Hoka Highland Fling 2015
11 hours 44 minutes 7 seconds
Finish Position: 321 of 647 finishers (49 DNF)
Gender Position: 53rd / 160 Females
Category Position: 27th / 64 Female Seniors
This race report arrives a little later than I would have liked because of a big University submission being due last week. Having three days completely ‘off grid’ in the week before the submission was not ideal, but I’d worked hard in the week before the race in order to really enjoy my weekend and totally dedicate my mind to the task in hand (the 53 mile race, not the 5,000 word research proposal…)
Kynon and I headed to Tyndrum on Friday afternoon to park up our camper van before getting the train down to Milngavie that evening. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed eating an entire loaf of fresh bread with cheese between us in the sunshine, with a cold beer for extra carbs. The finish area was utterly silent other than peaceful birdsong; how strange to think of the mayhem which would be happening here in under 24 hours time.
In general I was feeling pretty calm about the race, but I had taken a couple of my favourite running books to read from on the train to really get my head in the game. I love Kilian Jornet’s ‘Run or Die'; the passion which he injects into his running is just as strong in his written word. I read the first few chapters before switching to Scott Jurek’s ‘Eat and Run’ whilst intermittently staring out of the train window. The beautiful hills of earlier in the journey had shrunk back into the ground and been replaced by low-rise council housing developments. Thick grey cloud is cloaking the outskirts of Glasgow and raindrops are now crawling across the train window, which is the only barrier between me and the hustle of rush hour commuters in the rain. Away from the Highland dreams and a return to reality; the journey had gone too quickly. The only way back was to run.
When the alarm went off at 4.15am I felt relaxed. Prior to falling asleep I had envisioned every element of the race and pictured how I would traverse the course. I had had at least 5 hours of good sleep which was enough, and I quickly set about making coffee and eating a rice pudding, banana, and a cereal bar. Everything had been laid out the night before so I didn’t need to think at all; just put my kit on, eat, and keep calm. When Kynon was using the bathroom I cast my eyes over Kilian Jornet’s Skyrunner’s manifesto once more; there was something about his words which was sticking in my mind and giving me focus. Kiss or kill. Besa o mata. Kiss glory or die in the attempt. Losing is death; winning is life. The winning and dying are metaphors in my case, perhaps less so for Mr Jornet, but his sentiments are the same as mine. The secret isn’t in your legs, but in your strength of mind.
5.20am and we have begun the short walk to the station, sharing the weight of the bag of drop bags between us. Kynon wants to chat, I prefer silence. I try to keep my mind clear of everything, but soon we’ve reached the throngs of people crowding the station car park and there are plenty of people to say hello to.
We catch up with most of the Stonehaven Running Club runners and catch a photo as it begins to get light. The rainclouds don’t lift along with the darkness however and rain is still spotting down, but it’s a great temperature for running with no wind to speak of.
We’ve timed our arrival perfectly and after a final photograph and a hug and kiss goodbye and good luck, Kynon and I part ways to our respective corals – him to the 12 hours plus, and me to the 10 – 12 hours. I’m not really sure why I’m in here or especially why I’m so far forward, but since I’m standing next to Amanda Hamilton I’m happy for the company and stay where I am during the race countdown.
At 6am the first wave is released, and 90 seconds later we’re shuffling on towards the underpass and the eerie whine of the timing chips activating. Up the stairs and along the high street with cheers and waves, and then we’re down into Mugdock Park onto the muddy path through the forest.
Milngavie – Drymen
My plan was always to take it very easy on the way to Drymen. Nothing below 10 minute miles, heart rate as low as possible, and conserve as much energy as I could. I stuck to my plan, even as hordes of runners streamed by me in the first few miles and bimbled along in my own head. It was very busy; the runners didn’t thin out until Drymen, and at points there were even elbow bashing as I fought to keep my place to the left of the narrow track.
I had been bursting for a pee since the first mile and had patiently waited until my usual spot behind a wall at about 8 miles which has served me so well in the last two years, only to find the gate closed and access for my straining bladder was prohibited. I hung on a few miles gathering fury at all the men merrily emptying themselves by the side of the trail – how dare they enjoy such convenience?! Eventually I conceded I would need to scale the railway embankment to relieve myself discretely, and lost a good minute to answering the call of nature.
In the approach to Drymen I was just…annoyed. Annoyed about a lot of things; too many people around me, the rain, I was too hot, my gamin wasn’t working…I just wasn’t really enjoying myself and couldn’t wait to get the flat section done and to get out into the hills.
Milngavie – Drymen
Split time = 2hr 10m 46s
Race time = 2hr 10m 46s
Drymen – Balmaha
I ran straight through Drymen and enjoyed briefly seeing Shanksi and the relay team from our club. Jemma had caught up with me and we passed the miles up and to through Garadhban chatting which made the time pass quickly.
Slowly but surely the clouds cleared up and as we approached Conic Hill, the sun began to shine!
The view from the top was stunning in the morning sunshine, especially as there was still snow on the hills in the distance.
I walked down Conic carefully, practicing how I will descend in the West Highland Way race. Any other day of the week I could fly down, but I really wanted to take my time. Any time lost here would be made up with my strength saved for later in the day.
Balmaha was a bustling fayre, with Big Davie the Polis in charge of his team of red-clad heroes. My drop bag was pressed into my hand and before I tucked in I was able to give George Reid a hug, who was waiting in the crowd cheering everyone on. I ate my custard and drank my powerade as I tried to re-fill my pockets – oops, no room. I hadn’t eaten anything other than a little cake bar so far. That wasn’t the plan at all. Hula hoops and cereal bar went on the communal table and I left the check point holding my buttery, but I really didn’t want to eat it.
Balmaha – Rowardennan
All my early-morning frustrations about busyness and weather had long melted away and I really enjoyed the section to Rowardennan in the sun as it got warmer. My garmin wasn’t working but I did have a watch, so I had judged it by time – it was only going to be about a 1hr 45 minute run which seemed tiny. I tried and tried to get the buttery down but it just wasn’t happening so I conceded and took a gel instead. I just was not hungry – I felt absolutely fine, but didn’t want to eat food at all. What is this witchcraft?!
The day was stunning and Loch Lomond had never looked better. Knowing the route better than ever meant I knew what was coming around every turn and I predicted my arrival time into Rowardennan perfectly. I refilled my water and again failed to take on more food from my drop bag, but enjoyed my 300ml bottle of Powerade – perhaps the magical blue juice was going to be my source of strength for the day.
Drymen – Rowardennan
Split time = 3hr 23m 29s
Race time = 5hr 34m 15s
493rd place (2 places lost)
Rowardennan – Inversnaid
I left Rowardennan behind Mags and Scott from my club and soon caught up for some chat on the hills. Again, knowledge of the route allowed me to run a bit more of this section this year as I knew what was coming and where I could push on. We passed the point where I turned around at the training weekend and reached the start of the more technical part of the race which I always enjoy. I slotted into a conga line of runners all running at the same speed along the single track trail, which pulled me along from the front and pushed me along from behind in a steady rhythm over the ground. Without Garmin data I can only guess how long this section took, but it felt like I reached Inversnaid quicker than ever and this is when I began my steady upward climb through the placings. I don’t have much more to say about this section as it flew by so quickly. It was getting hotter though and I could feel a fine t-shirt tan developing; thankfully there was a refreshing breeze to keep us mostly cool.
Inversnaid – Beinglas
Inversnaid had a crack team of marshals sorting everyone out quickly. I hoovered another custard and powerade and picked up some more gels, and left whilst chatting with Antonia. There was a tight group of about 5 of us who were running together through the technical section here. Thankfully most slower runners stopped to let us pass and I thank them for that, but the lochside is no place for headphones and blocking yourself out from your surroundings. Antonia has hit the nail on the head with this one so I will quote her words (emphasis mine): “Some runners wear headphones so we try to pass them whenever we can as they are unpredictable to run behind as they aren’t aware of us other runners. Don’t wear headphones in a race guys, enjoy the trail. If you can’t enjoy the trail, go back to the gym.”.
I enjoyed running with Antonia, Scott, and Scott, but soon it was time to move on. My legs were feeling stronger than ever and for the first time in a 50+ miler, almost nothing was hurting. Usually my hip flexors, glutes and piriformus are complaining by this point and my feet are a bloody mess, but except from some of the usual foot pain in my bones I was feeling great from top to toe. I just had no desire to walk and ran all the way into Beinglas with the exception of yomping up a couple of steeper hills, and pausing to take a snap from near Dario’s Post.
I saluted the man who I never got the chance to meet and continued to steam past runner after runner on my way to the final check point. My natural instinct was to reign it in, but again, my familiarity of the course was a huge help. I knew what was coming and every signal I was getting from my legs and body said go for it. Something special was happening. It was as exciting as it was worrying, but I wasn’t going to waste the chance I had been given.
Rowardennan – Beinglas
Split = 3h 33m 40s.
Race time = 9hr 07m 55s
394th place (99 places gained)
Beinglas – Tyndrum
Arriving into Beinglas, the checkpoint was very busy. I was handed my drop bag and I kept walking looking for a space to stop and take care of myself, until I heard someone say my name and I saw Matt Williamson gesturing at me to come over. “What do you need, how can I help?” he asked; he quickly took care of refilling my camelbak and refilling my pockets with gels, as I tried to swallow as much custard as possible and eat some crisps for the salt. The sun had been shining all day and whilst a breeze had kept me cool, I had been sweating sufficiently to be covered in sticky, crusty salt. My fingers had swollen up too, and whilst I was feeling ok, I knew that a lack of salt and electrolytes could quickly give me a turn for the worse. When Matt asked how I was feeling I said I was terrified, that I’d never felt so good in an ultra and that I was frightened I might blow up. Looking at my watch, it was 3:15pm; I ascertained that if I could cover the final 12 miles in a decent pace it could be possible to even get under 12 hours – this was unfathomable to me, but the clock wasn’t lying. Matt wished me luck and sent me on my way, and I went out to give the last miles everything I had.
In theory it was possible to cover these 12 miles in two and a half hours, but it seemed a lofty goal. Even with the sun still beating down I inexplicably still felt amazing, there was not a drop of fatigue in my legs and this was reflected in my continued efforts up and down the hills where I passed the steady stream of walking/jogging runners making their way towards Tyndrum. Cow Poo alley was a dream – it was dusty and dry instead of the usual shin-deep quagmire – and I reached the bottom of the hills above Crianlarich ready to tackle them strongly.
This was the reason why I had so carefully walked down Conic Hill 30 miles earlier. My legs were fresh and ready to go, and I bombed the downhills like I was on fire. I let gravity do its job and glided down to the road crossing in a series of fearless descents. One day perhaps I will pay for ripping down hills like this and will trip over something and lose my nerve, but until that day, my legs were made for descending.
Crossing the A82 I knew I had 3.5ish miles to go. I nailed a caffeine gel. A quick look at my watch showed it was about 5:10pm; the gel would kick in in about 10 minutes, and then I would take another to get as much of a boost as possible into my last mile. Bleeeerrgh, I feel like crap. Hang on; 5:10pm. 3.5 miles to go. That’s 11 hours 10 minutes race time. That means, barring utter catastrophe, I can get in UNDER 12 HOURS. What’s that sparkly thing? Ooh, there’s another! F*&k, I’m seeing stars. I am actually seeing stars. No wonder I feel so rough. Shite, am I about to pass out? What if I pass out? What if I get to 1 mile to go and keel over and DNF? Ohshitohshitohshit better just keep running. Don’t do this to me body, come on, we’ve got this! Take another gel! Drink water! Count to 100! Just keep going!
One final cursory glance at my watch as I approached the piper in Tyndrum showed 5:4Xpm. A big lump in my throat formed as I pushed past one final runner in my approach to the last hill to the By The Way entrance, and there it was; that beautiful finish once again. Flags blowing in the wind ushered me along the red carpet to the finish and I raised my arms in a silent howl of victory.
Beinglas – Tyndrum
Split = 2hr 36m 12s
Race time = 11hr 44m 7s
321st place (73 places gained)
A medal was hung around my neck and water pushed into my hand. I took a few more steps before the tears of disbelief came on thick and fast and before I knew it I was bawling like a bairn. Amanda had finished just before me and had scored a PB and we happy-cried on each other, before I moved on to blubbing all over Julie, Keith, Sandra and Sarah.
I don’t even remember Sandra taking this picture. Spangled doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt, but I somehow managed to get myself to a chair to eat some soup and drink some water in some steps towards re-joining the human race. Soon after Scott and some of the SRC girls finished and joined me as we all celebrated PBs (or first finishes, in Scott’s case). A congratulatory text from my Mother In Law confirmed my final chip time of 11 hours 44 minute and 7 seconds which took my breath away all over again. I had hardly dared to dream that I could get under 12 hours, never mind under 11hrs 45m. What had happened to me? Whose legs had I stolen? What had Matt put in my camelbak at Beinglas?
After I had gently come back down to earth, I got changed into some warm clothes and began the anxious wait for Kynon. Early reports suggested that he’d left Beinglas in good spirits and still running about 4:30pm which meant he would probably take around three hours to finish if he could keep moving well. I anxiously waited near the finish for signs of him until I spotted him come around the corner, and then headed back to the finish gantry to give him a big hug when he crossed the line.
Kynon finished in 13 hours 27 minutes and 41 seconds, and was a very happy man. His race was not without its difficulties, but like a true ultra runner he fought through and overcame them to finish strong and happy. I am very proud.
We spent the rest of the evening at the ceilidh rehydrating, before collapsing in the van for a few hours sleep. The changeable nature of highland weather was never felt more acutely than the next day, when snowflakes falling on my neck soothed my stinging sunburn, as we fought to tear down and store the finish area in intermittent rain, sleet and blizzards.
Over a week later I’m back training happily with no injuries and no (read that again: NO) blisters to speak of! There are now seven weeks to go until the West Highland Way Race, so I have about a months more training to do. So what went right last Saturday? What can I learn that I can take away from this? I have a few ideas which I will cover in my next post, but it’s safe to say I remain delighted by my performance, which, relative to my own past experience, is probably the best run I’ve ever done.
Onwards and upwards… 7 weeks until the Big One!