Adapt or die!

A super report by William Cairns on his recent experience at a solo, non-stop AR in the South-west of England.

After having decided a while ago that I wanted to do an overseas race, I did a whole lot of internet searching and discovered the South West Coast 2 Coast race in the South-west of England. The SWC2C is a cross over Ironman/Adventure race that includes both a 2 day staged option and a 1 day extreme non stop option. The race seemed perfect as I know quite a few people in England that could help me out, as well as being a solo race so I could organise everything on my own. By the time I entered the staged option was sold out and I entered the non-stop option instead (my prefered style of racing).

I did a lot of running training leading up to the event as my cycling was doing well. I also knew that I would overall need to increase my normal racing speed by as much as 25% if I wanted to make the cut offs.

I left Johannesburg on the Thursday night, arriving in London on Friday morning, met a long-term online friend, Wayne, who was helping me out with transport and logistics. We collected a hire bike on Friday afternoon and went to bed early that evening.

Saturday morning started with a three-hour drive to the start for registration and collection of race numbers etc. A short briefing was held but from my point of view was not very good as it contained no information about race logistics. Instead it was just a run down of the route according to the race book we recieved. My assumption that things would work the same way as in South Africa came back to haunt me later as I did not get the kit I needed when I needed it. I used the small 15l Salomon Rivo backpack that I won on the last Full Moon race, but covered it with a South African flag.

Before the race started we had a 2.5km walk to the start. This was quite peaceful until the rain started. It was a short downpur but should really have prepared me for what was to come later. In the rain I put on First Ascent Apple Jacket. While not a waterproof top, I have found previously that even when wet it keeps the wind out.

The start of the race was the most northerly point of the Country of Devon (Foreland point). There, in the middle of nowhere, is a small lighthouse. Looking down at the lighhouse in a terribly overcast day, with strong winds, I could see a ‘sundeck’ with chairs and I thought to myself that there is no way anyone would ever want to sit out there.

Leg 1 – 11km run: By now the rain had cleared and the wind had dropped (being protected behind the hills from the southerly wind) and we started the race at about 7:20. Being proudly Lickety Split I let everyone rush off into the distance and run up the steep coastal hills, while I strolled along and reached the top of the hills 50 metres behind everyone else. At the top the wind was howling again and I struggled to start running. Once over the ridge and dropping into the woods I got into my stride and really started enjoying the run. The path led through the trees, up and down a few hills and along the banks of the river. In many ways the wood reminded me of the forests found in Kwazulu Natal and Mpumalanga with gentle undergrowth under the towering trees. Bit by bit I was overtaking the back end of the field and by the time we got back to the tar roads leading into the village of Brendon I had overtaken 15 or so people. Overall I found the other racers very friendly and accomodating and everyone let me through as soon as I caught up with them.

Leg 2 – 85km cycle: I transitioned quickly onto the bike and got out ahead of a lot of people who finished the run ahead of me. Coming out of Brendon were a couple of mean hills and I decided to save my strength, pushed my bike up the hills. At one point I was greeted in Afrikaans by a fellow racer; so I was not the only South African in the race.

Once over the hills I got going and was enjoying my ride, even the short rain shower I had shortly after that did little to dampen my spirits. Unfortunately I started getting cramps in my lower calf after only about 5km of riding and these cramps stayed with me for most of the cycle. I am still not sure if the cramps were from the cold or the 12 hours sitting still in the aeroplane the day before.

The most amazing thing was how much space cars give cyclists on the roads, in many cases cars drove slowly behind me until we reached a section of double lane before overtaking me. I rode along at a good pace and though I was feeling a little cold (being soaked from the rain and the strong wind creating a large drop in temperature due to wind chill) I felt OK and carried on. Even the second shower did little to dampen my spirits though by now I was feeling really cold. By about 50kms into the cycle and the 6th or so rain shower the heavens opened and we had a lot of really hard rain.

By now the wind was really strong, I was soaked and I had not really adapted to the conditions. Being soaked at 8 degrees, with a howling wind probably made the ambient temperature about 0 degrees – that’s freezing in case you did not know. Only once I started realising that I could not concentrate properly did I stop and put warmer clothes on.

Difficulty to concentrate is a sign of hypothermia – at the time I was struggling to remember the next instructions I needed to do “Red Hill Cross, Turn left following the sign that says Meldon 4km”. In the pouring rain I stripped down to my pants and pulled a fleece top on, then put my cycling top over the fleece before once again putting on my wind-proof top. This made me feel a lot better and I continued at a very slow pace – the cold was just sapping all my energy, making cycling really hard. Slowly and regularly people were overtaking me. At one point four guys came past me and I decided to force myself to keep up with them. I rode the last 20-25km with them and they certainly helped me get to the transition, we were all quite tired so other than them asking me a few question about being South African we did not chat much. I made the cutoff with about 10 minutes to spare.

Leg 3 – 7km hike/run: At transition (no transition bag) I happily had a hot cross bun my friend Wayne supplied and cake mix supplied by the organisers and left as quickly as possible onto the hike up High Willhays (highest point in South-west England). I walked up to the top trying to recover some heat and some energy. Instead of a trig beacon the highest point was marked by a large cairn of rocks, I added my rock to the cairn before turning and heading back down.

The moors are public access land and I saw various flocks of sheep, each marked with a different color of spray paint accross their backs. On the way back to transition I trotted as much as possible. Crossing the moors was interesting with what looked like dry grass being 10cm of water when you step on it – fine while walking by definitely ankle-turning stuff when running.

Leg 4 – 37km cycle: At transition again I got going as soon as I could and the first few kilometres were wonderful flat riding on a cycling-specific tarred track and I pushed as hard as I felt I could to try recover some time. At one point we went over, then under, a fantastic viaduct before returning to the country roads. My four friends from earlier soon caught up with me again and we rode along together most of the way.

With about 15km to go I decided I needed to push again and started going faster. I still felt really cold and the exercise was not enough to warm me up. With about six kilometres to go I had 35 minutes to make the next cut off and thought I was reasonably safe, but I came around a corner and was faced with a 2km long uphill – so I slogged up it (pushing most of the way) and reached the top with about five minutes to go. From the top I could see a wonderful downhill followed unfortunatly by another two kilometre uphill. I slogged up it knowing by now that I would not make the cut off but hoping I would be allowed to continue.

Once I reached the top I had about one kilometre to go to transition and I took it reasonably peacefully. By now I had realised I was far behind the cut off time and had reached the conclusion that I would be almost happy to be told I could not continue…

I passed Wayne just before the transition and he told me he had arranged an extra 15 minutes for me – unfortunately this was about 40 minutes after cut off already. I continued to the transition where I was told I was too late to continue. I went into the hall and had some hot food and tea.

About 45 minutes later I went out of the hall to collect my bike and started shaking – not just shivering, but physically shaking from the cold. I could almost not hold my bike due to the shaking. Even after a warm bath that evening and a long sleep in a warm bed, the next day a gentle breeze started me shivering all over again. I am not sure, but I cannot but believe I had reached the point of hypothermia during the race.

I consider myself an experienced adventure racer. I have done almost 20 races of over 100km in length, including Expedition Africa of 500+kms. I have titled this report “Adapt of Die” as even with all the experience I have at racing under South African conditions I was not able to adapt to the new conditions I was racing in and in the end this was the reason I did not finish the race.

In South Africa I suffer heatstroke very easily and while racing I would rather be cold than warm to prevent it. Under the race conditions I experienced in England, I should have realised that there was no chance of getting heatstroke and switched immediately to ensuring that I did not get too cold.

At the start of Leg 2 I should have been wearing my fleece as a base layer. I had presumed I would get access to my transition bag at each transition and had left warm leggings in the bag – I should have been wearing at least my leg warmers if not my full fleece leggings on the cycle. At home I have a polar Buff and it should have been on my head and not in my cupboard.

Humans are creatures of habit. And the habits I have learnt over the last four years of racing meant I did not finish the race.

Adapt or Die!

Author: William Cairns | His usual AR team is Lickety Split.


  1. Great report William and thanks for emphasising an oftern overlooked point. Even in SA, with the contrasts between our deserts, mountains, humid and cold regions, conditions very a lot, and it’s so easy to forget to adapt not only kit but also nutritional strategies to deal with that.
    I like the idea of William’s Cairn 🙂

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