Monday, 15 May 2017

Hoka Highland Fling 2017


Where to begin. Well I'm really pleased to say, finally this won't be a story of illness and disappointing performances. It's fair to say I've had to write off 2016's racing and start with a fresh slate. After repeated and dogged attempts to fight through excess fatigue I had to accept defeat and go for a full recovery over winter. With a slowly recovering nervous system I ran a test race over 40something miles at the High Peak Marathon in March this year. Run at a conservative pace, my body held up throughout and gave me some optimism about gaining some improvement at last. After some judicious recovery I had some 5-6 weeks to cram some fitness in and include a taper...

With the new 2017 Salomon range now out I selected the following kit;

My footwear selection was decidedly last minute, with the new Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra tempting me away from my regular selection of the more stripped back S-lab Sense. After only two short test runs I decided to gamble on the Ultras and it paid off.  What I sacrificed in ground feel, they more than made up through comfort, cushioning and monster grip.

Clothing came in the form on Salomon S-lab tee, S-lab 4 shorts (accompanied with the new S-lab Sense Boxers), which as a package kept me cool when running fast, yet warm enough when the weather closed in. I also carried the S-lab Light Jacket as a back up should it get too cold.

I used the new S-lab Sense Ultra 8 Set race vest which for me was a great step forward in the evolution of this product. The new bottles have a wide aperture for easy filling and the vest has extra pockets upfront where you need them. All round I'm loving the improvements to this popular running pack.

Nutrition came in the form of Mountain Fuel Extreme Energy supplemented with various solids throughout the race

Fast forward to race day of the Highland Fling. A staunch favourite of mine, held over 53 miles of the West Highland Way with about 7500ft of ascent. It features a diverse range of terrain from a flat and fast trail to start before hitting the mountains over some pretty technical underfoot conditions. It also generally attracts a strong field of fast runners making it a great test (International ultra elite Vajin Armstrong was running this yr).

Overnight I got all of zero hours sleep which wasn't ideal but I didn't let it put me off. A solid enough build up and taper was leaving me feeling fairly confident. However if I was honest with myself I wasn't as fit as maybe I'd have liked. The reality though was this was still a big test of my bodies readiness to start rebuilding fitness in earnest. My goal for the day was genuinely based around time and effort, with position at the very back of my mind. I needed to derive some confidence moving forward so I had my 2015 time in mind, which was 8:32. Looking back I was maybe my fittest then (whether that's rose tinted spectacles at work?..), so this would be a great barometer of my fitness and health.

The race start is always a hive of activity and building excitement with some 800 runners trying to prepare for the days adventure. It always reminds me why I love the sport, bumping into familiar faces and close friends. 

The weather was looking very promising with the sun trying to break through the cloud already at 6am. The forecast promised a small downpour around midday, but otherwise cool and perfect running conditions.

After sorting my drop bags for the relevant aid stations and relieving myself of some unwanted weight I made my way to the Sub10 pen and jostled my way to the front. I found my good friend Ryan Hogben there and we lined up together to await the start. At the off I set off at a jog with Ryan, conscious I needed to keep the effort pretty light early on with a long day ahead. Despite this my training was clearly going well as we were running low 7 min/miles with some sub 7's and it all felt super easy. Although this was a bit slower than I ran this early section in 2015 I wasn't concerned as experience has taught me being conservative can pay dividends later in a race. I knew the first 12 or so miles were fast so still wanted to capitalise on this. I'd actually forgotten how pretty this early section was. I much prefer running in the mountains, but sometimes running faster in a beautiful environment has its place. So I took the time to lap up the experience and talk with Ryan about his training.

A group of us seemed to fall in together here which dictated the pace a little so around 8-9 miles in I pushed on a bit running at my own tempo. However as we neared Drymen at 12 miles I started to feel like my legs were getting heavy. I couldn't work out was was happening, I'd taken some calories on board and was steadily sipping my Mountain Fuel, I just didn't feel particularly energetic. I pushed any negatives thoughts to the back of my mind, figuring I'd come round eventually regardless as to what was causing the problem. I think it was around here I consciously made the decision that the day would be about trying to maintain a constant but solid effort. On the mend from last years illness it seemed prudent to let the day unfold and be a little conservative.

A quick stop at the aid to refill my Mountain Fuel and water and I pushed straight on. The subsequent climb saw my energy levels drop even further, with my legs feeling like someone had poured lead into them. Despite my consternation it's only later I've come to the conclusion it was probably just a lack of fitness. Something that will easily be solved now I can push my training up a notch. I carried on trotting up the hill allowing my body to sort itself out while steadily progressed to Conic Hill.

When I hit the steeper climbs of Conic Hill I was pleasantly surprised I was able to run pretty well up the inclines. I really enjoyed the climb even though I was by myself now, steadily pulling back toward Ryan who'd pushed ahead on the early climb out of Drymen. However when I hit the summit Ryan had vanished and must have hammered the descent. I pushed myself down the hill, skipping over the rocks and grassy slopes. The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultras were handling the descent well even though they're a little more built up than my regular shoes. The grip was phenomenal, allowing me to confidently utilise the gravity assisted decline to my advantage.

Dropping through the wood towards the second aid station at Balmaha I bumped into Vajin Armstrong who'd unfortunately dropped at Drymen with injury. Great to see the elites taking the time to hang around and watch us mortals stumble round the course. I had a short chat with him, where he complemented my trademark, heinously short shorts, before I pushed on to the aid.

As I emerged from the forest it was great to see all the spectators and my family there supporting. I grabbed some Jelly Tots from my drop bag and a sausage roll for some real food to complement the Mountain Fuel I'd been sipping. I quickly moved on and braced myself for the next section where I always seem to have a low patch in this race. My legs still hadn't fully come back to me yet so I expected the worst.

The next section out towards Rowardennan is a mixture of rolling woodland trails, rocky beaches and a few short road sections. If I'm honest it's my least favourite part of the course, so I chose to keep the effort easy and save myself for the more technical sections ahead. I actually found myself enjoying the isolation and easy tempo, taking the time to really soak up the day and appreciate the fact I was actually feeling healthy. My stomach was pretty solid, taking the steady sips of Mountain Fuel and a few Jelly Tots without issue. Due to my pace I allowed a couple of runners to trickle past steadily, but I wasn't worried and reminded myself it was about time not position.

With that in mind, as I arrived at Rowardennan I noticed I was about 10 minutes or so down on my 2015 split. Again I wasn't overly worried there was time to make it up, particularly in the steeper sections later on where fighting slowdown was the highest priority.

I was pretty much straight through Rowardennan and hurried onto the next section where after a steady, but relentless climb it finally starts to get technical. This section saw me fall in with about 6 other runners and we all took it in turns to push to the front, only for a steeper section, or short descent to naturally alter our positions again. I already noticed I was the strongest on the climbs, giving me the confidence that I should be able to fend off this group if it came down to the last 12 miles, affectionately called the 'roller coaster'.

It finally dropped down towards the side of Loch Lomond again where the trails really start to get increasingly technical. Varying from rooty and rocky trails, to outright hands on rock climbing and descending. I love this part so much, I'm relishing the idea of the rocky climbs on the Salomon Nevis Ultra in September.

The technical section is broken up about halfway with the Inversnaid aid station. As I passed my Salomon bottles to the aid staff to fill, I grabbed my drop bag and actually sat down while I sorted it out. The aid staff all shouted 'No!', as if it spelt the end of my race. I never even thought about it, just thought it would be easier while I sorted my kit out. I laughed off their comments and happily trotted on with my supplies replenished. All the way along here I just seemed to get stronger and stronger, my legs really coming back to me. It may have just been the pure joy of skipping and scrambling over the rocks, but suffice to say enjoyment was turned up to 10! I can't recall how many people I overtook along here, but it was really uplifting after my weak middle section.

I finally broke out of the woodland into the open and new Balmaha wasn't too far ahead. With some 12-13 miles still to run I couldn't believe how good I felt. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'd run 40 odd miles so I was tired. I figure after the abysmal response from my body of running ultras last year, I was just used to feeling smashed in these long races. Yet here I was quite happily bouncing along the trail, stomach intact - I could get used to this! As I ran into Balmaha I checked my split, but couldn't remember where the splits were in relation to my 2015 race (It's only after checking later I saw I was only 10mins back).

A quick bite to eat and I wasted no time in cracking on with the 'roller coaster'. I immediately got a couple of guys in my sights and steadily pulled them back as we climbed along the mountainside. It was starting to get exciting now, and as I continued the rain kept threatening to pour. I never needed to resort to the Salomon light jacket as I was plenty warm enough.

I finally crossed under the A82 and started the more substantial climbing past the well known 'cow poo alley'. The drier conditions through April meant it was relatively dry underfoot, so no wading through cow excrement this year. Again I got my hooks into another racer up ahead and gradually reeled him in. We all do it, but on the attacking end it's always a plus to see runners doing regular shoulder checks. I used this as motivation and continued to run the up the mountainside, the steeper it got the more I closed the runner in front down. I finally caught him as the climb kicks further. I gave him some quick words of encouragement before trotting on.

The last sections of the climb took some serious discipline to keep running, so I was stoked to see the top and take a couple more places in the process. The final big decent of the race is a killer, with 50 miles in the legs it really hammers the quads and it's fully runnable. So I let gravity do it's wonderful job and let rip. The bottom came soon enough and hit the road crossing over the A82. Me and 2 other guys were held by the marshals as several cars came by. As soon as they released us I led us onto a narrow trail before hitting the long track that leads towards Kirton Farm. Much to my surprise there were 3 more runners just in front of us. With around 3 miles left to go running hard wasn't really on my agenda, but I couldn't help making a bit of a race of it. So I charged on and tried to get some sort of pace going. My legs really didn't want to respond but surprisingly I pushed ahead of the five or so runners that were all bunching together. I had no idea what sort of position I might be in, I actually didn't care, I just wanted to see what I had left in the tank.

The 3 mile run went quicker than I thought and as I dropped onto the riverside and saw the bag piper playing I just felt relief. Relief I was finishing strong, relief I was finally healthy again in a race and relief as I looked over my shoulder that nobody was close behind.

That left me to relax and enjoy the red carpet finish and soak up the atmosphere. Halfway down my kids, Ava and Cam joined me and we ran in as a group.

I finished in 8:46 (14 minutes slower than 2015) and 23rd place out of nearly 800 runners. I'd happily take that as a step in the right direction. All in all a good days work, an enjoyable run and confirmation I can finally start pushing my training again. On reflection I could've maybe pushed the training a little more on the build up to the Fling, but honestly I'm just relieved to be back in the game.

My main race this year will be the Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra in September so this confidence boost was exactly what I needed.

Thanks as always to Salomon, Suunto and Mountain Fuel for the support.  I'd have struggled to bounce back without your support.

Our Jeep lovingly prepared for the race by my support crew of Emma, Ava and Cam (Family)


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