Some time back Mike asked if I'd like to come along on a jaunt with a few friends to recce the Fling course. It had originally been young Ally's idea and was such a good one that Graham and Mike were helping it gather momentum. At first it was going to be Four Carnethies and a Funeral, sorry Porty but quickly upsized and by the time we left if was a nine deep team of similar ability runners catching the Friday morning train to Milngavie. We would overnight at Rowardennan conveniently halfway up the route, before running the second half on Saturday and catching the 7pm train home.
The Fling is a tricky beast to check out. Being a point to point race you can only do 15 mile segments before retracing your steps or catching public transport or messing about with several cars and backtracking. This was a great way to cover the ground as long as you weren't fussy about spending a night in a hotel dressed like an olympic village hostage.
Rooms were booked - the hotel for those who prefer a tv, en suite and carpet in their room; the adjoining bunkhouse for those who prefer budget. In fact the differences weren't substantial in either comfort or price but it was nice to have a choice. And the hotel off season prices turned out to be less than the original web price suggested.
The dotted line of white rock bags marks the path.
I had intended to go light. But found it impossible to hone down the list of essentials to fit into my small daysack – the one I'll probably wear to race the Fling. Reluctantly I used my OMM 25lt and although it wasn't full it was pretty heavy. The weightiest items were a bladder with 1lt water and a tupperware box of sandwiches. There are few places to refuel on the route and I reckoned I could always ditch the extra. Another essential was a change of clothes as I hate wearing damp running kit until it dries. I also packed a stash of gels to test in race conditions. Other essentials: mobile phone, charger for Garmin, Inov-8 lounging slippers and my luxury item was an mp3 player.
When we met I was pretty sure I would be the laughing stock for carrying so much but nearly everyone had similar packs or combinations of smaller packs and bumbags. I think Ally was probably travelling lightest. (What no slippers?) I took along an extra toothbrush as I knew he would forget one. (He did.) I had been trying to work out what I could dump out my bag (or consume) on the mile run up the road to the station as I seemed to be carrying an anvil and set of blacksmiths tools.
Milgavie was cold and grey. We set off as ever from the underpass and headed out the inauspicious trails hoping the weather forecast was wrong again. It wasn't and I don't think we saw the sun all weekend. Consequently I didn't get the camera out much in the first 15 miles. By Drymen the group huddle had changed into a drifting line of runners, not always the same folk at the front or back. I stopped to rearrange the tupperware box which was sawing a wound in the small of my back. This was the single most impressive bit of forward thinking I did all weekend. I anticipated the shower in the hotel later, washing the salt off my head into the open red gash; and putting on my bag next day, wincing. Let's just repack while its no more than a hot spot. And I lightened it by one sandwich at the same time.
Neil on the clay soup
When we got near to Conic Hill there were earnest signs saying the hill was closed for repairs. Someone had broken it (the hill) and three guys were fixing it but it wouldn't be done till June. They appeared to have resurfaced the path with clay soup which adhered to your shoes. After the treads filled you would take a one footed slide for a yard, then run on the grass. Helicopters have dumped bags of rocks which will no doubt be redistributed along the route and after about 25 years of hiking boots wearing off the sharp corners, it will become a good path.
Will this be finished for April?
The cloud level was just resting on the summit and although there was the usual panorama of Loch Lomond below, the mist and lack of sunshine robbed it of some of the majesty. I had caught up with Neil and we walked and jogged the climb. Steven, up ahead, had run the climb and we caught him on the descent, which was blighted by the muddy conveyor belt. I gave it a second go, tried to put the brakes on, nearly went my length, then decided to yomp through the heather and grass for the remainder.
We had arranged to regroup at the Oak Tree Inn, Balmaha. We were ordering a splendid soup when Ally came running through the bar so quickly he nearly left skidmarks in the carpark. Cliffbars near their sell-by-date were blamed. Soup and refreshments were greatly reviving. To round off the meal I had a caffeine gel, not for the joy of it, but so I could review/assess it. The caffeine kicked in before we had got to that climb and viewpoint in the next mile and I scampered up it after Ally like I hadn't already run 20 miles. The Inn is 19miles from the start. So another 7+ to round off the day's run. The improving scenery and caffeine mix was deadly and I had a drug-fuelled magical 7 miles running all the hills and trying to chase Nigel on his bike like a dog chases a car.
Nigel had signed up for the trip, but injuries prevented him running. Undeterred he brought his bike. I was disappointed he was savvy enough not to bring large panniers to carry any extra luggage or sandwich boxes. There was talk of rates per kilo per mile. At various points along the route you wouldn't want to be lumbered with shouldering a bike but most of day one was a slow cold bike ride.
The view from the hotel
As luck would have it Friday night was quiz night. Fortunately the chef was much better at chef-ing than reading questions off a card. Good food and a hot wood burning stove. Our teams weren't a match for the locals and sadly the bottle of prosecco went to neither the Highland Flingers nor the Doggers. In Jim's absence, Steven led the way in celebrating the first day's run, perhaps at the expense of the second.
Everyone seemed to sleep soundly and as we congregated at breakfast not too much damage (blisters, tweaks and rubs) was reported. Tape and vaseline applied. A hearty full Scottish breakfast stoked us for the next marathon. I felt not too bad at all, probably because a lot of the miles were on soft ground. I had expected the first mile of Day 2 to be limped and stumbled, but we all seemed in pretty good shape. Maybe this Eddie Izzard business of daily marathons isn't as tough as he made it look? I knew the next bit was going to be challenging. Some pleasantness followed by long sustained climbs and descents was what I remembered. But of course the only times I have done this, it was immediately following 30 miles of running rather than a good night's sleep and a full breakfast. Yes it did go upwards for a long stretch but today it was mostly runnable. Ally was keen and took the lead.
Ally going over on his ankle.
The path continually climbs and falls – large sections I had blanked out although the state I have been in while racing the Fling wasn't always entirely sentient. The path narrows and continues to get more treacherous and you are required to use your hands to help scramble between large boulders and along slippy thin edges. I have worn most of the grip off my Hokas so was exercising caution, many miles from any ankle fixing establishments. Ally perhaps less so. Nike Frees being his shoe of choice, seeming to eschew both grip and support. But it wasn't slowing him down. We were belting along the hazardous ground – the most notorious section just before Inversnaid – at what felt like half marathon pace.
Nigel, knowing that tricky ground littered today's route, had set off promptly. We went past him just before Inversnaid where he was having a mechanical – a pinch flat. We shouted that we would regroup at the hotel. The Inversnaid Hotel is an intriguing place at the end of a long drive. I assumed it would be expensive and snooty and yet they have always been very welcoming, despite us looking like a tinkers' encampment. And they were serving teas and coffees for only 50p a throw. Ally and I returned to the window seats to catch the guys as they went past but unfortunately Neil was past before we saw him, and continued chasing down our phantom selves all the way to Beinglass, while we sat sipping coffee and I ate the last of my sandwiches.
It was with a heavy heart that I had disposed of several of them, uneaten, earlier, unable to face the ton weight in my pack on my aching shoulders. I now finished the final 2. It was the fuel I needed to keep pace with Ally. He was intent on catching Neil. Not that it was a race – as we kept reminding ourselves – only Neil was now in the lead! If we passed (North to South) walkers at a slow part Ally would enquire about the runner that passed them recently. Each time the description would be about half an hour ago and he was travelling fast. The speed seemed to increase with every report and we imagined Neil running faster and faster, thinking surely I must see them round the next corner. Voice mail or a text message eventually apprised him of the situation and he waited for us at Beinglass.
Meanwhile Ally led Gregor and myself over the toughest part of the run. The pace was impressive and I was wondering if it would take a toll later on. After a lot of intricate footwork the Loch ends and you climb up a series of steps summiting a hillock before a descent in front of a handsomely scenic cottage and the Loch ends a second time. Still plenty of places to soak shoes and twist ankles.
Then a section I don't have any previous recollection of whatsoever. Lots more undulations on broad hardpack running parallel to the A82 towards Crianlarich. Eventually after hundreds of miles we climb up and go through a tunnel. More steep climbing then a long gradual climb to the cattle toilet, where herds collect to impede your way with themselves and a jacuzzi of cowflop. I talk in what I imagine is a pacifying manner to let the beasts know I am coming through and there's no need for barking, biting, stampeding or trying to moo me down. Like a small red sea they part although we are now wading through ankle deep yak butter.
Slowly we reach the tree line. This section is nearly as much fun as having a tattoo removed. The first time I ran it was with Ben and just a little bit quicker than I was able. Through the deer fence and long, steep, granny-stepping ascents, followed by quad-busting overstriding descents. Round the corner and more of the same. Over the brow of the hill, more of the same. Across the bridge and more of the same. The only happiness is the bright red of the pine needle path. Only it does go on.
And on. After more delights than you knew you wanted you arrive at a viaduct thing you will only ever see when running this race. And then the road crossing. We regrouped here and ran as four wearied souls each doubting our ability to keep up with the speed of the pack. There are less than a handful of miles from here but they pass slowly. Ally asks have I eaten all my sandwiches. A moment later he stops and walks and I run into the back of him. Neil is also drifting. I am lightheaded and sweating more than I should be for the effort. I know I need to eat something but all I have is a caffeine gel. I have already had my recommended monthly allowance of caffeine in the last 24hrs but I open it anyway. I picture the Gu travelling to my wood burning stove and the fire restoring my legs. It works but I can feel my legs are voting to sit down.
During the race this section is littered with individuals misinforming you about the remaining distance. Best to familiarise yourself with the place and measure it yourself. But not by stepping off the train in Tyndrum. It can only be measured accurately from the Milngavie end.
Our true destination was the Fish Supper in the Real Food Cafe. I was sufficiently carefree by this point that I only just remembered to complete undressing and changing into dry clothes, in the toilet. Apart from slightly colouring 2 toenails (its always the ones next door to the big guys) there didn't seem to be any permanent damage. Just so long as I didn't think too much about the long train ride home, the short sleep and the early rise for the Gartmorn 6 trail race next day. Idiot!
While waiting for the train we had a pint in Paddy's Bar. I found the humid Saturday interior of badly-played-pool and big screen rugby nearly intolerable, so made use of the time to visit the facilities. Closing the cubicle door I heard a young lad of, I'd guess, 6 years old enter the toilet and say,
“... I'm having a pee, are you having a poo, dad?” I waited until the question was repeated and it became evident the boy was mistaking me for his father.
“I'm not your dad” I said in a gruff tone anxious to discourage any further interaction. There was a couple of seconds silence while the information was processed then, “Who are you then?”
At this point I was trying to keep a straight face and choosing my words carefully in order that the evening didn't end with a hastily built wicker-man bonfire in the Green Welly car park and me on top.
“All you need to know is I'm not your dad.” I heard the footsteps leave with some relief.
Mike had some foot issues.
The train home was a bit of a grind but I still managed to run the last mile home from Waverley getting in around 10.35. Not including the Edinburgh miles total distance run was about 26.5 miles day one; 26 day two; both pretty much 4hrs 20minutes running time.
A huge well done to Ally for having the idea of such a good fun weekend. We all had a good run. Nigel had a testing time on the bike with a couple of punctures and just one spare tube. It wasn't the best weather but it wasn't the worst either. Thanks to all for welcoming a Porty into the Carnethy ranks. I had a great weekend.