WHERE: the Isle of Tiree
WHEN: 6th September 2015
I ran past the last marshal crying big, chin-wobbling tears. He gave me a concerned look, I gave him a big, snotty grin. Believe it or not, this is what pure happiness looks like. I was aware I looked ridiculous but with only a mile to go to the finish of my first ultra, I just couldn't contain my emotions.
After weeks of hovering over the entry button, I finally clicked it and booked my place on the Tiree Ultramarathon back in October. Since then, I'd danced between excitement and fear but never more so than when our ferry arrived at the Inner Hebridean island. It suddenly felt very, very real. Before then, having only run a maximum of 26 miles in one go during training, the idea of running 35 miles around a Scottish island felt very abstract.
But I'd come too far to chicken out now. Besides the months of training, the cycle, coach journey, flight, drive and ferry to get to Tiree were a pretty big commitment. At the chilly beach start, it was hard to know whether my shivers were down to the cold or nerves. Either way, I was glad to hear the bagpipes that signalled the start of this island adventure.
I immediately relaxed. I was finally doing it – much easier than waiting around to get started. Within just the first few miles, we'd had a taster of everything this island would throw at us. The terrain, despite only really having one (but very steep) hill, was varied and challenging – hard-packed sand, soft dunes, rugged road, grassy fields, muddy bogs and rocky costal paths – plenty to keep a runner entertained.
Also preventing any hint of boredom were the people. The islanders welcomed us with open arms from the moment we arrived. Now they were spoiling us with jelly babies, pieces of orange, mini high-fives, beeps from their cars and shouts of encouragement. Farmers paused work to clap every runner, locals warned us of incoming weather and a banjo player serenaded us from the middle of a cow field. I've never felt so much love from a group of strangers. And that's before even mentioning the other runners. So many of them, like me, first-time ultra-attempters and so supportive of each other.
It surprised me that I needed their encouragement most during the stretches of road. Whilst a lot of the trail sections were made up of hare-holed bogs or fluffy sand which did their best to slow us right down, the road sections took you away from the playful surfaces and the beautiful island edges. The roads were completely runnable and it made me realise just how tired my legs were getting.
The final stretch of beach was accessed by a steep drop from the grassy bank. For the first time in over seven hours, I crouched down and suddenly realised just how hard my legs had been working. I'd run almost 34 miles, further than ever before and loved every part. My only goal (besides finishing) was to enjoy myself and I was so proud that it had been achieved. It meant I'd trained well, it meant I was getting stronger as a runner, it meant I had a determined head.
Just as I was replaying every mile of the race in my head, checking I'd really almost finished, I crossed signs written in the sand.
"Well done, Brian!"
"I don't know who Brian is but his friends are amazing" I thought as the tears began rolling down my face.
I hesitated just before I saw that last marshal. I only had to run up the sand bank, along the road and I'd be done. But I wasn't sure if I actually wanted to finish. Tiree had felt like such an adventure from the moment I started training and I'd had so much fun. And now running down the finishers' aisle that was decorated in colourful bunting would mean the whole journey would be over.