2019 Highland Fling 53 mile Ultra-Marathon Race Report
The night before a race is always a stressful period for me. I’m usually a nervous ball of energy, overthinking everything from what to wear and what I’m going to eat (an absolute delight for my coach and husband Jonny!). So the night before, I had my outfit set out, my dropbags ready and had written down everything I was going to eat and drink during the race – possibly a little overkill, but that’s just my personality! Jonny had given me approximate split times for Drymen, Balmaha and Rowardennan. Beyond Rowardennan was all up to me. Time to get some sleep.
4am alarm for a 6am race start. I woke up at 3:55am. I was grateful for my mother staying as she was in charge of our 2 year old. We drove to Milngavie as Jonny gave me a final pep-talk. Two nervous pees later and an obligatory photo next to the Australian flag as I couldn’t see a New Zealand flag anywhere (sorry fellow Kiwis!), I was stood at the start line in the 10-12 hour pen. The clouds were grey but the temperature was mild. The forecast was to be “some rain” which suited me having lived in Scotland for a number of years now.
The plan was to get to Drymen (12.6 miles) in 1:55hr which meant an average of 9min/mi. I knew the push through Mugdock would be slow with the crowd (nearly 800 starters) so I just relaxed and enjoyed the atmosphere and the chat. Having done the entire route at least 3-4 times in parts during my training, I knew the trail like the back of my hand and I knew the rolling down-hill stretches towards the Beech Tree Inn was where I could pick up my pace. After 30 minutes, I tucked into my first bit of food (half a salted caramel Chia bar). My nutrition for this race was an exact science. I was to take 300 cals per hour no matter what and I had to stick to it.
I arrived at Drymen and after a quick kit check from the marshals, I looked at my watch: 1:53hr. Brilliant. I felt great, legs and lungs were good and in my excitement I passed the checkpoint drinking 2 cups of water but forgot to re-fill my flasks (oops). The next checkpoint was Balmaha at 19.8 miles which included a climb up Conic Hill. The aim was to be there in 3:20hrs. In my head, I could hear Jonny’s voice: Get to the steps at the bottom of the hill, take a gel and power hike the whole way. The whole way. Don’t run it and let your HR peak, save your lungs and your legs for the lochside.
By this stage the rain had set. The ground was getting slippier but I was thankful that there wasn’t much wind. As I approached the top of the hill, the views opened up of Loch Lomond shrouded in some mist, which only added to the beautifully dramatic atmosphere. No matter how many times I’ve run this section, the views of this place never fail to amaze me. I also recognised a familiar face. There was Jonny waiting (in the cold and rain!). I ran towards him and gave him the biggest kiss and cuddle, “Take it really easy” he said to me. He and I knew I was slightly ahead of schedule so there was no need to beast it down hill. I cruised it and just enjoyed the views but also careful of my footing due to the wet rock. I arrived at the Balmaha checkpoint at 3:14hrs. The marshals there were incredible and were full of smiles and cheer. I chose not to have a dropbag at this section and instead had my flasks re-filled with water and quickly went on my way. One marshal asked if I wanted some Buckfast mixed into one – I must admit, I was slightly tempted but decided against it for fear of my tummy possibly protesting later on. I also saw some porta-loos and for a split second I thought about using the facilities but decided against this, thinking there may be some in Rowardennan (I would regret this later).
Rowardennan checkpoint would be at 27.2 miles. I was to hopefully get there in 4:50hrs. I quite enjoy this section. Sheltered for most part and I love the views of the Loch to my left, all mostly runnable. I relaxed into a pace and let my mind wander a little and I thought about what I wanted to eat when I got to Rowardennan. Before I knew it, I was there and I looked at my watch: 4:48hrs. Bang on. The marshals there were swift. My dropbag was already waiting and a lovely lady helped me re-fill my flasks one with Tailwind and one with water, “Let me fill them and you just concentrate on getting some food into you, you’re doing great.” I wanted to hug her. I stuffed my face with white chocolate Tim Tams (thanks mum for bringing them from Australia!), ate some dried mango, dates and apricots and drank a bottle of flat coke.
From here on in, it was all up to me. I was to go by feel. Push if I could, ease back if I didn’t feel right. Eat, drink - control the controllables. Jonny’s voice in my head saying this over and over. The next checkpoint was Inversnaid at 34.4 miles. I don’t remember much of this section. I was too busy thinking about how much I needed to pee and how there were no porta-loos in Rowardennan after all (oops!). I chatted to a few folk. I met a guy from England who had returned to do the Fling this year after a DNF last year. He commented on how he loved that I colour co-ordinated my outfit but I just needed to maybe sort out the shoes as they were purple and not blue like the rest of it – thank you whoever you are for making me smile!
I arrived at Inversnaid. I was wet and cold and a lovely man helped me with my dropbag and refilled my water (I cannot tell you how amazing every marshal was during this race. They were all angels.) Another lady kept telling me I was doing great and I could have a little rest from running for the next section as this was to be the technical stretch. I knew this stretch very well. In my last long training run, I did an out-and-back along this route so I knew how slow it was going to be scrambling and climbing over rocks and roots on a narrow path. The wet weather would make them slippery so I HAD to take good care here. I’d like to say that I came into my own on this section. Having been an avid hill-walker before I took up trail-running, I was used to scrambling and I was able to gain some good ground passing a few people along the lochside as I scrambled up and over boulders. It was actually mentally as well as physically tiring. It took a lot of concentration and when the end came I couldn’t help but shout, “THANK YOU GOD!”
The next checkpoint would be Beinglas at 40.9 miles. I still felt good albeit wet and cold and just as I approached the checkpoint – lo and behold – a porta-loo! The rain was relentless and I really felt for all the marshals waiting for us to arrive standing in this cold. I would be forever grateful to them and the way they lifted my spirits up each time I arrived at a checkpoint. After stuffing food in my face and drinking another bottle of flat coke, off I went. Only a half marathon to go and I still felt good. That elation did not last long, unfortunately. You could say, from Beinglas, everything went a little downhill for me apart from the actual course…which was 7 miles of UPHILL. Gah!!! When you’ve just run 40 miles and your legs are so fatigued - this was hell. It was from here I could feel my right hip flexor seize up with every steep incline. I took a couple of salt tabs but it didn’t really help. I decided to put my physiotherapist hat on and see what I could do to ease the pain. I tested out “The Pain Gate Theory” whereby you would introduce a different pain stimulus to block the nerve signals to your brain from the other pain stimulus that is bothering you. In my case, every time I needed to lift my leg on a climb, I would bite my finger really really hard so that the pain of my biting my finger would distract me from the pain in my hip. Sounds a bit nuts right? Anyway, it seemed to work for a while and I pushed on.
The Bogle Glen checkpoint was near which meant only 6 miles…i.e 10km left till the finish!! The rain was unrelenting. I was so cold I could barely feel my hands now. This was the start of the roller-coaster of the Crianlarich Forest. I got a lovely surprise at the top of the first hill, two ladies sheltered in the trees playing accordions and a bowl of jelly babies waiting. Absolute angels. My spirits were lifted and with a smile I pushed on as I listened to the sound of their music. Up and down and up and down of rolling hills followed, that seemed to take forever. 10km might as well have been another 100km! I did surprise myself and I managed to pass a few people and before I knew it, I was out of the forest and hitting the road-crossing and the final 3 miles to the finish line.
I passed a smiling spectator standing under an umbrella, “you’re doing great, only 500m to go.” That’s when I heard the bagpipes. The tears started here and finally the red-carpet finish was within reach. As I ran along that beautiful red carpet, I saw Jonny holding our daughter Aria. She was squealing with delight, “Mummy!” The tears kept flowing. As I passed them, I heard Jonny yell, “she wants to run with you to the finish!” I knew if I halted to “run”at my 2 year old’s pace, my legs would seize so instead I grabbed her in my arms and carried her across. I’ll never forget that moment as I crossed the line with her and I was met with cheers, hugs and kisses from the finish-line marshals, one of them being our friend Gavin Bussey.
Finish time 11:15:39
Thank you to all the organisers and volunteers of this epic race! Incredible organisation, support and friendly faces throughout and the scenery of the course is out of this world. I would highly recommend it to anyone to give it a go. It is one that will be forever etched in my mind.