After a brilliant year in 2015, where I was fortunate to race for Great Britain at the Trail World Championships in Annecy, I was looking forward to 2016 to back up that selection, and put into practice what I had learned through some great recent ultra and fell races.
I had run the Fling in 2014 so knew when it was announced as the British Ultra Trail Championships for 2016, the course suited me but there were areas from 2 years ago I had to work on. Even though, in 2014, I finished 2nd female in 8 hours 38 mins, the 6th fastest time over the course at that time, tactically I hadn’t run a very good race. I set off far too quick and the last 10 miles were a real slog due to my quads seizing up! I don’t tend to work to a 12 week or whatever plan, instead, planning at the beginning of the week depending on available time, the key sessions for that week. However, I will usually have a rough idea as to the next few weekend plans so as not to overdo the long runs. In order to improve on my 2014 time I planned the odd 10-12 mile hard effort sessions to mimic the first fast section, mainly done with my club, Dark Peak on a Wednesday night, but I also put in some flat 10 mile tempo runs. I hadn’t done those since turning my back on road running in favor of more scenic and sociable fell running in 2013, and they weren’t my favorite sessions! I knew the importance of quad muscle strength, specifically eccentrically when descending the roller coaster section from around miles 46-50. To do justice on this section I had long, hilly days out in the Peak District, the Kinder Dozen with 21 miles and over 9000ft of ascent and more importantly steep descent, done in just over 7 hours was a particular favorite day out! I complemented this with body weight strength and conditioning exercises such as lunges, squats, single leg dead lifts and plyometric circuits 3 times a week.
So to the Fling, I had a plan:
- Aim for 7min 20sec mile pace for the first 12 miles to Drymen.
- Don’t be tempted to run Conic Hill, fast hike to save the quads for later.
- Carry enough nutrition from the start to get me to Rowardennan.
- From Rowardennan onward use the uphills to make sure I’m taking on board enough fuel.
- Enjoy the technical Loch section between Inversnaid and Beinglas, no silly mistakes here through not concentrating on tree roots!
- Steady from Beinglas to the Roller Coaster section, then put the fell legs into action and climb/ descend strongly, pushing those miles before the final 3 mile flat run in.
- Publicly I told people the aim was 8 hours 30 mins, privately I was aiming for 8 hours 20 mins.
- Finally, to finish in the top 3 females, as this race was the British selection race for the Trail World Championships in Portugal in October.
To race day:
It was cold standing around for the start but I was glad I had gone with shorts instead of 3/4’s as, predictably we got off to a frantic start. I had started near the front but expected more congestion, in reality there wasn’t any. The first couple of miles I ran with Andy and Neil but did the sensible thing and dropped back from them as I knew they were aiming for sub 8 hours. I was surprised I was leading the women’s race and there didn’t appear to be more women around me, I had expected some of the women with faster marathon times than me to be much quicker on these first few miles. I tried not to pay too much attention to my watch, running at comfortable conversation pace, thanks to Ewan for the company in these early miles. I had told him 7:20’s was the aim and he reminded me it was too quick on a few occasions but it seemed to be very comfortable. Matt and Ellie appeared with the cameras and I even put a spurt on to see if Matt could keep up running alongside with his camera, so all was going along nicely at a relaxed, if a little too quick pace. If I had felt I was working hard at this stage I would have slowed, but it felt easy to do those first 12 miles at an average of 7:04. By now I had warmed up and was looking forward to some hillier miles, with a chance of a walking break – I knew it was a long day out! So to Conic Hill, I walked the vast majority, all be it a fast walk but I knew my quads would thank me for this later! This was a lovely section, with the snow capped peaks to the sides and Loch Lommond coming into view in front. At Balmaha, I topped up my water and was soon caught by Beth. This was quite reassuring, as I was worried I had gone off too quick by the fact there wasn’t any women around me. We ran together for a good few miles, this was the first time I had met Beth but these miles passed quickly as we chatted about fell running and the High Peak Marathon we had both been due to do in March which had been cancelled due to snow. The early morning start caught up with me as I needed a comfort break at around 25 miles, I thought if I quickly go to the loo I can catch back up with Beth. This was silly, as a mile later I needed the loo again! That was the last I saw of Beth, but I was able to run my own race, and felt better for having stopped.
At Rowardennan, I picked up my first drop bag, the marzipan was great here as I had only had a couple of gels and shot blocs up to now and welcomed something more substantial. We were into the stage now where walking uphill became the norm, I caught up with Jayson on one of these hills. He wasn’t having a good day but was nice to run and chat with him for a bit as I had been running alone for a while. The mixture of beaches, woodland trails and faster compact trails made this a lovely, varied section. At Inversnaid I topped up my bottles with Tailwind, caught up with Ewan who had moved ahead of me on Conic Hill, for a quick chat and pushed on to the technical bit. I was looking forward to this section as I have been doing more rugged fell running of late so the scrambling was going to make a nice change to the less technical trails. Halfway along here I was taken by surprise when Sophie came past me, I wasn’t struggling or running badly here, I just think I switched off and relaxed, enjoying the opportunity to use different muscles clambering up the rocks and tree roots. Sophie was running very strong as she was soon out of sight, that put me in 3rd place but I wasn’t worried as there was still a long way to go. As we left the Loch and climbed upwards Lizzie also caught up with me. I had been expecting this as it was a similar stage in Annecy where she caught me and ran a few miles together there. Even though I was running with Lizzie, with us in 3rd and 4th place into the Beinglas check point I tried not to worry as I had a plan and my quads were feeling good, a bit achy but good for 41 miles!
The section after Beinglas has a few ups and downs, I was walking all the hills but was surprised Lizzie was able to keep running them. “Keep the roller coaster in mind” I was telling myself as I let Lizzie move ahead. By the time we got to the drier than expected cow poo alley we were back together, not saying much but by running alongside each other for the next 3 or so miles, we certainly upped the effort and were pushing each other towards the finish. I did start the count down here, commenting to Lizzie “only 7 and a half miles to a cup of tea”, this continued in my head, ticking off every half mile to the finish! As we neared the end of the flatter trail, before the final steep climb before the roller coaster, I had started to move ahead a little, and then as we hit the woods I put my plan into action. I’m not a good descender by fell runner standards, but at 46 miles into an ultra I knew I had some good descending in me and my quads were up for the challenge, so I went for it. I looked back a couple of times and couldn’t see Lizzie but didn’t dare to ease up at all. When I hit the road crossing I was amazed to be told Sophie was only 30 seconds in front. This was as I was waiting for traffic to pass, only probably 20 seconds but it felt like minutes! As I hit the track, I saw Sophie in front, I was still concerned Lizzie would catch me so pushed on, taking a long time to gain on Sophie but definitely getting closer. As we did the little stream crossings in the last 2 miles I was less than 10 seconds behind, Sharon who I’d met 2 years ago at a recce weekend, was running out to cheer people in and gave me the final push I needed, telling me I could do it and I was looking fresh (a lie I’m sure!) Mile 52 and I finally got myself back into 2nd place! I had overtaken Sophie and pushed for the finish, hearing the pipers and turning for the red carpet, I still hadn’t dared to look back. As I crossed the finish I stopped my watch, I had been so focused on firstly staying ahead of Lizzie, then catching Sophie I hadn’t looked at my watch since the start of the roller coaster. A 24 min pb in 8 hours 14 mins, I couldn’t believe it, and so nice when a plan comes together! Congratulations to Beth on a fantastic run and new course record, I’m sure that record will stand for a long time.
Two days later and it still hasn’t sunk in, the DOMS is beginning to let me know I ran as well as I could though! The Highland Fling is an absolutely fantastic race. Johnny Fling and his team do an amazing job as the whole event runs like clockwork. Thank you all for the hard work, it’s very much appreciated.
Finally, a big thank you to Montane, Injinji and BetterYou for their support.