The Main Event
Sam Murphy toughs it out at the windy, hilly but fun St Magnus Marathon on Orkney
The St Magnus Marathon, Orkney
LET’S BE CLEAR: while you will almost certainly finish among the top 100 at Orkney’s St Magnus Marathon, the chances of a PB on this undulating and windswept course are slight. But don’t let that stop you from signing up for what must be the UK’S smallest, and perhaps one of its friendliest, marathons. It’s certainly the most northerly. To do so would be to miss out on a race with a distinctly local and appropriately remote feel, coupled with organisation slick enough to rival that of a big-city race. And I haven’t even mentioned the scenery yet. (Or the ceilidh, but that comes later…)
It’s a bright, blustery morning when I roll up for registration at the town hall in Kirkwall, mainland Orkney’s capital, in the shadow of the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral. There’s a buzz of efficiency – drop-off buckets for the personalised drinks stations, a bag drop, a programme with every competitor’s name in it and, best of all, no toilet queues. Such attention to detail is down to race director Ian Sutcliffe, who was involved with the highly esteemed Halstead Marathon in Essex before moving to the islands in 2010.
There’s a short pre-race briefing (no, Ian, you’re not forgiven for promising it was ‘all downhill’ after 23 miles) and then, at a civilised 10am, we set off along Kirkwall’s main street before climbing out of town and heading west on a point-to-point route that finishes at Birsay, on the island’s northwest coast.
The majestic sandstone cathedral we’ve just left
behind was built in 1137 in honour of Magnus Erlendsson, who ruled Orkney with his cousin, Hakon, from 1105 until 1117, when Hakon contrived to have Magnus put to death. And it’s thanks to Magnus that I’m here. The race is commemorating the 900th anniversary of his death, tracing (in reverse) the journey from Birsay, where he was first buried (and where miracles were observed, leading to his canonisation), to the cathedral in Kirkwall, to where his remains were later moved.
A trial run of the race took place in 2016. ‘Some said they found it very challenging,’ Ian told me. ‘Others thought it was beautiful.’ It’s both.
With just under 500m of climb, it is not an easy course, made doubly challenging in this instance by the fact that the wind was blowing the wrong way (it being a point-to-point route). Clues to the power of the wind on the island lie in its landscape. Trees are almost entirely absent – those that thrive must huddle at the bottom of valleys – but the island is still verdant, with pillowy, green hills and wide, open plains in shades of green, rust and yellow.
After four mostly upward miles, we reach the highest point of the route, gaining views of the Bay of Firth before descending into the village of Finstown. The route continues to undulate gently, like a rollercoaster for beginners, along drystone-walled lanes, past fields of cattle and Shetland ponies.
With just 63 runners in the full marathon (and a further 370 in the 10K and 5K runs, both starting near the marathon finish at Birsay), I find myself running alone much of the time. Occasionally I spot a flash of neon Lycra up ahead and manage to reel in a flagging runner. Other times, it’s me who hears the sudden approach of footsteps from behind, as someone who’s paced it better passes with a merry ‘ Well done!’
Most of the marathon competitors are local. Other than three overseas runners, I think I take the prize for ‘longest journey travelled’, having come up from the UK’S south coast, though I do meet a couple from Kent; it’s Simon’s 90th marathon and he’s hoping to join the 100 Marathon Club by the end of the year. ‘It’s hard to find marathons at this time of year and we liked the sound of Orkney,’ he tells me. ‘It’s different.’
Different it is. This is not a race for those who like the perpetual roar of clapping and cheering. Here, spectators come mostly in ones and twos, standing at the bottom of their gardens offering words of encouragement.
The stretch from the village of Evie, around 18 miles in, gets hillier. And as the mile markers reach the early twenties I’m beginning to think I’ll need one of St Magnus’s miracles to finish. The short offroad section during the last mile has me tottering like Bambi, on legs with nothing more to give, but, finally, I’m running beneath the finish gantry in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd.
Within half an hour I’ve had a gentle rubdown and a cup of tea. I feel much revived but I’m still wondering if I’ve enough energy for the evening ceilidh and prize-giving. However, an afternoon nap works wonders and I’m pleased to report that Stripping the Willow (the dance, that is, not some kind of tree-hating activity) is a great way to ease post-marathon stiffness. The ceilidh is a lovely touch, a way for runners in all three races to come together.
As I head to the airport the following day, after a stiff-legged walk around Kirkwall and a proper look at that stunning cathedral, I get just a tantalising glimpse of the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle to rival Stonehenge and one of many Neolithic monuments on the island. It leaves me with the slightly giddy feeling that I have unfinished business in Orkney. I’ll definitely be back.
NORTHERN EXPOSURE The St Magnus Marathon is a real tester, but the sights are magnificent and the medal is suitably hefty