This year, I did my first ultramarathon on the beautiful Hebridean island of Tiree. We lived on this island from 1984 until 1990, and continued to spend the summers there all through the 90s so it is a very special place for me, and one that I miss a great deal. The beautiful vistas, idyllic pastoral life, close knit community, and slower pace are really what my soul is yearning for right now. When an old schoolmate from Tiree High School tagged me in a Facebook post about the ultramarathon back in 2021, that was the push I needed to sign up. I figured it’d be a great athletic challenge, an amazing way to explore the island after being away for almost a decade, and an excuse to get the family together. My expectations were met and exceeded on all points.
The race took place on Sunday, September 4, 2022. My husband Lance and I, my sister Caroline and her husband Killian, and my mom got the train from Glasgow to Oban on August 31st, and then sailed to Tiree on the early morning CalMac ferry on Thursday, September 1st. We couldn’t have asked for a better sailing, and I was excited for Lance to experience the ferry (4 hours of sailing through the Sound of Mull and over to Coll and Tiree with a bang up breakfast in the Mariner’s Cafe), and for Lance and me to start our first bikepacking adventure. After the ferry docked, Lance and I loaded up our bikes and rode to our stunning AirBnb in Kilmaluaig. The rest of the family picked up the rental car and drove over. That afternoon, Lance and I took advantage of the beautiful weather and rode over to Traigh Bhi/Balephuil Bay. A good thing too because the next two days saw Tiree get the most amount of rain in the entire UK!
So race day morning was blowing a gale with gray skies. Race start was at 8am so we drove there and parked at about 7:30. We had been told to come ready to race because there weren’t a lot (or any) of facilities for the 200 athletes to use. We lined up at 7:50am and the piper started up. And wouldn’t you know it, the rain started as well. For gear, I had on my Altra trail running shoes, tall socks, compressions shorts, a wicking running shirt, arm warmers, a light waterproof cycling jacket, warm headband, neck gaiter, and a trail running vest that held a 50oz bladder in the back filled with CarboRocket 333, 20oz water bottle in the front filled with plain water, two packs of Clif Blocs, and the required route map, 2 mylar blankets, and phone. I connected my phone and watch to use the Garmin LiveTracker feature, which allowed my family to follow me on the route.
My first thought was to try to keep my feet dry for as long as possible. That lasted exactly 17 seconds as we had to run through what I’m calling a “beach stream” with water that went over the ankles. The first beach (Gott Bay) is a long one so we ran for 1.5 miles along there before coming off the beach and running up the machair towards Ruaig and on to Caolas.
The first climb of the day came at mile 3, a climb through the bog and up to a cairn. The weather was still pelting down and the wind was howling, but the participants were in good spirits and shouted “I love hills!” when touching the cairn, a requirement as per the race director. We then descended down in the bog and through crofts, finally making the left turn towards Caolas.
Caolas means “strait” in Gaelic and this beach looks across Gunna Sound to the isles of Gunna and Coll. On a calm day, I always think it’d be a nice challenge to swim across the sound to Gunna. On this day I thought “no freaking way” with the choppy seas and lashing rain. My mom’s biggest worry leading up to the race is that people would slip on the rocks and hurt themselves. I assured her that although this is a trail “run”, people don’t run the entire thing and would be careful. Well, Caolas is where I slipped on the rocks myself. Luckily, I didn’t hurt myself at all, maybe bruised my hand a bit, but I couldn’t help but think of my mom shaking her head. Coming up off the beach and turning left again to travel in a westerly direction across the island, the next 3 miles to checkpoint 1 were mostly through bog. Everything was very wet with all the rain from the past few days, and continuing rain!
Finally, I reached checkpoint 1 in Vaul at the 8.6 mile mark. At this point, I had warmed up enough that I didn’t want to wear my windbreaker. I planned to put it in my trail vest but a lovely volunteer offered to take it and bring it to the finish line. I refilled my front water bottle with more fresh water. I don’t remember eating anything, but I know I had started eating my Clif Blocs every few miles. Leaving the checkpoint was uphill to Dun Mor, the Iron Age broch on the island. Talk about history - thinking of the people living here thousands of years ago is almost overwhelming.
The 3 miles stretch from Vaul to Balephetrish Bay is more bog, wet and muddy. At some point, we pass the Ringing Stone, another Iron Age artifact on the island. The Ringing Stone always makes me chuckle because even though my family spent many years on the island, we had never seen it. The last time I visited in 2013, Caroline and I were determined to find it, and we did. I thought I’d look out for it on the run but guess what, I missed it again! The weather was truly horrible at this point with the wind gusting up to 30mph with sideways rain so maybe I was a bit distracted.
I was certainly looking forward to reaching Balephetrish as this is where my childhood home is, and the beach that I grew up on. Before stepping on to the main part of Balephetrish Bay, we had to come up the machair and pass Balephetrish House and this memory will always stick out for me - the wind was so strong, I felt like I couldn’t even walk through it. The rain was coming in horizontally at my face, I had to hold my arm over my eyes and just hope I was heading in the right direction. I wish someone had a video at this point because it was truly humbling! I pushed through that and then dropped down onto Balephetrish Bay, the beach of my childhood. I thought I’d be more emotional but I think my body was just working on moving forward. Running on the beaches was a bit hit or miss. If you could find hard sand, it was good to run, but the tide was making the hard sand quite mushy. Your feet would sink down a good few inches with every step. I never figured out if it was better to walk or run those bits. I just did the best I could, and tried to avoid the seaweed when possible.
Balephetrish on a beautiful day
The end of Balephetrish was about the half marathon point and I felt good. I knew there was a long section of running on the road at this point, about 3 miles worth. To my surprise, Lance showed up on his bicycle to ride with me! This was awesome. I wasn’t expecting it and it was much more fun to run with him by my side chatting away. I ran by the road our AirBnb was on but Lance told me the rest of the family were sleeping and missed my passing. Lance rode with me until the turn off to Balevullin, where I knew checkpoint 2 would be. It had stopped raining at this point and looked like the sun might be poking out a bit.
At checkpoint 2 I refilled my 50oz bladder with NBS CarboHydration, refilled my water bottle, had a sip of coke and maybe a cookie or two. My checkpoint bag had a PB&J sandwich, extra socks and a shirt, but I didn’t feel like using any of it. One of the volunteers told me about Tiree’s record breaking rain for the past two days as well.
Departing checkpoint 2, we were hitting a part of the island that I didn’t know too well. I was excited to experience some beaches I’d never visited before. It didn’t take long to realize why we never went to those beaches - the beaches on the west side of the island were primarily covered in big hills of beach rocks. These are like large pebbles, the size of your hand or bigger, that are very difficult to walk on and impossible to run on. The weather was clearing at this point - not a cloud in the sky and the sun shining. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t run more because of the topography, where previously the weather was the limiting factor. I also knew that up ahead was the big climbs on the island, skirting Kenovara and around Ben Hynish.
The beaches were beautiful, though, with seabirds sitting on the sea and seals out sunning themselves.
The climb over Kenovara was between miles 21 and 22 and it was a slow walk up and over and then we ran across the beautiful beach of Traigh Bhi to Balephuil. There was a climb up to Balephuil and then about a mile on roads before hitting the backside of Ben Hynish. This part of the course was new to me as well. I knew Traigh Bhi well, and I knew the next checkpoint at Hynish as well, but I’d never hiked the backside of Ben Hynish before. Honestly, it was probably a bit wild for our dad to take us to as kids. Up and down and through sheep paths, legs sinking down in mud (and probably cow pats) up to my knees, sliding down the hill on your bum because it was too steep to walk. Navigating got a bit difficult here, too. I was grateful that there were a few people around me who spotted the signs and led the way a bit. We passed by Happy Valley, probably the most remote beach on the island but a beauty.
The hiking finished around mile 25.5 and I came back up onto a road, where my wonderful husband was waiting on his bike! He was such a great sight to see, not just for the encouragement, but he also took all the warm gear I didn’t need anymore like arm warmers and my head band, and he brought my sunglasses! The sunglasses were very much needed at this point as the day had turned into a cracker. Lance rode with me all the way to checkpoint 3, where Caroline, Killian, and mom were also there. The only thing on my mind, though, was that I needed to pee, so Caroline took me behind a stone wall to pop a squat. She also made me eat some Hula Hoop crisps and refilled my water bottle. I think I got a bit slack on ingesting calories with my mind focused on getting over the terrain in the last 10 miles. I didn’t feel bad, but I realized that it might go south since I wasn’t really eating. I did stay on top of drinking carbohydrates every time my watch beeped for a mile.
The last 10 miles were in front of me and I felt pretty good. My legs were tired, for sure, tired to the point where it doesn’t feel good to walk or run, but I’d been through that feeling before in both my IRONMANs. The last 10 miles were also through the largest townships on the island - Balemartine, Crossapol and Scarnish. I knew these roads so well, and there were lots of people out cheering us on! Miles 26-28 were on the road so Lance rode alongside me on the bike. I struck up a conversation with another runner from Edinburgh and we ran together on the beach at Soroby. She was stronger than me so she left me on the beach when I needed a walk break. I joined the road again near An Talla and Lance was there waiting. It was half a mile on the road and then on to Crossapol Beach, where Caroline, Killian and mom were cheering me on.
Lance caught me again when I came off of Crossapol Beach and rode with me for the 3 miles over Baugh and down into the main township of Scarnish. Lots of cheers from my family and only 2 more miles to go! Through Scarnish, with a cheeky little dip down to the Scarnish Hotel that I wasn’t expecting, past the pier and then the final bit of machair down to Gott Bay with the finish line only a mile away.
Of course it felt so long seeing the finish line down the beach, but so satisfying to know I was going to finish. When I got about 100 yds from the finish line, the piper started back up and gosh darnit, there’s nothing like the pipes to get you crying. Killian, Caroline and mom were cheering me on and Lance was waiting at the finish line. It wasn’t a big ordeal like an IRONMAN finish line, but such an amazing feeling anyway. I finished in 7hours and 7 minutes, which I’m pleased with. I’d told my family that on a very good day, I might finish in 6 hours, and on a tough day, I’d be closer to 8. I think I timed it perfectly. For any who are interested, I came 85th out of 163 participants. I have no idea of my gender or age group placing.
Congratulations to the race director Will Wright for putting on an amazing event, and sorting out the weather for us for the final half. This is the only ultramarathon I would consider doing, for now at least, and I’d definitely consider coming back and doing it again. Any excuse to be on the island is a good one.