Some days everything seems to go right. You never know why, or how, or if you can make it happen again, all you can do is accept with some grace the gift that's offered, and treasure the memory.
I worked hard for my Highland Fling result of 10 hours and 23 minutes in 2009. I was fit and had three weeks earlier run a marathon PB of 3:17, a time that I don't expect to see again. I was confident and I planned a good schedule for the race, which I beat by 13 minutes. So when I arrived in Milngavie station yard yesterday for my fourth start in this great race, a year later, a year older and with less training in the tank for the year to date, I had no great expectations but just a plan, such as it was, to enjoy the event. The forecast had wandered from bad to better to good, there was the usual muted excitement about the place, after just three years in this strange sport I now know enough people to make each start line seem like a friendly reunion party and it was nearly ten months since I had had the pleasure of running on this end of the West Highland Way, so overall the day held a lot of promise.
Just before the off I'm chatting with Graeme Morrison - Graeme and I crossed the finish line together last year, with his dog Penny - by the end of the day Penny will have completed two Highland Fling Races at the age of two, so beat that you superstar athletes! Then it's the usual low-key briefing from Murdo and we're off through the tunnel and up the steps, I'm always like a kid at Christmas here, can't wait to see how today's adventure will unfold. Graeme and I run together for most of this first section, he gets ahead when I stop for a drink, I gradually catch up, and so on.
A bit of confession time here, you're not going to get any technical details today. Although I was an engineer and actually do own a Garmin, I'm probably at the opposite end of the natural information gathering spectrum from John K. I find his reports totally absorbing and wish I could do the same, but I'm just not organised enough. I glance at my watch and realise that the big field I usually use for judging current pace (that's the one that I can actually read without my specs on) I changed to read altitude during a recent ski-touring trip and haven't bothered to change back - there's just no way I'm going to reset it on the run without the instruction book so pace judgement is going to be mostly down to how I feel. I can't remember any of my last year's splits except Rowardennan (a lot of discussion about the significance of this point in the blogosphere recently!), and the time details I remember about today are pretty sketchy - maybe I'll have a look at things when the results come out with the official splits but that's for later. Back to the business of the day, actually covering the ground.
I've set myself just two rules, no quicker than 2 hours to Drymen and no running up significant gradients until after Rowardennan. So Graeme and I coast easily along, sometimes with other people, sometimes not. I know the rough distances, 6 miles to the railway line, 10 miles to Gartness and so on, so I can keep the pace down nicely. Somewhere along this stretch I catch up with Bob Allison who I know from the WHW website but have never talked to before. Bob's a much better runner than me but today he's suffering from a cold so taking it easy. Drymen turns up in just about two hours, Graeme says that's five minutes slower than last year, but I'm happy. I get a little ahead of Graeme on the first section of the forest but he'll catch me later. A bit further on Bob comes steaming past, I don't expect to see him again. I enjoy the bit as the track comes out into the open, looking forward to Conic hill, first excuse to have a walk for a bit. Sure enough before I'm half way up I see a small dog just beside me with Graeme close behind. We go up and over the hill together. We pass Carrie who I last saw on the Thames Trot Ultra back in February. Where's the guy with the Saltire today asks Graeme, I tell him it's usually Murdo but he's running the race today. Graeme's a great descender so I just follow his heels and we're down into Balmaha in no time, but the surprise is that I'm handed my drop bag by none other than Murdo, who's had to pull out last week with an injury. Graeme's meeting his family for some food here but I'm carrying on, I'm sure I'll see him later.
Another strategy I'm trying today is not to stop at all at any of the checkpoints. I'm just picking up my plastic bag, taking the stuff out and dumping the rubbish, and carrying straight on, walking for five or ten minutes to eat and drink as I go. I have this phrase in my head, surely from someone else's blog but I can't remember quite whose, just keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction of Fort William all day and you'll get there.
I don't see any one for quite a while out of Balmaha, even in a field this size it's amazing how quickly it thins out. Then after a few miles I stop to retie a lace and I'm caught by Tony Thistlethwaite. We do the "daft bits" together where you stumble over rocks and tree roots within a couple of paces of the road. We're getting near to where I was first passed by the leaders of the second start last year. Last year the ladies and over-fifties started an hour ahead of everyone else, this year we're an hour a head of the over-forties with the young guys an hour later still. Nevertheless I'm expecting to see Richie Cunningham soon. As Tony and I crest the longest of the little rises between Balmaha and Rowardennan we're caught not by Richie but by Thomas (the Crazy German) who is having a storming run. He has covered the 24,5 miles to here in not much over 3 hours, and goes on to win the Vets Race and come second overall! I know my time to Rowardennan last year was 4,45 - I don't look closely today, a few minutes longer I think, but I'm still feeling really good and that's the main thing.
I've decided that Rowardennan to Inversnaid is runnable, the ground underfoot is easy and the hills are long but quite gentle, so I run it, slow at times but I don't cut to a walk except on one or two sharper rises in the second half. I've been thinking quite a lot about pacing recently and I've come to the conclusion that the key thing for improving your time, so long as you don't exhaust yourself, is to run rather than walk. I know this sounds obvious but think about it carefully. I think you can work really hard early in a race to run at say 9 minute miles rather than 10's for very little time gain. But unless you're a superstar you will end up walking significant sections of an ultra; most people can't walk faster than 15 minute miles but you're very unlikely to run slower than 12's, so for every mile you can keep running the payback is huge. The danger is that early in the race you are likely to run up hills that are really too steep just because you can. I think you have to let a bit of natural fatigue set in first.
I'm still wondering about Richie and eventually he appears after 31 miles. He says he's struggling (but still going faster than me of course!) and disappears off ahead. But he's clearly not right because I catch him again in a mile or so. I ask if he's OK, yes, just not his day today so I carry on and let the folks at Inversnaid know that he's on his way.
Something's happened north of Inversnaid, on the really tortuous bit. Has someone worked on the path a bit, or is it just that today for once in a blue moon it is actually, wonderfully, DRY. Instead of slithering and clutching it's sure footed boulder hopping and I get carried away with the fun of it, probably using up too much energy that I will have to pay for later. One figure I do remember is that last year it took me 50 minutes to cover the 3 miles from the hotel to the wooden steps, today they're gone in barely 40. This is a great boost and I carry on up the hill at the top of the loch, with a quick pause to turn round for the view that you don't know is there unless someone tells you. Almost millpond-calm and under a sunny sky, Loch Lomond has today offered only pure pleasure in return for all the hard times I have had here in the past. But now it's still uphill, it's getting hot, and for the first time the aches and pains are starting to make themselves felt. As the ground levels out I catch Bob Allison again after having last seen him over twenty miles back, and we carry on to Bein Glas more or less together.
Somewhere around here I do my only calculation of the day. If I can cover the last 12 miles in two and three quarter hours, I can get inside ten and a half hours, much better than I thought possible. This section is always tough for me though, mostly long uphills which you can see way, way ahead, the never-ending switchbacks in the forest, and with the added hazards due to livestock and their products. In the West Highland Way race it's a time to go gently, to save something for the better times ahead, but in the Fling it's decision time, coast to the finish or put up with a bit of pain and see what happens? I decide the day's been good to me so far, so time to pay some dues. Dig in for the climb up to Derrydarroch, mostly runnable so run it, just a few yards of walking here and there. The next flattish mile to regroup then under the tunnels and up the steep slope to the farm track, walking here is almost a luxury. Run along the long flattish straight past the cows to the big fence at the entrance to the forest, then the steep stuff starts. It hurts but I'm still passing a lot of people now, not a lot of conversation left. How many ups are there, I can never remember? The downs are great though, feet not too sore this year, floating down for no effort. I see a runner in a red teeshirt ahead, gradually get closer, I catch him just at the sign that I think I remember as the start of the last uphill and am amazed to find that it's John K, he should be wearing his medal at the finish by now. He's OK, just having a tough day today. Life's not always fair, first Richie now John, these guys put in the miles, they deserve better results, they'll come. I push on.
Elation at the top of the last uphill carries me down and across the main road, no cars to wait for, along the soft little track through the wood, across the field, no sloshing through bog today, and over the bridge. Then I realise two things almost simultaneously. It's not flat, it's uphill. Not very uphill, but my brain has excluded uphills from the programme now, it thinks we're finished. But a look at the watch says that if I can keep it together over the last 3 miles I won't just get inside ten and a half, I'll beat last year's time. So I knuckle down and keep running the not-very-uphills as well as I can. I pass one or two other runners, we're all having difficulty with the not-very-uphills now, then at last it's through the wood, round the bit of road, down to the stream and I can see the end. I'm just about to muse about it saving a last bit of uphill for the finishing straight when I hear the pipers up on the bank to the left, give them a wave, then it's easy. "Done and dusted" as it says on the bottle. 10 hours 10 minutes 43 seconds. First home in the "over 60's" class. Well, as I said last year, I don't think I'll get near that again....
A superb event, thanks to Murdo, Ellen, and all the others who put so much time, effort and skill into making it what it is.
I wandered up to the hall to collect my bag and get a massage, Richie was there already, confessed that his difficulties on the day might just have something to do with running two hundred miles less than two weeks ago. A little dog called Penny trotted in, her own finisher's medal round her neck, followed by Graeme, he made it home not long after me. Back next year Graeme, probably, well almost certainly, see you then.
Hours later, just tipping into Sunday but with the band still going strong, Jan and I needing to drive back to Milngavie before we fell asleep, made our excuses and said our goodbyes to the hospitable crowd of runners,walkers, marshals and pirates. "You realise", said Richie, "that this will have to go down for you as a DNF in the Ceilidh." Classic.
(maybe some times and photos and stuff later)