Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Orkney holiday pt 1

St Magnus Marathon.

so tough even the signs were sweating

There was a feeling in the air. Mary had heard old pals had bought the big house she grew up in, in Orkney. Her peer group were all approaching the big 5-oh. Then a marathon - Kirkwall to Birsay - was announced. Fate was calling us North. Mary booked the flights and car hire.

I will gloss over the horrors of airports. Edinburgh is comparatively small and yet they still manage to squeeze in most of the devil's work into a smallish duty free hall and security check. My carry on bag failed the x-ray and they found my terrorist talc. My watch set off the metal detector (I stepped through without it on the return journey and cleared security) (talc bomb safely concealed in hold luggage.) And why are they still measuring luggage weight but ignoring passenger weight? You might as well weigh everyone's shoes and leave it at that. Ignoring the fact that some passengers are twice the weight of others and everyone's luggage is generally the smallest part of the transaction.

The flight of about an hour makes fun of the 6 hour drive. It also makes Orkney seem less abroad, just a small hop off the North coast. It was pleasingly retro flying on a small prop driven plane and I had next to no time to ask the captain (as we disembarked) were they able to feather the props? I had been wondering because they get the engines going then taxi backwards to the airstrip. He said yes they can feather the props. Mary spends most of our airport moments rolling her eyes.

We picked up the hire car and drove to Stromness where we were staying with Shona and Neil Firth, great pals from art school a million years ago. Neil and I shared digs and an aversion to hard work. 

Shona, our gracious host.


The photos would suggest M and I drove to Warbeth Beach and checked out her grandparents who reside in the cemetery there. I also nodded hello to Hamish's folks even though we haven't been formally introduced. Hamish was in the same pub year at art school as Neil, Shona and I.

a light drizzle falls on the smooth stones of Warbeth

There are 2 lighthouses on Graemsay, Hoy Sound High and Hoy Sound Low (above.) From a great distance (bear in mind the zoom on the camera, which reaches further than my failing eyesight) Hoy Sound Low looks a bit like the Taj Mahal. We will come to H S H later. Meanwhile here are some flowers in the Firth's garden. And you can ponder the three lies myths I was told about Orkney from someone who lived there from about 4 years old to about 16. 

1/ You can't sunbathe in Orkney. All sunbathing activity as a child was carried out from within a sleeping bag in the (windy) garden. I looked at the sun cream before setting off then contemplated the security checks at the airport where they make you put anything wetter or greater in volume than a spit, into a ziplock poly bag. Does anyone know why? The factor 15 remained on the bathroom shelf because of the local info above. 

2/ The puffin. In the goody bag at the marathon finish line was a puffin/Orkney badge and puffin/Orkney keyring. It is the symbol of Orkney but for all the puffins you will see, they might equally have chosen a zebra. To be fair to Mary this wasn't her idea nor one she bandies about, and she never saw any from the sleeping bag in her garden. We saw many birds and none of them were puffins. A keen bird enthusiast (PRCers can you guess who?) said to watch out for short eared owls (0 count) and Sea Eagles (0 count) but doubted the chances of seeing puffins. 

3/ The treeless islands. Just bollocks. Fewer trees perhaps and no giant redwoods. "We have one in Kirkwall but take it in at night." Hmmmm. Again Mary not to blame for this and we spent 10 days going "Look! A tree!"

Much of the delight of Stromness comes from the harbour rising steeply to the top of the hill directly behind: and so the individually shaped houses are built every which way on narrow raked streets directly above each other in a hugely pleasing jamboree of come as you please. Add to this quirky place names (Khyber Pass) and homes leaning out into the harbour on piers and you have a unique and charming port town.

Mary's third (Orkney) home.

So if you follow the road round from town there is this pleasant trail out to Warbeth Beach, past the graveyard (hello the Crieffers!), and then inland, up the hill and round the back a bit, it is somewhere between 3 and 6 miles depending which shop you pick up wine at on the way back.  

well parked Mercedes

the cattle outnumbered the sheep

I put this photo in (of mr bull) not just in appreciation of himself but also to check out the size of the clegg on his back. The midges were not a (big) problem; it was almost always too windy for them. But out running or walking in shorts and vests we would attract the unwanted attentions of horse-flies. They start with a gentle kiss of their sucker-like mouth tube then get to work with "two pairs of sharp cutting blades" at which point you notice a big dark grey fucker on your leg seemingly resistant to anything less than a hard slap. I stomped one into the ground for it's cheek, before remembering I love god's little creatures and should treat them accordingly. Stomp stomp stomp take that.

the scene of many a beer
Mary's sister was drunk in here had her reception here.

Firthy is the director of the Pier Arts Centre

We were just taking some scene setting installation type blurry arty photos of the exterior when we were cornered by another marathoner who had come all the way from god-knows-where to run the uk's most northern marathon. (If we still have a UK.) We then witnessed a Blackening, which looked like a bunch of road workers or bog snorklers driving about in the back of a lorry beating time with fence posts. I presume one was getting married in due course. I hear treacle has replaced tar or paint after someone didn't react at all well to gloss paint. Oops. 

quirky narrow streets

I think the central cobbled section is so that horses have some traction. All the flag stones had been replaced recently. While some of the character has been lost they will look great in another hundred years.

Top marks on tripadvisor for comfy bed and superb quality food and drink.

Wine glugged on night before marathon gives an idea how serious I felt this needed to be taken.
Mary may have abstained pre-mara but turned remarkably quickly from near teetotal to lush, practically overnight. Her blog (which forgets to mention this) here. Actually she writes she pushed the boat out; doesn't mention it was onto a red wine lake.

Well I suppose I have to talk about the marathon: it was tough. VERY tough. When I first saw the course I thought they have us running in the wrong direction - the wind will be in our faces for 26 miles. While it wasn't as bad as E2NB earlier in the year this was largely the case. (A bit of respite from 7.5 miles to 13.5 as we ran North.) What I hadn't reckoned on was quite such a hilly course. Lets have a look at the elevation (from my Garmin.)

not flat

On the morning we drove to Kirkwall and picked up numbers in plenty time before the 10am kick off. The PA system wasn't great but I did hear mention of hilliness from 19 to 23 before rolling down a long hill into Birsay. Neil had mentioned this also and I had this squirrelled away for later. Quick glance at the wiggly line above tells the real story. It goes downhill to mile 25. Then up. After saying hello to Isabel and William I went to the second row of the start line. I don't really know William but as Mary told him, he is a legend, and I have heard him speak in Edinburgh. We are facebook friends so I mentioned I'd been in Run and Become the previous week and Adrian sent his regards. The race would be one of the shortest events William has done - having not run anything as brief as this since the other side of the millennium. He was wearing a few layers. I opted for just a vest. A well fitting comfortable one that wouldn't amputate nipples, which ruled out the PRC club vest. Similarly shoes; slightly heavier Hoka Constant. I have a light fast pair of Cliftons but wisely chose for comfort and the rolls royce Constants. I packed 4 gels (2 caffeine 2 normal) into shorts pockets and put a bit of that security talc in my socks as blister prevention. I also had a secret weapon stashed and a bottle of caffeine drink (Emerge not R Bull) partially de-fizzed and diluted for the drinks station at mile 15. 

We set off half way through the 10 dongs of St Magnus Cathedral bell. The first 4 miles were quite bad. Awful in fact - lots of up hill and into the wind. A dude from Orkney (David, I later found out,) pulled alongside and we agreed it was tough. We were similar in pace and so stayed together as the field spread out. Just after Finstown we turned a corner and the wind stopped. Ahh that's better. David took off a layer. We had had something of a heavy shower of rain around mile 6 but happily it had stopped and all was ok from there to about mile 14. 

I don't really like road marathons. They are boring and hurty and if you get bad weather there can seem little point. I disliked a lot of the early miles. Feeling far too achy for the distance gone and hardly able to believe how much was still to come. The first 4 had ruled out any kind of decent time. It was mile 5 before I knocked out a sub 7 min mile but by 10 miles I had clawed it back to 70mins and 7 secs. There were lots of supporters out cheering us on at the roadside and at the many waterstations. I was still running with David as we approached mile 15 waterstation. First I consumed a caffeine heavy gel then reached into my pocket and found the secret weapon: 2 paracetamol. I had to slow slightly to get them out without fumbling them onto the road then crunch them down before I took the number 37 flat bull I was handed. Did I feel like a drugs cheat? A bit. Did I care? Like hell! 

I had fallen 30 yards behind David due to faff but knew I'd soon light the caffeine touch paper and scorch past. I'm not sure whether the painkillers made a real difference, or like a magic placebo bullet just gave me the idea soon I'd be in less pain, but they are now a marathon must have. I'd taken them on ultra training runs and felt better, as they remove the layer of surface ache you gather over the course of a longer run. And running on tarmac is all about putting up with ache - and sucking it up. A couple of miles later and I'd dropped David and was wondering what I'd say to the fouth placed runner up ahead when I went past, who was looking very in need of painkillers.

Although we'd been promised undulations from 19~23, really they started earlier than that. A continual climb from 17.5 to 23.2. I was distracted by the dude up ahead. He was slowing and I would soon catch him. I timed his going past something and he was 2 minutes ahead. In a short space of time I halved that and then was turning conversations over in my head. Obviously he isn't going to be thrilled with anything I say but I tried to limit the damage. And saying nothing while going past is just too cold. I settled for a commiserating "tough day for it, today" and hope it didn't cause too much pain. 

Soon the Garmin was reading 23 and I was coasting down the hill. I felt I was going much faster than the 7.39 and 7.27 miles I clocked. Rather depressing to have not gone sub 7 again after mile 10 although I also managed to keep things ticking over and never slowed to 8min miles either. So we cruised down the hill and I'm looking for a finish arch because we are going into Birsay and there is no more down hill to go. We are turned left past the palace ruins then up a hill to the tearoom and onto rough ground! Cross country at 25 miles! About half a mile or more along a rising trail of sand and grass, before popping out onto a road near the graveyard. We turn right but about 60 yards later there is a cone and a sign that says turning point. I turn around it and see to my horror there is a dude right behind me. He high fives me while I am waking from a rather relaxed dream, and I realise that he is looking much fresher than I feel and if I don't floor it to the end of the road and race he will trample me underfoot. I force myself to give a damn and finish 8 whole seconds clear. Fourth place in 3.11.56 and first m50.

Mary, while not delighted with a slowish time was pleased about how it went and spent more time going past people and staying strong to the end than some. I was a bit rude (or firm in a coaxing way) to the walking guy just behind. He said he might run nearer the end.

After the race I had a good hot shower and changed into comfortable dry clothes and then cheered on Angus and Mary. My shoes had been great but also had been squelching since mile 7 after getting caught in rain. There was a load of well priced food and drink options in the Birsay Hall and they managed the presentations well. All in all a very smooth organisation; all the important stuff like marshals and markings were in place and worked well. I'm not sure about the appeal of a tough hilly (probably windy) road marathon and can't see myself doing this one again but it was a great team behind the scenes and the whole thing was a great success. Often a first time event will iron out the problems second or third running but this seemed flawless from the word go. (If you don't mind a hilly course on a windy remote island!)

prize winners
On my right Chris Hill, winner and only sub 3hr time (2.58)  A quick google reveals he ran a 2.44 marathon last year - so we reckoned all were at least 14 minutes slower on this course than standard marathon.
William Sichel is on the other end and won first m60 and helped present the prizes.

excellent trophy

fun run winners

Gus on the bus
He expressed his pleasure about the race and Orkney and pretty much everything!
The partially open topped bus took us back to Kirkwall.

there were a lot of Edward Hopper landscapes

Mary driving us back to Stromness from Kirkwall,
had to stop for amazing scenery

Very good goody bag. (And medal.)
Quality race when they get a brewery to sponsor!
Excellent Scapa Special pale ale from Swannay Bewery

Mary texting her prayer of thanks for a decent run

part 2 coming soon


  1. You should really walk in Orkney, there is so much to see! Great performance Peter. Nice of you to mention my dad's grave, the view from Warebeth was a favourite of his, a grand place to sleep out eternity.

  2. Thanks Hamish,
    We really enjoyed our trip there. Just writing up part 2 now. Feel we have to return and see some of the stuff we never got to (islands up North etc.) Maybe do Hoy Half marathon next time.

  3. You should give The Rousay Lap a go. We've done it a few times. We might do it again next year. Or we might do the Hoy half.