I’d long wanted to go to Applecross in North West Scotland and needed a good excuse to visit. So when I came across the Applecross Duathlon when researching adventure races it was an easy decision to include it as one of my ’14 for 2014′.
This post is in three parts. Anyone who’s ever been to Applecross will tell you about the infamous road over the ‘Bealach na Ba’, with its hairpin bends and boasting the highest ascent of any road in the UK. So, I’ll indulge in a few photos to share the experience of this fairly exhillirating drive. The second part covers the Duathlon itself – mainly descriptive but with a couple of photos once I had a chance to grab my camera after I’d finished. The final part relates to the fabulous scenery in and around Applecross, a relaxing place with a special character.
Getting to Applecross via the Bealach na Ba
The Applecross Peninsular is accessed by just two roads, the coastal road from Shieldaig in the north and the more ‘adventurous’ route from Lochalsh via Lochcarron and Kishorn in the south. Applecross is home to just 238 inhabitants and the high pass over the Bealach na Ba (the “pass of the cattle”) is reason enough to limit much in the way of any population growth.
The road must be one of the very few examples of true Alpine-style passes in the UK, with its steep sides and tight hairpin turns (take a moment to view the speeded-up YouTube video below to get a sense of the journey). The road ascends 2034 feet (626 metres) in 6 miles (10km) from Applecross up to the summit, giving fine views over to the Outer Hebrides. The signs at the start of the road give sufficient warning that this is a testing route; it’s single track, with passing places and several good stopping places.
It’s exciting in a vehicle but a real endurance test for cyclists, and so it’s no wonder that there are two well-known cycle sportives that cross the Applecross Peninsular and also take in the Bealach na Ba, the 70 km Bealach Beag in May and the 144 km Bealach Mor cycling sportive in September.
The 2014 Applecross Duathlon
As adventure races go the Applecross Duathlon is a fairly informal and low-key affair. This is not to say that there aren’t some very competitive entrants but a reasonably fit person with some training – myself, for example ! – could easily take part.
There’s a ‘race’ for the fitter and faster entrants and a ‘challenge’ category for those who, well, see it as more of a challenge and like to take it at a slightly more relaxed pace. It’s the same course for both, but the challenge entrants have an hour’s headstart. The run is just under 9 miles and follows a good track and moorland track from just outside Applecross north to the northern end of the peninsula. The final mile is on the coast road beside Loch Torridon before the changover for the bike section, a 15 mile undulating route along the coast road – with great views west across the Inner Sound towards Skye – back to the finish line outside the Applecross Inn.
Entrants are limited to 150 and entries opened this year on 31st May – and closed within 24 hours (so be quick !). I entered the ‘challenge’ given this was my first duathlon and since I’m not an ultra serious competitor. For me, this is purely about challenging myself.
I really enjoyed it. The run was great but warm, with hardly any wind, and I managed to finish this section up near the head of the pack. I hadn’t in fact done any training off road on similar tracks (my training had been on roads), but being very used to mountain tracks as a munroist meant that this was pretty straightforward for me.
I thought the bike section would be easier but I didn’t bank on getting persistent cramp. I’ll put it down to experience (insufficient hydration leading up to the race and loss of electrolytes, particularly salt, during it) but in my defence it was the first time I’d had cramp. Nevertheless, it was frustrating having to get off my bike time and time again to stretch out my leg muscles. All the while I was being passed by other competitors and I think I lost about 10 minutes and 6 or 7 places. I asked a couple of helpers along the course at one point what I could do to ease the cramp; unhelpfully I was told ” you’re not fit enough, mate” ! Just great. Remind me never to hire him as my personal trainer !
After the first 7 or 8 miles I began to enjoy the cycle, having realised that I was going to have to slow down in order to complete the race. But it was a bit demoralising to be overtaken by the ‘race’ participants during the final few miles. These guys and girls were serious competitors on serious bikes, whizzing past me at great speed. Several course records were broken that day, with the fastest entrant finishing in an amazing 1 hour 41 minutes, a full hour ahead of me !
The thought of a nice cool pint at the Applecross Inn kept me going for those last few miles and that’s exactly what I did … once my leg muscles had recovered sufficiently.
I’d thoroughly recommend the Applecross Duathlon particularly if, like me, you’re looking for a small, friendly event in which to take part. You can see some great photos of the 2014 event here.
Soaking up the experience of Applecross
I camped at the Applecross Campsite for a couple of nights (look out for my review of the site, coming soon) and took some time to go exploring around Applecross. I was lucky to have great weather which, while hazy, provided some good light for photos – and around here there are some big, big skies.
Sadly, the northern lights weren’t visible through the hazy clouds that weekend, in spite of a reasonably strong showing on the East coast and right down to Norfolk. I’d made a couple of forays to check out promising places to photograph them from so the photos below are as much my location-scouting efforts as anything else.
The warm, still conditions provided very calm shots of Applecross Bay, with Dun Cann (the distinctive flat-topped hill on the island of Raasay four miles away) silhouetted behind a couple of small boats. The soft evening light gave some lovely reflections on the Inner Sound. And had the northern lights been visible, their reflections on Loch a Mhuillinn just outside Applecross would – literally – have been a peach of a picture.
While my 14 for 2014 is a series of personal challenges I’m using it to help raise funds for the Naomi House Children’s Hospice in Hampshire. Naomi House cared for the young daughter of a friend and ex-work colleague who died of an incurable brain tumour in January 2014. Please read this moving article about four year old Chiara and view the link to her fund raising site .
Naomi House clearly made a real difference to the last few months of Chiara’s life, and that of her family, and so this is why I want to use my 14 for 2014 to raise awareness and additional funds for the great work that they do. If you have enjoyed reading my blog and feel inspired in any way please consider giving a donation to this extremely worthwhile charity.