The Heb: The Race on the Edge
This month I took part in the inaugural The Heb: The Race on the Edge. It was my first adventure race and only my second multi-day race. I will be writing various articles about the event but this is a blog about some of the things I discovered, learned, struggled with and was most impressed by.
What is The Heb?
The two-day race included cycling, running, walking and kayaking on the Outer Hebridean islands of South Uist, North Uist, Benbecula and the tiny uninhabited isle of Vallay.
Some 81 people took part, racing as solos or pairs. On day one each competitor covered an average distance of 125km and 60km on day two. Although some people covered a great deal more than this. The different distances took into account the chosen checkpoints.
The challenge was designed to be accessible to anyone with a sense of adventure and a good level of endurance. All competitors were required to complete the cycling routes, on road, trail and beaches, as well as two kayaking sections and a mandatory hill at the end.
Other running/walking checkpoints were discretionary although most people did at least a few of these and the more experienced/fitter competitors ticked off all of them.
The format on both days was a cycle route that linked together transition points for running/hiking and kayaking. Maps were given out but being able to use a compass/GPS for the hill routes was an advantage.
Most of the bike route had waymarks although some places did not so it was a good idea to keep an eye on the map.
Competitors had to carry their own day kit with them but not overnight kit.
Race Director, Paul McGreal of Durty Events, said: “We set out to achieve an accessible adventure, and to showcase what an incredible place the Hebrides are. I think it’s safe to say we did both.”
The top-placed athletes
Craft-sponsored athlete Sean McFarlane, of Dollar, Stirlingshire, led the field after day one giving second placed Craig Mattocks, of Peebles, a challenge for day two.
Craig turned a nine-minute deficient into a 15-minute lead at the end of the race in an overall time of 16 hours and 25 minutes.
Craig, 42, said: “I really had no aspirations going into the race, except to enjoy it, so to be the winner feels fantastic.
“I think the hill running sections suited me very well because that is the sport I do most these days. Also, I have done a few triathlons more recently and that probably helped as well.
“I think that being so close behind Sean at the end of day one gave me more incentive to race hard on day two but we really were very close in the end so it was a good competition.”
Adventure race newbie Amy Goodill, of Glenrothes, took the female solo crown with an overall time of 20 hours and 53 minutes.
Amy, 33, said: “I had no expectations at all because this kind of racing is very new to me. But I loved it and really enjoyed pushing myself. This has given me a taste for doing other similar events.”
What I discovered about The Heb
It takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort to pack for this race.
I go away a lot and I am adept at packing for my trips but the adventure race demanded a whole new level of thought – and a lot more time. As well as the essential items, including survival bag, compass, head torch etc, we had no idea what the weather would be like.
There were three sports to cover and all the kit and clothing for that, plus three nights at a campsite, which meant a tent, sleeping bag, mat and stove.
Then there was the food and water to think about for racing and what kit pack in the day rucksack…
I felt a bit exhausted before we’d even set off.
The race atmosphere was friendly and exciting all weekend.
The sense of the unknown, the thrill of an island adventure, the inclusiveness of a group trip away for four days, the upbeat and friendly competitors and the challenges of different sports, navigation and ever-changing weather made the whole trip an incredible experience.
The Outer Hebrides has truly bonkers weather.
One minute it was warm and calm, the next it was windy and wet, the next it was torrential rain, the next it was beautiful sunshine and calm again. Then out of nowhere it became so stormy that the tent blew in and the ferry was delayed.
Scotland is known for its fast changing weather but the Outer Hebrides takes the crown for bonkers weather.
On balance, I chose the wrong bike to ride.
A lot of the cycling in The Heb was on fabulously smooth tarmac roads. But there were also tricky sections of off-road trails and many miles of beach. This meant you had to decide between mountain bike or cyclo-cross bike.
On balance, for speed on the tarmac, a cyclo-cross bike fitted with relatively chunky tyres was probably the best shout.
Instead, I rode a heavier mountain bike with semi-slick MTB tyres and could only watch with envy as the cyclo-cross riders sped away from me.
Then again, when it came to the beaches and trails, my bike was probably more suitable, although I wished I could have magically replaced semi-slicks for chunky MTB tyres on these sections.
It’s hard to know which is the best bike for such a race but next time I will ride a cyclo-cross bike.
You need to choose your partner wisely.
I wish I was confident enough to race solo but I am not convinced my navigation is good enough. Instead, I paired up with the G-Force. In some ways this was good but in other ways it really was not.
G was a great partner when I ran out of energy (and humour… see below) at the end of day one and he was able to cheer me up and give me a bit of a push back to the campsite. He was also good for drafting on the bike when there was a headwind.
However, it’s too easy in stressful moments to argue with your partner. For example, I would never dare to voice my annoyance with a friend about a navigational or tactical error but telling G that I was angry with him for this or that was too easy to do.
Likewise, when he was unhappy about something in the race, or feeling low, it was too easy for him to show me the full force of his emotions.
Thankfully, we finished the race great friends and, surprisingly, in third place in the mixed pairs, but, if I’m honest, being partners in life and a race requires a good deal of understanding and it’s something we might need to work on if we’re to race again together!
We really were delighted to come third mixed pairs.
I was gobsmacked when we were announced as a podium place winners. We’d argued a bit, suffered frustrations, a puncture and we were not at all as fit as we could have been yet we were thrilled to come home in third place in the mixed pairs category.
Maybe next year we’ll return together to try again, or perhaps we’ll choose different partners.
Oh, the beaches are amazing.
I cycled the length of the Hebrides many years ago and I recalled some of the amazing beaches but I had forgotten just how impressive they are.
I absolutely loved the cycle across the 2km tidal causeway to the Isle of Vallay.
The checkpoint runs on the island took us to mind-blowingly fabulous beaches of fine white sand and beautiful seas. (I will return there soon with a tent for a spot of wild camping!)
Cycling a 13km of white sandy beach on South Uist on Day 2 was truly sublime and the stuff of lifetime memories.
Oh, the views are superb.
Even the smallest of hills offered the most stunning views over an island chain that boasts a fabulous landscape.
I loved the view over numerous lochans, causeways, heather and out towards a shoreline fringed with white sands and blue seas.
Oh, the water is so clear.
The kayaking section on day 2 was in coastal waters so clear and inviting that I decided we should do a lot more sea kayaking than we have done in recent years.
Boggy mountain bike riding is so not my forte.
I confess I am a pretty hopeless mountain biker and with semi-slick tyres fitted to my mountain bike I was even more nervous than normal on the trail sections.
At first I thought I’d manage the off-road riding on the new Hebridean Way but they became gnarlier and boggier as that part of the race continued.
As they became boggier my blood sugar level dropped and my sense of humour disappeared. I had to walk for miles and miles pushing my bike.
I stopped a few times to shed some tears and curse my crap riding skills.
I thought I was the most useless MTB rider in the entire race and that I might as well give up because I was going to be the last to cross the finish line.
As the G-Force tried to push on (he’s a much better trail rider than me) but was forced to wait for me he also began to feel a bit annoyed.
Then came the final torture: An unexpected 17km road ride back to the campsite that never seemed to end.
I had to apologise later on for my “hangry” outburst when we finally, oh so finally, made it to the finish line of Day 1.
However, I later discovered that most people had struggled with the long boggy section and that I really wasn’t the only one to feel hopeless and useless.
A week or more later and I have almost forgotten that boggy section and I reckon I would do it again even if it was more of a hikey bikey than a bike.
There were some people who loved the MTB riding.
Our friend, Elizabeth Adams, is a keen mountain biker and she told me that she managed to ride most of the off-road section. I am in awe. She also really enjoyed that part of the race and said she would have liked more trail than road.
The women competitors were very impressive.
Amy had never done an adventure race before yet she showed guts, courage, determination and great fitness to come home first female.
The winning pair was also female. Catriona Morrison paired with Caroline Wallace, a PE Teacher at Peebles High School. To be fair, Catriona is a former double Duathlon World Champion, double Long Distance Duathlon World Champion and multiple Ironman and Ironman 70.3 winner so she is no stranger to endurance events and sporting determination yet it was still very impressive to see the female pairs placed first and in eighth place overall.
Second placed female pair Kaye Boocock and Dagmar Borrowman were also an amazing pairing. Katy seemed to have a permanent smile on her face and their good humour even when conditions were tough was inspiring.
Some people can fly over rough ground.
I love hill and trail running but I am hopeless at running over rough ground and downhill. I watched in awe as competitors, such as Craig, Sean, Katy and another great sporting lady Maggie Creber seemed to fly across the ground.
Tactics can pay off.
It was important to plan what you could achieve and what should be left to the fastest and fittest competitors. While the top men and women managed to tick off all the running checkpoints other people were left to decided whether to run to one, two, or three points.
In my head I thought we could reach every checkpoint but in reality I was too slow. Instead, we took a time penalty for those checkpoints we missed out. This helped to even out the race results so that the less experienced and fit could race against the fittest.
But the checkpoints do count for a lot.
It’s notable from the results table that the people at the top attempted all the checkpoints. I expect this is because they are really fit but also the time penalties did penalise those who did not make an attempt at all the checkpoints.
My aim next year is to go to all checkpoints.
Day three was almost as tough as Day 1 and 2
Although the race was over just two days, the third day featured a massive storm during which many tents were flattened. The G-Force and I had no sleep.
A 12km ride from campsite to ferry terminal was one of the toughest of the weekend and competitors battled strong winds and rain.
Attempting to stay upright and keep your stomach in your stomach and not in a sick bag during the very rough ferry journey back to the mainland was also a big test for most people.
Maybe bext year, the organisers will add an element of day three to the multi-day event?!
Racing and romance do go hand in hand
Polly and Steve Lock, a British/New Zealand pairing, raced The Heb as part of their honeymoon, having flown over from Australia to Polly’s native UK to get married the weekend before.
They also managed to cross the finish line as first mixed pair.
Another mixed pair, Vikki Morgan and Tom Jefferson, got engaged during the race with Tom proposing on the stunning white sands of a South Uist beach. Apparently the ring was carried in the “spare hats and gloves bag” for the whole race.
It’s £250 per person to enter The Heb and that seemed like a lot…
However, when you add up all that is included I think it was worth the money. I would have liked more food on the Saturday evening and to have breakfast included in the price rather than paying for it (I thought breakfast was over-priced) but the logistics, organisation, campsites, ferries, ceilidh, bespoke medals, marshalling etc must all add up to be pricey so I would recommend entering even if it seems like a lot of money for one race.
I have discovered a love of adventure racing.
I throughly enjoyed so many elements of this race and although it was tough it was also a lot of fun.
Next year I’d like to race again and do better.
If you like the look of the race, keep an eye on The Heb for details of next year’s event.