Scottish Islands Peaks Race 2008
The List’s own Adam Coulson throws the common sense rulebook overboard to compete in the Scottish Islands Peaks Race which took place between 16-19 May 2008.
Six guys in a boat. Three mountains. A lot of water in between. This is part one of a challenge to complete two adventure races in 2008 to raise money for a very worthy cause.
The Scottish Islands Peaks Race involves racing around the west coast of Scotland using only the natural and organic means of wind and foot power. A combined sailing and fell-running race beginning in Oban and finishing in Troon, the SIPR is a test of endurance, skill and wit. The race covers around 200 miles of sailing and over 13,000ft of mountain ascent over three of Scotland's finest peaks on the isles of Mull, Jura and Arran.
A 10k hill run around Oban heralds the start of the race before each team sails across to Mull to begin the ascent of Ben Mhor. On a scorchingly hot Friday afternoon in May, my running partner Pete and I set off in a cloud of dust (which is how it felt to us anyway) trying to make light work of 10,000 metres of tarmac and hill to give our team a starting advantage to take out into the big blue and beyond.
The ever dependable 'Caol Ila', our trusty 32ft yacht would be the seventh member of our team and our home for four days as we attempted to complete this crazy annual blister-fest. Luckily for myself, my team mates Andrew and Chris had volunteered to run the first mountain on Mull whilst our trusty Skipper John, Pete and I prepared the boat for the next sail and recovered from the exhausting 10k starting sprint. Fortunately we made quick work of the Oban hill run and made it to Mull in the early evening after the short sail across the Firth of Lorne. This meant our guys would have the benefit of daylight to help in finding their way up and down the hill. Oh the luxury! The 'adventure' nature of the race means that running through the night trying to find mountain checkpoints is not uncommon, so we were delighted to make it to Mull with plenty of daylight to spare
After a resilient performance on the punishing Ben Mhor from the Caol Ila runners, we were off again and out into the open water heading south for the Isle of Jura. At this point in our journey, all was well. We had made good time and were in the middle of the pack with other teams still on the hill.
Then the wind dropped. And we stopped moving. After miles of pounding up a mountain, earning blisters to gain an advantage, we were at the mercy of the elements and everyone was stuck bobbing about in the water. There’s only so long the ‘everyone was in the same boat’ witticisms can keep you going. We were left wheezing into our sails and praying to Neptune to whip up some waves to get us on our way again
After a long dark night in the silent Sound of Mull, we had progressed about one mile before the sun rose, the sail fluttered, and we were heading South once more. The sailing from then on was much more enjoyable, so much so that I slept half the way. In what we took to be a good omen, Caol Ila also managed to recruit a team of cheerleading Dolphins to trail us down to the Corryvreckan narrows at the North of Jura.
On arrival at Craighouse, the next challenge was to scale the Paps of Jura, three mountains in a round trip covering over 18 gruelling miles. After a rocky sleep and a pre-run meal of bolognese and smash, Pete and I were ready for the challenge. As we sailed into view of the three awesome peaks way off in the distance, the smash diet combined with the sleep deprivation and a whopping dose of adrenaline and was enough to make me wonder exactly what we were doing here. This was a daunting prospect to say the least.
We scrambled and stumbled, hauled and hiked, wailed and wheezed, on bogs, over rocks and around cairns. But with fresh memories of freezing winter night training runs up Arthur's Seat keeping me going, we were determined not to stop, however sore and heavy our limbs felt. We passed one other team on the first peak and kept telling ourselves ‘don't stop, and whatever you do, don't look up!’. We were now making good progress. We passed another pair of runners on the second fell, and another two on the last ascent. I couldn't quite believe how well we were doing. After Pete enjoyed a quick 'comfort break' on the final descent ("Thank God for moss …" ) we made it off the mountain with only a two mile road run between us and a celebratory pot noodle! With our leaden limbs aching, we arrived back onboard Caol Ila in record time with an exhilarating sensation of exhaustion and delight.
As Pete and I tried to catch some sleep and ease the pain inflicted by Jura, the rest of the crew set out to sail us south around the treacherous Mull of Kintyre in the direction of the Isle of Arran, home to the final mountain, Goatfell. We still had two sailing legs and one hill still left to go, but fortunately the conditions were favourable, with fair winds behind us and big waves rolling us around the Kintyre Peninsula.
As we approached Arran and the final run, the whole crew was physically and mentally exhausted after minimal sleep and many miles running on nothing but adrenaline and Jaffa Cakes. The crew discussed who was in best shape to complete the final 16 miles on land, and after a few arm-wrestles and closely fought 'rock, paper, scissors' battles, Pete and I were lucky enough to be press ganged into the task.
We arrived at the town of Lamlash on Arran in beautiful west coast sunshine, feeling nervous - a couple of discreet vomits along the way - but ready to go again. Goatfell. 3000ft. 16 miles. Easy.
We set off jogging under a clear blue sky. I quickly realised that this is going to be very, very difficult. With the Paps of Jura still sitting heavy in our legs we pushed on through through the town of Brodick to the foot of the fell.
The ascent is hell. It's not the biggest mountain or the steepest ascent, but it feels like we're trying to run up Everest in flip-flops. Needless to say we take a while to get to the summit check-point, and half way up I was seriously questioning why I agreed to put myself through this, but we kept on plugging away and tried not to stop. On the summit, we deliriously kissed the cold rocky cairn before turning to begin our descent. A parachute at this point would have been ideal, but sadly it was legs. Again.
After much encouragement and talk of the tasty treats awaiting us in Troon (Surf and Turf! Mmm …) we covered the final few miles back through forests and cow fields to the welcome site of Lamlash Bay and our trusty vessel. At around 6pm on Sunday we boarded Caol Ila ready for the final sail to the finishing line in Troon. After an overnight sail, the lack of wind meant we arrived at the finish line in Troon marina at 4am on Monday morning. A great result. And with all 24 limbs and 6 minds (relatively) intact.
Believe it or not, there was a worthwhile point to this exercise in self-punishment. By competing in the SIPR the team and I hoped to raise a sizeable sum for the Butterwick Hospice, a charity in Stockton-on-Tees which cares for individuals and families affected by terminal illness. The hospice has provided care in recent years for my dad, Dave Coulson and my team-mate Chris's mum Sheila Brookes. By running around mountains and sailing the high seas we hoped to honour the memories of our loved ones and raise awareness of the great work done at the Butterwick Hospice. If you would like to help support the fantastic efforts of the staff at Butterwick Hospice and ensure the continuation of their dedicated hard work, you can easily and safely donate by visiting www.justgiving.com/caolila
More information can be found on the team’s website at: www.unsponsored.co.uk/adventure