Tiree and Islay: A Whisky Run

I started running in college. I have never been particularly athletic or motivated to be particularly athletic, but DC is a city of runners. On Saturday mornings, the streets are filled with very fit people in neon spandex. Week after week you start to get curious. About half way through my junior year I decided I wanted to train to run the monument loop. From Georgetown, it is about six miles past the Lincoln memorial to the National Mall and back. For most serious runners, it is an easy Wednesday afternoon, but I worked up to it slowly. I learned running is about finishing and finishing is more about showing up then natural ability. Anyone can just keep moving if they commit to putting in the time. When I finally ran it all, I cried. Doing something you believed you couldn’t do can solicit a strange response.

When I moved to Ventura, our friends Alisa and Judy had just run a local half. Working an 8-5 desk job and commuting two hours a day, made exercise that much more important. They inspired me to make running a priority. In 2013, I ran 13.1 miles for the first time, dragging Jeff along with me, in a time that works out to be a very fast speed walk. I have run three more since then. I will never finish first or probably even in the top 25%, but the running community is a big tent organization. Membership just requires your best try, and for some reason I just keep coming back to try again. And because I strongly believe running (or running/walking or walking/running) can be for everyone, I have become somewhat of a running evangelist. Jeff often rolls his eyes as launch in to my I’m not special sales pitch. This December I convinced my friend Becky that if I could do it, she could do it, and together we signed up for the Tiree Half. Running doesn’t really require a formal finish line, but I love the sense of common accomplishment that comes from running in a group. Plus I have been known from time to time to push myself just a little bit harder when other people are watching.

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Now I chose Tiree through the power of Google. The time seemed to fit with our schedule and I didn’t do much research past that, which in retrospect was both fantastic, and slightly shortsighted. Tiree is an island in the Outer HebrIdes, a four hour ferry from Oban and home to a total population of 730 (we wondered if they rounded up, or if they actually know there is exactly 730 people). There is one grocery store, one bank, and about 3 restaurants, and by about I count Sam’s fish truck as about 3/4th. I should have been tipped off to Tiree’s remoteness when in January the only accommodation available for the May run was a campsite, which turned out to pretty much be a very friendly man’s front lawn and a bank of portaloos (a word far superior to portapotty). But what we lost in obscurity we gained in beauty.

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Tiree is untouched and wild. The water is clear and the sand is white. I am grateful Becky and I didn’t really know what we were getting into when we dragged our husbands to the middle of nowhere, because Tiree is beautiful. Without this race, I am not sure what else would have compelled us to set up our tent on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

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But one of the things holding Tiree back from becoming a prime tourist destination is that the island is for all intensive purposes flat, and the wind picks up quite a bit in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the lack of hills to block the wind does not foster the conditions for a nice lounge on the nice soft sand. We became aware of this wind the moment we stepped off the ferry, and were reminded of it as we tried to set up the massive tent we were so generously lent by another St Andrews Divinity student (really thank you! We couldn’t have done it without you). The high arched living room would have been a fantastic addition on a different day, but in the 25 mile an hour wind it was a strong impediment to actual shelter. As we struggled to get the tent to stand a few hours before the race, the owner of the campsite/front lawn, took pity on us and invited us to set up our massive tent in his shed. The winds that night reached 35 even 45 miles per hour, and the shed, though lined with rocks became a make shift refugee site for many of the even more practical tents. We would not have lasted long in the elements, but we were in good company.

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Glamping

The weather actually cooperated for most of the race. We started on the beach, and despite it being pretty chilly, the pictures look quite tropical.

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All 200 of the race participants

The first 10 miles were fantastic, some of my most confident running ever. I enjoyed the views. We ran a large figure eight across the island, on the open roads, but as the website promised traffic on Tiree is minimal. Jeff and Jared had brought a long a bottle of whisky and had planned to cheer us on from various locations on the route, but when I caught up with them at mile 6, they had volunteered to help an elderly man pass out water and to manage the church bathroom available to the runners. They took their jobs very seriously, and I smiled as I ran past them.

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Water champions

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I am so characteristically enthusiastic at mile 6.

While the last 3 miles are always tough for me, that day I tripped on a patch of rocks, running up hill of course and strained my knee, just about that time the wind picked up and it began to rain and sleet. The combination was not ideal as my running turned to an awkward run/limp and I quickly lost feeling in my fingers. But really, all I could think was what did I get Becky into. I ran my first half in 60 degree weather with a nice ocean breeze. This was anything but. Seeing Jeff jumping and waving, soaked in his own right just as we turned onto the beach, pushed me through the last limp/run/sprint. Running is about pushing through, and despite coming short of my time goal, finishing was more than enough. Becky was an absolute force, and I am so grateful we got to do this together. Thankfully, she did not resent me too much, and we were still friends after!

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She did it!

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Almost to the finish line. On the sand. People are cruel.

We returned to our shed shelter after dinner at Sam’s fish truck, where upon hearing that the ferry back to the main land might not make it tomorrow, I wanted to stock up on provisions from the island’s one grocery store. Everyone convinced me that there would not be a run on food, and thankfully we were spared another night on the rocks when the wind died down and the ferry could dock.

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Sam asked us to review him on Trip Advisor. So, next time you happen to be in Tiree, it is a must do.

We were especially concerned because our marathon was to be followed be a second marathon of sorts. After visiting Islay in November, Jeff and I were already planning a second trip. We had visited only 2 of its 8 distilleries and there were many high points left to climb. Jared and Becky had never been to whisky mecca, and we were already half way there, so our trip grew.

We made it back to the mainland to stay in a very comfortable and dry wigwam, just to catch another early ferry the next morning.

The self-timer sometimes results in unintentionally artsy shots.

The self-timer sometimes results in unintentionally artsy shots.

In two days we visited all of Islay’s distilleries and its one brewery. Islay is known for it’s peaty-smoky whiskys. I left feeling like I had drank a campfire. Peat not always my first choice, but I certainly found a few favorites. Jeff and Jared couldn’t get enough. They can give you the tasting notes.

Ardbeg

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Laphroaig

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Lagavulin

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Bowmore

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Bruichladdich

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Kilchoman

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Caol Ila

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Bunnahabhain

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And a brewery!

Islay Ales is basically one step up from the homebrewing Jeff (and now Jared!) does. There are three employees who do everything from the brewing to the bottling to the labels to distribution. Everything is basically housed in two small rooms. Our tour guide was the brewery’s owner/brew master/bookkeeper. It was crazy to go from the distilleries, huge international operations to such small scale operation. But the beer was delicious!

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Jared and Becky were prefect travel partners. We share in the do as much as we cheaply as we can, but always leaving enough time to wander through the ruins and fields off the road, even in the rain and the mud travel philosophy. We are lucky to have such wonderful friends and so grateful for another chance to see more of this beautiful place.

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