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Hypothermia and an endurance challenge that pushed limits

Tanja loves paddling. She has dedicated her life the past 3 years to improving and learning to be a better SUP coach, coaching lessons, leading adventure trips, going on SUP holidays, learning to race and embracing everything that is paddleboarding.


The Great Glen Challenge is tough to say the least and the conditions this past year were interesting to say the least! Here is her story of battling the waves and taking on Loch Ness. A special thanks to Sarah for interviewing her so this story could be shared with others. A character building experience for Tanja for sure. Big up to Martin Kerr for being an absolute legend.


SARAH THORNELY CHATS WITH TANJA MCCONVILLE. - MORE THAN A CHALLENGE

One paddler’s personal experience of The Great Glen Challenge 2022



One of the most iconic endurance races in the World, the Great Glen Challenge has embraced paddleboarders for a good few years now and, in September 2022, it saw 66 paddlers on the start line, taking part in both the one and two-day challenges. Paddling 92km from Neptune’s Staircase in Fort William to Inverness (or vice versa, depending on the weather conditions), this is certainly not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced and shore support is deemed necessary.


If you have ever paddled in stunning Scotland, you know that the weather can turn on a sixpence, and you can go from beautifully still and calm to racing winds creating some epic downwinding and very, very challenging circumstances.


This is the story of Tanja McConville’s experience of the Great Glen Challenge this year which turned out to be more of a ‘challenge’ than she expected. We both thought it would be good to highlight Tanja’s trip and the lessons she learned. Safety in watersports is paramount; even with the best preparation, things can go wrong.


Tanja – can you let us know how long you have been paddling and where you paddle predominantly?

I’ve been paddling for about nine years, but it was only something I did on holiday, and I only got serious about it during the pandemic. It was my means of ‘escape’ from being ‘locked down’. I was fortunate to live 5km from Balgray Reservoir in Barrhead, Glasgow, so I predominantly paddled there and another reservoir White Loch not much further along the road. My favourite locations are around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in Scotland. Loch Ard, Loch Venachar and Loch Lomond are my favourite locations, all about one hour’s drive from Glasgow.


Have you done much adventure paddling?

I am a Water Skills Academy (WSA) qualified SUP instructor and Adventure Guide, so I have done a lot of adventure paddling.


Is this the first time you have entered the Great Glen Challenge?

Yes, it was my first time taking on this challenge.


Were you experienced enough to take on this challenge?

Yes, I thought I was experienced enough. I completed the 75km Loch Awesome challenge in May 2022. I entered this event to gain exposure to an endurance SUP race; it allowed me the opportunity over the two-day event to learn what to carry for safety, clothing, food and water and exposure to some wild conditions and to know what it felt like to stand on a paddleboard for hours on end!


Did you have friends who had entered also?

I entered with friends from our Loch Awesome Team and other friends I paddle with. As soon as one from our group entered, it was like a snowball effect.



Who was your land support?

I didn’t have any land support, nor did any of my friends, so we helped each other where we could. My intended land support ended up entering the event too!


Before the event, what did you do to prepare yourself for the challenge?

I was fortunate to have paddled parts of the route, including most of Loch Ness, in both 2021 and July 2022 as part of a Great Glen adventure trip with SUP2Summit. So, I knew the route and that Loch Ness, being the size she is, can be extremely challenging. I tried to get out in different conditions with friends for training paddles that included rough water, distance, speed intervals, headwinds, side chop etc. I also do a lot of weight training in the gym, so in the months leading up to the event, I focussed on building strength and improving my cardio fitness. Oh, and I spent a lot of money on new gear.


Please let us know what the organisers expect of you as a paddler, your experience, for instance.

I don’t think there were any expectations as such. The responsibility lies with the person undertaking the challenge. It is very clear in the event’s advertising that it is an endurance race of significant distance. I knew many of the entrants, and most had done it before or were experienced paddlers/racers.


What mandatory safety kit did you take with you?

A mandatory kit list included a PFD, whistle, torch, mobile phone in a waterproof pouch, emergency blanket (bivvy bag), spare set of dry clothes and sufficient food and water.


Please let us know about the conditions on the first day and how you fared on that day.

The conditions were beautiful, the sun was starting to rise, and as we set off from Neptune’s Staircase, an eerie mist rose off the water. It was calm, not a breath of wind, and everyone was excitedly chatting and in awe, at the spectacular scene in front as we entered the Caledonian canal for the first time. I had a great first day’s paddle; the portages were hell without land support; however, there were so many wonderful supporters and people willing to help portage my board, so I took advantage of that!


How long did it take for you to complete the first day?

I completed the first day in six hours and 36 minutes.

Please let us know about the conditions on the second day and how you felt that morning.

I had been watching the weather all week and knew that day two conditions would be extremely challenging with a strong wind forecast to build from around 11:00 onwards. I thought that was OK; paddle fast and steady and hopefully make the most of the downwind conditions. I had paddled on Loch Ness in 2021 in significant swell, to the point of feeling seasick, so that is what I was expecting for the latter part of the route.


I understand you entered the two-day event – how did you feel on the morning of the first day?

Nervously excited. So many thoughts were going through my head, especially around not forgetting anything essential. I was staying with two of my friends, so it was great to have support from the minute we all woke up and started getting ready. It was an early start with a 45-minute drive to the start line in Fort William.



Please let us know what happened to you on the second day.

The calmness of the start at Fort Augustus that morning betrayed what lay ahead. The weather conditions worsened much earlier than expected, and I was soon confronted with 40 mph winds and a five-foot swell. I don’t recall how far I had paddled when I realised that these conditions were like nothing I had ever paddled in before. I fell in eventually; it was inevitable, given the conditions.

The water was rough, and the swell made it challenging to get back on the board quickly. I spent longer in the water than I would usually after a fall, and the wind chill was pretty extreme. I suppose after that first fall; I started to feel a bit more anxious about falling again and resorted, like everyone else, to paddling from a kneeling position. However, the conditions only got worse; the swell got bigger, the wind was stronger, and I got colder.

I fell in for a second time, totally knocked off my board even though on my knees. I remember going under my board as a large wave flung my board over the top of me. I started to feel a little scared at this point and even colder by now. I knew I had to get another layer of clothing on top, but the conditions were so rough it was impossible to stop on the water. Loch Ness does not have a lot of beaches to access, so I struggled on, feeling colder and colder until I saw a small rocky beach surrounded by jagged rocks on each side; I knew I had to get to land and get another layer of clothing on.

I was genuinely worried I was going to end up smashed on the rocks, but I made it to shore, got my additional layer on and had the challenge of getting back through the breaking waves to continue the race. I saw two of my friends paddling side by side at this point and shouted to them so I could join them and feel safer in company.

However, that feeling of safety disappeared after paddling a few more kilometres, and I shivered uncontrollably. I believe I went into shock at this point as I could no longer speak or paddle and needed assistance to get to shore. I recall crying with fear, and thank goodness my friends were there to help me. I retired after 31km and 4 hours, 45 minutes into the race and was treated for hypothermia along with my friend, who had also been exposed to the cold water and took a further fall helping me get ashore. She also bashed her leg against the rocks and put a hole in her brand-new board. My other friend sacrificed his completion of the race to help us both. 


Due to this experience, did you feel scared, alone or in danger at any point during this time?

I did feel scared when I fell in the water for the second time going under my board and found it challenging to get back on. I started to worry about falling in again and what if I couldn’t get back on. What if I ended up getting washed into the rocks? 


How did other people respond to what was happening to you?

The emergency first aid arrived on the scene very quickly after getting ashore. Everyone had to wear a tracker, and the event organisers and safety crew monitored this. So, they could see three paddlers had exited the water and sent help immediately. Friends who knew we were off the water also arrived and helped with hot drinks, food and warm clothing. 


How long did it take you to recover from this incident?

Days. I was very nauseous initially for the rest of that immediate day. I felt exhausted, not just physically but mentally. I felt so disappointed with myself for failing this challenge, and I knew it was nothing to do with my ability; it was just a series of unfortunate events. However, it took days and days before I could settle my thoughts around this and accept that it was an incredible challenge I had undertaken and just because I didn’t complete it didn’t mean I had failed. 



What were your emergency procedures for this?

Honestly, I was in shock and unable to think clearly about what I needed to do.


What lessons have you learnt from this?

I made two errors on day two that cost me the completion of the race and my two friends, who had to stop and help me.

  1. Always dress for immersion. I needed the appropriate clothing for day two, knowing the forecast and the high probability of being in the water.

  2. Check the weather forecast until the last minute of getting on the water. I had checked the night before and was expecting a SW wind so chose to hug the left-hand side of Loch Ness to get some protection. The wind was a SE that day, and therefore the left side of the Loch was much rougher.

  3. Practice self-rescue in the worst conditions that you can.

  4. You can never be prepared for everything, so be prepared to know when to call it a day. 


Do you have any advice you can give others?

Just the lessons I learnt; these are valuable for anyone considering taking on an endurance paddle. Also, don’t be afraid to give up. It takes a stronger person to say I need to stop than someone that gets told to stop. 


Has this incident affected your mental wellbeing or thoughts on your paddling abilities?

I am a cold-water dipper and my mental health benefits from cold water therapy. I’m usually at my local reservoir 2-3 times per week. After this experience, I felt very anxious about being in cold water, and I didn’t want to feel cold after being treated for hypothermia. However, I knew I needed to get back in the water, it’s my healing space, and I didn’t want that taken away. It took a good few days to face that fear again, but I did it, and I’m so glad I can feel at ease being back in cold water again. 


Would you attempt the Great Glen Challenge again?

I absolutely will be registering for 2023. I have learnt so much from this experience, and although it scared me, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it didn’t.


I want to thank Tanja for her time and honesty about how The Great Glen Challenge went for her in 2022. We can all learn a lot from her story. Well done, Tanja, for your 2022 attempt, and we look forward to seeing you cross the finish line in 2023!



Written by Sarah Thornely and Tanja Mcconville - blog post sourced from https://paddlerezine.com/tanja-mcconville/


Entries for the Great Glen Challenge will open on the 1st of January 2023 and can be found at: https://sailingfast.co.uk/paddlefast/the-great-glen-challenge/

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