Wednesday 25 May 2016

Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR) 2016

Humans, and especially athletes, derive a lot of motivation through making sense of the story of their own lives. After my disappointment at the Highland Fling (legs gave in after 30 miles) I badly needed to regain the narrative. Thankfully, on cue, the Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR) did just that for me. Having now done this race 10 times (starting at the age of 19) the SIPR is definitely part of my story.

"Obedient" - our home for the weekend

Sailors tell me that there is no sailing race like it. There is certainly no running race like it. The SIPR is a unique blend of disciplines whose value comes to so much more than the sum of the two parts. It can be a cruel race too. Imagine running your guts out on Mull to get a half hour lead, only to find yourself then caught in a "tidal trap" opposite the Corryvreckan, allowing a whole load of other teams to efforlessly catch up with you (yes, this happened to us this year). 
Toward the end of the 4.5 mile "Prologue" outside Oban

We were fastest runner on the short run round Oban, so left Oban harbour with the whole fleet of 40 boats behind us

As recounted in a previous blog, I came to this event first by happy (and slightly daunting) coincidence when I was drafted in as a last-minute replacement in 2003. The 2016 race became my 7th completion of the race (from 10 starts). The team with whom I did my first 10 SIPRs decided to stop doing the event after the 2012 race, and I missed the event from 2013-15. This year, I was with a new team (skipper Iain Baird with sailors Gordon Baird and Ben Shelley), on a new boat (Obedient), with a new running partner (Es Tresidder). The race rules are slightly complex, and can be read about elsewhere. This year’s event contained a good measure all the aspects that make the race so special. I will summarise these as unpredictability, wilderness, and challenge.

Something that makes the race so exciting for runners is having very little idea when you will be landed on an Island and required to run. This is clearly something we are not really used to with the well-defined start times of most running races. In 2010 we landed on Jura at 11pm and ran the entire course in the dark (on a dry night the Paps are fantastic in the dark by the way because as you run down the thick scree the rocks collide into each other and generate sparks). On other years I’ve been woken from sleep in the cabin by sailors and advised that we are 30 minutes away from landing on Arran: then suddenly the wind drops and 3 hours later we are still no closer to the pier.
This year the winds were light and sailing times relatively long. Somehow we landed on all islands in daylight and didn’t require our head torches once. On the other hand there were more unexpected sources of unpredictability in this year’s race. At 400m altitude, halfway up Ben More on Mull. Es and I ran straight into a “cast sheep” (a sheep that has fallen onto her back and can’t get back onto her feet). We decided to haul her back onto her feet again (though she was clearly severely weakened by the experience). This is the first time I’ve ever up-righted a sheep in the middle of a hill race!

The Islands of the West Coast of Scotland represent a true wilderness, and the SIPR is an amazing way to experience this. On this year’s race we met a short-eared owl from extremely close range when we nearly ran into her nest in the early evening on Mull, a huge pod of porpoises between the Mull of Kintyre and Arran, and seals in the Sound of Jura. In past races we’ve seen Sea Eagles on Northern Jura.

Calm seas on Sunday morning. Very pleasant but not getting us anywhere fast!

The SIPR involves running 96km over a long-weekend. Clearly the challenge of this is something that I find very attractive. I’ve also created an additional challenge for myself by targeting the race's running records. In 2012 together with Robbie Simpson I broke the then 22-year-old record for the fastest total running time for the runs on Mull, Jura, and Arran (reducing the “King of the Bens” record from 9 hours 34 minutes to 9 hours 17 minutes).  That year we also broke the record for the leg on Mull (from 3 hours 25 minutes to 3 hours 12 minutes) but we were slower than the record times on Jura (3 hours 4 minutes held by Rigby/Ferguson) and on Arran (2 hours 54 minutes held by Maitland/Farningham). Robbie and I were flying that year, so this year I had no ambitions to target more records. It therefore came as a bit of a surprise to me when we started running on Arran. Both Es and I were moving fast! We got to the summit of Goat Fell in 1 hour 32 minutes, then back to the bottom in under 2 hours. It had taken us 43 minutes on the way out to get from the run start in Lamlash to the foot of Goat Fell just outside Brodick. Now we had 54 minutes to get back in record time. As we hurtled through the streets of Brodick a lady said to us “Good luck!” I turned to Es and said “It’s not going to take luck. It’s going to take a lot of pain.” We made it back to the pier in Lamlash in 2 hours 44 minutes 39 seconds (almost 10 minutes faster than the record).

Looking back to Gaotfell on leaving Lamlash

We couldn’t have done any of this without the amazing support of the sailing crew: Gordon, Iain, and Ben. They make a fantastic team and they worked incredibly hard all through Friday and Saturday nights to get the boat (and us) round the course in a great time, in conditions not suited to catamarans. As a team we finished 3rd overall, and first in Class 1 (multihull boats), beaten only by North Star (Class 2) and Clockwork (Call Rounders).


  1. Brilliant write up and recount. Thanks for sharing x

  2. more races should have sheep righting interludes