Jura fell race

Posted by Sam Harrison on July 16, 2014 at 15:37.

 Fell running

fell race fell running islay jura scottish islands

I've still got a few more things to write about my trip to Italy, but they can wait until later as I'm getting well behind on posts!

The Jura fell race is the pilgrimage of the fell running calendar. Every year, 200+ of the sport's keenest competitors and their families make the long journey to the remote Scottish island for a weekend enjoying not just the race, but the festivities and atmosphere that go along with it. The fact that so many make the effort to attend is testament to the race and its surrounds.

The race was first organised in 1973 by George Brodrick from the Isle of Man, when it attracted around 24 people. Numbers dwindled in 1974-5 and due to a lack of interest it was stopped in 1976. It was seven years until another organiser - Donald Booth - decided to make a stab at resurrecting the event, and succeeded in attracting 43 runners that year. From there it has grown into the iconic race it is nowadays.

Anyone who has been to Jura will appreciate the seriousness and complexities that the route must offer. It takes a horseshoe-shaped line over seven summits (including the three Paps of Jura), achieving 7500ft of ascent in its 16 miles; all of which comes in the first 10 miles. Both the ascents and descents are steep and long, and mainly over techincally challenging terrain; indeed, scree makes up a good proportion of the route. Navigation isn't easy, and there are many devious lines that must be taken to avoid cliffs, crags and an SSSI coming off the final pap, Beinn Shiantaidh. It's a real mountaineer's race that tests even the fitness of runners.

The CalMac ferry we caught on Friday afternoon across to Islay was packed full of runners and cyclists, with just a few confused tourists wondering why they were surrounded by so much lycra. The standard ferry onto the island - which goes from Islay - arrives at Feolin, a 10-mile journey away from the race start and camping area in Craighouse. It is hence customary to take your bike across with you, and in fact many make the journey via Arran first. The little ferry from Port Askaig on Islay to Feolin had to make a number of consecutive journeys in order us to cart us all across, and it was impressive watching it battle its way to and fro against the strong tide in the Sound of Islay.

Jura and Islay passenger ferries
The Islay-Jura ferry (left) heading to Feolin and Jura and the mainland-Islay ferry (right) heading back to Kennacraig.

The campsite wasn't so much a campsite, but the front lawn of the Jura Hotel in Craighouse. It was already pretty full when we arrived and got progressively fuller as more people arrived from the later Islay ferry and the passenger ferry that runs straight to Craighouse from Tayvallich on the mainland. The weather was perfect; beautfiul bright sunshine coupled with a slight breeze made for great views but without any midges.

Jura Hotel campsite
The "campsite" on the Saturday morning.

There was a vertible hubbub of activity on race morning and a lovely atmosphere to go along with it. Over breakfast, we got chatting to a guy who'd had to pitch pretty much in our porch due to the lack of space, and it turned out he was aiming for a sub-4 hour finish. I definitely wasn't! We also spotted pioneering-mountaineer Mick Fowler in the crowd and I vaguely recalled reading something about him competing in the race every year to ensure he was fit enough for a summer of climbing and expeditions.

Craighouse harbour
Craighouse harbour, taken by Lorna whilst the race was going on.

Craighouse harbour
The Paps of Jura.

That slight breeze was still present, keeping the midges away and letting us enjoy the glorious warm sunny morning. The race begun at 10:30am sharp, after a few words from race organiser Donald Booth, who warned us that the first section to Dubh Bheinn would be boggy. This proved completely correct, and after a short run up a 4x4 track we found ourselves wading through bog. The evening before I had spotted fast lad Rhys Findlay-Robinson walking back to the campsite caked in mud; I now knew where he'd been!

I told myself strictly to take it very steady as I wanted to enjoy my first experience of the island's mountains, not struggle my way round cursing myself for setting off too fast. I hence found myself comfortably sailing over the first three summits, absorbing the stunning views and magnificent surroundings. The race started properly on the descent from the third summit, which comprised a combination of steep grass and even steeper scree. The wide col that followed provided the last (and only) proper chance to top up my water bottle, and I made the most of this. It was then time for the battle to commence, the first opponent being the 600m grassy scramble up Pap #1, Beinn a'Chaolais. It seemed to go on forever, but taking it steady meant that by the summit I was overtaking others at a satisfying rate.

I took lead of a small group coming off the summit, leading us successfully down the steep scree run to the next col. The scree wasn't that lovely uniformly-shaped and runable stuff that you get in the Lakes, instead it came in a great array of shapes and sizes and was hard going to say the least. I noticed a few runners wearing knee-high socks and ankle gaiters, which was probably a sensible option given the amount of scrapes and bruises my lower legs picked up on these scree slopes.

​Fortunately the next ascent wasn't quite as long as the last, but it did involve many more rocky steps and dodgy steep scree and grass traverses that left my ankles throbbing upon reaching the summit. The descent was much more forgiving as well, and the ascent of the final Pap also much more pleasant (and gradual). Thanks to the slow start I was still feeling strong and I'd managed to gain at least 20 places since the summit of the first Pap.

The route finding wasn't obvious coming off this summit, as we start by heading south-eastwards to an SSSI, before traversing north-eastwards under it. All of this was on scree and there were runners all over the place. Goodness knows which was the best line, but I seemed to overtake a few taking the line that I did and so I suppose I didn't go too wrong. The final bit of ascent up to Corra Bheinn was a bit of a sting in the tail, as was the long run out over boggy terrain to Three Arches bridge on the road, and the longer run back to Craighouse along the road. Lorna was waiting for me at the bridge and cycled alongside me for the road section. It was a definite help to have someone to chat to, to take my mind off my aching legs and sore feet!

Descending the final hill, just before the road.

Again, I overtook a few more on the road and finished feeling surprisingly strong in 76th position with a time of 4:40:20. 213 completed the race, the winner being Hector Haines from Hunter's Bog Trotters, who had an amazing race and set a new course record by 30 seconds. His time was an incredulous 3:06:30, which given the technical difficulties the route poses, I can't even begin to contemplate!

Jura Hotel campsite
Enjoying a welcome post-race pint outside the Jura Hotel.
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