April 14, 2023 8 min read
Meander co-founder, Steve, talks us through his experience taking part in The Gleneagles Great Adventure Race.
This weekend marked the second annual Gleneagles Great Adventure Race (3 years after the first edition due to Covid). As a fellow outdoor-loving Scottish brand, we were lucky enough to be asked by Gleneagles if we would be interested in being a brand partner, and possibly even entering a team for this year's race. Since it was Gleneagles, and because the race sounded amazing, we obviously jumped at the chance.
The race consists of teams of two tackling a 4km kayak across Loch Earn, a 16k run over a Munro, followed by a 35km cycle back to the Gleneagles hotel. Despite thinking I didn’t have much of a chance in winning the race, I was still fairly confident that I could tackle the course, so, I needed to rope in a partner to complete Team Meander. Luckily my good friend and former SAS Who Dares Wins competitor, James Gwinnett, didn’t take too much convincing (it’s a chance to visit some of the most beautiful scenery Scotland has to offer, and a stay at Gleneagles after all).
I’ve competed in several adventure races, trail runs, ultramarathons and bike events, but driving up to the Gleneagles hotel, you quickly get a sense that things are run a bit differently here. After pulling up to the main entrance, we were given a warm welcome while our bags were whisked away up to our room and the car was parked for us. We were then given a tour of the stunning hotel since it was our first time visiting, and it was definitely needed considering how much there is on offer at the hotel. Gleneagles is home to five restaurants (including Scotland's only 2 Michelin star rating), three bars, a cafe, a shopping arcade, a spa, and enough outdoor activities to keep you entertained for a month long stay.
After the race briefing and course overview we were treated to what has to have been the best pre-race meal I've ever had; a three course buffet catering to whatever kind of race fuel you fancy. It's probably against modern scientific advice, but I chose to use it as an excuse to eat a load of carbs in the form of truffle mac and cheese alongside some local Scottish salmon. It was, of course, delicious. I did however manage to restrain myself from the option of a lovely wine pairing and retired back to our room for an incredibly comfortable rest.
After a quick breakfast of porridge (the full Scottish would have to wait for tomorrow), a procession of Land Rover Defenders took us all to Loch Earn where we’d kick off the race with a 4km route around the loch on 2 person kayaks. A few of the teams had managed to sneak a quick practice on the kayaks the day before, but considering I hadn’t seen James and his wife for a few months, and they’d arrived with his 13 week old Labrador puppy, Harvey (Gleneagles is very dog friendly), we chose to catch up and explore the hotel grounds instead of practicing, despite not having sat in a kayak for a few years.
After lining up between the starter buoys, we were the furthest out and barely heard the starting signal, but did notice everyone else starting to paddle, so set off with some gusto to try and catch up and get into a bit of open space. Remembering that it was a 4km kayak we then eased off a little and found ourselves in quite a tight race for second place while a pair of chaps in lovely floral hats cruised off ahead of us. As we drew closer to the finish we were around level with Ian and Kate in the race for second, though they were about 50 meters further away from the shore. I spoke to Ian later and he confessed that he was a professional sailor and trying to take advantage of currents with their positioning. Fortunately for us, it wasn’t enough, and we came into shore at the first checkpoint in second place.
I was well aware that with the summit Ben Vorlich 900m above us, and with several good fell runners behind us, that this was very likely to be the best position we would achieve all day, so felt no need to rush through the checkpoint and instead chose to make the most of the hospitality. We had a lovely a cup of tea with some handmade goji berry energy balls and decided to enjoy the rest of the day without any pressure! Where most races bring a folding table of water and energy gels, Gleneagles, being Gleneagles, bring a Defender with an awning, plus a variety of delicious snacks.
After a bit of a run to the point where the proper ascent started it became a long slog up to the summit and running was very quickly out of the question. As we continued up, the views behind us started to open up with an amazing outlook over the loch, and we began to be caught up by some of the better climbers in the field. After a bit of friendly chat, they shot off ahead.
Pressing onwards, scrambling over some loose ground and reaching gradients over 40 degrees, the trig point on the summit came to view and provided a bit of extra energy to push on to the top. The weather had been stunning, but it was quite windy at the top and there was a race on, so after quickly admiring the view, it was time to head down into the valley. The route down was quite technical and required a bit of caution, but I had assumed that once we reached the flatter sections the run would become easier… This definitely wasn’t the case! As we followed the meandering river bank, there was no set path and the ground was boggy to the point that you could easily lose an entire foot to the shin. It was also covered with clumps of grasses, making it impossible to ease into a stride and giving my legs flashbacks to running with high knees at rugby training. It was on this part of the run that a couple of the more seasoned fell runners cruised past us, demonstrating the benefits of lightness of foot and experience running on this kind of terrain, something that both James and I lacked. Despite others making it look easy, it was definitely the most squelchy and stumbling run James and I had done. At one point, my waterproof trainers were so full of water that James had to get out his camera to record the noise they were making as I ran.
Eventually, we came to a bit of a path and road and managed to pick up some pace again. On this bit of road we managed to catch the pair up ahead, the equally lovely Bee Leask and Fergus Crawley, who we chatted with as we got to the final transition.
Again, in no rush to get through the transition area, I treated myself to nice sugary coffee and some snacks while getting changed into my cycling kit, which included some horribly impractical lace up road shoes that are definitely not optimal for a quick transition.
We set off on the bikes and after an initial steep climb, the parcours became more undulating and we found ourselves constantly changing positions with Bee and Fergus as we cycled along some amazing quiet country roads with a bit of a chat each time. At one point, we were forced to pause for a couple of minutes while a flock of sheep crossed the road into a local farm. I’m not sure what other race that could happen in, but it put a smile on all of our faces.
A couple of kilometres from the finish line, I was overtaken by Bee who had seemed to have gotten a second wind from somewhere and cruised past at a speed I couldn't match. It's fair to say that both Fergus and James were the faster cyclists, but it’s the time of the second person in the team that matters, so the race was between me and Bee and it was decided right at the end. The route had been marked impeccably through the whole 35km cycle, but the one spot they missed was the turning into the hotel, naively assuming that the giant Gleneagles hotel sign would suffice. Apparently Fergus and Bee had cycled straight past this and had to turn around, so when we got to the finish line just behind another team, we had assumed it was them and were quite shocked when they finished a couple of minutes later. We had snuck into 6th place after all.
As if finishing a race on the beautiful driveway at the front of the hotel wasn't special enough, there was a piper greeting each team back, a glass of champagne waiting, and a picnic laid out for us on the front lawn. After most races, I’ve been given a medal and goody bag and then headed to the carpark, but here there was a great atmosphere as everyone ate, drank and caught up on the events of the day. We all stayed and enjoyed the hospitality until the last team was back and then gradually dispersed to clean up into some more formal attire for the evening's awards dinner.
Like almost everything over the weekend, the awards dinner was exceptional. We were treated to a five course, ‘Best of Scottish’ menu while the awards were presented to the top three teams and gifts including some Meander gear, were given to every participant. One course was the traditional haggis, neeps ,and tatties, which was of course piped in by the resident piper who gave a tremendous address to the haggis which entertained us all further. The party continued to one of the hotel bars where I made up for abstaining the night before and sampled some magnificent Scotch whisky before calling it a day at around 1am. I really have to say that spending time with everyone before, during and after the event was a massive highlight and made the weekend. Hopefully many will stay in touch and return next year. I certainly want to!
If spending a weekend testing yourself out in some amazing Scottish scenery sounds like your cup of tea, then I would 100% recommend signing up next year. Yes, it’s pricier than most adventure races, but we were treated like royalty the entire time. The staff at the hotel are incredible, as was all of the food, and it’s a weekend I’ll never forget.
I’d like to say a massive thank you to Colin, Billy, Katrina and the team at Gleneagles for inviting Meander to be a brand partner for the event. A big thanks to James for joining me and cajoling me round the course, and to all the other competitors who made the event so much fun.
Find out more about The Gleneagles Hotelhere.
All images (other than the top one) courtesy of the amazing Jay Golian.
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