Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Event Review : Tiree Ultra Marathon

What do normal people do on a Sunday? I'm not sure I know, nor care to join their ranks. It's probably not lining up on a beach on a far flung Hebridean island with a couple of hundred other people at 8am ready to run around the entire thing. Crazy? Yes. Fun? Strangely, YES!
I booked my place in the 2nd Tiree Ultramarathon a year ago after the resounding success of the first one, and so it was that I found myself boarding a flight at Gatwick, being driven three hours from Edinburgh to Oban, spending four hours on a ferry and then cycling half an hour along the Tireean coastline to find our cottage for the weekend. It didn't seem real.
Feeling like something out of an Enid Blyton book
Tiree is well worth the trip. It's the only place I've ever felt truly safe cycling around, as it's so quiet and due to the flatness of the place you can see cars coming from a long way off. It's incredibly picturesque and as I cycled with my little group of running friends I felt as though I was in a Famous Five adventure, even more so as I had a canvas bag of supplies from the shop on my back, sorely lacking in lashings of ginger beer.
Our cottage
We got settled into the cottage and then negotiated the rush hour to visit a near by cafe before cycling the mile and a half to the race HQ for pack collection and the briefing. I started to get quite giddy about it all. Being around like-minded people can do that, especially when you realise what you're about to take on.
Rush hour on Tiree - sheep!
Race briefing time!
A dinner of buttery, tomato-y pasta and garlic bread was hoovered up before the ceremonial laying out of race kit and retiring early. With eight of us in the cottage the kitchen and dining table were fairly buzzing at 6:30am the following morning as porridge pots were made, weetabix consumed and energy drinks diluted. The cycle to race HQ and the start line was magical. It was such a beautiful morning. 

Off to the start line!
Bagpipes greeted us on the beach. A flurry of selfies, hugs, kit adjustments and we were off! The pack spread out fairly quickly and I felt quite lonely as I exited the beach onto one of the few road sections of the course. The majority of the route is along beaches or hillside, with the odd boggy bit thrown in for good measure. The largest section of this was in the first few miles, so those without gaters could get a nice helping of grit in their shoes early on for the best blisters. There was a scramble to deal with and then it all start dot even out a bit. I over took a few people, started having a few conversations and got into my stride a bit. That's not to say I was fast or consistent but I settled in to the idea of what I was doing.
About to start
The first check point seemed to come around fairly quickly; 8.4 miles an fly by when you've stunning coast line to look at. It was one of the things I kept reminding myself to do, look around, appreciate and enjoy the scenery. Ok we got some drizzle but really, that just meant rainbows! In any case, CP1 with it's bananas, oranges, drinks and jelly babies was welcome.
The next 9 miles to CP2 were really fun. I struck up conversation with a lady called Rachel and we stayed together for several miles, even cracking out some faster paced miles on another road section. After picking our way over rocks and soft sand it was quite welcome for a while. We stayed together until CP2, where we found our drop bags and a caravan for shelter. Cheese and onion pastries, crisps, cola... a fine lunch indeed. 
We'd encountered some heavy drizzle and I started to cool down so I popped on my long sleeve layer before setting off again. Rachel had left a few minutes before but I managed to catch her up, and a lady called Joey, who was doing her first ultra. The three of us ran and walked together for the entirety of leg three, helping each other across rocky parts, through bog, and through pain. I started to get discomfort in my hip and knee so walking breaks were welcome. If I hadn't been with Rachel and Joey I wouldn't have run as much for sure. We found the fort ruins that had been mentioned in the race briefing and got a picture with one of the Tiree flags for good measure.
CP3, the last check point, could not come soon enough. I was starting to go quiet, a sure sign I was struggling. I had eaten enough but the discomfort was starting to get to me. I inhaled a few pieces of cake from the amazing spread on offer and although I left with Rachel and Joey I soon made them go on ahead, knowing I wouldn't be able to keep up. It was hard to watch them slowly get further and further away and I felt lonely immediately, but it was for the best. I walked the next 5 miles, trying to run now and again, each time feeling my body saying "no... not yet".
During this time, my Garmin died. I had no idea how far I had left to go or how fast I was moving. It was raining again. I swore at the weather. I wondered how on earth I was going to manage the cycle home after the event. I sat on the verge at the next marshal point I came to, after two miles of beach, and sobbed a bit. It just felt good to let the emotion out. The lady there said all the right things and soon after leaving her I was able to run again, or at least master the ultra shuffle for the remainder of the course. 

I encountered two more lovely people with a box of haribo just before entering the last stretch of beach. "You are amazing" they said, "I don't feel it" I replied, "That's why we're here to tell you that you are!" I almost wept again. The last beach, the last few miles. As I reached the end I saw messages that others had written in the sand, finishers who had scone back out onto the course to cheer others on, and finally, race HQ and the bunting marking the finish line. I ran. Proper full on running, right across the line to unexpected cheers of my name. My house mates and running friends had left their pizzas and coffees to give me that final push and I could not have been more grateful. It was wonderful.
I claimed my medal, found my bags and rewarded myself with pizza, cake and beer. I sought out Rachel and Joey; congratulations all round! I hugged my friends, sent messages home and even managed the cycle back to the cottage. Everyone was a bit emotional and it was wonderful to share in everyone's successes. I will confess to not making it to the dance that evening but instead drinking pints of nuun and eating peanuts in the cottage. It was exactly what I wanted to do.
Post race rewards
There's something about this event. I'm not sure if it's going on such a journey to get there, that it's shared with others who really understand why you do these things. Or perhaps it's the wonderful windswept, tree-less wildness of the place. The scenery, the locals or the peculiarities of the terrain perhaps. Who knows. This isn't the most difficult 35 miles one could tackle but it is a very special race. It's superbly organised, well worth the entry fee (which includes medal, race shirt, bag, after-party and some other knick-knacks) and the journey. The course presents it's own challenges without being out of anyone's abilities and despite a map being part of the essential kit, it's so well marked that I didn't need to refer to mine once.

Two days on and I'm still exchanging excited messages with people on the Facebook group. I'm only nursing four blisters (two on each foot and in exactly the same place each side) and mourning the loss of a pair of socks, too worn to save. The hip and knee are fairing ok and the DOMS haven't made much of an appearance. I'm yet to find out my official time but I know I was a good hour faster than Gatliff, which I'd hoped for.

People are already asking when entries open next year so if you fancy it, get in quick! I imagine the numbers will stay small, limited as they must be by the available accommodation on the island. I won't be back next year but I might go back some other time. And next time I'll stay longer and discover what else Tiree has to offer.

Huge thanks to Will the race organiser, Alexa our trip organiser and general all-star, Rachel and Joey for getting me around and chatting non-stop, all the marshals but especially those who fed and tended to me, Jen, Jilly, Frank, Vicky, Jo, Fi and Brenda for being such fun house mates and everyone who cheered me over the line.


  1. Wow this is so lovely: ""You are amazing" they said, "I don't feel it" I replied, "That's why were here to tell you that you are!"".

    A huge congratulations to you :) You ARE amazing.

  2. Well done. It sounds like such a fantastic race. I am very tempted, it's just the challenge of getting there that puts me off.

    1. It's well worth the effort, really. And there's such a great camaraderie that even the journey feels like part of the event.