Thursday, 2 May 2013

A Fling with a Difference

Saturday morning, Milngavie; there is the sound of high-pitched beeping in the air.  I walk slowly from a courtyard of Portaloos, worried that this is a mistake.  The crowded car-park is now strangely deserted as 500 distinctly-clad ultrarunners have recently vacated it to begin a strange ritual migration to distant Tyndrum, some 53 miles to the north.  I move slowly through the darkness of the now empty underpass, trying not to do more than walk, but start to run slowly in spite of myself.  There is a beep as I pass over the starting mat and the journey begins.

Four Flings

So what made me change my strategy for this year’s Highland Fling, apart from the Tesco toilets not being open quite so early this year?  For my last few races, I’ve tried the other end of the spectrum, heading off fast and then gritting my teeth later on to keep moving as fast as possible: this has worked pretty well, but I needed to find that balance point: just what is the right pace to get the best result for the day?

For those in a hurry, I’ll cut to the chase.  For a PB time where I squeeze every possible second out of my race, starting at the front and running in a relaxed yet still pretty fast manner is the answer.  For me that means seven minute miles until Drymen, with a gradual fall-off over the more undulating and technical stuff later.  Maybe if I’d done this I’d have had a quicker time in the race.  But maybe not. Perhaps the pacing I followed was almost perfect for me on that day, but I just don’t realise it yet.  It’s all part of the game we play.

Here’s my reasoning for a slower start for the 2013 Fling:

·    Four weeks earlier I’d beaten myself up at the Perth 100k.  Flat, tarmac and 42 laps.  Not my cup of tea.  But I’d wanted to have a go at something different and had convinced myself that it would be good psychological training.  It’s the only ultra I’ve raced where I’ve ended up clear in my mind that it’s not my idea of fun.  I had a happy 50k in 4 hours and then an horrific time for the second half, struggling to run properly and wondering what damage I’d done to myself – but I had toughed it out to the bitter end;

·   Ten days after that I’d had my ever DNF with a sprained ankle during a hill race.  A nasty experience that didn’t do much for my confidence and meant a week of zero running before careful steps to recovery afterwards;

·   Compared to a year earlier I’m maybe half a stone heavier, at 13½ stone and 20% body fat (yeah, really!).  If someone knows how I can run fast ultras with numbers like those, please let me know.  I do subscribe to some study that once found that each pound of excess weight equated to about two seconds per mile difference in pace.  That’s just over twelve minutes for me compared to last year if you were wondering.  Oh, and this year’s route was 0.4 miles longer, so that’s almost four minutes extra at my expected pace for that section.

·   Longest training run of 2013 so far was 20 miles; no back-to-backs managed.  That doesn’t look too good does it?

So my confidence wasn’t high going into the race and I had given some serious thought to the DNF situation on account of the ankle.  Once that sort of thing happens to you once, you start to appreciate being able to finish a race that little bit more than you used to.  I was genuinely worried that I might not make it to Tyndrum today.

Back to Saturday morning and the butterflies in the stomach excitement that I still felt for this race, undiminished by the previous times I had run it.  With hindsight, I’ll admit that starting at the back was a mistake.  Admittedly, half of the field went off too fast, but I should have started halfway down the field so as to avoid the crowding and congestion of the first mile.  If I went past you during that mile I do apologise: I’m wondering how many runners watched me head past and thought I was some rookie making a huge mistake by going too fast too soon.

Even so, that first mile passed in a little over nine minutes and I did enjoy the chance to speak to so many friends and wish them well for the day, adding that I was trying an alternative pacing strategy when they raised their eyebrows in surprise that I wasn’t up at the front, where the Ferraris were speeding away.  After three miles of this, there were some gaps in the field and I soon found myself running with Bob Steel, Ross Lawrie and Norry Mcneill for the fabulous Dumgoyne downhill section.  The views were stunning and there was a tangible excitement about what lay ahead.  I was careful with the pace since I wanted to preserve my legs for when it really mattered – it’s all too easy to fly down this bit and cause early damage to the quads.

Once we hit the flat section of the old railway line, I pushed on and ran as relaxed as I could manage past the Beech Tree Inn and all those gates.  Memories include encouraging words (as ever) from Adrian Stott, chatting to a minimalist-shoe, ultra-bearded-dude from Bolton, pushing a little to catch up with two groups of 4 and 5 runners in front in order to make the gate opening a bit easier, but as I caught up, three of them has a simultaneous ‘just watching the view’ stop and I ended up just going past the others – did they slow or did I not?  So I found myself on my own for the first mile on the road to Drymen, one of the few parts of the day without company.

A mile before Drymen, I was met by Marinos who had agreed to come out for the day and throw food and water at me.  I’d made up drop bags anyway, but had given them to him so he could hand me things on the move at each checkpoint rather than add to the huge number of drop-bags the marshals had to organise. M had been a bit worried about whether things were going wrong for me, but seemed pleased when I told him everything was just fine and I was taking it easy today.  He also told me I was in 42nd place which surprised me since I hadn’t thought I’d passed quite so many runners.  In any case, that sort of thing is pretty irrelevant so early in the race.

Heading out of Drymen, after 13 miles (photo:

And so to Drymen, with an extra detour to the right around the evil bog in that field just before the checkpoint – it claimed a few victims on Saturday – over the road, bleep over the mat and then the diversion through the village.  Impressive support indeed, and I was fresh enough to appreciate it.  Heading up the hill I finished my banana and fell in with Jude Boulton and Matt Moroz, who proved to be great company for many miles.

Fast-forward through the woods, the amazing views over Loch Lomond and the great new path over Conic Hill.  Again, my focus was to run relaxed and not push at all.  Sometimes we walked the steep bits, mostly we ran and I tried to not worry about times and just enjoy the day.  As we climbed Conic Hill I looked at the runners spread out ahead and could already see who had gone off too fast and who looked comfortable with their pace – there was quite a mixture.  The piper at the high point was brilliant (thank you, whoever you were) and the descent was much easier than previously, with careful, light steps all the way down.  M had wanted to climb to the top of the hill (he’s a hill runner by trade) and gave a report about the leaders coming through.

Balmaha ahead - with Marinos (photo: Ronnie Cairns)

Balmaha had the same awesome buzz as ever, since everyone goes there.  A three minute pit-stop at the toilets was not as fast as the red-bull team manage these days, but was essential.  It also meant that at the end of Balmaha I came across Matt swapping notes about the imminent 24-hour World Championships with Antonia who was directing runners up Craigie Fort (no sneaking around the bottom and missing the view). This was a great stroke of luck since it meant we ran together all the way to Rowardennan – thanks for the company Matt.  He was stopping there since this was a short training run for him, what with a GB vest to carry at the World Champs in Holland in a fortnight.

The Balmaha to Rowardennan section really isn’t very flat is it?  But it certainly was beautiful.  My aim was still to keep things moving steadily but not overcooking the pace, and I was targeting the long climb up from the University Research Centre at 25 miles as a place to not run too much (as I had last year).  The chip-timing mat was 0.2 miles early this year – wisely placed so as not to miss runners who might take varying routes through the Rowardennan car-park – but the earlier detour meant that it was 0.2 miles of extra running into the race.  So a direct comparison of split times with previous years should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Floating through Rowardenan after 27 miles (photo:

Speaking of which, I was now 13 minutes slower than last year (hey, only 30 seconds a mile) but feeling good because of this easier pace.  Well, not perfect – since I ended up walking a bit next to the Youth Hostel as I finished off a pot of custard and said goodbye to M as he headed off for the long drive round Loch Lomond.  I had told him that I reckoned my finish time was now in the 8:50 to 9:30 region, depending on how things went.  There’s always a real sense of entering the next chapter of the race here, of leaving behind the excited hustle and bustle of friendly marshals, relay runners and supporters and heading off into the wilds for a LONG journey up the wild side of the loch.

As I reached the start of the long, long uphill climb, a relay runner came flying by.  Or maybe not – it was Ryan Mackenzie who was putting on a burst of speed.  We ran together for a bit and although my steady running proved a little faster than his walking uphill, he vanished on the later downhill and ended up finishing in a great time of 8:54.

Towards the top of the climb I ran with Gerry Craig who not only claimed Scottish Championship medals at the Perth 50k four weeks earlier, but had run an impressive 2:51 just six days earlier at some other race in London – inevitably he was starting to feel this in his legs.  I pushed on and ended up with Fraser Scott, who had generously handed me 4th place at last Octobers’ Jedburgh 38 mile mud-bath race by virtue of getting lost near the end of the race.  I couldn’t hang onto him on the downhill either and he had a blinder along the lochside to finish in 8:46.  We also ran with Tracy Dean, who was suffering badly with a leg injury, yet still able to move forwards with an impressive turn of speed.  She had a great Inversnaid moment where she never broke stride at the check-point and just grabbed a bag from her support crew, who had driven all the way round to meet her: by such margins are UK Championship races won or lost.

Beyond Inversnaid it was time to push, although my three 15 minute miles that followed seemed to drag on a bit.  I do like this section and certainly had the legs to move over the terrain. I’d have liked to be able to push a little harder here, like Dave Troman who came steaming past towards the end of the section, but the limited training mileage meant that there were signs of fatigue in my legs and the wriggling maggots of cramp threatening just below the surface.  Eventually the top of the loch was reached, which always seems to happen twice – once when the technical section finishes and there’s a lovely bit of flat grass, and then again just after Doune bothy.  I know what’s going on really, but the sense of relief at finishing the tricky section fools my brain into thinking that Beinglas is closer than it really is.  Much of this was run with Kevin du Plessis until I paused behind a rock for a minute (to “enjoy the view”), and it took me until Dario’s post to catch up with him and Tracy.

Beinglas Check-point and still feeling good, 41 miles (photo: John Pickard)

Is it me, or do the mile or two to Beinglas always take longer than anticipated?  I felt good and was running comfortably still.  M had come back down the trail here and was a very welcome sight, so I didn’t have to stop at all at the checkpoint, but did take a walk break just afterwards on the climb so I could eat another pot of custard which, along with a few gels later on, I hoped would get me to the end.  It didn’t, but more on that later.

I felt so much better on the climb up Glen Falloch than during previous years.  However, I had come through the Beinglas checkpoint at 6:50 compared to 6:35 last year, so would need a massively improved final section for a PB this year.  Although I’m a natural optimist and was feeling good, I was also realistic about my chances of hitting 10 minute miles for the next two hours.  Still, no point in holding back now, might as well go for it.

M headed off to the car near the Falloch falls and I ran with Kevin until some way beyond Carmyle Cottage.  On the uphills I would drift away, but he would then reel me in.  I apologised at one point to say that I wasn’t trying to drop him or anything like that – I was simply running whenever I could – I hoped the target of running together was helping to spur him on.

Trying to catch a PB in Glen Falloch after 45 miles (photo:

We closed on a runner ahead and at the last minute I realised that it was Peter Buchanan.  He asked me how I was and I gave an honest reply of feeling great – to which he gave a most appropriate response, indicating that he wasn’t quite 100%.  My arrival seemed to flick a switch in his head and he raced off with me on his heels, until the steep climb after the cattle creep and road tunnel where cramp slowed him down momentarily.

Time to Focus - race face on after 45 miles (photo: tzruns)

Again, unlike last year, my legs felt much stronger, in spite of those bullet points you read way back at the top of this tale.  I ran everything from here to the big gate, with Peter working hard to stay in touch and then push the pace even more towards the end.  We ran the whole of the section to the road crossing together and it was fantastic.  He had a little more running on the uphills, but I could just about keep up with some quick walking, and we seemed to fly the downhills of the roller-coaster – it was everything I could have hoped for. 

M had taken the car to Tyndrum and then headed back to the road crossing to meet up with us and was full of encouragement.  We rushed along the path next to the road at what seemed like a great pace, although it was only ten minute miles.  Alas, it wasn’t to last.  We crossed the bridge approaching Auchtertyre farm and somehow I just couldn’t stay with Peter – he eased ahead and my legs wouldn’t respond, even with a manual override from my brain telling me not to lose contact.  It wasn’t a disaster, but it was annoying not to be able to run together, which I’d expected we would do.

Having to dig deep and not appreciating the scenery at 50 miles (photo: Mary Hunter)

Now I was pushing hard, giving it 100%, trying everything I knew to keep on moving, but the legs weren’t having it.  The last three miles were slower than comparable times for my last two Flings and it was so frustrating.  The nine hour target had looked very achievable, but suddenly that was starting drift away and I just couldn’t get it back no matter how hard I tried. 

That final mile wasn’t good.  I struggled to run up that nasty incline at Dalrigh, and then had an intense spasm of cramp in my left quad over the final rough section.  And to add insult to injury, I was passed just before the woods by a relay runner from our club (great run – they came 6th overall and took the 2nd mixed team prize).  By now I knew that the sub-nine hours target was gone and eased off so I’d have something for the finish straight, which didn’t disappoint.

(photo: Thomas Leondorf)

Thank the pipers, turn the corner, reeeelaaxxxxxx into a bit of a sprint, soak up the atmosphere and hit the line, with a cheeky heel kick to finish (although I was relieved to land it without the cramp coming back).  That feeling of stopping running at the end of an ultra is a pretty unique thing and should always be savoured.

Hurdling the timing mat, but it still went beep (photo: Christine Myerscough)

The Eagle has landed (photo: Muriel Downie/HF Race)

Massage, soup, beer, shower, more soup, another beer, all mixed with lots of chat with the awesome ultra family at the finish line.  That atmosphere for the next five hours was as good as it gets.  As a side-note, I found out that I’d finished 24th in a chip-time of 9:02:22 and the back-of-the-grid start had only put me two minutes behind the leaders from the starting gun.

And would I race it this way again? Starting so much slower than I might have?  Well, yes and no.  The slower start made the whole day a far more memorable experience, but my hopes of a faster time, 8:50 or 8:45 (or quicker) will only come if I have a bit more pace early on.  If everything goes well next year, maybe I’ll shoot for a lifetime best time, not have such an enjoyable race, but be over the moon with a faster time.  But only if all the other factors pull together and I’m ready for it.  As for my 2013 Fling, I see it as a much more mature race in terms of how I approached it – the scenery, terrain and people were much more of a focus this year and the memories I’m left with will stay with me for a very long time.

Scottish Athletics Bling with Adrian Stott (photo: Muriel Downie/Highland Fling Race)
And for an unexpected bonus Adrian told me that I was in line for 3rd Veteran medal in the Scottish Athletics Ultra Trail Championships - which really put the icing on the cake, since it was quite unexpected.  I'll take that over being a few minutes quicker any day. 

I couldn’t really finish this without a wee roll-call for so many people who made the race happen, but to save you time, I’ll wrap it up quickly, since you’ve spent a while reading this far down and probably have something else you should be doing right now.  Hats off to John Duncan for making the race so totally epic.  There were just so many detailed touches in the organisation of the day that I could write a couple of pages on that alone.  The team of 80 marshals were fantastic. Marinos was an inspirational support: thanks for agreeing to come along again and thanks so much for not crashing my car this year.  That was a real bonus.

When do entries open for 2014?