Monday, 5 May 2014

Highland Fling 2014 : Race Report

My pre Fling post on Good day/Slow day splits and subsequent splits on race day has created a bit of a stir in the blogsphere and on facebook so in this race report I'll do my best to provide details of my prep and how pacing by heart rate works in practice.


Back in 2012 I ran the Highland Fling 53 mile ultra, my longest race to date.  In 2013 I entered the Fling but had to pull out due to a foot injury that didn't clear up in time for race day, so instead I volunteered, helping marshal at Drymen.  Entering the 2014 Fling was a no-brainer, I loved the race back in 2012, I had unfinished business from 2013, and it would make a prefect build up race for my A race of the year - the 95 mile West Highland Way Race (WHWR) in June.

My focus in training since December has been preparing for the WHWR, I've upped my monthly mileage higher than I've ever achieved before, peaking at 224 miles in February, dropping a little to 200 miles thanks to the taper for and recovery from my C race of the year - the Loch Katrine Marathon.  My prep had been going so well that I ran the Loch Katrine Marathon as a training run and still beat my marathon Personal Best by 6 minutes. In my exuberance at running so well and having bags of energy left I tore up the last three miles, and put in a 6:10 minute mile for the last mile.  The last 400m's I gleefully ran at 5:00min/mile pace.  Lots of fun, but....

Loch Katrine recovery, Injury and Fling Training

I was chuffed to bits with how I ran at the Loch Katrine marathon, my heart rate stayed low, my energy levels were great throughout the race and save for the last mile the pacing was really controlled.  Doing a PB was what I was hoping for as it proved that my training was going well.  I also really wanted another PB from the Highland Fling so was keen to use the five weeks between the Marathon and the Fling to tune my fitness for the needs of race.

After the marathon my quads were sore for nearly a week, and rather than rest I eased immediately back into training.  For the first two days I did recovery walks, then from day three I began doing recovery runs and my quads eased off through the week.  One week after the race all seemed to be healing up well until out of the blue my left calf became sore in the last two miles of six mile recovery run.  Next day it was properly sore and I cut short a run.  I tried two days off running and ran again but was still in pain, my HR for a given pace was also 10 bpm+ higher than usual.  I took three more days off running and jumped on the bike instead.  I then returned to training and thankfully was healed up, no more problems.

This gave me last than three weeks till race day, I had missed my intended 30 mile tour of Callander peaks  that was meant to provide the final conditioning for the race, but now had no time to risk doing such a run so close to the race.  Instead I piled into doing a series of 15 to 20 mile runs with just a day or two in between.  The last of these runs was a my first ascent of Ben Ledi this year, I took it slow, but for the four days after my quads were wrecked.  No injuries though and in a 7 day period I had ran 72 miles, the furthest I have ever run in such a short period of my life - a great sign that my body wasn't being overly taxed by the mileage and was recovering well.  Once my quads had recovered from the Ben Ledi outing I had a week to go, to taper or not to taper?

I chose to keep training, running 28 miles in the week of the Fling, my body was recovering quickly and I felt that as long as I didn't train so hard as to be carrying fatigue on race day I would be OK. The following graph shows my runs in the five weeks before the Fling, starting from the Loch Katrine marathon on the left, through to the week of the Fling on the right.  I took just two days off running in the 19 days before the Fling.

As part of my training I've been plugging my HR, pace and terrain data into a spreadsheet and have a column that tries to map how efficient I was on that run to how I might run on different routes. The idea behind this is that I can see progress during training and also get a rough idea of how I might be able to perform on the day.  My spreadsheet was rather sporadic in it's predications though as my HR data each day was rather erratic, some days I was nice and efficient, the next I felt crap and my efficiency was lower and it showed with slower finishing time predictions.  The following graph shows how my predictions fluctuated all over the place.

Fling finishing time predications based on HR monitor+route analysis during month before Flng
The longer the run and more similar the route to the target race the more likely the prediction will be accurate, so the urge to get once last data point was strong enough that on the Wednesday before the Fling I went out for 15 mile run with 1500ft ascent/descent. I did it at ultra race pace so took it very easy, walking steeper ascents, took my race kit with me and practised drinking, eating and pacing.  I felt fine on the run but my HR was higher than usual for the pace, the predicted Fling finishing time for this run was 10:26.  I had seen a series of 9:40 to 9:50 predictions on my long runs the week before so it was disappointing that my fitness seamed to be headed in the wrong direction.  It looked very much like stress outside of training had been having an effect - I had been sleeping poorly all week.

I did one last four mile recovery run two days the Fling and was relieved to see my HR back lower for the given pace, my legs had little fatigue from the previous days hilly 15 miler. Despite the stress and lack of sleep somehow my body was recovering well and I had a final prediction time of 9:46.  A flat 4 mile run is no comparison to a 53 mile ultra, but I'll happily take any positive I can get, as after all that training I'd sure would prefer a sub 10 hour rather than a 10:26 time.

In my last blog post before the race I posted "Good day/slow day" splits for the race and decided upon the following goals:

Platinum : 9:30hrs, unlikely but if everything went perfectly and raced above expectations

Gold: 10:00hrs , a more realistic good day target, I would love to get a sub 10 hours, even if just be few seconds

Silver: 10:20hrs, I think as long as I don't mess things up it should be possible.

Bronze: 10:46hrs, to match match my Highland Fling time of 2012 where I had a good day, but I'd honestly be a bit disappointed if two years on and all my good ultras in Autumn of 2013 that I wouldn't be faster.  Ultra's can be cruel though, you just don't know what's going to happen on the day.

My plan was to run principally by heart rate keeping within HR zones that would give me a similar average HR to my previous Fling where my average was 152.  I also printed off a subset on the Good day/slow day splits from by Fling splits blog post that fitted with my Platinum to Silver goals:

Leg Time

Good day
Slow day

Good day
Slow day

Good day
Slow day

The day before the race was a bit frantic, my parents were coming up to look after our children while I ran the Fling and while my wife Julia attended a weekend Yoga teacher training course. Whilst preparing my kit and drop bags I was also tidying the house and finishing off bits of work.  My parents arrived, kids back from school and quick meal and then Julia took me down to Milnegavie for registration and dropped me off with at a friends house (thanks Jill :-) where I secured a very comfortable sofa for a few hours sleep.

Race day dawns, and it's DRY!

At 4am I was awake, and as I got ready I steadily ate my pre-prepared three boiled eggs, oat cakes and beetroot juice/cherry juice drink. Eggs are a great source of the types of proteins that are good for muscle metabolism and spare muscle protein from getting torn by the catabolic effects of Cortisol. Beetroot juice is for the nitrates that help blood flow and cherry juice is for the assistance quelling inflammation.  The oat cakes and juices all provide easy to digest carbs too.

As I walked the km to the start the clouds were low, there was a bit of wind, but none of predicted rain. Arriving at railway carpark was pretty amazing, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds.... I could go on... of runners.  I've never been to an ultra anything like it.  The atmosphere was great, the marshals all super efficient and friendly.  I said hi to a few familiar faces and then in no time it was time to line up for race start.  I lined up in the 10-12 hour zone, but couldn't quite squeeze in to the 10 hour zone that I had planned as  psychological commitment to what I wanted to achieve.

Camera Phone Fail in low light, but might capture a little of the buzz in the crowded underpass at the start

I stood in the underpass feeling the surprisingly relaxed and confident.  I really didn't know what the day would bring but I there was no anxiety about running 53 miles, preparing for the West Highland Way Race has so altered my perspective on how far I need to be able to run that a hilly double marathon no longer was intimidating.

Start, Milngavie to Drymen

Then we were off, up the steps and passed the shops.  Lots of support from the crowd and good will propelled us all forwards.  Once on the trail in Mugdock park I set about getting into my grove.  The pace felt right, but I was already in the 150 to 155 HR zone I had ear marked for Drymen to Beinglass. I might have felt quite calm at the start but clearly the adrenalin and lack of sleep in previous days was making its presence felt once I was on my way.  

Right from the start I found myself swamped by runners starting out faster than myself.  On the steeper hills I was walking to keep my heart rate down, and on the shallow ones I was slowly plodding up. Runner after after runner charged past me.  All the way through Mugdock part I just kept my head down, ran and walked as smoothly as I could and did my best to not get caught up in the charge.  My pace felt right but my heart rate was staying high for the pace, it was clear that my body just wasn't dialled in, quite different from my start at the Loch Katrine marathon where everything just flowed.

The following photo with me in black with race number 587 nicely shows the contrast between myself and others around me, my body languages tells it all, I was down in my shell running with my thoughts. I had been psyched up and positive at the start but as soon as I started running my body responded with a distinct MEH.

I'm at front of the second group (587) in photo, about to be swallowed up, photo courtesy of Ken Clark Photograph
After a few miles of being over taken by I'd guess a hundred or so runners I feel into step with Paul Brown.  We started chatting, we both had done the Fling in similar time before, and both were entered into this years West Highland Way Race, and unlike almost everyone else around us Paul wasn't charging ahead as if the finish was at Balmaha.  Paul ran the hills faster than I, and the descents slower so we see-sawed a little but mostly just stuck together.  I'm afraid I probably talked too much about the geeky side to pacing and nutrition... but it was good to get out of my shell and the miles to Dymen ticked away nicely.

In the field crossing before Drymen he stopped for a comfort break and I moved on up through the field and got back to running by heart rate a bit more strictly than I had done when chatting.  There was a good crowd of supporters cheering everyone on at the top of the field and most runners responded by running all the way.  My heart rate monitor wasn't having any of it so I swallowed my ego and walked passed all the supporters keeping my heart rate below 155.

Once through the checkpoint I checked my watch, it looked like I'd gone through in around 1:57 which was almost identical to the 1:58 time that I went through back in 2012.  Um... all that training for 1 minute up... yep a distinctly MEH start to the race.

Chip timing stats for Milngavie to Drymen: 12.13miles, elapsed/leg time 1:57:05, position 259th 

Drymen to Balmaha

On the gentle climb to the forest north of Drymen I needed to walk quite soon to keep my heart rate down.  This meant that I was overtaken by more runners and Paul Brown caught up and passed me too. I might have been loosing places but I felt comfortable, was eating and drinking easily and checking my Good day/slow day splits showed that I was in between the 9:55 and 10:22 "Good day" projected times.  Reflecting on the splits a sub 10 hours time looked a little less likely, but not out of the question if I finished strong and to do so I just had to make sure I made no mistakes, and kept listening to and looking after my body.  

As we approached Conic hill I stopped being over taken and started catching runners on the flats and downhills.  Uphill I was mostly keeping pace with others around me.  As soon as the trail hit the first steps up towards Conic hill I began walking and continued for most of the way up, only near the summit did I get back into running.  The summit was shrouded in cloud, I expected it to be cold, wet and windy up top but it really wasn't too bad with the wind behind us and it stayed dry.

At the summit I joined another runner and exchanged our previous Fling experiences. Our expectations of the day were starkly different, while my fellow runner was thinking 13 hours, I found myself declaring that I was still hopping for a sub 10 hour, but felt a 10:15 time more likely.  This just didn't quite sit right with me, I knew it likely that he'd started out too fast like most others around us, but still wasn't entirely convinced I was up to finishing as strong as my Good day splits that are based on Andrew James' 2011 winning performance where he dropped Jez Bragg in the second half.

Summit of Conic Hill, photo courtesy of Monument Photos
Once we crested the summit I followed my plan of running all the descents and relaxed and let gravity propel me.  Living in the Trossachs means that I have plenty of steep trails to go an down so have ample opportunity to refine my descending skills with quick turnover and footwork.

My downhill speed meant that I was descending faster than everyone else around me and had to make quite a few quick decisions on jumping on/off the trail to get past runners whilst still finding safe footing.  Such a quick descent meant that I probably didn't look up enough to fully appreciate the view that opened up as we dropped down from the cloud.  I did love the view and the burst of sunshine, along with sudden burst of speed I found myself much more in my element and properly enjoying the race for the first time.

Briefly checking my HR monitor told me off for having too much fun though, with it heading up into the high 160's.  Ooops... my quads were also burning a little bit from the descent by the time we reached the forest. 19 miles in and 34 miles to go I did wonder if perhaps I had over cooked the descent.  In the forest just before the Balmaha check point there is a T junction in the trail where you go right. This was an important marker for me as this is where my cramp fired it's first warning shot at me during my 2012 race.  I passed this point without problems and reflected on how my body was shaping up - my quads felt fine, everything else felt loose and comfortable, I might not have been that much faster but I sure was in better shape.

Descent into Balmha, photo courtesy of Ronnie Cairns

Balmaha to Rowardennan

The check point at Balmaha was buzzing, marshals called out 587 as I approach and I got given my drop bag as soon as I passed and only had to slow to a walk to pick it up.  I was also able to offload all my empties without stopping - all very efficient thanks to the stellar marshalling.  It was great to see familiar faces at the check point, but a little bitter sweet as I'd much rather have seen some of them racing rather than helping out.  Injuries strike even the best of runners alas.

No such worries for me heading up towards Rowardennan.  I didn't have any splits printed off for Balmaha but I knew my 3:14 time was now six minutes up on my previous Fling split for Balmaha and was feeling stronger. My heart rate was still higher than I was expecting for the pace but it felt like my body was settling into the job in hand.  Rather than seeing the usual heart rate drift associated with dehydration and shifting to metabolising fats, my heart rate was staying stable. I surmised that excessive amounts of adrenalin in my blood at the start were now slowly relinquishing their grip.

I recognized Sarah, of Teapot and Trainers blog, marshalling the point where the route heads up steps and said hi and that I read her blog.  The super friendly and enthusiastic marshalling really makes for a great atmosphere on an ultra, so Sarah, - job done :-)  Sarah did promise me time off my finishing time for complimenting her on her blog.  I had another seven hours of running to find out whether that would come true!

Stopped for quick photo from Summit just after Balmaha looking North

The section between Balamaha and Rowardennan is real mix of narrow trails, roads, beaches and ascents and descents through the forest.   It could break up your rhythm but I found myself really getting into the grove and was able to keep my heart within the target 150 to 155 zone more easily. The sun popped out on occasion and views were simply beautiful along the loch side.

Loch Lomond shore, courtesy Edinburgh Sports Photography

I was now consistently catching other runners. Eating and drinking was all going to plan. I didn't know what my pace was but I knew I was making up time on previous splits as my previous Fling had been nursing cramp all the way to Rowardennan.  Life was good.

Loch Lochmond side, photo courtesy of Ken Clark Photograph

I had been overtaking runners consistently on flats and downhills for over an hour without anyone passing me.  A couple of miles before Rowardennan a runner caught me on an ascent. It turned out it was a relay runner rather than me slacking off.   In the last few ups and downs before Rowardennan another runner caught and over took me on a longer ascent, but this time he was no relay runner. Thanks to my approach of running descents as relaxed as possible I passed him on the next descent, then he over took on the next ascent and so on we exchanged places a number of times before we popped out on the road at Rowardennan.

Chip timing stats for Drymen to Rowardennan : 27.09miles, 4:40:44 elapsed, 2:43:39 leg, 183th overall, 150th fastest for leg.

Rowardennan to Inversnaid

The checkpoint at Rowardennan my number was called out before arriving at the drop bags and had several ladies hunting down my drop bag but it took a little while to find as it was hidden behind a mass of far larger drops bags.  Seems there are disadvantages to providong neat and compact drop bags when you have hundreds of other drop bags still left to collect.  Once I had my drop bag I immediately walked on, dropping off my empties in the provided bin and then unpacked and stowed my two 330ml drinks bottles and snacks.  As soon as I was packed I was back running.

My time at Rowardennan was 3:40:44, which was sandwiched between the 3:36 and 3:48 times suggested by the Good day splits for 9:55 and 10:22hrs respectively.  The meant that my position between the splits had remained roughly the same as at Drymen so going by heart rate had so far put me bang on Andrew James split percentages.  Half way and I was still feeling strong, eating and drinking still came easy, my heart rate had remained stable for a couple of hours, everything looked set up to keep progressing well.

Half a mile out of Rowardennan I got passed by another runner who was running a good minute a mile faster than myself, I could have got competitive and upped a gear but with a marathon still to go it didn't need much discipline to let him go and keep working within my 150-155 heart rate zone.  A few minutes later and just before the first long ascent after Rowardennan he took a walking break and I passed him and didn't see him again.

With the long ascents and descents on the wide trails I was over taking on both ascents and descents. The only person to keep running on as much of the ascents was the runner that I had been swapping places with just before Rowardennan.  We fell into step on one of the ascents and we began to chat.  It was one  our Norweigen visitors, we didn't exchange names at the time, but I later found - thanks to comments on facebook - it was Thomas Oederud.  Thomas felt his strength was on the hills so was happy to run strongly up them, and as we ran together up the ascents we kept over taking runners, I kept checking my HR monitor and was mostly able to just keep around the mid 150's so wasn't too concerned about sticking with him.  I felt really privileged to be running with him when he spotted the distance run so far and declared it was the furthest he had ever run before.  He was running really smoothly.  Given the time I went through Rowardennan I estimated a finishing time of around 10:15 to 10:20 as long as we finished strong.   Looking at the results he completed in 10:19:58 which show he did indeed finish strong which is great to see from someone new to running the route and such long distances.

Once we crested one of the longer ascents we had quarter of mile or so of steadily descending and very runnable wide trail ahead, while it was great to have company I could see my heart rate dropping off and my quads holding myself back so I bid Thomas good luck and let the hand brake off.  I immediately pulled away thanks to letting gravity do it's thing, concentrating on maintaining good form, staying relaxing and opening up my stride I very quickly over took half a dozen runners ahead.

The descent was immediately followed by an ascent where upon I again let gravity dictate pace and slowed up to a jog and then gentle ascended the next climb, taking walking breaks each time the trail steeped, got back to slow jog when it levelled.  Once the summit was passed I repeated my quick descent.  My heart rate monitor was occasionally show readings in the mid 160's on these descents, I'm not quite sure if I was over cooking them or whether it was simply the ponding making the strap jump around creating mis-readings.  My breathing stayed easy and my legs felt fine so I wasn't alarmed.

Once off the wide open tracks the nature of the run changed once more, the last miles before Inversnaid are narrow with lots of short ascents and descent, roots to cross and a number of muddy sections to cross.  I was keen to keep my feet dry to minimize the risk of blisters so I kept away from the mud where I could.  I kept over taking runners but now had to pick my opportunities to get past as the path is often too narrow to pass side by side.

As the miles on the narrow path passed I was aware my left calf was becoming little uncomfortable and my hip flexors were a little tight too.  As I was catching another runner we approached a mud crossing. He ran across a substantial branch that had been laid down as a crossing and made it look easy enough, I was slow close behind that I just automatically followed along behind without having time to fully spot my footing.  Half way across I leapt from branch trunk from my right foot expecting to clear the mud, but mid air my big toe on my right toe struck a short branch that rotated up in response to my push off.  Immediately on catching my right toe my left calf cramped up all while I still mid flight.  Sharp pain from both legs shot through me and let out a involuntary shout in pain.  Somehow I was able to get my left foot down and landed safely with the cramp immediately releasing as my body weight loaded up stretching out the calf.

I was a bit shocked and sore but also very relieved to come away unscathed.  I don't know how I stayed on my feet.  I took the next few minutes very easy and assessed the situation.  Cramp has dogged a few too many of my ultras, but I've learnt that it's down to pushing too hard on fatigued muscles.  Backing off usually fixes the problems and allows me to keep running, so I cut my pace and shifted my target HR zone to average around 150, rather than near to 155 that I had been doing.  This meant walking more hills and the rate at which I was catching runners diminished, with them occasionally being able to stick with me for a while.

Inversnaid to Beinglas Farm

After this little struggle Inversnaid popped up unexpectedly quickly, 6:02 hrs elapsed on my watch didn't seem right, I didn't have any splits for Inversnaid so didn't think further about it.  The waterfall was roaring and the hotel looking magnificent the loch and mountains as back-drop.  Again my 587 was called out as I approached and immediately my drop bag appeared, once again the warmth and efficiency of the marshals and support was humbling.   Without pausing I dropped my empties off and began jogging away unpacking my drop back as I went.  As I was leaving John Kynaston popped up and called jokingly "hows the heart rate?" with a big smile on his face.  I replied "a bit high" but my race momentum carried me through so quickly I didn't really have a proper chance to exchange anything much more than a happy grunt.

Going through Inversnaid was a bit of a whirlwind, one second it was there in all it's vibrancy and then just as quickly I was back in the woods running along the small track next to a loch with just the birds for company.  It's strange racing in such beautiful location, I can't help feel that I'm short changing it by focusing so much on just the few steps ahead.

The path after Inversnaid starts quite runnable but becomes progressively more gnarly and broken by stones and roots, then boulders, then exposed rocks that your have clamber over on all fours.  Just when you think it can't get any more convoluted and broken it gets even less runnable.  I was able to keeping running strongly where possible but increasingly had to jump the trail to over take.  Runners were often great about letting me pass, but the sheer number of runners moving slowly through this section meant that I often just had to be patient and wait a few minutes to pass.

Moving through rocks so close to others also meant that I couldn't also spot my footing as well as I would on my own and kept stubbing my right toe on rocks.  Each hit became more painful than the last and the pain lasted longer after each hit.  Towards the end of the rocky section I was getting concerned about whether I had done some serious damage to my toe.

While I love how comfortable and light my F-Lite 232's are they don't have much protection for the toes, especially when you lace them loosely like I had done at the start.  I considered stopping and retying my shoes tighter, but I was moving well and impatient to get back running so such thoughts didn't hang around long.

With the spell of slower running behind others, the signs of cramp that had clouded the last few miles into Inversnaid were gone and I was moving more freely and confidently again and back in my zone.

As we approached the north side of the loch I chatted briefly to a fellow runner and he reported the distance measured by his Garmin and that we were just two miles out to Beinglas and that I was on for 10hrs if I kept the pace up. This totally threw me, I had it in my head that I was now most likely to get in around 10:10 to 10:20. I checked my watch and worked out that I'd arrive at Beinglas around 7:40 into the race, and this totally changed which track I was on with my Good day splits, suddenly I back on track for the 9:55 Good day splits.

I felt a few seconds of euphoria following my realization that I had turned around what started off as a less than stellar race to being on track to getting the 10 hours time that I really wanted.  I consciously closed down the over enthusiastic emotions, I still had half a marathon to go and race to put away.

Chip timing stats for Rowardennan to Beinglas : 41.04miles, 7:31:02 elapsed, 2:50:18 leg, 93rd overall, 31st fastest for leg.

Beinglas Farm to Tyndrum

I arrived at Beinglas with 7:31 on the clock, I was 3 minutes inside my 9:55 Good day splits.  As with all previous check points my number was called out, my drop bag placed in my hand as soon as I passed and I didn't stop just kept moving through.  Once again the marshals and supports were great. On the incline after the check point I walked so I could stow everything and rescued my phone from my pack and texted my parents to say I was on for a sub 10 hour time.  Oh yes, that felt good.

I got back into running the shallower inclines and flats but kept walking on steeper sections.  In my original pacing plan I had ear marked keeping my HR in the 150 to 155 range to Beinglas and then if I felt good to allow myself to go into the 155 to 160 range.  My legs still felt surprisingly fresh and my energy levels felt OK, but my head was now a bit foggy and for first time I was aware that I was getting tired.  I didn't have any problem keeping the intensity up around 155 but the thought of pushing beyond this didn't register as a possibility.

I guessed I must be a bit dehydrated so quickly finished my 330ml bottle of water and most of my 330ml bottle of chocolate milk.  I took a 200mg caffeine tablet too, crushing it up with my teeth to try and make sure it absorbed quickly.  Rather than getting a burst of energy I felt a little stomach disquiet, thankfully it didn't turn into anything more and I was able to keep moving smoothly and every few minutes would catch and pass another runner. 

The only exception was Carla Denneny who popped up at my shoulder shortly after Beinglas and we ran together for a few minutes but it was clear that she was pushing on harder up the hills than I or my HR values were comfortable with.  I physically could keep up but I knew I was red lining just a tad too much and would likely pay for it with cramp if I kept the pace up.  Carla soon was out of sight and finished a couple of minutes ahead of me.  Should I have stayed with her and worked together?   Would I have blown up?  At the time I made the assessment that a sub 10 hour time was more important to me than risking everything by pushing on too hard at the wrong point.

As we ascended the valley towards cow poo ally I kept moving through the field.  Two relay runners caught up and passed but didn't pull away quickly.  I retook one by being a little less intimidated by the mud and muck.  As we got back to the solid track I was joined by a follow runner working hard up the steady climb towards the forest.  We chatted about races we had done and not long after passing the forest gates caught up with Andy Jones on the ascent into the forest.

I could quite believe I had caught Andy, he's won races that I have languished in the middle of the pack in.  Injury and lack of training had left him less fit and with no concrete goals for the day but he seemed to be moving well enough.  He mentioned that he had stopped and sat down for picnic at Beinglas which is sure sign of not being in racing mode.  It was good to chat with Andy for a few minutes but once we topped out and the descents began I relaxed and ran to my strengths and quickly found myself descending on my own.  

My right toe was sore though, my loose laces meant that my feet were shifting to the front of the shoes and my big toe was complaining on every landing.  The discomfort was enough for me to back off the pace on descent a bit and to be extra careful about where and how I landed.  At one of the dips the route crossed a stream so I stopped and filled my bottle as I was now feel quite thirsty and light headed. The rollercoasters came and went with me picking off runners on the ascents and descents until finally we were all spat out at the A82 crossing.  Marshals did a great job at the crossing and I was over without stopping.

Shortly after crossing a runner surged passed me, I still felt strong but again didn't give chase, getting home in one piece was more important.  Back in 2012 I came off the descents buzzing and thought I was going to nail the last three miles but found myself complete drained a few minutes later and having to run/walk the last miles.  I was keen not to repeat this again, sub 10 hours was now well within reach, but if I had to walk it then it'd be gone for good.  A couple miles later I passed the runner that had over taken me so my caution wasn't misplaced.

On the road up to Auchertyre I got a text from my parents that they had arrived at Tyndrum and were walking down to the finish with my two youngest girls.  I attempted to send a text back to give them an ETA and got half way through the text but then light rain that had just began to fall started to confuse the touch screen.  I ended up walking and trying to finish the text but the rain just made the touch screen fail more and more so I eventually just gave up and stowed the phone and got back to running.  I lost perhaps 100m on the group of runners I was chasing, ohh well.... perhaps my competitive instinct was wearing a bit thin.

I kept moving well and started picking off more runners one by one as again.  The following picture from Ken Clark captures how confidently and smoothly I was still moving. I was tired but there was no battle of will to keep running, my pace over the last three miles was little different than what I mustered in the first 12 to Drymen.

photo courtesy of Ken Clark Photograph
Back in 2012 the last two miles seemed to drag on forever, this year we had plenty of deep and cold puddles to run through but the miles flew by.  Rather than being swallowed up by runners I was the one that was gliding past.  With 700m to go I caught the second relay runner that had past me after Beinglas, then passed the piper, round the corner and down the most impressive finishing straight I've ever been down - red carpet, hordes of adoring ultra fans and best of all my family waving near the end.

Flying at the finish, courtesy Edinburgh Sports Photography
My youngest was propped up on the railings leaning out to give me high five, but with summing up a sprint finish the high five was a bit of stinger. Sorry Ellen ;-)

Finishing sprint

Suddenly I was over line, my timing chip removed as efficiently as everything as had been done by race marshals all day.  I joined by parents and my girls and grabbed a lovely hot soup.  My girls loved the fact that they got given cow bells and medals - who needs to run 53 miles they declared!

My finished time was 9:43:24 and 64th place overall, a PB by a hour and three minutes.  Job done.

My two youngest girls and I, all proudly wearing medals and cow bells!
After refuelling I did queue up for a shower but the queue was so long that I eventually abandoned waiting as I was beginning to shiver.  We headed off to Real Food Cafe for a much deserved and very appreciated hot chocolate.  A few minutes out of the drizzle and back in the dry and I was warmed up and very happy indeed.

Chip timing stats for Beinglas to Tyndrum: 52.87 miles, 9:43:24 elapsed, 2:12:22 for leg, 64th overall, 25th fastest for leg.

Post race reflections

I am really pleased at how the race went, not only with getting myself a time well under 10 hours but the also the manner in which I was able to run the race on the terms that I wanted. Running my own race and having confidence in pacing in a way that is so different to almost everyone else around me - listing to my body via my heart rate monitor and responding to it by easing off or speeding up as the course ascents and descent came and worked well.  I never had real low point in energy levels or mental state, I never struggled to run, there was never any battle of wills, I just kept moving steadily through the whole race.

Running even-effort level through a race isn't just possible it's pretty easy to do by sticking to an appropriate heart rate zone. Sure you in theory can learn to pace evenly by running by feel but only a tiny percentage of ultra runners ever achieve it, even the elite's fail to do so on most races including this years Fling.

The feeling of lack lustre start and higher heart rate than expected at the start perhaps may have helped slow me down enough in the first section that I was able to conserve my glycogen reserves right till the end.  Same with cramp and being held up a little by other runners between Inversnaid and Beinglas, I lost a few minutes here and there but I was never stopped in my tracks, I was always moving forward always making progress.

Constant forward progress is something that worked well at check points as well. The only time I stood for the whole race was perhaps a dozen seconds at Rowardennan while they located my drop bag, the other checkpoints I was through so smoothly I didn't stop, even dropping my empties in the bins provided while I walked or trotted past.  Having a pack that I can stow and retrieve everything I need from my drop bags on the front pockets also means that I can do it all without stopping.

To recovery and beyond

I'll be taking things easy for a week or two before getting back into serious training again.  My A race of the year is the West Highland Way Race (WHRW) on June 21st.  My Fling race has given more confidence that my training is effective, and that I my approach to pacing and fuelling is working well for me.

Getting a sub 10 hour time also raises the prospects of running a fast WHWR.  I started the year looking at 22 hours being a lofty goal for my first go and for sure it still is.  If we look John Kynaston's article on Predicting WHWR time from Fling time, the average ratio is 2.19, which suggests on average a 21:15 time might be possible.

However, averages are just averages, runners will either be faster or slower perhaps much slower, it all depends upon the athlete and how each of the races go on the day.  When John ran his best Fling times that were sub 10 hours and he also did squeezed under 20 hours for the following WHWR on each of these occasions.

Where might I fit relative to the average?  Above or below?  I really won't know until I cross the finish line at Fort William.  One nice thing about running so strongly right to the end in the Fling is that for the first time I can now conceive of being able to pass Tyndrum and keep running.  Keeping moving for another 42 miles doesn't sound crazy any more, rather my appetite has been whetted and I am really looking forward to the next 7 weeks of training and to race day itself.


I also am in awe at just how big a race the Fling has become, and just how smoothly the organization went from the perspective of a runner.  It was simply an awesome job done by so many volunteers. Thank you all.

Thanks also to the photographs that were so cheerful and professional and who's work greatly lifts this post.

Thanks also to my parents for coming up to Scotland to help out, it was great to be able to see them at the finish line - something that hasn't happened for thirty years!  In the post included lots of photo's as I know what mums like best :-)


  1. Great race report to follow a great race! Well done!!!
    The only strange thing is that you looked knackered in the first photo and full of energy in all the others.

    1. Thanks. The photo a mile or two from the start really sums up how I felt at the time, I was moving well enough, but just didn't have any zip. 6am start race start was clearly too early for me, especially after a week of interrupted sleep... it took me three hours to really get into my grove. Goodness knows how I'll get on with the 1 am start at the West Highland Way Race!

  2. Well done Robert. I've never been so glad to see a fellow competitor finish ahead of me. Although you were very confident in your strategy, occasionally a whiff of doubt would temper your certainty of a strong race and a good time. Your patience was well rewarded. You have given me a lot to think about before the W.H.W race. How will you taper? Do you plan any more long runs before the race? I hope to see you at Milngavie on the 21st. paul

    1. Thanks Paul. Great to see you putting in a big PB too. Looking at the splits you were just a few seconds ahead at Rowardennan but I don't recall passing you so I guess you must have stopped for supplies.

      The approach to tapering for the WHWR is something I haven't decided upon, but I'm more inclined to keep training till quite close to the race like I did with the Fling as it didn't seem to do any harm. Making sure I'm recovered fully from training is the crucial bit rather than following some prescribed mileage reduction.

      I don't have any races planned between now and June 21st, but May will be a very buys time for family Osfield so I won't have the weekends free to race. If I had the time available then I'd would have signed up for a race like the Cateran or Kintye way and used these as a last long training run before the big day.

      Without these I'll opt for doing a series of shorter but challenging long runs that I can fit around family activities. I'll use routes with lots of ascent/descent rather than high mileage to create plenty of stress on the quads and calves to toughen them up for the WHWR.

      I'll use running fasted and keep eating a diet with a lowered amount of carbs to provide the low glycogen state that the really long runs would have provided. Hopefully this will allow me to train my fat burning capacity without really long training runs.

      I am really looking forward to seeing you on the line. What an adventure we have before us :-)

  3. Well done. A brilliantly executed strategy, and a very interesting blog post

    1. Thanks Canute.

      Doing lots of theoretical analysis might lead one to think that a certain strategy is optimal but putting it into practice isn't something that we can always be lucky enough to pull off. I'm sure having the discipline to follow an approach through helped with my race, but I never assumed that it wasn't going to work out as planned - I guess this is there is a gap between "knowing" something should be the right thing to do and "believing" 100% that it's the right thing.

      It's nice to see theory and practice looking like it does match up well. I've now done four ultras and a marathon race in the last 8 months using a similar training/taper/nutrition and racing by HR strategy that have all worked out well. I don't believe this is proof that it's optimal but it does look like it's effective at least for me.

      This experiment of one will get it's biggest challenge so far in 6 weeks, I'm really curious from scientific perspective how things will work out. So much can go wrong on the day - you have a whole day of racing to make some mistakes, I am now pretty confident the even intensity approach is the one that will minimize the risks of going off the rails at some point.

      I do hope writing about this geeky stuff will help others enjoy their racing more too.

  4. Well run and a fascinating read to your approach and build up. Interestingly, I have been using similar HR training and pacing strategies to you and got a Fling PB by 2 hours 15 mins. The science works. I didn't actually use my HR monitor for the Fling (I lost the belt the week before) but went on feel instead. I feel based on further work, sub 9 next year is entirely feasible and I'll expect to see you in the same ballpark too!

    I'm not doing the WHWR but I am in the Double Cateran next week where I will be limiting myself to 88% of my LT for the first 80 miles at least. After that, I'll see what state I'm in! I look forward to watching your progress.

    1. Well done on the massive Fling PB, it really shows your training and racing has come a long way. I would love to think that we both can go sub 9hrs next year, it feels like a huge challenge though but unless you are ambitious you want ever achieve lofty goals.

      The Double Cateran is great race to be doing, with a big Fling PB in the bag you must be well prepared for it. I'd suggest going for a more modest HR range though.

      In the Fling I averaged a heart rate 154bpm which is ~88% of my Lactate Threshold, the upper limit range - a HRNE (Heart Rate Never Exceed) I set as 160 bpm which is ~91% of my LT. I accidentally exceed this a couple of times but mostly kept around mid 150's range for most of the race. This worked well and I kept the intensity up right through to the end. If I had run further for sure I would have begun flagging and my HR would have tailed off. I don't think I could get anywhere near averaging a HR of 88% of LT for 80 miles.

      I have begun a bit of analysis on the average HR achievable for different race lengths, but I only have three runner sample so far - the results are broadly similar with an exponential reduction in average HR as race length increases. From the graphs I have for the WHWR it would look like an average HR of 135 to 140 should be achievable for me which will be ~76% to 80% of my LT. The Double Ceteran is longer so if I did it I'd expect to reduce this further.

      With these really long ultras I would employ more walking right from the start so my HR would likely jump between a lower walking HR and higher running HR with the average HR falling in between. This would mean that my average running HR could be kept a little higher than the average HR, I haven't yet worked out what balance to strike yet though. For sure even when running I won't hit the same average as I did for the Fling. I will probably try to run as slow as I can efficiently run in the most relaxed manner possible for as long as I can. With lots of training at slower paces I learnt to be able to run comfortable at 10 min/miles, but slower than this still feels awkward and inefficient so I'm not sure trying to run slower than this during the race will help too much - this is where run/walk would help hopefully allowing me to keep running efficiently, but still have a low enough average load to my body to keep ticking over for 20hrs+.

      Best of luck with your race.

    2. Thanks Robert. I may modify my target HR to 80% ofLT, with a DNE of 88%. Like you, I get inefficient at slower speeds, and sometimes a faster pace is actually easier and more sustainable. A good example is on the descents. At the Fling a lot of people were easing off (and I believe actually stressing their muscles more), while I kept the intensity high and just upped my stride length and turnover while keeping the legs really fresh.

      I'll keep you updated on how the HR pacing works at the DC. It's refreshing to see someone else questioning the 'traditional' methods of running training. I found that in cycling the same old attitudes (mainly get the miles in) held people back and it was only when Dave Brailsford took over at British Cycling that we started to challenge the traditionalists and with spectacular results. Running needs the same revolution. I'm not a great runner by any stretch, but it just shows that a very average runner 'over achieve'.

    3. It sounds like your micro (minute to minute) pacing was similar to mine.

      Running the descent relaxed but assertively is something that I trained for and did during the Fling, my aim was to keep the intensity the same by trying to match my heart rate on descents to what I was averaging on flats and ascents. I did feel a bit out of place though charging past people on the descents then suddenly coming almost to a halt when hitting any hill that followed and then jogging up slowly or walking with everyone else.

      I did get a comment from follow runners about trashing my quads using this tactic in this years Fling as well as in 2012 Fling, but was still able to run strongly down the hills above Crainlarich each occasion so don't believe running descents strongly will inevitably causing serious fatigue. I find training on long step descents is the key to toughening up the quads and learning to relax on descents - it's a skill as much as physical reliance.

      I believe the macro pacing (over the hours) and the micro pacing (over the minutes) are equally important, all ups and downs of intensity should be smoothed out as much as possible. The best way to do it on race day is to practice it in training so that on race day it just comes naturally - checking your heart rate monitor watch then becomes something that re-inforces that you are doing the right thing rather than a constant battle trying to keep within the appropriate zone.

      Now you are in the final week before the big race you are unlikely to be doing any big runs, but it should be safe to do a few practice runs of modest length that recreate similar terrain and allow you to practice pacing by heart rate. Try the zones you plan to race within, or even better try 5 or 10bpm lower as adrenalin on race almost always raises the zones required for a given pace.

    4. I think we're in a minority, but I agree that fast descending does not necessarily trash the quads, if you are conditioned and as you say have gained the skill. I did fell races to learn to descend at a half decent level. I think going too slow trashes the quads as much as going too fast as you brake your momentum using the thighs. I also got a few tuts in the Fling, but I believe in my methods, and passed a lot of runners on the final descents after Crianlarich.

      Last week I did a HR trial on hilly trails and avaeraged just under 10 min/m at 80% LT, which confirmed what I thought it should be. It will seem ludicrously slow going over the first climb on Friday night but I'll stick with it and see where it takes me for the first lap!

    5. I'm sure I got a few less than complimentary thoughts from fellow runners when charging down all the descents during the Fling, non pipped up though - or perhaps I was passing too fast to hear the tutting :-)

      With your HR trail, doing 10 min/mile on a hilly trail at 80% LT is a very good place to be with less than a week to go to running a big ultra. The ascents might feel ludicrously slow, but the average place is good and that's the key - making sure you can keeping averaging a good pace from start to finish.

      Patience is hugely important when pacing by heart rate, you might feel great subjectively and able to push on faster, but with adrenalin and peer pressure (with the masses starting off fast) it's almost impossible to subjective in the first half of race. Come the second half you'll be in your element.

      Best of luck.

    6. Robert, just a quick update on my strategy for the DC and how it worked out. I have written a blog on it (google blogger - running frogman). I started too fast, having set an average HR target of 137 with a not to exceed level of 143. On the first climb I hit 150 as runners who were slower on paper (but very experienced at longer ultras) moved ahead. I then maintained 137-144 up to 23 miles. I felt I had blown it, and although I then kept a very steady effort until 95 miles (which I passed in 21 hours), I broke down physically soon afterwards and slowed right down, struggling to get my HR into the 120's. as it happened the others over extended themselves more and suffered more, with the exception of Sean Maley, who ran a well paced race. I guess this is the skewing factor of the race itself and the competition. For example the eventual winner pushed hard by Morgan Windram-Geddes for lap one, then after seeing off the challenge he pulled out a similar second lap to mine. I finished an hour outside my target but in second place so pretty happy. I could've paced it better had I stuck to my plan, so I think your strategy for June will be perfect!