Hoka Highland Fling 53 Mile Ultramarathon
26th April 2014
This time last year I had a lot of thinking to do. I had only just finished my first 50+ mile Ultramarathon at the Highland Fling and achieved my big goal for the Spring, but everyone wanted to know if I would do it again. Definitely in the future, I had answered, but not next year; after all we were getting married only a month beforehand! As the rest of 2013 slipped by, my thoughts changed however. My memories of the race were some of my very happiest and I simply could not imagine not being a part of it again. With wedding and honeymoon plans firmly in place by October I was able to decide if a second Highland Fling finish was achievable, and my decision was definitely yes. It might be a bit risky and it certainly wouldn’t be ideal, but I’d be there and I’d give it my best shot.
Fast forward to the 25th of April and once again we’re all in the Burnbrae pub in Milngavie, picking up our race numbers and catching up with ultra friends. I had run once between the D33 and the wedding as I desperately tried to heal my blisters, and in addition to one club running session I had completed two 10 mile runs after we arrived back from our honeymoon. The one thing that was going in my favour was that I was excellently rested and with not an injury to speak of, but still I had a lot of niggling doubts in my head which got louder as the evening went on. The last time I’d ran for more than 1hr 30mins was six weeks ago – was this really sensible?!
After retreating to the Premier Inn we snatched around 4 hours sleep before the alarm sounded at 3.30am and wrenched us out of bed. Kynon was marshalling once more and was required at the start by 4.45am – I won’t mention how jealous I was of my running chums who weren’t even out of bed by then…
My first move was to go straight to the window to look out. Rain was lashing down and the trees were swinging in the wind. My heart sank even further as for once the weather forecast seemed to be correct. This day could turn out to be a tremendous ordeal, I thought. I went through the motions of preparing coffee and forcing down a little breakfast; we ate very late the night before so I really wasn’t hungry, however I managed a rice pudding and a bottle of SiS ReGo carb drink.
I decided to wear shorts and long socks, with a vest, a long sleeved top and club vest on top. After a few more minutes deliberating I decided to put on a second long sleeve top, and put some dry clothes in my Camelbak just in case. After a last minute kit check we made our exit, and along with dozens of other people carrying bags and boxes made a silent departure out to the car park.
Milngavie Railway Station was going like a fayre already and the car park slowly filling with runners. Kynon got the ultravan parked in the correct space, and I slipped into the back to finish my drop bags by making a couple of sandwiches. Unfortunately some enthusiastic runners kept on trying to give me their drop bags for Balmaha as I tried to sort out my things. My kingdom for a moment’s peace!
By some miracle I managed to bump into Rachel as I was wandering around in the crowd. Together we pottered about and said hello to lots of others including Iona and Jemma who were sweeping the first half. As the light came it seemed to get warmer – I should note here that by now the rain had stopped and the wind had dropped – so I made the executive decision to lose one long-sleeved top and the spare clothes in my bag. Rachel put her bags in the back of our van as we both made outfit changes – I lost a layer, she added a thick hillwalking jacket. And still people kept on trying to give us their drop bags.
We found the other Stonehaven Runners and posed for a group shot. We were all intending to start at the back and take it easy, nobody was looking for a fast finish time as most of us have bigger challenges on the horizon soon. Before we knew it Johnny Fling was giving the race briefing, and the 5 minute warning was issued.
Kynon! I realised I hadn’t said goodbye to my husband! I hadn’t seen him since I got out of the van over an hour prior, so I ducked and weaved through the crowds to find him and gave him a big cuddle. I would next see him at Balmaha, which seemed a very long way away.
The 10 second countdown began, and I scuttled back through the crowd to my friends as everyone burst in to cheers when the klaxon went. Ripples of applause followed the front runners up the High Street, but it took nearly two minutes until our group finally crossed over the starting mat. The eerie whine of the timing chips activating rung in my ears as we charged gently up the stairs, faces lit up with smiles as the crowd cheered us on our way. With the crowd of us in our black and purple club vests and socks, we solicited plenty of shouts of ‘GO STONEHAVEN!’ and ‘GO STONEY GIRLS!’ as we ran up the high street and the support felt so encouraging.
Milngavie – Drymen – 12 miles – 2hr 20m
Despite the excitement which comes at the start, I’ve decided that this is my least favourite part of the route. It is mainly flat and on easy path or road, and can be filed as ‘very runnable’. You must be very careful not to shoot off at half or even full marathon pace as energy conservation here is key for the rest of the race.
Within a mile or so we had all regretted putting on waterproof shell jackets and quickly took them off and packed them away. Whilst the air was very damp it was also humid and warm, so my buff and gloves came off as well. In the end I had decided to leave the dry bag of dry clothes at the start. I had decided I had a feeling that we weren’t going to get wet and that they would be needless extra weight. Looking towards Conic Hill was very sinister though as it was cloaked in mist and cloud – what was hiding up there on top of the hill and beyond?
We took each hill very gently and chatted our way through the first section. Due to the size of our group there was a natural divide, with Vikki, Kate, Rachel, and Tracey and I moving on a little quicker than the others and quickly opening up a gap. We enjoyed talking to our fellow racers and admiring the kit of our Norwegian visitors from Romerike Ultraloperklubbe – a 30 strong contingent of runners from an Ultra club in Norway, who all wore a fantastic black and yellow running kit.
Drymen – Balmaha – 7 miles – 1hr 41, cumulative: 4hr 01m (19 miles)
I was looking forward to Drymen as it meant there would be some hills to walk and we’d get in to the more remote parts of the course. When we arrived there was a huge crowd cheering as it was the first relay handover with lots of familiar faces. The atmosphere really perked me up and I was ready to push on, but some of the girls wanted to wait in the queue for the portaloo. This would have taken the guts of 10 minutes so we managed to convince them that in an ultra, the world is their toilet and they should just embrace it. Off we went into Garabhan forest with just the slightest speckle of sunlight finally breaking through the clouds.
It wasn’t long until a toilet stop was called for again. It was decided that we’d all wait, but after a few minutes I felt myself stiffening and really wanted to get moving. Rachel and I walked on a little and came across a photographer, so of course we had to run! We waited a few more minutes here but when there was still no sign of them we decided just to go, and began the approach to Conic.
The mist had cleared and we were bathed in sunlight as we climbed higher and higher up the hill. I found it easier this year and my legs and lungs burned less. The views back down the course were spectacular and we saw our friends not far behind us.
The top of Conic was less impressive than last year, but no less beautiful. The view up the Loch never fails to take my breath away each time I see it.
On the descent I concentrated on keeping as loose as possible and carefully placing my feet. I would have loved to bomb down the hill as fearlessly as I would in a training run, but leg conservation was key so I took it very easily. I loved knowing that Kynon was at the bottom waiting for me at the check point and couldn’t wait to give him a hug.
Rachel and I bounced into Balmaha and quickly got stuck into our drop bags. I had a Mullerrice to eat and cake bars and crisps to restock my backpack with. I was very thirsty and had already consumed a litre of electrolyte water, so I filled up with another litre and drank deeply from a bottle of Lucozade sport left on the ‘free’ table. The others arrived as I was ready to go, but we waited until they were ready in the spirit of taking it easy together. I’ve never run a race in this manner before and I was beginning to find that holding myself back was somewhat of a challenge, but I reminded myself that it was all about time on feet and that I’d thank myself for taking it easy at the Cateran 55 three weeks later.
Balmaha – Rowardennan – 8 miles – 1hr 59, cumulative: 6hrs (27.5 miles)
After coming through Balmaha we receiving some playful banter from marshal Sarah who directed us up the next steep hill. After some lumps and bumps we made it back to the beautiful Lochside which would keep us company for the next 20odd miles. There was another toilet stop at Milarrochy and I found myself stationary again with my legs stiffening up. Regardless of how we planned to run the race, it went against my every instinct to be standing still in the middle of a race with fellow participants passing by – I wanted to be moving!
When we got back on the trail, Rachel and I seemed to be running a slightly quicker pace and a gap began to open up between us and the other three. We chattered away, taking turns to lead, and the time passed quickly on my second least favourite part of the course which lasts until Rowardennan. It was distinctly different underfoot this year as ongoing path ‘improvements’ have been taking place. Tonnes of smashed rock have been packed down on top of the solid earth path which has given it a very sanitised feel. I felt like I was in the grounds of a country estate not running the rugged West Highland Way; I didn’t particularly care for the ‘improvements’, especially as it felt awful underfoot on weary feet.
The Rowardennan checkpoint came out of nowhere sooner than expected just like last year which was a pleasant surprise. Tiredness was beginning to factor a little and I was feeling a bit jaded as Mrs Mac cheered and called out ‘You OK toots?’ to me as I crossed the timing mat. That really cheered me up and brought me back down to earth as I smiled and said hello; it’s little bits of personal support like that which makes these races so special – I love that I know so many people taking part, marshalling and supporting who all just want the best for each other.
Standing in the checkpoint I took stock of myself and figured out what was going on – I felt infinitely better than last year both physically and mentally, nothing in particular was hurting and everything was fine other than being very thirsty. I felt like I could be working a lot harder, but then I might have been suffering more. I nailed another Mullerrice and refilled my pockets and water supplies. Scanning the left-over food table I swatched some cherry sport beans – my favourite flavour – and put them in my pocket. What a coup!
The other girls came in and whilst they were fuelling up I took the time to chat to a massive floofy Newfoundland who belonged to the Wilderness Medic team. They were providing their usual stellar cheery and humorous service in the remote spots, where if someone fell ill it would take a long time to get an ambulance to them.
Rowardennan – Inversnaid – 7.5 miles: 2 hours, cumulative: 8hrs (35 miles)
Moving out of Rowardennan, Rachel and I took the lead again until we reached the long steady slog upwards, which is just that little bit too steep for your average common-or-garden ultrarunner to actually run. I pulled off the path to stop for my first pee of the day, but re-emerged to find that this time no-one had stopped, so I had a 10 minute powerjog chase up the hill until I finally caught them up again. The hill went on forever – I didn’t remember this from last year but in hindsight I recall that I spent my time chatting to Terry Addison at this part of last year’s race which clearly distracted me well.
Eventually the crest of the hill came and some gentle descent relieved the climbing muscles. Rachel and I just let go and let gravity take us down to the Lochside where the trail begins to get a little technical. I was so looking forward to this part and slotted ahead on the single person track with Rachel close behind. The others were making slower progress and we lost sight of them after a while, I really didn’t want to slow down though as I fell my momentum was building and I was ready to work hard just at the right point in the race which needs the extra effort. At 34 miles I called back and reminded Rachel that she was in new distance territory which she was pleased about (I think; at least as pleased as a person who’d run that far could be).
It was nearly 8 hours into the race and we were still dry – I couldn’t believe our luck given the forecasts we’d all been poring over with dread for the last week. It had been supposed to rain all day and night, with some slight respite in the afternoon. The forecast could not have been more wrong and it had remained completely dry, cloudy and humid at about 12C which was perfect running weather.
Rachel was really needing the Inversnaid checkpoint and was annoyed that her garmin was telling lies and was reading over 35 miles. We’d been out of synch all day, but I knew that 35 miles and the checkpoint was coming soon as I could hear the thunderous waterfalls. We rounded the side of the Inversnaid hotel and were greeted by John, Katrina, Sandra, Ian and team who were quick to furnish us with dropbags, refill camelbaks, and dispense gentle kicks up the backside. John and I had a quick chat as I awaited the others; I was trying to decide how long I would wait for them when they came in, so I then decided to eat some more and make one more attempt to relax and stick with the group.
Inversnaid – Beinglas – 6miles – 2hrs 14, cumulative: 10hr 14 (41 miles)
We left Inversnaid at 8hrs 10m race time, which was over half an hour slower than my time from last year. This had been playing on my mind and I no longer felt like I was running my own race; the others were taking it down a gear for the technical section when I was ready to level-up and really work hard. I was torn; I didn’t want to offend anyone by flying off but then I really didn’t want to walk any more, so I just kept a steady jog in the first mile out. The others slipped further behind but I didn’t slow down this time, I realised that my decision had been made and it was time to go on by myself.
Letting myself loose on the technical terrain felt great. My legs turned to springs as I hopped, bounced and twisted my way around trees, branches and rocks. Last year the section scared me a little as I felt I wasn’t in control of my legs but this year I felt I had laser precision as I gambolled along like a mountain goat. I live for this kind of running and it felt incredible to be able to enjoy it strongly this year!
Everyone else was walking, and as I passed runner after runner, my competitive instinct caught whiff of a challenge. I felt awesome and strong with an easy, slow start to the race – how many places could I climb between check points and the finish? The last timing mat was at Rowardennan so I’d get information from there, Beinglas and the finish. My restrained side reminded me of Raffan’s Rule #1: Don’t Be A Dick, but then the devil on my shoulder asked WWRD: What would Raffan Do? and the answer was run the best race he could. It was time to fly.
I made steady progress towards the end of the loch and just as I emerged from the relative shelter of trees, the rain made its first appearance of the day. It was heavy, wet rain and it didn’t look like it was just a shower so I stopped to put my Montane Minimus jacket on, but 20 minutes later it was off again and that was the last we saw of the rain.
Beinglas – Finish – 12 miles – 3hrs 06m, cumulative: 13hrs 22m (53 miles)
I was feeling very positive as I came into Beinglas Farm and these feelings were boosted by the marvellous crew there. There were a lot of people who were suffering and they were being well looked after by the team, who were dispensing tea and coffee and helping to refill the backpacks of weary runners. I enjoyed some Quorn sausages and a tub of custard, washed down with a can of gin and tonic whilst chatting to some fellow runners. I didn’t hang around and finished the last of my sausages and gin whilst walking out of the check point, and decided to listen to some music to keep my momentum going.
I love this part of the route as the scenery is so dramatic. I was joined on the path by some very new lambs and their grumpy Mum, who was quick to shoo them away from me.
What really helped me from Beinglas to the finish this year is that I feel like I know this section well now, having covered it twice in the last year at the Fling and the West Highland Way race. I knew I had the race in the bag now and it was just a question of ticking off each stage – over the rollercoaster hills, past Derrydarroch cottage, along by the river, through the sheep passage under the A82, along cow poo alley….tick, tick, tick.
I was still passing runners as I kept a steady jog as much as I possibly could. Whenever I found myself walking I asked myself ‘Is there any good reason for you to be walking right now?’ and usually the answer was no so I could push a little harder. Everyone else was walking this section so I felt like I’d really nailed the pacing of the race – I remember walking so much here last year and each mile taking forever, however the miles slipped by mostly painlessly and I reached the climb into the Crianlarich hills happily. There was another Wilderness Medic chap with his dog at the edge of the forest cheering us on. I stopped to pet the big, cuddly Newfoundland and asked if I could saddle him up and ride him down to the finish. The response was unfortunately no, but the handler said that if I’d fallen in the Loch earlier on he’d have been sent in after to fetch me. Not just a cute fluffy face after all then.
I trundled up the hill safe in the knowledge that this was the last big climb of the day. The sun was hanging low in the sky, creating beautiful shafts of lights in the forest. Despite some aches and pains and being a bit tired, I could not have been happier. My feet were hurting and I could feel I had some tremendous blisters and battered toenails, but other than that and a nagging pain in my hip my legs were fine. I was able to navigate the decent quite speedily with no quad, knee or ITB bother at all which I found remarkable, although I found yet again that the path ‘improvements’ actually made it harder. The same smashed rocks had been used to fill in crevices and smooth over cracks and boulders, which meant there were no lumps and bumps to bounce off of and absorb speed when descending.
I continued to pass people and slowed to chat with anyone I knew, including a blether with Fiona Rennie who was looking strong. I pulled up about 50 meters behind a pair of girls who were running roughly the same pace as me, and kept them in my peripheral vision as we headed down to the A82. When the path spat me out on the road I realised however that they had taken a wrong turn somewhere and the three of us were no where near the road crossing. Thankfully I knew the area so I turned left and ran up the side of the road knowing that eventually I’d meet the crossing but I was a bit worried that I’d messed up by not paying attention. It wasn’t long until we reached the part where the West Highland Way runs parallel to the road after it crosses the railway so we were able to hop back on to the path. My garmin had died at 12 hours so I had no idea how much extra it added on, but thankfully our diversion didn’t last long.
In remarkable coincidence just as I was crossing the road, I noticed Mike’s car was the first in the queue of traffic held by the marshals! He honked the horn loudly and shouted out of the window at me as I ran over the road which gave me a huge boost and really brought it home that I was nearly done for the day. As I approached Strathfillan Wigwams I took my last two caffeinated gels and texted Kynon to let him know I was about 30 minutes out from the finish.
The last two miles are naturally the longest in the race. Despite being very close to Tyndrum it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere until the very last moment when you actually hear the finish before you see it. I kept my thoughts on my silly goal of passing as many runners as possible and reeled them in one by one, wishing them ‘well done’ as I slipped by. Other than that, all I could think of was getting my shoes off and revealing the horror inside my Salomons.
The sound of the pipes came into range and made the sweaty hairs on the back of my neck stick up. I pushed harder into an actual run, determined to sprint into the finish in style. A bunch of people over the river in the campsite recognised me and cheered ‘Go Rhonaaa!!’ but I couldn’t see who they were, and from the other side through the trees came screaming and whooping from a blonde figure who looked a lot like Sandra. The final incline was lined with supporters and I high-fived Ali and Iain who stood awaiting Kate and Vikki, and gave my last push to round the corner to the glorious red carpet finish.
The crowd noticed another finisher coming in and leapt into life which is the most incredible feeling. You’d think I’d have won the entire race from the racket they made for each finisher – I heard my name being shouted, I ran as hard as I could, I high-fived Jemma and Iona, I punched the air in delight and sprinted down that flag-lined red carpet with the biggest smile on my face.
My darling husband awaited me under the gantry and crashing into his arms was heaven. He held me up as my legs gave way from under me and cuddled me tight until I got my breath back. No tears this year, just smiles and laughter.
There was soup and beer and a cracking goody bag with a beautiful medal as well. Free massages and showers, and endless tales of strength and bravery from finishers and those who were less fortunate, such as the amazing Susan Johnston who fell and broke her jaw in five places on the Lochside, but continued on for 5 miles until the next checkpoint where she reluctantly pulled out in favour of a trip to hospital.
In the end I finished only 14 minutes slower than last year, but I finished stronger, happier and with greater ease than I could have ever imagined. My challenge to pass as many people as I could resulted in me climbing 43 places from Rowardennan to Beinglas, and a further 45 from Beinglas to the finish – a climb from 546th at Rowardennan to an eventual placing of 447th of 566 finishers.
I had blisters the size of grapes in between the toes of my left foot and I’ll lose a couple more toenails, but other than that I have suffered nothing other than some standard DOMS which were gone by Tuesday. It is remarkable to see and feel the steady improvement in my running over the last year, which gives me confidence to tackle the Cateran 55 miler in only two weeks time, and the confidence to feel like I am going to be well prepared by the start of July for the Great Glen 73 miler.
There’s not a lot left to be said about the Highland Fling that hasn’t already been said all over the internet this week, but I feel I’d be remiss in not including my thanks to Johnny Fling and team, for creating the best and most beautiful running event in Scotland, or perhaps even the UK. The whole day is a lesson in event management and value for money and many others would do well to learn from it. If this race isn’t on your to-do list, get it on there immediately and I’ll see you all in Milngavie next April.