Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Midnight Express to Barra

Sunset in Oban

People say that they can remember what they were doing when they heard that JFK had been shot. I can remember what I was doing when I heard that fateful news that Calmac were going ahead with strike action the day before the Barrathon. This may seem a tad melodramatic but it did seem as though time really did stand still and it looked like my 2015 Heb 3 campaign would be in tatters as would be the case for quite a number of people. I resorted to a few pitiful facebook messages to the Heb 3 organiser asking if I could still have a Heb 3 T shirt and tried to gauge enthusiasm for an unofficial Barathon hangover run on the Sunday if we were still to get to Barra in time for the celidh on the Saturday night (I’ve never been one to miss a good party!) but no matter what, it looked as though the Barrathon wasn’t happening for us this year and the disappointment was palpable.

And then miracle of miracles (or should I say the MacNeil Magic?) and Calmac announced there would be a Barra sailing leaving Oban in the early hours of Saturday morning after the strike had finished at midnight. The Barrathon was still on!
Waiting to board. The ferry departed Oban just after 2am
 I had a precautionary whisky in Oban and then joined the melee of people looking for something resembling a comfortable sleeping spot on the boat but I hadn’t been on board more than five minutes before I realised that the heat, the noise, the bright fluorescent lighting and the mass of bodies lying everywhere was not conducive to the few hours sleep that were to be snatched before the start of the race and so Simon and I headed out on deck.
Simon's bed for the night

My bed for the night
 The fine soft sunset had given way to a dark cloudy starless night but it was dry and so I snuggled into the little “nest” that I had made myself as protection against the coolness of the night and drifted off listening to the comforting hum of the engines. I must have slept well as I woke up in Castlebay just after 6am soaked through. It had rained during the night but the rain had failed to wake me. I struggled out of my wringing wet sleeping bag totally disorientated with my first thought being that I was going to have to run a half marathon in a few hours time. My second thought was to wake Simon up which was achieved after a few prods and he wobbled to his feet equally disorientated. 
Arriving in Castlebay at 6am
 Unbeknown to us during the night folk had come out on deck and taken photos of the two “down-and-outs” as Dean referred to us. I didn’t realise that sleeping out on deck would draw quite so much attention as it seemed like such a perfectly obvious thing to do.
Another hours fitful sleep and a bowl of porridge were snatched at the hotel before sleepily lining up for the race feeling distinctly foggy brained and wondering if it was physically possible to fall asleep during a half marathon. Strangely enough I had been fine when I stepped off the ferry but the additional hours’ sleep at the hotel had made me more tired and groggy but as soon as Katie sounded the horn signalling the start of the 2015 Barrathon the fog lifted from my brain and the hard work began. 

The first 6 or so miles passed very (too?) quickly assisted by the tailwind but the velocity decreased noticeably as soon as I turned into the wind and the hills of the second half of the course. By 10 miles I was beginning to struggle, perhaps paying for my enthusiastic start and the knowledge that Simon, Mairead and my Heb Half nemesis Hamish were somewhere behind me made things a little bit uncomfortable and I was constantly listening out for footsteps and the clapping of supporters on the course behind me indicating that I was about to be overtaken. At the start of the hill I had caught up with Gillian and Susan before they hit the accelerator on the downhill stretch into Castlebay leaving me for dead. Usually the glimpse of the Castle from the top of the hill acts as rejuvenator for tired limbs but not this time and that final mile was a slow weary legged plod down into the village and the finish line at the school.
The Stornoway runners had a 3am start thanks to the ferry strike
The start
Heading towards the 2mile marker
Hamish, my heb half nemesis
The infamous hill
I finished and waited for Simon who appeared, stopped some 100 yards before the line to take photos, then carried on to the finish. Apparently he had been taking photos all the way round the course to distract himself from the tiredness and take his mind off the lack of sleep….the wind….the hills….the race….etc.
Simon stopped just before the finish line to take photos
The finish line
What kept you?
It was a strange Barrathon this year, everything felt out of sync. The Saturday morning arrival, the later race start time, the number of folk in the group injured and not running, the later buffet time and the tragic news about the Kisimul cafĂ© as well as the overwhelming desire to grab sleep when we could meant that it was not until Sunday night that we all sat down together for a meal. The Celidh was as good as ever with the Vatersay Boys providing the music but we got a bit of a shock when we went in search of the post celidh party and went into the Castlebay Bar, the usual party venue, and the place was as quiet as a morgue. Turns out that the Craigard Bar is the new party bar and the place was jumping. Literally. Folk were on chairs and tables and the band kept responding to the audience chants of “one more song!” long after the bar had shut. I decided it was futile to go to bed any earlier as there would be a lot of noise until the band stopped playing….that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Leaving the celidh and looking for a party
It was a strange Barrathon in other ways. One of the usual party animals (who shall remain nameless) skulked off to bed early before the band had finished their final fling. This very same runner (whose name I am keeping secret to protect his party animal reputation) also skulked away after dinner on the Sunday to go read a book about training while the rest of us were in the bar. Very weird behaviour if you ask me - this is NOT what you go to Barra for. We realised he was missing but we also realised that, more importantly, he had a bottle of wine in his room and so Hamish was dispatched to fetch, if not the runner, then at least the bottle of wine. A short time later this nameless “wannabe” elite runner duly joined us in the bar… although there were some suggestions that Hamish brought back the wrong one.
Stornoway runners all sporting brown Heb 3 t-shirts
Dinner with a view of the castle

More and more sleep deprived I couldn’t bring myself to go for a pre-breakfast run the next morning and so a short lunchtime trot had to suffice before we hit the beach and I attempted to swim in the rough seas on the west side of Vatersay while Simon practiced trying to stand up on his surfboard away from the busier and more calm and sheltered beach on the east.

Machair flowers on Vatersay

The beaches of Vatersay
WW2 Plane crash site
All too soon it was Monday morning and time to say goodbye to everyone taking the Calmac ferry back to Oban. Our plan for the week was to head north to Harris and we were very nearly joined by Bert and John who came heart stoppingly close to missing the ferry and who were last to board the boat, just as the gates were being closed. Imagine, being stuck on Barra for an extra day…well actually that sounds pretty damn good to me. I'm not sure what Bert's excuse was for sleeping in, its not as though he was up late partying....oop's! have I just let a wee secret slip? :-)
Last on...
Leaving Castlebay
It was another great Barra weekend, if a bit different from usual, and mention must be made of the work done by Katie and her band of helpers in putting on this event in very trying circumstances.


  1. you are a brilliant writer Louise you nearly manged to nake we fall a sleep thinking of your sleep deprivation

  2. you are a brilliant writer Louise you nearly manged to nake we fall a sleep thinking of your sleep deprivation