There is no doubt that knowing the course makes the difference in how you tackle a course.
This year would be my third Highland Fling which is in its 11th year. I raced it in 2011 and again in 2015. Between 2011 and 2015 I had improved my time by 40 minutes. In both years the Highland Fling was there as a build up event for something bigger later in the year – West Highland Way Race in 2011 and UTMB in 2015.
After a well paced run in 2015 I’d decided that I should see what I could do if I targeted the race outright. 2016 seemed a good opportunity for this as I had no major plans after what had been a huge year in 2015 with Strathpuffer, Zugspitz and UTMB.
I’d set myself a simple target for this year. I wanted to go under 9 hours and I wanted to see by how much I could do this. Now as I had already paced the 2015 event well, starting slow (or slower than others) and then working my way through the field as the event progressed I had a good benchmark to work with.
In the week leading up to this year’s race I took my data from last year and checked the through times for various points on the course – Drymen, Balmaha, Rowardennan, Inversnaid and Beinglas.
As I knew I had a strong run to the finish from Beinglas in 2015 (apart from the odd cramp), I’d decided that I should get to Beinglas having made up all the time I needed to go sub 9 hours which meant reaching Beinglas in 6:45 hours vs. the 7 hours I had done in 2015.
Just to put the whole thing into perspective, I finished 2015 in 9:17 hrs so the main target was to knock 17 minutes of that time. Based on what I’d just said I’d need to make another 2 minutes up after Beinglas.
Working with through times is nothing new, nor is having a pace target. What I did change though was that I had sector pace targets and my watch was set to that.
So the pace targets were:
Start to Drymen 5:05 min/km
Drymen to Balmaha: 5:55 min/km
Balmaha to Rowardennan: 6:40 min/km
Rowardennan to Inversnaid: 6:00 min/km
Inversnaid to Beinglas: 7:58 min/km
Beinglas to Tyndrum: 7:10 min/km
If I stayed on or just under those pace targets I’d finish in under 9 hours. For some sectors I’d asked for a larger chunk off last year’s time than for others. So I was aiming to take around 10 min off the first sector but only 2 min off the last sector.
I think you get the picture as to where this is going.
One thing I have been hugely aware of in the past is how badly one can get the week before a race wrong. Either because of race related stress, work stress, family stress etc. I have got this right before now and I have got this wrong. The same goes for athletes I coach.
For this year’s Highland Fling I got this very right. I went into the week relaxed having done my last long run the Saturday before the race – 22 miles in the Pentlands with a few of my club mates from Harmeny Running Club. Then just a short MTB ride on the Sunday and a short run on Monday and Wednesday. Apart from that I had a massage with my physio, Julie, and went to a power yoga class 2 days out. My nutrition and hydration strategy was tried and tested and I had basically decided to leave out using any drop bags except for an emergency one at Beinglas so that was something else I didn’t need to worry about.
On the Friday I had to cycle out to a coaching session and I thought to myself: Legs are feeling good, tomorrow will be a good day. When my toilet routine fell into place on Sat morning I knew for definite things would be good and I started the race with confidence in a plan that would work.
I had also in the run up – as I usually do nowadays – made it clear to my athletes that the training plans may come out a couple of days later than usual to have my desk and mind clear for the race. I do feel if I can get this right then it is easier to relay this back to the people I coach too.
Anyone who did this race this year and or was in Scotland/the central belt on the Friday probably couldn’t have believed the luck we had with the weather come Saturday. Friday’s weather was biblical: snow, cold, wind, rain! Not conditions anyone would have wanted to race in. I have had my share of bad experiences in these conditions both on the WHW and at the D33 and was happy not to have to repeat them.
Forecast was for dry, sunny and calm on race morning but this is Scotland. We were up at 3:15 am for our usual weekend breakfast which has now also become my usual pre race breakfast: potato waffles, poached eggs and grated cheese with coffee.
We stepped out of the house to a clear night and got to the race start on a clear, calm morning. We only rolled in at 5:15 am with the race kicking off at 6. This meant I had just enough time to register, go to the toilet, fit my chip and number and hang around for a bit to gather my final thoughts. Off to the sub 10 hour starting pen and seed myself reasonably far to the front of that. Most of those around me I knew and expected we’d be running fairly similar times.
Milngavie to Drymen (19.5km)
John Duncan the RD counts us down from 10 to go … admittedly his watch seems to have a very slow second counter but eventually he reaches 0 and we are off. For the first 4 or so km I run by myself keeping an eye on the average pace making sure it sits just below 5 min/km. The target is 5:05 but the 2nd half of this sector is lumpier so I wanted to let it drift up then and not trying to claw it back at that point. I ran with Gavin Bussey for a bit but then let him go as he favoured a higher pace. The same happened with Phil Humphries. Those I think were the only 2 people that I spent any significant time running with. The early plan of staying just below 5 min/km seemed to work as I hit the tarmac road approaching Drymen and could happily back off and let the pace drift without any added time pressure. I was even able to slow down for food and a pee stop and still stick within the pace zone. I ran into Drymen in 1:38 hrs (target 1:39; or 5:04 vs 5:05 pace target).
In my head that was the hardest part done with as I felt that running sub 5 min kms (8 min miles) in a race of that length seemed a bit mental. Last year I got to Drymen just inside 1:50 hrs. Looking at the results this year I was at this point outside the top 70.
Drymen to Balmaha (12km)
Anyway, no stopping at Drymen as I had hardly touched food or drink, the watch showed 19.5km and I hit the lap button so that the pace would be reset for the next segment to Balmaha and I now had a somewhat more lenient pace target of 5:55 min/km, all be it on a lumpier part of the course which included the climb up Conic Hill. In that respect 5:55 didn’t seem that lenient and again I felt the need to make sure there was a bit left before getting to the main Conic Hill climb so that I could let it drift again. I started the main climb with the sector pace sitting at 5:35, by the top it was well over 6 but I pulled it back to under 6 by the time I ran through the Balmaha checkpoint.
I thought: Yay, on target again. Only problem was, I hadn’t completed the sector distance yet. Based on my calculations I had 12km from Drymen to Balmaha so the clock should be showing 31.5km completed. Instead I was only on 30.5km. This was a bit confusing but hey ho. It did mean that I made it into Balmaha in 2:45 which was in my books too fast and Andy Johns who I passed at that point told me so. Well he told me I was going too fast. I internally agreed and externally pushed on as I now had a short hill to get over and still stay on target pace for this sector. Oops. Just for the record, it was a nonstop fly thru the Balmaha checkpoint. Up and over said hill with Andy’s words ringing in my ears while chatting to a guy from Yorkshire (he is actually from County Durham according to a tweet he sent me since) who was hoping for sub 9 after going 11 hours something last year. I’d just caught him but let him drift away shortly after only to catch him a bit later again.
Balmaha to Rowardennan (12km)
Once over this hill I pushed the lap button as I now had passed 31.5k and was into my next sector. Target pace for this one: 6:40 min/km aka plodding pace. In terms of where I wanted to be in the race it was spot on as I meant to come through 31.5k in 2:50 hrs and did.
Having already done the small hill after Balmaha put me into a pace advantage for the sector to Rowardennan as this hill was part of the ‘slower’ pace target. Therefore I was happily plodding along at 5:30 min/km pace knowing it would take a massive hill for the pace to drop to target. I had spotted Caroline McKay ahead on the way up Conic but then lost sight of her in the small hill excitement. I’d occasionally draw closer then loose her again. I was a bit puzzled to see her there to be honest and had concluded that she wasn’t having the best day. Caroline had finished well ahead of me in 2015. The fact that things were just going well for me hadn’t entered my head. Doh!
Anyway the pace did gradually drop as there are a few lumps to get over on the way to Rowardennan and I eventually rolled into Rowardennan with a sector average pace of around 6:10 which was 30 seconds per km up on target – over 12km. Now I could relax!
Rowardennan to Inversnaid (12km)
As with the other 2 checkpoints I didn’t stop for food or drink but just rolled through catching Caroline and Ross Leslie just after the exit. Ross was struggling and admitted that he’d gone off too fast. That said he still managed to finish the race with a huge personal best so in some way that worked. I didn’t stay ahead of Caroline for long though as she suddenly powered away but it helped me have a carrot to follow. I caught and overtook a couple more guys who were commenting on the fact that Caroline was running up the long drag out of Rowardennan towards Inversnaid. It didn’t seem to bother them that I was. Tsk! Baring one or two spots I didn’t feel the need to walk here either.
I was starting to notice a bit of a problem with this though. I knew the route, I knew where there were climbs, where I would walk and that meant these were places where I could eat. My fitness levels had obviously improved to an extent that a number of these selected climbs didn’t feature in the walking list anymore. This already happened on the approach to Rowardennan and was more noticeable on the way out. In some way obviously a nice problem to have.
One of the benefits of the lower pace target running up to Rowardennan was that I could back off. After Andy’s comment about me going too fast, I knew that I had an easier sector coming up and it proved exactly that way. Just after Balmaha the legs did feel fatigued, by the time I left Rowardennan they were on form again.
I got to Rowardennan in 4:05 hrs approx. 5 min up on target and was now just outside the top 50.
My next target was to get to Inversnaid in 5:22 hrs. I didn’t revise my targets just because I’d gone faster in a previous sector but this again meant I could relax more even though I still tried to run the sector pace I’d planned, in this case 6 min/km. Initially I wasn’t convinced this would work with this sector as there was a fair bit of climbing and the second part does get more technical but I entered the technical section with a pace of around 5:50 min/km and it only dropped off towards 6 min as I approached Inversnaid. For the higher pace early on, credit must go to Caroline as I followed her up the long drag. I ran into Inversnaid just behind her and remained about 5 minutes up on target.
I did have an unscheduled stop just before the checkpoint as I was curious about a cairn with lots of wood stacked on top instead of looking where I was putting my feet. Next thing I knew I had face planted and was left with a couple of deep cuts to fingers and hands. The lead relay runner was just behind me at this point. I was going to get it patched up at Inversnaid because there was a fair bit of blood but by the time I got there it had dried enough that it wasn’t worth wasting time for. Inversnaid was the only checkpoint where I stopped though – water refill. By the time I left (15 seconds for water refill) I was ahead of Caroline. I made it a bit of my mission to finish the race ahead of her or let myself just be narrowly beaten depending on how strong her finish would be.
Inversnaid to Beinglas (10.5km)
Both at Rowardennan and Inversnaid the sector restart points were a few 100m after the checkpoint. The next sector to Beinglas had by far the lowest target pace I’d set with 7:58 min per km. Just after Inversnaid the route gets very technical and it didn’t take long for my average pace to drop towards 9 min/km for the sector. I made it my mission though to get through here as quick as I could as I still felt on form. In the past this is the sector that destroyed me and many others. It is both a physical and mental thing as you see your pace and your targets drift away and any rhythm you had destroyed. I passed David Hanna here and we had a brief chat before I kept my pace relatively high going through here and got spat out at the other end sooner than ever before and could get some rhythm going again. Just at this point I caught Rob Soutar who was struggling with cramp, something that I started getting too; only when walking though, so that had to be avoided. We also encountered our first rain shower. Luckily this didn’t last long and I didn’t add any further clothing. I have to admit that in order to achieve what I set out to achieve I did run the risk of no rain cover and was only carrying a light wind proof, some gloves and a buff. The gloves and the buff came on during 2 of the rain showers and seemed to do the trick. After the technical section and the climb up to Dario’s post the average pace had drifted back down to under 8 min/km and anything below 7:58 was going to be a bonus.
As I’d already said at the start, if I got into Beinglas in 6:45 hrs then I’d be 15 min up on my 2015 tmie and well on my way to getting under 9 hours for the full course. On the approach to Beinglas I passed another runner who thought I was a relay runner; thanks for the compliment. It was now a question of how much I’d be up on target coming into Beinglas. It was to be more than 10 min as I came through in 6:33. My strong run up to Beinglas had me surge up the leaderboard from being ourside the top 50 to inside the top 30.
Beinglas to Tyndrum (18.8km)
Something disastrous would have to happen for me not to go under 9 hours now. I had 2:27 hours to complete 18.8km and with all the hard stuff behind me that felt very achievable. Target pace for the last sector was now a fairly low 7:10 min/km which seemed easy but when planning this I was surprised to see how much climbing there was between Beinglas farm and the top of Ewich forest so the 7:10 would definitely be needed.
As already mentioned previously I had an emergency drop bag which included a bottle of coke at Beinglas Farm but while I was running in I shouted to the marshal who had the bag ready for me that I wouldn’t need it and passed through the checkpoint without stopping. Therefore my entire checkpoint stoppage for the race was around 15 seconds. There is a decent enough climb just over 500m out of Beinglas Farm which I used to refuel. A lot of the route from here up to Ewich forest is very runnable with some short uphill walking sections and the average pace was sitting around target. Climbing over a style two walkers commented: ‘that looked easy’. It wasn’t as a cramp was narrowly averted, something that was always lingering but something I’d also always push through. I did feel that energy levels were dropping after Beinglas Farm and I may have taken too little food on board. One of the female competitors came past me at Darridarroch Farm and as we went through the underpasses for rail and road David Hanna caught up with me again. We stayed together briefly while it started snowing which also was brief, I got my windproof out for a bit of extra protection and David pushed on looking strong (he finished 8 min ahead). I kept my steady pace, the sun came out again, the jacket off again. This sounds faffy but only took seconds. Meanwhile I made it into Ewich forest which in itself is a bit of a roller coaster but having been here before I knew what to expect. Walk the ups, avoid or walk through cramp, jog the downs and run the flats.
I was a bit short on water so stopped at a river to refill. I returned to the track and got overtaken by Debbie Martin Consani although I hadn’t worked out that it was her. It actually took me until the price giving to figure this out. Maybe some brain cells had switched off after all. As I hit the road I noted Marco providing some support to her and was confused that he was helping some random woman – well it was actually his wife after all. Just over 5k to go now and I was only just through the 8 hour mark. In some ways I felt slower than last year, partly because I had been passed by a couple of runners and because the legs seemed to struggle a bit on the climbs. Energy levels were definitely dipping a bit. On the other hand I was now back inside sector target pace which meant that I was even covering this sector faster than planned and thus faster than last year. I guess as the pressure was off the cramps stayed away over the last 5k too. Last year I did ground to a halt with less than 3km to go all be it briefly. No such drama this year apart from being overtaken by a Norwegian within the last mile. Final gate and it was clear that it wouldn’t just be sub 9 but sub 8:50. Round the final bend, not much of a sprint finish although some will still say I looked strong at the end. Overjoyed with that finish and a time of 8 hours and 47 minutes. Final positions 28th overall, 22nd male and 6th MV40.
Couldn’t have asked for more on the day.
I surprised myself with how useful the sector pace targets were. Once I hit the first 2 going into Balmaha the pressure was off with the third and from there on in the question became much more about how much I could stay under? If I couldn’t it wouldn’t be a problem but I was never in danger of careering out of reach of my target. Above that the sector target were easier to stick to than an overall target.
It helped that I had a good base to make my calculations from, a well paced 2015 race and I picked the right sectors to effectively make my move. I had much more strength on the physical and mental side going through the tougher sections. On that note though, did I have a bad patch? Can’t really say that I did. This may be experience as even when things were slowing down or aching a bit more I knew how to deal with it and the target never seemed in doubt. Knowing the route and what was to come helped too. It was interesting how much less phased I was by some of the climbs though.
I hadn’t really prepped much differently to previous years but was more relaxed going into the event knowing what to do when in the week leading up to the event and planning for the right amount of risk to make the plan happen.
My fall seemed to be par for the course as I saw a number of runners at the finish with bashed up knees and similar. It was a stark reminder though that on a run like that you do always have to be vigilant as a trip can happen too easily and derail the whole project. In my case it was a cairn that sent me flying but it could equally have been running with others or enjoying the views of which there were many on a day that turned out to be nearly perfect weather wise. The day before and the day after would not have been pleasant. We had cool temperatures on the day, little wind, lots of sun and the occasional shower. I was never too cold and never got too hot.
Hydration and nutrition wise I did pretty well having consumed approximately 1200 cals during the race from a mixture of jelly babies, dried fruit, chocolate coated raisins, chia charge bars, dark chocolate pieces, Swiss cheese squares and Trek bars. I think I drank roughly 750 ml during the run. I was slightly underfuelled after Beinglas and should have taken the 500 ml bottle of coke that I had in the drop bag there. I feel I still have a bit of a fear of stomach issues from previous past experiences and am more likely to get away with too little than too much. Slowing down seems preferred to stomach cramps.
In the 2 days since the race it are my calves which are mostly shot and not my quads although I really didn’t hold back much on the descents. This is either testament to having done enough descending in training or the increased amount of cycling I have been doing. My training volume since my last ultra at Jedburgh has not been high with roughly 200km of running per month but a good amount of cycling. I have been doing much more yoga over the past 9 months which I think has been a huge help.
Could I go faster? Highly likely as there a few small improvements to be made based on what I have just said. Will I give it another shot? At some point yes but there are other events around the end of April of interest such as the Selkirk Mountain Bike Marathon.
People shower heaps of praise at John Duncan aka Johnny Fling for the way this event is organised. They all have good reason to do so. An army of 180 volunteers on the day made for perfect organisation, and to be able to get a bottle of prosecco, a t-shirt, medal in your goody bag along with free hot food from soup, over baked potatoes, to coffee, filled rolls and cake and free beer at the finish. Not to forget the event was chip timed with interim positions flying out onto social media. And all that for less than £40. Even the weather has always been great and they give Johnny Fling credit for that too. Too right! Good work mate. Obviously the course is good too as is the top class competition.
After I started the race Fiona drove up to Tyndrum and headed off for a run of her own covering 25km. During the previous 2 Highland Fling races she had gone up a mountain but with my races getting faster her mid race adventure time got duly shorter as she still tries to be at the finish line to see me home, a welcome I always treasure.
Congratulations to Donnie Campbell on the win and a new course record of 6:51 hours and to Beth Pascal who ran a new female course record of 7:52 hrs. Also congratulations to Damian Hall who won the MV40 category and also finished inside the old course record in 6:58 hrs. Finally, well done to all who started, finished and was part of the day!
Top image by Patricia Carvalho Photography.