A couple of events already done but for me the season always seems to start properly with the Highland Fling. I have a soft spot for this run. I hadn't heard of ultras when the 18 pioneers set out on the course in 2006, but achieved a sort of mid-pack respectability among the 62 finishers in 2007. I've run every one since and watched it develop into the UK's biggest ultra (there will be 453 starters this year plus relay teams) yet remain a wonderfully relaxed "turn up and go" sort of event. I remember standing at the start in 2007 (vividly - it was my first ever ultra) and hearing the briefing from race director Murdo - "There are no rules, just let us know if you drop out, see you in Tyndrum, off you go!", and although the organisation is now as superb as it has to be to deal with the huge numbers, it still has pretty much the same atmosphere.
I've improved my time year on year since 2007, from nearly 12 hours to just over 10, and while it would be really great to break that next barrier I don't have a lot of confidence in doing it this year - I'm clearly not following Stuart Mills' rules on self belief so what's going wrong?
Well, I've found the two events that I've done so far (the Hardmoors 55 and the Rotterdam Marathon) tougher than I was expecting. I started them feeling pretty comfortable but slowed down dramatically in the latter stages of both. I could maybe convince myself there were on-the-day reasons for this but I still seem to be struggling to get the distance. OK, I might have a few more aches and pains this year and I still can't seem to shake off the remains of a cold, but this sort of thing shouldn't stop you so I'm looking for a more logical underlying explanation. Two possibilities, I think:-
1. I'm sure we all reach a point in our careers when things suddenly start to get harder and we need to reassess our ambitions. I don't think that's me just yet, should be a few more years before I have to change my strategy for ultras (ie slow down!) but I can't ignore the fact that it might be.
2. I've changed my training this year and it may not have worked out. When I reviewed my running for 2010, I discovered that I had done a lot of long, slow outings in the hills (because that's what I enjoy) and almost no tempo or speed work. This year I've done a lot more shorter, faster sessions to try to improve my basic speed, and as I didn't just want to add these on to what I normally do, I cut down my hill days into shorter, faster sessions as well - running up and down hills for a couple of hours rather than five or six hours of more gentle activity. I think this has had three possible effects:
(i) These shorter sessions are hard work and not as much fun, so there have been days when I needed to kick myself out of the door rather than seeing them as treats to look forward to. I could be getting some negative thoughts about the whole running deal from this.
(ii) I haven't done many long "time on your feet" outings. 50 miles at the Hardmoors and maybe three 30 mile runs besides. I know a lot of ultra runners can get by fine on this, but I think I need the psychological advantage of having done more longer stuff so that I have it in my brain that 30 or 40 miles is "no big deal".
(iii) Shorter sessions but the same overall mileage has meant that I have gone out running more frequently this year - 5 or 6 times a week rather than 3 or 4 previously. Maybe I just need ("at my age" - hate the expression) more recovery days.
Paradoxically, I feel that I would be more up for a long ultra than the Fling, because of the more casual pace. In the longer events I can normally walk quite a lot - you only have to average 4 miles an hour to get a 24 hour West Highland Way for example - but to get a good Fling performance you have to run most of it. Because it has so much runnable ground - the winners will average not much over 8 minute miles all the way - it is less a conventional mountain ultra than a longish trail race with attitude. Debbie MC summed it up perfectly - "It's long enough that you can't wing it on marathon training but short enough that you can't rely on luck and good fuelling. Hilly enough to kneecap the road runners and flat enough to disadvantage the mountain goats." A bit of a challenge then.
So what's my strategy? Well, I decided to have an easy week or two before the race so that I can at least start not feeling tired. After the Fling, whatever the outcome, I'll go back to a regular diet of long days in the hills and cut out a lot of the shorter, faster stuff. If it really has done me any good that will be in the bank and I can build on it for the summer. As for the race itself, I'll just go and enjoy it, without any preset aims or plan, at whatever pace feels right on the day. It's far too good an event to miss out on the experience. So if you're one of the "auld men and lassies" (Murdo) or even one of the "girlies and old gits" (Fiona), I'll see you in Milngavie station yard sometime just before 6 o'clock on Saturday morning.