A large field considering the remoteness of the location, approximately 160 runners, took to the start line directly outside our cottages. Among them was a face I recognised from my last half marathon, in Copenhagen in 2015, John Sharp of Inverclyde. Knowing his capabilities, he would definitely be a threat if I wasn't on my game. The rest of the field, apart from the Calderglen contingent, were largely unknown quantities but you can never take anything for granted.
With the sound of a hooter blown by long time race organiser, Kate (another whose surname I never learnt), we set off on our 13.1 mile journey at 10.45am sharp. I decided not to be a slave to my watch and switched it off while we ascended the first hill onto the back road out of Bowmore towards Port Ellen. I knew when we'd started so could work out a rough time at the end. I would run based on how I felt.
With only 2 week's training behind me after the same period on an all inclusive family holiday in Majorca, I tackled the climb uphill cautiously. John took the bull by the horns, opening a concerningly large gap. I tried to stay disciplined with a game plan to get to 3 miles relatively comfortably then treat the run as a 10 mile race. At the same time though, I couldn't let John get too far ahead. He was moving well, especially on the descents. As I passed the 3 mile marker I took an energy gel I had decided to carry as a precaution and put on a spurt to catch John. I stayed behind him for a few strides while contemplating whether to stick or twist, ie take a chance and overtake or sit in for a while. I opted for option one, mounting a surge which left me breathing quite heavily. What would happen from here?
I could sense myself pulling away from John gradually. Approximately 9.5 miles is a long way to potentially run virtually on your own but I at least had the lead car to follow. I started to feel demoralised at 4 miles with the fact there was a fair distance still to go. It had been 2 years since I last raced a half marathon and a year before that for my previous one (Glasgow in 2014 when I kept the Kenyan women company). Injured Harrier Eddie Reid was assisting at the water stations. He told me at 5-6 miles that I had a 100m gap. Hmm, not big enough. I needed to keep working. At around 7 miles you turn right off the back road towards the airport (not yet offering package deals to the sunshine but you never know) then right again onto the main road connecting Bowmore and Port Ellen for a 5.5 miles stretch to the finish. Eddie popped up again at 8 miles, telling me that I had increased the gap. Good to hear. However, you haven't won a race until you've crossed the finish line. I pushed on. At 10 miles I turned the watch on and had a quick glance. Roughly 56 minutes. I was within my expected finishing range. I tried to take the last 3 miles at a high tempo only to turn into a headwind with 2 to go. It had been a crosswind up to that point. Not much you can do other than grind it out. That I did.
Above: grinding it out. Photo courtesy of the McLellan family.
Seeing the bilingual (English and Gaelic) sign indicating my return to Bowmore relaxed me for the first time. I pushed with everything I had left down the hill. My watch indicated I had taken around 1 hour 14 minutes. The time turned out to be 1:13:40.
John wasn't a million miles behind, coming through in 1:15:46. Without my risky turn of pace at 3 miles things could have panned out a lot differently. 3rd place was taken by a visiting Australian, Michael Nitschke, with 1:16:10, one of a sizeable foreign contingent in the race. Hopefully he enjoyed the trip to the Highlands he told me he was planning.
The post race prize giving was a lavish affair. I have never been at such an event where unlimited supplies of free whisky and lager were offered to anyone present. I was the first to receive my prizes, a trophy, shield and a gallon of whisky. I repeat, a GALLON of whisky! It was quite some time later before the last prize was awarded. Calderglen had a successful day, taking two team prizes, 2nd male and 1st female. They should have taken the win in the male category but poor sportsmanship from a bunch of individuals who had never met each other and clubbed together to call themselves a "team" cost them pole position. Definitely against the ideals of the race and would not be allowed in normal circumstances (Islay doesn't have a Scottish Athletics permit so the organisers relax one or two rules. That said, recruiting random strangers on the day and claiming to be a team leaves a sour taste). As for the Harriers individual awards, Joanne McEvoy was 3rd woman overall and 1st female vet as well as one of the winning team and Kenny Leinster was 3rd "supervet" and in the 2nd placed team. One of my clubmates, Jennifer Reid, took the 2nd lady prize, watched by her partner Kenny Campbell. Kenny is another clubmate and the 2016 winner at Islay but unfortunately sidelined for now with knee trouble. Being sponsored by a distillery, the prizes were differing measures of whisky ranging from my lifetime supply to various miniatures. If you left the prize giving with nothing you were in a minority.
We soon moved on to the quirky and rather outrageous. First local, youngest local, oldest finisher, last finisher, first couple, first overseas runner (as far as I was concerned anyone not hailing from Islay should have been considered as overseas), runner whose birthday is closest to the race date (honestly!). One absoloute cracker was any runner whose number matched their finishing position. A Harrier achieved this remarkable feat, number 107, Anne McLellan, taking 107th position. Anne's husband Allan finished in a time of 1:40:02. Allan remains the course record holder having set a time of 69 minutes in 1989. Russell declared that the following year, in an effort to win something, he would be a 93 year old Spaniard, finishing last, whose birthday is on the race day and who lives in Bowmore. Full marks for innovation if nothing else.
It was then back to the cottages for a photoshoot as these images illustrate.