Highland Fling report – Tim Downie

…or Four Mars a day help you work, rest & run the West Highland Way. 😉

Oh, where to start? The night before is probably as good a place as any. Perhaps I should have been more nervous but as I was determined (at that stage) that it was “just a training run”, it seemed like a good idea to pop out for a couple of nice pints of Spitfire at our local hostelry.

I thought about trying to go to bed early, but not for long as it never really works for me. My racing never seems to affected by lack of sleep and there’s nothing more pointless than lying in bed trying to sleep when you’re not tired. I set my alarm for 3:00 but woke before it at about 2:30. After wasting some time trying to go back to sleep, I gave up and snuck out of the bedroom to get dressed and let the daughter in. Rather weird to be getting up and dressed just as another member of the household was getting ready for bed.

I don’t suppose anyone’s that interested in what I had for breakfast, but I’m going to tell you anyway. 😉 Beef bourguignon with new potatoes. Not my normal breakfast but I don’t think you can eat too much before an ultra run and the leftovers were begging to be eaten.

I gathered my kit and Dave McLelland arrived at 4:00 to pick me up and take me to Milngavie. We arrived in good time to join the relatively small queue (at that stage) for the loo and then registered. The forecast rain hadn’t arrived yet and the temperature felt just perfect for running. I had a can of ersatz Red Bull (ERB) before the start and was itching to set off.

I can’t say I felt any trepidation at that stage. I was confident that I could do it without too much trouble and the only bit I wasn’t looking forward to was the first stretch to Drymen, my least favourite part of the WHW. I was also really looking forward to doing it self-supported. To be honest, it didn’t make it that much harder but it was a new challenge and something to look forward to. I think when you’ve trained and run on so many parts of the WHW it’s good to find new ways of making a familiar run more interesting.

As ever, it was nice to be in the company of so many like minded folk and friends at Milngavie but the time flew and after a very brief briefing, we were off through the underpass and up the road.

Milngavie to Drymen.
I think we were all impatient to get up the road past Drymen. For me, I never really feel that the WHW “proper” starts until I’ve left Drymen and that no doubt contributed to my early pace. I was conscious that I was probably running faster than I should have been but it still came as a huge shock to reach Drymen in 1:50. (always 2hr+ in training). I had my first Mars Bar (MB) on the long road hill up by Easter Drumquhassle (yes, there really is a place called that!). MBs and running don’t really go together so I stuck to eating on the walking sections.
I think another factor affecting my pace was feeling that in a race like this where you know there are going to be lots of unrunnable (unless you’re Jez) stretches, it makes a certain amount of sense to put a little “money in the bank” when the going is easy. Even so, I wasn’t sure that 1:50 pace to Drymen wasn’t going to turn out to be fools gold.

Drymen to Balmaha
The forest roads out of Drymen dragged on rather (a bit worrying to be feeling like this so early) but from the moment I passed though the new gate that replaces the old huge stile and the end of what used to be the Garadhban forest, my legs suddenly felt alive again. Dunno whether it was the mars bar kicking in or just getting away from the forest road surface but I skipped along and made good time up and down Conic Hill. The promised rain had arrived on the way up to Dymen and on Conic hill itself, the wind contributed to the chill but it was never bad enough to require stopping to don a jacket. I had two with me, a lightweight windstopper and a heavier weight gortex jacket but I didn’t need either. If fact, the only change I made to my clothing for the run was to move my buff from my neck to my wrist when the sun came out.
I’ll never like those big steps on the way down but they didn’t feel too bad going down. I think some of my downhill training has paid off. I reached Balmaha in 3:11 and enjoyed shouting out my number and “No bag!” to the marshals as I passed through. This was to be repeated at every checkpoint and I never actually stopped except to pass an empty can to a marshal at Beinglas Farm (and one pee stop).

Balmaha to Rowardenna
It’s odd that no matter how often one has run a route, when you’re on your own, odd doubts creep in and on the little hill just south of Balmaha I had a moments uncertainty of which path was the right one. Somewhere along this section I had my second MB, on one of the longer road climbs about 4 hours into my run. Just before Rowardennan I had my second can of ERB meaning to dipose of the can at the checkpoint. Unfortunately, the latest litter policy is to remove all the bins (one I agree with actually) but I ended up carrying the empty can all the way to Inversnaid! I was in and out of Rowardennan at 4:45.

Rowardennan to Inversnaid
I was still feeling pretty good but as usual, I walked all the long hills. One runner came up from behind me and seemed determined to run up all the forest track hills which struck me as possibly foolish, particularly for runners going at my pace. He slowly pulled ahead and after many hills, eventually gained all of 200 meters on me. I wasn’t too surprised when he paused and looked like he was going to throw up. Not too long afterwards I passed him when he was at a complete stop. I hope he made it to the end. At Inversnaid I was able to get rid of my can at last and again passed straight through (6:12).

Inversnaid to Beinglas Farm
I started off well but I wearying of the whole thing at this point. I perversely rather like this section normally but my sense of humour had left me and I was dearly wishing that the race would finish at Beinglas Farm. I really wasn’t in the mood for another 12 miles on top of that. Another MB went down and I did what you just have to do, keep putting one foot in front of another. This was probably my lowest point on the whole run. I just wanted it to end. As I approached Beinglas, I chugged down my second can of ERB and managed this time, to dispose of he can at the checkpoint. (8:03). Pleased to see some Tortoises there! George and Alasdair were marshalling there and it was good to see a familiar face at that point of the race.

Beinglas Farm to Tyndrum
I was getting worried now as my goal time was anything with a 10 in front of it but I know how fatigue can make a mokery of your “normal” times for running sections of the WHW. I’d run this last stretch in 2 hrs in the past but now I was worried I might not make it in three. Whether it was the ERB, the MB or the magic of passing a checkpoint, I just don’t know but somehow I picked up the pace a bit. I wanted my 10:XX time! After crossing under the A82 I realised that I’d made a bit of a tactical blunder on the hydration strategy. I’d been filling my bottle at streams (I counted using the checkpoint water as “cheating” on the self supporting front) which was fine in the forests above Loch Lomond but here there were cows and sheep sprinkled liberally around, and what they leave sprinkled liberally around. When I went to have a drink I realised that my bottle was almost empty. I debated carrying on to the woods west of Bogle Glen but I was thirsty now so in the end I just looked for a an area of hillside with no visible sheep or cows and filled my bottle from a stream there. It didn’t taste of sheep or cow poo, or perhaps, more acurately, it didn’t taste any different to what I’d been drinking all along so I decided to risk it.
It was just after filling my bottle that I realised that there was a runner bearing down on me. It had been so long since I had seen anyone I’d alomost forgotten that there were other runners. It was Andy Cole and he was probably within 50 yds of me when I saw him. I know that my goal time was the main thing but somehow I didn’t want to lose any more positions this late in the day and the little adrenaline surge carried me off into the distance and him out of sight as I worked my way through the forests beyond Bogle Glen stuffing down my last MB.
The last section through Kirkton farm must count as my second least favourite bit. The farm roads and traks are too flat and sore on the feet. Once back across the A82, things improve a bit and the knowledge that you really are on the home straight lifts your spirits.
What lifted my spirits even more was seeing that I was catching another runner! (Alex Simpson) I did feel bad about “stealing” a position so late in the race but he was reduced to walking due to stomach problems. Had I known that Alex was the leading supervet at that point perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so bad but after checking that he was okay to finish, I passed with his blessing. Just before the community woodland I phoned my wife to make sure that she had the required milk for me to quaff post race and I crossed the line after 10 hours, 47 minutes and 50 seconds.

I must admit I was pleased to pick up a trophy. It’s only the second time it’s happened to me and the first time, I was the only person in my age group so it didn’t really count. This time there were oodles of supervets! Well, 16 or 17 anyway. Alas, suspect I’ll hold the record for the *slowest* winning time for a supervet for some years to come as there seem to be a lot of fast 49 year olds in this year’s race!

Lessons learnt

The “self sufficiency” business worked out well. I enjoyed not stopping at the checkpoints. I don’t think using drop bags would have made much difference. Four Mars Bars don’t weigh very much and there’s no shortage of water. I think the ERB helped and I’d use it again. What would have made a difference though would have been a support crew as I could then have travelled a lot lighter. I was carrying about 9lbs in total at the start although this lessened a bit as I went along.

Fluid & calorie wise, I consumed 1366 kcals (4 mars bars and the two energy drinks) and drank about 1,800 ml of water plus the 500 ml contained in the ERB making a total of 2,300 ml. I didn’t use any salt capsules, not out of any determination to avoid them but the weather had been such that my insensible losses had been relatively low. If it had been a sunnier day I’m sure I would have drunk more and taken the capsules.

Equipment wise, my combination of rucksak and bottle belt worked up to a point. In particular, the bottle belt started chaffing the skin around my waist and I think I’m really going to have to find a comfier one for the WHW. If it has big enough pockets I will probably dispense with the rucksak.

I wore my Skinz tights which feel great but suffer (on me at least) from a tendancy to slid down resulting in a baggy crutch. This lead to some nasty chaffing between my thighs. I’d liberally applied Bodyglide before the start but this wasn’t enough to stop the chaffing and I have to think again about what to wear before the WHW race.

I started off by approaching this as “a training run”. From the way my body feels like it’s been “trained all over with a baseball bat”, I think it would be fairer to admit that I did race this. 😉

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