Callanish Stones Marathon
2nd August 2014
Time: 4hrs 28 minutes
Place: 67th /126 finishers
Gender: 20th / 58 females
Category: 4th / 12 female Seniors
After I finished the Great Glen Ultra I felt strong and unstoppable; worlds away from the days after the Fling and the Cateran when I felt worn out and blistered. When I returned to Stonehaven I felt empowered by the new distance I’d conquered and was ready to throw myself back into training hard again, so when ripples of discussion amongst running friends quickly amounted to credit cards being flexed, I jumped right in and added my name to the Callanish Stones Marathon starting line-up alongside Jemma, Naomi and Rachel.
The Callanish Stones are on the West side of the Isle of Lewis, which is part of the Outer Hebrides and the last stop in the UK before you hit the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve never visited the Outer Hebrides, but I love the West Coast and was delighted to get the chance to explore further afield. Jemma moved up to North Lewis two months ago and had plenty of spare bedrooms to accommodate our group, so not only would we get to visit Stornoway and run around the area surrounding the Callanish Stones, but we would also get to visit her little community of Ness and get much more of a feel of island life. The marathon was being organised as a one-off for 2014 by Stornoway Running and Athletics Club which made the attraction to sign up even greater, as if by then I needed any more persuasion.
The journey to reach our final destination was a lengthy one. First I drove to Aberdeen to pick up Naomi and Rachel, then we made our way north to Ullapool via Inverness. We parked in the long stay carpark and then got some lunch and a couple of beers whilst we waited for the rain to clear up.
Before the ferry arrived we did a little tourist shopping, then collected our luggage and stood by the embarkation area waiting for the ferry to be ready to board. The popular game ‘spot the runner’ helped us pass the time – this was the last crossing to Stornaway before the race so many of the visiting runners were on it.
Unfortunately the boat was a bit late in departing, but we were rewarded for our patience with beautiful scenery in the evening sunshine as we left Loch Broom and headed North West to the Outer Hebrides.
We enjoyed one more beer in the bar and wandered around outside enjoying the sunshine and the breeze on deck. The crossing was 2hr 45min in length so the sun was still shining when the imposing cliffs of Lewis approached on the horizon, and the stark green moorland on the hills shone brightly in the light.
Upon disembarkation, Jemma took us to Lewis’ only Tesco where we purchased some pizza and supplies before commencing the car journey North to Ness. I hadn’t quite appreciated how far it was, but it was easy to pass the time by taking in the unfamiliar surroundings and admiring the striking and isolated beauty of the island. There are no trees outside of the shelter of Stornoway; few plants other than heather can survive so even now at the height of summer there is not much colour to be found other than khaki green and grey road. The houses are dotted here and there next to the road, bunched together for protection against the prevailing winds which roar across the island off the Atlantic all year round. The only large buildings to be seen are the chunky gable ends of Free Presbytarian Churches which rise bleakly above the communities they preside over.
It was late when we arrived at Jemma’s. I left my house at 0820 and I think we finally set down in Ness at about 2230 which made for quite an exhausting day. We quickly ate our pizzas and decided on a time to leave in the morning before turning in for as much sleep as possible.
It was a very civilised start at 10am which meant we didn’t leave until 0845. The weather was bright and breezy with some sunshine but it looked changeable so I decided to keep a long-sleeved top with me just in case.
We were able to park and get ready without fuss, and met our friend (and Fetchie) Gavin, who was attempting to break the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon ran in full Highland dress. He needed to run it in under 5 hours but since he is a runner with a sub-3 marathon under his belt there was little doubt he would achieve his goal.
The race had thoughtfully provided an earlier start for slower runners and walkers in order to maximise participation. This had meant that our friend Carol was able to chose this small and friendly marathon for her first rather than travel for a Big City race. She had started at 8am and as luck would have it, she was passing the start at her 6 mile point not long after we arrived. She was happy and positive and said she’d see us out on the course later as we cheered her on our way.
After one last snap it was time for us to line up and assemble for the start.
A noted local archealogist whose name escapes me had the honour of setting us off, and at shortly after 10am we charged down the gentle decline on to the road which would take us out for the first 6 mile loop.
The initial miles were flat and Rachel, Naomi and I trotted along happily together at a steady pace letting ourselves warm up and chatting with fellow runners. None of us were out to achieve a goal or set a PB, but Jemma was certainly the most rested of us all and she had bounded ahead from the start. I had decided that I’d be happy with anything under 4hr 30m, but most of all I just wanted a good long, steady and painfree run. The course might have been ‘hilly’ but it certainly didn’t compare to what I’ve been running on this year so far so I wanted to make sure I could still run for a long time without walking and fuel breaks! Ultra training can make you quite lazy so I wanted to make sure I could still quash my frequent desires to walk, as in a well-executed road marathon that really ought not to be part of the plan…
Miles 1-6: 9.23 / 9.56 / 10.01 / 9.42 / 9.44 / 9.24
The first loop had us pass the finish and the stone circles so we knew where we would be headed a few hours later, then there was an out and back which lead us back to the start. I had decided to leave my long sleeved top here as I had underestimated how warm the sun would be and was already sweating too much. I also sprinted into the loos as in the open countryside there was absolutely nowhere for the discreet, over-hydrated runner to hide behind, and despite wearing a running skirt, I wanted to avoid giving my fellow runners any cheap thrills.
After re-appearing on the course again I saw Naomi up ahead being chased down by Rachel who had also stopped for the loo. We were on a gradual incline so I didn’t want to burn off too much steam by pushing hard to join them – it was still early days and I figured I would catch them up sooner or later. There were some significant ups and downs where I leapfrogged with the same bunch of runners, but by about 10 miles the field had well settled down and everyone was spread out about 100 meters apart.
Miles 7 – 12: 9.24 / 9.34 / 9.43 / 9.55 / 10.11 / 9.53
As we passed mile 12 and approached the village of Carloway, the route turned left for another out-and-back, which then looped down under a bridge on the route and off towards the East. This meant you could see a lot of what was happening in the race. To my right I saw Carol below me still plugging away but just out of earshot, and to my left the sharp end of the field was coming towards me. The out-and-back took us towards the blackhouse village of Gearrannan which clings to the cliffs above the Atlantic. On the way I exchanged several high fives and “Well Done”s with 99% of the other runners which kept me pushing hard up the short and sharp hills on the windy uneven road.
Gearrannan was stunning and I wished I could have stayed to check it out. A quick google reveals that one can actually rent the cottages for a holiday there – perhaps an adventure for next year?!
I was very grateful for the frequent water stations as the temperature rose. Thankfully the wind was mostly keeping me cool, but it was still very warm and I could feel my skin glowing in the sun. I had followed my usual plan of a gel every 5 miles but I was beginning to get hungry; I had noticed lucozade was available at the bridge where the route crosses itself but when I came through they had run out. This was at 15.5 miles so I had two more gels, or 200 calories, to take in the next 10 miles of running and my stomach was grumbling ferociously. I’d never been so hungry in a race before! Was I just too used to hitting up an all-you-can-eat buffet every couple of hours at Ultra aid stations with a rucksack full of supplementary snack on the side?
Here began my lower point in the race – falling typically in the no-mans land between 16 and 20 miles, where the finish feels like a lifetime away but it still feels like you’ve already been running all day. I spotted a couple of cast-away lucozade bottles and decided if I was hungry enough to pick one up – they were full 500ml bottles and when I lifted one it was 3/4 full. I didn’t want to have to suffer any more than required so I twisted off the screw cap and poured the juice into the water bottle I was carrying before drinking hungrily. Within 10 minutes or so I felt a lot more energised as the sugar and calories did their tricks. The next task was to get my head around the road which stretched in front of me across the moor, for miles…and miles…and miles…
Miles 13 – 18: 9.50 / 10.26 / 10.08 / 10.07 / 11.44 / 11.30
From mile 16 is a long slow killer of an incline which pushes slowly up along the straight Pentland Road which extends over barren moorland. The wind was blowing right into my face but I kept grinding away for half a mile at a time before having a short walking break to get my breath back. I decided to listen to my iPod and put on the West Highland Way Race podcast, listening to the episodes which I had already listened to at the Great Glen Way. I didn’t care though – it was nice to have familiar voices chatting away in the background as I slogged away.
I passed Carol again around 20 miles when she was going through a bad patch. I could see she was upset, but whilst she was telling me how bad she felt she was still powerwalking/jogging away at a steady pace which betrayed no sign of injuries or problems. I reassured her that she was, in fact, doing brilliantly as she was still moving forward and that’s all she needed to do until she got to the finish. A bit of patience, one foot in front of the other, and I promised her she would get there. I was reminded of my own tired and blinkered thinking during the Cateran when I swore I was doing dreadfully and in tears, was convinced I was ready to DNF. What I couldn’t see for myself at the time was that I was actually running up a hill, and therefore was, and would be, absolutely fine.
Finally we turned off the Pentland road at 21 miles and headed back in the direction of the Stones. The wind was behind us now and that with the addition of more lucazade and a 20 mile warm up meant I was ready to pick up the pace and get the race done. For the first time in a few hours I began passing people who were beginning to tire as I was just beginning to wake up. Each person ahead was reeled in and passed comfortably as I crawled my way back up the field.
Miles 19 – 26: 11.58 / 11.38 / 10.49 / 10.19 / 10.04 / 9.59 / 9.05 / 9.04
Just before mile 25 we ran through the start area again and retraced our footsteps towards the stones. I was able to overtake one last girl on the cruelly sharp incline as I focused on my glutes pushing me up the hill strongly towards the finish. With wobbly legs I navigated the uneven tussocky grass in the last 25 meters before the finish and crossed the line happily amongst the standing stones in 4 hours and 28 minutes on the dot.
Jemma had finished 10 minutes before me and after receiving my goody bag we sat together and cheered in the rest of the runners. Rachel and Naomi weren’t far behind in 4hr 47m and 4hr 50m respectively, and then 20 minutes later at 7hr 09m 48s race time we were able to cheer Carol home to her first marathon finish, which is always such a happy moment.
We caught a lift back to the start where there was a great spread of soup and sandwiches on offer, then we headed back to Ness where lovely showers, cold beers and bottles of prosecco awaited. We even saw fit to demolish the Chocolate Cookie Mallow Cheesecake we’d bought the night before in lieu of a proper dinner since we’d all had such a good day. At 7.30 we headed out to get the bus to Stornoway for the race ceilidh, which made the whole event feel even more like an ultramarathon as we danced away our stiff muscles.
The next morning I was awoken at 07.30 by howling wind and rain lashing against the window. The Lewis weather had turned on a sixpence and we were now being treated to the worst that summer had to offer up there. With a penchance for travel sickness at the best of times which can be exacerbated by the mildest of hangovers, I lay in bed dreading the ferry crossing. “The Minch”, which separates Lewis from the mainland, is some of the roughest waters around the UK at the best of times so the journey home had the potential to become very unpleasant.
Lewis, however, is full of surprises. When we arrived in Stornoway there were blue skies and just a hint of a wind. Travelling 25 miles south and heading to the East coast of the island made a huge difference in the weather. We departed Stornoway in the sunshine on the top deck, watching the island get smaller and smaller.
Just as I was beginning to relax and settle down for the journey, Rachel came over and said to me “Dude, have you looked behind you?!”. A 180 degree turn revealed that apparently we were sailing straight into the mouth of hell, as the skies behind us were pitch black. The Captain warned over the tannoy that there ‘might be some discomfort’ up ahead, and after trying to take a panorama to illustrate the drastic difference in the skies we headed straight inside when thunder and lightning began to start around us.
After about an hour of pitching and rolling, the seas calmed down and we’d traversed the storm. Naomi, a seasoned North Sea sailor due to the nature of her job took it all her stride and fell asleep, whilst Rachel and I clung to the floor in the lounge groaning as the boat rose and fell on the waves.
If that is how the crossing can be in summer, I can’t imagine how treacherous it must be in winter. Rather you than me, Jemma…
The skies cleared and we enjoyed a dramatic view on our way back into Ullapool, which we found quite literally at the end of this rainbow…
We wasted no time getting off the boat and beginning the next stage of our journey back home in the car. I finally arrived back in Stonehaven at 10pm and regaled Kynon with the tales of my weekend after presenting him with the enormous Black Pudding which came in my race goody bag which was surplus to requirement for this vegetarian.
It was one of the best goody bags I’ve ever had; featuring food and drink (consumed), a Harris tweed keepsake, Hebridean soup, plaque, t-shirt, a commemorative print and of course, the Black pudding.
If this race is ever run again I would strongly recommend it to anyone who has the time to make the journey up for a mini-break. The organisation was flawless, the course was stunning yet challenging, and the Hebridean welcome was warm. I look forward to returning in future to explore more of the Hebrides whether for running or not, but will always be sure to pack for all weathers whilst keeping my fingers crossed for the sun.