In his 3rd and final instalment of back-to-back ultramarathon SUP events, Starboard team rider Bart de Zwart has successfully finished the 2019 Great Glen Challenge, a 92 km SUP Ultra distance race across the width of Scotland. The event can be completed over 2 days or as a non-stop version. No guessing which one Bart entered!
The 2-day event is achievable by everyone while the non-stop event is best tackled by those who have had many hours down winding and ocean paddling. The reason for the requirement for the non-stop race is due to paddling for the first 4 hours in complete darkness and the possibility of strong wind and waves. The event is always a downwind event as race organisers will decide the direction of the race the night before at registration.
The challenge takes you through some of the most beautiful scenery in the World and across the mighty Loch Ness. Bart recaps his experience at this years event, or as he puts it, ‘Conquering The Monster of Lochness’.
I felt recovered and well-rested after last week’s Muskoka X. I had spent a few beautiful days in the Scotland Highland’s with my wife and felt ready for this relatively short race of 92 kilometres across Scotland. I had a brand new 2020 Starboard 14 x 23.5 All Star. I wasn’t sure what to expect so the All star seemed a sure call in case we had strong wind or waves from any direction. The 2020 shape has slightly more roll but is also faster than ever.
This race is normally run with the wind which is nice because apart from canals the course runs across 3 lakes. The last lake is the 40 kilometers long, Lake Lochness where the legend goes that the Monster Lochness live there. The last time I did this race 3 years ago there were 8 racers, this time 92 paddlers signed up, mostly sup. You can do the race in 2 days or Non-Stop. 24 brave souls signed up for the non-stop. In de days leading up to the race the weather and wind forecast changed daily. Peter, the race director asked me the day before, in which direction I would run the course. We all agreed that starting from the West in Fort William was the best to have either no wind or the wind from the back. Little did I know what we were in for.
The start was at 3 am – in the dark. The wind was already blowing but I couldn’t tell from where. Although we all know we have to paddle for many hours, the starts are generally a sprint until the field stretches out and everyone settles into their own pace. I started out fast and pretty soon only Chris Mc Garry was still next to me. Chris won the Jersey race 3 weeks ago this young kid was paddling fast and kept up his pace. We paddled for a good hour until we had a quick portage around the first locks.
I hit the water first but he was directly next to me again. Now we were on Lake Lochy. It was windy and dark. You could just see in which direction we had to go, pretty much straight into the wind. I had a feeling the sides of the lake would give me a little cover so paddled as hard as I could across to the side of West the lake and hugged the coast. Many times I nearly hit a rock or boulder sticking out of the water but it was worth the risk because the wind and waves were lighter on the side. Chris was still charging at about 50 meters in front of me. I respected his fighting courage but I knew we had been paddling on our limit for a long time now and the race was still very long. I expected that he would have to slow down soon. The trick with races like this, which are 12 hrs or longer is to go hard but keep your hard rate low enough that you can do your pace for a long time.
Once we had rounded the halfway peninsula of the lake we then once again had the full force of the headwind, Chris stayed in the middle. I took the longer route and worked my way to the side again with a little more protection. Soon I passed him and was making good ground. After 16 kilometres upwind we got to the other of the lake. It was nice and calm and I had made 500 meters on Chris. At this point, we were 3 hrs and 25 minutes into the race. I knew they were still long but that now I’d have to put the hammer down.
As soon as we passed the next portage, we were on a canal again. If you don’t see your competitor in front of your mentality it is becoming harder and harder to go hard. So I made sure that I was around the next bend before Chris and or any other racer behind me, could see me. The hours before I had felt strong, even in a demotivating dark upwind section, I felt comfortable.
The day before the race I paddled a little bit after the clinic I gave. I felt good but still a little stiff from last weeks 32hr race and wasn’t sure how my body would react during the race. I knew there were 5 strong paddlers and would have been happy with any podium. But off course once you start racing the top of the podium is always the goal.
The next little lake, Lake Oich, was nice and easy. A few more portages and a canal and we got to the halfway point in Fort Augustus. My wife Dagmar did my support changed out my pack while running to the next portage past all the locks. She already warned me that the next part was no going to be easy. I Looked over to the lake and saw white caps coming straight at me. Lochness Monster it was showing us it’s a force. This was going to be a long day. I waisted no time and jumped on the lake, hammering against the wind. Again I knew I that I had to give it my all to get to the slightly sheltered Westside. Life would not be easy but at least doable. To get to the other side, I was going 3 to 5 km an hour. The wind was strong but the waves where the worst, stopping you dead in your tracks every time you hit one on the nose.
I got to the other side and realized the wind was doable but the wave was still pounding on the nose, at least I could bring the speed up little again. I looked back and saw Chris also coming across, nobody behind him insight. At that point, I had a good lead and felt confident and strong. If I would keep pushing it would be very hard to gain ground on me again. What worried me little was that I was doing only 6 to 7 km an hour against the wind and waves. I started calculating how many hours this lake could take me. It would be close to cut off. I was also starting to wonder how many paddlers would make this lake. This was crazy. I just took one little landmark at a time. Looking down the lake was frustrating, you couldn’t see the end of the lake, it was behind the horizon!
Slowly but shortly I worked my way up the lake. The first people who did the 2-day event I passed, were barely moving, I talked to them for a few motivation words and on I went. By now I was 10 hours on the water, the muscles felt sore but I was doing better and better. In the clinic I have just a day two days earlier I talked a lot about preparation, especially mental preparation. It is hard to understand how much the mental part of any ultra-distance race is, especially one with challenging conditions. Little by little the lake calmed down, the further we got to the end of the lake. The last 10 km where ‘enjoyable’ with good speeds and no more big chop. I was starting to smell the finish.
Chris Parker’s drone met me when I got at the end of the lake, it felt like I already made the finish. The hardest part was over. One more portage and 8km on a calm canal felt like I was almost there. Dagmar gave me one more new pack with liquids and it was a ‘breeze’ to the finish.
After a gruelling 12 hours and 18 minutes, I passed in 1st place.
Only 2 other standup paddlers and 3 surf ski and kayakers would finish the non-stop Great Glen today. Three Ultras in three weekends, all were upwind struggles. All were exceptionally rare conditions but I felt very satisfied to have conquered them all.
Great respect for anyone who made it passed lake Lochness, two days or Non-stop paddler. A special mention must go out to Emma Reijmerink fr her remarkable performance and who was the only women to finish the non-stop course, after fighting for almost 16 hrs, great respect.
In total, 92 paddlers entered the 24 non-stop Great Glen Challenge across all the disciplines, and only 3 SUPs made it to the finish line.
2019 Great Glen Challenge Ultra Race Results – Men
1st Bart de Zwart 12 hrs 18 min.
2nd Mark Slater 15 hrs 7 min
2019 Great Glen Challenge Ultra Race Results – Women
1st Emma Reijmerink 15hrs 50 min