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Completing the Highland Cross

Jan is a Circle Ambassador in Scotland, Inverness and completed the Highland Cross this year. The Highland Cross is a 50-mile duathlon, 20 miles on foot and 30 miles on bike, across the Scottish Highlands.

I live in a village just outside of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland and I work as a pharmacist. I was diagnosed with MS in March of 2014, after experiencing numbness ascending from my lower legs in August 2013. Upon hearing those words, my mind flipped to a lecture theatre learning that myelin is essential for nerve conduction and there is only one condition where myelin is destroyed: MS - and there is no cure.

I first discovered OMS after my husband read an article in the Daily Mail in his staff canteen. An academic was following a specific diet for MS. He took the page home for me to read. It referenced a book, which I then ordered. I read it cover to cover in two days and it made complete sense to me. I phased the diet in over the next month and I’ve followed it for over five years now. 

The Highland Cross 

I live close to Beauly and had seen the cyclists coming in after completing the Highland Cross on several occasions. Its a well known local competition and has limited spaces available, combined with repeat competitors it can be difficult to obtain a space. 

It has always been something I’d thought I’d like to do, a ‘bucket list’ thing, but I never seriously thought I would do it. At coffee one morning, a friend said she had got a place and there may be another available, would anyone like to join her? I thought about it and after everyone else point blank refused, I agreed with only one month to go!

The Highland Cross does exactly what it says. It follows a trail across the Highlands of Scotland from Kintail on the west coast to Beauly on the east coast. The event is a race run annually on the Saturday closest to midsummer’s day. The first 20 miles are designed for running or walking and the next 30 miles are by bike. While many approach it with a very competitive nature, many take part simply for the achievement of completion. I was very much in the second group. 

Training 

I’d always been a keen walker and was confident I could cover the 20 mile walk. After all, I made it to the end of the 24 peaks challenge with the OMS team previously. I focused on improving my speed and distance which led to a very happy puppy. 

Cycling, on the other hand, was fairly new to me. I had a mountain bike but rarely used it. I took it out a few times and, although slow, I still felt that I could do it. My friend, a keen cyclist, asked if I wanted to try her husband’s bike, a hybrid like hers. What a difference it made! Within a week or two I was much more confident in my cycling.

Training was extremely difficult and not really a routine, more of ‘as and when’. After losing my husband in 2017, I am a sole parent to two young children and I also work three days a week. This left me with school hours for one and a half days and during kids clubs. Very limited. I extended the dog’s walks, with the kids and cycled during school time. 

My diet remained the same during training but I did find date-based snacks very useful as an energy boost. There were two food stops on the walk itself but other than the bananas none of it was OMS friendly. I was really glad I’d packed my own snacks.

Race Day 

The day itself started early at 6am. We were to drop our bikes at Beauly and get a bus transfer across the country. We got our wristbands and made our way to the starting point for 9am. The runners then start two hours after us.It was a gorgeous day and when the walk began many people were quick to take off. Walkers are not allowed to run but there were some very quick walkers there. And so we set our pace and began the 20 mile walk. 

There was a  big hill about four miles in. Reached a peak of 310m and covered about a mile and a half distance. This was hard and constant, slow-going but a huge relief when we made the summit, even though the official photographer was waiting there!

At 8.5 miles my friend felt her calf muscle ‘pop’. Neither of us were sure if that meant her challenge was over. She stopped to stretch and urged me to carry on. At around nine miles whilst  on my own I followed the path to a river, but I looked back and saw others who were behind me, crossing a bridge. I thought I’d made a wrong turn so I turned around but couldn’t see how they’d got to the bridge. I was reunited with my friend who had managed to keep walking. The first of the runners came along and confirmed that we were on the right path - through the river. With very wet feet we continued and ended up walking through several more streams and puddles. At this stage we gave up trying to stay dry. 

The last two miles of the walk were never ending, possibly because they were marked out. I thought I’d never be able to get on a bike. The legs were in a rhythm. Also the bike I was using was a man’s bike and I’d have difficulty getting on!! We made it to the disused quarry where the bikes were but were stopped - a helicopter on the road was about to take off with an injured participant. An enforced stop but this reinforced our confidence that we did the right thing to take it at our own pace. Changing socks and footwear for the bike was the best feeling ever!! I made it onto the bike and set off. The first section was downhill so eased us into the run. Many ups and downs took us to Beauly with one main hill at Aigas but never had to get off and push. The time flew past and before I knew it, I was on the local roads I knew so well.

After eight and half hours I was almost in tears crossing the finish line. There were so many people cheering every competitor across the line. Friends and family were there to greet us and together with the emotions of having finished, I was overwhelmed. I hadn’t expected my emotional response. My time wasn’t great but I’d made it 30 minutes before the finish line was moved f and I was by no means last. My personal aims achieved!

Reflection 

When I crossed the finish line all I was thinking ‘never again’! But at the same time I was proud of my achievement and absolutely delighted with myself that I’d done it. I was also grateful to the numerous volunteers who helped and encouraged everyone along the way. Each was there as a thank you because their charity had benefited from funds raised in previous years. I was amazed how extremely well organised the event was. 

It took a few days rest and I had a couple of bruised toenails but otherwise I felt great afterwards. A week or two afterwards and the ‘never again’ feeling passes. Now I’m contemplating the next challenge. 

A bit more notice would have been great. I’d love to get my time up, although I could never run the 20 miles, I could certainly walk faster.

I have to say that I have never been fitter since being diagnosed with MS and finding OMS. Since diagnosis I have climbed Ben Nevis, Skafell Pike and Snowden, as well as several smaller mountains. I’ve completed the 24 Peaks challenge and now I can add Highland Cross to the list. MS was not the end I thought it would be when I was first given the diagnosis.

If there’s a few words I could say to those with MS taking part in a similar physical challenge, I would say “go for it!” 

(While all the money raised was for local charities, one of those is ‘The Oxygen Works’, based in Inverness and previously known as the MS Therapy Centre. It has opened its doors to people with many medical conditions and hence changed the name) 

If you would like to join Jan's Circle or any other Circles, please click here. 

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