All signs said don’t do it. Feet hurt. Injured in training. Training didn’t go to plan. But I was committed. Already a DNS at the Glenogle ultra in 2013 I had to do this one to get the Ultra monkey off my back. Plus a holiday to Tiree was also involved, which would have meant me going there and having the horrible experience of watching the folk run while I was watching. Oh no! not that again!
My nerves weren’t that bad as I registered the night before.
Preparation wasn’t the best, a late Friday night and an early Saturday morning start traveling to Tiree with Sunday as race day was fairly tiresome, still we managed to catch 40 winks on a beach that we’d cycled to when we were on the island.
Registration was the first time we’d seen all racers, pairs, and quads for the relays and the solo runners. About 200 in total. I recognised some from the ferry crossing, others were either islanders or had travelled there earlier or by plane. Incidentally I’d never seen a Calmac ferry with so many cycles before, and by the sound of it, neither had the islanders.
The race was simple, start on the beach, run clockwise around the Island, keeping the sea on your left until you get back to where you started. A full circumnavigation. Quite satisfying really.
Surrounded by other “crazies” as Andy, Tony and Laura put them we were given the race briefing.
“Watch out for signs that cows or sheep may have moved, accidentally or deliberately”
“Take a map just in case”
“Boggy underfoot so trail shoes recommended”
Bad news for me who had trained in my road shoes. My trusty Brooks Launch will have to do as I wasn’t changing the shoes that late in the day.
After the briefing it was time to head back to the Cottage, cycling some 3 miles away from the community centre, a route we’d see a lot of. It dawned on me that the ride back after the Ultra was going to be interesting.
Race morning, and my previous day niggle in my adductor had gone, I strained it attempting to mount my bike the day before. The legs seemed fine, and the feet were ok which was a bonus given I was limping 10 days ago. Arriving at the community centre I dropped my drop bag for Checkpoint 2 which had spare socks, some food and some blister repair kit. Oh and the trusty drugs, paracetamol and Ibuprofen.
The start was a short walk down onto the beach, a fantastic setting, white sand stretching in a beautiful arc toward Hynish. We toed the start line (I was at the back) which was drawn in the sand, a piper played us before we counted down 10 to 1. We were off, the piper started up again and I was at the back. Before long I was running up the beach following 200 ish people, we spread out as the tide was way out, some opting to take in the arc others on the wet sand, a more direct route. It was firm to run on. The ripples slightly massaging the feet. The sun was out and there was little breeze. It felt good to be running.
It dawned on me pretty quickly that I was going to hurt, but when? that was the question. My Mortons Neuroma was OK on the sand but would it be when I got to road?
Before I knew it I was at the other end of the bay, exiting the beach navigated by a fluorescent arrow and a helpful marshal.
A lass started chatting away, asking me if I’d done one before? how quick was I gonna go? and other such questions before she declared that I was a suitable candidate to pace her. I told her that I was not and that I was just an amateur and would probably have gone out too fast and will fail. This did not deter her and we ran together for a bit. “Tell me to fuck off if I’m annoying you” she said. She wasn’t thankfully, the pace was good. About 6ish min / km. We eventually reached the end of the road and entered a field. This was the start of the hilly section.
I remember rounding a hill and then another, following the contours of the hill and a tad inland from the sea so as avoiding the cliffs. It undulated a lot on sheep track and grass. One such undulation revealed an almost vertical slope with an arrow half way up pointing straight up! There was a line of runners, walking and using their hands to steady themselves. Before we reached this, the first bog was presenting itself as a barrier and then a stream hidden by the long grass. Eventually I ascended the hill, and lost the lass and picked up someone else, some one part of the pairs race. We scrambled up the hill together and reached the top. In front of us was a steep drop and then another hill. The arrows ever pointing us over them. This, I think, was happy valley. The views from here were awesome. The island stretched far away in the distance behind and in front was sea. A daunting thought that i was actually running around that island came into my head and that’s when I broke it down into stages. There was no other way to approach it but to get to the next checkpoint and work it out from there.
Happy valley disappeared and we were not long rounding the hill and entering a beach. The beaches here are mostly hard sand and very flat. Really easy to run on and get into a stride. The navigation again was by way of marshal and arrow, very easily followed. There’s an arrow onto the beach and one off the beach, so you run all the way along until you see the sign to get off. Simples!
Beaches also meant streams entering the sea, some fast flowing others spread thinly across the sand. This one here was a jumper.
I ran sometime with a bloke from Tynemouth, another runner in a pair. It’s a great way to forget about running when chatting. I lost him on the hill off the beach, this contoured inland and pointed us northward toward checkpoint 1. The hill was good time to eat my first feed. Some flapjack, chocolate chip with a lovely chocolate coating on the top. I used the hill to walk up, slowly and eat while I was doing that. Hill, no matter how long or how steep were a good excuse to walk. I knew I needed to conserve the energy and this was a good strategy.
9 miles went quickly. My feet seemed good and my mood was happy too. Seeing Andy, Laura and Tony at the checkpoint provided some light relief. Some jelly babies and water were consumed and a bit of chatting and I was off. It was remarked that I should be spending less time chatting and more time running. Sod that, ultras are about taking your time, seeing the scenery, soaking up the atmosphere not just blinding passing through!
Leaving checkpoint 1 we headed north, beaches, tracks and little road were presented to us. The scenery was superb, and the terrain had flattened. The beaches offered a nice way to get into a stride, one such beach had us navigating down rocks to get onto the beach and then onto the hard sand to take us to the other end of the bay.
My thoughts wandered toward the foot, which at this point had started to make itself known to me that it wasn’t 100% happy. Never the less I continued. After exiting the beach, we were on beach tracks, part grass, part sand where the tyre marks ground the surface down. A few cars stopped to let us past, they were on their way to the beach to do some surfing of some description, and had some windswept looking folk inside who gave us waves and wished us luck from their open windows.
In the distance, a marshall pointed us toward a flag and a bloke stood on a rock to the left of it. “Run around this and head back where you came from” he declared. I did, not before stopping to take in the view. Some guy got to the flag and didn’t round it, and was told to get back and go around it! The guy on the rock turned out to be the barman at the evening dance!
We headed back where we came and were ushered off in another direction following the contour of the coast, heading West now toward the dog leg. This was the part of the course that took us all the way back to the coast to see a beach, run 100m along the beach and come all the way back where a lovely 20m short cut could have been achieved if there hadn’t have been a marshal and the prospect of the most beautiful of all Tiree beaches! How could we refuse? The beach was lovely, but to be honest, they were all lovely! I started running with a lady who was in the pairs race. Her husband does Ironmans and was wanting to qualify for Kona this year. She kept me going at quite a pace. 5:45 min/km. I kept up as the conversation was good, but the ground was road and hard and was painful. I picked up a Pirate flag that I’d seen someone fix to their pack and must have dropped enroute. I shoved it in my water bottle holder pocket and thought I’d keep it until I could return to its owner.
I took this as an excuse to let the woman go, as I needed to go slower. The knees were hurting on the road surface, it was unforgiving and tough. I walked for a bit, only for 10 seconds but it was enough to get rid of the pain in the knees and to be able to start running again.
The checkpoint 2 was coming up. I hadn’t filled up with water at the last checkpoint and I was getting low. So I was looking forward to some fresh. I’d eaten the 2nd half of the flapjack at 2.15, it was nearing 3 hours and I was on point with my estimates. I think I got to checkpoint 2 20mins ahead of my predicted time, and apparently took Andy, Laura and Tony by surprise. I had ran the last beach with a guy I recognised from Facebook, a friend of a friend. He is starting a Tri club up in Falkirk and also has a broken toe from stubbing it coming out of open water swimming a few days ago. It’s amazing how much I remember from these conversations, I usually forget. Maybe it is the mind’s way of keeping focus away from the pain? I gave the guy some Ibuprofen at checkpoint 2 that I had in my drop bag. He said he was done, but to my surprise I saw him running off shortly after. I finished my feed at the checkpoint and spoke briefly with the support crew before heading off toward checkpoint 3.
The guy with the broken toe was on his way back, he’d decided to give up, and no wonder! The course from here was remote after a beach section. It headed along rocky shore, past the ringing stone. The ground was soft, boggy, undulating, unstable, rocky, bumpy and took it all out of me. I had a low point here, around the 30km mark. I couldn’t get in a rhythm, there were stream crossings that required me to jump, boggy sections that meant ankles were getting a work out stepping between grassy blob and soft peat. I walked some of this and took in water and food. More flapjack. I was getting sick of flapjack. I had gels with me, but my Ironman experience has put me off gels for life. I decided not to have any and shove more flapjack in my face.
There wasn’t many around me, I was passing a couple and getting overtaken by others. The route was well marked, as soon as you got to one yellow sign, you could see in the distance another which usually was peaking between small hillocs and cliffs.
In the distance, a rocky outcrop showed itself with a flag waving in the brisk breeze, and a yellow arrow on the steep bank point up, directing us over it. It took a bit to get to, but when I did I realised it was the Broch / Dun that was described at the briefing. The broch circular structure was all there with an outer ring also present. The view from the top was amazing, and I decided I would bring the guys here later in the week.
The drop down was difficult, my knees weren’t bending very well and I was supporting myself with my hands and bum. Back on a beach I got back into the flow and found some energy again. I could see Eigg in the distance and the faint outline of Rum. Reaching the road, this took us on a new direction, South. The lass who talked to me at the start caught up with me, and we ran together for a bit. We were pretty tired, so chat had reduced to murmurs. The road meant it was harsh on the knees, the weather closed in and started to drizzle and seemed windier than it had been.
We caught up with a few other folk and I started chatting to a bloke, from Glasgow I think and he remarked that before he came up here a couple of years ago, he hadn’t realised that places like Tiree existed in Scotland. Taking it as a positive that Tiree is awesome I wondered how? And started thinking when I first knew about the Scottish Isles, I guess I was lucky as my family had always been going to Mull and other such Isles especially my Granddad Eddie, Uncle Sandy and Aunt Teresa. Receiving postcards from these remote Islands must have instilled a want to go there myself. This was the first time on Tiree though and it did not disappoint. The guy had been entered into the Ultra by is father in law, and I wondered if that was because he didn’t like his Son in law or if he was testing his metal for some reason. Anyhow, the guy was doing well, or as well as you can expect.
We were all searching for checkpoint 3 at this point, we knew it was around the corner. My mouth was watering for something salty. I envisioned pizza and coke, though not sure what was going to be there. The race director Will had mentioned there would be goodies and we would not be disappointed. Rounding the corner, the checkpoint came in to sight. A small gathering of folk signalled that it must have been there, and a gazebo set up with the hope of food underneath. I was running, slowly. Small girls were cycling up the hill shouting race numbers, checking us off one by one. My ever so trusty support crew were there, but I had no time for them, I needed food, and there was food.
Hula hoops, marsbars, club bars, scones, buttered scones, cake, coke, juice, water, tons of food. I opted for hula hoops, and flat coke. I took a mars bar for later. I spoke with Andy and Tony, munching away and realised this was the marathon point, my watch said 42kms. Every step of running passed here would be the furtherest I had every run. I was in no rush though.
Eventually I got myself together and started out up the bank and passed the Paparazzi (Laura). There was a beach ahead, that we were to run around, and then skirt around a field which then took us to the longest beach, some 4km of Gott Bay. I asked Andy if he’d cycle with me when I reached the road as I was tiring and slowing down. I was still 20mins ahead of predicted time. The beach was great, a long sweeping bay, C shape, and on hard sand. I could see the support crew cycling on the road that followed the bay around. I was in pain, and my head was looking straight down. I had to lift it up and remember to look at the stunning views. I was met half way along the beach by Andy, Tony and Laura.. I kept running.
Exiting the beach, by way of a cruel style, which by the way are really hard when you’ve run 30miles. The guys cycled along beside me on the road section. Some 2 miles of road were ahead, and running past our holiday cottage was bitter sweet. I can’t tell you how nice it was to have them cycle next to me. It took my mind of running, and I was running. The jokes, the chat, the moments of silence but still by my side was a great spur for me. I looked at the watch, and calculated that I could beat the 6 hour 30 mark that I had thought I would do. I decided that I wouldn’t rush but would keep it steady. At this point my calculations were all off, and so I didn’t believe that I could actually do 6:30. The last beach came, the marshal met me on the road and pointed me toward the dunes and my support crew waved goodbye, for only a short time.
The way through the dunes wasn’t marked too well but when I got to the beach, there was a 4 foot drop. Ordinarily I would just hop down, but with knees like mine, I was tentative. I decided to shuffle off from the sitting position. This beach was soft. Really soft. My shoes were sinking 2 inches into the beach, it was bloody tough. I saw no quick way to get to the hard sand so I endured about 100m of it. Finally reaching the hard sand, I managed to get a rhythm again, my heart rate was pounding, the sun was out. I could see the community centre. Reaching the other end of the beach, there was writing in the sand, my favourtie was an arrow with the word “Cakes” pointing toward the centre. This was good motivation. Up off the beach, up a hill and rounding a corner the finish line was in sight decked out in bunting and lined with spectators and my support crew. There were no tears, just elation. As the medal was put around my neck all I could think of was “I need some food” and a sit down.
35 miles, 6 hours 27 mins. 35th/ 120 Solo Ultra Runners.
I was impressed that my injuries held up, and that the pain was manageable. I applied sufficient anti chafe cream which was a bonus as well as having shoes that saw me through. Looking back, I think this was an epic run and an awesome experience. Well organised, well supported and a fantastic all round experience. The evening Ceilidh was a perfect way to round off the day.
I’m also glad to report the cycle home was fine, as I was fuelled by pizza and cake.