Monday, 30 July 2012

Harris Half Marathon - Garmin's for Geeks

Over the sea (bridge?) to Skye

 Now I’m not technologically minded (and pretty technically inept if I’m truthful about it) and to date have happily spent my life free of any form of gadgetry pre-fixed by “i” and still need Simon to work the DVD player for me. I have also managed to eschew much of the running related paraphernalia that Runners World and similar would have you believe you need such as plaster strips for your nose, hand held water bottles on the shortest of runs, knee length “Paula socks” and those necklace type things Paula is often seen wearing, after all why eat some form of chemical goo when a nice chunk of home made fruit cake will do the job?

  Now my blissfully uncomplicated approach to running and possibly life in general has been fatally undermined. Personally I blame Bert (Colonel Geek) and John (1st Lieutenant Geek) for achieving the impossible and persuading me that a Garmin would make all the difference in the world to my running and finally, after two extremely poor half marathons at Skye and Barra, I was persuaded. To be honest after the horror experience that was the Barrathon I probably could have been persuaded to try anything if someone had told me it would help my running.
The upshot of this is that now my entire running life is dominated by this evil little watch whose mission in life appears to be to remind me how slow I am or how few miles I have actually run. Simon is disgusted by my new found geekiness which is ironic as he is Mr Geek and I have yet to fathom out the reason why someone who has the latest of every computer related gadget ever invented has such a dislike and distrust towards my Garmin.

The first real test for my shiny new Garmin was to be the Harris half marathon. I suspected at least part of the reason for my previous two “disaster” half marathons was an over enthusiastic start to the race so coach van Tuijl told me to aim to set the Garmin for a rather sedentary 8 min mile pace and stick to it. I promised that I would try…
Uig at sunset the night before the race
On waking up on race morning the first thing i was aware of was the noise of the wind outside and my first thought was not "oh no, ive got to run 13 miles in this" it was "Oh no, ive got to sail accross the Minch in this" and sure enough within 20 minutes of setting sail I had joined the throng of green faced unhappy people sat outside on deck freezing their backsides off and staring fixedly at the horizon. Fortunately it was not a long journey and the rolling motion created by the swell of the sea abated as we reached the shelter of the Isle of Harris.
Choppy Seas
Mist...and choppy seas
  After registering for the race and catching up with friends it was time to board the bus taking the runners to the start line of this point to point course. This has the advantage of letting the runners see what is ahead of them so there are no nasty surprises mid race but equally it means you start the race under no illusions as to what is lying ahead, a bit of doubled edged sword really. However the best part of the bus journey is the chance to see the magnificent stretch of white sands of Luskintyre beach and the view over to the isle of Taransay, famous as the setting for Castaway, TVs first ever reality big brother style show. But I’ll forgive it for that as its very beautiful.

Luskintyre and Taransay (photo from a previous trip)
 Just before the bus delivers the runners to the start line there is the famous toilet stop where the bus pulls over and the runners pour out of the bus and run like a herd of lemmings towards the cliffs to find a suitable spot to take a comfort break. I always wondered what would happen if this race was ever televised… (And no, I don’t know what the collective noun for lemmings is)

By the time we had lined up for the race the wind had not abated one bit and so everyone knew that they were in for a testing day out. What I forgot to mention is that the prevailing wind is south westerly…..except on the day of the 2012 Harris half marathon when it was decidedly blowing in from the north. I set off behind a group of runners containing those whom I thought would be my main opposition such as John, Robin, Hamish (my heb half nemesis), Karen, Simon and Ross who had already said that he was aiming to run exactly the same time as me and so running behind this large group certainly gave me some shelter for the first 2 or 3 miles but then the group began to split up and I was left out on my own trying not to lose contact with the runners ahead. Because of the gale force wind blowing directly into the faces of the runners it became no easier to run the downhill sections or the flat sections as at least on the uphill sections you were getting some shelter from the hill in front of you. It was truly hard work against the wind and so any jealousy I had previously towards fellow runners, Nick and Susan’s hebridean cycle holiday which was to finish in at the Harris half marathon rapidly evaporated. If there was one thing worse than running into that wind it would have been cycling

My more restrained start meant that at no point in the race did I feel as awful as I had at Barra despite running the first mile faster than coach van Tuijl had told me to and I finished comfortably enough. The Garmin’s reassuring little beeps let me know exactly how fast I was running and exactly the distance and this also gave me something else to focus on – how far could I get before it emitted its next little beep?  I was surprised to pass Ross at around the 12 mile point as he was trying, without success, to flag down a car to give him a lift to the finish. John and Robin had got away from me as had Simon who yet again had shot off ahead of me, faded, recovered only to disappear into the distance again this time getting the better of John. My time was about 4 or 5 slower than I had been aiming for but most people seemed to have run about 5 minutes slower probably because of the wind and so I couldn’t grumble. The only problem was that now I was itching to download the Garmin to see the little charts and graphs of the race that it produces - hours of endless entertainment to be had in analysing them… .Bert has told me not to worry about this too much as the novelty value soon wears off…

Clearly the whisky we had necked at midnight at the youth hostel in Uig the night before the race had also helped – well it helped me as I was certainly more relaxed going into this race than I had been for the other two heb halfs. Definitely a pre-race routine to be repeated…
After a quick wash it was time for the prize giving and this was both the prize giving for the Harris half. As Harris is the last in the Heb half series the prizes for the Heb 3 are also handed out and Simon as the sponsor for the heb 3 had the honour of handing out the prizes. This time there was a bit of success for HBT who seemed to have been strangely absent from the Heb half series this year as the trotter team of Andrew, Jon and Graham won the team prize and Eilis won the women’s prize for the Harris half marathon. I picked up the V35 women’s prize so there are definitely some advantages to getting old. However nothing could have prepared me for the surprise of winning the V35 prize for the Heb 3 especially after the shockers that were Skye and Barra and to think that I had been so close to pulling out of Barra half way round – an important lesson there methinks!

It is also the day of reckoning in terms of the cumulative time for the Heb 3 and Eric was unfortunate to have missed his target time by a mere 27 seconds over the 3 half marathons but then I was pretty non plussed about my times too.

John wins...again

Simon presenting the prizes to the Heb 3 winners
 A large group of us went for dinner at the newly refurbished McDonald Motel now called the Hebridean hotel, which is now actually quite posh after a mega facelift, before going back to our usual post race haunt (primarily because the Hebridean hotel had run out of real ale) and then the news we had all been waiting for – the ferry back to Uig had been delayed. The “hoorays!”  went up and down the line and we settled down for a few more beers before catching the Harris booze cruise back to Uig.

Tasting some firewater that Jim had bought along

Its obviously good stuff!

Well that’s the heb halfs over for another year. Maybe by the time they start again next year I will have worked out how to download the info from the Garmin.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Castles, Cornflakes and Drunken Frog Hunting - Barrathon 2012

Making plans for the weekend

Dolphins following the ferry

The clue is in the name. Castlebay. The approach by sea to the main settlement on the Hebridean Isle of Barra is dominated by the castle perched on its rock in the middle of the bay, accessible only by boat (or swimming if you are so inclined). The castle is only a 5 minute boat trip from the shore and as it had been a few years since I had last been there I was keen to take another look and it wasn’t too hard to persuade the other Lynx Pack runners to go as part of the post Barrathon entertainment. 

Our transport
leaving Castlebay

Landing at the Castle

The site is believed to have been occupied since earliest times but the castle wasn't built until the turbulent 15th Century as the seat and stronghold of the clan MacNeil after the Chief Gill-Adhamnain MacNeil was given the Isle of Barra by Alexander MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles. In the 18th Century the chief of the clan MacNeil left the castle for a house on the island which was probably much more practical if not more comfortable, and the castle fell into ruins, was gutted by fire and its stone plundered to be used as ballast in boats and in construction of other buildings in Castlebay such as the post office. In 1837 the 41st chief of the clan was forced to sell Barra as he fell into financial ruin.

In 1914 Robert Lister MacNeil of Barra inherited the title of clan chief but by now the line of succession was firmly based across the Atlantic however in 1937 he purchased the castle and set about restoring it into a living home, if not faithfully recreating its original design and with liberal use of modern materials such as concrete. In 2000 Ian Roderick MacNeil of Barra put the castle into the care of Historic Scotland under the lease of one pound and one bottle of Talisker whisky each year.
The view back to Castlebay

The incorporation of the new into the old lacks the sophistication of modern restoration projects and an uneasy juxtaposition of elements gives an unsettling effect. Finding a bedroom with a fully fitted en suite bathroom was a surprise and it was strange to find windows that had been clumsily glazed with Perspex rather than glass. This is a restoration project where it feel that the new has been forced upon the old rather than fully incorporated or blended. Nonetheless nothing can detract from its imposing character and stark beauty and the impression of formidable strength and impermeability, there is no question as to why this location was chosen for the castle.

Usually the eagerly anticipated approach to Castlebay involves sailing past little islands, glimpses of magnificent sandy beaches on Vatersay and of course the imposing structure of the castle on its rock guarding the entrance to the bay, but not this time. Thick, thick mist had descended down to sea level, so much so that there appeared to be two Calmac ferry men stood at the bow of the ship acting as lookouts while the foghorn was blown at repeated intervals whilst the passengers made nervous jokes about the accuracy of the boat’s satnav system. 
Castlbay appearing out of the gloom
And suddenly the castle appeared looming out of the gloom, it was incredibly atmospheric and throughout the evening the mist cleared and closed in again giving tantalising glimpses of the castle.
ghostly apparition

By morning the mist had cleared and left a grey overcast but quite humid and still day for the race. After an appearance by the Olympic torch at the start and local celebrity Father Roddy of BBC2's "An island Parish" fame was introduced to the crowd were set off on our 13.1 (hilly) miles. After a slightly over enthusiastic start coupled with a dodgy stomach the race became a bit of an ordeal for me after about 4 miles and I spent the next 6 miles persuading myself that the self loathing created by running a slow time would be far less than the self loathing created by a DNF….while a significant proportion of the field proceeded to overtake me including Hamish, my heb half nemesis. Everyone else seemed to have ran well though, Bert had started slowly but predictably enough ran a pretty good time, Geoff seemed to fly round and John also was going very strongly. Judging by the photos that Innes took it was hard to tell if Mike was enjoying himself in the race or not but I certainly got a boost from seeing Innes at the top of the infamous hill. The ladies race was won by a New Zealander on holiday with Gillian in 2nd and it was good to see that Gillian hadn’t lost her fitness while off on her world travels. Simon did his usual stop/start running moving up and down through the field like a yo yo and he was narrowly beaten in a sprint finish by John who, out of us all was the only prize winner.

Climbing the first hill
Me in front of Bert in a race - now that doesn't happen often!
Hamish "enjoying" the hill
Simon enjoying the hill
Mike enjoying the hill
Me - for the record i didn't enjoy the hill!
 I was just glad it was a picturesque course as it gave me something else to focus on as my running speed reached glacial pace.
Anyway after a swim, sauna and the buffet to end all buffets it was back to the hotel for some chill out time before venturing out the Kisimul café for a curry and then on to the Celidh.
Prize winners

In their party frocks

Kisimul curry cafe
The Barra celidh is one of the best ever and this year was no exception and the hall was packed out with people dancing to the tunes of the Vatersay Boys. Another celebrity  had made an appearance on the Island to perform at the celidh – Michelle McManus of Pop Idol fame and similarly to last year when Bert was determined to have his photo taken with Father Roddy he was now determined to have his photo taken with the lovely Michelle. Unfortunately he was too shy to ask so I had to and Michelle was very nice about it. Bert shy - aye, right!
Bert knew that wearing a kilt would make him a hit with the ladies
Perfect post race recovery drink
The post Celidh entertainment takes place in the Castlebay bar before the final stagger back up the hill to the hotel and it was during this stagger up the road that we became aware of a loud noise emanating from various areas of grassland – a loud grating noise with a constant rhythmn which almost sounded as though it was made by a machine so mechanical was its repetition. I peered into the dense grassland at the side of the road but nothing was moving and someone suggested it may be a frog or a toad which did seem feasible at the time. However after a few drinks at the castlebay bar I was less restrained and clambered over the barbed wire fence into the thick, dense, not to mention wet, shrubbery. As I stumbled towards where I thought the noise was coming from all went quiet. Definitely a frog, thought I. I retreated slowly and after another whisky decided it was bedtime for the fearless frog hunter. Naturally Simon was delighted when I crashed into the bedroom at 2am soaking wet and covered in grass and weeds to report my discovery….

On reporting my discovery to the others at breakfast time John, who is the font of all knowledge about Scotland and its natural history, confirmed that what i had been hunting and what had been making that distinctive noise was definitely that rare species of bird, the Corncrake. Simon misheard him and for a time seemed to think I had spent the night crawling through the fields looking for a cornflake. Obviously a hangover impairs your hearing too.
After the Sunday morning visit to the castle it was time for tea and cakes and a visit to the Herring trail, a walk along the shoreline of Castlebay with informative signboards mounted on barrels describing the former Herring industry on Barra. The Herring industry attracted many workers to Barra in the 1800’s and was a key factor in Barra’s relative wealth. It was said that at the height of the “herring boom” it was possible to walk from Castlebay to Vatersay across the decks of all of the fishing boats anchored in the harbour.

No, i don't know if they do....

the trail stretches along the shoreline

Herring barrels

Vatersay beaches in the background

relaxing in the sun

tea and cakes
On Sunday afternoon we all went our separate ways in search of entertainment and so Simon, Bert and I went for a cycle ride around the half marathon race route in reverse and for quite a while I was astonished as to how hilly it was. How did we manage to race a half marathon around that?
We stopped at the beach for a while and dozed in the sunshine and explored the rockpools while the curious seals poked their heads up above the water to look at us and then we cycled to Eric and Lynda’s holiday cottage and for more sunbathing and tea and cakes. With all these stops it was turning into an incredibly long bike ride, although not in distance.

blue skies and seas

sunshine and sparkling rockpools

more relaxing in the sun

and more relaxing in the sun!
The last stop was at the superbly situated Isles of Barra hotel for a beer sitting at a table overlooking the stretch of white sandy beach before rolling back into castle bay – just in time for a cold glass of white wine sitting at a table overlooking the castle.

Beer...and relaxing in the sun

Enjoying the view

Trying to get a better view

And then sadly it was all over for another year and we made our way back to Oban the following day and even then plans were being hatched for a return to Barra next year

Onboard entertainment included the launching of the lifeboat

It was a bit breezy on deck!