I am just back from the gorgeous Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Back at the start of the year when Crawford and I were working out a long term training plan, he suggested I competed in a standard distance race (see Triathlons Explained) round about now. I began searching for a suitable race, and rather fortuitously, a friend from the club posted that his local race had just opened for joining. Although he lives in Glasgow, Iain (and his twin brother Andrew) are from Lewis, and he has previously competed in the HebTri – an open water event, now in its fourth year. This sounded just the ticket, but clearly threw up some of its own logistical challenges. Lewis is not in direct proximity to Glasgow (see map below). And the race is on a Saturday. You can drive to the very north of Scotland and then get a ferry, but having just returned from holiday, with my colleague now on annual leave, I couldn’t miss my all day Ayr clinic on the Friday, which meant this mode of transport wasn’t feasible. I could however fly over after clinic on Friday evening but this rather precluded taking all the required gear for the race (bike, wetsuit etc). Iain came to the rescue (as he did incidentally for the whole weekend) and offered to take all my equipment in his car, as he was travelling up earlier in the week to spend some time with his parents prior to the race.
So with everything safely on Lewis ahead of me, a rather frantic clinic completed, I made it to the airport and onto the wee Loganair plane (actually not as wee as I was expecting. A jet no less). And what a beautiful flight. With (unusually) clear skies, we set off up the banks of Loch Lomond (with wonderful views of the small cluster of islands Jamie and I swam and ran round earlier in the week), the west coast of Scotland then leaving the mainland behind us with a view of one of the most northern lighthouses seeing us off, we came over the beautiful, if baron, Isle of Lewis, with its sparse moorland and multiple inland lochs as the sun began to set in the distance. The flight only took 40 minutes.
Iain picked me up at the airport then we went to meet Tim (a fellow GTCer who was also competing in the race) and his wife Sharon for a wee drink in Stornoway, before Iain dropped me at my lovely B&B. I had a very civilised morning compared to many races – we weren’t starting until 11am, with registration open until 10.15am (how lovely) so I had a good sleep, shower (!) and hearty breakfast of huge bowl of porridge. The race itself was over on the north west coast of the island, about a 20 minute drive from Stornoway. Andrew had arrived by now and I rode with him in his car, while Iain took most of my gear in the other car, and learnt en route of his recent experience completing Challenge Roth, an Ironman-distance triathlon in Germany (he finished in an excellent time under 13 hours). As we arrived to register, what a lovely surprise to see Wendy, the previous head coach of the junior section of GTC, who first sparked Jamie and Hollys’ love for triathlon. She sadly left to pursue a new adventure living and working on Lewis, and is sadly missed.
Registration was slightly unusual, as in this race, transition 1 and transition 2 are in different places. We left our T2 gear (bike to run) where we were, loaded our bikes onto a transporter, had the race briefing, then got on a couple of buses in our wetsuits, and took our T1 gear (swim to bike) to the start of the race which was in a small inland loch a few minutes up the road. Having set up our bike transitions and struggled with our wetsuit zips (and the fierce island midges who were out in force), we headed down to the loch, and the start of the race.
Iain had assured me that this was a small friendly race, with many novices taking part, but looking around everyone looked a bit professional in my eyes – I saw a lot of fancy bikes and Ironman tattoos. On our way to the water, however a rather more normal competitor caught my eye. She was in a swimming costume and I overheard her conversation with a friend saying she didn’t much feel like investing in a wetsuit just for the one race. Excellent I thought, maybe there might be at least one person I could finish the swim before. Their conversation continued, discussing that she was in a relay team with a friend who was keen on the cycle and run, but not so keen on the swim, hence why she was taking on that role. ‘But you’ve swum the Channel before haven’t you?’ asked her friend. ‘Yes’ said this ‘novice’ competitor. Hmmmm.
And so to the race. We all gingerly entered the water (it was quite rocky at the entry point) but to my surprise the temperature was much less cold than anticipated and indeed we were pleased to escape the midge infestation torturing us on dry land. There was time for a sedate warm up and I also tried out a new, and as it turned out, very successful pee-ing strategy. I apologise if this offends anyone but mid race pee-ing turns out to be quite a stressful race requirement in standard distance triathlons. It is not a problem generally for novice and sprint distance events, as you can usually hold on for the duration. I believe for the Ironman there are various (reportedly not very pleasant but I’ll be taking my own toilet roll) portaloos en route, and I think I’ll be delighted to have a wee seat without worrying about the time when I need to go. But the standard distance events are unique in this regard – long enough that if you need the loo the whole way, it’s a long time to hang on, but short enough that stopping somewhere for a pee (especially for the ladies who would need to fully undress (if you’re wearing a Tri suit) if you needed to go) can impact quite significantly on your time. My first standard event was St Mary’s last summer. Towards the end of the swim I realised I needed the loo, and that there wouldn’t be any opportunity to go later in the course. So I decided to pee while finishing the swim before I got out the water. But it turns out that is much harder than it sounds. I pride myself on being an excellent multi-tasker, but peeing and swimming at the same time is frankly impossible. Even remaining horizontal and not swimming does not improve the situation – I eventually had to stop moving altogether, turn myself upright in the water, and then I finally managed. This did not help my swim time. It was also, I suspect, rather obvious what I was doing. The only other standard event I have done since was Lochore, when I tried the same manoeuvre, but even after stopping and turning vertical, I couldn’t go for some reason. As a result, I worried through the entire cycle that I still needed the toilet, and spent most of the run looking for suitable bushes that I might have to jump behind for a pee. In the end I didn’t need to, but it made for a tense, and rather uncomfortable run. Forgive me – I have digressed somewhat. To cut a long story short (actually not cut at all) I decided to pee while we all stood still in the water waiting for the race to start (rest assured no one had to immediately swim through this as I always start at the back). And what a difference it made – not just in terms of the time saved by not having to stop swimming mid race, and not needing to go again, but also psychologically because I didn’t spend the rest of the race pre-occupied by needing the toilet and worrying about where I could go. I thoroughly recommend this strategy.
Leaving my worries (and pee) behind, we were off. The swim was two laps of a ‘750m’ triangle (this was a rather loose approximation of distance as I managed a pretty straight course for once and had swum 1750m when I came out) which was great because you only had to concentrate on about 250m at a time – another psychological help. A local photographer Colin Cameron took pictures throughout the race, including with a drone, which make for some great shots. There was no wind at all (this is apparently very unusual for Lewis) so the water was not only warm, but flat calm. With a relatively small number of racers it was also not too frantic and splashy so all in all perfect swimming conditions – and I really enjoyed. And what’s more I wasn’t last out of the water which was an added bonus. I was however slightly surprised to see Andrew in transition, who it transpired had taken a rather less direct route between the buoys, but in a jiffy he was off, never to be seen again for the rest of the race.
As we started the cycle section, it started to drizzle a little, but remained warm (I stuck with just my tri suit and didn’t bother with an extra layer) and mostly wind free. The cycle course was an out and back, but with a loop at the apex. In my head we were heading north, but looking at the map it was in fact south. The roads were undulating, but other than a sudden sharp 15% hill at the far end, nothing too dreadful. And the scenery was striking as we pedalled through the sparse moorland, culminating in the stunning Callanish Stones marking the far turning point. I saw very few other racers during the cycle – I was passed by a couple of men at the start, and I caught a few of the faster swimming women but then for miles a barely saw a soul. Occasionally in the distance you could make out the rectangular speck of colour of another racer’s cycle top (I found this reassuring as on more than one occasion I wasn’t 100% certain I was on the right road) and in one such situation I hoped to catch said cyclist ahead. I was doing terribly well and thought I must be cycling extremely fast as I was gaining on them rapidly, only to discover that I was in fact chasing down a small post box. Other than a slight delay when my chain fell off thanks to a rather clunky gear change, (and in fact another delay when I took a wrong turn and ended up at the top of someone’s driveway), and the odd hairy moment with some kamikaze sheep on the road, the cycle went very well and again I enjoyed it. I even caught a few other cyclists just at the end of the ride (I can certainly feel the difference in my stamina) and as I entered transition 2, I handed my bike to the waiting marshalls (how lovely not to have to rack your bike) and changed into my running shoes just as the heavens opened.
I fully expected to be immediately caught by all the cyclists I had just passed, which is the normal situation for me during the run section of any race. By this point I had no concept of where I was timing-wise compared to everyone else (due to the loop at the apex of the cycle, it wasn’t possible to gauge how many people were in front of me). The run set off immediately uphill. Around 2km in, the first runner passed me on his way back, making me believe I was truly miles behind the majority of the other racers. However I then didn’t see anyone else at all. At about 4km in, the road turned up to the left, commencing a large loop which only re-joined the home stretch with about 2km to go. Again this meant you encountered almost no other racers during this section. I kept waiting to be passed by faster runners, but for the actual first time ever in the history of time, no one caught me on the run. And what’s more, with 2km to go, and having run uphill for the first 8km (this is true) I spotted a runner in front of me and managed to speed up to overtake them (helped by the final stretch being – at last – downhill, and the constant torrential rain keeping me cool). I finished having really loved the whole race, feeling strong and very satisfied. A big psychological boost from my last race before Wales, and thanks largely to the fantastic coaching and training plan from Crawford, not to mention the ongoing input from GTC.
That all said, both Iain and Andrew (and many other of the racers) were home and changed by the time I got in, so I was quite clear that there was a significant time between me and the leaders of the race. It was so wet that I headed straight inside so couldn’t really gauge how many racers finished after me, but my goodness me we were in for a treat. This race was a real community event, and the locals had surpassed themselves with the buffet that was laid out for our return. Three different types of home made soup (one vegan), a veritable feast of sandwiches and nibbles, followed by tea, coffee and copious amounts of cake (again with vegan options!). (I’m not vegan but have a number of vegan friends who are not always spoiled for choice at these events). After drying off (this was a challenge as I had forgotten to bring a towel. Usually this wouldn’t be much of a problem as you tend to dry off during the cycle and run, but given the monsoon type rain I was sopping wet and tentatively tried to see to the worst of it with some rolled up toilet paper. Lets just say I remained somewhat damp for the rest of the day), eating my own body weight in home made goodies from the buffet and seeing Tim arrive back safely we decided we should have a Team GTC photo. Rather than setting this against the inside of a rather damp hall, we thought it would be lovely to head back over to the Callanish Stones and take the picture there. With our (rather rainy) team photo taken, we then bid farewell to Tim, Sharon and Andrew, and as the rain finally ceased, and the clouds began to clear, Iain very kindly took me on a whistle stop tour around Lewis to see some of the beautiful landmarks.
After the stunning stones, we saw the Carloway Broch, an ancient stone structure probably used for dwelling and defence some 2000 years ago, some glorious beaches, and we even made it right up to the Butt of Lewis at the northern most tip of the island. As well as marking the furthest point of the Hebridean Way, apparently the Butt also features in the Guinness Book of Records for being the windiest place in the UK (we were lucky to visit on a calm day). The scenery here is stunning with terrifying sheer cliff edges, sea stacks and the impressive lighthouse.
Iain finally dropped me off back at my B&B upon which I headed to the recommended local chippy – I very much enjoyed my scampi and chips, despite the amount of food I had already ingested. While I was eating my delicious dinner, Iain texted me to say that the results were out and to all of our amazement, it turned out, again for the first time in my life, that I had in fact podiumed – being 3rd female finisher (and 2nd female vet). Whilst I was slightly disappointed to miss my small moment of glory at the prizegiving (we left before it started), I wouldn’t have missed my tour of the island, and the organisers have since been in touch to say they’re sending my trophy down. I am thrilled. It turns out most of the finishers in front of me were either men, or part of a relay team.
After an excellent night’s sleep and delicious full cooked breakfast on Sunday morning, I explored Stornoway a bit more in the time I had before my flight back to Glasgow. The weather was lovely and I walked to the war memorial (with a cheeky wee attempt to win a Strava segment up to the top of the memorial hill – Iain had told me about this the day before) (I missed the Queen of the Mountain accolade by two seconds – and yes I did try again but was slower the second time), before heading back to pick up my bag from the B&B and walking to the airport. Yes walking to the airport! A beautiful walk on a beautiful day. Where else would that be possible?
A marvellous weekend indeed.