Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Highland Fling Ultra: Race Report

Saturday 30 April 2011
53 miles of the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Tyndrum (or 54 if you're navigationally-challenged like me), 12,300 ft ascent, 10hr 34mins

I set out at 4am from a west end hotel room for Milngavie train station, prepped as possible and bursting with adrenaline despite distinct lack of sleep. Going from a champagne breakfast and royal wedding to running a most challenging ultra marathon, it would be an interesting 24 hours.

I'd really struggled to eat any kind of a decent ultra-fuelling breakfast, and practically force-fed myself porridge and water. So with 30 minutes to wait around after registration in the cool early morning of Milngavie, I attempted to hydrate with more water and eat some fruit.

To give a bit of background about the Fling, it forms a trio of annual WHW races, along with the Devil O' the Highlands (the northern half from Tyndrum to Fort William)and the full WHW. Having expanded from a handful of runners to over 450 this year, it is the only WHW ultra which runners are strongly encouraged to run unsupported. There aren't the facilities or space along the route for many support cars, and the HF organisers run a highly efficient drop-bag system. Runners pack their own drop bags of food, water, clothing changes etc they think they'll need at four different points along the way.

I knew starting out too fast would be a downfall, so I kept a close eye on my pace and from the start tried to keep to just under 8 min miles. This is difficult when you're revved to go! I ended up running second out at the front with the leader Kate Jenkins (us women had started with the 50+ male age group, with the fastest younger male age groups starting later at 8am).

I managed to get a 20 min chat in with Kate, and was inspired to hear of her record-setting 95 mile West Highland Way race of a few years ago (which was then peaked by Lucy Colquhoun). She's completed it six times but this would be the first time she'd run just the southern half - oh the strange logic! She'd also competed the other week in the Scottish Athletics 50k championships, and when asked how she did, gave a modest reply of she was happy with her time (she won the female race, in 3.43).

It was around this time I decided I should not be going her speed! So I dropped back, looking to keep it steady at 8 min miles from now on. We kept our positions until well after the first timing chip point at Drymen, 14.6 miles, and I reckoned there was about 5 minutes between me and a small group of steady runners. Several miles out of Drymen the WHW route takes you into forestry tracks, and we'd been warned at the briefing that some forestry work was currently underway, and to be careful with directions here.

To be honest having never run the race before I did not expect to be at the head of the start group nor did I expect I would have to navigate (although I did have emergency WHW map in my waist bag). Kate had opened a larger lead by this point with no sign of her ahead and no sign of anyone behind me. I came to a forestry junction, with the straight-on option being the WHW route, but with 'no entry due to works' signs here, and 'diversion' signs pointing to the left. I assumed we had to take the diversion (maybe I missed this being mentioned in the briefing, but dont recall being told not to follow them). I had a worrying instinct it could have been wrong but kept going. A while later I came to another 'diversion' sign, this time fallen from its post on the ground, pointing in neither direction of a second cross roads. What to do?! I took the left again for good measure. After around 10 minutes I heard voices and came out at another crossroads, wherein a group of runners emerged from the trees of the other direction. It was clear this was the group from behind me, and they hadn't followed the diversion. I think I lost 10-15 minutes in the grand scheme of things - although the way the race developed its extemely unlikely I would have kept any semblance of placing!

To take my mind off my forestry faux pas I got chatting to race veteran and amazingly knowledgeable runner John Kynaston, he thought I was Jamie Aarons before he realised he didn't know me. I reassured him that I however knew him as a result of blog-stalking! I think he said it was his fifth HF, and he's also an experienced WHW racer, taking part in the big one in June. He was running with a girl called Claire, who was taking on her first ultra after taking part in the London marathon several weeks ago with a 3hr time.

We hit Conic hill together. It is obviously a lot more energy-saving to walk the steepest hills in ultras rather than run. Attempting to run them all as I'd originally planned would have resulted in fatigue further down the line so I changed tactic with this.

I ran into Balmaha at 20 miles, the first checkpoint/drop bag point, feeling quite comfortable. Stopping for just a minute, I reckoned it best to get on with it - it was starting to really heat up even at 9am.

Next came a stretch of 7 miles, to checkpoint numero deux at Rowerdennan. Although I kept forgetting I'd run a mile further than needed - fairly demoralising when you think you're approaching the next checkpoint but you have another 10 mins to go! It was from here I got the first taster of the undulation to come, even after Conic Hill. This race is truly unsettled terrain for most of the way through - after easing you in gently for the first half marathon that is. I dont recall one flat stretch of path longer than a mile.

By Rowardennan I was out of water and slightly concerned I'd need more than the small carry bottle I had around my waist for between checkpoints - the heat was calling for much more. The marshalls helped me re-fill and I had a quick bite of sandwich before heading straight on, for another 7 miles of loch-side track to Inversnaid. We wound around Loch Lomond, with the towering Ben Lomond to the right. The track was significantly rougher terrain that I expected, a challenging combo of loose stones, roots, boulders to negotiate. I had already decided months ago loose gravel and stones to be the enemy of happy feet and this confirmed it.

A wonderful support crew of friends awaited at Inversnaid - Gregg, Sally, Ally and Cat - and by this stage I couldn't wait to see them and inflict them with sweaty hugs. So the few miles before running down the hill to the Inversnaid hotel were going well, until I sidestepped a muddy puddle to save getting damp blister-prone feet, and stepped knee-deep into a bog. Running through the shock of suddenly being covered in mud, I found the next river-crossing down to the loch and jumped in it. I was soaked now but nothing to be done - better water than mud...

Invernsaid and friendly faces were all too brief. I stopped for two minutes, inhaled a banana and bottle of electrolytes and set off. The next stage - 7 miles to Bein Glas Farm - was to be the transition into my most testing race yet. Although not featuring any steep uphills, the path was not easily runnable, with constant boulder obstacles, ample opprtunity to trip and injure yourself. I fell a couple of times, and took to swearing profusely at stones. In the last few miles of that stage I stumbled badly on my left ankle, the ligament I'd torn at Christmas. I felt soft tissues quite literally straining and thought for a minute that was me out, but tested it gently with a few more steps and kept on without too much pain, which soon subsided.

I just hadn't carried enough water, and could really have done with an energy drink rather than just water and electrolytes, blood sugars were low and stomach rumbling but I couldn't bear to eat. I met Debbie Martin-Consani en route who kindly passed me lucozade - thank you.

Bein Glas was an oasis. I gave myself 5 minutes, at that point I wasn't convinced I could finish at all. A few fantastic marshalls poured a bucket of water on my head and shoved a muller rice in my hands, which I tried to eat along with a slice of bread. I could feel my feet were a mess but didn't want to look, but then decided it'd be better to sort them now rather than have to stop during the next 12 final miles to Tyndrum. Compeed-ed up, I struggled to my feet and took off on what I can only call a gentle jog - from now on 11-12 min miles were the best I could do. As I'd expected, a few miles out of Bein Glas came steaming behind me Jez Bragg, the ultra athlete and record holder for HF and WHW, now running for North Face, in second place behind the guy who'd go on to unexpectedly win, Andrew Mills, an unattached runner. A few others closely followed - these guys had started at 8am, so were 2 hours ahead and maintaining amazing stamina against the now 24 degree heat. All I wanted to do was launch myself into the nearest loch. The dry heat was reminiscent of Yosemite.

It was a little comfort that, as the Garmin inched past 43 miles, this was now the furthest I'd ever run. Not much to say on the next 10 miles, apart from I knew I was dehydrated and running erratically, slowing to take on each hill. On two ocassions I had to re-fill water from a fast running stream, by which point I really didn't care if I later got sick or not.

The encouragement from walkers and campers on the route coming into Tyndrum was amazing, as were the two pipers positioned 50 metres or so from the finish. I hadn't made my target of under 10 hours but was delighted to see the finish at all, and knew I'd significantly underestimated the terrain, and the impact of 900m of ascent on pace.

There were the friends, waiting with welcome recovery drinks - including a beer - and pretty much everything I needed. I congratulated Kate who had won the female race with a time of just over 9 hours. She told me I could take half an hour off my time for the heat - alright then if you insist!

- Food
I stubbornly set out on this race to prove I could run an ultra without the overpriced, additive and sugar-packed energy gels and drinks, and that 'real' food would get me through. So against the grain I planned out my four drop bag sustenance carefully: vegetarian sausage sandwich, organic peanut bars, bananas, fruit smoothies, electrolytes.

I stand corrected - there is a reason ultra runners use these easily-consumable forms of fuel. One: you start losing energy at an increasing and incredible rate the further you get into an ultra race and need to replace it with food and drinks that enter your system super-quick. Two: Its really quite difficult to chew anything substantial, however good for you, and you simply can't stomach eating the volume of 'normal' carby foods your body needs to replenish what it's using.

My strategy involved eating half a sandwich at Balmaha and Rowardennan checkpoints to give me maximum energy for later in the race when I may not feel like food. I struggled to eat what I'd planned, all you want is something soft and simple.

Next time I will certainly be consuming more calories, I needed them and would have probably kept a tighter pace. Think I am around 4 pounds lighter now.

- Feet
My feet are in recovery after Saturday, with Sunday and Monday being struggles just to walk. I seriously need to find a strategy for ultras that prevents the type of damage I'm I'm now embarking upon a series of trials in white spirit soaking, vaseline and podiatrists. I will updated on this fascinating topic later!

Despite the physical need for my body to recover for a week or so, the race has left me elated, fitter and lighter for the next. I won't be choosing a multi-terrain, but I can't wait.

Race Results
Happy finish faces - thank you :-)


  1. wow - well done you! I'm so proud that my friend does all this!! Inspirational stuff. Have a rest x

  2. I´ll second that-you are amazing and inspirational! Well done-I do worry about where you go from here though-not the desert running I hope! Lots of love and congratulations-wish i´d been there x x x x chrissy x x x x

  3. rather you ner me well done Les

  4. Well done Caroline. Great stuff.
    Wetted my appetite for next year. I have entered Brecon Beacons Ultra (in November) in the meantime.


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