Against the backdrop of the picturesque west coast of Lewis, the first ever Hebrides Triathlon took place.
An all new event geared to test and challenge athletes in an annual test of endurance and skill here on home shores with a standard distance triathlon of a 1.5KM swim, 40KM cycle and 10K run.
This year numbers were capped for it’s maiden appearance on the sporting calendar and it was the Western Isles Island Games triatheltes who shined brightest, as Mark ‘Doug’ Maciver and Christina Mackenzie earned the first ever Hebrides Triathlon prizes.
Both conceded after the race the course between Shawbost, Callanish and Bragar had been extremely challenging but each emphasised their excitement at the launch of a new event on home soil for triathletes.
‘Doug’ crossed the line in 2:26:57 – two and half minutes ahead of second placed Donald Smith (who was part of a team entry with Colin S Macleod.
Macleod was first swimmer onto the shore with a two minute lead over ‘Doug’ who also took longer in transition, but after dominating the bike leg he ultimately opened up a near three minute lead when he dismounted for the 10K run to finish.
There were nine entrants into the first ever Hebrides Triathlon – three team entries and six solo triathletes – who all charged into the balmy Loch a’Bhaile in Shawbost for the first ever event.
Amongst the pack were the aforementioned Maciver and Mackenzie who have both represented the Western Isles in triathlon at the NatWest Island Games. Also competing were a pair of fearless fundraisers, Elspeth Logan and Ann Smith, who had taken on a huge physical challenge to raise monies and awareness for charities and causes close to their hearts.
The challenge began with two loops in the choppy loch to make up 1.5K, where blue and green algae levels had been checked in the morning and approved for the swimmers; a leg sapping 40K cycle from Shawbost through Carloway to the Callanish Stones before looping back to Shawbost once again.
This was followed by a 10K run on jelly legs following the established West Side 10K route up the main road and back around the village of Bragar to finish again at the Shawbost Community Centre.
Choppy loch swimming in waters which was pitch black and offered none of the swimmers any reassurance as to what was below. A healthy patch of long reeds produced a shriek loud enough to be heard from shore when one swimmer’s arm nestled in the middle of the long, clingy reeds.
Colin S Macleod is a bit of a superhero when it comes to water, like Clark Kent in a rubber suit. He was also one of the organisers and while in the water he set the pace and while sighting.
He was first out of the water in 24:39 before passing the baton – in this case a yellow wrist band – to his triathlon team mate Donald Smith to do both the bike and running legs.
Following Colin onto the shore was Stuart Baird in 25:39 and Norma Macleod in 26:18.
None of the swimmers went blue or shivery in the pleasantly moderate water temperatures much to their own surprise.
The entry and exit point of the swim forced all swimmers over difficult rocky terrain onto the shore. Some scampered happily across the big boulders and seems waded through thigh-high water without a problem, Others, as one of the competitors quipped on the shore, resembled early man emerging for the first time from the depths.
Mark Maciver completed his swim in 26:38 but he made up the difference and caught the lead cyclist Donald Smith about 25k into the bike leg. He maintained his lead and delivered the fastest ride of the day in 1:13:52.
Christina Mackenzie has often admitted swimming is not her preferred event and she wrapped up her swim in 32:53. But she is so strong on both the bike and with her running that even giving up a significant portion of time in her swim she is strong enough to reign in competitors ahead.
This triathlon proved to be no different as she emerged from the swim in sixth spot but by the end of the cycle she had powered through to fourth thanks to her bike time of 1:19:24.
Triathlons are often a battle between the brain and the body and it has been claimed that often a competitors brain will give in before the body will.
Ann Smith refused to listen to either as she bravely completed a gruelling swim in 47:56 with steely eyed determination fuelled by the pursuit of raising money for charity.
She and Elspeth Logan were inspiring as they moved from each transition with a smile on their face and a determination to cross the line whatever their bodies or mind were saying.
Hard bodies and tough minds were shown by all who dived into Loch a’Bhaile and all who saw it through to the end, crossing the line for their medals and feelings of huge satisfaction.
The competitors played cat-and-mouse with a couple of other teams that seem to be following a similar pacing strategy.
By the time the lead group had set off on the final 10K run ‘Doug’ had a two and a half minute lead over Donald Smith – who at 59 is a remarkable man and puts men half his age to shame.
Norman Ferguson (cyclist and runner in a team with swimmer Norma Macleod) was in third place and with his Stornoway Running and Athletics Club experience he moved into the run very much in his comfort zone which was proved with the best run of the day in 41:28.
Smith ran a quicker 10K than ‘Doug’ by over a minute but the latter’s strong biking and much quicker final transition – 51 seconds to 1:22 – saw ‘Doug’ home for first place in 2:26:57 to Smith’s 2:29:12.
“That was tough,” admitted ‘Doug’ after the race, “I feel ok though although a bit tired having competed in another triathlon last week. This is great though, and it is brilliant for the island to have an event like this here now.”
Flying the flag for the women was Mackenzie who crossed home in 2:48:05. Her achievements shouldn’t surprise anyone any more after her previous Ironman gold medals and podiums across Europe. But having struggled with a hip injury all week which left her unsure whether she could run, to see her clock a 10K time of 52:23 on the back of a 40K cycle and 1.5KM open water swim shows what our Iron Maiden is made of.
Ann Marie Macritchie also ran well, 54:04, after her strong cycle of 1:34:40 after Baird’s earlier speedy swim.
As each competitor crossed the finishing line, outside the Shawbost Community Centre, they are visibly overcome with a million emotions. Smiles of relief, satisfaction and pride are a common trend on all sweat soaked faces.
Bruises, aching muscles, sand burrowed deeply into crevices but countered with the welcome weight of the Hebrides Triathlon medal hanging around their necks – making it all worthwhile.
There is something about the Hebrides which gets under your skin.
Now with the dawn of a new sporting era and the birth of a new physical challenge for adventurous souls, residents and visitors alike can encounter something very different on Lewis on the western side of The Heather Isle.