Well hello! It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. The reason I haven’t posted much since last autumn is that I haven’t actually done much! But what I have done is learned to manage my dodgy hip, which had been bugging me for ages. I won’t bore you with all the details of how I’ve got to this point, but luckily I’ve never actually had to stop running, which is great. I cut down my mileage and increased my strength work over the winter and then felt able to take part in the Temple Newsam Ten and the Snake Lane 10 – both great local ten mile events which helped to restore my enjoyment of running.
As an ultramarathon, the Highland Fling at the end of April had been slightly hanging in the balance for me, but I decided to start training for it in January and see what happened. I had been scheduled to take part in 2020, but the race didn’t happen for the last two years due to Covid. All was going well until I (ironically!) caught Covid at the start of what should have been my biggest block of training. I didn’t run at all for about ten days, and it took me another couple of weeks to feel normal again. I really wasn’t sure what to do, so at the beginning of April I took part in the It’s Grim Up North Roche Abbey Marathon as my longest run before the Fling, and I told myself if I got through that I’d go to Scotland. It turned out surprisingly OK and was actually a great event, so the Fling was on!
Steve and I travelled up to Scotland last Friday, as the race was taking place on the Saturday. Free long term parking was available for participants at the local rugby club, just ten minutes’ walk from the start, so we parked our motorhome there for the night. After a carb-loading tea from the local chippy, registration took place at a nearby pub. All runners had been asked to provide evidence of a negative lateral flow test taken that day, which had to be presented before registration was allowed. We were then issued with a race number, a timing ‘dibber’ and a wristband. It’s an early start for this event – 6 am – so we tried to get an early night; but for some reason I was paranoid about oversleeping, so didn’t actually get much sleep at all! The alarm went off at 4:15, and it felt bizarre to be applying sun lotion in the dark and cold, but the forecast was set to be warm and sunny.
The race follows the first half of the West Highland Way, so covers 53 miles from Milngavie (just outside Glasgow) to Tyndrum with 2,330m of ascent. You can see a map of the route here. I knew that the first quarter or so would be pretty runnable, then the hard work would start after that. I guessed I wouldn’t be at my best after missing a few weeks of training through Covid, but was happy to give it my best shot. Steve’s plan was to drive to the finish at Tyndrum, go gravelling and wait for me to arrive. There was a real buzz at the start, and I managed to say hello to Ironman legend Chrissie Wellington, who was also taking part – starting a bit further up the field than me! We set off in perfect running weather, bright but cool, bang on 6 am, complete with a piper to send us on our way.
I really enjoyed the first 12 miles to Drymen – good quality trails and a few tiny bits of road, with some undulations to keep things interesting. There were various timing points along the way where we had to insert our old-school dibbers to check in, rather than wearing trackers. I covered the 12.6 miles to Drymen in 2:19, which is pretty good for me in an ultra.
Shortly after that came the first big climb of the day, Conic Hill; from the top of here we got our first good view of Loch Lomond, along whose shores we’d shortly be spending a good part of the day. It looked amazing in the spring sunshine!
The descent down the other side was quite steep and rocky (although I say this as someone who isn’t confident on this type of terrain!) but actually most people seemed to be avoiding the official path and just bombing down the grass at the side.
The weather was warming up now, and the next checkpoint was Balmaha, where the route met the loch at 19.8 miles and we had the first of our three drop bags. The marshals at all the checkpoints were really well organised, shouting out our race numbers and having our bags ready for us as we arrived. Unusually, no food is provided at any of the Fling checkpoints, just water, with Coke at two of the later ones. However, there is a table for people to deposit any food items they decide not to carry with them, and there was a good selection of sweet and savoury snacks at each one.
After this the hard graft really began! The route follows the lakeside, constantly undulating, with steep climbs and descents on narrow paths full of boulders and roots. There were only short sections that were actually runnable, and there was also a lot of scrambling over obstacles, often using hands as well as feet! I knew the lakeside section would be hard, but don’t think I’d fully twigged just how hard, or how long it would go on for.
I reached the halfway point at Rowardennan in six hours, but my pace had slowed considerably and I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to finish. But I had a word with myself and thought I hadn’t come all the way to Scotland to drop out at the halfway point, took on some more fuel and pushed on.
For the first twelve miles or so of the race my average mile pace had been between 10 and 11 minutes. Now it was dropping to between 15 and 20, with a few miles even over 20 minutes. I could tell the second half was going to take a lot longer than the first! The relentless lakeside path went on and on for almost 20 miles, and is certainly the most energy-sapping stretch of running I’ve ever done. I felt I was doing really badly, and was only comforted by the fact that everyone else around me seemed to be in the same position! At least there was the amazing scenery to take our minds off the pain a bit
My quads, knees and ankles were mashed by the time I reached Inverarnan at the top of the loch – from where there was another big climb!
After that there was finally some nice, undulating runnable path, but my legs were so tired I really felt like I was running through treacle and I began to wonder if I’d actually make the cut-off times. So it was a real relief when a lovely female marshal at the final checkpoint, Bogle Glen at 47.5 miles, shouted at the top of her voice “COME ON ANGIE, YOU’RE DOING THIS – YOU’RE GOING TO FINISH!” I filled one of my bottles with Coke (magic stuff!), necked my last gel, and cracked on as best I could.
We climbed up into some forest, then came steeply downhill. It was after 6 pm by now and the landscape was bathed in a gorgeous golden light. We’d been so lucky with the weather. The last couple of miles were a lot easier to run on, and I actually overtook a few people who were walking on the last section through Tyndrum Park to the finish, buoyed on by the sight of Steve appearing to ring a cowbell and shout at me. And what a finish it is – running down an actual red carpet with people cheering and shouting, and a commentator too. I was so pleased to hear him announce “Angela Shepherd, Tadcaster Harriers!” as I crossed the line. it was finally over!
I was ushered into the finishing area to have an official photo taken, then given an excellent goody bag containing a race medal, t-shirt, buff and bottle of Highland Fling prosecco. Fabulous! My official finish time was 14:23, so the second half had taken me two and a half hours longer than the first. I felt really slow, but later learned that almost a quarter of those who started had dropped out at some point, so in the end I was actually pleased just to have finished.
Overall I was 269th out of 315 finishers, 76th out of 98 females, and 16th FV50 out of 24 (9 FV50s DNFed). Frankly I was just relieved not to be last, and other runners were still coming in up to an hour and a half later. There was some very welcome soup for us at the end – unfortunately I wasn’t in time to enjoy the ice cream, baked potatoes and beer that the faster runners got! Then I staggered the short distance to the campsite where we were staying.
On reflection… am I glad I did this? Yes, and pleased that although I found it really hard, I didn’t quit. But if I’d realised exactly how tough it was I might not have entered in the first place! I think it was the hardest race I’ve ever taken part in, but also kind of proves that you’re capable of more than you think. I felt like I’d been run over by a truck the next day, but strangely my dodgy hip didn’t feel too bad. I feel fine now, apart from my right big toe nail, which took a real hammering, and I expect it to leave me at any time! If you love a tricky, technical route, you’ll love the Fling; but if gentle forest trails are more your kind of thing, it’s probably not for you. I couldn’t fault it on organisation, friendliness and atmosphere though.
So now I’m having a couple of easy weeks of walking, yoga and riding my new bike, before starting to train for the big one this year, the OCC – eek!