Friday, 2 May 2014

Highland Fling 2014 - Undertrained but Optimistic

Best. Race. Ever.

I really do love the Highland Fling Ultra-marathon.  I’ve been lucky enough to run five of these in a row now and each one has been very special. At the same time, I had a rubbish race last Saturday in terms of achieving a time to be proud of, but it’s all about perspective isn’t it? I know other runners who have been gutted to miss out on sub-8, sub-10 and sub-12 hour finishes (that’s Paul Giblin, Dave Simpson and Colin Knox respectively), so I shouldn’t grumble too much about a top-100 time.

Working Hard after 53 miles
If you just dropped by from clicking on a link somewhere and are in a hurry, here’s the speed-reading version of what’s about to follow: I ran 53 miles last Saturday, the weather was far better than expected, I was slower than hoped, but injuries over winter have a part in that, I was quicker than 10 hours, I had the hardest race finish ever (and that includes the 24 other ultras I’ve run, oh, except maybe the Perth 100k a year ago, must have blanked that from my memory), the whole day was epic, and the people and finish area were absolutely magic – best race finish experience ever.

Thought for the day: it’s a whole lot easier being able to run the Fling an hour quicker.

They say that you run 50% of an ultra with your legs, 40% with your head, and the other 50% with your heart (I like the maths there). For me, none of these was where it should have been for this race and I was quite surprised at the effect this had on me over the final, very dark, mile.

For the serious nuts and bolts of a blog, I’d better fill you in getting to the start line, since I’m aware that with the growth of the race there are lots of folks out there who are relatively new to ultras or the Highland Fling (*waves to the Ultra-lupers from Norway*). I started running just eight years ago – seven weeks of training for a half-marathon, over 16 stone (100kg) to start with. Survived, got hooked, swore not to run a marathon until I was ready (still waiting), met some crazy, wonderful people who sold long distances to me and after a few long runs (up to 40 miles) on the West Highland Way, I signed up to the Fling in 2010. A couple of years later and I was fortunate to find that I was not bad at this sort of thing and got some good places and times in races. Pretty outrageous to be honest – many other runners have a much better build for this and train far harder – but I’ve come to set some high expectations of what I should be able to do.  I have been told that I have encouraged other runners that it is possible to achieve good times without being stick-thin and running 80 miles in training each week.

After my last big races of 2013 (the Speyside Way followed a fortnight later by the Glenmore 12 hour race), things hadn’t gone so well. I’d bounced back from that 72-mile outing but had a bad Achilles strain from uphill sprints three days after Glenmore. Running was cut back to an experimental outing once a week before realising that I still needed to rest. This would mean that I’d not be 100% for Glen Ogle at the start of November, but disaster struck a week before that when my shoulder stopped working at the end of October. It was that sudden – I woke up one morning and it just wouldn’t work – I was advised that it was a trapped nerve, and it felt similar when I had dislocated it 23 years previously (surf-kayaking in Cornwall, oops). That meant no running for almost a month and the effects told. Combined with some nasty hamstring problems (I even invested in a grid foam roller), my winter mileage took a hit and so did the bathroom scales (over 13½ stone).  I lined up for the Highland Fling with only 600 miles recorded for the previous six months, less than two thirds of the similar distance for the previous couple of winters.

The alarm was set early (four hours sleep) and I got to Milngavie for 5:20am - popped a couple of drop-bags into the right cars and even remembered to register. I joined the longest queue in northern Europe at that time of the day (excluding airports) and visited a portaloo before John started his race briefing. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember to start my Garmin before the Milngavie underpass and it only noticed there were satellites in the sky after I’d been running for over two miles.

After a quick word with Allan, who had offered to do support duties for the day (thank you!) and act as chauffeur, there was just enough time to squeeze past the throng who had already congregated in the car-park and get towards the front of the crowd in the underpass to where the pace should be about right for me.
The early miles have to be easy, no matter whether you run them at 6 min/mile pace or 10+ min/mile pace. Lots of conversations were had with various runners at various points and I did have a feeling that a lot of runners were going quite fast since I was drifting back through the field even including stopping for a minute since something had got into my shoe – one ignores these things at ones’ peril.  The views were poor due to the low cloud, but the fiddle at Carbeth was brilliant – thank you!  Split times fit with this – I made it to Drymen (12.6 miles) at 1:40 (just inder 8 min/mile pace) and that felt quite different from the last couple of years (1:33 and 1:37). With the Garmin failure earlier I gave up on trying to use that to determine pace or distance and ran purely by feel – it had to be comfortable at this stage and it was.

The crowd at Drymen (before and at the checkpoint) gave a flavour for the race support even at this early stage – it was superb. Thank you to anyone who was there shouting and cheering; it makes such a difference and that feeling stays with you for miles after the checkpoint.  Temperature-wise I was now getting too hot with a base layer and a vest, so went for just the vest from here, although did faff about on Conic Hill with this since it was colder up there.

Through the clag and watermarks of Conic Hill (photo: Graeme Hewitson)
Nothing much happened between Drymen and Conic Hill except for chatting to a few runners as they overtook me. Before the leaving the Garadhban forest, I did have to collect a large handful of moss and disappear discretely behind a tree – maybe a couple of minutes lost and a different crowd to run with now. Before long, the climb to Conic Hill was begun and I started going past several runners who were now walking. I mostly ran this slowly, with bits of walking if I ever felt that I was pushing at all.

Banana power after the Balmahahaha checkpoint (photo: Carolyn Kiddell)
I ran from Balmaha with Duncan MacGougan, who was great company – his best Fling time is just 30 seconds quicker than mine but we were both well off this pace today. At some point we drifted apart – this happens in ultras and it is always a lucky thing if you are able to run with someone else since there are so many factors that affect your pace at any time. Most of the undulations to Rowardennan were on my own, with the occasional relay-runner sprinting past – the first team had a huge advantage, even at this early stage.

Allan was able to swap bottles and food just before the check-point so I didn’t need to pause for a drop-bag and went straight through the well-supported checkpoint (Rowardennan, 27 miles, 4h16). Again, all the cheers and shouts of encouragement are worth so much.  Probably the banana and pot of custard combination led to me feeling a bit queasy, grabbing more handfuls of moss a mile or two later and then finding a hidden spot where no-one else would ever dream of going. Seven runners went past and only the last two noticed me as I made my way back to the path.

Life is a beach (photo: Edinburgh Sports Photography)
 By now the dip of glycogen to fat-burning had passed and this was a very positive part of my race.  I ran almost all of the way up the (almost) two mile hill beyond Rowardennan Lodge and felt really strong. After a chat with Dave Simpson who was running well, I ended up with Kevin du Plessis and we chatted about how we had run much of this section together a year ago (but faster).

The wide road through the forest isn’t the original West Highland Way route – there is a far better path near the loch side which has fallen into complete disrepair. I once tried to run it five years ago and even then it was a nightmare. The good news is that it is now being rebuilt and I do hope that the Fling and full WHWrace will use it. I doubt it will save any time since the long hills will be replaced by an undulating, twisting and turning narrow path instead – but aesthetically it will be a far better route – if slightly longer and more technical.

A small disaster struck somewhere beyond 31 miles at the start of the narrower path to Inversnaid. Actually, it was the other way round – I struck the disaster, in the form of a rock in the path and clattered my foot hard into it. This will cost me the toe-nails from my two largest toes on my right foot, which are currently black. At the time I managed to avoid crashing down but my left foot hit the ground with a great force and I was aware of my left hamstring and left upper chest muscle tensing unbelievably hard. I may have twisted badly too since the worse after-effect of the race has been an aching pain to the right of my upper-body, which probably affected my breathing later in the race. Still, it could have been worse. I made enough noise for Kevin to look back and even stop and wait for a moment, before I urged him to keep going: I’d either be able to catch up or I would slow down, either way I didn’t want him to lose time.

Into Inversnaid (photo: Sandra Macdougall)
After that, I felt that I slowed a bit towards Inversnaid – the miles in the legs here really start to make life hurt a bit more. The checkpoint itself was great – brilliant marshals (some legends of ultra-running) and I even paused for longer than usual for a bit of singing and then eating a pot of rice-pudding, washed down with a bottle of (almost) flat coke.  That slowed me down as I toddled off, feeling decidedly full, but I knew it was worth it and would pass before long.

"Dropbag for prisoner 24601" - "My name is Jean Valjean!"
And so it did – the next sectional was maybe the best of my race. Just before “Rob Roy’s cave” I fell in with a Belfast runner, Gerry Kingston who was great company for this ‘technical’ section to the top of the loch. He set a perfect pace that I was very happy to follow – it made me work that bit harder than if I was on my own. I was pleased that my legs were in good working order and that helps so much in this section. If you are able to leap and jump over rocks and roots, it is so much faster and easier than painfully steeping up, down and over all the time.

After a while we got stuck in a convoy – there were eight of us now and I had to be patient to wait for the trail to allow a place to pass. I was reminded of Dave Troman bounding past last year as the reverse happened and he was flying along this section.

At the top of the loch (for the first time, the bit with a rise uphill and then a muddy bog to cross before dropping down to the Doune bothy) I was still feeling good and kept the pace up, running as much as I could, but accepting a walk when it steepened and I sorted some food out. I took an age to eat a half-wrap (soft cheese and marmite) but swallowing was proving tough.

After the tough section north of Inversnaid it’s easy to relax and thin the hard work is done. Which it’s not of course. The next three miles to Beinn Glas Farm a much easier, but still involve a lot of proper trail running. I almost caught up with Craig Mackay at one climb to a big stile but he turned and saw me, so I made like a bear (no, not with moss and woods this time) and gave a huge growl with arms raised. I’m coming to get you! This ended up back-firing for me since he then shot off and finished well ahead of me. He says the thought of the bear kept him going and even came over the line impersonating a bear. Note to self: don’t scare other competitors in future races.

Proper Trail running after 40 miles (photo: Stuart MacFarlane)
Frozen in time - zen rock-balancing moment

At Beinglas (a.k.a. Being last) checkpoint with the clock at 7h15, I did something that I have avoided in every ultramarathon prior to this one– I sat down. On a chair! For six minutes! I’d got to that stage of just wanting to finish, knew that I would end up below 10 hours barring complete disaster, and that 9h30 was not quite on. So what did a few minutes matter? I have felt guilty about this all week.

My usual method for checkpoints is grab-and-go, shout thanks at the marshals, sort food/drink out on the move. If needs must, I might pause for a few seconds to down water and/or fill up a bottle. But a comfy chair? Careless mistake – the gain is never worth it. And I sat in the chair – cheered loudly as the first ladies team came in and handed over (go Kinross!) - ate a banana and a pot of custard and drank a bottle of lucozade-mango-death-by-sugar drink. No more excuses now, so off I headed, feeling a bit queasy for all that.

Things started fine up Glen Falloch – the first mile wasn’t fast, but seemed ok and I passed Duncan and another runner who were walking. But they soon came by me again as my body suddenly decided it was time for a bit of cramp (inside left quad) and I know better than to ignore that sort of thing. After a mile or two, a couple of faster runners came past and I decided to at least try to hang on to them – which worked quite well until beyond the cattle creep and tunnel under the road where they moved away from me.

Cow Poo Alley was not nice at all this year – the Way almost completely blocked at one point by a cattle feeder. It would be great if some sort of deal could be struck to deal with the farmer who clearly has issues with one of the World’s premier long-distance paths going behind his farm. At least there were no cows to dodge, but the mess to splash through wasn’t nice. I was slowing here and kept getting overtaken from time to time – the lack of training volume really starting to bite now.

Eventually the big gate arrived and it was good to see Louise there, waiting for Stuart (top runner on his first Fling). Six miles to go and now a bit of walking. I can tell if things are being pushed to the extreme because I look forward to the hills. Really! It’s because I feel I can justify walking up them – on a good year I’ll try to run all bar the steepest uphills – which helped for a final leg split of 2:12 last year. But not in 2014.

A couple of runners caught up on the long series of climbs from the big gate and I recognised Robert Osfield (but had to ask for a name anyway), who ran exactly the sort of final leg that I had the previous year.  Great pacing there. Once we started descending he absolutely flew down the steep sections and although I felt that I was running well here, he quickly disappeared from sight. A few ups and downs but these days I know every one of them so there was nothing unexpected.  The viaduct at the end of this section was a welcome sight and Allan was there with some water, which was great. A quick chat before he drove off to the finish and then it was three miles to go.

The flat section to Auchtertyre Farm isn’t flat at all – it’s a steady uphill climb, but I ran all of it and did look behind – no-one was close so I hoped to at least maintain where I was in the race. But thoughts of this being a race were long gone. That competitive instinct of previous years was replaced with a feeling of just wanting to get to the end without anything bad (cramp, collapsing) happening. And that was the case until the final mile.

There’s a final uphill around Dalry until the well-marked path that takes you to the edge of Tyndrum and I struggled up this. Hey, no-one was even close behind, so maybe walking this would mean I could run the final mile better – it’s funny what you’ll believe at this stage. But things really weren’t right and my fingers and toes were tingling (hmm, maybe a circulation issue) and that sore bit on my right side just wasn’t quite right. 

I tuned right from the track to the final wee path that heads to the edge of Tyndrum (nice to have a shout from Bryan from my club) and lost a place or two to fast runners (maybe relay runners) who were accelerating to the finish.  Then I glanced back and saw a whole cluster of runners bearing down on me – half a dozen, maybe eight. I really had slowed so much that were closing fast, like the tide sweeping in.

And I couldn’t respond, even when Kevin and Duncan and Colin (Meek) came by and I was desperate to finish with them. Duncan was a star and said that we would finish together (since we’d been playing leap-frog all day) but I just couldn’t run. Not even a slight hobble, plod or shuffle. Completely empty.

As the crowd moved ahead and pipers came into view, I felt really miserable. Again, a bit of perspective with hindsight – having a miserable mile here shouldn’t overshadow the day, and losing ten places isn’t a big deal – some runners had far worse days. But I wasn’t a happy bunny and resigned myself to walking along the path past the bridge, pipers and onto the massive climb round the corner into the finish area.

Then it was time for a wonderful finish – from the depths of struggling to run at all, to the magic of just relaxing, milking the final 100 yards and the truly amazing red carpet to the finish.  Lots of shouts from friends and strangers and the photographs do some justice to the emotion of those moments.

Thankfully there’s no-one trying to sprint up *my* bit of red carpet, so I don’t have to rush too much, and instead enjoy lots of high-fives, cowbells, cheers. I’m still milking right now, and giving a whole extra paragraph to those precious moments, which I hope you’ll indulge me with, having read this far through.

Enjoying the moment - a very special finish (photo: Edinburgh Sports Photography)

And that sense of relief in crossing the line and not moving anymore. It just cannot be explained to anyone – you have to experience it to know what it’s like. Someone cut my timing chip off (thank you) – I have no idea who and it was a bit like emergency services looking after you when you’re not quite aware what’s going on but still very grateful.


Then it was a couple of the best hours ever, with beer, soup, roll, hugs, and a baked potato eaten in the (long) queue for the showers.  Had a complete range of comments on my race: “what happened to you?”, “you must be disappointed”, “wow, sub-ten hours” and even “did you run today?”  After the 5pm prize-ceremony, I had to head since my lift was off I was back home by 8pm, feeling suitably tired.

Technical bits and lessons learned – ‘cos we’re meant to include these things. Kitwise, everything was fine, as it should be after enough of these races. A vest was perfect for most of the day, and the new Montane minimus jacket came in useful for the final hour when the rain was on. Skins (plus shorts) were worn for anti-chafing and the silly long compression socks meant there were no calf issues (no cramp or muscle fatigue more than was expected). Inov8 X-talon 212s work for me, apart from kicking rocks. Inov8 4-litre bumbag was just fine, although I need to get something with easier bottle access, so suggestions would be well received.

At the start of the day, wild optimism aside, I’d hoped to get inside 9h30. Maybe if I was a little closer at Beinglas I’d have had a go at this, but really ten or twenty minutes beyond didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Maybe now, sitting at a computer, it’s easy to wish I’d been able to go for it, but I can’t complain too much. The biggest lesson worth repeating is that there is simply no substitute for training miles. 2014 longest runs have been 30, 18, 33, 18 miles each month and 25 miles a week simply isn’t going to get top twenty results. Bearing that in mind, I’ll hope to stay injury free and be able to really go for it next year to get under nine hours again. Time will tell.

For now, two weeks from now I’ll be on the next adventure with Gavin and some excellent sailors off the west coast of Scotland. 160 miles of sailing and 60 miles of steep hill running. Can’t wait!

Scottish Islands Peaks Race - not for the faint-hearted