After hearing some disappointing news a fortnight ago, I decided to see if it was possible to gain a late entry into the Highland Fling. The Highland Fling is a 53 mile trail/multiterrain race along the southern half of the West Highland Way, starting in Milngavie and finishing in Tyndrum.
It can be raced solo, or as a team of 4 relay runners. I ran the first leg as part of a mixed relay team several years ago, but had never contemplated running the whole thing, as I was tired when I finished that leg. The race was being used as the Scottish Athletics ultra trail running championships, and late entries were possible for so-called "Elite" runners - so race director John Duncan kindly came to my rescue and gave me a place.
I had race number 816 out of 817 solo runners, but this wasn't due to my late entry, but due to my lovely surname, as numbers were allocated alphabetically (and for once I wasn't last!).
Having not specifically trained for, or targeted the race, I had no expectations for my performance. I am still scared of fast road starts thanks to Seville, but a 53 mile trail race isn't won or lost in the first 100m, so I wouldn't have to start at the front if I wanted to do well.
I looked at the ladies' times from last year - the top 2 finishers were both friends of mine (and team mates from the World Trail Champs in Wales last summer) but I know they are better on technical sections than I am, though I have greater flat speed. They had both been inside 9 hrs 15, so I thought that finishing inside 9 hrs 30 would be a great achievement for me. I wasn't actually sure of making it much beyond the first checkpoint at Drymen (12.6 miles), as my longest continuous run since Seville was only 12 miles (I did run further once, but had a sit down meal break in the middle)!
As a "first time Flinger", I found myself obsessively checking weather forecasts in the days leading up to the race, but then decided that it was going to happen whatever.......yes, it was going to be wet and windy, but it would be the same for everyone running!
I saw people posting on FB about their training and their dropbags, and I felt woefully underprepared as I got mine ready on the Friday afternoon, just before travelling up to Milngavie.
It was nice to travel up with Keith, a friend from Dumfries who had done the race in the past (it must have been good if he kept going back to do it again!) and was happy to answer many of my ridiculous newbie questions. A brief hello to a few friendly faces at registration then off to find a bed for the night ("find" being the operative word, but all was ok once I realised I was staying in a disable room booked under the name of "Tina" and my friends breathed a sigh of relief to find out I wasn't camping on their sofa and asking more questions all night long).
Dropbags for 816?
Pre-race nutrition of champions in the pub.....a veggie burger and chips, washed down with cider.....and then some nervous eating of biscuits in my room stressing about what to wear in the morning! It took some self-restraint not to munch my way through my dropbags (maybe that's why you can only drop them off just before the race start......to prove you have the strength of will to be able to cover the course).
Pre-race briefing from John
To my great surprise it wasn't raining the next morning, so I replaced my waterproof and cap with a buff and gloves on the way to the start at 5:30am. There were cars in which to place your dropbags - 1 labelled "numbers 0-400" and the other "400-800". No one knew what to do if your number was >800 and so I had visions of never seeing my food and drink during the course of the run! John gave us a race briefing and we lined up at the start. I was slightly back from the front and found myself chatting to my friend Izzy Knox (who was using the race as a training run for racing the whole of the WHW later in the year.....now that does sound like sheer madness, as they even have to run in the dark!). We were standing in a tunnel under a road, in the dark (as the lights went out), and my watch turned itself off......so it didn't bode well for the rest of the day.
No matter how long a race is, some people always hare off, so there were runners swarming past us as we chatted our way down the High Street, with me desperately trying to turn my watch on again. After we turned off down a ramp, I realised why people had sprinted off - the path suddenly became very narrow and I was boxed in behind loads of people running at a speed that wasn't comfortable for me. I couldn't see where I was placing my feet, and so couldn't avoid the many puddles underfoot.
Run-chat with James
I had heard a lady in front (Sally - from Dark Peak) mention to someone running next to her that she thought that it'd be no bother to duck under the winning lady's time from 2013, which was 9:12. This was considerably faster than the time I'd hoped to run (9:30), so I was happy to watch her zip away into the distance fairly early on.
Instead, I found myself running along with James Howarth of Galloway Harriers and so we started to chat about Screel Hill race, where we'd met a fortnight previously. He then regaled me with tales of other races, and missing presentations due to having sneaky sleeps in the car afterwards while waiting for his wife to finish. I seemed to be doing more than my fair share of gate opening as we ate up the miles, but then again, as a farmer, James must get heartily sick of opening and shutting them. Another guy tagged onto the back of us - though I'm guessing it made the gates easier for him rather than it being due to our fascinating chat. James kindly offered me a couple of his jelly babies, but I declined as I was still regretting my greed in reaching for the 4th (!) packet of instant porridge before setting out for the day!
The whole of the first leg suited me as it was easily all runnable, with sections of undulating trail, flat paths, and some road climbs/descents. I let my legs stretch out a bit on the road section, and passed a couple of men who commented on how fresh I was looking. They asked me if I was running solo or as part of a relay team - it only struck me later on that this was a rather odd question, as we'd been going for 1hr 15minutes and had covered about 11-12miles. The relay runners started an hour after us, so if I'd have been part of a team, I would really have had to be on fire - to have got that far in 15minutes!
A boggy run up into Drymen
As I neared the next checkpoint, I realised that the road section had meant that I'd closed right up on Sally and she was now in sight ahead of me and getting closer by the step. I tried to ignore this as I just wanted to run at my own steady pace, but as everyone knows, you try to look good coming into a checkpoint with people watching. I saw my friend Mark (who'd driven up from Dumfries that morning) just before crossing the road into the checkpoint, and he gave me an extra dropbag with meant that I could ditch the food I'd been carrying from the start (it had got rather shaken up in my bumbag!).
As it turns out, I had known a couple of the marshals on early road crossings, and realised what a difference it makes to see a nice friendly face. I was cheered by name across the timing mat at Drymen, which meant that I headed out strongly into the second section of the race. I nipped past Sally who seemed to be breathing rather heavily and then was away onto the forestry road on my own. Having also passed the only guy in eyesight, I did have some worrying moments about having gone astray. My policy of keeping going in the same direction unless I saw a sign pointing me a different way seemed to be paying off, as spotting a man with a camera reassured me that I was still on course (why else would someone be out at that time in the morning in the drizzly weather?).
Out of the mist up the hill
My tiffin and babybells had gone down a treat and I was well into my jelly babies as I approached Conic Hill (well - I hoped that I was approaching Conic as the weather made it impossible to see it, but I'd only stopped and checked directions once having not seen a little WHW marker for a while). There's a steady descent before you actually climb Conic, and while slip-sliding my way down this part of the trail (rather wet and muddy underfoot), I did wish that I was wearing some nice grippy trail shoes rather than my road shoes. There was not much I could do about it at that point in time, so I just took extra care not to lose my balance as two sure-footed men caught me up and disappeared into the mist that was Conic.
Over the top of Conic - great views!
I had been looking forward to the promised views of Loch Lomond as I crested the hill, but unfortunately the visibility was about 10m due to the mist and drizzle. I almost missed the photographer as I was over the top before I realised. What a shame for me as I much prefer climbing to descending! My excuse for being a slow descender is that I didn't want to ruin my quads while I still had 45 miles to run, but actually I'm just unsure of my knees and foot placement (especially with the road shoes) on steep terrain. Suddenly the trail turned into proper steps to descend and the cloud started to lift. I found it easier to bounce down the steps and improving weather always causes a lift in spirits. Adrian Stott had come up from Balmaha to encourage people and he surprised me by telling me that I was the leading lady in the race. That had not been my plan at all, and I thought "oh no, I can only go backwards from here". We exchanged greetings and news of friends as I carried on down the hill. It was starting to get warmer, with a vague promise of the sun trying to break through, so I had to unzip my jacket for the first time.
Dropbags arranged by organised marshals
This turned out to be fortuitous, as it now meant that my number and name were on display as I ran into the Balmaha checkpoint, though I did shout out "816" as requested. Drop bags were laid out in numerical (mainly alphabetical) order so I made a beeline to the far end, though somebody did check whether my number was 316 in order to pass me that bag - I really should've checked what food runner 316 had packed before refusing it! It was a lovely place to run into as there were supporters cheering me in, and the marshals were brilliant in that they had picked up my bag, opened it up, got my bottles ready to hand to me and asked if I needed anything else. A brief word and wave with race organiser John and I was away across some wood-chips back up onto the trail.
I took a good few long drinks from my bottle to try to get calories, electrolytes and fluids on board and then ditched it in the handy bin while waiting to cross the main road 100m further on. Now I could carry on running with a food bag in one hand and another bottle in the other.
It was getting quite warm at this point, but luckily the path veered away from the road and into some trees as we skirted little promontories alongside the Loch. I hadn't looked for Mark at Balmaha as I knew that he was aiming to see me further along the lochside, but it seemed like rather a long way before I popped out into a carpark and recognised his car. I'd made sure that I'd drunk all 250ml that I was carrying, so when I saw him, I could cleanly dispose of my empty bottle. Rather than flinging it at him (in the name of the event!) I stopped, as I was also keen to get rid of my warm jacket. I'd rather be slightly cold than too warm when running, and didn't really want a jacket round my waist as well as a bumbag. Another wave and I was off...
On the beach (between mouthfuls!)
Now I had two hands free I could attend to my (surprise surprise) rumbling stomach. I was still carrying my foodbag from the Balmaha checkpoint, so could take small items out and eat them while continuing on my way without having to slow down. It did feel rather unstable to be running along a beach while trying to eat, and some of the official photographs do show me mid-chew of tiffin or cheese (I like to eat both sweet and savoury when out for a long run), but it's not really a beauty contest is it?
By this time of day, there were more walkers about on the WHW. They were all friendly and encouraging - and there was never a problem passing them with a cheery "Good Morning", though some of them did comment that I should've finished my breakfast before starting out rather than eating on the run. This made me realise that although I'd been out running for hours, it wasn't yet 9am on a Saturday!!
People worry about climbing and descending Conic Hill, but I personally think that the second half of this section is more testing than the first. The route is very undulating and there is probably more elevation gain and loss in the last 7 miles than there is going over Conic. The sun was popping out to say hello so it was getting warmer and warmer, whilst the path sometimes meandered through trees up and down some decent inclines and at other times was alongside the road. There was obviously a lot of work in progress to improve the path, but at times it meant running round diggers (no fear of me going faster than the temporary speed limit on the trail!) and avoiding huge piles of stones (it looked like cyclists had been having fun going over these bumps, but they were certainly a test for the legs as they changed your stride pattern completely).
Arriving into Rowardennan
I knew that some of my friends from Ayr Seaforth were marshalling at the next checkpoint, as several of their club members were running the race, so I was looking forward to getting to Rowardennan (well, OK, I'd also eaten all my food and my stomach was desperate for my next dropbag!). The last few miles seemed to take a long while, but obviously took longer for a chap that I passed with a mile to go. I had spotted him coming closer through the trees for a little while, but as he had adopted a run-walk strategy on the hills, I was soon opened up a gap between us, though it was nice to see and speak to a fellow runner.
Out to the road again and over a chip mat, so I knew I was almost there! It was so nice to be guided off the trail and into the carpark to spot the smiling faces of my friends. They were lovely - so positive and cheery and had my bag ready and waiting. Fewer mouthfuls of drink this time as the bin was closer to the checkpoint, and I was off again (foodbag in hand). Two slight dramas at this checkpoint - firstly, trying to inhale my drink in my haste to have as much as possible before reaching the bin caused a coughing/spluttering fit, and secondly, I started to head back around the carpark back to where I had left the trail and had to be redirected back by the marshals to join a path that cut back to the WHW (why I was trying to add extra distance on is beyond me!).
Even allowing for the fact that I hadn't been able to start my watch at the start, I seemed to be well ahead of my expected time up to this point. However, I figured that this was probably because I was basing my guesstimates on Tracy and Fionna's time from the previous year. I have a faster road speed which carried me through the first two sections, whereas they relish the tough technical trail, which I was about to encounter! I knew the next section would be tough for me, but it would be interesting to see if I then ended up back on my pre-run time prediction.
Surprisingly, the first 4 miles out of Rowardennan are mainly on a forest road, albeit climbing for a great deal of it. When passing another runner, there's always that dilemma "do I encourage them or will they think I'm being annoying?" There is a great camaraderie out on the trails so I chose the former - and I'd like to think that people would do the same to me if I was going through a bad spell. I was actually enjoying being out alone as there was no chance of getting lost at this point, and it meant you could be alone to enjoy the run, your thoughts and the scenery. When someone who had a rather different idea about how to pace a run to me (he would run faster and slower and stop for periods rather than keeping at a steady effort, but maybe that was his plan and worked for him) ran up behind me for a spell, I found that I wanted to drop back, forcing him to go past so I could be alone again!
The forestry road abruptly ended and it was onto a single track - and a baptism of fire with a steep descent! For some reason, I had it in my head than only the end of Loch Lomond was like this, but no......I had 3 miles until I got to Inversnaid. Although I tried to keep running as best I could, sometimes it became impossible as I needed to use my hands to scramble up and down rocks and over trees and their roots. It is a beautiful path, and I guess you appreciate it more because you have to go at a slower speed. At times you were high up above the shoreline, while on other occasions you could slip and fall off rocks into the loch, which was only a foot below. As it was mostly under cover of the trees, I hadn't realised that the weather had changed - the sun had gone and there were rather wetter spells.
Finally, I saw a narrow footbridge and then many steps leading down to the carpark in front of the hotel at Inversnaid! Recognising the marshals, I commented that I thought I'd just covered the hardest 7 miles of my life! Another near choking incident on my drink when they told me that it was about to get much worse. There was another runner there who didn't appear to have left a dropbag, so they were kindly finding him something to eat, but I didn't hang around long - put my bottle in the bin, grabbed my food and headed off to face the rock demons!
When they said it was going to be tough, they weren't joking! I even had to get my arms involved lowering myself down ledges at certain points - my garmin registered me taking almost 18 minutes to cover a mile at one point - flying.....not! I have to say that the inclement weather only added to the challenge as it was incredibly wet and muddy underfoot in places and there was a bit of sliding going on. I started doubting whether I'd actually make it to the finish line in one piece, as every part of my body seemed to be hurting. I was taking a mental trip round the aches and pains in my body trying to work out which was hurting the most. Was it my right psoas which had failed at the end of the World Trails and I'd felt from early on in the day? Was it my right heel, for which I'd been trying a special insole to relieve the calcaneus bursitis? Was it my lower back, which was aching from carrying a bumbag for so long? Or was it my totally random right midfoot ache (no idea what was causing that but I just wanted to take my shoe off and massage it)? Whichever it was, I hoped that the beer at the finish line would numb it (as long as I got there)!
After a couple of miles I heard someone appear behind me.....a lady no less.....looking fresh as a daisy as she skipped along the trail! People passing me doesn't really bother me, as I'm usually just out to test myself so cannot pick up the pace, but I have to admit it was nice to hear from her that I had a decent gap on the next female, as she was a relay runner. I was amazed that no relay runners had gone past me before this as people had mentioned being passed by them as early as Conic Hill. What was more impressive was that it was a lady runner, and hence it must be a mixed or an all female team that was in the lead. I therefore expected several male relay runners to be along shortly, and so I set myself a little challenge of whether I could cover another half mile before they appeared....but then it became a mile....then two miles....
This game certainly made the time pass more quickly and before I knew it (in a manner of speaking), I had reached the head of the lake and was nearing Bein Glas farm. When I say nearing, I'd forgotten the twists, turns and undulations of the trail so I'd finished off my food with a couple of miles to go still. It was getting rather chilly now as the breeze was picking up to go with the on/off rain.Running towards Bein Glas farm, I was momentarily confused as there only seemed to be about 5 people leaning over the fence at the side of the trail but it all became clear as the checkpoint was slightly further on. I thought I was hallucinating when the first person I saw was my friend Ian. He had withdrawn from the race but had come up that day to support his clubmates (that I'd travelled up with the night before) so it was great to see both him, and a few paces beyond, some friends from Killie (who had run earlier relay legs).
The marshals at the checkpoint asked me what I wanted, which really surprised me as I thought the checkpoints were just for picking up our dropbags. I replied "Just my bag thanks"......luckily I didn't stop to think, or I would have replied "A cup of tea and to stop running please"! I probably ran quite strongly through the checkpoint as I knew that I was now going into the final stretch, but the high didn't last too long.The route is all runnable from Bein Glas, but it did seem to climb relentlessly. This was made worse by a nasty headwind as I climbed. Finally, a second relay runner passed me - he was from Killie Harriers and so gave me some kind words of encouragement as he powered up the hill. A windswept lady standing alone at the side of the trail said "you're doing ok, he's just showing off going at that speed" which made me smile! It turns out that they were the leading men's team, and no other relay runners passed me before the finish!
Approaching the farm/bridge
A few miles later, I ran down to a farm where we crossed over the river. Mark had driven round the Loch and was standing at the bridge to give me some encouragement. Although I picked up my food and drink at Bein Glas, I hadn't felt like having anything to eat or more than a few mouthfuls of drink. I am famed for my ability to eat, but the thought of anything, especially anything sweet, just turned my stomach. It's probably my own fault for thinking that there might have been cups of plain water to grab at the checkpoints (hence my drinks bottles had other fluids in them). Anyway, I decided to apologise to Mark in advance for the fact that I wouldn't be great company on the drive home as I was already feeling so tired, but somehow the words turned into "Take these, I feel ill" as I handed over my food bag and drinks bottle! Oops!
In a way, I'm glad that I was too tired to really take much notice of what I was running through on the next section, as I believe it was a combination of mud and cow poo.....all I knew was that I really didn't want to fall over in it. There was an underpass to cross the railway line, with a very low roof so you had to bend to run through it. I was just straightening up, feeling sorry for the really tall guys, when I cracked the top of my head........daft girl.....I hadn't quite yet made it out the other side and so I nearly ended up sitting down on the floor of the tunnel. What is it with me bashing my head in races?
Slightly stunned, I gathered myself back together and carried on. Some walkers warned me that I was running between a cow and its calf as I approached the road underpass, but there was not much I could do about it, and luckily the cow didn't seem too bothered.
A steep climb brought me out onto the open hillside and I could see the route stretching away ahead of me (though it seemed remarkably bare of runners). Wading through more mud brought me to a gate, which was the point that I had been most worried about taking a wrong turning. I nearly cheered when I saw a huddle of walkers putting their waterproofs back on, but before I could check my route with them, they actually asked me which way to go. Talk about the blind leading the blind! I had previously been instructed to keep heading in a straight line until I hit the path down to Crianlarich so I did as I was told.
There were 2 ladies standing where the path from Crianlarich joined the WHW and so I begged them to tell me that I'd finished all the uphill. They smiled and said "almost".....and what an understatement that was! I did, however, keep running. In previous long runs such as Comrades, I've always tried to keep running unless someone passes me by walking faster than my running pace, and so I adopted the same tactic (though I did have to talk myself into it). I can't have looked especially strong, as a girl running the other way offered me some painkillers.
Finally, I reached what I believed to be the top of that epic climb, but then my legs protested that they now had to descend! Unfortunately my watch had died so I had no idea how far I'd run and hence how far I'd still got to go. I knew that I was slowing but without my watch I didn't actually have much of a clue as to my pace. As is usual for descents, I was passed by 2 guys, but when I asked one of them how far we still had to go, he wasn't sure (even though he said he'd run the race before).
There are a few sudden climbs in the descent to the road, and even a dodgy stream crossing where a bridge is being built (I think I should have just forded it, rather than try to cross the half built bridge with one foot on each beam). At one point, I distinctly heard cars on the road, only to find myself heading away from it and up yet another incline.
Finally, I made it to the road crossing and saw the marshals with their high viz jackets. Mark had cycled out from Tyndrum in case I wanted some sweets for the final few miles, but the thought of them still turned my stomach.I caught up with one of the guys and we ran a few hundred metres together (into yet another headwind) encouraging each other, but by the time we went under the road again, he had got another burst of energy and left me behind.
I was trying to stay alert after the final road crossing as I had been warned several times about missing a finger post to the right in the final few miles, and this must have paid off as I had no bother following the route.
Down the final straight!
I got a real lift when I was told "well done, you've only got 800m to go" and so picked up my pace. If it was only another half mile, I thought I might as well put in everything I had left. After more than 800m, I was still on a tiny trail through bushes and thought that I'd missed a turning after all. My heart dropped. I came to a gate and 2 guys tried to encourage me with the immortal words " a mile to go", but after the last "800m" call, I didn't believe them.
The path was sealed underfoot, I spied a campsite on the right, and I could hear a piper so the end must have been near. However, I passed the piper and still couldn't see a finish line. I wasn't sure exactly which way to go but just as the doubt started creeping in again, I saw some bollards and a "nearly there" sign. There were three of these signs as I rounded a corner, but at last I saw the flags and red carpet of the finishing straight.
There weren't many people around, but I recognised a couple of faces, and was so thankful they'd come out in the rain to cheer me in! It was amazing to run down the straight and raise my arms up to "break the tape" and cross the line as the ladies' winner!
After receiving my finisher's medal, I was asked to go back to the line and pose while holding the banner above my head! To prove that girls do worry about what they look like, my first thought wasn't that I had to go back and stand in the rain, but rather, it was "I'm wearing a vest - am I hairy?"
The ladies' podium
I didn't realise quite how cold I must have been, as the massage therapists at the finish kept piling blankets on me due to my shivering! A lovely warm shower and a change of clothes later, and I was a new person, even managing to negotiate the huge steps out of the shower truck myself! My stomach had completely settled and was now ready to be replenished with the available hot soup, roll, jacket potato and wine/beer. The atmosphere in the finish area got better and better as more people finished and so we all cheered each other in - clubmates, old friends, new friends, and indeed anyone at all whose name you could read on their number!
Rehydrating with my clubmates!
What a fantastic day out - great organisation, great support, great marshals, great runners, and for me, a great result! 8hrs30, the 3rd fastest female time ever and I was back home in my own bed that night (after more wine, chips and cake in Tyndrum)!
Getting my Scottish Athletics gold medal from Adrian