> Scottish Islands Peaks Race 2005 - Paul Hainsworth

A mid-pack fell runner's perspective

20th-23rd May 2005

A map of the route through the islands and up to the peaks

Each May a flotilla of boats congregates on the West Coast of Scotland to spend a long weekend sailing around the islands and running up the mountains in a continuous staged relay.

Now, it’s been said that runners are mad. Most people think fell runners are mad. For this event, the organisers had used the motto “only the strong survive” until political correctness prevailed. In truth, this event is for the certifiable.

At the end of this year’s race, chatting to one of the skippers over a beer, he pointed out that sailors and runners have to be mad to subject themselves to this level of abuse and sleep deprivation in a potentially dangerous environment. There’s a certain bond between the types that do it, difficult to put into words, but all have one thing in common – they come back again and again.

It’s a uniquely Scottish event too - no doubt because of the need to have a boat in Oban. There’s a healthy mix of top championship runners such as Borrowdale runner Phil Davies and women’s V55 legend Wendy Dodds raising money for breast cancer with ‘Five Girls in a Boat’ as well as merer mortals including youth teams.

Teams typically comprise three sailors and two runners. More talented individuals enter the ‘Allrounders’ class where maximum points are gained by all the crew running at least one of the legs.

Pallet Line’, our 30 foot Dazcat, at finish in

The first ‘Boats Race’ in 1983 sported half a dozen boats. This year’s fleet numbered 49 with waterlines ranging from a 23 foot Hunter 707 to a 72 foot Oyster and with anything between one and three hulls.

Deploying the ‘screecher, code 1’ – has some similarities to a spinnaker but can sail close-hauled

Such is the unique environment of the West Coast, that the same day can bring winds varying from howlers to dead calms, and wind over tide chop to mill pond calm. The eclectic mix of boats vary in their potential to make use of such conditions with smaller yachts that can be rowed or pedaled at distinct advantage in light airs.

Multihulls are popular with runners in providing a stable platform for recovery and refueling but fast passages are a two-edged sword in reducing recovery time between runs.

A bellyful of pasta before the Mull run

The race basically starts noon Friday with a short fell run around the back of Oban followed by a charge to the dinghies. Thereon 160 nautical miles and 60 land miles with 13,000 feet of ascent are covered under wind and muscle power only. Most teams finish some time Sunday with stragglers coming in on Monday. Long runs take place on Mull, Jura and Arran.

Alastair Thompson of Carnethy passes Loch Ba on Mull on way to Ben More

As with Mountain Marathons, there’s an extensive compulsory kit list for runners including sleeping bag, survival bag and three thermal layers. Unless very well wrapped, the pack gains weight with each successive encounter with the ocean. Little slips during transfers are common with one experienced sailor and one runner setting off self-inflating life-vests on contact with brine.

The event sounds tough for the runners. It’s tough too for sailors who catch even less sleep with sailing legs lasting longer. Skipper Tony van Hee, First-class Mate Angus and Secret Weapon (Scottish National Sail Training Principle) Chris battled the elements on the open deck and fine tuned the boat relentlessly. An overnight passage past the strong tides and overfalls of the Corryvreckan in driving rain brought us to Jura at dawn.

Jura: Beinn an Oir, number 2 of the 3 Paps.

I’d run the Paps four times before, either at night, in atrocious weather or in both and had never seen more than a few hundred yards. Predictably, a poor Met Office forecast brought fantastic views.

Beinn Shiantaidh: descending the boulder fields


Leaving Jura: the Paps of Jura fell race, held a week later, takes in 5 paps

And so to the Mull of Kintyre. The event is intended to be challenging for sailors and runners, no passage more so than ‘the Mull’. There’s a moderately narrow tidal window to get round with standing waves and a bumpy ride confounding attempts to rehydrate and refuel for the forthcoming third marathon.

The Mull of Kintyre: views of Ireland were lost on us

The final long run on Arran started before dawn. However bad you feel you know you’ll get round. My only infirmities were lack of fluid and loss of three toenails.

Arran: coming out of cloud

In mist, a wrist watch altimeter is money gladly spent, as we realised finding a checkpoint lower than you’d guess. GPS is definitely banned for runners.

The final sail from Lamlash to Troon allows for the sailors to make up further lost ground – until the wind drops for 2½ hours. Genica and screecher to the rescue, a turbo-power row from Angus and a final run up the pontoon and we were home 30 seconds ahead of our nearest rivals in 6th position.

Left to right: Chris, Alastair, the author, Angus and Skipper Tony van Hee clutching the portable generator that prevented engine failure during mooring after dumping the runners.

So were we mad to spend a long week-end charging around the potentially treacherous waters and mountains of the West Coast in all weathers, all day and all night? Undoubtedly. Will we be back? We’d be mad not to.

For further information and route maps see www.sipr.zetnet.co.uk

Paul Hainsworth

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