Red Rose Road Runners

The most Northerly marathon in the UK – St Magnus Marathon, Orkney 3rd July – Ruth Travis

The most Northerly marathon in the UK – St Magnus Marathon, Orkney 3rd July – Ruth Travis

For the geographically challenged amongst you, Orkney (No “s”. Orkney. Singular. Not The Orkneys. Nor The Orkney Islands) is an archipelago off the North Coast of Scotland. There are 70 islands in total, only 20 of which are inhabited, with a total resident population of approximately 21,000. On most maps of the UK, if Orkney is shown at all, it will be in a box on the top right hand corner of the page, with no real sense of where it is in relation to the rest of Scotland. It is not Shetland. It is nowhere near Shetland.


I have been going to Orkney every 3 or 4 years on holiday since the late nineties. I like the peace and quiet and remoteness. There is a sense of ‘other’ about the place. It doesn’t even feel like you are in Scotland. It is a Tartan, bag pipe and shortbread free zone. It won’t suit everyone to go to such a place as they think there is nothing there. Well there’s no Costa, Starbucks or McDonalds for a start and it is all the better for it. But it’s certainly not two tin huts by the side of a dirt track and is only a one hour flight from any of the four major Scottish cities. Orkney was rated as the best place to live in Scotland in both 2013 and 2014 according to the Halifax Quality of Life survey. Here ends the Orkney Tourist board plug.

So when I found out that the inaugural St Magnus Marathon was to be held in Orkney on 3rd July, I was on it. Who was St Magnus I hear you mumble and why does he have a marathon? Quick history de-tour. He was Magnus Eriendsson, Earl of Orkney, born 1080. His Dad and his uncle ruled Orkney, until another Magnus from Norway deposed them. Our Magnus was quite happy to serve the Norway Magnus as chamberlain. But when our Magnus refused to fight in a Viking raid of Anglesey it didn’t go down well so he ran away back to Orkney. After a bit of row, him and his cousin Hakkon ruled jointly. Their followers fell out and the two sides met on the island of Egilsay, supposedly agreeing to bring only two ships. Hakkon brought eight. Magnus hid in the church but was eventually killed. It’s basically Viking Eastenders, just without Barbara Windsor shouting “Get out of my pub!” The year of his death is somewhat disputed as being 1115, 1116 or 1118, so the marathon was being put on to vaguely commemorate the 900th anniversary of his death (give or take a year or two).

I had entered the race way back in March, prior to me running a 53 mile ultra at the end of April that took a lot more out of me than I expected it to. Prior also to me having other health worries that currently sees me going through two packets of Paracetamol a week, just to feel vaguely human. To say I hadn’t really trained would be an understatement, and I did momentarily consider not doing the race. I am an advocate of high intensity, low volume training, but there’s a fine line between not doing a lot and not doing enough.

Race registration took place in the church hall at St Magnus Cathedral (built in memory of the man himself) in the capital of Kirkwall. It is a point to point race, from Kirkwall to Birsay on the north coast, so there is a bag drop for your belongings to be transported to the finish (and a bus to take you back to Kirkwall after the race). There are also 7 water stations on route, at four of which runners can have their own drinks/gels/food waiting for them. I was going to carry two bottles in my race pack but suddenly decide to have one waiting for me out on the course, to lighten my load. There was a big map on the wall with all the water stations marked on, but with no indication of the distances on the course were they are situated, just place names. Station 4 vaguely looks like it is half way so I stick my bottle of Lucozade Sport in the box marked Station 4. Then after four trips to the toilet it’s outside to the start.

It is chilly and more overcast than my wardrobe expectations had allowed for. I am in short sleeves and instantly wish I had long sleeves and gloves. It’s a small field (108 finishers in total) and people are just milling around. I vaguely do a warmup, hoping that once I get running I will warm up. Then I realise that there is one thing I haven’t done. Some people can be really superstitious and OCD about their pre-race routine but the only thing I really try and do before a race is to stroke a dog (weirdo!!). I can’t remember when or how this started, just something borne out of the endless minutes spent pre-race milling around and there always being race widows/widowers with dogs in tow. My world won’t come crashing down around me if I don’t stroke a dog, but I do try and do it if I can. I quickly scan the area and spy a Cocker Spaniel, a Labrador and some sort of Husky/Malamute type. I casually head for the latter as it is a beautiful looking dog. Dog stroked. We can begin.


After a quick trot down the main street and along the harbour, we hit the first climb, a long slow drag away from the town. A sharp left turn and we are heading almost back on ourselves, with a good view of Kirkwall spread out in front of us. These roads are definitely not flat but the route is on straight roads so you can see a long, long way ahead, and I can see a stream of multi coloured hi-vis ants heading off into the distance. There is quite a strong breeze, but then Orkney is renowned for being windy most of the time. Four miles in I have to powder my nose behind an abandoned car in a field. I am developing a funny feeling in my right foot – oh it can’t be can it? Not a blister? After such a short time? These aren’t new trainers! I stop and try and adjust my sock, but it makes no difference. It’ll pass, I’m sure. As will the rain that is now falling. It starts as drizzle and then gets progressively heavier. No chance of over-heating today. I am soon wetter than an otter’s pocket. There will, I sense, be chafing.

I feel that I am running well at a steady pace. I am hardly looking at my watch as doing this race was never going to be about chasing a time, it was more for the experience. On the whole spectators are few and far between – just people who are following friends and family in their cars along the course. There is plentiful support from cattle along the route, as they congregate by the side of fences, en-masse, giving you that look that cattle give you. Part curiosity, part pity, part contempt. If cows could tut and roll their eyes, then I’m sure they would have done.

I hadn’t expected the course to be as undulating as it was, as I was firmly of the mid that Orkney was low-lying. I trundle on, steady as she goes, through half way in 1:55. Blister is still blistering, wet trainers not helping, though the rain has now stopped. Then I suddenly have to stop and throw up, as I have swallowed a fly. I had felt it go into my mouth and stick to the back of my throat, so I tried to cough and spit it out. But it was stuck so I decided to try and wash it down with water, which then sets my brain and stomach into a combined “Oh my God, you’ve got a fly in you, get rid of it, evacuate! evacuate!” mode so up comes the last gel I had plus jelly babies. Nice. Classy. “Good night last night was it?” asks one wag as I am pebble dash the grass verge. Cheeky ******. Least he could have done was hold my hair back. “Shall I call an ambulance?” asks a nice (deadly serious) lady from Moray Road Runners who stops to see if I am alright. Through coughing and watery eyes I reassure her I am ok and thank her for stopping. I compose myself and carry on. Note to self, don’t run with your mouth open.


Water station 4 arrives (at about 16 miles) and before I even get there a volunteer is holding out my drink. How’s that for service? There is another short sharp shower, though it is bright blue skies above. No sign of a rainbow. I powder my nose again. I am now beginning to struggle and the lack of training is beginning to show, so I decide to run/walk from now on. Still more ups and down, though as usual there seems to be more ups than downs and the ups take far longer than the downs. I go through 20 miles in about 3:05, so 4 hours isn’t going to happen then (still chasing a time even though I’m not chasing a time). We are now on the most scenic part of the course with terrific views East across the water to the island of Rousay. Another out-of-the-blue-sky-still-no-rainbow short sharp shower at about mile 22, which is blown away almost before it starts. A lady offers me some jelly babies out of her car window, as she is driving along. Remembering childhood warnings of accepting sweets from strangers/being approached by strangers in cars, I politely refuse. Stranger danger is everywhere, even on Orkney.

The route is now on a glorious downhill section during which I over take about half a dozen runners as my legs still feel quite strong. We are rapidly approaching the village of Birsay and I can vaguely hear a tannoy announcement, floating on the breeze. We turn the corner and after about 300m, the road ends and we are running on across a grass track to the edge of the cemetery . There is a road and a quick glance tells me, we must have to go right here because that’s where most of the buildings seem to be and one of them must be Birsay Community Hall and therefore the finish. But no, the lady marshal is wanting us to go left. I see runners coming back the way she is pointing and I suddenly twig that we have to run and out and back dog leg – 100m down to a marshal, round a cone then back again. Seriously? Then it’s past the lady marshal up to the end of the road, turn right and there is the finish gantry. There is a surprising number of people there supporting. I hear a shout of “Go on Preston” which I assume is directed at me. Red Rose infamy.

My time was 4:11:01, that one second being the most annoying thing of 2016 so far. I was 42nd out of 108 runners, 11th lady overall. The first man did 2:58:09, the first lady 3:30:02, fantastic times on a course that was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. For a first time event, the organisers got everything spot on. It had everything you needed and nothing you didn’t. My only minor gripes would be the dog leg at the end – surely that 200m could be incorporated into the lap round the town centre at the start, plus the need to have distances associated with where the water stops are, for those who don’t know Orkney that well. I think the original idea of having the marathon was that it was going to be a one off, just to see if it could be done and also to commemorate St Magnus, but comments from the Race Director at the prize giving, would suggest that it will be run again. With a race limit of 300, I predict that this race is going to go from strength to strength. I suspect I will do it again.


2 thoughts on “The most Northerly marathon in the UK – St Magnus Marathon, Orkney 3rd July – Ruth Travis

  1. Francesca

    I really enjoyed reading Ruth Travis’ report. I am sorry about the Boking but super strength for finishing it and with such a good time! I loved the humour too. Like Ruth I thought it would be flatter until I met a runner who said he found the Loch Ness marathon easier than St Magnus! Thank you very much for putting it up for us to read. Francesca

  2. Sarah Scarth

    Ruth you will be pleased to know we sorted the water stop distances on the map for 2017. But better still for 2018 the dog leg is being removed! Can we tempt you to run again?

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