Dizzy’s 50K Orkney challenge

It didn’t seem like THAT long ago that I had the stupid idea of doing something excessive to celebrate my 50th birthday. My 50K Orkney challenge had seemed like such a good idea a few months ago over a copious amount of Gin, but at 6am in the Ring of Brodgar car park on Orkney I did wonder what the hell I’d been thinking.

Orkney 50K routeThe plan was easy enough. 50Km over 5 islands with a stop off to do the Kirkwall parkrun.

Sounds simple when you put it like that.

Honestly, I hadn’t thought this through fully. I’m a sucker for pointless symbolism so starting at the neolithic stone circle at Brodgar seemed like a good idea. Then just the wee half marathon to do, immediately followed by the parkrun and then just another 25K to the finish line on South Ronaldsay.

Doesn’t sound much if you say it quick.

Wanting to be in Kirkwall forĀ 9-ish meant leaving the Ring Of Brodgar by half 6 at the latest. I wanted to allow about 2 and a half hours for the first 21K and take it “easy”. This was (literally) a marathon not a sprint.

Reasons this run was a bad idea #1… it’s pitch black at 6am on Orkney in November.

I’d got hold of some kids bike lights which I clipped onto the back of my running backpack so at least I’d be visible from behind. My Petzl head torch should be OK for lighting the way and a flashing dog collar completed the early-christmas-tree look.

At this point I was, frankly, sh*tting myself. What the hell was I thinking. I could just about drag myself around a half marathon and here I was basically attempting two and a bit of the buggers back to back.

Oh well, here we go,

Reasons this run was a bad idea #2… it’s windy on Orkney in November.

Being a collection of rocks in the North Sea, the winds can whip straight in and batter the place. The first Km or so of the run headed south west-isa… straight into the southerly gale that was blowing. I’d made it about 500m when the first serious “I can’t do this” passed my lips.

Fortunately at the next junction the route turned to the north west as I followed the coast towards Kirkwall. Now that the wind was pushing me forward instead backwards things became a lot more pleasant and I settled down into the 6:30 per Km pace I thought I could possibly sustain for the whole challenge.

I tried not to think about the fact the wind was whipping in from the South, and the entire second half of the challenge involved going South.

daybreak over Orkney

This part of the run was a magical experience. There was very little traffic about (that would change) and as I ran through Finstown at about 8K I was loving it. The sky was starting to brighten and the moonlight on the sea was lovely. As was the fact that on Orkney the public toilets are open 24 hours. Ahhh, god bless Finstown and it’s wonderful bogs.

By about half past 7 I was well on course to make it to Kirkwall in time. Unfortunately this was also about the time that the good people of Orkney started to go about their lawful business…

Reasons this run was a bad idea #3… There are no pavements on the roads of Orkney.


Reasons this run was a bad idea #4… Some drivers are arseholes.

I’m not sure the locals are used to some idiot lit up light Blackpool illuminations running along their roads, but a one of them didn’t take kindly to me, no matter how far I tried to get right up onto the verge when any traffic approached. I quickly figured out that although most drivers gave me a wide berth and waved back when I thanked them, this moron preferred to see how close he could get in his lorry.

And also check if his horn was working.

I quickly decided that there was no point trying to run when there was traffic incoming, so whenever anything approached I got as far out the way as I could. I did try running along the verge but I think someone had been out digging holes in it and I didn’t fancy breaking my ankle.

The miles to Kirkwall counted down reasonably quickly. The route had undulated so far, but the last 3K or so into town involved a soul destroying climb followed by a wheeeeeeeee descent. And, on the descent…


As I was ahead of schedule getting into town I decided to go for a bit of a trot around the little lake thing they have there. It’s called the Peedie Sea (Peedie=Small in Orcadian) and it’s a nice spot in the Summer I’d guess. By now the island was really coming to life and morning had well and truly broken.

It was only after I arrived in the town I realised I could have avoided the big hill if I’d stuck to the coast.

Oh well, next time.

The Peedie Sea is held in by a long, sweeping path which I decided to have a run around, it’s look great in the Strava. Unfortunately…

Reasons this run was a bad idea #5… Water and bird shit makes a path EXTREMELY slippery.

So I walked / skated round instead. There was a comedy “almost falling in the water” moment, but luckily no one noticed ;).

I’d done my first Half Marathon distance in a very respectable 2hrs and 15 minutes. I met up with Bex for the parkrun, via a trip to Tesco for some breakfast and a change of soggy clothes. I was almost half way through the challenge and everything felt fine. This was going to be FUN !!!

The next stage of the run was a spot of parkrun tourism. I had no intention of trying to smash any sort of time out of this, so took it nice and easy and not do anything heroic. The Kirkwall course runs round the Peedie Sea but thankfully not on the path through the middle of it. It’s a two and a bit lap affair, with a “which way do we go now” moment on the last one.

After completing the parkrun I didn’t want to hang about so I set off immediately. It’s funny how the brain works because I thought to myself “woohoo, only 25Km to go”. Only. 25Km. I then told myself to shut up.

Getting out of Kirkwall involved another hideous climb that takes you up towards the Highland Park distillery. By now I’d figured out that stopping had been a bad idea as it was bloody difficult to get going again. I got up the hill as best I could, managing to run most of it. It was then that, in no uncertain terms, the wheels almost came off the whole endeavour.

Highland Park Frei

As I crested the hill beside the distillery I ran headlong into the breath of Odin. From up there you can pretty much see South Ronaldsay which means there is nothing between you and the gale blowing up from the South. Long downhills that should have been a joy run became, at best, bearable while the uphill sections were reduced to a slowish trot. Add to that the fact that the roads were now busy and there were still no pavements and I had real doubts about whether I would actually finish the challenge. From “this is fun” my mantra changed…

No Refunds !!!

This section of the run was 12K of long, straight purgatory. Oh the scenery was lovely and I was at one with nature and all that shit, I was also cold, miserable and thoroughly fed up. I plodded on southwards running where I could and walking everywhere else as I approached the village of St. Mary’s and the first of the Churchill Barriers. The original plan was that these would take me over the remaining 4 southernmost Orkney islands.

When the geese are flying backwards and your glasses get blown off your face you begin to suspect it’s not ideal running weather.

The 12K to St Mary’s took *cough* a bit *cough* over an hour, and I was bloody glad to see the village and then see Mabel parked at the end of the barrier. Unfortunately by this point I’d also made another realisation… I wasn’t going to be able to do this.

I couldn’t complete the challenge.

We’ll not as originally intended.

Churchill Barrier No. 1

Reasons this run was a bad idea #6… The Churchill Barriers.

The Churchill Barriers are piles of concrete blocks laid between the islands during WW2 to stop enemy submarines getting at the fleet in Scapa Flow. They’re long, straight and VERY exposed. I had visions of getting half way across before getting splattered into the crash barrier by a passing truck.

Yeah, guess what, no pavements.

A challenge is a challenge but it’s not worth dying for. One option would have been to drive across the barriers and run the islands but that would still involve battling my way south and I wasn’t keen on any mechanical assistance. I was never going to not finish the 50K, but the conditions forced a change of plan. I was about 12K from Kirkwall by now, and had about 12K to go so after speaking to the support crew (Bex) I decided to turn round and head back to the island’s Capital.

Distance wise I was now well into undiscovered territory. I’d not thought about how far I’d gone, but when I next looked at my watch it said 42Km… I’d done a bloody MARATHON !!!. OK, it had taken me just over 5 hours but still… I’d done it.

And when I saw that, something inside me decided that 42Km was enough running for one day. I said I was going to do 50Km, but I never said I’d be running it all so the last 8Km was taken very easy. We still had a week of our holiday to go and I really didn’t want to break myself. I jogged / walked (mostly walked) back towards Kirkwall, increasingly pissed off by the lack of pavements, the traffic, the birds, the flowers, the sky, the clouds and, well, everything.

Yeah, wasn’t in the best of moods.

And don’t get me started on the chafing.

That gloom ALL changed when I met Brian and Peter. I was *cough* running *cough* along the road (at a slow walking pace) when I saw what I thought were baby highland coos. As I got closer they both looked up and came running over to say hello. I wiped the rain and snotters off my glasses and did a proper double take. They weren’t highland coos at all, they were Hungarian sheep-pigs !!!. A small blue plaque told me I was in the presence of Orkney’s foremost animal attraction and they were BRILLIANT. So much character, so much curiosity.

So much bacon.

It’s funny how a small thing (or in this case two big fluffy things) can lighten the whole mood. I only had about 4k to go, the rain had stopped, the wind was behind me and I’d met some Pigs.

Right, onwards !!!

After leaving my new best friends it was only a couple of Km back to the Highland Park distillery and then the long downhill run to glory. It was at this point my body fired it’s first warning shot of the whole run when something in my knee twinged. Not bad, it only took 48Km until it noticed what I was doing to it. Discretion being the major part of valour I gave up on the running (again) and walked back down into Kirkwall counting down the steps. Here I was joined by Bex for the last wee bit. I had this great idea of finishing on the steps of St Magnus Cathedral, which did admittedly mean about 500m of walking round in circles to get the distance right !!

Reasons this run was a good idea #1… I DID IT !!!!

Iain Hawkins St Magnus CathedralI DID IT!!!!. OK so the last 8K had taken as long as the first 12, but who cares. I’d set myself a stupid challenge and managed it. Along the way I’d notched up all sorts of personal distance records, seen the sights and raised a big wad of cash for Canine partners.

And the best bit was, I wasn’t broken. A bit delicate for sure but all set for whatever running adventures awaited for the rest of our time in Orkney.

A huge thank you to everyone who sponsored me, Canine Partners do a great job and I was delighted to hit my target, do the full 50K Orkney challenge and not die.

I think for my next birthday I’ll just go to the pub.

Relive ’50k for 50 years’