Red Wine Runner

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Hoka Highland Fling 2013 – RACE REPORT

 Hoka Highland Fling

27th April 2013

Highland Fling Logo_FINAL

instagramChip time: 13hr 06min 19s
Finish position: 315th/416 Finishers (47 DNF)
Gender: 53rd /75 Females
Category: 28th/31 Senior Females

So this was it. The big one. My Spring ‘A’ race and the main focus of every one of the 545 miles I had run in 2013 so far. Four months of training, every early night, early start, and late finish was for this day. Every stiff leg, tender blister and physio bill; every blizzard ran through, every patch of ice slipped on and every gale which blew me sideways. The biggest challenge I’d ever set myself and the longest race I’d ever ran; finally, the Hoka Highland Fling was here.

We arrive in Milngavie around 7:30pm on Friday and check into the Premiere Inn, where there are signs everywhere. Cars in the car park have ‘OMM‘ stickers on them, back seats are packed with suspicious amounts of neon and bottles of coke, four plastic bags with a number tag on them are inexplicably left on a chair in hotel reception. Walking down the corridors we pass groups of cheerful, wiry looking people wearing buffs around their necks and minimal trail shoes on their feet, who knowingly acknowledge us like old friends. Crossing the car park and we bump into the ever-glamorous Sandra, carrying bags of kit and supplies from the car in vertiginous heels and a trench coat, accompanied by the well-kent figure of Ian Beattie, RD of the West Highland Way Race and Chairman of Scottish Athletics. Oh yes, keep an eye on your trainers and hide the jaffa cakes…the ultra-runners are back in town.

We walk the short distance to the Burnbrae where race registration is being held. Friday night in a pub is not an unusual place to find an ultrarunner or two, but that night in the anonymous looking building by the side of a main road in Milngavie, there must be the highest concentration of endurance athletes on one place since the heady summer days of the London Olympic Village. The place is bursting at the seams and is boiling hot inside, everyone has a beer in one hand and a glass of water in the other, and every other person is wearing a race t-shirt or a running club jacket.

I pick up my registration envelope which contains a timing chip and a carpark pass for Kynon and join Lorna MacMillan and Carol Martin for dinner, who are arguing over who has to finish the wine in case it makes them slower the next day. The food is excellent and I enjoy a vegetable paella with a side of macaroni cheese, washed down with a nerve-steadying pint of lager and some excellent banter with the table of runners and supporters. It’s fun to watch the steady stream of runners come and go and the bemused locals either trying to figure out what’s happening, or their reaction when somebody tells them about the race. Before long we find ourselves reluctantly leaving, but I reassure myself that I will have plenty of time to spend with my ultramarathon pals the next day.

Upon leaving the pub I notice that the huge empty wasteland over the road is now populated with several battered looking camper vans and someone has even pitched a tent. Lights flicker within as people make their final preparations for their race and a further inexplicable sense of calm descends over me. So many people from so many walks of life, descending on this tiny little corner of Scotland to do an amazing thing together.

Drifting off to sleep in my hotel room I feel calm and grateful just to be a part of it. They say in Scottish running that all roads lead to Milngavie, and I am finally here.


My alarm went off at 0345am and pulled me quickly from sleep. Everything I needed was laid out and ready so I went straight into auto-pilot – kettle on, porridge made, banana eaten, water drunk. I got my kit on and nervously peered out of the window…it looked dry and there was no clouds in the sky.

At 5am we had our bags packed and were checking out of the Premiere Inn, alongside the dozens of other focused looking runners and their sleepy support. Milngavie was quiet as we made the short drive to the station. Daylight was just breaking and there was a slow trickle of lycra-clad, buff-wearing, rucksack-toting figures coming in to the car park and the atmosphere was growing.




Kynon was marshaling at Balmaha and had to transport drop-bags, so his car needed to be parked and ready to receive the goods. I stood with him for a moment or two but the stream of runners needing his attention made it clear that if I wanted comfort and chat I was going to have to find it elsewhere so I decided to leave him to it and see who else was about. All the usual faces arrived soon enough and I spoke to as many friends as I could find whilst keeping warm and frequenting the portaloos.


Everyone was in good spirits as day broke and it was obvious we were on for a cracker with the weather; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. At 5:45am I realised I didn’t have a picture of me ready to go, so I managed to battle my way back to Kynon to say my final goodbyes and have him wish me luck.




The crowd had grown really quickly, and after a swift race briefing we assembled in a rough order of expected finish times at the tunnel under the road. Before I really had much time to think about it I could hear a countdown from up ahead and it would appear that the race had started.

LorraineSFetchphoto – LorraineS (Fetch)

LorrainSfetchpicture – LorraineS (Fetch)

Walking under this sign I  thought about the two times I’d been cheering on runners at the start of the West Highland Way Race here and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face – I couldn’t believe it was my turn to commence a race here and run North on the historic trail. There was cowbells, hooting and cheering and the eery pitched whine of the timing chips activating as we crossed over the mats. We ascended up the high street through a gauntlet of applause, and made the final turn down some steps and on to the muddy trail.

TZRunsIanBerryphoto – TZruns

The first mile or two were as crowded as I expected, so I made sure to keep an eye on my pace and not get swept away. Lots of people were chatting around me but I didn’t see anyone I knew so I just soaked up the atmosphere and tried to figure out how I felt. I still had absolutely zero nerves and I think it’s something to do with the race being too big to get nervous about – when you think about it as a whole, it’s impossible to get your head around so you have to break it down. There are too many variables which you can do nothing about in a race of this length, so if you’re going to have any hope of enjoying it you just need to take it one step at a time.


I’ve been struggling to start this race report as there’s just so much to write about. Because the race is so long I can’t take my usual mile-by-mile approach as I simply cannot remember the details, especially of the early miles. I do remember the sun first hitting my back and how warm it was though, the first glimpses of the hills towards which we were running, and the pair of Americans swooning at the view. If they liked it here I can’t imagine how they got on 30 miles up the course.


I remember thinking how strange it was that there was no leaves on the trees and that the grass was still scorched brown from a winter’s blanket of snow. In the crisp early morning air with mist hanging above frosty (!) ground, it actually felt more like an Autumn morning.

I needed to go to the loo so I hopped behind a wall. When I re-emerged I saw a figure up ahead who I recognised so I ran a little faster to catch up for a chat. It was Noanie who was also doing her first Fling, and we had a few miles together chatting about nothing in particular. She did her first ultra at the D33 when I did mine in 2012, and turned out to be the ‘swishy pony-tail girl’ who I ran with that day and described in my race report at the end.

This part of the race was mainly flat and going through farmland and on back roads. There were some hills though which I happily walked up as I ate my hula hoops and jaffa cakes. I took my long sleeve top and gloves off about 6 miles in as I was getting far too warm, and enjoyed more scenery as we headed into Drymen and the first timing check point at 12.7 miles.


I was feeling kind of indifferent when I approached Drymen. There seemed nothing to celebrate as there was a further 40 miles of running ahead and I didn’t have a drop bag or anything to look forward to. Noanie had drifted away at about 9 miles and I was once again by myself and just getting on with it. My shoes were starting to feel a bit weird after running on tarmac for a while and my toes were hurting a little. I didn’t like this at all but I was trying not to let the bad thoughts and doubt set in, despite my worries.

Approaching a turn-off, a marshall said “Well done Rhona, I read your blog! You’re looking great!” which was lovely to hear – I didn’t recognise you, so thank you whoever you are… I ran over a field following the runner ahead of me and suddenly realised I had reached Drymen and there was a big crowd of people because there was a relay handover. That meant three of the four guys from the Stonehaven Top Dogs relay team were there and they were all cheering me on – I hadn’t thought that I’d see them at all so that was a great surprise and boost!

DRYMEN – 12.7 miles – 2hr 17m 30s

The route then went into the village of Drymen which again I wasn’t expecting. I hadn’t realised so much of the initial miles of the West Highland Way are on roads. I tried to remember what Drymen looked like from the West Highland Way Race but my memories were fuzzy – after all I’d only ever been there at 2am in the morning. Everyone I passed said well done and smiled which was much appreciated – the field was spread out to about a runner every 100 meters and I was by myself as usual.

Another random memory – there was a woman and her young son sitting outside of their house with big baskets of orange quarters to hand out. After enjoying them so much at Paris I was delighted to take a couple! The wee boy was dressed up as turtle I think (?!) and must have been about 6. He said, in the most serious of voices, “Well done. Keep on going, even though your knee is hurting”. Sage advice, little dude; I’ll do my very best.

After a long hill out of the village we left the road for good and turned into forestry land. It had obviously been recently felled and we got our first look at Loch Lomond across the barren landscape.


We were back on a packed rock and gravel surface, which although felt better underfoot in my trail shoes, was still hurting the soles of my feet. The balls of my feet were feeling hot in a pre-blister kind of way, and the ends of my toes were already hurting when they hit the end of the shoe on a descent. Not great, and this concerned me a lot as I didn’t know what to do. I had the option of grabbing my road shoes from Kynon’s car at Balmaha, but would that even do any good?


There were many miles over this exposed area, heading towards Conic Hill. It was warm and sunny but with just the right amount of cooling breeze to keep me happy. I passed a friend from twitter, Marko,  and had a quick chat with him, but he was walking and I was feeling good so I decided to push on at a steady trot.



Here is Conic Hill, and its long approach. The scenery was starting to get big here and it felt like we were finally running into ‘proper’ Scotland.


The West Highland Way carried us all the way down towards those trees in the centre (above) and then the path over Conic reaches back up and around to the right.


It is a steep, steep path which goes on for what feels like forever, but the view at the top makes up for it. I’ve seen many versions of the following pictures in Scottish running blogs, but none really capture the true enormity of the land as it is laid out in front of you in real life. It is breath-taking, in every sense of the word.




…and then you have the perilous descent. Too steep for a mortal like me to run safely, too steep to run if you want to save your quads for later in the race. I picked my way down in a combination of walking, jumping and jogging. This descent killed my sore knee and battered my toes in my shoes. I wanted to feel bad about it but what was the point? I was only 19 miles into the race. Some cracks were appearing; had I done enough hill training? Was I wearing the right shoes? How the fresh hell was I going to find another 34 miles in my legs if they felt like this now? I did my best to push the thoughts from the forefront of my mind and concentrated on seeing Kynon shortly. That would mean hugs, kisses, and rice pudding. All good things.

BALMAHA – 19.3 miles – 3hr 53m 52s

The bottom of the path from Conic Hill spits you out in to the car park, and all of a sudden you go from running under cover of tall, shady pine trees to blinking in harsh daylight. A marshal asked for my number and then hollered it to the drop bag team up ahead who dashed into action, but Kynon had already clocked me and was running up with my little drop-box in hand. I hoovered my rice pudding and re-filled my camelbak with water and snacks and tried to keep moving, whilst catching up with Kynon’s adventures so far. I spent about 7-8 minutes  in the check point, which might be a little long but I didn’t want to upset my stomach by eating too quickly. Looking around there weren’t that many drop bags left and I was a little concerned that I was at the far end of the field. I tried not to think about that too much though, and after a farewell hug I trotted out of the car park to continue on my journey.

We had descended right down to the shore of Loch Lomond which was looking beautiful in the sunshine. The route follows the lochside briefly before turning off in to a forest with another big hill. I was needing to use the toilet and kept my eye out for any ideal bushes or walls, but was pleased to pass a Ranger’s Hut which had public toilets open, and a lady ranger outside cheering. What luxury! Feeling a lot lighter, I fell back on to the narrow path as it clung to the lochside.


20130427_115914It really was so beautiful. I just wasn’t feeling that happy though and found it difficult to enjoy. I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that I had so far to go and so many hours of ‘racing’ ahead of me when I wasn’t feeling very strong. I was so worried about my shoes shredding my feet further and having to pull out; at 4 hours every step was causing pain in my big toe bones and on the soles of my feet alongside my sore knee, and I had at least 8 more hours of it to go. A daunting prospect.

A group of guys from a running club were running together near me and were obviously having a great day out. Listening to their filthy banter was a good distraction and amusing, but I just didn’t have the energy or humor to join in. We were running in single file along the side of the road when I landed on a stone awkwardly and my left (dodgy) knee gave out, causing me to go over my ankle and come perilously close to landing in the path of an oncoming car. The blinding flash of pain in my ankle was excruciating and the shock of falling really shook me up. The guys helped me up and encouraged me to walk it off gently; I tested it and kept moving, it felt sore but not too bad. The pain faded to a dull throb and I knew it would be ok, but with the shock of falling my pride had taken a dent; I realised how fragile I was and how easily the race could be over. I didn’t have to fall down a cliffside to put myself out, apparently I was capable of ending my race by tripping over a pebble as well. I felt vulnerable and weak, which was only compounded by the tears of frustration threatening to spill over my eyes. Where was my toughness? Why was I finding this so hard already?! I was shocked to find myself thinking about how much of a relief it would actually be if I had broken my ankle instead of rolling it, and that would have given me a valid excuse to pull out. Tired minds think bad things…


All I could do was put one foot in front of the other, whether I liked it or not I had to keep moving because I could. The only excuse for stopping was paralysis or death, remember? I thought about how on earth I could justify pulling out if it got that bad, and I could come up with absolutely nothing to tell my friends and family that didn’t sound laughable. Oh, your feet hurt? I bet you weren’t expecting that one, that almost NEVER happens in 50 mile races! There was really tough terrain and hard hills? On the West Highland Way? NEVER…!

The next 8 miles were the darkest of my race; I swore at every ascent, rock, tree root and stream I had to traverse. Seriously, why – WHY did I ever sign up for this stupid race; it’s going to be the death of me, I can’t take this much longer let alone for another 7 hours. Oh look – I’ve just passed marathon point; remember when that was an achievement? When that was actually something to be celebrated? Now it doesn’t even matter because there’s still another f*%king marathon and a bit to go.


I swore I would never set foot on the West Highland Way again, I was an idiot for ever dreaming of completing this race never mind the full 95 mile race. I stomped on under my little thundercloud of rage, cursing myself and every person who ever believed in me for making me think that taking part was a good idea.

I tried to divert myself by making light of it and thinking of silly things. One that came to mind was a particular cat .gif which seemed appropriate; I usually try and keep things PG13 around here but I shall include it for posterity’s sake.  Watch this and insert uphills, downhill, stones, tree roots, and ultramarathons where appropriate.

ROWERDENNAN – 5hr 47m 20s – 27.3miles

In all my gurning, I had basically forgotten that I was really quite close to the next check point and Rowerdennan hit me totally out of the blue. I entered to more people cheering my name which was great and completely pulled me out of my funk. I ate my custard and fruit which was gorgeous, and drank lots of plain water which was a nice change from lemon/lime electrolyte water. Caroline Gibson was working here and came over to introduce herself and I spoke to some of the Wilderness Rescue folks as well. It was obvious that spending time by myself on the trail stewing away in a bad mood was doing me no favours at all.

After 7 minutes I was on my way again and really pleased to be running on a packed gravel surface for a change. It was great to give my mind a rest instead of having to think carefully about every step. I was feeling a lot more positive, and even more so when I ran a few miles with Terry Addison (despite it taking us about 2 miles to realise who the other was, after first meeting in the pub in a tipsy post-race haze after the D33 in March). The miles slipped by rather than dragged here, and suddenly my garmin was showing a distance in the 30s. Things were looking up!


20130427_115920I think this is my ‘I don’t want to die any more!‘ face of positivity…

I gave a silent cheer when I passed 33 miles, both for every step now being further than I’d ever run before, and also for the distance remaining being less than 20 miles. It seemed like I was over the mental hill (if not the literal one) and my fighting spirit was back.

I really enjoyed the technical sections on the cliffside by the loch, but I was aware that it was going to get even more challenging after Inversnaid. I would really like to go back and do these sections when I don’t have 30 miles in my legs.


INVERSNAID – 7hr 38m 57s – 34.6 miles

The Inversnaid check point is situated by a hotel right next to the Loch with a tremendous waterfall tumbling next to it. I have earmarked this as an ideal place to stay when I go back to Loch Lomond to play on the technical bits. George and Karen were manning the check point and their friendly faces and cheerful banter was most welcome. They informed me that the Stoney Top Dogs had retained their title as first Relay Team, and had won the race in an incredible 6hrs 37m 45s!


20130427_134850Many runners were relaxing in the sun but I didn’t dare sit down. I ate my bits and pieces but really fancied something savoury so I had a rummage in the left-over fuel pile and found some bread and butter and some baby bel cheese. I love cheese, but these little nuggets were the tastiest things imaginable to me at that point! I ate two and was savouring the flavour when Karen chided me for taking too long; she had a point as I spent 12 minutes at this check point! I was prioritising comfort over time though, and left well fueled and ready for the next 7 miles of mainly walking, scrambling and climbing.




I had been warned about how tough this was going to be, but I had never anticipated how hard the terrain was on the next section. It was like an assault course – climbing up ladders and over boulders, under trees and scrambling down steep rock faces. Again, not a problem on a normal day but with 35 miles in the legs I felt quite scared at how little control I had over my movements. I would attempt to place my foot on a rock but then find I couldn’t lift my leg high enough and over-balance, or I couldn’t quite keep control of my descent down rocky crags and would have to grab on to foliage to stop from tumbling further.


20130427_144507The ‘run’ had turned into a full body workout and I was drinking a lot more than I usually would. It was still comfortably warm and the sun had been out all day, tanning the bits of exposed skin on my legs left uncovered by shorts, calf sleeves and Kinesio tape.

Eventually we reached the end of the Loch and were treated to a beautiful view back along the 30 miles that we had traveled.


20130427_15175920130427_15194120130427_152512For the first time ever I passed Dario’s post, another relic of the West Highland Way which has been documented so many times by others. I understand why this beautiful place was chosen to immortalise his memory

20130427_152520At 40 miles I was just outside Beinglas and the final check point. Even though mentally I was in a much better place, physically I was in bits and suffering from a lot of pain in my feet, knees and quad/calf muscles. Everything below the hips, basically. The sorest bits of my feet were actually the bones in my big toe, and the metatarsal bone over the top – it felt like it had been hit with an axe on both feet. I could feel spongy blisters on both balls of my feet and the ends of my toes felt like they were bloody stumps. I thought about something I read in Born To Run; “If you make friends with pain, you will never be alone”. I tried to rationalise the pain away – it wasn’t going anywhere and I wasn’t stopping so I had to accept it as part of my new existence. I had been running for so long now that real life seemed irrelevant and long-forgotten; I thought about a problem at work that had been bugging me the day before and it felt like it had happened a year ago, to somebody else.  My whole purpose on this earth was now to put one foot in front of the other and that’s all I could handle.


I was really looking forward to my can of gin and my final note from Kynon. Since he was unable to meet me at the check points I had asked if he would write some little messages to put in my drop boxes for me to read on the go. So far he had made me laugh and cry so I couldn’t wait to see what he had in store for me next.

BEINGLAS – 9hr 53m 49s – 41.4miles

At Beinglas I had custard and fruit waiting for me and of course, the can of gin+tonic. I mixed it with the fruit juice and drank it from the fruit cup which was very refreshing. As I was eating my snacks I saw Alan for the first time since the start, but he was without Tommy who had dropped out at Rowerdennan after going over his ankle twice. Tommy has the West Highland Way Race coming up in June so he decided to exercise some self-preservation.


There was 12 miles left. It seemed so little but I knew it wouldn’t take my usual time of 1hr 50ish to cover them. The next few miles were rolling hills and with nothing left in my legs at all, I covered the terrain in walking and jogging. I felt that I looked like Donald duck when I ran – my knees were so stiff from tightened ITBs that it was more comfortable to not bend them and waggle my arms and backside for momentum instead. Everyone else was finding their own way to move forward one way or the other and we must have looked a sorry bunch.

ColinKnox1picture – Colin Knox

I was thankful to still be able to ‘run’ though, and was finding myself passing others who were only able to walk. I exchanged race chat with those who I passed and shared our aches and pains; one guy asked how I found my shoes and I said “Honestly? Right now I’d like to take them off and chuck them in the burn – I have never been in so much pain” . He was wearing the same ones and was in similar difficulties. I can’t see me racing or running any longer than 10 miles in them in future, at least not without some padded insoles anyway.

20130427_165750It took me an hour to do three miles after Beinglas. When I figured this out my heart sank as I knew there was another big climb to Crianlarich and I was worried in case I wouldn’t make the 15 hour cut off. Aside from that, at the current rate of progress I was looking at another 3 hours of running and I couldn’t fathom being able to speed up. I refused to let myself get negative again though and just kept moving, visualising the flags at the finish line awaiting me. I decided to listen to some music, and put on Big County’s greatest hits because…well, just because. It seemed topical!




Soon enough I was passing Derrydarroch cottage and Cow Poo alley – both place names I’d heard mentioned again and again but had never laid eyes on myself. Cow Poo alley is, well, a river of cow poo. With cows.




The farmer clearly gives not one shit about the West Highland Way, and to traverse his land is to wade shin deep in fresh cow waste and earth. He has dragged feeding troughs across the Way to maximize disruption for all travelers as well, which seems unnecessarily cruel.

I managed to avoid soiling myself for the most past, but unfortunately stood on a rock hidden deep in the muck which squeezed the blister on my right foot so tightly I felt it pop in my shoe. Acidic cow manure water and grit flooded the raw wound which made me see stars from the pain. I didn’t think I’d be able to run another step after that but slowly, like the twisted ankle, the pain faded to the back of my mind and blended in with the rest of my ailments.

I discovered that if I took little fast steps I could move faster, so I tip-toed lightly like a fairy along the edge of the valley. I just wanted the race done, I was so tired and so sore and the miles just weren’t shifting quickly enough.


The climb into the forest above Crianlarich was never-ending. Every time I turned a corner it were was more hill, and I swore at it. At one point when that path was smooth, I turned around and walked up backwards as my legs just couldn’t take it any more. It was instant relief to use my muscles differently!

It was getting to be almost 6pm – had I really been running for nearly 12 hours? It was unfathomable to me. As expected, the steep descent off the Crianlarich hills was horrendously uncomfortable but I pushed on as hard as I could despite my face being contorted in pain. I had never experienced the pain of trying to go down hill with truly trashed quads – it is a unique and agonising experience. I passed several groups of walkers who said well done but I could barely grunt in response.

When I reached the A82 I began to recognise the landscape from West Highland Way Race adventures. My garmin had died after using all 12 hours of its battery life so I was now running painfully blind; I guessed we must have had about 3 miles to go and I asked the marshals who were manning the road crossing who said the same. I hated the fact that only three miles was going to take me so long to travel.



We crossed this bridge and went towards a sheep farm. There were fields of the tiniest, cutest, most brand new lambs I’ve ever seen, making the most adorable noises whilst following their mums around.

20130427_182418The sun was totally gone now and it was getting very cold and windy. I took the time to stop to put my jumper back on and take my last caffeine gel, pleading with it to see me through to the finish.

The last couple of miles dragged as much as you would imagine. It was strange running through a deserted Auchtertyre when I’m familiar with it as a bustling support stop for the West Highland Way race. I was just completely spent now and decided to try John Kynaston’s trick of running for 100 breaths and taking a walking break, then repeating. This seemed to pass some time, but every time there was the slightest bit of incline I had to stop to walk. I passed a runner walking the other way with his bags wearing a medal who reassured me I was going to be OK as I was in the last mile now, a pair of ladies were standing clapping and cheering, I shook my head and rolled my eyes and they offered sympathetic words. I could kind of make out some buildings through the trees – could that be the finish? I hated not knowing how far I had left.

Approaching some gates near the forest, a Dutch-sounding lady said “You’re going to be fine, you’re nearly done – no really, less than 5 minutes and you’ll be done”; the pain must have been written all over my face. I could hear bagpipes off and on in the breeze and I believed her; that was the finish, I really was that close. I gulped and swallowed the urge to cry.

There was a hugely enthusiastic lady and her daughter with their dog sitting another couple of hundred meters up. They told me to “Just go around the corner you’ll see the finish. Make sure you have a little energy left to run in because the finish looks amazing and everyone’s waiting for you – they’re all there to cheer you home!”.  Another gulp.

I pass the bagpipers and I can’t keep my shit together any longer as the skirl of the pipes moves me so much. I give them two thumbs up and try to say thank you but it is muffled by a sob. Come on Mitchell, no tears yet; get over the damn line first.

One last little incline and I turn into the caravan park, and it is the most beautiful sight. An avenue of flags flying in the wind leading to a huge yellow finishing gantry; 50 meters lined with friends and well wishers hanging over the barriers who begin screaming and whooping for all their worth when they see that another finisher is coming in.


Under the finishing gantry is a figure, with his arms wide open. It is Kynon, and he’s been working at the finish line for hours to be the one to catch me when I finally cross the line. With my last ounce of strength, I run to him.

IMG_3705picture: Muriel Downie/Highland Fling

IMG_3707picture: Muriel Downie/Highland Fling

IMG_3708picture: Muriel Downie/Highland Fling


picture: Muriel Downie/Highland Fling

I sob in his arms like a baby. Big, heaving, suffocating sobs which consume me and take the last of my breath away. Incomprehensible relief that it is over, disbelief that I’ve done it, and so much love for this amazing man who has supported me every step of the way, right until the literal finish. When I untangle myself from him I see Steve, Neil and Marc from the club are waiting for me too and Steve keeps saying “You did it! You did it!” which sets me off all over again. Kynon and the guys lead me to the nearest chair and sitting down for the first time in 13 hours feels incredible, but not as amazing as taking off my shoes does. They are black and blue and swollen on top but remarkably blister-free in my usual hot spots around my toes. The bones feel like they’ve been pulverised with a hammer though, so I discard my shoes and pull on a pair of hotel slippers I packed for the finish line. A beer is pushed into my hand and Kynon tells me to sit down, but I want to speak to everyone else and find out how we all did.

Shuffling into the marquee I find Julie working hard, who envelopes me in a huge hug and tells me “See I told you you’d be seeing me at the finish line, didn’t I?” and makes me weep all over again. Mike comes over and congratulates me; he’s had a tough day but a fruitful training run which was what he wanted. John got perilously close to Sub-10 hours but had a great race regardless, and Noanie blew it all out of the water with a storming first Fling finish of 11hrs 47m.


I toy with the idea of seeing one of the Doctors about my feet but they have far more pressing casualties to take care of. Instead I have some gorgeous soup and put some warm clothes on, before watching the prize giving with another gin-in-a-tin.



Stonehaven Top Dogs keep their winner’s title!

At about 8pm we decided to get going and head off to our hotel to check in and get fed. I was kind of hungry, but my body was in such turmoil it was giving me mixed signals on everything. I know I did want to sit down, and drink a beer though.

We reached the Falls of Dochart Inn in about 15 minutes and got quickly checked in and changed. It’s a lovely hotel with loads of character which we stayed at in May for a mini-break and the Dunblane 7.5mile race. There was so much to talk about and stories to share of our separate adventures that it took us about an hour to eat our meal as we were both spinning like tops and high as a kite. Even though I had the medal around my neck, I still couldn’t believe I had done it. Was it really me who had been out there all day? Who was that person who borrowed my legs and then returned them in such bad shape?!

By 11pm we were tucked up in the huge four poster bed with our heads resting on soft marshmallow pillows. I fell asleep quickly but it was a restless night; I must have seen every hour on the clock as I woke up in various shades of aches and pain. I finally gave up at 7am and had a look through my pictures of the day before on my phone with a coffee. Again, the medal on the bedside was proof that I had done it, but cliched as it sounds; the whole day felt like it had been just a dream.


After breakfast I took the medal for a walk (hobble) and admired the beautiful falls. My feet were so swollen that I couldn’t get my trainers on properly, and I had to climb the stairs on all fours and come down them on my back-side.



Four days later I am still suffering, but managed a 3 mile “run” last night with Kynon to try out some new shoes I’ve bought myself as a well done treat. It is going to be a long and gentle recovery as I’ve clearly given myself a huge battering, but that’s some chat for another post. I have a lot of thoughts still percolating about this race, and a lot of lessons I can take away from it. Deep down I know that the reason why it feels like a dream is because I am no longer the same person that I was when I started the race. I have seen within myself and I am stronger, tougher and more capable than I ever imagined. I might have lost my nerve for a bit outside Rowerdennan, but I certainly found it again; and then some.

Massive thanks to John and all of the Highland Fling team who worked so hard to create an amazing event and one of the most memorable days in my life so far. May there be many more just like it.

Hoka Highland Fling 2013 – Preperation

Thursday evening. 9pm. Tminus 33 hours ’til the starters’ gun in Milngavie.

I did not need to know that…

…but never mind. The clock is ticking!
This evening I’ve been planning and packing my drop bags for the race and thinking carefully about what I’m going to take in order to fuel my 53 mile journey. I also need to plan what I’m going to be wearing throughout the race and what I’ll need at the start and the finish. As someone who lives to plan and loves a good list I should be in my element here, but since so much of this race is venturing into unknown territory for me (both figuratively and literally) it is proving quite hard to make decisions so far.

What I’m Wearing

This is kind of the easy part, until you look at the ever-changing weather forecast. It seems to vary by the hour and by which website you look at. Currently the BBC is displaying the following for the start at Milngavie:



53 miles up the road and Tyndrum on the other hand, is looking like this:


A heady high of 1C! At least it would appear to be dry throughout the day.

Ideally I would like to be wearing a base layer under my club vest, with a light shell jacket in my bag. Shorts on the bottom and my new Compress Sport calf sleeves that I got at the Paris Marathon expo. I think I will probably need some gloves for the first stages, but they and hopefully my baselayer, can be discarded at the first checkpoint with Kynon. I need to keep myself warm for the whole day however and realistically I could spend a lot of the latter miles of the race walking – a vest and shorts will not cut it if the mercury is struggling to reach beyond zero and I’m not keeping myself warm by moving fast.


Flyroc 310

What will I be putting on my feet? A very hot topic amongst Flingers online just now. I had assumed that the obvious choice would be my trail shoe (Inov8 Flyroc 310, above) but reports are circulating that the course is very dry so road shoes could be equally suitable. My trail shoes are comfortable but nowhere near as smooth a ride as my road shoes (I would wear my Saucony Guide 5’s for this). I am worried that my feet will suffer in the trail shoes as I’ve never worn them for such a length of time, on the other hand in the road shoes I am concerned that the rocks on the West Highland Way may cripple me after 40 miles. I remember how much they hurt me after only 28 with Vicki in June

Another decision to make on the day I think. Footwear is such a personal thing and I really wish someone could tell me what to do, but I’m on my own on this one.

Timing and Pacing

The way I am approaching this mentally, is that Saturday’s race is a day out in the hills. A journey, and an adventure. I am not capable of ‘racing’ this by any stretch of anyone’s imagination and I don’t have a time to beat, so my one aim is to finish by the cut off time of 15 hours which, all being well, is more than achievable.

That said, I have had to think about how long each stage might take me so that I can plan my food and fuel. I had a play with this calculator tool, but some people were suggesting it wasn’t based on the best information available so the times being produced weren’t reflecting a well-run race. I had some help from Mike who has devised his own calculator which produced the following splits for a 12.5hr race:

New Picture (2)

With the race starting at 6am, this would have me home at 6:20pm. I think this is realistic, but like everything else…who knows. I don’t think splits as we pass over timing mats are being updated anywhere, but you can follow along on Twitter using the hashtags #flingrace and #highlandfling – there isn’t an official one and people seem to be posting using both. Kynon will also be updating when he can – you can follow user @mr_kynon to get updates from him, but due to the remoteness of the course, 3G signal is very patchy.

Food and Fuel


The most important part of the day! In my months of training I have been eating lots of different things and have discovered that luckily, my stomach is as strong as my legs and can take everything I’ve been throwing at it. I eat a little something every 45 minutes and will restock my pockets at each checkpoint. I’m obviously not going for anything new on race day though, and have created drop “bags” for the check point locations.

Start of Race – Camelbak contents

500ml High5 Electrolyte drink
2 High5 gels, salted hula hoops, Jaffa cake bar, Galaxy Caramel cake bar (approx 500 calories)


Also in there is a space blanket, blister repair kit, paracetamol, immodium, emergency whistle and phone.

Check Point 1 – Balmaha – 19.8 miles


To eat at checkpoint – Strawberry rice pudding and a bottle of lucozade
To take away – Salt n vinegar crisps, cake bars, raisins and gels
Approximately 880 calories

Check Point 2 – Rowardennan – 27.2 miles


To eat at checkpoint – Fruit cup, custard, Dr Pepper
To take away – Salted crisps, cake bars, 2 gels, flapjack
Approximately 825 calories

Checkpoint 3 – Inversnaid – 34.3 miles


To eat at checkpoint – Rice pudding, coke
To take away – Salt n vinegar squares, cake bars, 2 caffeinated gels, flapjack
Approximately 740 calories

Checkpoint 4 – Beinglas Farm – 40.9


To eat at checkpoint – custard and fruit cup, gin (blame Vicki and Sandra for that)!
To take away – salted crisps, caffeinated gels, cake cars, flapjack.
Approximately 698 calories

In total over the day at my usual metabolic rate I will burn 5830 calories, and in total I ‘m replacing that on the run with 3647 if I consume everything (which I doubt I will). I’m sure a lot of people will be quick to say I’ve got far too much stuff and all I need is some water and a pocket full of peanuts, but I have no idea how I’m going to feel or cope during this adventure (which could be 15 hours long…) so I’d rather be presented with the choice than have nothing to look forward to.

So that’s about it. Everything is prepared and I just have a long day at work to go before we can get on the road to Milngavie. I had one last physio appointment today where I got my knee re-taped and some ultrasound treatment, and it is feeling good to go. I am so ready to get out there and run!

I can’t wait to reap the benefits of all the work I’ve put in this year so far. It has been a long slog, but I dearly hope it will be worth it. The hard part is over – all I need to do now is show up at 6am on Saturday morning and start running at the start…and stop running when I get to the finish. Easy.

Before I go, a quick mention and huge vote of thanks to Kynon and the masses of other marshals who are giving up their entire Saturday to be out there in the middle of nowhere so we can run this race. From time to time I’ve moaned about the stuff I’ve had to give up to train for this event, but this weekend Kynon ought to be in Whitby captaining Real Gothic FC for their biannual football match against Athletico Gazette, which is part of the Whitby Goth Weekend. It’s the first time he’s missed a match since 2006 so I am hugely appreciative of what he’s given up to support me in my endeavours this weekend. I hope the Gothic can forgive me for stealing their Captain…I doubt I’ll get away with this more than once, so you can be assured he’ll be back next time…

See you on the other side…

The view from the bench

It’s been a funny couple of weeks. Since crossing the finish line at Paris I have ran approximately 8 miles, and I don’t like it one bit. I’ve been under strict physio orders to NOT RUN if I want any chance of getting to the starting line of the Fling in one piece (let alone the finish), so I have been cross training gently and giving my mind an extensive workout in the form of extreme positive thinking.

In 4 days time I’ll be packing up and heading down the road to Milngavie for the start of the 53 mile Highland Fling Ultramarathon and the longest race I have ever ran. How did this come about so soon? I’ve had a countdown on my phone since I signed up back in November and it really wasn’t that long ago it was reading days in triple figures. Back in November I didn’t imagine that I’d be staring down the Fling at this point having only run 4 times this whole month so far; but then again I can’t say I imagined  I’d be staring at it having knocked half an hour off my D33 time and coming within a whisker of a 4 hour marathon at Paris.  I have to take the rough with the smooth on this occasion, I think!

I’m aware that I haven’t given a huge amount of specific updates on my training for this race, and I guess the reason for that is for the most part due to my ‘one week at a time’ strategy. I wrote a training plan back in January, but after about a month I found things weren’t working so well and ended up planning my running week by week – but that’s a story for another post.

20130413_113213This is how I’m currently rolling, with a distinctive trilogy of red, white and blue holding my knee together as I bounce off the walls in frustration, desperate to be running ‘properly’ again. It feels a long time since my longest run (33 miles, 16th March) and a long time since  I had a ‘proper’ long training run with my backpack on and an aching body the next day.

20130413_113223I feel I have to note that I didn’t get a choice in the colours of the tape. I’d much rather it was a Saltire of course, or black…

All jesting aside, here’s an update on what’s up with my knee and how I’m handling it on the approach to the longest race of my running life so far. It’s a heady mix of denial, positivity and pure stubbornness as I refuse to acknowledge that there’s even the slightest chance I will DNS or DNF the Fling. This is the race where it has been known for a runner to carry on for 15 miles whilst having a heart attack, it has been finished by runners with broken bones that they didn’t start off with, and there are people who are desperate to be on the starting line this year as usual who are only not going to be because Doctors have had to practically tie them to a bed to stop them. My knee hurts when I run. No big deal.

The problem I’m experiencing is knee Bursitis, which is a completely typical runners’ injury. It is caused by inflammation of a bursa which are small fluid-filled sacs found in and around the knee cap, but you get them in all joints. The inflammation can be caused by repeated pressure on the joint or repeated movement and in the case of runners with the condition, over-training, running up a lot of hills, or failing to warm-up properly are frequently the culprits. I may or may not be guilty of all three.

I have been treating it with a steady consumption of ibuprofen, icing and rest. Whilst it is getting better I don’t think I’m going to be on the starting line in perfect shape by any stretch of the imagination. Even if I do start pain-free, I doubt that it will last very long. A trail ultra is much kinder to the legs than a road marathon though, so I am hopeful that I will be able to cope with the pain when it comes and manage it until I reach the finish. Like I’ve described before, the pain is on the inside of my left knee and hurts like an annoyance such as a headache does when I run – as in, it’s tolerable and it won’t stop me moving forward, but it’s not exactly pleasant. Given that a trail ultra of 53 miles will give me plenty of opportunities for a walk if required, I think the pain will be easier to deal with on this occasion than trying to hammer out a fast road race for a decent time without breaking pace.

So this taper, if you can even call it that, has been excruciating. Alongside all of the usual joys of taperitis with its pre-race nerves and phantom illnesses, I have genuine injury concern to manage as well which is making drawing the line between the two quite challenging. It has concerned me how unhappy not being able to run has made me, and this enforced time on the bench has made me question how I would cope if I ever were in a prolonged position where I couldn’t run at all. Is there such a thing as putting all ones’ fitness eggs in one hypothetical basket I wonder? All I want to do is run. I know I moan about it sometimes, but being a runner  really does make me very happy. Who would I be if I had to stop? It has made me conduct rather a lot of soul-searching, and the answer is I don’t know but I’m going to finish my first 50 miler on Saturday and that’s all that matters for now.

Where do positive thoughts spiral out of control and into delusion? I don’t know that either, but I won’t like to be the person who attempted to explain it to me.  What I do know though, is that in ultramarathons after a certain distance it’s all in the mind anyway and it’s not my mind that’s broken. I know I have the training and endurance in me to physically keep going for all 53 miles, but if I let negative thoughts in then that’s my biggest enemy. Mike ran only 120 miles in the two months between the West Highland Way race and the Glenmore 24 last year, and then proceeded to run 121 miles in 24 hours at Glenmore. Vicki sustained an ITB injury at the Fling last year and barely ran again until the West Highland Way race two months later, which she completed in 31 hours.

There’s no rhyme or reason to it, I can’t explain it, but it happens. The endless pursuit of ‘ultra’ is one of the things which makes our sport so mythically amazing; people have written books about it in attempts to explain it and still no-one’s got to the bottom of it. It’s what makes it so hard to explain why we run these races to well-meaning friends, family and randoms who ask us about it in the pub (after they spit their pint all over the floor of course). We are all in pursuit of that extra wave of energy that comes from nowhere and keeps us going in the darkest places and you have to believe that when you need it, it will come.

My biggest weapon against this race and this distance is my belief in myself and my training. I can do this. I CAN DO THIS.


All I need to do is start at the start and keep running until I reach the finish. Simple.

A mutual friend was seen to comment the following in the West Highland Way Race Family facebook group recently, which just about sums it all up: “There are only three reasons for pulling out: 1. You’re dead 2. You’re unconscious 3. You’re paralysed. Everything else is just a minor detail to be ignored”.

The rest of this week will be taken up with planning, shopping and mentally focusing. I’ll do another update on the nitty-gritty of my race and what I’m planning to eat, wear and my general plans for my 53 mile journey. All in all it’s going to be a huge adventure and honestly, I can’t wait to unleash my inner strength on that trail.


My First DNS

This has been a bit of a tricky blog post to write. My feelings are kind of all over the place regarding this and I’ve been putting it off, but I can’t do that forever. I suppose it was only a matter of time until this happened – every runner has to experience it eventually – but unfortunately I DNS’d (Did Not Start) my race on Sunday; the Petrofac Challenge 15 mile Trail Race.

For the last two weeks or so I’ve been having mild-to-moderate ITB pain in my left leg. Not enough to stop me running, but enough to have me spending concentrated time with my foam roller and using an ice pack when I can. Since I’m getting well-versed in dealing with my problematic left ITB, I was happy to just keep training and running as normal and manage the pain myself as I saw fit. This Saturday however, I completed my progressive run as planned by running to Parkrun and then running the 3.1 mile Parkrun route hard (I finished 5th lady in a time of 24: 58) but was feeling pretty acute pain in my knee when walking around after I finished. I took advantage of a lift home from a friend to avoid running home again and quickly got ready for the Brewdog AGM which I was attending that afternoon.

I was quietly concerned about my throbbing knee but took some ibuprofen and hoped that like it had done after  other recent runs, it would calm down within a few hours. Unfortunately the AGM involved a lot of standing around and as the afternoon went on, my knee became increasingly sore and the familiar ‘creaking’ feeling of an incredibly taut ITB became more acute when I bent my knee. I realised I was going to have to make a decision – was running a 15 mile trail race for fun the next day really the best decision I could make for my body?

It was obvious really – of course it wasn’t, but I was reluctant to accept that this was the case. If I ran the race then the chances are it would either finish me off in terms of being able to continue training hard for Baker Hughes, or I would end up injured on the course and face the prospect of a DNF (Did Not Finish) and the end of my sub-50 hopes. Also as an Aberdonian, the notion of wasting money entering a race which I wouldn’t run was galling!

My furrowed brows and deep thoughts had not gone unnoticed at the AGM and my friends wondered what was bothering me but I was embarrassed to admit what was going on in my head. How does the saying go again? “DLF (Dead Last Finish) is better than DNF (Did Not Finish) which greatly trumps DNS (Did Not Start)”. Great, thanks. Now, I’m at a Brewery’s AGM – where’s the damn bar?!

That is not a real tattoo unfortunately, but does anyone want two tickets to the gun show? The Fitness Yoga classes and weights I’m doing have been shaping up my arms very nicely recently I feel!

Here I am with three of my best buddies and fellow Aberdeen Brewdog regulars; Scott (my flatmate), Fiona and Niall.

Representing Brewdog Aberdeen.

Needless to say I enjoyed the rest of the AGM very much – as a shareholder I’m proud to have been able to invest in a brewery and attitude I believe in and am a proud, card-carrying Equity Punk.

The next morning I was wide awake at 7am, brow furrowed again wondering if I’d made the right decision. One step out of bed when I put my weight on my knee confirmed it, and I promptly slathered the joint in ibuprofen gel, turned my alarm off and went back to sleep.

I spent the rest of the day in a tremendous huff; disappointed in my body, embarrassed to admit that I didn’t run to my friends and parents, and gutted at how my training was falling to bits so quickly. (And also trying to figure out how to blog about this disappointment). I KNEW it was the right thing to do, but to not even start something goes against everything in the standards I set for myself in life – always try your hardest, always give it your best, don’t wimp out in the face of adversity… In this case I have to adapt my train of thought however; it was a preventative action, I have to keep my sights on the bigger picture and my goals for the rest of Spring and beyond.

So what now? Well yesterday I returned to the SPEAR Performance clinic at Aberdeen Sports Village who treated me for my ITB issues after the Loch Ness Marathon, and had my first experience of Sports Massage. I had booked an hour-long appointment and I have to say I was a little unsure of what to expect at first but I really enjoyed it! I knew to expect some discomfort to say the least, but I found the pain to be good pain – a release of sorts. The whole experience was oddly exhilarating and I left feeling totally flushed out and about 10 feet tall! I have not experienced any pain so far today and I’ve been advised to train as usual, with religious foam rolling and icing after runs, and to come back in 10 days for a follow-up. This will allow my therapist to examine the muscles in more detail and perhaps establish whether this is an injury related to something to do with alignment or whether it’s just a reaction to my change in training.

Tonight I’m going out for 6ish miles in between day work and evening work, and will hopefully be able to throw in a few tempo miles in the middle depending on feel. It’s safe to say the wheels have come off my previous training plan entirely, but I refuse to let go of the sub-50 goal yet! Perhaps it won’t come as easily as it might have done, and it may even be a fluke on the day; but it’s happening. 17 days.

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