It was the 2012 Hoka Highland Fling last Saturday - a 52 mile running race along the first half of the West Highland Way from the outskirts of Glasgow to Tyndrum. This was the 3rd time I have ran the race and last year I was delighted to finish in just under 10 hours.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on as I haven’t done as much training as the previous year because of the problems I’ve had with my left foot. In the four months leading up to the Fling I had only done 4 runs longer than 10 miles, and only one of them was longer than 20 miles. So I had some big doubts over my stamina, but knew I was running faster than last year over shorter distances as I’ve done more interval and hill training . A week before the Fling I ran a 13 mile route up a local hill and was about 7 or 8 minutes faster than this time last year so I took the same proportion off my previous Fling time and created a 9 hours 20 minute schedule for myself. This felt a little ambitious given the lack of long training runs, but I thought I’d give it a go and see what happened - if I struggled later in the race then I would just slow down and enjoy the rest of the run.
Milngavie to Drymen - 12 miles, 1 hour 52 minutes
In December I’d persuaded a work colleague in London to come and run the Highland Fling as his first ultra marathon. Malcolm was planning on doing an ultra in Northumberland later this year but I managed to convince him that he should come and do the Fling as well, and had promised him a great trail, fantastic scenery, brilliant weather and lots of friendly, supportive runners to share the day with. We met up just before the start - Malcolm was planning on taking it very easy since this was his first run longer than 26 miles so we ran the first few miles together at a nice easy pace. I think we were pretty much in last place after half a mile or so, but the pace was good and the first few miles ticked by in no time as we chatted about Malcolm’s first ultra. I left Malcolm to run his own race as we approached Craigallian Loch - he went on to finish in 12 hours 40 minutes after pacing himself well for the day.
As usual the first few miles of the Fling reminded me of Monty Python’s “Marathon for the Incontinent” sketch - I guess the 8am start gives everyone too much time to hydrate before the start of the race.
For the rest of the way to Drymen I kept it nice and easy and was a few minutes down on my schedule but was not too concerned as it was a great day to be out running and I was not that bothered about times.
Drymen to Rowardennan - 15 miles, 2 hours 33 minutes
I was finding that I could comfortably run up more of the hills than I had done on previous Flings and felt really good on the way up to Conic Hill. Technical, hilly trail is more my bag than the fast, flat run up to Drymen, and going over Conic Hill I was catching plenty of runners who had started off a bit faster than me. Most of the interval training I have been doing has been hilly fartlek, with some of the fast intervals being downhill, and I think this helped as coming down Conic Hill I did not feel like I was braking with every step.
At the Balmaha checkpoint Murdo told me that I had won the best drop bag prize - well, really my 6 year old daughter Anna had won it for me. Anna loves to paint so when my usual pre-race day fish and chips lunch came in a big paper bag it seemed like fate, and Anna was happy to paint her vision of the Highland Fling on it - I told her that the race had trees, mountains, lochs, cows and lots of people running, and she did the rest. The bag still smelled of fish and chips so it gave me a good appetite when I picked it up at Balmaha. Knowing how happy Anna would be that the bag had won definitely gave me spring in my step for the next few miles. I saw Norry at Balmaha, who was going well, and it was good to get a cheer from his support team every few miles on the way up to Rowardennan.
|With my drop bag at Balmaha - thanks to Davie Hall for the photo|
I was within a couple of minutes of my schedule at Rowardennan, and was feeling in good shape with 27 miles done so was happy with that.
Rowardennan to Beinglas - 14 miles, 2 hours 41 minutes
The 4 miles of forest track after Rowardennan are probably some of the easiest running on the route so it was nice to feel in good shape on them and move quite quickly. I passed a few familiar faces on this section - I’d seen Colin Knox’s pacing schedule and provided we were both on schedule I should see him on this section, which I did. He looked to be going well and feeling comfortable and went on to get a good PB. I’m looking forward to see how Colin gets on in the WHW race in June - he’s certainly preparing for it well.
I really enjoyed the rough section before and after Inversnaid, trying to move as smoothly as possible and letting my legs absorb the lumps and bumps. This was my fourth time along this bit of path and it definitely gets easier the more you run it. I had warned my friend Malcolm that the bit round Inversnaid was a little rough, but as I was clambering down some of the rock staircases I thought maybe I’d undersold it a little since it would seem really very rough to someone more used to running on roads - he managed fine with it though. On the climb a couple of miles before Beinglas I felt really low on energy and struggled up the hill for a few minutes before the calories in the chocolate soya milk I had downed started to come through. I ran into Beinglas still within a couple of minutes of my schedule.
|Running well, fuelled by soya milk, just before Beinglas - thanks to Allan Harley for the photo|
I felt good for about a mile out of Beinglas, then felt like my energy levels dived and I felt crap for ten minutes, until a can of coke started to work its way into my bloodstream. My energy had dropped pretty much thirty minutes since the previous time, and this repeated itself for the rest of the day - feel full of beans for twenty minutes, energy levels drop, drink something sweet, feel crap for ten minutes, energy levels pick up again. It was a little frustrating as my legs felt relatively fresh and not tight at all. I was able to cut loose on the downhills in the forest near Crianlarich, when in previous races I’ve had to stiffly pick my way down the hills in pain. Going through Auchtertyre coincided with one of my good spells and I was running 8 minute miles on the tracks and road there, but the last mile into Tyndrum coincided with one of my bad spells which was a shame. Struggling for the last ten minutes took a little of the shine off what had been a great day out.
I finished in 9 hours 18 minutes - pretty much bang on my schedule, but more importantly much quicker than I could ever have imagined when I first ran the Fling three years earlier. There is definitely more to this game than just training harder - so much of it is learning how to mentally approach these long long runs.
My left foot coped really well with the Fling - my running style has changed to protect my big toe joint, so that I strike with the outside of the front of my foot. I think I now have a much more efficient running style, and my legs definitely felt less tired, stiff and sore on Saturday than on any other ultra I have run. The outsides of my feet are bruised and sore though, and my lesser-toes are all losing their nails this week I expect. Running low on energy towards the end of the race was I guess down to having legs that were fresh enough to be able to burn up energy faster than I could absorb it.
It was good to hang around at the finishing chatting to lots of familiar faces - Murdo had told me to wait around to pick up the prize for the best drop bag competition and I didn’t want to go home without it as my daughter would have been disappointed. Just as I was leaving, Malcolm came round the corner to finish, and it was nice to share a bit of the buzz he felt finishing his first ultra.
|Anna clearly delighted with her prize, a bottle of Murdo McEwan's Champion Ale|