Before I start this report I want you to create a mental image:
Imagine you are visiting a psychiatric hospital, either a dull 1950’s one with its shoddy materials and pre-fab dampness or an austere Victorian one with its dodgy plumbing and cold corridors and draughty windows. Either way the smell of over-boiled root vegetables and condensation fill your nostrils.
It’s a piss miserable day outside with the default dull overcastness that exists from October to April and your shoes are just damp enough to make your socks feel wet.
As you look in on the ward of, to your eyes, poor souls that pass their days benignly decoupled from the reality of the outside world one of them nods at you to come over. As you approach you notice that he looks like all the others, purely functional clothing and with a gauntness and vacant look that come from spending too much time obsessing about whatever the broken wiring or chemical imbalance in his brain has led him to.
As he speaks he seems completely coherent and hasn’t lost any of the social conventions that you might have feared on first impressions. After the initial chit-chat about the weather and the ‘did you have a good journey’ he beckons you to lean in closer. He takes you elbow in a gentle grip and he says: “Y’know, most of the people in here are completely mad. Don’t even know what year it is, never mind what day it is. Completely bonkers”. You’re surprised at his comments as they almost reflect exactly what you were thinking yourself. Then he says, “but not me. I shouldn’t be here at all”.
You pull back slightly and look him in the eye. He has the unmistakable middle distance stare that the rest of them have, like they are only existing here with you but really they inhabit a different world. A world you don’t know about and, judging by the cut of them, one you don’t want to know about.
Now read on…………….
The planning started for this race back in late November of last year when I decided, more or less, to run two ultras in the first half of this year. The logic (there was a logic in there somewhere) was that it would be more interesting than starting another marathon training programme with all the rigidity that that entailed and it would feed my newly found heroin dependency that the first ultra last September had given me.
Now, if you’ve read this blog before you’ll realise that I have a whole other life outside of running and a large chunk of that involves pretending that I’m only mildly interested in running instead of constantly wishing I was better. I let slip that I had this plan to my board of directors (wife) and we had a ‘full and frank exchange of opinions‘ and then I parked the whole idea until glasnost set in.
I started long runs in earnest in January with about 12 weeks of long runs varying between 12 and 24 miles with all the usual smaller runs and hilly runs sprinkled in there as well. I run an 8 mile loop so getting over 24 miles in training is a real pain in the spuds as I find it hard to keep myself motivated. In order to address this I picked the Wicklow Way Ultra as a long training run at the end of March, 5 weeks before the Highland Fling. That was a bit challenging but I completed it nonetheless.
I then had 5 weeks of recovery, family life and one more long run and a pretty serious hill session (about 16 miles of hills at 8:30/mile) to complete my ‘training’. I would be lying if I said that the training had gone well. I normally enter a big demotivational trough after a race (that is a fancy way of saying I take to the sofa and sip a glass of wine) and this time was no different. That meant I was relying, for the most part, on that mythical concept: residual fitness in order to complete the Highland Fling.
After a month of being a really good boy I finally got the green light to enter the race a week beforehand. I was straight onto the laptop and had the £27 out of my account as quick as I could. That alone will give you an indication of how ill-prepared I was for the race.
Still, I was in it for the experience and not really to compete.
I flew up to Glasgow and was met my Lee (my race co-ordinator) and we then travelled on to collect Dave (my race motivator) and Mason (the team dog) from the train station. Dave’s motivation generally goes along the lines of “you’ll be fine, have a glass of wine!” to my nervous water sipping and pasta eating.
My biggest challenge in the whole thing was working out what the course was like from other reports and working out what sort of sensible pace I should go out at so that I actually made it over the finishing line. The distance was a big question for me. I had read most of the race reports on the race and I wasn’t overly concerned that I’d encounter any terrain that I couldn’t manage. There were lost of posts about some of the course being slightly technical but I wasn’t scared by this. No, it was the distance that had me sitting on the toilet like an ill-prepared student before his finals. I decided to adopt Andy Cole’s advice of going out slow and trying to pick people off as their faster early pace caught up with them. I had read John Kynaston’s reports on the race and he described the first 20 miles as being a ‘warm up’ (from the start at Milngavie to Drymen, around Conic Hill and down into Balmaha) and then the next 20 or 25 miles as being the race proper (up the eastern side of Loch Lomond from Balmaha to Rowardennan on to Inversnaid and up as far as Bein Glas Farm or Derrydarroch) and the last 8 – 12 miles being the ‘holding on section’ (Beinglas Farm past the Falls of Falloch, under the rail line and across the A82, up the hill along the old drover’s road to the Big Gate at Crianlarich through the roller coaster path in the forest and out and across the rail line and road again to Auchtertyre and then on to the finish in Tyndrum).
53 miles is a long way for me as 40 miles was my longest ultra before last week. I remember at the River Ayr Way Challenge last year worrying about the last 7 miles. The idea now that I would have another 20 miles to go after the first 33 miles was doing nothing for my toilet bowl.
So, the night before the race we travelled up to the start. A place called Milngavie. For the non-Scottish amongst you it is not pronounced Mil-na-gavee like I would pronounce it but Mull-Guy. This is important as if you pronounce it as it’s written you’ll mark yourself out as a soft southern twat very early on.
In order to get the best preparation for the race we booked into a plush apart-hotel with full cooking facilities and then went to the local Italian restaurant and had another massive plate of pasta. Not.
that would have been waaay to easy. No, we pitched our tents in a farmer’s campsite in the sleety rain and then repaired to the local pub for a chicken curry. A curry so small I have seen more food in a weight watchers meal portion. I was reduced to stealing chips off of Hannah’s (daughter of Lee) plate.
As I lay fully dressed and shivering in my sleeping bag and duvet, listening to the rain and waiting for sleep to come I felt like someone who had expressed a vague interest in adventurous sex and now found themselves lying, face down, tied to the bed as someone was lubricating a gloved hand and making suggestive looks at them.
I was out of my depth.
Dawn came (i.e. the sun came up, the sex analogy is over) and at around 05:15hrs, sphincter intact, I made my porridge and coffee and tried to look casually in control. I was surprised at the number of other idiots wandering around the campsite. As the day progressed I realised that many of them were also running the race. I counted 6 others who were also camping and running.
We headed down to the start at around 06:20hrs and after registering, changing out of my jeans (it was freezing, the sort of freezing that means it’ll be a great day for running) and dropping off my drop bags and luggage for the finish we gathered near the start.
The start is in a pedestrian underpass next to the train station. Imagine (for Cork people) the old Wilton Shopping centre underpass or the Skehard Road amenity walk underpass and you’re there. The race briefing is pretty simple: Enjoy yourselves and if you drop out tell someone. Then it was “3, 2, 1, off you go” and we were away at 07:00.
The ladies and the older gentlemen had headed off at 06:00hrs and the younger lads and the fast older lads were heading off at 08:00.
My pacing plan was conceived over a glass of wine on Thursday night and basically involved me taking John Kynaston’s splits from previous years and adding on a premium to allow for him being a better runner than me, my lack of knowledge of the course and my fear of not finishing the course. To this effect my race targets were:
- Drymen (12.4m) in 2 hours
- Balmaha (19.6m) in 3.5 hours
- Rowardennan (27m) in 5.15 hours
- Inversnaid (34m) in 7 hours
- Beinglas Farm (41m) in 9 hours
- Tyndrum (53m) in 12 hours.
12 hours or less and it would be a result.
The First 20 miles
Section 1 Milngave to Drymen about 12.4 miles
This section is described by everyone as being completely uneventful and a ‘piece of piss‘. As we ran through the rolling foothills and forests that make up the first 5 or 6 miles I was a little concerned that this was the definition of a ‘piece of piss‘. The hills were real and the they didn’t look too funny to me. What was funny was my pace. I was running at a comically slow pace and at times found it frustrating. A 10 minute mile is as difficult to achieve as a 6 minute mile if your natural pace is 7:30 – 8:00/mile. Still, the steep, but short up-hills moderated the pace.
Once we got onto the disused railway track I started to understand what they meant by uneventful. It was beautiful but just a bit too easy. I was also, by this stage, working on the nutrition. That is the run-speak way of saying I was starting to eat chocolate bars and rice crispie squares before 8 in the morning. the first drop bag is at about mile 20 at the start of Loch Lomond so I wanted to make sure that I was feeding as much as I could. The benefit of the low pace is that it is pretty easy to work on the food. I adopted an approach of eating every 30 to 40 minutes and sipping regularly from the water bottle. I had a Nuun tablet in the water so I wasn’t worried about electrolytes.
Around mile 9 or 10 I fell into running with a fella called Terry. Terry was training for the West Highland Way in June and was running it in memory of a friend of his who had been kill in a cycle accident in 2010. Terry knew the course and just before Drymen his experience came into play when he lead me on a long round about way to the first check-point. It meant that we didn’t have mud half way up our shins and our shoes were still dry.
At Drymen I refilled my water bottle and swiped the timing chip on my wrist. The split for this leg was 2hr 07min. 7 minutes behind my ‘schedule’ and the slowest first 12 miles of any race by a long shot. I was hoping this would pay off.
Section 2 – Drymen to Blamaha – about 7 miles
The next section of the race takes you off all roads and onto proper trails (i.e. unfit for humans!). After a climb through a recently felled forest where Terry kept us entertained with stories and the fact that there was a chap running this year who’d had a heart attack while running the race last year. Like the husband of an expectant mother, I was getting sympathy chest pains at the thought of it. My wife’s departing words to me as I’d left the previous Thursday had been “don’t do anything stupid like die, will you?”
The terrain was properly enjoyable now and the only problem was that you were tempted to look around at the scenery a bit too much. This can lead to plenty of face plant moments.
At around 16 miles the elites went past us. They were up at 16 miles after about 1hr 45 mins.
One of the things that I enjoyed about the day was that everyone from the elites to the supporters and hikers we met along the way had nothing but encouragement for each and every one of us. It might sound trivial but when you’ve nothing left in terms of energy or motivation an encouraging word is enough to re-ignite the engines.
Conic hill is the sort mountain that makes non-hill walkers decide that hill walking isn’t for them. If it wasn’t surrounded by the Scottish Highlands it would be called Conic mountain. The up-hill was just a hard slog and it was heartening to see that the elites had to walk this sort of a climb as well and it wasn’t just us mortals.
As we contoured around the side of the hill we got our first hint of the beauty of the day to come. It was a fantastic ‘Scottish Tourist Board’ moment. the long finger of Loch Lomond spread out to our right and the mountains and forests reaching down on both sides with the sort of blue sky that had been in hiding for a few weeks. A bit like a John Hinde postcard.
During our climb up to Conic Terry had been telling me that he was on a 3-shoe strategy for the race with his first shoe change at Balmaha and then a pair of Hokas for the last 12 miles from Beinglas. I reassured him that I had no such worries. I only had my worn out pair of New Balance 1064 road shoes. So far these shoes had been able to cope admirably with the conditions which would make you wonder if the whole ‘what shoe to buy’ thing isn’t just a massive marketing scam.
The descent of Conic changed that and after one session of using my arse as a toboggan I had to moderate my pace. Terry on the other hand was out of sight. The hill is so steep in places that it is just a set of steps. Still, it was over pretty quickly and so was that section of the race.
The first 20 miles to Balmaha finished. My running was as slow as a wet Sunday in January but I was loving it and was still in once piece so I was happy.
As I jogged into Balmaha I was greeted by Hannah, Lee and Dave. They were great support and made sure I kept walking trough the checkpoint instead of just nattering on. I gave them my hat and coat and guzzled back a banana milk and loaded my shorts pockets with a new round of junk food and set off sipping a chilled Starbucks latte and had a flat coke for the journey.
It turned out Terry knew Dave and Lee very well so Dave made sure Terry knew to ‘look after me’ . I had completely forgotten to fill my water bottle but Lee was able to get a very generous chap called Murdo (there are as many Murdos in Scotland as there are Timmy Joes in Ireland) to fill the bottle for me.
The middle of the race – up the side of Loch Lomond
Section 3 – Balmaha to Rowardennan about 7.4 miles
In my mental preparation for the race I had assumed that the course was benign from Balmaha to Inversnaid. An easy 14 miles I thought. This was mainly because nobody makes much of a big deal about it. As you slog up the first of many short but steep hillocks on your way up the side of the lake towards Rowardennan you realise that the course has plenty of teeth and if you decide to ignore it you do so at your own expense.
The banana milk was a bad idea. Sure it was packed with energy and tasted nice. It just kept giving me a cramp on the lower left part of my abdomen. The strap from the water bottle carrier wasn’t helping the pain either. This meant that I was not progressing as fast as I thought I could. In hindsight it was a problem on the Wicklow Way Ultra as well but I just didn’t diagnose it correctly. I had enough flat coke stashed in the next 3 drop bags that I wasn’t worried about not making it without the banana milk so I decided to skip it from here-on in.
The miles from Balmaha to Rowardennan are beautiful and scenic. The route criss-crosses the road for the first few miles out of Balmaha so you get to see campsites that would make you question why you’d go on holidays anywhere else in the world. There was a bit of beach running on soft shingle that sucked the life out of your calves but apart from that it was just the normal steep up-hill power marching and roller-coaster downhills.
I did have a few pretty serious stumbles at this stage. The sort of trips where it is 50:50 whether you hit the dirt in a bone breaking/skin stitching way or regain your composure and try to make it look like you meant to do it.
Just after the full marathon distance, where I had taken the now customary ‘I look mental’ memorial photograph, I realised that others were having the same stumbles and trips as me but weren’t always as lucky. At around mile 27, just before Rowardennan, we were met by a soft talking marshal who advised us that a runner up ahead had had a ‘bit of a fall’. As we made our way gingerly past the crumpled, motionless figure on the ground, covered in emergency blankets, I know that more than one of us offered up a silent prayer as ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. After the race I found out that she had to wait 3 hours for the ambulance.
My target to Rowardennan had been5hr 15 min. I swiped my wrist off the timing chip at 5hrs 11 min. I had clawed back about 11 or 12 minutes on my pre-race estimate since Drymen.
I attacked my drop bag like a kid coming home from a party with a goodie bag. I had some rice pudding which was a gamble but there was so little of it I was hopeful it would do no harm. With nothing else to do I filled the water bottle and was away with a fres set of gels, flat coke and rice crispie squares.
Section 4 – Rowardennan to Inversnaid – about 7 miles
My enthusiasm for running was put to the test almost immediately. On the pre-race maps I’d studied there was a little arrow just after Rowardennan that said ‘don’t forget to take the high road’. As I slogged (slogged being a metaphor for power walking with some jogging) up the high road I kept myself going by singing the ‘you take the high road and I’ll take the low and I’ll be in Scotland before you’ refrain to Loch Lomond. It was beautiful. The scenery, not my singing.
At this stage I was passing plenty of the male 50+ and female runners who had set off at 06:00hrs. This was a great moral boost but was tempered by the speed of the later starters and the relay runners who were passing you like you were stationary. My quads were starting to hurt on the downhills at this stage. Not very sore but no longer could you take the hills at full tilt. This was to be expected so I wasn’t too upset.
Just before Inversnaid there was some of the ‘slightly tricky’ ground conditions we’d been promised for after Inversnaid. More about them later.
I crossed the bridge at the hotel at Inversnaid and collected my drop bag. I swapped over the empties for the fulls and moved on out as quick as I could (not that quick in reality).
Section 5 – Inversanid to Beinglas Farm – about 7 miles
The technical section was on us almost immediately. For the non-running community technical ground is about as useful a description as a chocolate teapot. It does nothing to describe the lay of the land and what it is like to try to ‘run’ over it. The ground was such that open running was almost impossible. It was a sort of a constant scramble where if you weren’t controlling your balance with arms outstretched at shoulder level you were using your arms to ease your way down boulders and up over trees.
This shot was taken from Nick Ham’s report on last year’s fling and it gives a good impression of what it’s like.
I loved it.
The total concentration required meant that, like the immersion a teenager gets from the total involvement in a video game combat shoot ’em up, time stood still and you became completely detached from the normal space-time continuum.
This detachment from reality was helped by the fact that my trusty Garmin had packed up just before Inversanid so I hadn’t a clue about what pace I was travelling at. I was picking off plenty of runners on this section and was making much better time than I had hoped for. Towards the latter end of the technical bit I fell into running with a South African guy who lives in Dundee. He was an 08:00 starter and after a few miles of idle chat about the merits of marathons and running while trying to rear a family I let him off (technical term for he ran away from me).
As the technical section came to an end so did Loch Lomond. The countryside opened up and we were back on more manageable trails. We ran past Doune Bothy and in no time we were at Dario’s post (that story is for a whole other blog post).
It was a mental goal of mine to reach here, around mile 39 by my guess, and making it in good spirits and feeling that I could complete the task was a great encouragement.
It didn’t last long and just after this photograph I had the first of two problems that knocked me off course.
The route reaches a very runnable plateau after this point and I just couldn’t run it. I was now regretting my ‘total involvement’ with the tricky section of the course. Stephen Forde came charging past me at this stage complaining about having a sore groin but he seemed to be flying away nonetheless.
As I walked on I was starting to despair at my predicament until I had the eureka moment of realising that I hadn’t eaten in well over an hour. I dove into my shorts pockets and started devouring rice krispie squares, kinder bars and energy gels and suddenly, like Popeye on spinach, I was back running. A mid-race problem solving success story only tempered by the fact that my IQ was down to double digits at this stage.
I arrived at Beinglas farm and swiped my chip at 8hr 39min. I had taken another 10 minutes off my goal. If I hadn’t had my energy low I think I could have taken another 3 or 4 minutes off of it.
Still, I was vertical and after some more words of encouragement from Lee, Dave & Hannah I was loaded up and off out of the check point.
Only 12 miles to go.
The end of the race – holding on ’till Tyndrum
Section 6 – Beinglas Farm to Tyndrum – about 12 miles
As I walked up the hill from Beinglas farm I called Finola to confirm that I was still alive. Then I phoned my ‘last 12 miles’ support team (Tom and my god-daughter Meadbh from the parish of Edinburgh) They were up ahead about 3 miles at the Falls of Falloch.
Tom had a warm sweet milky coffee and some encouraging words for me at the first stop and we agreed to meet again at Bogle Glen.
From previous blogs I had read I knew that the trick with these 12 miles was to break it down into smaller sections. I was aiming for the turn into the forest at Bogle Glen near Crianlarich as my main target. This is also known as the ‘big gate’ which was a puzzle to me until I reached it.
It’s a big gate
After the first meeting the route crosses the railway and road and then drags up the old military road to Crianlarich.
For the previous mile I had thought that the runner in front of me was a lady and I had been admiring her backside. Just after this shot I realised my mistake.
I had given myself 3 hours to complete this 12 miles and I was a bit puzzled as to why it should take so long. It was only as I started on the section up to the big gate that I realised why. It was a long drag up the mountain.
I had a look at the elevation profile after the race and I could see the reason for my slow pace at this stage. The fatigue of the previous 45 miles to this point and the hill in front of me had reduced me, and almost everyone else to a walk or a slow shuffle.
In my case this wasn’t helped by the onset of my second mid-race problem. My left knee. I knew my left knee was going to be a problem before the race. I had had a day of knee pain after my hills of the previous Saturday and now, with the mileage I had on the knee every step was, to use a running understatement, uncomfortable.
After the rendezvous at the big gate Tom suggested that it was a short climb and then downhill to the end. Dave had told me a few nights earlier over a pint that it was a…. how would you say……. fucking nightmare. He said that by the time you got past the big gate you had about 3 miles of knee and quad destroying ascents and descents as the route traversed a whole load of hill streams through the forest. With my knee I could barely walk, not to mention run, at this stage.
Then I had my second mid-race problem solving moment: I swallowed a neurofen with some flat coke. I remember in my childhood that one of the older kids had told me that if I ever wanted to get high I should take pain killers with coke. I’m sure it was an urban myth but it did the trick for me at this stage and I was back running.
I made it off the hill and crossed under the railway bridge and came across the first of about four sets of end-of-race liars. If you ever wanted to gauge the importance of a race, just count the number of people in the closing stages telling you that you look fine and that ‘it’s no bother to ya’. This race was important.
I met Tom and Meadbh for the last time as I crossed the river by St. Fillian’s Priory and after ditching my girlie arm warmers, empty sweet wrappers and dead garmin I set out for the finish.
The plethora of end-of-race liars, my dead garmin and my low IQ meant that I was now somewhere between one and five miles from the finish. I decided that the best strategy was to keep running as I thought I could make it to the end despite all physical signs telling me otherwise.
I crossed under the road again and pushed on (actually running this time) for the finish. I had enough in reserve to pass about 4 or 5 more on the approach to Tyndrum.
Then, as I made my way through the last bit of forest, I could hear the pipers. As I rounded the bend and saw the two pipers I thanked them and sucking in the gut, I tried to look professional and worked hard at not bursting into tears – possibly the hardest thing I’d done all day.
And then it was over.
11 hours and 37 minutes.
Bottle of beer. Or two
I chatted to Elspeth Jenkins who had finished before me on the road but just a bit behind on the clock and to Terry who came in about 11 minutes ahead of me. I doubt he’d had as many problems as I’d had.
I had one blog recognition moment when somebody (by somebody I mean a very discerning connoisseur of running blogs) approached me as I was wandering around in race kit sipping beer with a trolley bag like somebody who’d missed their flight. He complemented me on my non-running approach to blogging.
I thanked all the people I could see and headed off to put the bag in the car.
Then, after a bag of chips and onion rings we were on the road to Edinburgh.
In the end I was happy with my day out as I had achieved what I had set out to do – finish the race. My big dilemma was, and still is, should I have gone faster over the first 12 miles. These are some of the most runnable miles of the race and a few extra minutes here might have been carried over to the end as much of the rest of the course would have been slow anyway. I don’t regret my tactic as I think I would have needed some very specific training (long off road training runs or 6hrs+ runs) in order to feel confident of completing the course in a faster time.
Could I go further?
My feet were pretty blistered at the end of the race. All the toe nails survived and I suspect the blistering is a factor of all the downhill braking that you have to do. This seems to be the limiting factor at the moment from a physiological point of view (obviously completely ignoring the gimpy knee). Different shoes might do the trick but I need the cushioning. I noticed plenty of people running in Hokas and I’d be curious about them. They don’t make you any faster as I passed plenty of people wearing them but they may have suffered less than me. I don’t know.
None of this would be possible without my family and it would have been about ten times harder without the support of Lee, Dave, Hannah and Tom and Meadbh.
Thanks for reading.