Highland Fling

"Listen to your body" is a well worn phrase that is supposed to stop you doing something stupid. It's hard to explain exactly what it means, perhaps impossible. The only sounds my body tends to make are farting noises while plodding up a hill and a churning fluid sound when I am staggering drunk along the Uxbridge Road. My body is hardly the conversationalist, I don't really know what to say to the first one, the second normally leads to me stumbling into Ealing Kebab for a large plastic bag full of saturated fat. Not sure whether that's what it was asking for.

But I ended up having to do this on Saturday in a race I was really looking forward to. After a couple of busy road marathons I was ready to get back to the long off road wilderness. To spend some time plodding along with just myself to amuse and enjoy a part of the world I had yet to explore. 

I had one main objective for this, to finish in good time to make the last train back down to Glasgow so I could get a night bus down to the Midlands and run the Shakespeare marathon the next day. It was going to be a stupid weekend of lots of running and sleep deprivation and the promise of 2 spanking hot days (for the UK anyway). Then after plodding around Stratford I was heading back down to London to get stupidly drunk with all the London Marathoners. It was going to be such a great weekend.

The Highland Fling is a much bigger race than it's low key website and low awareness would suggest. In Scotland this race is huge. The course takes you up 53 miles of the West Highland Way and is a warm up to the race that takes in the full 95 miles of the path. This one is routinely won by Jez Bragg though he was not competing this year. There were a lot of good runners here, 250 or more.

It started in Millgavie (pronounced "Mill-Guy) just north of Glasgow, Scotland (pronounced "Scort-land") at a train station behind a Tesco. I have no doubt that 8 hours before this would have been the scene of a young boy discovering the 3 dimensional contours of a girls upper body for the first time. Now it was being used for something a lot more exciting, 53 miles of hilly running on a lovely summers day. The Fling has 3 starts for the 3 categories of runners, Ladies first at 6, old men next at 7 and then young men at 8. Seems a strange way to do it given that very fast people could come from any one of those 3 groups. 

I went to the start with Rob and Drew. Rob should have been in the earlier start but wanted more of a lie in. They explained that the clock was ticking for him and he should get going if he cared about his time, however Rob was happy to hang around until 8. I joked that as the clock was ticking I was beating him in the race while still sat in a bus shelter. The car park was a mess of vans for us to deposit drop bags for the race, there was nothing on offer other than water for the run. I left some cans of coke and pretzels at the half way stage. Then I lined up under a bridge ready to start the race with 100 or so other young men. And Rob of course. More toilets than Paris

I was told to expect a double Three Forts marathon for this, Three Forts being a great off road marathon on the North Downs Way. It's hard and the thought of doing it twice was really exciting. After about 300 meters of town centre we were on a wooded trail and then out in the open bearing down on some mountains that we were about to run through. I settled into a brisk pace with Rob, Drew and Brian along what is the easiest quarter of the run. Not a great deal of hills or hard terrain, that was promised for later on. I was looking forward to it.

Rob disappeared into the distance around 10 miles in and I was happy to hang back with Drew who was suffering a little. My knees had been sore for the past few weeks and caused me to hobble towards the end of the Paris Marathon but seemed to be behaving themselves now. Both of us thought we had not given enough respect to the ONER that was only 4 weeks before, that had taken it's toll on us more than we'd like to admit. The first 13 miles seemed to pass in no time at all. I was happily chatting away and enjoying the scenery and it's so easy to forget that I'm wearing a watch. 13 miles in comfortably under 2 hours meant we were well on our way for a good finish.

The time was important for me in this race. Anything more than 11 hours would leave me stranded at the finish and missing my train/coach to the marathon the next day. Anything under 10 would give me time to have a few beers and eat in the famous "Real Food Cafe" at the end famed for legendary stodge. The promise of a large pie was enough to stop me pissing about (too much) and try to get to the end reasonably swiftly.

16 miles there was a proper climb up some hill with a Scottish name that I am never in a million years going to remember. We slowly plodded up as people came up past us, saving something for tomorrows road marathon. At the top there was a breathtaking site of Loch Lomond, the biggest (by area) lake in the UK. It stretched for miles and was going to be there with us for the rest of the run. Then followed a steep downhill section and I don't know how but in the last few years I have got worse at running down hills. I was never any good at it but I wasn't so bad that I'd get overtaken by wading birds. I was terrible, stumbling down the rocks and falling to the side and stopping occasionally to let someone past me. My knees started to hurt quite a lot and I was worried but sure that the pain would wear off with some lesser hills.

On completing the hill there was some nice shaded running through woods and across streams into the second checkpoint at around 19 miles. Drew had got ahead of me a little by then but waited at the CP as I was now able to run properly again. We were told that the hill we just ran was the biggest and I was relieved as I didn't think my knees would take another descent like that which does not bode well for the UTMB later this year. My knees felt no better with the easing of the ground and a few miles later both of them were tightening. The normal fluid motion of my joints was being replaced by a stickiness and drying feeling. After 21 miles I ruled out the Shakespeare marathon tomorrow, After 22 I ruled out the 10 hour finish, after 23 I ruled out the finish.

The last time I was here was in Rotherham in 2007. 2 and a half years ago was the last time I bailed out of a race that I really bothered about finishing. Last time it was my own fault for having food poisoning and the 4 mile struggle to the next checkpoint in the pissing rain in December was well deserved. This time it felt unjust, though it was at least sunny and not in Rotherham. I knew it was the right thing to do but it does not stop you looking enviously at the runners who jog past you, or thinking about your friends having a good race, or thinking about what you are missing in the goody bag.

As I walked on I became more efficient at telling people I was ok. The first few asked if I was ok and I replied "Yeah, I hurt my knees coming down that hill so I'm going to bail at the next check point but I'll live, there's always next week", later I was just saying "yeah fine, well done, see you later". I lost the desire to justify why I was dropping out to everyone who passed. 

I amused myself my chatting to others who might pass, playing around on Facebook and enjoying the magnificent scenery of Scotland. It had just entered some wilderness (though I could still get Facebook so we couldn't have been that far out) and was getting more beautiful. Walking didn't stop the aching in my knees and I had to stop a few times and the relay runners were starting to sprint past me. Each person who came past forced me to consider running again, the thought of not doing such a great event justice was eating me up but I know I risked not finishing even greater things by carrying on.

I reached the mid-way checkpoint after just over 5 hours and took my chip off to make it clear I was calling it a day. I hated the thought of being a burden on the organisers so sat out of the way and enjoyed the can of coke that should have been spurring me on to a second marathon. I had eaten a lot in the last 2 days in anticipation of a lot of running, now I felt quite fat.

I managed to secure a lift to the next stop and to the end from a kind chap called Andrew who had just finished his leg of the relay. The relay consists of 4 13ish mile runs and he looked quite tired after his stint and struggled into his car. We drove up to the next checkpoint where he introduced me to their next runner as "Steve". I tried to correct him but it fell on deaf ears. I then spent the next few hours being called "Stevie" and "Stevo" as I helped one of his team members push her car out of a muddy field. It was good to feel useful. As I stood at the checkpoint in blazing sunshine I bumped into Peter Foxall who I had not seen since the Spartathlon. He had dropped out for falling down a hill and hurting his ribs. It was really good to catch up with him. Drew came through just after around 8 hours on the clock and was looking tight for the 11 hours he needed to get the train back to Glasgow. He was determined to dig in though and soon after he left I got a ride to the finish.

The finish in Tyndrum (pronounced "Fin-ish") is a small down on the end on nowhere. There was a huge finish arch stuck on the end of a field that lead the battered runners into the town and to all the goodies. I got there just in time to watch Jany finish and was told that Claire Shelley had already finished long ago in an amazing time despite getting quite lost. I waited for Rob, Paula and Drew and some others I knew and then out of nowhere Santa staggered home sobbing her eyes out. This was her biggest race so far and she smashed it in 11 hours and was so visibly pleased with herself I was glad I was there to see it.

The goodies for the end of this are amazing. A bottle of champagne, a beer, a t shirt, hat, medal and a "Stovie". A stovie is a potato stew of leftovers from the night before but I was told by a despondent Scot that nowadays they have ruined them with "proper" ingredients. A while later Rob came in with a great time of 9.40 something (though officially that will be 10.40 something). Jany had a flight to catch which meant she had to shoot off and more importantly it meant she had to leave her champagne with me to her peril. For some reason I didn't feel guilty about drinking someone else's finish prize.

In the end Drew had to stop at 47 miles and get a train further down the line to make the connection. It must be gutting to get that far and not make it. Instead of getting a nightbus to the start of a road marathon I was actually looking forward to a night of eating and drinking and then travelling down to London the next day to watch The Marathon. Instead of moping around I found it great to surround myself with others who were pleased with their own efforts and achievements on the weekend. 

So, a DNF, no big deal. Unless of course there is something wrong with the knee. Listening to your body is the right thing to do sometimes. Just don't ever tell me to listen to my bank manager, that would quickly put an end to all this silliness.