Since moving to Skye in 2018, Portree-based GP Sarah Attwood has led something of a double life, general practitioner by day and running and triathlon star by the weekend.
Her status as an outstanding athlete on the island was cemented in 2019 when she was crowned the Skye and Lochalsh Running and Athletic Club’s Women’s’ Winter Series Champion after she finished as the fastest lady in all the races. Her pedigree as a long-distance runner is also well established. The Sheffield-born runner finished in the women’s top 10 in the Loch Ness Marathon, the women’s top four at both the Isle of Skye and Barra half marathons and became the women’s champion at the Stornoway Half Marathon – all of which were achieved just last year.
Her natural ability and predilection for testing herself have also seen her go on to represent Great Britain in triathlons, while mammoth endurance events such as a full ironman are also in crosshairs as she looks ahead to her next challenge.
Speaking recently to the Free Press’ Adam Gordon, the Steel City athlete talked about the first time she visited Skye, overcoming her fear of swimming in open water, and why she turned her back on running for many years.
Sarah was born in Sheffield and studied medicine at the University of Leeds where she qualified to be a doctor.
“The only reason I choose a career in medicine was that I didn’t know what else to do,” said Sarah. “I enjoyed doing sciences at school – I wasn’t sure what to do at college – so I did the three sciences” I though a medical degree would give me qualifications to go down any route.”
After starting her training, she quickly warmed to the idea of being a GP. “I enjoyed the work and I liked working with people, so it all fell into place. “My first job was as a junior doctor in York – It was very daunting. I think they prepare medical students much better these days – there wasn’t much hands-on training and then all of a sudden you are a junior doctor and having to do a lot of procedures on people that you haven’t done before.”
While Sarah had found her calling professionally, her love of running had yet to be ignited as she explained: “When I was younger my mum looked after the kids’ section in the running club. I can remember doing a few fun runs – one was a three-mile run, I don’t know how old I was, but I remember coming last and thinking ‘this is awful.’ I didn’t run after that instead I did mainly team sports at school – I was in the badminton team and the basketball team.
“I didn’t really do much at college or university because I had a part-time job as well and didn’t have time. When I was a junior doctor I started going to the gym – I hated the bike, I hated the rowing machine., but I quite enjoyed running on the treadmill.”
Her reconnection to running via the treadmill led Sarah to her first race – the Jane Tomlinson 10k. “That was the first race I had run outside since I was a kid and I really enjoyed it!”, she said.
Her debut race quickly proved to be a stepping stone to greater challenges. Six months later Sarah entered the Edinburgh Half Marathon. Prior to doing the 10k, her training had come solely on the treadmill but now she was branching out.
“My mum used to say, ‘how can you run that far on a treadmill?’ But I didn’t know anything different – so it didn’t bother me. Now I haven’t been on a treadmill in ages and I hate it – I want to be outside – so I’ve done a complete flip.
“I can’t remember my time in (Edinburgh) it was either one hour 39 minutes or one hour 40. I was quite happy with that.”
Sarah’s next race, the Isle of Skye Half Marathon, would prove to be a life-changing experience.
“I had just done my first 10k, and my mum and dad mentioned the race on Skye, so I said I would come up and attempt it. Edinburgh was my first half marathon and Skye was my second.”
Following in the footsteps of her mum and dad who had previously competed in the Skye race, Sarah visited the island for the first time in 2011. Describing her first impression of Skye, she said: “It was green and blue – my two favourite colours – everything seemed very bright, it seemed a really happy place, it wasn’t overcrowded. It was just a beautiful place.
“All the way up, my mum said it’s really hilly, it’s a tough one. My dad, he was the opposite, he said ‘it’s not that bad, it’ll be fine.’ But I believe my mum more than my dad.”
Sarah crossed the line in 1:46 in what was her inaugural race on the island. After the half marathon, she experienced a taste of some local hospitality.
“We met up with a few people in the Tongadale (Hotel) afterward and it was just such a nice atmosphere. The people were friendly and welcoming. On the Sunday after the race, we drove around the island – around the north loop – and I thought it was just a stunning place and that we needed to come back.”
From that point, Sarah embarked on an annual pilgrimage to the island to compete in the half marathon – with each visit resulting in a longer stay than the last. “We missed 2012 but came back up in 2013 and have been up ever since. The first time we were just here from Friday to Sunday, and then next time we then went over to Lewis and Harris and explored there. Then the time after that we stayed for a week.”
Sarah’s growing attachment to the island led her to apply for a job at the Portree Medical Centre, but she decided to pull out as moving from York would mean that her husband Chris, who is a cardiac physiologist, would have to be based in Inverness for employment.
However, after speaking to what would be her future colleagues, Sarah and Chris decided to change their minds.
“I got talking to some of the doctors here, and they told me to come along when I was next up, and they would show me around. So, when we came up in the summer of 2017, Ishbel McDougall showed me around, then another job came up and I applied for it.
“My husband decided he would do three days a week in Inverness to overcome that obstacle. We decided just to come up for a year at first, so I asked if I could take on a temporary post. Initially, I was going to go back to York after a year, but after a couple of months we thought ‘We don’t want to go back’ and I was quite lucky that a permanent job was available.”
While Sarah currently holds the title of the women’s Skye and Lochalsh Winter Series Champion, her athletic endeavours are not restricted to local or regional pursuits, nor just running. She said: “I had done running for about six or seven years, and my friend was emigrating to Cyprus and she has a road bike, so she asked I wanted it. One of my friends who was in my running club had just represented Great Britain in her age group in a duathlon – and I thought that could be something to aim for – so I bought the bike.
“I thought swimming would be good for my core and good for my breathing so I thought I would just start swimming. I had never done the front crawl before, so I taught myself and just cracked on with it.”
Sarah took on her first triathlon in 2016, in Bassetlaw, Nottinghamshire. She swam 400 metres in a pool, rode 30 miles on her bike and ran 5k. She then decided to overcome arguably her biggest test yet by entering an open water swim in York in 2017.
“I have never been a confident swimmer, but it kind of gives me a buzz. The biking is okay, the running is okay, but because swimming scares me – you can drown, anything can happen – it gets my adrenaline going and makes it more exciting”, said Sarah.
“Triathlon has probably given me my greatest achievements. I have represented Great Britain four of five times now in age grouping – I thought that was quite a big achievement. I set that as a goal and, luckily, I managed to qualify in my first two open water triathlons.”
In terms of pre-race preparation, she admits her choice of food prior to long-distance races often raises eyebrows but usually does the job for her.
“A Runner’s World dietician years ago said to me ‘why are you having cheese toasties?’ And I think well, the protein from the cheese is slow-release energy and the carbohydrates from the bread give you quick-release energy so it will keep me going, and, for some reason, it’s always worked.”
When asked what lies next on the horizon, Sarah’s eyes lit up before she outlined an exhaustive list of events with glee.
“There’s the Dunvegan 10k, the Skye Bridge 10k, and there are some races in Arbroath and Dundee. I went back to York a couple of weeks ago to do a half marathon.”
She added: “I would like to get a time of under one hour and 30 minutes at the Skye Half Marathon, that’s one of my goals. We’ll have to wait and see what happens there because I am biking the length of Ireland the week before.
“I am going to have to do an ironman race at some point – a full triathlon would be a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and then a marathon – it is just one of those things that you have to do at some point!”
While trying to predict where Sarah’s almost limitless ambition will take her in the next few years is almost a fools’ errand, what can be guaranteed is that she will continue to test herself and set new goals – fuelled, no doubt, by a few more toasties.