Standing at an aid station, completely drenched and cold, and with many miles still ahead of us on the trail, I apologized to Adam. “I’m really sorry. This… kinda sucks right now.” He laughed, “For what? The rain isn’t your fault.”
Three years ago we ran the Highland Fling for the first time, and I had envisioned us returning to triumphantly run the 53 miles, which would surely be easier with all of our ultrarunning experience. We’d not only enjoy the beautiful course, but crush our previous time. Sure. While the rather uncooperative weather certainly made the course more challenging, we were ultimately successful and enjoyed the experience. Luckily, Seattle has trained us well for hours of rain and mud!
The Highland Fling course route runs along the first 53 miles of the historic West Highland Way in Scotland, beginning in Milngavie (pronounced Mill-GUY), and ending in Tyndrum. (The trail continues on to end in Fort William.)
The race is a point-to-point, so it requires a few extra transportation logistics, and the race director does a great job of providing options/suggestions. We opted to drive to the race start, and then take a bus from Tyndrum back to Milngavie after finishing.
The other preparation the race requires is food for drop bags. This race is unlike others I’ve run in that it only provides water at checkpoints, but allows drop bags at almost every checkpoint so every runner provides their own fuel. However, you don’t get your drop bags back at the end of the race, so they should be used only for food, or any items that you will take with you. Anything not consumed from your drop bag can be added to the “buffet table” at the checkpoint for anyone else who might want it. It’s a great way to avoid waste, and allows runners to grab some bonus fuel on their way through checkpoints.
The weather at the start was dry and only a little chilly – perfect for running. After a concise briefing from Johnny Fling (Race Director) regarding the kit check of a foil blanket and mobile phone, it was time to go. We wished our friend, Kris, good luck as he stepped into the 10-12 hour wave and we moved into the 12+ hour wave. We were off!
Start to Dryman – Cumulative 12.7 miles (2:09:27 chip time)
Most ultramarathons I’ve run are not huge affairs and usually include around 100-200 runners. The Fling, with ~700 runners, felt more like a road race for the first 10 miles. No jostling or elbows, but lots of friendly chat amongst the runners as everyone tried to settle into their own pace within the herd. The path was extremely runnable with a few short patches of road running to mix it up.
We turned from the road onto the trail and were cheered to see a fiddler and drummer playing music for the runners. I remember them from three years ago, and saw they now had a little kiddo in their family. I love how the community is so involved in this race year after year!
After 6 miles, we were well outside the town and began to see more open green space (with fluffy sheep and adorable lambs dotting the fields). I saw a signpost just before a gate, and it was for Glengoyne Distillery! I looked longingly at the traditional pagoda distillery roof, snapped a photo of the sign, and rejoined the herd of sprightly runners heading north. As we ran, we startled three deer in the brush who bounded away from the trail.
As we approached the Dryman checkpoint, everyone slowed to a walk on a slight hill and we saw ‘Mandatory Kit Check’ signs. We fumbled in our packs for our switched-on cell phone and foil blanket. Once checked by volunteers, we continued over the grassy knoll. I wonder if anyone got caught without the required kit?
Right before we reached Dryman, we had to cross a road. The marshalls there briefly stopped us while some cars passed by and jokingly said, “Oh, time for a moment of reflection now. Ask yourself, why am I doing this?”
I laughed as we crossed the road – I know better than to ask that question mid-race. 😉
Dryman to Balmaha – Cumulative 19.3 miles (3:48:42 chip time)
After Adam refilled his flasks at Dryman, we continued on down the yellow, gorse-lined trail. The rain started to come down harder, and we kept our heads down on the rocky climb. Conic Hill loomed above us. An Irish runner near us commented about the height of this geographical feature and I assured him we weren’t actually summiting it. He was relieved, to say the least. (Not that the climb is anything to sneeze at.)
We continued up, up, up, and knew there would be a photographer at the top of the climb. (Yet we still managed to look miserable, haha.) I’m so impressed with the photographers that had to stay put in the rain – at least we got the luxury of moving instead of standing still. (Thank you, photographers, for braving the elements!)
As we reached the top, I looked hopefully out over the loch. Alas, the rain had obscured much of the view – my favorite of the course! At least we knew what it should have looked like in the sun from last time.
Of course, what goes up, must come down. The descent from Conic is full of big rocks and mud, and while I did my best to move quickly yet safely, my feet still managed to come out from under me at one point and down I went. I heard gasps and reactions from behind me, but thankfully, only my ego (and hip) was bruised. Onwards.
We ran into Balmaha, grateful to have one more section done. I took off my pack, assuming I’d need to refill my water after nearly 20 miles. Surprisingly, I’d only drunk ½ liter of water. Not good after nearly 20 miles. After a revitalizing snack of mini Snickers from our drop bags, we moved on. Completely soaked, but still feeling good.
Balmaha to Rowardennan – Cumulative 27.3 miles (5:41:31 chip time)
I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much from this section. It was mostly runnable with a short road section. We also ran lochside on a pebble-y beach for a bit that I distinctly remembered from last time.
We cruised into the Rowardennan checkpoint, cold, but still feeling pretty good as we had diligently eaten every 30 minutes. After a snack, toilet stop (and reapplication of anti-chafe cream to combat the wet conditions), we continued on. I wanted to get as many runnable miles on my feet before Inversnaid as I knew (and slightly dreaded) the rocks to come.
Rowardennan-Inversnaid – Cumulative 34.6 miles (7:41:20 chip time)
We were in good spirits, but at this point in the race, we’d run a long way, and still had a long way to go. This is when the mental piece becomes even more important. I was just digging in to an uphill when I heard , “Hey, Seattle girl!” A gentleman, Derek, that I spoke to briefly at the race start had recognized me. Adam and I began chatting with him and it really made the miles fly by. It would have been a complete (and likely quiet) slog without him! He’s traveled to Seattle for work a number of times so it was fun to discuss his travels and world politics. The steady pace and distracting chat really helped keep our minds off our discomfort. Thank you, Derek!
There were loads of waterfalls next to the trail, which we do not recall from last time (it was a mostly dry day in 2016.) There were also a few pretty magical parts of this section that made me think a faery or two would surely pop out at any point (preferably with a snack in hand.)
We arrived at the Inversnaid Hotel, and spotted a “walker’s entrance” for hikers into the hotel. As we were drenched and muddy, this seemed more appropriate than strolling through the main foyer full of sensible guests spending their time indoors instead of traipsing through the elements for fun.
We spent way too long here, but it was nice to just be out of the rain for a minute and share a full-sized Snickers that Adam had snagged from a “buffet” at a checkpoint. We went back out to refill our water (I had only drunk ½ liter more, oops.) There we met Rhona of Red Wine Runner. I’ve followed her blog for years, and it was pretty cool to finally meet an online acquaintance in person! She gave us some encouraging words, which was great as I was dreading this next bit. To the rocks!
Inversnaid-Beinglas – Cumulative 41.4 miles (10:35:08 chip time)
A mountain goat I am not, so this rocky/technical section is my least favorite part of the course, and I knew it would be slow. (To be fair, Adam moves just fine on this terrain, it’s really just me slowing us down.) Rhona loves this section and explained it’s because you use different muscles than you’ve already been using for 37 miles. A sensible conclusion, so I tried to adopt her mindset.
Adam led, and before long there was a group of us running together. No one wanted to pass by, but preferred to stay together on these slick rock scrambles. Honestly, I was grateful for the company. Our American accents quickly gave us away, and we got asked many times, “You didn’t come all that way just for this race, did you?” Um, yes, we did. It’s a big race on a historic trail, so I don’t know why everyone was so surprised! However, everyone seemed reassured when I explained we also had a vacation planned around the race involving the islands of Skye, Islay, and Arran. Doesn’t everyone use races as an excuse to travel?
The 3 miles of rock scrambling kept us focused and in the moment, and unfortunately we weren’t able to enjoy the scenery at all since we were concentrating on our feet. The incessant rain also forced us to keep our heads down. I distinctly remember regularly clenching my fist and watching the water flow from my glove. I think I would have been drier swimming in a pool – ha!
Interestingly, the more runnable 3.8 miles after the rock scrambles felt like f o r e v e r. Luckily, our little cohort of runners again helped pass the time as we crossed bridges with tall steps (for giants?), and slopped through wet bogs. We’d long since given up any hopes of keeping our feet dry. Thank you for the company, Ruth and Jane!
A highlight during this slog was the view from the Dario Melaragni memorial post. (He was a well-known organizer of the West Highland Way ultramarathon.) If you face south, you can look down the length of Loch Lomond and see where you’ve come from. It’s a stunning view, and a good reminder that despite how you might feel in the moment, you must be alright at this ultrarunning thing to have made it so far.
We happily arrived in Beinglas well within the cutoff. Being wet for hours left us at our coldest here, and we didn’t want to take too long with our drop bags. We needed to keep moving to stay warm.
Beinglas-Finish – Cumulative 53 miles (14:07:03 chip time)
Just outside of Beinglas the trail is rolling, but opens up to some dramatic views that were made even more *dramatic* by the low clouds covering the tops of the mountains. After a very low and well-marked tunnel (thank goodness I’m short) we found more small water crossings. At a few points the trail had become the creek, so we just splashed through.
When we reached the old “Cow Poo Alley”, I was extraordinarily grateful for the improvement done to the path. Instead of a torrent of shin-deep cow poo/mud, we trotted along a crushed gravel path. While some might say it takes away from the character of the trail and feels too sanitary, I’ll admit it was an utter delight to run on something that wasn’t a quagmire of mud (if even just for a bit.)
We quickly ran through the small checkpoint of Bogle Glen, which featured two wonderful accordionists to cheer us on. It was the beginning of what I think of as the forest roller coaster. We were both hurting at this point (after 47 miles, no way!), but was able to keep a steady trot going up and down.
As we crossed the A82 roadway, we knew we had just 3 miles to go. The views began to open up near Tyndrum and the rain had finally stopped. After running through a few gates and a campsite, we just had the weaving path through the woods.
Straining my ears for the sound of music on the wind, I muttered, “where is the piper???” Ultramarathons often have unusual features that make them special, but the skirl of a bagpipe calling you home to the finish is one of my absolute favorite parts of the Highland Fling.
Finally! We heard the piper and I broke into a smile. The Highland Fling has the best finishing chute I’ve ever had the pleasure of running. Grinning like fools, we ran down the red carpet, holding hands, soaking up the cheers of the spectators.
We crossed the line and were greeted by a helper who got us our swag bag (with a medal, shirt, buff, and bottle of Prosecco), our drop bag with dry clothes, and a hot beverage. After changing, we hustled to the shuttle to get back to Milngavie. Our friend, Kris, picked us up and we learned that he had a great day and ran a spectacular race. The Highland Fling was his first 50 miler and he ran an 11:20. Since I had a hand in talking him into signing up for the race, I was pleased to learn he’d done so well (and didn’t hate me despite the dreadful weather!) Congrats to him!
Some Quick Numbers:
Date: April 27, 2019
Finishing time: 14:07:03
Elevation gain: ~7,500 feet
Calories consumed: ~2,000 (2 packages Skratch Matcha & Lemon Chews, 2 Canaberry Spring Energy Gels, 1 Toasted Marshmallow Gu, 7 Glutino Oreos, 1 pouch sweet potato/apple baby food, 8 mini Snickers, 1 peanut butter & jelly pita bread sandwich, ¼ cup roasted sweet potato)
Things We Learned:
-Eating every 30 minutes made a massive difference. This was the first race I’ve really been able to eat that often, and I really noticed a positive change in how strong and resilient I felt mid-race. I cannot stress enough how important calories are on an event like this… it only took me 13 ultras and 6 marathons to learn that lesson – ha!
-This course was rockier than I remember in many places. Technical terrain is not my strength, so I need to do more training on this to increase my confidence on the rocky trails.
-I had learned my lesson from last time and took Dramamine to make the 1 hour, 15 minute post-race shuttle ride less fraught with nausea (and, er, vomiting) on the winding, lochside road. Dramamine now has a permanent place in my pack for point-to-point races with shuttles.
While the weather wasn’t perfect (like, at all), we had a wonderful day filled with the camaraderie of the Highland Fling community, the dramatic Scottish scenery, and the challenge of the trail. I love this race even more the second time around, and sincerely hope to have a third crack at it someday!