Race 4 of 12 in the 2011 Runfurther series.
Before 6am on Saturday I was trying on a pair of La Sportiva Raptor size 45s in the car park of Milngavie railway station, courtesy of Mark Barnes from Climbers Shop in Ambleside. “Perfect! They fit like a glove, just like the Crosslites. I’ll wear them for the race.” These shoes are like gold dust in this country.
The 2011 run of dry weather was set to continue in spectacular style as Western Scotland was forecast to enjoy the warmest temperatures with wall-to-wall sunshine without a cloud in the sky. (Get this remarkable statistic; in my events, which have been at least weekly, it hasn’t rained since last October’s Snowdonia Marathon. Well, it did snow on me in December’s Tour de Helvellyn but that doesn’t count, since minus ten was far too cold for anything to be wet, including the contents of my drink bottles!)
The Montane Highland Fling covers the first 53 miles of the well waymarked West Highland Way from Milngavie (pronounced “Mulguy”) on the outskirts of Glasgow to Tyndrum. It has four starts:
6am for all Females and Male Vet 50s and above;
7am for Male Vet 40s;
8am for Males and elite MV40s;
9am for the relay runners (4 runners per team);
- giving maximum finishing times of 15, 14, 13 and 12 hours respectively. This is as good a way as any to split up the field, which this year at 450 registered was the biggest so far. Despite the field size, the trail never seemed to be crowded after the first mile or so. The encounters with hikers seemed to be as frequent as encounters with other ‘Flingers’. The West Highland Way is certainly a popular trail.
We cheered the early starters off through the underpass before awaiting our turn. Some of us found the station’s waiting room to offer good shelter from the cold easterly wind. Murdo gave us our briefing then it was our turn to stand in the gloaming ready for the ‘Go’. I positioned myself at the sub-11-hour marker. I managed 10:34 in 2009 and, allowing for a minor decline in performance with my advancing years, was still hoping for a sub-11 finish, to be sure so I was, oh yes, really……
Early on in the woods we followed the crowd straight on instead of forking left to follow the thistle waymarker. Fortunately I had only gone a few yards the wrong way when the call came from behind. I soon settled in with everyone else into what seemed like an easy, sustainable jog that I feel I can maintain all day. Well, it always feels that way but for some reason rarely works out in practice. As is often the case I found myself quite comfortably overtaking Ian Hodge, who I know always finishes ahead of me in ultras, but when my overtaking flows so freely I have to go for it. To do any less feels like a wasted opportunity and valuable time lost. A few miles further on, William Harris caught up with me with a comment about these fast starts. But he was behind me, and he always finishes way ahead of me, and he thought the start was fast? I think my perception of speed is way up the creek, even after all these years.
Although the easterly wind was cold, the unbroken sunshine on our backs and the effort of running made it seem very warm. I soon had to roll up my sleeves, and knew that once over Conic Hill and into the shelter of the hills to our east, my thin long-sleeved top would be relegated to my backpack.
I made good time to the first water stop at Drymen (12.1 miles). 1:51 was 2 minutes faster than in 2009. I drank a mug of electrolyte (half a nuun tablet). I had decided on this strategy at every water stop to complement the water and Coke I was drinking on the run from my hand-held bottles, to keep my hydration in perfect order. While I faffed with my hydration, Ian overtook me. William had passed through three minutes earlier. Normal status was taking shape.
As I climbed Conic Hill at a walk I began to glance behind me for the first 8am starters. The time was approaching 3 hours elapsed for me and 2 hours for them, and I reckoned on the first overtaking occurring soon. Close to the high point on the right-hand shoulder of the hill with Loch Lomond set out before me, the familiar image of Jez Bragg in his white The North Face sleeveless shirt appeared down the trail. As he loped effortlessly up the trail past me I offered words of encouragement. He was in the zone, devoting all his attention to the job in hand. I know what it feels like (in my own back-of-the-pack world, you’ll understand). Following close on Jez’ heels was Andrew James, a new name to me. He had a similarly effortless lope. Not far behind Andrew was Stuart Mills, whose grimace of determination gave the only true picture of what these elite runners must have been going through. More encouragement elicited the same ‘in-the-zone-not-to-be-disturbed’ response. Don’t worry lads, I understand. On the descent of Conic Hill, several more of the ‘racing snakes’ including Allen Smalls overtook me but I was paying too much attention to the technical descent to be taking any more pictures.
Conic Hill with Loch Lomond below.
At Balmaha (19.0 miles) my prediction was correct. I had already been baking on the leeward descent of Conic Hill, so off came the long-sleeved top. Balmaha was the first of four drop-bag stations but I did not have one here. My two bags would be at the 2nd and 4th stations. More hydration faffing ensued and many more runners overtook me before I was off along the eastern side of Loch Lomond for the next few hours of up-down twisting, turning and stumbling. I sensed that my pace had slowed compared to what it was in 2009. How much slower would it be if I wasn’t looking after my hydration so diligently? I wouldn’t want to know.
As we ran along the trail and through the water stations, the friendliness and enthusiastic support we received from marshals and spectators was as good as I remembered in 2009. However, what was different was the comparative absence of supporters’ vehicles this year. Supporters are actively discouraged by the organisers as unnecessary because we already have five water stations and four drop bag stations. Their absence ‘levels the playing field’ for those like me who cannot arrange such support.
I continued to slow and fall further behind my 2009 schedule as the sun baked me from behind and a steady stream of the later faster ‘Flingers’ overtook me. There is a lot of exposed trail on the West Highland Way. My mind began to wander as I thought of things to take my mind off the discomfort. At times the dry, narrow trail, deep blue sky peeking through the trees above and the smell of the sun-warmed pine forest reminded me of the early, high altitude miles of the Western States 100. The strength of the scent might have been a fraction of that in Northern California but I was still transported there in my thoughts quite a few times with the right stimuli.
My first drop bag was at Rowardennan at 26.5 miles. The Coke refill was warm and the mini pork pie was sweating nicely. I timed in here at 5:09, which was 25 minutes behind my 2009 schedule. I did not rush the taking care of food and hydration. I might have been slower but I wanted at least to finish, without trashing myself. It would take as long as necessary.
After Rowardennan the trail began to get technical and impossible to run unless you were fresh, which naturally I was not. This continued through Inversnaid (33.8 miles) and beyond. It provided multiple excuses to walk, which I really appreciated. I had no drop bag at Inversnaid. I was pleased about this because they were cooking in the blazing sun. I had a chat with Pat, who had retired with vomiting and dehydration. Quite a few were similarly affected by the heat.
I also caught up with early starter Dave here. He had an epic plan to continue self supported to the end of the West Highland Way at Fort William. However he seemed to be struggling with an old injury and I was genuinely concerned whether he would be able to make it in time for his transport arrangements, or at all, for that matter. As I continued onwards along the remaining 19 miles his situation played on my mind. I was working out how I could help out if he did have to call it a day at Tyndrum. Would there be space at my B & B for him to doss down, and what about a change of clothes? His bag was already waiting for him at Fort William. So many questions.
8am starter Chris Webb caught up with me just before Beinglas (40.4 miles), and what a friendly and warm checkpoint this was (warm in two senses – there was a lot of basking going on). My second and final drop bag was here. The Coke was hot and lively, the Snickers bar was melted and the pork pie had escaped and was rampaging somewhere in the undergrowth. Chris Webb told me that his Coke had already exploded, so he was denied his sugar-caffeine fix. All this sun and heat, we are talking Scotland in April here; unbelievable! My time here was 8:54, which was 1:02 behind 2009’s schedule. So what; it was hot and this was as fast as I could go while just about enjoying the experience. If I don’t enjoy it, why do it?
I watched Chris gradually pull away into the distance as I began the final 12 miles to the finish. At the speed I had been going on the previous two sections I reckoned that I would struggle to a sub 13 hour finish. What a comedown from the sub 11 I had been assuming. The thought of the cold bottle of Coors beer at the finish had been driving me on for several hours and the draw was getting stronger. The end of an ultra is one of the few times when I really fancy a cold beer because it seems to revive and rehydrate pretty well.
Once into the wide open again, the cooling wind began to restore a vestige of relative speed to my shuffle. Other runners remarked afterwards that they were able to pick the speed up again as the evening cooled. This was certainly the case for me. I was still struggling at the two ‘duck or grouse’ points (where the colourful lady I had caught up with earlier overtook me again for the final time) and past the mucky farm track, but by the left turn into the forest near Crianlarich I could feel sufficient energy return to the legs such that I was able to run properly again, even energetically on the downhills. The legs were hurting less. I found myself overtaking other runners on the up-and-down woodland trail. I kept glancing at my watch and realised that I was heading for closer to 12 hours if I could keep the running up. Another runner was close behind and I used him as an incentive to keep running as best I could so as not to get overtaken. I crossed the old lead-mining bare patch to the gate and on to the newly made footpath towards Tyndrum Lower Station. A bagpiper stood beside the final gate playing a slow tune, which ramped up to a faster, upbeat number as I came into view to signify the imminent arrival of (yet) another runner.
What a finish. I turned left to a rousing welcome of clapping, cheering and photo-taking to run under the big inflatable arch in 12 hours and 12 minutes. A youngster put the rather handsome Montane finisher’s medal around my neck and I was issued with my goody bag containing vouchers, leaflets, bottle of bubbly and technical T-shirt. I sank to the ground to recover from the final effort. Now where’s that Coors. Just run out? Only 300 ordered for 450 runners?? Oh.
**A polite note to the Highland Fling organisers: Either order enough beer to go round or don’t bother at all. Put the entry price up if necessary; just don’t knowingly deny those who are out there the longest. Do the back-of-the-packers really deserve guaranteed disappointment?
My final time was 1:38 slower than in 2009, so another 36 minutes were lost on the final leg despite my late recovery and “resurgence of power” (OK, I can fantasise, can’t I?). William Harris kept going to finish 2:27 ahead. Ian Hodge also didn't slow and finished 1:43 ahead, while Chris Webb gained 35 minutes on me over the final 12 miles to match my speed in 2009, and over the whole event, to finish in 10:33. I keep wondering how I ever managed 10:34 in 2009. What went wrong between then and now?
View from the other side.
Despite the warmer than usual conditions that slowed most others, Jez Bragg still broke his record, but he finished second. Andrew James was first in 7:12, Jez second in 7:15 and Allen Smalls third (and first MV40) in 7:43. Only one relay team beat Andrew and Jez. That is one impressive statistic.
First female was Kate Jenkins in 9:04, followed by Debbie Martin-Consani in second with 9:39 and Heather Caulderwood in third with 9:43.
The prize presentation had ended, it was getting cold and I needed to search out my B & B, yet I was still worrying about Dave. I didn’t even know if he had finished yet. I was just discussing leaving my phone number with the timekeeper for him to call me, when he ran across the line. Much to my relief he seemed surprisingly chipper and confident that he had plenty of time and capability to carry on all the way to the end. I explained the big container of water with a few solitary bits of ice floating on the surface. He was equally miffed.
Dave went to the Real Food Café to get refuelled and dressed to venture out into the cold clear night. I registered at the B & B then joined him in the café ready to see him off on his second leg. He had a beer already waiting for me as well as one for himself ‘for the road’. What a top bloke. It was a proper Scottish brew and much better than the Coors I would otherwise have had. Every cloud has a silver lining.
Dave took his time to make sure everything was right before setting off at gone 10pm towards the deep blue dusk that still glowed above the hills. I walked with him up the hill until the village hall, where the Ceilidh was in full swing. I was well over an hour late and the tickets had sold out months ago. I expected it to be packed and was looking forward to chatting with fellow runners. It was anything but packed. I was surprised at the poor turnout. None of the runners I’d been looking forward to chatting with were there. Lightweights ;-)
Seriously though, the no-shows no doubt indicated the toughness of the day, and the fact that they pushed themselves closer to the edge than I did. All was not lost though. I enjoyed two bowls of superb chicken curry washed down by 1.5 litres of water, a good chat with a Scottish group after imposing myself upon them to perch my curry on their table, and a dance. I left early at midnight for bed, on the way staring for many minutes at the clear, inky-black sky that was filled with more stars than I have ever seen. A crystal clear atmosphere of low humidity combined with little light pollution brought the night sky alive. I was once again reminded of Northern California.
How about the Raptors? 'Dead comfortable' is the answer. La Sportiva make the only foot-shaped shoes out there. The only gripe (there always has to be one) is that the soles offer no cushioning. They are rock hard; it's almost like running on blocks of wood (ultra clogs, anyone?). If anything the Crosslites with their studs offer better cushioning. I'll have to investigate thick Sorbothane insoles.
I took quite a few pictures again. The clarity of the atmosphere is clear to see (pun intended).
That's 4 down, 8 to go.......