Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Tiree Ultramarathon

Big thanks to Lucy for seeing this event months ago, noising me up and getting the ball rolling (and the accommodation sorted while rooms were still available). Possibly the best race I've ever done. It was always the logistics that would be the hard part – and the actual running, comparatively easy. And the determining factor, the big question mark, would be the weather. Tiree is gaelic for the blacksmith was blown down the road and these days the only week you can guarantee a lull in the gales is during the surfing championships.

driving to Oban we overtook the Royal Scotsman

I have the waking hours of someone on benefits, so the phrase 7am ferry gave me sleepless nights. Lucy took some time off work on Friday. I got myself and a considerable amount of camping / running / cycling gear from Leith to NB and we set off (via Glasgow to drop off the Kip-meister at his holiday home,) for Oban. Since we are obsessive sports nutritionists we picked up a Chinese takeaway going through Oban and squirted running gels (sweet and sour with electrolites) on them in the Gallanach Rd campsite while the sun set and the moon came up. Thankfully the midges were kept at bay by the breeze. Lucy provided hydration in the form of an easy drinking red.

not glamping - just drinking wine in the dark

Oban at dawn with tandemming couple


An uneventful half-night later and the alarm went off at 5.37am. The car was loaded up (tent soaking wet), parked a bit down the road and we got on bikes and cycled onto the Clansman for a Cal-Mac full Scottish. More scientifically balanced carb and protein loading. A superb start to a weekend that was both very very good and also a bit like a boot-camp. In fact a LOT like a boot-camp.

It never occurred to me that people would actually take a car across to Tiree as I have never actually had that amount in my balance in any one week. Will the organiser had highly recommended bikes but all his 18 were hired out for the duration. My own bike is too filthy and short of breath to put in a car so I went past my brother's, who had kindly offered the use of either of his, so I chose the patently less practical of the 2, with fat wheels and no rack. Had I known I would spend the next 3 days chasing Colquhoun along the unsheltered roads on a thin-wheeled-super-fast-racer.... but we all make mistakes. (Her's perhaps; just bringing 2 pairs of shoes and one of them with bike cleats!) Anyway, I would stop and pretend to take a photo while the sweat ran in rivers down my back.

The sailing to Tiree was blissfully calm (I boak into the first trough and breaker) and super-photogenic. We got talking to a couple (not running the ultra) who had tandemmed onto the ferry. Lucy knew them from a homemade triathlon event they had put on in their house and I made a connection as I run with Fergus J, son of their best friend. The weekend was full of happy coincidence and bumping into (mostly) delightful people, a world away from the day-to-day heartache and bloodshed on the news. (Indyref).

The Rene Descartes delivers broadband cable to Tiree.

I took a million photos of the scenery because I have never actually been up so early then tried to find a piece of comfortable furniture on which to fall asleep. Unfortunately every piece was in use or had been bagged with draped items of clothes. I found an empty recliner but after 45mins of threatening to drop off, a lady jabbed me in the arm and informed me she was sorry but that was her seat. I was half asleep and half way out the observation lounge before I thought fuck your ownership nonsense and would you like to be drop-kicked over the side? I struggled not to spill the milk of human kindness and opted to move along and let it go.

gratuitous cuteness

After a large proportion of the boat disembarked at Coll for a wedding I reclaimed MY seat and managed to repair my mood with some zeds. Woke up to the sun shining and turquoise seas below a thin strip of rocky land and white painted houses dotted randomly about the place. I went upstairs, sorry on deck, found Lucy and again the anticipation and joy rose. There is a magic that happens getting on a Cal-Mac voyage far greater than the smell of diesel and shudder of the docking engines.

big jelly

small jelly

Buoys NOT balloons, a mistake I would be reminded of each trip past.

First time on Tiree and it is bigger than I thought but also the buildings are more sparse. There is only one shop, a well stocked co-op near the pier which is 5 miles away from everywhere else we would be all weekend. We decided to cycle to the Hostel then return unladen to reload. This is the first of many times I soak my fleece, trapped between my back and the giant plastic North Face holdall while cycling. After 3 days of this it will stink like a dead sheep. I am in top gear and standing on the pedals while Lucy disappears on a long straight. Boot camp weekend has begun.

the vernacular
Architectural styles have evolved from thatched thick walled cottages to bitumen/tar roofed jobs which keep the wind out more successfully. Often the lime mortar, being non waterproof is painted (white) but the stones being waterproof are not, making attractive dalmatian effect houses.

The Hostel is very nice but we are not allowed in till Judith has straightened the rooms which she let us know in the notes. We have not read the notes. This in another theme of bootcamp weekend. We are allowed to leave our bags outside the front door and are assured they will be taken in if it rains. And cycle back to the co-op. This takes half the time as the wind is behind us. 15 mins there, 30 mins back. I had planned on taking food from Edinburgh but had to limit my bag contents. The bag was already so full, the internal pressure was switching on electronic devices. I took out the Garmin to see the writing on its face saying low battery. And can you guess which of the many rechargers I didn't bring?

On the way back along the road we saw someone planting directional arrows (at the 26 mile point) and thought it could be Will the organiser, (known from now on as Wto). It was, and we asked him about the race, the navigation and did he really run the course the other day in 4.5 hours? He answered our questions and yes he ran 35 miles in 4hrs 49mins. I asked what his marathon time was (to put 4.49 in perspective.): 2.40. Ok there's a line in the sand right there.

The pre-race chat was at 7pm and there were some in bootcamp trying to duck out of another clothes dampening 5 out 5 back, feeling we could cover all that ground in the morning immediately prior to kick off. And she was pretty much right, but we went anyway and the sight of everyone making pencilled route adjustments on their full scale OS maps was slightly alarming. I had done quite a bit of map work, putting the route on an OS programme and printing it out onto 2 double sided laminated cards. I had to make them the size to fit into the pocket of my new race vest so they were teeny-tiny and were effectively illegible unless I carried my reading specs. My race plan was to run alongside a younger person with good eyes (and a bigger map.) This being the inaugural event I think the race briefing was mainly for the benefit of reassurance, and that being mainly for Wto. Names were read out of those already missing in action including Alex O, just exactly the sort of person to grace and add value to a run like this. (Sadly he beagled his knee at Goatfell.)

our Hostel - more like a b&b

L and I were first out the building, the Le Mans start underway before the audience had finished clapping. On the way back to the hostel we were overtaken by a Lochaber and his partner on road bikes. It's not a bike race I said to Lucy some time later.

Another early morning start.

Race HQ / start / finish

Race day. And the good weather was holding. I had laid all my kit out the night before then got into bed. Then got out and pinned my number on. Then back in. There was so much to sort – camping kit, bike kit (puncture repairs and a helmet I didn't need,) running kit etc, that there was a really good chance of forgetting something important (Dan G had gone to the CCC without his shorts,) or doing something really dim. I opted for the latter. But first I put on my garmin which had already shot its wad in my bag, no doubt enthusiastically mapping my “swim” from Oban. I nearly left it with my post-race bag regarding it now as dead weight. Too late, everyone make their way to the start. There was a great crowd, around 40 of us, full of bright eyed and mildly terrified runners many doing the over-distance thing for the first time. Wto was on good form and didn't look like a man who hadn't slept for a week. In suitably relaxed fashion we set off.

The campsite bikers arrive.


Angus, Nick and Andy


Sometimes I am quite nervy at a race start but the atmosphere was so relaxed, and the distance so far there is no point trying to make any kind of mark early on. I was more interested in getting a few photos of fellow runners and enjoying the prospect of a good run somewhere new. I saw Stuart and Lochaber out towards the front but also Andy and Angus. I took a few more photos as we hit an amazing looking beach. I noticed Lucy moving fairly swiftly and ran alongside for a bit. I wasn't sure how she would treat the race. In the past she has done serious damage in the ultra scene but gave it up a couple of years ago, running only recreationally these days and not doing anything near the training or intensity of her past. We have run a couple of times since signing up for this but not quite as much as I had thought we might, and it was in no way part of any come back. That said, it is hard to deny one's nature; and to have been that good you have to have a certain character and ability, even if it has been thrown to the back of the cupboard.

Setting off towards the distinctive geographical feature. This was to prove a real boon, because towards the end you could see it coming back into view and you knew you were nearly done.

This was so picturesque I actually stopped to get a decent shot.

Lucy, rocking a skort.

I overtook as we climbed the shoulder of the distinctive geographical feature. I realised I was wearing way too much and that I needed to lose the long sleeved top. So Inov-8 Ultra vest off, 2 tops off, t-shirt back on, long sleeved top in back pack, that back on and off we go, not even mild concern about dropping half a dozen places. Beautiful grassy paths down onto another spectacular beach.

Maybe have a quick look at the map. THE MAP. My heart sinks, the pocket is empty: I am picturing the slippy laminate sneaking down into the long grass as I changed. I have lost my map. I string together all the bad words while half a mile passes and I am still considering running back up the grassy hill to look for it. 34 miles without a map. I might as well have kicked off a shoe and left that. The game is over, I've blown it. I now feel like I am running without shorts, how could you start a race with your arse in the wind and not notice you fucking idiot. With 2 minutes tracking left on the garmin and no idea of the route. Brilliant. I continued to lambaste myself which made the next few miles pass very quickly and the sense of dread and disaster was background radiation for quite some distance, if not the whole way.

Lighthouse-keepers cottages

photo Rhoda M

photo Rhoda M

I felt a bit shell shocked along the beach and couldn't bring myself to admit my dirty (littering) secret to Lucy as once again I caught her up. I was slowly forming a plan b which was to move towards the front of the field and run beside someone who looked like they knew what they were doing. Maybe ask to hold their hand.

There was a road section and the lead pack of maybe 5 had a solid distance ahead of the next person, me. I put in the most prompt running of the day and caught them as the tarmac ran out and became the rough ground before “happy valley” which we had heard about at the pre-race chat. Ok so who was paying attention? In the scramble to hitch a lift with the front pack I must have overtaken half of them which left just the front 2: Lochaber and Stuart who were a short way ahead and moving steadily over the choppy rock and grass. Watch out for turning right and descending too early and falling to your death had, I think, been the main message about this part. I saw an arrow to the right, missed by the 2 ahead and dropped into “happy valley” and ran along to the marshal. I asked had the 2 passed through much ahead as I had lost sight of them, and to my chagrin found I was now leading the race without a map. Oops. Short of standing still and whistling, I dropped my pace and let Stuart and Tom catch up. I was too embarrassed to mention the map thing until we all got to know each other a bit better.

approaching the checkpoint at the community hall

Tom carried his map in his hand and made regular use of it. Excellent work, I may yet sleep in my own bed tonight. Stuart however had history with maps and route finding: and after an even-longer-than-usual Cateran Trail Ultra, has ever since tattooed the course map on himself, I mean committed the map to memory. We got to talking about strategies (and funnily enough running.) Stuart was on a gel every five miles. Tom said he didn't have that many gels with him but was always amused by the instructions which suggest one every 20 mins up to max of 20 per day and what that might be like and if anyone has ever done 20 or more in a day. (No, but it reminds me of that urban legend. You know the one: google urban legend / rock star / stomach pump.) (Actually don't)

geese fly past

Forget the so-called atmosphere of the London Marathon, I was really touched by so many locals who came out and cheered us on, never mind the superb team of marshals and helpers out in brisk conditions to cheer us on and cheer us up.

Those boys! photo Rhoda M

Tom says he has a bit of a hot spot threatening to become a blister after haring across the bit at happy valley. He is keeping us right with the nav, suggesting points of departure at the ends of beaches. If he stops to attend to his foot would I stop as well? We are running in a very chatty and relaxed manner. Certain races people are head down and no chat. An ultra is different as you shouldn't run that hard in the first half. Save something for later. Often they are more friendly as a result. I wonder how it will pan out and who will flag first. 

the first bunch of cows to block our route
Tom said that would make a good photo, and there you are.

17 miles in.

Meanwhile Stuart is first to identify the two people at the table outside their house as the half way drop bag station. I take a photo (above) from a distance, pocket the camera and then try to get my shit together. I made flavoured mashed potato the night before then reheated it first thing and put it in a £5 cup flask. It has been referred to as cold and then hot vomit and bears an uncanny resemblance. Yummy. I pocket the 3 gels, refill my water bottle with the bottle of caffeine juice (red bull lookylikey) and eat the Muller Rice with my spork. I have seen Mr Henry at the Fling, eat one like a bear, using only a paw and ever since remembered its only £1.50 for a spork. Sadly no time (nor hunger) for the warmed over vomit, although a pb of 12 seconds to down the rice. It's so long since I last had one (Kintyre Way 2014) that I had forgotten to stir in the coloured slime lurking at the bottom.

In a superb display of camaraderie we all leave as one and are on our way. 17 miles down, about the same to go. And nobody would appear to be on our tail. Occasionally at the far end of a long flat beach I would look for signs of life but there were none. Well this is all very pleasant. Tom is good over the rougher bits showing his hill running pedigree. Then another long beach and some deep mattresses of seaweed at the end, as we approach some chaps sat formally at a table. (22miles).They have delicacies laid out in front and I am surprised the other 2 get wired in to orange segments and bananas and does anyone go for the rocky road? I can't even think about solid dry food and instead pour a couple of cups of water down my neck. I reckon I have eaten sufficient and remind myself to suffer a gel now and again. I get through 4 eventually. The route now follows an undulating sheep trail along some shoreline grassy fields and I am so busy matching Tom's pace and watching out for the 300 tent pegs onto which red and white hazard tape is attached, it is a while before I notice the 3 have become 2 and Stuart has gone off piste to work through a reaction to his 5-a-day gels.

Due to no more Stewy from 22miles I am reduced to taking selfies.

see those steps? doomed!

It's all getting a bit vague now but we are also getting round the course good style. We come to the beach where we saw Wto and the surfers. I notice the garmin creep up to marathon distance and let Tom know. I also mention that I can feel the cramp edging round my legs. I know I can't take any more to eat or drink as the rush of blood to my stomach will set it off. Less than 10 miles. No problem!? Occasional sips allowed.

There are steep steps and a fluro sign pointing up them. I know this is where the wheels will come off and try to sneak the climb past my lower limbs but they notice and the steel bands tighten till I hobble. I shout out as the pain stabs and Tom asks am I okay before I wave him on. I don't think either of us doubted it but in long races you never know. I recovered fairly quickly and was just about up to slow road pace as I caught a final glimpse of Tom outside the Hostel and going strongly. Well, there goes the navigation! Maybe I should pop in for a cup of tea and see if there is a map there on the back of a brochure.

Last view of Tom. That's my bedroom window just above the apt passing place sign.

I tried to recall from here to the end of the course. I knew, since we had cycled past that way that we would climb to the summit of a low rise then head down grass to (would you believe?) another beach. But I couldn't remember how many beaches left after we came off that one. The marshals there were keen for me to explore their tasty treats but I just waved hello and thanks and ran on into the great unknown. 

dogleg beach

guy in blue got third degree

The beach was something of a dogleg but well worth the visit – even on trashed legs. Every marshal I passed from this point on, I quizzed for as much info as possible. Coming off the beach was a dude who probably wasn't part of the organisation and he got the third degree as well. Then a junction and no markings. I ran up the main (single track) road but then stopped and thought we maybe go along past the houses (above) and down to the coast. I reckoned I'd knock on the first door and ask but before I got there a woman (an angel!) came out and pointed me back up the main road. Lucky lucky! Well until Garmin ran out at 29 miles, around here.

Onward and the road fades out and directions over more grass and an arrow pointing right when home is left – no likey! But only a small diversion and a man by a flag and another beach and so it goes. (Each flag hand sewn round the edges and the island logo – Wto's mum's pb 6 mins!)

smoking up the grass

Tom's trail 

I now follow the footprints of Tom the Map who has become part of the map and left his well chosen line across the beach. His pace is legible from the gap between prints – if they are shortening I might yet reel him in. Nice idea, but I have to speed up to match his stride. But thanks for leading me home: Hand held!

favourite marshal under distinctive geographical feature

And then my favourite marshal of the whole day: a turquoise jacket like the sea in the shallows, a beacon to aim for at the end of the beach, at the end of the run, at the end of the day and words to fill a heart with joy: go up the track to the road, turn right and you're done.

last hundred yards

photo Rhoda M

photo Rhoda M

Before you lift the drink to your mouth, but it's in your hand; that's the moment. Not the in-your-mouth but in-your-hand, in your grasp. Same with a kiss. A sea breeze, the salt in your hair and the last light of day. A lighthouse and the wave over the rocks. A table of lovely people all pleased to see you and clapping and a smile and to breeze down the last hundred yards on fresh legs. What a very nice day out and the sun shining too. (Never hold your hands aloft – you're not in the flippin' 'lympics. Good advice, I shuffle over the line and if I had pockets I'd put my hands in them.)

Here comes Stuart and then Lucy, then I'm off to battle with cramp and the respite between shoe removals and a tidy up in the unlockable bathroom, Wto's bathroom – gotta love an RD who says use my bathroom under the stairs to change and his wife says have a shower if you like. I make do with scraping the sand off outdoors and changing into warm clothes and slowly stopping the shudders by applying lager-tops (after much experimentation this IS the breakfast of champions) to neck and stomach. And in come the troops. Stovies (lamb or veggie) £2.50 and exactly right. It does not get better than this and there is much laughing and love. We have all been to hell and back or at least part-way, and feel the benefit. Bjorn lost his waterproof jacket and has to catch the 4pm ferry or was it flight? He walked the last 12miles on a wrecked knee, but worked out he had time enough to still get home. Someone has returned his jacket. The circle is complete. (Wonder if my map was in the pocket?)

tech t-shirt, medal and goody bag from sponsors cohesion medical and as their motto is Do Good not Greed they get my vote. Also take note all those piddly short marathons this cost ONLY £18. 

I did have to pay for the lager tops but it was worth way more! Hoho look at that! Do you know how good that was? The way to improve food and drink isn't sitting in front of Bake Off taking notes, it is to get out and improve your appetite so that simple stuff tastes better, WAY better than any kind of fancy.

Andy and Angus are even higher than at the start? Is this possible? Susan deserves a special mention for doing the whole thing from a campsite base where the showers cut out between shampoo and rinse. Anyone familiar with her Fling-jury and subsequent hospitalisation won't be surprised by her fortitude. And Claire finishes with a smile despite sore feet.

Most impressively, and huge kudos to Wto for this: everyone who started, finished. Has this ever happened in an ultra before? No dnfs. NONE. There nearly was one; it was on the cards then the other back marker reached out and with some chat and gentle encouragement brought home the last of the flock. A lot of walking, a little jogging, and 100% success. What a score! Outstanding!

first relay team finish on an upbeat.

Bjorn again with his jacket

2 pints later and feeling repaired Lucy and I cycle the 5 back. We stop and thank the marshals up from the hostel who are waiting for the last 2. We cycle past them and shout encouragements. Then back for a long shower, a short nap then a quick game of Ready Steady Puke with the unused foodstuffs from last night's dinner. Luckily there is whisky (brought by the medical emergencies dept.) to offset the unlikely combination of remaining ingredients, 2 of which are toothpaste and a minty shampoo. Lucy rejects the idea of pasta on a bed of crumpet, but we manage to get just about enough sustenance to soak up some of the alcohol at the prize-giving. 

the opposite of high heels

Realising people might be too fragile to do yet another 5 out and 5 back Wto has laid on transit vans with drivers picking up and depositing crippled athletes from around the island. It is a hoot and a very good time is had by all with a special award going to Angus for his bespoke tartan trousers. We were herded back onto the transit van just before it got messy and I have little recollection of anything else.

large breakable glass trophies might have been a generous oversight
(despite the odds, they arrived home unbroken.)

those trousers

dancing or arm-wrestling

selfie with the driver, where is the driver?

oh there, behind the giggling fool

One last 5 back to the pier next morning and we sailed off leaving it all behind like a beautiful dream, or maybe a very enjoyable boot camp. Probably the best race ever. Can't think of a better one.

over there from back here

Bac Mor or the Dutchman's Cap, one of the Treshnish Isles.

sewn flag, arrow behind

Except we had 3 hrs to kill between being out the hostel and in the ferry. Judith had suggested climbing a hill which we did. And afterwards walked (Lucy still in her cleats!) to the coast where a flag and directional arrow pointed us along an empty white beach. We talked about swimming, and dipping in a hand, recognised it wasn't as cold as it looked. For a dreadful moment I saw a look cross Lucy's face and knew she was definitely maybe contemplating jumping out her clothes and into the water and it was going to be Davy Hearn and the Barrathon all over again, because you can't, you really can't let yourself be upstaged by a buckfast drinking dude in his late 70s.


  1. Great report and I'm really pleased you had such a wonderful time. But where did you get the translation for Tiree? LOL. I think someone was pulling your leg. It actually comes from the gaelic, Tir lodh which means 'land of corn'. Hope we see you again next year.

  2. err.. I made it up!

    Thanks and see you next year!

  3. not too long back from tiree for summer hols-glad you loved it.
    fiona mac

  4. Brilliant blog! Wish I'd been there! But reading this and seeing the pics was like a good film - you come back to reality feeling you WERE there!

  5. Thanks Rob,
    No greater compliment!