Thursday, 30 April 2015

Highland Fling 2015 – Now We Are Six

If you want to run the Fling well, you have to get the pacing right. There’s no two ways about it. 

Amazing pics from

Overcook it early on and you will suffer in the second half of the race. This is not fun and is not recommended.

If you dawdle 27 miles to Rowardennan and then try to up the pace you’ll have a much better chance at a positive race experience. You’ll maybe not get the fastest possible time on the day, but it’ll be a whole lot more fun.

You need to be clear in your head before that hooter goes as to just what you want to get out of the day and what you are willing to risk to get it.

Lots of shiny reflections emerging from the gloom at 6am
For me, last Saturday’s Fling strategy was an interesting decision. On the plus side this was my sixth Fling so I had experience on my side. Training had gone pretty well through the winter, although February had been knocked sideways with a fortnight of flu followed by over a week of tonsillitis. 

On the down side, my D33 in March had not gone too well – I had felt that I was working far too hard on the outward leg, much harder than ever before at 12/13/14 miles, and just knew it was going to hurt. That day I had gambled on having a good outcome and although I’ve gone out at seven minute miles before and had a great race, this year’s D33 wasn’t going to be one of those. I blew up and almost got a Personal Worst result. Probably a combination of the run of illness and another mistake (note to self: never play in a hockey match the day before running an ultra – you start race day feeling like you’ve just an ultra).

Time to leave Milngavie
Also on the downside was that I felt really fat. And the scales confirmed it; so do some of the race photos. In hitting some decent Fling times two and three years ago (around nine hours) I had been over half a stone lighter, closer to a whole stone in weight. And that does make a difference – just try adding that much weight to your ultra-vest and it does slow you down.

Time for a change of approach. My tactic was to run easy to Rowardennan. Just chill out, never push the pace, walk whenever I fancied it, but move efficiently and comfortably. Time was not to be an issue, provided that I kept moving at what would be a comfortable pace for me. And I’d have to recommend this, whether it gets you to Rowardennan quicker than four hours or in five or six hours. All the time you should be thinking that you could go a bit quicker, but you choose not to.

The other part of my strategy was to eat proper food for as long as possible. That means solid food rather than any gels, which I was keeping for much later.  This proved to be just as hard as the running and made me think of the “Very Hungry Caterpillar” as I worked my way through a variety of food.

On Saturday he ate through...
 By Rowardennan I had got through three brioche, one muesli bar, three wee squares of flapjack, two bottles of High5 “endurance fuel” drink, one bottle of banana milk, half a banana and pot of rice pudding.  And after Drymen I did have stomach ache!  For readers of a nervous disposition, there will be no details written here.

I realise that I have somewhat missed out on the running side of things here. There’s been none of the getting to the start, or chatting to a vast array of people in the Milngavie car-park, the briefing beforehand, the hooter going (nice touch with Iain Rae doing that, running his tenth Fling). If you were there, you’ll know what it was like (damp, gloomy and full of tension), and if you weren’t you either don’t care or will have to get yourself along next year. It’s worth it.

The forecast had been horrendous. Lashing rain, cold (proper cold), even something about snow. The reality was something else: a damp and gloomy start turning into blue skies with just the right amount of cloud cover and even a cooling breeze – it was completely perfect. After the first couple of hours with a jacket on (chilly at the start but fine once my hands had warmed up), I ran in a t-shirt all day long and it was perfect. Best weather I could have hoped for.

Into Drymen. Photo: Muriel Downie
The 12.6 miles to Drymen came and went in 1:41. Nothing to report here, chatting to lots of others, getting into a good group for the gate section and taking a wide line around the bog just before the checkpoint. If you’ve inadvertently waded into it, you’ll know the one.  Off through the forest, hug with Karen who had run down from Balmaha, onwards to Conic Hill with Tim (who has a great sprint finish after 35 miles), brief chat over the top with Jamie, and then descend as lightly as possible, but still with plenty of speed. Again, it’s all about compromising at this stage.

Grab the dropbag at Balmaha after shaking George’s hand – always uplifting to see so many familiar faces. I think Gavin filled up my water bottle (thanks!) and then I glugged the banana milk before the Fling bin just afterwards. By Millarochy bay a mile later this had hit my system and I sacrificed three long minutes in the toilets there. I even used soap, but didn’t wait for the hand-dryer.

Faffing with the dropbag. Photo: George Furmage
Across the beach, along the road, up the hill, follow the twisting trail. It does help knowing exactly what is coming up next. Five minutes of flat, then a climb (eat), dance the descent… Around Sallochy Bay, John from Garscube caught up and it was good to run together – sometimes the pace just fits.  Just before the checkpoint Robert caught up and I chatted to him about his pacing.

In previous years I have been lucky enough to have support. One gain of this is being able to not stop at checkpoints – you can eat on the move before/after the crowds. Without this luxury I accepted that I would lose a minute or two at each checkpoint and get sorted as efficiently as possible (thanks Sean!). Rubbish removed and more food into the bum-bag, a pot of rice-pudding down, stow the now full bottle, head off with a half-banana in hand.

I had Derek for company here – he was having a great first Fling and was in a really positive mood. We almost parted company when I ran the long uphill, but he was up for running too and we ran the descent together. I then pushed on with the second hill and was on my own until the narrower trail was reached.

This is the best part of the race. If you like trail running, you’ll be hard pressed to beat it. I passed Jo Thom, who would normally be looking for a race win, but had accepted that this was not going to be the case today and was just out to enjoy the day and get to the finish. For an athlete of her calibre this shows a real maturity and strength to continue, eventhough the race-time at the end is way off what could be run on the right day. Big respect to her for being so positive about a tough day at the office.

The next ten miles were undoubtedly the high point of my race. Everything was fine, I could move at a decent pace, and was moving steadily through the field – the race stats show I moved up about 30 places between checkpoints. Inversnaid arrived sooner than I was expecting – it’s just over 34 miles rather than 35 miles and this was great since I was *so* looking forward to the miles just north of there.  A quick faff with the dropbag, a big thank you to the awesome marshals, down the hatch with a wee botle of flat coke and off we go.

“Unarunnable section”, “Pain in the ar$e section” or “Technical section” – call it what you will, you will either love it or hate it. If you spend an hour glancing at your Garmin and wondering if you have accidently pressed pause, you’re in the latter category. I didn’t look at my Garmin at all for these miles, and just bounced along with a big smile on my face.

I had my best section ever over these miles. Rowardennan to Beinglas took me 2:44, which was exactly the same time as three years ago, but that came from pushing hard on the climbs just after the 27 mile checkpoint.  After bouncing down the steps above Rob Roy’s Cave, I was asked whether I was an individual or Relay runner. I did appreciate that!

I ran a bit with Karl Zeiner, who was pacing things really well, and ended up having several miles with Tom Woolley, who was also loving this section.  But I was still being good and not burying myself – just letting it flow and feeling good.  There were moments of wondering if I could get close to nine hours, well up on my nominal 9:30 target for the day. By the time Beinglas came into view, I knew this was slightly off since it was almost 1am and I did not expect to run the final leg in two hours. Not quite.

A final faff at the checkpoint, with a final pot of rice pudding, and then it was off along the big track, with a second bottle of water. By this stage I know that my body only wants water and I struggle to take on solid food, so the plan was to take a gel every 20 minutes to keep me going to the end. Very calculated and sensible.  It didn’t work.

45 miles and it's all uphill now. Photo: Davie Mooney
Having a great final couple of hours would have been the icing on the cake for a perfect day out.  And for a few miles it was looking good. My legs felt better than ever, I had fueled well, drunk plenty (to thirst!) and saved myself up until this point. From past experience I knew I could run to the finish in 2:10 or thereabouts.

Yeah, it would hurt, but that’s what 50 mile races do, and it’s a temporary thing anyway. I guess I started to slow a bit in approaching the cattle creep under the railway line and the tunnel under the road. My head was all set to push the top couple of miles up Glen Falloch to the “big gate” but the body wasn’t too keen.  There were even some fluttery feelings as one of my hamstrings threatened to cramp climbing over the two stiles.  I still ran most of this, but not at the pace I’d hoped for.

And then strage things happened on the roller-coaster. Something that I’ve not had to deal with before. My hearing started closing in, with a bit of nausea. I recognised feeling from some 30 years (as a kid, hot conditions whilst growing lots) ago when I was growing up and knew that this would end up with me lying unconcious at the side of the trail. That’s not good.

Instead of being to push hard above Crianlarich, I had to back right off. Even on the flat bits, which was so frustrating. Every time I tried to pick up the pace, the dizzy spells came back, threatening to utterly derail my day. Should I over-ride my body’s safety valve and push hard? Well, I didn’t want to put that to the test, so I put up with other runners flying by me this time.

Another gel at 47 miles. Photo: Conor Cromie
There were some very positive comments made. In answer to the question of “how are you doing?” I was brutally honest: “just trying not to collapse in the middle of the trail, but otherwise fine”. Someone even offered to walk in with me – a touching gesture, but I was quick to say that there were plenty of other runners – I’d have felt terrible at spoiling someone else’s finish time.

Luckily, I did stay on my feet, but I did not enjoy this section. My legs were fine, but the rest of me was not. After the long downhill (done much too slowly) andshouts from Gavin and Iain, I passed under the railway bridge and onto the final three miles. Could I push a bit here? I gave it a try and things seemed ok.

There was no-one close behind, and a couple of runners up ahead, so might as well see if I can catch up. And so I did, passing another runner just before Auchtertyre, and then having to stop utterly as my innner thigh cramped up. How do you stretch that one?  I rubbed the offending muscle, even hit it in frustration and then walked off, breaking into a run.

And from then on things were ok. I ran every step in for the last two and a half miles, and when the runner in front walked the uphill a mile from Tyndrum and I kept going, I knew that I had to make it stick and kept pushing.

Is that a smile or a grimace? A bit of both maybe.
And then it was time to enjoy the next few hours – starting with the pipers (I went back later and thanked them again), the hugely positive reception going into the village, the massive support along the red carpet and even a bit of airtime at the finish.

Trying to finish with style.
Then the sense of relief at actually stopping, but not completely – I moved swiftly through the finish with a hug from Julie (and David!) and went straight through (with a beer) to get my bag and grab a shower before getting a fantastic massage. Then it was food time – that lentil soup was the best. One hour and then two  slipped quickly away with numerous conversations and cheering.

I finished in 9:21 and was more than happy with that. I’ve run it quicker and I’ve run it slower, but this was pretty much where I had predicted I’d be today. In fact, the time estimates I’d left at home with the family were within a few minutes all day. I am disappointed that I lost 15 minutes (or more?) over the final few miles, but it’s something to learn from and not get too stressed over.  It was still a brilliant day in so many ways.

As ever, a grand day out at the fling only happens due to the hard work of a zillion people. So a massive thank you is due to John Duncan, who can heel click higher than me (or is it just the Hokas?), all the marshals and everyone involved in the race in any way. Thanks to Allan and family for the lift there and back too!

Later on in the day, I headed back down the trail for a mile since we were looking out for another runner from my club. Much to my surprise, I found that not only could I walk normally, but I was comfortable running too.

There must be something to this business of pacing yourself carefully.  Must try that again next time.