. I fell off a few times. A couple of times into the ferns, into the river once when I was walking across with my bike and got swept away by the current and the last time when I hit a rock in a stream and somersaulted over my handlebars. I landed on a rock, face first and ended up with a golf ball sized swelling under my eye but luckily nothing more serious. We were passed by Sweco around this time but they didn’t gap us too much and Mikael even had time to make a movie
Footage from the bike. Video: Mikael
I was cold because of the rain and my swim in the river and that made me want to cycle as fast as possible once we got off the single track. The route book says we went up the biggest road climb in Scotland, Bealach na Ba, but I don’t remember it if we did.
We had to take a manadatory route to the beautiful Eilean Donan castle where we picked up a control point on the height barrier in the car park
We didn’t get that view unfortunately. It was dark and wet and after we had all dibbed the control, we motored back to our next transition, Morvich Outdoor Centre, passing Sweco on the way. (It’s the little victories that matter!!)
Stage 8: Trek
I remember there was some discussion in the transition about whether we were classified as unranked or short course and whether we should do this trek but in the end we decided whatever would be, would be and at half eleven on Wednesday evening we set off on the route up the Glen Croe and Upper Glen Affric. We figured it would be better to sleep out on the trek if we needed to as we wouldn’t have been able to sleep in transition unless we put the tents up and tent space outside transition was at a premium.
There was about a 10km walk through the valley before we reached the mountains and Stefan and I were setting a good pace in front. We didn’t realise, but Mikael was having serious trouble with the sleepmonsters and trying to keep his eyes open. Eventually when he could go no further he alerted us and we stopped for a power nap. We got the sol bags and lay down by the side of the trail under some overhanging rocks. We didn’t stay for long though. As soon as we stopped the midges started to bite and even though Mikael was falling asleep on the walk, he couldn’t sleep with the midges. We set off again and then we stopped again and tried with the Bothy bag but the midges were vicious and it was futile. We decided to keep going and maybe we would find a hut to shelter in.
Mikael was swaying all over the place and I was getting a bit concerned that he was going to fall over and injure himself so I grabbed a hold of his arm and made him walk alongside me. This was good as it kept him upright and also walking at a good speed. He was still sleepwalking though and after a while he was hardly capable of putting one foot in front of the other. The rain was becoming more persistent when like an oasis in a desert, we turned a corner and there was a building just off the path in front of us. The house was locked but to our joy there was a small shed beside it whose door was unlocked and there was just enough space in there for the 4 of us to sit down. By now the rain was coming in downpours and we’d have been in real trouble if we hadn’t found shelter because it would have been difficult to stop Mikael from becoming hypothermic. We settled down in the comfort of our cramped hut, for a well deserved nap. There were rocks digging into my back but I didn’t care, I wasn’t wasting precious minutes trying to get more comfortable. I’m not sure how long we were in the hut for but I have vague recollections of several other teams trying to open the door and Stefan telling them very politely that this hut is already occupied!
When we got going again, everyone was rejuvenated and ready to tackle the mountains. And tackle them we did. Climbing up and down 5 mountains before dawnbreak. The descent off the last mountain was a bit gnarly with a mandatory route along steep ridges but the scenery was breathtaking.
Videos from the last trek: Mikael
We made really good progress thanks to Stefan and Mikael’s superb navigation and even a river crossing couldn’t stop us
River crossing. Video: Mikael
Stage 9: 20km Paddle
The sun was shining when we reach the next transition area so we were able to sit outside on logs and eat some hot food before changing into our wet gear and heading out with the kayaks. Team Columbia were already in transition before us and while we were there, Sweco arrived. It’s fun to watch the top teams. We had until 8pm on Thursday evening to get to Glen Garry to complete the rafting section so we didn’t dawdle too much and after a customary hike a kayak we were back on the water.
It was nice and calm and we made good progress but when we got to the rafting section we were disappointed to learn that the water had been released from the dam and consequently the rafting was cancelled. We would now be walking for 90 minutes instead. When we got back in the boats we had to use the Caledonian Canal which meant that at the four canal locks, we had to haul the boats out of the water and carry them for a couple of hundred metres before putting them back in. It was dark and hard to keep our eyes open and everybody was in bad form. We changed around in the boats so Stefan and Mikael were paddling together and towing the boat with myself and Brian. I really needed to sleep and it was so hard to keep my eyes open and I definitely was asleep on the entry into the last lock. I was so happy to finish this stage and enter the transition in Fort Augustus
Fort Augutus and the Caledonian Canal
Stage 10: Bike
Last stage and tempers are frayed. There was a Swedish standoff about our route choice and Ireland had to intervene to maintain the peace. We decided to take the option of staying on tarmac roads and taking an 8 hour penalty instead of doing the original route which might have been slow with a lot of hike a bike. The first bit was quite hilly. At least one of the inclines looked like it was used in the recent Women’s Tour of Scotland as there were names written all over the road. I felt fine climbing up the hills but on the descent it was hard to keep my eyes open and eventually we stopped and took a 15 minute power nap in a pine forest. It wasn’t super comfortable but at least we got some shelter from the wind.
The last part of the bike was along Loch Ness
Then we came into Inverness and at around 7:40am on Friday morning crossed the line to finish. Job done.
Massive thanks to James, Tom, all at OpenAdventure and especially to all the wonderful volunteers who made the race such a success.
Thanks also to my teammates and our team sponsors
Stefan the super nav, my paddling partner who gave me loads of help on the first bike
MIkael who I shadowed on every trek because he takes the best lines
Brian the turbo machine who towed Mikael and I whenever needed
You guys are awesome!!