Sunday, 3 May 2015

Hoka Highland Fling 2015

My 2015 commenced with a concerted effort to ready myself for the Hoka Highland Fling in April, but also with an eye on my first 100 miler in July at the Lakeland 100.  Training had started well with some consistent mileage trying to build on last year, but also pushing a bit more speed work whilst maintaining some quality vertical ascent. I'd also seen some leaps in my performance through adopting a more plant based diet. This has really enhanced my recovery and energy levels in general. Something I'll look to write a separate blog about in the week or two...
In addition to my ongoing passion for running and improving my performances I have been lucky enough to receive some support from Salomon and Suunto this year. They’ve kindly flowed me some impressive new products from their 2015 range. I’ve always been a fan of both companies and their products so to receive some kind of recognition from them in respect of my modest results and potential has been amazing. This of course brings with it the self-imposed pressure to improve, perform and a sense of responsibility to get results.
With this in mind I selected the following equipment for my run;
Salomon S-Lab Sense 4 Ultras – Finally got the sizing nailed down by sizing up a little to allow my wide feet some wiggle room. The much praised lacing system then allows me to lock my foot down to prevent my foot slipping on fast descents. I did consider using the Sense Ultra Soft Ground, but despite the rain I didn’t think I’d need the extra grip on the Fling route. Especially with there being little in the way of any extended muddy sections along the West Highland Way.
Salomon S-Lab light jacket, Exo Zip Tee and Sense Shorts – This new jacket is my favourite go to item of choice since I got my hands on it. I never like been trussed up in a jacket and usually overheat quickly. But this jacket is super lightweight, packable small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. Plus it looks really trick, so bonus! The tee and shorts both also fit my minimalist mentality, again giving me easy, full range of motion when running hard.
Salomon Sense Ultra race vest – This has replaced my previous Salomon pack, the Hydro 12 set for races such as the Fling, particularly where there’s less kit required. Despite its apparent minimalism it has an impressive array of pockets that swallow an astonishing amount of kit. It also includes the ever popular soft flasks of which I’m a big fan of. I find hard bottles stored on the chest straps on race vests tend to bruise my ribs over long distances, the soft flasks avoid this entirely
Nutrition – My pack was loaded with 18 GU Gels and 9 S-Caps. Other nutrition I’d scattered around the aid stations in drop bags consisted of Bananas, flapjack, some savoury snacks and Redbull.
Last year I entered the Highland Fling as it is the Scottish Ultra Championships and thus attracts an impressive field of racers. Needing to test myself against runners of a national and indeed international standard to hopefully learn and progress my own abilities and performances. I suffered a difficult race in 2014 with hip problems causing issues with my IT band. I still managed 49th place in 9:33:21, which at the time and under the circumstances I was happy with. However I couldn’t help but wonder what could have been if the wheels hadn’t come off. Not one to remain despondent, I entered again this year with a clear goal of going sub 9 hours and hopefully getting into the top 30. Although secretly I hoped for better with my newly added self-imposed pressure…
My Strategy for the race was simple enough; put the hammer down over the initial 15 or very runnable but undulating miles, take Conic Hill on better this year including the descent. Then as I hit the more technical section at the side of Loch Lomond use this area to recover of sorts, then hit Bein Glas - load with sugar and caffeine - and try to hang on for a strong finish over the last 12 or so miles. Simple? I think so, the Fling route demands using those initial miles to your advantage, no point going out slow on this one.

At Milngavie Station waiting for the start with my crew

So on the morning of Saturday 25th April 2015 I arrived at the railway station with my wife and kids (the best crew a runner could wish for!). The weather forecast was grim and it was drizzling prepping lining us up for what promised to be a testing day if it didn’t improve. Whilst waiting for the race to start and sorting the logistics with my drop bags I bumped into Matt Laye from San Francisco one of the favourites for this race, having won the Rocky Racoon 100 in a blistering 13:17! I wished him well before finding a spot in the sub10 starter pen. Also lined up on the start were Paul Navesey (another likely winner), Casey Morgan and Donnie Campbell to name a few.  I felt well trained and ready to go, privileged to be in amongst such running talent. Having beaten off some nagging sciatic pain in my leg from the previous two weeks, I had endured a forced taper that has left me feeling well rested for a change.
On the go and charging up the non-descript tunnel in Milngavie and ascending the steps onto the main town centre pedestrian precinct before hitting the start of the West Highland Way. The race was on.

Up the stairs at the start alongside the eventual winner Matt Laye

I was desperate to ease into the run gently, but equally reluctant to let the front runners charge off so early on in the day. For the first couple of miles I ran with a fellow Dark Peak Fell Runner, Simon (who incidentally ran a storming race – well done mate), where we joked about running alongside the likes of Matt Laye and Navesey. We quickly settled into mid to high 6 minute mile pace, but I felt reasonably comfortable at this having trained plenty of fast miles this year. Simon sensibly opted to back off a little although I saw him later on the bottom of the descent from Conic Hill (famous fast Dark Peak downhill legs!). I was still running well within myself so continued in touch with the lead group. The weather by this time was starting to turn much better, and although cool, it got warmer and brighter as the day progressed. The first 12 miles to Drymen aid are fast and relatively flat but dotted with numerous gates to negotiate which exacerbates any rhythm you try to get into. Hitting Drymen some 6 or 7 minutes faster than last year I was confident my times were heading the right direction. I’d naturally dropped in with a guy who had come 5thin 2014 (sub8) so I was in good company pace wise.

Running into Drymen aid

From Drymen the course starts to rise upwards towards Conic Hill and tends to ease the pace off a little.  I ran this section conservatively but with a consistent effort which allowed a couple of runners to squeeze past so I just settled in behind them. As I neared the base of Conic Hill where it kicks steeper, I was confident my hill training on Mam Tor would serve me well. And sure enough I managed to take a few places on the climb. Then the descent after the stunning vista overlooking Loch Lomond, which always serves to remind me why I put myself through these races. Last year this descent is where my IT band flared up causing debilitating knee pain, to the extent I had to back off significantly. This year feeling much stronger, fitter and better prepared (loads of strength and conditioning work with my hips) allowed me to let the brakes off a bit and had have a play. The steps near the bottom slowed me a bit where I gingerly tip-toed down to preserve my quads, but otherwise I knew I’d made up some more time on last years pace. Hitting the aid, I was greeted by my crew and some nutrition. I downed a Red bull and proceeded on with a banana in hand.
Loving the climb up Conic Hill

It was here, 20 miles in at Balmaha where when I set off I could tell the first signs of fatigue were creeping in. It’s the age old story of the tough middle section. I imagine almost everyone goes through this in ultras in one way or another. I see it as the part whether it be 5 or 10 miles where the body starts to resist what we’re asking of it. Then, confident it will come, the body comes around and settles in for the rest of the days effort. It’s an area where I will work on in my training to improve because I always lose some time which could be avoided. It was the next 7 miles to Rowardennan this funk seemed to persist. It was a little up and down but on the whole I felt I was struggling to maintain a decent pace. It’s fair to say I may have allowed a little negativity to get a hold which in turn affected my cadence.

Just coming off the beach past Balmaha

Keeping the nutrition going in

As I neared Rowardennan I started to get a grip on things despite my low energy levels. I was again united with my crew who ably provided me with some more water and my drop bag. I stalled a little to get some fats down my neck in the form of a sausage roll. I learned here that previous leader Casey Morgan had dropped, but I didn’t concern myself too much with what was going on in front. Rather I was aware a couple of people flying through the aid not wasting any time. However I knew the sustenance would pay dividends later in the race and the crowd here were lifting my spirit. As I left I contemplated the next section to Inversnaid. It initially involves a long climb on a pretty featureless non-technical trail. I suffered last year along this section and craved the more technical loch side to give my running muscles (read hips!) a bit of a change up. However I was determined to take advantage of the potential speed before the rocks and roots would naturally slow me later. Along the ascent, I managed to take a couple of places back and hit the descent on the other side with some good pace. It was difficult along here to establish what place I was in, but I’d guess between 10th and 15th.  What I had noted was I was only about 15 minutes up on my 2014 time so there was still some work to be done if I had sub9 on my agenda.

Still having fun

As I hit the loch side on the run up to Inversnaid my hips were getting tight, not painfully, almost like a lack of energy and flexibility. Fortunately, I came across a couple more runners along this section that spurred me on to truly take advantage of the ever-increasing technicality of the single track. Inspired by both the familiar footing (I train on rooty technical trails almost daily) and the stunning picture nature had painted - I charged on with a renewed pace into the isolated aid located at Inversnaid.  Feeling a little low on energy and with nature calling I grabbed my drop bag and retired into the porta-loo. Here I had a minute so I took the time to eat a pork pie, force a gel and wash it all down with some more Redbull. As I exited it was apparent that runners were coming in and again leaving quite quickly, so reluctant to give up any more places I moved on hitting the even more demanding trails.
This next part is genuinely a hoot, real hands on rock stuff, jumping, climbing and generally playing. I try not to get hooked up on the pace along here, because in my mind even the fastest runners are travelling at relatively the same speed. So just lapping up the environment and truly enjoying the moment I bounced on over the rocks and roots. As the trail got slightly more runnable I knew my legs were coming back nicely with some more runners not far ahead I pushed with the final aid, Bein Glas Farm in sight over the Loch. A short but sharp climb allowed me to gain a take a place or two before hitting the aid.

Cheeky snack to fuel for the last 12 miles or so

My Wife (Emma) and the kids were waiting and excited to see me after a couple hours away. I took some food and plonked myself down on the grass for a second and stretched my hips out. I maybe took 30 seconds or so before acknowledging my time was 6:29 to this point, some 40 minutes up on 2014. With some energy in my legs I knew this could be looking good if the wheels didn’t fall off, so I bid farewell to my special little crew and ran on. The next 4 or 5 miles are again pretty tough for me with buffed out trails rising and falling towards Kirton Farm. I can’t quite pin down why the more consistent terrain can cause me a problem. Maybe I just don’t get inspired by it so much when I’m feeling tired – it just ends up a bit mind over matter. One guy came past here but he immediately walked the next incline where I retook him. With one other guy chasing too, the three of us pretty much swapped places over the next few miles before it started to really crank up the ascent. As we hit what’s been dubbed ‘Cow Poo Alley’, we encountered another 2 guys running up ahead, but were clearly coming back to us. The alley was nowhere near as muddy this year meaning it ran a little quicker. Now at this point I imagine me and the 4 or 5 other guys in my vicinity all felt equally fatigued. But with the ‘sub9’ hopefully in the bag and maybe 6 or 7 miles to go my mind was starting to turn to position rather than just time. It was a race after all! I pictured every hill rep and long lonely winter mile I’d trained in. I used the self-imposed pressure from getting some support from Salomon and Suunto. I imagined my family waiting at the finish line proud of me for achieving  what for me is a big improvement over the last 12 months. Time to cash in the sacrifices made.
Me and the other 5 guys all came together naturally at the base of a pretty sizeable climb which is where I made my move.  I pushed hard into the climb, all in risking a blow up even at this late stage. I charged to the top of the rise never looking back. I did the same on the next climb only allowing myself a cheeky look over my shoulder to see just one of the other runners trying to hang to me. I knew as I hit the summit I could run through it and continue the momentum. I hit the descent pretty hard for me, surprising myself in the process by picking up two more places. Not where I’d normally expect to grabs place. I’m more of a climber than a descender, but maybe my competence in this skill is increasing with experience and practice. I’ll never be Killian Jornet, but I can always try and be the best I can. They always say to work on your weaknesses, which is where more time can be made up and this was proving true now.
I’d like to say I ran the last 3 miles in on the relatively flat terrain in a respectable parkrun style time. I’d previously envisaged this scenario, running in strong and full of confidence from the months of hard training. Unfortunately the reality turned into more of a zero energy slog wishing the last few miles away. I think I’d blown a bit of a gasket and found myself shoulder checking every few minutes.  It became a bit of glorified interval session with a painful plod, interspersed with sprints to encourage my legs back to life. Even forcing a gel half a mile from the finish saw me continuing my struggle.
I saw some walkers who cheered me along the trail. They informed me it was only about 500 metres to the finish. This did enough to release some adrenaline to get me pushing again. Then the glorious sight and sound of the bagpiper they have situated before you round the last corner. I saluted this fine gent as I passed allowing myself to enjoy the moment. Then rounding the final corner to see the red carpet laid for the finishers with the crowd cheering. It’s such a great event with this as a finish to put the polish on a fantastic route. I saw my kids, Ava and Cameron beaming at their Dad running the final stretch, so holding their hands we ran the last 30 metres or so together and over the line.

Relish these moments to share with my family

After the finish it was a bit of a blur, I got some food straight down my neck and a beer before been ushered into another tent for a massage. I then spent the next hour or so cheering other runners and friends into the finish.

A rare treat to celebrate and cheer in the other finishers

My finish time was 8:32:23, for 19th place. Just over an hours improvement and would have been good for 12th place last year. Which in itself shows how the standard in British ultra-running continues to improve.
Now a week later as I complete this report I have reflected on areas for improvement in my training and racing. The next couple of months will be aimed at high mileage with plenty of ascent to prep for the Lakeland 100. I love to train, but racing is where we are pushed to our best performances. I endeavour to continue this upward curve in my race times and positions and most of all ensure I enjoy the process throughout.

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