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Murray Strain, well ahead on Dumyat

Murray Strain, well ahead on Dumyat

Last Wednesday evening’s 38th running of the annual Dumyat hill race was a good example of how two outwardly similar hill days can actually be quite different. The race – up and down the craggy 400-metre hill just north-east of Stirling – is traditionally run on the first Wednesday in May, and this year, like last, was clear, dry and sunny with firm ground after a dry spell.

The difference, however, was that whereas 5 May 2010 was genuinely balmy – a powered hang-glider chugged overhead while a sprawl of spectators encouraged the runners from the upper slopes – the 4 May 2011 version was afflicted by a chilly and strengthening east wind.

Cool and dry is reckoned to be better than warm and dry for running purposes, however, so even though spectator numbers were down (this year’s hilltop gallery comprised just three women, one man and his dog, a race marshal and a journalist), there was a good chance of a very fast winning time.

The paths were like concrete and the often-boggy short-cuts dried out, so the only real downside was the upper-slope gustiness. For the most part, the runners – approaching from and returning to the west – were sheltered from this, but the thought at the time was that conditions might be just too blowy up top to allow a course record.

And so it proved, as although last year’s winner Murray Strain of Hunters Bog Trotters retained the title and carved 41 seconds off his previous best, he still finished 14 seconds outside of Iain Donnan’s tremendous 2007 time of 32 minutes 52 seconds. Winner of the women’s race – not for the first time – was Angela Mudge of Carnethy, in 39 minutes 5 seconds. She was 23rd overall, finishing 2 minutes 19 seconds outside her own women’s record (also from 2007).

The Dumyat race began life as a bet – in 1972 – as to whether or not it was possible to start at the Gannochy sports centre on the Stirling University campus, run up Dumyat and return, all within an hour. That this is indeed possible is best shown not by the half-hour-ish times served up by the elite speedsters, but by the proportion of the overall field that dips under the 60-minute mark.

The official set of timings and results from last week’s have yet to be published, but the provisional results record that of the 326 runners who finished, 295 got there and back in under an hour. Over 90 per cent, in other words. Very impressive.

The speed of even non-elite runners prompts another observation – one which will be apparent to anyone who habitually watches hill races from the course highpoint. It is this: there is a surprisingly narrow timespan between the leader’s arrival at the uphill/downhill turning point and that of all but the slowest backmarkers. Last Wednesday, on Dumyat, Strain circumnavigated the big cemented cairn just a few seconds after 7:22pm – so, assuming that the race started bang on 7pm and your correspondent’s watch was correct, he had covered the 3.9km and 400-plus metres of ascent in just over 22 minutes.

It was then almost two minutes before the first chasers – a group of three – likewise reached the top, and by 7:42pm, within 20 minutes of Strain (who by that stage had been finished for nine minutes, it should be said), upwards of 90 per cent of the field had come and gone. Even the absolute backmarker – the stalwart Max McFarlane of Kilbarchan – reached the top in 49 minutes. What all this shows is that all but the slowest runners tend to be faster than all but the fastest walkers – and it also indicates just how much distance a runner can cover in the space of a mere minute.

Another good example of this can be seen in the annual Maddy Moss race, a few miles further east along the Ochils. Here all but the slowest backmarkers tend to have reached the high point, Ben Cleuch, by 48 minutes. Every now and then – when weather, dry ground and mood are all in mysterious alignment – your mildly intrepid correspondent has a go at getting to the top of Ben Cleuch from the street in Tillicoultry as fast as he can – but walking every step of the way, given that old injuries and general decrepitude have long since put paid to any efforts at running.

The best eyeballs-out, chugging-like-a-steam-train time yet achieved for this is 48 minutes 24 seconds. The race route is slightly shorter – it starts a little way above the road – but again this appears to indicate that steady uphill running almost always beats fast walking.

Another interesting feature of last week’s Dumyat race was the rare sight of hill runners in fancy dress. This has become commonplace (some would say tediously clichéd) in mass-participation road races, but isn’t often seen on hill events, apart from festive races where some runners deck themselves out in red-and-white or with Bah Humbug bobble-hats.

On Dumyat, however, there were at least four Ninja Turtles (or were they Incredible Hulks? A smear of green facepaint and a flappy piece of cardboard, anyway), one clown – who was going very well – and a couple of other runners sporting superhero capes of various designs. As to the reason for this sudden outbreak of jollity, the explanation came from Chris Upson of Scottish Hill Racing: “The fancy dress at Dumyat was down to Ochil Hill Runners celebrating 20 years, I believe. I managed to catch Bob Wiseman dressed as a clown in the bluebell woods, but never got anywhere near Angela Mudge in her tutu.”

Anyone who has ever seen the ageless Mudge run is likely to think she could add a pair of stilettos to the tutu and still win the women’s race.

An interesting postscript to Strain’s Dumyat victory (he retained his at-the-summit margin to win by 95 seconds) came on the following Saturday, when one of the great set-piece Scottish hill events took place on Ben Lomond. The race from Rowardennan neatly bookends the summer with September’s Ben Nevis event, but this year’s field was strangely lacking in big names.

The winning time, 73 minutes 43 seconds by Paul Faulkner of Carnethy, although still mightily impressive, was almost eight minutes down on Prasad Prasad’s sub-66-minute belter from last year – although this year did see a fast lead-woman’s time, 83 minutes 39 seconds by Sarah McCormick of Peebles-based Moorfoot Runners. (In 2010, the gap between the first man and first woman had been over 15 minutes.)

In conditions that were “extremely misty and murky”, with lightning flashing over the western shore of the loch, Upson – who runs for the Westerlands club when he’s not earning a living or maintaining his results website – finished an excellent tenth. “My first ever Ben Lomond where I wasn’t caught on the descent,” he said

Dumyat winner Strain, meanwhile, was seemingly denied a late entry by the organisers, even though upwards of 50 of the pre-entered runners didn’t take part.

Rules is rules, but had Strain been allowed to compete, and given the form he is clearly in, few would have bet against him winning at a canter. Still, there will be other days, and other races – the Scottish summer hill-race season is only just getting into its stride.

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Spyke on the Cluanie hills two years ago

Spyke on the Cluanie hills two years ago Picture: Chris Upson

A fortnight ago, we reported on the start of Gerry McPartlin’s attempt to climb all 283 Munros within four months. It’s a remarkable effort – McPartlin is aged 66 – and it has started well.

At 6am yesterday, however, while London was awash with marathon hype, an even more audacious Munro round began, on Mull. Stephen Pyke – a Staffordshire Moorlands runner known as Spyke – is attempting to complete the list self-propelled: on foot, on bike and in an occasional canoe. It’s something only 20-odd people have done – and he’s aiming to get round in just 40 days, an average of more than seven Munros per day.

Arguably his real target is 48 and a half days, the current record for a Munro round. This was set in the soggy summer of 2000 by Charlie Campbell from the Westerlands running club, and has not been challenged in the subsequent decade.

Spyke has good Munro-going pedigree, having done a Charlie Ramsay Round, the huge Lochaber hill-running test-piece, in 2006. He also holds the record for the traverse of the Scottish 4,000-footers, and had a pop at the Munros-in-a-day record in 2008 before foul weather forced a halt. These were all one-day pushes, however, and keeping fitness and commitment going for six or seven weeks is a different game.

Spyke made a pretty smooth start, climbing Ben More, cycling to Fishnish, then paddling across to Lochaline before “a quick porridge stop”. Another 50 miles on the bike preceded the two Glenfinnan Munros – although in weather described by one of his support crew as “pretty grim” he had to omit Gulvain, which will now be tackled later, from the Glen Dessary side. (Campbell had to make a similar adjustment in 2000.) Today comes the great ridge along the north side of Glen Nevis.

He began on Mull for two reasons: Ben More is an outlying Munro, and starting offshore reduces the number of sea-crossings. Campbell also started here (he swam the watery bits), and seven weeks later finished in glorious high-summer weather on Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro.

Spyke is targeting the same finish, but his intervening route is markedly different. The traditional approach on continuous-round attempts has been to operate in Lochaber and the south in the early days, then swing across the central and eastern Highlands before starting the arduous west-coast zigzag of what Hamish Brown called “the big glens”.

By contrast, Spyke’s provisional schedule tackles the 18 Munros of the Cairngorms as early as days five and six. Given the amount of late-lying snow in that part of the country, the crux of the entire trip could well come in the first week.

Should he drop a few half-days early on, then not only will the 40-day target be unrecoverable (he has only lined up one “rest day”, and even that involves the long cycle from Kintail to Sligachan), but Campbell’s record will start to look problematic.

There will be no let-up. Day 21 is intended to take in all 13 Munros of the Cruachan, Etive and Blackmount groups, a massive effort in rough country. Days 27 and 29 each target a dozen Munros: Quoich/Cluanie, followed by the full Skye set, while another daily dozen comes near the end, with three Fisherfield Munros and all nine Fannaichs.

Asked how he sees Spyke’s chances, record-holder Campbell says: “Fair to middling, maybe aye, maybe naw. You just can’t tell in this game when you are pushing the limits.”

Campbell has long believed a 40-day round to be feasible – he set off in 2000 with the same figure in mind – “but only if everything goes 100 per cent perfect.”

He has concerns about the early Cairngorms raid: “[Spyke] could be dropping days in his first week”. By contrast, he feels that starting as early as late April need not in itself be a problem. “Manny Gorman last year started at this time when setting a Corbett record,” he says. “Twenty years ago, Hugh Symonds [who ran round the Munros in 66 days] started on 19 April with snow on the tops.” Campbell himself didn’t begin until late May in 2000, but says he would start earlier if ever trying again.

In all probability, the eight-day difference between 40 days and the record will allow some slack as rest breaks and rejigs are needed. “Spyke has some huge days planned,” says Campbell, “especially later in his schedule, and I just can’t realistically see some of these days happening, especially when he is jiggered and the wheels are starting to come off. However, he may be a totally different beast to me, and by that point he’s mega strong and healthy and holding it all together.”

Amid all the exciting uncertainty, however, one thing seems guaranteed. Ultra-distance hill running is the most comradely of sports, and Campbell is unlikely to be content with cheering on his rival from afar. There is every chance that he will, at some stage, play an active role in offering support for Spyke.

Campbell’s own round saw him aiming for the previous record of 51 days nine hours set by Andrew Johnston and Rory Gibson in 1992 – and they duly showed up to offer encouragement and to stash a bottle of Macallan in the Ben Hope cairn. “All records are there to be broken,” says Campbell, and he will surely help to consign his own to the history books – provided the next few weeks go well and it starts to seem a possibility rather than just a dream.