Sunday, 8 July 2012

Barrathon and Beyond

Having lived in Scotland for almost 10 years and never been out to the Western Isles I'd started to feel that a trip was well overdue.  I've been out on climbing trips to Pabbay and Mingulay before, with quick overnight stops in Castlebay on Barra, but the full 130 mile trip up through the Uists, Harris and Lewis was still undone.  Sarah had heard about the half-marathon on Barra - the brilliantly named Barrathon - which seemed like a good starting point for an adventure, and luckily we managed to get an entry in the 45 minutes it took to fill up.  So, we booked ferry tickets, did some training, packed Sarah's battered old Ford Escort and headed west to Oban.  

Race-day dawned damp and breezy, and the prospect of leaving our cosy wee tent on the Vatersay machair in short shorts and skimpy vest wasn't all that appealing.  On the start line the cloud slowly started to lift and  drizzle dwindled as the local priest (local celeb from the BBC's An Island Parish, no less) fired the starting pistol and 1hr29minutes of angst and suffering began.  It was only my second half marathon (last one in 2004, that's how much road running I do) and although I'm probably much fitter now I only improved on my time by 10 minutes, but it earned me 8th place.  Also, it's a pretty hilly course, with a brilliantly long climb up the side of Heaval at 11miles, just when you don't want it.

Disciplined Sarah had stuck to a training plan and was aiming for sub-2hrs.  She was a bit miffed to miss it by 2 minutes, but given the hilly course I'd let her have it, especially given that it's the longest continual run she's done (mountain marathons don't count, it's all walking!).  I'm really proud of her dedication.
The next day we went to find Breaker Wall, a nice crag on Barra that's been fairly recently developed (info on Colin Moody's site here) and after some scary sheath-cutting abseiling (my fault) did a brilliant E2 called Druth's Groove and a nice aptly named Diff called Escape Route under the watchful eyes of a rather bemused grey seal.  

Druth's Groove, Breaker Wall, Barra
We laugh afterwards: 50m ab rope soon becomes 2x25m ab ropes.
From Barra to Eriskay, to South Uist, to Benbecula, to North Uist, to Berneray - big skies, empty spaces, sandy beaches, historic sites, museums, tea, cake, not much exercise.  These islands felt a bit like the land that time forgot, still following the seasonal crofting cycles - small houses dotted across the landscape, grey, pebble-dashed, functional.  Even the occasional nods to the modern world, like the military base and airfield on Benbecula, felt old and impoverished, like looking at archive footage of the 70s and 80s.

Sarah and the Sea
Eventually we docked at Leverburgh on South Harris, a much more familiar (and much preferred) landscape of hills and rock.  A quick run up Clisham the next day then off to the tiny island of Bernera off Lewis' west coast.  Here we found our favourite beach of the trip at Bostadh, where an Iron Age village had been hidden in the dunes for centuries, to be exposed to our inquisitive eyes by an Atlantic storm in 1993 then re-buried to preserve.  We found Creag Liam nearby and I mustered some psyche for my first ever deep water solo - Mini Tsunami, 4a, 20m, S2 (what ever that means), first done by the heroic Jules Lines.  Suffice to say, getting to the bottom of the route was far harder than 4a, and you really wouldn't want to fall off from much higher than the first 10 metres (the shaking started when a hold broke at about 15 metres).  An intense, deep experience, that will live on for a long time.
Part way up Mini-Tsunami at Creag Liam, Lewis.

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