The Fling is an amazing event. This was my third Fling and I really enjoyed the training as well as the race. We were very lucky with the weather which was nearly perfect – cool but sunny with only a little rain. Underfoot was still a bit soggy from a horribly wet Winter which only finished a couple of weeks ago. But, all in all, very good conditions.
I'm going to start with my only complaint: 6am is a dreadful time to start any race, never mind a race where it is ESSENTIAL to start very well fed and watered. Even if you stay locally overnight in the fast-to-sell-out Premier Inns (as we did) you are getting up before 5am and choking down as big a breakfast as possible. This is unacceptable and the major reason Graham Henry decided to boycott the event this year. And if you are travelling from Edinburgh (or god forbid further afield) you are obliged to get up in the middle of the night to arrive jet lagged before you even start what is most likely the toughest race of your life.
Its just madness and the only reason I can think its done like this is to have everyone over the finish line before dark. My suggestion would be to start the race proper at say 9am which gives 12hrs daylight to finish. If you are going to take longer, then the timing chip mats are set up at 6am and/or you can self-police your own start any time in the middle of the night. Graham was most unhappy the event has gone from a small time ultra-family and friends race that you could sign up for on the day, to the more official monster of nearly 600 runners it is today. It does seem that Ultras are becoming the new mainstream.
Having fun yet? Photo Ally R
That aside, this race is spectacular. I was very pleased to be invited along to the Carnethy recce 7 weeks ago where we spent 2 days running the course overnighting at Rowardennan Hotel. It was a great reminder of the twists and turns of the route and meant yesterday I didn't have to concern myself with navigation. I ran most of the day on my own and (as several found out on the recce) it is quite easy to go wrong, despite the fence post signs along the route. Ben Kemp managed to go wrong along one of the Lochside paths – I have a feeling it may have been the same place Ally got lost during the recce. Doing the route at less-than-race-pace and over 2 days made it seem so much more manageable, more race-able, than when you only see it on a one day double-marathon killer run. It gives you a sense of what is around the next corner and what you have still to do.
So this year I was chasing sub9. Previously I ran about 9.30 and 9.20. After the recce I thought 8.50 might be on the cards if the conditions were favourable. So I thought I would hone my event; from food stuffs, to minimising weight. I knew Richie favoured mashed potatoes but the problem was how to have your chef prepare potatoes at one of the 4 drop stations? Also I had witnessed Graham H wolf a Muller Rice without the use of a spoon, wipe his hand on his shorts and continue running. Sandwiches are too hard to swallow with a mouth dry from running. Recently Mary had been making coffees for runs and carrying them in a cup-flask. 2 days before the Fling I bought a cup-flask and reckoned it would keep half a pint of liquidy mashed potatoes warmish for 18 hours.
I took Thursday pm and Friday off work and ran about picking up odd things. When the forecast was set cool I decided to wear the new warm Rab top I had never once run in just because its soft fabric promised to keep me warm in the Milngavie car park at 5.45am. Or at least once we got going. It was (worn over a technical t-shirt) perfect, although it is not advisable to wear things for a 9hr run you have not tried and tested pretty thoroughly. ie Hoka Rapa Nui shoes I had run in just 6 times. Hoka had brought these out weeks ago but distribution has been terrible and I was hoping I didn't have to wear my Stinsons with a 4 inch split down the side.
Mary had decided not to run. She would chauffeur myself and Ben to and from the race but she remained sound asleep as I crept around the Premier Inn like a burglar at 4.45 trying to eat muesli and a sandwich by the light of a headtorch while vaselining where the sun wasn't shining. I also put on sunscreen as I'd toasted my face the other week just being outdoors for 9 hrs. Since we haven't been abroad for ages it is a while since buying sunscreen and the stuff I had grabbed from the toiletry basket turned out to have matured into quite an unpleasant cheese to paint on one's face. I also took a cap in my daysack. I don't like the look of a peaked cap but they minimise face bake.
Marshal at Drymen
Everyone appears at Milngavie Station with armfuls of stuff. 4 drop bags for the aid stations and a change-of-clothes bag for the far end. Mary said she would leave my kit bag at the finish line if she wasn't there. After a commendably brief announcement from the organiser we went over to the famous tunnel and stood in time groupings ready for the off. First boo-boo of the day. I had tuned in my Garmin but switched it off to conserve battery life (9hrs is top end of battery life) and, of course it couldn't get a signal in the tunnel when I switched it back on. As we were set off I had to step out the tunnel and off the road for a minute to get a signal, then hurry to take back the hundred places lost to Garminisation. Although everyone was travelling at a modest pace and it was easy to get back through the masses, it left me not knowing how many were up ahead, and throughout the day I had no real idea of what position I was in.
Sleepy time Ben
I recognised a few familiar faces and ran alongside Graham, Gerry, and Gregor. Then saw Ben up ahead and moved forwards. I hadn't seen him earlier. Turns out he had slept in and only just made the start. His priorities currently are family and work, leaving less time for running. I got the feeling early on I might well be stronger than him at present and when I turned round a few miles later he had drifted from view. It is impossible to decide to run with someone over this distance – you have to find your own pace. Later on there is a tendency to run in packs or pairs but I ran most of the race on my own with only a glimpse of a runner up ahead or way behind. It was at times lonely but also meant I could choose my own pace. Which initially was quite prompt. I would target the runner ahead and catch them, moving on to the next.
Diversion made me sweat.
At Drymen there was a diversion. Instead of turning right and going up the undulating off-road path that climbs up to the deer fence before Conic Hill, we went downhill into Drymen. I knew this would result in a steeper climb to the deer fence and was glad when we got to the top of a long steep tarmac road then turned off-road and met the normal path. I had reeled in a young guy I had been following for a while. I left him behind climbing Conic, which I ran except for 2 short steep sections. I was glad I had decided (again last minute) to carry my small “racing” camera. A cheap pink nasty that doesn't matter if it comes to grief. When I saw the forecast was set bright I couldn't face not taking photos. And the views from Conic Hill over Loch Lomond are brilliant. I was pleased the new path seems to have dried out. During the recce it was a sticky clay-like surface that clung to your soles. Lots of new steps going down to Balmaha had been placed in the last 7 weeks as well, making the going better, though you wouldn't want to trip and fall.
Into Balmaha: drop bag one and I had expected to see my daysack and a bag with juice and a Muller Rice. Instead I was handed my mashed potato flask and a juice. Having done the Fling twice I was blasé when I sorted my drop bags and forgot Rowardennan came after Balmaha not before. My spork was in Rowardennan. Adrian of Run and Become was standing nearby and when I asked did he have a spoon handy he told me to use my hands (and that Richie, champion of mashed potatoes as ultra food, would be proud.) The potatoes were pretty warm and absolutely delicious. I had made a spicy dinner for Ben the night before and put a fair bit of the liquid from that in the mashed potatoes for added flavour. I tried to pour the stuff out into my mouth but it was too thick so shoogled it out into a hand and consumed it saying to Adrian “this is how animals eat.” It was fast to consume and I hurried out the aid station in superquick time leaving the mucky flask with Adrian who volunteered to return it to the finish line. I had planned having my spork to eat it and my daysack to stash the empty flask. I cleaned my hands on my thick gloves, inside-outed them and swapped them for my thinner gloves (which I'd taken because Ben had glove issues.)
Renewed, and pleased at how well the food had gone down I zoomed up the next dogleg to the view point overtaking a couple of plodders. I was glad to see a marshal pointing folk up this extraneous diversion as you can miss it out if not paying attention.
Shortly afterwards I came across Mike R. An experienced ultra runner, Mike was having problems with cramp that he put down to dehydration, having had nothing to drink till Balmaha. I didn't get the whole story on why this came about but we weren't even halfway and he was in trouble. He managed to finish but I'm sure it wasn't his finest day out.
I think the next stretch from Balmaha to Rowardennan is the most pretty with undulating thin trails swooping along pine-tree-and-birch lochside vistas. I was glad I had the camera with me. Mostly I took snaps while running and predictably they were a bit shaky. Occasionally I would stop and take a picture. I told Adrian I had the camera with me – I know he thinks I would be faster if I didn't carry it but it adds greatly to my enjoyment of the thing to have photos to blog afterwards and I think it only costs me seconds.
I was watching my time as I came into Rowardennan. I reckon you need to do this in 4 hrs to go sub 9. I was in 5 minutes early which is 10 minutes quicker than my best. I was also feeling really chipper and enjoying the run. I got my Muller Rice (and Spork) and Daysack. The rice went down really easily and quickly. I had heard from other long distance runners they used this. I horsed it down in about 17 seconds and then drank about 350ml of special potion, binned some stuff, shoved my bumbag into my daysack and set off. I also swapped my black hat for my gormless white peaked cap.
Again I set off replenished and feeling good. There is a smallish practice hill then a long sustained hill. Towards the end of the second Gregor caught up and we exchanged notes. We ran together for a bit and passed a professional looking sponsored runner who was walking and complaining of cramp. After more of the same the terrain deteriorates and just before Inversnaid becomes rock-hoppy and technical. I normally enjoy the challenge of this but with 30+ miles in your legs it can go wrong, so extra care has to be taken. Somewhere along here I must have dropped Gregor as I went into Inversnaid alone, after getting lots of compliments and lies from Keith H who was out supporting: “you are looking great, running really well, you're kicking ass” etc. I thanked him for his lies, wanting to believe them.
Getting into Inversnaid and the marshals couldn't have been more helpful. I asked them what they had for me and got the bad news: “a piece” ah yes I was wondering when my sandwich would turn up. I decided not to bother, just had a few gels and filled my backpack bladder with about a pint of water. (They offered me the cast-offs - unwanted gels, sports bars, all sorts of treats which indicated a small army of sweet toothed runners had come through earlier.) I thought the key to success was not carrying anything more than the absolute minimum. I had initially filled my backpack with around 600mls of water and some flavouring and half a nuun tablet. It was way too salty and the Inversnaid dilution made it much better. I thought it was probably best that the final Muller Rice was waiting at Beinglas and would get me through to the finish. I chewed some pieces of protein bar and glucose tablets from time to time but they were hard work.
The next section is the toughest with what feels like a mile or 2 of scrambling and jumping up and down tricky rock sections. In the recce Ally led us along here at a great rate. I was slower in the race as I had been getting tighter and crampier legs. I hoped the caffeine gels would give me a boost for this section. Every now and then a relay runner would come past. Just as 3 guys were approaching and perhaps distracting me I slipped on a steep drop-off and plunged forwards catching my feet and going headfirst between the rocks. I scraped my knees, hit my right hip on the rock and shouted wild obscenities and screams as both legs seized up with cramp. It took a moment to get back on my feet and reassure the other runners I was ok. I can imagine them thinking “oh no this turnip has just broken a leg or a skull and now we're going to have to wait for the air ambulance and ruin our race.” So everyone was relieved. Medical science has never absolutely explained cramp or come up with a remedy. I have some new data. A near death experience and about 100megawatts of adrenaline sorts it out big time. I continued along the last of the technical stuff with cramp free legs (only about another 100 yards) before we came to the shore where you go round a corner and up the hill. I think I was doing quite a bit of walking here.
After going over the brow of the hill there is some descent and a couple of cottages to the left. It was soaking wet here and I did a one footed slide. The Hokas don't have very big lugs and so grip isn't brilliant esp. on the wet. Another few steps and I did a massive slide and felt, as if in slow motion, my leg go up and I fell onto my back in the wet mud and grass. I felt my weight on my backpack and tried to remember if there were any breakables in there. Again my legs seized up with the sudden movement and I got my thin gloves soaked and muddy pushing myself back onto my feet. Rude words were shouted.
I had transferred my camera from hand to waist belt of backpack before the tricky ground. It was now banging with every step against the hip damage, so I took it out and threw it in the backpack. No more photos from Dario's post onwards. I wish I could as easily forget the pain. From that point on it was a constant companion. I jogged into Beinglas and again the marshals couldn't have been nicer. They even peeled the lid off my rice. “How are you going to eat it?” I produced (without flourish) my spork and they were suitably impressed. This one took about 22 seconds to demolish but I really enjoyed it. I poured my new juice into my backpack bladder and set off. I had left myself 2hrs11mins to finish sub9 and I felt it was, bar major disasters, in the bag.
Almost instantly there were major disasters. I dislike the next section and its undulating barren trails with only motorway noises for company. Far too many short but steep climbs and the threat of cramp a constant twitch in my inner thighs and calves. Any sudden movements set it off. I was wondering why Gregor was still behind me. It seemed odd that someone younger, fitter and with more miles in the bank (he was doing all sorts of full-on training in between races) shouldn't be ahead. Virtually as soon as I had that thought, he appeared some way back approaching rapidly. I got to a stile and couldn't lift either leg high enough to climb it without huge spasms of pain. Not sure how I finally got past but Gregor quickly caught up, we jogged together for a bit then a steep hill stymied me and he shot off at a blistering 10 minute mile pace!
Just as I was thinking it could get no worse something attracts my attention from behind and its Andy J, romping along. “How are you doing Mr Johns?”
“GREAT” comes his response.
“F___ OFF” was mine. He is actually full of the joys. He is hello-ing and good-afternooning all the walkers we pass (at this point I can't remember if its morning, afternoon or night) and seems genuinely to be having a lovely day out. I tell him about my woes and he asks if I have salt tablets. I don't have the energy to tell him science used to finger lack of salt as the cramp suspect but that theory was losing ground as, no doubt, troops somewhere were filled to the gunnels with salt and still got cramp. Science is still at a loss. I find that fitness is the key and the less fit or more tired I am, the more likely I'll cramp. If I do the Edinburgh Marathon then the 7 Hills a week or 2 later I can point to the spot on the ground I'll get cramp: just on the runway down to the Parliament building. I would superglue a salt tablet there only I'd never be able to reach down to pick it up. Maybe lie on the ground and lick it. Anyway I didn't have the energy to tell Andy this. The mention of tablets however reminded me I had a couple of paracetamol so I took them. Andy overtook and began to increase his lead, but when another dude came up behind and it looked like I was about to hemorrhage 30 places in as many minutes I thought its time to pull up your socks. In fact I had not long had a Graham Henry / Kate Jenkins moment when I shouted really loudly at myself “PULL YOUR F___ING SOCKS UP.”
Mashed potato Champion. Photo Mary.
On reflection the cramp seemed worst just after I had eaten. My theory was that the blood was all rushing to my stomach leaving just thickening gravy (mashed potatoes?) chugging through the veins in my arms and legs. Which would account for the partial recovery I was making as Andy got about a quarter of a mile ahead, and stomach blood was rerouted to flailing legs. We had gone through the tunnel under the road together and his experience (and height) told him to duck and warn me to keep the head low for a long time (nearly setting cramps off again.)
I quite like the exposed paths along to the forestry. The lack of steep climbs allowed me to pick up the pace and soon I had Andy in my sights again catching up to him near the cattle toilet. We waded through the ankle deep shit together and by the time we got through the big gate (hello Mrs. Nash that husband of yours will be along in no time) I was able to climb the steep ascent relatively pain free. I was feeling considerably better and I wondered if it was the genial company of the Big Man of Ultras. Contrary to most successful long distance runners' shapes, Andy is more Land Rover than Ferrari. However his pb for the Fling is 8.52 which is better than most, including me. His brain was still working pretty well too, as he was telling me what minute-miling we would need to do to break 9hrs. Strangely I was still under the impression it was in the bag. My brain had all but shut down and was just sending single syllable messages like hill or jump or drink. The ups and downs of the forest go on forever. Just as you think we must be coming to the final descent now, it zips back up the hill away from the direction you want to be going. Having someone alongside was good for keeping the pace going. Neither of us wished to be left behind. I sort of assumed we would be finishing together. I don't recall much chat, more just wordless bonding. At last the descent to that bridge and the path alongside the road. I was glad people of intelligence were there to help me across the road.
Gregor - white cap far right is me, Andy and pal left of that. Photo Mary
Nearly finished. Photo Mary
Andy (in vest) with supporter. Photo Mary
We had been joined by Andy's pal. I had seen this guy about 6 times at various points along the course. I assumed he was there to support me since he continually popped out en route and we exchanged pleasantries each time I passed by. So now he is running with us on the final stretch across the road and past that farm. My feet hit the tarmac and I don't know if its all that bounce in the new shoes but I pick up the pace. Andy drops back. I shout encouragement to him but he is set in a steady pace and I reluctantly ease ahead. One reason I am keen is I can see Gregor a quarter of a mile up the road and he is not moving as fast as I am. Killer instinct takes over although I do recall Gregor and I running this very section together during the recce, him, strong as a horse. I feel like shouting out to him that I have him in my sights. Then as I am crossing the field near the wigwams Mary appears. She is not familiar with my new Rab top and I hardly ever wear the cap so it takes her a moment to recognise the old wounded soldier stumbling towards her. She is taking photos but makes a much better job of Gregor's and Andy's than mine. I catch Gregor and he matches my pace. I remember a dip where 3 years ago the jump down set off cramp. It almost does again. I am running a tightrope. I tell Gregor I can smell the beers. Gregor asks do I think we can get to the line in 15 minutes. I don't know if I replied but was thinking definitely, its in the bag. Weirdly the 15 minutes is passing in fast-forward and as we get to the last few hundred yards my watch is whizzing towards 9hrs at a frightening rate and I take my life in my hands in a hundred yard dash for the line.
The Garmin was on auto pause so couldn't tell me the real time run. My watch said 5.59am when we started running and 2.59pm when we crossed the line. I hadn't checked the seconds so didn't know the exact details. Gregor, a handful of seconds behind, thought it was thumbs down. I didn't really care. I might have found it difficult to tell you my name for a moment or 2. However I was in a much better state than 2 years previous when I, ahem, burst into tears after badly managing food intake then ran beyond exhaustion in blistering heat. Today I felt happy and hungry, though very spaced out.
Nasher - looking far too chipper with a strong finish
There were a number of Porta-showers. I collected my kit (and goodie bag with bottle of fizz and tech t-shirt) and limped into the shower. It was kind of flooded and after a long warm shower scrubbing the mud off my legs tied a towel round my waist and did the rest of my dressing outside where I could dry my feet properly. Mary said seeing me like this was like seeing a vision of how I will be in my dotage; mentally askew and stiff limbed. I was even getting cramp in my elbow joints which are still a bit achy next day.
Ben appeared equally woozy but also managed a shower. We checked the results and laughed at my time: 9.00.02. Oh well never mind – I probably ran a stormer. Forgot to check if there were ages next to names. Mary (the brains of the outfit) drove us to Callendar for a pizza. We then drove home via N Berwick to drop off Ben. When we got home I found out that I was 2nd mv50 and that although my gun time was 9.00.02 my chip time was 8.59.57! So I was right all along, it was comfortably in the bag.