Walk, bike, swim and sail on the wild side: Robert Howard on last week's 180-mile marathon challenge over land and sea in the Hebrides

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The Independent Online
HEBRIDEAN crofters going about their daily fishing and farming were astonished to see vehicles loaded with racing cycles, mountain bikes, kayaks, windsurfers and dinghies pull up on single-track dead-end roads last week. As they looked on, runners appeared from the rain- soaked bogs and transferred a key- ring with strips of Harris tweed attached to waiting team-mates who quickly paddled across the loch or pedalled away down the road.

The vehicles then packed and left. The Vango/Efamol Western Isles Challenge, the toughest adventure sport race in Britain, had just come and gone. The idea of Ian Callaghan, a hotelier on Harris, the race was a team relay through 'the Long Isle', the Outer Hebridean island chain of Barra, North and South Uist, Benbecula, Harris and Lewis. Using no motorised power, teams of four could choose their route between checkpoints and their means of getting there, at least one team member collecting a piece of tweed at each to attach to the team 'baton'. Storms made the long sea crossings of the sounds of Barra and Harris impossible, but otherwise the 180-mile route was completed by 22 of the 27 teams.

Day one began on South Uist with the runners and cyclists making their way north on to Benbecula and North Uist buffeted by fierce winds and hampered by cloud on the mountain-top checkpoints of Beinn Mhor and Eaval, which is surrounded by a mantle of almost impenetrable lochs. Some chose to canoe in, others found a way through and at least one swam a direct route. Aberdeen University took an early lead and Ian Callaghan was astonished by the speed of the teams, barely getting checkpoint staff in place in time.

Archie Macdonald, one of a local team of fish farmers, Hebrides Harvest, had entered his 22-foot yawl, a vessel which unlike canoes and windsurfers was quite capable of making the crossing to Harris. As teams lined up on Rodal jetty next morning he safely guided his boat in, lowered the sail and their runner leapt out to start day two in style. His first target was the cloud-capped top of Roinechal, surrounded by cliffs on all sides. Next came a long cycle ride past white sand dunes pounded by the Atlantic surf and the ascent of Clisham, the highest summit in the Western Isles, still holding some snow. The windsurfers whipped across choppy seas in Loch Seaforth, barely disturbing nearby otters, and after two waist- deep fords and 10 miles of strength- sapping bog, day two was over, Aberdeen University keeping the lead.

Exhausted and after another very short night's sleep, day three began on Lewis and the race was decided by the crossing of Loch Roag. At last the wind had dropped but this was not good news for those sailing or windsurfing, as the leading three teams were. Kayaks ploughed quickly across the loch, the race was thrown wide open and the spirit and ingenuity of the teams now came to the fore.

Archie Macdonald still refused to be beaten and his team of four rode the yawl across, behind them others were swimming and towing their lighter dinghies. The second-placed team, Syniad Daa, reacted quickly, sending a kayak out to rescue their stranded windsurfer, a tactic that won them the race. A late entry by Alun Hughes and Lisa Holloway from Carnarvon, who had called up mountaineer Martin Welch and mountain runner Martin Stone, the team was supported by Walter McPhee and Heather Welch, eight months pregnant, and their dog appropriately named Harris. All of them spent three days in one Transit van along with three bikes, a kayak and a windsurfer.

The final run to the finish was across hills so boggy that runners went in pairs for fear of losing someone in the dense and disorienting mist. The last few miles led to the butt of Lewis lighthouse, the north- west tip of Europe. With the Atlantic crashing noisily on the cliffs below and the lighthouse foghorn blaring, the teams gathered to celebrate completion of 180 miles of sporting endeavour across Britain's most wild and remote terrain. The winners took just 24hr 28min and when asked about the meaning of the team's name, Alun Hughes explained: 'We all thought this was a good idea, and in Welsh that is Syniad Daa.'

(Photograph omitted)

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