Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Highland Fling 2015

"It's never the distance that gets you, only the pace...."

The Highland Fling has come a long way since 18 like-minded individuals set out on a run from Milngavie to Tyndrum in 2006. Around a thousand competitors plus regular high class performances at the sharp end nowadays make it one of the UK's most important ultra races. Yet Race Director John Duncan, with over 100 volunteers and 53 miles of trail to deal with, always looks like he's having a party; and it's infectious, this is a happy event.

As a challenge it's very much a game of two halves; as far as Rowardennan, the halfway point at 27 miles, it's good trail, easy to run and mostly flat with only the occasional short hill to interrupt the flow; beyond Rowardennan it changes, most of the runnable ground is uphill, there is a lot of bouldery "technical" work along the edge of Loch Lomond, and the last 12 miles in particular has some energy sapping climbs just when you don't need them. The key to success is pace judgement over the first half  -  go too slowly and you won't have made good enough use of the easy going, but go too fast and the second half won't turn out well for you. In recent years the winning time has been around the 7 hour mark; for those of us of modest abilities this is quite hard to take in  -  back-to-back three and a half hour marathons, climbing Snowdon (or maybe Ben Lomond for the residents) twice along the way, with plenty of gates, stiles, boulders and tree roots thrown in for interest.  A look at the splits show that this is achieved by tagging around 7 minute miles to halfway then 9 minutes to the finish. These are spectacular performances.

The race has always been a bit special for me as the second running in 2007 was my first ever ultra race. I gathered with around 70 other starters in Milngavie station yard for the "briefing" and start by the race's inimitable original RD, Murdo MacDonald, who simply said "Welcome to the Fling everyone. There are no rules, just let us know if you drop out, have a nice day and see you in Tyndrum. Off you go." This ultra-running game must be a pretty laid-back sport, I mused at the time. Since then I've been back six more times, with a PB in 2013 of just under 10 hours, only missing last year because of injury, so I was looking forward to getting back, but with a bit of trepidation. I've generally run quite a few races each year, many just for fun, but the Fling is one that I always had a good go at, gave it my best shot as it were. Since coming back slowly from my time off last year I had re-adjusted my aims; not wanting to cause any further problems I'd steered clear of speed work, just being happy to trundle along and complete events within the available time. For the Fling I really ought to be shooting for somewhere in the 12-13 hour range, I knew I could do that and come out relatively unscathed. But as I said, the race has always been a bit special for me; although I didn't have the basic speed to back it up, I suspected on the day I might have a bit of a flutter. We'd just have to see.

It didn't start out with the sunshine that we've come to expect from the Fling over the years. It rained steadily all Friday night and showed no signs of stopping as I joined the hundreds of other rainsuited competitors at the station at 5.30 Saturday morning. Suitably drugged against an incipient cold, the whole thing felt a bit of a dampener. With so many people milling around this year it was difficult to catch up with people who I knew would be there, but then I saw Graeme Morrison just before the start. I first met Graeme near the finish of the 2009 Fling; he was running with his dog Penny and the three of us crossed the finishing line together  -  "two tired auld men and a dog". I've covered plenty of miles with Graeme along the course over the years. This year he was running with his son Steven (who has a sub 21 hour WHW to his credit) but his main news was that four days after the Fling he was setting off on a continuous round of the Munros (Graeme's 4th round and Penny's 2nd) which he expected to take him around three months  - now there's a real ultra!

There are so many competitors now that the Fling start warrants start pens to phase the getaway, and at the last minute I made a decision and sidled hopefully into the "10-12 hour finish" group, and found myself alongside WHW supremo Ian Beattie and Sandra McDougall. It was Ian's first ultra for a year or two and he was looking fit and raring to go. Our wave started off a couple of minutes after the elite start and we were soon through the town and settled into a steady jog along the trail. I saw Ian on and off through the first few miles and chatted to a few other people, but mostly I was happy to go with the flow of those around me. The rain soon stopped and before long the sun came out to give us for the rest of the day typical Fling weather - sunshine all the way. I looked at the watch occasionally and saw that I was averaging just over nine and a half minute miles  -  too fast, I thought, I wasn't sure that I could complete a road marathon at that pace at the moment  - but it felt OK so I carried on.

Through the first checkpoint Drymen in 1:57, still too fast, then on through the forest just keeping pace with the crowd around me. I overtook quite a few people going up and coming down Conic Hill because that's my sort of thing, then suddenly I was at Balmaha, 20 miles done and it seemed easy, grab drop bag and off. The path "improvements" in recent years over Conic don't do anythng for me, I liked it the old way, but now they seem to have worked on the section up to Rowardennan and it's definitely easier and faster. I don't remember much about this section except there seemed to be more people around than in previous years. I got to the Rowardennan timing mat, manned by Lee and the Subversive Firefighter, in 4:45.  Now 4:35 was my previous fastest time to here so I was going to have to pay some dues later, but it had been fun while it lasted.

It began on the first long uphill which starts a mile or so after Rowardennan. I would normally run all of this but I couldn't, so it was a walk/run combination now. I was passed by Jonny Rowan and chatted for a few minutes; he was adopting the constant heart rate approach championnned by Robert Osfield, although his target steady rate was only about 5bpm off my maximum! Still, it worked well for him and he went on to a 9:56 finish (as it did for Robert himself, who recorded a significant PB finishing in 9:10). It was good to get to the top of the hill and put a bit of speed back on down the other side. But then there is another long runnable uphill and I was reduced to walking long sections and during one of these Sandra came past looking full of go; I never saw her again and she carried on to a 10:37 finish. 

The second half of the leg to Inversnaid suited me better, smaller ups and downs, so I passed a few more people but just before the hotel I was caught by Graeme and Steven. They stopped a bit longer than me at the checkpoint but soon caught up again after. The tricky ground was no problem for them of course so they pulled away from me for the last time, going on to reach Tyndrum in 10:39  -  Graeme said later it was his best time since finishing with me all those years ago. The temperature was going up now and it was becoming a much warmer day, though there was still a nice cooling breeze when you were out of the wooded sections. I always enjoy the bit from Inversnaid to the top of the Loch, there's plenty of interest and it always seems to go quickly, and I gained quite a few places again, but as soon as we started the real pull uphill towards Bein Glas my lack of fitness for the pace really kicked in. I walked slowly up the hill past Dario's post, stopping just a few seconds there on the way. At the top of the hill I got running again along the bit of track over railway sleepers, but just after coming off these I tripped on an unseen stone in the path and came a cropper. Incompetent; a combination of tiredness and lack of concentration I suppose. There were four or five runners just behind who all stopped to see if I was OK, but after a few seconds appraisal I said there was no real problem, I thanked them and told them to go on. I sat still for a few minutes; knees and hands hurting a bit but otherwise OK; I got up and walked steadily for maybe 10 minutes, then got into a gentle run again for the short distance left into Bein Glas checkpoint, where I arrived in 8:06 from the start.

I've normally covered the last 12 miles from here to the finish in around two and a half hours. If I could have done that on Saturday I would have been near to 10:36, which is a nice time for the fling because it means you've averaged exactly 5 miles an hour for the trip. But these last twelve miles are where you really pay if you've got to Rowardennan too fast, and I knew that was on the cards. I didn't do badly on the three miles up to Derrydaroch, only walking the steeper bits of the hills, but from there to the final climb in the Crianlarich forest I felt really tired and walked almost everything. Another moment's inattention led to a sharp bang on the head in the "sheep creep" tunnel which didn't help things much. The track through "cow poo alley" was clean and dry, but even that pleasant surprise couldn't generate any sort of speed from me.

On the climb up from the big gate to the high point in the forest, I was passed by Jim Gaffney who went on to take the Vet 60 prize in a time of 10:34. If I had been aware of the situation at the time I might have put up a bit more of a fight (and probably regretted it later!) but I was certain that the age group would be taken in a faster time by someone much younger, as Jim is about the same age as me. I was also passed by Ian Beattie who was looking really strong; I admitted to him that I was struggling. Even after the top of the big climb, the roller coaster seemed to go on for ever.

Then, as often happens in these events, everything changed. I don't know whether it was passing the WHW post that marks the start of the last little climb, or because I had by then being going slowly enough for long enough to have recouped some energy, I suddenly felt OK and from the top of the last hill I ran at a respectable pace all the way to the finish. Tim Downie seemed to be intimidating the cars on the A82 well enough for there to be no waiting at all at the crossing and then I was onto the flat ground on the other side. I could see Ian's yellow shirt a fair way a head and tried to use him as a target but he was still going well. Nevertheless I still managed to pass quite a few and not be passed before the finish. The section by the river then over the last bit of moor seemed to go faster than normal, then I could hear the piper and was soon on the red carpet and at the finish. 10 hours 53 minutes. 229th place of 648 finishers. Certainly not one of my best, but in my current state of running fitness and given my somewhat reckless pace over the first half, somehow still satisfying.

I was looking forward to catching up with a few firends after the race but then Graeme appeared and offered me a lift straight back to Glasgow, and as my reserved bus place would have involved a wait of four hours I jumped at the chance. Driving back along the route, we could still see runners just leaving Bein Glas, a long evening still ahead of them. I'm always surprised at how long it takes to drive back along the route you've just run, it really reinforces the sense of achievement somehow. By the time I should have been boarding my bus I was back, showered and fulI of gammon and chips (and a beer or two....). The cold came on full that evening so I seemed to have just got away with that one, but apart from that next day I felt fine. A stiff wrist and scraped hands from the fall, but no blisters or muscle soreness; I was in good enough shape, just not quite sufficiently aerobically fit for the pace I set out at. And apart from the struggle for five or six miles near the end it had been a great day out.

I wondered before I went to the Fling this year whether I would go again; whether it had become too big, a bit too impersonal maybe. Not at all; "Johnny Fling" and his team do a great job of running not only a wonderfully well organised event, but keeping the same engaging atmosphere that it's always had. I'll be back.

1 comment:

John Kynaston said...

Well done Andy. Another great race for you. Enjoyed reading how it went for you this year.