Monday, 25 August 2014

Coll Half Marathon 2014

With this being our 4th trip to the island of Coll, there was always the risk that it might not live up to the expectation of previous trips. I’m happy to say the usual high standard of Harriers away trips was both maintained and surpassed.

Day 1

As with last year part of our group had opted to travel to Coll a day before the race to allow us to explore a bit more of the island. It was a pretty bleary eyed group that met up in Oban ferry terminal for the 5:45 ferry to Coll we did however have the advantage of a relatively quiet ferry with plenty of seats and space to lie down. After a good old full monty fried breakfast, Steve and Ian opted to catch up on sleep and I settled into a recliner with my kindle, sleep being ever elusive. The trip across was uneventful and after disembarking and arriving at the An Cridhe community centre we quickly had our tents pitched, blagging the best spot in the field (nearest the loos!).

The first glitch in our plan was when Eileen and I headed to hire bikes for the day, “Oh all the good bikes have gone” said the lady in the post office, some of the old bikes are left and they are only £5 per day. Eileen managed to find a bike with working brakes and barely working cranky gears; I had to make do with a bike two sizes too small, entirely devoid of brakes but following some deft mechanical adjustments with a large stone at least I had 4 working gears.

We headed across to the hotel to book a table for dinner to be met with the bad news that they were fully booked and sadly so was the café! Having exhausted all the dining outlets on Coll we all headed to the island stores to cobble together a potential evening meal. Crisps, bananas, biscuits and cold beans looking like the order of the day.
The rough plan for our cycle was to follow the route of the half marathon (to allow Alison to see what she’d let herself in for) and check out some of the Atlantic facing beaches. I managed to provide some amusement by careering downhill, round a blind bend, brakeless into the path of an oncoming islander, apparently the look of terror on her face was something to behold as she death gripped her steering wheel!

We stopped at a couple of breathtakingly beautiful beaches, indulged in a spot of paddling and managed to find the headstone of Peter and Eileen's grandfather in Killunaig graveyard, and spent some time scraping the lichen off the headstone. There were 4 war graves in one corner of the cemetery, unknown merchant seamen from World War 2, “known unto God”, I couldn’t make up my mind if this was a perfect place to be at rest or a bleak and lonely one?
The funniest point of the day had to be the sight of Ian, who having lain down on the beach for a spot of cloud gazing, was suffering a severe case of sand ingress in the butt cheek area, trying to divest himself of said sand.

My awful bike was taking its toll on my leg muscles, I seemed to be inches from kneeing my chin with every upstroke of the pedals and with a half marathon to run I was glad when we headed back towards Arinagour and the Coll Hotel. We’d decided to reward ourselves with an immediate pint. With Alison and Eileen sitting enjoying the sun on the unfeasibly large picnic bench I headed into the small but deserted pub just after 4:30pm, it’s one and only table being empty. “If your restaurant is full, do you serve meals in here?”…..”yes”. I charged back outside to tell the girls “we’re blagging that table until they start serving food and we’re not moving”, far preferable to crisps and cold beans.
So that’s where the 7 of us spent the rest of our day and evening, we enjoyed a lovely meal, Peter demonstrated his ability to fall asleep at the table, some of us took photos of our bums (ask Ian for the proof)  and we drank too many pints and washed them down
Hydration - Coll style
with a couple of bottles of red wine, well we never really claim to be proper athletes.
We headed back to our tents in silent darkness and enjoyed a quiet cup of tea before heading to bed, the stillness and peace of the night belying the dreadful weather forecast.

Day 2 – Race Day

After a much disturbed night’s sleep with increasingly blustery wind and rain and several beer induced toilet trips, I enjoyed the luxury of a warm shower in An Cridhe and settled with a coffee and instant porridge pot and my kindle to wait the arrival of the bulk of the runners and fellow harriers Neil, Lesley and Andy on the 10:30 ferry. They arrived with the news that the Captain had announced he reckoned there was little chance of the ferry being able to dock for the return trip on Sunday. A significant number of people decided they couldn’t run the risk of being stuck on Coll and opted to head back to Oban, Lesley, Neil and Peter included.
We killed time at An Cridhe until race time, the weather precluding any further exploring, with only 90 runners heading down to the Calmac pier for the race start, down from 134 last year and 156 in 2012. I’d opted for a short sleeved compression top and club vest as the weather had improved (for Coll) to a moderate 25 mph wind and as a bonus it looked like we might dodge the rain. With Steve C being injured and Ian not race fit Andy and I were the sole Harriers toeing the start line.

As we stood on the pier with no-one wanting to be at the front I suggested to Andy that we might as well go to the front and charge down the first 100 metres, at least we’d be at the front for the cameras.
Race start on the Calmac pier

The Race

Ha! Who was I kidding, by the time we were off the pier we’d been passed and by the time we tippy toed over the cattle grid (they’d neglected to open the gate) Andy was pushing ahead and I reckoned I was about 12th. The first two miles are uphill into the perennial headwind, so I was cautious not to go off too enthusiastically, it levels out at the two mile point and the wind switched to a viscous crosswind, I was holding my position and hadn’t been passed again and I could see Andy up ahead continuing to stretch away from me. Miles 3 through 5 were uneventful, my right ear went numb from the wind and I passed two people as the airport hove into sight I was closing down one of the local runners (you could tell he was local by the vociferous support he was getting from the course side), I decided to pass him on the downhill, which I duly did, there is a long straight slope past Coll airport and then a sharp right turn, which usually signals some relief from the wind.

A further mile on tarmac and then the road just peters out and becomes a hard packed sandy track behind the sand dunes, with relief from the wind I suddenly realised I was getting very hot and looking forward to the special water station where the road resumes.
The islanders really get into the spirit of things on race day and the Calmac ferry themed water station was handing out nips of Whisky in addition to much needed water. I declined the whisky but grabbed a cup of water. As I am incapable of drinking from a cup whilst running I opened wide and threw the contents in the general direction of my mouth, sadly most of the contents went over my left shoulder with the balance hitting my ear, Oh well.

Back on tarmac again I was glad we’d cycled the route the day before, It’s not hugely hilly (for a trail runner) with only 800 feet of ascent and descent, and the highest point en route is only 140 ft. but this section to the right turn at Cliad is deceptively tough and undulating. I was deliberately not looking behind at all but was focusing on two guys in front of my, one young chap in a grey t-shirt and a guy ahead of him in a blue Edinburgh marathon one, I was closing them down but only marginally, I’d no idea what my position was but really didn't want to slip back.

The last 3 ish miles from Cliad is pretty straight and level with a small hill just as you come into Arinagour, again familiarity from the recce was a great help. I’m not a fast runner and when it starts to hurt I tend to ease off, but this time I pushed myself on this section. I passed another guy, not Mr Grey or Mr Blue and was really starting to feel I might be able to pass them both when about 1 mile out a chap in a yellow vest went past me like I was stationary, never mind at least he passed Mr Grey and Blue too. The hill into Arinagour is only a 56 foot climb, but at this stage in a tough half it feels like Everest, nonetheless I managed to pass Messrs Blue, Grey and A N Other here. Sadly on the downhill sprint into the finish at the communitycentre, Mr Grey (who in my defence was 20 years younger than me) blew me apart; I went for my customary sprint finish but my efforts on the last 3 miles had taken their toll and it wasn't my usual lung bursting effort.

Over the line in 1:36:09 11th overall, not an outright PB but my best on Coll by just under a minute, Andy had a fantastic run, finishing nearly 5 minutes ahead of me in 6th overall in 1:31:15 and 1st MV40, I found out later I was also 3rd in the MV50 category, the first time I’ve ever been made a category position…check me out!

As I gather my breath local resident, former Scotland rugby captain and Coll celebrity Rob Wainwright commented to me, “Your sprint finish wasn’t as good this year”, I guess our “Where’s Wally?” Red and white striped club tops are pretty distinctive and memorable then?

For an island with just over 200 inhabitants you could not get a better atmosphere, everyone seems to participate either at water stations, cheering out on the course and a real party atmosphere at the finish.
I headed for a shower in the bunkhouse (£1 for 4 glorious minutes); a quick change then beer time. Whilst the smaller numbers may have been a disappointment for the organisers it did mean that An Cridhe was much less crowded than last year, when frankly it was just rammed full and just too busy. We were able to find a table and swap race tales as the weather worsened. With the beer, banter and food in full flow we spent a very convivial evening until the prize giving, it was a genuine pleasure to see Andy pick up his MV40 prize; sadly we’re still waiting for the champagne.

I wasn’t feeling too great, probably a combination of lack of sleep, race effort and a dodgy stomach, so I took it easy on the beer and headed back to my tent for a lie down before the Ceilidh, I could probably have just gone to sleep but Eileen persuaded me to put on my social hat and join in. Again the reduced numbers meant the Ceilidh was much more enjoyable with some actual room to dance this year, Trail West are a great band and the floor was full from start to finish.
I ducked out before the end and headed to get some sleep which was wishful thinking as overnight the winds were gusting up to 55mph and I spent more time fretting about whether my tent would stay up!

Day 3

Breakfast this year was provided by the Project Trust charity who are both based on and the biggest employer on Coll, with a brief drop in the wind most people took the opportunity to pack up tents having heard the news that the ferry had left Oban, just as we were making moves to head down to the pier, we were told that the ferry had turned back due to the high winds, there would be no escape today.
With wartime stoicism we bagged a decent spot in the hall and settled down, wind and rain again precluding any other outdoor activity. The Project Trust staff assured everyone they’d be fed and would have somewhere to stay overnight. I’d assumed that we’d be kipping on the hall floor, but this idea was quickly scotched “not allowed”.

It’s pretty fair to say that an extra 120 or so souls, stretched the resources of Coll to its limits, with Alex and Eileen heading to the pub, the Dumfries crew settled to kip, read and banter until we’d been fed (recycled Chilli from day 1, £5 a pop, but significantly better than crisps and cold beans). 7pm was the designated time for us refugees to be farmed out around the island, we’d managed to borrow a pickup truck from a local builder, and so 2 trips saw our group of 8 farmed out to Fiona’s house, 6 miles out of Arinagour.

We were expecting a spot on the carpet so were amazed and delighted to find we’d been billeted in a spectacular home, with no less than 9 spare beds. Although a 2nd ad hoc Ceilidh had been arranged since the band was stranded too, we opted for a can of beer a wee half and some chat. Fiona had to get here kids off to school in the morning so with alarms set for 7am we opted for an early night with fingers crossed that the ferry would be able to dock in the morning.

Day 4

While the winds had dropped they were still pretty gusty and with our borrowed pickups fuel gauge showing fumes only, we decided to pile all 8 bodies plus luggage in for the trip
Public transport Coll style
back. Alan, Steve and I drew the short straw and endured a trip in the back with 8 sets of bags piled on top. With Andy doing his best Lewis Hamilton impression driving it’s nothing short of a miracle we made it back to Arinagour with only minor bruises and nothing broken, apparently it was very comfortable in the front seats, only disturbed by the screams from the back.

Having exhausted the available food supplies we managed to get the last table at the Coll Hotel for breakfast before strolling down to the pier, joy oh joy the ferry made it. The ferry route is Oban – Coll – Tiree – Coll – Oban, but we wanted to get on at its first visit, just in case it didn’t make it back. All in all it meant spending 5 ½ hours on the ferry rather than 3, it’s fair to say that 3 days of banter and sleepless nights had taken its toll and we mostly snoozed or read for the entire trip, which was surprisingly calm given the weather.
So that’s it, Coll half marathon for the 4th time, what started out 3 years ago as a quick one night nip over for a race, became a 4 night adventure.

Will we be back? I honestly don’t know, I’d still recommend the race to anyone, but we may have finally exhausted its potential as a Harriers away day. We may never see the Ainslie v Duggan or the Choppy v Lesley Coll Half marathon smack downs, but then as Sean Connery said “Never say never again”


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