Firstly, apologies on the delayed race report – even though the race was just over 2 weeks ago. Post race we were thoroughly enjoying our vacation around Scotland (with plenty of whisky for, ah, recovery purposes), so we didn’t have the time to write it up (or the ability to get the photos from the camera).
Our whole trip was really exciting, but of course, the catalyst for it all was signing up for this race – the Highland Fling! After planning and training for seven months, it was finally time to run it!
After a few days in Edinburgh, enjoying the sights (and desperately trying to overcome jet lag), we made it to Milngavie (pronounced ‘mill-GUY’…yeah, I don’t know either) early afternoon. We got settled in, went out for dinner, picked up our race packets, and then really dug into our race prep.
A notable difference between this race and others I’ve done is the aid stations just have water and any drop bags that you bring for yourself (containing food and anything else you’d need). This works out fine for me as I usually only eat the things I bring anyway. The catch is that you don’t get your drop bags back at the end, so no changing out shoes or clothing unless you don’t want them back (or if you have crew around). Something cool with this system is that anything you don’t eat from your drop bag you can add to the “buffet table” for anyone after you who might want it. At each station the tables were chock-full of options. We didn’t partake (nothing new on race day!), but I think it’s a neat way to try and avoid waste. The only other things besides food that we added to our drop bags were fun/silly notes to each other, sealed until we reached the aid station. I got this idea from a friend whose daughter left her notes in her drop bags for her first 50 miler. Such a great idea for when you need that little pick-me-up!
After an early morning wake up and small breakfast, we walked to the race start (about a mile). We had lots of time to drop off our, er, drop bags for the checkpoints, and then we just milled about, trying not to be nervous. We got incredibly lucky with the weather, and I’m so grateful. It had been nasty the few days before (cold, drizzle and snow), but our race day dawned cool, but dry.
I’ve never run an ultra with that many people! It was odd to see over 700 racers milling about waiting to head out on this crazy adventure (versus the 200 I’m used to). Before too long, we got a race briefing (the briefest of briefs, truly, that basically consisted of, “Right, you all have the race number in your mobile? Everyone have a foil blanket? Okay, have fun!”), and we started out in three waves. Onto the West Highland Way we went! Start to Dryman – Cumulative 12.7 miles (2:12:19 chip time)
Looking back over the course in its entirety, this was the most runnable section, and very enjoyable. Up to this point, we hadn’t really had any scenery yet, but at one point we came over little hill and we started to see hills and glens laid out before us. It was a great view, but you could tell who the locals were as they didn’t bat an eye. The rest of us foreigners/newbies all paused for a look and/or a picture. One local joked as he ran by, “This is a race, not sight-seeing!” Well, a big reason I do this is for the scenery, and if one can’t spare 10 seconds in a 50 miler to enjoy it… where’s the fun in that? (and those folks are probably winning anyway.) It was pretty and worth a pause!
A few other amusing memories – for a very short time we were on a road, and there were some great Fling volunteers making sure we went the correct way. My favorite was a gentleman that opened a gate for us and said solemnly, “Frontrunners are just up ahead now.” Everyone laughed! (Spoiler alert – they weren’t just up ahead.)
There also was a couple playing some music as we ran by – a drum and fiddle. Like a Rock n’ Roll Marathon…but more awesome. 🙂
As we ran into Dryman, we were feeling pretty good. There were no drop bags at this point, and we didn’t need a water fill up, so we went right on through the checkpoint.
Dryman to Balmaha – Cumulative 19.3 miles
Again, still very runnable at this point. The end of this section contains the famous Conic Hill. As we ran closer, I thought, “oh, that is a bit high, hm…”
Turns out you only run on the shoulder of it, though, and don’t actually summit, so it’s not quite as intimidating as at your first glance. You do get an AMAZING view of Loch Lomond, though. One of those that makes you pause for a moment and say, “This is why we run these crazy distances.”
The descent down Conic Hill was steep, and we made a point to take it carefully, in deference to our quads (and Adam’s temperamental knee.) Once we reached Balmaha we opened up our drop bags, and while I knew we hadn’t quite eaten enough to warrant needing more, we still grabbed some of our extra food in order to have options out on the trail.
Balmaha to Rowerdennan – Cumulative 27.3 miles (5:57:19 chip time)
I’ll admit that this section is a bit fuzzy for me, and I don’t have much to say about this section, other than it was fairly runnable. The only thing that really sticks out in my mind is when we ran lochside, on a rocky beach. I found it a bit odd since there didn’t appear to be a well-marked trail anywhere, but nobody seemed to be bothered by the lack.As you might imagine, this is when we started to feel some fatigue and niggles settling in, just a bit. Totally expected after this distance. 🙂 As we ran into the Rowardennan checkpoint, some runners behind us were belting out some Bon Jovi: “Woahhhhhh-OH, we’re half way THERE, Woahhhhhh-OH, livin’ on a pray-ER!” Amusingly, no one appeared to remember any other part of the song, so they sounded like a stuck record with those very aptly chosen lyrics. 🙂
We weren’t quick getting through the Rowardennan checkpoint. Eating some food, Adam enjoying his first tiny Coke of the day and some toilet stops slowed us down. Oops.
Rowerdennan-Inversnaid – Cumulative 34.6 miles
We chatted with some other racers coming out of Rowerdennan and they all agreed that this section was fun, but technical bits cropped up. They also said the upcoming section was their least favorite. Noted.
The first bit was a like Cleater Road at the Chuckanut 50K, so I was grateful for our familiarity with a long, oddly pitched hill. The weather was being rather schizophrenic at this point, threatening rain, and then sunny, and then back to threatening again. Ah well, it kept us on our toes.
There were some technical bits, but it wasn’t horrendous. That was yet to come…Again, we spent too much time at this checkpoint. I laid down in the parking lot to stretch out my complaining back while Adam went and found a toilet in the hotel. When he came back out, he looked a bit defeated. “There were old people in there, sitting by a fireplace, knitting, and drinking coffee. I want to do that, even though I don’t know how to knit!”
I had no inspirational quip to offer as a counter to this statement, so, um… let’s go then?? After our long break here, re-starting running was particularly difficult. It felt like we were doing our best Tinman impression with groans about our stiff joints instead of missing a heart.
Inversnaid-Beinglas – Cumulative 41.4 miles (11:07:52 chip time)
Ugh. This was my toughest section, physically and mentally. Physically, it was the most technical section, and while I’m improving on that terrain thanks to my coach, this was tough. Speed-hiking as much as possible, and with more scrambling than I expected. Little to no runnable bits. The little cliffside sections with a sheer drop-off on one side definitely kept our minds on the task at hand.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but we were playing yo-yo with some day hikers during this bit. Oi. Luckily they were friendly, and not at all annoyed at our apparent slowness. They also offered some welcome insight as to what was coming up next on the course, and it was most helpful!
Mentally, I hit my low spot right before the Beinglas checkpoint came into view. I knew I needed calories, but what I wanted was in our drop bag, and I knew we were close, so I didn’t want to stop yet. I felt drunk, but without the happy buzz. I also had reached a familiar point where I felt near tears from exhaustion, soreness, hunger, and the desire just to lay down and be done. Adam kept us going nicely, and for the umpteenth time that day, I was ever so glad he was racing with me.
Thanks to Patricia Carvalho Photoraphy
Finally, though, we ran into Beinglas! Here we spent way too much talking to the volunteers, but it definitely helped me mentally. Evidently I looked pretty terrible as everyone kept asking me, “are you continuing on, then?” Hell, yes! Too close (relatively) to the finish to not continue! Here we also encountered a friendly gentleman with whom we had a lovely chat while we got our bags sorted, although he was the first Glaswegian I found extremely difficult to understand. He was intent on asking about Frasier, and other US-based TV shows, but we were at a point in the race where our brains were only haphazardly firing neurons. Hopefully he didn’t notice our lack of mental acuity at that moment.
Beinglas-Finish – Cumulative 53 miles (14:32:44 chip time)
We were told at Beinglas that in this next section we’d be able to motor right along. It wasn’t entirely true as it was hilly, but they were littl(er) rollers and no big monsters. Very different, thank goodness, from the previous section. Relentless forward progress was the name of the game, and our chorus of grunts and moans when we restarted running after walking was quite entertaining.
This also was the section with the dreaded “Cow Poo Alley.” From all of the descriptions, I was expecting a torrent of cow crap flowing over hidden rocks lying in wait for poor, exhausted runners. However, that never seemed to materialize, despite seeing many cows about. Granted, there was a really muddy (crappy?) area, but you could still navigate around the horrid-looking bits, so I couldn’t be sure if that was the spot or not. Maybe all the frontrunners took all the cow poo with them on their shoes? 😉
As we went along, I kept checking my watch with more and more anxiety. Were we going to make the cutoff at 50 miles, with just 3 more to go after that? Doing any math during this point in a race is a real feat, but it seemed it would be really close… I kept saying in my head, “I did NOT travel thousands of miles to fail – move it!” With this push at 48 miles, we ended up passing quite a few exhausted runners.
We reached the A82 road crossing with a few minutes to spare, and as we rushed down the guy at the crossing said, “you’ve got it, you’re fine.” YES! We treated ourselves to a snack (and Adam had a Pepsi) now that the finish was so comparatively near at hand. Mother Nature wanted to give us one last kick in the pants, so we got a 15 minute downpour – the only rain of the day!
Despite how long we’d been running, we still had some gas in the tank now that the end was near. The last few miles were VERY runnable, and we were able to pick it up a bit. As we turned a corner, I heard the skirl of the bagpipes that meant the end was truly near and I started to tear up. They roll out the red carpet here, and it was fantastic to still have everyone there and cheering for us as we crossed the finish line holding hands. FINISHED!
Some quick numbers:
Finishing time: 14:32:44
Elevation gain: ~7,500 feet
Calories consumed: ~1,800 (6 Glutino Oreos, 3 small tortillas with a slice of ham and shredded cheese, bite of potato, 1.5 satsumas, 3/4 Chuao Chocolate Oh My S’mores)
- Don’t underestimate the course. Seriously. Even though I’ve done 50 milers before, none of them are the same and it’s always a humbling experience.
- In relation to #1… Learn how to run on technical courses.
- Work on being consistent with nutrition timing to avoid horrible drunken feeling/bonking
- Don’t dawdle at aid stations! Those cutoffs will creep up on you.
- Ask folks to write little notes for your drop bags. They. Are. Awesome.
- Always, always, ALWAYS bring Dramamine if there’s a post-race bus ride. (I get motion-sick, but haven’t thrown up from it…until now. My body was completely over the strain of the day and gave a big NOPE to the whole situation. Luckily I had a Ziploc bag with me, AND no one batted an eye on the bus as I’m sure it wasn’t the grossest thing those ultrarunners saw all day. Apologies to those on the bus with me!)
Interestingly, most of these are newbie mistakes, and I still made them, even though this was my fourth race at the 50 mile(ish) distance. Oops. Always learning. 🙂
All in all, an excellent race, and I’m so pleased that we got to do it together and see some amazing scenery along the way. So lucky, and I hope to do it again someday!