My “A” race is the wedding was my response to Dbo assertion that I either win or don’t bother coming back. For me, often the race is secondary. Its about the journey, the people, the landscape, and experiences surrounding the race more so than the performance itself. My exposure into the culture surrounding trail running, outdoor adventures, and the Scottish highlands was well beyond the 7 hours and 4 minutes it took me to run from Milngavie to Tyndram, the first 53 miles of the well traveled West Highland Way. It was dancing Ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-lay”) at the finish line, sharing beers with locals at the finish line, dinner in Glasgow with other trail runners, offers of accommodations during my travels, adventure advice, kayaking in Loch Lomond, and having my expectations for the beauty and wildness of the Highlands exceeded in every possible way.
I received the wedding invitation at a time when I was just starting to run again after my hamstring injury. My hamstring was uncooperative, my disappointment from a DNS at Western sorely lingering, and my last race more than 6 months prior. Still, when I travel I run. Of course I was going to my friends Charlotte and Craig’s wedding in Scotland (especially since it was in a castle) and of course I immediately searched for races the weekend prior or after the celebrations.
Finding the HOKA Highland Fling one week prior to the wedding was just the first bit of the luck on my journey. Soon I would learn that race director John Duncan was a coaching client of Ian Sharman. I had my entry into not only the race, but also the local trail/ultra scene. John graciously arranged my entire race weekend from pre-race hotel, finish line accommodations, and post-race hosts in nearby Glasgow with enough knowledge of the Scottish Highlands to create a lifetime of adventure itineraries. I was excited about the race sure, but equally excited about the opportunities to interact with the local scene.
The West Highland Way, completed in 1980, is 96 miles in total and annually hosts more than 30,000 backpackers who walk the entire route. The HOKA Highland Fling (Facebook page) covers the first 53 miles of it and contains a relatively tame ~5400 ft of climbing. With the exception of a 4 mile stretch along Loch Lomond (the largest fresh water lake in the UK by surface area) the terrain is pretty runnable and lines up well with my strengths. Still runners are treated to stunning views of the Highlands as various Munros and lower hills rise above the waters of Loch Lomond to the north. In good weather it is stunningly beautiful, it bad weather it can be unbelievably miserable.
One problem with traveling for non running related reasons meant the inability to take much time to adjust to the 8 hour time zone difference between the West Coast and UK. More accurately I had about 24 hours from when I landed to race time. My strategy of going to bed earlier and waking up earlier (peaking at a 3:30 AM wake up) each day of the prior week clearly payed dividends as I had a full night of sleep and arrived on the raining starting line feeling relatively good. My fitness was off from my ago, but I had managed several months of increasing training including a number of solid long runs and a strong 10 mile road effort to give me confidence to race rather than merely survive the 53 mile journey.
The rain that had saw us off the start line gave way to blue skies in the early miles in a prophetic manner that would parallel how my race would unfold for me. Casey Morgan and Paul Navesey (of former 50k treadmill World Record fame), two strong UK based runners, took out the first quarter of the race quick and by mile 12 they had put 6 minutes into our chase pack of 3, a time I thought they would likely only extend all the way to the finish. I spent those early miles in a group of 3 one of whom was Donnie Campbell who had just won the 130k Iznik Ultra Race in Turkey the week prior and was undoubtedly running on some tired legs. As I went to the front of our group up the only major climb of the day, Conic Hill, I was treated to increasing sunshine, my first views of Loch Lomond, and the southern Highlands “hills”.
The running from the bottom of Conic hill at Balmaha (19.8 miles) to Inversnaid (34.3 miles) was right in my wheelhouse; mostly flat, mostly wide, and insanely not technical. I managed to establish a gap on Donnie and moved up into second when Casey had to unfortunately drop due to injury. To my surprise the gap to Paul at first stayed at minutes (mile 27.2) and then decreased to 4 minutes by Inversnaid. I briefly allowed myself to think, “huh, thats interesting”, but quickly turned my focus to how I was feeling and how to take care of myself. 15 miles out is still early to think about racing especially when stated time gaps are notoriously unreliable. From Inversnaid you have a wonderfully technical, but not hilly section of trail along the lake which requires your full attention and any remaining athletic skill that road running and track hadn’t sucked out of your body years prior. At several points I would look up in bemusement to how I got 10 feet below the trail and 3 miles later I was over rock hopping and grateful for the trail opening up to some more runnable trail as I reached the final checkpoint.
Hitting the final checkpoint, Bein Glas Farm (mile 40.9), I was starting to feel the effort and getting to the point of just wanting to be done. Mile 40 was sticking my mind because of what Alex had said prior to Lake Sonoma 50, “after mile 40 everybody hurts” and hurting I was. But apparently so was Paul as the time check was down to 2 minutes and within a mile of leaving Bein Glas I caught my first glimpse of Paul since I spotted him as a dot at the top of Conic Hill some 20 miles earlier. As I ever so slowly caught Paul I realized that cruising in for second was not in the cards today. It was race time and I was going to have to hurt. I let that notion settle in over the a few miles as the gap ever so slowly closed, saving my energy for a big move rather than just catching him. I didn’t want Paul fighting me for the final 7 miles to the finish line. So when I eventually caught and passed him I tried to do so with ambition and did so for about 800m or until the route turned up a steep hill of unknown length. Ugh, “You can walk when you are in the trees” I told myself. For the first time all day I ran scared hoping to extend my lead and stay out of sight. With 5k to go and an open field ahead I relaxed, it likely cost me the course record (by Sondre Amdahl), but it also ensured I did not blow up. A mere two minutes after I finished Paul would come in to finish off a very strong effort of his own, one which actually saw him run a faster last 2.7 miles than me.
Before and after the race nearly every person I talked to about The Fling mentioned either how it was their favorite ultra race or it was the best ultra race in Scotland, if not the entire UK. I don’t have that frame of reference, but I can say that on every level The Fling competes favorably with the best races in North America I’ve done. Beautiful course, check. Amazing (and happy) volunteers, check. Flawless organization, check. Finish line fun, checkmate. What happened after the race in many regards was more important for me than what happened during the race. A large (heated) tent with beer, soup, music, massage, and of course a traditional Ceilidh dance. I chatted with many a Scotman, Englishman, and occasional American. All friendly and all having a great time. I partook in their beverage buying generosity and patience to teach me a dance or two (that I put to good use at the wedding a week later to the surprise of many). Knowing the history of the race its clear that race director John Duncan is largely responsible for this. With infectious amounts of positive energy, time for everyone, and a constant smile on his face, its not hard to see why this race is more than a “fling” for the ultra community here and a great race to travel to.
Photo Album from my trip: Coming soon.