Castles & Islands Challenge 2011
The Castles & Islands Challenge is an annual event (now in it’s 10th year) hosted by Coquet Yacht Club in Amble. It’s a very different type of race as it combines the disciplines of Sailing and Running. Teams can include up to 6 people, two of whom must be Runners (or take on the running stages). The race is made up of stages which take in 5 Castles of Alnwick, Warkworth, Bamburgh, Lindisfarne, & Dunstanburgh & Islands (Coquet, Farne, Holy Island) on the Northumberland coastline. . Each stage has a series of checkpoints which must be passed through. With 30 miles of running and 56 miles of sailing, the challenge is for the Teams to complete both Running & Sailing stages within 24 hours. Runners must run in pairs and finish each stage together at all times.
We have two Race Reports from both club runners who took part in the event. First up.. grab a flask and prepare for a long read as Rob Kirtley lets his story unfold….. enjoy
Tyne Bridge Harriers were invited to take part in this years event by Peter Lowrie who is the Owner & Skipper of the team yacht Schuuper.
When Kenny Mac first put out the call via Email for two volunteers from the club to take part in the event, I was immediately intrigued by the challenge. There were several of club athletes who had expressed an interest in it straight away, and I thought that both vacancies had been snapped up.
I was a little surprised to find out that a week later that no-one had yet risen to the challenge although this was due to work, family & other race commitments. Not wanting to miss out on such an exciting and unique opportunity & with a free weekend without gigs, I made myself available right away.
Following a couple of days of trying to find a second runner from the club.. I was soon chatting with Peter and giving him the great news that Tyne Bridge Harriers would be accepting his kind invitation and providing two runners, myself and Sparrow Morley who were up for the Castles & Islands Challenge 2011.
Sunday 19th June
We went to visit Peter at Blyth where Schuuper was moored to have a look around the yacht that would be our home over the course of the challenge. She is a beautiful boat, dutch in origin (Peter hasn’t changed the name as he’s superstitious about doing that) very slick, and cool looking with loads of space below deck .. very posh..
The yacht came with emergency allen wrench sets, fire extinguisher and several other emergency kits. I could go into more detail about her structure, her engine and her performance capabilities, her masts and sails, but what I have written above is where my knowledge of yachts ends.
I came away from seeing the Yacht like a very excited little boy and was itching to get away on her and sail the high seas.
Monday 20th June – Thursday 23rd June
Armed with the grid references of all the checkpoints that we would have to go through on the C&I, I spent the next few days online plotting routes and courses. Utilising the information from about 4 different websites and eventually getting everything sorted in my mind and even uploaded the routes to my ‘trusty’ Garmin.
By the end of the week there were printouts of all the maps & documentation that we would need strewn across my office desk & floor.
I had maps of maps, I had aerial view maps, OS view maps, Street view maps, the works .. my next 24 hours was literally ‘all mapped out’.
Friday 24th June
Briefing & Registration for the event was to be held at Coquet Yacht Club HQ in Amble at 18:00. We were to have a meeting prior to this with Peter and the rest of the crew at 17:00 so Myself & Mrs Shades (Su) collected Sparrow and up we drove to Amble. The first stage of the race was a 10 mile run from Alnwick back to Amble which was due to start at the gates of Alnwick Castle at 19:30. We were in good time and met Peter, Tom & Jane Lowrie who completed our Team Schuuper. Loading our kit bags onto the boat, the excitement was building high on what we were about to embark upon. I couldn’t actually believe it, things had moved so fast that there was no time to think about the ‘what if’s’ and ‘why for’s’.
My longest time on a boat prior to this event had been a 10 minute crossing from South Shields to North Shields after the Great North Run 2010. How was I going to fair on a 24 hour ‘expedition’ on a swift cruising yacht along the Northumbrian Coast in the North Sea …. more of this later
With our kit all stowed away, our registration forms filled in and our Tracking device (A Blackberry device provided by the Event Sponsors Track-A-Phone) switched on, we made the journey up to Alnwick for the start of the first run, 10 miles from Alnwick to Amble, cross country visiting 4 checkpoints along the way.
Bit of a hairy moment after we parked the car as despite all the maps I had on me and in my head and preparation I had undertaken, we couldn’t actually find the start of the race.. . Myself & Sparrow spent a few minutes running around like headless chickens trying to find the street we should go up to reach the Castle Gates. We found the start with a ‘comfortable’ 10 minutes to spare.
7 teams had entered this years challenge so there were 14 runners warming up outside Alnwick Castle gates. Conditions were absolutely perfect for a lovely Summer Cross Country run. I saw a few familiar faces including the tall frame of Dave Hindmarsh who used to run ‘in camouflage’ like a few of us but now runs for Alnwick Harriers. His team mate was Graham Sayers.
We were lined up by the race director and at 19:30 prompt we set off on the Castles & Islands Challenge 2011
Run Stage 1 – Alnwick to Amble
Prior to that start, myself & Sparrow had discussed & decided that due to that nature of this event, we weren’t going to be ‘caning it’ throughout and that we would have to respect the challenge and what was to come. We didn’t want to give it our all in the first race only for it to affect our other runs, so we set away along Alnwick High St at a steady pace toward the first Checkpoint at Alndyke Farm about 1.6 miles on a descent along the A1068 at a very pleasant 6:40 min/mi. There was already a massive lead taken by Team Carisma as they stormed away, but we just held steady as we passed the first checkpoint. We then left the main road and into the fields for the Cross Country element of the stage.
Across the fields (which are public footpaths & bridleways) and still on a slight descent albeit on different terrain, our second mile was completed in 6:51. We were both feeling comfortable as we stayed with the main pack of runners alongside the River Aln.
At about 2.5 miles in, the lie of the land started to go upward and this is where things started to get slightly more challenging as we hit a mile long incline. I had seen this incline on the elevation profile of the route and for a guy that doesn’t like hills, wasn’t really looking forward to it. It seemed to go on forever. I tried to keep my head down and to ‘flatten the hill’ as best I could in my mind. I think the thing that spurred me on was that I knew that at the top of the hill, it was all mainly to downhill to Amble.
Our second Checkpoint was at 4.6 miles at High Buston Farm, part of this section involved running through a field which was full of crop. I made a decision to follow Dave Hindmarsh from Alnwick Harriers (who we affectionately dubbed as ‘The Germans’ because of their Red, Yellow & Black band on their club vest) who is ‘slightly’ taller than me. I could see him gliding through the crop field as if he was on rails.. as soon as I hit it however.. I was upto my neck in ‘forest’.. Sparrow saw this and after laughing at me, decided to take the route around the field. I had no option but to get through as quickly as I could.. Slow progress for a shorty. It was as if the crop was grabbing my legs and trying to pull me under as I waded through. I used a load of energy here and was happy to get to the edge of the field worn out from my ‘galloping’. My legs were red from the lashing that they had taken from the ‘angry crop’. A team of runners who had also seen me make my mistake had also followed Sparrow and got just in front of us here although we did catch them up again. A fourth & fifth mile at a snails pace of 9:42 & 9:48.
We had to make up for that ‘lost time’ and as the course hit more solid ground, it was a relief to see tarmac again. We pressed on and feeling a bit worn out at this stage got back on track with a steady 6th mile of 7:48.
Due to a slight route change after the 6 mile point, we both became a little unsure of where to head to next. My Garmin was telling us to head East but this was going to take us a more indirect route to the one that it had been changed to. There was a team of runners behind us so we had to wait for them to check which way to go.. and when they very sportingly told us.. Myself and Sparrow made a bolt in the right direction and tried to put as much distance between us and them (very sportingly) :-). The slight delay in waiting around did add to our time on that mile and it passed in 9:08 once we were back on track.
We were heading for Warkworth Castle now which we had to ‘circumnavigate’ (gan roond) before hitting the checkpoint at the gates. Back on the roads we ran down Station Road which took us into Warkworth. I had a look behind us and we were being chased down by 3 teams of runners all wanting to get to the Checkpoint first. For some reason, Me & Sparrow ended up on the wrong side of the ‘moat’ wall at the castle and as everyone else was running on the road I shouted to Sparrow.. “get over the wall… jump over the wall”.. we both scarpered toward the wall which was low on our side.. flung ourselves over it… which was high on the other!! . Well it was about a 7 ft drop but at least we were on the right side and avoided possible disqualification. We got through the checkpoint and then we had to run around Warkworth Castle.
It was great to see the familiar face of good friend John Ross from Alnwick Harriers who cheered us both on.. thanks for the support John !!
From Warkworth Castle it was then a run for home along the flat A1068 to Amble Marina and our final Checkpoint of the first Stage which we ran in a steady 7:37 pace. Sparrow pushed me on during the final mile.
4th Team to finish the Alnwick to Amble stage in 74:54
it was then a quick dash to the Marina where we boarded Schuuper for the first of the Sailing stages.
Our Skipper Peter Lowrie was now in charge as we headed out of Amble Marina onto the next stage of the challenge. The yacht could motor out of the harbour to a Buoy named ‘Sewer Buoy’ at which point, the engine had to be turned off and from then had to use sail power only to head out to Coquet Island and sail round it in a clockwise direction.
I was looking forward to a pleasant 4 – 6 hour rest before our next run. I had envisaged a gentle time, chatting and relaxing below deck, a lovely pasta meal followed by a nice peaceful rest. What I got was probably the opposite of that. As soon as the yacht started to move out of the harbour, I realised that my 10 minute crossing on the Shields Ferry a year prior had been insufficient training for this event and I felt the colour quickly drain from my face and my stomach started to churn and the seasickness kicked in. There were seasickness tablets onboard but they had a warning that they would make me drowsy and so I resisted them knowing that I would have to run again in just a few hours.
My plans of capturing video to make a video diary also went out the window as I just felt too drained to do anything. I had a brief look outside at one point but unfortunately could not appreciate the waves and the bobbing up and down. I went below deck to feel sorry for myself. The pasta meal was served but I could not face eating anything with the fear of me immediately seeing it again if I did manage to get it down me.
As we headed round Coquet Island, the wind just dropped and all was calm for a long time.. a very long time. For ages, we were stuck in our very own doldrums. I had another little look outside and the gentle noise of the water lapping the side of the boat and us not moving was a bit eerie at that time. We were hoping to do our second run at Holy Island as this was the furthest point out and was the preferred route. As the time passed Peter made a decision for us to head to the Seahouses to Bamburgh run first. All the other teams were battling to get to Holy Island as we arrived at Seahouses at 3am to start our second stage run.
Seahouses Harbour to Bamburgh n Back
The second stage run was from Seahouses Harbour along the beach to the far end of Bamburgh Castle, around the Castle and then back again. We managed somehow to get about 3 hours sleep in our little cabin at the bow of the yacht before given a 30 minute call that we were approaching our destination. The seasickness had passed (for now), & we got ourselves rallied, and with headtorches, flares and lifejackets, and warm kit, made our way to the stern of the yacht to get into a dinghy that had been inflated while we were sleeping. Yes.. we had to be rowed to shore in a dinghy for each running stage. We were aware of this fact so it didn’t come as so much of a shock.
We both clambered into the small inflatable and positioned & settled ourselves as best we could as Tom Lowrie rowed us to the shore. I could not believe the strength in the guy as he made the short trip look effortless pulling on the oars in rapid timing.. this guy is a machine!!! and the speed at which we reached the Harbour steps was incredible.. within 5 minutes we were there. We carefully disembarked the dinghy, removed our compulsory lifejackets, checked in with the Race Marshal and at approximately 3am set out on the scheduled 6.5 mile run along the beach.
Strangely, it did not feel in the slightest bit odd that we were both out running along a beach at 3am in the morning. I saw it as a ‘job that had to be done’ as we had a little chat to each other about how we were feeling and how we were going to run the course. We were always going to try to maintain a 7:20 – 7:30 mi/mile pace but on the beach it wasn’t going to be possible & we ended up doing about 8:15 – 8:30’s. Within a mile, we both realised that we had worn far too many layers for this stage. I was cooking inside .. I had put on a jacket and the zip got trapped and I couldn’t get it off.. not wanting to stop I tried to battle with it while on the run but this was just making me hotter so I just gave in & got on with running. It was only 5K to get to Bamburgh Castle but it felt longer. We tried to stay on the compacted sand but some parts were softer as we just sank into it. Very draining. we eventually saw the castle but we had to run to the far end of it and go around the back. We found a suitable spot to get off the beach and get through the Bamburgh Sand-Dunes and around the castle. Quick breather at the gates of the castle to take a picture and then we were off again back along the beach.
Getting back through the dunes from that side of the castle was more difficult and it took a while before we were back on the beach. The wind had picked up and the additional layers coupled with the fatigue & hunger (I still hadn’t been able to eat anything) started to take it’s toll and heading back into the wind was fairly tough as our paced slowed down.. 9:37 and 10:32 as we were taking a few walking breaks. I kept apologising to Sparrow as I felt like I was holding him back but we worked well as a team and he kept on encouraging me to push on. Eventually we saw the path back up onto the road and to the harbour which was a pleasing sight and helped with the motivation.
When I had first read about the Seahouses to Bamburgh section along the beach, I had contemplated running it barefoot !.. I’m so pleased that I didn’t.. it would have been disaster.
We checked back with the Race Marshal in 65:55 and were 3rd place in the running to finish that stage. It was great to see Tom there waiting ready with our lifejackets & to row us back to the yacht.
Back onboard Schuuper, Peter told us that we’d probably only have an hours rest before our next run.. The Holy Island circuit….
The wind had really got stronger and I can’t quite remember what happened during the time from Seahouses upto Holy Island .. It was a quick change around that’s for sure but onboard a cruising yacht, every simple task takes ages and is a real struggle even just to change a pair of shoes took about 5 minutes as you got rocked back and forth in the confines of a cabin.
Stage 3 – Holy Island Circuit
Because of the good winds, our 60 minute rest was reduced to about 45 minutes as we reached Holy Island earlier than scheduled. As we approached the Island we could see all the other teams boats anchored offshore. Their running teams were busy just finishing their second run and it was a great feeling knowing that we were about to start our third. We were rushed off the yacht and into the dinghy where Tom once again rowed us to shore at great speed.
The Holy Island Circuit is the ‘orienteering’ element on the challenge. There were 5 points to visit around the Island. We were given a card, & at each checkpoint there was a clipper that we had to use to ‘mark our card off’
We got started by the Race Marshal at approximately 5am and straight away saw two of the other teams completing the stage. This circuit was down as a 9 miler over varying terrain. The first point was the Coastguard lookout which was only a short run from the start. We found it without problem and clipped our card at the appropriate location. Easy !!
Our next point was ‘The Snook’ which is an old lighthouse situated out partway along the causeway on the Island. Sparrow wanted to take a ‘short cut’ straight across a field but with my previous experience with fields and crops earlier on the Alnwick stage, I managed to persuade him that we should try and get onto the road where it would be easier to run on although not as direct a route. He gave in somewhat reluctantly and we headed out of the farmers field that we were situated in and got onto the road which headed out to the causeway and The Snook.
Our legs were really feeling it at this point and the weather was fairly lousy too although not raining (that would have just made the whole thing gruesome). As we got to the ‘junction’ of Chare Ends and the Lindisfarne Causeway, Sparrow seized another opportunity to suggest a ‘short cut’ this time directly over the sand as the tide was out. It was certainly an option but took one look at the sand and with the thought of Seahouses – Bamburgh still fresh in my memory plus the fact that in the middle of that sand was a ‘wet patch’ that looked like we could have sank into, I once again suggested that we should stay on the road and ‘play it safe’.
We continued on the never-ending road along the causeway. I said to sparrow that we may have to continue this section run / walking as my calves were starting to cramp. Pace slowed down to 9:25 for the third mile as we approached The Snook and clipped our card. We then had to head back along the same stretch of long boring road we had just ran to return almost to the Village, before turning onto more Cross Country terrain out towards the north point of the Island at Emmanuel Head. For me, this section was torture as my calves and inner thigh would occasionally go into spasm and just stop me dead in my tracks. It’s exactly what happened at London marathon at the 24 mile mark. I was in agony. The trail seemed to go on forever as I was only able to run a short distance before my muscles would spasm again. I thought we were never going to get there.
Eventually we saw the checkpoint at Emmanuel Head. It was about .25 mile away, and knowing that I was suffering, Sparrow suggested that he run out alone and get the card clipped to save a bit of time and also to help me out !! .. I was carrying the Blackberry that was tracking our every move so I passed it to him and off he went. I was really grateful for this as I slowly made my way to wait for him returning on the trail. I massaged my legs while I was waiting and felt a little better by the time Sparrow he got back.. another checkpoint marked off.
The next Checkpoint was a situated at a Gatepost toward Lindisfarne Castle. We plodded on along the edge of Holy Island and very soon arrived at the post. The Castle and the Harbour were in sight and I told Sparrow that once we got this section finished we’d have about 4 hours rest before our final run. After all the time we so wanted to be off the yacht to stop the seasickness, this was the point where we were looking forward to getting back on it.
With our card all marked off we then had to run past Lindisfarne Castle and then back to the Race Marshal who gave us a time of 1:30:30 for the circuit. We knew it was slow but later found out that Peter had scheduled 1:40:00 for us at Holy Island and that we were infact 10 minutes ahead. We were however 5th in that section of the Running.
This part of the race was an absolute killer for me an possibly my least enjoyable stage.
Tom once again rowed us to Schuuper where we boarded knowing that we had a lengthy rest ahead … well 3 hours as it happened.
Stage 4 – Newton to Dunstanburgh Castle n’ Back
When we got back onto the yacht, I was looking forward to some rest. I’d managed to eat a couple of pieces of flapjack (laced with Chia & made by Mrs Shades) and also a few spoonfuls of Chia gel, but still hadn’t eaten properly. As we got going again, the seasickness started to return as the sea was very choppy. I decided that it was time to take some of the tablets so had two Stugeron and made my way to the cabin to get changed as best I could and to try and crash out. I got onto the bunk and closed my eyes.
I got some rest but actual sleep was impossible as the waves crashed against the side of the boat. The Stugeron definitely was doing it’s job and I felt no seasickness but I felt every crash of the waves like a thump to the ribs. This was continuous and at one stage water came through the window above me. I was half expecting a call to come through saying “get your lifejackets on.. we’re going down”. I heard things crashing onto the floor in the adjoining part of the yacht as it was tossed from side to side. I was trying my hardest to keep myself on the bunk.
Soon, it was time to set out for our final run. Newton to Dunstanburgh Castle and back all along the beach. The shortest of the 4 stages at 5 miles but for me, one of the toughest and most surreal…
Newton – Dunstanburgh n’ Back
I emerged from the cabin and into the galley to witness what looked like the morning after a wild student party. Al the maps and our belongings that were on the table were strewn everywhere across the floor from the waves rocking our boat. Sparrow was still partially crashed out on the seating and looking fairly rough. The Stugeron was wearing off and the seasickness was returning with a vengeance.
We got a call to say that it would be 5 minutes before we were to board the dinghy. I quickly got my self sorted as best as I could. I had absolutely no idea what time it was and my brain had switched off. It had become a routine just getting your kit on and getting straight into the dinghy then running.
About 2 minutes before we were to get into the inflatable, Sparrow made a leap for the WC and emptied his stomach contents into the loo. It was inevitable really. I’m surprised that I managed to hold things down to be honest. He emerged looking like a ghost, totally drained of colour. He immediately got his lifejacket on and we quickly got into the dinghy to be rowed ashore by Tom.
As we were being ferried the short distance to shore we saw two other teams of runners doing the same. We got to the shore and checked in with the Race Marshal. The other two teams were slightly ahead of us as we set out along the beach to Dunstanburgh Castle.
The sand here was less compact and we found ourselves just sinking in the softer ‘mud’ which made things tough going. The previous couple of hours of being bashed about in the waves had taken their toll and within one mile, I started to feel very sick. We had to slow down to walk/running. As soon as I started to run again, my stomach started to churn. We could see the Castle in the distance.. It seemed so far away. We were gaining ground on the team that was just ahead of us but it didn’t last too long. I had to stop and made the decision that I had to induce vomiting in order to feel better and to carry on.. So there I was on Dunstanburgh beach at 9am on Saturday morning jamming my fingers down my throat to make myself spew. As I hadn’t eaten anything of real substance, there was nothing to come out and I just managed a few painful wretches as families and dog walkers passed by looking mildly concerned.
The time just dragged by and we weren’t getting anywhere fast. We eventually got off the beach and headed up the rocky path up to the castle gates. The team who were in front were already on their way back and had passed us with a good ½ mile between us & them. I was so relieved to get to the castle gates but was also not looking forward to the journey back. We stopped briefly for a quick photograph before heading back along the same painful route. More Running and Walking, bit by bit getting closer to the finish of our running challenge. It could not come soon enough and as we got back to the Race Marshal to record our time I just wanted to collapse with complete exhaustion. She offered us some water which we both took big swigs from
The mile splits for this stage show just how slow we were on this ‘short’ stage 9:02 11:19 14:22 13:19 7:07
It seems like all teams had a difficult one here. Our recorded time of 54:11 put us 3rd in the running section for this final stage.
It was once again such a relief to see Tom on the beach waiting to row us back to the boat. We got back on Schuuper to great congratulations from Peter, Jane & Tom. I went straight below deck and took another 2 Stugeron tablets, got dried off and changed as best I could and as the yacht made its 4 hour journey back to Amble, I got into my bunk and closed my eyes, let the Stugeron kick in and actually slept. !!
The next thing I remember.. I was back in Kansas…
…. well Amble to be more geographically correct. I awoke to the sound of the Yacht engine and the gentle bobbing up and down of calmer waters and the safety of the harbour as Peter and the crew pulled into our mooring point. It was 14:00 and for Team Schuuper the Castles & Islands Challenge 2011 was officially completed.
As the engine was turned off, things started to become ‘normal’ again. Peter having just skippered a yacht for the past 4 hours solid came into the galley and prepared myself & Sparrow a bacon butty, which I managed to eat.. don’t think it touched the sides to be honest.
We gathered our belongings and repacked our kitbags. Left our Yacht Schuuper and headed to the Yacht Club for the presentations.
Back on dry land.. The Yacht Club was moving underfoot….
Only one team retired during the event, and all other teams finished the challenge well within the 24 hours.
Our total running time to cover the approx 30 miles of the challenge was 4:45:30
At the time of writing, the full results have not yet been published, but we think we came 4th overall. I’ll publish them when they become available.
The Bit At The End
The Castles & Islands Challenge is an amazing event and one that I’m so pleased I took part in and accomplished. It is most certainly a challenge otherwise they would have called it the Castles & Islands Day Trip .. Superbly organised by Coquet Yacht Club. Each run has it’s own inbuilt challenges and are all have their ‘Beauty & Beast’ moments. The event overall is one that is both physically and mentally draining. It will make you wonder why you every agreed to it in the first place. The few hours on the boat can at times feel like days. Normally short and easy runs turn into seemingly impossible feats that you think you can never get through. There is no time to warm up before each run, you’re just rowed to shore and straight into it. Each run covers different types of terrain. If you’re up for a challenge then this is great as well as being a completely unique experience.
Would I do it again??.. ABSOLUTELY !! I would hope that at some stage Peter will once again invite us to take part in this Challenge. I would do this again, however, as much as I enjoyed the very different race, I would hope & recommend that another runner or runners from the club would rise to the challenge next time to have a shot at an amazing experience. I guarantee that you won’t regret it.
The 2012 Castles & Islands Challenge takes place on Fri 29th / Sat 30th June so make sure you can get time off in case we do get asked.
I would like to thank Peter Lowrie on behalf of Tyne Bridge Harriers, for the kind invitation as well as skippering the yacht Schuuper with complete precision. Also to our crew Tom & Jane Lowrie who made our experience on Schuuper and absolute first rate one by looking after us so well, by rowing us to and from shore and making sure that we wanted for nothing onboard.
Thanks also to my good friend and club athlete Sparrow Morley for being my team mate on this challenge and for pushing me on and helping me out when it was needed. Absolute top bloke !! cheers fella.
Hope you enjoyed your week reading this.. see you at the club soon.
Rob ‘Shades’ Kirtley