With respect to my old favourite Country to Capital, London to Brighton (trail) and a few other smaller, regional events, I hadn't ever raced a top level UK ultra. By top level I mean in terms of depth of field and history. Keeping an eye on the start list the past couple of months, it was obvious that the race was attracting a lot of high calibre runners from both north and south of the border, as well as a few from the continent with Hoka on board as chief sponsor. It is always nice to be part of a race that stretches away at the front and gives you an opportunity to see, albeit fleetingly, some truly classy runners negotiating the trails.
The Fling begins in Milngavie, a suburb of Glasgow and wends its way 53 miles almost directly north to Tyndrum. Milngavie is where the West Highland Way trail begins, with a huge fixed kite banner just off of the high street leading you out of the town and straight on to trails up in to the hills. The WHW ends up in Fort William, 95 miles away and 42 miles further on than Tyndrum, so the Fling makes use of the first 'half' of the waymarked route.
A little group of us travelled up on the train on the Friday morning and arrived in to Glasgow just before lunchtime. Alex Pearson, Claire Shelley, Drew Sheffield and Clive Steffen. Race start was Saturday morning at 6am for the ladies, 7am for the Male Vets and 8am for the Men so that the trails weren't too crowded.
From the off, the pace was really hot at the front. Whilst we hadn't spoken in depth about it pre-race I think Drew and I both knew that we were going to stick together and see how the day worked out. For me, that came with the added bonus that Drew has run the course numerous times as part of this race and the full WHW. It seemed like he knew where pretty much every stone on the course was so all I had to do was run around enjoying the scenery which was spectacular with snow capping the higher peaks dropping down to the trail.
To begin with we were trailing just behind Richie Cunningham. Richie has won the WHW and regularly posts 8 hour times on the fling. Smart running? Nope. But it felt ok pace-wise so we went with it. It turns out Richie has got one pace - fast. A big group of guys cruised away at the start making up 30 secs per mile or so on Richie and by the time he was done he'd put an hour back in to them (at least). Incredible. As he came past us at about mile 7 I said to him, this is too easy for you!, his reply? 'Aye it's a piece of piss'. Somehow you knew he wasn't joking or being arrogant - it genuinely was. The first 12.5 miles to Drymax aid station were pretty flat and fast, a mix of trail, tarmac and crushed gravel but quite quickly we got into a section of gates. How Terry Conway and Ludo Pommeret, eventual 2nd and 3rd Place finishers got to 12.5 in 1:22 with all that stopping is beyond me.
Anyway as we rolled in to Drymax we didn't break stride pushing straight through in 1:37. We carried on up the trail through some de-forested woods and then hit more rocky and slightly technical trail which led us up to the base of Conich Hill. Everyone kept talking about this climb/ descent in pre-race conversation and we took it very sensibly up and even more sensibly down. The rocky trail was pretty slippery so it made better sense to veer off in to the thicker grass to the side, and once we were down we hit a great stretch of downhill woodland trail, easily the best of the day and came barreling in to Balmaha at mile 20 in about 3:07.
The aid stations at the fling only stock water, so everything else is laid out in drop bags that you hand in at the start. My sole nutrition for the race, as usual, was GU. 20 gels allowing for a 10 hour finish. We grabbed our bags and pushed straight through the car park having stopped for maybe 30 seconds - so far everything was working seemlessly. It didn't feel like we were working too hard at any stage, just rolling along at a good pace and I was having a ball. It was on the section to Rowardennen here that the sun got a little higher and inevitably things became a little harder. The trail was still pretty quick as it began to wind its way down the side of Loch Lomond. There were some steeper short sections but nothing that lasted too long. At about 24ish miles, Drew hit a low patch and I pushed on ahead by a few minutes still feeling pretty good. When I reached Rowardennen, mile 27, there were people everywhere. It looked like some were resting, some were taking on food and some were done for the day, certainly a few earlier starters were taking more time here to re-stock which was pretty sensible.
Again I motored on through without stopping and began what turned out to be a pretty steady climb for a couple of miles on gravel road. Once through there the trail returned again along the side of the loch and rolled its way down into Inverglas at mile 34. At mile 31 I hit a huge bonk and felt shocking. I had still been hitting the downs pretty hard and hiking the ups but I my one bottle strategy seemed light. I ended up getting in to the loch to scoop handfuls of water over my head in order to bring my temperature down as I wasn't drinking enough. Coming in to Inverglas I was pretty spaced out but I thought I could turn it around with a couple of gels and some S! caps. If I'd known what the next few miles were like I would have thought better of that.
Once you pass the hotel it's six miles or so on to Beinglas, but the first 3 miles or so are over a pretty slippery, rocky and rooty trail with some not insignificant drops. Whilst it doesn't last forever and certainly isn't a race breaker, it is extremely technical and only the nimblest could consider running it - mid bonk there was no hope for me and i ended up spiraling deeper in to the hole. I hadn't felt like we'd gone fast during the morning but on reflection I was probably 75Kcals per hour short of what I should have eaten and a good litre or two of water down. Out of the other side of the boulders I fell on the trail and rolled on to the side and once I'd picked myself up, Drew suddenly appeared behind me having come back to life. As he came past I knew it was a good moment to MTFU and hang on to him in to the next aid station.
Following Drew down the hill into Beinglas Mile 40
In the end it took me a bottle of coke, 3 gels, half a litre of water and some S! Caps to pull out of it, and at about mile 48 started feeling great again. Typical. By that stage we were within a few miles of the finish and Drew had some pretty serious cramping issues and from the the amount of salt on his shirt it was pretty obvious he was running short. We knew we had a sub 10 hour in the bag and didn't feel any undue pressure to race it in so we continued pushing along at a steady pace and eventually rolled over the line in a very controlled 9:45.
Finally feeling good again. Just in time to finish. (note drews 'cramping' face)
The Fling is an excellent race. Great value, incredible trails, glorious sunshine (only an hour or so of gloom and hail), good competition and great company made this a truly awesome race. I can't wait to get back in June and run the whole trail!