On the journey to the Triple Crown was the Highland Fling Ultramarathon: 53 miles from Milngavie to Tyndrum taking in forest paths, loch-side views, rocky trails and 7500 ft of climbing.
Training for an Ultramarathon
The Highland Fling race takes place every year in April and, having already completed it in 2014, I had a training plan laid out for the race.
My training for ultras mostly consists of interval-based training and hill-reps during the week, with weekends reserved for endurance training on the trails i’ll be racing on. This year, however, the Fling was in itself a training run as part of a greater training plan for the West Highland Way race which took place later, in June.
In terms of my expectations, as with every ultra, I knew I would have to dig deep at times, but generally assumed it would be similar to my first Fling in 2014. This was naivety on my part. I learned that even the most steadfast training regime isn’t enough to prepare you for the challenges you can encounter on an ultra.
Race Day Part 1
Race day, 5:30am, Milngavie.
There was a familiar excited buzz in the air as ultrarunners gathered in the early light to set off on a challenge which, whether it was their first or their hundredth, some would not complete.
There are 6 checkpoints on the Fling route: Drymen (12.6 miles), Balmaha (19.8 miles), Rowardennan (27.2 miles), Inversnaid (34.4 miles), Beinglas (40.9 miles) and Tyndrum (53 miles). I was buzzing with anticipation to set off on the first leg of the most significant challenge of my life doing what I love.
I flew through the first 20 miles to Balmaha on what felt like pure adrenaline. The training had paid off and I felt great!
Next up was the section I find most challenging, the loch-side trail between Balmaha and Beinglas. My training meant that my feet were lighter and faster and I scrambled over the rocks and boulders on that section at a good pace.
Race Day Part 2: An Unexpected Twist!
38 miles in, Rob Roy’s Cave.
As I passed Rob Roy’s Cave on the loch-side, my body started telling me something was wrong. I had been taking on a lot of water and not a lot had been coming back out. Muscles were spasming and the soles of my feet were aching (more than what’s normal)!
After a successful 30-mile training run a few weeks earlier, I couldn’t understand why my body just couldn’t maintain my normal pace and rhythm.
By 50 miles in I had just come through the forest above Crianlarich. My mind wanted to keep running but my body just wouldn’t respond. After calls back and forward to my crew, the possibility of the dreaded DNF (did not finish) was mentioned, but at 51 miles I couldn’t let my Triple Crown challenge end there…
I dragged myself across the finish line in 12 hours and 2 minutes.
The Ultra Medical Tent Experience
The inside of the medical tent at the finish of an ultramarathon is a sobering experience. Never have the physical demands of an ultramarathon been so apparent to me.
Inside was a collection of people wrapped in foil blankets and ice packs. Having been in so much pain for the last 15 miles, and sporting a peculiar shade of grey, I was medical tent-bound. Two urine tests and a blood test later showed blood in my urine and a blood sugar level of 12 (it should have been somewhere around 4)!
Hydration and Nutrition
After a range of follow-up tests with my own GP, I was informed that all the trauma I had been through on race day came down to hydration and nutrition. I think that somewhere amongst the excitement of embarking on this huge challenge I had let myself forget the enormous importance of maintaining proper hydration and nutrition in endurance races like these.
Yes, I had been drinking a lot of water, but without taking on my usual electrolyte supplements. Yes, I had been eating, but not the high-quality nutrition I should have been eating over this kind of distance. I had essentially covered 53 miles fuelled mostly by sugar. These two issues in combination led to severe dehydration, muscle spasms and stomach cramps – a very dangerous position to be in as an ultrarunner.
It suffices to say I learned my lesson, and would never again take hydration and nutrition as casually as I had during that race. My advice to any runner considering venturing into endurance trail running: never underestimate the importance of the right hydration and nutrition!
It wasn’t easy and it definitely wasn’t pretty, but I crossed the finish line and so the Triple Crown dream goes on…
Follow the Run4It blog next week to find out how I get on in Triple Crown – Part 2 – the West Highland Way race!