The Island of Islay is best known for its distilleries, which draw in whisky connoisseurs from all over the world. Since the mid-1980s it has also had the Islay half marathon, which judging from the results list, has its own hardcore of international fans. When it was suggested to me and my partner Becca, earlier in the year, that we might like to do this race my first thought was yes, but that’s a big journey from Durham for the weekend. If you face West from Glasgow you’re looking towards Islay but the Firth of Clyde, the Isle of Bute, the Kintyre peninsula and a bit of the Atlantic ocean are all between you and it. It was then pointed out that instead of driving 100 miles around, you can do it in a succession of ferry hops, with short distances in between that you could easily cover on a bike. Having done a fair amount of cycling in Scotland we knew that there is a “five ferries” ride that the keen complete from the mainland in a day, taking in Arran, Kintyre, Cowal and Bute. The first couple of hops towards Islay cover the start of it. This had the makings of a good long weekend adventure. So we booked a day off work, and the evening of Thursday 26th saw us in Ardrossan with bikes ready for the first ferry onto Arran the next day.
The Friday before the race was spent riding around the East side of Arran, then a short ferry crossing to the Kintyre peninsula and across to the other side before the longer ferry to Islay. Despite a surprise hill climb at Boguille in Arran (it’s a surprise if you don’t bother to wonder about the hills before you set off), this was all pretty relaxed, and we didn’t need to worry about tiring ourselves out for the race. Once on Islay itself, we were immediately in distillery country, passing a couple of famous names on the way to our overnight stay near the start in Bowmore. We didn’t stop at the distilleries, but we knew the next day’s race was sponsored by Ardbeg, so it seemed likely that a dram might be on the cards at some point.
On race day we gathered some tips on the course from our B&B host then rode the couple of miles to the start. The course is a loop that heads steeply up out of Bowmore, turns South towards Port Ellen ascending along higher ground, before dropping steeply and returning along part of the “Low Road”, a dead straight of which any ancient Roman engineer would be proud.
Although Islay has some mountainous terrain it’s on the East side of the island, so the ascent only totals about 130 m. This race has the potential to be fast, something that I had in mind as the date approached. Although we’d done a few races of half marathon distance over the last few years, none of them had had the speed potential of this one. I’d done the Durham 10k the week before, and I couldn’t say I was obviously on top form, however, it didn’t seem inconceivable that I could beat my 2007 half marathon best of just over 1hr 37. My rough plan was to aim for that pace and adjust depending on how I was feeling.
The start of the race had the friendly low-key feel that makes you appreciate seeking out these smaller events. We hadn’t left too much time for warming up, so a quick jog up and down the street and it was time to start. With a field of 124 runners, it was a novelty to be on a start line with some elbow room. This also meant that those who wanted to set off quickly could easily do so, and I quickly found myself getting pulled along a bit faster than was ideal, snaking through a few side streets, past Bowmore’s distinctive round church and out into the open countryside.
Checking my watch after the road levelled out I saw I’d done the first and steepest mile faster than my target pace but it didn’t feel too bad, and so attempted to stick with the people around me. The pace had settled down a bit, and I had the chance to look around and appreciate the view across to the mountains in the East. Although I hadn’t especially noticed the rain at the start it was clear that it was getting wet and not showing any sign of letting up. As the route descended off the first high point and turned to head south my trainers were squelching and I had the novel experience of trying to avoid the smoother bits of road, which were quite slippy in the puddles. The best that could be said for it was that after the recent heat wave it was cool! Ironically, and presumably, in response to the heat wave, I think this race had the most water stations I have ever seen. Mindful of the fact that you can’t actually drink through your skin I remembered to make use of a few of them.
The road climbed gradually until about mile 6 where we turned off towards the coast and the low road. This was a solid mile of steep downhill and I attempted to make the best of it. Turning back towards Bowmore on the level, I was disconcerted to find that my legs hadn’t taken too kindly to the downhill stomp. I was at risk of feeling sorry for myself and slowing down when I was overtaken. The race was reasonably well spread out at this stage, so this was a bit of a wake-up call and spurred me on. I also knew that the next few miles were pretty well flat and if I was going to get close to my wished-for time, this was where I’d do it. So I pushed on and stuck with the other runner who was keeping a very tidy pace.
Another runner I chatted to at the start of the race had described the low road straight as “soul destroying”. I could have seen his point if I’d been staring at a long strip of never-ending tarmac, but maybe because the misty rain was largely obscuring the view, or maybe because I was just trying to keep the pace it didn’t seem that way to me. After a while, I and my unofficial pacer acted as the wake-up call for the next runner in front, who made us a group of three for a while. This lasted until about two miles from the end of the race when the flat straight road became a slightly hilly road.
Looking at the profile after the event the final hills look insignificant but after the hard push along the flat, my legs were complaining severely. My temporary companions didn’t seem to be having the same trouble and so I had to watch them disappear off ahead. There was no way I could avoid slowing down, however, soon enough the round church was back in view and there was one final plummet down Bowmore’s main street to the finish in just under 1 hour 39.
Having collected my medal and t-shirt I saw Becca finish in a personal best time of just over 2 hours (15 seconds!). Then we retreated to the village hall to dry off and for sandwiches and the anticipated dram or, for those who really needed to rehydrate, a can of Tennents.
After an hour of recuperation, it was time to point our bikes towards the ferry. Thankfully it turns out that the muscles you need for cycling are complementary to the ones needed for running. This meant that we could make it back to Kintyre for the night, and still enjoy our ride round Cowal and Bute the next day. It’s always going to take a bit of extra effort to travel to Islay for this race, but even if you don’t cycle to get there it’s surely a good excuse to get out and explore some of the remoter parts of Southern Scotland and get a friendly, fast and scenic race into the bargain.