An ordinary woman's fascination with an extraordinary sport ... and the extraordinary people who take part

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Having my First Fling

I'm not a runner.  I'm not crazy.  Therefore I don't want to take part in an ultra.  But I do want to watch them.

There are three classic trail ultras along the West Highland Way in Scotland:
  • The Highland Fling - 53 miles from Milnagive to Tyndrum
  • The Devil o' the Highlands - 43 miles from Tyndrum to Fort William
  • West Highland Way - 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William
That's not denigrating any of the other races in Scotland, or indeed anywhere else in the world, but it was the West Highland Way Race I first heard of and is therefore the origin of this fascination with the whole subject.

The Fling is the first of the three to be held each year.  It originated as a training run for the main race seven weeks later and is now the largest of the three, accepting both solo runners and relay teams.

For 2011, it is not only a respected race in its own right but the Scottish and UK Championship race; also the selection race for the British team for the World Championships in July.  So this year it was truly a race for all classes; from relay teams trying out trail running for the first time, through the plodders (who are often much better than they ever admit), the hill runners, the tough as old boots veterans, to the cream of British runners such as Jez Bragg.

Prior to the race, the only speculation on the blogs and forums about the men's winner was how much Jez would break his course record by (having broken it every time he's competed, on one occasion taking over an hour of the previous record), and who would come second.  So how many sports can you name where a world class athlete of that calibre would be competing with "ordinary" runners?  Then again, anyone who can run 53 miles across Scotland can't really be considered ordinary, can they....?

With over 400 runners taking part, car parking is one of the major logistical challenges of the Fling.  Although the race is officially unsupported - operating on a series of drop bags at checkpoints along the way - most runners will have friends or family along the way.  Combined with the regular tourist traffic in a beautiful part of Scotland comparatively close to Glasgow, on a long Bank Holiday weekend but without the road network to support high volumes of vehicles, it would be very easy to overload the transport infrastructure and the goodwill of various landowners that the races all rely on.

So I asked for suggestions on the race forum - where can I go that isn't going to cause a problem?  And no, I really don't want to stand at Milngavie railway station for hours at the start; somewhere with a bit of landscape would be good.  Added to which I've never been to this section of the WHW so it's all new countryside to me.

Both respondents came up with the same suggestion - up Conic Hill alongside Loch Lomond.  The second gave very precise directions to a vantage point and concluded:

I've watched from this spot a couple of times, with a large Saltire flag fluttering in the breeze. (There's usually a breeze. Make sure you wrap up warm in case it's a big breeze, with rain.) This seems to motivate / demotivate the runners depending on their loyalties ;). Most folk have really appreciated my being there, and the flag.
I'll be marshalling this year, probably @ Balmaha check; so I won't be up @ that Conic Hill spot. It would be great to have someone there!! 

Well, that just settled it, Conic Hill it was to be.  Mind you, he also described it as "a 30 minute brisk walk up from the car park"....

Saturday dawned bright and clear with the promise of another glorious day (to all my fellow Sassenachs down south, yes we do get lots of glorious days in Scotland - they just don't always coincide with summer!).  And at half five I was in the car heading west from Edinburgh.  At about six am, the first runners - women, male super-veterans (50+) - were set off from Milngavie after the infamously short race briefing: "there's only one rule - if you drop out, let us know".

There was one minor directional mishap - when I disagreed with the sat nav pointing me down what appeared to be a dirt track, only to find the alternative route to be little more than a wide footpath.  But the skies were blue, the sun was shining and the flat countryside west of Stirling was beautiful, with the central belt hills to the south and the start of the Highland peaks off to the north.  And in the distance a great ridge of ground rising out of the landscape, so glad I was only going up a hill and not that mountain.

But as the distance left grew shorter and shorter it became eminently clear that I was heading directly for the base of the ridge and it was undoubtedly Conic Hill itself.  My first thought was "oh sh$t, how am I going to walk up that?".  My second was "oh ****, they're going to run up that!".

I arrived at Balmaha car park at 7am, just as the male veterans (40+, excluding those who wanted to run with the younger men at 8am and compete for the British team) were leaving Glasgow.  My friendly adviser had told me I needed to start walking up at about 8.15 to meet the first runners but as it was clearly going to take rather more than 30 minutes (!) I decided to start up anyway at 7.15, on the basis that I could sit in the sunshine at the top as easily as at the bottom.  I decided to take the fleece but leave the jacket as there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sunglasses were clearly more critical.

There were maybe a dozen other vehicles in the car park, all of which were covered in dew and had clearly been there all night.  Other than one (presumably local?) runner coming down the trail, there wasn't a living soul in sight or a human noise to be heard.  Bar my increasingly short breath and the curses as I found yet another series of steps or tumbling stream of rocks... seriously who thinks it's a good idea to cut steps into the side of a mountain???

But when the steps lead to views like this, how can you complain?

The path was deceptive in that a summit frequently appeared only to disappear in another ascent.  I also discovered that my friend's definition of a breeze was as understated as his sense of distance....

Eventually I relented, sat down and poured a cup of coffee.  Fortified by the caffeine, and the realisation that I couldn't stop there without being a complete wimp, I carried on upwards and finally made it onto the north side of the summit and was rewarded by an amazing view of the islands in the loch.

And even better, the path flattened out and I was comfortably striding along, only to be confronted by a choice of paths - huh that wasn't in the directions!  I made the decision to carry along the level path and eventually came to the spot mentioned with a view of the WHW curving round from the south, "only" an hour after leaving the car park.
Bag down, more coffee and a quick survey of the glorious view, wondering how long it would be before I saw my first runners ... 30 minutes until they're likely to be here (according to my friend) ... so how long to come along that path ... 15 minutes? ... wait a minute, there's someone coming up the slope already!

I was so surprised to see the tanned brunette striding up the hill that I couldn't decide if she was part of the Fling or not; could she really have got here that quickly?  And in what must be one of the stupider questions of the day, blurted out "Are you racing?".  "Yes" she replied, already several feet past me.  Although I didn't recognise her, it was Kate Jenkins who, less than seven hours later, would be the first person to cross the finish line, thereby adding the Fling to her collection of six WHW wins.

Although Kate was clearly off to a flying start, so were plenty of others and there was an almost continual flow of runners past me from that point onwards.  Almost all were walking up the hill but at a superb pace, with a few brave souls jogging a few yards here and there.  This after maybe 17 miles knowing there was a further 36 to go ... I felt positively ashamed of my pathetic crawl up the hill earlier :-(

I did my best to greet everyone who passed me, offer my encouragement and have a craic with anyone who wanted.  Also a certain amount of teasing about the flag - a union flag in honour of both my own nationality and the UK Championship.  C'mon, I can happily cheer Scotland at the rugby but I'm not totally sure a Saltire and an English accent go together!

I also lost count of the number of runners who said either:
  •  "you're brave" ... huh?  I'm not the one running 53 miles
  •  "you must be freezing" ... I'm wearing leggings and a fleece, you're wearing a vest and shorts, and you think I must be cold...
Told you ultra runners were mad.

With the phased starts (there were also the relay teams starting at 9am), Conic Hill was clearly at just the right distance for overtaking, with an almost continuous stream of runners for the next three hours, with first the middle group of men coming through and then the younger male runners coming through.

I stood slack-jawed as the first of the elite (Jez and two others) flew past at a speed I would consider to be sprinting on the flat, with only a few yards between them.  Mountain goats in human form ... the ancient Greeks would probably have considered them to be gods in disguise.

But as well as the elite, it was wonderful to see in person the "family" members whose blogs I've read, or read about, for the last eight months - John Kynaston, Debbie Martin-Consani, Sharon Law, Richie Cunnigham, Andy Cole, Stuart Mills, Pete Duggan, Sandra McDougall, Ian Beattie.  Not forgetting the legend that is Fiona Rennie who loves the WHW so much she has it tattooed on her leg. 

Also not forgetting my ex-next door neighbour, the mad Aussie Keith Hughes who was the first person to say the words "ultra marathon" to me, and who is entirely to blame for my interest as a result.  Not having seen him for months, he greeted me with some abusive remarks about my flag and a hug, then trotted off with the words "not stopping". 

A special mention also for a girl called Annette who came up the hill from Balmaha carrying a Saltire on a walking pole to meet her boyfriend Mike.  We stood chatting for about 20 minutes whilst she waited for him.  Mike is doing the WHW for the first time in June this year.  When he arrived up the path, Annette greeted him with a hug, a kiss and a mouthful of blueberries before he continued onwards, having spent maybe 20 seconds with her.  That's it?  I think my definition of true love may now include supporting your other half on an ultra...  I think he did well in the Fling and will hopefully have a great time on the big one.  As she left she asked if I was going to Tyndrum.  "No, I'll be heading home from here" I replied.  "Oh well, maybe see you in June" she said.

I also spent quite some time talking to bemused walkers who were intrigued by all the scantily clad runners charging past them.  To those of them doing the traditional seven day walk of the WHW, the concept of running over half in a matter of hours was interesting to say the least...

About 11.30 the flood of runners had slowed considerably with only intermittent relay runners coming through so I decided to call it a day and head back to the car.

I think the descent was almost worse than the climb; the boots that had been so comfortable all last autumn and winter seemed to bruise my toes on every stride, and the steps seemed to be exactly the wrong height for my leg muscles.  I had even more respect for the runners who still came past me at speed, running down the rocky path I was painstakingly picking my way down. 

I did my best to get out of the way of every runner and most expressed their thanks, either verbally or with a raised hand.  Fortunately none wanted to come past on the narrowest stretches of the path as my legs were determinedly sticking to slow.

It was incredible how much the temperature rose as I descended.  From being windswept and craving gloves at my vantage point, I was down to a vest before I reached the car park.  And what a change it was there - every space was taken, there were hordes of people milling about and a queue stretching out of the village shop.  I think I preferred it at 7am!

Craving ice cream, I bought a magnum in the shop and sat in the sunshine deliberating what to do next.  Having been up since four with my eyes already sore from the wind, did I really want to drive three quarters of the way around Loch Lomond and up to Tyndrum and make it an even longer day?  

Ah sod it, I'll drive up and see the first of the finishers, then head home about half three...

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