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."