In October last year when people were entering the race in Tiree I wanted to do it as part of a relay team. Unfortunately (or fortunately as it turned out) I couldn’t find anybody to team up with so I took the plunge and signed up for the full 35 miles even though I had only done 2 marathons before and struggled badly at both of them. For about a week after I signed up I couldn’t sleep at night as I was so excited about the race and the whole weekend.
However, for one reason or another I spent the majority of the next 11 months thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to make the trip after all. In fact it was only 2 weeks before the race that I finally decided that I would be able to go. Once I told Jo and we started planning our trip I started to get very excited again. I wanted to really make the most of this one.
I won’t bore you with all the details of the entire weekend (this would make the report about 4 times as long!) as I’m sure you are more interested in the race but I do need to give a brief recap. From setting off at 1.45am on Friday morning until arriving home at 7.15pm on Monday I had the most amazing weekend ever. We stayed in a beautiful little cottage, we cycled, we walked, we kayaked with a harem of inquisitive seals, we picnicked on a beach, we climbed over rocks, we bought gifts, we played on a monkey swing in a kids play-park, we ate lots, we ate chocolate, we drank wine (highly recommended ultra preparation), we played board games, we learned how to light a coal fire, we watched a George Clooney film (becoming a bit of a tradition before an ultra) and we took a LOT of photos.
Registration for the race took place from 4pm-6pm on the Saturday. Jo and I had been out cycling about and exploring the island and turned up just before 4pm thinking we would be first to arrive. Nope, there were already lots of people in the hall and a large number of bicycles parked up outside. It didn’t take long to register, get our race numbers, goody bags and then we waited for the race briefing at 5pm. The hall was packed by this stage and you could really sense the excitement all around. Will the race organiser talked us through the briefing, told us a bit about the route, what to watch out for and hoped that we would all really enjoy the race.
On race morning we got ourselves ready and gently cycled the couple of miles to the start. It was pretty overcast and quite cold and I wondered if I had enough layers on. Just before we arrived at the hall we were greeted by one of the most spectacular views of the whole weekend. The way the sun shone through the dark clouds and reflected on the sea and lit up the beach in the early morning gloom was something to behold and I had a good feeling about the day ahead.
We left our drop bags in the hall, sat around in the warmth and met up with the other ERN’s. I was feeling surprisingly relaxed and couldn’t wait to get going. Before we knew it, it was almost 8am and we had to make a short walk down to the start line on the beach. Looking off into the distance to see where we would be running was so exciting.
I had thought I’d run with Jo a bit at the start but she shot off so fast I thought she doing a parkrun and she was out of sight after a couple of miles. This wasn’t so bad though because it meant I could just cruise along at my own pace. After the first beach there was a bit of road section before we came to the bottom of the island at Hynish and quite literally the end of the road. We hit a trail section which would take us round the back of Ben Hynish, which is the biggest of the three hills on the island. It was a bit boggy in places and my feet quickly got wet but I figured they were going to be wet for most of the day so I wasn’t too bothered. We descended into a lovely little spot known as Happy Valley. I knew there was a bit of a climb to come but it was a lot steeper than I expected. I’m not that keen on heights so I was scrambling up the grassy, rocky slope on all fours at some points, trying not to look down. There was a bit more up and down following faint little sheep tracks and I was so busy concentrating on my footing I completely forgot to look out to see if I could spot Skerryvore lighthouse.
The first 8 miles went by fairly smoothly taking in more beaches and one climb up through some sand dunes. The first checkpoint at Sandaig had some bananas so I took one and had a few bites of it. I found the next section quite difficult but not because of the terrain. I was starting to feel quite tired by about 10 miles and memories of Clyde Stride were coming flooding back. I had been hoping that I could stay ahead of Murdo and Rachel until the halfway point and then maybe have some company from Elly and/or David for some of the second half but Murdo and Rachel cruised past me about 11 miles which did darken my mood a bit further. I knew I could forget all hope of finishing ahead of the relay teams now.
Even though I was struggling I was still enjoying the views and stopping regularly to take photos. There was quite a long road section from Balevullin along past Loch Bhasapol. Ceana passed me on this section and asked if I was okay as I walked along. Shortly afterwards at 15 miles I tried to take a salt tablet but only succeeded in retching it back up with some water at the side of the road. Excellent! More Clyde Stride memories.
Jo and I had visited the 2nd checkpoint at Balephetrish on our bikes the day before and I could see it in the distance at the end of a beach section. I was feeling pretty done in at this stage and was seriously considering stopping at the checkpoint. However, I’d come all this way to see the whole of the island so there wasn’t much point in stopping at halfway. Also, I kept picturing the final beach and the finish in my head and knew I didn’t want to miss out.
There was a steep climb up the sand dunes and then I trudged slowly into the checkpoint. I took off my bladder pack and set about filling it up with more water when Murdo and Rachel appeared beside me with my drop bag. They helped me restock my supplies and told me I was only about 10 minutes behind Jo, which I was a bit surprised about and assumed that they were just trying to make me feel better.
I set off again out of the checkpoint and I now had my water bottle which was filled with flat, full fat Coca-Cola. Now I really have to talk about the wonders of Coca-Cola in an ultramarathon. After just a few sips of it I suddenly felt much more alive again. I was like a new man and got really carried away thinking that I could maybe make up 10 minutes and catch Jo (ha, as if!). I also managed to swallow down 2 salt tablets. And it got even better/worse (depending on your point of view). I sometimes like running with my ipod as it helps block out the voices in my head but I didn’t take it with me this time. Instead a song popped into my head at this point and I’m totally blaming the Coca-Cola as it was very random. Go on have a guess. What song do you think filled my head?
We’re gonna rock this town alive
I’ll let her rough me up
‘Til she knocks me out
Cause she walks like she talks
And she talks like she walks
She bangs, she bangs
Oh baby when she moves, she moves
Yes of all the songs in the world my brain decided to give me Ricky Martin!! What on earth? I don’t even own the song (honest!) and haven’t heard it in about 10 years so how could I remember some of the lyrics? I couldn’t help but laugh and peered closely at my bottle of Coca-Cola wondering if Murdo or Rachel had actually slipped something inside it at the checkpoint!
With a new lease of life and Ricky Martin for company this next section flew by. It felt like quite a remote spot, was quite undulating with rocks, boulders, grassy slopes, some boggy bits and I almost stood on a frog/toad which was hopping along the ground. I knew the famous Ringing Stone was in this section but I completely missed it. Either because I was battling with Ricky or because there were lots of rocks I’m not sure (maybe they should have a sign or flag that says Ringing Stone?). I knew I’d missed the Ringing Stone because it was meant to be before Dun Mor Vaul an iron-age broch. We had to clamber up a steep slope to get to it then clamber down again but I did stop to take a quick photo of it.
Unfortunately my water bottle only held about 350ml of Coca-Cola so despite trying to ration it I still finished it off with 3 or 4 miles to go before the next checkpoint. Maybe I should just fill my bladder pack with Coca-Cola in the future instead of water! I was alone with my thoughts again as Ricky had stopped singing to me but I had reached the Northern tip of the island and had now turned back in the direction of the finish. I still had a good few miles to go but I knew now I was going to finish barring any major disasters.
There was a bit more on road, then a bit more off road and a bit more bog. I knew the final checkpoint wasn’t far away now so I tried to take another salt tablet but again I tried to swallow it only to retch it back up. I think I might have to give up on them now. I could hear the checkpoint before I saw it as there was a lot of cheering. I didn’t think any of the ERN team would still be there so I got a very pleasant surprise when I saw that Murdo and Rachel were there again and I made sure to smile for Murdo’s photo this time. Like last time they both helped me stock up on water and Rachel grabbed me a small cup of Coca-Cola. I would have liked to take a few bottles with me but I made do with the one cup. Murdo told me that Jo was only about 15-20 minutes ahead but I had stopped thinking about catching up quite a while ago. I left the checkpoint in high spirits again, boosted by seeing Murdo and Rachel, having completed the marathon distance and knowing that I only had 9 miles left to go.
I had been really looking forward to reaching Gott Bay. It’s a really long beach, you can see Scarinish in the distance and I felt like I was on the home stretch. I passed by the rock-pools where Jo and I had a picnic the day before, the sun was shining, the water was lapping gently beside me and I was almost at 30 miles. Weird as it may sound I was enjoying it so much I didn’t really want it to end.
At the end of the beach there was a stile which I somehow managed to drag my weary legs over and then it was onto the road to Scarinish. We passed through the village and there was a bit of excitement when the fire engine came tearing along the road with it’s siren blaring and the runners all jumped off the road on the grass verge.
Conveniently our cottage was about 2 miles from the finish and I had left an emergency bottle of Lucozade by the gate (luckily I didn’t have the key so I could pop in and lie down for a while). I had been looking forward to the Lucozade and decided that I was going to ditch my bladder pack entirely as well so that I would feel a good bit lighter and I didn’t think I’d need it again. So I popped round to the back garden and left it by the door, grabbed the Lucozade and set off again. I was feeling really excited about getting to the last beach when I’d be able to see the finish in the distance.
As I turned off the road the the marshal joked with me that it was only a mile or so to go and I could just sprint to the finish. Well I wasn’t sprinting but I was going a bit faster than previously. There was one last obstacle though. There was a 5-6 foot drop down onto the beach and there was no way my legs would have survived the jump even if it was into soft sand so I struggled onto my bum and inched myself slowly down onto the beach. I had long dreamed of this beach and knew that with such a short distance to go now I didn’t need to worry about finishing or time or getting wet feet and the sun was shining so there was only one thing left to do. I veered off the sand and into the cool salty sea water! I splashed about going in about knee deep and it felt amazing. The only problem was trying to wade through the water was a bit more challenging than running on the sand but I really didn’t mind at all. I carried on through the sea for a couple of minutes then thought I better get back to the beach. I have a race to finish!
As I left the beach it was just round the corner and up an incline to the finish. I was feeling so great that I started contemplating a sprint finish. I had to negotiate a cattle grid first but then I upped the pace. I saw Murdo was out with his camera so I waved and smiled but just as I did so I felt twinges of cramp in my hamstrings so I had to quickly ease up a bit. I thought it would be embarrassing to not only collapse in a heap a few yards from the finish line but to have it documented on camera as well! As I hopped up onto the grass verge for the finish line I saw and heard the ERN’s cheering and shouting for a sprint finish but that wasn’t going to happen now as I felt more twinges from my legs. I had to slow down even more but I didn’t want to just walk across the line. After I finished a lady hung the finishers medal around my neck and I was done.
I had some much needed soup and sugary drinks in the hall afterwards and it was great catching up with everyone and finding out how they had done. I even met Will the race organiser and asked where I sign up for next year! Jo and I then cycled (not as hard as I had feared) back to the cottage for a much needed shower and a lie down. I wasn’t able to sleep as I was far too hyped up and my legs were throbbing but it was nice to just relax and think about the whole day. We shared a bottle of Champagne to celebrate a really successful day, had some dinner and then Nicola and Murdo picked us up to take us to the ceilidh.
I had planned to do some dancing but I was still slightly shocked when Jo had me up for the very first dance and even more shocked to discover that my legs weren’t feeling too bad at all. Maybe ceilidh dancing is the perfect post race exercise! It was quite a spectacular sight seeing everyone up dancing after all the miles that had been covered earlier in the day The ceilidh and prize giving ceremony were really great fun and like earlier in the day during the race I wasn’t really wanting it to end They say all good things must come to an end but luckily the day wasn’t quite over yet. We still had a bottle of wine to consume back at the cottage! Good times indeed.
At the start of June this year I completed my 3rd marathons in 3 years and now I’ve done 3 ultramarathons in just 3 months which I can’t quite get my head round. I can’t claim to have perfected the art yet but I’m learning all the time. Maybe if I do enough of them I’ll finally get it right one day. The one problem with having such a wonderful weekend is that now I’m feeling really down that it’s all over and I’m not sure how I could possibly top this one. I only have one more race left this year but somehow that doesn’t feel like enough now.
Thanks to Will from Tiree Fitness for putting on and organising such a fabulous race and thanks to all the volunteer marshals for helping to make the whole experience from registration through to the ceilidh such a wonderfully enjoyable experience.
Thanks to all the ERN’s for their company and support over the weekend. It was great to see everyone. Thanks to Nicola for driving us to and from the ceilidh and a big thank you to Murdo and Rachel for waiting about at the checkpoints for me to arrive, then helping me sort myself out and encouraging me onwards. I really did get such a huge boost from seeing friendly faces and I really appreciated it.
Finally, thank you to Jo for inspiring me, for putting up with me, for making the whole weekend so much fun, for supporting and encouraging me, for telling me off when I’m too hard on myself and last but not least for managing to get me to dance at the ceilidh!
How to sum it all up? Well, the t-shirt we got for finishing says 35 smiles of coastline which is just about perfect but I’d also say beautiful island, stunning race, superb organisation, super friendly marshals, a brilliant ceilidh, great people, awesome memories that will last a lifetime, simply the best weekend ever.