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

Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Far-Off Fling

I've been told off - there was no Fling blog.  Mea culpa, I've been busy, I've been travelling and working too hard, I kept on thinking I'd do it tomorrow or maybe next week or sometime, there's other stuff going on in life.  But like running, the first step out of the door is the hardest, so here we are.  A few weeks late but someone has to be last don't they?

This is (sort of) my birthday race.  A year ago I hauled myself up Conic Hill and watched my first competitive ultra.  All the things, all the people that's led me to...

Stupidly I made no arrangements for accommodation before or after the race.  Work is ... interesting ... at the moment and I was struggling to predict where I'd be on the Friday, knowing only that there wasn't a cat in hell's chance of me not taking a day off.  I didn't catch up with John Duncan (the new Race Director) until nearly a week before the event, finally agreeing that I'd be on finish line duties.  Deja vu all over again.  But this year there would definitely be no Katrina Kynaston; this year she had moved over to the dark side and was running the Fling herself.

I looked to see if there was any late accommodation but not a chance.  The two "big" hotels in Tyndrum take only coach parties, not individual bookings and Tyndrum Lodge had been full for months.  I grizzled on Facebook and Bill Heirs offered a spare bed in his room at the By The Way Hostel.  Great - no need for a long drive home and a chance for a few drinks afterwards.  Don't think I've stayed at a hostel since primary school trips but everyone raves about By The Way; it'll be fine...

Friday saw me in London, doing battle with the DLR and Tube and thinking wistfully of how much better the scenery and people were going to be 24 hours later.  In the early evening I sat at City Airport, watching increasingly frustrated status updates from would-be Flingers trying to fly from Heathrow and Gatwick into Glasgow.  And the early notes and photos from the latest mad jaunt of George and Karen on the first leg of their down and up Fling double...

A slightly late start on the Saturday morning, bags packed and I'm heading west for the first time this year.  Too early for midgies, the sun is blazing down with the promise of another glorious day.  Does the Fling have a booking for it, a deal with Mother Nature to show several hundred runners western Scotland at its magnificent best?

In no time at all I'm at Tyndrum, bumping down the road to Lower Tyndrum station (despite being a tiny settlement, Tyndrum has two railway stations.  On two entirely separate lines that have no connection; to travel from one to the other by rail involves a journey of several hundred miles) past the finish line.  Already there are a few people here unloading boxes and vans, starting to deal with the finishing arch.

I intended to go and have lunch at the Real Food Cafe - maybe to have the chips I never yet ate - but I introduce myself to a man who looks enough like John to clearly be a relevant.  I make the fatal mistake of asking if there is anything I can do to help and find myself eyeing up two tarpaulins and a pile of finish bags that range from small supermarket carrier bags to full scale suitcases.  There are nearly 500 individual runners in the Fling and another 200 or so in the relay teams.  It looks like each and every one of them has sent a bag through to the finish line...

So myself and another set to work trying to lay them out in some type of order.  Most have numbers attached (in varying degrees of clarity and accessibility), some have nothing and will just go into a pile together - hopefully the runner will have enough wit left after 53 miles to recognise their own, if not enough to  put a number on in the first place.

Many of the bags have names on as well and I'm quite stunned by how many I recognise.  This world of Scottish ultras is small; slightly too large to be a family but perhaps a small tribe instead.

When all this is done, I retrieve a can of ginger beer from the car and wander back to the finish point where the arch is now up and tethered.  I'm torn between sadness and delight to see the familiar faces of George and Karen.  Two of the nicest people I know, I'm always happy to see them, but they should be out on the Way, heading north with the other runners.  Instead they pulled out overnight, after George fell on the the southbound leg and hurt his knee.  No doubt he carried on for many more miles than any sane person would but eventually decided that the damage and pain were beyond dealing with.  So no double and no Fling.  But Karen tells me of looking at the stars blazing down on them and the snow-topped hills during the night and you remember that, much of the time, the journey far outweighs the destination.

Then I really am back where it all started, looking at a table with stacks of boxes and bags on.  Embryonic goody bags - those things you get handed at the end of a race containing food and vouchers and alcohol and magnets.  And every one of them needs to be packed.  Several hundred of them for this race.  So time to get going on it.  Get a head start now, before any finishers, and hopefully we'll never run out, even though I'll still be packing as darkness falls into the evening...  Time for the women to start a production line...  Even Muriel is here again, packing bags before starting her stint as finish line photographer (not a role I ever wish to sign up for after my incompetence at the D33).

This year, the Fling is sponsored by Hoka, makers of the controversial running shoes.  To celebrate they've sent their sponsored runners to compete.  An interesting dynamic to add these semi-professional runners to the predictions - this year there are no Consanis, no Jez, no Kate or Lucy, in some ways the most open contest for a while, in others the most obscure.

One of the weird things about the Fling is the staggered start times.  It makes perfect sense - and you can't possibly deal with letting 500+ runners loose in Milngavie at once - but it also means that the first person to cross the finish line isn't necessarily the winner.  Even more confusingly, there is an option for the older men to join the last wave which leaves at 8am rather than their scheduled 6am or 7am start.  Add in the relay teams and it makes it all far too confusing to follow.  There is also a problem with the chip timing system:  the information from the earlier checkpoints feeds to a server in Holland which is not issuing any data.  Without this vital piece of technology, Race Control has no idea what's happening down the course

Not surprisingly however the first arrival - signalled as always by the sounds of the piper echoing up the path (and a radio call from George on the bridge) - is Emma Roca, the Hoka female runner.  There is a camera crew interviewing all the early finishers, which I assume is for some Hoka promotional material but never really find out.

Not far behind are the second and third females; an Irish sounding girl I don't recognise and Sharon Law, looking as pretty and unexerted as ever.  Somewhere there is a bad photo of that girl, but it probably doesn't involve her wearing running gear...

The first man to finish is Thomas, the Crazy German, who really can't have that nickname much longer, having been selected to run for Scotland later in the summer.  This year there are no medical dramas only a few hundred yards from the line and he finishes with a wide grin to be greeted by the Consani family who are his support crew today, Silke his wife is also running the full Fling ahead of her first assault on the WHW next month.

The mens winner arrives later; someone I've heard of but not met or seen before.  Scott Bradley who features heavily in the Adventure Show episode about the WHW Race from a few years ago.  He was taken seriously ill after a Hardmoors ultra last year but is now back and racing very well.  His father, who has been at the finish for some time and also seems to know everyone, looks very relieved.  Scott just looks happy...

As well as sponsored runners, Hoka have a stall at the finish promoting their product.  In the gaps between arrivals, I get talking to one of the team.  He tells me that Ludo (their male runner) is not keen on the route, it's "too flat".  I make a strange strangled noise...  My legs still remember Conic Hill from twelve months ago and all the photos of the ups and downs alongside the Loch and the "roller-coaster" into Crianlarich.  "Too flat"????  But after a few more questions, I realise that for some people, anything that doesn't involve going up and down mountains is "flat".  I'm stunned and impressed ... and realise how little I still know.

There's bad news from down the course.  One of the women - Ellen - has taken a bad fall near Loch Lomond.  It's not clear if she's broken or dislocated her shoulder and there's a long wait for an ambulance, which is not surprising in the location.  Despite the heat of the day, both she, and Santa who stopped with her, are struggling to keep warm whilst immobile.  Those little metallic heat blankets have since become mandatory kit for the WHW.

In the early stages, the finishers arrive singly with gaps and there's time to keep an eye out for runners I know.  Richie finishes well; whereas last year he was greeted at the finish by his new girlfriend, this year he has a wife and son to welcome him.  It's nice to see that fatherhood hasn't slowed him down and I can't help thinking what he's going to achieve in the WHW...

The lovely Antonia arrives about ten to four.

For someone only starting her second season of ultras, she's delivering some great performances.  Even more interestingly, she's the youngest contestant in the WHW by far.  I think back to a drunken conversation at the SUMS presentation last year debating that many of the top Scottish runners only moved to the distance at a much older age - how much better might they be if they had started in their 20's, at the alleged peak of their physical fitness?

Just behind her is Andy, my "normal" runner from the Devils.  Also the man whose tongue in cheek advice led me to run my fastest ever mile a few weeks earlier.  Although older than Antonia, he's another newcomer to the distance still learning how good he can be.

Soon after this the runners start coming thick and fast and I lose sight of who's finishing.  I'm also that bit further away from the roadway and have no sightline through the crowds of finishers and supporters.

Though I do hear the roar when John and Katrina finish.  Katrina is a pace or two ahead and I'm sure John is far too much of a gentleman to claim he allowed her to do so.  

Runners arrive in all states and conditions, some battered and bruised, some almost beaten but most managing to run the last few hundred yards up to the finish line.  But one of the most striking has to be the runner who arrives in buff, shorts and shoes and nothing else.  I'm told he ran the entire course in this state of undress...
No race would be complete without the Carnegie colours.  And no race on the WHW without Fiona and Pauline, on this occasion finishing with Sue in a blaze of smiles as bright as their club vests and as Scottish as the mini-kilts.

The sunshine lasts all day ... until there's a blast of hail during the prize-giving as dusk starts to fall.  I'm still packing and handing out bags, cursing the boxes of pink fizz that have to be opened and lifted.  My back and legs are aching, proving my lack of fitness.

And as day turns to evening, people finally drift off.  There are still a few runners out on the course, not least the two Daves who are sweeping the final stretch from Beinglas

But most of all, out there still is the legend that is Ray McCurdy on his 100th ultra.
It's not over until the fat lady sings.
It's not over until Ray crosses the finish line...

He keeps us waiting but finally...

Despite the shortness of my day, I feel I could sleep for a week.  But I also feel like celebrating with the "family" so time to find my berth, maybe change some clothes and head up to the ceilidh.  Bill's told me which cabin we're in, and I know Fiona McD and McRae are here as well.  Unfortunately by the time I get there, it's locked and empty.  Ah....

Too tired to think, I abandon my bags on the porch and go hunting.  There is no sign of any of them in Paddy's Bar so I go looking for the village hall.  I think it's up behind Brodie's store which is a very dark path by now.  Then I can hear the noise of a party and there we are.

White wine, veggie curry and rice (other than a cup of soup, my first food of the day), friends to talk to and all is right with the world.  I no doubt talk nonsense at some point, getting carried away by the adrenalin of the day, but I do at least have the wit not to dance.   Fiona is here, and somehow Bill is texting George whilst I'm sat at the same table so I know I will be able to get into the cabin to sleep later.

There is a presentation for Ray for his achievement - only a few other people have ever achieved 100 ultras. Amongst the awards is free entry to the SUMS races for life, so maybe there will be a lot more than 100...  however I think the McCurdy sandwich is the highlight of Ray's night...

Too long living in the city has left me entirely unprepared for the fact that the road to the hostel is unlit and therefore pitch black at the wrong side of midnight.  I manage not to fall over any kerbs or bounce into any cars but it's close.  Back at the cabins, I'm totally horrified to discover that I am sleeping in a bunk.  A top bunk.

Climbing into a top bunk may be fun when you're a small skinny child.  When you're overweight and middle aged, it's bloody awkward and alarmingly creaky.  I also feel guilty about disturbing the three people who have run 53 miles each today.

There also isn't any bed linen.  Due to my own stupidity I don't have a sleeping bag either.  Oh well, I'll sleep in my clothes with the single blanket I have in my bag.  Good plan.  But it's absolutely fecking freezing.  I'm told I did sleep briefly as I snored very loudly - I don't remember sleeping at all.  When I start shivering to the point that I'm shaking the bunk unit, I realise I can't spend the night like that.  Whilst it's cold outside, I swear it's warmer than inside the cabin.

The toilet/shower block is warm but rank and damp - I can't stay there.  But there is a kitchen room in the same building and I doze on a plastic chair.  As dawn breaks, I have an inspiration, filling and boiling the kettle to turn it into a hot water bottle.  And so Fiona finds me later, hugging a kettle.  I fear I may never hear the last of it...

Next time, better planning....

I didn't make the Cateran race.  But judging by reports, I missed a great weekend.  Next year.

And in just over four weeks, I'll be at Kinlochleven again.  I can't wait.

photos from Muriel and George


  1. Another great blog - you had me choking on my beverage when I read the kettle part!
    See you next month...either at the start or at KLL :)

  2. Great blog as ever, Julie. look forward to seeing you in less than 3 weeks! Ian