As I sit, all rugged up, in our rental cottage, a traditional Blackhouse, on the Isle of Tiree, the woodburner blazing away while the wind whistles around us and the waves in the distance, smashing against the island, I quietly smile inside, reflecting on the incredible experience of my first ultra marathon. This is a long old report, so best grab that cuppa or G&T and settle in for the long read…
Tiree Ultra Marathon is a 35 mile/55km run circumnavigating the beautiful, Hebridean Isle of Tiree, Scotland. As a Scottish lass living in Australia, it was incredibly special for me to complete my first ultra “back home”. The idea came about at the end of last year when a wonderful friend asked me to be her bridesmaid in Oban in September 2017. I was actually injured at the time, having not been able to run for months, but inevitably, when a trip is being planned, I couldn’t resist the classic Google search: “runs in Scotland in September 2017″…and up popped Tiree. It was in fact a sold out event, and I didn’t at the time know the exact date of the wedding but as fate would have it, some additional places popped up back in December for the ultra and it turned out to be the weekend before the wedding. Given that the four hour ferry trip to the island starts in Oban, it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly.
It seems crazy to me now that when I signed up, I was unable to run at all thanks (or no thanks) to injury. I remember persuading Morgan that if all else failed, mayyyybe we could do a two person relay. We would make it work. And yet, in fact, I worked diligently through my knee rehab and had a fantastic 6 months of training in the lead up to the event. Not that long ago, I could never have imagined completing consecutive 80km run training weeks, with much of that on trail around home on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. I most definitely have Coach Jason to thank for the very slow and steady build into that. Patience is key – and not necessarily my forte!
So, let’s get to the event. After the long haul flight back to Scotland, we sailed from Oban to Tiree on the Thursday before the race. It was pretty uneventful, other than the dark, early wake up call and the wind and rain on deck reminding me how wild the west coast can be. Bacon rolls were consumed for breakfast and we met a few other brave and friendly souls headed across for the ultra. One in particular had a laminated OS map of the island, cut down to size, complete with annotated mile markers. Me, meanwhile not knowing much about the course at all and asking the basics, like whether we run clockwise or counter clockwise around the island, and trying to get my head around miles, since I’ve completely converted to kilometres since moving to Oz. It also became apparent that many people were cycling across and camping. I mean, with the rain bucketing down and the wind blowing, I am possibly not that hardy anymore.
Race registration and the briefing were held on the Saturday evening before the race, at the community hall which served as the hub for the event. I have to say, for 38 quid – this event is great value for money, especially when compared to the $200 trail run events we have in Oz. Goodie bag was collected (a lovely wee branded tote) including race t-shirt; a Tunnocks caramel wafer (the best biccie around, in case you haven’t been to Scotland); Haribo (my usual go to for “hangry” outbursts when snowboarding) and the all important OS Map (which it turns out, I didn’t have to refer to once thanks to great signage and friendly marshals) and at 6pm, Will, the Race Director, kicked off the briefing. By this point, in spite of checking a billion different weather apps in hope of a good news story, it was absolutely apparent that the race would not be blessed with the blue skies and wonderful weather which the race website and previous race participants were raving about. In fact, quite the opposite – 30 knot winds and heavy rain was on the cards. Will gave the motivational chat of “In 2017, you will have bragging rights as the runners who have faced THE toughest Tiree Ultra of all time” (the event is in it’s fourth year) “An extra hill; two extra beaches, and the worst weather on record, including a terrible headwind on the last beach home”. Never mind the last beach, what about the five mile stretch of beach before that, eh, Will! We were instructed to climb the new hill; to touch the cairn and to shout, “I LOVE HILLS” – which, at the post race ceilidh, sounds like it may have in fact turned to “I HATE WILL” for some runners… Haha. Plus, we were warned that thanks to the weather and the very badly timed high tide and the numerous bogs, that our feet would be soaked for the entire 55kms. Care was to be taken around farm animals, and respect paid to the local crofters and farm machinery. The roads would remain open during the race and jumping in front of tractors was not advisable. We were also reminded of the essentials: the bar opens at 3pm and the ceilidh kicks off at 8pm. My race goal was: finish my first ultra. My bonus race goal was: finish the ultra and make it to the ceilidh.
While it is widely acknowledged that since moving to Queensland, I have become a complete sook when it comes to bad weather, I can honestly say that even digging into my youth in Scotland and nine years living in Aberdeen in the (often grey and windy) north of Scotland, Tiree seriously turned on the weather for the race. And by “turned on”, what I mean is, think wind (strong, gusty, constant, noisy), rain (horizontally pelting at your face), hail (while running on an exposed beach, stinging your face kinda stuff) and the odd sunny spell – which, whenever I spotted a faint glow of that thing called “the sun”, required me to whip the camera out of my pack to record the moment in case I never ever saw it again, ever.
The race didn’t start until 8am, so, we all deposited our drop bags in the hall for the halfway checkpoint and stayed huddled inside; some nervous faces and some laughter about the general atrocity of the weather outside. I can’t really talk though as we drove in the car to the start line, unlike the hardy souls who kicked off their race with a drenching on their bikes, but hey that headwind must have been a good warm up for the legs?! From the hall stage, Will kicked off an impromptu warm up, something akin to Jane Fonda aerobics meets S Club 7 dance audition while clad in lycra and gore tex and carrying hydration packs. “At the end of this music track, we are heading down to the beach to the start line, whether you like it or not”, he announced. I was incredibly disappointed to have caught one of those yucky post long haul flight head colds before this run, having been so healthy the past six months, but as we headed down to the start line, it didn’t matter – I was there to run. Not to mention, on my way out of the hall, I had passed a guy who commented “There are gonna be a lot of DNFs today with these conditions”, so, Challenge Accepted, I was 100% spurred on to not fall into his pessimistic DNF pile!
Before I knew it, the countdown was on as we all gathered in the blustery, wet conditions on the beach, and off we ran. The first section of the run from the start line to Checkpoint 1 at 8.4 miles was a great mix of a bit of single track road and verge; long beaches at high tide; stream crossings; a more remote section around bog and open moorland and hills at the south west end of the island including the first hill, in the aptly named Happy Valley. As would be a constant theme for the vast majority of the run, the wind blew and the rain fell and we jumped, slid and generally trudged around boggy ground underfoot. It was, in spite of the poor visibility, absolutely beautiful and I was so excited to be running around Scottish moors in classic Scottish weather. The hill was short but actually steeper than expected and I was happy that Morgan (who had given me the GoPro Karma grip as an early birthday present before the run) couldn’t see me inadvertently use this pricey piece of kit as a hiking pole as my hands fell forward to the ground and I scrambled a little way up the hill on all fours for balance.
Arriving at Checkpoint One, it was an absolute treat for me to see my Mum and Morgan waiting up on the hill. It was also a huge help to have them help me refill my water bottles and generally dig my Tailwind and anything else I needed out of my pack. I ended up wearing gloves for the entire race and safe to say, I haven’t had a huge amount of practice running in gloves in Queensland, not to mention trying to open wet zip lock bags with cold hands to dig out my nutrition. I felt really good at this stage and was just starting to calm down and settle into my rhythm.
The next checkpoint marked the halfway point and it really was a wonderful course for spectators, as Mum and Morgan would pop up here, there and everywhere. If you’re planning to run and are bringing friends or family over, I would totally recommend them having a car so they can navigate around and cheer you on, or act as a mobile aid station if need be! One of the guys we met on the ferry on the way over commented to me as I caught him up later on in the race, how good my family had been at cheering him on, and it’s true – they seemed to get to know the people around me and provide a bit of moral support for us all. Likewise I started to recognise other family’s cars doing the same circuit, and wave to them all as they popped up between checkpoints. Between this, and the wonderful marshals, there was an absolutely wonderful community vibe to the race.
Being unsure of the terrain, I had no expectation of pace for this run, and my race plan was purely to run at my T2 heart rate. I know heart rate isn’t everyone’s jam, but it’s something I’m extremely familiar with now that I’ve racked up around 1500kms of running in the last six month training block, with much of that at “T2” effort. This works really well for me as I don’t stress about pace; I just focus on the heart rate and how I’m feeling. That being said, at one point my heart rate monitor stopped working and I was left just running entirely to feel for a while – I swear every “A” race I take part in, my heart rate monitor decides to have a conniption and leave me to run to feel. A wee fiddle around during a walking spell however seemed to rejuvenate it and I was back on track. In the past, technology failures would have fazed me a lot more, so it was good to realise I feel a lot more confident in my general ability to run to feel now and not get too hung up on that data. After all, the simple strategy of just keep putting one foot in front of the other, should get me to the finish line.
I would say that my overall mood for the run was generally positive. In fact, I absolutely loved it! I was excited to see what was around every corner; the other runners were in good spirits and enjoying the collective sense of adventure; the aid stations loaded with home baked goodies and my nutrition (minus home baked goodies and the all important Hula Hoops) was on point. There were however a few spells where, for instance, there wasn’t a corner to see around, and I could see miles ahead of me, that I felt a little less enthusiastic. It’s hard to pretend you’re one of the Famous Five jumping across rocky beaches and dropping down sand dunes into smugglers coves (yep, an Enid Blyton tragic, I did that) when the rain feels like icy pellets trying to burst your face open and although you can’t necessarily see it amidst the cloud, you know you are on a five mile stretch of open, exposed beach and the wind is brutally relentless. There were also some long stretches of wet, tussocky grassland and a bit more road than I had expected, that weren’t half as exciting as other sections of the course like the boggy moors, the discovery of a beautiful broch (circa 60AD I have subsequently read), white sandy coves and rocks covered in stunning yellow lichen. I had also been told that in previous years, curious seals close to shore had swum along, following runners along the beaches. This year was apparently too bleak, even for curious seals.
Checkpoint Three was the final aid station before the finish line. When Morgan gleefully, and well intentionally announced to me, “You’ve only a quarter left!”, my heart sank a little. For some reason, that felt a lot longer than the same 13kms I had psyched myself up for. But off I went, climbing up the hill at a particularly wonderful time for rain and wind, touching the cairn and shouting “I love hills” as instructed, before descending down into a pretty miserably, boggy section with a good old headwind. There was some really good deep bog here. So good that at one point I found myself leaving my shoe behind in a muddy, wet, sucky section, which wouldn’t be a huge deal, if only my foot and left leg weren’t stuck in it.
Although I diligently carried my OS Map around, in most places, the fluro yellow arrows guided us around the island, and in places where I couldn’t see any, I would think back to the briefing and think to myself “What would Will do”… shortly followed by, “What do the sheep do”, since we had been advised to follow sheep tracks and the contours of the land… shortly followed by a look around to see if I could actually see anyone else. There were only a couple of occasions where I strayed off course, and nothing too serious. My main disgruntled moment was when my race number completely disintegrated while leaning into the storm as I crossed the enormous Gott Bay, and what remained of it blew off my number belt and flew behind me. Having to retrace my steps to bend down and pick the remaining bit of number off of the sandy beach, only to head back into the icy rain, was a simple, low moment! That was around 50kms, so please give me some slack for being grumpy about A. something so small fry as having to bend down and B. having to run an extra few metres. And also, let me be clear, I didn’t care about the remaining bit of sodden number bib, but I didn’t want to litter!
It was on this beach that I decided it was time to stick some music in my ears. This was a fantastic decision as the iPod Shuffle really raised its game with some humorous choices. The first song to play was the 1996 classic, Fragma’s “Toca’s Miracle”. Hearing the words “I Need a Miracle, I Need a Miracle” being piped into my ears brought a huge smile to my face as I laughed out loud (not that you would hear me laughing amidst the 30knot wind – have I mentioned, it was windy…). Fair play iPod Shuffle, I did need a miracle. Mum commented that we all looked like something from a Lowry painting as we leaned into the wind amidst a grey beach scene, isolated little figures, slowly making our way across the sand. What you haven’t noticed in a Lowry painting before is the one individual pulling their hood over their face while reaching deep into their hydration pack to pull out the one and only “emergency Toffee Crisp” chocolate bar.
My final particularly poignant moment thanks to the iPod, was along the last stretch of beach at Crossapol. I was so excited to have cleared the deep sand and to be able to see the hall and the Finish line a few kilometres off in the distance. Only to find a few moments later that I could no longer see in front of me thanks to something akin to a total white out. As if by magic, Sia’s “Alive” came on: “I was born in a thunderstorm… I played on my own.. I surviiiiiiiived” “I had a one way ticket to a place where all the demons go… Where the winds don’t change and nothing in the ground can ever grow…” “I’M STILL BREATHING (4X) I’M ALIVE (4X)”. And YES, I was still breathing, and nothing grows on Tiree because of the wind, and I’m allllliiive – cue another chuckle as I was reduced to a walk, just trying to stand up and make any kind of forward progress. At this point I met up with a fellow runner (who shall remain nameless, eh Robin 😉 ) who reminded me of the phrase I’d told him earlier, “The sooner it’s done; the sooner it’s done”. I had apparently imparted this little gem of motivation to him after previously finding him lying face down in a bog lamenting that he was most definitely, “over it”. While it was secretly tempting back then to just use him as a walkway across a tricky section of barbed wire and deep, wet bog, I did in fact, check he was okay… Nothing quite like having that cheesy stuff repeated back at you when you are leaning into a storm and possibly, eventually, heading towards being “over it” too, if it weren’t for Sia reminding me that I was in fact, very much alive…. I’ve included a wee 30 second clip below of this section, volume required!
On we ran, as the weather cleared again, and the last little road section after the final beach approached. My legs felt pretty good (relatively speaking!) for the last push to the Finish line and seeing the little crowd outside the hall and receiving my medal as I came to a stop after 55kms was most definitely a proud moment. A huge hug from my Mum and one from Morgan and an obligatory selfie at the end, and that was it, my first ultramarathon complete! I’m not saying I would necessarily choooooose to run the race in the same weather conditions again, but there’s no doubt that a bit of collective adversity has a great way of bringing people together and somewhat ironically, lifting the spirits. It also added to the overall sense of achievement as there were most definitely times when the wind was strong and forward progress was slow!
What can I say, as I hope you’ve gathered from the above, I absolutely loved my first ultra marathon experience. Tiree is rated as a great first ultra, and I would wholeheartedly agree. Although the terrain underfoot can be challenging – and indeed a few newbies remarked that this was tougher than their “trail” running training, as often there wasn’t an actual trail to follow, but instead a case of picking your own way across deep, wet bog or soggy grasslands or sandy beach; I personally loved this aspect of the run and the sense of freedom. Additionally, the lack of elevation (my Garmin reckoned around 800 metres although the course map says around 500m) helps with making this an easier course, albeit you are often up and down and round and about over a huge variety of road, rock, sand dune, stiles, peat bog etc… And first and foremost – a huge thanks to Will, Becky and the island community for making this such a welcoming, non-intimidating event for first timers. I would love to return one day to race in those blue sky, perfect conditions I’ve seen from previous years photos.
Final results: 55km. 7 hours 10mins. Bringing me in at 84th of all 191 finishers, including solo and team finishers. I may even have been close to Top 20 females, but it’s hard to tell from the finishers list if some names are male or female! Either way, I finished feeling good and also hit my secondary goal of making it to the evening’s ceilidh (translation: Scottish dance) too. Great craic and an entertaining prize giving included 😉 This is also where Race Director, Will, introduced a fellow runner’s description of the race as “brutifal”, as per the blog post title (brutal plus beautiful). Nice one.
If it’s up your street, you can see my run on Strava. It seems I spent about 20 minutes standing still, enjoying the aid stations and the general banter! https://www.strava.com/activities/1177713908/overview
The “Relive” of the event is pretty cool too, showing an aerial view of the island run…
Ps. The lasagne and pizza at the hall afterwards was a total winner, for runners and spectators alike, eh Morgan!
Thank you to all of the good souls I met during our week on Tiree. What a magical place. xx
More info on the run and other good stuff which Will organises, can be found here www.tireefitness.co.uk
Gear I used for the run:
- Buff Headwear bandana
- Salomon Slab Advanced 12 Hydration Pack along with some new Hydrapak bottles with straws. A review of the larger pack is coming soon I promise (!) and I’ve reviewed the smaller pack here.
- The OMM Kamleika Race Smock jacket. This was a serious test for this jacket and I can’t speak highly enough of it. Worked a treat in the wind and rain and was super comfortable. I was really, really glad to have the hood too. Review to follow!
- Oiselle Power Stretch gloves. Although I was constantly wringing these out and I’m sure Gore Tex gloves would have been better, these were an absolute lifesaver as my hands would have been freezing otherwise.
- Oiselle luxe tee. Again, zero underarm chafing hurrah. But it never saw the light of day from underneath my jacket.
- SOAS shorts. I’ve reviewed these shorts here.
- Injinji Compression Toe Socks. Soaking wet feet for the entire race and not a single blister.
- Hoka One One Challenger ATR and ATR 2 shoes. Although I didn’t change my socks as it just felt like too much hassle and I was worried what i might find underneath, psychologically it felt good to put on a fresh pair of shoes at the halfway mark, even if they were immediately soaked again!
- Garmin Fenix 3 – Rose Gold.
- GoPro Hero 5 Black attached to my new GoPro Karma Grip. I’ll definitely be reviewing the Karma Grip, which stayed working throughout in spite of so much rain and a lot of sand being thrown at it. Very impressed. I have tonnes of footage which I’ll be making into a wee film.
- Nutrition was predominantly Tailwind, supplemented with Clif Shot Bloks, some Hula Hoops and the Toffee Crisp! Thanks to Mike at Tailwind UK for sending an order to my Mum’s house so quickly when I realised last minute that a UK order was easier than carrying it overseas.
And finally (I promise!), to be fair to Tiree, I’ve included a wee gallery below of images from the rest of the week of our trip. We did have a lot of rain and wind, but there were some beautiful blue sky moments too! I have also never seen so many rainbows in the space of one week. Just in case you fancy a visit…