Monday, 27 May 2013

The Other Lakeland 100

Four weeks until the West Highland Way race; time for a solid back-to-back to check there are enough miles in the legs, then easing off a bit and trying to avoid pulling or catching things  before the annual gathering in Milngavie Station yard. But where to go? I'd done a lot on my local trails this year, no enthusiasm for more repeats. I thought about joining John Kynaston and friends on the Balmaha to Fort William trip but the logistics didn't work for me over the Bank Holiday weekend, plus it's always £100 plus in fuel up to Scotland, a lot for a couple of days training.

Then an interesting thought came up. I'd first heard about the Ultimate Trails 100k when Gaynor Prior talked me through the proposed route as we were chatting after the Fling; she assured me that it was destined to become a classic. It sounded good but coming just two weeks after the UTMB I wasn't sure what shape I was likely to be in when it came around. Since then I had forgotten about it, then remembered again, got on the website to find that places were running out fast and signed up anyway. After this a lot more places suddenly became available  - whether this was a fast response to an unexpectedly high interest or just a cute marketing move I'm not sure, but it looks like it will be a popular event. And it would clearly make a nice two day training outing. I copied the course from the website onto the map - it's all covered by Landranger 90 (Penrith and Keswick) so that's all you need. I booked accommodation for Friday night and was all set.

Now what follows is quite a lengthy ramble about my two days, but it might be of interest to anyone contemplating the 100k event and who is not yet familiar with the ground.

A 6am alarm saw me up the M6 via my normal breakfast stop (latte and chocolate twist at Burton-in-Kendal Services), parked up and jogging out of Ambleside by 8.30.  The route describes a rough circle to the north of Ambleside; start and finish on the actual event is at Brockhole, about a mile off the circular route just south of Ambleside but I wasn't really bothered about this bit and decided I would just do the circle. The forecast promised sunshine and showers with a fresh northerly breeze for Friday, and a nice day Saturday.

The first section is part of the Lakeland 100 course in reverse, over Skelgyll to Troutbeck, then the Garburn Pass to Kentmere. Nice going on good tracks to warm up. The only problem was the weather didn't know what to do, the showers were getting frequent, cold and quite heavy. In the end I got fed up with the on-off regime and left hat, gloves and waterproof top on for most of the day. Going up the Garburn Road was a bit of a surprise, someone had spread a few hundred tons of gravel and small stones up there to make the old rocky defile into quite a smooth surface - a lot of Lakeland 50/100 runners will be very grateful for this in July! Hopes that it might continue down the far side were in vain however, it's still as stony as ever down to Kentmere. The Institute, a mega checkpoint in the July events, looked rather lonely and deserted.

Kentmere Insitute with the Garburn Pass behind
From Kentmere, the route takes Nan Bield Pass over to Mardale head, a tougher but I think much finer way than  the rather scruffy jeep track used by the Lakeland 100 over Gatescarth. A runnable bridleway followed  by a steep, grassy climb finds a nice contouring path above Kentmere reservoir and into the upper valley. From here a steep but short final climb gets to the pass.

Heading for Nan Bield (centre skyline)
As I crested the pass I was hit by the full force of the wind head on, accompanied by a rather painful hailstorm, so losing height rapidly was in order. It's a rocky and fairly technical descent all the way down to Mardale head, passing the lonely Small Water en route.

Small Water on the descent from Nan Bield
I'd seen no-one since setting out from Ambleside but the car par at Mardale Head was a hive of activity with walkers setting out in all directions. The 100k course now follows a long gentle section with very  little climbing and mostly good ground underfoot for 15 miles or so - a chance to work on the average mins/mile battered by the past couple of miles maybe!  The track along the West shore of Haweswater seems endless in the Lakeland 100 when you're 70 miles or so in, but this early on in the 100k it's a delight.

Along Haweswater
A true singletrack in many places, where passing anyone in either direction requires co-operation of both parties, it winds its way along the margin of the lake with changing scenery and continual interest all the way.

The Lakeland 100 course is left at Measand Beck after 3 or 4 miles, and the 100k carries on along the lake on a track which gets much wider then leads to a surfaced road at the dam; this is followed along to Bampton, where I was able to top up supplies at the village store for the first time since leaving Ambleside.  The course follows the road for another mile or so past Beckfoot, then up a short hill to a junction where a bridleway is followed leftwards towards Askham Fell. After a gate, two tracks are visible on the grass ahead, the right hand one leads to another road crossing by a fingerpost and you carry straight on on a good and easily runnable bridleway, slightly rising onto the open fell.

Bridleway onto Askham Fell
Now as anyone who has done the Tour de Helvellyn (TdeH) race in December will tell you, what you see on the map may not actually help you in getting across Askham Fell (although to be fair, tackling it in the dark when it's covered in snow does make it a bit harder).  In the 100k, the bridleway you come in on is fairly easy to follow in good visibility, and in a mile or less gets you to a standing stone at a crossroads. A left turn takes you directly to the Cockpit along a path that is very boggy in places and not great to follow in mist, whereas overshooting by going straight on will get you to a better track which comes up from Pooley Bridge and is taken by the Lakeland 100, and turning left along it gets you to the Cockpit with the penalty of a couple of hundred yards at most. On Friday it was clear, easy running, with the added bonus that on turning left the headwind that I'd been battling for twenty miles or so then became a great tailwind for the rest of the day.  

I always enjoy the section from the Cockpit to Howtown. The track now becomes easy to follow and it's gently descending most of the way with a reasonable surface, great running. TdeH regulars normally drop down onto the road before Howtown and take the track cutting the road zigzags up to Martindale Church,
From Howtown towards Martindale Church
but the 100k map tells you to carry on along the track to its end at Mellguards. From there another track leads immediately onto the grass on the left, over the Fusedale road, then follows a really nice ascending track up to the back of the church, avoiding Howtown completely (unless there's a checkpoint there).

A short section of road leads from the church, down then slightly up and round into Boredale. The road carries on a mile or so up the valley, but there's only a farm and no parking up there so there's never any traffic and it's still pleasant running. I was pleased that I was still going easily and managed to put in a ten minute mile up here (that's good for me if you don't know me!). I didn't know it at the time, but Boredale is the last really easy running for a long way on the 100k course, so if you do the event, make the most of it!
Boredale   (Boredale Hause mid skyline)
Boredale Hause looks quite daunting in the distance, but as it gets closer you realise that the final steep bit which you can't run is very short, and the top comes quite quickly, then it's a steepish but cruisy run down into Patterdale. At this point the showers seemed to have stopped for good, the sun was out, and it was looking like we might get a nice evening.

My Garmin had clicked 32 miles (50k) coming over Boredale Hause, so Patterdale's not far off the halfway point of the trip. It was early enough to get a bus back to Ambleside from here but I thought it would be nice to have a bit more in the bag on day one, so I continued over the next section. This goes up Grisedale to the tarn then down to Dunmail Raise. This is another section taken in reverse on the TdeH so I knew the ground well. After a steep hundred yards or so of road, the first two thirds of Grisedale is a nice runnable road then track. I saw my first deer of the trip, running fast over the fellside to my left. A mile or so short of the tarn the track crosses to the right of the valley and climbs more steeply over rocky ground to the tarn outlet, tedious in descent but not so bad going up. Still a fierce cold wind from behind as I reached the tarn, and clouding over again making it a fairly gloomy place this evening.

A gloomy Grisedale Tarn

The TdeH links the Raise Beck track to the tarn outlet via the boggy ground to the North of the tarn, but the 100k course map takes you to the South up to Grisedale Hause, then back along the third side of the triangle to Raise Beck - twice as far and with more height gain, but it is the route.
Descent to Dunmail Raise
The descent track alongside Raise Beck down to Dunmail Raise is steep and rocky, difficult to take quickly unless you have some real skill and nerve (neither for me!) but it's not too long and I was soon down to the busy main road. A good enough shift for one day as was now 5,30pm, and I was lucky enough to catch the bus back to Ambleside within 10 minutes or so.

A shower, a chilli and a couple of beers and the evening passed nicely. Next morning, after a good sleep and a full English, I stepped out into a completely cloudless Lake District day, in time for the 9.30 bus back up to Dunmail.  An easy start, downhill on the track above the fell wall towards Thirlmere, over Birkside Gill footbridge then the easy, sweeping track down to the main road. Immediately opposite, the route follows the minor road round the West side of the lake for a mile to Dob Gill.

Start of the track by Dob Gill
Wainwright has nothing good at all to say about the track that goes up the hillside from here, but that was at least 50 years ago and it's not too bad now. It starts pretty steeply alongside the plantation then eases as it turns into where trees have now been felled. This area would be very boggy in bad weather, but there are decaying boardwalks over the deepest hollows,  and you soon reach the outflow of the badly overgrown Harrop Tarn.
Harrop Tarn
The track improves here and signposts to Watendlath at junctions avoid any map-reading as you wind up through the trees to the top of the plantation.

Once through the deer gate and out onto the open fell above however, the situation changes. All of this high ground between the Thirlmere and Borrowdale valleys is notorious for being not only a tricky place in mist, but also one of the boggiest areas in the whole of the Lake District.  If you do the 100k and have managed to keep your feet dry so far, this is where it will end!  In clear weather, the track up to the high point is reasonably easy to follow, and the gate in the summit fence confirms that you're in the right place.
Summit gate between Dob Gill and Watendlath
Straight on from here for a short distance and Blea Tarn comes into view. The route skirts the North-East side of the tarn and then heads for Watendlath. It's just about visible on the ground if you're sharp, but the key is to keep to the cusp of the high ground on the right of Bleatarn Gill, if you lose too much height to the left you're in trouble as the gill goes into quite a deep ravine lower down. It felt quite bizarre covering this ground on Saturday, squelching along with completely soaked feet under a cloudless blue sky in the hot sunshine. Eventually you reach a wall above Watendlath which defines the direction better, but ironically the path also becomes much easier to see on the ground from here.
Approaching Watendlath
Eventually the wall turns downhill and the track follows it, and after a few hundred yards of newly maintained path the hamlet is reached. The track out on the other side is uphill and looks arduous, but the up turns out to be very short and leads to an easy runnable track, level for a little way then descending all the way down to Rosthwaite. This is a busy path, especially on a Saturday because the short walk from Rosthwaite to Watlendath is a popular excursion; running to the side of the track to avoid traffic I managed a crowd-pleasing fall which resulted in a plastering of mud from shin to cheek; I stopped by the stream just before Rosthwaite to get off as much as I could.

Turning left just before Rosthwaite, the route follows the left side of the beck so you miss both Rosthwaite and Stonethwaite by a pleasant runnable bridleway, then you turn right up Langstrath. The route now follows the left side of Langstrath for several miles, along a track marked as the "Cumbria Way" on the map. It gains almost no height but it's very bouldery so you can't get into any sort of rhythm - it's slow going and hard work  -  frustrating as there is a much easier path on the other side of the beck used my most of the walkers I saw!
The two tracks meet at a footbridge below the final ascent up to Stake Pass. This goes up a steep but excellent newly rebuilt path, making the climb really easy, especially as you know that it's the last major climb on the round. Some nice level ground across the top, then a rocky but fairly easy descent leads down into Mickleden at the head of Langdale, from where a wonderfully runnable track takes you all the way to the Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel. With the hot day I was tempted to have a break here, but decided to carry on to the New Hotel instead. I faffed around here trying to find the track marked on the 100k route map, eventually realising that you have to turn off up the fellside before going through the gate at the back of the ODG. Now to jog along the level road between the two hotels takes maybe 5 minutes, following the track takes maybe three times that as it gains and loses height along its boulder-strewn way. Makes you wonder whether Gaynor has deliberately searched out every rocky track in  the district to follow!
Stickle Barn at the NDG in the sunshine
A stop at the NDG was definitely needed after this. I had originally thought of a cold Coke, but when I saw the Cornish Doom Bar pump on the bar I couldn't resist it, with crisps and nuts to go with it. Perhaps not the best way to rehydrate but it was a lovely day and I was getting near the end of the trip now.

Across the road from the bar, the 100k now follows the Lakeland 100 route again down Langdale, rocky for a bit then smooth and easy to run as far as Elterwater. But here, where the Lakeland 100 comes along the flat path by the river, the 100k leaves it again to go in search of Loughrigg Tarn. 

Up the hill out of Elterwater
A minor road leads out of Elterwater, then as it reaches the main valley road a footpath is indicated straight ahead up the fellside. There are a lot of paths here, and it's probably best to follow the one nearest to the wall on the right, which eventually leads out onto a minor road again. The route turns right onto the road, then after a short distance dives off into the National Trust property High Close. A pleasant run down through the gardens leads to another minor road, and another few yards down this to a private road leading off left towards Loughrigg Tarn.

Road past Loughrigg Tarn
From here back to Ambleside is part of a walk that my wife and I do quite often. The road past the tarn is in a beautiful setting, and lovely to run along. At its end you pass through a gate and turn sharp left at the track crossroads. All that is left is to climb over the flank of Loughrigg Fell, now once again back on the Lakeland 100 track. A short up, a horizontal section alongside a wall, then the final climb comes into view. I know from many trips that it looks steep but isn't when you get there and the top comes soon enough. All that was left of my day was to jog down the easy slope on the far side and up through the park back to Ambleside.

It was a really enjoyable two days. I think the Ultimate Trails 100k is a beautiful route, very varied, offering a bit of everything that the Lake District has to offer. Balanced difficulty throughout, with the second half maybe a little tougher than the first. I think my strategy in September will be to not sweat too much over the climbs and technical ground, but take them at a comfortable pace. There is enough runnable stuff spaced out through the course to go a bit faster on that if you have the legs. For interest, my Garmin made the distance of the loop 63 miles (remember I didn't do the start/finish "leg"), and the total height gain just short of 11,000 ft. It took me fifteen and a half hours over the two days to complete the loop, and was an ideal choice for my back-to-back weekend. The Lake District rarely lets you down.
Last ascent over Loughrigg

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Scafell Pike Marathon

A view from Scafell Pike.......

 Two recent results from my wanderings:

13 April 2013, Exmoor Coast Ultra, 34 miles, 6100 ft ascent, time 6:35:29
19 May 2013, Scafell Pike Marathon, 28 miles, 5000 ft ascent, time 6:30:26

Am I going backwards or what? 

Well no actually, these figures just reinforce a point that I have made a few times over the years, that even if you take distance and height gain into account, all events are by no means equal. The Exmoor race has tough climbs and big descents but follows good runnable paths and tracks throughout; the Scafell Pike jaunt on the other hand is in the mountains, where the concept of a trail is more that of a line where it is possible to go, rather than a thoroughfare which has been improved in any way to facilitate easy progress. Stones, boulders on stones, boulders on boulders are the order of many Lakeland paths. Ascent is interesting even if it is sometimes difficult to maintain an easy rhythm, but to cover the descents or even the flattish sections of such terrain at any speed requires skill, boldness, fierce concentration and a phlegmatic acceptance of the consequences if you get it wrong, qualities which few of us have in any great measure. I'm rather pleased that I mis-spent my own younger days rock climbing rather than fell running  -  I'm not sure what sort of a state my lower limb joints would be in after nearly half a century of the latter pursuit........

But back to the race. The inaugural Scafell Pike Marathon was an addition to the already established Keswick Mountain Festival; it sounded like it would be a good do, and that's just how it turned out. The route is logical and elegant; starting from Nichol End near Portinscale, it first follows easy undulating tracks along the West side of Derwentwater to Grange, a nice warm up as this is the only easily runnable section. From Grange, it goes over the little col behind Castle Crag, then on a fine contouring path before dropping down to Seatoller. A short section of road up to Seathwaite gives a bit of respite before the real meat of the course, up via Stockley Bridge to Sty Head, the Corridor Route to Scafell Pike summit, along the summit ridge towards Great End then down via Esk Hause and Sprinkling Tarn back to Sty Head and Seathwaite. Stoney and rocky tracks along the valley floor take you to Rosthwaite, then a steep climb up and over to Watendlath. From here there is a long and still technical home stretch alongside Watendlath Beck to Ashness Bridge, then contouring singletrack beneath Falcon Crags and down to a final mile or two along the East side of Derwentwater back to Keswick. It was posted as a genuine 42km marathon but most people I talked to made it nearer 28 miles, 13 up and 15 down.

I drove up early from Chester, checked in at the registration in Crow Park (where the finish was sited), then walked the couple of miles round to the start at Nichol End. We were away pretty promptly at 8,30am and I sidled along near the back of the field for the first two or three miles. This was going to be a training day for me, I wanted to enjoy the event and not come back too tired. For the reasons obvious from my comments at the start of this post, I decided to work at the ascents and take it easy on everything else - no training benefit in hammering your knees on the downhills all day! Coming into Grange I caught up with the Hardmoors Man of Steele  -  we would go on to see each other quite a few times over the course of the run, with Jon getting away from me on all the downhills and me eventually catching him again if there was a long enough uphill section.

The weather in the valley was very pleasant, no wind and a perfect temperature for running. It was however overcast, a factor which would play a part later on. By Seatoller the 150-strong field had spread out and I jogged the short road section to Seathwaite on my own,  but beyond here I could see runners on the track leading up to Stockley Bridge so there were some targets to aim for, and I was able to pick people off steadily up the hill to Sty Head. At Sty Head the conditions changed abruptly as we went into fairly thick mist; this was to accompany us until we got back down to the same point, which increased dramatically the potential for not knowing where you were or where you were going. The first electronic checkpoint was at the Sty Head stretcher box, then we headed off up into the clag. I was with maybe 6 or 8 other runners at this point, including Jon Steele who I had just caught up with again, and I didn't bother to check the Corridor start point but just turned right and followed the others along a track in what I knew was in the right direction. I chatted with Jon for a while then we reached a hold-up as the runners ahead slowed to scramble across a tricky ravine. I mentioned to Jon that I didn't remember this as part of the Corridor, and it soon became clear that wherever we were, we weren't on route. The track we were following became intermittent then disappeared. A deep ravine appeared ahead, forcing us upward. The others carried on up, but I do like to know where I am so I stopped to get out the map and GPS. It wasn't a disaster, we had just turned off too early and our disappearing track had contoured a hundred feet or so below the Corridor across the hillside. A quick scramble upwards into the mist brought me back onto the correct route in a few minutes, but the mistake had cost some time because I now found myself re-passing runners who I had overtaken before Sty Head. The price of a moment or two of incompetence.

The correct route soon led round and up to Scafell Pike top, where the stalwart Joe Faulkener was manning the summit checkpoint. Visibility up here was pretty low. Joe said he had taped the route down to the col before Broad Crag, but spotting the first bit of tape was difficult so compasses were got out to get the right direction to start off with. This whole area from Scafell Pike summit to Great End is a bouldery wasteland, difficult to progress quickly on in dry, clear conditions; the thick, drizzly mist making all the boulders greasy and the need to continually check direction made for slow going on the day. By the time we were out of the boulders and onto the stony ground leading towards Esk Pike, a lady runner and I had got fairly well ahead of the group we had left the summit with, and we enjoyed finally being able to up the pace a bit on the easier ground. A quick check of the GPS (now permanently in my hand) helped us locate the correct turning for Esk Hause, and also to predict when the shelter, which was the next checkpoint, was likely to turn up. Eventually we saw it emerge from the gloom when we were no more than 20 yards away.

From here, the track down past Sprinkling Tarn becomes much more obvious on the ground, so were able to carry on with no more navigational concerns and concentrate on the ground underfoot again. Jon caught us and hammered on past at a fine rate, then we were back to the gallant marshal at Sty Head and out of the mist. I ran on my own from there down to Seathwaite where there was a feed station; I needed a water top-up and they also had sausage rolls which were an unexpected treat. From here to the end I sort of expected the ground to be as runnable as the lakeside on the outward trip, but after a field or two it got bouldery again to Rosthwaite. The climb from here to Watendlath involves an ascent of about a thousand feet and I was pleased that I was still climbing fairly well and was able to overtake a few other runners up here. However, the long and still fairly technical track down to the final checkpoint just above Ashness Bridge put paid to any thoughts I had at the start of maybe getting under 6 hours for the trip; at the checkpoint it was clear that this had been unrealistic anyway, because I arrived with over 24 miles on my Garmin, and the marshal said it was still 4 miles to the finish.

From the bridge we followed a wonderful undulating and contouring track through the sparse woodland beneath Falcon Crags for a mile or so. I saw a red shirt ahead and worked towards it; it turned out to be Jon again. I told him I'd had my day out now and was happy to cruise in to the finish, so we stayed together until the end, a  nice finale being cheered by holidaymakers along the road past the landing stages and into the park. We finished in 57th and 58th place, just nicely in the top half of the field.

It was a super day out. The course is challenging but perfect and the event was very well organised; it deserves to become a classic.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Nice one Alf

In February last year I found with some trepidation that I had secured a place in the 2012 "Tor des Geants" race in the Aosta Valley; a challenging little trip this one, 200 miles long and 24,000 metres of ascent - compare this with the UTMB at 100 miles and 9,000 metres for example, or maybe just think of going up and down Ben Nevis three times a day for six days. I knew that to have any chance of completing the event I needed two main assets, good enough fitness to get up the climbs and good enough muscles to get down them. After half a century of wandering around the hills, I was happy that I had the muscles but suspected that I wasn't fit enough for a week of sustained climbing.  I needed to walk up a lot of hills before I turned up in Courmayeur in September.

Now training should be fun, and multiple laps on my local hill or even Snowdon didn't really sound an attractive way to spend my spring and summer, so I decided to turn the hill training into a project, and go up all the Wainwrights. I had probably already done 50 or 60 of the 214 tops identified in Alfred Wainwright's "Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells" but I decided to start again and 6 March 2012 saw me up the first one, Clough Head.

I tried to get up to the Lakes once a week, and by the time the Tor des Geants came around I had done enough to get me round the course. But by then I was hooked on the project itself so of course I carried on. I first thought I might get them all done in 2012, then maybe in 12 months from the start, but things kept getting in the way, ultra running outings, family commitments, Bob Graham reconnaissance, climbing trips, a bit of surgery required, and a long, cold winter. I started off in great weather, long summer days over the High Street range and the Sca Fells. But then the rains came; by late summer the Lake District was completely waterlogged and I never came home with dry feet. Then it snowed and froze; I discovered the limitations of Yaktrax on steep hard neve and had cold hands and feet for what seemed like months. But on 6 May 2013, I stood on the summit of Castle Crag, at number 214 the lowest Wainwright on the list, my last one. In the course of the year or so I learned that the Lake District is not a crowded place, just a few well-known bits of it are, I found places you would be unlikely to see a soul on a summer Sunday, never mind a Thursday in November. I went to lots of charming, wild, beautiful places I would never have visited without this little project  -  and also to some places I shall probably never go to again, AW's rigour for completeness sometimes overcoming his realisation that not all the Lakeland fells are worth the effort!

Thousands of people have completed the Wainwrights, some much quicker than me (in 1986 Joss Naylor left the first top and stood on the final one a week later after continuous journey of nearly 400 miles) and some taking many years, but whatever your choice it has seemed to me to be a nice game. I didn't rush, I generally walked the uphills and jogged the downs. I wanted the experience to be good and it was.

For anyone interested in the statistics, I completed the tops in 28 separate day trips to the Lakes, travelling from and then home to Chester each time. On foot I covered just under 500 miles, climbed just over 150,000 feet, and was on the move for a total of around 175 hours.  I didn't count the Mars Bars.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Highland Fling 2013 - doing a Millsy

The Lakeland 100 can probably now claim to be the UK's premier 100 mile race, but when it comes to 50's there can be no doubt that the Highland Fling is out there on its own, way ahead of the rest. A combination of a tough but eminently runnable course, beautiful scenery, the perfect time of year for Scotland and laid back but wonderfully efficient organisation has seen this event grow from its beginnings eight years ago as a training run for a group of friends approaching the West Highland Way race to the only place for any established or aspiring ultra runner to be around the end of April each year. 

Up at the front, it is a fiercely competitive race; in the first dozen home this year were previous winners of the Fling,  West Highland Way, Lakeland 100, Fellsman, Hardmoors 55, Rotherham Round and many other races. A top ten place here must be as good as a win in many other events. For participants like me of far more modest abilities it seems simply staggering how fast these guys cover the ground. Finishing in 7hrs 2mins, winner Lee Kemp averaged a few seconds under eight minute miles from start to finish. Chatting to Duncan Harris (6th place, first Vet40 in 7hrs 41min) on the drive home, he told me that the first 10 miles were run at 6 minute pace (if you were there, think of how many gates involved in that!) and he covered the first marathon to just short of Rowardennan in 3hrs 15min. 8 finishers completed the course in under 8 hours  -  this is truly high class stuff.

I wasn't really sure how to approach my own race this year. I had decided earlier that my target events would be the West Highland Way and the UTMB, and other races were to be run mainly as training, but the Fling is sort of special. The 2007 race was my first ultra; I was 58 at the time and I arrived in Tyndrum a slightly different person from the one who left Milngavie nearly 12 hours earlier, an experience I guess most ultra runners would indentify with. I've never missed a Fling since and this would be my seventh. I've managed somehow to win the Vet60 class for the past three years but it always niggled me that I could never get inside 10 hours or come close to the 9:54 record set by Adrian Dixon the first year I was 60.  The group would be more competitive this year with Murdo McEwan and Tony Thistlethwaite joining the gentlemen, and you never know who else might turn up. I thought my chances of retaining the title were slim but I didn't want to go out without some sort of a fight. In the end, I decided I would just go with how I felt, not think about the watch until Rowardennan, and make a decision there.

Registration in the pub the night before was the latest masterstroke by RD John Duncan and it was good to meet up with many people that I knew. After beer and curry with the MacPirates I retired fairly early to catch some sleep. There were one or two comments going around about the mass 6am start, but for we "auld men and lassies" who have always started at this hour it was nothing new, and with registration already done all we had to do was turn up at 5.45am for the traditional one-line race briefing on the chilly start of what was clearly going to be a beautiful day. I said hello to a few more folk, including Graeme Morrison and dog Penny; I've often covered the early miles with him but after the start I didn't see them again all day.Then into the tunnel and off.

At the top of the first little rise in the park I saw John Kynaston ahead and speeded up a bit to catch him and say good morning. I didn't expect to stay with him beyond a few paces because John normally covers these first miles at a much quicker pace than me, but we got talking and I tagged along. I've known John ever since we both started running ultras back in 2007 but I'd never actually run any miles with him until Saturday. I had the feeling that because this was John's pace it must be too quick for me. I follow John's blog and he normally runs tempos and intervals at least 30 seconds a mile faster than I do, so on flat ground he must be much more comfortable if we go at the same pace, but it felt OK so in spite of saying several times that I ought to slow down, I didn't. (When I looked at the Garmin printout the day after the race I found that we were doing 8.30-9.00 minute miles along this section, so I was right, it was far too fast for me and maybe I paid for this later). 

I eventually let John go on at the short uphill just before the start of the railway which is where I normally have something to eat and drink, and I didn't expect to see him again. As I was walking Tony Thistlethwaite caught me and I carried on with him as far as Drymen. He was going easily but he said he was expecting some muscle soreness later on because he'd managed a sub 3.30 in the London Marathon the weekend before. If all goes well in June Tony will join the very select group of runners who have completed 10 West Highland Way races. Tony is also a fairly quick starter along this course, so although he wasn't going as fast as John I was still conscious of going a bit quicker than I perhaps would on my own. I made a point of walking the uphills on the road out of Gartness and he slowed down with me  -  my regular rule in the Fling is not to run any uphills until after Rowardennan.

At Drymen Tony slowed to top up water so I carried on. Now it had been interesting talking to Duncan after the Hardmoors and before this race about the use of drop bags. On 50 mile races he doesn't bother, feeling that they waste too much time. He carries all the food he needs from the start and just tops up water when necessary. Now my races take a lot longer than his, but it made me think a bit, so on this trip I decided to carry more and stop less. I sent drop bags only to Balmaha and Bein Glas, dividing the race into three more or less equal chunks. My plan was to set out from each of these with a litre of drink and enough food to get to the next one; on the day, it seemed to work fine so I think I've learnt something here.

I was expecting the detour from Drymen due to forestry work to be a soft option but it definitely wasn't. We went down into the village then followed a long steady uphill road section where I had to break my rule of not running uphill or it would have taken all day; I followed the run/walk pattern that most of the runners around me were choosing. It was good to get back on the proper route in the forest, with it's nice little ups and long level stretches.  The well publicised path improvement started immediately we left the forest; it keeps your feet dry and helps to minimise erosion but I'm not sure it makes the running any easier, for me anyway. The section up the hill in particular, which used to consist of lots of sharp little ups with easily runnable flat sections in between now just seems like a steady slog. Then down the other side where you could pick a route to overtake, you are much more constrained and unless the runner ahead is co-operative you have to go at his pace. So I'm sure it's good for conservation of the landscape and I shouldn't complain, but I have to admit I liked it better the way it was!

After Balmaha I ran mostly on my own for quite a time, overtaking a few runners along the way, still walking the uphills but pressing on over the rest. A mile or two before Rowardennan I caught up with a group of four or five including Lorna McMillan who I had last seen not long after Drymen. On the top of the last hill before the descent to the road I looked at my watch and saw that I was approaching Rowardennan at around the 4:35 mark, 10 minutes faster than I had ever done before.  On the couple of times in the past that I had definitely targeted a 10 hour finish, my target for Rowardennan had been 4:45. I was a bit nervous that I was going too fast but I still felt good so didn't worry too much. The next 15 miles would see which way it would turn out. I hadn't planned to stop at Rowardennan so after the timing mat I ignored the left turn to the drop bags and carried on along the track to what I feel is the real meat of the course; the preamble done, the real race, as they say, starts here.

A mile or so after Rowardennan I passed Mike Raffan who is a real class runner but was having trouble with cramp today, then I arrived at the first hill. The next three miles consists of two long steady hills, up down up down. In the Fling I like to run these if I'm feeling good enough for two reasons. Firstly, I know I can make up a lot of ground here over runners who are walking or run/walking which is psychologically good on the day, and secondly I know I am going to walk these hills in June so if I can run them now they will seem easy then. This Saturday it was no problem, so I kept up a steady pace until the first steeper hill on the singletrack beyond. Sometimes these last few miles into Inversnaid drag but they went quickly enough. Conditions were perfect; in the rain all the singletrack along the loch can be a trial but in the dry you can bounce along on the tops of the rocks instead of having to pick your way between them. I had no plans to stop at Inversnaid so I chugged on through. I hadn't gone more than a couple of hundred yards past the hotel when I heard a shout from behind. I had just run straight past John Kynaston without noticing him  - I really will have to start wearing my glasses during these events.

As we carried on through the boulders, John told me that he had run for some time with Murdo, who wasn't far ahead. I expected Murdo to be a long way up the course by now because he has an impressive track record as a runner - an 18 hour West Highland Way for example - but this was his first event after several years out with injuries, so maybe he was just getting back into it gradually. I asked John if he was still in touch with his 10 hour schedule; he said he wasn't far off and was happy with the way his day was going. We agreed that the time into Bein Glas would be the crunch. I said I thought I could do Bein Glas to the end in two and a half hours so if I got there inside 7:30 I would give it a go and if I was outside that I would take it easy to the end. Magic - at just over 35 miles in I finally had a race plan. I was going marginally better than John, probably just my sort of terrain at this point, so I pressed on and was surprised to catch Murdo in no more than a few minutes. The reason was clear, he was suffering from cramp and limping quite badly. I offered him a salt capsule but he wasn't sure that would help, probably quite wise because they don't agree with everyone. Then John was with us again, so we progressed together for a short way. But Bein Glas was calling now so I wished Murdo well and carried on. I was aware of John behind me for quite a while, but I knew that this was the territory where I could gain or lose a lot so I kept going. I ran most of the hills at the top of the loch which was encouraging because I remembered that I couldn't do that last year. I passed Keith Hughes somewhere around here, who always has an encouraging word or two for me, but the last couple of miles to the checkpoint dragged a bit as ever  - you reach the top of the hill and feel that it's all over, then remember that it isn't  -  still a fair bit of twisty track to go.

I got to Bein Glas in just under 7:27 on my watch. No excuse for a rest now, if I was ever going to get my 10 hour finish then this was the opportunity. A year older next year and all that. But I was also aware that this was around 15 minutes faster than I'd ever got to here before, and over the last couple of miles I'd started to feel tired. Well, just a half marathon, you can always do that (if you ignore the 1000+ feet of climbing that is), just get stuck in. I dropped a gel restocking from my drop bag; it seemed a very long way down to the ground to pick it up again.

So off on the last lap. These hills are not really steep apart from one or two very short sections, I think the key is not to look too far ahead and keep jogging - the walk/run thing just doesn't cover the ground as fast for me. It was hurting but it was going. Derrydarroch, the flat bit after, a nice long rest going up the hill after the tunnel, a shuffle through the cowshit and along to the big gate. I remarked to a supporter that they move this gate further up the glen each year; I think they do it in the winter when you're not looking. The first big  climb to the highpoint in the forest is made easier by the knowledge that none of the others are anywhere near as long, then was on the last downhill. From the big gate I had started calculating the "time remaining" and working that back to the pace I had to keep up through to the end. This was giving me a lot of encouragement as it looked as though barring accidents not only was 10 hours looking fine, but I was definitely in with a shot at Adrian's course record.

Just as I came out to cross the main road I was passed by Lorna, who I hadn't seen since just before Rowardennan, going really strongly; she had run a beautifully judged race and would finish three or four minutes ahead of me. As we crossed the road a guy with her asked how far to the finish. I looked at my watch and replied barely three miles. This should have registered with me but I suppose I was too tired to notice. It was only when I got to Auchtertyre with my Garmin reading 50.8 miles that I knew something was wrong. I knew two things, firstly that when Auchtertyre is used as a checkpoint in the WHW race it is definitely thought of as 50 miles, not 51, and secondly while from here to Tyndrum may not be a full three miles, it's certainly more than 2.2.  In fact when I finished I found that my watch recorded Saturday's race as 53.4 miles long.

Now this is neither here nor there over the course of 10 hours running, but what it had done was to really throw a spanner in my "getting to the end" calculations. All I knew at Auchtertyre was that I didn't know exactly how far it was to the finish. It was somewhat deflating. All I could do was press on as fast as I could, over a section which most people will describe as "flat" after the forest but is actually a steady climb for most of it's length. After an age of what was now pretty painful progression, I reached what I knew was the final little up then down onto the track by the river. I could hear the piper and was looking forward to the finishing flags but as I came around the corner they weren't there. I had a moment's panic, fearing that the finish had been put another few hundred yards further on, but no, it was just around the corner, a wonderful 100 yard run-in tunnel, the best finish to any ultra I've ever run in the UK. Checking my watch as I crossed the mat, I saw 9:57 and something. Job done.

I was tired, and needed an hour in the car to recover and warm up before rejoining the activity at the finish, but after that was happy to stay around until around eight o'clock, drinking the beer, eating the soup and chatting to the finishers. Everyone I knew had done well. John K had come in just a minute or two over 10 hours, Murdo had survived his comeback to finish in around 10:20  - no chance of me beating him next year!

Duncan had the Vet40 win and a new record, and Stuart Mills the Vet50 win and a new record by a long, long way. Ah yes, Stuart  - this is where the title to this post finally comes in. Those of you who know Stuart, or are aware of his views, will know that he advocates starting fast ("run as fast as you can for as long as you can") on the basis that we all slow down sooner or later so you might as well get some distance in the bag before it happens. I talked to him at the finish. "I've just tried it your way, mate. It hurts. I'm not going to do it again." He grinned. "Ah, but it got you your fastest time. It works, you see!"

As always, a brilliant event, better every year, thanks to John, Ellen, and all the gang for putting on such a great show. Next year I might take a bit more time and smell the flowers.

The magnificent Murdo has been one of my mentors almost since I started this game, and has more than once said to me that I may be queering my chances of a good West Highland Way race by running too hard in the Fling. Well, it's with some trepidation that I query the great man, but the psychological boost you get from achieving something you thought might be no longer in your grasp cannot be underestimated. I went home happy. And as someone once said  "Ultra running is 90% mental  -  and the other 10% is just in your head."