Three Peaks Yacht Race – Leg Two – Scafell

Pulling away from the pier head in Caernafon we felt like heroes.  Leg one had been a step into the unknown yet we had conquered our doubts, sailed almost exactly to the plan and somehow managed to keep ahead on the land. The next few hours would be challenging but my head was bubbling with unrealistic  optimism, and I happily imagined us gliding through the Menai straits on the last north going tide and into the morning sun to Whitehaven.

The minute we passed the starting mark, our spinnaker went up gently takings its shape in a fickle breeze. We had one hour of positive tide to make four miles to the Swellies then the tidal gate would firmly shut.  As the river twisted and turned trimmed and changed between sails to match the changing wind directions at each bend. We moved around the boat on tip toes and pulled lines with even gentle movements so as not collapse sails and to eek out every decimal of speed we could.

Though I felt fine, alert and awake, we both knew how important rest following our Snowdon marathon was going to be.  We needed to eat, sleep, stretch and try to allow our bodies some sort of recovery time before the next land stage, which would be more than eight hours of solid exercising.  Taking it in turns we changed out of wet running gear and ate and drank where ever possible but until we had cleared the Menai Straits the sailing would be intense and relentless; two people would be required on deck most of the time so sleeping was out of the question.

Looking back down the river we could see competitors picking up their runners then following us on the river.  In the dark with no sign of any other runners behind we had felt confident of our lead but the dawn gave a new perspective.  The boats behind us were less than half a mile away on the water – at 5 knots of boat speed this would only take 6 minutes to cover. Their sailors had slept and were refreshed, our position was fragile.

As we made slow progress up the river, the tidal gate through the Swellies started to close. The current first stopped, then started to flow against our heading, slowing our progress further until we would reach an inevitable stop. We discussed the option of picking up a mooring buoy and sleeping until the turn of the tide but with three boats now chasing us down neither Charles nor I could stomach the idea of letting them sail straight past or the outside chance they would get through the Swellies against the tide and establish an unassailable lead.

We plugged on and the sun rose higher creating heat that threatened to kill what little breeze we had. Creeping forward under spinnaker holding our lead we passed under the Britannia Bridge on the East side of the channel and entered the Swellies.

For those not familiar with this stretch of water, the Swellies it is a formidable stretch of the Menai Straits between the two bridges that join Anglesley to Mainland Wales.  The passage passes through an assortment of rocky obstacles around which a ferocious tide (which can sometimes reach 8 knots) flows.  Without exception all sailing directions advise making passage through the area only at High Water slack and under engine.  We were doing neither.

Choosing the advised route for transit we tucked Nunatak into the shoreline still flying the spinnaker.  The tide built and we slowed to a stop, then started to move backwards as our progress through the water became slower than the speed of the water itself rushing in the opposite direction. In slow motion we were being swept backwards towards the bridge we had just passed under.

There was no option but to carry on sailing.  To collapse the spinnaker at this time would mean losing all control, risking knocking the mast against one of the bridge spans if the water forced us back under at a point not high enough for the mast.  We had to concentrate, to keep trimming, gybing, steering with a racing intensity, never mind the fact we had now been awake for over 24 hours and run a marathon over night.  The bad news was we could possibly be in this state of high alert for another six hours.  Any thoughts of sleeping needed to be banished.

As we struggled against the adverse tide, our competitors, Moby J, White Cloud and Wight Rose sidled up behind us, in the lesser tide leading up to the bridge.  We watched them edge forward, one boat dropped its anchor taking the option we had rejected.  The other two ploughed on but chose to pass under the span on the west of the channel. This is not the recommended route for passing through the straits and could potentially have more current than to the East, however the wind seemed to be cleaner and soon they were making good ground on our position.

What then followed was hours of cat and mouse play in the full flow of the Swellies.  They went forward on the west of the channel, we sat still to the East.  They advanced further and seemed be making headway so we crabbed our way across to join them.  We sat sailing in endless circles, being cruelly played with by the elements.  The wind would blow just a little bit stronger, allowing us to make progress up the shore in shallow water, then the channel would deepen and the boats bow would be hit by a torrent of water as the main flow of tide washed us back to where we had come from.  Effectively we were sailing through rapids and I thought back to the swift water rescue training I had at the RNLI looking for where the current might be reversed in back eddies and trying to use them to our advantage.

Another boat threw in the towel and Moby J picked up a mooring buoy in the lee of a rocky island.  We jealously watched as they basked in the cockpit, watching the show; I imagined the runners tucked up in beds down below resting weary limbs comfortable in the knowledge someone else was responsible for getting them out of this hell.

Following a good hour of circling Charles and I decided to head back to the East side of the channel just to maintain some sort of sanity.  The stakes seemed higher to the West, the tide was faster, there were more rocks to be swept into, we were starting to tire and feeling on edge.

We watched from our stationary but stable position as White Cloud tried and tired again to get through the rapid flow of water then eventually got just enough wind to make it past the island and slowly sailed from sight around the bend.  It was a hard pill to swallow but we had to let go; tired people make mistakes and we had such a lot of race still to come.

Eventually it was our turn, we slowly crept up the shore in the shallowest water possible then had just enough breeze to move around the bend and the second bridge was in sight.  White Cloud was gone but we had a comfortable second place and steadily made our way to the Menai Bridge and out of the other side.

Making our way up the Anglesey side of the river and were met by Jon our shore crew who had made a detour to cheer us on before heading back to work on the South Coast, the others were asleep in a car park somewhere recovering from their nights activities.  His cheerful waves gave our tired minds a boost but still I was envious of all of these people sleeping.  My turn seemed a long way off.

As happens twice in every day time the tide turned and we were swept out into the Irish sea and a wind that dropped away to nothing. Finally there was enough sea room for one of us to go off watch and Charles went down first while I tried to keep Nunatak going.  The day was hot and there was only 2-3 knots of wind.  The rest of the fleet started to emerge behind us as the strong currents spat them out of the Menai straits to where we were sitting and waiting.  The sea was flat and silky, the sails hung limply.  Nunatak was going nowhere fast.  I imagined some of the crews may be rowing in these conditions but this would just not be a good game plan for a double handed attempt.  We need to rest and recover; to get the most we could out of the wind but to admit that in these conditions we may struggle to keep up.

Miserably stuck in a wind hole we looked to the East and saw competitors starting to over take us.  From our position wallowing in the West it seemed impossible to stop the rot. There is no amount of rationalisation that will take away the feelings of disappointment when this happens and as over optimistic as one can be there is a flip side of despair that will gnaw away at tired sailors stuck in the doldrums.

Our initial strategy had been to stay within the same tidal cycle as the lead boats; the lock in Whitehaven was only accessible during an average eight hour window spanning high tide.  If we missed that window and other boats got it may put them so far ahead we may not be able to catch them again on the sailing leg to Ben Nevis.

The hot day turned into evening and finally some breeze appeared and with it a new optimism we would make it.  Sailing through the night we slept when possible but changing conditions required us both to be on deck often.  The autopilot fix had failed on leaving the Menai straits so still it was not easy to make manoeuvres single handed.

Morning came and the wind died, we were less than five miles from our destination  with our ETA going up while the breeze withered away.  White Cloud made it in through the lock, their runners were off to ScaFell and all chances of staying in the same tidal gate were rapidly disappearing.

Once in range our phones started to buzz. The shore crew were there, super charged, waiting for us to arrive so they could leap into action, they had been joined by Mike and Pam, previous owners of Nunatak and 3 peaks yacht race veterans. It was a welcome distraction to speak with them about the next leg and a great relief to know every step had been planned, the lock keepers had agreed that Paul could join us in the lock to take over driving, making the transition to shore smoother. There was another autopilot ram to fit, our bikes were prepped, running food had been prepared although avocados seemed to be in short supply in Whitehaven and we were given regular updates on other crews and the gossip from across the race course.

Wight Rose in a last ditch effort to get into the lock had run aground and was now dried out on its side in front of the lock.  Moby J had arrived and were doubtless enjoying some more of that wonderful sleep.  We had only managed five hours each since the race morning now over 48 hours ago.

We arrived at the finish line, took our time and then joined the crews waiting to get into the lock.  It was a meltingly hot day and I made a conscious effort to drink water whenever I was able to get some down fearing the effects of dehydration further down the line.

ScaFell was going to be a mission.  When we recce’d the course in May it had been a hot day and we had managed to make the return trip up the mountain in less than 9 hours.  From Whitehaven we needed to cycle some 20 miles along a dedicated cycle route to the Blacksail Pass Youth hostel. From there we would transition to running and climb over the 400m Blacksail pass then drop down to sea level again for the Wassdale head check point.  Then we would ascend the 950m ScaFell, and retrace our steps back to the bikes and Whitehaven.

This would be at least 9 hours of exercise and with the effects of the previous days marathon still holding our legs back. For me it was also the first time I would have attempted back to back marathon distance running.

By the time the lock gates opened we were ready wearing packed rucksacks and the butterflies were once again rioting in my stomach.  I stepped off the boat and away from responsibility, as before my only objective was to just keep going; all logistics, pacing, repairs, navigation and thinking was now going to be taken over by an uber organised shore crew and Charles.

Arriving at the marshals desk my bike was there, ready with shoes and food for the ride.  The atmosphere was upbeat and happy, the race officials were kind and impressed by our efforts to date. ScaFell would be tough but I knew what to expect and was confident we could make it back but not sure in what sort of shape I would be.

The initial ride out of Whitehaven was good, I tucked into Charles’ back wheel and enjoyed the ride along an easy cycle path to the hills.  About half an hour in the Wight Rose runners came storming past us on their way out, they were clearly on a mission to recover from earlier sailing set backs but took the time to congratulate our efforts before powering their way through.

At our first meet up with the shore crew and it was evident they had taken race support to another level.  Lou and Ash were waiting in the car park at Ennerdale around two thirds of the way down the cycle route with a table laid out with every type of food we had mentioned we might like.  All items were available to eat now or take away in small bags, avocado and marmite sandwiches as requested were cut into bite size thirds , there was water or electrolyte bottles to swap onto our bikes and an exactly drinking temperature cup of tea for us both.  Just thinking about it now makes me smile.  Meanwhile Paul was back in his little locker once again fixing the autopilot.  We were lucky people.

The run to Wassdale head went well, knowing what to expect made a huge difference, Charles took my pack at the transition point and I carried my water bottle.  Being familiar with the route Charles knew were the next available water would be from mountain streams so we developed a pattern where i carried just enough water to get me to the next filling point, when he would run ahead and fill the bottles up then catch me up if needed.  This way we always minimised the weight to carry but did not run the risk of dehydration. Anything to make this easier for me.

We were focussed on making the ScaFell summit before dusk, the quickest decent down this summit was off road, fell running style and it would be essential for me to make this section in daylight when i had the confidence to navigate the uneven ground with speed.

We were cheerful and had good pace descending Black Sail pass in good time and arrived at the Wasdale head check point to find once again our runners cornucopia laid out with treats and two cups of tea.  There was a compulsory five minute stop at this checkpoint so we chatted with our shore crew and got news of the other teams.  We had passed White Clouds runners coming back on the cycle out from Whitehaven, Moby J and White Rose were ahead of us but the Army team had been in the next lock behind us and we expected them to pass us at any moment.

Released from our stop we headed up ScaFell, it was hot and hard going, the ascent was steep and relentless but I put my head down visualising the top, knowing it was closer with every step.

The light slowly drained from the sky and the first feelings of worry started to hover around my head about making that decent in darkness.  Snowdon had been reasonably easy, the railway track offered an even gradient and surface to negotiate in the dark. However the quick route down Sca Fell offered no path, it would be a straight down the side approach requiring full concentration, it had taken a lot of focus and energy on the recce in full daylight and i had arrived at the bottom with thighs burning from the strain.  At night there is not way i would be able to repeat that performance.

Finally making the summit the sky all around was pink and orange with the remnants of what must have been a beautiful sunset. The heat had drained out of the day and the air was still.  We turned to descend through a spikey boulder field racing the fading light.  As we ran off the summit we bumped into the Army team, asking us to confirm the path to the top.  Charles exchanged encouragement and advice while i carried on anxious to get any extra distance covered possible.  We hit the decent, racing the light down the steep grassy mountainside.

Once again my world shrank to the back of Charles’ heals.  My eyes tracked and mentally recorded where his feet has landed and I followed not lifting my head utterly resigning all attempts at decision making.  When he got too far ahead I called to slow down his progress knowing that the minute I raised my gaze trying to pick my own route the brakes would be on.  I imagined it was like finding your way through an endless sea of waves in a speeding yacht under spinnaker.  I have spent so long at sea picking my lines across oceans its comfortable for me and second nature. But here on the hills I was out of my element, I was not used to this type of running and in a failing light my confidence and ability to find the right line would be low and slow.  It was much easier to trust Charles implicitly and just follow.

We descended at good speed, so focussed on the task in hand I hardly noticed time or the fading light, and running the final foothills back to Wasdale head I felt upbeat and confident. The shore crew welcomed us back with more gossip and tea.  Apparently their table of delights had been a big hit with other passing teams who had helped themselves on the way through everyone highly amused by the provision of tea which Charles and I always accepted with appreciation.  I didn’t feel hungry but took some food to eat and we re-ascended Black Sail pass.

It was now properly dark and climbing another 400m ascent the effects of the previous two and a half days started to weigh down my legs.  I knew I needed to eat, still we had another two or more hours of exercise to finish but the sandwich got stuck in my mouth, my stomach cramped and I felt sick.  I was reaching the limits of my energy and my body seemed unable to accept any attempts to top back up.

Descending Black Sail pass was slow and difficult, my was agonisingly slow forcing Charles to patiently wait, seemingly still in good form.  My tired legs and tired mind were not match for the  intimidating, steep and technical decent in the dark.  My inner voices told me I was wasting time and the army team would appear behind us at any moment but there was no way i could push my body on.  I had reached a limit which was not going to be surpassed.

We made it to the bikes, swapped clothes and shoes then launched into an off road decent, our bike headlamps lighting the way as we sped through the night dodging potholes and rocks, trying not to skid on the gravel.  I got back some mojo, feeling back in my element on the bike in the dark.   As we transitioned onto the road Ash and Lou were waiting with more tea and the story that Lou had attended to another teams runner who they found by the side of the road suffering from a suspected heart attack.

As we left the van and started the final cycle back my body was in its 9th our of exercise and really started to shut down. I struggled up the hills my energy at rock bottom, the final and biggest hill was too much of a challenge and so we dismounted and walked to the top where Ash and Lou were once again waiting with enthusiastic encouragement which only just registered, in my flagging morale and tight focus on the finish.  The night was cooling rapidly and our clothes which had previously been sweat drenched from high temperature ascents wicked any last remaining heat from our bodies as we cycled along.  Now my inner dialogue was an angry rant, I was exhausted and uncomfortable, this was a stupid thing to have attempted, it was not fun, it was not fulfilling, I was putting myself through a new kind of pain for what? I chastised my stupid, competitive nature wondering why just doing the race as a normal team hadn’t been enough.  I never considered quitting but silently vowed to myself i would never do anything like this again.

Joining the cycle path to Whitehaven I had lost all feeling in my hands, I struggled to work the brakes or change gears as my fingers would not do as they were told.  I didn’t call for Charles to stop, I was mesmerised by the road in front and hanging on to his back wheel. My brain had gone into energy saving mode, my head was slowly drooping and my eyes closing.  The bike wobbled, adrenaline charged through my veins, I regained control and realised that just for a micro second I had actually nodded off.

Almost straight away Charles who had been oblivious to my snooze stopped in the track and insisted we put on jackets and gloves, chastising himself for not stopping and doing it earlier.  My hands were so cold I could not undo the buckles on my rucksack and we lost precious minutes as I fumbled with its contents trying to pull on gloves, but it didn’t matter.  All that mattered now was getting back in one piece.  It had been the toughest leg of the race and we were near the finish.  To fall off now would be foolish rather than unlucky.

We arrived in Whitehaven just after two in the morning to another warm and happy welcome.  Once again the boat was prepped, ready to go with a new autopilot ram in place which had been tested in the confines of the Whitehaven Dock.  Lou gave us both the medical once over and provided ice packs for my sore achilles with pain killers and anti-inflammatories.  Paul had been out and bought Pizza and chips which had been warmed through in the boats oven until they had the consistency of plywood but still tasted great.

We sat in the boat, feeling victorious and happy knowing that the absolute worst had been conquered. We had finished the leg in the same tidal cycle as all but one of our competitors, the daily telegraph cup for first past the post may have slipped out of our reach but we could still challenge for a top three line honours result.  We would be strong on the sailing and it was still all to play for.

Ash eventually called time on our team bonding session pointing out we only had three and a half hours before the lock gates would open and we needed to get some sleep before it was show time again.  We were 72 hours into the race, two mountains down, 15 hours of exercise and only five hours of sleep each; we would expect another two and a half before setting off again and sailing to Scotland.

Three Peaks Yacht Race – Leg one – A step into the unknown

In these times of instant sharing it may seem odd that I did not immediately blog about our race, rounding things off in a neat package.  I hope that smile on my face at the finish line gave a true reflection of how I felt at that moment; but after the immediate and incredible elation, life returns so quickly to normal and I have struggled to find words that would  play back the race in any realistic form. On the page it all looks so flat.

Competing double handed in the 3 peaks yacht race was the hardest thing I have ever done. I thought about it constantly for the whole preceding year. I fretted endlessly when I was not able to run for weeks due to trans-Atlantic sailing. When I was on the land I became obsessed with daily mileage, often running twice a day and commuting by foot instead of driving or cycling. I was burning through a pair of trainers nearly every month. I worried about letting Charles down. The sailing did not daunt mem but the running haunted every idle thought.

When you make such a deep emotional investment in an event then after the finish there is bound to be a vacuum. You know you have done something incredible, you are proud but the actual event feels a million miles away; like it is in a fog behind you. It has taken me a while to even consider trying to put all of that into words.

That said I think it is time and I am writing up the race in three parts because now I am ready there are one hell of a lot of words.  So grab yourself a nice cup of tea, put your feet up and come and relive our epic three peaks race.

Leg One

It’s a long time since I have been sick with nerves at a race start, but I came down with it badly 48hrs before the gun. I had arrived two days early with our boat, J120 Nunatak, to get the safety scrutineering out of the way. Charles and the rest of the team would be arriving from Friday onwards .  I knew Nunatak reasonably well having skippered her to a Line honours victory with a fantastic all female crew the previous year so this was a shake down, re-familiarisation trip.  The delivery trip flagged up some problems with the autopilot so when Charles and Paul, one of our amazing shore team, arrived we quickly put Paul to work in a small locker at the back of the boat to try and figure out the cause.  Little did he realise how familiar he would be with that locker by the end of the race.

The rest of the shore team arrived with our crew van at midnight and the following morning we sat down together for the first time and talked through the grand plan.

In order to compete double handed in the 3 peaks yacht race we had submitted a logistical plan to the race committee explaining how we would deal with situations where being in a team of two would be challenging or impossible.  From the beginning it was evident we needed a top notch shore team and plenty of them to make this race a success: to take control of the boat while we were ashore, carry out any repairs and prepare for the next leg as well as support on the runs in the form of food, drink and a medical care if necessary. We discussed in detail where we would meet and what we would need making our best estimates of timings both on the water and the mountains.

Motoring to the start line my stomach was in knots, I had nervous twitches and felt sick, this double handed attempt really would be a step into the unknown.  Both Charles and I agreed neither of us was on top physical form but the dice had been rolled; there was no more time to prepare and now we just had to get on and do it. To do what no one had ever achieved before in the 40th anniversary of this classic race.

The start gun went and we agreed to sail a competitive but strategic leg acknowledging the fact we had a different challenge ahead to other teams.  Nunatak charged off, sitting comfortably in second place.  The sailing was simple for a double handed crew, with an easy to manage sail plan and a fast sailing for our boat.  We trimmed, steered and strategised about our first running leg.  At Bardsey sound it was time to put the spinnaker up, and it struck us both with a jolt that Charles and I had never actually sailed double handed on Nunatak together.  To add to matters the autopilot was not working, the wind got up to 20 knots and we were sailing through over falls, the rough water making everything just a bit more edgy.

We talked it through then went for it, both running round the deck swapping between roles, successfully becoming the first boat in the fleet to get a spinnaker up and moved into the lead.  No sooner was this challenge conquered we desperately needed to gybe and Nunatak was death rolling with passion. We sat for a while out in the tide, trying to stabilise the boat and wondering if we should just notch things down a bit and stay offshore in the foul tide to avoid excessive gybing.  Our competitive natures just wouldn’t run with that idea so with Charles on the helm and me running round like a nutter we went for it.  Pulling off the gybe with heart rates racing we glanced behind, Nunatak was extending the lead.

Now confident in our teamwork we gybed in and out of the coast eating up the miles towards the Caernafon Bar.  It now looked like a daylight arrival, which was a great bonus, and as time ticked down we discussed the list of things that needed to be done before our first run: eating but not too late, changing from sailing kit to running gear but not too early, navigating the narrow channel across changing sails from spinnaker to code zero.  The timing on this sail change was critical; the later we made it the greater the gains, but as the channel narrowed and navigation became more complicated any mistakes could cost us heavily.  We discussed and verbally rehearsed manoeuvres agreeing where we sat on that sliding scale of risk and reward.

As Nunatak ploughed on under spinnaker we took it in turns to eat, packed our rucksacks and laid out running kit. I forced down food to a nervous stomach that really didn’t want it. We talked through our entry to the channel, in minute detail noting every individual action, who would do it, how long it would take.  Without an autopilot we were down to 1.5 crew.  We talked through the plan again.

On approaching the channel we had around half a mile lead on the boat behind and my hands and legs were constantly moving and twitching with nervous energy.  If we got it wrong we were in danger of running aground, damaging the boat, dropping a sail in the water the least of our worries was being overtaken.

When the time came we made the drop and swapped to the code zero like we’d been doing it for years. A quick right turn at the corner of the channel and we were away Nunatak was blistering along at 8 knots and the end of the sailing leg was insight.

We took it in turns to change and put on our backpacks so we would be immediately ready to jump off.  Looking over my shoulder I saw Wight Rose – the nearest competition – on its side, with the sails down, clearly aground.  Thanking fate that we had not had the same misfortune we passed the finish mark with a comfortable lead.

Arriving into Caernafon pier at full speed, the shore crew were there ready and clearly excited by our initial efforts.  The plan was for Ash and Paul to jump onto Nunatak and take command while Charles and I jumped off and leaving Jon to look after us on the run.  Lou would be arriving later with some parts for the autopilot.

We pulled up to the pier, strong hands grabbed Nunatak’s shroud and I put the engine into reverse. It stopped.

Charles was already off – I looked at Ash who was hanging on to the boat.  ‘The engine stopped’ I said. I reached down and started the engine again, it ran but when I put it into gear it stopped.

I was frozen to the spot.  I had a creeping feeling that I knew the problem, but just couldn’t compute walking off the boat and leaving our shore team to deal with it.

‘Just go’, both Ash and Paul said. There was a pause. ‘GO!’ they shouted.

I leapt off the boat and started to run up the steps of the pier, ‘I think there is a rope around the prop’ I shouted.  I think we all knew that.  I had left them in a fast flowing tidal estuary tied up to a rickety pier end with the next boat who knows where behind and night falling fast.

Trying to put it out of my mind, we started the run.  A mere 25 miles to complete including an ascent of Snowdon in the dark.  I was happy to run, the tension of the sail melted away as we pounded out the miles. The moment we set foot on the land Charles was in charge, my only job was to keep running. I was happy to let him make all the decisions about pace, navigation, strategy – this was how our team was set up and he most definitely is the mountain running expert I just had to keep fed, hydrated and going.

It got dark quite quickly as we made our way to the southern side of Snowdon and we talked about how our shore team would deal with the boat, then mused over when we expected the next team to pass us on the road knowing that both Wight Rose had a pair of incredibly talented runners.

At the bottom of the Ranger path the crew van was parked and Lou and Jon fed us, changed water bottles and informed us that Ash had dived under the boat in the twilight to unwrap a rope from the propeller and Paul was back in his locker fiddling with the autopilot. The next boat in was White Cloud as Wight Rose was still aground and they were some 45 minutes behind and gaining on us.

We started to climb. The night was clear and cool and the sky was awash with stars. Our head torches lit the path ahead and the night was utterly silent except for the noise of our feet crunching up the slope and accompanied breathing.  This was my first ever night ascent of a mountain and the experience seemed very pure.

The head torch beam reduced my world to a 10m patch; but when we paused and turned them off, the acres of starry skies and outlines of mountain tops filled the world back up again.   I only looked forward but kept asking Charles if he could see head torches behind us on the path.  We had expected to be overtaken on the ascent but by the time we got to the top of the Ranger path zigzags there was still no one in sight.

From the zigzags it was a short hop up to the summit and time to put away the food and water I had been slowly consuming on the way up.  The descent was just about running, it would waste valuable time to eat or drink on this phase so we both needed to make sure we were topped up before setting off.

At a decent pace we started the decent, running down the side of the railway track as this provided a more even and regular surface.  As we hit the top of the ranger path two head torches appeared and the runners underneath them shouted encouragement to us.  White Cloud were on our heels.

This led to more musings; we knew that the runners on Wight Rose were exceptional so potentially we would be overtaken by both teams before getting back to the pier. Charles though immensely fit had to stay with me therefore we had already accepted my speed as a limitation to our running performance. The thought of being overtaken did not worry us.

I felt great on that decent, under control and enjoying the speed.  My head torch beam was focussed on the back of Charles’ heels, I never looked up, just followed, allowing him to make judgements about when to cross the track and which rocks to run around.  My feet went where his did.

We got to the intersection of the track with the Llanberis path and peeled off.  Now the descent would be slower, as the ground was uneven, but still there was no sign of head torches behind us.  ‘Maybe they are in stealth mode’ I suggested, but then we couldn’t understand why it would be worth taking that risk just to overtake us.

Running on the path was different, it took more thought, different stride lengths, and the surface did not always have good traction. About 10 minutes into this section my back toe caught the ground as I stepped forward and I was catapulted at full downhill speed, face first into the mountain.

The shock was immense, my knee twisted, elbow and face hurt, I had body slammed a large rock with my chest.  I was stunned, couldn’t get any words out and was squirming around on the floor trying to work out which way was up with my whole body screaming out in pain.

Charles was looking down, concerned (which was a bad sign as he’s not big on sympathy), ‘What’s hurt?’ he said.  ‘Knee’ was all I managed to get out.

I got to sitting and slowly the Adrenaline flooding my system subsided and he helped me to my feet. ‘Can you walk?’ he asked.  ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I’ll be fine.’ I wasn’t 100% sure on that and my first few steps were pathetic limps as I tested my left leg to see how it felt weight bearing.  Quickly I realised I had not broken anything, there was blood streaming down my arm, a small graze on my face but in general it was time to step up or quit.  There was no way I was going to let another team run past us while I was limping.

We started to run again and though my body hurt I felt fine.  Psychologically I was fighting the fear of falling again but rationalised that I’d done it once now and it wasn’t so bad. I survived and I would again.

At the bottom of the mountain we turned left on the road back to Caernafon and met the support van in a layby 10 minutes down.  Lou our medic, set to cleaning up the blood from my arm and was pretty disappointed at quite a minor graze and that no stitches were required. In fact the general message from her was to ‘woman up’, so I popped some painkillers for the aches and pains and we started on our final section of the run, seven miles on the road back to the boat.

The shore crew leap frogged us up the road, it was great to see them they kept us smiling, feeding us jelly babies, macaroons and tiny avocado sandwiches. We kept up the pace walking uphill and running on the flat and down.  Constantly looking over our shoulders and asking Lou and Jon to check the trackers, we could not believe we had still not been overtaken.  Eventually the van peeled off to prepare for our transition back to the boat.

The sky was just lightening as we ran through the backstreets of Caernarfon towards the pier. Unbelievably we were still in first place and had completed the run in just under five and a half hours.  As we ran down the waterfront Ash and Paul had to jostle their way alongside as the pier head was being fiercely guarded by White Cloud, clearly expecting their runners would arrive first.

We ran down the pier to applause and jumped on board, having already relayed via the shore team which sails we wanted for the next sailing leg. Nunatak was ready to go, ties off the main, spinnaker rigged and two cups of team waiting in the sink.  We jumped on board and motored to the starting mark. 14 hours in, one mountain down and no sleep; it was time to sail again.

 

 

Chilling with the dolphins and my inner dragon

1 Day to go

I am sitting on the mighty Nunatak, previous 3 Peaks yacht race winning J120 and our trusty stead for the next five days.  I just have time for a quick update, there is much to do and my mind is wandering badly so don’t expect a quality piece of prose.

I arrived yesterday in a blustery onshore breeze, I was tired but happy to have once again made myself familiar with Nunatak mentally got to grips with the waters of West Wales.  Approaching the lee shore of Barmouth the wind was gusting over 25 knots and a big swell had built in pure terms of seamanship this was not a great entry to be making in these conditions, if anything went wrong the wind and waves would mercilessly push the boat ashore.  I had calculated there would be enough tide to get over the bar when I arrived but rang the harbour master for his opinion and we both agreed due to the swell I should just hang around offshore for a while.  So I chilled in the big waves and two huge dolphins came and chilled with me for a while.  This was the last chilling I would get to do yesterday – probably the last till the end of the race – so I considered myself in good company.

Once into Barmouth the atmosphere changed, a fierce tide and strong winds made boat control and berthing a challenge however in the great spirit of this race, another skipper came across to help me and two boats made mooring up easy.

Once tied up there was little chance for relaxation the boat was swinging round wildly on the mooring and it was too windy on deck to change sails, stress started to push its way up from my toes – too much to do and a desire to be perfectly prepared, it’s a familiar story.

I slept for an hour to recharge my batteries and was then happily distracted by my cool welsh buddy Alice who had hitched a lift out to the boat with much needed chocolate and bananas.  Alice is both a helm for an RNLI rescue boat and is a member of the local mountain rescue team so it was great to hear about her exploits for a bit.  After Alice left I checked my mail and had messages from both Elin and Lowri who I was lucky enough to team up with for the 3 peaks race last year, both of them are extraordinary athletes, adventurers and business women and it is great to know they are cheering me on. On reflection I know some extraordinarily kick arse Welsh women – so for this race I am going to channel my inner dragon.

It’s another day today, I managed to get ashore and have signed on, done the paperwork.  I am now awaiting the arrival of the rest of the team. We will be ready.

The doubt

5 Days to go

I’ve just got back from a hectic few days in Norway, where I was invited to race with Hydra Sailing in the Fæder Race on board their just launched Owen/Clarke Class 40.

Maybe it was crazy to agree to this just one week before our double handed attempt at the 3 Peaks race, but I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity and so flew on Thursday night to Oslo for a race start on Friday.

The Fæder race is incredible. It’s an overnight version of the British Round the Island race, on steroids.  This year around 700 boats started in very light breeze resulting in a good few hours of intense manoeuvrings as boats of all different speeds, types and sizes vied for the limited patches of breeze, often resulting in gentle and very well-mannered bumper cars.  The Norwegians don’t seem to get half as excited as we Brits during close quarters situations.

The race continued through the night mixing, strong tides, tiny channels between islands, thunder, torrential down pours, gusty, shifty winds and boats everywhere.  Navigating this course in a boat designed for offshore and ocean racing was tough.  We changed headsails endlessly and at times were gybing every 3 or 4 minutes.  Hydra, though just launched was fast and well set up, we pushed hard and were the first Class 40 to cross the finish line.

My mind has been on the 3 peaks race almost constantly for the last few months and though I was able to switch off and focus solely on Hydra for the duration of the race, I quickly reverted to thinking about mountains on our spinnaker run back to Central Oslo.

I had been awake all night racing, the need for sleep was creeping up on me and I started to consider how I might feel approaching Whitehaven having sailed for the previous 24 hours and knowing I had a tough 9 hours of exercise ahead.

At that precise moment sailing back to Oslo I knew my body would not be capable of running up a mountain. I was already in a state of mind over matter which I am used to employing in extreme situations when single handing – each physical task is broken down mentally and I have an inner dialogue telling my body what to do as at this level of exhaustion I have limited supply of spontaneous actions.  Was this how I would feel on arrival to ScaFell?  The first seeds of doubt started to creep into my head.

But I had been awake for around 30 hours in one stretch and the day before had flown out to Norway in the evening and only made it to bed at 1 in the morning. I knew I was dehydrated and hadn’t drunk enough during the race – I had not planned to run after the Fæder race, I had used all the energy I had to keep awake and keep driving the boat overnight with the knowledge I could collapse after the finish with a job well done.

Last week I had tired legs, I ran a training half marathon distance at the beginning of the week, did some hill training following that and then worked on hill sprints on my bike.  I spoke to Charles mid week and told him I had low energy and was struggling to feel the joy even on short runs and he told me to stop training.  The dice have been rolled, there is no more to do, I can’t get any fitter now so it is time to rest and just let it happen.

I am not a natural athlete.  I love most sports but have always had to work really hard to achieve any sort of results I am proud of.  I have been training for the running sections of the 3 peaks race for just under a year and it has been tough to maintain any sort of form when the programme has been interspersed with Atlantic deliveries and offshore events where I sometimes don’t run or even walk for weeks at a time.  The recces have given me the confidence to know I can run up and down the mountains but what is in question is whether I will have the energy after sailing as well.

The 3 peaks race is going to be a long game but the ScaFell leg will be make or break. I know how I don’t want to feel when I arrive in Whitehaven and mine and Charles’ job is going to be to manage our nutrition, hydration and sleep to such an extent that we arrive as fresh as possible. That will  mean sleeping regardless of my inner niggles telling me to get on deck and sail that boat fast.  The tidal gate at Whitehaven is significant to overall performance but one might argue if we arrive on the first tide but too exhausted to run up the mountain it might be game over anyway. These are decisions to be made along the way – as a team Charles and I are going to have to constantly monitor our levels of fatigue and make good strategic calls along the way about how we as a team are going to succeed.

And finally a gentle reminder that we will be using the event to raise money for the Fairlight School Big Playground Adventure which is a project giving under privileged children a much needed outdoor space in which to Play and Learn; this will be the only opportunity some of these young children have to be outside.  You can find out more about the project through my blog here; and you can donate to the Big Playground Adventure through our just giving page.  A big Thank You to those who have already donated.

9 Days to Go

I am not normally one to hammer things home but in less than 10 days’ time Charles Hill and I are going to attempt to complete the legendary 3 Peaks Yacht Race double handed (Yes – that means with a team of only the two of us) for the first time ever in the Race’s 40 year history.

This race attempt has been dominating my physical and mental energy since my first determined training run to see if I might get fit enough to take on the mountains in July last year.

Now with the clock finally counting down it is nearly time to face up to the challenge ahead and it is BIG!

Here is a brief outline of what is normally achieved by a crew of 5 and what we must deliver as a pair come the 17th June.

 

Barmouth to Caernarfon – Sailing

62 Miles of sailing – big tidal gates and a shifting sand bar to cross at the entrance to Caernarfon.

Snowdon – Running

24 Miles – on the road to the South side of Snowdon, up the Ranger Path, then down the North side to LLanberis and back again on the road

Caernafon to Whitehaven – Sailing and Rowing

About 100 miles of sailing including a transit of the Menai Straits with some of the UKs strongest tidal currents.  If there is no wind on this tree lined passage then rowing through may be the only option.  Once out the other side we will have the first opportunity for each of us to sleep while the other races the yacht. 

Scafell – Cycling and Running 

The round trip to the summit of Scafell is around 40 miles and this is the longest and most challenging of the land legs. We will cycle to Ennerdale from Whitehaven, then transition to running and must go over the 400m high Black Sail Pass before summiting Scafell and returning to the bikes once again over the Black Sail Pass.

This leg took us just under 9 hours in our recce but in the race we will have run a marathon the day before and only slept for around 5 hours in recovery.

Whitehaven to Fort William – Sailing Rowing, Sailing Rowing, Sailing Rowing

227 miles of tidal gates, wind holes, and challenging navigation.  We expect to row some of this leg, and in 2013 had to row the full final 2 miles up the canal to the finish; but we must use the time to sleep and recover as much as possible after our Scafell ordeal.

Ben Nevis – Just a bit of running

The mighty Ben!  We set off at sea level by the entrance to the Caledonian canal and must make the climb of 1344m and back down again to finish the race. By this point I know we will be physically and mentally exhausted but the finish will be in our sights.

There has been a big work up to this event and over the next couple of days I will be introducing you to our shore team and blogging about some of the training challenges, physical and mental I have faced in the last year.

I don’t often fund raise alongside my racing but for this special attempt Charles and I have decided to support the Fairlight School Big Playground Adventure which hopes to provide a safe outdoor space for underprivileged young children to grow their own dreams.  If you are inspired please visit our Just Giving page or if you wish to speak about making a larger donation then contact me directly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beating

Beating:  Sailing to windward.

‘We were on the beat’, ‘ I was beating to Poole’ ‘it’s a beat’ – one of those nautical terms that just makes no sense if overheard in a conversation by a non-sailor.  But as Phorty drops of the crest of another wave with a bone shattering slam ‘beating’ is exactly the word to conjure up our trip back across the Atlantic from Bermuda.

We are currently 300 miles off the west coast of Ireland having been pushed all the way north by persistent and strong Easterly winds making entry through the Western approaches to the English Channel anything but easy going.  Since departing Bermuda some 13 days ago we have been battling our way into headwinds for pretty much the entire time.

Down below we move around like foul weather clad orangutans, the constant heeling and bucking of the boat on the waves makes standing up without holding on an impossibility so we hang off ropes secured to the cabin top, walking our way forward or aft using arms not legs to keep us steady.  One handed tea making has become a refined skill amongst our delivery crew of three, as well as dressing, washing and any other daily tasks you could imagine, which become a major mission when you can’t stand up.  The rigid structure of Phorty’s hull transfers energy directly to the interior so badly stacked sail bags and sleeping people slowly bounce out of there allocated spaces and end up in a heap on the leeward side of the boat.  A wave caught on the outside of the hull can be felt like a kidney punch to the person sleeping on the inside. But sleep still comes if you are tired enough.

On deck the waves pour constantly down the deck though sitting inside the cuddy we are kept safe from the elements.  The autopilot does not care for our comfort and will drive Phorty straight off the face of waves mercilessly following instructions to the letter.  A human hand on the helm produces a more gentle ride and I have spent hours now mesmerised by the form of the waves, the oncoming gusts and keeping a steady and smooth course. Occasionally we will scuttle up to the mast and put a reef in as the heel on the boat becomes too much, only to drop it out a few hours later always searching for a better speed.

We were given some respite from this sheeted in, heeled over state by the passage of a little low pressure system mid Altantic, which snuck up behind to blow us on our way.  This time sails were eased to half way, we reached across messy seas with gusts up to 40 knots and our mainsail reefed down to the max.  In these conditions the autopilots sadistic approach was too much to bear so we took it in turns to hand steer picking our way through the onslaught of waves approaching from different directions.  Being on the helm then, sitting out on the very side of the boat, was like being jetted with a fire hose for hours and hours on end.  The half-height combing behind the helming position stopped us from being washed off the deck but at the end of a watch my torso felt like it had been beaten and my right eye was red from the constant barrage of salt water that had been directed at it.

My new drysuit is without a doubt my current favourite thing.  When I am wearing it I feel invincible.  Yes I will go onto the foredeck and pull that sail down, or tidy those ropes – you can’t get me waves! No more soggy trouser bottoms from crawling on a wave drenched deck.

It has been a tough delivery that is for sure but Phorty has coped with the conditions well and as always I have learned a huge amount.  I am sure it sounds horrendous to some (ok maybe to most) but to sail this boat is a real privilege for me. In order to achieve performance sacrifices must be made, the boat is built to race, to be strong, to be light and were comfort is important you will find it (such as in the helming position) but nowhere else.  For me this is no problem, I will never complain about conditions on board because this boat is made to race and if I want to experience what it can do then I must embrace all that it is.

 

So beating does not seem such a jibberish word all in all. We have been given a beating all the way across the Altantic.  My rough and calloused hands, the ribs starting to show through my skin and weary back an shoulders all profess to that; but we are not beaten.  We have snuck around the top of these easterly winds and tonight will drop down from the north with a following wind to make Lands End by Tuesday.

 

beating beating

Proud to Support the Big Playground Adventure

I have had a strong connection with the outdoors my whole life.  Being outside, feeling the raw elements of the British weather on my skin, has always had a positive impact on me both physically and mentally.  I have my best thoughts when I am out in the open air and just going outside for a walk, run or sail can dramatically change my mood and my energy.

I was lucky to have been brought up in a family where being outdoors was part of what we did.  After school my Mum gave us two choices, be inside and do your homework or go outside and run around.  We spent family holidays messing around on the water or walking in the hills so perhaps it is not surprising I turned out this way.  I first hand understand how vital outdoor activities are to the physical and mental well-being of any person, especially when they are young.

 

With my sister Rachael enjoying the outdoors

When I think of childhood it is a lot about running round outside, playing games and getting dirty but for many children in the UK now this could not be further from the truth.  In a growing number of areas around the country children are living in overcrowded accommodation with no access to gardens or green space where they can safely play.  Home life is limited to being indoors and so their only chance of safe outdoor play time is at school where often facilities and space are limited.

I know all this because I have a sister, Rachael, who is a dedicated and passionate teacher at a primary school whose pupils largely come from homes like this and Fairlight Primary and Nursery School want to change the lives of their pupils for the better.

The Big Playground Adventure Appeal is seeking to raise £67,000 to build an amazing outdoor learning area, complete with adventure trail equipment, outdoor classroom facilities and sheltered areas where children can play and learn throughout the school day.  The schools vision is that ‘every individual child achieves’ and the new outdoor area will support that vision by:

  • improving outdoor provision for disadvantaged children
  • improving the physical fitness and mental well being of all children in their school
  • improving learning outcomes in particular for disadvantaged children through outdoor learning opportunities

As Charles Hill my co-skipper in the 3 Peaks Yacht Race and I both greatly understand the link between achievement and outdoor activities we both felt a great affinity towards the Fairlight project and have decided to use our unique race attempt to fund raise for this project.

If you are inspired by our own efforts in chasing down a so-far never attempted endurance challenge then please help the staff and parents of Fairlight School give their pupils a chance to feel just some of what so many of us take for granted – and donate to the appeal through our Just Giving page.

If just putting money into a generic pot is not your thing then Fairlight could also offer the opportunity to buy selected equipment directly or even fund selected areas and would be happy to recognise any donations.  If this sounds more your bag then please get in touch with me or the school directly.

Before I sign off let’s just put one thing straight – in case of any misconceptions.  Yes, Fairlight School is in Brighton and this is not necessarily an area we may associate with deprivation.  But surely we are all aware that every city has many faces, many different districts with a vast disparity of wealth across a relatively small area, if you still need more convincing you can find out more information about the project here.

If like me you want to help give the children of Fairlight a chance to benefit from time spent in a safe outdoor environment then please donate to the appeal.

The BIG Outdoor Learning Adventure

 

Fairlight Primary and Nursery is an inner city school with 420 pupils ranging from 3 to 11 years. We are looking for funding to develop our outdoor environment to help us realise our school vision EVERY INDIVIDUAL CHILD ACHIEVES.

Our Aim

  • to develop an inspiring outdoor learning environment which will support every individual child and enable them to achieve their full potential in all areas of learning

It’s goals:

  • to improve outdoor provision for disadvantaged children
  • to improve the physical fitness and mental well being of all children in our school
  • to improve learning outcomes in particular for disadvantaged children through outdoor learning opportunities

Why should you help us?

Fairlight is a school which has an extremely diverse population. This is a fact which we celebrate but also comes with many challenges. A significant proportion of children who attend our school come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they do not have the money or resources to attend out of school clubs and activities, they  are often living in very poor and overcrowded accommodation, with no or little outdoor space and indoor living areas that have been changed into bedrooms. Living in these environments can lead to both physical and mental health issues, however stimulating outdoor provision is well documented to have therapeutic benefits to children, there have been numerous studies into the benefits of outdoor learning and it’s potential to improve all aspects of children’s well-being: physical, emotional, social, and cognitive. In our area of the city there are a limited number of safe outdoor spaces that groups serving children affected by economic issues would be able to afford, therefore development of our playground would enable us to open up these opportunities further and to improve its use not only for our pupils but also the wider community. 23% of the children in Fairlight have English as an additional language and 26 different languages are spoken at the school at the current time. This is 80% more than other schools in Brighton and 78% more than schools nationally (Arbor 2016). Many of these children have come to us directly from abroad either due to immigration because of poor circumstances in their home country or as refugees. These children often have little or no English language however the language of play is universal. So by ensuring our playground is a safe, stimulating and welcoming environment we will not only be supporting their physical and mental wellbeing, but also their language development too.

What our children say

Recently our Governors completed a large project to readdress our school vision and what it actually means to different to our stakeholders. The children overwhelmingly spoke about the outdoor environment, how important it was to them and how much they wanted to be able to learn more through being outside. We have a strong School Council who have already done a huge amount of work with our pupils, seeking their opinions on the environment and how it can be improved. They have visited other schools to look at possibilities and also discussed ways that they can raise funds to support the project.

What we need

We are looking for funding towards developing different areas of our playground over the next 18 months:

£20 000 will enable us to put in new multi-use sports goals and adventure trail equipment which will help improve the physical fitness of our pupils and enable them to take part in different sporting activities both during and outside of school times.

£25 000 will build an new mezzanine floor, creating space for another class to be able to work in the outdoor environment, in particular looking at science projects and large scale design and technology.

£17 000 will build a new enclosed sheltered area which can be used as a separate outdoor learning area both during the school day and then as an area for an additional club or group outside of school hours

£5000 will help us to develop our outdoor area for our youngest children (3 to 5 years) providing much needed play shelters which can be used in many ways to support their learning and development.

 

 

The monster awakens – going for broke in 2017

If there is one thing I know about myself it’s that I thrive on challenge; I constantly need to be questioning and testing the limits of my own abilities both physically and mentally. I love to learn, to better myself and then ultimately to put it all to the test.

The last couple of years have been more focused on mental challenges than the physical.  Last year after seven years of study I finally gained my undergraduate degree with the Open University and since 2013 I have enjoyed a job working with the innovative Community Safety team at the RNLI thinking up new ways to save lives around our coasts.  But in the middle of last year I realised the challenge had gone from my life; I was starting to feel at a physical and intellectual standstill and so it was time for a change.

So here we are in 2017 and I have got challenge in spades.

Firstly at the end of last year I was asked to skipper the 3rd generation Class 40 ‘PHOR-TY’ and I jumped at the chance to get back into competing at international level, offshore racing.  The purchase of the yacht went through in early December and then saw me hightailing it from France to the Caribbean over Christmas and New Year so we could attend our first race of the year, the Caribbean 600 last month.

six17-2355

Despite having to learn on the job and only just getting to know the boat the team were lucky enough to be joined by the super talented Sam Goodchild for this race and after four days of battling it out in unusually light winds managed to win our first race by a 40 minute lead against stiff competition.

At the end of this month I will head back out to the Caribbean with a delivery crew to deliver PHORTY back across the Atlantic for a full programme of double handed offshore and ocean racing in Europe – all finishing with my second attempt at the Transat-Jacques Vabre from France to Brazil, one of Ocean Racing’s most prestigious events.  I am really looking forward to the amazing competition the Class 40 fleet will offer and to immense amount of learning and adaption that will be required to race this boat at the level of which it is capable.

You find out more about team PHORTY here.

I suppose you might think a full programme of Ocean racing would give my brain, my heart and my body the fix they are looking for but there is another project which has really got under my skin and has also come to fruition this year.

final interviewSince doing the amazing 3 Peaks Yacht Race for the first time in 2013 I have upheld this event to be one of the toughest endurance challenges I’ve ever come across – and it’s exciting and fun.  Last year I was lucky enough to, for a second time, win Line honours in the event with the incredible bunch of female athletes that made up team Aparito.  In both of these events I was struck by how similar I felt in mentality to the runners and subsequently listening to an interview with Lowri Morgan on the Tough Girl podcast I felt it could have been me talking about sailing.

In 2014 I had a crack at running an ultra-marathon, finishing but in a disappointing time due to injury and this led to the creeping, sneaking feeling that I fancied running in the 3 Peaks Yacht Race.

At some point between 2014 and 2016 I decided that just running wasn’t going to be tough enough and started to wonder if it would be possible to do both.  The race has always required a crew of five with two runners for each mountain, this gives the runners time to rest and recover while the sailors race between legs.  I started to think about the practicalities of taking on this course with a crew of two  – it would be possible but would absolutely push the limits of human endurance – and so the idea took form. I just needed a co-skipper and a water tight proposal to put in front of the committee.

From June 2016 this crazy idea grew in stature, I found my co-skipper in the hard core fell runner Charles Hill who ran for our entry in 2013 and is also an accomplished sailor.  At the beginning of this year we submitted a proposal for a double handed entry to the Three peaks yacht race committee and I am delighted/terrified to say they accepted our entry.

A chilly and windy Snowdon recce in February

Now every spare minute I can find is being spent training for the big one, trying to run as much as possible, to practice on hills, to recce the courses and of course not to injure myself in the process. Just thinking about the race gives me butterflies; I know it can be done but I also know this is going to be the hardest event I have attempted to date.

As an added bonus Charles and I have decided to use the event to raise money for a project being set up by my sister to create a much needed outdoor space for children to play, relax and just be safely outside in an area deprived of any such facilities.  You can find out more and donate to The Big Playground Adventure appeal here.

I must admit to wondering at what point this monster inside me that craves pushing to the limits will be satisfied.  I have always been a big dreamer and inevitably when a dream becomes big enough I will put it out into the world and then chase it down until it becomes a reality.  It is this thing that makes me feel most alive.

One thing is for sure, the Three Peaks Yacht Race double handed has never been attempted before, and is my biggest challenge to date; this is definitely enough to feed the monster and more.

Three Peaks Race – Final Leg

At 10.49 on Wednesday morning Jo and Lowri ran over the finish line and straight into the arms of our sailing team and the history books of the Three Peaks Yacht Race.  We have won, line honours, overall sailing on handicap, leg three sailing and running combined and would end up second overall on sailing and running combined. We are only the fourth ever female team to finish the race and the first to win.  The final leg from Whitehaven had allowed us to shine, but was not without it’s drama and soul destroying moments.

During Monday afternoon our runners Jo and Lowri, battled their way around the biking and running course from Whitehaven, to the top of Scarfell pike and back while we the sailors slept, organised and fretted back on Nunatak in Whitehaven marina.  We had positioned the boat in a prime berth, right opposite the marina entrance where the lock gates were on free flow, and waited for their return with nervous anticipation.

The girls appeared at the top of the ramp, covered in bruises and blood from multiple tumbles while running on the slippery paths of the lake districts highest peak, our shore crew waited on the corner of the pontoon to direct them, the film crews set up to capture their return and Elin shouted to a group of sailors to clear the way –all eyes were on the runners for a dramatic entrance. Lowri led the way, the cameras were rolling, she came down the ramp, onto the main pontoon and tried to turn the corner up to the boat but her cycling shoes with cleats on the bottom and no grip gave way and she promptly slid over in a heap on the floor.  Jo, not far behind, saw what happened and tried to avoid the same spot but left it too late and wiped out on the same corner, leaving both of them in a pile – a very helpful gentleman watching proceedings from his cockpit, sniffed and loudly conjectured, ‘And that’s why we don’t run on the pontoons!’ Such helpful comments.

With the runners safely on board, ego’s intact we headed straight out through the open lock gates.  We were in fourth position, with a distance of 6 miles between us and the lead boat Wight Rose to catch up the front of the fleet.

The evening was murky and started with light winds, we were chasing the other boats, but with little opportunity to make gains. After a couple of hours the wind started to change direction and soon we were reaching for our spinnaker and Nunatak started racing towards the Mull of Galloway.  Down below the runners were tucked into their bunks, kick starting their recovery from the previous 9.5 hours of effort, and as the speed built they were woken up with the sound of water rushing down Nunatak’s hull, and the occasional squawk of delight from the helm as we started clocking speeds of over 13 knots over the ground.

We approached the Mull of Galloway under spinnaker and with the three of us trimming the boat as hard as we could, Nikki on the helm, Elin managing the pole and me trimming and navigating.  By now we could see the outline of Pure Attitude and knew they did not have their spinnaker up, we were gaining on them fast and decided to pass between them and the shore, right under the cliffs of the mull.

The cockpit was alive with tension as we scraped our way along the shore to keep out of the tide, the wind was blowing down through the gaps in the cliffs, heeling the boat over suddenly and rounding us up, requiring great team work from the three of us to keep moving and to keep safe.  We worked intensely for three or four hours, constantly talking to each other about course, trim, speed – focussed, determined and loving the opportunity to sail hard together.

The strategy paid off and by the time the sun came up on Tuesday morning we were leading the fleet.  Wight Rose and Moby J were over 6 miles behind us and Pure Attitude could be seen on the horizon. But as is the way with sailing among the hills in the Scottish Highlands, not long after the sun came up we sailed into a massive windless hole and sat there helplessly while Pure Attitude sailed up behind us.

Our rowing seats and outriggers had been taken apart and stowed for the spinnaker leg and getting them out of the locker and in position seemed to take for ever – it was stressful as all the while our competitors were effortlessly sailing up to us.  I fumbled with the screws and bolts, put the struts on in the wrong order and couldn’t get them off again, I wanted to swear but the on board camera woman was filming my frustration – these things seem so cruel, after putting in such a lot of effort to get ahead.

The next couple of hours were spent rowing between wind holes, we adopted the mantra – ‘just keep the boat moving’ – in recognition of the fact that we could row Nunatak at a reasonable 1.5knots once she had momentum but trying to get any speed from a standing start was very hard.  The three sailors rotated round, taking it in turns to row on each side and to steer.  The sails stayed set and we rowed to where we could see wind on the water, when we started to sail we shipped the oars but stayed in position and as soon as the speed dropped below 2 knots we would start rowing again.  I was starting to develop blisters on my palms from the rough wooden oar handles, Nikki and Elin’s backs were hurting, but we rowed on determined to keep our lead.  The runners woke up with the commotion on deck and came up to offer help – we were still pretty adamant we did not want them to jeopardise their recovery by rowing a lot but Jo helmed and Lowri did a couple of stints rowing so we could eat or drink or strip off a few layers.

Eventually our diligence paid off – we rowed to a solid breeze and ghosted away, watching our rivals lolling behind.  The experience had been unnerving so we left the rowing seats on deck but the wind built enough for a quick ride past the Mull of Kintyre and into the Sound of Jura.

Following another few hours of playing cat and mouse with the wind, always terrified we would park up in a hole while our rivals slid past in wind not far away – we had at one stage hoisted Nikki up the mast to survey the route ahead looking for calm patches on the water – we finally found a solid breeze and started moving again up the sound.

By this time the tide was against us and so we needed to hug the edges of the loch to get out of the tide and make better progress. By now it was a sunny day and the runners –  who had been nicknamed ‘The Meer cats’ as they only normally stuck their heads out of the hatch to look around before going back to their bunks to continue recovery – came out on deck and we worked Nunatak up the Jura shore.  Again we sailed like a fully crewed boat, tacking in and out of a 100m band from the shore, sometimes coming within a few metres of the rocks before tacking out, then heading back in as soon as we saw a drop in our speed over ground.

We tacked around 100 times over that afternoon and evening, our course on the tracker looks like a smooth line heading exactly North and gives no indication to the amount of effort expended to achieve it.

It is hard not to give a blow by blow account of the following 12 hours, I can remember pretty much every tack – we worked our way between rocks and islands, the wind increased to create fairly rough conditions at the beginning of the night and for the first time in the race we had waves crashing over the deck.  We had managed to work our way ahead of Pure Attitude but did not stop trying to gain every knot of speed we could to increase the lead and give our runners a great head start.  They lay down below in their bunks, listening to us working, starting to feel the tension as we drew closer and closer to Fort William – soon it would be their turn.

We came through the Corin narrows with a two hour lead; the cloud cleared from the top of Ben Nevis and we could see the steep ascent speckled with patches of snow. It looked formidable – neither one of the runners could eat as they prepared for their last summit meanwhile on deck we fought for every second of advantage we could gain.

With only a couple of miles to go and in flatter water we had one further  drama to navigate which could still cost us significant time between the finish and dropping the runners.  During the night while charging the engine had stopped.  We had very little fuel and were heeled over and managed to suck air into the fuel system. Half way up the channel we decided to try and bleed the engine and do a test start in neutral to see if we could get it going again, if that did not work we would need to pump up the tender and row the runners ashore which would take a lot of preparation.  While Elin and Nikki tacked their way up the shallows off Fort William I had my head inside the engine bay, trying to brace myself against the heel of the boat and frantically working the fuel lift pump. It took a couple of goes but we managed to bleed all of the air out of the engine, and we hit the finish line then raced towards the dock at the entrance to the Caledonian Canal.

Chris our shore crew was waiting on the dock to catch our lines, we came in with speed and our runners jumped off, all of us feeling sick with nerves.  We had smashed it – the sailing leg was won and the coveted line honours trophy which has been the goal of many a great sailor and adventurer since 1977 was within our grasp.

Jo and Lowri set off up the mountain in worsening conditions, it was cold and raining, the wind was building, we could no longer see the summit and the cloud was hanging low everywhere.  We were elated, to have finished the sailing first but feeling agitated and powerless to do anything further as it was all down to our runners.  So once we had secured Nunatak inside the lock we all jumped in a couple of cars to go and wait on the Ben Nevis foothills.

It was raining and cold on the mountain – there were camera crews dotted up the track waiting for the girls to come past. We split up, some of us climbing up the path, some waiting further down and as soon as the yellow bibs of our runners came into sight we started to cheer.  They looked great, smiling and confident; they had seen the crew of Pure Attitude coming up as they were coming down and were happy they had a good lead.  We ran with them down the final section, chatting and laughing and telling them how amazing we thought they were.

Our second shore support Mike, who was the previous owner of Nunatak and has competed in the Three Peaks Race multiple times was with us and said the last few miles from the foothills back to the lock are tough and sole destroying. They are on roads, through industrial and housing estates, a lonely section of run – so Nikki and I drove with Mike to meet the girls on every corner we could to cheer them on.  It was great for us to see them smiling, and to feel like we were in some way taking some of the pain.  Elin and Chris went ahead to set up at the finish so we had all bases covered.

Jo and Lowri crossed the line, smiling and victorious. We had a group hug which ruined the camera mans finishing photo’s and cracked open the Champaign.  We had achieved what we turned up to do – winning line honours, but not only that we had won the sailing part of the race overall on handicap, and won leg three conclusively on sailing and running combined.  The runners from Pure Attitude put in a phenomenal run and managed to put their team 39 mins ahead of us on corrected sailing and running time combined to win the IRC trophy, for which we dropped into second place.

When Elin suggested the Three peaks race to me earlier this year I jumped at the chance to sail with her and to race this epic course again.  When she showed me her suggested line up for the crew my stomach did flips, I knew we would be competitive.

The race has been an exceptional one and one of the best experiences of my sailing life. I have shared five days of hard physical and mental pressure with four of the most talented, strong and wonderful women I have ever met in my life.  As a team we were hand-picked by Elin, who knew us all but we did not know each other.  We all met for the first time less than two days before the start of the race – we had never practiced sailing Nunatak together before the start gun went, Jo and Lowri first ran together the day before the race.  However, from the moment we met we were a team, we understood what was required of us as individuals and how best to work together. We supported and encouraged each other, were honest, took criticism, endured pain, sleep deprivation and physical discomfort because it was for the good of the team and all the while we laughed.

We were diligently and wonderfully supported by our shore team, Chris Frost and Mike and Pam Jacques, whose attention to detail did not waver and made transitions easy to handle allowing the sailing team to eat and sleep knowing our runners were well supported on the mountains.

The fact that we are all women really should not and did not make a difference to our result.  Every one of the crew of Team Aparito Digital Health is a serious athlete and when we line up on the start of any event we chose to take part in, it is on equal and respectful terms to everyone else there regardless of gender. When we came to the start of the Three Peaks Race we brought with us a wealth of experience from years of competing in multiple and diverse endurance events. Endurance sports require mental toughness as much as physical strength, this is never more highlighted than in the field of ultra-marathon running and short-handed offshore racing. We have taken on one of Britain’s toughest adventure races and proved that gender is not a factor in winning – you need to train hard, be well prepared, work as a team and never ever stop trying to do better.

Of course I would like to say a massive thank you to all of our supporters – Aparito Digital Health for their headline sponsorship, Sub Zero, Keela, and Spindrift for not only providing fantastic kit for the race but also cheering us on all the way around. Primal pantry and mountain house also provided us with food.  However the biggest thanks of all needs to go to Chris Frost who quite simply we would not have been able to do the race without.  Chris allowed us to use his boat, prepared it for us, delivered it to the start, and then followed us up the coast, never losing and opportunity to cheer us on from the shore or provide some sort of support. He and Mike even came out in a boat to shadow us up the shores of Jura.

The documentary following this year’s Three Peaks race, and featuring our team including on board footage will be available on SC4 in Welsh language as a three part series in July and then a one hour English language version will appear on channel 4 later in the year