Wow…what a great day and what a great race! The Fling this year incorporated the UKA Ultra Trail Championships, Scottish Ultra Trail Championships and GB Ultra Trail Team Qualifier so as you can imagine there was a very strong field. Jez Bragg, Stuart Mills, Allen Smalls were just some of the names I recognised. I was really excited with the prospect of testing myself with the best and seeing how far I’ve progressed and how far I am from some of the top UK ultra runners. Unfortunately I had a very “off” day at the races and the Highland Fling became one of the toughest challenges I’ve faced as an ultra runner.
The race itself begins with a staggered start between 6am and 9am, the idea being that it cuts down on congestion and the chance for everyone finishing closer together at the end. I was classed as an “elite” so would be at the 8am start, whereas Annie would start at 6am with the rest of the females and super vets. Consequently, we were both up at 3:30am to have breakfast and drive to the start at Milngavie for 5am. Although ideally I would have enjoyed an extra 2 hours in bed, it was good to be at the event so early and watch both the 6am and 7am runners set off and it also gave me the opportunity to take ample advantage of the toilet facilities.
8am soon came around and as we make our way to the starting line I bump into Stuart Mills and we have a brief chat. I’ve ran a couple of the same races as Stu before but we’ve never really spoke before so it was good to actually meet. When we get sent on our way, I expect Stu to go flying off on his usual “run as fast as you can for as long as you can” but he doesn’t. This time he sticks next to race favourite Jez in the company with two more runners. I decided before the race not run with the front runners and run my own race and find myself about 100 meters behind with a couple of more runners about the same distance behind me. This is pretty much how it stayed all the way to Drymen (12.6 miles) which I arrived in 01:23:58, an average pace pf 6:40 min/miles. On the face of it, 6:40 pace may appear pretty fast for a 53 mile trail race, but the route to Drymen and up to Conic Hill is quite easy going and I felt very comfortable and was enjoying myself. Just before coming out of the forest above Drymen and on towards Conic Hill I caught up and passed one of the runners from the leading pack but the other three were still about 100-200 meters in front. I was really enjoying watching the front runners (I think Stu had glued himself to Jez’s shoulder) and was happy to stay in my position and hoped to remain there until at least Rowardennan (around halfway) and see what happens from there. I was still feeling very comfortable and felt that I was running strong at this point. Arriving at the base of Conic Hill it looked like Jez had thrown down the first challenge of the day to the two other runners and ran strong to reach the summit, maybe a tactic to test the competition? I also felt strong running the hill and closed the gap to 3rd (Stu) to about 10 yards or so by the top. Unfortunately this is when the wheels started to fall off for me and the race got a hell of a lot tougher!
I arrived at the summit of Conic Hill and felt great, the climb went well and I was feeling very positive but then out of nowhere on the descent the whole of my right hamstring turned into rock solid granite! I was brought to a complete stand still, not only by the pain and an inability to move but also from the surprise and shock. I’ve got cramp plenty of times in a race, but it’s usually towards the end and there are usually signs that it’s on its way. This came out of nowhere and I had to stop and spend a minute or two stretching and massaging the hamstring. I had to take the rest of the decent easy so not to aggravate the hamstring and easily lost 4-5 minutes on the front 3 runners.
Running into Balmaha (20 miles) I was close to pulling out of the race. To get cramp this bad after only 20 miles was not a good sign and I was pretty sure that things would only get a hell of a lot worse. I had been taking on plenty of fluids and electrolytes so was mystified why I was suffering so early. I’ve only suffered cramp this bad once before, and on that occasion it got so bad that it got to a point were I could no longer move and had to pull out of the race. I really didn’t want to pull out of this race but at the same time I wanted to be able to run at my best. I decide at Balmaha to keep going but reduce my pace a little to attempt to stem the cramp from getting any worse.
The route from Balmaha to Rowardennan runs along Loch Lomond and through some woodland areas so there’s plenty to take my mind away and I’m still enjoying myself. The cramp isn’t going away and I can feel my legs slowly getting tighter and tighter. I have to stop every now and again and go through a routine of stretches but arrive in Rowardennan in 03:27:10, seven minutes behind the front runners. It really is a strange predicament to find oneself in when the body and the mind feels great but dilapidating cramp takes hold. I want to run faster and I know that usually I would be able to but I can’t and it’s bloody frustrating! A little after leaving the checkpoint at Rowardennan, there’s a really nice climb up through the woods which also offers relief from the cramp and surprisingly I see Stuart Mills just in front of me. I eventually catch up with him and after a brief chat I find myself pulling away into 3rd place. I can only assume at the time that he was going through a really bad patch. Coming down into Inversnaid, the next checkpoint, cramp starts to take hold again and it’s now spread to both legs and into my hips and groin and I have to hobble in. Stu catches back up and we’re both diving into our drop bags when another runner comes blasting through. I think this takes us both by surprise and Stu’s off before I can say anything. I eventually get myself in order and get on my way. My constant battle with cramp has prematurely fatigued my legs and I’m struggling. Leaving Inversnaid the path gets pretty technical which brings me to a walk shuffle hobble sometimes running pace. I usually enjoy skipping up and over technical trail but on this occasion my legs aren’t in a fit state to deal with it, cramp bringing me to a stand still every now and then. Two more runners catch me up on this section but I manage to keep with one of them as we take turns exchanging places. It feels like I’m walking most of this section and it’s a battle to just keep moving. We arrive at Beinglas together where one of the marshals pours a bucket of water over me and I knock back a bottle of coke/water. Leaving Beinglas, I know there are only 12 or so miles to go but I’m suffering big time. I’m feeling exhausted with my constant battle with cramp which has now spread to the whole of my stomach muscles. The coke mix does wonders for me for at least 5 minutes and I catch back up with the runner I arrived with who says he’s had it. I offer him some encouragement and energy gel but he’s not looking too good so I leave him to it and crack on. Around this point another runner comes through and I attempt to keep with him but whenever I try to increase my pace, cramp takes hold and I’m brought to a stand still. All I can do now is shuffle along, stop and stretch every now and again and just keep on plugging away until the end.
I managed to finish the race in 8th place in 08:04:09 but to be honest I was just happy to get there. Actually, to say I was happy to cross the line would be an understatement, more so because I think if I had to run any further, cramp would of engulfed my whole body! I was feeling pretty ill and headed straight for the shower. I then passed quite a bit of blood which didn’t look too good and almost fainted on a number of occasions. I eventually managed to get myself together and throw some food down me before I collapsed into a chair.
Apart from the almost complete failure of my body, I have to say that on the whole it was a really good experience. Scotland is a beautiful place, the course is fantastic and everyone involved in the race was top notch. I also perversely enjoyed my own personal battle. I have no idea why my body reacted the way it did on the day. I felt fine the days before, making sure I got enough fuel and fluid into my system. I was well rested and felt good before and during the race until things went down hill. It was a warm day, but the past 4 weeks have been hotter back home and I had lots of days running in it.
I think sometimes, things just go wrong. There’s no specific reason why they do, they just do. I don’t like to dwell on things, so I’ll just take the experience and become stronger and more determined to improve my performance. During the race I did question whether I was cut out to really ever challenge the top guys but this experience has made me more determined then ever.
But, the most important thing is to enjoy running and I hope I always will.