Seeking asylum in the hills & transcendence on the trails

My first Highland Fling (2011 Ultra)

I had run / cycled / walked quite a bit of the West Highland Way in the past and on the Saturday before the Fling I wanted to get one final long run in. As some of you will know I had to miss the GEDM race a few weeks before due to sickness and it had knocked my confidence quite a bit, especially as the training had suffered. So I decided I needed a decent long run and a week before the race seemed a good time to try out some of the course. It would hopefully make me feel stronger and also give me a feel for the tricky loch-side sections between Inversnaid and Beinglas.

The run went well and with that complete, I tapered my training in the run-up to the race. The taper is often a struggle for people with a heavy training schedule but for once I didn’t get too stressed.  With the wise words of @GlasgowOsteo ringing in my ears – the training was already done….it was a matter of feeling rested and ready. So I focussed on nutrition and rest.

I finalised my race plan on the Thursday and walked it through with my family /support crew! It was pretty detailed but the course doesn’t make it an easy race to follow. If you’re interested in seeing it, drop me a note.

Everything else I got ready on the Friday. It was a strange day and it reminded me of the ‘GEDM Gastro-disastro’ – the worst day of the year for me.  I slept well, and with relief, the alarm woke me up at 4.32am without any stomach pains – wooohoo – breakfast time!

Usual pre-race breakfast and drinks, bottles / hydration bladder filled, support bag sorted and headed over to pick up the ‘crew’.

The start

We arrived in Milngavie in time to hear the vets race-brief and see them set off 1 hour before us. Some of them I’d see later.

And as it became clear that it was going to be a very hot day I registered and warmed up for the race. With a 5 min warning we were called to the start line. I went straight to the front, joining the ‘elites’ who had come up for the race (with it being the UK Championships for 2011 with GB jerseys up for grabs).

Milngave – Drymen (12 miles)

The start was straight up a flight of stairs and with a cheer from the small crowd we were off. I was straight up the steps and to my surprise no-one came past me, so for the next mile or so I stayed where I was. Wasn’t 100% sure of the route through Mugdock so was happy when I dropped behind into a lead group of 4. It was a delight to be running with the likes of Jez Bragg – a bit of an ultra running legend and winner of some of the biggest ultra races in the world. We were at Carbeth before I knew it and whilst it was quicker than my planned time I was comfortable with the pace at this stage.

At we headed towards Drymen I tried for a little bit of chat with the guys who would battle it out for victory. Not sure they appreciated the banter but I just assumed we all ran for some kind of enjoyment (the only difference being that I’m amateur / novice)? I guess they found me annoying – I was just genuinely excited about the race and to be running with these guys.

Drymen – Balmaha (8 miles)

The last 12miles was complete in about 1.21 – quicker than planned. Drymen was the first checkpoint and my crew were there with a replacement bottle and gels.  Felt slightly bad for them as they get no more than 2 words from me, but it’s uplifting every time I see them ahead of me.

As we began to head up towards Conic Hill, I sensibly dropped my pace. The guys I was fortunate to run with (Andrew James etc) knew exactly the pace they were aiming for and what they’d have left in the tank for the next 40 or so miles. With my inexperience I wasn’t entirely sure.

Conic Hill wasn’t too bad. It’s always a struggle of course but it’s the descent that really hurts and by the time I reached my next bottle pick up on the other side I could feel some signs of cramp. Still, with some ‘well-dones’ from my family and some more gels etc I was on to the next leg.

Balmaha – Rowardennan (7 miles)

The next stretch was the toughest of the day for me. 20 miles done and my legs were heavy. Balmaha to Rowardenan is surprising hilly. Not long climbs by any means but lots of them (and steep too). I really had to dig deep but by the next CP I had come through the worst of it (with the help of a liberal application of ibuprofen gel to my hip / ass). 27 miles done – only 26 to go!

Rowardennan – Inversnaid (7 miles)

A lot of people stopped here for a few minutes to eat / sort out their drop bags. I had carried enough from Balmaha to skip this one so continued on. This section is mostly a fairly wide forest track that climbs for about 3 or 4 miles before dropping back down towards the Hotel at Inversnaid. I passed quite a few people here who were walking some of the steeper sections. ‘Just need to keep moving’ I repeated to myself. As you get closer to Inversnaid it turns into a more tricky singletrack – a hint at what’s to come. With the staggered start of the race by group (women -2hrs, MV -1hr) this is a section you can get caught up as it’s not easy to pass. Most are happy to move aside, others I asked to get through – all friendly enough though. My first drop bag was sitting in Inversnaid and they dug it out for me pretty quickly from a choice of hundreds. Another bottle and gels, a single bite of a peanut butter and nutella sandwich and I was on my way again. 20 mins or so up on my planned time. I maybe should have taken the time to remove the stone that was inside my shoe since Carbeth but decided I didn’t have time.

Inversnaid – Beinglas (7 miles)

This is the trickiest section and one I was looking forward to getting to the end of (and to see my support). It was probably the hottest part of the day and I would have much preferred just getting my head down on a straightforward trail and making the distance. Not really possible here as it’s so tricky with rocks, tree-roots etc to negotiate. There are some steep sections where you have to lower yourself down some rocks or take some large scrambly climbs which your legs really aren’t too happy to accommodate with over 30 miles already  in them. I passed a lot of people in the section and 1 or 2 went past me too.

The heat was getting bad and I filled my hat in a stream a couple of times and put it back on to feel the cold water running down my back. I could really feel some blisters on my feet by this point (and a large one burst as I landed on a sharp rock) but I switched it off and kept moving. Was drinking more than planned here too and was out of fluids a couple of miles from the next CP. When I finally reached it I was delighted to burst into my dropbag and have a drink. I also decided to fill my empty bottle with water (a decision that I regretted afterwards). The guy with the water in large plastic cans was busy talking to his friends and I had to ask him 3 times for water, costing me at least 30 seconds (more later).

Beinglas – Tyndrum (12 miles)

It felt good to be on the final leg. 12 miles to go and I’d be able to stop, drink some water and eat something other than a sticky, super-sweet energy gel 😦 A few miles into this and I was already getting through my final bottle. Not good – I really wanted to drink freely and hoped that I would see my support somewhere before the end. Again there was a fair bit of climbing on this section – long drawn out efforts that I just plugged away at. On the main descent towards the river section I could see a few supporters…..and then someone who looked like my sister. It was! I scrounged any remaining fluids they had, dropped a bottle and the extra pocket I was carrying and was off again with another slap of gel on my hip.

I just kept plugging away and with 6 miles to the end (Crianlarich) I passed a couple of guys on another long climb. We chatted briefly and he jokingly cursed that I had an hour on him as he had set off at 7.00am. I wished him luck and continued on my own. I had never done this section so wasn’t entirely sure what was in store and exactly how long it would take. Every time I thought we must be descending towards the finish we would climb again. By this stage the climbs were preferable to the descents which were getting painful. I could soon see the road though and to my delight, my family with an unexpected bottle replacement – the sweetest one of the day by far!!

Further along the road on the other side I could hear some voices behind and tried to speed up. It was the 2 guys from the earlier climb and they shouted to let me know it was them. I was stressed at first but it turned out to be perfect timing. There was still 4 miles to go and (Andy) was aiming for a 9hr30 finish (me an 8hr30). The guy running with Andy was helping him to keep pace over the last few miles (Euan I think) and I was more than happy to go with them! We chatted for the next 3 miles and it gave me such a boost (as well as keeping me on the right route – I may have missed some turns on my own). With about 1 mile to go Euan said there was really only one more climb – I pushed on to get over it and left them (after a couple of thank you’s).

Finally I could see Tyndrum and the campsite. Still no sign of the finish though. As I passed the bridge I asked someone ‘how far to the end?’ fearing the worst, he said ‘500 meters mate, well done’. Did he really know or was he making it up? But by then I could hear 2 pipers positioned just before the finish. What a sound. This was it! I thanked them and fought the lump in my throat, turned the corner and spotted my family and the finish line. An incredible feeling.

I was so happy to finish in a decent time that I forgot to clock my timing chip over the pad – I had just assumed that someone would have said. Eventually someone shouted me over and I ‘officially’ finished in 8hrs 23 mins and 18 seconds. I grabbed some water etc and hugged my family – they had been amazing. Genuinely. Must be pretty torturous supporting someone you care about through an endurance event. Within a few minutes I could see Andy heading for the finish line, I shouted and clapped – he was well within his 9.30 target – an amazing achievement. He (and his friend Euan) had really helped me and I was extremely grateful. Thank you!

Home and Recovery

After hanging around for 20 mins and sinking a recovery shake my legs were ceasing up and I was starting to shiver despite the change of clothes, so we decided to head for home. It was a struggle to walk freely and I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the thought of sitting in a car for the next hour and a half. I had a finishers medal though and my family seemed proud. Made it all worthwhile.

We chatted about the whole day on the journey home and I realised for the first time what a different experience it is on the other side. Maybe I’ll persuade one of them to write something about it 🙂


Lots learned. Training tweaks required. Disappointed not to be 10th (18 seconds in it – although they were running earlier so it’s not like i could see them) I can’t help but think about the time wasted at Beinglas with the water and at the end, not clocking my chip. I know, I should be happy. I am. I guess. For now.

Thanks  to all the marshalls, the people at the dropbag areas, the friendly runners but most of all to my support crew of 4. You were awesome.

PS. If there’s anything in particular you want to know more about please just let me know. It’s hard to work out what people might want to read about 😉

4 responses

  1. Pingback: The Highland Fling 2011 – night before « pyllon

  2. jo

    Love the blog Paul

    May 6, 2011 at 9:28 am

    • Thanks 😉

      Ps. You’re funny 🙂


      May 6, 2011 at 9:30 am

  3. Pingback: West Highland Way Race Report – 2011 « pyllon

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