Despite feeling disappointed with my time and finishing place in Saturday’s Highland Fling race, I couldn’t help but come away with a smile. It’s nothing less than remarkable how this race has developed since it was first conceived 10 years ago. I was one of the 18 runners who took part that inaugural year – it was not much more than a supported training run for the West Highland Way Race - and to see how it’s evolved into such a genuinely brilliant event is impressive to say the least. There are now nearly 1,000 participants taking part across both the ultra and relay events (and it could easily fill 2 or 3 times over), but it’s the spirit and organisation of the race which really impresses, certainly surpassing anything else I’ve experienced in the UK. Basically it’s just a whole lot of fun – everyone is out enjoying themselves from the checkpoint volunteers, to the musicians en route, the photographers, spectators and of course the runners. It’s great example of the spirit that our sport carries; nobody taking themselves too seriously, bucket loads of Scottish hospitality and warmth, and free beer at the end. Brilliant.
So to the racing - well I guess I was a bit rusty! Rustiness hadn’t been something I was particularly worried about pre-race, but on reflection, perhaps the lack of competitive / fast ultra racing in the last 18 months was a bit of an issue. The Fling was hosting the UK trail championships and qualifier for the GB Trail Team this year so I wanted to perform, but so too did lots of other top guys who were all there with exactly the same intentions. 6th place and a time of 7:38 was some way off my best on the Fling course and not exactly what I had in mind, so somewhat disappointing on the face of it.
But I guess there is some context which I need to factor in, which a little reflective time has allowed me to discover. The second half of 2015 was probably the lowest spell I’ve had to contend in the 12 years I’ve been running ultras - trying to find my way through a blurred picture of illness which started with a(nother) gastro bug which forced my withdrawal from the Dragon’s Back Race and then then seemed to kick start issues with my UC and possibly other things too. Anyway, I remembered after the race on Saturday evening that I could barely run at all in December simply due to physical weakness, and essentially I had a standing start trying to re-build fitness from the start of this year. Save for a chest infection, my spell of training this year has been pretty solid and I’ve worked hard at it, but always within the confines of having an awkward illness, the commitment of running my own business and not having much of a base to build from. I expect a lot from myself, I always have, so the aim for the race was the same as it always has been; running for a podium slot. But in the context of all of the above, perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on myself…
My race plan was to run relatively conservatively for the first half at least and then try to build from there. I fully expected a vicious pace from a lead group right from the off and that’s exactly what happened, with Donnie Campbell, Joe Symonds, Robbie Britton and Kim Collison pushing hard right from the gun. Unfortunately I suffered with stomach issues from early on, taking the 1st of 10 or so visits to the bushes within the first few miles, so it was tricky to hang with any sort of a group, and far from ideal in terms of maintaining strength!
|Approaching Balmaha, 40 wish miles in. Photo credit: Thomas Loehndorf.|
Once I pulled away from Jayson Cavill who was having a tough time of it just after Conic Hill, essentially it became a solo run for the remaining 30miles. I spent plenty of time pondering how it may be unfolding upfront, and to be honest I fully expected guys to fall by the wayside which impressively, never really prevailed. There was certainly some mixing up of places as Donnie pulled away from the lead group for a strong final 13 miles to break the course record, and Damien Hall ran a blinding second half from Rowardennan (where he was only minutes ahead of me) to also finish sub-7 hours and nab second place. That was the race I wanted to run, and felt in a place to do so up until about 30 miles when the gas ran out. I didn’t have a great time of it with my UC/ stomach on the day, which certainly didn’t help energy levels, but I suspect race sharpness was the biggest factor of all.
|Red carpet, finish line :o)|
That said, the running was really quite special. A clear and frosty start soon warmed from the sunshine, and we enjoyed sunny intervals and just the odd shower on our journey north from Milngavie (Glasgow). The views up Loch Lomond from Conic hill were superb, and the variety of the Loch-side trails and scenery equally so. You forgot what a classic bit of trail this is, and why it’s so popular with the multi-day trekkers. For the runners, lots of fast undulating trail to attack along with some interesting technical sections before and after Inversnaid Hotel. And some good little climbs and descents in the final 13 mile section from Balmaha to the finish also helping to mix things up when the legs are smashed.
At the finish the atmosphere really gets going with free beer, food and a unique festival atmosphere as finishers enjoy their moment on the famous red carpet to cross the line. There were loads of inspiring stories from the folk I spoke to, many telling me how they had run a previous edition of the Fling as their first ultra, and so providing an important gateway to the sport. It’s all set up perfectly for that, and long may it last as such a brilliantly organised event. It’s nothing less than heroic what Race Director ‘Johnny Fling’ has achieved, and all on a not-for-profit basis. Awesome.
So all in all a mixed bag for me from the Fling, but plenty to build on for the year ahead, and definitely no danger of peaking too early :o)
Next up will be the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in late June.