I spent the week before the race full of the cold. Not the normal cold but life threatening man flu.
My fellow men will sympathise at just how potent this horrific affliction can be. Its only known cure is watching TV, drinking beer and replying “no. I’m ill” to any enquiries about whether any housework is going to be done.
I decided I wasn’t going to do the race as it always rains when I take part. Last years event was so biblically wet I spotted Noah leading animals two by two to his boat. I didn’t fancy running whilst being at deaths door.
But for the first time in my five attempts at the race there was no rain. It was actually a very pleasant sunny morning.
I decided to run. I was still ill and I definitely wasn’t fit enough for household chores. In fact, I think it might be a few weeks before I can even think about hoovering or helping out around the house. A run though is fine to do.
The course is two laps of Bellahouston park. Its not a very scenic park but its pleasant enough. Its mostly flat but there is one hill that is tackled twice.
I decided I was going to run as fast I could. As soon as the race started I legged it away from Andrew. Later Andrew complained I went off too fast. No – he went off too slow!
The race was pretty dull. I spotted Andrews wife a couple of times so I gave her a wave. Which turned out to be more times than Andrew spotted her. He managed to run past her without seeing her.
I kept a good pace up for the whole race and I was happy with a sub 45 time. I didn’t expect to be as fast as that. Maybe man flu isn’t as bad as I thought….
The Bealach na Ba, in the North West of Scotland, boasts the greatest ascent of any road in the UK. It begins at sea level and rises to a height of 626m. It takes six miles to get from sea-level to the top.
The name means ‘pass of the cattle.’ It was originally a gravel track used by crofters to move cattle between two parts of the Applecross peninsula. It’s now mostly used by tourists. The route is part of the famous North Coast 500 which has been named one of the top coastal road trips in the world.
It is 2012 and I am at the start line of my first ever bike sportive. I look at the other riders.
They are all using road bikes. I am on a mountain bike. I am the only one on a mountain bike. Why are they not on Mountain bikes? We are going to ride up a mountain. Surely a mountain bike is the most effective way to do that?
They are all wearing skin tight lycra. I have wearing a thick winter jacket and a pair of baggy shorts.
They are all clipped into their bike using proper bike shoes. I am wearing trainers.
They all have a bottle on their bike. I do not have a bottle on my bike. I have a backpack containing a sandwich, a two-litre bottle of water, and a map in case I get lost.
It is fair to say I do not know what I am doing.
Andrew is here but he is not on the start line. He has the flu. He has offered to drive a van around the course in case I need him. I spot my friend Malcolm who is also doing the race. I say to him “Good luck.” He says “You’ll need it more than me” and he then rides off. All the other bikes whizz past me.
I now realise why they are on road bikes. Honestly, up until this point, I thought there was no difference between a road bike and a mountain bike. I had assumed road bikes did not go up hills.
I honestly do not know what I am doing.
After two hours of cycling I have cycled further than I ever have. I realise it is two hours back to where I started so I will need to the do the same again to get home.
I stop and eat a sandwich. I wonder how the other cyclists are getting on. They must be starving. They don’t have any sandwiches.
I try phoning Andrew but I don’t get a signal. The race is too remote for mobiles to work correctly.
After another hour I reach the climb. The sign at the bottom says
Road to Applecross (Bealach Na BA) This rod rises to a height of 2053 ft with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends. NOT ADVISED FOR LEARNER DRIVERS, VERY LARGE VEHICLES OR CARAVANS AFTER FIRST MILE
It does not mention bikes. That means I’ll have to do it.
I start the climb. Within 100m I have started to heat up. I start to sweat. I decide to take off my jacket. I put it in my backpack. I restart the climb. It doesn’t feel too tough yet.
The road gets steeper. I try to switch to a lower gear. I am already in my lowest gear. No wonder the start was easy.
The road climbs higher. I struggle to turn my pedals. I haven’t even done one mile of the climb. I’m still at the part safe for learner drivers, very large vehicles and caravans.
Maybe a bit of food will help. I stop and eat the rest of my sandwich.
I restart the climb. I feel heavy. The sandwich has not helped. I struggle onwards. I stand up on the pedals to make them turn. I stop and admire the view. I consider quitting. I don’t have to think twice. I decided to quit.
I wish I could say I have the stomach to battle it out when things get hard but I don’t. I try phoning Andrew again. He can come and rescue me. There is still no reception. Feck. I’ll have to keep going. Mainly because I assume I’ll get a phone reception at the top of the hill.
I push my bike all the way to the top of the hill. A film crew is waiting for me. Probably not me specifically but anyone doing the race. They are filming for BBC Two Scotland’s The Adventure Show. The reporter approaches me:
– I can’t believe you’re using a mountain bike!
– It’s my only bike
I take out my water bottle to have a swig.
– You carried that all the way up the mountain?
– Yes. I thought I’d get thirsty.
– You do know the organisers supply water and food at regular stops?
I thought I had to supply everything myself! DOH!! I try my mobile. It has a signal. I try Andrew but there is no answer. I send him a text saying. “I quit! Come and get me at the bottom of the hill in Applecross”
The descent of the other side is great fun. Six miles of fast downhill with treacherous corners. At one corner an ambulance is tending to a rider. I think to myself how glad I am that it is not me.
At the bottom of the hill I reach Andrew. There’s 40 miles to go but I’m not doing any more.
I’ve achieved my race by cycling further and higher than ever before.
We head to the finish to wait for Malcolm…and we wait…and we wait…and we….
As it gets dark there’s no sign of Malcolm. I approach the race organisers and ask if they have seen him. They go to check their list of riders. When they come back they have bad news – Malcolm was the man I passed on the mountain who was getting tended to by the ambulance.
The news got worse. He was taken to hospital. Great. He must be in Inverness as that was the closest one to us. We need to go that way to get home. We’ll pick him up on the way but the news got even worse. The hospital was not Inverness, which is close by and on our way home. He was sent to Broadfoot on the Isle of Skye which is miles away and nowhere near our route home.
We head to Skye to collect him. He is sitting on a chair with his arm in a sling. His brakes failed whilst taking a corner on the descent. The bad news was that he had broken his collarbone and will be off work for six weeks. The good news was that it coincided with the Edinburgh fringe. He spends the next six weeks partying.
I learnt to swim in the 1980s. My dad taught me using the “do not drown” approach.
He got me to stand two metres from
a pool wall. I then tried to swim to the wall. If I did not drown, he would
increase my swim to three metres from the wall, and then four metres etc.
My fear of drowning meant I quickly
learnt to swim. Unfortunately, my Dad only knew the breaststroke so that was
all I learnt. He did not see the point in freestyle swimming. His view was “Why
do you want to stick your head under the water? There is nothing to see there
except peoples feet.”
My school attempted to teach me
other strokes but I was not very good at them. I hated the weekly swimming
lesson at our local leisure centre. I found the smell of chlorine in the pool
I have subsequently discovered chlorine
has no smell. The smell in the pool was from chloramines, which build up in
pool water when the water is not properly clean. A smelly pool is an unclean
If I had known that, I would have
hated swimming even more than I did.
A common sight, in a leisure centre, in the 1980/90s was a footbath in the changing rooms. A sign above it would read, “Always dip your feet into the foot-bath before entering the swimming pool.” Supposedly the foot-bath contained chemicals that prevented foot infections like verruca’s.
Modern leisure centres do not have
footbaths. Therefore, have we discovered a cure for verruca’s? No – we haven’t.
What we have found is the cause of verruca’s. It was the foot-bath! Leisure
centres did not clean them often enough. The foot bath was basicaly a seething cesspit
of fungal infection.
I got a foot wart. Andrew got a verruca. Everyone in my school class got something.
As well as pool swimming my first
ever open water swim occurred during my school years. My class went away for a
weekend to an outdoor centre by the Atlantic sea.
For some reason, which I cannot remember,
the teacher made us all stand on a pier next to the sea. Strip to out swim
shorts and then jump in the sea. It was November. The water was freezing. I
nearly drowned. As soon as I divided into the cold water, my body seized up and
I struggled to breathe.
Imagine the scandal now if a
teacher forced a class to jump into the Atlantic in November without checking
if the pupils could swim!
Its no wonder that I didn’t swim again after leaving school for university. My abiding memory of learning to swim was verrucas, unclean pools and nearly drowning.
The route is called Antonine because it passes along Antonine’s Wall. The wall was the last line of defense for the Romans against the Scots.
It also gets a mention in the book World War Z, which is about a zombie apocalypse. The wall was the last line of defense for humanity against zombies.
As the event was close to Halloween the organizers encourage runners to wear fancy dress. I think I spotted some zombies on the hillier sections of the course. I think they were zombies, they were groaning and shuffling slowly along in a walking dead manner.
Disappointingly this years race seemed to attract more serious runners than previous years. There was far fewer costumed runners. For example, last year I was chased through a cornfield by a man dressed as Death. This year I was chased by a man wearing a Bellahouston Road Runners outfit.
It didn’t have the same level of excitement and danger.
The start of the race is on a narrow path.
The first mile can be slow as its tricky to overtake people. Annoyingly some slow runners started near the front and then ran beside each other blocking the path! I don’t mind slow runners being at the front but at least have the common sense to leave room for people to get past.
After the first mile the course enters Croy Hill. The overnight rain had made this section muddy. I always try to run through the first puddle rather than avoid it. There’s no avoiding mud during a trail race so its best to get it over and done with it.
The longest hills are towards the end of the course. Last year I walked some parts of the hills. This year I ran most of them. I was pleased to see on Strava that I’d PB’d on all the climbs.
My aim for the race was to finish in under two hours. I managed it with a couple of minutes to spare.
My name is Iain. I have a cousin called Iain. I have another
cousin called Iain. I also have another cousin called Iain. Finally, I have a
cousin called John. Which is the Gaelic version of Iain.
There was not much imagination in my family when naming
It’s common in the Western Isles for children to be named after a grandfather. Which is fine when if you are boy but annoying for a girl.
I once worked with a woman called Murdoina Donaldina Morrison. Her grandfather was Murdo Donald. Adding -ina onto the name supposedly made her name more feminine. I don’t think it works.
Whilst visiting a relatives grave in Lewis. I noticed the grave next to it had “Hugh Machonald and his wife Hughina” written on it. Shug is a common nickname in Scotland for people called Hugh. I wonder if they were Mr and Mrs Shug?
Check out the video to see the amazing view my relative has. Definitely a view to die for.
The last days cyling was a relatively short 28 miles. The
weather was beautiful. The sun was shining and their was very little wind. The
last section is mostly flat and boring so there isn’t much too say about it.
The route only get interesting once it reaches Ness. Ness has one of my favorite signposts. It’s always good for a childish laugh.
It also has an example of sign failure. The route of the Hebridean way is very simple to follow but there is one left turn just before the end of the route.
The left turn is hidden by other signs and is impossible to see on approach to it. I bet many people bike and only realize when the road runs out about one mile down the road.
The official route ends at a lighthouse. On a normal day there is a great view out to see.
But I enjoy going there on a bad day. Waves batter the cliffs as the full force of Atlantic storms reach land. The sign that marks the end of the route used to be in a much more open place. Watch it move back and forwards as the wind batters it.
It has now been moved to somewhere more sheltered.
There is one thing a cyclist does not want to hear when they complete a long distance cycle. My wife finised and asked “Where the car?” I replied “Two mile away!”
Its fair to say she looked at me in the same way a hungry lion looks at an antelope just before mauling it to death.
I was lucky to escape Ness unscathed.
We had lunch in Port of Ness. At a cafe with an amazing view but the slowest service. We had to with 45 minutes from ordering before the food arrived!
Considering how lucky we’d been every other day one late meal was a small price to pay for a great experience seeing the Islands.
Instead of taking the west coast route, I decided we‘d go along the eastern side of the island. The west coast has some great beaches but the landscape of the east looks like the moon. If the moon had brown heather.
The other reason for choosing this route is that Santa lives on the east side. He stays in a bus shelter near one of the small towns. Although I am worried about him. I think he might have lost his head
Thankfully he was still there when I biked past.
Unusually for the western isles the weather was amazing. The sun was out and there was absolutely no wind.
I managed a couple of hill reps of the highest hill in Harris – clisham. The north side was pretty straightforward but the west side was a 300m climb from sea level up a 12% slope!
As the weather was so good my wife decided to cycle for as long as possible. She managed 100K. She stopped near an an alpaca farm at the Callanish Stones.
They claim they sell Fish and Chips but I bet its actually Alpaca and Chips.
Guess what day 3 started with….yup – torrential rain!
At least the days were consistent. Thankfully that was the last we saw of rain until we finished the Hebridean Way.
We started at the Lady of the Isles statue. My wife and her sister headed off following the Hebridean Way but I decided to take a different route. I’d spotted a road heading up a local hill to a radar station. It looked like a fun climb so I parked up and took my bike for a spin.
The view from the top was superb. I could see all across South Uist, Benbecula and onto North Uist.
After the ride I drove through Benbecula. It was very flat and surprisingly ugly. Sorry Benbecula but you are the elephant man of Hebridean islands. The only redeeming feature was the Co-op. They had amazing cinnamon donuts. They were so good I ate two even though it wasn’t yet 10am.
I sped through quickly and caught up with my wife in North Uist. The sun had come out and it was a very pleasant day. I would have offered her a cinnamon donut if I had any. I offered her an oat cake instead.
North Uist was very nice. Quite roads and nice scenery. We could even see St Kilda in the distance. The people of Uist thought folk in St Kilda were a bit dim. They say one St Kilda man came to the island and spotted a lighthouse. He ran towards it, flung open then door, ran up the stairs and looked at the big bright light and said “is that you God?”
I don’t know how true that is but it makes for a good story.
We finished cycling in Berneray and were treated to a glorious sunset –
– Which was nearly as good as the sunrise the next day.
Eriskay is famous for three things – whisky, horses and football. Which sounds like the ingredients for a great night out.
Whisky – In 1941 the SS Politician ran aground off the Isle of Eriskay whilst carrying a significant cargo of Scotch whisky. The incident inspired the film Whiskey Galore. One Christmas I bought my dad a £250 bottle of whisky. I thought he would save it for special occasions so he could savour the taste. Instead, he tanked the bottle in three days. At least he enjoyed it.
Horses – I have only ridden a horse once. It was in India. I sat on the horse. The horse bolted. I tried shouting “woaaaaah” to slow it down. It didn’t stop as it only understood Hindi. Since then I have never trusted horses. Eriskay is home to the Eriskay pony, an endangered breed of horse unique to the island. They roam free but they seemed to enjoy hanging out at the pub.
Football – Fifa recognised Eriskay football pitches as one of “eight remarkable places to play football in the world”. I used to play football in Lewis. It was remarkable any of our pitches could be used for football. One pitch was so slanted I needed climbing equipment to make it out of my own half.
The journey from Barra to Eriskay takes 40 minutes. Luckily some dolphins appeared and swam alongside the ferry
Eriskay is very small. It only took the cyclists 15 minutes
to cycle through. They missed all three of the things Eriskay is famous for because
they followed the official Hebridean way route exactly.
One of my complaints about the route is that it does not point out interesting diversions. For example in South Uist the route passed a side road that lead up a small hill to a magnificent view of the whole island. It only takes a couple of minutes to cycle up but there is no indication on the road that it is a diversion worth taking.
We stopped for lunch at the Borrodale hotel. A recent Tripadvisor review described it as “tired looking…like the rest of South Uist” That must have been written by a man from North Uist.
I thought the place was nice and the food was tasty. In fact, It was so good we went back in the evening.
The riding in South Uist was very easy. The only problem occurred when a funeral cortege approached us on a single-track road. We stopped to let them through but it took 15 minutes for everyone to get past.
We finished the day at a statue called “the lady of the isle.” It was commissioned when the Ministry of Defence was planning to build a missle testing range on the island. The statue is a reminder of the power of church and community. I’m sure its intentional that it looks a little bit like a rocket.