Every race you do you should learn from to improve for the next race on the calendar. Most times we find lots of things that went wrong and we want to do better. Less often do we find things in a race where we just have to say: I’ll do that again!
Pacing and pace management has always been a big thing for me in the races that I have done and something I try to relay back to the athletes I coach. It has become a bit of a trademark. People could follow my progress from sitting far back in the Strathpuffer to eventually finishing 22nd by effectively just biding my time. I achieved similar at Transvulcania in 2014.
It has become a bit of a trademark and you are likely to find me mixing it with some people in the race early on who are a bit surprised to see me at that end of the field. The Highland Fling start was no different but I think I was equally surprised to find Andy Johns there. We’d have a nice ding dong battle throughout the day.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from the Highland Fling Ultra this as my longest training run had been 21 miles so once I’d get past the 2nd checkpoint at Balmaha I’d be in ‘new’ territory. I knew I could complete the distance as I’ve raced the course before and done other events of similar distance and beyond but at the very least I wanted a PB and therefore go under 9:57 hours. I was hoping I’d still have the endurance from Strathpuffer. I’d also gone from virtually no running in January to 400k in March with no major issues (except right foot and calf occasionally).
Trainingwise my focus has been on hills as my main 2015 events are Zugspitz 100k and UTMB. The Highland Fling is a relatively flat runnable course in comparison. I had also spent the previous weekend in Austria, doing lots of Mountain running and was interested to see how well I would have recovered from this.
So, my story of this 53 mile ultra:
I was tempted at one point to not even bother going as the weather forecast was as biblical as it was during my first WHW race attempt and I didn’t fancy repeating the experience. Luckily with about 24 hours to go it was looking a bit more upbeat with even the chance of some sun. I still went with a couple of extra layers as I didn’t trust it and as the race progressed I was peeling layers off at regular intervals. Air temp was cool but after a bit of rain at the start we got intermittent sun from around 2 hrs into the race onwards. Overall it turned out to be pretty perfect conditions.
I’d freed up the day before the race workwise so that I could get my final prep sorted and just chill and relax before the day. This is something I will ensure I do before any major race, no matter if at home or abroad. I also therefore managed and early night and slept pretty well until the alarm went at 3pm.
There are 4 checkpoints along the race route where you can leave drop bags with extra food for your race. I decided as I’d done at Jedburgh that I’d use as few of those as possible and opted for a drop bag at Rowardennan and one at Beinglas Farm. My race fuel consisted of a mix of Chia Charge bars, dark chocolate, cheese, jelly babies and later on some dried fruit and chocolate coated raisins. The Beinglas drop bag contained a Mueller rice too which I didn’t have in the end. All the above items were individually wrapped in cling film as bite sized chunks. Overall I ended up eating 6 dark chocolate squares, 2 chia charge bars, 4 bits of cheese, 8 jelly babies, and a handful of dried fruit/chocolate coated raisins. All of that washed down with a 250 ml bottle of coke (at Beinglas Farm) and probably around 1500 ml of electrolyte drink. Seemed around the right amount to keep the energy levels in the right place.
Compared to previous races I’d decided to build in more flexibility as to when to walk and when to eat, as long as I wouldn’t skip a food break entirely. I’d try and make this coincide with long enough climbs and if required double up on food breaks on occasion. I also wanted to run the more gradual inclines which in some cases I wouldn’t have done in the past.
For approximately the first 15 miles my legs felt rather tired and I was feeling a bit despondent as to how this would translate into a respectable time in the end. I ran with Andy Johns for a bit, but let him drift away when I felt I needed to back off for the time being. He seemed to look back a couple of times wondering where I had got too. We’d meet later again.
Approaching Drymen Pete Hunter came past, as did Fraser McCoull and Robert Osfield. It was a constant stream of runners passing me at that point. I was just listening to my legs and letting them do what they felt was right. They still felt it was rather early in the morning for proper running. So we waited until we got to Conic Hill before changing gears. I approached Conic with Robert and we crested the summit together. By then the sun was out. The descent literally gave me wings and from then on my legs had decided it was time to have some fun. I’d gone through Drymen just inside the top 150 runners. Things were going to improve from there.
The classic thing would be to save your legs on the descent off Conic. I did none of that and gained a whole host of places in the event. I was hoping that all my descending work would pay off.
The Highland Fling is a difficult race to understand pacing wise as it is a fast start and gradually various obstacles such as Conic Hill, the rough section after Inversnaid or the Crianlarich roller coaster appear. So watching your GPS watch pace will always leave you wondering what is going on. Knowing certain checkpoint through times on the other hand will give you an idea if you are on target. I went through Drymen in 1:45 which was conservative but then I was very pleased that I got into Balmaha in under 3 hours as that kept on target for a decent through time in Rowardennan. Balmaha to Rowardennan along the loch side is always enjoyable and didn’t fail this time either. Occasionally running with a group of others but later on, as I’d dropped back once more, just going at my own pace. I got into Rowardennan in 4:15 hrs and passed the marathon in just over 4 hours (no idea why that was important to me but I seem to notice that in every ultra). I’d gained nearly 50 places since crossing the timing mat at Drymen. A very short stop to grab some of my drop bag food and I was off again with a mission to run all but the steeper bits of the next section. I think from here on in I started to feel really good and my split from Rowardennan to Beinglass speaks for itself as I had the 42nd fastest of all runners. I got into Inversnaid 70 min after leaving Rowardennan, grabbed a quick cup of water and psyched myself up for the technical section. I kindof just bounced through that this year, not something I had done in the past and when I started to realise that I could be in Beinglass in under 7 hours I was also starting to realised that a PB was going to happen. The question now was only by how much. The trail had got much quieter now but all was going well, I was only hiking when I had to and running everything else even if occasionally with a very short stride length.
My legs were feeling tired at times but still moving well. It didn’t feel fast but then looking at the GPS it obviously wasn’t slow. Beinglas again was a very short stop. I’d decided to just grab the bottle of coke and the dried fruit/choc raisins plus water top up and head out again. I crossed the timing mat in 6:58 hrs and had gained another 30 places. In my head once through Beinglas I was somewhat on the home straight – a 20km long one admittedly. I now had effectively 3 hours to hold onto a PB. Something disastrous would have to happen for this not to happen but it is never over until it is over as Andy’s race report shows. One of the things that did start bothering me a bit were cramps in my adductors. I have though managed to master them to a degree that I would still be moving forward whilst trying to relax enough for it to eventually go away. I had a couple of moments like this in the Crainlarich roller coaster. Before heading into the rollercoaster I had passed Andy for the last time but was convinced he’d come back at me for a sprint finish. So that kept me on my toes. As with the technical section after Inversnaid the rollercoaster seemed much more manageable this time around and once through there I was starting to work out how close to 9 hours my final finishing time would be as it is relatively flat from there on in. I had a couple of runners in my sights but never passed them. One guy came flying past me and at the same time I saw another guy closing in but somehow we seemed to have similar problems over the final stretch as I did get very serious cramp with less than 3 km to go – both adductors went at the same time – and that was a bit more difficult to walk off, but it did. I was expecting the other guy to pass me then but when I looked back he was walking too.
Once I’d sorted that cramp out, I had a solid final mile and a half into the finish but decided to avoid any unnecessary sprints. I crossed the finish line in 9:17 hrs, 40 min faster than my previous attempt, in 63rd place. I was chuffed to bits and felt great!
There wasn’t really a low point to speak of during the race. Any issues I had, especially the cramps, I just got on and dealt with them. Pace strategy worked extremely well and was determined by what my legs would be happy to do. Even early on when I wasn’t feeling great I just let things develop and things did develop into a very positive race from that. My checkpoints were very efficient and I virtually lost no time in them. I neither over ate nor did I feel under fueled. The same could be said for hydration. The only thing to look into is why I cramped but this is likely explainable due the lack of runs of that distance I have done recently.
Race organisation and marshals were fantastic. The race has grown in stature of the last few years. The mass start of over 700 runners was well managed as were the checkpoints and the finish is something to behold. Although I know the route well I thought a great effort was put in for signage which will have helped anyone who wasn’t 100 % sure of the route. Well done to John Duncan and his team.
I’ll now have to return my focus back to the mountains once my body – stomach mostly – has stopped rebelling against me.