It has been almost a week now since I ran the 10th Hoka Highland Fling and, whilst the DOMS may finally be receding, the memories certainly aren’t.
What a difference a week makes. This time last week I was pondering the sense of making the journey down to Glasgow, uprooting my wife Leanne and two year old son Harris for the weekend, so that I could attempt a race that I was quite so unprepared for.
The post has turned into a mammoth effort, taking almost as long to write as it did to run the actual race! With that in mind, I’ve prepared an abridged version directly below. Read that if you find yourself short of time or, indeed, why not just skip to the pictures! For everyone else, grab a drink and read on :o)
The Abridged Version
- Returning to ultras in 2015 after a 2 year break
- 2015 has seen one illness after another
- As a result, training has been minimal
- Wasn’t going to run
- Did run
- Somehow not only finished but bagged a PB
- Loved it, roll on Hoka Highland Fling 2016
For a fuller version, read on…
Thanks to 6 months spent ‘traipsing’ from one illness to another, which has seen training decimated by anything and everything (see below), I felt considerably unprepared for the Fling, on a level that I have never experienced before. I’ve gone in to 10k races better prepared than I was for the Fling.
Such was the extent of my ailments that it’s actually easier to list them rather than try and incorporate them into a sentence like structure!
- Flu (multiple instances of)
- Chest infection
- Chickenpox (something I had managed to avoid for 43 years, totally floored me and sapped energy levels to an all time low)
- Cellulitis (prevented training for approx 1 month leading up to the D33)
- Further swollen legs with cellulitis-like symptoms caused by insect bites (unfortunately I appear to be the equivalent of a happy meal for all insects, and even more unfortunately, I appear to react really badly to each and every bite)
- Permanent back ache caused by an unfortunate fall
When I considered my return to running ultramarathons last year, after a two year hiatus inspired by the birth of my son, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to fit in the required training in such a way that it didn’t impact on my son. I didn’t, however, expect THIS. I mean, seriously, come on, give a guy a break! (Can I just stress that I don’t mean that literally. That would be all I need!)
At this point, it’s time to dispense with the self pity. One thing that I have gleamed from all of the excellent Fling blogs out there is that many of my fellow runners were in exactly the same boat, having experienced setbacks along the way, and/or with training far below their ideal levels.
At least. come race day, the question of whether I ran or not was in my own hands and I wasn’t a DNS by virtue of an injury. Sometimes, when things appear to be going against you, it’s all too easy to forget that.
As it happened, the dilemma over whether to make the trip down to Glasgow or not, was actually taken out of my hands. The last time I was in Glasgow, back in November, our SEAT Alhambra MPV died on us, just as we were about to start the journey home. We finally got the call to come and pick up our fixed car last week, some 6 months later (and yes, you did read that correctly, SIX months later!)
It’s an altogether different and long story but, suffice to say, it was good to finally get the call to come and get the car, and perfectly timed to coincide with race weekend.
As an aside, SEAT did keep us mobile for the entire 6 months with a succession of hire cars and we now have what I like to think of as a ‘RoboCop’ car, rebuilt from the ground up in an effort to find the elusive fault!
Our impromptu week in Glasgow, which we spent before realizing that we weren’t about to get our car back soon, also saw us fall in love with the city as we walked for miles each day exploring the numerous parks, museums and galleries, the architecture and the sights.
Anyway, back to the race!
I headed off to bed around the same time as my son Harris, not long after returning from a fine pre-race meal of Italian food. Retrospectively, the early bed was a great idea. For one, I awoke naturally having managed a good nights sleep. Further, had I slept much longer, I would likely have missed the start of the race.
Whilst I did set an alarm on my iPhone, I omitted to check that I had set it for the right day. As such, my planned 4 a.m. rise didn’t ‘quite’ go to plan. Muppet!
Breakfast and final preparations were slightly less chilled than I had hoped for. However, I also didn’t have time to think, let alone stress! Every cloud does indeed have a silver lining, and, looking out the window, I could see that there were plenty clouds that morning!
Thanks to the selflessness of Leanne’s uncle John, Leanne and Harris were able to remain in bed whilst John dropped me off in Milngavie. I had just enough time to get the drop bags into the respective cars and visit the gents before making my way to the back of the line of runners who were eagerly awaiting the 6 a.m. start.
When I last ran the Fling, there must have been around 500 runners. This time around there was a potential field of 1000 solo runners and some 50 relay teams, with approx. 700+ solo runners actually starting.
I had wondered how things would fare with quite so many but, as it turns out, everything ran like clockwork. The staggered start, which saw me cross the line around 6.06 a.m., ensured that there was sufficient space between the waves of runners, and the field had naturally spaced out within a few miles.
Milngavie to Drymen (12.6 miles)
I caught up with a number of familiar faces over this first section, including Fiona Rennie, Silke Loehndorf and Stuart Macfarlane. It was great to catch up with people and it also helped take my mind off of the task at hand. Fiona made a comment regarding muscle memory which gave me some hope, even with my relative lack of running over the past couple of years.
The last time I ran this section of the West Highland Way was in the pitch black, in apocalyptic rain, with my stomach starting to give indications of the problems that were soon to blight my West Highland Way Race weekend.
It was a relief to find myself running happily and I welcomed the view of the Drumgoyne hills, one of my favourite stretches of the West Highland Way route.
Drymen to Balmaha (19.8 miles)
Unlike at the D33, I managed to run a sensible pace over those first 20 miles, no doubt assisted by the more undulating terrain of the West Highland Way route. I think this in itself paid dividends over the course of the race. (Mental note to self: if you find yourself running the early stages of an ultra at your new, fastest pace, expect to suffer at some point in the not too distant future!)
Conic Hill awaited before the first checkpoint in Balmaha and I approached the hill with some reservations. Thanks to various Facebook posts, I envisaged some kind of fully tarmacked path up and over the hill. Thankfully, the reality is nowhere near as bad as expected.
I did, however, find Conic Hill less arduous than expected. Perhaps down to the improvements underfoot; perhaps down to the 3 stone in weight I have lost these past few months; definitely not down to any form of specific training!
That same lack of hill training back in 2010 resulted in me coming off the hill in a bad state, with the end result being my one and only DNF when I finally threw in the towel around the 27 mile mark.
I arrived at Balmaha feeling positive and looking forward to the contents of my first drop bag. This in itself consisted of a fair amount of guesswork, as drop bags are not something I have had much call for these past two years. Common sense dictates that you don’t try anything new under race conditions. I was about to test whether my drop bag preferences from a few years ago still worked for me.
I’ve always hated eating and running. I love eating and I love running. I’m just not particularly fond of combining the two.
Regardless, this year I actually found myself eating most of the content of my drop bags at each of the 4 checkpoints.
At the end of the day, I suspect that this may be the difference. This may well be why I continued to run strong for so long on the day.
Now I know I said that you don’t try anything new on race day but someone posted a photo of their drop bags on Facebook. Scanning the photo I happened to notice that the bags included packets of Hula Hoops. They are not something that I have ever included in my drop bags but, instantly, I knew I had to have them.
Whoever posted that photo, thank you! Along with the cans of full fat Coke, the Hula Hoops proved to be the hit of the day as far as the content of my drop bags were concerned. I went through the motions with the bananas, flapjacks and pots of Muller Rice, throwing them down at speed. But the Coke and Hula Hoops. I loved those, and looked forward to them at each checkpoint.
Balmaha to Rowardennan (27.2 miles)
Leaving Balmaha, I was surprised to find that there had been a slight change to the route, which I assume is the new official West Highland Way route. It takes you straight back into the forest and well away from the traffic. With up to 1000 runners, that can only be a good thing!
I was also surprised to find myself back running quickly, despite my now full stomach.
Rowardennan to Inversnaid (34.3 miles)
Just a short few miles later, another Coke, packet of Hula Hoops and the remaining content of my drop bag awaited. I made the mistake of actually sitting down to enjoy my food, soaking up the atmosphere and people watching. Retrospectively, I perhaps spent just a few minutes too long at each of the checkpoints. However, what’s to say that these brief breaks didn’t actually aid my overall endurance.
I left Rowardennan in good fettle, having finally removed the waterproof jacket that I started the race in. Blue skies had been the order of the day for a good few miles by this point and I was starting to heat up under my extra layer, which I expected would eventually start to impair my performance. Given the forecast of heavy rain and potentially even snow, I expected that the jacket would have to go back on at some point soon but it never came to that.
As I passed the 27 mile point, I was again running, as before with a full stomach, and feeling good. Passing this, the point at where I abandoned my first ever Highland Fling, back in 2010, was a major psychological boost and, for the first time that day, I started to consider that I may yet complete the full 53 miles.
Inversnaid to Beinglas (40.9 miles)
I don’t think I have ever come across a section of trail quite as mental as the one between Inversnaid and Beinglas. It’s just so damn technical, with routes, rocks, boulders, narrow paths and all manner of obstacles that require the use of hands and feet to clamber up, over, and down to navigate them with any level of safety.
Getting any kind of rhythm going was nigh on impossible and I found myself pondering, especially on the more exposed elements of the route, just how more runners (thankfully) haven’t come a cropper on this section.
By the time I arrived at the final checkpoint, at 40.9 miles in Beinglas, I knew that a race finish was all but assured, even if I had to ‘death march’ to the finish line, but I was also starting to suffer, especially my knees, thanks to the constant clambering and climbing on the technical trail.
Beinglas to Tyndrum (53 miles)
After relatively close checkpoints, I always find this last stint of 12 miles approx. to feel far longer than it actually is. This is particularly true of the forest element, which more than deserves the description of ‘undulating’. There’s a good few steep hills in this section and I came across a number of runners who were suffering in some shape or form, but most often as a result of cramping.
A familiar sounding accent got me talking to a Fling first timer, Caron Mutch, from Macduff if I recall correctly, just up the road from me here in Ellon.
I then found myself running with someone who I didn’t recognise at first. Running head down, focused on getting to the finish, It was only after chatting for a few minutes that I recognised Thomas (Tommy) Robb, whom I have run with on many occasions previously.
The realisation that we actually did know each other hit us at the same time. Tommy’s reaction upon recognizing that it was me was priceless, with words to the effect of “Jonathan, where have you gone”. I suspect this is testament to just how different I must look having lost 3 stones in weight.
There’s no disputing that Race Director John Duncan, a.k.a. ‘Jonny Fling’, knows how to put on an ultra event which is an examplar to all others.
The attention to detail throughout the event is second to none, from the ability to register the day before, to the staggered start, to the efficient, well manned checkpoints, staffed with friendly marshals who were all eager to help, to the names and flags on numbers, to the excellent finishing area and finishers prizes. I could go on.
However, one thing about the finish really made my day.
A text from Leanne just a few miles from the end confirmed that Leanne and Harris were waiting for me at the finish and Leanne asked if I would like to run the final few yards with Harris.
This had been my intention all along, without a doubt, and I had decided that, should I be fortunate enough to actually make it to the finish line, Harris would be the recipient of my medal.
Approaching the red carpet, finish line in sight, I spotted Leanne with Harris ready to run the last bit to the line. Having been running for some 12 1/2 hours I was delighted to see them both.
Taking Harris’s hand, we headed towards the line, with the amazing crowds cheering Harris (and me) to the finish. And then Harris stumbled, landing on his knees, which was met with a chorus of sympathetic oooohhsss from the crowd. Picking himself up, we crossed the line together, accompanied Once again by cheers from those around the finish area.
At this point, both Harris and myself were presented with finishers medals, making both his and my day.
I’ve read other Fling blogs where runner parents describe the same thing happening with their children and I really do hope that this is a tradition that continues. If Harris’s reaction is anything to go by, the next generation of ultra runners is already in the making.
Normally, our wee boy is in bed by 7 but it was all we could do to get the excited wee fella in bed by 11 that night, as he proudly showed off his medal to anyone and everyone!
Saturday 25th April 2015 was one of those all too rare days when everything appeared to just come together so well. Given the lack of training and the fact that I almost didn’t even start, I had no expectations of myself.
As a result, I started far less stressed than usual, accepted each mile covered as a bonus, barely checked my watch, and, when I did, used it only to determine the mileage covered, not once checking my pace. I ran within my comfort zone, stopping to take the ‘occasional’ photo (see the gallery here), and enjoyed the amazing views throughout the day.
I found myself thinking back occasionally to my 2012 West Highland Way Race, especially at sections that reminded me of my exploits that weekend (graphic account of apocalyptic weather, explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting here), but mostly I was glad just to be back on this iconic trail, alongside so many like minded runners, all striving to reach Tyndrum.
Given just how troublesome my return to ultras has been this year, I was considering making this comeback a brief one. I was starting to wonder if ultra life was still for me. However, completing the Fling on so little training* and still managing to get a PB (chip time) has actually given me even more incentive to continue, to see what I can achieve with more appropriate training.
(* I don’t dutifully log my mileage these days but, from memory, training over the past 5 months has consisted of 18 miles of the D33 before cramp saw me hobble the remaining 15 miles, an 18 mile training run, approx 3 1/2 marathon distance training runs, a 10 mile hilly Cairngorm run, approx 4 * 5 mile treadmill runs and, finally, approx 7 * 3 mile treadmill runs)
However, Saturday just served to remind me all too well what the allure or running ultras is all about; about the element of camaraderie and friendship that exists amongst runners, seeing runners looking out for each other and chatting away, often with little more in common than their shared love of trails and distance; about pushing limits and taking chances, testing yourself regardless of how well, or otherwise, your training has gone; about taking a chance on a set of circumstances coming together to work in your favour on the day in question.
Broaching the subject of participation in next year’s Fling with my wife, her response was decidedly positive. My participation was a given. Why wouldn’t I want to compete in such an excellent event.
Good to see that a non runner also holds the Hoka Highland Fling in such high stead.
Just a week past the Fling and I am already looking forward to Hoka Highland Fling 2016, which will be Fling #5 for me.
In my mind, I am already envisaging covering those last few metres on the red carpet, with Harris at my side.
Photography: Thanks to John Duncan for arranging race photographers to capture our race, and to photographers Clark Hamilton and www.monumentphotos.co.uk