The Main Event

Sam Mur­phy toughs it out at the windy, hilly but fun St Mag­nus Marathon on Orkney

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue - The 2018 St Mag­nus Marathon takes place on July 1. bir­say­ For in­for­ma­tion on reach­ing and stay­ing in Orkney, go to vis­i­

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

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