This 55K race first came to my attention last year, it was the inaugural year but I was too disorganised to get myself in gear and enter, but I kept an eye on it and saw all the photos and rave reviews coming in post-race and knew it was one I wanted on my race calendar for this year. So another Hogmanay came round and another race entry in the early hours and I was in. Although this race had only gone ahead once it was no 8 in a top 10 of Ultras due to its scenic route and great organisation. I had initially thought I could drive over in the morning as it was an 8am race start but as I looked into the logistics of driving and ferry times it became clear that this would be another weekend away race and I was quite happy with that, it’s the only time Alan and I ever get away for a weekend on our own, but as it is October and I am a summer camper it was definitely a hotel we were booking. As we drove over on Friday I told Alan how I had got an email from the hotel earlier in the week saying we could upgrade our room for a tenner, so we made a quick call enroute and got ourselves upgraded – turns out we got upgraded to the “Honeymoon Suite” in the top tower of the hotel with nearly 360 views of Dunoon. Not bad! The race is organised by a community group “Dunoon Presents …..” who organise various events to get people to visit Dunoon with help in this instance with the local running group Dunoon Hill Runners. I love races like this that have so much local support. I was able to register Friday evening on the Pier which would also act as our finish line the next day and leave my drop bags so all I needed to do on Saturday morning was rock up and jump on the courtesy bus that took us to the start at Benmore Botanic Gardens a 20 minute drive away. On race morning it was raining and dreich and I knew I would not get to see much of the amazing views that had drawn me to the race. There was a little coffee shop at the Pier where registration etc was and they had opened early and were giving free coffee to all the runners. Once we arrived at Benmore their coffee shop was open and busting at the seams with runners and they were also serving coffee and pastries, they even came round with trays of pastries as were congregating at the start line encouraging us all to grab some. (Rob take note – I think you need to step up to Ultras!)
The race was to be started with a piper and then when the piper finished a cannon! That was a first for me and even though we were all warned there were shrieks of shock as the cannon went off. The race began by running through the gun smoke into an avenue of Giant Redwoods and then a little wooden bridge over the river which was in full spate as it had been pretty wet the week before and was still raining. We turned left and along a track that was deep with puddles and everyone was swerving left and right and jumping where they could trying to keep feet dry for as long as possible, I had heard a couple people talking to each other saying to try and get ahead at the start as there was a narrow single file section early on so I was trying to push on as much as I could. Within a mile or so we entered an area called Pucks Glen which is the most magical narrow gorge with ferns and mosses growing up the steep embankments and the river gushing down the centre, it was quite a steady climb up the rocky paths and steps and bridges criss crossing the river, I would love to go back and walk up and take my time and really appreciate it, but for now I was too busy trying to keep up with the runner in front of me and not slip on the wet ground, we reached the top and turned out of the glen onto wide forest track and this was to be our terrain for a while. The forest track we were on was fairly undulating but was climbing steadily, I had got into a rhythm now and was quite happily running along, although it was still wet, it was quite warm and I had ditched my raincoat going through Pucks Glen and would not need it for the rest of the race, the mist was down and as another runner described it, it was very “atmospheric” with various shades of grey. The path kept climbing until we reached a mast which I knew to be the high point of the race, I did not think it would come so early, we were at mile 12 or so. There was a sign saying “view point – turn around” and I am sure any other day you would be greeted with a fabulous view down Loch Eck. The route now headed steeply downhill to the relay handover point. As we came past the handover we hit a short stretch of road that was coned off so we had a lane to ourselves, it was hard coming back down to the concrete and my legs were not enjoying it after the hard downhill, before long we were diverted off the road to full Ultra’s second checkpoint, (the first was at mile 8 but I did not stop). I grabbed some water and food and headed out, a marshall cheerily told me it was pretty flat for the next wee bit and I have to admit my heart sank a bit, I never do very well on the flat. This section took us alongside the Loch and was pretty muddy and giant puddles everywhere which again were jumped or skirted round, this section was taking it out of me and my legs were heavy and I was struggling a bit when another runner came alongside me, Robert from Gourock Harriers, just over the other side of the water, their club had a few running both the relay and the full ultra, we stuck together for quite a while chatting and the miles just disappeared it seemed no time until we reached the 3rd checkpoint, back at Benmore. Alan was waiting for me and it was good to see him, he always gives me a lift. They had coke at this station and I grabbed a cup and it was either this or seeing Alan but whatever it was it gave me a bit of rocket fuel as I headed off on the last leg. We ran the same puddly section as we had at the start of the race but turned a different direction shortly after and began our return to Dunoon. There was a bit of road, then we hit the trails again, I was doing a fair bit of chatting to runners either as they passed me or as I passed them and the sun was starting to come out. I don’t think I have ever seen so many rainbows as I did on this race. I was glad Robert had warned me that just when you can see Dunoon and the water and you think you are heading in the path turns and goes up and away and further into the hill as I might have been a bit disheartened otherwise but forewarned is forearmed and as Dunoon came into sight I readied myself for another hill. Once this was climbed it was a steep descent into the town, past some houses and then a final half mile or so along the Esplanade with the pier just out of sight around the corner, it was a bit of a slog but I kept telling myself nothing was worse than the final road section after the Breweries and that this was a doddle. As I turned the final corner, I could see the Pier with all its flags and crowds. I pushed to the finish and crossed in 6.17.44
Post-race there was hot food and a choice of beer or gin (another first!), a cotton t-shirt with photo of Loch Eck and a lovely little wooden plaque instead of a medal. I also don’t think I have seen so many photographers at a race before, they popped up all over the place, so consequently I have a LOT of photos which is just as well as I did not take nearly as many as I was planning since it was so wet and I nearly killed my phone at the Devil trying to use it in the rain. (Thank you to Ken Clark whose photos I have used here).
This was a really lovely race in a beautiful area that I definitely want to come back and explore some more, the organisation and support from both the community, the marshalls and the local running club was fantastic and I would love to come back and run this again and hopefully get to see the views I missed this time round.
It was not until the next day that I saw the results and was really surprised to see that I had managed to come in 50th overall, 10th female and 3rd in my age category.
Finally, a massive thanks to Alan who once again spends his weekends trailing around the country with me while I run these races, he is dragged out of bed at silly o’clock in the morning and then left standing around for hours in the pissing rain or being eaten by midges at checkpoints waiting for me to come in and then run straight back out again. I could not do what I love to do without his unwaivering support and good humour, he is my biggest cheerleader but can always be relied on to tell it to me straight when the wheels are falling off and I am having a strop. I might even give him my beer at the end of the next race. xx
Here is a little bit of the start that John Kynaston filmed