Tuesday 26 April 2011

Mull, Iona and Ulva

Iona Abbey
Nine days of relaxation on three of our favourite islands is hardly an appropriate way to train for a long, hilly race. I've a feeling I might suffer a little in the forthcoming Keswick ½ marathon on May 1st. Nevertheless, there are other things to enjoy in this short span besides running and racing and I intend taking my fill while I'm still in a fit state to do so. The islands in question were those of Mull, Ulva and Iona that form part of the Inner Hebrides off the western seaboard of Scotland.
'Crucifixion' by Roy de Maistre
I've returned to Iona on a regular basis ever since living and working there way back in 1949. My goodness, how it has changed over the years! The people I worked for, Neil MacArthur and his wife, Ena, are long since dead but a daughter, Jeanetta, still works the little farm at Clachanach and was tending to an early lamb when I met her for a chat. She loves Iona, the farm and the way of life, but is seriously considering reducing her stock and winding down on account of the ridiculous amount of paperwork she is legally bound to do.
I joined worshippers from across the globe for a stirring Easter day service and Holy Communion in Iona Abbey.  Many had started their walk on the mainland and trekked all the way across Mull to the sacred isle. Over the years it has become traditional for pilgrims to gather in Reilig Oran, reputed burial place of 48 Scottish kings (and John Smith, once Labour party leader), to sing and celebrate the resurrection before their short march to the Abbey amid a chorus of Allelujahs. The preacher was the Rev Peter MacDonald, leader of the Iona Community, who delivered his sermon to a packed congregation, scores of whom were standing in the aisle. I left this service with my spiritual batteries well and truly re-charged. 
Washing at 'The well of Eternal Youth'
Outside the Abbey a corncrake was rasping to his fellow creatures but his vocabulary was somewhat limited.  We walked up Dun I which, at a mere 321ft, is the highest hill on Iona and quite manageable for most senior citizens. The views from here are truly magnificent and I've toyed with the idea of my final remains being scattered around its summit. But which of my relatives or friends would be willing to make the long trek to perform this ritual?  And besides, if I continue to bathe in The Well of Eternal Youth, just below the summit, I may well outlive that chosen one!
On some mornings we did a little running at an easy, relaxed pace. None of your strenuous speedwork, intervals or hill reps. Our legs were on holiday too.  On Mull we ran along the shore of Loch na Keal to the soothing sounds of the waves, of wild geese and, would you believe, an early cuckoo on April 18th. 
Cheers! - from Ulva
On Ulva we jogged along velvety green trails lined with primroses and violets, where peacock butterflies danced and bumble bees buzzed in the gentle breeze, and all this as seals sang their moany songs on sunlit skerries while herons stalked the seaweed shoreline. In the afternoons we walked the hills in the realm of ravens and deer, watched an eagle drop from his cliff and go sailing off over the headland, saw a peregrine seeing off marauding crows, spied a colony of wild black and white goats inhabiting a small island and wondering where they found water to drink, sent an adder scurrying off into the heather and photographed early orchids.
A sunset to match the wine
In the evenings we relaxed by our tent with a glass of wine, red wine that vied with the flaring sunsets that lit the western skies as evening dissolved into night. In our sheltered bay the tide crept in and went out again without a sound. The birds fell silent and, apart from the occasional splash of a visiting grey seal, all was peaceful and quiet.
As I said, there is more to life than running and racing - though I may well revise that statement after Sunday's ½ marathon.

Some years ago I picked up a pebble in St Columba's Bay that inspired me to write the following poem which I think is appropriate to copy here.


Gem hunters, I suppose, would call you semi-precious
Or little more than a bauble of common marble
Green-veined with serpentine
The like of which litter the pebbled shores
Of many a far-flung Scottish isle.

Yet on a day
When white horses came cantering into Columba's Bay
You were the one in a million shining stone
That leapt into my hand, sun-bleached,
Tumbled and polished by aeons of breaking tides -
Fair fragment of Iona.

How do you value the wind
Whispering through the marram on white dunes,
Gulls mewing in the Hebridean blue
Or skulking corncrakes rasping out their joy
In meadows thick with summer flowers?

Bright stone,
You are the whole shimmering isle in magic microcosm,
The Bay at the Back of the Ocean,
Spouting caves and seals singing on black skerries
That rise, fall and rise again in the green swell.
You are litanies of lilting Gaelic -
Traigh Ban nam Manach, Eilean Chalbha,
Sithean, Port na Curaich and Traigh Mor -
You are wild thyme exploding in purple pools
On banks of sweet machair.
You are the bell booming in the granite tower,
The green goblet of the Eucharist,
Candles guttering on grey walls,
Chanting and bowed heads -

Bowed heads
Washed in Holy blood and each of them praying
That they too, like you, might be
The one in a million shining stone
On the long beach
Of eternity.


Monday 11 April 2011


Last Saturday was a funny sort of day but unfortunately not very ha-ha. In view of a forthcoming hilly half marathon, at Keswick, I decided it was time for some long, slow enjoyable runs while taking full advantage of the warm Spring-like weather. 2½ miles into my run I passed a jolly group of people with a pack of dogs, all on leads. As I jogged by, exchanging pleasantries, one of the dogs growled and took a flying lunge at me, its bare teeth scraping my chest as I instinctively backed away. Had I not moved quickly I reckon I'd have been missing a pound of flesh.
Stink Pit with dead fox on top - and a snare to catch the next one
Perhaps it was a rush of adrenalin that made me move more freely after that incident. Three miles farther along I was flowing down a heathery ramp towards a shooting hut in the wilds of Mossdale when suddenly I was brought to earth with an almighty bang that knocked the wind out of my sails and laid me motionless for a wee while.The wire noose of a fox snare was encircling my ankle and biting into my Achilles tendon. Had I been moving faster that tendon may well have severed leaving me stranded many miles from civilisation with only a whistle to attract attention. 
This was the third time Old Runningfox had been brought to earth - courtesy of our over zealous gamekeeper. Round one 'stink pit' (a heap of decaying carcases to attract foxes) I counted eight of these lethal snares at the edge of moorland where sheep and inquisitive young lambs were grazing. One farmer admitted to finding one of his sheep with a badly lacerated leg. Another local farmer, in his seventies, was also brought down with one of these snares. Yet they are tolerated by farmers and shepherds alike. Live and let live is their attitude. There is room on the moor for everyone, including runners. Each to his own interests. I didn't bother to reset the snare as I hobbled off over the incongruous new bridge for the last seven miles of my run. My anger eventually melted in the sun's healing warmth and the soothing sounds of a myriad moorland birds. Maybe, next time, I'll remember to take my mobile phone!
Later, as I relaxed in the garden with a cooling drink, I heard a most beautiful sound, that wonderful distinctive twittering that heralds the arrival of summer.  Now, I know 'one Swallow doesn't make a summer' but there were four of them. Time to slap on the sun cream!

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Arkendale 10K race

Sunnyside farm in the picturesque little village of Arkendale certainly lived up to its name. Blue skies, balmy Spring air and birdsong greeted us as we stepped from the car opposite the 'Bluebell' where the only occupant, a teddy bear, stared at us from the deserted dining room. Everyone else was going to the races. Due, we suspect, to Ripon's Jolly Holly Jog being re-scheduled to the day before the Arkendale race the number of entries was somewhat depleted although a few hardy souls ran both. Consequently, only half the imposed 400 limit lined up at the start which must have been a major disaster for the organisers. We were told the race would not be run again. It's a shame because Arkendale's quiet location is an ideal venue for runners and the whole organisation ran with clockwork precision. In addition to trade stalls there was tea, cakes and a barbeque for hungry runners. I would certainly have run it again.
More silverware for Old Runningfox
I lined up in the middle of the pack and at the appointed hour someone atop an elevated farm trailer shouted 'Go'.  200 runners surged along the slightly uphill farm track and out onto the road. Compared to my usual training routes this was comparatively flat so not much chance of making up ground on the downhill bits. In just over a mile we turned right down a rough track adjacent to the noisy A1 for the next mile or so. Then it was back onto tarmac for the approach to Coneythorpe where a marshall was shouting "93, 94, 95.." and I thought "What a coincidence consecutive race numbers should be running together, must be a block entry from some club...".  Then it dawned on me these were our race positions. Silly me!
Cliff Simm, MV80, at Arncliffe
I lost a couple of positions at the water station when I slowed to a walk to get some fluid down. It really takes my breath away and I struggle to get back into rhythm. Usually I can regain places lost, and so it was on this occasion. Back at Arkendale we were diverted into a vicious loop through a couple of long fields, over a footbridge and along a farm track back to the road. Wearing Roclites I was in my element over the rougher stuff and managed to move up two more places. In the latter stages of the race I cunningly drafted behind a tall well built gentleman I dubbed 'the man in black' and now it was his turn to be shown a clean pair of heels as we arced around the slightly bumpy, grassy field to the 'Finish'. I was 89th of 200 finishers in 51.30 - good enough to pick up yet more silverware for 1st MV70.
After the race I'd the pleasure of meeting Painted Runner - currently in her tapering stage before the London marathon - and the spritely, energetic Cliff Simm of Easingwold Running Club who scooted in to take the MV80 prize.
After a very pleasant day two happy but race-weary runners returned to Hebden for a meal at the Clarendon (courtesy of my wonderful partner's Canadian sister-in-law) that was rounded off nicely with sticky toffee pudding and a celebratory dram of Laphroig before retiring to bed. Racing days don't come much better!
Full results here: