Ding Ding... It's a newbie at the Highland Fling.
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
Back in September (2018) I completed my first 'official' long distance event, the Berlin Marathon. I was still feeling the runner's high from that race when I came across a post about another endurance event - The Highland Fling! Now, I'd heard this name banded about by some the the elites (in my eyes at least) of our local running community, but it was never something I'd seriously considered tackling myself. WHY you might ask????
Well to start, it's a very long race. 85km (53 miles) to be exact.... a little over 2 complete marathons. It also has almost 7000ft of ascent and is 90% off-road. There's no external support allowed, and to top it all off there are time limits. Not just at the finish, but at various checkpoints along the route. Miss one of these cut-offs and your day is over!
The event is also vetted. You cant just enter on a whim, you need to provide evidence that you're up to completing the challenge (safely) which normally means proving you've already completed an Ultra or similar endurance race. I thought this would rule me out completely, until a friend pointed out that depending on my time, a marathon might just meet the entry requirements. At this point my internal dialogue went something like this:
- Let's give it a go.
- Are you mental?
- How hard can it be?
- Really, are you mental?
- It's 6+ months away and you're already in marathon form, a bit more training and you're good to go
- Hmmm, maybe you're right!
- Of course I'm right, have I ever steered you wrong before?
- Well actually.......
- OK, forget that. How about you just sign up. Chances are you won't get a place anyway.
- True, they'd never let me take part with just Berlin under my belt. OK, I'M IN!
Oh, how wrong I was! Just a week later I received the email telling me my application had been accepted and I actually was in. It was time to take things a bit more seriously.
THE BEST LAID PLANS.....
It turned out a few friends had also been lucky enough to gain entry, including fellow Spey Runner, Mike Munro. Along with Chris Sutcliffe, Al Swadel and Jonny McAllister, we started putting our plans in place, and attempted to arrange some group training runs.
Now, I'm a social runner. As much as I enjoy the solitude you get from hitting the trails alone, for me the real joy of running comes from exploring new places, in the company of like minded people, so I'd hoped the group runs would really help me clock up the miles. Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, the idea never really worked out, and the best we managed was 1 session where 4 of us got out together.
I'd decided I was going to ease off the mileage since Berlin, then slowly ramp up in the New Year. Turns out that didn't happen either, and as the New Year passed by I found myself suffering with some serious pain behind my right knee. It didn't seem to matter if I was running 5km or 25km, I'd find myself hobbling the next day. I iced, rested, stretched, massaged, took anti-inflammatories, but nothing seemed to help. Time slipped by and before I knew it we were in to March. I was way behind my training plan and seriously considered withdrawing from the race, even writing the email to the organisers letting them know I wouldn't be taking part. It was during one particular chat with the rest of the guys that I found out we we're all in various states of disrepair and I wasn't the only one suffering with the training. I think It was Al's comment "My body is an absolute car crash just now. Still want to do it cos I'm a stubborn tight jock and I've paid for it..." that stopped me from sending the withdrawal email. So yeah, I'm blaming you Al :)
In a moment of panic, I realised what I should have done weeks ago - SEEK. PROFESSIONAL. HELP. (and no, not a shrink!). I was straight on the blower to the legend that is Lynda 'Velocity Physiotherapy" Anderson, and was in to see her just a couple of days later.
So, the good news - there was no obvious damage and no apparent mechanism of injury. The bad news - I'd somehow developed a major imbalance between my left and right leg, with one over developed quad, and a hamstring that just wasn't quite doing as it was told. I left Lynda armed with a rehab plan, and some confidence that I wasn't going to seriously hurt myself by tackling the Fling. I knew however, that whatever lofty expectations I had of myself a few short months ago (I'd secretly hoped to finish somewhere between 10-11 hours), were completely out of the window and my only goal now was to complete the distance within the time limit (and preferably injury free)!
If I could manage that, then I'd take it as a win.
THE BIG DAY ARRIVES.
With all the (self-induced) pressure of trying to put in a good performance now gone, I found the few days before the race quite stress free. With the ever supportive Karen Wiseman in the passenger seat, we took a leisurely drive to Tyndrum and parked the camper at the Pine Trees campsite, just a few hundred meters from what would be the race finish line. We met up with Chris, Al, Jonny, and another local runner, John Anderson, at the Tyndrum Inn for a bite to eat. Conversation soon turned to the event, times, and strategies, and it was interesting to hear how each person was approaching the race. The fact that most folk had a beer in their hand perhaps gave the truest picture. It wasn't long before we went our separate ways, turning in early in anticipation of a 3:45m bus ride to the start line in Milgavie. Mike, in his wisdom, had opted to set up camp near the start in Milgavie so he could get an extra hour or so in his bed!
I was awake well before my 3am alarm and scoffed my usual pre-race breakfast (overnight oats with banana and honey) before walking up the the coaches. I planned to grab some sleep during the 1hr15min journey but that was always going to prove difficult on a bus full of hyped up ultra-runners! At Milgavie, registration was as slick as I've seen at any event, anywhere! This was maybe due to registration being open on the Friday evening as well as race morning. There was very little queueing, and I had my race number, timing chip and bags dropped within about 10 minutes of stepping off the coach. The volunteers everywhere were amazing, making the whole process just so easy.
The only negative (and I'm being really picky) was the queues for the loos... but this is pretty much standard near the start line of any race. We were soon shepherded in to the starting pens where, after a brief chat and some motivational tunes, we were away.
Only 53 miles to go!
Although Johnny, Mike, Chris and I all planned to run our own race we found ourselves running together at the start, making the most of the good running and easy pace. We were soon on to the West Highland Way and ticking off the 12+ miles to the first checkpoint at Drymen. There are no drop bags this early in the race, so it was a quick cup of water and onwards towards Balmaha.
Shortly after leaving Drymen came the first spots of rain, and not long after starting the climb through the woods it was time to dig out the waterproofs. I'd been dreading this point as I generally hate running in a jacket. However, I found the new Inov8 Stormshell I'd picked up some weeks before quite pleasant to run in; quiet, comfortable and as breathable as you can expect for a waterproof jacket. Fortunately it's also tough enough that the fabric doesn't get easily worn by a race vest of pack, something I wish I could say about certain other clothing - I'm looking at you Salomon
It wasn't long before Conic Hill appeared before us and we began to climb in earnest. Now I'm not familiar at all with the West Highland Way or the race route, but lots of conversation during that first 20km seemed to centre around the hill we were now on. Personally I like to climb, preferring to go up rather than down any day of the week. That was certainly the case today and I thoroughly enjoyed the hike to the top despite the rain and worsening conditions underfoot. However, as we crested the hill and began the descent towards Loch Lomond my quads and knees soon started to let me know they weren't happy. Fortunately, it's a fast descent and only 15minutes later we had arrived in Balmaha.
This was the first of the 4 drop-bag stations and as I ran in to the transition area I got yet another experience of just how dedicated the volunteers are throughout this event. As my drop bag was handed to me, one marshal offered to open the packets of food I'd prepared whilst another took my water bottles to be refilled. Unfortunately the poor weather meant a rapid pit stop for fear of cooling down too quickly, so before we really had chance to catch a breath the 4 of us were heading off to begin the 30+km along the shores of the loch.
33 miles to go! The next checkpoint was at Rowardennan, around 12km of fairly flat running that was still quite enjoyable. My legs were starting to feel like they'd done some work but overall I was feeling much better than I'd expected. After just over 5hours on the route we came in to Rowardennan, content in the knowledge we were past the half way point, and ahead of the time we had expected to be.
Surprisingly the 4 of us were still running at around the same pace. We might separate briefly if one person felt stronger or someone got stuck in traffic, but without really trying we found we would soon regroup. During any long distance event your mood and general wellbeing can come along in peaks and troughs, and it's certainly a big boost to have some company when those troughs hit hard. The previous night I'd overheard someone say "The first marathon is the easy part" which seemed kind of obvious at the time, but I soon found out exactly what they meant. Leaving Rowardennan we were back on the narrow trails but this time the path was packed with rocks, tree routes, and huge puddles (of both water and mud). Due to the difficulty under foot, and the amount of people on the trail we were reduced to walking pace for much of the next 20km. I'm generally confident in my footing so took any opportunity to pass those more cautious runners, but it was still difficult to find a rhythm and make up any time.
By the time we reached Inversnaid we were all feeling the cold (moving slowly, so not really building any body heat) and I was getting horrendous calf cramps. We didn't hang around any longer than necessary to fill the bottles and grab some snacks. It's a shame as there are some spectacular waterfalls here that would have been enjoyed on a different day.
It was at Inversnaid that I also had my only serious thoughts on quitting! I was cold and wet, miserable from the lack of running, and pissed-off at cramping every 2nd or 3rd step. I'd also made the mistake of throwing down too many fluids at the check point so had some nasty stomach pains just as I was leaving. I came very close to calling it a day and had even begun to justify it in my own mind... "you've done ok considering you did't get to train", "35 miles is a long way however you look at it", and similar negative thoughts went through my mind. I've had moments like this before and I think only experience can help you deal with them. I was pretty sure that if I could get moving for a little while, allow the legs to run and build up some body heat I'd get though it. Fortunately, I did exactly that. Well, mostly! I managed to warm up and the stomach pains subsided, but I resigned myself to the fact I was going to have to manage the calf cramps for the rest of the day. Most of the 11km to Beinglas continued in the same way as the previous 10k and to be honest I think I've blocked a lot of it out. I remember cursing the path, the people around me (internally of course) and most of all myself, but I struggle to remember any of the features along this section. It must have been bad.
Looking back it seems a bit surreal, but on reaching the final drop bag station at Beinglas I remember thinking "This is it, just a half-marathon to go"! I doubt I'd have felt quite so upbeat if I'd known that this last section had the biggest single climb of the entire route, and of course more quad burning, knee buckling descent. It was around this stage that the 4 of us began to spread out a little, Chris and Jonny opting to spend some time walking, and myself and Mike needing to run to stay warm. A further 5km along the trail Johnny joined Mike and I having decided he also needed to generate some body heat. He was running strong too, spending a few minutes chatting with us before stretching his legs and disappearing in to the distance. The climb continued on through Bogle Glen, the final proper drink station, up and around Kirk Craig before dropping sharply back down towards the A82. By now any kind of descent was causing all sorts of pains. I opted to try to get it over as quick as possible and ran wherever I could. This opened up a bit of a gap between Mike and I, and I wouldn't see him again until the finish line. The final 5km from the A82 crossing to Tyndrum were (almost) enjoyable. Rolling roads and trails, devoid of any incline worth mentioning, gave a good chance to stretch the legs. I'd been clock watching for a while, debating whether I could push on for a sub 12 hour finish time, but soon decided I just didn't have anything in reserve.
I plodded the last few km, passing our campervan at Pine Trees, and rounding the corner to the sound of bag pipes. That little boost was all I needed to spur me on down the red carpet and across the finish line. Karen, as always, was waiting for me at the end, cheering, ringing the cowbell, and trying to get my attention for a few pics. Me, in my blinkered state completely missed her and ran right past :( Sorry x
Finish line hugs completed, medal around my neck and goody bag in hand, I staggered out to meet Karen, grab some much needed food, and to watch for Mike and Chris who were about to finish. It started to sink in that I'd done it. I'd got to the finish line in a respectable 12hrs:20min and more importantly I had finished the race injury free.
So what did I make of my first dip in to the world of ultrarunning?
Well, it's different, thats for sure! I'd heard various stories, some good, some great, and some downright horrendous. It's certainly more sociable than running other distances (at least for the majority of runners).
It's tough... 85km was never going to be a walk in the park, especially with little or no training before hand. But maybe that also shows just how achievable these events can be. I actually felt better after the Fling than I did after Berlin Marathon, and I could certainly move better in the following days.
Will I try this distance again? TBC And as for this particular event - Highland Fling, you were awesome! Even with the horrendous weather conditions and the logistics of hosting an event over such a large distance, this race went off without a hitch (at least from the runners perspective)! The organisation is superb. Plenty of communication prior to the race, easy options during sign up, and smooth hassle free registration. Every single runner is treated like royalty and so long as you play by the rules, the event team simply cannot do enough for you.
The finish area really stands out. Unlike many other events I've been to, everything post race is free to the runner. Of course you get your medal, prized buff & t-shirt etc in your goody bag along with your bottle of fizz! Hot or cold drinks wait for you right there at the finish line. No queuing for it either. One marshal went to grab a brew for me while another dashed off to find my kit bag. There is post-race massage right there on site and a huge food tent serving soup, baked potatoes, haggis (this is Scotland after all) and a whole host of other foods. Again - no additional cost to the runner! It's a breath of fresh air when compared to larger (commercialised) events where you get charged 7 quid for a poke of chips or a soggy burger. Apparently there is also a great after party too, with a bar, live music and a good all round celebration of each other's achievements. I say 'apparently' because I never made it that far. After dinner and couple of pints of Guinness, the only place I was going was to my bed.
Final word has to go to the marshals. They braved long days, suffering the same weather as us runners, but with a constant smile on their face, never ending encouragement and overall first class service. You guys are the main reason we get to the end. Thank you!