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.