A few weeks ago John Duncan – organiser of the Highland Fling Ultra marathon – posted both on the Highland Fling and West Highland Way Race facebook page to suggest a training weekend taking in the whole of the Highland Fling route from Milngavie to Tyndrum over 2 days. As I was hoping to run some of these sections in preparation for the Fling and the WHW it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
10 runners took up John’s suggestion and we all met at Milngavie train station at 9:45am on Saturday (March 31) for a 10 o’clock start. When leaving Edinburgh (I got a lift with Andy, one of the other runners) at 8:30am we had a bit of rain but the further west we got the better the weather which is rather unusual for Scotland.
The plan for day 1 was to run from Milngavie to Inversnaid (34 miles). Muriel very kindly transported our luggage to Balmaha and then on to the Inversnaid bunkhouse. Muriel is Tim’s wife who was also running. So the runners were Tim, John and Andy and then we also had Carolyn, Antonia, Donald, Carol, Lorna, Lucy and I. Some of us were training for the Fling, and others were training for both the Fling and the West Highland Way.
My main aim for the 2 days was to get a feel for the route. Up until then I had only run on the section between Balmaha and Inversnaid at the West Highland Way training weekend in January so there were 29 miles of new territory to check out. The other thing I wanted to work on was nutrition both in quantity (how many calories to take) and in what to have. I had a fairly old mix of foods with me: gels, jelly babies, cereal bars, snickers, energy chews, pork pies and mini scotch eggs.
We set off at 10am as planned in glorious sunshine and it turned out to be a perfect day for running with the sun out, an occasional light breeze and pleasant temperatures of just over 10 degrees. Early on I got chatting to a couple of runners who had nothing to do with our group but knew of the history of both the WHW Race and the Highland Fling.
In the early part the West Highland Way undulates through woodland and over fields. We stuck together for roughly the first 10km and then the group gradually started to split. Tim and I had descended off one of the hills with a bit more panache than some of the others and inadvertently opened a gap. As we had a similar pace we ran along chatting about all things running related which let the time pass by. I had my watch set to beep every 25 minutes to remind me to have something to eat. Tim used my feeding breaks to do the same and felt it helped him have more energy than usual for such a run.
I usually run with a 20/2 run/walk strategy in training but with the nature and terrain of the WHW I decided to just get the watch to tell me when to eat instead of telling me to walk for 2 minutes. There are many opportunities on the WHW to walk (every time it goes up hill) that additional walk breaks aren’t really necessary. Depending on what I am eating I will still walk for these as it will be easier to digest the food. I feel it is more important to eat at regular intervals hence the beeping and therefore don’t want to wait until I walk up a hill until I feed.
Tim and I were joined by Carolyn who caught up with us for a few miles until we got just past Drymen but she took it a bit easier up the climb there. We then got into Garadhban Forest which basically got wiped out during the hurricane in January and to anyone who knows the forest it can be quite confusing as everything looks completely different. Most of the fallen trees have been removed but parts of the forest still look like a bombsite. From there it was up Conic Hill which is a beautiful walk with a spectacular view from the top especially on a day as good as we were having.
A speedy descent saw us reach the car park in Balmaha in 3:20hrs which turned out to be quicker than the predictions Tim had given Muriel before we had left.
After a few minutes though our ‘support vehicle’ arrived as did some of the other runners. A bit of a worry was that Carolyn who should have been next in after Tim and I didn’t turn up. She did eventually to the relief of all and her Garmin trace revealed later that she had gone round in a circle the wiped out forest.
With the group all together again we set off for the 2ndhalf of the day’s run to Inversnaid – 15 miles left. Tim and I set the pace again. Coming off the first hill out of Balmaha I unintentionally opened a little gap. I expected Tim to close that gap in the next climb as he had walked up Conic hill faster than I did. We come back together a couple of times as I stopped to take pictures but after the next longer descent I stayed ahead. I was really enjoying this section. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I already knew this bit of the route, maybe the coffee I had a Balmaha helped. I can’t tell for sure but I was running well, the weather was amazing and the views were awesome – I just loved it and was enjoying every step I was taking. I stuck to my feeding plan and the legs were feeling strong. The other thing was that the weather was such a contrast to the run we did in January on this part of the route where we had gale force winds and lashing rain for most of the day.
What is nice about this part of the route is that although it has quite a few smaller climbs to go over it has good runnable descents and lots of flatter sections in between. After Rowardennan there is a long land rover track which gradually climbs. Some if this is flat enough to run but on occasion it just becomes steep enough for a powerwalk to become more sensible. After a beautiful, long gradual descent the path suddenly becomes single track for the final 4-5 km into Inversnaid. The single track path is notably rockier than any single track we had been on so far and a sign of things to come past Inversnaid. It just starts to feel a bit more disruptive. I got into Inversnaid 2:40 minutes after I had left Balmaha and I believe that time includes some photo stops. So 6 hours for 34 miles of running and I still felt reasonably fresh. Tim reached Inversnaid about 10 minutes later and within the hour everyone else had made it too. A few of us dipped our legs into Loch Lomond before we headed up to the Inversnaid Bunkhouse which is about 1km away. We had a very relaxing evening there with good food, a few drinks and the legs got their share of relaxing in the bunkhouse’s own hot tub later on that evening.
On to day 2 …