Since I entered the strange, unknown world of Ultra running at the end of last year by completing the Glen Ogle 33, I’ve had a hankering to enter the Highland Fling Race. It certainly has its critics, some about the start time (6am), some about the fact that it has morphed into a mainstream event with medals and prizes and showers and t-shirts and the like, and some because it’s not the shadowy, elitist-only event anymore on the fringes of society that perhaps it once was.
Do I agree with that view? Well I don’t disagree, and part of the reason I was attracted to ‘different’ running in the first place was because everyone else (virtually) doesn’t do it. All I do know however, having now done it, is that whatever size it is now, and whatever form it has taken in the last 8 years, the fact remains that you, and you alone, have to propel yourself, on your own legs, from the underpass at Milngavie to the finish line at Tyndrum through the roads, tracks, trails, rocks, rubble, mud, grass, hills, ascents, undulations, burns, streams, styles, gates and over 5,500 feet of climb for 53 miles in all weather conditions in somewhere between 7 hours and 15 hours. No padding, no fluffy add-ons or glitz can paper over that very big crack in your mindset.
So to my race, my personal journey. Well as I said, it started when I sat down after completing my first Ultra, Glen Ogle, in a very respectable 31st position and thinking that this was easy – just more of the same really. Add on another 20 miles, lose a few pounds, buy some Hokas. Job done.
Then the D33 came along and that knocked me a bit – a better run rate, but a dismal experience. Then my skiing trip to the Alps resulted in some kind of knee problem that I just couldn’t shake off. I was cutting short modest distances, running like an old man but still eating for two. All-in-all I was scared and getting more scared the nearer it got. I decided to run it anyway, reckoning that I would be able to pull out at one of the drop stations if need be, and worry about the logistics later. In fact I was so convinced that I wasn’t in any kind of shape to finish that I nearly didn’t make up drop bags past Balmaha.
There are, and will be, many articles written about the route, its nuances and the stunning scenery, so I won’t labour these, but at 10 miles in I was all for quitting. My bad knee had kicked in, I was overheating, under-watered and felt like I was carrying excess pounds (I probably was) and if the checkpoint at Drymen had been empty, cold and cheerless then I would have. But it was full of supportive, cheering, happy people who didn’t have to come out at sub-8am and cheer us on, but they chose to do so. And they were handing out slices of orange too, bless them. So the Lynch bloody-minded gene kicked in and I made my way to Conic Hill, my knee eased off and I started to enjoy it. By the time I reached Balmaha after 20 miles, I knew I was going to finish, even though I had 33 miles still to travel. It was as simple as that. The thing I didn’t know was how quickly, and what sort of nick I would be in at the end.
You have a lot of time to think about things in a race like this and the longer you go on, the more you realise that life’s demons (and one in particular that I’ll be running from until I’m laid to rest) can be banished, even if for a single day. In the end, finish I did, in a modest 11 hours 48 minutes, full of cramp and fatigue. I’m no Lee Kemp (in fact I’m not even a Martin Kemp), but I know there’s a lot more to get out of myself in this race and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
Things I have learned
Well I’m not very good at learning new tricks, but this old dog will have to in order to enter the realms of respectability in this event, so here we go:
#1 – Training: I scoff at those who told me/tell me that you don’t need miles in the legs and time on the feet to run a decent time in this race. Maybe they don’t but I certainly do. I was woefully underprepared and it showed with cramp coming on at 19 miles and not leaving me until 40 miles. Next year I’ll think about what is going to work for this race and gear up for it. Training for the specific terrain is almost certainly a necessity for me – I may have well run the post-Inversnaid section on ice skates for all the poise I had on it. The race winner this year (the aforementioned Lee Kemp) was asked what his secret to winning was. He said, simply, “practice”. That’s extremely well put I think.
#2 – Footwear: The Mafates were great. Simple as that. I was having my doubts about them before the race, but all is now forgiven. I shall probably remain loyal to them now until someone proves to me otherwise. Hoka, take a bow.
#3 – Fluids: I’m not sure how I scored here. There is the school of thought that less is more when it comes to carrying water and indeed taking it on during a race like this. That’s not for me. I drank a lot and was still thirsty all of the time. It was a hot day but I guess I’m a thirsty guy. The salt-infused bottles of full-fat Coke were the best thing I tasted all day and they will be repeated. The energy drinks I can take or leave. About ¾ to a litre of nuun-tableted water seems to be my optimal carry and drink weight in a Camelbak.
#4 – Nutrition: This was a bottom-of-the-class performance. My drop bags were a Marmite-splattered disaster zone due to the heat and their transit to various locations. Most of the stuff in them was the wrong choice anyway. Hard fig rolls – fail. Bagels with cheese and spinach – are you having a laugh? Rice pudding – good, and slipped down easily. As for the carried stuff – my jelly snakes were hardly touched and the Shotbloks are an acquired taste (think raw cubes of jelly, but more concentrated), but had the desired effect. I didn’t eat a scrap after Rowardennan (I couldn’t force anything down) and this needs worked on.
#5 – Mental strength: I learned a bit about myself in this area, and it was all good. When I realised I was going to finish, I then had a time limit in mind, and then you do what you have to do to achieve it (speak to Peter Buchanan if you’re not with me on this). If this means dragging your legs into a run when they don’t want to, then so be it. It also requires you breaking down the distance in your head. Unless your ego is very big, then nobody truly likes the thought of 53 rough miles in front of them. Because 53 miles is a long way on foot by any standards. So you break it down. At Rowardennan (halfway) you think: It’s only a marathon left – I’ve run a marathon before. At Inversnaid you think: It’s just over a 10K, followed by a half marathon – I’ve run those lots of times before. At Beinglas Farm you think: It’s a half marathon with hills – I’ve run over lots of hills before. And so it continues until you are 5K away, which is almost a laughably short a distance in the grand scheme of things until you realise that your legs feel like bloodied stumps and your ribcage aches from too much, well, breathing I suppose. I made up 23 places in the last section and I know this: Your toughness is made up of equal parts persistence and experience. I don’t have much experience (yet) at this game but I was pleased with my display of persistence; you don’t so much outrun your opponents as outlast them, and the toughest opponent of all is the one inside your head. Amen.
“We will go to the moon. We will go to the moon and do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.” – John F. Kennedy