Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On Islands

For reference before I start, the general point of this blog is one particular race trip, and this is a rambling personal missive, not a race report as such. Consider yourself forewarned.

I've had a hectic few weeks, between the 9-to-5 and travelling to races, though that's not unusual. In amongst all of that was a long weekend out in the Western Isles, and I guess this is vaguely a short story about that trip. It's always hard to know where to start these kind of blogs: okay, this is just a blog about a specific event, but the history of that event and my relationship with that event go back a lot further than just the weekend itself. Anyway, I'll add lots of pics to make this a nice photo story and hopefully draw your eyes away from some of the drivel for a second or two...

So, once again, I was honoured to head out to the Outer Hebrides to shoot for organisers Durty Events at The Heb, a two day, 200km Adventure Race up in the Uists and Benbecula. The quick summary of that trip could be "had an awesome time, took some pictures, met some ace people, loved it", but that doesn't even scratch the surface of how I feel about the race and the place, which is more the point of this blog. The race report is up at SleepMonsters anyway - head over there if you want to hear the story of the race itself.

I first travelled to the Outer Hebrides in 1998 having just finished my A-levels, backpacking up the islands for a month with two of my best friends. It wasn't always the easiest trip, physically or mentally, but it's one that's stuck with me for many years and for many reasons. Not long after I got involved in Adventure Racing, met a bunch of people up in Scotland for a training weekend and ended up at the current race's predecessor, the Hebridean Challenge, in 2003. I was again blown away by the place, and made some new friends there who are still very good mates to this day, and mostly still racing in one form or another. One of them, Nonie, roped me in to race at the Hebridean Challenge in 2004 (blogged here - re-reading that now makes me a bit emotional!). I marshalled at it again in '05, raced again with Team Eat Cake in '06, and mixed marshalling, photographing and writing about it for SleepMonsters in '07 and '08, which turned out to be the last race under the Hebridean Challenge banner.

The old race takes some explaining: 750km, 5 days, teams of 5 is the headline figure, but again that doesn't scratch the surface of the logistical complexities. A mix of running, road biking, mountain biking, swimming and kayaking, relay style but with concurrent stages (ie, a run, a bike and a paddle starting and ending at the same points, next stage couldn't leave until all three incoming competitors arrived), bonuses for multiple people doing certain stages, handovers on tarmac only and tweaks like towing bikes/skates/scooters in to distant road-ends for outgoing runners to use boggle the mind. Never mind the logistics of getting five people, four bikes and a sea kayak into a single vehicle and out to the Islands themselves. Anyway, after the last Hebridean Challenge, I missed some intervening years of the Nav4 B2B adventure event, but headed back to the islands in some form or another regularly, evidently caught up in some kind of a minor love affair with the place. Then, some time in 2014 or 2015 I heard rumblings about a new race in the Hebrides. Paul McGreal, who I first met and loosely raced against back in 2004 when he was part of H4 (Hebridean Hash House Harriers), was planning a new race, a long weekend rather than a week, that involved no large vehicles and no additional qualifications: Leave the car at Mallaig, get the ferry out as a foot passenger, get bussed to the start, ride, run and paddle 200km over two days, then get the ferry home again. A great simplification, more accessible and manageable, and yet also a big enough challenge to make the journey worthwhile. The inaugural 'The Heb' race launched in 2016, and Paul very kindly invited me to photograph it. Because of (or maybe in spite of) all of the potted history above, I couldn't possibly refuse.

It's hard to put a finger on what pulls me back up to the Hebrides each year, especially since we rarely get consistently good weather - all three years of the race so far have had one good day and one not-so-good day. When the weather does blow up, there's precious little shelter and precious little respite, especially as a racer out on a bike or on foot - okay, it's a little better for me driving around taking pictures. But the weather adds something else, and that's a sense of community: the racers have to work together to beat it, have to tow each other along the beaches for physical support and huddle together and talk to each other for emotional support. The 'everyone meets up, travels together, camps together, eats together' ethos means people look after each other. Someone this year phrased it as something like "arriving as competitors and leaving as friends", and that's a pretty perfect description. I remember as a racer being told to 'get on the back' and draft a potential podium contender on a bike stage at the old race - I was no threat to his lead and evidently looked like I needed the help. The same happened this year, three podium contenders worked together to help each other out into a brutal headwind down the beaches to Orasaigh, shaking hands and splitting up after the hill CP, having put aside racing each other temporarily for the sake of all of them getting through the stage relatively unscathed.

The other thing that's always appealed about the races up there is the tactical side and the ethos that everyone can do as much or as little as they're able and still feel challenged. I remember Jon Brooke, when he was RD of the Hebridean Challenge, sitting with a novice team and talking them through their plans for day two, after they'd utterly flattened themselves on day one, trying to nail everything and running way, way over time. The same exists in the new race: you can pick your battles and people did, avoiding extra run CPs, avoiding the most technical sections of biking - the Hebridean Way sectors are tricky and slippy in places. Play to your strengths to succeed, and work out in advance (or change on the fly) what your measure of 'success' is: compete or complete. For a minority of people success means first place, everything else is failure. For a handful of others, success is a podium position. For some it's clearing the course. For the majority, just crossing the line is a win. That and working out how to Strip the Willow at the Polochar Inn after the race...

Most of all, though, what I think I love is the landscape. It's hard to describe as to a lot of people it's cold, open, bleak, exposed - especially when the weather is headed south. But that's the same as anywhere, and when the weather is good it's simply stunning. The whole place is wild, weatherbeaten, exposed, as you'd expect for a place bearing the full brunt of the north Atlantic. The Uists are a tricolour: the white beaches - usually deserted - the green strip of inhabited and loosely cultivated land in the middle, the red-purple heather of the hills behind.  Harris and Lewis are a little more muted, higher, rockier, more grey and mountainous, but with brilliant flashes of white beach in between - Seilebost, Riof, Bostadh. It's all bordered by blue, at least on a good day; more grey on a bad one, with that narrow line we call the horizon a very, very long way away. The Heb is subtitled 'race on the edge' and it's true: make a right turn while riding south down the beaches of South Uist and the next land you'd hit would be the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. I've never been there, but I reckon that's probably similarly wild, exposed and windswept.

Anyway, wrapping up this little sermon: If you've never been to the Hebrides, you should go sometime. I can ramble on about the place, but hey, I'm biased. Get a ferry out, see what you think, immerse yourself, be wild and windswept yourself, enjoy the views yourself. Maybe next year's Heb race? If so, I'll see you there. I'll be the slightly weathered looking beardy one with a pair of cameras and a faint grin.