Race review: Tiree Ultramarathon

“Let’s go to the beach, beach, let’s go get away…”

Over a year ago, a text from running buddy Lisa asked if I fancied running a 35 mile ultra on a Hebridean island. After a 15-second google, I replied with a sure, why not. We arranged a B&B, flights, and then promptly forgot about it until a couple of weeks ago when ‘sh*t, I am running an ultra soon’ really kicked in.

Training hadn’t been the best for either of us. I had managed 4 or 5 runs of around 16 miles before the heatwave saw me hang up the trail shoes and hope for the best. I’d ran 5 marathons/ultras this year and hoped that would be enough. Lisa had been too busy popping to Shanghai with work to make much headway too. Feeling very relaxed about the 10 hour cut-off time, we boarded our flight to Glasgow in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Knackered at the airport face #RunHappy

After delays due to ice clouds (hello, Scotland) and a nausea-inducing journey in a teeny tiny plane, we landed on Tiree (the landing totally reminded me of the zooming opening credits of Father Ted). We jumped in the hire car, and within 20 minutes were in running kit, jogging along Gott Bay in glorious sunshine, collecting shells and trying to make a last minute shoe decision (why did I take three pairs of shoes. WHY?!) This is the first time I had run on sand, but that definitely wouldn’t be an issue on the big day. Definitely.

The Tiree Ultramarathon is special. It is a 35 mile FLAT trail round the circumference of an island in the inner Hebrides. The island is tiny, with around 650 people inhabiting the beautiful white houses, and is famous for its windsurfing/surfing… as well as the Ultra. Now in its 5th year, we learned at the briefing just how famous it is in the Ultrarunning world. Will, the organiser, called for those who have run it 2,3 4 times and there were plenty of hands in the air. The briefing was like a mini expo, we picked up our fab goodie bags (finishers tee, snacks, coaster, cotton tote bag, wrist band) and headed off for the B&B.

Beach House B&B is gorgeous. At this point, I was already thinking about pre-booking for next year, totally pumped and excited. I had never been anywhere like Tiree before. I grew up in the north west, and consider my move to the midlands as positively rural. So this was something else.

Beach House B&B
We would be so grateful for this fire come Sunday evening…
Packing light…
I didn’t eat any of this *face palm*

There was a dramatic change in the weather overnight.

We awoke to the sound of rain hammering down. A peek outside showed black clouds and blustery winds. I felt pleased that Lisa had got me a knock-off North Face jacket from Shanghai. Our lovely landlady brought us a huge bowl of porridge each and before we knew it, we were at the start line (on the beach, with bagpipes filling the air — so cool, man) in yet more cold rain.

Lisa, Me. Photo: Ken Douglas

The first 5k we went out a bit quicker than our plan, as usual. The beach (number 1 of 14) gave way to tarmac paths which gradually headed towards gently rolling hills, craggy rocks and slippy slippy bog.

The gentle hills (flat? FLAT?!) soon became full on hilly b*st*rds, interspersed with small streams (one of which I fell in — I was completely soaked by now)… in the distance we could see fluorescent runners slowly making their way up what looked like a near vertical rock face. Looking at it, I really doubted that I could get up there safely, I felt a twinge of fear and then went for it, scrambling up on my hands and knees.

Erm…what is THAT?!
Oh yeah, it’s a massive f*** off mountain

It was worth it when we got to the top.

The race continued in this vein for a while. The course became increasingly technical. Our pace slowed right down as we jumped over streams, climbed up rocks, navigated our way through swampy marsh. It was a lot of fun, even when the wind was howling so hard in our faces that just walking along the beach was a challenge. I discovered I am physically stronger than I thought, and nimble enough to clamber up rocks with relative speed. Also, thank God I didn’t have a manicure at the airport, it would have been ruined! #LadyRunnerProbs

Soggy but smiling
Photo: Ken Douglas

The sun came out, the £3 waterproof went away, and we cracked on. I couldn’t get enough of the salty sea air and the lapping waves. Everywhere you looked was a photo opportunity — I tried to be restrained with stopping for pictures but the fact it’s just taken me three hours to edit the photos for this blog speaks volumes.

At around 4pm, we’d just completed marathon distance and scoffed some chocolate at checkpoint 3. We’d been a bit rubbish with fuelling, everything was wet and I couldn’t face rooting through my soggy vest where my pretzels and peanuts (!) were bound to be inedible. I was feeling hungry but decided to slow down on the upcoming beach and eat as I ran, no fannying about at checkpoints.

Almost as soon as we hit Gott Bay, the sky blackened again and the rain began. We were around 29 miles in and the end felt near. I took a little selfie video, laughing that it was windy and rainy again. Then the hail started, and there followed an hour or so of utter hell. Hailstones and 40mph winds beating every inch of our bodies and making it impossible to look upwards. It took my breath away and I could only follow the number one rule of ultrarunning and keep… going… forward… My hands were ice, every item of clothing was soaked, and I pushed on and on, looking downwards and following Lisa’s footprints in the sand. The tide was coming in, forcing us to run longer instead of cutting across the beach. It was frustrating, but we didn’t crack. Weirdly, I was so busy concentrating on not giving up and almost laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, that I didn’t have time to go into a dark place mentally. Eventually, it was over, and we were wading through an ankle deep stream, calling it all the names under the sun. Our language was so bad I apologised to a fellow runner, who was oblivious to me even speaking to her. We were all becoming delirious at this point, it was just all about surviving to the end, to getting this sh*t done.

Of course, I never did manage to eat on Gott Bay, so I was starving now. The last few miles were along yet another beach. By now, although I was fed up of wet feet and cold hands, I was starting to feel sad that it was nearly over. Whenever I stood still for a second to negotiate the rapidly incoming tide (I really thought we might die before we finished and thought, well, what a place to die) my legs and body were shaking. Somehow, just on the 10 hour cut off, we dragged ourselves holding hands over the finish line. A medal, a soggy strip off in the toilets, and a bowl of macaroni cheese, and we were done. I’d like to say we were euphoric, but we were metaphorically and literally numb.

The event includes entry to a Ceilidh… we just couldn’t face it. We were both sort of shell shocked, as if we held it together for 10 hours and then completely lost the plot. We staggered around the B&B in our hoodies before having an early night. Not exactly rock n roll, but self care was top priority. And I would have definitely broken a bone or something at the Ceilidh.

Now, you know what this trip needed? An unplanned additional night in Glasgow, with no clean pants and a suitcase full of damp, sandy clothes. But that’s a story for another day.

Repping Massey Runners (Lisa bought a bobble hat)

Almost a week on, I am still thoroughly beaten up. I feel weird, man. Bruises are still appearing on my legs, arms and hands. I’m exhausted, nauseous and really suffering with post-marathon blues. I’m mentally drained.

I loved Tiree and hope to go back there one day. It was like another world, a very special place where I feel like I learned something about grit and determination, friendship, preventing blisters and choosing fun over an impressive finish time.

With that, I will end on a poem I read on a wall on a cafe in Tiree. I love it:

If Once You Have Slept On An Island
If once you have slept on an island
You’ll never be quite the same;
You may look as you looked the day before
And go by the same old name, 
You may bustle about in street and shop
You may sit at home and sew,
But you’ll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go. 
You may chat with the neighbours of this and that
And close to your fire keep,
But you’ll hear ship whistle and lighthouse bell
And tides beat through your sleep. 
Oh! you won’t know why and you can’t say how
Such a change upon you came,
But once you have slept on an island,
You’ll never be quite the same.

Rachel Lyman Field, 1926