They recently won the female pairs’ category of the Hebridean adventure race, Sean McFarlane caught up with Gemma Beaton and Amy MacDonald for a leisurely coastal run and chat.
What do you do if you live in one of the most remote and far-flung parts of the British Isles? At the mercy of the elements like nowhere else and with other like-minded people, well, in fact, just other people, hard to find maybe a life indoors is the only answer. For air traffic controller Gemma Beaton and physio Amy MacDonald, both born, bred and firmly resident in the Outer Hebrides, they get out and immerse themselves in this most special of landscapes with a vigour and energy that can inspire us all.
Local knowledge may have helped a bit but as I struggled to get my breath back after our lunchtime beach run, it was clear that Amy and Gemma are very fit. When my heart rate eventually levelled out, I picked their brains about how they keep up such fitness levels in such a place. The two have known each other since secondary school. Amy was a year above Gemma, both were sporty and played basketball together.
Q: I’m always hearing about how young people tend to leave these types of areas, but you haven’t. Why?
Gemma: Well, people do often leave when they are younger, but they usually come back! I left for a while but the pull of home is strong. I love it here and always will.
Amy: I’ve been here all my life! Sure, it has its downsides but doesn’t everywhere? And there are lots and lots of positives, especially if you love outdoor exercise!
Q: Tell me more about that. We’ve just done a 20-minute beach run and apart from the ridiculous pace you were both running at – the other noticeable thing was the wind! I get the feeling it’s often like that! How do you cope with the elements?
Gemma: What elements?! I guess you do very much get used to them. Being an island there are plenty opportunities to find sheltered spots if need be. Okay, it can be windy, but I’ve been to plenty of other parts of the UK that get snow which causes chaos. We seldom get any real snow and can train all year round, which a lot of people from elsewhere don’t appreciate. Also, the weather makes the landscape, which is just so unique here. On top of all that, things are constantly changing, and the rain never lasts long.
Q: I see you two were recently winners of the female pairs’ category at the Hebrides adventure race. That’s seriously impressive. How do you train for that? Do you have a group you train with?
Amy: Our bike training just started in the lead up to The Heb last year, so we were, and still are, complete novices. We just practiced the route recces and both tried to cycle to work (during good weather) when possible and practiced transitioning from bike to road running. I have actually just invested in a road bike … so hoping that my cycling will improve.
We have been into road running for a few years. Both of us started road running at university and when we moved back home we started on the local circuit. There is a few 10kms, (Benbecula, Grimsay and Daliburgh) and two islands half marathon (between Berneray and North Uist) in addition to the Heb series that we try and participate in when social events don’t coincide. Also, there are hill races (Ben Kenneth and Ben Lee). Training consists of more treadmill in the winter and some track and road in the longer days in summer. We definitely did much less road running and more off-road and hill running in the lead up to The heb last year.
And the course is our backyard, so it’s easy! But seriously we get out when we can and just run and bike. There are several other people around who like to do the same. You’d be surprised. Just here on the island of Benbecula, they have recently set up a regular 5k run every Saturday. The first one got over 75 runners!
Q: 75?! Are there 75 people on the whole of Benbecula? That’s incredible.
Gemma: If you live here and don’t embrace the land, you can’t really survive. So many people work the land, to some extent. Even those who work in tourism – those tourists mainly come here because of the landscape, so for people here, the land forms a large part of their lives. And that comes through in their desire to get out and raise their heart rates. I do have a group I run with. It’s a 30 mile drive to meet them one way, but that’s fine.
Q: 30 mile drive, one way? I have a weekly run group who meet outside my house! That’s very admirable commitment.
Gemma: Perhaps … but many others commute far more each day. Each to their own. I think you have it too easy, Sean! (Sean chuckled, agreeing)
Q: So, what’s the plan for this year?
Amy: There is a really nice series of half marathons in the Outer Hebrides between 25May and 6July (more info here – https://www.entrycentral.com/heb3). If you do three of the five you get a special t shirt! If you do all five, you get a t-shirt with “’rinn mise na coig” on it which means “I did the five” in Gaelic! I did 3 last year and hope to do the same this year. ]
Gemma: I’m aiming for the “I did the 5” t-shirt!
Amy: We’re also keen on the Harris marathon, the only marathon in the Hebrides, Outer or Inner! Then the Heb race is three weeks after.
Q: Wow, that’s a seriously impressive race calendar you have here! Great stuff. Any tips for us soft mainlanders to get out more?
Amy: Come and visit! I do think that those who run and bike and all that here are very positive and that energy is infectious. I often read about the benefits of surrounding ourselves with positive people. Well, that’s never a problem here. It’s a great place and environment in general.