The Callanish stones marathon is somewhat of a rarity of an event. Although I initially signed up to it thinking it was a one-off event that I would never have the chance to run again (panic entry), it would appear that this was not entirely accurate. After speaking to a number of runners on the day, it came to light that the race occurs every 5-6 years, so for anyone interested in taking part, you’ve got a decent amount of time to train!
The main Callanish standing stones are only one of the 40 or so archaeological sites that the marathon route goes by, and we were given a leaflet highlighting some of the main ones to look out for along the run. I think I remembered about 2, and I remember wishing, especially as I struggled quite a bit during the race, that I had tucked the leaflet into my bag so I could pick out sites of interest as a kind of treasure hunt. However, the main stones are definitely the most striking, and we caught our first glimpse of them at the top of a hill just over a mile into the race, only to be greeted again by them at the finish.
Before even starting the run, we had a bit of a marathon journey to conquer. The marathon is on the Isle of Lewis, the largest of the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.
Rhona picked up myself and Naomi, and we set off from Aberdeen at 9am on Friday, driving to Ullapool with a comfort stop in Inverness. We opted for a pub lunch as we had a few hours until we had to catch the ferry, which left about 45 minutes late. What I hadn’t fully considered before this point was the fact that the ferry took nearly 3 hours to cross from mainland Scotland to Stornoway, and it quickly became clear that it would be a late night.
As soon as we disembarked the ferry, we met Jemma, who had very kindly offered up her house as a ‘runner’s retreat’ for the weekend. We were greeted with a friendly face, and a lift to the Tesco to stock up on frozen pizza, cheesecake, and beer for the post-race ceilidh. Once back in her car, we began the 45-ish minute journey to her place in Port of Ness, which is basically the Northernmost tip of the island. I don’t know if we managed to pull off ‘non-grumpy, enthusiastic travellers’ or not. I’m guessing not. We were fucking tired.
After destroying 4 pizzas, we thought it would be sensible to turn in for the night, so we said goodnight and set our alarms for the morning, hoping for forgiving weather.
Approximately 6 seconds later, my alarm was a slap in the face, and I hauled myself out of bed and stumbled into my race kit feeling a bit sickly and a lot tired. I had a bagel and some sports drink, and the four of us got back into Jemma’s car for another wee journey to the start, where we registered and shared our happiness that it wasn’t:
a.) raining, and;
b.) blowing gales that might cause you to involuntarily leave solid ground.
The Callanish stones marathon offers an early start to runners who think they’ll take longer than five and a half hours, and to walkers, and one of our friends, Carol, had chosen the early option for her first marathon. Since the course begins with an out and back section, we were lucky enough to see her go by, 6+ miles into her race, as we were gearing up for our start. She was looking happy and running strong, which was good to see.
Just before 10, we all lined up at the start before a countdown from 5, and the usual surge forward. I pushed ‘start’ on my Garmin, and we all set off.
Jemma took an early lead, pushing on to an eventual PB, while Naomi, Rhona, and myself plodded along at a steady pace. It was a small field of runners, and we found ourselves near the back of the pack, but there was no strict cut-off, so none of us were particularly concerned. At about mile 1, my stomach started voicing discomfort. Despite using the toilet before the start, it also felt like the contents of a swimming pool had been injected into my bladder and I was very eager to pass the school at the 6 mile point to use the actual toilets, as there wasn’t a bush to be seen along the side of the road.
Mile 6 arrived, and I nipped to the toilet for some relief. Upon exiting, I saw Naomi’s bright Fetch top bobbing off in the distance, so pushed harder than I probably should have to catch her up. We settled into a reasonable pace, and were eventually passed by Rhona, who had also opted for a pit-stop. As we watched her fade off into the distance ahead, we took in our suroundings and tried (badly) to pronounce some of the Gaelic place names.
At about mile 12, we started on another out and back section. It was nice to cheer on the faster runners and see people we knew (Gavin running in full Highland dress for a world record was a particular highlight). The turnaround was at Blackhouse Village, an old crofting town, which was adorable, and we took a few walk breaks thanks to the more-undulating-than-we-were-led-to-believe terrain.
Just before mile 16 we began the bleakest part of the race. We began 5 miles of gradual incline along Pentland Road. Along isolated moorland. Into an unforgiving headwind. It basically looked like the road went on until eternity with no shelter from the wind, and we could see neon dots moving far, far away. I think Naomi (and everyone who ran) would probably agree that this was the low point of the race. I was finding it tough going, and Naomi was subjected to a fair amount of grumpy swearing. Both of us may have shouted obscenities at the wind. We walked a fair amount.
And then, what seemed like several hours later, we noticed runners off to the right. A turn-off! We also spotted what looked suspiciously like Carol in the far distance. We knew that we would probably see her in the later stages of the race, and seeing her, in addition to our new-found tail wind and slight downhill gradient, spurred us on a little bit.
We caught Carol around mile 22 and walked with her for about half a mile, giving her encouragement and support. She nearly cried, but we convinced her to save her tears for the finish. With less than 5k to go, we told her we’d see her soon, and went on ahead.
Maybe it was because I was starting to turn blue, maybe it was because my stomach was desperate to be still, maybe it was because I was ready for the race to be over, but with less than two miles to go I hinted to Naomi that I was quite keen to pick up speed. She told me to go on ahead, and I basically motored all the way to the finish.
A lot of mile 25 was uphill. I clearly wanted to be done.
The feeling of relief as I saw the finish in amongst the standing stones was palpable. I crossed the line (nearly twisting both ankles on the super-uneven ground in the final 50 meters), grabbed my goodie bag, and joined Jemma and Rhona on the grass to wait for Naomi who came in a few minutes later, and Carol, who finished her first marathon in 7:09:xx, to an enthusiastic applause from everyone there.
The wind was picking up at this point, and we were all starting to get cold, so we headed back to the school, cheering in the rest of the runners. We drove back to Jemma’s, being help up for about 10 minutes by a farmer ushering his highland cows along the road, for a shower, some beer, and the cheesecake we were too tired to eat the night before (spectacular!). We caught the 7:30 bus back to Stornoway for the ceilidh at the Town hall.
The ceilidh was fantastic fun. Beer, Prosecco, and champagne clearly have rejuvenative properties, because we all threw ourselves into ceilidh dancing, and Jemma and I even had a couple of wheelbarrow races with a couple of kids that were there. It was great to mingle with fellow runners, many of whom will be at the same races as us throughout the year, but by the time our taxi picked us up at 11:30, we were all pretty tired (and merry).
Back at Jemma’s we continued to drink our pre-bought booze, and stayed up until near enough 3am. Functioning on approximately 6 hours sleep over the past couple of days, I can only apologize for nonsense that must have been generously spewing from my mouth. Eventually we made our way to our beds.
Sunday morning at about 7:30, I was awoken by the ferocious wind and rain hammering the island outside. I opened the bedroom window to see what it was like ‘in real life’ and was blasted in the face before quickly shutting the window again. With morning-after mouth and little sleep, I felt rough as hell. I decided to take a shower and sand last night’s make-up off my face.
A couple of hours later, everyone else was stirring, and once we’d realized we hadn’t had dinner the night before, and there wasn’t much food in the house, we opted to grab lunch in Stornoway before the ferry at 2:30pm.
As Sunday is the Sabbath, and therefore a day of rest, it seems like there are only two restaurants that were open. And both of them, fully booked. At the second we made a desperate plea for food, and managed to secure a table, having to then wait 40 minutes for our food. Once we paid, we headed for the ferry, said our goodbyes, and found some seats for the beginning of our long journey home.
An announcement came over the tannoy, and we could make out something along the lines of “swells” and “will cause some discomfort”. For Rhona, who suffers motion-sickness, and myself (hungover), this was not welcome news, but the calm water as we left Stornoway convinced us that it wouldn’t be too bad.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” – Nature
About an hour into the ferry journey, this was looming on the horizon, complete with thunder and lightning.
We became slightly concerned when the crew started tying down the lifeboats, and we headed inside when the rain started, sitting on the floor and looking out the window during a rocky half hour or so. Thankfully, it became calmer before we got to Ullapool, but we were all still happy to be off the ferry, and into Rhona’s car for the final leg of the journey.
I stepped into my apartment just after 10pm, bombarded Ian with details of my weekend, and then passed out in bed. It has been a long time since I’ve slept quite so well.
Overall, it was a lovely, but challenging course, and the fact that it isn’t a regular event made it seem extra special. We also lucked out with our very own island host, and had a blast at the ceilidh. However, 500 miles is a long round trip, and I think it’ll be a while before I spontaneously sign up for a race so remote!