And so it finally arrived. I’d signed up for the Fling back in October, in the week before the Amsterdam Marathon, as a bit of a distraction from temporary tapering insanity. Or perhaps because of it. Or perhaps going on the theory that it’s important to have your next holiday already planned and booked, so that you’ve got something to look forward to at the end of the one just past. But I’m a great one for signing up for everything anyway, on the basis that it’s just opened on Entry Central and you don’t want to miss out. Plus, it was ages away yet, so no need to worry about it too much. Middle child (Georgia) was her typically blunt self when I told her what I’d done – “oh my God, you’re going to die”, being her pithy assessment.
Which is pretty much where my mind had turned to on Thursday evening. What have you done; what on earth makes you think you can run that far in one go; etc; etc?!
Conscious that I would get next to no sleep on Friday night (I’d agreed to meet James and Jen at 3.15am in East Linton), I felt quite a lot of pressure to sleep well the night before the night before. So of course that didn’t happen – I saw most hours on the alarm clock, and even had to get up for a while at 4am. Given the warmth of the night, I actually also felt slightly nauseous which had me worried that I’d caught a bug from one of my work colleagues (one of whom had been off for most of the week with pleurisy – he can’t have had his feet in his wellies).
Last minute preparations were made on Friday evening including assembling the all important drop bags (judging by the Fling's Facebook page, some folk seem to have spent more time buying the entire contents of Tesco than they did training), buying Jaegermeister for the after-party, and loading my hydration pack with the essential minimum. After a bit of internal debate, the essential minimum included Jamie's small camera, which I am very pleased about in hindsight. I now tend to agree with Peter's view that, especially for events like this, the small amount of time you think you lose in taking pictures is probably more then recouped by giving yourself a bit of a breather, taking your mind away from darker places, and being in a position to share your memories later.
|Loading up the Green Meanie|
We arrived in good time for registration and then added our drop bags to the boots of the relevant cars heading for the respective checkpoints. Seriously though, some folk must have been feeding the five thousand.
We had a bit of a scout around to find club mates Andy and Lee, and the Haddington crew of Norrie and Adrian. I was also on the look out for my friend Martin, who as you may recall is a hard core ultra runner who was doing the Fling mainly for the UTMB points.
|Friend, and recce partner, Martin|
|Team East Lothian (minus Andy S)|
Although probably not "on message", I find everything up to Drymen to be pretty uninspiring. So I was glad to be running with James, whose conversation helped to pass the time. His breakfast coffee was making itself known however, and he had to stop at least 3 times in the first hour "to make water". He'd stop and then gradually come back to me again. Which gave an early insight into how much ebb and flow there was throughout the day. Folk that you hadn't seen for hours would suddenly reappear as if by magic.
|My expression perhaps belies my feelings about this section of the course|
|"Yeah? I'm kind of busy at the minute."|
|James contemplates another pit (I said "pit"!) stop|
On the drag up the hill coming away from the little hamlet (Gartness) that has the outside honesty fridge, I got talking to Barry and Willie from Garscube. Both were targeting sub-9 hours, so I was in equal measures pleased to be keeping up with runners on that schedule, and worried that I'd gone off too fast despite my best intentions. Willie was apparently 21 stone (he must be half that now) as recently as 3 years ago. The transformation has been amazing, although he assured me that he "did much better with the ladies" as a fat guy than he does as an athlete. Barry told me a little further on that Willie has been running 140-150 mile weeks. It showed.
|First glimpse of Loch Lomond|
|A worrying list to the side (photo: George Furmage)|
Shortly before Drymen you are invited to leave the road and take some steps down beside a bridge. You then see some worn footmarks in the grass which lead up to a WHW marker post at the brow of a hill. But having done the recce with Martin four weeks ago, I knew that that line took you to the left of an area of marshy ground, with no real alternative but to try and cross it, or come back on yourself to try to go around it. Instead I veered further to the right which meant I didn't go over the highest part of the hill and entirely avoided the wet ground. I must admit to feeling very smug about that as I watched "the lefties" slow down and try to tiptoe their way through (mostly unsuccessfully I'm sure).
|Climbing up the wee hill towards the road crossing at Drymen (photo: Muriel Downie)|
I can't remember much of anything to tell you about the next section from Drymen towards Conic Hill, other than to say (i) that the enthusiastic crowds who turned out at Drymen were a real boost, and (ii) the decimated forest is pretty ugly - I know there are commercial concerns involved, but it strikes me that leaving a few sections of trees in place would be more aesthetically pleasing than clearing an entire hillside.
My plan had always been to walk up Conic. Little to be gained when everyone else was walking it as well, and plenty to be lost. I was surprised to see what I thought was Martin a short way further ahead though. When we lined up at the start, he'd taken up a position about 10 metres behind, and I hadn't been aware of him passing me. But the early miles were so crowded that I couldn't be sure. I started to walk a bit faster, until I got close enough to call his name, and he turned. Again, a small stroke of luck to be chatting to a friend on a difficult section. Looking back down the hill I could see James and Matthew coming close behind. The views from the top were spectacular, although the fact that there were photographers stationed up there meant that I didn't take my camera out. Which I regretted until I saw the picture that James had taken, and which I couldn't have bettered.
Others would not be so fortunate. Norrie told me later that he’d witnessed at close quarters a “poor lassie” take a sickening faceplant on one of the rocky technical sections approaching Inversnaid. She had to be evacuated out by the Trossachs Mountain Rescue team (whose speedboats were buzzing back and forth along the shore), and was rewarded with a broken nose and several stitches in her lip. Another chap slipped outside of Rowardennan, broke a number of fingers, and spent a night in A&E.
So no cakewalk this then.
Indeed I’d started to notice some “singing” from my left hip. Not so much a soprano belting out at you in the front row of the opera house; more like a sombre requiem coming from a stereo on low volume in the next room. But concerning nonetheless, so I washed down a couple of liquid ibuprofen tablets, and waited for the conductor to silence the choir.
The next section through the Rowardennan Forest is “undulating” which allowed me to go, if not “taps aff”, then at least down to bare arms. At which point Ivor the HBT caught up again. When asked how he was feeling after his tumble he said that the adrenaline was holding things together. We then agreed that there was no good reason for the trail not to follow a less hilly route around the headland, instead of straight over the top of the highest bit of ground in the area.
Arriving at Rowardennan was a huge buzz (see photo below), as I did so before my 4 hour target, and again the welcome party was in good voice. A couple of snaps, a quick rummage in the drop bag, and I was moving again pretty quickly.
On leaving I noticed an attractive (presumably quite modern) war memorial that I had completely missed on the recce – probably because Martin and I had left while it was still dark. Here it is, for Captain Henry’s log:-
Before Inversnaid I finally got onto the aforementioned rocky technical section. I had been dreading this after the recce, expecting the pace (but hopefully, touchwood, nothing else) to fall off a cliff. But a conversation with club mate Jamie, who had done the Fling in 2014 (and incidentally had a great run and PB at the VLM this year – well done!), gave me a new perspective on it. He said that he looked on it as a positive, because you had to go slowly, everyone else would as well, and you could use it for a bit of recovery before pushing on to the end. Buoyed already by these wise words, the actual experience was totally different to the recce in any event. A month of good weather had transformed the underfoot conditions. Yes, it was still rocky and technical, but at least you didn’t have to go searching off the path for dry places to put your feet.So I had a good vibe as I arrived into Inversnaid. Which was improved further when (i) a marshal told me that I was the first runner they’d seen come through taking pictures, and (ii) he and a colleague proceeded to give me the most fantastic butler service with my drop bag. “May I open your gel Sir?” “Would Sir like his suspicious urine-yellow looking liquid (i.e. flat Red Bull) decanted?” “Can I top Sir up with water?” Utterly flawless.
|Same spot as for the "drowned rat" photo from my debut blog post, but light years away in terms of an experience|
Thrust back into the tricky stuff, I was glad that my fast stop had allowed me to reel in a couple of guys in front. Not because I was bothered about places, but because I was glad of the company. When one tried to wave me through, I assured him that he was not holding me up, and that I was happy to follow the line of someone who seemed to know what he was doing. I certainly didn’t want to put any pressure on him to go faster than was comfortable.
My only injury of the day came on this section, when I thrust my hand into a thornbush, as I prepared to steady myself for a jump down between rocks. I washed the blood off in one of the cross-streams and could see it was just superficial stuff.
The rapidly approaching sounds of a pursuing runner gave me a bit of a fright, but then he shouted that he was “just a relay runner”, so we let him past and wished him well.
After a further spell we left the loch behind, and started the drag up and over to Beinglas. It was here that I caught up with “Jonny Stornoway”, who Roly and I had run with at the D33 before he motored off to a very handy finish. He didn’t seem to be enjoying the terrain much, saying that “this stuff’s like a different sport; I’m a road-runner, not a rock-climber”. I told him that we’d now passed the worst of it but, having learned myself the hard way, advised him not to lose concentration completely or he could come a cropper.
The marshals at the Beinglas checkpoint were again excellent, and provided a couple of chuckles to boost potentially flagging spirits. The first came when a lady asked if I’d like my nuts out of their wrapper. I responded that that would probably be indecent. The second was when I asked how far it was to the finish, to which one said 11 miles and another said 13. You need to go away and try to get your stories straight…
But the Garmin said I’d reached 41 so, even working on the worst case scenario, it dawned on me that not just a sub-10, but a sub-9 was a possibility. I’d reached Beinglas in under 6 and half hours. Surely I should be able to manage a 2h30m half marathon? But on tough ground, with shot legs? The slow grinding gears of my brain as I tried to work out the pace I’d need helped to distract my attention for some of the “rollercoaster” section that followed.
We were back to good wide well-made windfarm type roads, but there were lots of ups and downs – the sort of terrain that I’ve been training on with Stuart at Crystal Rig. Except that I was now quick-marching (sometimes doubled over and with arms driving thighs) on absolutely anything that had a gradient, and running the rest. My hope was that this would keep delivering the sub-12 minute miles that I needed.
There was a succession of really picturesque wooden footbridges over a meandering river (sorry, footage not found), but they tended to have a number of steep steps up to the gantry and then back down again. Which did not go unnoticed by my quads – the first tell-tale signs of cramp were like a gathering storm on the horizon.
After negotiating first the “troll” tunnel and then a more generously proportioned tunnel under the A82, I was met with words of encouragement from a spectator who said that there were “3 guys within 4 minutes ahead”. I replied that I didn’t hold out much hope of catching them, but I suppose it did act as a bit of a spur. Again, not because I was bothered about places, but because I was now looking for ways to help keep the pace respectable and see me home.
The first runner I managed to bridge to was a chap called Hugh, who was happy to pass the time with some chat. Although we appeared to have settled into very different rhythms (he running everything at the same steady pace, and me walking a lot but a little faster than him when I did run) we did just about manage to hold a coherent conversation in spite of the yo-yo effect. He commented that he thought it was a strong field. I admitted that I wouldn’t have known which names should have stood out from the entry list. I asked how many he thought were ahead of us, and was blown away when Hugh said he thought we must be somewhere around 25th.
And even on this worst of muddy sections – known as “Cow Poo Alley” – the ground conditions could not have been better. The dry weather and likely heavy footfall seemed to have packed it down and squeezed the moisture out, forming a nice hard line.
I told Hugh that I hadn’t been much beyond here on the WHW before, and asked what to expect. He said that there was one nasty climb up into the Crianlarich Forest, it then “undulated” (that word again!) through the Forest, before dropping down to a flat run into Tyndrum.
It was on that nasty climb that my quads started to cramp up – the muscles directly above my knees tensing solid at times. My poker face can’t be that bad though, because the photo below doesn’t give the game away.
|Climbing into Crianlarich Forest, with Ben More and Ben A'an in the background (photo: Conor Cromie)|
And I started to encounter runners and riders who appeared to be coming out from Tyndrum to welcome us in. Which must be a good sign?! I asked again how far we had to go and was told around half a mile to the road crossing and a further 2 to the finish. Although something was then muttered which I didn’t quite catch, but I suspect was an upwards reassessment. It certainly sounded a little too good to be true.
After crossing the A85, and finding ourselves on decent roads through flat-ish farm country, I managed to join up with Dale and we introduced ourselves. His company over that final stretch was a big help. Still full of questions about unknown territory (I had become concerned that our destination might be at the far end of Tyndrum near the Green Welly), Dale was able to tell me that the By The Way campsite was in fact at the near end. Bonus!
|An information board said these were the Tyndrum Hills - I remember thinking that that was hopefully because they are very close to T, and not in a "London Road in Edinburgh" sense|
A large sign saying “You are half way on the WHW” announced our approach to the campsite, and I remarked to Dale that that would be hard to see if you were trying to run the whole thing.
I was then shocked to hear a cry of “oh my god, it’s Nick”, before spotting Jen and her Mum and Dad. She told us that there were only a few hundred yards to go, and then Dale said that he could hear the pipers.
|I forgot to take a picture running up the red carpet, so if you like you can imagine that my quads were so shot that I ran it backwards|
And then I became suddenly very emotional. I needed to give myself a metaphorical slap so as not to burst into floods of tears. Which would be a little unbecoming. Trying to explain it, I think it is because there were no guarantees that I would finish. Fatigue, injury, mishap, or bad mojo could have ended my race at any time. I suppose you could compare it to a non-serious runner doing a marathon. When I do marathons, I know that I can do the distance fine, because I have trained up to it and beyond. The questions surround how fast you’ll go, and how much it might hurt to sustain the right pace. But I knew nothing of an ultra of this nature. So the sudden dawning of my achievement was a bit overwhelming. Brilliant, elated, overwhelmed, disbelief.
I gladly accepted my goodie bag (top drawer), my free beer (did I want it opened? Of course!), bought a hoodie (it would be rude not to), and then shuffled off for a massage.
And then hung around cheering folk in, and unpicking the details of the run with the likes of James, Martin, Matthew, Jonny, Ivor, Joanne, Andy and Adrian. A chat with Barry Garscube revealed that Willie was in a bad way (thankfully after finishing his run) due to the amount of caffeine he’d ingested, having absolutely no tolerance to it.
Which was a taste of what was to come for me.
I found the post-race beer pretty tough going, and it soon became clear that while my body had tolerated the massive amount of shitty sugary gloop and caffeine I’d forced into it under duress, and with the adrenaline gone, it was rapidly rebelling. So much so that it soon entered full-on purge mode, and my stomach began rejecting even small sips of water.
As you can imagine, that put something of a downer on my planned big celebration. I was terrible company for James and Jen back in the caravan, and could barely touch the caramelised red onion steak burger that Jen very kindly prepared.
I was very grateful to Norrie and Karen who decided that it was too cold to stick around and sleep in the back of Norrie’s work van, and evacuated me on the last chopper out of Saigon. Foetal position in my own bed was all I wanted.
So. Final thoughts. It was an amazing, rich, experience. But not one I wish to repeat. I hope that doesn't sound ungrateful; it is simply that it all came together so beautifully that I don't think it could be surpassed. If I did it again it would only suffer for the comparison. I may look to do the Devil O' The Highlands to tick off the other half of the WHW, but the full 96 is simply never going to be on my dance card.
Thanks are owed to friends, club mates and TBers for the help with training and their invaluable advice. Also to my family for tolerating said training. And to my fellow runners, supporters, incredible race crew, and random strangers who made for such a great atmosphere on the day.
Special thanks to James, Jen, Norrie and Karen for their very kind accommodation and for looking after me when I was poorly.