DREAM TEAM aka Young, Gifted and Old – MacIntyre, MacRae, Muir. First overall gents team Highland Cross 2010.
Cramp. I’ve had cramp before, close to the end of marathons or during a long swimming session, but never like this. Never Highland Cross cramp. I had reached Beauly, crossed the finish line. Top-10 in a race of almost 700 – I was thrilled. As I pulled my left foot from the pedal, both legs seized up. I screamed – a scream of unadulterated, unashamed pain. My right calf and my left hamstring cramped simultaneously, as if out of sympathy for each other.
Marshals rushed to my aid. A paramedic trotted behind them. Had they not been there, I simply would have toppled to the ground, unable to prevent my fall. With a marshal either side of me, I was lifted off the saddle, while a third man pulled the cycle from beneath me. I was carried to a waiting ambulance. Spectators clapped politely. I tried to muster a smile. The cramp was intense but fleeting, a reaction – a stunned one – to suddenly stopping after more than four hours of perpetual motion. I had no need of the ambulance. The affliction was gradually replaced by a wave of euphoria.
I was not alone in my distress. A cyclist arriving in Beauly around the four-and-a-half hour mark had similar misfortune. A wretched chain of events meant the man narrowly avoided being hit by a car but succeeded in striking a traffic cone at the start of the finish funnel. He hit the deck and I knew what was coming. The scream. Not from the fall, but from the cramp.
Finished competitors and spectators went to help, grabbing his legs to stretch out the cramp as he lay prostrate on the concrete, groaning. Two minutes later and he was on his way, only to fall off a few seconds later as his body was beset by cramp once again. At least I had reached the finish line before I was debilitated.
It all started so well: running steadily east from Morvich beneath a blue sky. I went off a little too fast, a little too enthusiastically. The naivety of a Cross novice was to blame. ‘Highs and lows’: that is how a teammate had summed up the Cross. There would be good times and bad times. The climb – all 300 vertical metres of it – was a bad time. A cruel, sweltering time. I was in the top-10 already, but I knew a group of six or seven were gaining on me every time I resorted to walking on the steepest sections.
Then the high. Two cups of water at the Camban bothy and I was renewed. Seven wonderful miles followed. I pulled away from those behind until I no longer turned around to see if they were there. I knew they had gone. I revelled in the surroundings, counted my blessings, greeted every walker I passed. It was like a dream, the running easy and effortless.
Then I came to the yellow brick road. It was good fortune that I caught two runners just before this dreaded section. Not many people have a good word to say about the yellow brick road. This is where fitness tells, where the mental battle begins. For five miles, we ran as a trio. I lived for the water stations.
Sometimes I could sense one or other of my fellow runners were desperately hanging on. Soon after it would be me who was hanging on. Highs and lows. The road was seemingly endless and forever undulating. I thought I could barely run another step when the change over area appeared, like a mirage in a desert. Someone shouted top-10 at the three of us. One of our group dived off into a bush, presumably to relieve himself before the cycle leg.
I was greeted by Alec Keith, an athlete who completed the 2009 Cross in three hours and 43 minutes, but was ruled out this year by injury. ‘Those look like running legs, but are they cycling legs?’ Alec asked. I was too delirious to answer. I barely knew what day it was. Hearing someone bellow my number, I went scampering after a marshal to retrieve my cycle.
I tugged off my left trainer in a furious haste, without bothering to untie the laces. My entire left leg cramped. The marshal swung into action, grabbing my soaking, stinking foot and stretching my throbbing leg to try and ease the pain. It was beyond the call of duty, but I will be forever grateful. I was more careful with the other trainer, but still dazed I needed to be told what to do by the marshal and Alec. ‘Take your vest off. Put your shirt on. Put your helmet on.’ Like an insolent child, I stubbornly refused to put on my cycling shorts, going off in just my running shorts. It saved time, albeit seconds.
I was cycling. No more pounding on the road, just the graceful circles of pedalling. I was cramping repeatedly, in my hamstrings, hips, calves, feet and even shoulders. The slightest change of motion – a flick of the gears or a sideways glance – would trigger the inevitable pain. It was bearable until I reached the outskirts of Cannich. There I thought the game was up. Cramp engulfed both legs. The muscles twitched horribly. ‘Keep pedalling, don’t stop if you get cramp,’ I’d been repeatedly told before the race. I had slowed from a smooth 20mph to nine, then eight, then seven mph. I had stopped turning the pedals. I could not turn the pedals. The pain was too much. But then I had to make a decision. I either fall off or I pedal.
I pedalled, and I howled with pain, swearing uncontrollably. Gradually, very gradually, the anguish ebbed away and my speed increased. The episode shook me mentally and physically. The torment had been so abrupt, so fierce. I dreaded its return.
A headwind had been forecast and a headwind was what we got, with the gusts more pronounced on the exposed stretches. My thoughts were now focused on Aigas Brae, a rise of a mere 20 metres, but after running and cycling for 45 miles, it would feel akin to scaling Ben Wyvis. I hit the bottom and churned up, rising out my saddle, my shoulders rolling and the cycle wobbling across the road. I was over – four miles to go.
The sub-four hour dream was still alive, albeit faintly. But it quickly faded, not because of the wind, but due to the undulations. My average speed was dropping, only slightly, yet enough to put me just outside four hours. I was 11th at the Beauly toll junction, but the then 10th placed athlete was ahead. I passed him as we crested the humped back bridge in Beauly. I looked behind twice to see if he was giving chase, but he was clearly shattered. He had nothing left.
Before I knew it, I was in the finish funnel, pedalling between cones, punching a fist, delighted and relieved. I had made it to Beauly. I had survived. I had pushed my body harder than I had pushed it in many years. I had crossed the Highlands, from west coast to east coast. Alas, a few seconds later, I would become known as the man who screamed blue murder and had to be lifted off his cycle. It does no good for your street cred.