Thursday, 29 August 2013

Coll Half Marathon

Of the islands I'd yet to visit, Coll was low on the list, below Eigg and Islay for example. What had Coll to offer except Breachacha Castle, seat of Maclean of Coll? My 1989 copy of the SMC guide The Islands of Scotland Including Skye perhaps held a clue:
Coll is at first acquaintance a barren island, its bare ribs of Lewisian gneiss bringing to mind the low, rocky hill country of Sutherland. On closer acquaintance however, the island's great beauty is revealed... the beaches of Coll's west coast are arguably the finest in the Hebrides.
Finer than Harris or Vatersay? That is some claim. And:
Although Tiree is fringed with long, wide beaches of finest shell sand, they perhaps lack the character of those on Coll. 
Take that, Tiree!

Breachacha Castle:

I was soon to discover the beauties of Coll for myself, thanks to the Coll Half Marathon. At 5:30am on Saturday morning we rose and broke camp near Oban. Feeling rough after the previous night, I settled down to catch some sleep on the boat, chatting later with some other runners. Driving rain promised tough conditions. With a population of less than 200 which temporarily triples over the Half Marathon weekend, only the quick manage to book B&B or hotel accommodation, and camping is the only option for most visitors. I hoped our tent would withstand the weather. At least one tent in the makeshift campsite at the village hall didn't.

Campers arriving on Coll:

Despite the weather, the organisation of the race is superb. The whole island seems to get involved. The large numbers of campers are well catered for, with access to the toilets and showers in the village hall. There was a beer tent and a BBQ. We had no food, so booked dinner in the Coll Hotel (locally caught lobster and langoustines), bought a sandwich in the shop, and browsed a small stall of local jams and chutneys. Children ran about the village, shouting 'cupcakes 50p!'.


The rain stopped two minutes before the race started - perfect timing! The wind remained for the rest of the weekend, but I wasn't complaining - rather a gale than midges. It was a tough course, steeply undulating throughout with an off-road section, but this added interest, along with clearing views of the Treshnish isles. Locals in fancy dress handed out water, jelly babies - and a group of young men in dresses offered whisky to anyone foolish enough to accept. (And yes, I did.) The finish line is at the bottom of a hill, making it easy to coast over the line without appearing to be making too much effort for the crucial ticker tape photo - though I had cramped up in the last mile and hobbled home suffering.

Men in dresses:

After a shower, drink and dinner (we talked to the man who won the 13 mile walking race with an impressive time of 2hr 20mins), a ceilidh was put on in the hall, jammed to the rafters, a sweatier event than the race. We left the dance for a few more sociable pints in the hotel and returned in time for a hooligan's jig. Drunk and knackered, I was pleased just to be able to stay on my feet.

Hebridean sunset:

Next morning I was surprisingly supple - perhaps the ceilidh had worked some magic? We cycled round the island, looking at a superb beach and visited the castle, chatting to other runners from the day before. We had arrived on Coll strangers, been through a shared experience, and left as vague acquaintances. This is a huge attraction of an island race, where you have the time and space to interact with people, something you don't get from a big, anonymous event like the Edinburgh Half Marathon or Great North Run.

Approaching Traigh Garbh:

Getting to and from Coll is a bit of an adventure, and the little I saw made me want to stay longer and see more, see if the claims in the SMC guide stand up. Next year, perhaps? The return to Oban was far more interesting than the outward trip, with basking sharks, porpoises, and views of Rum, Eigg and Skye beyond Ardnamurchan.

Farewell to Coll - for now:


blueskyscotland said...

A place I've often thought of visiting. Glad you had a good time over there. I wasn't aware Coll even had a half Marathon. Learn something new every day.

Robert Craig said...

Quite a lot of places have a half marathon now. Harris, Hoy, Tiree, Skye, Shetland, Mull - the 'Barrathon' is supposed to be particularly good - and there are even more than that.

If someone did all the island races in a season there could be a nice wee book in that...