Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Hoy Half Marathon

Having done the inaugural Orkney marathon last July it seemed like a good idea to have a bash at the Hoy Half (which has been around for a good few years and has something of a reputation). It would be another chance to meet back up with my connections from art school days, and Mary's past, growing up on the islands.

Last time we flew which definitely has advantages. This time we drove. We put the Berlingo in for a service (it had been making dubious noises) and it behaved admirably over the 605 miles up and down the country. Which is more than can be said for the Scottish Summer weather. It pished down for much of the journey up there and although there were sunny moments over the extended weekend there were many downpours and low cloud days and the tent came home damp.

We camped overnight in the well maintained but atmosphere-free site on the Thurso shore. Having arrived late there was just time to throw up the tent then grab a quick (and overpriced) meal at the Spice Tandoori restaurant (very welcome and tasty food). Before walking back to a tent that danced and rattled all night in the howling wind and strafing rain. I had hoped to noise up a pal who lives nearby but there just wasn't time to fit it all in. We also had to get up in reasonable shape; and then breakfast at the bizarrely texan-styled Blue Door diner (have a good day y'all) (wtf!) on-site cafe.

Indian restaurant.

nice logo at the stepping off point

You have to arrive an hour ahead of departure at the drive-on ferry. Then sit in your car twiddling thumbs and not mentioning the SEASICK word for at least an hour while the rain falls gently. I tend to pass dead time with podcasts and music but Mary and I don't always have identical tastes so my mp3 player stayed unused the whole trip. All the fannying about made us think about travelling by plane next time. Especially the potential for a rough crossing by sea. Although there was a building wind over the couple of days before, the crossing was gloomy but not furious and by positioning ourselves where we could see the horizon bobbing we managed to avoid anything other than mild unpleasantness, counting off the 1hr40 trip time with the growing optimism of those who have dodged a bullet.

at last, land was sighted

the only thing disgorged was us

A delight to arrive at Neil and Shona's beautiful house in Stromness. We all went to art school together and their house is always full of interesting pictures, art and artbooks, and a warm welcome. I spent a while in the garden chasing butterflies and taking pics of the flowers. 

green veined white

On Saturday we went for a gentle 4 miler round the coast. There were lots of similar wildlife things to the E Lothian coastline and we stopped regularly for pics. The Eiders had chicks, the Red Admirals were out in abundance and there were loads of shoreline birds. On the way back up the hill from the coast we were welcomed (or hounded) by a pair of stonechats who were either extremely pleased to see us or telling us in an angry and continual discourse to clear off. They perched close enough to get decent photos but were continuously hopping about which made it challenging. The male seems to have the wings of a sparrow, the head of a blackbird and the breast of a robin and very dapper he looks too! We took far too many photos as they darted about scolding us.



angry stonechat

mrs stonechat

We visited Mary's grandparents in the cemetery, with the hills of Hoy in the background.

Amazingly we didn't drink too much wine on Saturday eve which would have been an easy mistake to make. It was an early start on Sunday but we had picked up our tickets for the ferry at Houton so didn't have much to do apart from hang around at another ferry terminal while the boats came in. They had laid on an extra crossing for the 120+ competitors and friends taking part. Most went over as foot passengers and there were buses in Hoy to take folk to the registration (at the finish line) then drive over to the start at Rackwick. So we got a good look at the course before starting. HILLY was the word that sprang to mind. Having done the Orkney marathon I knew the locals weren't frightened of hills and wind, and so it turned out to be. We hadn't anticipated the blasting sunshine would be another issue as well, and had only packed running vests as an afterthought. I assumed I'd be running in t-shirt with perhaps a gilet as wind/rain protection. Instead, vests were the order of the day as we got blue skies as well as a headwind the whole race. 

On the drive to the Houton ferry we saw a streak of fluff dash madly across the road in front of the car. We both squealed and cheered the Orkney Vole, a rat sized rodent looking more like a Michael Bentine creation zipping across the road on a string. While we were at the ferry park we watched hares nearby gamboling and cavorting and tried to take some pics. We felt these were both very propitious omens and it meant we would both do well. While we were taking photos it certainly took my mind off the coming race and my stomach, for a moment, stopped doing cartwheels. I wasn't really in the mood for a 90min struggle into a strong wind.

We were wondering if we would recognise any runners from our part of the world. There wasn't a huge contingent from down south but Kate and Craig were there and are regulars at the several races held in this part of the world. 

The water was very clear and clean looking and I stopped at the pier on the way off the ferry to take pics of these sea urchins, not seeing the small fish in the photo until we got home. I know from reading Amy Liptrot's The Outrun, there is an open water swimming group in Orkney. We didn't take our wetsuits this trip but it is a place where, cold aside, swimming would be fab.

photo from Hoy Half on facebook

I meant to run with my camera but somehow in the kerfuffle of getting ready I left it with the finish line kit, before we got on the bus to the start. The bus drive to the start was a bit of a slog as a convoy of several coaches and transit vans made their way over the single track roads towards Rackwick. We camped there last trip and it is very noteworthy. However this time we stopped within sight of the fabulous bay and gathered at a nominal point on the road, where, after consideration for the ladies squatting behind the shuttering, collected at the line, then set off just after 11am.

There had been a sighting of a large reddy-brown bird near the roadside from the van. Perhaps a Sea Eagle? At least a hen harrier. The legendary nesting of sea eagles last year had faded into rural myth (cousin of urban legend) and so sightings of sea eagles I took with a pinch of sea salt, however I had seen something of substance out the van window. I rather hoped there wouldn't be similar all the way to the finish line as I hadn't got my camera.

I started in the top 7. The first runner, Timothy, regular and regular winner, bolted off David Limmer style and was quarter of a mile ahead of everyone in no time. Then a group of 6 with me at the tail of them followed. It was very warm and with such a hilly course it would not be clever to start full steam ahead.

To start with we ran East then North East to the road junction with the main road going South East. There was quite a headwind along the first 3 miles. This was good news (I thought) and perhaps a change from the predicted South wind. Well, no, as it turned out. Despite the abrupt change in direction we continued to run into the wind for the whole course despite twists and turns. At the junction around 3 miles I had moved from 7th up to third but knew the hills would change all that. I am having trouble recalling the exact order of people going past as some came past then dropped back while others stayed ahead. Only 2 places remained stable: Tim out front and Craig in second who kept a good distance ahead of a rotating third. Going up an early steep climb I was overtaken by Nigel. I thought he might be a hardy local as he seemed to relish the hill and headwind. I tried to duck in behind and shamelessly draft him but couldn't keep that up for more than half a mile before I dropped back. After all I wasn't here to kill myself; this is what we do for fun. Isn't it? 

While the search for fun went on a dude in a red Orkney vest went back and forth a time or 2. I think. It all fades into a sweat fest of sun and hillclimbs. At places the sun was melting the tarmac and a misplaced shoe would stick in the patches of liquifying blacktop.  I'm really not sure I enjoy running at pace on tarmac into the wind. There was a bit of scenery to take one's mind off it, but mostly I was just turning around the phrase, "thank fuck it's not a marathon."

I thought Nigel might be a hardy local because he wasn't wearing typical running kit - more, casual running shorts and a non-technical t-shirt. Not running club kit for sure. And yet here he was showing us how to climb hills. More on that later. I could see that Orkney red vest was catching him and would eventually get third. Nigel was in 4th and I was in fifth. OK, fifth sounds about right, wonder if I can hold onto it. From there it was just try not to get caught or slow down, despite imminent cardiac incident or stroke. A few lovely people were out on the rural roads handing cups of water. I worried that plastic cups would fly on the wind to pollute the beautiful island but most were dropped upwind of the aid station and would return to sender.

I had also noticed the last awful hill between 12 and 13. If there was trouble or a fight it would be here. To cut a long and painful story short, there wasn't and I cruised untroubled over the line in 1.32 in fifth place. I know 1.32 sounds pretty slack for a half, but only the first 2 runners did sub1.30 which tells a story. In fact I was pretty pleased with my run and if nothing else it was a good training run for the 7 hills coming up next week.

Also I won first 50 and got an individual looking medal and a sponsored trophy. If I had any sense (like Craig and Kate who also won trophies for second male and first female, great running both,) I'd have left the trophy with the organisers. Instead I have to return it next year. And I really doubt I'll be there. I mean you never know, but just like the Orkney marathon, great organisation but a long way to go for a tough and hilly workout. I am just not sure whether this sort of thing lights my candle any more.

I used to attend a number of challenging Heb3 type races, in out of the way corners. The travelling and camping can be fab, but it can also be exhausting. And my preferred running fun is more about long journey runs taking photos of butterflies and chatting to friends. I am just not sure I need that race pain anymore. On the upside the race (like the marathon) was very well organised and despite the difficulties of travelling and the course being a point-to-point, the organisers handled it very well and everything went smoothly. Don't let my grumbles put you off, I'm just getting too old to enjoy that amount of to-and-fro. On the upside there were loads of butterflies in the fields while we ran. They seemed less concerned about the wind than I was.

top three

Kate - first lady!


Hoy behind, "Mainland" in front.

In a near exact copy of the post-marathon fun, Mary and I were invited to her old home (where she grew up) which has been bought by her old schoolpals Karen and Gareth, and undergone massive and impressive refurb. Mary was driving so stayed sober. I wasn't and didn't, although I began to see that Gareth's obligatory wine tasting (so we could advise which of his wine suppliers to use for his hotel businesses) was a very dangerous game to play. Happily they had provided as much superb food as wine and one nearly soaked up the other. I avoided disaster by eating lots and talking endlessly to quite a few of the assembled company, from Mary's teenage years. It was great fun and pretty soon I had made lots of new best friends. I certainly slept well that night.

The ferry crossing on Monday was very calm and I slept for quite a bit of it. We did pay attention as the Old Man of Hoy went past and even caught sight of a cetacean or whale breaking the surface nearby. Oh yes, nearly forgot about Nigel. We chatted after the race and it turns out he and his mate climbed the Old Man the day before. And then he beat me by one place. What a hero. I know from my climbing days - and Ben Kemp's experience - that the Old Man isn't just a walk in the park. I have stood on the land right next door to it (but never climbed it) and it is terrifying from there, never mind scaling it. After the race we kept bumping into Nigel and co, catching the ferry together, along with Craig and Kate, and then even visiting the same garage for fuel in Thurso. There was a bond you get with folk who have been through the same ordeal. Actually they were walking with more of a limp than we were as Nigel told us he only "goes for a jog once a week" in his native London. Yeah, I just bought some running shoes last week and thought I'd try this running malarky out, I lied.

And that was about that apart from a 6hr drive back to Edinburgh which is long and not much fun. Here are some other photos out the 'big' camera taken during the trip. Overall, a great trip and race although tiring. Not for the faint hearted! 

The view from 'our' window in Stromness

my trophy wife

The Orkney Vole and Hare were good omens - Mary also won first f50 and was fifth woman, the same place as myself. I think she might have enjoyed the race more than I did and you can read her account of things on her blog here. Her trophy was much nicer than mine. There was talk about maybe doing the Kirkwall Half in August but I'm not sure that would be preferable to a bit of abroad and some suntan weather and maybe trails in Portugal. We shall see.

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