The Heb - Racing on the edge
I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again: The Outer Hebrides is a magical place. It's remote, wild, sparsely populated, the weather's often rubbish, but it's also stunningly pretty in it's own rugged, windswept way. There's a long history of Adventure Racing out there on those wild and woolly hills, and while The Heb is a few days shorter than its predecessors, it's no less of a challenge.
This year, the third two-day 'Race on the Edge' started as they always have at Mallaig. It also started as the inaugural event did, with mild panic over ferry departures, with gusty winds causing problems with the docking of the incoming ferry and the possibility that the ferry might leave up to three hours early - just enough to make that drive up from anywhere south of Glasgow just a little tense. Despite that (or possibly because of it), everyone was at the port and loading their bikes into the vans nice and early - though Maarten van den Brink was loading a hire bike wrapped in clingfilm, his own bike box having failed to leave Schipol airport along with his tent and most of his clothes. Of course, after causing a minor panic, the ferry left bang on time. The payback was a slightly lumpy crossing and a damp, drizzly evening on landing.
There's always been a lovely community feel to racing in the islands, and that hasn't changed. The local school at Lionaclete, two doors down from the Shellbay campsite, provided Saturday and Sunday breakfasts for the racers and crew and housed the morning briefings, so competitors could suck down coffee while poring over the maps and the routebook at the canteen tables. This year's route was eerily similar to the first two years, but backwards for reasons of tide - not being in knee-deep water makes cycling out to intertidal islands easier, apparently. So after the bacon butties and coffee, onto the beach for a quick group photo and a chat and then the hooter sounded, and they were off!
Heading north and briefly east to Cladach Carinish and the first proper run stage of the weekend, the tactical decisions began: Three checkpoints, none mandatory but all with varying penalties, to be collected. Anyone with ideas on the podium would, most likely, have to go for all three, but in what order? The vast majority went alphabetic, with 15 solos or pairs clearing the section, another 18 getting two CPs, and only one pair skipping everything completely. Well, it's definitely tactical, as was the next section on the road briefly and then onto the Hebridean Way bike section. Over the past couple of years this has been a very polarising section, with reactions ranging from whoops of joy to actual tears, at the prospect of sometimes rought, sometimes slippy, sometimes loose and almost always fairly indistinct singletrack trail. There's been much debate about the best bike for The Heb, and I think most racers over the past three years would admit theirs wasn't it, at least not all the time. That said, with the offroad ride coming early on this year, over three quarters of the racers at least attempted it all. The benefit of a little extra energy, but it came at the price of a few minor slips and offs.
Waiting next was the kayak at Lochmaddy bay, next to the Taigh Chearsabhagh museum and cafe - very handy for the marshals to top up. The water safety crew were on fine form in the sunshine, one sitting out with his deckchair atop his paddleboard for the best view over his small domain. The paddle was a straightforward out-and back, though 'straightforward' wasn't always on the cards, though it's hard to go too far sideways too fast on a two-man sit-on-top kayak. The weather made a great impact, with the vast majority of the racers enjoying the paddle, even those who admitted they'd never kayaked before. Even if they hadn't enjoyed it, the paddle was mercifully short. Leaving Lochmaddy, the wind had started to pick up a little, and the undulating roads round the northern end of North Uist started to take their toll on riders legs, but soon the next big ticklist item of the day hove into view - Vallay.
Vallay is a small intertidal island, once owned by one Erskine Beveridge from Dunfermline, and the remains of his Vallay House, built in 1901 mark the point where The Heb racers land on the island, but only after the stunning but strange 2.5km ride across the firm, flat sands of the bay. The white sand makes for an unusual backdrop and an even more unusual surface to traverse to an island, and makes the riders and the island itself appear like somewhat of a mirage. Once safely landed, the small job of collecting four checkpoints on foot at the four corners of the island - from the results it seems like clockwise was the preferred direction. The monument at Checkpoint A and the ruined chapel at B proved ever popular, the two sites that give the best views, though whether racers realised that at the time or not is entirely debatable.
After the final ride - into the rising headwind, unfortunately - back to Lionaclete it was time for a hearty dinner at the school, maybe a beverage or two and bed. The winds picked up further overnight and meant the event crew were making some decisions to give the racers a fighting chance on the Sunday. The morning dawned as breezy as expected, so the decision was made to shorten the run section and let the water safety team make the call about whether the kayak stage for the second day took place. This news during the morning briefing over breakfast was greeted by mainly sighs of relief - the summits of Hecla and Beinn Mhor would have been somewhat sketchy places to be in 60+ mile an hour winds.
After breakfast, the racers rolled out from the campsite with the podium positions in each category - male solo, female solo and pairs - set off at minute intervals, with the remainder of the pack started 30 seconds apart behind them to avoid too many infractions with, as one racer put it, "all the locals on their way to the Kirk". Rolling out of the lee side of the buildings the state of the wind became truly obvious, and with almost the entirety of the ray's route being southbound, that meant the entirety of the day being spent fighting that wind. The linking stage to the run transition at Howbeag came soon enough for most, and the majority of racers opted to pick up at least Hatharsal summit, the closest run CP, but a handful opted to punch in at transition only and continue on southbound and down.
The ride along the machair and the beaches of South Uist has been a classic stage as long as people have been racing in the islands. Get the conditions right and it's smooth, firm sailing, with a beach surface that feels like a runway and beautiful white sand tracks in the grasslands behind the beach. On a windy, drizzly day it's a bit harder, but getting down past the high tide mark and the rafts of stranded sea kelp and there was still some good riding to be had. That said, at least one racer cited the stage as 'the single hardest thing she's ever done' and the trail of slightly broken looking faces extended from Kildonan to Kilpheder, whipped by the wind, the salt spray and the sand.
With the wind still rising and no suitable sheltered bay, the kayak safety team cancelled the paddle stage for the day and took to the hills, joining the marshalling teams on the penultimate checkpoint, on to of Orasaigh, and the final checkpoint on Coire Bheinn. The first of those is just five kilometres from the finish, and with the wind changing direction late in the afternoon, later racers found themselves with a sudden burst of assistance for the final furlong. The last ride, along the road to Kilbride campsite, and a final 3km run up on to the saddle (or 'bealach', the Scottish term that was used in the briefing, to the confusion of a few racers from south of the border) and back down to the campsite were fuelled by the weary adrenaline of the approaching finish line, and the last few hundred yards onto the beach and across that line may have been the sweetest of them all. Even sweeter was the bottle of Colonsay Brewery's 'Hangman's Rock' ale presented to every finisher, most of which seem to have been consumed immediately and hardly touched the sides.
With that, the race was finished, and all that was left after pitching the tents and getting the best gladrags on, was the traditional post-race ceilidh with Ruaridh Maclean the amazing accordionist mixing ceilidh dances with rock covers and the top prizes from the Wild Island Gin Company keeping the dancers going until chucking out time! Stewart Whitlie took top honours overall, not only the first person to clear every checkpoint on the race, but also the first to cross the finish line. Islander Gerry Wheeler took second male solo, with Alan Affleck third. Kim Spence took the female solo win, with Janette Macleod second and Kirsten Ellis third. Phil & Jackie Scarf took top mixed pair, with Kenny & Allister Short first male pair and Gemma Beaton & Amy McDonald first female pair.
Too soon, the night ended and the morning came, and it was time to load bikes and bodies back onto the Calmac sailing home, to queue for breakfast, and to snooze our way back to Mallaig and the drive south. The Heb would like to thank all the sponsors - Calmac ferries, Wild Island Gin, Colonsay Brewery - as well as Shellbay and Kilbride Campsites, Lionaclete School, Hebrides Mountain Rescue, Tim Pickering and his water safety team and to the extraordinary team of marshals. The Heb will be back at the start of September 2019 - see you there?