I entered the Jura Fell Race at short notice – I signed on to the waitlist and two weeks later I was accepted on to the runner list with a deadline to accept the Friday before the race. It was a daunting thought and I spent the time leading up to the run scouring the web for information. Inclines, declines, plotting watering holes, calculating cut off times on the 7 check points on the route, searching for pictures of the ‘Paps of Jura’ (try typing that into a search engine and not end up somewhere dodgy!) – I read the blogs of people who had completed the race in the past – tales of exhaustion, failure, bloodied bodies and jellied legs. Needless to say, I spent the three days preceding the race trying to find excuses not to go.
On the Thursday afternoon, I clicked the ‘dinnae be a Jessie’ button on SI entries and by 5.30 on Friday morning I was in the car heading for Tayvallich. I had arranged a 10.00 a.m. ferry with ‘Nicol the Boatswain’ and arrived in good time for a coffee before the crossing. I chatted to Alan and Nick at the coffee shop. They had been before and knew the route and offered sound advice – one gem being ‘tak sum toilet paper – thirs only rocks oot there’ I help load what seems like luggage for a coach party but it is only for Alan, Nick and his wife, Lena, and their two kids. Staying long? I ask. On the way over, the Paps appear and disappear – not fully revealing their true scale, until once fleetingly, the third Pap shows where it touches the sky. I wonder how easy it would be to book the next ferry back.
An hour later we are off the boat and in the campsite. I head for the shop to buy a bedroll – no point in carrying one all the way to Jura, is there. They don’t sell them. I’m not happy. I whip up my tent and offer Alan some help with his. We chat about the run – I mention my lack of experience at this incline/decline and distance. I’m offered a Guinness if I finish. Game on! The campsite is filling with brightly coloured tents and the atmosphere is more one of a tournament than a hill race. Old hands greet each other, there’s laughter and race banter – “will the cloud shift for tomorrow?” Pots boil with carbohydrate concoctions. A bearded chap walks up with a huge kit bag over his shoulder. ‘Is it OK if I put my tent up here?’ I reply ‘no problem’ and we discuss who might snore the loudest. I later realised that this was the eventual race winner - Finlay Wild. I have a five mile round trip recce to see if I can get a look at the hills – to see what I will be up against - but too much cloud.
Sleep is poor that night, no bedroll and a burn racing down behind my tent. I awake early. People are already bundling in more carbohydrates. I follow suit – though not to the extent I should have done… I later discover. I eat, change and pack my kit. With hat, coat, gloves, waterproof trousers whistle, map, compass, water and food, it’s heavy.
Kit checks are strict and each runner is given a race number and plastic tags are issued to be handed in at each check point. We are herded into the pen and after a few unintelligible instructions we are off. It’s a claggy uphill for the first 2 and a half miles , through man-eating bogs and over rock to the first summit. I hit the 3rd hill at 5 miles in 1 h 26 mins. I am well under the cut off time and feel a little more confident about getting round.
From the top of the 3rd peak, the sky clears and Gleann Astaile can be seen far below with the climb to Beinn a’Chaolais rising from the valley floor, its 2400 feet top masked by cloud. Suddenly, the scale of the undertaking hits home. This is big country! Mistakes could be costly.
Climbing Beinn a’Chaolais is brutal on the legs and I am relieved once I am over the top of ‘the big one’.
© Gavin Shaw 2006
From the top of Ben Chaolais looking to Beinn an Oir with Bein Shiantaid in the distance. Corra Bheinn (is the wee hill – just to the left in the far distance)
You have run 7.5 miles to this summit and there is a further 6 miles to the finish from the ‘wee hill’ just to the left of the bigger one in the far distance.
Another steep decent down the other side and up Beinn an Oir (Gaelic: mountain of gold). The legs take a beating again and now I am watching the muscles to the side of my knees go in to spasm. A runner flogging his way up the hill suggests a lack of salt. I have a gel and more water and carry on. Cramp comes and goes from here on.
There is a very difficult decent into the valley with nothing (after the scree) that I find in any way runnable. A few runners and I find a small stream and stop to top up with water. The ascent of the third Pap, Benn Shiantaidh, is more of a rock climbing exercise with the path leading through steep gullies. One foot in front of the other at this point as the cramp bites at my legs. I am over the top and just the ‘wee hill’ to climb. There are two routes here and I chose the route to the right – it is greener and I manage to drag myself up to the last hill check point. I feel I can make it back from here. The run off the last hill to the three arch bridge is torturous. The path has been chewed up and it is almost bog from start to finish. Any departure from the path leads to ankle-mashing clods. It is more of a stagger than a run. I manage to pass 3 runners on this section but waste time changing out of my scree filled socks at the bridge. Cramp grips my abdomen as I pull my shoes back on. I swig down two cups of isotonic drink hoping it will add salt to my system.
The 3 mile run to the finish is robotic. Focus is on the Jura Distillery chimney which all too slowly nears. I pick a rhythm and stay with it. The slightest change in camber or steepness causes the onset of cramp – as if the unused muscles are complaining about being called in to action. The finish line becomes visible - I find a wee sprint finish at the bottom of the tank. I am over the line and utterly done - Too right after six and a half hours in the hills! I sit down and the cramp attacks again. Shortly, Alan (Smith it turns out – from his Deeside Runners vest) arrives with a Guinness in one hand and with the other helps me up. He came 20th and had just completed his 7th sub 4 hour Jura race at 54! Jasmin Paris broke the old course record in an outrageous 3.38.34 with Finlay Wild winning it in 3.13.27 – phenomenal athletes.
When I finished, I vowed never to put myself through the same punishment again. But by the time I was on my 6th Guinness in the Jura Hotel that night - I decided I would probably try it again next year. It’s a great event, great folk - they say it’s probably the toughest run in Britain and if you want to push yourself to the limits of your endurance whether you are first - or two hundred and first – why not do it in a stunning location. My daughter, who only knew I was ‘going running somewhere’ said, as I left, ‘Good luck Dad – You’ll win’. - Such wisdom from one so young!