Monday, 27 April 2015

Hoka Highland Fling 2015 - running 8 steps at a time

My 4th consecutive year of running this incredible event which RD John Duncan has built into the largest Ultra in Scotland, so a well practiced Ainslie routine for race weekend itself.
I'd booked accommodation well before entering, knowing from past years how quickly the limited availability in Tyndrum and Milngavie disappears when race entries do go live. Friday would be the Premier Inn in Milngavie (not the one behind the Burnbrae) and Saturday the Dalkell Cottage B & B mere yards from the finish itself.
Registration was busy but efficient and by 8 pm Caroline, Andy , myself and my wife Ann, who would be acting as crew chief and general factotum were enjoying an unspectacular but reasonably priced dinner in the adjoining restaurant and heading for a sensibly early night. The main mirth deriving topic of conversation being the Facebook posts on the Fling page with photos of unfeasible quantities of drop-bag food that some people were packing, there were at least two, where a single drop bag contained about twice what I'd packed in entirety!.......oh how we seasoned veterans laughed.

A 4:50 alarm allowed plenty of time to dress, fuel up on porridge and rice pudding; arrange which bags Ann was taking to the finish line, deposit drop bags, say a few "hellos" and "good lucks" with minimal standing around time. Andy opted for the faster first wave of runners with Caroline and myself in the second 10 - 12 hour group. This year there was a distinct gap of around 90 seconds between the two and this certainly helped spread the field even in the early stages through Mugdock Park.

If you've followed my earlier musings at Malta Marathon and D33, you may recall I've adopted a "stop fannying around" approach in a determined effort to improve my race times this year. I felt that if things went well on the day I could beat last years 10:50:47. Whilst chatting as you run is definitely more fun, I've reached the conclusion that for me, it uses energy which can only be detrimental to my efforts, not sociable but practical. An unintended additional consequence is that I tend to be more "inside my own head" and race focused and less observant of people and places around me.

Milngavie - Drymen - Balmaha - Rowardennan

Usual countdown, hooter goes and its through the underpass and on our way. The weather was cool with a threat of rain, so compression t-shirt; long sleeved HH top; OMM Kamelika waterproof Jacket; hat and lightweight gloves and Speedcross 3 GTX's on my feet. Whilst it wasn't too congested through Mugdock park I was slightly frustrated at a couple of trio's running side by side chatting away, WTF guys it's a race not a picnic in the frickin' park. I think my head wasn't in the right place, at mile 2 I was thinking "I could just chuck this".
Andy, Caroline and me looking like the twat in the hat
Since coming back from holiday on Crete 2 weeks ago, I'd carried a lingering doubt that a weeks all inclusive eating and drinking including a self-inflicted bought of ouzo poisoning was not the best preparation for a 53 mile race, and I convinced myself that all my aches and pains were more than just the usual taperitis. In reality there is no way I could bale uninjured this early I'd be too embarrassed, what would I say to people?

Man up and trot on, around Carbeth I decided to lose the jacket and hat as the day was warming up also I look like a twat when I wear any kind of headgear and you never know when a photographer might pop up somewhere.
In past years I've always tackled this first section very conservatively, this year my thinking was "this is the flattest most runnable section, so I might as well push on here", I went through Drymen in 1:44 as it turns out fully 10 minutes ahead of last year. No stopping at Drymen straight up the path onto the first bit of "proper" WHW and I adopt a run 200 paces walk 50 paces strategy on hills, slopes don't count as hills so they all have to be run! Or more precisely I count up to 8 in my head, 25 times, don't ask me why but this always seems easier than counting up to 200. I spoke to a couple of people but no more than a few words of advice about not hammering down Conic Hill as they'd pay for it later.
The weather by this time was truly glorious, probably the clearest views I've ever had from Conic and no wind, down into Balmaha and the welcome sight of Harrier Ian Anderson taking photos of the descending runners. A quick joke about how I was descending like a big fairy and it was into the forest, ironically despite my fairy-like technique Strava tells me that was my fastest ever descent into Balmaha.
My watch was showing around 2:55 for this first 19 miles, even on runs where I was stopping at Balmaha I've NEVER run here under 3 hours!
This race was going in one of two directions

  1. I've got to Balmaha in under 3 hours, I'm going to have a great race
  2. I've got to Balmaha in under 3 hours, I'm going to detonate somewhere further on

Shout out my number and my drop bag is handed to me, I grab a stranger from the crowd and instruct them to top up my electrolyte bottle and throw down the first of today's 4 rice puddings, stationary for just over 1 minute and I'm away again. I think I ran most of this next section on and off with Lorna McMillan for company, Lorna was talking of pulling out but thankfully didn't and wen't on to claim a spectacular 9:30:45 finish and 5th lady overall.
About a mile before Rowardennan, I felt a twinge of cramp so stopped to take on some rock salt (yes the dubious packets of white crystals in my drop bags were salt) and to empty my bladder so the last run into the CP was a solo effort.
This time it was Sean McMinn and Helen Lees  who very efficiently topped up both my bottles, whilst I gobbled Rice pud number 2, restocked my gels and hustled me onward, with a shout out that Andy B was only about a minute ahead of me.
Milngavie to Rowardennan 4 hours 19 minutes, hang on that's just about half the total race distance, thoughts of a possible sub 10 hour finish briefly hover before me, park that dangerous thinking Keith, just concentrate on beating last years time and remember the second half is the tough half.

Rowardennan - Inversnaid - Beinglas

Almost as soon as I left the CP I ran into Andy, whose recurring foot injury had kicked in, he was in a lot of pain and said he'd have stopped at the CP if he'd seen someone he knew with a car, sensibly he turned back before the first of the hills, reckoning it wasn't worth writing off the rest of his season, just to register a finish. A rare and genuinely sensible decision that so often we Ultra runners fail to make.
The long hills between Rowardennan and Beinglas are where you can lose a lot of time, having run them twice on training runs this year I know I can actually run most of them, but can I do it with 27 plus miles in my legs?
Well yes I can 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.........1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 so if I passed you on this section no I wasn't showing off or being rude I was concentrating on 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 and boy did this bit pass quickly, soon I was onto the more trail like section on the last two miles before Rowardennan and I felt really strong. This bit is very similar in nature to the trails of Mabie forest so I think I just feel at home here, didn't even need to resort to 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 on the uphills.
Another smooth and quick drop bag point, bottles topped up Rice pudding #3 wolfed down, quick rake round the table, grabbed a gel or two and on towards the dreaded technical section.
I need to get something off my chest, in my less than humble opinion this section is not "technical" its just sodding unrunable, its a rock scramble, its bouldering, in some bits its downright scary. Andy B had a near death experience there at a recent training weekend whilst I stood helpless behind swearing and gaping at his apparent imminent and inevitable demise, how he didn't lobotomize himself on a rock that day I do not know.
OK back to the plot.
As the day continued to warm up I was down to a t-shirt and dipping my buff in streams regularly to keep my head cool. With the climb up to Dario's post and the farewell to the loch side I reckon this was without doubt the best weather I'd ever experienced on the West Highland Way.
I was struggling to keep running on the uphills now, even 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 was a challenge, I reckoned I'd pretty much nailed a PB, but my mantra switched to "any kind of run is faster than walking" not pretty but it worked. Into Beinglas in 7:24, surely the PB was assured, but I felt the sub 10 had slipped, could I run this last 12 ish miles in under 2 and a half hours?
This time it was Rachel MacRae who literally bullied me  through the checkpoint, "don't stop, walk with me", bottles refilled, rice number 4 and through, thanks Rachel it was just the treatment I needed at that point.

Beinglas - Tyndrum

Almost immediately after the CP there is a big climb back to 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 and "any kind of a run is faster than walking", I was passed by Stuart Chalmers who (finished in 9:47) and was yo-yo ing with a group of 5 or so guys pretty much all the way through this section to the finish, I think we all finished within about a 4 minute spread eventually. Under the railway, under the road, one steep climb and its the flattish lead up to cow poo alley and the alley itself. Four weeks ago this was mid calf deep in cow sh*t, this time it was completely dry and solid. One last thigh burning climb after the big gate and I know its exactly 6 miles from the picnic bench, 8:43 on the watch. Anything under 2 hours will give me a pb but can I run 6 miles in a 75 minutes, including the roller coaster?
Is the suspense killing you yet?
Smiling before the roller coaster -photo courtesy of Conor Cromie
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 where I can on the uphills which isn't often, but it's the downhills on this bit that usually slow me up, but today I'm absolutely flowing down them. I make a conscious decision to relax and I'm actually properly running, not shuffling my morale take a huge upturn and my mile splits here are some of the best I've ever run, my max pace even hitting 5:40 on one bit (it's on Strava so it must be true).
I actually enjoyed the roller coaster.
Across the A82 without a stop, 9:14 on the watch barring disaster I've nailed the PB but can I run 3 miles in 45 minutes?
Note this is a question that only Ultra runners will fully understand. Any normal runner when faced with this question will be thinking "That's only a 5 km parkrun" of course I can, seldom will they have seen the shuffling, sobbing and broken wrecks of humanity that can emerge after 50 miles of running.
There is a slope on the track into Auchtertyre 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, back under the A82, only 2 miles to go 9:27 on the watch, I think I can get sub 10, just keep moving "any kind of a run is faster than walking".
There are no more hills but I take it gingerly over the cattle grid, I'm not risking anything at this stage, one last right turn and it past the stone bench which is exactly 1 mile from the finish. I stub my foot on a protruding rock just like last year and almost take my first tumble of the day. All throughout the day walkers have unfailingly stepped aside without asking, and usually with a "well done" or similar comment, but here within sight of the finish I actually have to shout to get past. On to the track, I can hear the pipers, a wave and a thank-you to them and its round the corner to the finish, I'm going to give it the beans because not only is sub 10 in the bag, I might bag a 1 hour PB even if only ny a few seconds.
Finishing straight - photo courtesy of Ian Anderson

I'm aware of Ann and Choppy at the side of the course, but I'm focussed on the finish arch, for once I've got a finish photo where I'm running, both feet off the deck.
Through the arch, stop the watch................
9 hours 50 minutes and 17 seconds 
the magic sub ten hours and a 1 hour PB although I'm tired I'm not the broken man I usually am, although this photo may suggest otherwise.
I'm just resting -honest- photo courtesy of Ian Anderson
Medal round my neck, goodie back courtesy of David H and Julie and I take my time over soup and a roll, before heading out of the marquee, quickly change out of my soaking and salt stained t-shirt before I get chilled.
Caroline came home in 10:43:03 an incredible time considering she turned her ankle with 15 miles to go, spent an hour with Sean the race medic and ended up heading back to A & E in Dumfries to get it checked out.

I thought Johnny Fling and his team had excelled themselves last year, but this year was even better. This is an incredible value race £38 and you get medal, technical t-shirt, prosecco, a fling buff, free beer, free soup, free massage and a free ceilidh in the evening. Not to mention free photos which most other big races would charge for and free timing updates via Facebook.
The day would not be possible without the veritable army of volunteer marshalls, supporters, drivers, time keepers and all the hundred other tasks required. To each and every one of you I say a huge, heartfelt and unequivocal thank you.
A big thanks also to Ann who looked after us all in various states of disrepair at the finish and to Choppy who stepped in to drive Caroline back down to Dumfries, thanks big guy.
Since this post is already as long as a Peter Jackson movie, I'll put together a separate post on nutrition and lessons learned.
Well done to each and every finisher, commiserations to those who didn't make it to the finish, for whatever reason.

Next up The Cateran Trail Ultra in 3 weeks time, just need to recover from this one first, now then 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8



  1. Great run and write-up, well done Keith!

  2. A brilliant write up and a brilliant day out - well done! xxx

  3. Great running Keith, another big PB for the year ;-)

  4. Job done! A top account of a top run Keith. That's an impressive level of focus for that long. And, for the record, the "sodding unrunnable" section is loved by some of us!

  5. What an exciting read, I could hardly take the suspense even though I already knew the outcome! Another brilliant run, you're on fire this year! X

  6. Congratulations on a great run. Fantastic write up.

  7. Thank you very much for all the kind comments folks, much appreciated

  8. Brilliant running Keith! A whole hour off your PB! Gotta love a day when it all comes together and you can push on regardless of what challenges come your way. xx