Loch and Glen – Emma Hepplewhite talks the Great Glen Challenge and the Journey to Come

The Great Glen Challenge is a paddle board endurance event woven into the very fabric of the sport. Taking place in Scotland, the event sees paddlers test themselves mentally and physically across 92km from Fort William to Inverness whilst taking in such locations as the fabled Loch Ness, and the scenic splendour of Fort Augustus along the way.

It is an endurance event that since 2014 has been a fixed date in the calendar for many paddlers keen to test their mettle on the gruelling route. However, recently the Great Glen was suddenly in uncertain waters of its own.

When it was announced that paddle boarding legend, Jo Hamilton-Vale was ready to step aside as organiser of the challenge, there were fears it might signal the demise of the event.

However, some challenges are too important to simply fall by the wayside and become lost to the dusty corridors of paddle boarding history. The Great Glen baton simply needed a willing hand to lift it.

Step forward, Emma Hepplewhite of ASI Accredited school, Paddlefast. Who, baton firmly in hand, has a whole new race to run.

ASI (Academy of Surfing Instructors) caught up with Emma to see how she is getting along as the new event organiser for The Great Glen Challenge.

Finisher medal (Nessie)

ASI: Hi Emma, thank you for making some time for us. I guess the first question would have to be, was making the decision to take on the organising of the Great Glen Challenge an easy one for you?

Emma: We heard that the 2021 race organiser, Jo Hamilton-Vale, was keen to hand the organisation of the challenge on to someone new. While I had paddled the route back in 2020 (the race had been cancelled thanks to Covid), I hadn’t experienced it as a race, so didn’t want to make any rash decisions!

Having done the challenge in 2021, this time under race conditions and with all the fabulous volunteers who really make the weekend, my husband and I started to chat about how sad it would be if the event came to an end, or went to an outsider. We started asking questions and before you know it, we are chatting to Jo via Zoom and agreeing to take it on!

ASI: Sounds like it was destined to be! What do you envisage as being the most difficult aspect in taking on the running of the Great Glen Challenge?

Emma: The Great Glen Challenge has a few challenges to contend with certainly – the weather being the most obvious and the one that is almost entirely out of our control. The decision to run the direction of the event is taken on the Friday evening, the aim being to have a downwind event. Usually, it’s run from Fort William to Inverness, but there is the option to turn it round.

Secondly the logistics are a challenge – checkpoints across a 92km distance as the paddler paddles, but I think it’s a little further by road. I am looking forward to seeing the entrants to work out how quickly the leaders are going to be going past the checkpoints and making sure we have the supplies and volunteers in place before the paddlers get there.

The other challenge is the manpower on the ground. I know Jo has run the event with only six volunteers in the past, so it can be done. However, the 2021 event had maybe 20 or so volunteers plus various supporters cheering on their paddlers. They all chipped in to the atmosphere with fancy dress at the finish line and cheering paddlers from random beaches up the shores of Loch Ness! You knew that they were waiting to cheer on their paddler(s) but it meant a lot that they cheered you on too. I really hope we can bring together the same atmosphere of fun and family in 2022 and beyond.

ASI: On a personal level what does the Great Glen Challenge mean to you?

Emma: I booked to do the Great Glen in 2020 as it was my 40th birthday and I had something to prove to myself. I was so disappointed when Scottish Canals cancelled the event with five days to go. However, everything was booked – time off work, accommodation, family coming up to support – so we decided to do it anyway.

Day 1 and the first 10k on the canal were a breeze, it wasn’t until I reached Loch Lochy that the enormity of what lay ahead really hit me.

I rounded the corner into a hefty headwind, big waves coming at me and I remember giving myself a stern talking to – I just had to get to the lee shore, and then I could hug the shoreline up the loch. Well, the next four hours were tough, really tough. I remember making it to the lee shore eventually and phoning my husband to scope out conditions further up the loch. At that stage, I was all for turning round and heading back to Garelochy and calling it quits. Needless to say, Duncan encouraged me to keep going, conditions were going to get flatter and it was going to get easier. I’d never tell him to his face, but he was right! I made it to the end of Loch Lochy and took a well-earned rest before carrying on.

At the end of Loch Oich, the next short loch up the route, my sister jumped on a board to join me for the last 10km or so of day one. By this stage I had been paddling for around eight hours so having a little company, some tunes on the speaker, the sun came out and my playlist selected ‘Perfect’ by Fairground Attraction for the last, flat canal section of the day. I finished day one 44km and 10 hours after I started and I was knackered!

Day 2 started in thick fog and I was very nervous about getting on the water on my own. Fortunately, a couple of paddlers drove up and unloaded and we got chatting. They had paddled the route before and yes, I could tag along. Phew! I made arrangements to meet Duncan and the kids at Foyers for lunch and off we set – Into the Unknown (Frozen 2!)

My Dad had driven all the way up with a RIB which he launched at the top end of Loch Ness on the Sunday. However, it took him so long to get it launched for various reasons, that I had done 30km of the 35km Loch before he and the family caught up with me!

I cannot begin to describe the feeling of euphoria and the sense of achievement as I crossed the finish line in Inverness. So much of the last two days had been an internal battle with my inner demons, the ‘I’m not good enough’ being quashed by the ‘yes you can!’. My father made a comment along the lines of, ‘You were the unsporty daughter and look at you now?! I am so proud of you.’ And that was really lovely to hear. My overall time wasn’t great, but I had done the route from bottom to top in challenging conditions without quitting.

I seem to recall my first words after finishing were, ‘Never again, I think I’ll volunteer next year’, but the blisters and achy muscles faded from memory and I had a time to beat after all! Needless to say, I did the race proper in 2021 and finished 3rd female hardboard, shaving over 4 hours off my 2020 time.

The Great Glen Challenge finish line

ASI: It sounds like an unforgettable experience! Why is it important to ensure these events survive and thrive?

Emma: I can’t speak for all paddling events, but the endurance events like the Norfolk Broads and the Great Glen are a great opportunity to meet other like-minded paddlers (or crazy paddlers as my kids call us!). You are instantly welcomed into the fold and leave with phone numbers, new Facebook friends and promises of meeting up again at the next event to compare blisters and war wounds.

These events give people something to aspire to. It shows people that there is a progression within the sport (if they want it, it’s not compulsory!). In order to get off my lazy butt, I like to have a date in the diary to work towards and events like these definitely give you that.

These events often get good publicity which opens up the sport to people who might not have otherwise thought about giving SUP or other paddle sports a go. This might sound big-headed but I like to believe people look at me and think, not bad for a 40-something year old mother of two, if she can do it, maybe I can? Hell, in September, I almost had a six pack under the baby bulge!

ASI: As a veteran of endurance event paddling, any advice for first timers?

Emma: As it happens, I have only actually competed in 2 endurance events, the Norfolk Broads and the Great Glen so I wouldn’t call myself a veteran….yet! My advice would be this – give it a go, you never know what you are capable of until you try.

Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t all been plain sailing, I picked up a shoulder injury in 2020 and decided I should get help to train properly for 2021. I enlisted the help of Samantha Rutt of Barefoot Fitness who set out a training plan which included strength training, something I had completely overlooked in 2020. She has been instrumental in encouraging me to listen to my body and that it’s ok to take a break if you need it.

However, the best advice I was given, was at the race briefing for the Norfolk Broads by Joanne Hamilton-Vale. She said, ‘Endurance paddling is an eating game, if you keep eating, you will keep paddling.’ Given that’s the main motivation for me doing any exercise at all, this is definitely something I can get on board with!

Great Glen Graphic nessie

Emma and Paddlefast‘s inaugural running of The Great Glen Challenge 2022 is provisionally pencilled in for September 24/25. For further information and to register yout interest visit this Paddlefast page.

In the meantime, a huge thank you to Emma for taking the time to chat with us, and our best wishes for a successful future!

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