Saturday, 2 May 2009

Vasque series race 4 - Montane Highland Fling 53mi. Sat 25/04/2009

Montane Highland Fling
The 4th Highland Fling took place last Saturday 25th April. It covers the first 53 miles of the 95-mile West Highland Way from Milngavie (pronounced ‘Milguy’) to Tyndrum. This was my first venture north of the border into Scotland to run an event. I made a long weekend of it and the whole new experience made a real mark on me – the spellbinding scenery from the train window and through which we ran, the great welcoming friendliness of the Scottish people, Murdo MacDonald and his wonderful team of helpers, and the memorable new trail experience.

I had a leisurely journey up on Friday by train. After the brief shock of Glasgow’s suburbs I arrived at Milngavie, where I met Jez Bragg. After a rather restless night in the local Premier Inn Hotel, I wandered up to the start at Milngavie Station with Jez and Allen Smalls to register for the 7am Males and Male Veterans start. (The Women and Male Super Veterans had started at 6am, while the relay runners were to start at 8am.)

As we waited in the station car park for Murdo’s speech, the sun began to show itself through a haze of humidity, portending a warm day ahead. I noticed several familiar faces from previous events. I managed to grab a few words with most of them. Dave Donaghue was there with ‘Charlie’ the Border Collie. Charlie loves the ultras and enjoys considerable fame on the blogs and in the running press. David Palmer was there too, and what he was about to take on filled me with a mixture of awe, foreboding, fear, loneliness, pity…. Not only was he going to complete the 53-mile Highland Fling, which is essentially a self-supported event, he was to continue to the end of the West Highland Way, all 95 miles of it and all self supported. Respect to that man!

The event is very low-key with as few rules as possible; we take the responsibility for looking after ourselves. It's the way it should be. Only water was provided at widely spaced checkpoints. All food had to be self-provided, either carried or via drop-bags.

I was travelling light with my preferred bum bag because I feel like I run more efficiently and with less effort than with a backpack, even a small one. I had one drop-bag at Inversnaid at the 34-mile point.

Once Murdo had given his brief instructions we crossed the road in a very long line to the starting funnel on the other side. (The underpass from the station was closed off due to building works.) I took up my rightful place far from the front. I reckoned on somewhere between 11 and 12 hours.

We were soon off and I eased myself into the customary easy run I reserve for ultras that I always hope will get me to the finish as quickly as possible without blowing up. I had the route map with me plotted out on 11 sides of A4, but I quickly realised that the West Highland Way is so well way-marked by idealised thistle symbols, a map isn’t really necessary. It was nice to monitor where I was, though.

I passed through the first water stop at Drymen (12 miles) and the trail was proving to be flatter and more runnable than I was accustomed to. I looked longingly at the passing hills and mountains. “I’d normally be climbing those,” I thought to myself. “They’d provide a nice excuse for a walk and a rest.” My wish was soon granted as Conic Hill loomed ahead. Reaching the top brought the first glimpse of Loch Lomond below. Rested from the welcome uphill walk, it was a nice, gravity-assisted run down the other side to Balmaha (19.5 miles).

Balmaha signified the right turn along the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, which remained with us for hour upon hour of very variable trail. Some of it was runnable, some of it was a slog that was so technical it became a hands-and-feet scramble. It was rarely flat. At times it was quite steep and precipitous. It was always spectacularly picturesque.

We passed through Rowardennan (27 miles) and Inversnaid (34 miles) before finally leaving the Loch behind shortly before Beinglas Farm (41 miles). As I climbed upwards with the Loch receding over my left shoulder, or more correctly under my left armpit, the sun was beating down, the breeze had gone and the temperature was rising. I was loving it. The conditions on the ground were pretty good as well, thanks to the recent dry period. Even Loch Lomond had been looking a little depleted.

After Beinglas Farm, with fewer than 12 miles to go, we found ourselves on a twisting, technical, single-track trail beside the River Falloch, where passing was all but impossible. There was a long line of us snaking along left and right, up and down through the trees. The speed of the person at the front was just right as I followed, trying to hold it together. I could feel my energy reserves beginning to drop.

I felt a few spots of rain from a nearby shower but we outran it and we remained dry. I was slowing down. I had been keeping the food and drink going down but it was no longer enough to maintain the speed. I needed another Coke boost but I had already consumed my meagre supplies. (Lesson learned – take more Coke!) Then people began to overtake me. Norman Neilson, for whom this was his first ultra, caught up with me again. (He and several others had been falling back and re-overtaking for many miles as we each went through our strong and less strong periods. This is a fact of ultra running to which I have become well accustomed.) He asked me about our finishing time. “Could we get a sub-10? It’s only 12-minute-miling.” “No chance,” I replied. “I can’t keep up that speed any longer. I need my walking breaks now, but you look as though you’re running strong, so you go for it.” With that he was off. I could not believe how quickly he had vanished into the distance. He was eventually to make up 22 minutes on me in the last 10 miles, but unfortunately he did not beat 10 hours. Nonetheless, well done Norman for a top performance on your first ultra! This was my 103rd, but hey-ho, some have got it and some haven't, eh? :-)

After the first A82 crossing (“Duck or Grouse!”) I noted an almost full, 2 litre bottle of de-gassed Coke languishing beside a supporter who was waiting for her runner to come through. I plucked up the courage to beg for some of it to be decanted into one of my water bottles. She was amazing. She obliged, saying her runner would never need all of it. To that lady and her runner I owe a big debt of gratitude. It helped to stem too much further slowing of pace as I shuffled the remaining few miles. (I bet her runner still overtook me anyway.)

Not far from the finish a more substantial sprinkling of rain caught us, but that never came to anything either. Suddenly the finish was in sight, which came as a surprise. I wasn’t quite expecting it. I turned a bend and there were the finishing flags. I stopped to take (another) picture and Julie Gardner, who was sitting by the side cheering us in, said: “Come on Nick, try to put a bit more effort in.” That was funny; I still laugh at it now.

Once through the inflatable arch in 10:35 I wasted little time in searching out the “stovies” (mashed-up potato and beef – very nice), which were fast running out even at 5:30pm. Then I ‘enjoyed’ a free, 'deep' leg massage. My fingernail marks in the masseur’s table will remain as a permanent record of its intensity. Upon emerging from my torture I met Jean-Pierre Gendrault. He had become a familiar face for seven days in July 2008 during the Swiss Jura Marathon. It was a pleasant reunion. The ultra running community is a world-wide happy family.

I heard that Jez beat his own record again despite suffering from an upper respiratory infection that took hold after his 80 miles in the Lake District on the previous weekend. With a time of 7:19, that man's a machine, simply amazing.

The ‘goodie bag’ was rather novel. It contained a bottle of ‘Champagne’ (not the real McCoy of course – think of the cost), a bottle of ice cold Coors Light beer, which went down very nicely with minimal delay, a finisher’s medal, a stick of The North Face lippie on a rope, and a “magic mug”. The magic mug is a traveller’s mug from the nearby Real Food CafĂ© that gets you free tea or coffee in perpetuity, as long as you have it with you when you visit. I made use of it later that evening with my fish and chip supper. The food and establishment are superb - on similar lines to but a scaled down version of Pete's Eats in Llanberis. The walls are lined with well-deserved awards.

Later that evening I went along to the ceilidh in the village hall up the hill a little further along the West Highland Way, on the way helping Murdo to ferry tables and event paraphernalia to his car and also having another chat with Dave with ultra collie ‘Charlie’; he was waiting for the bus to go back to Milngavie. I heard that the later runners had got caught in a thunderstorm, to which I had remained oblivious as I soaked in a nice warm bath at the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel. I didn’t envy them one bit.

The ceilidh was an absolute blast. The live band (with bagpipes at appropriate times) was very good and got us up performing all sorts of wonderful dances. The proceedings were well lubricated by an impressive selection of drinks. The merriment went on until 1am and provided a superb end to a superb day and amazing new experience for me.

Sunday dawned wet, the rain having set in overnight. We had just grabbed the last of the fine weather on Saturday. We were so lucky but I soon thought of David Palmer still slogging on his solo journey up the rugged end of the West Highland Way. I felt a twinge of concern.

I returned home on Monday, but not before acquiring a memento – the “Fling” Finish sign. It was beginning to delaminate at the edges as it clung forlornly to the fence by its very wet Blu Tak, which had almost lost its grip in the cold rain. I couldn’t just leave it there to drop off by itself, so I rescued it.

The single track train journey from Upper Tyndrum station was extremely scenic. I watched the views intently; trying to follow the path we had run two days earlier up to the point when the line veered right away from Loch Lomond and away from the West Highland Way. I had spotted the point where the West Highland Way went under the railway to the first A82 crossing (you'll definitely grouse if you don't duck).

I took quite a few photos over the extended weekend. A selection is here.

4 down, 8 to go......


  1. a beautifully 'penned' account nick. totally collude with your sentiments around the friendliness of the race.
    so coke is the 'secret weapon' i'd been missing until now!
    well done on your time. commendable!

  2. Thanks ultra collie, me ol' dawg. Well done to you too (this is the mutual admiration society). I discovered Coke's efficacies at the Western States 100 in 2006, where it was available at the aid stations. It was the first time I'd ever tried it during an ultra. I became an instant convert.

  3. Great stuff Nick. As always, I love your race descriptions and photos. That looks like a truly fantastic run.

    Cheers, Paul