Simon's view of the Scottish Islands Peak Race

Simon Blanchflower was a vital member of Team Brimble completing every one of the four runs as well as sailing. This is his commentary on the event.
 
After much preparation (well the 3 Forts half marathon, a couple of team meetings and a few e-mails), the time had arrived for SIPR 2016. John and Rob travelled up on the Wednesday to provision the boat and get everything ready, Grit and Al travelled up on the sleeper on Wednesday night and I caught the 10:30am train from Euston on the Thursday morning. Settling in my pre-booked seat I soon noticed that the person sitting next to me was wearing a Jura fell race t-shirt and it wasn’t long before we worked out that we were both going to Oban for the SIPR, Es turned out to be one of the elite fell runners that the race attracts and was hoping to be on the winning boat. Not wanting to miss the opportunity I pumped him for handy tips and advice knowing that anything I could pick up might be of an advantage when up in the mountains. So after a pleasant journey up to Glasgow we retired to a Weatherspoons pub to have a hearty pasta meal before catching the next train to Oban – where Es met up with a number of his fell running buddies so I settled down to read my book.

Arriving in Oban John met me at the station and we made our way to the Oban Sailing Club so I could go through the compulsory kit check – the first of many! The organisers are fastidious at making sure you have the right clothing, head torches, maps, first aid kit emergency rations, fell running shoes etc. stuffed into your running pack both before the event starts and at the beginning of each mountain stage. In light of some of the conditions we faced later on in the race you could understand why they did this. Having successfully passed the checks (the others had completed theirs earlier in the afternoon) we were presented with the formal race pack with race numbers and final instructions. Then off to Brimble to get the last kit on board. Brimble was the smallest yacht in the fleet at 28 feet and therefore a bit of squeeze for five adults but with a bit of organization everything was stowed and we came ashore to scavenge for dinner – we found a very acceptable pasta restaurant where we continued the carb stocking ready for the big event the following morning and then off for a relatively early night’s sleep. Alarms were set for 7:30am ready for the big day on Friday.

After a passable night’s sleep we were up bright and early, Al fixed the race numbers to Brimble’s bow and the boat was made race ready, then off to the local Weatherspoons pub for breakfast, some chose the sensible option of porridge, whilst I went for the full vegetarian breakfast still believing that more carbs would be good. The full race briefing was held at 9:45am with all the crews assembling to hear the final words of advice and instruction from the race officials and then it was into the phoney war stage of waiting for the start at midday. The first part of the race involves two of the team doing a circa 7km run up and out of Oban over the hills above the town and then back to the sailing club where you get in your dingy and row out to your yacht which tries to pick you up on the move to make a flying start across the line. Al and I had been chosen for this run and after a thorough warm up we took our place on the start line (a yellow line that had been spray painted on the road for the purpose) – unfortunately we had to move off the start line on a couple of occasions to let road traffic through, but eventually the air horn sounded and we were off. It was lovely sunny weather and in the low teens temperature wise and we made good pace around the course, although some sections of the route were particularly steep and were more of a walk/scramble than a run, however, we held a reasonable position and actually overtook a couple of teams in the last 800m as we closed in on the finish line. Al then did a sterling job rowing us out to Brimble against the tide and wind, where John did an almost perfect pick up ready to get us a good position on the line. Despite some poor race behaviours from a couple of other boats who didn’t give us water when they should have done we crossed the line and set sail for Mull at about 12:45 – ahead of target and with excellent wind conditions that enabled us to be competitive with some of our closest rivals. We had envisaged it taking about 5 hours to get to Mull but with the great sailing conditions and making the most of the tide we managed to get to Salen before 5pm. Where Grit, Rob and I got into the dingy (with the boat still under sail – no motoring allowed whilst runners are on the boat, getting off it or getting back aboard) to row ashore for the first mountain stage. After the compulsory kit check we were released at just after 5pm on what was the longest of the mountain stages at about 23miles.

The first 7 miles or so are roads and then forestry tracks with no ascent or descent of any note, so we set off at a reasonable pace aiming to cover this section in about an hour before heading off into the mountains. After about 6 miles the rain that had been threatening started to become more persistent so it was time to put the waterproofs on and a little while later we passed Es and his racing companion on the way back to their boat (they had been hoping to complete this run stage in about 3.5 hours!). At this point it is probably worth explaining that there are two options with crews for this race – either you have sailors (3No) and runners (2No) who are discipline specific or you have an all-rounder crew where you mix and match and where you try and complete as many people mountains as you can up to a maximum of 10. We were in the latter category, hence the reason there were three of us running. The other thing to explain is that you are given a number of tags at the start of each run phase which have to be left at pre-defined checkpoints along the way to prove that you have run the set course. The first of these checkpoints was at the end of the 7-mile stage where you head up into the mountains – it was here that I changed my shoes – leaving my road shoes in a bag for when we returned and putting my fell shoes on (as a number of people had chosen to do judging by the pile of bags at the checkpoint). It was now that the race started to get serious as we started our ascent of Ben More – the highest peak in the Inner Hebrides and the 16th highest in Scotland at approaching 3200 feet. At first the ground conditions and gradient were fine as we ran up the valley and were passed by another couple of teams coming down, but after fording the small river that ran down the glen we slowed to a walk but still made fair progress up to the col on the south side of Ben More. Then the mist came down and the path ran out and we had to resort to compass work to navigate round the south side of Ben More to a gully that runs up between the Ben More summit and A’Chioch. We got to the point where I judge this to be and struck off up the final ascent to the summit ridge which we struck and turned west along the ridge towards our objective. By this stage the visibility was very poor, the wind had got up and despite having donned woolly hats and gloves you could feel your body temperature starting to drop whenever you stopped moving. It was then that we met two groups of runners going in the opposite direction who had convinced themselves that they had come up to the ridge too far west and were in fact were beyond the Ben More summit and so were re-tracing their steps. They sounded so convincing that we joined them going back east but after a short while we stopped to try and assess exactly where we were – this was almost fatal as stopping on the ridge even for 5 minutes to debate the issue caused body temperatures to start to drop. I was still certain that we had been right in our assessment and that we needed to go west and I also knew that we had to get moving again for our own health and safety so was fairly assertive in getting the group moving again and sure enough after about 15 mins we hit the final ascent to Ben More and the next checkpoint. By this stage due to our slow progress we were starting to lose the light to compound the poor visibility due to low cloud. So we quickly moved on taking a NW bearing off the summit and then dropping down towards the source of a stream where the next checkpoint was to be found. On the way down we heard a whistle sounding, clearly calling someone into a person who was awaiting assistance. As we came down we passed a mountain rescue team member who was waiting with an injured runner until the full rescue team arrived, we made sure our assistance wasn’t required and then continued down the stream to the checkpoint. It was then a matter of contouring round the north side of Ben More until we hit a col where we could then drop back down into the valley we had first come up. Head torches were now essential as it was dark and the underfoot conditions were getting worse as a result of the continuing rain, but we made good progress round to the col where we needed to find the next checkpoint, however, in the poor conditions, despite searching for 20 minutes we couldn’t find it. Body temperatures were again starting to drop so I made the call that we needed to just get down off the mountain (the race marshall accepted our rationale and didn’t penalize us). So the descent began, keeping as close to an easterly bearing as possible we made our way down the valley – the only problem now, apart from the underfoot conditions, was that the streams were starting to go into spate and therefore were becoming harder to cross. We generally managed to find safe crossing points with boulders to assist but with one of the streams we resorted to going across knee deep using a branch from a tree that overhung the stream to steady ourselves as we went. Finally, back in the bottom of the valley we picked up the track and jogged back to the checkpoint where I had left my shoes – the last pair there! By now the rigours of what we had been through had taken their toll, with Rob’s ankles having really suffered during the descent so it was a brisk walk rather than a run back to the finish where we arrived at about 2:45am – just under 10 hours since we started. The last team back in, but still in the race. We rowed back to the boat ready for some rest and refreshment as John and Al set sail for Jura.

John and Al had managed to get about 5 hours sleep whilst we were ashore so sailed for the first part of the morning whilst the rest of us got some well-earned rest – although I was still quite pumped up from the night’s adventures so only managed 3 hours at most. By mid-morning we had made fair progress back towards Oban, although at one stage the wind had dropped and we were becalmed so the oars were deployed to try and get us moving again, thankfully the wind came back in and the oars could be re-stowed. We then turned south to go through one of the most challenging stretches of water we would face not far from the treacherous Corryvreckan over falls. By this stage John and Al had turned in and Rob took over as skipper as we headed for a narrow channel between two lighthouses knowing that the tide had turned and that it was likely to be a battle to get through despite the wind being with us. We approached the channel at about 5knots and were moderately confident but the surface of the water was evidence of the strength of current we were about to face and sure enough our speed suddenly dropped and then we started to go backwards. The next 3 hours were taken up with approaching the channel from a number of different directions (those watching on the tracker said it looked like the meanderings of a drunken spider) – but all with the same result, until eventually Brimble forced her way through and after what seemed like an agonizing 10-15 minutes we broke free of the current and were able to sail on to Jura. We made good pace for the rest of the leg until we entered the shelter of Craighouse bay and we very soon became be-calmed. The landing point was still a good 1.5 miles away but John made the brave (?) call that he and Al would row ashore rather than wait for the wind to pick up so we could sail closer. So we loaded up the dingy with John and Al with an oar each and me in the stern trying to give a sense of direction and set off across the bay. After 30 minutes or so with still a long way to go the decision was not looking quite such a good one and discussion turned as to whether it would be better to row ashore and carry the dingy round the road! The trouble was that in the dark it was difficult to make out where a safe place to land would be, so the rowing went on and on and on, until with the pier in sight a voice from the beach guided us in.

After the compulsory kit check we ran off along the coast road to look for the track to take us inland towards the Papps of Jura. After a couple of false starts we found what looked like the right route, however, the track soon petered out and we found ourselves fighting our way through undergrowth, down a small ravine, across the stream and then over a 10-foot fence before finding the right route out across the moor. We then made good progress up to the first landmark which was a series of tarns before cutting across country towards the first peak Beinn a’Chaolais, it was a beautiful moonlit night but as we approached the main ascent up to the summit the clouds closed in and made navigating a little more difficult but we found a decent track to the top and after a quick photograph descended the way that we came before branching off north towards the interim checkpoint at Na Garbh Lochanan, by which time the sun had started to rise and navigation was relatively straightforward as we started the ascent of the second Papp (Beinn an Oir) with the main challenge being  the various boulder fields we needed to cross to get to the summit. After putting our tag on the checkpoint we descended through the cloud towards the final Papp (Beinn Shiantaidh) via number of scree runs and boulder fields. By this stage legs were starting to feel a bit weary as we climbed our final mountain of the morning (it’s amazing what you can do before 5am when you put your mind to it!). After summiting it was then a direct descent via further scree runs and boulder fields towards a loch that showed the start of the stream we would follow back to the coast. By this stage the sun was fully up and we had wonderful views back across to Craighouse bay. As we got to the loch the terrain became easier and we could get into a decent run rhythm as we followed the stream down off the moor. However, after a while the underfoot conditions deteriorated (due to all the recent rain) and it became more like running through a paddy field so progress slowed to a brisk walk until we hit the road and the last checkpoint. From here it was 3 miles back to the finish which was a mixture of run and walk as the legs allowed.

A much shorter row back to boat and we were on our way to Arran via the Mull of Kintyre. A breakfast of lentil and spinach curry helped boost the energy levels and whilst the runners got some well-earned sleep Rob and Grit made good early progress on what is the longest sailing leg. By this stage we knew that 7 or 8 boats had already retired and so we were pleased to still be in the race, even if we were bringing up the back of the fleet. The good news was that despite our back marker position there was still a group of 4 other boats that we were in contact with and with a fair wind and tide we could keep them in sight. As we made progress towards the Mull of Kintyre it was clear that fortune was with us and that we would pick up the tide round the headland and so our speed over ground reached almost 8 knots as we hurtled east towards Arran and our anticipated arrival in the early hours of Monday morning. There was a beautiful sunset as we approached the southern tip of Arran and then as we rounded the headland to head up the east coast of the island the wind dropped and progress stalled. After a bit of a debate the oars came out again and we made slow progress under people power until the wind picked up to propel us towards Lamlash Bay. Lamlash Bay itself, sheltered by Holy Island is an excellent harbour but by its nature has variable winds which means that sailing in needs to take account of numerous wind shifts, so we slowly picked our way across the bay to the landing stage where Grit, Rob, Jon and I landed at daybreak ready for the final mountain stage.

After the compulsory kit check we headed off along the shore road before ascending through Claughlands and then dropping back down into Brodick, across the golf course and to the start of the track up Goat Fell. As we ran out we were passed by four teams on their way back. We made good time on the ascent and after a brief photo on the wind swept summit ran back down to Brodick. It was now mid-morning and the exertions of the last three days were taking their toil so it was a slow return journey to Lamlash where we were greeted by the marshalls, who after checking us in could start to pack up and go home. However, for us there was still the sail back to Troon to come and for me the consideration of whether I would catch my pre-booked train back to London. After a slow exit from Lamlash Bay we made good time across to Troon and after entering the outer harbour dropped the dingy for Grit and me to row into the marina and run up to the event office to complete the challenge. We clocked in at about 3:15pm just over 75 hours since the start of the race in Oban, exhausted, but exhilarated at completing what is one of the most challenging races in the UK. For me there was just enough time to help secure Brimble in her marina berth, have a quick beer with the rest of the crew and then catch a taxi to the station to catch the 4:30pm train back to Glasgow and then onto London. Arriving home just before 11pm and the comfort of my own bed.

Team Brimble succeeded in meeting all its objectives, we safely completed the race without major incident, we completed 10 people mountains and we maintained a good sense of humour throughout. We each made a valuable contribution to what was a memorable event and can come away with our heads held high as a result of an excellent team performance. Despite being the slowest team in the mountains we competed well at sea and recorded the third fastest time between Jura and Arran – not bad for the smallest boat in the fleet! The sailing course covered some 160 nautical miles, there were around 60 miles in the mountains and 11,500 feet of climbing over some of the roughest terrain in the country.

If you want further details of the results, then checkout:


Will we be back in future years, only time will tell……

Simon Blanchflower

May 2016
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