Saturday 28 April, 2018
Ten hardy (or just plain crazy) harriers gathered on the start line of the 13th Highland Fling Race, a 53 mile ultra along the first half of the West Highland Way, from Milngavie to Tyndrum. A few of us had met up the evening before in the Burnbrae Inn, Milngavie, to register for the race and grab some food. Fling virgins (Mark, Allan D and myself) took on sage advice from experienced veterans (Chris, Sadie, Tracy, Lori and Gilly) over dinner, along with super support team Michael and Ngeme, who was crewing Chris in preparation for the full WHW race 6 weeks later. Yan and Alan Marshall were on finish line duties in Tyndrum and we were looking forward to seeing them the following day.
Alan T and Tim joined us the next morning and we lined up at the start, ready for the 6am start gun from Milngavie train station. Michael took ‘before’ photos of us all, to compare with ‘during’ and ‘after’ pictures he planned to take later that day. Much hilarity and silly poses helped ease race nerves and get us into the spirit of the Fling, one of the most popular ultra races in the Scottish calendar with around 800 runners taking part.
After letting the speed goats off first at 06:00 sharp, the 10-12 hour wave started at 06:03. Allan and I set off together and eased into a steady pace, trying not to get carried away and run too fast, the downfall of many a Flinger before us. We had a double marathon ahead of us, and I was trying only to think of the race in sections, concentrating on getting to the next checkpoint, rather than focusing on the intimidating distance as a whole.
The first third of the race is fairly flat and runnable, and progress was good. The chat was flowing and before we knew it we were past the first checkpoint at Drymen and scaling Conic Hill. Monument photos were at their usual spot near the top, ready to take our photos as we soaked up the incredible views before a quad-crunching descent off the other side.
The first drop bag station at Balmaha is almost 20 miles in, so a welcome pit stop to refresh water supplies and have a bite to eat. I was surviving mostly on Tailwind though, which I’d put in small bags to top up my hydration pack with. They looked very suspicious though, so I felt the need to clarify…
Balmaha to Rowardennan is a lovely stretch of the route, heading up the east side of Loch Lomond, which was still and like a mirror in the lack of wind. In fact the weather was perfect, cool and sunny and the rain stayed off until well into the evening. I hit a wave of fatigue just after Balmaha, and was explaining to Allan that this always happens to me at 21 miles in, but it is usually followed by a wave of euphoria a few miles later (Yan can confirm this!). Sure enough, as I hit Rowardennan I was buzzing. Allan was beginning to feel the fatigue, and thinks I probably got his wave of euphoria as well as my own! After spotting Sadie at the checkpoint and saying hello I was raring to go. I felt bad for speeding ahead but really needed to use the energy while I still had it. It lasted well into Inversnaid, and I ran most of the hills until I got to the checkpoint, where Michael was ready to take our ‘during’ photos. I chugged back some orange Tango and breezed on, blissfully unaware of what was to come next.
The route out of Inversnaid hugs the Lochside, in a twisty, rocky, muddy, wet and slippy assault course of narrow paths, where it was not only impossible to run, but sometimes to stay upright. It was slow progress, and difficult to get past folk who were struggling with the challenging terrain. There were slips and grazed knees, but we all looked out for each other and picked up those who had taken a tumble. There were also a fair few walkers on this stretch, so I made sure I thanked every one of them as they let me past, and apologised for ruining their walk! After a few miles of this I started to huff and sigh, and a runner in front said “Oh, sorry do you want past?”. I apologised and explained that I was just getting a bit frustrated and was looking forward to being able to run again.
Eventually, after about 3 miles (which felt like 10) the route left the Lochside and headed into a glen. Although the elevation picked up, it was good to be running again. My wave of energy had been totally zapped, so I ate some Kendal mint cake – food of the gods – and took a good drink of water.
The Lochside section had dampened my spirits a little, but as I had practised in training, I pushed the bad thoughts out and replaced them with good ones, along with a good dose of gratitude for being able to take part in such an event. I’m not a religious person, but ultra-running has become my pilgrimage, my celebration of the human spirit. I began to think to myself, after witnessing many acts of kindness, support, encouragement and community from both participants and marshals alike, that the world would be a much better place if ultra-runners were in charge! That really lifted my spirits, and the fatigue began to abate a little.
The Inversnaid section had put an end to my dream of a sub 10 finish, but I had gold, silver and bronze goals for this. Silver was sub 11, and as long as I got to the A82 checkpoint in 10 hours, I knew I could do it. The last 6 miles is familiar territory for me, having run various bits of it over the years. I just had ‘Cow Poo Alley’ to tackle first, a grim section on the other side of Beinglas which is infamously covered with large amounts of mud and cow pats. Just before I hit this, at the 45-mile mark I spotted a familiar face. Chris Downie was out to support us, having fit in a hike up a Munro earlier that day. It was such a tonic to see him, and a big hug gave me a much-needed power up. I did warn him I smelled like a mountain goat, but that didn’t stop him! I’d seen the wild goats just before the Beinglas checkpoint, as they casually munched away, nonplussed by the steady stream of traffic. I’d been warned you would smell them before you see them, but on this occasion it was probably the other way around!
As I trudged my way through the cow pats I could see Ewich in the distance, the rollercoaster section through the forest. I made it to the bottom of the hill with my shoes still on my feet, to be greeted with a fence covered in flags and some lovely ladies handing out Irn Bru – heaven. I bounced up the hill towards the sound of accordion music, where two ladies were sitting under the trees blasting out tunes. I attempted a wee jig, but the hill made it look more like a half-hearted Morris Dance. Still, I got a cheer for the attempt.
I’m not sure where the energy came from, as everything from my head to my toes hurt, but I ran pretty much the rest of the race without walking. I passed quite a few folk, exchanging a few encouraging words along the way – mostly about how beer was not far off (although I was really craving a huge mug of sugary tea). I crossed the A82 and just before St Fillan’s kirk there was Gordon Donnachie, taking photos and shouting encouragement. I was still smiling, and was on target for sub-11. I ran through Auchtertyre to clapping and cheering from campers and crossed under the A82 again to reach the last 2-mile stretch. Adrenaline was flowing, and I could picture the finish. I spotted Michael again – who’d been having a grand day out on boats and trails, cheering on the club. He took a few photos and said, “Only a mile to go!” which gave me a boost. Sure enough, before long I could hear the clamour of cow bells and cheering crowds. I spotted the finish line in the trees up ahead and ran past a piper with a huge grin on my face.
Turning left onto the red carpet is something I will never forget. It’s insane! The flags, the camera flashes, the hands held out for high fives, and that carpet. You are made to feel like a superhero. I slapped as many hands as I could and headed towards the finish, clocking 10:47:09. Incredibly happy with that!
The marshals in the finishers tent were incredible, bringing that much-longed for sugary tea, fetching my kit bag and showing me to the showers. They were so sweet, every single one of them, all along the course. After a shower I got a great massage and headed to the tent for a feed. Sadie wasn’t far behind me, having got a huge 53-minute PB in just over 11 hours, despite knee pain and feeling sick in the last stages. Allan came in within 12 hours, managing a victory jig on the red carpet, followed by Gilly, Tim and Tracy (who finished together), Mark, Lori, Alan and Chris. All harriers home in one piece and injury free! Ding Ding!
But the party didn’t stop there. A few of us gathered in the food marquee, cracked open some beer and reflected on the day. Yan, who had made himself hoarse shouting at the finish line, and Alan joined us when duties allowed. Later on, Yan broke out his Bodhrán and joined a few other musicians to deliver a cracking session of fast-paced Celtic music. Mark and Gilly eased off the legs with a Gay Gordons, while I jumped around to “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. Motion is lotion, after all!
All in all, an absolute belter of a day out. I can see why this race is so popular, it has just the best atmosphere of any race I’ve done (including Boston). I was contemplating London marathon next year, but the Fling has stolen my heart. After all, why do one marathon when you can do two for the same price? The scenery is much better too!
A last word is saved for Gilly and Chris, who are taking on the full distance of the WHW in June. Kudos to you two, I couldn’t have run another step at Tyndrum, much less another 42 miles! You guys are absolute legends in my eyes!
174 Jan Dawson 10:47:09
200 Sadie Kemp 11:06:16
323 Allan Dunbar 11:54:55
343 Gilly Marshall 12:12:28
348 Tim Doyle 12:16:43
349 Tracy Philp 12:16:44
430 Mark Dawson 12:40:03
460 Lori McCrae 12:53:20
616 Alan Thornburrow 14:11:53
649 Christopher Burns 14:38:19
Full results here: https://highlandflingrace.org/results.html
I was hopeless at taking photos (couldn’t be bothered taking my phone out of my bag) but here’s a cracker Mark persuaded a fellow runner to take of him. Says it all really! Michael is putting together an album of the day, as there are just too many to include here. Check the PH Social Page for more!