Written by Stacey Holloway - https://wayrunning.wordpress.com
I have given a full blow-by-blow race report on John Kynaston’s final podcast; you can find ithere.
I completed the 96mile race in 33hrs and 5mins. I am under no assumptions, my finishing was part of a team effort. Without my crew, Neil Scott, Kristin and Jason Main, Susan Barley and my husband Max Holloway I could still be out there somewhere! I cannot thank each of them enough for helping me accomplish this goal, all were absolute heroes. Thank you also to everyone who supported me in the lead up including my family, but also a huge thank you to Liz Bennett. Liz sponsored me, keeping me injury free through my training and had my legs feeling their absolute best come race day. Thank you to the race organisers, volunteers, medics, marshels and supporters. You put on an immense race in every sense. I entered the race to understand myself better, to know how I would react come second sunset, and when the nausea and sleep deprivation hit. Here are some of my insights (the take away parts are in bold) as a first time West Highland Way Race runner and first time running an ultra distance past 53miles.
It was the first time I did not have any nerves before a race. It was too big to comprehend, so I did not try. As we ran out under the arch with the high street lined with supporters I welled up and almost started crying right then!
Getting to the start line in a state to run the race was a greater challenge than the race itself. For 8 months I had to will myself to train consistently, to get the big days in and know when to hold back to prevent injury. Fear of injury and illness is huge. The week before the race I had a final massage with Liz and my legs felt amazing, but then I came down with 2 colds and stomach flu. It was hit and miss if I would start. Thankfully a lot of Vicks Vapor Rub and bed rest saw me to the start line, but not without a cost, I was wiped out.
Max, Neil and I all very excited at the start. Counting down to 1am!
Now on the other side of the race, I can confidently say that anyone who can run a challenging 50miler can, if they wanted to, run 100miles. And if you can run a 5 hour road marathon, you can run a challenging 50miler. My training averaged 30miles per week, 80% of which was done as walk commutes. My largest week was 60miles. I did manage one marathon, one 34miler and one 53miler in the build up.
DARKNESS PART 1
It turns out that I do not cope well running in the dark. The sky still had light in it and the moon was bright. The combined light of everyone’s head torches lit the way so running was not treacherous. It was beautiful. But as the field thinned out I felt isolated and the darkness got me down. It was so early in the race and I was feeling very low.
Before embarking on a race that requires you to run straight through 2 consecutive nights, I advise that you run through a night in training. I put this aspect of my training off, happily listening to anyone who told me that I did not need to do a night run. In reality I was scared. As a woman who has grown up in cities, I have been socialized to fear night and fear darkness, especially alone.
NOT MY PHOTO! Credit to Andrew Condron
The mental and emotional toll of running through a night was not lost on me. I felt acutely the sleep deprivation and ache in my legs and actively pushed the panic out of my mind. A big surprise was the clouded mind and nausea from lack of sleep passed by the time I was on the low road (how much fun is running on the low road! Love it!!) and I was fine through the next day. I am sure sleep deprivation was a contributing factor to my physical and mental exhaustion, however, it never felt again like it did after the first night. Even after the race, sleep deprivation did not appear to be an issue, maybe adrenaline and happiness at finishing kept me buzzing!
Pre-race shut eye in our van after registration
If possible do bank sleep in the 2 weeks prior to racing and reduce your stress levels. I tapered physically, but not in any other way until the week prior and so when I stopped, I got sick. If possible try keep stress minimal at work in the lead up.
NOT A BIGGER FLING
A lot of people told me, it is just a Fling with a 42 mile walk at the end. This is not true! The first 53miles may be the Fling course, but it is not a Fling. Mentally it is an entirely different fish.
The first obvious difference is the atmosphere at the start. It is charged tense and focused, and this carried on through the 1st night and into the next day. There is no dancing and singing on the start line. Everyone stood silent, first in honor of Don Ritchie, and then stealing themselves for the race to begin. We ran in near silence through the night and by dawn I was alone. I ran a lot by myself in the first half of the race. The second and biggest difference is, obviously, the finish. The finish is not in Tyndrum! In the Fling when you reach Beinglas Farm you are nearly there and can realx in the knowledge you will make it. However, in this race Beinglas is just the beginning, a warm up, easing you into the race itself, as really, it has barely begun. And finally, to add, you have not slept for an entire night.
I did not let myself think beyond the next checkpoint. This is the single best advice I was given and the best advice I can give in return. Focus only on the next checkpoint, never more.
Me with my bestie on route to Bridge of Orchy. Past the point of my longest run to date. Approx 55 miles.
THE FEAR OF TIME
I loved the challenge, the unrelenting hours of onward focus, but the stress of cutoffs is hard. There was no time to let up or rest until I reached Kinlochelven, having to chase the cut offs at nearly every checkpoint. As I passed the 1st marathon mark I was still feeling low and wondering why I was running this thing. Then I realised I was 30mins down on time. If I carried on at this rate I would be timed out at 42miles. This knowledge hit me square in the chest and the weight of how much finishing this race meant to me propelled me on. I could not let Max and Neil down; they had been awake all night too! I banished feeling sorry for myself, put my iPod on and ran! Luckily, on the low road I met Karen, another runner and she pushed me on when I slowed and together we scrambled and weaved our way along the loch side well inside the cutoff.
The race is not measured in distance. Do not dwell on how far you have come, or how far is left to go. Just focus on how long to the next checkpoint before it is too late. The race is measured in hours… you calculate distance in time. Another thing to note, I began to dillydally once I was well within the cutoffs as the pressure was off. Prepare for this in advance and keep pushing on.
4.5 hours to Balmaha…. 2 hours to Rowedennen…. 2 hours to Inversanid… 3 hours to Beinlglas… 3 hours to Auchetyre… 1 hour to Tyndrum…. 2.5 hours to Bridge of Orchy… 3.5 hours to Glencoe… 4 hours to Kinlochleven…. Rest here til sunrise – 1.5 hours…. 6 hours to the Fort William.
Crew got it spot on at Balamha
COUNTING AND THE RANNOCH MOOR
I was afraid I would leave this race with a dislike of the Rannoch Moor, which would have made me regret the race. My favorite day in my life so far, was crossing Rannoch Moor the first time. Max and I walked the West Highland Way in 2016, a belated honeymoon/escape from recent horrors of writing our PhDs. The weather clear over the moor with a storm on the snow capped mountains surrounding us. You could see only moor for miles. It was the first time either of us had been this secluded from humans. I had never seen a landscape like it. On Baa Bridge, Max and I made a promise.
Once the sense of perplexion of Jelly Baby Hill had subsided, a feeling of nausea and general awfulness crashed through me. Thankfully, I had a WHWrace finisher crewing me. I asked Sue if I would feel like this for the rest of the race and she reassured me it would pass, it would just come in waves from now on. I was also with my best friend’s husband who was in awe of the Moor, it was great to listen to his exclamations of how beautiful it was. My crew came up with a run-walk strategy of 30seconds on / 30seconds off and we would walk the up hills, picking off runners in front.
An excellent piece of advice gleamed from John’s podcast was; if in a negative place, aim for a neutral place, not a positive one, as the jump is too great. John suggested counting as a strategy. At the time I thought this was ridiculous. I was caught in a negative mind loop and my mind needed a new loop, a neutral one that cost me nothing emotionally. I began counting my footsteps. Counting to 20 was too difficult as the teens are two syllabled so do not fit in time with my cadence. So I would count to ten on one foot and then on the other. On the Moor I did this non-stop for hours.
In this way we made it over the moor in my predicted time and arrived at Glencoe at 10.30pm. Getting over the moor took everything mentally; having Max at the checkpoints and not with me gave me the extra incentive to push on. I wanted to see him desperately. On my arrival, straight into his arms I was overcome with emotion and had to sit and sob for a few minutes to the distress of my crew. I reassured them I was fine, I just needed to get it out. I could not hold myself together if I held this in.
Just before the waves of awfulness hit. Jase, Sue and me with the hardest tree in Scotland.
DARKNESS PART 2
Somewhere on the ascent of the Devil’s staircase my mind snapped. My last rational thought was reflecting on the myths of drunken miners falling to their deaths as they made the treacherous journey from the nearest bar at the Kings house on Rannoch Moor, back to their homes in Kinlochleven. Having made this climb three times before with relative ease, it was not until now, in darkness, that I appreciated its name.
A sobbing mess by 80miles. 26hours running and 48 hours without sleep. Not coping with the darkness.
Unlike the first night, there was no light in the sky. The only light was from our own head torches and those few bobbing around somewhere ahead of us. As the staircase ascended deeper into the cloud, visibility even with torches dropped. On the summit I text Max to let him know we are at the top and found I had no signal. For the first time in the race, I could not contact Max and, looking back, this may have been the trigger to my mental breakdown. As the race progressed, physical pain melted away and I now had little feeling or awareness of my body and struggled to read its needs. The most dire of which was that I could not tell if I was thirsty and an extreme paranoia gripped me that I was over drinking. My mouth completely dry, I tried to refuse myself water. When I did drink I instantly needed to go to the toilet and the panic deepened.
Neil and I skirted the mountainside towards Kinlochleven. I could not feel my body, did not know where I was and could not see anything not in the direct beam of Neil’s amazing torch. I could not ground myself in reality and my mind snapped, with my body somewhere to my left walking onwards purposely, as it had been ordered to. I must find light again. At some point I realized I could use my voice as an anchor to reality, but I was unsure of what I was saying and very aware of that. I asked Neil to tell me stories as I could not cope anymore. He talked about his family and mutual friends and races and it helped take my mind somewhere other than where it was drifting. Eventually, we made it to the medical centre. Runners were lying on mattresses with ice strapped to them and in a terrible state. I sat on a mattress crying, trying to explain that the reason I was upset was because I was scared of the dark and I could not tell if I was thirsty, to the bemused look of the medical team. Max surrounded my mattress with food options – cereal, milk, porridge, pasta… I had stopped eating at Tyndrum and managed only the milk. I refused to leave until the sun was up. The darkness, an absolute terror, no one could make me face again.
Leaving Kinlochleven at sunrise.
WHEN YOU HAVE NOTHING LEFT, BUT MUST FIND MORE
The Lairig Mhor and fire road were a relentless torture and I look back on this section as my only regret as I did not handle this well. I had given up and was simply carrying on as there was really nowhere else to go. Max tried to comfort me by telling me it was just 10km left. I sobbed while my body continued to hike. I could not do 10km, but I must. Even now, I feel a distrust of stones, I was sick of staring at the rocky paths.
Still managing a smile, at around 89 miles with Max on the last leg (and last legs!).
I finished relatively unemotional; I was a bit confused if honest. My entire crew plus some friends ran the last few hundred metres with me. I could not work out where the finish was and had to be guided by them. I was convinced I had to touch a door, but could not see one. I was done. That was all I was aware of.
Everyone came out to see me in. I still feel emotional when I think about this time in the race.
Have a plan agreed with your crew about what to do upon finishing. We had not discussed this and I was in no state to know what I wanted or needed. Though I did know I desperately needed a shower.
This has been the greatest surprise. So far, other than pressure pain in my feet and some nerve pain in my toes, I am fine. The worst thing right now is my midge bites. I think I have finished weeks working in London in a worse state than finishing this race (though work is slightly less traumatizing).
Listen to your body, the fatigue is like a deep bruise and rises gradually to the surface. The soft tissue on my feet is still tender and, in the first couple days, I could not tolerate standing for longer than 10 minutes at a time. I am very glad for the week off work as I doubt I would have managed the commute.
At the prize giving, a friend asked me how my race was and I answered in all honesty, it was a horrendous nightmare. However, I am still as much in love with the West Highland Way as I was before, probably more, and I will be back walking it again next year, or maybe even sooner… a little voice is suggesting midwinter?
Getting my goblet! Wohoo! I did it! Along with 197 other finishers we each got presented one at a time with our goblets.
LETTERS OF INSPIRATION.
I want to write a separate section to thank those who wrote letters to me. Max and Neil were reading them to me during dark points in the race. At these times I was often unreachable and sentences no longer connected to each other, but the words came through. I read them all again once I had finished and was overwhelmed with what was written. Thank you. Thank you for your love and support. Until I read these letters and saw the encouragement in texts and on my social media platforms I had no idea how this race would reach so many people. I cannot describe how motivating and lifting this was in my lowest and darkest moments in the second night. I cannot thank you all enough. I love you all.
The Fire Road and the Ben. Thank you for supporting me to get here.
Written by Mick Farrar - https://runningoffthemadness.blogspot.fr
Race date: 7th April 2018
Run Walk Crawl
Location: Wales Coastal Path starting at Penarth and finishing at Ogmore-by-sea
Weather/Conditions: rain, waterlogged, overcast, muddy, local flooding, getting the picture?
2018 had started damp and by the end of March, the ground was extremely waterlogged. The final email from Run Walk Crawl and their Facebook update all recommended trail shoes with lots of grip, even though there are a good few miles on path and road. I had planned to run Manchester marathon over this weekend as I initially wanted to beat my PB and run with a very good friend, but then remembered I hate road racing. Having run the race last year I knew this was not an easy route and as the final race prior to TP100 I wanted to push myself a little, but also enjoy it.
Friday night arrived and the forecast changed to show yet more rain, yay! I spent a night in an Airbnb on Bridgend, preparing my kit and my mind for the race. Time to send the Black Dog off and relax.
|The murky view from the start|
I arrived at the car park in Ogmore-by-sea where the race finishes and the coaches pick you up and take you to the start in Penarth. I sat on the bus and zoned out, using meditation techniques to help me relax. After arrival, we had a quick kit check, down to the pier for a brief and then out to the race start. The rain continued to fall as the horn sounded and we were off!
|Barry Island Pleasure Park|
|Waving goodbye to Barry Island|
We dropped down through Cliff Wood and then steep steps into Porthkey Park, where the 18 mile runners were due to start, there also a food and water checkpoint where I grabbed two jaffa cakes and kept going. I had arrived ahead of them starting, last year they had already started, and I crossed the rocky beach, climbed the next "hill" at 15 miles and was almost into the next caravan park by the time the whippets passed me.
Passing through Rhoose we headed across the beach to flat section of path with a small seawall at 18 miles, this stretched out around the power station. I stopped and took time to strip off the cold and wet tops I was wearing, put on a dry top and stashed my waterproofs and poles. Even after attempting to wring them out, the wet tops doubled the weight of my hydration vest. Hey ho. The path should have enabled us to pick up some pace but it had flooded, very deep in places and so we climbed up on to the narrow seawall and shuffled along.
|Canoes would have been helpful along this section|
|One of the many rocky "beaches"|
As we followed the coastal path, at times only a few feet across and wedged between the fields to our left and cliff to our right. The path was often worn into a deep rut and after weeks of rain ankle high standing water stretched across the path, mixed with mud as hundreds of runners slipped their way through the unplanned obstacles. I used my poles to stabilise me through these sections, allowing me to keep some pace.
|Dropping down into yet another cove.|
At Marcross we passed through the grounds of the lighthouse at 27 miles and the route then turned to follow the coast north-west towards Southerndown. I started to notice that I was catching up runners that had passed me earlier, slowly but surely I was picking off runners again. The hours of training and 30-mile runs may well be finally paying off.
I had run harder and dug deeper than in any of my previous ultra races, my legs burnt and my core ached. A bottle of water was pushed into my hand and I sat drinking it, my head clearer than its been in years. I smiled to myself, I had not run much faster than 2017 but managed to knock off 25 minutes and in conditions way worse. Then the realisation struck me that the next time I would be lining up to start a race will be in Richmond on 5th May.
|A few climbs, mostly towards the end|
Saucony Koa ST trail shoes, Dirty Girl gaiters, Drymax Cold Weather Running Socks, ASICS 2-in-1 running shorts, Kalenji cold weather top, Eyepod Sports Sunglasses, Salomon Adv Skin3 12 Set and Leki RCM running poles.
Tailwind, 3 Torq gels, salted peanuts, a handful of jelly beans and a few jaffa cakes.
If you've never run it before I wholly recommend it. One of the few races I have returned to.
Written by Stacey Holloway
I had not intended to enter the 2018 Fling, with the West Highland Way race in the same year. Back in 2016 it took me 6 weeks to recover enough to even want to run again. I was scared I could not recover in time for the WHWrace, just 8 weeks later. Neil my Chief Crewman, however, advised I run the Fling as my longest training run for the WHWrace. Against my better judgment, I entered and got a ballot place. So the race was not a race, but a dress rehearsal for June 23rd. I am so glad I listened to Neil.
This year my training had been perfect for the Fling and I felt so ready for it. Then, 4 weeks out from the race, things got a bit hectic and I was travelling a lot. I lost sleep, training was not my highest priority and fell apart, as did eating well. I got pretty run down. I was back in Cambridge for a week and despite sleeping 8-9hours for a few nights I could not shake a deep fatigue that had settled in. Those who know my past will understand why this feeling scares me, a lot. Max helped to dispel my paranoia and we headed to Scotland. The day before the Fling it became apparent I was unwell; I could not keep warm and was extremely tired. I spent Friday on the sofa under blankets with Kirsty’s hot water bottle. Despite this, I could not help getting carried away in all the excitement for the next day as competitors and volunteers began to arrive. I met some WHWrace runners who had plenty of advice. I hung on their every word.
I was asleep by 9pm but woke at 11pm and I could not sleep again. At 2.30am Max made us breakfast and we caught the bus to Milngavie for the 6am race start. My tummy was in a terrible way! However, it was all great training for the WHWrace! No sleep and 53 miles of running on the course – perfect!
Max was in the first start wave so we kissed goodbye with the barrier between us as Johnny Fling and Jez Bragg counted down from 10. The horn went and I watched Max run off under the Milngavie rail-bridge. I joined the front of the final wave, observing the contrast between the runners in Max’s wave and those in mine. The front-runners were all in dark, serious colours of red, black and grey, and mostly lean men, quiet in anticipation. In my wave it was mostly women, of all ages and sizes, kitted out in bright colours with kilts and tutus dancing and singing as the count down begun. Someone behind me tells their friend ‘these are the real tough runners’ and I feel proud of where I belong in this race, firmly a back of the pack runner. By the time we are under the arches and on the Way, we are introducing ourselves and making friends.
Just before the race briefing
I dropped right back to be one of the last runners as I was struggling with pace and brutally aware that I needed to finish as if to go on. I met another WHWrace hopeful and everyone was in a bonnie mood. The morning was perfect, cool, windless and sunny. The first views after Carbeth were breathtaking. You could see the route laid out in front of us crystal clear, Conic hill in the distance and the summit of Ben Lomond beyond. I wondered if the snow topped peaks behind that were Ben Vorlich or Ben Lui.
View out after Carbeth, perfect morning
Heading into Drymen I caught up with a group and one of the women says to me ‘you are from Cambridge, you told me that.’ A statement that must be true, but I cannot remember telling her! From then on throughout the race I would hear a holler ‘Cambridge!’ and turn round to a group of smiles. I ran with Jen, Fiona, John and Jan all the way to Inversnaid and their banter kept us all laughing and indifferent to time. I saw familiar faces at every checkpoint, Michelle and Carla at Drymen, Donna at Balmaha and Neil was waiting to see me in at Rowerdennen. He tells me I had arrived within 30seconds of my predicted time! By Inversnaid I was feeling a lot better, my unwellness from the day before had lifted and I pushed on.
When you can see three peaks you know you are finally near Inversnaid. Only two means you are not there yet!
The Inversnaid checkpoint was good fun! Firstly, I finally met John Kynatson in person, which I had been looking forward to (John has been interviewing me for the WHWrace podcasts). John introduced me to his wife as ‘this is Stacey, you may sometimes hear her voice coming from my basement.’ I have a double take, but John is oblivious to anything odd in that statement. I also saw Martyn, which was wonderful as I have not seen him since near the end of the Fling 2016. It was talking to Martyn after his WHWrace that inspired me to enter myself. While talking to the two of them another runner I had met the day before came bounding over full of excitement to loudly proclaim that he was quitting. We all stare at him startled, for this is a huge decision to make and not one that normally comes with enthusiasm. Without thinking I tell him not to mention the ‘Q’ word and get moving to Beinglas. I am not sure if he finished, but I hope that he did. Upon opening my drop bag I was disappointed to find a peanut butter and jam sandwich, and not the cheese and pickle I was craving. Martyn came to the rescue and asks if I want mature or mild cheddar. I just stare at him. He tells me he is utterly serious. Loaded up with cheese and bottles filled with Active Root (OMG this stuff is AMAZING!!!) I headed off towards Beinglas.
On the training run a month earlier, I had finally made peace with the technical lochside portion of the course and thoroughly enjoyed it this time round. It is a beautiful and wild section that takes a lot of focus to move over. It was brilliant fun and I stopped now and again to watch water falling from rocks above my head or to look out through tree roots at the still Loch surface. Coming off the lochside, Ben Lui stood ahead in the distance with rain falling on its top. The sun shone all day on us.
Rain on Ben Lui, Sun on me
I mentally struggle with the last section into Beinglas and the road out up to the river crossing so I promised myself some iPod time once I made the checkpoint. I was quite close to the cutoff at Beinglas and Neil was there waiting. He may have been a bit anxious, as he was pretty insistent I could not use the loo until after I had crossed the timing mat. I am so grateful to Neil for being out there checking on me, I felt very looked after and I am so comforted to know he will be there in June.
Along the river and out towards cow poo alley I had my music on loud and let my mind switch off. I entered a point where my brain began to fail to distinguish feelings of euphoria and suffering, it was only the pain in my legs that kept me grounded. I had slowed a lot to stare blissfully at the mountains so turned off the music and got moving. I met a lady from St Albans (near my birth town, Watford, but posher) and it was quite comforting to hear a southern accent, even if it was more upper class than mine. I enjoyed listening to her perfect home county accent as she waded undeterred shin deep through cow shit.
Starting to get a bit euphoric…
Out into the Roller-coaster forest I met Chris, who was a WHWrace finisher and another hopeful for this year. He was moving slower than me, but I wanted to hear his stories. We walked together up to the red carpet where I told him to run ahead so he could have his own photo finish. Walking with Chris was probably one of the best things I could have done that day. Taking the last 6 miles slow meant I did not trash my already trashed ankles and legs more than I needed to so I could recover well and get training again. Also, Chris told the WHWrace for what it was. He told me about the realities of sleep deprivation, and its impact on your crew. About midges and food and what had made people DNF. About the importance of stories when you can no longer talk. It was what I didn’t want to hear, but what I needed to hear and exactly when I needed to hear it, after 52miles and over 14hours on my feet.
The finish was not like 2016 for me. This fling had been amazing, I had so much fun and I really mean that. I was so happy to be out there, talking to everyone and hearing their stories (more people than I have mentioned here and I am grateful to have met all of them). I took it slow and easy and never stressed. I waited at checkpoints to make sure my friends had made the cutoffs (so pleased when I found out Kirsten had made all of them!), enjoyed the scenery and catching up with people I had not seen in years. The community is outstanding. But it was not hard, I had not endured or struggled, I felt tired, cold and a bit sore, but I was fine. I felt underserving of the calls of encouragement from onlookers as we neared the finish. I was fine. This was a huge win for me. However, Chris’s words rung in my ears and I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of 44 more miles. I went to bed thinking I should quit and drop out. By morning I felt fine with very little pain and in a better mental state, excited again at the prospect of the entire West Highland Way.
A huge thank you and congratulations to John Duncan and Noanie Sam Heffron, and every volunteer and sponsor for pulling off such an incredible event and its devoted following in the Scottish Ultra running community.
Finally, a special thank you to Liz Bennett in Cambridge for sponsoring me in the lead up to the WHWrace. She has gone above and beyond to keep me injury free.
The end is nigh
Written by Christian Maleedy - https://runningchristian.wordpress.com
I have been blessed enough to have run and raced in many hilly and scenic areas of the UK – the Lake District, the Peak District, Cornwall, the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons, the South Downs. However, I’d never done anything significant north of the border.
The Highland Fling follows the first 53 miles of the West Highland Way, from the official start in Milngavie (a small town just a few miles north of central Glasgow) up past Loch Lomond finishing in the mountain village of Tyndrum.
I’ve had my eye on this race for some time, but now finally have the chance to run it. It’s almost 6 o’clock on a cold Saturday morning. We are standing in the car park of Milngavie train station, waiting for the race to start. My flight up from London the previous night had been delayed and pre-race excitement meant that I hadn’t got very much sleep. Drop bags have been deposited in the relevant vehicles, a pre-race bacon roll and coffee consumed; now’s it just a case of waiting the last few minutes for the race start.
This race began in 2006 with less than 20 runners as a training run for the 96 mile West Highland Way race. Today there are 800 runners nervously awaiting the start (making it certainly one of the largest ultras in the UK). Due to the number of runners, the race begins in three waves. I pick the middle pen and wait for our turn to start.
The mournful sound of bagpipes drifts out from the speakers. “Do you want something louder?” asks the guy controlling the music. Having got a positive response, the crowd is soon swaying to Avicii’s “levels”. As tributes to the late Swedish DJ go, several hundred lycra clad ultra runners bopping up and down in a Glaswegian car park must be fairly unique!
Having watched the first wave of elites and faster runners dash off, it’s now our turn to pass under the bridge, through the pedestrianized centre of Milngavie and turn onto the official trailhead of the West Highland Way. The trailhead is narrow and it’s evidently why the organisers don’t want all 800 runners descending on it at once.
These first few miles trend gently uphill initially through woodland, before later passing holiday cottages and opening out onto a wide track alongside Craigallian Loch.
The early morning mist gently rises off the water creating an ethereal atmosphere. Here we are only a few miles north of Glasgow, yet this already feels so remote; the occasional electricity line the only real sign of civilisation.
The first checkpoint of the day is at Drymen after around 12 miles, which I hope to get to in around 2 hours. This first section is a mix of gently undulating trails and country lanes. It reminds me a little of the start of the North Downs Way back home; nothing too technical or challenging so far! It’s not long before the first mountains come into view in the distance, still capped in snow thanks to the long late finishing winter.
On the way into the village of Drymen, we’re sent through a field up a hill to a mid-race kit check. Unlike most of the races I run that have very comprehensive mandatory kit lists, this race only has two mandatory items; an emergency blanket and a mobile phone. Whilst these items could easily fit into a runner’s back pocket, all the runners have opted to carry significantly more items than this in their race vests and backpacks. As well as water and food, I’m carrying various items of clothing; enough to deal with whatever the Scottish climate decides to throw at us today!
Kit check is quickly negotiated and we descend into the first checkpoint of the day. There are five checkpoints along the way, at four of which we can access our own drop bags, which contain the food and drink (aside from water which is provided) that we might want during the race. There are no drop bags at this early check point; just water. As I get my bottles filled, one of the volunteers spots my UTMB t-shirt and we chat a little about that race.
“There isnay bag here, get oooooooout” declares the next volunteer. [Translation: “This is not a drop bag location, therefore please feel free to continue along the trail at your earliest convenience, my good sir”]. He has a point and I’m soon on my way.
This first section has been straight forward but much sterner tests lie ahead. First and foremost of which is the biggest climb of the race; Conic hill which comes in this next segment. The trail begins to trend uphill again as we approach the climb.
These ascents are difficult to judge; they don’t feel steep up enough to justify walking but an attempt at running them leaves my legs objecting strongly. I settle on a run/walk strategy until Conic hill looms immediately ahead. The climb itself is a slog and reminds me of the many climbs on UTMB last summer. Thankfully the difference here is that this climb only takes a few minutes to reach the top (compared to the 2ish hours that many of the UTMB climbs were taking me). Race photographers are snapping away at the top and the views over Loch Lomond are simply breath taking.
Having been overtaken by a few runners on the way up, I throw caution to the wind and pick up some speed for the descent, gaining a good few places. I can still feel the adrenaline coursing through my body as the descent starts to flatten out leading us directly into the next checkpoint at Balmaha.
This is the first drop bag location and as I enter the checkpoint I can see it operates like a finely tuned machine. A volunteer checks my number and shouts it along to the crew waiting by the drop bags. By the time I have progressed through, my bag is ready and waiting for me. I’ve packed the same items in each of my four bags, a can of coke plus a mix of savoury and sweet snacks. I gratefully drink the coke and although I’m not really hungry, eat a little and stash the rest in my race vest for later.
We are now on the south eastern corner of Loch Lomond, Scotland’s biggest loch. The race will follow the shore of the loch for the next 20+ miles, before heading off deep into the highlands. This next section through Rowardennan Forest is undulating again but relatively runnable. However, I’m unable to take full advantage of this as I hit a low patch. My body if feeling the effects of the South Downs Way 50 followed by a week of running in Snowdonia just two weeks before and my hips and legs object every time I try and get any kind of decent pace going. I know I’m struggling as I’m glancing at my Garmin every few moments, grumbling angrily to myself when I see only another 0.1 of a mile has passed. Again, I’m back to run/walk here and by the time I reach the next Rowardennan, I’m behind my schedule and feeling dispirited.
Retrieving my drop bag, I spend a few minutes sitting and lying on the grass by the loch as I refuel and try to refocus mentally. I’m approximately half-way through the race, with the significantly harder half still to come. I try not to think too much about that and just focus on the moment.
After a fairly disappointing last section, the next few miles are a big improvement and pass by quickly. The trail alternates between hugging the shoreline closely at times and deviating some way inland at others. I’m struck by how much this lochside running reminds me of the South West Coast Path down in Cornwall; no large climbs, but many many short sharp ascents and descents with stunning views over the water.
Above us to the right looms Ben Lomond, the most southerly of Scotland’s famous Monros (Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet). In front of me a runner gets caught by a tree root and goes sprawling, but not before executing a near perfect stuntman roll. I help him to his feet and make a mental note to myself to watch my footing too.
Another forest section brings us to CP4 at Inversnaid. Here volunteers radio ahead runners’ numbers resulting in a massively slick and professional checkpoint process. I open my drop bag and immediately turn my nose up at the savoury items I’ve packed. The only issue with this drop bag format is that it relies on you being able to work out in advance what kind of food you are likely to want at various points in the race. Savoury snacks are normally a good bet for me from past experience but today my body is craving only sweet stuff. I take the chocolate from my drop bag and also visit the table at the checkpoint. Here the leftover contents of the drop bags of faster runners are put out for the others. Half the table consists of various gels. I remark to another runner that these always seem like a great choice at the start of the race but trying to force them down your throat when you’re 30+ miles into a race is another matter entirely. I help myself to a chocolate miniroll which really hits the spot and continue onwards, feeling upbeat again.
As the saying goes “if you’re feeling good during an ultra, just wait a minute”. This next section comes as a massive shock and not an entirely pleasant one. My research of the course was limited to looking at maps and course profiles. Accordingly, I had a good idea of the climbing involved and where the big hills come during the race. What maps and course profiles can’t tell you is about the underfoot conditions. This section is massively more technical than I was expecting. A plethora of rocky scrambles, deadly tree roots, boulder hopping, stream crossings, ascents, descents and mud ensues. Any pre-race ambition I may have held with regard to a finishing time now dies a death on this brutal lochside terrain. Any attempt to get into a rhythm is hopeless as I’m invariably forced to walk. This is single track trail and I’ve now joined the back of a long procession of runners. It’s impossible to overtake anyone and, as it happens, I have no real desire to anyway. I accept that my time goals aren’t going to happen – but that’s ok. I’m nowhere near the cut offs and even a slow walk would get me to the finish within the 15 hours allowed. Having recently committed to adopting a more “mindful” approach to life, I put thoughts of finish line celebrations out of my mind and focus on the moment and the job in hand. Yes, the terrain is tough, but it’s also absolutely stunning and I do my best to take it all in.
Soon, we leave behind the loch for the last time and start heading uphill again. “Two easy miles to Beinglas Farm” declares a volunteer that we pass. I frown to myself, I’d counted on it being more like one mile….hopefully he has got it wrong as I’m now really ready for a cheeky sit down at the check point.
Turns out the volunteer was right about the two miles, but wrong about the easy part! Beinglas is the final full checkpoint with drop bag access. Red and white tape funnels us through the farm and towards the check point. For a moment I’m taken back to UTMB, and the mountainside checkpoints there. I’m really thankful that today is “only” 53 miles and not the 104 miles of UTMB.
Having retrieved my bag, I collapse into a camping chair with a groan of delight resulting in ripples of laughter from the other runners and volunteers. A volunteer confirms what I’d suspected – a slow walk would could comfortably get us into Tyndrum in time. From past experience, sitting for more than few short minutes will result in my legs stiffening up and making getting going again very difficult. I sit as long as I dare before slowly making my way down the farm track.
After a really technical few miles of single track, we are now on runnable double track again. The overall trend, however, is most certainly upwards as we head into more classic highland terrain. I run the flattish sections and walk the steeper ascents.
Soon we hit the notorious “cowpat alley”; a quagmire of mud and the afore mentioned cowpat. Here runners are frequently known to disappear to their knees in the stuff. Fortunately footprints in front of me mark a safe route taken by other runners through the danger.
Uphill slogs are met with lovely runnable downhill sections. Ordinarily I’d be pounding these downhills with joy, but today my body says otherwise. The sound of live music gently drifts from some trees; violins, bagpipes and accordions have been just some of the instruments that have encouraged us along the way during this race. It’s so lovely that people have taken the time to come out. As the afternoon has worn on, we’ve past many curious (if slightly bemused) WHW walkers who have all been encouraging and happy to stand aside as we passed by.
I pass the last minor check point at a road crossing and am immediately met by stunning views of the mountains ahead. I stop for a moment to take a picture and another runner notices my t-shirt declaring “this must be easy compared to UTMB”.
“In theory”, I reply, “though it doesn’t really feel like that at the moment”.
Jess and I get chatting and run/walk the last 3 miles of the course together. Having not run with anyone else for a more than a few minutes all race, it’s nice to have some company. Incredibly these last 3 miles of the course pass by the quickest as we chat about running in Cornwall, races we’ve done and races on our bucket lists; UTMB, Western States, the Arc of Attrition, the Goat, the Spine. I even manage to gleam a few clues for how to enter the infamous Barkley marathons though I don’t really have any ambitions in that department.
Before long, we’re met by the sound of bagpipes and, as we turn a corner, we see the finish and the famous red carpet ahead. Another runner, who I’ve been leap frogging all day, is keen to entertain the crowd with a 3 person sprint for the finish line. Jess and I both decline as he sprints off and we jog over the line.
12 hours 35 minutes definitely wasn’t the time I was envisaging at the start of the day, but I’m happy enough given this wasn’t an “A” race and it’s come hot on the heels of a PB at the SDW50. My next race in May is the North Downs Way 50 (which I’m treating largely as a training run) followed by the South Down Way 100 in June (which is an A race and I’m hoping for a good time on).
As I sit by the road in Tyndrum waiting for the bus back to Glasgow, I look up at the snow capped mountains. The West Highland way has captured my imagination and I can’t help thinking about returning. Past Tyndrum, the WHW goes through Glen Coe before finishing at the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William. I can definitely see either the “Devil o’ the Highlands” (a race starting here at Tyndrum and finishing at Fort William, ie the second half of the trail) or the West Highland Way race (the whole 96 miles) at some point in my future. But for now, the Fling has fully lived up to all expectations and left me enchanted.
Written by Stuart Mann - http://runningmann.co.za
[MARATHON #180 / UNIQUE MARATHON #97 / 10 MARCH 2018]
The Kosmos Marathon in Secunda is an easy 90-minute drive from Johannesburg – this is below the “stayover for the night vs. drive on the morning” threshold so I was up just after 3am to get to the 6am start. After eight consecutive Friday nights away from home to run different marathons around the country, I enjoyed the novelty and comfort of sleeping in my own bed before a race – although my daughters were not impressed that their weekly camp out with mom was cancelled!
The race starts at the Lake Umuzi Lodge and Resort – despite this being a big race, traffic and parking were not an issue as there is plenty of space and there are multiple access routes into the resort. The resort benefits wonderfully from the event – there are several accommodation options but all sell out with runners and their families making the most of a marathon weekend.
Lake Umuzi looks like a great place to spend a weekend. While mom and/or dad are running there are plenty of activites for the kids like a water park, adventure golf and play areas at the resort. I had parked in front of the Lake Umuzi Box Office, noting that the resort also doubles as the town’s cultural hub and that an artist delightfully named “Snotkop” (Snothead) would be playing later that week. If you want to see what you missed out on you can watch the video for his hit song “Cool soos Koos Kombuis” here. Not my taste in music but he does have about 129,000 more Facebook followers than The Running Mann– so who am I to judge!
I follow a Just in Time approach for races and joined the back of the field as the gun fired. It was a slow start as over 2,000 runners headed out into the mean streets of Secunda. I was in no rush and slowly moved through the field, enjoying the singing and chanting from the many pacing busses that were helping runners get to their Comradesseeding goal times.
The marathon route is very flat – a total change in elevation of just 237m over 42km (to put this in perspective my standard 15km route around Bryanston is 232m) – and is a single lap (which I prefer) around the suburbs.
To fit one full marathon lap into Secunda you run just about every residential street which means there is constant twisting and turning – it felt like you never ran more than 500m in one direction before making a turn. The race is organised by the Secunda Marathon Club and I think that they designed the route to make sure you run past every one of their club members’ front door!
What the race lacks in natural beauty it more than makes up for with its spectacular support tables. The 21 tables are coordinated by the local schools, businesses and churches – a lot of effort had gone into decorating and branding each one. Every table had a buffet of snacks to choose from – I tucked in and think that this was the first race where I finished significantly heavier than when I started!
There was a large contingent from the Fat Cats athletics club – they are one of the more festive clubs in Gauteng and always seem to be having a good time whenever you see them. As the name would suggest, they are naturally attracted by the large amount of food on offer at Kosmos. In fact, I understand that before they started making their annual binge-eating trip to Secunda, the club was just known as the “Cats”.
I managed to have a bit of fun at (the expense of the) KPMG table. There were a number of smart young gentleman manning the table and I asked them quizzically what the acronym KPMG stood for. One of them screwed up his eyes in concentration and proudly produced what sounded like a plausible answer. His proud look turned to one of disgust when I retorted, “Oh, I thought it was ‘Keep Paying More to the Guptas’!” and trotted off.
Speaking of auditing firms, it’s nice to see that the title sponsors of the race are the very reputable firm of PwC. It’s great that one of the big consulting firms sponsors a (fairly) small town race – well done and thanks PwC!
Along the way I got chatting to Anton from Randburg Harriers. Anton is an Eastern Cape migrant who tries to return home for a run as often possible. I met him earlier in the year at the Bay Ultra in Port Elizabeth (Randburg runners have sophisticated sense of humour and Anton is no different – he highlighted the fart jokes as his favourite part of the race report). I was informed of a great small field ultra in April that I “had to do” – the Bruinjieshoogte 50km in Somerset East. I was pleased to reply that a family holiday has already been planned around this race (along with Oteniqua Marathon the following weekend).
However, our conversation was somewhat stilted – Anton seemed distracted and kept looking over his shoulder. He told me he was looking for his wife and every now would stop to wait for her – after a few minutes he would come charging past me again so I can only assume he was actually just making sure that his wife didn’t finish ahead of him. Note: I saw Anton at the finish but have yet to meet his wife. Well played Anton!
The official name of the race is the Kosmos 3-in-1 as it has a 42, 21 and 10km. For most races it is an either/or choice but Kosmos caters to the craziness of the common South African runner. After the morning’s marathon, you can run the half marathon at lunchtime and then the 10km at 5pm. So just how many people go for the full 73.3km? Amazingly, out of 2245 marathon entrants, 1945 went on to do all 3 distances.
Kosmos is a popular choice as a Comrades long training run – most Comrades long runs are 60km long but I guess it you are having rest breaks in-between you need to do an extra 13km. The good news is that if you’ve done the full 73km 15 times you get free entry in future years (and you also get a jacket when you complete your 10th, 15th and 20th races).
I normally enter the longest distance on offer and did feel like I’d taken the soft option by wimping out with “just the marathon”! I did have a valid excuse though – it was “Dads & Daughters Day” at my eldest daughter’s dancing school so I had an unbreakable afternoon date. I was not born with any rhythm in my DNA so dancing is a real challenge (much harder than running a marathon in my opinion). If you had to walk a mile in my shoes you would probably start running after the first few metres but wouldn’t be tempted to pull out any dance moves.
Although hardcore South African runners will tell me that I haven’t “really done” Kosmos until I’ve completed the full 73.3km, I am still claiming Kosmos as my 97th unique marathon. However, this does obviously mean that I will be returning to Secunda in future to do the full 3-in-1 and remove this blemish from my running CV!