Saturday, 5 May 2012

Hoka Highland Fling 2012 (53 miles)

The Highland Fling (now Hoka Highland Fling) was my first Ultra 5 years ago and I have done it every year since. And I just love that race. It seems to get bigger and better every year. John Duncan had quite a job at hand to manage 700 runners and all the shebang which came with it. On race day it came all together perfectly and the Fling (this year sponsored by HOKA) shone again as bright as ever before. Maybe even a bit brighter. The weather was certainly helping. The conditions were perfect. As so many times before. 

For me (and probably for many others) the Fling is more than just a race. It is almost like a Family reunion. One of the good ones. Here you meet all those runners and companions again and many of them have become good friends and even very good friends. Almost family. If you have heard about the legendary companionship and camaraderie between Ultra Runners I have to tell you it’s all true.   

This time Silke was running again. Her second Fling. For her an important test for the “big one” the 95 mile West Highland Way Race. Katrina Kynaston was running her first ultra. Herself now as much a celebrity as her husband John who was running the race together with her. Jude Boulton was having a try at his first ultra.  It took my 2 years to persuade him. But it did not work out since he started the race with injury and had to pull out at Rowardennan .

My Club the Greenock Glenpark Harriers had entered 3(!) relay teams. I was delighted that they would get to know trail running and finally even got a glimpse at what ultra running is about. And I think them taking part was a huge success. Not just the men’s team  finishing in second place but also the girls just loved it. I have never seen the girls smiling so much after a race! I hope they will be all back!

For me it was not always clear if I could or should run or race the Fling. I had raced the 55 miles from Glasgow-Edinburgh only four weeks ago and there was not much time between those races to a) recover, b) build up mileage again c) get some hills into my legs and d) taper again. 

But I just had to run. After being selected to run for Scotland in the Anglo Celtic Plate 100k I had to withdraw from the WHW Race (the entire 95 mile West Highland Way) and could not run the Devil’s either (the second 42 mile “half” of the West Highland Way). So for my own peace of mind I needed to ran at least the Highland Fling which was the first “half” (53 miles)  of the WHW. 

When Marco offered to support me in the Fling I just could not resist. He had just beaten me in the Glasgow to Edinburgh. If he supported me he could not beat me again. Genius!  ;-)
But seriously he also was selected for the Scottish 100k  team (together with me and Gareth Mayze) and had decided not to run the Fling to focus 100% on the Anglo Celtic plates. Wise.
When Debs told me she wanted to join the support crew I spontaneously said to Silke “Wow, I have quite an elite support crew”. Meaning: Debbie (Scottish record holder, Commonwealth Medallist, Montane sponsored) and Marco (just kicked my butt in the G2E) -Consani.
Elite or not. It was a mistake saying that out loud.  Silke gave me the look. And then said “Elite… (long pause)… Support???”. “ELITE?”. “SO WHAT AM I???”
We must not forget that Silke had supported me over four West Highland Way Races. Endured two agonizing DNF’s and countless diva moments. I call her SUPER ELITE!

Anyway, I had squeezed three long(ish) runs (15, 18 and 20 miles) in between the the G2E and the Fling. Was completely knackered after the 20 miler (on the WHW) and then just put my cards on rest and recovery for the two weeks before the race. No speed, because the legs were in too bad shape for that. But the legs started to feel better and better. I had quite a good 10 mile run with Marco in the Kilpatrick hills a week before the race and started to draft a race plan.

I wanted to run a PB (currently at 8:09) and had my eyes on a sub 8 hour finish.  That was cheeky. Frankly I had no good reason to believe I could run this fast since my training was very much improvised and the 70 miles I had forced into my legs three weeks before the race felt like overtraining.
I the week before the race I kept running/rehearsing the race (mentally) and pictured that all I had to do is get to Beinglas in 6 hours and still have fresh legs (yeah I wish). And then running the last section in 1:55 and BANG! PB!
That kind of thing. A bit of Stuart Mills’ Total Preparation approach. Was I totally mental? 

There was a bit of confusion about the Scottish champs and the rules and that was all clashing with the staggered start of the Highland Fling but eventually the decision was made that it would not matter when someone starts in what group and I was very happy to start with the Vets.
I just did not want to start with the main field (Seniors) and to get into a “race” too early with all the stress involved. I did have very high expectations though: To enjoy the race and still run a PB. And if possible get under 8 hours. And no collapse or other messy situation like at the end of last year’s race

Ok, let’s move to the start. In the last couple of hours before the race I was getting more and more nervous and was glad when we were off. Since I knew the route quite well I took the lead to ensure the field took the right turn (actually a left turn) once we are in the park. But I was not in the lead for too long and was joined my Andy Johns soon and Mark Caldwell and a runner in a Carnegie vest. No clouds in the sky (or were there any?) a great day for running. A slight headwind though (which was getting even stronger later in the race) and a lot of water and mud on the path. But that’s about all I could moan about. Overall the conditions were perfect.

I chatted to Andy about the race and what lies ahead. I have to admit I did not feel that great. I had my doubts about my race plan and if I could meet the expectations. My own ones. Although the splits were not that fast I had problems to follow Andy and Mark and they pulled away. The race had just started and I had my first low point. Great. Would it be all downhill from here?

I decided to accelerate (against all wisdom) to catch up with that leading group. The reason for this was that we were approaching my first support stop where Marco and Debs were waiting for me and I did not want to give a bad impression. Sort of. I was struggling. But did not want to show it.
In 4th position behind Mark Caldwell, Andy Johns and Peter Humphreys. 

Andy was also well supported and met his support crew in various places (even on top of Conic Hill if I remember correctly!). And his guys always cheered me on. Thanks folks!

It was just before Drymen when I met Marco and Debs for the second time. The support was working perfectly. Marco run ahead and asked what I wanted and Debs offered me a choice of two drinks (no, not alcoholic ones!). One was an energy drink and one was water with added electrolytes. There is a wee story behind the electrolyte water mix. Water with added nuun tablets. But the gist is that I tried this for the first time in this race and it worked so well that I doubt that I will ever go back to energy drinks again in any race.  Energy drinks never fail to spoil my stomach eventually. Pure water with electrolytes worked brilliantly. 

Where was I? Yes, Drymen. Not long after passing the checkpoint a passed Mark and was leading the race. Well, leading the Vet’s race to be precise. I started to pass the first runners from the 6 am start and I could see runner and small groups ahead. All good news since I was a bit worried to get lost here since the storm had changed the landscape so much since I last was here (even John Kynaston got lost here on a training run!).

It was great to cheer on the runners from the 6 am start and I got a lot of encouragement back.
In fact it is a great tradition that the “faster” runners cheer on the “slower” runners and vice versa. There is this mutual respect. The logic behind this is simple. The “faster” or “more competitive” runners actually believe that the “slower” runners are tougher. Sturdier. More enduring. Since they run for longer. On top of that many of the “slower” runners carry more gear. A bigger rucksack. On the other hand the “slower” or “less competitive” runners respect the faster runners. Because they think they are running harder (but in fact they are not). And cheer them on. Almost like race horses. Well, not quite. Anyway. The respect is mutual. Most of the time. 

I finally see Silke. She is just behind a larger group of runners. The sun is (still) out the scenery is great and she is  moving well. I am glad she is ok and she is pleased to see me in the lead. A few good luck wishes and I am off again moving forward. There is a spring in my step now I noticed. 

Up Conic Hill was not as easy as last year though. I just did not have the leg speed I guess. But I had an absolute blast on the downhill. Not that I risked much. But it was probably my fastest descent ever. I had a lot of worries about the steep downhill and I was wondering if my Nike Pegasus (road shoe) were up to the task but there was never a problem. 

Now here came the only glitch in the support strategy. When I met Marco just after entering the forest and he asked me about what I wanted.  And I (kindly) reminded him that I did not want those “forest fruit” gels he was offering. I wanted the Strawberry gels I had provided (and I had also pointed that out in my race plan). I think this sounds like a diva moment but the forest fruit had caffeine. And I did not want caffeine. Not yet.

Marco’s response was equally friendly and he told me that I had in fact not provided any Strawberry gels. There was no such thing. My inventory list claimed I had torq strawberry gels. But my actual inventory box did not have any. There was Orange and there was Forest Fruit. And Forest fruit was just as close to Strawberry as he could think off. Good point I have to say. Shxx I say and apologise. Of course. I WROTE strawberry but I MEANT orange. Anyway… Marco swiftly gets into action and tells me he would get the orange ones for me. And sprints ahead towards the Balmaha car park.

I pass John and Katrina and we cheer each other on. John asks me if I started at 7 or 8. 7 I say (did he have so much confidence in me that I could run the 30k to Balmaha in 1:30?). It was in fact just about 2:32 when I reach the car park. Greeted by the Magnificent Murdo McEwan who sadly had to withdraw from the race but was marshalling (as many times before). But where was Marco? I look around and there are thousands of cars and millions of supporters around… should I wait for Marco to find me, or look and ask around…
But I am in a moving forward mode now. I decide to continue to run (race) towards the exit of the car park. Marco would find me I think. Maybe later at any of the beaches ahead. I know for someone in charge of support  this would be a bit of a shock if the runner just disappears. I think I pulled the diva card here and just left it to Marco to figure it out. Sorry Marco...

So I was out of the car park and not far later just over the steep climb over the view point and I heard a runner behind me. Approaching fast. Rocks and sparks flying. Andy Johns catching up? I increased my pace slightly. I did not want to give up my “lead”. But no chance. That was a fast runner. A relay runner? Nope… It was in deed Marco who had sprinted after me  to bring me my strawberry gel. Sorry orange gel. He must have ran sub 6 minute mile pace to catch me. I was glad to have my gel to be honest. A bit embarrassed though. But I gave Marco the opportunity to have a bit of a speed session. So it was all good. And that was my only diva moment of the race. I think.

Unlike the 55 mile Glasgow to Edinburgh G2E which started easy and got harder and harder and harder and finally was pure torture (see my previous post about that race if you are interested) the subjective experience of running Fling was somewhat different. In fact it was a completely different experience. Once I had passed Conic Hill I enjoyed my running and felt very little discomfort for the entire rest of the race. Was it my pacing? Was it the undulating terrain? Was it nutrition? Was it the feedback I got from all the other runners? The support?

I certainly tried to pace myself sensibly. I stayed below a certain effort level. I never pushed really hard. But I was not running slow. I was running as fast as possible. 

I reached Rowardennan in 3:42. 11 minutes slower than last year. But I felt much better. That was the plan. To preserve and not waste energy. The lochside was not too bad either. I had to work hard and I was glad once the root jumping and knee to the chest lifting was over. I am just not that flexible. It was not bad though. And I have to admit I enjoyed the journey. 

Although I had missed my dream target to get to Beinglas in 6 hours I got there eventually. 6:07 was 4 minutes slower than last year. But I felt great. Last year I was pretty much a wreck when I came here. So my pacing strategy was working. In fact I believe I was on a runners high since I started the descent from the top of Conic Hill into Balmaha. And that runners high was not over yet. 

So what was in it? And what should I do now? If you remember my pre-race total! mental preparation only went as far as Beinglas. I had to get here quickly but more importantly with a reasonably fresh pair of legs. And I had achieved that target. Could I achieve sub 8? 

Once I left the checkpoint and started the climb into Glen Falloch I decided not to increase my efforts. With hindsight I would say that I could have tried a bit harder. But I decided to take care of myself. Have a few jelly babies. A tablet. Get that stone out of my shoe which was bothering me for the last 3 hours. Have another gel. I had managed that last section in 1:56 before. That was in 2009. But that was also the result of a moderate pacing strategy. Was I as fresh as I was 3 years ago? I know what you are going to say: Of course not. I am 3 years older. ;-)

I have some walking breaks on the steeper bits. I probably could have pushed a but harder but I still wanted to stay in a zone of sustainable effort. I just cannot shake that fear off to screw it all up again. Was I a bit too careful now? No. It was all part of the plan. After last year’s fall and collapse just 3 minutes ahead of the finish I had promised Marco and Debs no repetition of that incident. Not another “episode”.
But again, that careful pacing kept me on that runners high. I felt in control. There was no fatigue. I was not counting the miles to the finish. This was not a mind game like the G2E. I was enjoying the race. Head, legs, stomach and heart all had an equal part in that play. Boogle Glen was no exception. Short steep climbs and short steep descents one after another but I loved  it. 

When I reach the A82 and meet Marco and Debs again 
I ask for my Glenpark Club vest. It gets all flat now and I am loving it. Not that I am that fast but I had a 7:30 split on one of the longer flat sections. I am still not counting down the miles. In fact I am almost a bit sorry it’s over. I hear the bagpiper. George and Karen are on the bridge and almost welcome me as the race winner. 
I think I was slightly “over” celebrating. I was first “bloke” crossing the line but I knew I had no chance for the overall win. But it was more the fact that I ran a PB and felt great which made me celebrating.  
And when I finish as “first bloke” I am even interviewed with a big camera in my face. My Garmin showed 8:02. A 7 minute PB. Someone told me I have to swipe my chip. 

Darn. I had lost a few seconds here. That would cause a bit of an upset later because I would not be the only guy finishing in 8:02.  

Once the runners from the 8am start arrived one after the other Iost my "1st overall place" and was pushed back into 2nd , then 3rd , then 4th and Richie Cunningham and Paul Giblin  who started an hour later would both also finish in 8:02 (same as me). My chip (and official) result would be 8:02:33. My Garmin showed 8:02:19. But as it turns out Richie’s time was 8:02:07 and Paul Giblin’s time was 8:02:02. So my 7th place was correct.

And there was absolutely no question about the winner. Scott Bradley’s return to the Fling was a triumph in a super fast 7:23 beating the Hoka sponsored Ludovic Pommeret by 10 minutes. Terry Conway delivered a 7:40 and my 100k team mate David Gardiner came in 4th with a very fast 7:49 (he certainly was pleased after dropping out last year).

I tried a bit of an interview with Ludovic after the race but he is not in the best mood. The race was “totally flat” he complained and then he turned his back on me. Frankly I did understand what he was trying to say since I have been in the alps myself. Conic Hill is not Mount Blanc. Gotcha. Point taken. Diva. I have been there. ;-). But seriously I was thrilled that those World class Hoka runners actually showed up and gave it their best shot. And after reading Ludovic’s post racereport about his Highland Fling experience I think he is quite a fair guy. 

Emma Roca won the ladies race in 8:23 (still 13 minutes shy of Lucy’s record which was on the slightly longer course). Sharon Law’s 8:38 is remarkable. ‘Only’ 3rd lady this year because of the super quality field. But boy, this is fast. 13th place overall in a huge field with plenty of top UK runners plus international competition.

Katrina Kynaston's result 12:25 (she is F50 believe it or not) is equally remarkable.  Considering she just started running a couple of years ago. She may have started ultra running reluctantly but if  after reading her race report I believe she is truly "one of us" now :-)

Silke just missed the 13 hours. But she finished strong and with a big smile on her face.
Incidentally in a substantial PB. But the fact that she ran into Tyndrum with plenty of energy left in her legs and no substantial pain or stress or fatigue this race was a significant milestone for her next target. The West Highland Way race. And she did more than just well. She paced herself. Supported herself. Carried a rucksack which was 4 times has heavy as my bumbag. Enough said. 

Thanks RD John Duncan for this year’s Highland Fling!
Thanks to the Marshalls an volunteers!
Thanks Hoka for providing world class runners and sponsorship!

And a special thanks to Marco
Debs  (here in action)
btw, I have to disagree with John Kennedy…

and finally Cairn

I owe you big time!


John Kynaston said...

Great report Thomas and what a superb run!

Thanks for sharing. I was a liitle confused when you caught us as I thought you were starting at 8am and wasn't expecting to see you until a lot later!

We have a gerat clip of Marco taking off after you in the car park at Balmaha!

_andy said...

A real pleasure to run with you Thomas - had no idea you'd had an early low point - I just like downhills!

Well done on a superb run, and thanks for such a great read. I'm impressed that Marco managed to catch up with you at all after Balmaha.

Silke said...

Great report - great run - well done! :-)

Marco Consani said...

Hey Crazy German,

It was a pleasure to support you on the Fling. You had a fab run. I struggled to keep up with you at the checkpoints and as for my speed session. Enough said.

Brilliant report.

I have seen Silke support you and she is a pro at it.
We won't be filling her shoes any time soon. :-)


Caroline said...

Well done Thomas, great run! My brother was wondering why Marco was chasing after you at Balmaha so that's that cleared up now! Hope you recover quickly.

Yvonne said...

Another fantastic run Thomas and a great report. Having done only 12.5 mls - the last leg of the relay - I have even more respect for the runners who went the whole distance. Amazing! Bring on the next one....

Debs M-C said...

Well done, Crazy German. You were awesome x

Thomas said...

@John, of course I saw the clip :-). And I saw Marco looking for me. Ouch!
@Andy, congrats on your 30mins pb. Not bad! and what a recovery!
@Silke, thanks darling. You'll have a great WHW Race!
@Marco, I am sure you enjoyed the Hill and Speed session I had arranged for you ;-)
@Caroline, recovery has been quick. I had loads of recovery shakes (honestly).
@Yvonne, see you at next year's Fling (and surely before that!)
@Debs, thanks :-). Are we team mates in Wales?