Sunday 28 April 2013

The Highland Fling - my race along the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond

The Highland Fling is, among other things, a traditional dance performed more or less on the spot while trying  not to injure oneself on some sort of sharp weaponry (mostly the weaponry thing is left out of official competitions these days).  It's a fascinating dance to watch, and I'll admit that it requires a bit more fleetness of foot than I am likely to muster anytime soon.  The uncharitable might describe it as "prancing around trying not to cut your feet off".  It is also a 53 mile ultramarathon run along the lower portion of Scotland's West Highland Way.  For those who only ever read these to look at the pictures, they're at the bottom after all the waffle.

I put the Fling on my race calendar not long after finishing the River Ayr Way challenge last year.  I really liked the fun and relaxed atmosphere of the Scottish ultra scene, and it's kind of like a local race, in a roundabout sort of way.  With the start only an hour and a bit from Nic's parents (who are super crew!), it means that with a little organisation we can mix business and pleasure.

On Thursday evening, I picked up Nic and we headed up the dreaded motorway.  Long drives always make a mess of my hamstrings, so I was keen to get the extra recovery day to loosen up.  After a bit of family time, and a trip to town to get a WHW map to replace the one I left at home (doh! #1), we headed to Milngavie (pronounce nothing like "Milngavie") to check in to the race and the motel du jour.

Registration was slick, leaving us plenty of time for the pre-race meal (a pint of rather fine beer and the perfect nutrient mix of haggis, neeps and tatties).  I was shockingly relaxed, given my normal pre-race stress-bunny tendencies.  I knew I had everything sorted out and was ready to run.  Unlike before last month's Exmoor Ultra, I was out cold by 10pm and was somewhat startled by the 4:45 alarm.

As I rubbed my eyes, I suddenly realised my contact lenses were sitting in my toiletry kit, back in Prestwick (wasn't going to shower, so why take the bag?).  Big "Doh!"  I've only done one trail run in my specs since I face-planted on my way down a hill a few years ago, partly due to the lack of vision under the line of the lenses, and partly because I was an idiot.  So, I didn't really enjoy waking up to the knowledge that I'd be in specs again (thankfully, with slightly larger lenses than the offending pair) and am still somewhat of an idiot. Still, I wasn't going to change either of those facts, so had to resolve to take downhills and tricky ground with a bit more care than usual and just get on with things.

The race start was the usual milling about.  Nic kindly dragged herself out of bed at stupid o'clock to walk down to the start with me.  The 1km walk was a great loosener, and was then followed by standing about for half an hour while I checked out the wide variety of shoes that would be on the route.  As I'd suspected there would be, there was a wide range of both road and trail shoes on display.  I would be in my Roclite 295s, sacrificing a bit of responsiveness for protection against the rocks.

RD John Duncan gave a very quick safety briefing (pretty much "If you don't have a foil blanket, get one at registration.  Have fun!"), and we lined up in our pens.  A trail race with pace pens!  It was a bit of a novelty to be in a trail race big enough for pens, but it seemed like most people used them appropriately because I didn't feel any bunching as we set off.  I chose the 11-12hr pen, since my target was "somewhere between 10 and 12 hours".  I'd learned from RAW in September, and decided to set off at a fairly relaxed jog.

It wasn't long before we found countryside, and the sun began to poke out over the hills.  All of the slow running I've been doing lately paid off as I trotted along at between 9 and 10 minute miles, depending on the direction of the gentle gradients.  With a few exceptions, the first 13 miles weren't taxing enough to justify much walking, so I happily ran my first 1/2 marathon of the day in 2 hours.  Plan A, when I entered, was to get to 40 in 8 hours and then get to the end in however long it took.  Knowing that the route would get tougher after 13, I felt on track for Plan A but had no idea how things would pan out.

The second quarter introduced a few hills at last.  The walk up Conic Hill was a welcome change. The WHW wardens had been busy in recent weeks, transforming what I'd been told used to be a wretched bog into a firm footpath.  I took the opportunity of the walking breaks to take off my base layer, with the sun giving us a nice warm morning.  Following Conic Hill, the route kept its gently undulating feel, slowing my pace now that there were some hills that needed walking.  As we approached half way, I was starting to flag a bit.  The combination of a fairly poor training winter and a busy March meant I would be running the last 30 miles on tired legs.

I completed the 1st of the day's 2 marathons in just under 4.5 hours before taking a short break at the next checkpoint. Most of the check points in this race are at visitor centers, which have the added bonus of actual plumbing.  Comfort restored, I got stuck into my 2nd marathon with renewed enthusiasm.  At around 34 miles, I encountered the section of the WHW my friend Roy had warned me about. It's basically a rocky scramble with a few roughly runnable sections.  The front of the pack can speed-scramble this with the dexterity of a mountain goat.  I was more like a 3-legged elephant on valium as I made my way across the slippery boulders.  I lost 15-20 places as the lighter of foot disappeared into the distance.  By this stage, the relay teams started to pass by regularly, adding to the number of times I stood aside to avoid blocking the path.  As I continued to scramble my way through, I kept thinking of prancing about trying not to shred my feet and decided this section was indeed reminiscent of the Highland Fling.  Although it felt like forever, the vile stuff only lasted for a few miles, giving way to the more standard rocky path that allowed some running at last.  This 3rd quarter took me a shade over 3 hours, allowing me to somehow hit my Plan A time at 40mi.

As I refilled my water at the final check point, the volunteer told me the rest of the route was "undulating" with that glint in the eye that means "hilly".  I'd studied the profile a bit before the race, and was expecting a few hills in the final quarter.  What I wasn't expecting was the marvelous combined effect of a caffeinated gel, a handful of jelly snakes, and a couple of pieces of Maggie's famous tablet (aka Rocket Fuel).  Before I knew what had happened, I went from dragging my sorry butt along the trail to a slightly faster jog/shuffle.

Hyped up on sugar and caffeine, I decided to race the final miles.  I had lost a lot of places on the scramble, and was pretty aggrieved.  I picked up a few at the check point while others dawdled, but as I ran, I started to see familiar shirts in the distance, coming back to me. Chasing, I could see where the next "target" had started to walk a hill or restarted running.  So, I focused on running a few extra metres before the walk and restarting a few metres earlier.  One by one I was able to reel in runners, using each as motivation to push that little bit harder than I really felt comfortable with.  To keep cool, I kept dipping my hat into little rivulets of run-off.  The final 12 miles took around 2.5 hours, with the final hills much smaller than I'd anticipated.

The finish was fantastic.  Nic and her parents were about half a mile out, cheering me on.  Nic decided to run the final bit in with me, which was both lovely and slightly disheartening as she found it rather easy to keep up - I tried to sprint away as she goaded me that she would "chick" me, but almost lost my lunch and decided that a sociable run in would do nicely.  With the piper playing and encouraging us to the last little twist, I ran into the funnel of noise that made up the final 20 metres and crossed the line arms aloft in 10:44 and change and a top quarter finish to complete an excellent run on a perfect spring day.

Off to a chilly start on a crisp morning

Clear blue skies were the order of the day!
Early morning sun poking over the hills

More sunshine!

Sometimes, this is a run through forest. This year, we had views of the Loch

The Bonnie Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond!

Conic Hill - with some very nice new paths!

Views from Conic Hill

More views from Conic Hill

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

Loch Lomond is quite long, you know.

Did I mention we ran along Loch Lomond?

Hey, look!  I think that's Loch Lomond

A couple of trees near some water.

It's still there.  Are you singing the song?  I had it in my head for about 3 hours.

Mountains in the distance

Nearly at the end of the loch

Gently undulating trails as we leave the waterside behind

Snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Downhill and into the farm with shin-deep s**t.  Gotta love cattle.

Is that a kilt I see before me?  That'll be Rab Lee who I passed before he pipped me in the final mile.

Ben More in the distance

View of Ben More from the final hill.


Ben More and Stob Binnein
Still running with half a mile to go.

Happy to have run it, happy to finish!

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