Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hoka Highland Fling 2015

Roughly 18 miles in, approaching the top of Conic Hill, ready for a nice descent with great views over Loch Lomond opening up in front.

2015 was going to be a non-event year.  "I'm not going to enter any races." I had said.  My plantar fasciitis has been bothering me on and off for a few years now.  I had worked out that I aggravate it by running hard.  Hard as in foot stomping fast.  I could quite comfortably put in twenty miles at an easy pace but a parkrun would ruin me.  So I said that 2015 would be a year where I just get out on the fells; nice long, easy paced days.  No pressure.

Of course, I would have to do the St Bega Ultra.  It's a beautiful 35 mile run, I've made a lot of friends from doing this event last year and I wouldn't want to miss that party.  But apart from that it was going to be a non-race year.  Well I really enjoyed the Scafell Pike Marathon last year so I would probably do that one, but that would be it!  Maybe a triathlon or two...NO!

Well one of the many peccadilloes of the Hoka Highland Fling is that it sells out really quickly.  My good mate Paul started bombarding me on Facebook and I was vulnerable.  I quickly signed up before it was too late.  Phew!  Then I had a think about it.  What have I done?  There was only one thing to do, I quickly started to bombard my other friend Jonathan who is just as vulnerable as I am.  Despite chronic hypochondria, Jonathan signed up and we were all set for an ultra adventure.

This was going to be my longest run to date.  I had done a 46 mile run on the day before my birthday last year, attempting the Northern Fells just falling short due to poor equipment.  I had also done a few 50ks and the St Bega Ultra which is about 37 miles.  Jonathan had also done the St Bega Ultra and Paul has a bit more experience, having done things like the 69 mile Wall race and The Cumbria Way Ultra at 73 or so miles, one that I had to DNS due to plantar and hip issues.

drop bags all sorted
Training had been just doing some running really.  I had made the mistake on the Cumbria Way of doing too much and wore myself out before the race.  I decided I pretty much had the miles in my legs due to regular running and just needed to be sensible.  I think being well rested going into the race was one of the smartest things I did.

I volunteered to drive us.  Jonathan talked about getting a hotel but I was up for roughing it and setting off early and coming back late.  As we got a bit nearer, I capitulated and he booked us a hotel for after the race.  Good move Jonathan.  My line of thought was that we wouldn't sleep anyway the night before the race so we might as well be heading up to Glasgow.  So we met up at 1.30am on Saturday morning.  I had gone to bed after work and managed a few hours of sleep but it's fair to say I was tired.  We utilised service stations for comfort and coffee breaks on the way and rocked up at the Burnbrae Hotel, designated parking place for the weekend at about 4.30am.  Outside it was dark and pouring with rain.  We sat in the car and reflected on our wisdom.  For a good 40 minutes.  Then we got our kit ready and set off on the ten minute walk to the start.

The race has a cool system for drop bags.  Pack your own.  You then drop them off at the start and they are transported to the various aid stations.  This had lead to lots of discussion on the Facebook page.  Pies, pizza and all sorts of nutritional wonders were planned.  My basic strategy was Nakd bars, one an hour, a tried and tested fuelling technique.  These are savoury, made up of pretty much all natural ingredients and have a good fat content from the nuts in them.  My aid bags consisted of three or four of these bars as a top up to carry and a few treats including, at latter stages, cans of coke and a veggie sausage roll.

drop bags loaded

Sign in was well organised.  One advantage of being up so early was that my digestive system had had a chance to 'work through' and I was able to start feeling unburdened by last night's dinner.

"stairs?!" coming out of the underpass and heading off into the unknown.

early doors, nervy runners gathering
We lined up at 6am in the second wave of runners and before long we were heading out under the iconic bypass and through the streets of Milngavie and onto the trails of the West Highland Way.  It was cool with a light drizzle, not much wind.  Perfect running conditions.  We staunchly walked the slight inclines during this part but the first twelve or so miles to Drymen are pretty flat.  I clocked into Drymen in 2:13.  We had run almost the whole of the first section and taken an easy pace.  I had got ahead of Paul and Jonathan a bit on some of the downhill sections but I utilised my lead by taking a pee stop and waiting for them.  There is a water station at Drymen, no drop bags here.  I stopped to put a plaster on a hot spot on one of my toes.  It's good to sort these things out early.  Jonathan did the same and Paul took some pain killers.  Paul had been to the physio a day or so before the event.  He said that the physio had sorted his hip/back but told him not to run.  Ahem!

Out of Drymen and we soon entered Garadhban Forest.  This was still on good ground but the route started to undulate here.  Running downhill is one of the things I find easy and I again caught myself getting ahead and then hanging back to wait for Paul and Jonathan.  As we came out of the other side of the forest, we saw the climb of Conic Hill.  This is the only really significant climb on the route.  We took the climb easy and then again I bombed down the other side and waited for the others.  I was a bit angry with myself because running hard downhill is obviously harder on your legs and feet and waiting at the bottom of descents took away any advantage of doing so.

the crew out of the forest and about to tackle Conic Hill

nice long run down to Balmaha

At the bottom of the long descent of Conic Hill there is another wooded area before the second aid station at Balmaha.  This was just under 20 miles in and my bag for this stage was just some Nakd bars to top up my supply and a little packet of dolly mixtures (which I carried unopened for the remainder of the run).  There was already a huge pile of unwanted goodies on a table that you could take your pick from.  I had a few jelly babies and Jonathan got his blisters sliced off by a medic. This was also the point that Paul called it a day.  He had been struggling on the descent and decided he might as well start to follow his physio's advice at this point.  We tried to persuade him to continue another 7 miles to the next aid station but he had made his mind up and there was no point him continuing with over 30 miles to go.  Paul said he would get the train to the end and have a drink ready for us.  We shook his hand and continued on our way.

starting the descent of Conic Hill

The next few miles were fairly easy, along roadside tracks.  There were a few climbs and a short section on a shingle beach but we just walked these and then enjoyed any flat or downhill sections.  The views across the loch were fantastic.  Had I been in the lakes I could have named the snow capped peaks but I am ashamed to say that I was only half sure that it was Loch Lomond that we were running along side.

Rowardennan was the next check point at 27 miles.  I ran in here to be told that my drop bag wasn't there.  I was a bit miffed as I was looking forward to a can of coke but I made do with a few swigs of Jonathan's coke and some Nakd bars and other goodies from the left overs.  We set off again, walking at first to allow our food a bit of time to digest.  Jonathan and I felt that 30 miles was a significant point, we felt we would have it in the bag from there.  We also both felt really low in energy at about the 30 mile point.  The Nakd bars were not satiating but I knew I just had to keep putting fuel in.  I broke bits of and chewed them up.  They did the trick but I viewed them more as medicine than a snack at this point and would have been quite happy to never see another one.  

At about the 33 mile point, we came across a woman who had taken a nasty spill.  She had people with her, we stopped and asked if we could do anything but those attending to her seemed to have things in hand.  It was nice to see that her husband put a thank you message on Facebook afterwards and was able to contact the very kind lady who was helping her out.  

Coming into Inversnaid at about 35 miles, I was glad to see my very own drop bag.  I topped up with some rice pudding and then we headed out on the rocky, undulating next stage.

Jonathan risks sitting down at Inversnaid (35 miles)

After an initial walk, I started to pick up the pace but Jonathan, who struggles a bit on more technical ground, was hanging back.  He really didn't seem to be enjoying himself on this bit and it seemed to go on for quite a while.  Towards the end of the section, I ran off ahead and got into the next and final check point at Bein Glas (41 miles) a bit ahead of him.

Jonathan tries to bend down to tie his shoe laces at 45 miles in.
I used the extra time to change my socks and scoff my sausage roll.  Jonathan came in and, after a little almost puke, seemed quite strong and got me a cup of coffee (which was far too hot to drink).  I squeezed some Robinson Squash'd (those little pouches of cordial) into my water bottles to take the taste away of the electrolite tabs (stroke of genius but I was worried about it exploding in my bag).

We set off with 12 miles to go, or two 10ks as somebody helpfully put it.  We were both confident that we would finish and, after an initial walk, I started to press on again.  I was feeling strong again but Jonathan wanted to walk more than I did.  On reflection, maybe he held me back enough to give me the energy to push on but with about five miles to go, I ran on ahead.  Crossing a road at the 50 mile point I felt really strong and ran past a good few people on the next section which went along a bit of road and then back into woodland.  When my Garmin read 52.4 miles and I was counting down the last half mile or so, a kind race official ran past me in the opposite direction and said, "just a mile to go!"

Soon after this, I was through the gate and running along side the river, past the bag pipe players, who I gave a quick salute to, and then into the finish, throngs of people cheering us on.  I overtook one last person at the start of the red carpet and then bounded down the finish straight to cheers, cowbells and photographic flashes.

I had finished in a time of 13.42 not the fastest and feeling as though I could have knocked a good chunk of time off but happy.  Very happy.

Beer, change of clothes, walk around, watch some more finishers come in, another walk around and then I found a shivering Jonathan in the medical tent wrapped in blankets and foil with Paul tending to his every need.  He was ok, a little bit cold and in need of calories but he was ok.

We lugged our bags onto the bus back to the start and then got a taxi back to the hotel.  We walked into the lobby of the premier inn with our bags only to be told we were staying at a different premier inn, a few minutes down the road.  So we groaned our bags back into my car and drove down to the other hotel.

Into our hotel to find out that the bar/restaurant closed in ten minutes.  So Jonathan got onto ordering a pizza while Paul and I drove to Tesco to get juice and other bits (including some nappy rash cream for chaffage).  Paul was disappointed to discover that it was too late to buy alcohol.

Back at my hotel room I enjoyed a long soak in the shower, a soft bed, big tv and big doughy pizza washed down with fresh orange juice.  I slept very well.

It's the Thursday after the event as I write this and I seem to have got through the event without injury other than a small blister under by left big toe.  This really was a great event, really well organised and a beautiful area to run in.

I'm off to look for another race.  I think I've talked Jonathan into a 100k somewhere.

finish straight

Jonathan caught stopping his watch (rookie error)

elevation profile

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