Sunday 28 April 2013

A Fling with Friends

In a bid to write up a race experience whilst still fresh in my mind, here is my account of the 2013 Hoka Highand Fling. A 53 mile ultra along the southern half of the West Highland Way trail, from Milngavie in Glasgow up to Tyndrum in Stirlingshire, the Highland Fling has grown into one of the UK's largest ultras, with nearly 600 starters this year. Competition was heightened due to the race again being the UK and Scottish Trail Championships, and it was nice to see a preview article last week on US site iRunFar. This was my third Fling, and a brilliant experince in many ways, though it has left a bit of a colourful reminder on my body.

Pre-race prep
It was less than ideal due to same affliction I had pre-West Highland Way Race, an inability to sleep! I had a late night and bad sleep on Thursday, then an even worse night in Glasgow on Friday - when the alarm went off at 4am I felt like I hadn't slept at all. So on Saturday morning stress levels, tiredness and adrenaline were already taking over, making me wonder if I could put in a good race.

The Start
After a struggle of a breakfast I left for Milngavie and the easiest registration ever - "pop this timing chip round your ankle" - and caught up with some folk. 6am swung around soon enough and we were off. I didn't feel great and right from the get go my stomach felt sensitive - I've never really suffered from sickness or stomach problems during races so I put it down to lack of sleep and nerves. So I took it steady, following the rough plan to ease into the race and reach the first checkpoint - Drymen,12 miles - conservatively.

Drymen - Balmaha
First view of Loch Lomond
After running with Bob Steel for a wee while, I ran through Drymen in 1:45. Here the route had been diverted due to forestry work so it was a novelty to head left through the village and up a long gentle incline to meet the forestry track. From here, we had our first glimpse of Loch Lomond, which was sparkling against a deep blue sky - just beautiful. It felt very cool as well, with just a light wind - idyllic running weather. The climb up Conic was another novelty, I hadn't been there since the path improvements had been finished, and the steep decsent was more runnable. I was surprised by the sheer number of guys running past me up the hill, breathing heavily, and made a mental note to check whether I saw them again later down the trail - sure enough I did.

Balmaha -Rowardennan
From the summit of Conic Hill
After the descent came Balmaha at 19.8 miles, which I reached in around 3 hours, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Largely uneventful bar a bit of a faff with the UltrAspire hydration pack - normally easy to refill unless in a total rush -  I passed through in a few minutes, taking a bit of food with me en route and stopping for a quick hello with friend Andy Cole and his mates who were supporting Jonny Muir.

The stretch to Rowardennan is the leg which I've probably run the most in training, and it's pretty runnable. I was relieved to feel my stomach had calmed down and I'd settled into my own race. As well as basking in the fact we didn't have to deal with clouds of evil midges on this stretch as we did during the WHW Race last year. Fionna Cameron popped up behind me in this section and we ran into Rowardennan together. I didn't plan to fuel much here so pretty much headed straight through, and we ran/hiked the rolling hills that come next. Knowing well what to expect, I now welcome this part of the race after struggling the first year I ran it. Think I felt alright here but was keen to keep to a steady pace and run my own race above all, so didn't try and keep up with Fionna as the miles went on. She was looking incredibly strong, and went on to finish in second female position - just 30 seconds off Tracy Dean.

The miles seemed to be melting away and I kept focus on my form. Bob Steel and I were still leap frogging and he kept me good company for a quite a while throughout these mid sections.

Inversnaid - Beinglas
I love the Inversnaid checkpoint for memories of being on the Inversnaid nature reserve when I worked for RSPB, and of friends who've met me there in the past races. My split was around 5:42 for Inversnaid and I'd planned on 6 hours so re-calculated my aim to get to Beinglas shortly after 1pm, to give me a safe amount of time to comfortably reach Tyndrum by 9:45. Once again the marshalls at Inversnaid were amazing, delivering drop bags to us within seconds and taking control of the troublesome refills. I grabbed a few bites and pocketed the rest to eat en route. Next came the tricky lochside section, which I tried to welcome. Then out of the blue came quite a heavy shower - and I experienced something Bob and I had just been talking about re his upcoming Transvulcania race, the suncream in the eyes situation. It stung like hell for a wee while but cleared soon enough. It was fairly muddy and slippy around the big scrambly rocks but the section felt so much more achievable than before - you just can't expect to run it all. Then we bumped into The Aussie Dude Keith Hughes - a fantastic boost. He'd set out with friends at midnight to walk the Fling route, and after all our lunchtime runs together I knew he'd be somewhere between Inversnaid and Beinglas.

I can't remember exactly where it happened but at some point through this mid section I decided to miss the bottom step of a stile and landed too hard on my left foot. After rolling it several times recently in training it was weakened and I felt a pain up the side. However, after being able to shake the ankle rolls off before I hoped this would be the same. But approaching Beinglas it was hurting with every step. Not terrible pain but just a dull, constant ache in the same place.

Beinglas - Tyndrum
I ran into the checkpoint at 7:12 (1:12pm) and wanted to pass through in two minutes. I'd been drinking a lot but was super thirsty so filled the pack up again, downed half a coke and headed out, with a friendly relay runner from Harmeny and a few guys for company. Normally I don't need to pee at all during races (probably not healthy, I know) but by this point for the second time I was frantically searching for a bush and at last found one, which involved climbing another hill back to the trail. My left ankle was still throbbing with each step I took but I instinctively reckoned it would manage a steady jog to the finish. Smaller footsteps and focusing on form helped, as did keeping occupied through chatting to others.

Again, the miles passed quickly and soon enough we were at coo poo corner. As ever the ascents felt punishing and the coo poo even more so, but it's only a couple of miles and we reached the Crianlarich hills in no time. But this time I was glad to see the hills as the foot hurt less when walking, and it was a chance to take on a few calories as the stomach was now grumbling incessantly. The forest was shaded and cool, a welcome reprieve from the open areas of the track.

I was re-calculating my target regularly, reckoning if I could get down the hill and to the A82 crossing to Auchtertyre by 9 hours I'd have a chance of running 9:30 or thereabouts. On hitting the road the foot was much more painful though, tarmac was not my friend. The trail after Auchtertyre was softer and it was here Bob appeared behind me again, running really strong. I lost my patience with hiking the wee hills and decided just to crack on and run the last miles as fast as I could. Soon enough I was met by the reassuring sounds of the piper and the finish signs - it had been re-routed from the usual place and was now situated up to the left. I crossed the line in 9:36 (although was told it was 9:34!), totally delighted to take exactly one hour from my PB, which I ran in 2011.

The porta-showers at the finish were a nice touch and it was amazing to get clean and warm up - though on trying to walk after cooling off I realised the foot was extremely painful and as I feared, a purple bruise was spreading along the side. Instantly worring about Western States in 9 weeks, I saw Adrian then Sean, who was manning the medical tent, who were both so helpful. Sean sat me down with an ice pack and I vetoed the original plan of staying with Matt Moroz & friends in the hobbit hole in favour of getting back to Edinburgh.

First came the prize giving, featuring these fast men & ladies:
Scottish Trail Championships presentation
1st male - Lee Kemp, 7:02 (new course record)
2nd male - Ricky Lightfoot, 7:09 (also breaking course record)
3rd male - Matt Williamson, 7:21

1st female - Tracy Dean, 9:12
2nd female - Fionna Cameron, 9:13
3rd female - Sandra Bowers, 9:17

There were also presentations for the UK and Scottish Trail Championship and I was over the moon to find I was third Scottish female over the line, after Fionna and Sandra. The full results can be viewed here.

Race Day Nutrition
For those interested, following recent metabolic testing and experiments into low carb, my nutrition for the day looked like this:
  • Oats and natural yoghurt for breakfast with strong black coffee with a bottle of water
  • After Drymen - 1 x 9bar
  • Balmaha - 1 x smoothie (yoghurt, milk, nut butter, berries, protein powder) and banana
  • Rowardennan - 1 x Build protein bar
  • Inversnaid - 1 x potato scone with nut butter and 1 x small smoothie
  • Beinglas - 2 x potato scone with nut butter and 1 x small bottle coke, few pieces of fudge (half of all this eaten en route to Tyndrum)
  • Post-race nutrition was terrible due to lack of time to get anything proper before lift back to Edinburgh, but John Duncan's Mum's delicious soup saved me. So soup, roll, few oatcakes and beer were the post-race meal :-)
  • Running the Fling whilst knowing more about how my metabolism works - with all the data/findings from recent metabolic testing in my mind - made a huge difference. I knew I didn't have to re-fuel as much as I've thought I had to in previous races, which gave me a confidence boost throughout.
  • Discplined pacing is so important - something I've known for a while and haven't quite been able to put into practice in racing - and I felt that knowledge click into place in this Fling.
  • Running a race several times before (or training lots on the actual route) is invaluable in helping you to know what to expect; when you can push and when you should run conservatively. When you are 'welcoming' a hill, it doesn't seem as tough to me - almost an enjoyable break.
  • I need to learn to chill before races. Maybe I should start meditating.
  • Don't get ahead of yourself in trying to bypass the steps on stiles.
The foot, one day on
Thankfully the doctor thinks the ankle, despite some impressive bruising, is just soft tissue damage and should heal up in a couple of weeks. I am taking it very easy this week and will see how it goes, hoping to get back to Western States training by the end of next week.

John Duncan and his 80-strong team put on a truly incredible race, with happy, helpful marshalls in all the places we needed them, and a slick new finish area. The Fling is probably the best value for money race I've ever run - and hope to keep running :-)


  1. Superb write up! Enjoyed reading you accounts :)
    This was my first 'Fling with friends' and I absolutely loved it! :)
    "Discplined pacing is so important" Couldn't agree more, this was the most valuable lesson learnt that day!

  2. Cheers Ross - glad you had a great day on Saturday too. Can't wait for the next - happy training :-)

  3. Well done, Caroline. Hope this ankles heals soon.
    I'm so excited that I actually know someone who's running Western States. Hope you're out getting in some heat training today :-) xx

  4. Thanks Debs, and also for the lovely cheers at the start :-)
    Ankle on the mend I think but resting it is so hard!! All the v best of luck for a fabulous race this weekend, woop! x


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