Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Hoka Highland Fling 2014 and update

Big gap in the blogs again. I really need to get disciplined in this thing. A shiny new Mac courtesy of my wife might encourage more regular updates now I've got a computer that loads quicker than a snail on an ultra. Enough said on that though.

Late last year following the ladybower 50 I battled with some minor niggles (achilles, shin splints etc!) before joining Dark Peak Fell Runners in order to crank up the intensity of my training. Well it turned out to be a good idea as following a couple of meets with DPFR member Ian, I entered a club road run. It was an evening run with a good 1000ft or more of climbing over about 6.7miles. A fast sprint start in the low 6min miles (unusual for me at the time) led to a long climb out of Midhopestone. this is the same climb the Tour Du France are using as the King of the mountain event on the route this year. Suffice to say I was hunted all the way to the top by fell running legend Nicky Spinks (holder of many of the records over the rounds; Paddy Buckley, BGR, Ramsey etc). Anyway I eventually fell over the line in a modest time, but having done no training at speed I shouldn't be surprised really.

I followed this with the Bradfield Boundary run with the club. This wasn't to be a race but merely a club run over the Peaks and fells for a distance and elevation of 48 miles and 6500ft respectively. Held between Christmas and New Year the weather would be a concern but ultimately proved to be pretty glorious for the time of year, if a little cold at times. The route commenced at 6am with a 12 hour schedule before I was to rush home and commence a 10hours night shift. In retrospect this was a ridiculous idea and I was suitably punished with a horrendous night shift that involved a run!!!!
It was great to meet some more of the club in a relaxed environment and the route proved to be a revelation. My ultra experience proved invaluable in making for a pleasant day, only marginally scuppered by a tight IT band.  For the first time I discovered that holding a firm core reduced the pain allowing a comfortable finish. The biggest discovery for me though was how easy the effort felt through the day. I would attribute this to two things, one being a very relaxed pace and the other was a healthy appetite fulfilled at each of the 'aid stations' the club provided in a roving van. Food consumed included sandwiches, beans and sausages, bananas and pork pies. The most important lesson learnt on the day was the importance of eating in ultras. I didn't suffer a bonk at any point as I have in all my previous ultras. From now on I will place much more importance on eating whilst racing!

Rolling into 2014, I started the year with a cracking training regime. Injuries seemed to melt away, pace started to come easy, my breathing was improving, consistent miles week in week out and elevation training was also on the up. It felt like a fresh start and the build up to the Highland Fling couldn't really have been much better.

Saturday 26th April 2014 and up at 4am. Quick snack of Nutella on tortilla, grab a banana, lube up and wake up the family before heading over to Milngavie from our hotel in Glasgow. As a side note, next year I will look to get a hotel in Milngavie to reduce some of the stress on race morning. Arriving at the venue I put my drop bags into the relevant vans before heading to the start line with Emma and the kids (my ever faithful ultra crew). Then following a pleasant meet up with Mike, Gia, Andrew and Martin (twitter running friends) I got near to the front of the start under a rather inconspicuous looking underpass, where I was surrounded by some serious looking runners. I was probably behind about 40-50 runners and felt I would be okay to start from this position and see where I fit into the scheme of things as the race unfolded.

As the start went off the crowd of some 850 runners set off like it was a 10k, bolting up the 20 something stairs that lead out of the underpass. The route then turns down onto the pedestrianised centre of Milngavie making for an odd start to an ultra. However we quickly turned off the High Street down a nondescript bridge onto the start of the West Highland Way proper. The trail at this point was quite unimpressive and reminiscent of something found in the flat lands of my birth place Doncaster, so not what I had expected. However as the miles began to tick by and I found a comfortable pace, the terrain began to get a little more interesting with some small rollers thrown in which I felt I was well trained for. During this spell I met a guy called Chris who I continue to stay in touch with following the race. A nice dude and interesting conversation passed a few miles. I also bumped into another guy called Simon who was a fellow Dark Peak Fell Runner. So as a group we continued as the elevation started to crank up in a couple of places.

 The first 'aid' was 12.5 miles in at Drymen which I arrived at in a relatively spritely 1:33. Feeling good here I pressed on, safe in the knowledge that there was still some runnable miles before I hit Conic Hill. I lost Chris here but pushed on with Simon as company. The cloud cover came in here obscuring any hope of the spectacular views I was promised on this route. And as we ascended the foothills the visibility dropped down to about 20 metres with cloud and flag surrounding us. As we hit Conic Hill proper and the angle steepened, under Simons encouragement (didn't need much incidentally) we power hiked some sections here. It was disheartening to be passed by several people at this point on a climb I knew I could comfortably run to the summit, preservation was of the essence though and common sense won through with a conservative ascent. As we hit the peak the views opened up providing a stunning vista of Loch Lomond and the surrounding landscape. Worth every step to that point!
This unfortunately is when the wheels started to come off slightly at about 18 miles. The sizeable and steep descent off Conic proved my undoing as almost immediately my IT band was grumpy. I tried holding my core, but I still made a steadier descent than I'd have liked pain free. Still at 19.8 miles I rolled into Balmaha to the greatest sight I could have had. Emma and the kids, who I only expected to see at the finish line had made it to the aid station. It was the biggest lift I could have had and strengthened my resolve to continue at a strong pace.

The next section started with a stiff climb and then started to skirt along the waters edge on occasions. After a soft pebble beach run, which while picturesque, only served to make me realise my legs were fatiguing and my hips were beginning to tighten. I started to feel like I was hanging on rather than pushing forward in the race. A steep climb in the woods saw a group of runners pass me which again felt demoralising. This was swiftly followed by a mild descent along a newly constructed trail which had me panicking I'd taken a wrong turn for a time. In addition my hips were deteriorating further.

It's been a few weeks since the race so some sections have merged into others in my mind but I do remember battling some long, open and quite inclined trails. This saw some passing and being passed over several miles before eventually reaching Rowardennan and moving towards Inversaid. Somewhere between these sections was the part described as the 'unrunnable hell'. With my hips falling apart at the seams I was dreading this stretch, but as it turned out it was a revelation. The technical, rooty, rocky rolling terrain suited my skill set perfectly. Not only this it seemed to slow everyone else down to a snails pace meaning I could take some places back I'd lost earlier.

The blur of these sections led to the final aid at Bein Glas Farm at 40.9 miles. I reached this section in 7hours 9minutes with 12 miles remaining. Again the lift of seeing the family here helped immensely, but not only this some quick mathematics gave me the confidence I might be able to sneak in a sub 10 hour finish. despite my hips protesting otherwise!

So off I went on my final stage, full of confidence, push through the pain. What was it I said last time?; Just. Let. Go. And push I did, with the legs feeling great on the climbs, which by this point everyone else seemed to be reduced to a walk.

A highlight of this section was seeing my car travelling about a mile away parallel to my location with the horn blaring. Emma had seen a runner in the distance while she travelled to the finish and hoped it was me to receive her further encouragement. I've heard some corny, cliche about love helping you run, but on reflection this statement carries great truth. Passion, love, togetherness are positive emotions that serve to drive the negative energy generated by fatigue and hours of pain endurance. I need my crew to keep giving me this energy...

This final section was punctuated by a series of painful rolling hills before crossing under a bridge onto cow shit alley. A long ascent with ankle deep mud blended with fresh cow pat. Strangely it was here I managed to pick off a couple more runners with the legs feeling surprisingly spritely. Following this section was a memorable, but significant ascent and descent. Again the climbing legs served me well here picking off another runner, before nipping past another young lad who was having a toilet stop. At the bottom of this descent we turned through a farm with a sign promising bacon sandwiches. Unfortunately I was in a rush to finish a race and the sardines would have to wait! After a pretty good charge through this flatter section I slowed a little for the final couple of miles where I found a guy with a blown calf. I checked on his welfare before charging on to the finale. As I saw the bag piper, he began blowing out a traditional Scottish tune. Very emotive and inspiring this late in an ultra when feelings are generally magnified. I applauded the piper as I ran by before I heard another sound of equal or greater importance - "Come on Kirk!". It was Emma, but I couldn't see her anywhere. As it turns out I had to round the corner, up a small incline to be confronted with a red carpet lined with the biggest crowd I'd yet seen at an ultra. Head down, collect myself before launching into my obligatory sprint finish just to check I still had something reserved in the tank. My logic being that while ever I have these finishes I'm still leaving something out there on the course, meaning that I've got better performances to come. Mental strength, accompanied with smarter and more consistent training will serve to push my results to better places each and every race.

The finish was an emotional and redemptive feeling. The family waiting, a pleasing time of 9:33:21 (well under 10hrs!) and to later learn I'd snuck into the top 50 with 49th place. Good work all round, but the best part? Doing a cartwheel over the finish line for my daughter Ava, after she'd learnt them during our trip unto Scotland. Will I be doing this race again next year - definitely!

Me and the kids near at the start 

In the start tunnel awaiting the gun

Finish line with with Ava and Cam

Final, red carpet sprint

Goofing around at the finish line

Another cartwheel shot to close with...


  1. I had the same problem, my shin splints flair from like a dull sensation to like a ten when ever I ran, I received physio for it but the best way is to know what actually causes your pain in shins. I started to look for a solution and after some years I decided to collect all what I learned in that years of pain and from the people I helped (I'm a personal trainer). I have started a blog where I write articles about shin splints and other common runner's injuries, feel free to check it out! http://never-never-never-give-up.com