(Or… How do you Compare Tiree Ultra to the Speyside Way?) by Jo Vinall
Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I completed the Speyside Way Ultra on the 20th August, then Tiree Ultramarathon 2 weeks later, on the 4th September. On paper, they should both be pretty similar, but that wasn’t my experience of them. Can I pick a favourite?
Speyside Way: 36.9 Miles, with 1550 ft elevation. Started at Cragganmore Distillery (with a bus there from Buckie), and followed the Speyside Way then the Moray Coastal Path to Buckie. A mix of about 40:60 roads and trails. Time: 6 h 40 (ish).
Tiree: 34.4 Miles, 1400 ft elevation. Started at Crossapol, followed the coast of Tiree to the finish, at Crossapol. A mix of about 40:60 roads and trails. And beaches. Did I mention the beaches? Time: 6 h 40 (ish).
Speyside Way was a showcase of everything that is good about Scotland (with no midges). A wonderful mix of hills, woodland, the impressive River Spey, 2 shoogly bridges, at least 4 distilleries (before I lost count), and an incredible section along the coast in to the finish. 10/10.
But there aren’t words to describe Tiree. Countless beaches with shining sand, watched over for most of the day by dozens of curious seals. As usual, we got most of 4 seasons in the one day, but this didn’t detract from the wonder of it, as we were treated to the island in lots of different light. Stunning. 11/10.
All races are 100% made by their volunteers, and both of these were no exception. Both were extremely well marshaled, I can’t fault either! A highlight for me was the two delightful old ladies manning the water station just before Port Gordon (Speyside). I must have spent (wasted? no!) about 5 min chatting to them, which was just fine, since I suspect that they may have been distant relatives! (Most of my Dad’s family are from the Buckie area!) And in Tiree, I would have sold my soul for some orange segments (my favourite race treat, and the only thing that you can’t really pack in a rucksack or dropbag so you are at the mercy of the people on the route), and what did I come across but a family with platefuls of orange (nom nom nom!) in between checkpoints 2 and 3! Heaven! More time wasted…… The other superstar of the day was a boy (aged 10 ish?) just before the 2nd checkpoint, who spent the whole day cheering and high-fiving all the runners. He was such a hero, and gave me a massive boost up that hill. Speyside + Tiree: both 10/10
Top marks for both races. Each had that wonderful low-key but professional feel to it. Two races that were organized by runners, for runners, to show off the very best of where they like to run. Both routes were marked enough that even I managed to stay on the right track. 10/10 for both.
Apart from both being pretty flat, this is where they differ. Speyside Way was virtually all good solid trails, or B roads. Not really my cup of tea. Dull underfoot. 4/10. Tiree on the other hand had everything. Some of the beaches were hard packed wet sand. These were bliss compared to the soft sand or pebbly beaches that left you swearing (not that quietly) to yourself or anyone else who would listen. In between the beaches were some very technical rocky scrambles, and marshy sections – it turns out that nobody has ever bothered to make a path right round the island! (who knew?!) To break these up, there were stretches of B road, which did account for a good chunk of the course, but unlike Speyside, some of the off-road sections were so tough that these tarred sections were a relief! Not perfect, still too much road for me, 7/10.
The finish of the Speyside Way race was after a tortuous climb uphill into Buckie, to a town square. (Anyone who tells you that a race from 30+ miles inland out to the coast must be downhill, is LYING!) I turned a corner to be greeted by lots of flags and bunting and hugs from friends (old and new). This was followed by the 10 min walk back to Buckie High School (the centre for the race) for a shower (got very lost in the PE Dept looking for the girl’s changing room!) and a cup of tea. Because of this, people weren’t staying on at the finish area, so the finish itself did feel a little anticlimactic compared to some, as there wasn’t really a crowd, but there was a warm welcome, and once we had made the 10 min walk, the facilities were good. 6/10.
Tiree Ultra’s finish was equally cruel and uphill! After one last painfully long beach (where you could see the finish for about 15 min, but it never seemed to get any closer), we climbed up off the sand, onto the road for several hundred meters, to a strip of grass infront of the community hall. Cue the cheering and barking (20+ dogs from Cani-Sports Edinburgh, including my own Baxter, had staged a Tiree Takeover)! The organiser’s wife had moved her cafe (“Chocolate and Charms”) to the hall for the day, and was doing a superb job of feeding everyone soup, sandwiches, cakes and beer. The sun was shining, and there was plenty space to relax, and lots of familiar faces hanging around. There was also a Ceilidh in the hall later that night (I didn’t go this year) for any real nutters. 9/10.
The All Important Goodies
The Speyside Way finisher’s goodies read like a who’s who of highland eating businesses! We had soup (Baxters), shortbread (Walkers), and Whiskey (donated to my husband – not a fan), all from local companies. There was also the obligatory T-shirt (purple) and a stunning medal. 10/10
On Tiree, an island where the local businesses amount to one cafe, the COOP, and the fish (lobster) and chip van, obviously there isn’t the scope for sponsors that some races have. Bags were handed out at the race briefing the night before, so I don’t think that many of the chocolate bars, Haribo or fudge (courtesy of Chocolates and Charms cafe) made it back to the campsite! A key sponsor for the race was Cohesion Medical, who highlighted to us that skin cancer was on the rise amongst outdoor athletes (yes, I can get burnt on a cloudy day as long as I’m out long enough), and provided sun cream, and bracelets that started out white, but turned blue when they were exposed to enough UV for you to need sun cream. Concernigly, mine was blue half an hour after the start of the race, in the pouring rain! Clearly Tiree is living up to its reputation for being the sunniest place in the UK, if it is even sunny when it is overcast and wet! And of course, we got another T-shirt (green) and medal. 6/10.
Side note – I had been waiting years for a green T-shirt. Now I have completed the rainbow. (I tried to convince my co-LP Run committee members to go for green, but no luck there!) I may just retire from running now, there is nothing left to achieve 😉
So overall, I was left with a fantastic impression of both races. Both were very similar, but also so different. I would highly recommend either of them, and will certainly be back at both again.
Speyside Way: 50/60
But the winner (by only ever so slightly!) is