Earlier this year, Sam Lawley and Phil Sanger (and a few friends) set off on an adventure to the far Western Isles of Scotland. In six days, they kayaked, ran, mountain biked, swam and road biked 700km from Barra at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides to the Butt of Lewis in the North. They made it back in one piece with a story to tell, and what better time to read of their summer exploit than at the tail end of the sporting season, now that the long dark nights are upon us? So…sit back in your armchairs and hold tight – the crossing from Oban to Barra can be a wee bit lumpy!
Now read on…
This was a challenge! And that was just trying to write and summarise, six, 14 hr, days of adventure racing into something legible. Your challenge should you wish to complete it is to read it all!
Phil: Sam and I are reasonably outdoor types who love a bit of a challenge so when the opportunity of putting together a team to enter the Hebridean Challenge came up we both jumped in feet first without really looking into what it actually involved.
The Hebridean Challenge is a relay race using human power alone to negotiate a course of up to 700 km in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It is not just an event for super-fit athletes but as we discovered is aimed at people who consider themselves to be fit, with a love of wild places and competent at navigating in the outdoors. (This latter skill, as was clearly evident by day two, could be our downfall as we wondered how hard a bit of map reading could actually be.)
The First Challenge: Getting the kit, and the team to Oban
The Small Van!
Phil: The event rules state that all Hebridean challenge teams must use a van as transport. This van must be under 5 mtrs in length and must be able to seat all passengers with seatbelts………….have you ever tried getting one of these in Cornwall?….After 2 full days of hunting at admittedly short notice I had drawn many blanks especially when I mentioned the words Scotland and roof rack. Anyway to cut a long story short I finally managed to borrow a small van from a friend that ticked all the boxes, with roof rack and roof box…………We were off………. I just won’t mention that it has done 325,000 miles to the others.
Sam: The race route was only emailed to us 10 days before the event. It consisted of days split into ‘legs ‘. Each leg was specified whether it was a kayak / swim / run / mtb / bike or team leg (the latter meaning you could choose whatever format you needed to complete the leg). It also specified the no. of people from each team who had to complete each leg.
Preparation was all important, after getting the route all the grid references where plotted onto memory map on the computer. We printed of dozens of A4 sheets so each member had copies of the legs they needed, this was all done onto waterproof paper (as it turned out a stroke of genius!) . We also made up sheets which acted as time lines, one for each day so that we could see instantly what leg was happening, who was on it and also where the van needed to be. Many evenings of heated planning ensued!
The Kit in the Small van
Sam: So the van was a ‘low mileage’, ‘good condition’ Mercedes Vito with 5 seated passengers, 3 bikes, 12 pairs of shoes, 55 pairs of socks, running attire for 5, biking attire for 5, 4 wetsuits, 5 compasses and safety kits, 3 sets of spare wheels ,1 sea kayak and 2 sets of paddles, 1 large tent, 5 sleeping bags and thermorests , water containers, cooking stuff and as much home made cake and carbohydrates as you can fit in any space left over.
Leaving on Thurs. night we travelled up to Birmingham to split the journey. On the map this looked around half way and as this only took us 5 hrs we figured that the next day it would be a nice gentle stroll up to Glasgow where we were to meet our fifth team member at the airport.
Nine hours later with a quick fuel and food stop we made it but still had 2-3 hrs to go to Oban, to pitch camp for a night, before the ferry in the morning.
Down came the rain and there it began…welcome to Scotland. Finally arriving at Oban at midnight (though still almost light) we made out first great logistical descision and ditched the prepaid campsite and pitching a tent in torrential rain for 4 hrs sleep. Instead we found a hostel that was full! and persuaded them to let us sleep on the dining room floor.
Phil: The Ferry left Oban at 0730. Parked up ready to board we had chance to survey our fellow competitors, I spied with envy a bigger van that looked suspiciously over the designated 5 metres.
All the teams that we had talked to on the boat seemed really friendly and encouraging and there were some other Heb virgins like us …one team member even commented that he had heard that this particular challenge was harder that the Marathon de Sables which he had completed! What had we let ourselves in for?!
Involved arrival at Eriskay, pitching of tents, a long briefing, a pasta dinner and last minute race planning, finally getting to bed about 11.30 pm.
Sunday : Prologue : Isle of Barra ( force 7 winds and rain!)
Phil: This day was the warm up and gave us an idea of what to expect.
We were taken by ferry from Eriskay to Barra.
Sam and Jane had opted for the run, myself and Paul the bike and Jon the kayak leg……………….off went the start and so began the torrential rain, was this what we had to expect this week?. Any way after 25 miles on the bike, 2 check points, split by a mountain fell climb/run (in bike shoes!) we had been shown what to expect and also who to follow up the mountains ( yes, I really can’t use a map and compass).
Sam: Jane and I stood shivering in the rain as the run started en-mass up a boggy steep gradient. After 100 meters I was knackered and looked around to see happy competitors jogging up the climb in the bog, wind and rain like it was the best thing ever. God what had I let myself in for!
3 mountain peaks later via thick cloud, I had started to learn to use a compass, stopped counting how many times I’d turned my ankle, forgotten my sodden bogged trainers and soaked clothing and was vaguely starting to enjoy the experience!
Monday (Day 1) : Eriskay to South Uist and Benbecula (dry start only to be replaced by showers and increasing winds )
With the race starting at 6am from a beach near the campsite, teams were up and about from 4:30am, eating breakfast, packing away tents and getting their kit together. Fortunately the good weather that had graced Sunday evening had held overnight, meaning the tents were dry and the wind was relatively low. A few were feeling the effects of the Prologue and the wet roads. Fortunately injuries were minor, but some cyclists had learnt to a) brake earlier for road junctions and b) not put power down through the pedals when crossing cattle grids
Phil: The days plan had been worked out the evening before. Jane was to swim the length of a beach, then pass over to a me to mountainbike to the base of a small mountain and then run up it to the check point (in bike shoes again!), run back down (when I say run, what I actually mean is slide down on my arse) then ride a km to pass over to Sam who then ran up and back down a mountain to tag me now on the road bike. I then rode 6 miles over to Paul on the mountain bike who would pretty much scale another mountain path and cover another 20K to his check point. Meanwhile Jon ran in to meet him on the other side so that 2 completed the second half of this section.
They ran out also most last as we had made our first logistical error with much of Pauls terrain being unbikable so Paul had to run much of it in his biking shoes while pushing his bike .Undaunted, the day continued with myself and Sam doing another 25K beach mountain bike, Paul another 25K mountain Bike, Jane running her mountain time trial (over 4 hours of fell running over 3 high peaks) , then a road biking stage with Sam who reached in excess of 40 mph screaming down an almost perfect Hebridean road with a strong following wind ………to meet myself and Paul who climbed another mountain that shall be named Mt Evil via just a few more bogs and lochs to finish day 2, 14 hrs after getting up.
The day ended with us camping in Lochmaddy in 8th place overall.
Tuesday : (Day2) North Uist to Harris (still more wind and rain)
Today’s stage was a bit of a blur as we had had a really hard day on day one. Especially after only getting an estimated three hours sleep due to the gale force winds and guy ropes having to be added and replaced throughout the night.
Anyway, due to the disruptions in the night the start was delayed until 8 am not the usual 6am. First up were Jon and Sam to do a nasty fell run.
Sam: the next few hours were the worst of the whole week for me, knackered after running in the prologue and going hard yesterday, I was teamed up with Jon our kayaker who was pretty rested because his kayak legs the day before had been cancelled due to bad weather. He hadnt run at all yet and was full of beans and was a quicker runner than me without this advantage. The wind and rain were horrific and I tried to draft him (impossible) as we stumbled over a mile of bog and then over 2 summits before a super steep decent and a mile back out to the finish. I had a serious ‘bonk ‘¾’s of the way up, close to tears I took a gel, carried on and then from there on it seemed to get easier.
Due to the weather the mornings plan was changed and the rest of the team were competing concurrently. Paul had to negotiate a challenging road bike given the force 7 winds and torrential rain and pass onto Phil on a mountain bike leg which involved quite a few miles being sand blasted along the beach, back onto Jane who road biked into a head wind and then Paul who completed another mountain bike leg. Phil then drove the van back to pick up myself and Jon shivering by the side of the road, as we watched him arrive completey unaware that in the wind, the roof box had blown open ( shit !…but no time to begin to even contemplate what we might have lost, possibly my only dry clothes to travel home in!!!)
Phil: After a well deserved break on the ferry to Harris Paul, Jon and Jane started on this island with a 45 minute hill sprint up and over a 425mtr mountain covering about 6 kms to meet me on the other side ready to continue the relay with the road bike time trial.
It was still raining hard; the first part of my map was missing so I had to assume that I would ride onto it within a mile or two. Jon had convinced me that the whole thing was only about 40 Kms so I took to my bike gratefully (if nothing else to get out of my bog laden trainers). Miles later I had finally got onto the map and had experienced some really spectacular road riding on glassy smooth surfaces through what seemed to be scenery from ‘The Shires’ in the Lord of the Rings. These roads although wet were fantastic and were the best roads I have ever ridden. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I missed a crucial RH turn and did an extra 10K climb before I realised and had to return to the bottom and travel further up the coast accompanied by two others who had followed me!
The time trial finished at one on the highest points in the area so I had to then endure a brilliant 20min decent back to the second check point and the van for some well earned food.
Annoyed at my lack of map reading skill but immersed in the beauty of the ride I had still finished 8th from the fleet and a very happy camper.
Sam: Yet again they cancelled the swim due to the adverse weather conditons! An offshore wind, but to me that just looked like great flat conditons.They were super health and safety concious with the swims and yet were happy for us all to run up mountains in dense cloud and bike in gale force winds and rain ! I was annoyed at the disparity in what was deemed dangerous as we were a strong team for the swimming legs and I felt this lost us some advantage over other teams.
The day finished with Jane and Jon (kayak cancelled!) leaving to do the final fell run run of the day whilst we forged on into the village of Tarbert to find some accommodation as our tent had become irrepairable in the storm.
We managed to organise B&B accomodation for the team a short drive away on the Isle of Scalpay where our hosts met us undaunted when we rocked up after11pm. They gave us tea and cakes and offered to wash and dry our clothes. Despite our cries they also proceeded to get up and offer us tea and toast with our breakfast at 4 am!
Wednesday (Day 3) : Tarbert on Harris to Scalpay (A clear start, but the wind!!)
Day three of the challenge saw the weather starting to improve and the kayakers finally getting to appreciate some of the finest sea kayaking in the world.
Sam: Phil and myself started the day at 6am with another fell run, our tired legs were getting used to competing now and running was really a slow jog, with speed walks over steep or technical climbs, we were also improving on our navigation. The weather was fairly good and other than some cloud at the summit we completed the first leg in a respectable 2 hours in amongst the other teams.
We then passed onto Paul ,for him to get another chance to show us what he could do on a mountain bike.
He had a long and very technical mountain bike, judging by the amount of broken chains and broken derailleur’s that came back down the mountain.He competed well despite 2 punctures, upon his return the wind had increased to near gale force again that just happened to be a nice headwind to finish the last 7 Kms in.
At this point Paul handed over to Jane who then mountain biked up the first 7 kms of a track to start her run over Mount Ulabhal and 2 further summits. Phil followed Jane up the track on Pauls mountain bike and then collected the bike where she had left it before using our newly designed towing device to tow Jane’s bike back out again, (see pic)
Phil: Oh what fun a gadget………but not made easy by the wind……………
I finally made it back to the van in around an hour. Then Sam and Paul and myself drove around to meet Jane on the other side of the mountain where we were expecting her about 2 hours later.
Sam: I had a mountain bike leg, out and back. The first bit was a steady climb where I waited to meet Janes arrival off the mountain.This was followed by single track along a loch, gradually getting more technical with the last bit being a super steep technical descent.
I bounced my way down safely by luck more than skill. Quick hello to the marshall and turned around and faced back the way I had come and the unridable accent. I started pushing my bike then elected to put the cross bar over my camel pack and hike a mile out of there before cycling back in the force 7 head wind………..phew utterly brilliant.
After about another difficult 30 minutes I met up with Paul who was to begin the next long run leg, which we had decided to split into two with Phil taking on the second half.
Phil set off to meet Paul at an agreed grid reference where he sat and waited in his orange survival bag hoping that Paul would be able to see him more easily as he came down from the mountains.
Phil: With relief Paul found me and I started my leg of the run, which equated to about a further 16 km. It began with a steep drop down the side of a mountain, from 550m, following an indirect path running alongside a spring water stream terminating in a loch that was 2 kilometres long. The loch had no clear path around it, however was shallow so I could run in the water. At the end of the loch was a white sand beach with crystal clear water that led onto a headland where the next check point was. Up to this point took me approximately an hour and I was running with 4 others competitors who had appeared from nowhere. After the check point, which none of us found, the final leg was a beach run followed by a cliff climb and last run onto meet the guys and start the next stage.
The swim had again been cancelled along with the kayak due to bad weather so we then sent our kayaker on the next hill run which was small 45 minute up and over a small hill (325mtrs) which led onto the last leg of the day a 25 mile road bike.
Sam: To fulfil this and probably because Phil and I had shouted about how good the road biking was the day before we decided to split the route 5 ways giving us each a 5 mile stretch to sprint and hopefully giving the team a good overall time compared to one person doing the whole leg.
We all went flat out both up and down the various mountain accents and decents that followed urged on with the rest of the team in hot pursiit in the van. It was ‘tour de france’ style, the van acting as support vehicle about 10 metres behind and loads of encouragement. It was great, if not at times off putting, to hear the various shouts including ‘Allez Allez Allez’ and ‘’ I can see you baby shakin’ that arse!” This was a fantastic leg that left us all smiling and exhausted and we finished with the overall 2nd fastest time for the leg and we were getting to grips with how to split stages to our advantage.
Again, food, logistics and bed with our dutiful hostess again insisting on getting up and serving us breakfast at 4.30 am.
Thursday (Day 4) : Scalpay and Harris and Great Bernera – Dry ….at last
6am start with Paul off on the mountain bike time trial. He was looking very tired and apprehensive.
This leg was one of the mountain bike highlights that claimed many bikes and riders due to its fabulous technical single track. Paul reckoned it wasn’t to bad if you had full suspension and he managed to avoid punctures and get a good position due to his fearless down hill speeds overtaking many a road biker tackling the mountain bike challenge..
Paul passed swiftly onto Jon who gave it his best on a short 45 minute road section which was again the envy of anyone who wasn’t riding it due the smoothness of the road and highland scenery. He also made up 2 places.
Sam: Jon passed onto me to take on the highest climb/run of the event. The mountain ‘An Clisham ‘, which is also the highest in the Hebrides at 799 meters.
Great fun, I started apprehensively concerned I was heading up on my own into the cloud but quickly got into the swing of it , bog, jog to the steep bit, slow to a walk, steep climb to the summit. With a momentary break in the clouds for an awe inspiring view. Compass bearing at the top into the thick fog.Then aim to start running down, but realistically a mix between falling, clambering and sliding down the bolder strewn mountain side, as the most direct route is not necessarily the safest. Take a second quick bearing past a loch, traverse a mountain side (nasty on the ankles) and after 2 ½ hrs finally head down to meet Jane who had biked along a track for the start of her run leg, leaving the bike for me to bike out ……Euphoria that leg done …where’s the Cake?
Next we had to get the Van to the meeting point for Jane. We sent Phil in again with our towing gaget. He biked in to meet Jane who had a tough run with an elusive check point and had to double back to find it. Eventually she can down and passed the blue band to Phil and with his fresh legs he sprinted back to his bike and down the path to Jon on the road bike.
Sam: The van eventually caught up with Jon , flying on the smooth roads and I replaced him to ride a further 10 Kms onto meet Phil. He then had to ride 6 kms on the mountain bike before runing over a summit to meet Paul on the other side who attacked the hill running from the other side back over to pick up the bike.
Whilst all this was going on Jane had dropped Jon and myself off for the beach swim and kayak leg. The beach was amazing, crystal clear blue like the Scillies and a wee bit chily and I was stoked when I came 4th in the swim (standard of swimming not like the PZ crew).
Phil, Jane and Paul then arrived at the beach for a final small beach hill run which Jane completed in her bike shoes as the boys didn’t give her the opportunity to change!
We had a good feed, did some logistics for the final day and with the tent still RIP, we managed to sleep on the community hall floor.
Friday (Day 5) : South Lewis to the Butt of Lewis (dry, and is that sunshine!?)
Last day, We’re on it now.
Sam: 6am and Jon was left on the beach with his kayak, Paul and myself then completed a really nice boggy and for the first time, fairly flat fell run up and over the beach side hills of Great Bernera before passing onto Phil and Jane for another bog jog.
Phil: We had a good start but were over taken by a keen army team who went for the up and over the summit rather than our less aggressive round the mountain approach. We finished in a fairly good time and passed the batten over to Paul on the road bike.
Paul had a really good 7 mile sprint round a valley on yet more sumptious fast rolling flat roads (see Pic)
Sam: The bike leg went onto the loch swim based near Calanais where I had driven the van to at pace to don my wetsuit and prepare to swim. I was to be accompanied by John in the kayak who had paddled around to the loch to meet us.
Paul arrived quickly on the bike I grabbed the blue wristband (baton) and jumped in only to get swept down stream at 4 knots.The tide was huge. I swam with difficulty back to the rocks and climbed back to the other side to try and gain an advantage further up stream. The loch swim was flat and fairly murky with so many different currents all over the place. I kept looking up at the bouy and each time I was so far off course I thought the safety boat was moving it or it was drifting , I was often within 2 or 3 armstrokes more than 45 degrees of course (Don you really would be in circles!)
When I finally got to grips with it I was just staying with the kayaker and not looking at the bouy as this caused me to go off track. The swim was quite long and took a good 30 mins. Tired but happy I reached up the rocks to pass Phil the wrist band for the start of the next leg a road bike.
Phil: I had a disastrous leg . Not through cycling ability, but through my keenness. Head down and cranks burning I managed to miss the first turning and therefore had to go back and cover the first part of the course again – an extra 4kms.
Now even more determined than ever having seen three others go past I again wound it up and flying up to the transition point having caught up some ground I was then told that I’d missed another turn and had to go back around the loch to approach the transition from the other direction.
The marshal said this would take about 20 minutes, I replyed I’ll see you in 15, annoyed with myself and I actually managed to blast the section in 12 minutes. Arriving at my last check point to pass onto Paul and Jane for a run.
Sam: By this time, apart from the errors in Phils navigation!, the whole team were finding that they were getting into the swing of things (about time – it was the last day).
Jane and Paul’s run was a relatively short and quickly led onto Phil with a short road section on a mountain bike with slicks to allow enough time to set Jane up on the road bike for another section. We were on the west Lewis coastline and having a great day.
The final stretch involved the team changing from the road to mountain bikes to cover a really long stretch of the coast (that seemed like the distance from Portreath to Lands End)
Sam: The first part of the mountain bike leg was ridden by Phil and myself but it turned out to be barely rideable, it took ages, we mainly pushed, carried and lifted our bikes over bog and fences and when we were peddling I was in granny ring and making only a little tiring progress. I almost had sense of humour failure as for the first time that week the sun was baking down on us and the flies started accumulating in clouds over my head. This was made worse by the fact that we were often metres from the sea, with the occasional isolated beach and 2 -3 foot peeling waves rolling in.
Jane and Paul did the next section of the coast designated again a mountain bike leg. They fared slightly better than us with some difficult but more rideable terrain as we motored in the van aroung to get ahead of them.
Sam: The next coastal section was down as a ‘team’ leg and we watched the teams ahead of us again head out in pairs on mountian bikes. I was seriously over carrying and pushing ‘the bloody bike’and agreed with Phil that there was a possibility we could be quiker on foot. Though with the next bit of terrain uncertain the decision to run could be a big mistake. to ditch the bikes and run .
The best decision of the week, Phil and I had the pleasure of running past multiple teams frustratingly pushing their bikes around miles of unrideable coast We had clearly made the right decisio, and it gained us masses of time and gave us a massive psychlogical lift to get towards the end of the day.
The penultimate leg on the coast was run by Jon and Jane which was a brisk 10 km to the bikes which we left on the road for them for a final cycle down the hill to meet us at the last check piont before the finish.
We joined up as a team, all 5 for the final 1km run to the finish at the northern most point, THE BUTT OF LEWIS. We laughed as we ran together in awe at what we had achieved over the last six days and in the conditions we had completed it in. We even put in a 20 metre sprint finish to the line applauded by the race directors and marshalls who had supported us all the way. To our amazement we finished 3rd team overall that day. Even more reason to pop the champagne that had travelled in the van with us waiting for this moment.
As a team we had tavelled over 700kms by human power from one end of the Hebrides to the other and we had come in a very respectable 3rd on the last day and 7th overall. With very little navigation skills (which now incidentally are a lot better) we had taken on the rain and wind, the bogs , the climbing and the falling and beaten them whilst visiting some of what can only be descibed as Britains best kept secrets and views.
It was a race with a difference but great fun……….and the final question that anyone asks about these sorts of races ‘would we do it again? ‘………Yes, definitely…. but buy me some fell running shoes first, and Phil would want a better van and we would pray for a good forecast.