16th May 1997

Running Without Mascara

It’s a nice feeling; spare torch batteries, congealed jelly babies and used plasters keep appearing out of the pockets of my running kit – post Scottish Island Peaks Race syndrome – it provokes a flood of memories and a nice feeling.

Being a seven times veteran of the event and having only had five weeks notice to train for this year’s fixture, I’d been pretty laid back about the whole thing, looking forward to running with Jenny Rae, seeing once again the carpets of blue bells on the approach run to Ben More and intrigued, but not overwhelmed, by stories from our Isle of White based skipper, of having a fast boat. In other words, I was in no way prepared for what was to be my most adventurous experience of this wonderful race.

With two weeks to go, a phone call informed us that the mast on the boat had snapped but that another one could be made in time – perhaps; a fax, a week later said it couldn’t, but that another boat could be found – perhaps; with three days left, a phone call to say that a super fast 30′ trimaran had been found and the owner coerced into playing. The ‘Ship’ as it was referred to, could be towed up to Oban from the Isle of White by two of our crew – no probs!, and could we please collect Steve (the third crew member) from Glasgow Airport – no probs!

It was Steve, sporting a friesian cow-inspired fleece, who set the alarm bells ringing; on the road north, we had to stop, at his request, to buy a road map of Scotland so that he could establish the whereabouts of Oban and Troon. We also had to confirm to him that the race did not go anywhere near Skye, but to Mull, Jura and Arran. Had this guy done no homework – was he really going to navigate us down the Sound of Jura in the dark!! South coast yachty ignoramus! Steve was also loudly confident that the ‘Ship’ would not be in the water for our arrival in Oban – ‘There’s bound to have been a disaster if I know Pete’, he laughed. We dismissed his claims as pre-race nerves and passed round the humbugs.

Steve, however, was right! There was no boat at Oban, but on the concrete slipway at Dunstaffinage, six miles round the headland, we encountered a collapsed launching trolley, a stranded, potentially damaged £80,000 worth of yacht and a very tense atmosphere – not a good moment for introductions, but we went through the motions anyway.

If things looked grim at ten o’clock on Thursday night (grim enough for Jenny and I to indulge in a comforting Caffreys) – they looked even grimmer twelve hours later with only two hours to the race start! The yacht was now dangling from a crane and there were mutterings about an essential piece of gear being well jammed. There was nothing to do but to lob our bags of Quick Cook Pasta, high energy flapjacks and buttered rolls into the cock pit and taxi back to Oban, leaving our crew to do their best.

For readers unfamiliar with the race, the event opens with a 10km run in Oban finishing with runners pouring onto the beach to be whisked by rubber dinghy out to their waiting yacht – very exciting if you have a yacht – a bit sad if you most probably haven’t! As race time approached, the fleet flicked up and down the bay like a flock of multi-coloured butterflies and excited runners fidgeted on the start line in anticipation. Jenny and I were resigned to no boat, but we would jog around the 10km anyway, putting a brave face on our disappointment, then go somewhere nice for lunch!

However, between ten and twelve noon a miracle had occured and we finished the jog to see a frantic Steve waving us onto the rubber dinghy, and our little ‘Ship’ zipping across sun sparkled waves out in the bay – we were racing!

In glorious sunshine and a brisk breeze, we blasted up the Sound of Mull, overtaking boats all the way. Jenny and I could now relax a little, stick on the kettle and attempt to tidy up the chaos of life-jackets, pasta packets, and sail bags, lying in a heap below decks. A sudden bang, a curse, a moment’s panic and now for our next crisis … our bold crew had forgotten to secure the rubber dinghy – it was almost lost overboard in a sudden gust, was rescued but punctured in the process! We would just have to swim ashore at Mull – was this allowed in the race regulations?

Our two hour whizz got us to Salen Bay in third position; we didn’t have to swim, but were rowed ashore in a bandaged and rapidly deflating dinghy and commenced the Mull run with salty wet bums. It was a relief to settle down to the steady, practiced plod of the long distance runner after the frantic events of the last twenty-four hours.

Mull was as magical as ever – the blue bells were just breaking colour along the roadside, cloud patterns scudded across lonely Loch Ba, and woolly cattle munched placidly between the twisted birch trees of Glen Clachaig. Despite the afternoon sun, the rocky elevation of Ben More looked dark and foreboding, but we confidently picked our way up the pre-reccied route to the summit ridge. By now, as we knew they would, some of the faster pairs were overtaking us – we exchanged insults, banter, and sweets with Mark and Ian, Helene and Angela; Speighty from Blackpool and the men in uniform – the Marine Team!

Descending Ben More via the new route was one of the worst parts of the weekend for me, still suffering a little from Westies knackered knees syndrome; the last three miles on the road back to Salen was one of the worst bits of the weekend for Jenny who was suffering from ‘My God – not the boat again’ syndrome!!

Seven hours is not a long recovery period between a 24 mile run on Mull and a 15 mile run on Jura and 3.30am is not the ideal time to start running across the boulder strewn paps. We flew down to Jura, our (as it transpires, Olympic experienced) crew by now having sussed things, mastered the G.P.S. Navigation, mended the dingy, eaten mountains of pasta, and generally re-hyped themselves. We didn’t sleep – you can’t sleep when you’re being flung around in the forepeak like a training shoe in a tumble drier, the sailors yelping with delight as we reached speeds of 18 knots!

Our run on Jura was dark at first, extremely wet, windy, and cold later, badly navigated off the third pap, and altogether – well, not jolly. Never before had I had to wear all the compulsory survival gear and still been cold. After this run it was a kind of sick relief to return to the ‘Ship’ and our crazy crew, even if they did persist in calling us ‘chicks’. Personally, I preferred the ‘Nice Girls’! Back on board, we cheered ourselves up with fresh brewed coffee from Jenny’s cafetiere, much to the amusement of our crew – hardmen don’t have cafetieres on yachts!

Saturday was dull and windly, a beam reach (sailing term) around the Mull of Kintyre and a noisy hard beat (another sailing term) up towards Arran. We dosed a bit, ate a lot, and as we crashed along through curtains of spray, the boat suspended between waves, then slamming dowm again, shuddering through its structure. Jenny related memories of passing an advanced personal survival test; she could blow up her pyjamas and tread water for an hour – I was much reassured!! Night descended and we landed at Lamlash, again in third position.

There were only two nice things about the run on Arran – firstly, arriving to see a bunch of smiling Westies faces – Tracey, Elspeth, and Jane amongst others – and secondly, running over the headland from Lamlash to Brodick in almost total darkness, but hit by waves of heavy scent in the warm night air – the scent of bluebells, wild garlic, azaleas, magnolias, roses and pine needles.

We had a fast run up the shoulder of Goatfell and cunningly, I thought, left a head torch there to guide us back down later – mistake!! The summit, when we finally got there, was dark and very misty, torches were almost useless owing to the diffraction – we lost time on the descent, accordingly, totally missed the shoulder Cairn and my head torch (retrieved later by Speighty from Blackpool!) And our spirits dropped a little. Jenny was hopeful we would see Mark ascending as we descended – keen for a cuddle, so keen I thought she’d accost any of the dark figures stumbling up the track if he didn’t appear soon. He didn’t, Jen was dejected and scolded me for not letting her walk ‘for just one minute’ in Brodick! We’re still talking though! Meanwhile, back in Lamlash, our thoughtful crew had bought us a Chinese carry-out for our return – then eaten it, as well as their own!!

Although we’d had a slow run (nearly six hours) we’d only lost one place; we had arrived in Lamlash in third position and we left in fourth, having to row out of the bay in a brief becalment. The breeze returned and a two hour beat brought us into the finish at Troon in fourth position – the fastest boat in the race but with two runners on boardnot quite able to take the pace! Nonetheless, the sailors were impressed with the ‘chicks’ performance and we were impressed with theirs – they could navigate after all, and knew a thing or two about how to sail fast.

We celebrated throughout Sunday with a combination of cat naps, sponser’s port, beer and whisky. It was a nice feeling!

PS: Steve has promised us two friesian cow-inspired fleeces courtesy of his company – so if you see two fresians at the table next curry night – it’s only Jen and I!!

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