A Tough Day – Hoka Highland Fling 2016

Well that most certainly did not go to plan! On Saturday 30th April 2016 I participated in my 5th Highland Fling, recording a Personal Worst (PW) time of 13:39:53, some 66 minutes slower than 2015’s PB time, and some 36 minutes slower than my previous slowest completion time back in 2011. I can only be thankful that my 22nd ultra marathon didn’t also become my second Did Not Finish (DNF), something that would have been particularly jarring given that my only other DNF to date came at the Montane Highland Fling, as it was known then, back in 2010.

What started as a promising day, with me waking at 4am feeling well rested having had a solid 7 hours of sleep, soon turned into a day where one thing after another went wrong, starting shortly after arriving in Milngavie, when I realised for the first time that one of my Salomon Soft Flasks was leaking.

Typically, I had not packed a spare and, as I was to find out shortly before setting off just after 6am, there was actually a problem with both flasks. Given that each flask was filled with both water and Tailwind Nutrition endurance drink mix, I soon found myself a sticky mess, something that I was not prepared to tolerate for 53 miles. I soon took the decision to abandon my fluid/nutrition strategy and to fill the flasks with only water.

With the benefit of hindsight, I know now that this was a huge mistake. By Rowardennan, I was toiling, finding myself completely lacking in energy and seemingly unable to do anything to remedy the situation. This was to set the tone of the day, a day which soon became a slog to grind out a finish.

I will admit to coming tantalisingly close to withdrawing from the race and, had it not been for the thought of crossing the line with my son Harris, emulating one of my highlights of 2015, I would probably have opted for the ease of the DNF. At the back of my mind, I was also all too aware of the psychological impact that a DNF would have had on my West Highland Way Race preparations but, I have to admit, this wasn’t such a driving force at the time.

However, this weekend’s ‘performance’ was just the kick up the backside that I needed to try and ensure that I do not face the same issues in 7 weeks time when I aim to complete the full 96 miles. With the body slowly starting to recover from the Fling, it will soon be time to get some quality training done in enough time to also permit myself some form of pre West Highland Way Race taper.

Again with the benefit of hindsight, and irrespective of all the (mostly) minor things that went wrong on the day, there’s one obvious cause for the catastrophe that was this weekend – training, or, more accurately, the lack of training.

It’s all very well joking about all of the things that have got in the way of my training, not only this year but, also, since I decided to return to ultra marathon running from my parental sabbatical starting with the 2015 D33.

I have somehow managed to ‘bluff my way’ through two D33s, two Flings, and, even, the 73 mile Great Glen Ultra last year.

Lets face it, I was long overdue a dose of comeuppance and boy did this weekend deliver on that, both physically and mentally.

In the longer term, I think it will again be time to consider where my priorities lie or, more accurately, whether I can actually do justice to ultra marathon running whilst keeping Harris and Leanne as my #1 priority. In the shorter term however, it’s time to pull the finger out and to get some quality training done so that I can at least attempt to get through the events that I have signed up for throughout 2016.

I also need to once again find my training mojo, something that has long been missing which, I suspect, is down to my having grown tired of years and years of repeatedly running North or South out of Ellon on the Formartine & Buchan Way. I should consider myself blessed to have such a training resource on my doorstep, and especially so when the only thing that stands between me and greater mobility is my lack of drive to actually sit my driving test!

I have just 7 weeks until I am next on the West Highland Way and, this time around, I want it to be a far more pleasurable experience.

Some 4 days on from the race, I am still mentally beating myself up, in a way that I haven’t done since that DNF back in 2010, and I only have myself to blame.

The Fling is one of ***the*** best races in the UK without a doubt, with excellent organisation and an atmosphere and camaraderie that is hard to beat, through to the kind of finish experience that you would only expect if ‘Carlsberg did ultra marathon finishes’ (do they even still use that strapline?) and a finishers bag that is unsurpassed to the best of my knowledge.

I wanted to do better and, for as much as I promised myself ‘never again’ throughout the race, I want to return and massively improve my PB.

I haven’t gone in to too much detail with regard to what else went wrong on the day but, given how long a post this is already, I think an overview will suffice.

First off, I doubt that a few days of illness (mostly gastrointestinal) in the week leading up to the Fling will exactly have helped my preparations. It might also help explain the general feeling of lethargy, though at least some of this was undoubtedly down to my abandoning Tailwind so early on in the race.

I was also bothered with a frozen shoulder throughout the week, which I like to think was a result of some garden landscaping but could actually have been down to RSI as a result of constantly pushing Harris on his swing! Regardless, it was sore, and one more thing that I didn’t need in my already untrained state.

I also found myself bothered with what felt like blockages in my arms, and a strange tight sensation in my hands, which soon saw me running with my hands up in the air as much as possible, to try and reduce the swelling in my fingers.

Retrospectively, I think I was also putting myself under pressure to try and finish quicker than ever before, so that I could race back for a 40th birthday party that was being held for a family member back in Glasgow. Again, retrospectively, this was unnecessary as Leanne, Harris and myself were able to enjoy the party, albeit fairly briefly, regardless of my actual finishing time.

Things didn’t go to plan with regard to fluids and nutrition, as mentioned previously, thanks in large part to the failure of the Salomon soft flasks. I had to laugh at one photo of me at the finish line, as it shows a bulging Salomon S-LAB Vest that is packed with unused Chia Charge bars and Tailwind Nutrition stick packs. Always the canny Scot, I saved these from my drop bags along the way with a view to using them over the rest of my races.

On the plus side, my Salt & Vinegar Hula Hoops, occasional Muller Rice pots and cans of full fat Coca Cola in my drop bags did serve to keep me going. I did also enjoy my Chia Charge bars up until approximately Rowardennan but found I just didn’t have the appetite for them thereafter.

Ending on a positive note, I did also do what I set out to do, crossing the finish line with my now 3 year old son Harris, albeit considerably later than I had planned to do so. Just as with last year, Harris received his own medal and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He subsequently spent some time running around in my S-LAB Vest and drinking from a different soft flask.

Talking of which – The Salomon soft flasks have served me well but have seen their day. Aside from the problem of leakage, they were also difficult to fill, especially where those manning the checkpoints were attempting to fill them using massive water bottles. The small tops of the Salomon soft flasks just don’t lend themselves well to being hastily filled.

I’ve since debated whether to stick with soft flasks or to return to using bladders or bottles and, having done some research, have purchased 3 * 500ml Hydrapak soft flasks which are sturdier than the Salomon one and have a much wider neck. This should be useful both for refilling with water and for filling with Tailwind Nutrition stick packs. I’m also planning on experimenting with using one of the smaller capacity Hydrapak soft flasks as a dispenser for Tailwind rather than faffing with stick packs at checkpoints.

Right, time to get training!