“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go “ T.S.Eliot
Confession: I like running. I like Scotland. Where those two circles overlap on a Venn diagram is my happy place. I have run in various far flung outposts North of the Wall – an ultra on the Isle of Tiree, full marathons in Lochaber, Elgin and Cape Wrath, plus half marathons in Inverness, Aviemore, Orkney, Shetland, Isle of Barra, Isle of Lewis, Isle of Arran, Mull of Kintyre, Kinloss and Cape Wrath. I have a heart made of Tunnocks Teacake and if you cut me open I bleed Irn Bru. Sometimes I think my brain is made of deep fried Mars bar.
Background: I ran my first marathon in 2003, and from then until 2013, injuries aside, I was a twice a year marathoner, regular as the seasons, one spring, one autumn, with various degrees of success/feelings of failure/dissatisfaction and an exponentially decreasing return on the miles I was putting in compared with the results I was expecting. I would run 40-50 miles a week, training 6 days a week sometimes and wake every morning feeling like I was 80 years old. I look back at that runner now and I do not recognize myself. When you know the horse is dead, stop flogging it. Though having said that, I have since given the corpse a few prods and done 3 off road marathons. Tut. Some people eh?
So when you can’t run marathons the way you want to, what do you do next? You decide to try and see what happens when you run further. Obviously.
My first Ultra was the Oldham Way Ultra in March 2015, a 40 mile trot round the Oldham Way, which is a long distance walking path, taking in parts of Greater Manchester and the occasion foray into the Peak District and bandit country (Yorkshire). I had no expectations about what to expect or what I would be capable of, so was pleased to get round in just under 10 hours and be 4th female finisher (always the bridesmaid). I felt unbelievable broken afterwards due to not training properly and wasn’t sure if going that far was for me. My second ultra was the Isle of Tiree Ultra in September 2015, which was a 35 mile, one lap of the island. I had a backpack malfunction for the first 16 miles (entirely my own fault) but finished in 7 and a quarter hours. Not as broken as before, but still not convinced that I really had what it takes to go beyond marathon distance.
So when you’re not sure whether running a really long distance is for you or not, what do you do next ? You decide to enter a race which is a full half marathon further than you have ever run before. With the added pressure of time-cut off points along the way. Tut. Some people eh?
The HOKA™ Highland Fling is a 53 mile race along the lower part of the West Highland Way, starting in Milngavie 6 miles outside Glasgow and finishing at Tyndrum. It started in 2006 with 20 competitors and has quickly grown to being a big player on the Scottish Ultra Marathon scene, with 1000 places available for individual runners, plus 50 four person relay teams. The 2016 event was chosen to host the UK and Scottish Ultra Trail Championships, so the best of the elite runners would be present. Entries sell out within an hour of going on sale at 9pm on an October Sunday evening. I wouldn’t normally consider entering a race that requires an awful lot of effort and scrambling just to get a place (yes Lakeland 50 I do mean you, and you too Berlin marathon), but I was dutifully pressing the right buttons at 9pm, paying my £45 entry fee and by 9:10pm I was an entrant in the 11th running of the race on Saturday 30th April 2016. And so to train for it.
As previously mentioned, back in the bad old days, I used to do stupid weekly mileage. Last year I had a sort of Damascene moment when I realised that perhaps I needed to train differently. Too often I was falling out of love with running and losing my mojo and my days of setting PBs seemed behind me. I could still do the minimum level of training to do well enough, but I wasn’t improving or pushing myself. Something needed to change.
Through my Pilates teacher I got in touch with a running coach in Manchester called Rachael Hunt, a fairy believing, astrology following, lesbian from Stoke (only the first two of these things are necessarily wrong). Through her business ,Life Without Limits Endurance, she coaches runners of all abilities, across all distances, using primarily the principles of CrossFit Endurance. This type of training sees you running no more than 4 times a week, with every session having a purpose. No junk miles, no recovery runs. Two interval sessions a week, a shorter tempo run (which for me means parkrun) and then a longer tempo run on a Sunday. Those running session are supplemented with 3 or 4 strength and conditioning sessions. I must admit I was extremely skeptical that such a regime would work, as everyone knows to be a better runner, you have to do more running, right ? Miles and miles and miles? Wrong, wrong and wrong. Less is best. It works for me and I am entirely a different runner to what I was 12 months ago and I will never ever go back to doing stupid miles in training.
3:30am is just a ridiculously early time for a human being to get up and have to function. It is even more ridiculous to try and force porridge into you at that time, when your stomach has, seemingly overnight, shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. But shovel it down I did. It was fuel for what was,it would be fair to say, going to be quite a long day.
The race has a 6am start in Milngavie train station car park, not the most auspicious starting destinations for a race. When I got there, it was already a heaving throng of people.
My first job was to drop my drop bags off. The Fling is entirely self sufficient – there are checkpoints on route, all of which just have water, so anything you want to fuel you for 53 miles, you have to provide yourself in the form of a small package, one of which could be left at each of the checkpoints at miles 19.8, 27.2, 34.4 and 40.9. To run such a distance you definitely need more than gels. Proper food is the order of the day. And anyone who says Discos are an improper food stuff is an idiot. Food of champions.
I deposit my drop bags in the back of the volunteers cars who will drive them to the checkpoints, drop my bag with clothes in for the finish on the back of a truck, pay 3 visits to the portaloos (only one of which is really necessary) and then we are off. There are 3 mini-starts, all about a minute apart – the elites and those who are going to take under 10 hours, the 10-12 hour finishers and the 12 hour plus, at the front of which group I position myself. We run under the bypass, do a couple of hundred metres along the High Street and then we turn right and we are on the start of the West Highland Way. This sh*t just got real!!
Milngavie – Drymen – total distance 12.6 miles, total time 2:09:54
The first section of the race wends its way through some quite pretty woodlands, with no real hills. Not surprisingly everyone is still relatively tightly packed together, but not so much that you can’t run at your own pace, or overtake chatty people (one of my personal bug bears in any race is people chatting inanely. Shush!) should you need. I am running well within myself, averaging just over 10 and a half minute mile pace. I am already feeling quite hungry and given my first drop bag is not till 19 miles, I have a banana and a flapjack to tide me over. The checkpoint at Drymen is an odd one – we are almost going up someones driveway until we divert along a single file path. I top up my water and trot on.
Drymen – Balmaha – total distance 19.8 miles
In all the Facebook chatter about the race, there are 4 bits of the course that were always cropping up – Conic Hill, the technical loch side bit, Cow Poo Alley and the Rollercoaster. At 9 am when I would normally be at the start line at Cuerden Valley parkrun, I have already run 16 miles. I am more than aware that Conic Hill is looming (no pun intended) on this section but I am not quite sure where it will be – in these parts, one hill looks very similar to another. And then I see it. And I see a very long, multi coloured, florescent snake of tiny ant like runners, going up it into the distance as far as the eye can see. And so I join them.
Everyone in front of me is walking; everyone behind me is walking too. It would seem perverse of me to do anything different so I join the steady huff and puff. One of the golden rules of doing ultras is that you are allowed to walk the hills. Just like you are allowed to eat loads during the race and even stop and have a sit down should you wish to. All that huffing and puffing is rewarded with a view across Loch Lomond, that had I had any breath left, would surely have taken said breath away.
Of course if you go up a hill, then you have to come back down the other side. I will freely admit to being one of the worst downhill runners. I lack confidence and the ability, particularly on very technical courses. So my descent from Conic Hill resembles that of a 90 year old granny, inching her way down the stairs because her Stannah stairlift is jammed at the top. I am embarrassingly unconfident on such a technical descent. It is painfully, comically slow. I constantly feel I am going to lose my footing and take a tumble. I teeter on the brink of calamity the whole way down, whilst others literally fly past me. It is sweet relief to get back on safer, flatter ground.
Shortly after we hit the flat, I can hear a bit of a commotion through the trees. Bells, whistles, lots of shouting. I run past a lady with a mega phone who shouts my number, 814, into it. I assume this is due to someone checking off runners, but it is because we have hit the checkpoint at Balmaha, and before I can say “where’s my drop bag”, a kindly volunteer, who has been alerted by the lady with the megaphone that I am incoming, has thrust it in my hand. Food, glorious food. I am conscious of the need to eat, but also conscious of not eating too much and then trying to run whilst my body is still digesting it.
Balmaha – Rowardennan – total miles 27.2, total time 5:45:24
We are now alongside Loch Lomond and will remain so for just over the next 20 miles. For this section there are a few short sharp hills, with similar descents. For a lot of this section it seems that we are moving to our left away from the Loch, only to then double back on our selves and eventually end up back along side it. We even have to negotiate a small shingle beach, which has me having flashbacks to Tiree ultra, where we ran along three quarters of all the beaches on the island. Chariots of Fire this most definitely isn’t.
As ultras tend not to have mile markers, I haven’t to be honest, being paying much attention to distance and pacing. I’ve just been keeping going to my best of my ability. The checkpoint at Rowardennan is 27.2 miles in, so just over half way. As I run over the timing mat, I sneak a peak at my watch, which shows 5 hours 45 minutes. This gives me a welcome boost as it means I have run a marathon in a faster time than I did Grizedale Trail marathon (my longest training run, in 5:51) plus it means I am well within the cut off time for this stage of 7 hours. Prior to the race, making the cutoff times had been bothering me more than the distance I was having to run.
As before, the volunteers are champing at the bit to give me my next drop bag. I am perhaps now realising that I may have over catered somewhat. I can only eat so much, and I can only carry so much. There is a table full of left over drop bag items that runners have dumped/discarded for other runners to scavenge on should they wish. I add to the pile. So “just” a marathon left to run. My pre-race estimate of completing the course in under 12 hours looks like it could still be feasible.
Rowardennan – Inversnaid – total distance 34.4 miles
As I set off running again, it is noticeable that the number of runners ahead of me has dramatically thinned out. Perhaps because Rowardennan is a cut off point and people are relieved to have made it, they are maybe taking a bit longer there, plus it is one of the points on the course were friends and family are permitted to be. The weather briefly changes and it starts to rain at about 30 miles. It’s spitting, everybody inside!! Fortunately this is just a shower, and although not as warm and sunny as before, the weather Gods are being benevolent towards us. I can only imagine how miserable it would be to run 53 miles in the pouring rain. As I progress North, parts of the course begin to look familiar (well as familiar as random trees/paths can look) as in February I went on one of the training weekends, where we ran south from the Beinglas check point along part of this section.
Another checkpoint and drop bag at Inversnaid. Again I rue packing quite so much food. I throw a sandwich away untouched, which just feels wasteful. I guzzle flat Coke like its going out of fashion, although I realise that this isn’t helping my hydration, and is in fact probably making me even more thirsty. But boy does it taste good. At this point my legs feel fine, though I have really bad things going on it my shoes and mild chafing where no lady wants to be chafed (top half, not down below)
Inversnaid – Beinglas – total distance 40.9 miles, total time 10:04:47
So with just over 18 miles to go, I set off from the Invesnaid checkpoint. I know what is coming in this stage – it is the dreaded “technical” section. But I have recced this so I know what it is like. I can’t imagine what it would be like to come across this bit never having seen it before. It involves scrambling over rocks and tree branches, where there is no properly marked path, sometimes quite dangerously close to the edge of the loch. It requires an incredible amount of concentration and progress is painfully slow.
But what is the quote about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing? When I came to recce this section, I was doing it on fresh legs, not legs that now have 36 miles in them. And so the wheels start to fall off the bus somewhat. Every step I take seems to be the wrong one. I make numerous wrong decisions. I might as well be going backwards. I am using my hands as much as I am using my feet. I would rather be tiptoeing down Conic Hill than doing this. I actually at one point, swear out loud at the top of my voice, not caring what my fellow runners think. In my head, everyone else is coping better than me with this section. I feel utterly helpless to do anything to improve how I am running/stumbling or to lift the foul mood into which I can feel myself sinking. Still the scenery was lovely.
Beinglas – Tyndrum – total distance 53 miles, total time 13:32:51
The last checkpoint at Beinglas cannot come soon enough. I look at my watch to see I have been running/moving/stumbling for just over 10 hours. A quick calculation tells me that the hellish technical section has put paid to a sub 12 hour time, as there is no way I can complete the remaining 12 miles in under 2 hours. Surely 13 hours would still be achievable though? I try and force some food down me but my stomach is less than accommodating to the idea. It is now just a question of getting through the last bit come what may.
Cow Poo Alley was also much mentioned on Facebook, with horror stories of malevolent Highland cattle and ankle deep levels of excrement. But when it does come at about 45 miles it is all a bit of an anti climax really. The cows are not Highland cattle, they are just sat there placidly watching runners go past them with no signs of hostility, and the ground under our feet is almost bone dry. I feel almost cheated not to have experienced this.
By now I am mostly walking. Putting the pressure on myself to get a sub 12 hour time and now the ‘failure” to achieve that has shattered me mentally. On the rare occasion I do run for a few hundred metres, my legs feel as though they still have lots of running in them. My feet in my cheap, inadequate trail shoes are complaining – at some point in this last section I feel all the blisters that I am cultivating pop. Ouch! I eat nothing apart from half a Wispa, which I know is stupid but even that is more than my stomach can cope with.
People say that Conic Hill is the highest toughest climb on the course, but the elevation profile would perhaps suggest that the end section (“The Rollercoaster”) is perhaps a greater elevation, though it doesn’t feel as extreme when you are doing it.
The Rollercoaster is reminiscent of parts of Grizedale Forest both in terms of the scenery and terrain. I had recced this bit so again it was no surprise. Except it was when I realised I had recced the wrong bit. Tut, some people. I make the road crossing of the A82, the 50 mile point, at 12 hours 45 minutes. Just 5k to go now says the marshal. I re-adjust my target to 13 and a half hours. Will this ever end? I walk mostly, run a bit. I even over take a few fellow struggling stragglers. Legs still ironically feeling really strong, mind missing somewhere around mile 36.
The finish is at the By The Way campsite.I can see marquees and trucks through the trees. I can also hear bagpipes, which in some situations is not the most welcomingly of sounds, but in this moment it is exactly what I want to hear. The end is nigh. So it’s round the corner and there at the end of the red carpet is the finish gantry.
I cross the line in a time of 13 hours, 32 minutes and 51 seconds. In that time I could have flown to Hong Kong. The first man finished in 6:51:06 which is essentially half the time it took me. The first woman finished in 7:52:55, both setting new course records. Mind blowing times.
I am still processing what I have achieved. I was pleased to finish under the cut off time of 15 hours. Out of 625 finishers only 7 failed to do it within the cutoff. My stomach, my feet, my head and the technical section meant that the last 18 miles wasn’t what I wanted it to be. But I believed I trained in the right way for this race, just didn’t get the hydration, nutrition and mental side right in the last third of the race. Every day is a new day at school.
As a thing, The Fling is just lovely, and for the ultra runners amongst Red Rose I would throughly recommend it. It is a fantastic race, in a glorious part of God’s own country, with logistics and organization that would put some smaller races (both in terms of distance and number of competitors) to shame. There is absolutely nothing that could be added to the event to make it any better. Fantastic goody bag as well. I can see why people return every year to do this race. I will definitely be back at some point.