Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Highland Fling 2011

So what is there to say about a race you've already done four times before and just completed again in a competent but ultimately disappointing time? Well, quite a lot actually, so if you start here be prepared for a bit of a session.

After my somewhat ambivalent last post I was put back on the straight and narrow by the ever wise Murdo tM. Gentleman that he is, he would never use my words but the message was clear  - "You're not getting any younger, if you want this then stop feeling sorry for yourself and get your act together!" Within two hours of his email my "let's see what the day brings" approach had morphed into a plan and splits for a 10 hour finish. Slow at the start to leave enough in the tank for my normal strengths, the technical stuff north of Inversnaid and the long slow uphills from Bein Glas. It was quite a relief that I'd finally made a decision, so bags packed and off to Scotland.

In spite of the increase in ultra participation over the last year or two this is still a small community, and gathering for the start of any race has a sort of reunion feel about it. At just after five o'clock in Milngavie station yard it's good to meet up with so many friends. Chip collected, drop bags dropped, the now legendary one-line briefing from race director Murdo MacDonald, and we're off. At least everyone else is - looking down to check that my watch has started after the darkness of the underpass, I trip on the concrete flight of steps and go sprawling, catching my kneecap full-on on the angle of a step. Some concern, some jovial comments about this being rather early to pull out, but I think I'm OK.  Get up, hurts a bit to stand, hobble up the steps and on a few paces, can't be too bad, try jogging slowly, limp for about half a mile, then the warm feeling around the knee starts to kick in and I can start to run normally. I feel it on and off through the day but it doesn't really cause any problems. The knee was already strapped for other reasons so nothing to see, don't notice the bruise and slight swelling until I take it off at about ten thirty that night. What an idiot! But I'm not alone, falls will be a feature of many runners' races today.

For we six o'clock starters, running conditions are pretty well perfect from the start to Balmaha, cool, not a cloud in the sky, and a pleasant breeze on the right shoulder. After chatting with a few runners over the first mile or two I catch Graeme Morrison and dog Penny. We've shared many miles over the WHW trail between here and Fort William over the past couple of years; today he's going slower, a bad ski-ing crash on Christmas Day has put him out of action for too much training time but he still goes on to record a good finish. Run a bit with Bob Allison, wish I could learn his pacing secret for the WHW, negative splits every year! I pass a lady who has fallen but is being looked after by several other runners, I learn later that this is Rosie Bell. Then I run the rest of the way to Drymen with Tony Thistlethwaite, another veteran WHW performer. I mention a couple of times that I think the pace might be a bit too fast for me but it feels very comfortable, maybe the result of the more speed work I've done this year, so I happily stay with it. We hit Drymen in 1:53.

I'll pre-empt the finish now by saying that I didn't make my target. On the day I thought it was down to the progressive rise in temperatures after Balmaha, but on reflection I think I could have, and possibly should have, got under the 10 hours. I made two very basic errors and this was the first. One of the predictions in Billy's blog keeps going through my head - "90% of the field will start far too fast and run a sub-optimal race as a result" - not me I thought as I read it, but here I am fastest ever time for me to Drymen and 7 minutes under schedule. I've run the first 12 miles at a pace more than 30 seconds a mile faster than I planned, and will pay for it later.

But without these cares I carry on in great conditions through the gradually disappearing forest and begin the climb up Conic Hill. In the cool clear air and views like you don't see too often I hardly feel the hill, but slow down to walk the steeper bits. I catch up with Sharon and am surprised that she's not half an hour ahead of me by now, but she says she's taking it easy today as her training has been interrupted too since the 100k races a month ago. I tell her she'll catch me down the other side as I'm trying to go easy on my knees a bit. Sure enough, a little way down the descent she goes bounding past but a hundred yards past me she tumbles and I can hear from the shouts that it's not trivial. No blood but her knees are really hurting, I get her to just sit and recuperate a minute or two. We're joined by two or three other runners and she tries to stand up but can't. One or two stay with her while others will alert Balmaha. I'm still slow, and before I've gone five minutes more down the hill I pass George Reid coming up to the rescue. I hope it's not too bad for her.

The slick Balmaha drop bag team are in action, and it seems that no sooner have I shouted my number to Davie than Murdo is handing me my bag. Seeing all the bags arranged for this huge field is quite impressive, brilliant job guys!

After running with lots of people and never having runners out of sight up to here, the scene suddenly changes for some reason, and between Balmaha and Rowardennan I pass two runners but otherwise see no-one. Not strictly true, I seem to keep seeing Marco at almost every turn - he's decided not to risk aggravating a recovering injury and messing up his WHW so is here supporting, but he must be covering more miles than the runners. My miles seem to be going by easily enough though, my knees are protesting a bit on the downhills but nothing too bad, otherwise I feel fine. But it is warming up. We've lost the breeze and I strip down to one light teeshirt. I reach Rowardennan in 4:40, now only 5 minutes ahead of schedule, so allowing for a bit of time spent with Sharon the pace from Drymen has been just about spot on.

I normally like the section from here to Inversnaid, and today I run most of it as usual, but it's starting to feel hot and a bit harder, though I pass another two or three runners and am passed by one. I'm glad when the hotel shows up eventually. I reach Inversnaid bang on target but this means I have already lost the 7 minute cushion I built up by Drymen, and a warning bell or two start to sound. Sitting for a few seconds on one of the wooden benches on the terrace to refill my pack, no longer in the shade of the lochside trees, I realise that the day is now very hot. I have an extra swig of water before setting out for Bein Glas.

I don't mind the next three wiggly miles as everyone goes slower here, and a bit of knowing where to put your feet pays a better dividend than fitness so I can usually pick up some time. Today however, just as I go into one of the most tortuous bits, just after the run across the short meadow, I catch the tail end of a party of about 50 walkers - no hyperbolae,  there really are that many! They are all very friendly and helpful, stepping to the side when they can, even complimentary, but this maybe because I'm probably in the top 10 in the field "on the ground" at this point  - I wonder how they'll feel when the three hundredth runner has gone past......

The staggered start has had some quite interesting effects today, particularly since the faster Vet 40's delayed their start until two hours after ours. Last year, starting an hour behind, Thomas ("Crazy German") caught me well before Rowardennan, so far today I've seen no-one from the later starts. Anyway, in spite of the walkers I must be boulder-hopping quite well because I reach the wooden steps on schedule, and shortly after the first of the seven o'clock starters passes me, though I don't recognise him.

Coming out of the trees, across the little grassy patch before the short climb up to Doune Bothy is the turning point of the race for me. The sun hits me hard and I just start to wilt. All the uphills suddenly feel very hard, and I walk many sections that I usually run. I keep telling myself to knuckle down and get on with it, but as soon as I lose concentration I find I am walking again. About two miles before Bein Glas the first of the eight o'clock starters Andrew James comes past, followed twenty or so yards behind by Jez. Thirty-eight miles in, on undulating rocky ground, these guys are not just travelling very fast but clearly still racing every step of the way. I shout my encouragements but they're not in sight for long.

I get to Bein Glas but the last three miles have hit me hard. I roll in in 7:39, a full nine minutes behind my schedule. Again I'm surprised to see John K just leaving, he should be a long way up the road, but I know he doesn't like the sun much so it must be having an effect on him too. I have to have a rest so I sit for a minute or so, down a milkshake and try to get my head around the last tough stage. Realistically, the ten hours is now blown; I would have to do the last twelve miles eight minutes faster than last year, and I'm clearly not in the shape that I was at this point then. But if if I can just do the section in the same time as last year I'll get the pb, worth working a bit for, so go for it.

I know I can run these hills. I may be slow today but it's still faster than walking. Way in the distance I see two runners, I think one must be John as I didn't see anyone else leave before me. He's with another runner who turns out to be Claire Walton. They're walking the ups and running the flats. I'm running most of it but at a slower pace than their run. I reel them in oh so slowly but they are getting nearer. I'm passed by Stuart Mills and we exchange a word or two but he's going  much faster so he's not with me long. George Reid appears again travelling in the opposite direction and shouts encouragement, much appreciated, I need all the help I can get. On the final rise before Derrydarroch is Murdo tM with flag and camera, never misses this if he's not running, and I almost catch John and Claire, but then they're faster down to the farm and the gap opens up again. I finally get to them just before the road crossing, but then Marco appears again to meet them. It's great to see that Sharon is with him walking OK obviously having survived the earlier fall. They stop a minute but I carry on. Just reaching the old road and I see Silke, supporting Thomas CG,  someone else who I seem to have been seeing on and off all day. She has a cold water spray, I ask to be hit straight in the face, fantastic. I have to walk through the tunnels then up the steep bit, using the pause to drink and stuff in another gel, hoping it will get me home. When the angle eases I determine that I will run all the way to the big gate, and apart from the steepest 30 yards I do, but it hurts.

The "big gate", a significant point for many of us being exactly half the distance from Milngavie to Fort William, is important for me today as well, because I've decided this is the point at which I'll decide what I can do. From here to the finish is six miles. I have an hour left to break 10 hours, 70 minutes for a pb. The last six miles have taken me 80 minutes. It's not going to happen. The realisation takes away the last bit of motivation. From here to the finish I walk the ups and jog the rest. On one of the uphills in the forest Richie cruises past, on his way to a sub 8 hour pb. On the bit of tarmac from Auchtertyre Thomas comes past also looking very good. I jog on, and on the last bit of open ground before the final wood three mountain bikers tear past in the opposite direction. I later learn that Thomas has had a fall in avoiding them and is now lying somewhere by the side of the track. I just don't see him on my way to the finish, how could I have missed him?

Then it's along the river and through the gate to the pipers and the new finish. Katrina K pulling me back to beep the chip and it's all over.10:18:46. Eight minutes slower than last year. The last twenty miles were tough. I wander down to my car by the tourist office, climb in and immediately fall asleep for over an hour. Later, Davie Hall catches me sitting in the sun outside Paddy's Bar rehydrating with non-athletically-approved fluids. Recovered, I wander back to the finish for the prizegiving.

It was a class race. In the previous 5 Highland Flings three individuals in total cracked the eight hour barrier, today the first seven finishers were inside it. My own target of 10 hours was achieved by 54 runners. Jez never quite caught Andrew James, but beat his own existing record to come second and seemed happy enough at the finish.

I said I made two basic errors. The second one? I didn't drink enough and got dehydrated, a condition which everyone will say has a significant effect on performance. My plan and equipment allowed me a half litre of fluid between checkpoints, and I wasn't with it enough to realise that was the problem or to improvise a solution. I don't get thirsty, but I'm sure it wasn't enough. Ian Beattie told me afterwards that he drank nearly three times that. Records were set and many pb's achieved so the conditions weren't a problem, just that some runners adapted to them more sensibly than others. I'll try to learn.

So my basic problem was not going fast enough over last 20 miles of the race, probably caused by a combination of starting too fast and later performance drop-off from dehydration. For my type of strategy, I know I've run a good race when my position in the field improves steadily through the event. Taking positions at the four checkpoints (Drymen, Rowardennan, Bein Glas, Tyndrum), my positions last year (for a pb) were 176,108,70,47.   This year my positions were 143,114,77,67 so it's clear what happened. I should have run with John Malcolm, whose positions of 167,121,78,58 left him just a whisker short of 10 hours.

Still, my run was just about good enough to retain the Vet60 trophy. Nice to get my name on a second time, but still not up with the legendary Rob Reid who achieved all three of his wins while stopping for a dip in the river at Derrydarroch on the way. And there was a prize for the best presented drop bag. These things sum up the Fling, a combination of total class and wonderful idiosyncracy which must surely make it the best single day experience to be had on the UK ultra scene. Thanks to Murdo and Ellen and their army of helpers for making it, as ever, such a brilliant day out.


John Kynaston said...

Great report Andy.

Reading it makes me realise we had very similar races.

Recover well and I'll see you in June!

Peter Duggan said...

Nice report, Andy, but surely you couldn't have run with John Malcolm off a different start?

Anonymous said...

Well done Andy! In particular I loved these bits in your report :

"I know I can run these hills. I may be slow today but it's still faster than walking."...........

"So my basic problem was not going fast enough over last 20 miles of the race"

So observant and perceptive. Good man!


David Egan said...

I know you are a bit disappointed with your time but what a great run. It will keep you hungry to push harder next year. Im sure the next 3 big races you've got will distract you. I hope your knee has recovered well.

Ali Bryan-Jones said...

Great report Andy - it's been really interesting and enjoyable reading about everyone else's races. It was a fantastic event to take part in.

Anonymous said...

Good to see you Andy. Great report.
...and You were much closer to 10 that I was ever going to get on Saturday! As you dissappeared into the distance I knew you were on a mission. You'll crack it next year. Here's hoping we both have a good one in June.
All the best
Bob A.

Ali Bryan-Jones said...

Andy, have you seen Karen MacDonald's photos on the runfurther.com site? I think you'll like one of the ones from the 6am start...