This was just the 4th running of The Highland Fling, a classic ultra trail race which has grown dramatically year-on-year to become one of the biggest and best in the UK. In 2006 I was one of just 20 or so runners taking part in the first event which was designed to be a training event for the full West Highland Way Race, and just four years later here I am again, this time alongside over 300 runners. Incredible. And if you were lucky enough to be part of the race on Saturday – as a runner, helper or spectator - you will know exactly why the event has taken off like it has. The Highland Fling Race offers pretty much everything you could possibly hope for in a ultra - a classic route, technical trails, a challenging distance, friendly people wherever you turn, reliable support and organisation, a post race party, a medal and goody bag – and all for a tenner.
This year the race also hosted the inaugural UKA ultra distance trail running championships, a trial race for the Great Britain team being sent to the World Trail Running Championships in Serre Chevalier in July, as well as being a series race for the Vasque ultra running championships. Along with this major championship recognition came a strong field of runners from all over the UK.
For me, I should confess, it was a risky race to run. It was still relatively soon after the 100km road race in Galway at the end of March, but even more of a concern was the cold/ bad throat I have been suffering with intermittently since Easter. It came back with avengence on the Wednesday before the race, probably a result of some long days in the Lakes the weekend before, so added to risk the of heavy legs was my body fighting bugs - not a great state to be starting in.
Unusually for me, I slept very badly the night before the race. As I lay in bed thoughts of possible race outcomes span around my head. I was particularly worried that my weakened body may not be up to it and I might have to pull out during the race, although I committed to myself that I would give it everything and run from the heart which was probably my best chance of getting through. The desire was certainly there, could my body match it?
I was relieved when 5am eventually came around so I could get up and get in race mode properly.The senior mens race started at 7am, with the rest of the field, including vets and ladies, starting a hour earlier at 6am. The aim of the staggered starts, as I understand it, was two-fold; to ease congestion at the start and to get people finishing the 53mile course closer together. The congestion precautions certainly worked well.
The start of the race was rather bizarre as one of the runners, Stuart Mills, went tearing off into the distance as if it was a 10km pace. Afterwards he confessed that his tactics were to try and disrupt things amongst the front runners, although no one in the chasing group I was in seemed that bothered, and like me they thought the pace would not be sustainable. As it turned out, Stuart went astray very early in the race and was never able to recover sufficiently to compete like he is capable of. This was a great shame because a runner of his ability was a potentially a great asset to the race.
We all settled down into a brisk pace and chatted away to help pass the early miles. It was a humid morning so straight away I started to get plenty of fluids down knowing it was easier to do so earlier in the race than later. I followed a similar tactic with nutrition, tucking into gels and cake just 7 or 8 miles in, passing thoughts to my own self-amusement that the rest of population would be more sensibly tucking into a fry-up around the same time.
On the climb from Drymen to Conic Hill there was a noticeable drop in conversation as the competition started to build. Allen Smalls and Andy Rankin appeared to be pushing each other hard up the hill with Brian Cole close behind. I was a couple of hundred yards behind, taking it a bit more steadily and trying not to over do it early on. By the end of the descent into Balmaha car park they were out of sight so I just focused on replenishing supplies at the checkpoint and set about re-fuelling properly as I walked the short but stiff climb just beyond.
Now loch-side (Lomond), I continued to run at my own pace, with eventual 2nd place finisher, Scott Bradley, just a few yards behind. From experience, this long 20 mile section is best run at your own pace and following your own rhythm, so I deliberately didn’t worry about the whereabouts of others. I just set my mind to relax and settle in. Mid-way between Balmaha and Rowardennan I caught Brian who reported afterwards that he was feeling way out of sorts so sensibly decided to pull out. Thereafter I was back on my own. I moved quickly through the Rowardennan checkpoint which seemed quite congested, narrowly avoiding road rage with a white transit van who didn’t seem to appreciate my urgency.
I started to pick up and feel a bit stronger. It was useful timing, coinciding with some nice runnable forest tracks rising and dipping along the steep loch side between Rowardennan and Inversnaid. It was a beautiful landscape to be running through, with far reaching views across the loch between breaks in the trees to the left, and a calming sense of enclosure and quiet within the woodland itself.
I came across various folk from the 6am start, many of whom looked incredibly strong and comfortable despite the mileage already run. It provided a fairly unique experience, the opportunity to work through the field from person-to-person, and to exchange a few words of encouragement as I moved through.
Eventually I came across the two remaining guys ahead from the 7am start. It was Andy first (in second), then Allen a few hundred yards beyond who was in the lead. It was a great feeling to move into the lead, and with it came an added adrenaline-fuelled charge which helped me to build a lead which I estimated to be a couple of minutes by the time I had settled back down. The sudden change to being at the front also brought with it a sense of vulnerability and pressure which came as a shock to my previously relaxed mentality. I was conscious those chasing could potentially keep me in sight and reel me in later on. Such thoughts helped with my focus and drive, and I decided to push on again to build more of a buffer, but before long I was into the checkpoint at Inversnaid.
Inversnaid was much quieter in terms of the number of supporters and spectators, it’s relative remoteness probably the reason for that. The low key format of this checkpoint felt very appropriate for the stage in the race, there was still a full 19 miles to go and no time to get carried away. On departing the checkpoint it was straight into the very technical section of trail which involves many ledges, ups, downs, tree-roots, mud and streams. You name it, this narrow and windy section of singletrack throws it at you. I felt rotten leaving Inversnaid, but the concentration required to run this section of trail seemed to quickly wipe away any negative thoughts; no opportunity to feel sorry for oneself here. As always, the focus this section required seemed to make the miles fly by, and before long I was climbing away from the loch after 20 miles in its company. I also came across the lead vet runner, who was comfortably out front on his own, and then it was into Beinglass Farm, the final checkpoint.
Knowing this was the final checkpoint I made the most of the contents of my drop back, a tooth-rotting combination of gels, cake, coke and lucozade. All items were duly pack into my waist pack – or consumed – and I was off again. The coke I drank gave me an instant kick which was welcome to assist with the tough long climb up to the woods above Crianlarich. This is the transition from the lowland to the highlands, and boy is it a drawn out one. Now being clear of the woods and into the open valley, there was a welcome drop in the temperature which my body greatly appreciated. I knew from my hazy head and the pulsing feeling in my arms that I was massively dehydrated, so the cool breeze and fluids were a huge relief, and possibly prevented me pushing my tiring body a step too far.
I knew from experience this section was also the moment of truth in terms of race position. During all the concealed wooded trails up to this point, it was hard to keep track on how close behind the other guys were, but now out in the open it would be plain to see. I couldn’t resist looking over my shoulder every couple of minutes, but thankfully there was nothing to see, I had built a solid cushion. Strangely, this fuelled me further, and I continued to run every possible section of the climb and eventually made it back into the woods above Crianlarich without seeing anyone behind.
With this reassurance my mind then automatically switched to times and records for the first time in the race. Foolishly I had forgotten to make a note of my 2008 splits before the race, as I had intended to do, so in all honesty I didn’t have a clue where I stood in relation to record pace. So there was only one approach left - run hard. That I did. The woodland descent down to the A82 was a great blast and then the final flat section along the valley bottom, I ran like a man possessed. It was a great feeling running home to the finish. It had been a full year since I had last completed the journey on my favourite trail, I was very proud to have completed and won the race again. My final time was 7hrs 19mins, around 5minutes quicker than my previous best.
See here for full results http://www.highlandflingrace.org/
Many thanks to Murdo, Ellen and all the other organisers for putting on another brilliant race - see you next year.
- Jez Bragg
- Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!