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Dunoon Ultra Relay 2016

Photo courtesy of Alan G Forsyth Photography
UltraPosition (118)Gender PositionCategoryCategory PositionLeg 1Leg 2Leg 3Chip Time
Phil Humphries109V50102:00:4201:32:5301:46:0805:19:43
John Edmund6148OPEN502:37:4302:02:1502:05:5506:45:53
Relay (Oz, Ellie and Elly)601:49:5101:48:3501:48:0505:26:31

Leg 1 – Benmore Lodge – Puck’s Glen – Invernoaden (Oz)

“Remember to enjoy the view from the radio mast” the race organiser said at the start, echoing the written instruction from the event information.  I’m puffing and wheezing like Ivor the Engine after a bad dose of anthracite, but there’s the mast at last, rearing high above Loch Eck and damn, they were right…the view is stunning – the craglet-y backside of Beinn Bheula behind, with Beinn Bheag and Beinn Mhor towering over the steep sided glen which holds the full length of Lock Eck far below.  More importantly it presumably marks the highest point of the route, so it must be all downhill from here to the changeover point.  Except it isn’t…there’s a couple more pesky climbs – easy-angled and trivial to be fair but a right grind with trashed legs.  Must keep pushing though – on a team with Twa Ellie(y)’s, I know I’ll be in the mother of all bother if I don’t put in the effort!

It should probably be noted at this point that I wasn’t supposed to be here.  Well, up here, anyway.  Elly Mac entered a relay team along with Ellie B and a Brummie friend called Brian who lives on Teesside – the “BEE” team no less.  My duties were to be the support, for want of a better word, crew, and to drink the beer.  Tough gig.  But then Brian got crocked so a late substitution was needed, and Elly Mac was kind enough to let me take the lumpiest leg.

If you ever fancy doing this race, either the relay or the full ultra, it has one of the best starts – a piper teases, then a cannon (yes, really!) goes off and we sprint down an avenue of Canadian Redwoods to a tiny footbridge before a cartoon-esque squeal on the brakes and a sharp left down the glen.  The first mile sorts people out before the climb up Puck’s Glen.  One of Scotland’s lesser-known gems, a gorgeous track snakes up, hopping between one side of the burn and t’other over numerous little bridges, as sheer lichen and tree covered rocks walls jostle above – it’s really magical.

Out the top we hit the forest roads for the sprint back to the foot of Loch Eck at Inverchapel, then a lovely winding trod back up the hillside.  Unfortunately there’re then three miles of enclosed forest road with not much in the way of a view and at an angle which is just up but not enough to make you feel like you’re climbing.  With a lack of distractions, it’s at this point I notice the increasingly irritable noises from my legs and realise I went off too quickly…and it’s still a fair way to the relay changeover at Invernoaden.  Fortunately I tag along with another runner for this stretch and a good blether helps pass the time, my compadre doing a very good job of sustaining a conversation which largely consists of him saying things and me panting at him.

He pauses for supplies at the road crossing but I push on – the radio mast is calling!  Finally past it, and the two pesky positive gradients on yon side, and then the fun – a long easy-angled speedy blast downhill to the relay changeover point and the handover to Ellie B for leg 2. So, all in all, Leg 1 has been great – perfect weather conditions for it (cloudy, dry, little wind), lots of varied scenery, all easy underfoot and most of it was fantastically scenic!

Leg 2 – Invernoaden – Glenbranter – Benmore Lodge (Ellie B)

The race start, and second relay change-over point, are in the grounds of Benmore Lodge & Botanic Gardens, a scenic area with plenty of parking, toilets and a cafe (with a free runner’s breakfast of pastries laid on, and fab bacon butties!).  So after the excitement of the start (piper, triple cannon, race to the footbridge, and a small amount of midgey dodging under the trees) Brian, Elly and I had time to kick back, have a butty, and gather ourselves for the drive up the road to the first relay change-over point. Unfortunately there is no transport laid on for this (there is a bus to get you from Dunoon to Benmore for the start, useful if you’re doing the full ultra) and the designated changeover car park is a good mile from the relay changeover (though right next to the ultra feed stop), so either allow time to trot there, or get your driver to bundle you out the car on their way to park (we opted for the latter).

We arrived at the relay changeover with what I thought was a good ten minutes to spare, plenty of time for a few warmup stretches and final kit faffing, I thought.  So as I looked up to see a familiar form piling down through the trees, I barely had time to think “Oh sh*t, he’s early” and get my jacket off, before I was tagged by Oz and I was off!

The first couple of miles were a blur of adrenaline. Within a few hundred yards I had tripped over a tree branch and covered my calf in mud, nearly been mown down by the ultra runner in 5th (now 4th) place, and dithered over a junction in the track that was missing a sign or marshall (most of the route being very well signed and marshalled).  However, another marshall hove into view pretty quickly, and then the road, the piper, and the ultra feed stop with more supporters.  

With a few more turns I got onto the track that would run all the way down the side of Loch Eck, and a glance at my watch told me I had run 9 minute miles for the first 2 miles. This was not good. Five days earlier I had come down with a cold, and it was questionable whether I would be fit to run at all, to the extent that I had got up before breakfast on the day of the race and gone for a 10 minute run, just to check that I could breathe and run at the same time (kind of important).  I had decided I could.  But I now needed to calm the pace down a bit, or I’d never manage 10 miles. Luckily, this stage of the race is perfect for mindfulness running.  After the first couple of miles, there is no way to get lost (one track, keep the water on your left, and run to the other end of the loch), there are only a few gentle undulations, and the scenery looking out over the loch is just beautiful.  So I took some deep breaths, slowed my pace, and thought: relax and enjoy this. 

Another moment to treasure came from a couple of spectators who cheered and whooped “Well done, you’re first lady!” as I ran past.  “No, no” I protested, “It doesn’t count, I’m in the relay!”  “That doesn’t matter, you’re still first” one smiled back.  Well, thanks to Oz’s fear of the two Ellie/y’s, I was first lady.  For a whole 3 miles of an ultra.  And when the first lady ultra runner did come past me, I cheered and clapped her on.  And that was the lovely thing about running a relay within an ultra: as each runner came slowly past me, they all said hello.  There was no snobbery about relay versus ultra, everyone was supportive because it’s the experience that counts, not the time or distance. 

Photo courtesy of Alan G Forsyth Photography

As Phil (who was doing the whole ultra) came past me a few miles later on, I cheekily opened with “what kept you?” and we had a chat before he cruised off.  And before I knew it, I was back in the grounds of Benmore thinking, it can’t be over already?… and sure enough, there was the changeover point with Elly waiting to set off.  I finished with a big grin on my face: I knew I’d wanted to do the Dunoon Ultra Relay, and I very nearly didn’t, but it was the happiest 10 miles I’ve run in a long time.  If like me you know that an ultra is too far, but you love scenic off-road running, then I recommend this relay as a great way to understand why ultra-running is so addictive (without having to run ultra far!).

Leg 3 – Benmore Lodge – Glenkin – Dunoon (Elly Mac)

I had seen this race advertised and thought it would be wonderful to do the whole thing but the timing was not right and I would not have managed to achieve enough training prior to the event. Phil had entered the full race and Ellie and Brian offered to be my team of three. Phil and I thought this would be an ideal race for Mr Oz, however he was having none of it and was willing to hold the relay team coats. As mentioned above, unfortunately Brian pulled out and try as I might to have Oz do the whole race, he decided he was not interested but would happily come and join our merry team of OEE rather than BEE! Legs one and two I knew due to many years (14?) of going to Benmore Outdoor Centre for girlie weekends and having cycled and completed training runs while staying at Benmore. Leg 3 was a new area which I hadn’t covered before so I was happy to take the glory leg!

Phil came into checkpoint 2 saying Ellie was not far behind so thought I had better get myself sorted for the final leg. Normally I do the first leg so don’t have the dilemmas of when to eat and how many times I need to go to the toilet (especially when your relay runner for leg 1 says – I will be at least 2hrs and comes in at 1.49.51). The last leg is on road and forest track and is a tad undulating (humply) with a few twists and turns. I headed off and started chatting to a chap who was keeping a good pace. It was probably slightly faster than I needed/wanted to do but I knew Phil wasn’t far ahead and I wanted to keep a good time for the team, since Oz had us into check point 1 as first relay team. We go along a private road with some very sizeable houses and in the distance I thought I could see Phil, although at that point was sure I must be mistaken. We then hit some forest tracks with switch backs and I definitely could see Phil in the distance – slightly too far away for me to catch but definitely a target to focus on (not that I am competitive!) The track roads are fairly undulating but you do get some amazing views over the Clyde when you get to the top. At this point there is about 5 miles to go and you could hear the music and loud speaker from Dunoon Pier. After a few sharp descents, I arrived back down to the town and the main road, across the road and onto West Bay Esplanade. At this point I was starting to feel it in my legs (must do more hill work!) but knew it wasn’t far to go for the finish line. The final leg has you finishing on the pier, where I was met by Phil, Ellie, Oz and Brian cheering me on. Unfortunately there is a blip with photos so no photo of me on the finish line! My team mates and Phil were too busy having a beer!

[In defence of said team-mates: we were too busy clapping and cheering Elly B into a sprint finish to stave off the next runner who was hot on her heels! Besides, the atmosphere at the Finish on the Pier was great fun, they had an excellent DJ playing music and doing interviews with the runners as they finished, and there was beer, food and massages available. It’s no wonder we were a bit distracted….]

We had booked a self catering cottage for the Friday and Saturday evening so headed back to relax and head out to a local hostelry, however you could get there and back in a day if you wished.

Phil was contacted later in the evening by the race organiser to say there had been a mix up with the age categories and in fact he had received a prize. However I will let him tell you his story.

All in all a well organised and friendly event. Well marked route and count down for the last 5 miles. All relay runners received a piece of Dunoon Pier as a medal with the full ultra runners receiving a wooden block, beer and tee-shirt. Great for a relay team as three different types of topography to run on.

Photo courtesy of Eleanor Barnard
Leg 1 – 13.5 miles – hilly and narrow in places with the majority of climbing 
Leg 2 – 10 miles – a few climbs on wide track 
Leg 3 – 10.5 miles – road and track – humply. Cut off for leg 3 is 6hrs 30mins. Circa 50km’s
Profile courtesy of Ray Woods

More info for 2016 race can be found on Dunoon Hill Runners website – http://www.dunoonhillrunners.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/2016-Dunoon-Ultra-Race-Information.pdf

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