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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!

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Highland Fling Race (53miles/ trail)

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.


Subversive Runner said...

Excellent report of an excellent performance, mate. Considering the hideous humidity I can only wonder what might have been had the conditions been perfect. Great chatting to you before and after.

Thomas said...

Jez, congratulations for another great performance!
The report is an absolute pleasure to read.

Looking forward to next year!

John Kynaston said...

Congratulations on another great race and thanks for sharing your thoughts in your report.

As one of those who were encouraged when you went past me at 30miles I can tell you it meant a lot that you did take time to exchange a word or two.

It was also good to have a proper chat before the prize giving.

I'll be following your progress with great interest particulary the Western States 100 mile race.

Recoer well


Brian Mc said...

What a report - you have a great memory for the feelings, both physical and mental, mid-race. I like your description of the trails between Rowardennan and Inversnaid, which I thoroughly enjoy - "a calming sense of enclosure and quiet within the woodland itself".

And what a race too! Well done.

Billy said...


Tremendous race and report – well done. It’s been very interesting hearing the story of the day unfold from the reports all through the field, and great to get one from the front. Your split proportions are very revealing and I think most of us can take a lesson in pace judgement from them.



The Sunday Adventure Club said...

Great report Jez, excellent run as ever! all the best, Richie

Tim said...

Another gripping read! Huge congratulations on bringing the record down yet again.

I hope you don't mind but I've added a link to this report on the Fling website.

Sebastien said...

What a fantastic run you did.

It was my first Ultra, this report is for me and I'm sure for others a big source of motivations and inspirations to follow good runners.
Thanks to share.

Anonymous said...

Jez - a great race, and a great report as well.. Will never be at the pointy end of the race, but really interesting to see how you approach each of the stages and how you are thinking and feeling as you go along. Great speaking to you after the run - best of luck as the year progresses - cheers Keith

Debs M-C said...

Great run. Well done.
I've still got your t-shirt. Can you let me know where to send it to. debbie.martin@dailymail.co.uk.

Happy recovery :-)

Marco Consani said...

Hey Jez,

Well done on another astonishing performance. It was great to run with you and chat for a bit although Debbie wasn't too pleased to see us both running together at the Beech Trees and my pacing out by 10 mins. oops.
Good luck for the Western States. Looking forward to reading your blog on it.


Paul Charteris said...

Good stuff Jez, sounds like a great run and perfect timing too pre-Western States. Millsy is one fast dude. He left my ass for dead on the trails when he came out to NZ earlier this year.

Cheers, Paul

Ben said...

Hi Jez
very much enjoyed reading your report and well done on another inspired, and inspiring, performance. A fantastic course and race, as you say. Well done again. Ben

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