We set off from Kendal under a bright blue sky, jumping from canal paths to country lanes & the crowded promenade of Morecambe.
The first destination of the day; 30 miles away in Heysham. When signing up for the Manx Mountain Marathon on the Isle of Man 10 months earlier I hadn’t fully considered the practicalities of travel and accommodation, but peers before me had cycled in previous years and it seemed like a great way to access and explore the island, and the perfect long weekend bike packing trip, conveniently falling on the Easter bank holiday.
The ride to the ferry went by smoothly. We left plenty of time for faffing and the potential threat of mechanical’s, even fitting in a posh lunch in booths car park.
Arriving at the ferry port with an hour to spare, we snaked through the industrial landscape feeling a bit vulnerable and like we shouldn’t be there. Waiting to board we were joined by a few other cycling pairs; a couple of which looked to be adopting the same approach as us to get to the race.
The ferry ride consisted of dolphin spotting and reconnecting with a couple of familiar faces who happened to be heading over to the Isle of Man on a biking trip. Three hours on deck watching the seagulls cruising along, waving good-bye to Cumbria, and devouring some chips. Sadly, there were no dolphins, but we did see hundreds of Barrel jellyfish. Massive ones.
On arrival to Douglas, our journey wasn’t over. We then had a relatively short ride to reach our campsite for the weekend, down in the south of the island in Port Erin. The roads were quiet, but the route proved a little bit hillier than our first 30 miles. Feeling the pinch of the setting sun we cracked on and a couple of hours later we were where we needed to be pitching up the tent and having a cup of tea with friends. Dinner that evening consisted of a few dehydrated meals between us before heading to sleep ready for race day.
It was an early start the next morning, but I felt fortunate that the good weather had continued and enjoyed the sunrise as I tip toed to the campsite shower block. The race organisers put on a shuttle bus for runners to reach the start line, up at the north of the island in Ramsay, but we were afforded an extra 15 minutes of snooze time with the offer of a lift from supporters who wanted the full day ‘in support’ experience.
At registration we were one of the first there. Kit check done & number collected with still no queue for the toilets. Winner. But with an early arrival comes more time to faff and for the pre-race nerves to build. A couple of more trips to the toilet, some layer shuffling, a little bit of warming up and a couple of extra miles pacing in anticipation. Despite its location and low-key nature there were still several familiar faces loitering around. Its always a bit of a welcomed relief to have a friend on the start line, to share in the nervous and excited chatter.
Before we knew it the crowd was being beckoned, the briefing done, and we were off. My friend Emma and I had made a loose agreement that it would be nice to run together as a practice for The Old County Tops race that we were doing as a pair in May, but if one was feeling stronger than the other then they were to crack on. I had no race strategy, it had been over 3 years since I had done an organised event over 30 miles (and only my third 30+ miler in a race environment) so I decided to just run by feel, try to have good nutrition, and see where the day took me.
I was feeling pretty good up the first hill and so Emma and I split. I knew she wouldn’t be far behind, and it was going to be a big day out; we would no doubt be reunited later. I did however get a slight sinking feeling. I had rocked up a bit unprepared in terms of knowing the route. Usually, I like to have some time to study the map & recce some bits to get my head around it all but in arriving the night before and being on an island I’d never visited, I was suddenly aware that I had a very limited idea of what was ahead. The event consists of traveling on a point-to-point route from the north to the south of the island, visiting 12 checkpoints along the way.
Towards the half-way point of St Johns Emma caught me back up and we arrived at the support point together – a busy car park filled with the friends and family of runners. We spent the next 10 miles together, pulling each other along.
The day had become quite hot and despite a reasonable start I wasn’t taking on enough food as I should have been. I was starting to flag, but there were only 5 or so miles to go. The landscape throughout the day had been incredible with views over towards Ireland and the Mourne Mountains. I couldn’t resist a short pause to snap a photo of Emma running off into the distance; the remainder of the route, Calf of Man & the Irish Sea stretching out before us. It would prove to be the last time I saw her until the finish line.
The race consisted of reaching twelve summit check points but in fact you cover 13 tops, the path over the final one being a mere 5m or so from the summit. It is worth it though for the final descent down into Port Erin. Emma and I had a rough goal of finishing in 7-8 hours, but I also had a secret goal of sub-7 hours.
I’m pleased to say I snuck in just under that and we finished 5th & 6th lady, with Emma also bagging 1st female vet 40.
During the recovery bowl of chips, we got chatting to a fellow runner, Nigel, who explained he had moved to the Island and swam regularly across the bay. As keen swimmers ourselves we had already decided to make the hobble down to the water to ice our legs, and so we all went together; Nigel retelling tales of swimming with dolphins and jumping in and out of saunas between dips. He kindly invited us to swim with him & his friends the next morning at 9:30am. I had a mild reluctance and wasn’t convinced I’d be feeling up for it, but the wheels were set in motion and mostly due to our camping situation we were up and ready in plenty of time. The wander down helped to loosen up the legs a bit and it was nice to see the beaming faces of swimmers; happy to be sharing their morning ritual with new visitors.
Nigel had held off getting in and dashed to get all his things together, to show us in. Pretty much as soon as we started stripping off the layers, a dolphin appeared on the horizon. I needed no more persuasion. A dream swim was just about to unfold.
The energy in the water was electric. Everyone had their full attention on finding and following the movements of the dolphin who had ventured over to scope out the pod of swimmers. I was so glad to have accepted Nigel’s offer of goggle as I put my face under the water, looked straight down and saw the dolphin swim under my feet. The adrenalin of the situation meant I was in a bit longer than I would have otherwise. I absolutely did not want to get out. But very reluctantly I did. With eyes still glued on the surface of the water I slowly shuffled off towards the sauna, but just as I was about to leave the jetty the dolphin took a leap out of the water. Full of play. A truly special experience.
The sauna was bursting with excited chatter as gradually swimmers began to fill it. We sat there squashed in, eating cookies, and feeling very grateful for the hospitality. Nigel and his friends encouraged us to take a second, post sauna, dip and with some slight reservations we decided to go for it. In we plopped for a very quick dunk. I was surprised at the feeling. It was obviously cold but a very different feeling of cold to, for example, getting in the water after a warm run. Despite having swam all year round for the past 6 or 7 years, I’d never had the swim, sauna, swim experience before.
The morning had set the tone, and it felt like I had a smile on my face all day.
It wasn’t long before it was time to start making our way back towards the ferry terminal in Douglas. We plotted a route following the old canal path which would take us to our end destination largely off road & with next to no elevation.
Something my legs were quite pleased about. Upon completion I would have cut the island into quarters, first travelling north to south by foot & then west to east by bike. Very satisfying. The route was nice and quiet, and I was surprised at how easily it was to just keep spinning after the miles of the two days prior.
We rolled into Douglas and the heavens opened. Perfect timing. We bundled into the ferry terminal to wait out the time until the ferry was due.
It was at this point the energy levels started to sharply drop. I was eager to get on the ferry and refuel in the canteen. We’d heard good things about the food portions and feeling like I hadn’t eaten a hearty meal all weekend I couldn’t wait to tuck into the chickpea curry, with half rice & half chips. The trick here was to get half and half because in actual fact you got a full portion of both… ferry food hack right there. You are welcome.
We spent the ferry trip fretting about the weather that was forecast to greet us on arrival at Heysham and trying to get a bit of rest. The ferry was due in around midnight, and we then had the return 30 miles ride to find a bed to sleep in.
On the table next to us parents were doing an incredible job of keeping their young child awake and entertained, and as I caught myself drooling on the bench seating whilst grabbing a few Z’s this kid only seemed to gain more energy!