Tuesday, 6 June 2017
The Isle of Jura Fell Race, 27 May 2017
For four years now, I have been trying to rearrange my life in order to make it to the start line of the Isle of Jura Fell Race, ever since I had to forego my place in 2013. I had not run much in the months prior to the race, and I knew I was doomed to being timed out. Instead of setting off with the runners, I had marshalled at check point 7, Corra Bheinn, which role in fairness I had felt quite proud to fulfil. Being on the Isle of Jura, being part of this incredible event, handing a cup of water to the runners, all felt like a privilege.
Three days before the race in 2013, I had reccied the section of the race that took in the three Paps of Jura with Steve, Andreas and Amanda, my fellow club members who were running in the race. I had never been in such an exposed place in my life, and could not believe where I found myself, this was the stuff of dreams. The weather that week was extreme. Tropical temperatures, clear skies, no clouds for multiple horizons. The views from the peaks of the Paps were breathtaking; the colours of the sky and the sea were the richest, deepest, brightest throbbing turquoise and whatever other hue you can pin on blue that exist in the palette. This riot of nature, the mountains and the sea, was verging on painful it was so beautiful.
I had never been to such a place on earth, and these were the conditions. Good luck or fortune, no matter how, I was there and this was just magical. I had not run much that year, due to various reasons, being timed out at an early stage of the race was inevitable so I didn't see the point in wasting anyone's time by setting off, let alone mine.
Finally, four years later, I rearranged my life. I booked the train to Ardrossan Harbour three months before the race, and managed to secure a late entry on 1 May. I had been lucky enough to maintain sufficient fitness to complete the Lakes Mountains 42 and the Fellsman, this was enough to secure me a place. I am no athlete, I am way at the back, in most of the races I enter, I usually find myself with no one to follow and I need the reccies to give me both confidence and practice at finding my way using map and compass. With good visibility I am good. When the clag is down I can follow a bearing and get to the right place sometimes, but not always.
Arriving on the Isle of Arran the bike ride from Brodick to Lochranza was hard on my old and heavy Trek tourer, which is good for resistance training, but not great three days before a race, laden with four panniers. I hadn't ridden this bike before with panniers, and found that I had to push up part of the hill on Arran, which worried me. Was I really so unfit?
After the ferry to Claonaig, cycling to Kennacraig I nodded at a cyclist going the other way, who not long after must have turned round and then caught me up. He escorted me along the quiet lane to Kennacraig, having asked if I was heading for the fell race. The third time he offered to carry my rucksack, I allowed him to help. I was pushing the bike up the hills by this point, not a good look for a fell runner.
Yes, of course, everything depends on where you land at birth and into whose arms you fall. From that day on, if cared for and hopefully loved enough, at some point in life you have to make your own luck, use what you have and find a way to make your way the best you can. Chance encounters alter lives, in a certain place, at that exact moment... Well, dear reader, this is a chance encounter and you will see what it led to.
Meet Laurie. Laurie Anderson, Scottish Hill runner, race organiser and all round mountain man and good egg. He carried my rucksack which was heavy, containing four baked potatoes along with mandatory kit and a copy of 1984. It was hot and the cup of tea in his camper van which was in the queue for the ferry at Kennacraig was perfect. I slept on the ferry to Islay and when we arrived at Port Askaig on Islay, Laurie told me there was in fact a ferry this evening to Feolin, the Isle of Jura. He had also heard that Wendy Dodds was going to the Jura fell race.
About to get onto the small Port Askaig Feolin ferry, I saw Wendy and in one of those What would you say if you bumped into Bob Dylan moments I compulsively offered her my hand to shake, saying "hello, are you Wendy?" and I introduced myself, adding "oh, no, you don't know me" but meeting a legend I felt obliged to shake her hand. As the small ferry moved towards the Isle of Jura I became less nervous, and was overjoyed as we chatted as we cycled along the single track road that led to Craighouse.
As Wendy and I arrive at Craighouse, here's Laurie, outside the pub, at the Jura Hotel, we agreed to meet tomorrow for a reccie of the three Paps. Tent pitched at Craighouse, some quaffing in the pub, a glass too many and let's just say an incident which could have ended far worse than it actually did. I slept well and woke up excited but worried in equal measure. I am now on the Isle of Jura, with a place in the fell race, not feeling particularly fit, nor proficient at navigation especially when the clag is down. My last reccie of the Paps, four years ago, confirmed my fears and doubts as to my ability and here I am, again, alone.
I cycled to Laurie's camper van and we chatted to the neighbours who were also map fondling and planning their reccie. Luckily for me, Laurie was happy to walk the reccie and led me along the trod and up the side of Beinn a'Chaolais; we chatted as we went and the ascent was made easy with rests where we exchanged tales of gnarly races and family histories with their twists old and new.
When we reached the top and looked out across the sea, once more I could not believe I was on top of a mountain with such beautiful views; this was truly for me a once or twice in a lifetime experience.
We walked along a little, Laurie turned to face what looked like a vertical drop and said "Are you ready? Let's go". After a few seconds when I think my heart stopped, I realised he wasn't joking and this was not only the way down, but he seriously considered I would be going down that way with him. I followed him over the ridge.
The scree was moving not only in front of, beneath me but also behind me and the bigger stones were following me down and banging into and around my ankles; I fell a few times and slowly tried to get the hang of this descending. Laurie had been chatting to a group of Americans who were ascending in kilts, by the time I made it down; they wished me luck in the race and carried on climbing.
We then headed up Beinn an Oir and sat a while on top, looking out to sea, and then Laurie showed me a route which would be good on the day, along a track, right at the ruin, down the grassy track and the way down from there.
From the bottom, we went up Beinn Shiantaidh and from the checkpoint made our way along to the re-entrant, where we spotted Jim Smith's Bowling Green. Laurie pointed out to me the line to follow down; how will I remember all this on the day? He reminded me that if I followed the wrong bearing, even if I was only a degree or two out at the top by the time I got to the bottom that I would be a long way off from where I should be, and it would take me a long time to get round to where I needed to be. Striking a chord with my belief that if you can make just a small change or minor adjustment in your life, over time the difference it can make can be great.
And so the reccie was over. We had had a lovely day and I thought that if I didn't start or finish the race for any reason, I didn't really care, it had been such an amazing day out there on the Paps of Jura. Part of me was ready to withdraw from the race and marshall, because if I made an error I would be a liability to the organiser and the marshalls. I would see how I felt as race day loomed.
The next day we went on a bike ride to Ardlussa where a flask of hot water and some home made cakes were taken in exchange for a donation to an honesty box in a horse box by a beach; coming back Laurie pushed my bike up the hills so I could walk and he laughingly asked me not to blame him if I didn't complete the race, I said of course I wouldn't blame him, it was my fault for going on the reccie and the bike ride, it was all my fault!
Race day came the next day. I followed Laurie's advice, registered early and relaxed in my tent, looking at my maps, wondering if I would remember the advice about the routes down from each of the paps, if I wasn't timed out before then anyway. Laurie came to say hello and I showed him my home made debris gaiters, socks I had cut up. He looked a little troubled and hid what I felt was his sorrow at such a waste of good socks. Wendy looked like a machine and wished me luck when I saw her.
Due to a risk of lightning and the risk to the marshalls on tops of the paps, the race organiser announced that the course may change mid way through the race to the bad weather route. I entered the race start pen, and Laurie put his arm on my shoulder and said he would see me at the end. Yes, I said. Ok. I am going to do everything in my power to get through the cut offs and make it to the end. So far Laurie had done all the hard work getting me to this point, it was up to me now.
And so we're off and I am following a few hundred people along a trod through bogs. I make it through the first checkpoint on top of Dubh Bheinn, without any risk of being timed out. The second and third checkpoints, Glas Beinn and Aonach Bheinn, amazingly, I am through. This is it, I have not been timed out and no one has notified me that the route has been changed to the bad weather route. Yet. I am heading for the Paps of Jura.
From the top of Aonach Bheinn I look across to Beinn a Chaolais. I take a deep breath and I am ready. I pick my way down Aonach Bheinn and make my way across to the bottom of the first Pap. The first and longest climb begins. At the top of Beinn a Chaolais the marshalls tell me I am a minute outside the cut off and they will have to obtain permission from the race organiser for me to proceed.
I wait whilst they radio the race organiser who says he will check who number 9 is and reply shortly. He radios back. I am allowed to proceed and inwardly, maybe outwardly also, celebrate what has to be one of the biggest achievements of my life as I leave the checkpoint and head in the direction of a descent which fills me with some fear. I manage to find a good line down and it wasn't half as difficult as I feared it would be; I can see a rough direction to head for as visibility is good and before long I am making my way up Beinn a Chaolais. Here I am overtaken for the last time, and I am now the last person in the race. The few people I can see in front of me disappear and apart from the occasional glimpse of a red vest I am on my own.
At the top the marshalls are friendly and give me a drink and some jelly babies; they ask me if I want to continue and I say I would love to, if they will let me. They do and I go and I am finding the good route again off the top and my way down is as smooth as can be and better than feared.
Up to the top of the final Pap, and the marshalls ask me how I am, do I want to continue, you do know this descent is the hardest? Yes I do!, I nod and grin as I fall over as I try to escape before they stop me leaving. I can see where I am heading but I keep checking my compass to be sure, I am so worried about ending up on the wrong side of the island. I find a good line down and meet the path and contour round to approach the final climb, Corra Bheinn.
I am heading up Corra Bheinn and it does feel I am making slow progress up what should be the easiest ascent, I turn and sit on the side of the mountain and look back at where I have been a few moments. A thick white mist is moving in from the west at the bottom of the valley and I hope I can remain above it long enough to find my way down. I return to the climb and looking up I can see silhouettes of runners, the closest I have been to others, apart from marshalls, for a few hours.
At the checkpoint, I assure the marshall I am fine and warm enough and follow the trod the other runners have taken. Now I am on a grassy trod with a fantastic moorland descent, I overtake two or three who are struggling with cramp. Shortly after wading through the clear refreshing river I fall into a bog up to my knees then shortly after, again, I drop into a bog up to my waist. I lever myself out using my arms and once I reach the bridge, I use the scissors kindly supplied by Mountain Rescue to cut my laces and put on my road shoes which I hung from a nearby tree the previous evening.
The run along the road is quiet and still. I am concentrating hard, I am nearly there but it's not done yet. I overtake two or three runners along the road and finish the race by hurling myself into the bear hug of Ruth who is as pleased for me as I am to be at the finish, a warm hand shake from Laurie who seats me and gets me a drink whilst Alison who lives on Jura, whose brother Alun is in my club, comes and congratulates me. I kiss the t-shirt which is handed to me. My work is done.
My proudest race finish although this is not my best result. A finish which deep down I was not sure I could manage. I went to the Isle of Jura with the desire in my heart, yet steadfastly ignoring the doubt in my mind I could do this race. A chance encounter with someone who showed me the way and made me believe I could do it was the vital and pivotal ingredient.
[The following day, Laurie did confess with a glint in his eye that he had doubted I would finish, and I said I thought so but didn't blame him for doubting me as I wasn't looking good at the start and I didn't actually think I would finish either!]
1 First male Finlay Wild 3h 05m 14s [course record]
25 First female Jill Stephen 4h 05m 18s
236 Sarah Smith 7h 12m 25s
241 runners completed the race
Full results can be found in the results section of the Scottish Hill Racing website