Gary’s Big 10 Triathlon challenge

On top of the last peak - Braeriach

Gary Milne likes his challenges to be epic. So he set himself a Big 10 Triathlon.

Some people might celebrate the end of their student days with a boozy party. But not Gary Milne. The young medic from Glasgow decided to mark the end of university with an epic sporting challenge.

The keen 23-year-old triathlete came up with the seemingly crazy idea to combine his three favourite sports, swimming, cycling and running, with a route across Scotland that would take in the 10 tallest mountains.

He was inspired by ultra runners Dr Andrew Murray and Donnie Campbell, who completed a Big 10 run of Scotland’s 10 biggest mountains in less than 24 hours.

Gary says: “I saw Andrew and Donnie doing this big run on the BBC’s Adventure Show and I thought it would be great if I could somehow turn it into a triathlon.”

But Gary confesses that he had no idea just how tough his self-imposed challenge over three days would turn out to be.

Big 10 Triathlon overview

Over the weekend of July 18 to 20, Gary planned to:

  • Swim 6.5km across Loch Lomond from Luss to Balmaha
  • Cycle a total of around 320km between the mountain ranges of Ben Lawers, Nevis Range and the Cairngorms
  • Run a total of some 70km via the summits of the 10 biggest Scottish mountains.

Gary was supported by friends on various sections, as well as his mum and dad and girlfriend Elly.

Day one of the Big 10 Triathlon

Despite a poor weather forecast Gary was pleasantly surprised to reach Luss on the western shore of Loch Lomond on Saturday morning to find calm conditions. Joined by two friends Emma and Mark, both from Glasgow Triathlon Club, and Tom in a safety canoe, he set out to swim in as straight a line as possible to Balmaha on the eastern side.

Gary says: “I have been a good swimmer since childhood and although I had done less swimming recently I thought I would be fine over 6.5km. I confess my longest swim before the challenge was 5km and I had been training mostly in the pool but I was still confident of this section being okay.

“But it turned out to be very, very hard. After about one kilometre the wind picked up and the water became extremely choppy. I totally underestimated what I would have to do to swim across the loch.”

In the end, Gary clocked 8.3km, almost 2km more than he had estimated.

He says: “That extra couple of kilometres really took it out of me. The open stretches of water between the islands had big white-capped waves throwing us about. Even Tom had trouble staying upright.

“All the pushing and pulling of the waves and the need to keep as close to the islands as possible added a lot of extra swimming. I still enjoyed it but I was very glad to see the end of it.”

After a quick refuel, Gary set off to cycle from Balmaha to Ben Lawers clocking up 83km. He says: “The swim had taken a lot out of me and the climb from Killin to the Ben Lawers car park at 400 metres felt like it would go on forever. It was very tough. I also knew I would need the strength to start running.”

Gary had the summit of Ben Lawers to reach at 1214m over a run of 11km. He says: “My dad Ron supported me on this leg and we both struggled with the wind as the weather became increasingly wild. The views were amazing though and it felt good to tick off my first summit in the Big 10.”

Start of Ben Lawers to Crianlarich CycleA 32km cycle followed from Ben Lawers to Crianlarich. Gary says: “The first half of this was fun, mainly because it was hurtling down the long hill I’d just come up. After the descent it turned into a bit of a slog, battling a headwind up a lot of false flats. I have never been so happy to see a hotel, a good meal and my bed.”

Day two of the Big 10 Triathlon

Sunday dawned wet and cold and Gary confesses he struggled even to get out of bed, let alone embark on the 90km cycle to Glen Nevis. He had the welcome company of his dad and together they battled to lead each other up long ”draggy” climbs.

Gary says: “It was very hard to be motivated when the weather was so grim but I had started and really wanted to finish this challenge. Thankfully, by Glencoe, the sun started to show up and by Ballachulish the sun was properly out and it was a pleasant ride up to Glen Nevis along the shores of the sea lochs. The view made up for the physical difficulties.”

Gary’s morale was also boosted by friends and family who drove by in their cars and shouted encouraging words of support.

The next run, leaving from the car park at the end of Glen Nevis, turned out to be longer than Gary had estimated, totalling 21.8km over four summits.

After dodging numerous walkers on the path into the glen, Gary and his friend Connor Nyberg began the climb towards Aonach Beag (1,234m). But the weather was kind and the first summit came more easily than during a previous recce outing.

Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg in the backgroundHe says: “From that summit we could see what lay ahead for the day including Aonach Mor (1,221m) a ‘short’ run away and then over to Carn Mor Dearg (1,223m) and Ben Nevis (1,344m), which at that point, had a cloud-free summit and looked great.

“The route was fairly technical with lots of scrambly sections and navigation became more of a challenge as the weather deteriorated.

“As we scrambled up on to the Carn Mor Dearg arête visibility was poor due to the rain. Once off the arête it’s a steep final few hundred metres of ascent to the summit of Ben Nevis. Sadly the weather had closed right in so there was no view.”

In Gary’s haste to reach Scotland’s highest summit he had forgotten about the long run out and back to the car park. He says: It was a very long and tricky descent off the mountain and it seemed to last forever.

Snow on Ben Nevis“As Connor and I tired, we both had a few slips and near ankle sprains on the way down. I was so glad to be back on flat ground in the car park at the bottom.”

Because the run had taken far longer than expected, Gary curtailed a planned 30km cycle to Fort William and instead reached the town thanks to his support crew.

Day 3 of the Big 10 Triathlon

By now and despite a good night’s sleep Gary found himself battling tiredness and it was even harder to get out of bed on day three. Retracing his route from the night before he set out on his bike to reach the Cairngorms and the final five summits.

Nearly finished the Cairngorm road climbThe 52km stretch was initially flat and fast, but after reaching Rothiemurchus, a long climb began. Gary says: “The climb was coupled with a horrible headwind and I thought I’d never get to the start of the run. I also knew that the forecast was for bad weather and at times I felt like throwing in the towel.”

The 36km run did not start well and Gary describes feeling “really awful” on the ascent of Cairngorm at 1,245m. He says: “I was really worried about safety and how bad I was feeling. I struggled getting up to Cairngorm summit, my legs were killing me and I was having negative thoughts about the rest of the day.

Possibly Ben Macdui summit“But once up, my support runners Sam and Tom quickly guided me over to Ben Macdui (1,309m) and on the way over I started to enjoy the run, despite the poor visibility.”

Next came a potentially treacherous part of this route, an unmarked steep descent off Ben Macdui and into the high and wild hill pass of the Lairig Ghru.

Gary says: “We made the decision to change the route slightly and head up the Lairig Ghru to the Corrour Bothy before making the ascent to Cairn Toul (1,291m). Not only was this a more straightforward climb up, but it also meant we’d be spending less time on the edge of the high corries in terrible weather.

“After a steep ascent to Cairn Toul, we battled the wind and rain to follow a line of corries along to Angel’s Peak [Sgòr an Lochain Uaine at 1,258m] and then finally Braeriach (1,296m). It felt incredible to have ticked off all of the Big 10 at that point.”

From Braeriach, Gary returned into the Lairig Ghru and one last climb through boulder-strewn Chalamain Gap, before an undulating home straight to the Sugarbowl car park and the finish.

Gary says: “The last couple of kilometres were agony. I was so close but my legs hurt more with every step. When we came into sight, the cheers from my support team spurred me on over the little bridge and up the hill to the finish.

“I had swum, cycled and run further than I’d planned and it was far, far tougher than I imagined but it felt amazing to have achieved my self-imposed challenge. There were hard parts and more enjoyable parts on each of the days and overall it was one of the most amazing weekends of my life.”

Exhausted at the finishFor now, Gary’s next challenge lies in the wards of Glasgow Royal Infirmary where he has now embarked on his career as a doctor. He says: “I knew I wanted to do something fantastic before settling down to becoming a doctor. I think I pulled that off.”

The Big 10 Triathlon has raised more than £1,000 for Scottish Mountain Rescue on-line and off. See this Just Giving link to sponsor him.

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