Monday, 1 May 2017

Flingtastic - Pieces of Eight

The first race to go in the diary each year for me has to be the Highland Fling.  The "Carlsberg" of races, it's as good as it gets (maybe except for the weather - a warm sunny evening after the race would be a nice extra).

Instead of the usual chronological tale of a race (plenty of those already written in these pages), here's just a few random bits and pieces from a grand day out at the 2017 Fling.

Fingers crossed for getting through the ballot, staying injury-free and still loving the race


Beyond the predictable red carpet finish line, I loved the gnarly few miles just north of Inversnaid. That's around 36 miles in. Once things had settled after eating and drinking and at the checkpoint, it was all systems go and time to fly along this section (no trademark infringement there, ok? Not this year anyway). 

As an added bonus, I was running with my club-mate Billy and he was really strong here, as we moved through small convoys of runners along the narrow, technical path.  It's a very marmite sort of section - and if you ask a Fling runner, you'll probably get a pretty polarised view on whether it's the nightmare section, with a special "Lost" island sort of timewarp, or whether it's just great trail running, fully engaging, demanding complete concentration. I guess a lot depends on whether you're legs are cramping up with every (moving) tree root and giant boulder, or if you can still bound from boulder to boulder, trusting your footing.  The latter is always a good race target for me.

Just before the big ladder climb, there's a boulder with a three of four foot drop - I'm sure it would make a great place for future Fling photos, and we could see how the leaders leap down the whole thing without breaking stride, or how others get stuck there for fully five minutes as cramp wracks their muscles (speaking from experience here).  We had a couple of lovely walkers watching us at this point and laughing lots as we clambered down.

Race Organisation & Marshals:

Instead of leaving this to the end, I'm putting my enormous thanks in just here.  You know how there are those "rip-off" races by companies like "mouse-race" that cost way over £100 per mile and leave everyone on social media moaning? Having just seen a narrow edge of the race infrastructure that is involved in the Fling, I know not to take the bargain that the Fling is for us runners for granted. The level of organisation in putting together something on this scale just beggars belief - and John, Noanie, Sean and so, so many others just make it happen in a way that is difficult to comprehend. They have a team that love the event and willingly give up a lot more time than it takes any of us to run the thing in order to give us a good day out.

So to each and every one of the helpers, marshals, organisers, first aid heroes, massage tent miracle workers, Kirsty at ByTheWay and the many unsung heroes... Thank You. You make dreams come true.  I do hope that I'm not injured at end of April anytime soon, but if I am, the Fling will stay in my diary so I can get up even earlier than the runners and do my bit in return.

Still gloomy at 6am - chatting to Gavin at the start (sorry to the runner in yellow) (photo: Monement photography)


Some dos and don'ts.  It's probably best not to go annoying the registration Marshals by not registering until 5:45am. Sorry about that Mel. But it did avoid the queues. I'd dropped off my drop bags first - nice to see that people are learning about the idea of using a freezer bag (unless it's a Rowardennan competition challenger). Then my finish line bag got squeezed into tightly fitting liner plastic bag - again what a brilliant idea and one of those many touches that are so easy to forget - thanks for having 1000 plastic bags to keep our kit-bags dry in the rain.  Genius.  And then I belatedly got round to actually registering for the race - plenty of time really.

Having decided to stay on for the Ceilidh afterwards, I packed my kilt, sporran, long socks, kilt belt... only to find after the post-race shower that I'd not put the kilt in the bag.  Oops. Luckily, I'd added some trousers for the Sunday morning - just as well as it turned out.  Thankfully, it was the only thing forgotten for the race.

In a snap decision on the morning after the race, I joined Sean to head for breakfast at the Tyndrum Inn on the Sunday morning, but ordering at 9:15am and getting to the 10am bus back to Milngavie didn't fit. They were very busy, but with no food having arrived after 40+ minutes from ordering I had to give up and head for the bus. Noanie completed the amazing Fling treatment by delivering a bacon and black pudding sandwich to bus just minutes later - which was great and hugely appreciated (thanks Noanie). More poor timing.

Oh, the race itself - better say something about timing here. I ended up with a time under ten hours which I'm more than happy with. I've been an hour faster and (almost) an hour slower, so this one sits neatly in the middle. Could I have been a bit quicker? Yes, if I'd wanted to suffer a bit more. Does this matter? No, not in the slightest - I wanted to enjoy the big day out and certainly ticked that box, without too much suffering.  As the pictures show, I wasn't exactly in racing-snake form - this year's average weekly mileage being about 30 a week - so the target was to enjoy myself. I reckon that if you can do that, the time will be as good as it's going to be.

Heading over Conic Hill (Monument photography)
The Race

I feel that I should say something about the race itself since this is a Highland Fling Blog.  Selected memories then...

Started at the back of the ten hour pen. I've started very near the front before and also right at the back (a little unwise) and now compromise with this.  Maybe going for the second wave would be more fun since there is that bottleneck at the turn from the Milngavie shops.  Might try that next year.  I usually just head off with whoever I am chatting to at the time (Gavin this year)

6am and we're off.  Photo: Kristin Lownie

The "fast" miles to Drymen are dangerous ones. Really! It's so easy to go with the flow and run far quicker than you were planning to - it's all just so easy at this point.  I was pretty pleased to get to Drymen at 1:46 having caught up with Billy at some point.  We got into a good pack for the endless gates (not that many to be honest and lots stayed open this year - thank you).  The trick is to either accept your lot as gate opener (who remain holding it open for a few seconds) or run a few paces behind the front of your group to avoid crashing into the back of the appointed gate-opener.

Alas, Drymen required an emergency visit to the Portaloos (again, a genius bit of race organisation which I've never appreciated before).  Hmmm, not a great start to the race and I'd known that things weren't quite right with my insides for the previous couple of days, but that's ultras for you.  Might as well get this dealt with here, so jump to the next paragraph if you're eating whilst reading this...  A good sit down was also on the agenda at Millarochy Bay just after Balmaha, and again (emergency!) at Inversnaid.  Yup, that was the low point of the race, but it could have been worse (see earlier blog on Scottish Islands Peak Race...)

Conic Hill came and went (having caught up with Billy after a few miles) with it's lovely views and flying descent which did end up putting a small pebble (probably a tiny bit of grit) into my shoe - shaken out at Balmaha.  Another few miles to catch up with Billy again just before Rowardennan. Hats off to Stan for taking the tough shift with the spot check on kit (phone and foil blanket - no excuses!)  I can only wonder at some of the awkward and disappointed conversations with those who got that wrong. 

Rowardennan (4:25) was a lovely checkpoint, filled with wonderful friends - hugs all round.  Dropbags delivered my Sandra, Susan and Nick, water sorted by Joanna and Kirstin (who went on to win the ladies relay race) and even a bonus hug to wee Katie, who I haven't seen in ages.  Bounced out of the checkpoint feeling great.

But not for too long - those flat two or three miles beyond Rowardennan are tough work.  For me anyway.  I quite like the uphill section that follows - a bit of up and down variety is no bad thing.  Up and up, past the newly re-opened low route, which I wish the race would follow.  It's not an easier route, but it is far nicer and in keeping with the idea of the West Highland Way. Maybe next year.

The lost world that is Inversnaid (Photo: Nicola May)

Into Inversnaid after an extra mile of trail (is that just me though? It always seems to be a bit further along than it should be in reality) and more fantastic people.  A race where the director of Scottish Athletics is helping out at a check-point says a lot (for both Iain and the race!) Brief words with Nicola and Duncan, shouts to the marshals and off we trundled to the fun bit of the race, as mentioned previously.

Beinglas checkpoint (7:30) felt great (really, it did - sorry if you arrived here feeling completely rubbish, but I was in a happy place still).  I knew that the finish could be reached before the ten hour mark and tried to encourage Billy. I left the checkpoint before him but said that I would keep walking until he caught up so he shouldn't make me walk for too long! Billy, sorry if the motivational chat was too much for the next few miles - lots of looking ahead for a target point where the trail got steep enough to warrant a fast walk instead of running.  At this point hills can become your friend - a welcome relief from trying to run on the flatter bits.  We were joined by Steve, who remembered that we had run some of this section together a couple of years ago (my memories were a bit hazy, but it came back to me later on the rollercoaster through Bogle Glen).

Derrydarroch, 44 miles in, with Steve and Billy (photo: Jillian Gordon)

The final leg is tough, as it should be (don't believe that last photo where you can tell that I was truly, truly suffering inside, honest).  Somewhere up Glen Falloch, Billy got a stone in his shoe and stopped to fish it out. I wasn't sure if my talk was too much or if it was genuine, so kept on going. It's so hard trying to run ultras together since each person's good and bad points are unlikely to overlap.  A gap opened up and I pushed things along a little, passing a few other runners here and there.  Jonathan Millar was having a tough time of it before the infamous "cow poo alley" and knowing exactly what he was going through (been there, done that, in exactly the same spot) I tried to say some encouraging words before pressing on.

More awesome Fling support at the big gate above Crianlarich with Fling legends Graham Kelly and Katie Hall raising spirits before the big climbs up to and through that rollercoaster.  Legs were able to zip down the steep downhills, and I was content to walk the uphills.  That seemed to work since after waiting for a gazillion cars at the A82 crossing, the tarmac towards Auchtertyre felt great with proper running, even the heady heights of nine minute miles. A couple of targets ahead kept me honest - it's always useful to have something ahead to focus on.  A metaphor for life maybe?

In keeping with the rest of the day, I was happy to walk up that final rise before turning onto the final mile to Tyndrum.  Had a quite (shouted) conversation with Mike and Rob here (they were heading off up the valley where you go if you miss that important final turn) about Rob having a pretty satisfactory sort of race - he ran it quite fast apparently.

And everyone's favorite bit where we get treated like royalty and it's all about us having our moment of glory. The stuff of legends and dreams.  Not worrying about a time now, I slowed down to enjoy it for as long as possible. What a great place to be.

High Fives with Ultra royalty (Marco) - and check out the feet, both off the ground! (photo: Stuart Macfarlane)

The moment when it's all about YOU! Gotta love this bit of the day (photos: Stuart Macfarlane)

So that's a few selected memories of the day and other random musings. Well done if you ran the race, or have been inspired to run it, or were helping out. Or just arrived here by accident and have got all this way through my ramblings - with that kind of endurance you should consider running an ultramarathon - you're clearly talented in this area.

If you haven't read any of the other tales here in this blog (not that many really), it's worth adding that this is the race that got me pulled into the world of ultramarathons. Eight races later and I'm lucky enough to still be running and enjoying every race.  Hats off to Ian Rae who completed his eleventh Fling (he was injured last year) - nice to briefly catch up with him after the race. 

Fling Bling through the years

According to John Kynaston race statistics, there are seven of us that have run eight Flings now:

Adapted from John Kynaston's race stats
[Update: John has updated his spreadsheet and it shows that also with 8 Flings finished are Andy Cole, Graeme Morrison and Ian King]

Neil MacRitchie was unable to run this year but was in the first aid tent at the finish line, being one of the aforementioned unsung heroes of the day.  The right hand column is the one I've added for 2017 - but no doubt John is right now working on a full and thorough analysis of this sort of thing - or will do it next, such is his skill with data and excel!  On countback, Colin Knox and Ellen McVey might get the nod since they have started nine Flings (or maybe more, since I could have missed some DNF numbers somewhere - apologies if I have).  Already looking forward to next year.

Job done. (photo: Stuart Macfarlane)