Wednesday, 17 May 2017

A Flingtastic day oot!

2.30am alarm, it must be Fling day! It was no hardship getting up, I’d prepared my drop bags and organised my clothes the day before, I even put my porridge in the bowl ready to go ping for breakfast before going to bed at about 8.30pm. Val picked up Pauline and I at mine at 3.45am and we were in Milngavie just before 5.00am. Plenty time to catch up with hugs, register and place our drop bags in the relevant cars.

The time passed quickly, it wasn’t long before John gave the briefing and we were in the starting pens, the race was started in three waves, two minute apart. The weather was fair and quite mild for this time of day, the forecast was for a few showers later on but nothing extreme, perfect conditions really, I wasn’t wearing gloves, that’s a first for a Fling start!  6.00am. The first wave were off, then the next, eventually those of us in the party pen were on our way, heading through the tunnel never fails to make my nerves tingle.
photo - Monument Photos 
Pauline and I were together for a while, great to see the fiddler again and lovely to high five Sandra at Beech Tree,

I let Pauline go on after that, I felt her pace was fine but a smidge too quick for me for the whole way. From the start my right shoe was a bit tight but I left it for a bit to see if it settled, it never did so I waited until Gartness, the wall just over the bridge is a perfect height to put my foot up and adjust the lace, after that I felt I was starting to settle into my groove now past the path of a thousand gates and on the wide road easier to be side by side and get a blether with folk around me.  

We had to pause a wee moment for traffic before crossing the road to the checkpoint at Drymen, no worries, always happy for a wee breather early on, there was water and toilets available but I didn’t stop for either, just went straight through trying to acknowledge all the shouts, the support throughout the race is fantastic.

Going up Garadhban I heard a cuckoo, laughed at the sign for the frog nursery and loved the first glimpse of Loch Lomond, I was with Lois for Conic hill, it was fine stomp up and Graeme and Josh were doing a grand job.  

Once over the top there were a bunch of guys on bikes and I thought This is going to be fun watching them go down!   When one bike’s brakes were howling out a long and a tortured squeal, I had a fair old giggle after a runner quipped “I think he’s trapped a runner in his wheel!”  

A few minutes later there was a warning call from behind, Lois replied “Is it ok if we stay on the right?” His reply had a hint of mild panic “Errr, no’ really and I can’t slow down!”  Just as well we were spritely as he zoomed by.  

I quite often just point my camera over my shoulder and it was only when going through my photos on Sunday did realise how close I’d come to being disqualified for cadging a lift sitting on this guy’s handlebars!

I was glad I didn’t see this until the day after! Another cyclist’s descent mantra was full of sweary words and comments about not knowing a box was an essential bit of protection for on a bike. A case of crushed nuts!  This was definitely the biggest giggle I’ve had coming down Conic and kept me chuckling for ages.  

Down into Balmaha, a big hug from big Davie, my drop bag was handed to me, I ditched my empty banana Yazoo and water bottles I was just using shop bought 330ml ones, I don’t faff with filling up, packed away a new water bottle and custard in a Fill N Squeeze pouch and walked on drinking my Weetabix milkshake, I timed it nicely, finishing it just as I crossed the road and Lorna was happy to take my empty, cheers for that, although it would’ve been no great hardship to stash an empty bottle in my bag.

Heading along to the climb up to Craigie Fort a young lad was playing Highland Cathedral on the pipes down at the shore. Wow, emotion filled my chest and made the hairs on the back of my neck raise, there isn’t a finer tune to hear running on the WHW, deep breath and head for another lovely hug, this one from Robin.

Not sure how many times I’ve said this but I’ll say it again, I love the section between Balmaha and Rowardennan, the meandering ups and downs through the trees, the bird song and the Bluebells, cue for another tune, this time just playing in my head, the Bluebell Polka on the accordion, aye, ya cannae beat a bit of Jimmy Shand for a good cadence!

On the steep steps there was sign saying kit check ahead, what a perfect place for it too, everyone was walking here anyway, so there was no time lost taking backpacks off and finding the two required items, a phone and foil blanket, I also have two more items as mandatory kit I’ll never run on the WHW without, hip-flask and camera.  Well done Stan taking on the task, a toughie having to disqualify anyone not having the stipulated stuff whether it was by accident or disregard for the rules.  

With good company and scenery Rowardennan soon appeared, again another quick ditch of my rubbish, replace my water bottle, drink a milkshake and move out. The Fling was using the high road, I think the low road is more in keeping with the rest of the lochside section but still fine to do the wide track, I’m happy whatever route we have to use but I was looking forward to when the path narrows and descends, it’s the start of the fun section, I love it, just letting the terrain take charge, run a bit, walk a bit, stepping over boulders or tree roots not trying to fight for a pace, just enjoying the natural beauty of being able to move forward on a stunning route.  In a nice little group I was asked “Inversnaid is 34 miles, isn’t it?”  I replied, “I dunno, I don’t do WHW by numbers but you’ll know when you’re getting there when you can see the big pipes coming down the hill on the other side of the loch, they’re opposite Inversnaid.”  At one point I mentioned there had been a bit of repair on the path and I think it was Billy that said “You must know every boulder and tree root!” It made me think how many times I’ve gone along the lochside, not counting the odd training run, this was my sixth Fling but my eighteenth race starting in Milngavie and finishing either in Tyndrum or Fort William, so I guess I kinda know the route well! Wow! That’s a bit mad! was my next thought!  
photo - Mark Dawson
At Inversnaid a quick hello to Helen, swap my water bottle, ditch the rubbish, take my custard and walk on drinking a dinky can of coke, no hanging about.

Again near the front of another wee group heading along the gnarly section, I’d call out occasional, “Just shout if you want by.” It was usually answered with “I’m good here, thanks.” We caught up with a group of four guys just happy to amble along blethering, there were a few gentle hints to let us past, they were unaware we were moving just a smidge faster, I don’t mind being stuck in the slow lane for a bit, there’s no point stressing it, and I think that it’s not time wasted but energy saved, I’ll be able to push on later. There was a shout from the back “Excuse us guys, but can we get by?” “Oh yeah, no bother!” Not being sexist or anything but it made me smile that it was a group of ladies that ploughed on past the blokes. It didn’t seem long until we were on the short flat grassy bit and that signals a return to more runnable terrain and the pull up to Dario’s post.

On the steep steps up I saw Jonathan taking time and a few photos at Dario’s post, I pulled out my hip-flask and hold it towards him, he’s happy to wait until I’m there to share a wee dram with an old friend, Mark joined us too.

I always keep it steady down into Beinglas, the path is easily runnable but there are quite a few tree roots or boulders ready to catch you unawares and I’d rather get there in one piece. Arriving into the last checkpoint, the support was still as noisy and as encouraging as the first. Same routine for me, swap my water bottle, dump my rubbish, walk on drinking a dinky can of coke and pack away a wee bottle of cafe latte.  I looked at my watch remembering I usually average around 10 hours for Beinglas, 9 hours 44 minutes.  All the way to Beinglas with a happy cruising pace and to be a wee bit ahead of my usual, oooww, bonus!

Once on the open path towards Derrydarroch there was a wee shower, not too bad but with a bit of a cool breeze, I put my arm warmers back on but didn’t feel I needed my jacket.  It was only now that I felt I had to put in a bit of effort, but after forty odd miles I didn’t really expect to do anything less, running all the flat and downs, keep shuffling the ups until I felt the effort wasn’t energy efficient then stride it out. Coo poo alley wasn’t too bad at all, just a wee bit of care near the muckiest bit, again I go cautiously along especially after so many miles, although my legs felt strong and nimble there are a few malicious stones that will jump up, catch your toe and try to make you eat poop. I thought I’d come through unscathed but when I looked up to wave to Katie and Graham with their cowbells and flags at the deer fence, I stubbed my toe, luckily I didn’t go down but enough of trip to make me squeak.

“Just” the rollercoaster, the road at Auchtertyre, and a wee meander through woods and the path lined with heather and shrubs to go. I think it was just last year or the year before someone said this was six miles, maybe so, but it’s no ordinary six miles, it feels more like a hard eight, I couldn’t remember how long this section usually takes me, I knew a PB was on the cards but I wasn’t going to run myself into the ground for it, just pushing a good controlled effort, working with the swoops and climbs of the roller-coaster and I was lucky enough to get straight over the road without breaking my rhythm, right, no walking on the tarmac, a good steady shuffle this is flat. Under the road and stride out up the wee hill over the cattle grids and onto the narrow path meandering through the heather and shrubs, (I remember when this was thick dark forest!) Through the big gate. Where is this Piper? At last I heard him, I gave him a big thumbs up and thanks as I went by. I could hear the cowbells and cheering of the finish, round the corner and onto the red carpet, big smile on my face, mixed emotions, glad to finish but sad that it’s over, I float down, high fiving folk on my left, sorry I couldn’t reach the folk on the right, sorry, I wasn’t for staggering over, Johnny Fling was running down the side shouted “Race ya!” I laughed and upped my pace a smidge, raising my arms over my head and letting out a huge “Whoooooohooooo!” before falling into Julie’s arms, she hugged me so tight my feet left the ground, I stayed safely surrounded by Julie’s hug until I’d caught my breath and emotion before she placed a medal around my neck.
photo - Stuart MacFarlane 
I picked up my hefty goody bag and went into the warmth of the marquee, soup in one hand and beer in the other, the best race recovery ever.  After refuelling I strolled over to baggage, I didn’t bother with the nicety of a shower, I can have a lovely long one when I get home and straight into my jammies so I just stood where my bag was and had a quick change. Val’s car was parked at the tourist info car park so a nice wee leg stretch before heading home.

I finished with a PB and I’m really pleased that it happened naturally without trying for it, running what was for me not a race but a training run with the ability to give it a wee bit of welly at the end. A thought that gave me a boost is that this wasn’t just the best time I’ve done post cancer treatment but my best Fling result ever, knocking 12 minutes off the time I did in 2012 where Pauline, Sue and I ran together! I may never speak or eat what is considered normal again and finding race food is a bit of a challenge but the trauma of treatment is well behind me. A fantastic sign that my training is going well and I am in great shape for my thirteenth WHW race.

From the impeccable organisation by John and team to the support of all the runners this is the biggest race with the warmth of a small family gathering. Thank you all for another fantastic day in what Lois calls my natural habitat, it doesn’t matter how many times I have had the pleasure and privilege of running on the WHW, that is not just down to the beauty of the route but company I keep, it never stops being special.

Monday, 24 April 2017

A newie and an oldie

My training is still going very well and I have had my last two long runs before the Fling, the John Muir Way Ultra 50km and revisiting an old classic which has sadly passed into the lore of ultra-running, The Two Bridges.

This was the second running of the John Muir Way Ultra and a new one for me on April 1st,  organised  by Fox Trail Winter Running Series and Foxlake Adventures, Dunbar, (I’ve never been before and it looks a great day out if you're looking for something different with the kids.) With around about an hour drive away from home, Pauline and I set off fairly early but not at too stupid a time, we registered, pinned our numbers on and then got on the bus to be taken to the start at Port Seton Esplanade for the run back. The race information was pretty comprehensive covering everything we needed to know but I just gave a cursory glance to the detailed route instructions, once I knew it was going to be well marked I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, and what a lovely route it was too with a wee bit of everything.

It was a bit chilly waiting around before the start but fine once we got going, I even warmed up enough to take off my gloves, arm-warmers and peaked Buff, and my long sleeves were pushed up past my elbows, it turned into a lovely warm day. There were regular, well stocked drink stations but I was quite self sufficient carrying a 500ml bottle of water, a couple of gels and a custard in a squeezy pouch, but I did enjoy a wee cup of coke at the last two and topped up my water bottle at the last one as well.

photo from Dave Lochhead

The route although varied was flat for the first half and I had clicked into my no walking groove and decided to apply my marathon rule of no walking if possible, Pauline and I use a term for a hill that is runnable - rolling slog -  if one of us says it the other one usually thinks. Bugger, no walking break then, or is that just me? I was with Rhona and Amanda for some of the time and yo-yoed a bit with them when it started to undulate, running the hills isn’t the best economy for an ultra but I was working on strengthening my legs regardless of the time it took or energy spent, (My plan is to run a bit more of Rannoch Moor this WHW, it’s all rolling slog and runnable on fresh legs but with 60 odd miles in them it’s a different story.) I was with Amanda when I looked up at what I think was around twenty five-ish miles in. (I don’t look at my watch much during a run.)  “Oh bugger, I think I might revise my no walking rule!” Amanda’s reply, “I think you have to run it!” A fairly long steep grassy incline that went on until the ground met the sky. I can’t not run it now! Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Yay! I made it! Thanks Amanda, I think I would’ve walk if you weren’t there to encourage me to run it.

After upping the effort for the hill, I kept a let’s-get-this-done pace and worked a strong controlled effort, finally looking at my Garmin for a rough gauge of how much further to go, although never to be believed until you see the finish gantry.  Through woods opening into a tricky deep wee ditch...folk were watching... I didn’t fall back in, yay, and a scamper round the grass to the finish. A great run on a cracking route with lovely weather, a perfect wee ultra to use for training and one I’d recommend for anyone looking for a first race over marathon.  

A week later Pauline and I set off from the Glen gates (Pittencrieff Park for the non locals) in Dunfermline, the start of the Two Bridges Road Race which was first run in 1968 until 2005, I did it five times from 1999 until 2004, Pauline did it thirteen times from 1993 to 2005 and finished First Lady in 1996. (Some race history here)

A blast from the past 
Our route couldn’t be the old classic one, with the traffic of today it’s just too dangerous but by using cycle path and the John Muir Way we wouldn’t end up roadkill. We were able to stick to the classic route until after Torryburn where we joined cycle route 76, we followed it to the Kincardine Bridge and picked it up again after crossing the bridge.

We stayed with the cycle route until Grangemouth where we went back onto the old race route, it’s not the most scenic but good to recall race memories and to pause at the RAF Memorial which wasn’t there in the “olden days” The commemorative wall was unveiled in 2008 and the Spitfire was placed in 2013  

It was now very warm and sunny, my sleeves were pushed up and I even wished I wasn’t wearing full length tights. We weren’t sure how far the run would be compared to the race but taking the cycle route round Grangemouth would make it longer and with it just being the two of us there was no problem taking the direct route running a very short section without a pavement, there was a wide grass verge which was fine.

Just before Bo’ness we joined the John Muir Way and stayed with that all the way to the Forth Road Bridge,  we timed it perfectly for a wee breather to watch the steam train from the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway.

It’s a fairly flat route so there wasn’t much in the way of walking breaks or a change of stride and with the cumulative effect of last week as well, we were both starting to feel the miles but it’s good to practice running on tired legs.  
Those bridges are teeny weeny and far away!
We approached Blackness, my water was getting low, I was just carrying a 500 ml bottle and with it being quite roasting I didn’t think it would last all the way to Rosyth, I suggested having a shandy in the pub, Pauline liked the idea but the thought of getting going again after a stop would be hard, “luckily” there’s a drinking fountain in the public toilets, I could just top up my water bottle, oh joy, I’ll just have to enjoy a beer when I got home then! The path from Blackness is through the large established woods of Hopetoun House Estate, the race used this path under the name of the Two Bridges Challenge in 2004 and 2005 when major motorway construction at Kincardine Bridge prevented the original route to be used.  
Getting closer! 
It’s a lovely run through Hopetoun with some gentle climbs, neither of us called “rolling slog”, whoopee, we could walk and stretch the legs, the Bridges were getting closer and we slogging it out. Finally we were on the Forth Road Bridge and if you’ve never run over it you probably don’t know how much of a hill it is! But we were in the last hour, another twinny rule - you can always push the last hour, it’s also a flaming long climb up Ferrytoll Road and it gets ramped up again going up Castle Road to the Civil Service Club but this was the sprint finish, okay, we weren’t racing but reminiscing, we didn’t walk. We stopped with a wee cheer at the Civil Service Club both looking for an itchy wool blanket and a can of beer, sadly nobody was there to do the honours, happy memories!

Another blast from the past - First Lady 1996
Our run was just under 36 miles, pretty close to the old race distance, we went back the following weekend and did the cycle path route above Grangemouth, it has a few undulations, it’s far prettier with a quite a few points of interest. James Watt’s man cave for one!

Next time we do the run we’ll use the cycle path as it adds just over a mile and would make it a lovely 37 mile run from the Glen gates to the Civil Service Club using a safer route. Our Two Bridges run is just a reflection of an iconic race but it’s still a great route and one we’ll do again.