Western Isles Challenge 2000
Challenge Diary - Team Sula Sgeir (by Donald Thomson)
Saturday 6 May 2000.
9.00am Met at Grahams – Finished loading van (provided free by Mackinnon’s Self Drive for the duration of the “Challenge”). Janet McNaughton not coming down till Monday. Murdie, as usual, will start paddling down later today with an overnight camp on Scalpay before continuing to Lochmaddy.
10.30am Collected replacement suspension forks for Gavin’s mountain bike from Sorting office.
11.00am Set off from Stornoway.
1.00pm Arrived Leverburgh. Lunch in the restaurant became a takeaway because the “Loch Bhrusda” sailed before we could eat it. The event organisers happened to be on the same ferry.
3.00pm Arrived Otternish. Went to have a look at the Berneray and North Uist machairs to assess which option would be fastest for racing on Tuesday evening i.e. mountain biking or running.
6.00pm Lochmaddy Hotel. Stopped for something to eat. Good food. One or two other teams turning up. Recognition turns to smiles when familiar faces are seen. Introductions for those who haven’t met before.
9.30pm Headed for Balivanich in Benbecula and took our luggage into the Fire-Station which is to be our base for the next two nights.
Sunday 7 May 2000
7.30am Didn’t get much sleep last night. Probably due to strange surroundings, getting used to the sleeping bag and worst of all, Graham’s fitful snoring. However, he redeems himself by making a superb cooked breakfast.
8.30am Gavin & Graham fitting new forks to Gavin’s bike.
11.00am Headed for Race Headquarters in South Uist to offload a sea-kayak which we took down for one of the solo competitors.
12.30am Had a look at South Uist machair to determine best bike route.
3.30pm Checked out most of the hand over points as we progressed towards Lochmaddy.
7.30pm Met up with Murdie at Lochmaddy hotel. We had a meal there, loaded his kayak and returned to Balivanich.
Monday 8 May 2000
7.00am Did not sleep much better last night. Murdie joined in with the snoring chorus. Graham prepared cooked breakfast again. This is becoming bit of a habit. It is turning out to be a beautiful day and the long range forecast is every bit as good.
8.30am Graham and Gavin head north to Otternish in Berneray to collect Janet who is due to come across from Leverburgh this morning. Murdie and I are left to tidy the Fire-Station and get all the gear ready to head south to Race Headquarters at the Borrodale hotel. Sort my gear out for an overnight stay in Barra.
10.00am Tall American who is with one of the solo competitors asks us when the Coastguard Station opens as he is looking for flares and a strobe light for their kayak. Murdie phones Guy Jackson at the Outdoor Centre in Lochmaddy to see if he has the gear.
10.30am Graham phones me to say that the ferry is fog bound at Otternish and doesn’t know when it will sail. However, he has arranged with a local fishing boat skipper who is making a short trip to Leverburgh to take Janet across.
11.30am Graham, Gavin, Janet and Mark (another competitor who was stranded at Leverburgh) arrive, much to our relief.
12.30pm Arrive at Borrodale hotel for registration and equipment check. Weather very warm.
2.00pm I am taken to Ludag jetty with the road bike where I make the ferry trip to Ardveenish along with thirteen other competitors and their bikes. Team canoeists and Soloists are paddling over later. On the ferry there is an awkward silence at first, broken eventually by nervous attempts at indroductions and conversation. What helps break the ice is the rare tranquility of the clear shallow waters of the Sound of Barra peppered with rocks occupied by sun-bathing seals.
3.30pm Arrive at Ardveenish. Cycle 3km to Northbay hall (our base for the night) precariously balancing luggage on bikes built for speed, not comfort.
5.00pm Cycle 7km to Eoligarry to prepare for start of Prologue. The Prologue is basically a taster for the main event but the time taken counts towards the overall results. Canoeists arrive at Eoligarry beach for the start of their Prologue. The land section of the Prologue consists of 18.5km cycling to Castlebay, a 383m hill run, followed by another 9km of cycling to the finish in Vatersay. The canoe Prologue consists of 6km paddling along the coast between Eoligarry and Bruernish.
5.30pm With paddles flailing, the canoe Prologue starts. All but four of the canoeists take the wrong course playing follow the leader. The four who get it right on the water are later penalised for running along a road that is out of bounds to them.
6.00pm Land Prologue starts. Organisers have been devious this year. They have given us three options and a choice of two hills to climb. They do not let us leave the start until we tell them which option we are going for. I opt for the highest hill but the shortest horizontal running distance. Overtake a number of cyclists on the way to Castlebay. As I climb Sheaval in the oppressive heat, I begin to doubt my choice of hill as I can only see one other competitor. After running back down to Castlebay and cycling the rest of the way to Vatersay, my fears in relation to the hill choice are confirmed as I am only 10th overall.
8.00pm Leave bikes at Vatersay. Bus back to Castlebay and shower at the swimming pool. Walk to Craigard hotel where I pay £8.50 for a cold buffet ..... Not impressed.
10.00pm Murdie and I missed the bus to Northbay hall because it leaves earlier than scheduled.
10.30pm Lucky for us, the canoe event Organisers give us a lift back to the hall, probably because they don’t know where it is.
11.00pm Arrive at Northbay hall to find the lights out and most of the competitors asleep.
Tuesday 9 May 2000
4.00am People stirring already. I feel as if I haven’t slept at all due to people snoring and the opening and closing of a creaky door leading to what passes for the only toilet. Snatched a quick breakfast.
5.15am Bus leaves for Vatersay.
5.40am Murdie and the other canoeists leave Bruernish for the 12km paddle to Ludag. Disappointingly, the first half of this section is a non-event as a race because of poor visibility and safety being the first priority.
6.00am Beautiful sunrise on Vatersay, although grey to the north, to herald the start of the Challenge proper with a cycle race over 25.5km to Eoligarry. In his enthusiasm to get to his bike, one of the cyclists falls headfirst in the sand dunes, much to the amusement of everyone else. I hope the cameras captured the moment.
6.45am Cyclists reach Eoligarry. Happy with 6th position when compared to last night.
7.00am Ferry departs from Eoligarry.
7.51am Murdie arrives at Ludag
8.00am Ferry arrives at Ludag.
8.16am Janet sets off to the first mystery checkpoint today and hands over to me at North Glendale. Using the mountain bike, I cycle 28km of road, track and machair before changing to the road bike and handing over to Gavin.
10.12am Gavin attacks the most demanding off-road section of the day taking in Beinn Mhor, Corrodale and Hecla with heights of 620m, 527m and 606m respectively and a total distance of 19km.
12.30pm Last nights and this mornings efforts on Barra and South Uist without sleep are catching up with me. Wondering what I’m doing here? Marianna and Chris interview me for Telefios. Nice to see familiar faces.
1.45pm Gavin finishes the huge off-road section on a high with the sixth fastest time. Murdie paddles off to Hacklet.
2.22pm Murdie arrives in Hacklet after a relatively short paddle of 37 minutes duration in seventh place. I road bike north through Benbecula and over the causeway to Claddach Carinish road-end, where I hand over to Janet. At this point I pick up the location of the next mystery checkpoint and return to the van with it. Janet tackles Eaval, 347m high and a total distance of 9.5km.
3.30pm We are waiting for Janet to descend from Eaval. I am looking across Locheport where I am supposed to do a 1km open water swim in a wetsuit. As the minutes tick by, the north wind gets stronger and the temperature seems to drop. The water looks decidely choppy. It doesn’t help when the few swimmers who actually managed to cross come back cold and exhausted on the safety boat. I tell the rest of the team I am not going to risk the swim only to find that the Organisers have cancelled it anyway.
4.52pm Murdie is away on third paddle today, 12.5km to Lochmaddy. Janet hands over to me for an 8km road bike section before she is away again on an energy sapping bog slog for 12km through the centre of North Uist ..... Most impressive.
6.45pm From a point 1km south east of Grenitote with the road bike for 6km then the mountain bike for 4km along the machair, I hand over to Gavin who covers similair terrain and distance with the same combination of bikes.
8.05pm Gavin runs to the summit of Beinn Shleibhe at the northern-most point of Berneray to end Day 1.
8.30pm Pile into Lochmaddy hotel where it is quite busy with those who have finished before us. We now have the problem of getting Murdie and his kayak up to Berneray for the start tomorrow and get the van back to Lochmaddy for the 10.30 ferry to Tarbert tonight. Graham volunteers to go.
9.30pm We have been in the hotel for an hour and still have not had the food we ordered and paid for in advance sometime ago. Item by item is being stroked of the menu until finally, after some frank exchange of views, we end up with scampi and chips.
10.30pm Graham is back to get the van on the ferry. The hotel is so late serving my food that they put it in a takeaway carton and I eat it on the ferry.
12.15am Ferry reaches Tarbert. Literally fall into John Macleod’s house who has been our generous host for more years than I care to remember.
1.00am Crawl into bed and ...... switch off!
Wednesday 10 May 2000
5.00am Amazing what a proper bed can do, even if it was only 4 hours. Best sleep I’ve had since Friday night.
6.00am Leave Tarbert after breakfast and head south.
7.00am. Another beautiful morning when we arrive at Northton. Waiting for Murdie to complete his 13km paddle from Berneray. Change into wetsuit and get ready to swim.
7.36am Murdie arrives and I swim from the beach at Northton, around the headland to Traigh Na Cleavag about 1km to the North.
8.00am Janet climbs Chaipaval (365m), horizontal run distance 4km.
9.00am I road bike 12km to Seilebost.
9.20am Gavin takes over for 14km of mainly mountain biking, off-road and on-road with a 340m hill thrown in.
11.00am Gavin arrives at Drinishader. We take a 20 minute time-out (a concession made to all teams) to allow the van to reach Scalpay before Murdie paddles there.
11.20am Murdie paddles across to Scalpay (5km).
12.01pm Murdie arrives Scalpay, I leave on the mountain bike and after 7km on the road to Tarbert hand over to Janet.
12.22pm Janet climbs Toddun (528m) and some 8km horizontal distance. Meantime I continue mountain biking along the track from Urgha to Maaruig, onto the main road south towards Ardhasaig, turning west along the Hushinish road to Meavaig where I go off-road again on a northerly track to the hut at Loch Voshimid. On this track, two Army vehicles (a truck and a land rover )are stuck fast at two separate locations with their near side wheels stuck in the peat. It would not be a Western Isles Challenge without military vehicles bogged down. From Loch Voshimid, I veer east, along and upwards on a tortuous path which reaches 320m north of Stulaval. I descend rapidly towards Langadale river, losing control of the bike in the process, tumbled over a few times before coming to rest. Got away relatively unscathed but the bike chainring gearshift is broken beyond repair. Fortunately the chain is on the small ring, the one I will need for finishing this section. I refill the water bottle in the river and climb for 200m before the long descent towards Advourlie.
2.04pm Janet hands over to Gavin who climbs Clisham (799m) before picking his way north westerly and of necessity descending 550m before ascending sharply to the summit of Teilesval (697m). Then a relatively fast decent in a north-westerly direction to the hut at Loch Voshimid, covering a total of 11km horizontal distance.
2.50pm Murdie leaves Scalpay, paddling towards Seaforth Island.
3.44pm I check in at the Outdoor Centre at Scaladale after 3hrs 22mins mountain bike time trial covering 40km in the process and in seventh place.
4.29pm Gavin hands back to Janet at Loch Voshimid. His time of 2hrs 25mins is as fast as he has ever run the Clisham/Teilesval section. Janet has had to cycle 14.5km to this changeover point because vehicles are not allowed along this road, Then again, it is the same for all the teams.
4.56pm Murdie arrives at the island and begins his run to the top, some 217m above sea level.
5.44pm Murdie (after a couple of tumbles coming down the hill) is back in his favourite environment (the water) and heading for Ardvourile Bay.
6.00pm Graham and Gavin collect me from the Scaladale Centre in the van and we head for Brenish road-end in Uig where Janet is to finish an unbelievably long 20km bog slog from Loch Voshimid.
6.03pm Murdie reaches Scaladale where he is staying overnight.
8.35pm Janet makes it and I cycle the remaining 12km of road into a cold strong headwind.
9.08pm Arrive at Ardroil to end Day 2.
9.20pm The Uig Community Centre is warm and welcoming with the best food on this years Challenge by far. £6.50 for a three course meal with portions bigger than the Clisham is exactly what we need.
10.30pm The local shopkeeper does us a favour by opening up so that we can refuel the van.
10.50pm Arrive at Anthea Logan’s in Valtos where we are to stay the night. She has prepared a huge pan of soup but we are already full up. It will be perfect re-heated in the morning for filling some of the Thermos flasks.
11.45pm We muster enough energy to climb into our bunk beds and fall into a deep sleep.
Thursday 11 May 2000
5.15am Almost slept in because the alarm did not go off. Should have been up at 5.00.
5.45am Rushed breakfast, jumped into the van and sped back up Valtos Glen to the Community Centre.
6.00am Gavin, along with one member from each of the other thirteen teams is taken to Brenish road-end. Once there, the first three check-points, until now a mystery, are revealed to Gavin and the other competitors. They must now mark their chosen route on a map which is taken by the race organisers back to the remaining team members at Uig hall.
6.40am Gavin sets out to climb Mealisval (574m) high to the east of Brenish, then descending for 500m before skirting round the north end of Loch Raonasgail before climbing to the summit of Tarain (411m). From here it is a fairly tortuous descent generally north east until he reaches the west side of Loch Suainaval from where he heads north to the weir involving a total horizontal distance of 10km.
8.45am Janet takes over from Gavin at the weir and is very much on home territory as she climbs Suainaval (429m) to the east. In fact, so much so, that on the way down she confirms that the builders have finished the roof on their new house in Geshader.
9.50am Janet hands to Gavin at the footbridge about 1km south of Carishader so that he can road bike to the small inlet north of Gisla some 5.5km away.
10.12am Although Gavin checks in at this time and I am ready to swim the 700m across Little Loch-Roag to the slip-way at Scaliscro Lodge, I am not allowed to go because the safety boat is already escorting the first group of four swimmers across. However the organisers adjust the times later to allow for this delay so that none of the teams lose out. Some 18 minutes later I start the swim along with four others. I know it is an incoming tide opposed by a strong easterly wind. What I don’t know is how much I will be pushed off course by that combination. I could do with Murdie’s maritime wisdom here. I realise I have company other than human swimmers. That company is in the form of countless small jellyfish about 10 cm in diameter. Once I get across, one of the other swimmers expresses his disgust at sharing the water with jellyfish, in no uncertain terms, to the checkpoint staff.
10.15am Murdie’s canoe leg starts at the bay 1km west of Habost Lochs and heads east out of Loch Erisort before heading north to Stornoway Harbour and Cuddy Point in very difficult conditions for a total distance of 23km. Murdie was 6th on this section with an excellent time of 2hrs 53mins while some of the other competitors were complaining of blistered hands.
10.45am I slither and slide up the slip-way to let Gavin head off on the road bike. Meanwhile, still in the wetsuit, I mountain bike to Scaliscro road-end. This fairly complex changeover is necessary because again, the vans are not allowed down the side road. Once I get to the van it is a quick change from wetsuit to cycling gear. Anthea Logan’s hot soup is just what the doctor ordered after a cold swim. Before I know it I am on the road bike and heading towards Garynahine into a headwind for the most part. I am closing in on the cyclist in front of me and overtake at Garynahine as they decide to change over their cyclist. As I pass, I realise it is the Luskentyre Lizards (No! they are not from Harris). After the turn off, with the wind now in our favour, big Pat from the Lizards passes me as we fly through Callanish and into Breasclete. Pat takes a wrong turning shortly before Breasclete school and although he soon realises his mistake, it is enough for me to regain the advantage. Onto the Pentland Road and back into the headwind it is very hard work but I manage to slightly increase my lead over Pat.
12.34pm Arrive Cuddy Point after 43km in the saddle. Started mountain bike Orienteering course to find 6 checkpoints in the Castle Grounds in the correct order in the quickest possible time. Gavin went first, then Janet and finally I went. Murdie was excused this distraction, as were all the paddlers.
1.08pm Murdie arrives at Cuddy Point.
1.47pm We finish the bike Orienteering section and the next two mystery checkpoints are revealed to us: Beinn Mholach, just east of Ben Barvas and a sheiling out in the Shader Moor, accessed by the peat road out at Steinacleit.
2.05pm I road bike 8km from Cuddy Point to Loch Roisnavat (Trout Fishery on the Barvas Moor) and Janet sets out for Beinn Mholach. Graham parks the van at the loch but it is like a red rag to a bull. First, Ian Callaghan, the race organiser explains that vans are not allowed to park apart from dropping/picking up at this point and we must move on. Secondly, the owner of the loch turns up. This is followed by much gesticulating and verbal volleys between him and Graham, so we do as we are told! I stay at the roadside with the bike and wait for Janet to return. I get a chance to chat with the other cyclists who are also waiting.
4.45pm Janet gets back and I cycle 18km to Shader.
5.15pm I reach Shader and Gavin goes for his last run of this years Challenge.
6.45pm Gavin is back and I road bike the final 21 km into a strong north east headwind. Tom Gibb, one of the solo competitors tucks in behind me for the most of the distance.
7.30pm The finish line. We celebrate even if we aren’t anywhere near first place, because we completed the toughest Challenge yet and did so as a team.