Sunday, 6 June 2010

The watery, windy world of Benbecula (half marathon)

We hadn't done the Benbecula half since 2006 and decided to include it as one of our Heb 3 races in the hope that the weather would be kind and the attendance would be poor. Not very sporting I know but pot-hunters everywhere will know just what I mean. It entails a long drive to Uig (about 250 miles from Edinburgh, or a bit longer if you're chatting in the car and miss the Dalwhinnie turn off) to catch the ferry to Lochmaddy (macaroni cheese and chips on the boat or "pasta of the day" as they're calling it now). At Lochmaddy there's a bus to take you to the campsite or wherever you're staying. The driver's a bit hassled and maybe a bit deaf which makes him kind of difficult. He is reluctant to reveal once and for all whether he is the bus for the Benbecula half marathoners and prefers to equivocate. I  know he is as I remember him from 2006, and I remember the same sense of frustration because it was hard to get anything clear out of him. Pretty soon we were hammering across the weird and watery world of Benbecula.

The landscape is difficult too, its hard to understand, its very flat, but has lots of small bodies of water, like the tarns you find up the hills in the Lake District (they probably have a name but I don't know it). Someone on the bus is telling the story of doing a race that requires orienteering (might have been the Hebridean Challenge) and heading for the only mountain around, but constantly getting stuck amongst all these tiny bodies of water, making it impossible to go in a straight line. In frustration at constantly getting stuck and having to backtrack he swam across one of them, giving himself hypothermia. It sounded similar to leads in the ice for arctic explorers. Because of the flatness of the terrain its impossible to get an overview and a sense of the organisation of the place. Houses seem scattered around at random.

At the campsite we pay our £14 for the night which irks Peter because there are quite good and completely free sand-dunes just yards away to camp in. I want the ease of having pre-race toilet facilities so push for camping. The ground is flat and comfortable and the facilities are fine. We're both a bit irked because we have heard several stories of people coming for the race last year and coming to the campsite to be turned away because they were too busy. Not that the campsite has any duty to rescue fools who come from far away to run around the island, but they didn't even suggest an alternative...Its a bit hard.
We go for a stroll in the sand-dunes and find a piece of coastline which provides some relief as this gives some definite shape to the island.

The weather is near perfect. Its dry and the wind is only blowing slightly although always there. Its quiet and all you can hear is the slight whoosh of the wind and...birds everywhere. I don't know what they are anymore. I think I used to. Pee-wits, curlews, are they the same thing? Marsh birds and shore birds anyway. Geese go for a stroll in a gaggle.

The flatness, the airy, wateriness of it all and the slight coolness of reception we get on the island all adds to a vague sense of paranoia. There isn't much in the way of shelter anywhere and I wonder if its the sense of exposure in the landscape that creates this sense of uneasiness. There's a tremendous sunset that turns everything pink. Through this landscape there's a dead straight road and along this straight road on a Friday night, probably teenagers (can't see by now) drive their cars as fast as they can...and then slow down in the distance. I didn't like the film but there's something Mad Maxian about it all.

And so to bed under the rattling canvas.
At about 4am the birds get up and one bird sits quite near the tent and sings "I'm a cheeky wee bastard" over and over again. I lie awake from about 4am to 6am, a bit sore, but also fine. We went to bed at 10.30pm so can afford a few waking hours in the middle of the night and still be able to rise refreshed at 8am.

At 8am  my watch alarm wakes me up and I am being baked alive and can't get out the tent quickly enough. I am slightly disappointed because in my dreams I had just walked into a cafe and ordered an italian roll with ham and beetroot on it, with a cup of tea. "That'll be £3 please, says the lady who's serving me." I am trying to prop up my bike against a piece of antique looking furniture in her shop without scratching it. I am thirsty and can almost taste the beetroot...

For breakfast it is muesli however, and not beetroot. Same as we had last night. And lots of coffee which this week is good. Its a sunny morning, the START sign has been banged in across the road in the night. Peter and I are in good spirits. Camping is ever so much nicer when its dry.
There are some HBTs au camp as well. Morag McCracken and I think her boyfriend's called Peter who we have seen at the Hebs before...and some others.

At race headquarters we see Richard Dennis arrive at the gates. We'd tried to text him to encourage him as he's been running from Stornoway to here all week. We got no answer though and thought that the wee man might have been carried off by a bird of prey. He is in good shape however and has grown a beard. The rather more mundane explanation for his absence is that he's been unable to get a signal all week. His week's running seems to have gone well apart from a difficult Wednesday when he started to have ankle problems and feared that all may be lost but it had righted itself by Thursday morning.
I ask him what form he is in and he tells me he may be able to give me a race. Which means he is in good form and will leave me in the dust.

Peter and I have both been holding onto the hope that we may be better this week than the week before. We are in better spirits, that's for sure. A hard session on Wednesday may not have  been quite the tonic that we both thought it was, as we can both still feel it in our legs...
Pretty soon we're at the start and at about 11.10am, we're off. Its a long straight road and you can see who's ahead. I see Peter set off with 2 others at the head of the field. Nearer to me, Michelle Hetherington pulls away in her Helensburgh colours. Morag McC and a gang of other brown shirts work together ahead as well. I am aware of Debbie MacDonald not far behind and as I ran last week with the fear of her catching me I seem to pick up where I left off before and because I know she's just behind I set off hoping to put a bit of space between us. The joy of those 1st few miles when I can kid myself I'm a better runner than I am. I knock out a couple of 7.15 miles and am happy with this. Despite all evidence to the contrary I still think to myself that this might be fine and hold on as long as I can. I go through 4 miles in 30 mins and some seconds which means I've slowed to 7.30+ average pace. Around here a group moves through and past, containing Shona Morrison, who is a good island runner. She has a pod of men getting their pace from her and letting her work at the front. "Shame on you all" I think, already moving into a more difficult frame of mind. Setting off too fast at the start of races inevitably creates the horrible scenario where loads of people pass you. Oh it hurts. Despite being a relatively wind-free day there is still plenty of the stuff. There is no hiding from it, nor the searing sun. Well its not a searing sun because the wind is quite cool but its there none-the-less and it seems to suck the moisture out of you. My breathing is harsh because my throat is so dry. For a long long time I hold my position while fighting self-pity and fear. There's such a long way to go and already I'm slowing up and stiffening up, I am making a magnificent arse of things and all I can do now is hang in the best I can and NOT WALK, because I am hugely tempted to just throw in the towel and walk. I am hating running.

At mile 9 there is an exact parallel to Stornoway as Bruce Walker passes me. "Well done" I tell him and he is encouraging to me. "Keep going, you're running well." Shortly after we go round a bend and I take a glance behind which I have not done until now. There's a chap in purple and a little further behind the brown vest of Debbbie McD. God in heaven above. I do not even know why I am racing Debbie, we're not in the same age category so presumably won't take any prizes away from each other, but she has become a sort of fixed point in the race from which I can measure my performance, and she is catching me! I'm doing what I can...which is hoping that the organisers have made a massive error and made the race a lot shorter than it should be because I can see the wind turbine which is placed just behind the school where we start and finish...and then, as I know really we must, we set off out on a smaller loop, away from the school.
Its more than 10 miles now, I've lost count. Up until now I've been marvelling at how the wind has conspired for a good 8 miles to always be a headwind despite many changes of direction. Now, at maybe mile 11, the wind is behind us because suddenly it feels deathly calm and hot. Debbie goes by me and I can't respond. "Well done" I tell her and mean it. I can see from the way she's moving that her legs feels stiff too and she's battling. Its a long unforgiving straight way home. On the final stretch, I can see the school. Ahead of me are Debbie McD and Jim Bruce, and the sight of the finish helps me find something... and then someone in a red shirt from the side of the road yells "Go on Mary, just relax and pick your pace up now." and I do what I'm told. "Just relax" I think, and suddenly I am running much faster than I have been all race and my breathing wheezes in and out. Its a good feeling, although painful, to really move and I'm kind of enjoying it. To my surprise I go past Debbie and catch up to the back of and then pass Jim Bruce, who then reacts with an almighty effort of his own and just pips me to the line. He then has a sit-down on the pavement and I bend over and rest on my knees for a while until my breathing starts to get back under control. I try to explain to Jim that I thought Debbie was coming back at me - that I wasn't trying to catch him. Its all a scramble of words anyway. It comes out as "I didn't want that Jim" "I didn't want it either" he tells me. It made sense at the time. This is his 50th Heb race.

And so to post-race chat, a swim, a shower and then plenty to eat. The man in red turns out to be Colin Feechan who was second overall and I thank hiim for his timely advice. He's a real running enthusiast. It bursts out of him.
Morag McC was 2nd lady and can also do tumble-turns, I discover in the pool. Respect! I try to swim a bit but am too sore. I'm much sorer than the week before, all the moisture having been sucked out of me. My muscles are super-stiff.
There is more food laid on than is going to get eaten. Brilliant soup, pizza, tons of sandwiches, home-made tablet, tea, coffee.

The bus driver has told us in no uncertain terms, the night before, that he would be leaving at quarter to 3 with whoever was there on time and its getting very close to quarter to 3. With 5 minutes to spare the prize-giving gets going, but the organiser doesn't know that quite a few of us have this deadline hanging over us and starts to make speeches. The clock is ticking. Someone goes outside to speak to the bus driver and the news back from him is that he is adamant, he needs to leave at quarter to 3, he has another job to do immediately afterwards. In the end we just have to leave. Which is a shame because it seems disrespectful to the organisers, the other competitors and we're both (me and P) thinking we might luck an age-group prize, but we can't hang around to find out. Off we set at high speed again through the strange, watery confusing landscape to the ferry terminal at Lochmaddy. On the ferry we talk about running and races and then we drive home for 5 and a half to six hours, stumbling in the door at quarter past midnight.

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