Sunday, July 11, 2004

Hebridean Challenge 2004

"When first I came unto this land,
And the roads lay bare before me.
And the miles and miles of eagle feather wind,
Blew through the singing valley...

There's so much could be said about the Hebrides, and about the Challenge itself, but the words don't always work. Once you've been there, there are things stuck in your head that don't want to be written down, or trapped in silver nitrate - they're utterly personal.
Well, the Heb Challenge is both brutal and beautiful, and the combination does the same thing, but to greater effect. Pain, joy, beauty, humour and frustration, all in one 5 day, sleep deprived dose.

...if i had heard any name or word
There'd be none could well describe it
For my heart was the heart of beast and bird
And they spoke to me their language."

I can't possibly recount every inch of the race, but it would be good to put some of the best bits down, some of the silliest, and some of the just plain entertaining:

The team consisted of captain Nonie, Heather, Linda, Gordon and Pyro. We were team Pyro & the Vets - the amusement started with trying to find a name, but a pun on Benny and the Jets won out. Some of the training has already been recounted here by myself and others, but it was realised early on that I'd not have a chance to meet the rest of the team before being 'on the brink' already.

"is this the calm before the storm, or the storm before the calm?"

Meeting at Oban, feeling ropey from one too many pints of 80/- in the Ben Nevis, watching Linda get progressively greener on the ferry out, meeting up with old friends like the One.Tel team and new friends like H4 and Hitchhikers, camping for 3 nights on the machair, waking to the surf and going to sleep to the rain. Epic planning sessions, wrangling over who, what, when and where (fortunately, no-one ever posed a 'why'...). Intimate Bike Surgery in a car park when I realise the chainrings are worn enough to slip.

"Spread your arms, hold your breath, and always trust your cape."

Being the only team to beat the 'only 2 bikes' rule on day 1 by using scooters, paddling along, realising that despite a nice expensive, lightweight boat, I was destined to be near the back of the pack (mental note: kayak polo is not a good training method for 20-odd km paddling days...), having a lunch stop at Castlebay and already being badly in need of pie, finishing at Aird Mor, travelling back to the site of last years ceilidh and being fed IPA by the H4 team while one of their team members was in agony with cramp.

"Where the eagle glides descending,there's an ancient river bending,
through libraries and museums, galaxies and stars"

Watching Nonie get more out of the Inuk than I ever could when she came in first on the sound crossing, MTBing across the machair on South Uist past a hostel I stayed in 5 or 6 years ago, wheels spinning in deep sand. Having tea and sandwiches at transition while Gordon hacked up Beinn Mhor, then blasting off for 3 stages on the trot - MTB, road bike and run, dragging my sorry carcass up Eaval and Bunabhal behind Gordon, trying just to get to the finish before I died.

"Still the wind lifts me up, so light am I, and it blows me on and on,
Far above this place I've given the name 'home'...

Hacking round Lochmaddy bay to the top checkpoint on the kayak mystery stage, being one of only 2 teams to get all the checkpoints, flatting on the way back (didn't realise then but this was due to a cracked rim weld) and getting very frustrated changing a tyre with very bendy cheap tyre levers, then hacking back in a real mood, only to be told we had a time out (blooming typical). Racing off and grimly hanging on to Linda, Heather and Gordon as we pelotoned it to the ferry terminal, Gordon putting £1 into the vending machine on the ferry and it not letting him have his crisps (schadenfruede, I know, but...). Driving into Tarbert, setting up and then blasting off for one of the best MTB loops available, struggling up the big hill on the Rhenigadale path, knowing exactly how Rob felt last year, then hammering the descent and having enough left on the road leg to Scalpay to catch 7 minutes on the guy in front.

...I long to see the living tree that heart and hearth hath grown,
In a land that's not just made of dirt and stone."

The long wait at transition while Heather ran, Linda biked and Nonie paddled, having tea and cakes with One.Tel and H4, then cruising along the road with H4 and Friends of Genghis to start the MTB time trial. More long drags, the frustration of a slipping granny cog, meaning I couldn't attack on the climbs like I should have. More epic descents as well, both steep, technical and just plain cool. The last offroad hill, worried I'd passed the checkpoint, then finding Gordon's little 'signpost' to the sheiling. being paced up the last hill, then tagging, pulling in, and falling over still clipped to the bike.

Having a bit of rest, then setting off to paddle up the side of Great Berneray while Nonie blasted past on her road bike, with the 'big bloke' from FoG drafting off her (would have been better the other way round...), hating the swell round the headland, then surfing in to the 'meet teams and portage' section to find I was short of a team. Running across the bogs in a BA and portage boots to stop the clock, and watching Matt fall out of his boat while getting in on the lochans.
Supporting Heather for the swim and then running up the road to the hall paddles in one hand and boat in the other.

"Why do I keep f**king up?"

Puncture. Again. Same reason, waiting on the side of the road for the van to catch me to change the bike. Nonie blasting in from a road bike sectiobn to find the others asleep in the van. Laughing at H4 as Ant rode off with Rhoda's map. Going knee deep in a bog. Getting in the boat on friday morning expecting another racing slog, only to find we were having a social paddle. Finishing said paddle at 9am, and waiting 'til 1pm for a pickup, being fed by each consecutive team as they came to get their paddlers. Another slog of a road bike leg, then running across the heather, thinking 'only 3 1/2 km to go'. Hitting checkpoint 166 spot on, despite trying to do fine nav on a 1:50,000 map. Misplacing Linda temporarily. Jogging through the woods to the finish, stopping occasionally to stop Linda hyperventilating.

The last run to the finish.

Crossing the line, feeling close to tears.

Shaking hands, hugging and congratulating other teams and each other.

Cheering in the last finishers.

"...and he drew that bow across those strings, it made an evil hiss,
And a band of demons joined in, it sounded something like this..."

Dancing the Orcadian Strip the Willow, spinning Claire off her feet. Jon 'Raffling' the top kit prize. Moira's 'Paddler's Paddler' prize and Jas Hepburn's impromptu poem. Dancing, drinking, chatting, swapping e-mails.


Fried breakfast.

Sleeping in the van. Stopping for another 'transition' when H4 shredded a tyre (don't know where, I just woke up and started getting ready to run...)

Bill cooking for us.

Getting up early (again!) to go paddling on the Tay.

FINALLY managing to get a smooth surf on Stanley wier (thanks Bill and the two Ians!)

More sleeping.

Thinking "hmmm. Rat Race in 1 week. Better start carbo loading..."

That's enough from me. I can't put into words the feeling of accomplishment, joy and relief, but anyone who reads this who knows the feeling will remember. I'll end with another quote.

"When first I came unto this land,
And the road lay bare before me,
And the miles and miles of eagle feather winds
Blew through the singing valley.
If I'd seen then where we are now,
Would my path have been a straight one
Into the heart of the nameless wild
To live and sleep,
Not lonely, but alone."


At 11:28 am, Blogger The German said...

Aye, the Heb digs deeper than yir average race !

Maybe we can stretch to two teams next year ?

Cheers for now .... see you all in Edinburgh at the weekend.

At 10:46 pm, Blogger Pyro said...

Well, Nonie was talking about a 'Team MountainRiver' - Bill, German, Pyro, Rob and Lesley - for next year. I'd be up for it...


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