Where do you start with a race that took nearly 10 hours to complete and consisted mostly of running. In an Ironman you can at least say: I swam, biked and ran!
Here I ran, ate a bit, ran, ate a bit more, ran again and ate more again. There was a lot of eating involved which was good.
Anyway let’s start with the conditions on the day. They were near enough perfect. The forecast was spot on. We had a lot of sun but with the weather still being dominated from the north east temperatures stayed low (below 10 degrees) although there were areas on the course where it felt notably warmer and I regretted wearing my long compression tights at times.
We got to the race start in Milngavie in good time registered, handed in the drop bags and waited around for an hour for our wave to start. I had prepared 2 drop bags, one for Rowardennan and one for Beinglas Farm. The one for Rowardennan contained 1 500ml bottle of water with Nuun, 2 gels, 1 flap jack, a zip lock bag with shot bloks and jelly babies in it, an Alpen Bar and 2 buttered slices of malt loaf wrapped. The Beinglas drop bag had most of the same except the malt loaf slices were replaced by 2 small pieces of pork pie and I had a bottle of coke there too.
I started off with lots of jelly babies, shot bloks, 1 gel, 1 Alpen bar, 1 flap jack and a 1.5 litre bladder full of energy drink. As with the training weekend I had done a few weeks ago I would feed every 25 minutes. I stuck to this religiously throughout the race and felt it worked well.
I made the rookie mistake that everyone seems to make when doing the Highland Fling for the first time and went off too fast although I am not quite sure that it really came back to bite me all that much. But an initial pace for the first 10k of 5min/km did seem a bit fast. That said as my gold standard target was 9 hours that fitted in with what runners who completed the race in 9 hours were doing. My through time at the first check point at Drymen was 1:40 which was slightly outside the target to hit 9 hours. I ran well up to Conic Hill, walking at the sensible places and running where I could. As planned I just ran through Balmaha (there is a drop bag option there which I decided not to use. In the run up to Conic Hill I had been running with Mark Cooper and Tony Curtis (who got me signed up to run every day for the next year, starting about 10 days ago). I had let them go on just before Drymen but caught them back up coming off Conic hill. They stopped at the Balmaha feed as I went on. I did get a bit confused here as I thought I would have to swipe my timing chip so lost maybe 30 seconds figuring that out.
Onwards now along the side of Loch Lomond on the part of the route that I knew best as I had already done it 2-3 times in training and there are parts of this route that I really like. Since we reached Conic hill we started overtaking runners who had started in the previous waves (either 1 or 2 hours earlier than us). Nearly throughout the whole race there was always another runner to be seen which is very unusual for me in ultra marathons.
The route along Loch Lomond is really quite good to run as it is either flat for a decent section or up for a decent section or down for a decent section, so you could easily settle into a run or a walk for a more prolonged period of time. This is until you are about 4km from Inversnaid but more on that in a minute.
I felt I was going pretty well up to Rowardennan, legs felt reasonably good and I continued feeding well, mixing things up a bit for variety. Along here there were parts of the course where it did get very warm as it was quite sheltered from the wind too and the sun was doing its best to make it feel summery. I was starting to look forward to getting to Rowardennan and thought at 1 point that I would make it within 4 hours. This wasn’t quite going to happen and I got there in roughly 4:15 hours. I replaced my food stores drank half the bottle of Nuun and was on my way again.
After Rowardennan there is a Land Rover track which gradually ascends for a few km and in places not too much of a gradient. I think one is generally advised to walk this and the runners I saw around me did walk. I walked quite a bit of it but got bored of this at times so ran a bit. I tried something rather unusual out (well unusual for me) and in parts where I ran decided to open my stride length and run properly. This felt really good whereas running with an ultra runners’ shuffle didn’t, i.e. if your run is that slow you might as well walk kind of shuffle. I actually felt it put less pressure on my legs. I wonder if the top end guys would run this section (I am guessing they would). I did hear a few people commenting that I should be saving myself when I had run past them. Did this come back to bite me later? My feeling is that it didn’t.
Races of this length do have their inevitable low points and I think my first one started in the last few kms coming into Inversnaid so around 50 km into the race. It is interesting how little things can make a big difference. I knew the pace required for a 9 hour race was 6:20 min/km. Around km 50 I dropped outside that for the first time and I knew I wasn’t going to move back inside it with arguably the harder part of the course yet to come. Overall I was still pleased with the time it took me to get to Inversnaid. I grabbed a cup of water there at the drop bag zone (no drop bag for me there) and carried on. The next section is known to be very rough and is un-runnable. It is very rocky and has flights of steps to go up. It is not particularly long (3km) but really hampers your forward progress. When we did this section on the training weekend if felt relatively easy, but then we had just started even though it was day 2. Although it was good to get to know the section, having been able to run it at the training weekend but not on race day put a real dampener on my mood. I was very relieved when I came out at the far end of the section and was able to do some continuous running. The climb up Beinglas (or what I call Beinglas – the location of Dario’s post) didn’t take too long and I enjoyed the run down to Beinglas Farm. Nice bit of encouragement here from supporters and relay runners waiting for their team members coming in. Much needed. I stopped for a bit longer at the checkpoint to sort out food replacement, drank half a bottle of water again, bagged the bottle of coke and refilled my hydration pack (why I do not know as I didn’t take a sip from it in the next 2.5 hours. I just drank the coke. I was really looking forward to the coke coming in to Beinglas. I left the pork pies behind.
It took me a while to get back into the swing of things after this and I felt that my watch was constantly shouting at me to eat which I diligently did even if that sometimes was just some jelly babies and a bit of coke. Once I had passed under the railway and the A82 my spirits lifted as it was just over 10k to go know although it did include another long climb after the Crianlarich turnoff. I ran up to that climb, powerwalked up it pretty well, descended rather gingerly and felt that I now had a flat 6k to the finish but I was progressing mightily slowly. With around 3.5km to go one runner passed me and I think he shouted some words of encouragement. I wasn’t bothered. I knew how far it was but I was convinced it was further and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get under 10 hours because of that. But a km later and after shouting the guy back who’d come passed me and then proceeded to cross the river because he missed the signage, I concluded that my maths may be right after all and I could make it in under 10 hours. I started running properly. Annoyingly the last 2km are mostly uphill and I hadn’t really run uphill for most of the day. This did start to feel like a monumental push and only when I saw the gate to the Tyndrum campsite and my watch read 9:52 hrs did I know I was safe. 4 minutes later I crossed the finish line!
Strangely, one of the first things I was asked was if I could now run another 42 miles. Not at that pace I definitely couldn’t. Someone else told me that a good estimate for the full West Highland Way race time is to double your Fling time. That would suggest I could do it in 20 hours. While I was out there running I didn’t think this would be possible. I have since crunched some numbers and actually do think it is possible.
The main thing I think is that I need to pace the earlier section better, which shouldn’t be too difficult as I shouldn’t have people around me haring off the way we did on Saturday. I intend to set sector pace targets and adhere to those.
Nutrition on Saturday went well in terms of the amount of calories I took on. I think it turned out to be over 2000. I had more than 2500 available. I will change some of the foods I take though. The shot bloks I was using were too tough to eat. I had quite a few gels which were fine as are the jelly babies but I wouldn’t want to rely on those too much. I craved fruit. The flapjacks I had with me worked well as did the malt loaf. Coke is a great booster. Others used rice pudding which I haven’t tried yet but I can see its benefits.
Overall I am really pleased with the result and intend to come back next year now that I have a time to beat. Congratulations to everyone else who took part too, some amazing performances.