My first Ultra: the Hoka Highland Fling, Saturday 25 April

I hadn’t ever thought about doing an ultra, until I saw the message from Grant: “the Fling is open, and will sell out by lunchtime”. Nine fellow Bellas quickly replied “I’m in”, and I got caught up in the moment. Suddenly I was “in” too. It took a couple of snowy trail runs for me to realise just what being “in” meant, including (but not limited to):

a) running on trails is brilliant but utterly knackering
b) everyone signed up is massively fitter, younger and stronger than me
c) long trail runs take absolutely ages, something I haven’t yet broached with my family

I wasn’t really sure I’d stick with it. One early training run from Milngavie to Balmaha over Connick hill was a real wakeup call – if I felt that bad after 19m, there’s no way I’d even make it half way. I overheard Matt Williamson at the club saying “you should still be pretty fresh when you get to Balmaha.” Fresh?!

Cut to 4 months later, and it’s the morning of the Fling. I’m a ball of nerves sheltering from the rain at 5:30am in Milngavie train station with 750 other ultra runners who look calm and experienced. It’s an amazing thing, the Fling; John Duncan’s self-supported jaunt up the West Highland Way has grown from less than 20 people in 2006 to 1000 entries in this its 10th year, with full Scottish Ultra Championship status. None of which is making me feel any more relaxed.

After the initial shock, training had gone ok with plenty of back-to-back long runs, but as the clock got nearer to 6am I couldn’t dislodge the fact that I’d never run further than 30 miles in training. As for a race plan, despite having set my sights on “just finishing it”, I’d secretly worked out that if all went well I might finish in around 10hrs 20’ – which Grant then posted on Facebook. So that was it then!

A quick “Good luck” to fellow Bellas Tommy and Stuart and it was time to go. The hooter sounded and hundreds of us set off through Mugdock and out to the Beech Tree Inn. I’ve done this bit loads of times, so I got chatting to a guy who had come all the way from Devon. It’s a weird feeling chatting while ‘racing’, but it definitely helped to settle the nerves and keep the pace sensible, and we arrived at Drymen (CP0,12.6m), 10 mins ahead of ‘schedule’, to huge cheers from the Bella support crew.

As the trail heads out towards Loch Lomond, the dreaded Connick Hill reared into view. With Matt’s words ringing in my ears I kept asking myself how ‘fresh’ I felt a I ran-walked up to the shoulder, passing a few runners whom had started too quickly. As we reached the summit, the clouds cleared and Loch Lomond sparkled into view – stunning! A quick smile for the camera and I was bounding down the other side and into Balmaha (CP1, 19.8m) Check: still quite fresh. Cautiously optimistic.

I was instantly met by the Bella crew (Grant, Davie, Robbie, Brendan) and Muriel, who went to work like a well-oiled machine. A cup of tea, my backpack refilled without even taking it off, Nak’d bars replaced, Lucozade topped up. I was out the other side of the CP faster than a Lewis Hamilton pit stop. Brilliant!

The section to Rowardennan is beautiful, lots of twisting paths, stony beaches and wooded hills. A quick stop at Millarochy gents (top class facilities by the way) and I was making good progress, catching more tiring runners and racing towards Rowardennan (CP2, 27.2m) bang on “schedule”. I might be on for a 10:20 finish after all!

Once again the Bella pit crew sped into action (one bystander could barely believe his eyes – “you’ve got 5 people looking after you!!”) and I was off again, half way in and still feeling pretty good. But not for long.

A Physio I know who works on the Elites had once said casually: “They say the race really starts at Rowardennan”.

As my legs started to wobble, that sentence began to echo in my head like a line from a movie. It didn’t help that I’d forgotten how effing hilly the section is beyond Rowardennan. As tiredness set in, I dug in up the hills, but even descending was getting sore. Plus there was no one to chase – somehow the crowds of runners had disappeared. Then I remembered: Love Hearts. My secret weapon! A steady supply of Swizzles’ finest got me firing on all cylinders again and I was soon speeding along the winding trail to Inversnaid (CP3, 34.3m).

Another great welcome from Nick, Suzie, Greig and Danielle at the car park and the news that Tommy and Stuart are up ahead and both going well. Better get on with it! The section just beyond Inversnaid is the most technical part of the trail, some of it un-runnable, with rock scrambling, narrow ledges and even a fixed ladder. I’d recced it a couple of times in training, and I was quite looking forward to it. It’s a slightly different kettle of fish with 35 miles in the legs though, and this time I stumbled over the rocks and did quite a bit of ‘arse slithering’ (technical term) all which destroyed my pace. I decided to stop checking my Garmin and just concentrate on getting to the finish. Thankfully, when the loch ends, the landscape totally changes: the path widens, follows the river and climbs through open woods. With the sun shining and rejuvenated by yet more fizzy sweets I caught a handful of runners as we crested the ridge then descended the final few miles to Beinglass farm (CP4, 40.9m) and the final pit stop.

“Hamish! What do you want to eat?!”

I’d pretty much lost any appetite by now, in truth what I really wanted to do was to sit down, have a cup of coffee and a chat, and maybe watch some TV. But the Bella crew had other ideas. Water? Check! Lucozade? Check! Tyres? Check! Brakes? Check! Go!!

…and I was back out on the trail again, into the blazing sunshine and heading for Crianlarich. By now things were really starting to hurt. It didn’t help that the section is a bit of a slog: lots of ugly newly-constructed roads, earth moving equipment, cows and farm tracks. And surprise, surprise, its effing hilly again. Right on cue, Peter and Brendan appeared from nowhere giving great advice and masses of encouragement.

“Break it into sections. Dig in!”

I dug in. Under the sheep creep (managing to smack my head in the process), along the infamous “cow poo alley”, past a few more runners, and I’d made it to the Crianlarich deer fence and the start of the final leg.

The forest towards Tyndrum was the only bit I hadn’t recced in training, and I was delighted to find it has lots of…hills. Hell, why not. As I passed 50 miles, I told myself I only had a Parkrun to go – but at my current pace, a 40 minute Parkrun! Through a farm, past the old lead mine, a few more spectators, and all of a sudden I could hear bagpipes.

I came round the corner and there was the famous red carpet finish. I won’t forget the feeling running the last few steps on that carpet, all pain and tiredness erased by the cheers of the crowd. It almost made me want to carry on…

The Fling finish really gives you your money’s worth: medal, t shirt, a bottle of fizz, a buff, soup, roll, beer, a massage, a ceilidh, and free race photos. A huge thanks to John Duncan and the 100+ people who produced, marshalled, helped, and supported the race. An amazing team of volunteers doing an incredible job; it’s a really special event.

Massive respect to Bellas Tommy, Stuart and Vicki on their runs, and to the Bella gang, for the training, encouragement, advice, race support and the best banter, an EPIC thanks to everyone who got me round.

HOKA Highland Fling 2015 - Bella Results


Photo: Danielle Glendinning

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