by Ali Wyllie
with thanks to Tiree Fitness
Up until 4th September 2016, I had never experienced being waved off, at the start of a race, by a seal. A golden eagle - yes, but a seal - no. This was certainly a race first and as Tiree Ultramarathon panned out it was full of race firsts for me, from start to finish. The magnificent grey seal kept bobbing his head above the water to see what all the racket was about. Can you imagine his amusement when he saw over 200 humans prancing around like nervous race horses, pawing at the ground, then all of a sudden bursting forward in a fury of colour (running clothing is awesomely bright these days).
As I drifted along the first beach the words of Gavin; my massage guru, echoed in my mind "just take it steady". I was scooped up in a pace I was comfortable with, but given I had only just made the start line due to injury, I was possibly being over ambitious. Does anyone else struggle to race, but not race?
Word about the weird human antics soon got out around the seal population, I know this for a fact as I counted 8 of the curious creatures eyeing me with suspicion during the first few miles between Mannal and Hynish. It got me wondering what seals thought of humans, I figured their summary would be simple: "Humans; frequently dangerous, sometimes kind but always bemusing".
I settled into a comfortable pace enjoying the scenery around me. As I overtook Michelle Hetherington, I knew I would see her again and also knew in my heart of hearts I was playing with fire by not using this race as a training run. I hadn't made the start line in 2015 due to pesky shingles. Instead, in 2015 I was stood on the sidelines passionately supporting all of my chums from Cani-Sports Edinburgh, so perhaps this year I felt I had something to prove? For the second year in a row Cani-Sports Edinburgh had the largest representation of any running club present, with approximately 30 people - including supporters. I was proud as punch knowing so many of my running club were out on the course pushing themselves beyond their perceived running limits.
Between Hynish and Balephuil the trails were - well - not really trails. We were lucky if we had sheep tracks to traverse along. The going was tough, but the smile on my face got larger. I love this kind of running, bouncing over uneven terrain with the challenge of finding a line and assessing it carefully whilst simultaneously checking out each and every new foot placement, all whilst trying to move at speed. For a few hundred meters I felt like I was on a hoverboard. The blue seas and white sands were behind me and I could hear the waves crashing against the rocks to my left. It was around about this section that I caught up with Ali Robertson who was skimming over the terrain like it was child's play. Ali told me he was part of a large group who had travelled from Stonehaven. We ran together for a while, pushing each other on and falling into a good pace. We sailed through the 1st checkpoint. I grabbed a glass of water and a banana and made sure I smiled and thanked the marshals - hell - without the superhero marshals races like this could never exist!
I think it was at this point that I drew even with Janet Dickson, who was sat in 3rd place. We ran in the same gaggle of runners for a few miles, sharing food and playing a game of runner leapfrog. Prior to injury my aim had been to podium at Tiree. However, upon reassessment, I realised this goal was wholly unrealistic and my gold plan was reset for a sub 5.30 hour finish, silver plan was a sub 6 hour finish and my bronze plan was simply to finish. As Janet and I played cat and mouse for a while, I began wondering if a podium was in actual fact possible, I was feeling ok, I knew I didn't have the training in me, but I also knew I had the mental strength to drag me round. I had raced in similar circumstances previously in the Highland Fling and achieved a 45 minute PB!
I was running along doing various calculations in my head and tuning into my body to gauge how I was feeling, did I have the strength and fitness to smash this race? I was so relieved to get to checkpoint 2; halfway. I could see Michelle Littlejohn from my club along with her beagles Chester and Lulu, stood silhouetted on the horizon above the 2 old decrepit caravans that I had fallen in love with the previous year. Old and run down, the caravans reminded me of an elderly couple, sat peacefully, comfortable in each other's silence, watching the waves flirting with the beach and reminiscing about their youth. I ran into the checkpoint and chucked myself onto the floor to stretch out a few niggles; gulped down my avocado, banana and soya smoothie; grabbed a few bottles of coke I had already flattened; exclaimed "let's do this shit" then immediately felt guilty and apologised for the sake of any children present, and off I went. I left the checkpoint along with Janet and Bob (I'm pretty certain his name was Bob), he had come all the way from a land far far away (eeeeeek, I forget - but it was exotic and far away!). We ran together for a short distance, swapping stories and motivation. I soon fell behind .........
Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab. What started as a niggle I could ignore, developed into an ache I had to acknowledge. "Not now ITB, why now?" I thought, but the damn thing kept prodding me to my knee like an incessant child. I continued running and ignored him, but this only made him frustrated and angry as he prodded me even harder. I pacified him a little and stretched, promising him that I would treat him amazingly later on if he just piped down and played nice. He was clearly tired as he threw the most almighty tantrum and stabbed at my knee with a claw hammer. The last beach I was able to run along I found myself running sections of it backwards to alleviate the pain induced by the camber, and give Mr tantrummy ITB a break. Yes, you read that right - I ran backwards! TICK - another first for a race.
By this point I had slowed right down, to try and sort out Mr ITB. Michelle caught up and ran past me, leaving me for dust. In true ultra spirit she checked I was ok and gave me some encouragement before dancing off over the trails with confident, experienced strides, I could see her signature french pleats swinging from side to side getting smaller and smaller in the distance until she finally disappeared altogether, off to secure her victorious 3rd place (for the 2nd year in a row).
I hobbled along in pain and realised I had 2 choices. Pull out or finish the race at a walk. I felt totally demoralised, my spirits were crushed as I agonised over what to do. The devil on my shoulder went in a huff and told me to pull out, he told me he would be embarrassed to have to walk the remainder of the race and have a time next to my name, which is not a true reflection of my ability. The devil thought it was a better idea to quit! But my angel told me to get a grip, she reminded me why I was doing the race in the first place - to see the coastline of one of the most beautiful islands in Scotland; if not the world. She reminded me that no matter what anguish we encounter during an adventure, those that rise up and overcome adversity are winners regardless of the time it takes. She told me to relax, switch on my Spotify and look around me. She told me to breathe in the coastal air and sing and dance my way to the finish. My angel won, but I am not going to lie - there were tears.
From hereon in my race/walk/adventure had a sound track, my mobile phone was nestled in the pocket of my shoulder strap, which served perfectly as a speaker, blasting music into my world. For some reason all the songs seemed to be love songs, with running as my lover. The first tune to come on was Mumford and Sons "Believe", my spirits were smashed, scattered out on the floor. This song helped me pick them up and rise up, standing tall and slowly but surely start to take steps forward. Then along came "Bliss" by Muse, "Everything about you is how I'd want to be, your freedom comes naturally, everything about you resonates happiness..." I picked my pace up and walked with determination, I knew I could finish the race despite my set back. I had run 18 miles and I had 17 miles ahead of me, my brain started to do various calculations and I figured I could come in sub 8 hours still. So I lost myself in the music, I cried along with anguish one minute and sung along at the top of my lungs the next minute (checking there was no one within deafening distance). I did silly little dances and raised my hands up in the air like a conductor to emphasise certain points of songs that particularly resonated with me. Yes - I was a crazed mad woman on the loose, even the cows gave me a wide birth! I forgave Kate Bush for taunting me when "Running up that Hill" came on my playlist, especially since it was closely followed by one of my favourite ladies; Shakira "You're a good soldier, choosing your battles, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get back in the saddle ......." then once all the craziness had died down and my demons had been exorcised through the medium of dance, I settled into really enjoying my walk. The Waifs cooed at me "take it in, take it all in, now is a time that will not come again, take it in, take it all in, this is a day and it's here for the living" reminded me to look about me and live for the moment. The Waifs reminded me how lucky I was to be there and have the freedom and privilege to take in Tiree's stunning coastline.
As I trudged on friends old and new past me in their droves, all offering condolences but lifting my spirits with their smiles and energy. I spotted David Scott skipping over the rocks towards me - wearing his eye-catching Run the Sights buff may I add. David and I had been part of a group of 6 to run 29 miles around the Oor Wullie Statues in Dundee the previous Monday, he gave me a big hug and I sent him packing telling him to smash it. Ali Robertson past me again, he said he was struggling a bit so it was only right that he took my coke - well I wasn't going to need it! Becky Beale drew even with me, we often see each other at these races and are united by our Vizsla motherhood, we had a lovely chat then off she went to conquer her race. Kirsty Archibald sailed past at the start of Gott Bay and Jo Vinall breezed past over a marshy section. Jill Matheson caught me out as she ran past me, I thought she was far enough away not to hear and be offended by my singing, but she turned around and danced along with me.
I walked for miles and miles and my spirits lifted. I'm not entirely sure at what point I came across the lovely mature lady who was stood outside her house waving all the runners past. I was buoyed to see her evident joy as she cheered on the runners and added to the spirit of the race. Her cheeks were flushed with the thrill of being part of this epic community adventure. I asked her permission to take her picture, she blushed, straightened her hair and bashfully indicated her allowance, with an inner glee to have a few seconds of attention, despite not being a runner. I didn't catch her name, but learnt she had lived on Tiree for over 60 years. She made me smile and I spent the next half hour wondering what her life must have been like.
When my watch told me I only had a few miles to go as I past the Scarinish Hotel, I thought "How amazing would it be to have a pint" then "hang on, I'm walking, my race has gone to pot, I have money, I CAN have a pint", so to the amusement of a couple sat outside cheering on the runners, I stepped off the race route and into the pub. It was like going back in time as I was met with a sea of gawping faces who showed no amusement or encouragement at my spontaneous pit stop. Another race first - pint en-route - check. I enjoyed my pint outside, cheering on other runners as they past and offering them a sip of my beverage. Linzi Melville trotted past and to this day I am discombobulated by her refusal of such an offer.
Re-fuelled - and feeling a little bit tipsy (well I had covered 33 miles with limited nutrition, so this pint went right to my head), I continued along the race route, wobbling my way to the sound of my tunes. Gilly Marshall stormed along, she told me she was struggling - but she was looking strong, and besides she has done so many long races this year - those legs surely need a rest. So it was no wonder she was feeling tired. I watched as she disappeared down the grassy embankment of the final beach.
I stepped onto the final beach with a sense of relief, up ahead in the distance I could see An Talla community hall - the FINISH! I took a deep breath and reflected on my journey. Looking at my watch I realised I could achieve a sub 7.30 hour finish time. I slipped my shoes and socks off - another race first - and enjoyed the feeling of the sea and sand between my toes. I made my way along the waterline, giggling at a group of small birds who seemed to be playing chicken with the waves, not dissimilar to a game a gang of pubescent teenagers may play with cars.
Along the beach Amber Merton past me and told me stories of mayhem earlier in the day with our race director; Will Wright's kids going missing and my mum finding them! Then off she ran with a smile on her face and skip in her stride as she made for the finish line. Leaving me picturing the scenes of panic she had painted.
I walked cautiously over the final 200 meter stretch of tarmac leading to the finish line, allowing my bare feet to adjust to the hard surface. David Scott popped down to meet me and spur me on and then along came my life guru, Lan Pham, flanked by my hairy babies Zac and Jasper. I was so overwhelmed I could have just combusted then and there. I scooped up my K9 children on either side of me, stood up tall and ran, crossing the finish line with pride, relief and anguish. Never before have I crossed the finish line of a race with my hairy babies; the souls who are my world - so I clocked that up as another race first.
And so it was, my race was in keeping with the spirit of Run the Sights, I kept fit, saw the sights and had a wonderfully sociable time whilst doing so, furthermore I have come away with cherished lifelong memories. As it turns out I came in at 7:29; which brought me in middle of the field, but what a journey and what an atypical race for me with plenty of learning curves and firsts. It was a joy to sit at the finish line and cheer each and every runner home, particularly my friends from the running club, all of whom had achieved incredible personal feats to start and finish their race.
I can't name EVERYONE I know who was racing, but I would love to give a special photo shout out to all those pictured below as they are established Run the Sighters and have all completed atleast one running tour with Run the Sights. Well done on your runs guys, awesome work! Viv, Avril, Lisa, Jenny, Susan, Gail, Leah, Hayley, Lan, Steph, Paul & Jo.
What a wonderful trip to Tiree, what a fantastic race. A big thank you to Will Wright and his amazing team. It's worth mentioning that Tiree Fitness put on various training weeks to help you prepare for their races or any other race for that matter. Or you may simply want to increase your fitness whilst out exploring this wonderful island. Now there's an idea - keeping fit and seeing the sights at the same time. LOVE IT! Be sure and put 10th September 2017 in your diaries - I know of a beautiful 35 mile race around the coastline of Tiree ........
Explore Scotland on the run | Keep fit and sightsee at the same time | Why walk... when you can run!