“Excuse me, but were you guys at the UTMB in Chamonix?” I’d noticed that the young lady and gentleman – although from his very bushy beard it was difficult to be sure of his actual age – sitting a few seats over from us were wearing trail shoes and a trucker cap respectively, the latter sporting a logo that looked from a distance very similar to that of the UTMB. “No,” they replied in warm, broad Yorkshire tones, “but we are on our way to a race on Islay.”
The race in question was the annual Islay Marathon, 26.2 miles/ 42.2km, that starts in the tiny little seaside village of Portnahaven, jutting out into the North Atlantic from the Scottish island’s west coat, hugging the coastline as it passes through sleepy villages like Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich, rewarding the effort with heavenly aromas of fermenting malted barley from the distillery, before turning inland at Bridgend and an almost straight-line towards Port Ellen and the finish, taking runners up and over the famed peat moors, the source of Islay whisky’s world famous smokey flavours. I hadn’t even realised that Islay held a running event let alone a full marathon and given that I had well and truly recovered from the exertions of the North Downs Way 100 the month before and was thus feeling the “run love” again, I listened on with a mix of interest and envy as our evening time Islay-bound ferry-mates told mum, dad and myself about the race. Mum and dad were already thinking “uh oh” as soon as the word “marathon” had been muttered and so were not in the least surprised when I casually enquired as to whether it might still be possible to take part, ignoring the fact that it was already about 9pm with the race due to start at 7am the very next morning. I’d all but tempered my excitement at the prospect, and the sheer ridiculousness of the thought of just doing a marathon off the cuff, when it became obvious that the organisers were not contactable at such a late stage and we wished Ben and Tammy luck for the next morning.
“Well, I actually can’t race as I’m injured,” said Tammy, “so you could take my place if you fancied.” Cue internal eye rolls from both parents as they instinctively knew what the next morning was going to see happen. “Really?! Absolutely! That would be incredible!” It still remained to be seen whether or not I’d be permitted to take another runner’s place at the twelfth hour – according to most races’ regulations such a move would be squarely against the rules – but nothing ventured, nothing gained and the worst that could happen was that I simply got to watch a race that I hadn’t even realised existed a few hours before. With that in mind, arrangements were made to meet Ben and Tammy down in Port Ellen at ungodly-o-clock in the morning, from where we followed the official race minibus to the start, leaving my folks to enjoy a holiday lie-in and relaxed start to the day, with plans for me to catch up with them after I’d (hopefully) chalked up a marathon.
Ben and Tammy were up in Scotland from their home in Rotherham, from where they’d driven their awesome little camper van, stopping at several points along the way, including the day before in Glasgow to take part in a very fast Park Run. They were very clearly outdoor enthusiasts and loved to explore, having driven around the fjords of Norway earlier in the year, and accomplished runners to boot. As we made our way over to Portnahaven, chatting with an ease of old friends, I joked about whether Ben was intending to “do a Killian,” referring to an account I had read of famed trail-runner, Killian Jornet smashing it on a big run to take the win the day after having run up some mountain just for the fun of it. Little did I know at the time given how self-effacing and modest he was but that is exactly what Ben had in mind. He was here to race and, if things went well, win.
Island life is such that communities are small and tight-knit. So it was on Islay, with it clear that most of the runners and supporters gathered in the small village hall that marked the start of the marathon knew each other well. However, as we had experienced from the very start of our trip through Scotland, the openness and friendliness towards visitors was genuine and effusive. Of course it was nae bother for me to substitute in for Tammy and so with that concern dismissed in a wee instant my number was pinned to my shorts and it was countdown time to the race. I figured that I might run for the first part of the race with Ben but with the gun fired and the race afoot, all I saw was Ben streak off like a gazelle at which point I parked that idea right in the “err, nope” file. Yep, Ben was definitely here to race seriously and the next time I’d see him was at the finish line.
Given that I had absolutely not trained specifically for this race, had absolutely not run it past my coach – in most cases very much a sackable offence in coach-athlete relationships – and it was, after all, a marathon and not just a quiet little Sunday morning pootle round the park, I had resolved myself to taking it easy and intended to focus mainly on enjoying the views and atmosphere of this unique experience. What a way to get an intro to the island and to see it up close and personal. I have always loved that about running, whether an organised event or a casual, self-motivated jog: it is a simple yet hugely effective way to just explore a place. All that’s really needed is a pair of runners and a sense of adventure and curiosity.
One thing that is abundantly clear about the Scottish islands, and Scotland in general, is that it is not very built up. In fact, most of it is wide open countryside. Islay is no different and aside from the occasional car passing – primarily supporters of runners and soooooo polite – and the hardy souls cheering us on at the simple aid stations, it was the cows and abundant sheep who were our main onlookers, the latter taking in the sight of these odd bipedals shuffling past with the kind of quizzical looks on their faces that I am used to seeing from people when you try to explain why it is you enjoy running ultra-marathons.
About 10km in I became aware of a runner closing in on me and we fell in together, chatting for a large part of the course until he initially hit the wall and urged me on, catching me up and then forging on himself at my insistence as I hit the wall near the end of the race. Up from Edinburgh, where he was studying Engineering, Rory had, much like Ben and Tammy, figured that coming over to Islay for a marathon sounded like a fun thing to do and we passed the time discussing everything from triathlon and running to the merits of opting to study renewable energy generation over oil and gas. Marathons are long enough that most runners do, at some point, find themselves butting up against their limits and, ultimately, having to push through them to the end. Whilst obviously an individual sport, it is also one of the most collegiate activities I have enjoyed, with distance runners some of the most considerate, polite and friendly folks you’ll ever meet. We look out for one another regardless of whether it’s the first time we’ve ever met or been lifelong pals.
Whilst feeling overall more rugged, windswept and open than Mull, where we’d been prior to heading over to Islay, there is a real beauty and gritty tranquility to Islay. From long sandy beaches, buttressed from the punishing Atlantic swells by hardy dunes, to cute, sheltered fishing ports, populated by the sporadically bobbing heads of seals popping up to see what the humans are doing, up to the vast horizons of the peat moors stretching towards the central hills, the island has a raw energy that is seductive. The colours are an artist’s dream, with the palette smoothly transitioning from emerald green and turquoise of the sea, through dusky yellows, shades of green that span the colour wheel, interspersed with deep browns, verging on black, that make up the sharp lines of peat banks cut into the earth, and spotted with regal purple hues, darkening as the heather stretches itself off into the distance. The problem with running in beautiful places is that the temptation to stop and snap pictures is often too overwhelming to resist. Maybe this is one of the reasons I will probably never win a race – I am just too susceptible to the seductions of the landscapes through which I travel.
One feature of Scotland, and especially the West coast, that is all too easy to overlook and forget about is the weather, specifically the fact that it rains. A lot. We were, as it turned out, extremely fortunate on the morning of the race, with the skies gradually darkening, the winds building but ultimately remaining dry until the afternoon, long after the final runner had crossed the finish. The line itself was in Port Ellen, immediately outside Ramsay Hall, an impressive khaki-coloured stone building, named after the family who, in the 19th Century, owned many of the estates in the south of the island, and with fine views out over Kilnaughton Bay. Finish lines, regardless of the size of a race, are always the epicentre of energy and their atmosphere relies in large part to the enthusiasm of the gathered supporters as well as race organisers. In spite of it’s minnow status the Islay Marathon managed to pack in a lot of enthusiastic excitement at the finish and I heard the pounding music before it came fully into focus. It was a finish line I was more than happy to see as the final third of the race had certainly tested my mettle and I was very much in favour of stopping the running by then. Ben and Tammy were already present, Ben having smashed the previously long-held race record by storming home in an incredible time of 2.5 hours, which is just phenomenal! Even more so was the fact that he looked as though he could easily have popped back over to the start and done it a second time. Truly a gazelle in a Yorkshireman’s clothing. He was helping out the race organisers by spotting who was approaching the finish from afar, using a pair of binoculars, thus enabling the MC of the race to offer up some personal facts and encouragement to runners as they closed the gap on the finish and a well earned rest. He then, at the end, cemented his nice-guy status by jogging out to meet the final runner and ran the final stretch with them, peeling off to let them experience the actual finish line solo. A fitting end to what felt from the start like a real family, community affair.
The Scottishness of the whole morning extended beyond the finish line and into Ramsay Hall itself, where we were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of delicious food, libations and the attentive focus of volunteers eager to make sure we got something warm and nourishing on board. I caught up with Rory over a cup of tea and congratulated him on a fantastic last-minute finding-of-form as he posted an impressive sprint into town, and once feeling as though my legs and I were on friendly terms again hopped in the car, driving the few kilometres back up the coast, past three of the most famous Islay distilleries – Laphroag, Lagavullin and Ardbeg, next to which our cosy little AirBNB rental was situated – to pick up my folks and return to the hall in time for the prize-giving ceremony. We have family connections on Islay and it had occurred to me that there was the possibility that I might well be running alongside people to whom I have a familial connection unbeknownst to either of us. Dad had spent many of his summers as a boy in Port Ellen itself and it was clearly a wonderful trip down memory lane as he pointed out landmark after landmark that in some cases had changed little whilst in others significantly, but overall had been parked in something of a suspended animation. It is ultimately the people who make a place what it is and we found chatting to locals and visitors alike at the hall as relaxed and natural as if we’d been part of the community ourselves all these years. We even picked up some information about the whereabouts of our family members, whom none of us had met before, through good old local knowledge, info that proved the key to meeting up with them, Cilla Black long-lost relatives reunite style, that very afternoon.
The reason that the Islay Marathon even exists is to mark the memory each year of a member of the community, Menzies MacAffer, who had served in the Royal Marines and was himself a keen marathon runner. His brother spoke a few words on the day and handed out the prizes, which in addition to a lovely glass trophy also included a bottle of local single malt whisky – what else?! Whilst the main prizewinners took home a large bottle of Ardbeg each, each and every finisher got their own trophy and a small, or wee, bottle of Ardbeg whisky themselves. A lovely little touch and a very special way to kick off our visit to this very special island and corner of Scotland.
Final Race Time = 3 hours, 44 minutes, 42 seconds
More information on the Islay Marathon, including how to enter can be found on the official website at http://www.islaymarathon.co.uk/