Hoy Half (reader feature)

David Bryan heads to Orkney’s most rugged island to participate in one of Scotland’s quirkiest half marathons. 

Hoy Half

The author and family en-route to Hoy

A smallish semi-inflatable motorboat sits placidly in the tiny harbour at John O’ Groats. The silence of a June Sunday morning at the top of Scotland is broken only by a trickle of lean and rather gaunt-looking middle-aged men as they arrive slightly bemused and bleary-eyed at the door of the portacabin branded ‘North Coast Marine Adventures’. A bronzed mariner arrives with a clutch of heavy oilskins – rather incongruous given the benign weather – and exchanges pleasantries with one of his passengers based on shared past experiences in some monolithic employer. The day begins as it means to go on; surreal and serene in equal measure, for the unlikely looking troop are casting off for one of the outdoor experiences of the Scottish islands … the ‘Hoy Half’.

In the late 1980s the running bug reached Orkney and the islanders of Hoy were quick to spot the potential for an annual race. In an understated style typical of community events across the Highlands and Islands, the event juxtaposes elite and novice in a way that big city runs can never do. The geographical dimensions of Hoy deemed it would be a half marathon – more or less one end of the island to the other. With typical northern liberalism, an ‘out and back’ quarter marathon was added for the kids, but so as not to deter the local men and women from the challenge of the half, the adults are forbidden to limit themselves to the six-and-a-half-mile race. This children’s quarter marathon, open to kids as young as nine, is still the only one of its kind I’ve come across.

The Hoy half is as much a logistical challenge for the organisers as it is a physical challenge for the runners. With only a couple of minibuses on the island, the Orkney Islands ferry which followed our motor launch into Lyness harbour transported not only the bulk of the runners but also a bus with the kind of dimensions only seen on the island once a year. There was a certain air of superiority as we disembarked from our private hire, though any smugness was soon lost as an ungainly struggle ensued to remove heavy smocks, which kept the spray off the Caithness runners during the 40-minute crossing.

Hoy Half

Runners assemble at the ‘desolate’ start

Orcadians, Caithnessians and those from the ‘deep south’ had almost completed their journey … to the start at least. A convoy of public transport now took us along a disconcertingly long and convoluted route which was to be retraced on foot during the middle of the day.

‘Desolate’ is the single word used by the race organisers to describe the start. A little unkind perhaps, though it is 10 miles before the route passes an occupied house. Accompanied by drizzle and a cooling headwind which was to be our friend throughout the 13.1 miles, the day’s work was underway. The single track road gently rises up the Rackwick valley, the famous Old Man of Hoy unseen behind the mountain which forms the west side of the glen. Rear views of a misty Pentland Firth are slowly replaced by Scapa Flow emerging straight ahead under brightening skies.

At the head of Rackwick valley, there begins a series of climbs and descents resembling a rollercoaster laid out for a slightly timid giant. Before descending rapidly to a crossroads (or more specifically the crossroads on Hoy), the waters of Scapa Flow developed an azure hue. Morning passed into afternoon as the route climbed unrelentingly, though never steeply, for fully two miles – opening up unforgettable views over Orkney Mainland, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

Hoy Half

Getting ready for the off

Paying due respect to Newton’s most noteworthy discovery – that is, what goes up generally comes down soon afterwards – the eighth mile is the fastest on the course. Now spread thinly over the narrow roads, runners hurtle almost back to sea level before beginning another inevitable climb.

The next descent adds variety as it skirts Hoy’s forest; it’s nothing to rival the likes of Kielder or Abernethy, but the chirp of birdsong emanating from the assortment of crouched and wind-blasted trees is a pleasant contrast to the silence of the moorland.

At last, drystane dykes, a walled garden and the chug of the odd tractor announce our understated arrival in Lyness and the promise of the finish line. The last obstacle is a fiendish hill just after the 12-mile point. Rising steeply from the pastures, its full wickedness is hidden; the merciless gradient continues unseen around a bend beyond a ‘false top’.

The warmth of a June afternoon has been known to elicit the odd profanity on the brae, but today’s breeze removes both cause and effect. After a couple of minutes of tired slogging, the gradient relents and a welcome sight lies straight ahead – a gaggle of onlookers, runners and volunteers clasping clipboards and water-bottles, which constitutes the finish.

Hoy Half

Arriving at the understated finish line

The effort suddenly over, the traditional soup, sandwich and crack is shared with fellow runners in the island’s school gym. Prizes are dished out, which takes almost as long as the race. An impressive proportion of the shiny looking cups and shields find their way back onto our boat to Groats and later gives rise to a boastful enquiry to our ferryman about baggage allowances.

The ceremony ends with the award of a model zimmer frame for the first over-70 runner. It turns out that the first ‘ultra-veteran’ is still on the course, but just as the MC threatens to dispatch oxygen, there is a huge cheer as the experienced athlete makes a triumphant entry to claim his light-hearted award.

So what makes Hoy different from any other road race you might stumble across? The answer is like the challenge itself and is personal to every runner. A ‘personal best’ is unlikely, though incredibly the hills do seem to suit some. And it’s not the cheering masses on the pavements – there are no pavements, let alone crowds. But, for me at least, the enigmatic horizons, the element of perversity in holding a half marathon in such an ‘out of the way’ place, and the tranquillity of Hoy combine to make what has become an annual pilgrimage to the island unmissable.

About the author:
David Bryan lives in Golspie, Sutherland with his wife and four children. After spending his teens skiing Scotland’s pistes and his twenties yomping round the Munros, the advent of kids in his thirties has caused his recreational time to be a bit more condensed. The solution is running – roads, hills, beaches, anywhere! His daughters (11 and 13) run, too – 5ks, hill races and, once a year, the ‘Hoy Quarter’.

Images courtesy of Carol Taylor, North Highland Harriers, www.northhighlandharriers.co.uk

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