The Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR) – DNF – Report
It’s 2015 and this is something I’ve been meaning to write for a while, partly because it was great fun, but also because it’s nice to share amazing experiences. Anyway, given that we’re having another crack at it this year I thought if I jotted down some notes from our last attempt, it might give us a helping hand. Let’s see.
The trouble started long before race day. Finding a sailing crew was easy, finding a running partner turned out to involve what is best described as blind dating, ultra-runner style.
First up was an old friend who’d been threatening to join me on a hilly outing for months. A sub three hour marathon under his belt gave me a touch of ability anxiety, but I reckoned I could take him on anything involving a load of mud and slippery rocks.
For some unfathomable reason he decided to take his family and (re) emigrate somewhere much sunnier than Scotland. With the departure to Sydney set for the weekend after race day, perhaps the prospect of deep bogs and driving rain was a worse prospect than packing everything for a family of four.
Much more importantly, we were now a couple of wiry calves short of anything you could call a fell running team.
Next up was a childhood companion from the fair isle of Jura. Now, we had the opposite problem: working as a gamekeeper he spent most of his waking hours neck deep in everything you can find on a Scottish mountain (including the occasional pile of dead deer). Road running was understandably not much of a priority, but we convinced ourselves that the combination of sheer bloody mindedness and years of mountain craft would get us through whatever obstacles presented themselves.
Devastatingly one Sunday night saw his wife involved in a (thankfully not fatal) head-on car crash. Several weeks of worry and soul searching later, his wife was back home and he was attempting to stop three small children from doing any more damage to their very tender mother. Needless to say we didn’t hold him to his race obligations, looking after close family being one of the few acceptable excuses!
Roll on number three, third time lucky and all that.
I started harassing all my fellow ultra-runner friends in earnest at this stage, and after a couple of false starts was put in touch with an incredibly fit and experienced chap from somewhere near Wales. Checking out his stats cranked up the team outlook, but did nothing for my fell running status anxiety. Completing a 50 mile mountain race in one day is a decent achievement, but doing that every day for five days, without GPS, to traverse the Dragons Back (length of Wales) is an otherworldly feat.
Lots of enthusiastic emails and texts ensued, along with a couple of phone calls. This was proper blind dating now, and everyone was getting very excited as the big day drew near.
Too good to be true? Of course!
Even the best are susceptible to a badly placed foot on a slippery slope, and before anyone could say “stay in bed and don’t go near anything that might cause injury”, the damage was done and with a heavy heart he took the doctors advice and stepped down. In hindsight a very wise decision, a “bit of a sore ankle” turned out to be much worse than it sounded and it would be months before any kind of running was to take place.
With mere days before the race it was action stations all round. A blanket appeal was thrown out to every social media site and forum we could think of, including the mass spamming of the entire fixed income trading floor at a large investment bank (I figured there’s bound to be at least one testosterone filled triathlete up to the challenge).
The race directors pitched in too, canvassing all the running clubs they could think of, and posting our desperate plea on their website.
At one point the saturation was so complete that my sports masseur in South London said one of his other clients had seen my “lonely runner seeking runner for ups, downs and shared energy gels” advert, and was considering applying.
With one day left before I was due to head northwards we had four serious contenders, and I’d taken on the joint role of Cilla Black as well as the earnest seeker of companionship.
Many phone calls later the worthy Angus from Edinburgh packed his bags, threw in his Carnethy club vest and leapt on board the train to Glasgow.
A mountain marathon veteran and owner of a race saving altimeter now firmly in the team, we really were in business, and it was two excited fellows who boarded the tiny train to Oban. Laden with running gear, whisky, Guinness and a pile of cold pizzas we looked less out of place than the smattering of commuters, as we started the three hour journey north.
We spent the journey getting to know one another, and plotting probable best routes for the Jura leg (the others being less ambiguous), and quickly met up with the rest of the team on the good yacht Sonata (not in a pub, first surprise of the weekend).
The very organised race crew meant the kit check was a breeze, and with the “it’s not your fault if I drown or fall off Ben Mor” waiver duly signed, we retired to the local for a good dose of their finest race nerve calming brew, and bowls of specialised running fuel (aka crisps).
Our sailors had actually spent the last few days repairing bits of the boat –
which isn’t as worrying as it sounds, old wooden boats, even ones designed by William Fife, need a lot of tender loving care). They’d also been trying out the various new bits of kit bought specially for the weekend, so a few pints seemed downright necessary.
The first running leg is a mad six mile dash up and around the hill overlooking the town, and was introduced purely as a Le Mans style means of throttling the number of boats leaving the harbour at the same time. I’d been advised by SIPR veteran Tin to keep nothing back and if I didn’t taste blood by the end I hadn’t tried nearly hard enough! So, off we hared into a bright sunny day, pushed on by the prospect of a few hours of easy sailing before Mull.
We didn’t come back anywhere near first (fell runners are fast!), but we did
ok, and with a seamless transition to the dingy were powering out to meet Sonata. She was getting a few race twitches of her own, obviously well aware of the good breeze that had been building all morning.
The wind held well, and after being seventh around the point it was a lovely reach straight down the sound of Mull to Salen.
Well chosen sails and a happy boat took us to 4th in our class (fast yachts) and all too quickly it was time to get kitted up for the first proper leg, a less than cheeky 23 miles up, over and round the highest point on the island.
Naturally enough the sunshine packed it’s bags and the mandatory waterproofs were out of our packs before we made landfall.
A quick but thorough kit check and we were handed a bag of orienteering tokens with instructions to attach them to all the orienteering kites we could find on the list of OS coordinates. We’d be out of the race if we missed one, so safely stow them we did.
The route starts and ends with 3 miles of tarmac, followed by a couple of
miles of rough track. At the point that the track becomes a path most people change shoes and leave their road ones in a plastic bag (or just lying on the ground, lets face it everything is going to be sopping wet after a few hours in the misty hills). We made our first (possibly only) navigational error here and deep in happy conversation missed the turning to traverse along the valley, and followed the river instead. We didn’t lose much time but were both annoyed at such a silly error so early.
The path is very faint in a lot of places, but it’s pretty clear from the map which way to head, and an uneventful hour of steady climbing delivered us over a ridge and into thick fog, rain and wind.
There wasn’t much to do but try and keep a steady course, keep climbing and hope we didn’t veer too far the left and miss the main summit altogether. Staying slightly to the right was our best option as a brutal drop back to the starting valley would be (hopefully) hard to miss.
A brief scramble and, yes, there was no going forwards, a sheer drop into howling wind was inches from our feet. We were on a narrow ledge with visibility of ten meters at best. The big question was whether we were to the right or left of the summit.
Whilst we were pondering this, and becoming more certain of our bearing (and also very cold, this was a shocking place to be dithering), a small group of vest clad runners clearly bearing SIPR numbers came bounding out of the maelstrom heading determinedly in the opposite direction from us.
Ah ha, I thought, some friendly people to put us right. “Have you summited”? I shouted, I got neither eye contact nor reply. “Rude fucker” I muttered.
Another group of racers piled up the mountain and shot past us, just as Angus quietly said, “they’re all wrong, we’ve got the right idea, quick lets go”.
Competitive orienteering lesson #1: It’s a race man, a race! Every team for themselves!
Five short sharp very uphill minutes later and we’d clipped our tag to the top of Ben Mor and were belting down the other side hoping to pick up the right contour for the next OS reference. At this stage we we’d gained a few places since leaving our road shoes (it’s really handy being able to count the tokens and know how many are ahead of you!).
The altimeter and Angus’s excellent map skills soon sorted our the next two references and we’d moved up the field some more. I tried to text the boat so they could get a bit more shuteye, but as soon as I (eventually) got a signal, my battery died. Trying to capture the run using my iPhone strava app was clearly a bad use of limited resources. A different context for #stravawanker. No doubt our gallant sailors were probably up and getting ready to go, our original estimate being very optimistic and without any allowance for disgusting weather and energy sapping peaty bogs.
Still, our mood was definitely buoyant, we’d got through the worst of the course, and had just entered the original valley. Just an easy traverse and a few miles of road before we could check this one off the list.
I heard a loud crack and span round to see Angus on his back looking more surprised than in pain. He was in pain though, a lot of it. A foot, no doubt imbued with the imminent prospect of a hot shower and a glass of whiskey, overshot it’s rightful placing, slid the wrong way and dumped the full weight of it’s owner the wrong way.
Angus did well not to pass out on the spot, and after a couple of false starts we made our careful way down the valley. We were both outwardly hopeful that this was a minor sprain and no real damage had been done.
This was the end of the race though.
We made our slow, cold, wet and hobby way back down a drizzly valley and Angus even ran some of the road section back to the boat. Total time on the Mull course was over 5 hours, slightly more than we’d hoped for, but the weather had hardly been in our favour.
We kept an optimistic angle on the ankle situation, deciding to see how it looked when we got to Jura.
Our sailors greeted us with probably the best welcome we could have hoped for. A hot shower, bowls and bowls of steaming beef stew and a couple of cans of Guinness. Not what we were expecting on board a racing yacht but oh so, so perfect.
Bundled up in dry clothes and sleeping bags, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat, deep sleep was only minutes away.
I woke up hours later and was still being gently rocked, my now slightly more alert self registered the lack of wind, but dismissed it as an excuse for more sleep and conked out again.
The next time I woke up it was to the hum of the engine, which did not bode well: engines in a sailing race (outside of emergencies) being somewhat frowned upon.
The crew had realised that our slow progress in the water meant we had no real chance of completing the course, even if Angus was able to run (which with an ankle as big as a melon he really wasn’t), and had taken the executive decision to motor to Jura and give us a chance of sailing as much of the rest of the course as we could. No point drifting in circles for twelve hours waiting for the tide, might as well salvage some of a sailing weekend for the Jura to Largs leg.
This serves to highlight that this isn’t a race that you can get round just on meticulous planning, there are so many variables, and you’re at the mercy of the weather in more ways than one. This is also what makes it so compelling, if it was easy, what would be the point?
I got on the phone to the Jura runner who couldn’t make the race, and we arranged to meet in the village and head up the paps anyway, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Donning wet waterproofs wasn’t much fun but the hard climb straight up Beinn An Oir took my mind off any minor discomfort.
The outing turned out to be an unexpected treat and I spent a very happy couple of hours being shown all the special local routes off the peaks (whether I’ll be able to remember them this year is another matter).
After an evening in the Jura pub catching up with family and friends, a few hours of sleep, and we were heading off into wind and wet towards Largs, a sailing team of 5 now, no more running expected.
It was a fairly gruelling few hours until we got round the Mull of Kintyre, then a nice and easy sail in past Arran.
It’s hard to sum up the weekend in a few sentences, but this really is an epic race that really gets under your skin. It’s hard enough to be seriously challenging, but not impossible. Teamwork is vital, even down to making sure everyone gets a chance for the odd bit of sleep.
Our shore crew were amazing, having supplies and ready to go stews, soups and sandwiches meant we could focus on the important bits, like eating!
The wooden heads will be back this year, let’s hope it’s windy (but not too windy) and a bit less slippery…