The boat race has long been not just my favourite race but my favourite running experience. No other race I’ve done pushes you quite so far or makes you dig so deep. At the same time no other race takes you to so many magical places at so many unlikely times or marries such tough back-to-back runs with such outrageously wild and beautiful land- and seascapes. It can also be a frustrating, boring, and down-right nauseating experience. But because of all of these things it also makes a deeper mark and leaves a stronger set of impressions and memories than any other race I’ve ever done. In short, there’s no other race quite like it.
This was my fifth boat race, and second time with Manny on his cousin Kenny Byars’s boat, Morag Mor, crewed by Kenny’s wife Kate and his brother Stephen. Last year had been the crew’s first ever race – hence our optimistic team name of ‘No Bull – We’re Shit’ but they’d proved themselves a superb crew and, even more importantly, a great laugh. One of last year’s highlights had been an epic – if somewhat delirious – 6 hour night row across the Clyde in ‘stealth mode’ that involved an almost too-close encounter with a rather large barge. This time they were taking it even more seriously – the gas barbecue had been jettisoned and the on-board DVD collection streamlined to the bare minimum, although it was good to see the wide selection of potted fresh herbs was still on board. Manny and I had likewise prepared, although each in our own partparticular ways: me by banging out 120 mile weeks and following my usual uber-healthy low-GI fruitarian lifestyle; Manny by contracting several life-threatening illnesses only recovering long enough for the odd stagger to the chemist/chippy/pub. ‘This will be just a jog this year’ he had assured me on several occasions. Aye, right. I knew his usual meticulous pre-race preparations were well in hand, though, when two hours before the start of the race he announced that he needed to find a shop to buy some new shoes as his gutties were wrecked.
Shoes purchased, we made a fairly promising start in the 4 mile run round Oban, finishing 4th (I think) and then headed off optimistically towards Mull with a fair wind at our backs … only to then spend several hours bobbing aimlessly back and forth off Duart Point in what Captain Kenny assured us was ‘a controlled drift’, so it wasn’t until after 7pm that we eventually got into Salen. After the kit check and a quick chat to Elsie, we set off along the road towards Loch Ba where we met Don Naylor and Dan Gay of Obedient already on their way back and looking alarmingly fresh, although Manny, with a strange glint in his eye, remarked that Dan ‘looked a bit tired’. I was feeling a bit sluggish myself but we had a steady run out and managed to reach the summit just in time to see the sun set spectacularly into the atlantic. Despite the fading light we managed to find a great line contouring above Glen Clachaig back to the Loch Ba path avoiding the tussocky nightmare below. The four and a bit mile road back to Salen has long been Manny’s bête noire but this year all was well and we trotted back through the darkness to the peer two minutes quicker than on the way out to finish the leg in a steady 4hrs 6mins.
For once we managed to catch all the right tides and had a good overnight sail to Jura, arriving just before 10am to find the Paps shrouded with cloud. We managed to mess up our route from the cemetery up onto the moor by following a trod that turned into a dead-end of gorse but once on the hill we made good progress up towards the first pap, Beinn Chaolais. Although the clag had lifted the wind was now blowing a hooley and it was a virtual crawl to the summit but the climbs up next two paps were mostly in the lee of the wind. We (yet again) failed to find a decent line off Ben Shiantaidh and caught up with the Boggy ladies Eilidh and Claire who were also enjoying the unique attractions of its bolder sized scree. We did manage – eventually – to find a better than usual route back to the road, and Manny did a great job of running the three miles back to Craighouse with both legs simultaneously cramping. The marshals at the checkpoint didn’t know what had hit them when he burst in demanding crisps and salt – he even managed to blag a piece of someone’s birthday cake in the feeding frenzy that followed. Luckily Jane Robertson was there to pound enough flexibility into his thighs so we could get him into the dingy and back to the boat. Jane also let us know that Sam Hesling and Matt Sullivan on the speedy Blue Chip had dropped out and that our time of 4 hours 3 mins was the second fastest on Jura so far. I thought I saw that strange glint in Manny’s eyes again, just before he turned down his usual post-run issue of grog (he must be bad, I thought) and disappeared below to spend the next 12 hours in his bunk. Which, in retrospect, was a sensible move.
The sail round the Mull of Kintyre is always eventful but this year was truly awful – force 8 gusts and wind against tide for 6 hours left me hanging over the rails and retching up what little food I’d managed to get down since Jura. After three hours or so of this I eventually managed to get strapped into my bunk and some sleep but the prospect of running Arran in the dark in a few hours time wasn’t a great one. Meanwhile, Kenny, Stephen and Kate did a heroic job, soaked to the skin in the freezing wind, navigating us round the Mull in the dark. I woke up around 6am to be told that we would be in Lamlash in ‘about an hour’. In normal circumstances this would have been a bit worrying but as this was the standard response to any request for an estimated arrival time and actually meant anything between 1 and 6 hours I wasn’t too concerned.
Luckily for me it was indeed nearer 6 hours of slow drifting before Kenny and Stephen rowed us into Lamlash bay which gave me plenty time to recover. Manny had also arisen from his slumbers and was looking positively sprightly, his eyes filled once more with that glazed slightly demented look he usually gets after fourteen or so pints. Turns out he’d just recieved a text telling him that Dan and Don, already relaxing back in Troon, had had a tough time on Goat Fell in the dark and rain and that if we could finish Arran in 3hrs 12mins we were in with a shout for the King of the Bens prize. Now, we’d had what I considered was a great run on Arran last year to finish 2nd fastest but had still taken 3hrs 20-something and Manny’s own PB set in the distant past was about 3 hours 14. With me still feeling pretty ropey and Manny’s legs untested since his crampathon on Jura I was pretty sceptical of our chances. But, the weather looked good – overcast and cool – and, bedsores aside, Manny seemed renergised by his slumbers and he set off at a good lick. After the wilds of Mull and Jura, it’s always a bit bizarre to be running through Arran with its well-tended fields and manicured golf course but route finding is a doddle (even Damon Rodwell coundn’t get lost on Arran – oh, he did? Twice? Surely not?) We had a great run up Goat Fell with Manny leading the charge, making the summit in about 1hr 48min. Spurred on by the realisation that we might – just – be in with a chance, we hammered the descent and made it back to the golf course knowing that if could get back over the hill to Lamlash in the same time that we managed on the way out we would be in with a shout. As everyone will tell you, the toughest hill of the whole boat race is the innocuous bump of Prospect Hill that you have to cross on the way back from Brodick to Lamlash, especially when you know you have to run the whole thing. ‘Push it in…push it in…’ grunted Manny, in what I though was some kind of running mantra aimed at spurring me on. ‘Yes, that’s the spirit’ I replied, ‘we can do it!’ ‘No ya prick – push my bottle back in my ruck sack!’ Mantra or no, Manny’s performance over the next few miles was nothing short of heroic as he flogged his guts out over Prospect Hill and then once again managed to run the final road section with both legs cramping up while the soles of his feet blistered in those spanking new shoes. We collapsed over the line in just under 3hrs 9 mins … only to be told by the organiser Nick Macdonald that we’d only needed to run 3:20 to overtake Dan and Don and clinch the title.
Back on board we began our slow row/drift back to Troon sipping beer and basking in the post-run euphoria, the Clyde like a mill pond once more with only the breach of porpoises to break the calm. The crew rowed on heroically until the wind finally picked up and took us into Troon around 10pm. Final results are not out yet but I think our boat finished a respectable 12th overall, and 3rd in our class – a massive achievement for the Morag Mhor and crew. Dan and Don on Obedient won the race outright while Clare and Eilidh completed the Boggie double by winning the Molls of Kintyre. Many thanks to Nick Macdonald and the host of marshals and helpers for putting on such a fantastic race, to Captain Kenny, Kate and Stephen for being such a fantastic crew and to Manny for putting in such a gutsy performance.