Hoka Highland Fling 2016

What is the Highland Fling?

The Hoka Highland Fling is a 53 mile trail race which takes place every year in April. The route follows the West Highland Way, Scotland’s oldest official long distance footpath, through the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park and encompasses some stunning scenery (and a few hills I might add).

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How I came to enter

I’m sure it was Graham Kelly’s fault!

I met Graham in 2013 when we both travelled down to Urique, Mexico to run in the Copper Canyons Ultra Marathon (also known as Ultra Marathon Caballo Blanco) made famous by Chris McDougall’s book ‘Born to Run’ and we’ve run together on and off since then,

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Having been talked into entering the Fling it was only several months later I realised that I would have run the South Downs Way 50 only 3 weeks before so I was likely to have heavy legs as a result which would make the Fling harder. I was right!

 

Night before

I flew up to Glasgow straight after work on Friday night, grabbed a bite at City Airport and was met at Glasgow Airport by Graham and his girlfriend Katie (Wow, just wow!) who first met face to face when she pulled his beard (is that a Scottish euphemism?) when she ran past him during last years Fling, when he was a spectator on Conic hill due to injury.

 

Footwear

Always entertaining as I’ve run in modern Huaraches i.e. Luna Sandals for the last 5 years and so far have avoided any running injuries (not many people in trainers can say that I imagine). As this is going to be a pretty gnarly and rocky trail I had been training both for SDW50 and the Fling in Luna Origen sandals, that are a modern take on the original huaraches Manuel Luna showed BFT to make in 2006, except these have Michelin snow tyre tread for the sole, topped with a modern slip resistant upper. In a word a beast of a sandal.

 Should cause a stir as I doubt anyone has completed the Fling in sandals before.

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Nutrition

Now I have a problem in that I can’t seem to eat after around 25 miles, and even before that I want savoury and salty things not sweet. This caused me to get timed out at 70 miles during a 100 mile attempt last year (SDW100) as the wheels had come off as I hadn’t been able to eat for the last 20 miles (and was getting overtaken by snails!).

As I could still drink I have since been testing Trailwind as if I couldn’t eat, at least I could drink the calories and in SDW50 it seemed to work (supplemented with some honey roast cashews and dried fruit). So I packed my UD pack with a few bags of those to eat, a couple of caffeine Gus, and filled 2 soft flasks and a hand held with Trailwind (with a pile of stick packs of it in the pack to make up at each aid station. I was going to drink the handheld and save the soft flasks as and when needed.

For each of my 4 drop bags I had a bottle of flat coke, a pork pie and a tunnock bar.

 

The morning of the start

The alarm went off at 03:00 as we needed to leave by 04:30 so after 2 bowls of porridge (when in Rome) tea /coffee we grabbed our stuff and yawned towards the car.

The start was freezing! Once I’d dropped off my 4 drop bags and handed my overnight bag to Katie’s mum (who was driving up to Tyndrum) I had to keep walking about as my toes were already cold and it would take 3 miles before I would be able to feel them again. My hands were also cold as I’d managed to flush my lightweight gloves down the loo (not a good start).

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It was tough on the legs running down the other side!

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19.8 miles Balmaha

 A quick in, handheld refilled with water, grab 2 bites of the pork pie and out again! I always try to stay less than 2 minutes at an aid station as I know I will need that time later on as I start chasing cutoffs (this race was going to be no different).

27.2 miles – Rowardennan

A quick water refill and no time for Drop bags here.

34.4 miles – Inversnaid

Same again, water refill and out again.

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40 miles – Beinglas

I was so glad to see this place after a nightmare and very slow run along the Loch which was mainly scrambling and climbing over muddy rocks, roots and boulders. Whilst having a quick swig of coke I was glad to hear it was a runnable trail from now on, as having only just made the last 10 miles along the Loch in 4 hours I couldn’t see how I was going to run the next 10 miles in 3 hours unless something changed drastically underfoot. Folks at the aid station assured me it was runnable from now on, I hoped they were right! A caffeine Gu was just what I needed to kick start the system for some running!

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I had to push miles 40-50 as although the cutoff at mile 50 was 20:30 that would only leave 30 minutes to cover the last 3 miles over unknown terrain and currently I didn’t  think I could run 3 x 10 minutes miles if my life depended on it! I needed to get to the 50 mile cutoff at 20:00 and I literally spent the next 10 miles thinking of nothing but that, whilst taking turns in leading and following a few other runners which seemed to help all of us keep the speed up. The “rollercoaster” (as I discovered it was called) I was almost glad to meet as after my nightmare along the Loch any trail I could actually run on was welcome, even if I could go uphill faster than I could go downhill!

 

Mile 50 to 53 (the finish)

I made it to the 50 mile point at 20:00 which was a huge relief as I’d been hearing traffic for a while and was wondering if I would ever get there.

 Now it was just keeping the pressure on so I stayed the right side of the 21:00 cutoff, and I knew it was going to be close, as I and the other cutoff chasers kept leapfrogging each othe,r all of us trying to keep our speed up to make the cutoff.

 45 minutes later I have never been so glad to see 2 pipers starting up and I knew I was very close, then I saw the barriers and was directed towards the red carpet. I turned the last bend, spied Graham, did a quick high 5 whilst shouting “Mas Loco” before making the final dash for the line, finishing with 9 minutes to spare at 14 hours 51 minutes!

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Several minutes later I was sat in the tent, wearing my first Fling medal, with a bag of goodies, whilst sipping a cup of the most wonderful tomato soup I have ever had!

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UTMB CCC – my unfinished adventure in Chamonix

I’ve done a few ultras over the past few years both successful (The Wall, NDW 50, Race to the Stones) and otherwise (Copper Canyons Ultra Marathon, dropped after 30 miles when water ran out in aid station in 35C) but running in the Alps always held a certain attraction.

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I entered for the 2014 event more to guarantee one way or another (with the 3 tries with increasing odds) I would get to run it before my 60th birthday. Hence I was a little surprised when I got in first time, as did Wayne a fellow “Mas Loco” I met in Urique at CCUM.

Now I always run in Luna Sandals (and have done for the past 4 years) which has resulted in pretty strong feet, so I wasn’t too worried about the mountain trails, but I was taking a pair of Injinji socks in case it got a bit chilly at night. I decided to wear to the Luna Oso trail sandal as I knew a few friends who’d completed Western States & Leadville in them so I knew they were good for gnarly terrain.

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However I was also taking an old pair of Vivobarefoot Breatho Trails (fixed up with ShoeGoo) in case the trails got really muddy if it rains) and carry them in my pack so I could switch over if needed (it turned out later to be a wise decision).

Training

Now, I live in West London (Twickenham) and most of my training tends to be in Bushy & Richmond Park and along the River Thames, so in summary its pretty flat, aside from a couple of hills in Richmond Park. So to try and get some climbing in I spent lunchtimes hiking up and running down the office 20 floors of the fire exit stairs in the tallest building in Canary Wharf, 1 Canada Water. Not ideal (as I later discovered) but it was about as much as I could do.

The Adventure begins 

Wednesday

I got an early flight from Heathrow on Wednesday morning and with Mountain Dropoffs at Geneva I got to Chamonix pretty painlessly for midday where I picked up the keys to my apartment.

Later I met up with Wayne by the wooden huts selling all the ultra gear and spent an hour looking at all the gear I could spend large amounts of cash on!

Thursday

I had nothing planned but after a chat with a bearded Scottish fell running pal (also a Mas Loco) I decided to get the Aiguille du Midi cable car and spend the day breathing thin air and seeing spectacular views.

I managed to stay at the top for 2 hours (after which I did feel a bit light headed) and marveled at the views and the “head for heights” exhibited by some of the climbers who were just starting out on an incredible experience on what looked like the top of the world.

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I then descended to Plan De L’Aiguille where I spent the rest of the day hiking some of the paths and chilling out in the slightly less thin air

Altitude

Friday

Wayne and I met up and got the coach to Courmayeur and after queuing 30 minutes for the loo eventually got to the start line in the 4th group and started at 9:20 (in hindsight we should have started in an earlier group).

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Tete de la Tronche

Refuge Bertone
I was coming into the first checkpoint and heading to a food table when the Woman in charge pointed at my sandals and told me I couldn’t continue in them. This caught me completely by surprise as I had just was just scanning the tables for something salty!  I said that nowhere in the rules did it say no trail sandals but she insisted that, in Italy, they are not allowed (rather ironic considering an Italian firm, Vibram, pretty much invented . minimalist running, and seem to be a major sponsor of the event with VFFs all over their stalls). I quickly pointed out I had alternate footwear and she agreed if I left my Luna’s with her I could continue in the race. Whilst I was changing footwear she got on the radio to France HQ to check. I had changed 1 foot when she said it’s ok having spoken to the France Race HQ so I put my sandal back on, stuffed the Vivo’s back in my pack, grabbed a gulp of coke and headed out, having lost 15 minutes and not had time to get any food or refill my Camelbak.

I had just the Checkpoint when I saw Wayne sat on a rock. He was feeling sick and waving me to continue I thought I’d see him again as he is a stronger runner than me.

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Now as I was approaching the next checkpoint I was preparing myself to have to go through the whole “no sandals” bit again. Instead I was greeted by an English woman who smiled, said that Bertone had phoned ahead and they were expecting “a guy in sandals” who was fine to continue. Alas I was chasing time cutoffs so aside from a gulp of coke I couldn’t stop.

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It seemed to take forever before I could see this checkpoint down below and then descending switchback after switchback with me and a couple of Japanese guys taking turns to go in front to keep the pace going. Eventually I got to the checkpoint and was in the tent scanning what was left of the food (I knew I was probably in the last few runners as the cutoff was about 5-10 minutes away).

I then heard a commotion, saw a few gestures in my direction and saw a race organiser headed my way, I took a deep breath and waited. I was approached by an Italian guy in his late 50’s who was pointing at my sandals and shouting (he had wild hair which did remind me of Doc Emmett Brown in “Back to the Future”, but this was looking too serious to smile). I called for someone to translate what he was going on about and someone said I was going to be disqualified for wearing sandals and cannot continue! I quickly grabbed my Vivo’s and waving them at the official said I’d change into them and put away my sandals. There was some discussions after which he agreed and said once I got over the top at Grand Col Ferret I was in Switzerland and could wear what I like!

I changed footwear which was a challenge as I was cramping every time I tried to reach my feet to tie my laces, and left the checkpoint (later finding out only a couple of people made it through after me before the cutoff)

Grand Col Ferret

This climb seemed to take forever, I was getting slower and could see down in the valley behind me a couple of runners that looked like the sweepers meaning I was very close to running out of time. I pushed on, forcing myself to eat a gu though the sweetness made me gag but I knew I needed it.

The rained started and the trail started to get muddier which made me appreciate my change of footwear, although I would have changed by now anyway, even without some stroppy F’ ing official!

The sweepers caught up with me and asking if I was ok were really encouraging and keeping me moving till I could finally see the checkpoint at Grand Col Ferret just ahead of me.

Now I had run out of water hours ago (with all the drama at the previous Checkpoint I hadn’t refilled my Camelbak so my intial 2 litres was long gone) so I asked at the Checkpoint if they had any water and received the expected answer, no.

I had purification tablets so I knew that worst case I’d just drop my Camelbak in a stream to fill it up and throw a few tablets in, so it was not life threatening, just uncomfortable.

I now had a long downhill run with a few ups to get to the next Checkpoint at La Foully which if I could get some speed up I may be able to make the cutoff, but I knew it would be close. I started off and quickly discovered that the limiter on my speed (aside from being completed knackered, hungry and thirsty) was the mud on the narrow trails with the big drop to the right. Actually speed is really the wrong word, I was just trying to get as close as I could to maintaining a 15 min/mile pace which (under normal circumstances) hardly counts as speed in anyone’s book!

I had started my descent when I got a SMS from Wayne, he had had to drop from the race as he heard a snap when running downhill and, to cut a long story short had detached part of his quadriceps muscle from his thigh bone! Arrrgghhhh, so no running for a few months for poor Wayne.

The sweepers again caught up with me and were encouraging me and a couple of other “back of the packers” to pick up the pace and keep going. I managed to pull away with this encouragement and headed off down the trails close to La Foully, though it was taking a long time and I couldn’t stop to look at the map as I didn’t know if I’d be able to start again.

La Foully

So after 11hrs, 41k, 9,186 ft of ascent, 7,874 ft of descent I finally made it to La Foully in the dark and missed cutoff by 5 min! I was sad but knew realistically even if I had made it I would have missed the next cutoff after that.

Whilst waiting for the bus Sitting down and drinking loads of flat coke was rather nice.
It’s pretty depressing sitting on a quiet bus full of people who’s dreams of running into Chamonix have been shattered (for that year anyway) but a least for me being the oldest person on the bus (confirmed after a quick scan) held some small comfort.

Back in Chamonix I picked up my drop bag, grabbed some food and went back to the apartment.

After a shower I climbed into bed looking forward to dropping off pretty quick only to spend the next 30 minutes getting cramp in either my foot, calf or thigh. I tried getting to sleep in any position I could but I still got cramp.

Eventually I bit the bullet, emptied a couple of spoons of salt into a glass of water, held my nose and necked it, trying not to throw up! It worked a treat and I fell asleep shortly after, lovely.

Saturday

I spent Saturday watching the CCC and then the UTMB finishers being cheered across the line and decided I have to come back to experience a finish at Chamonix.

Sunday

Watched more finishers from a bar 100m from the finish and just enjoyed the atmosphere and beer.

 

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I had a surprise visitor to the bar that made coming to Chamonix, even with a DNF, almost worthwhile, Rory Bosio winner of UTMB!

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Sad to leave after an incredible experience, the race didn’t go as I hoped but Chamonix is the most beautiful place and CCC, in fact that whole week of UTMB races, makes you want to come back.

To quote an ex-Governor of California “I’ll be back!”

 

Lots of running, some chilly weather and preparations for Mexico begin

I really seemed to have settled in to a bit of a running routine of late as I try to maintain a decent mileage (by my standards that is) in the remaining months before Mexico, so a normal week is generally looking like this::

Tuesday – 10 or 14 mile run through Bushy Park, along the Thames to Teddington Lock and home via Teddington (10 mile route) or continue to Richmond Bridge and back along the Thames to Twickenham and then home (14 mile route). Although I did get carried away last Tuesday as it was such a gorgeous wintery day I just carried on and did a loop of Richmond Park as well taking the distance up to 21 miles!

Thursday – 10 or 14 mile run through Bushy Park, along the Thames to Teddington Lock and home via Teddington (10 mile route) or continue to Richmond Bridge and back along the Thames to Twickenham and then home (14 mile route)

Saturday – Bushy parkrun 5k

Sunday – 17 mile run from Chelsea along the Thames path to Chiswick Bridge and back whilst Sam is doing judo @ the Budokwai

So generally I’m running around 40-45 miles per week in my Luna Sandals (Leadville model) unless on days when the trails are really muddy which is when I have to resort to my Vibram KSO Treks.

I was fortunate to win a competition at Luna a few weeks back that resulted in me receiving a free pair of their Tabi Socks which have been great for keeping my feet warm when it got down to -5C (23F) recently.

Here are some photos from my runs in Bushy Park over the last few weeks during the cold spell which was great for both running and photos:

The Bushy Pom Pom tree (Mistletoe)

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Toasty feet (thanks Luna)

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A quick play with the Panorama feature on my iPhone

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A few photos from my Sunday morning Chelsea to Chiswick Bridge runs before the cold spell:

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I think I was definitely warmer than this guy!

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and one from the Saturday morning 5k parkrun in Bushy Park where the wildlife can get a bit close at times:

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Mexico & Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco

I’ve had a Hepatitis A & Typhoid jab and I’m due for a Tetanus jab in January which will be all my innoculations over with. I’m now starting to think about what stuff I need during the trip and items like water purification.

In my next blog I’ll probably go into a bit more detail on how I will be getting down there, and hopefully I’ll be able to blog as I travel down and upload anytime I reach free wifi but we’ll see. I can see that my Powermonkey & solar panels are going to get a lot of use keeping my iPhone charged up.

Thames Path 100 (Richmond to Oxford along the Thames Path)

3 weeks after Mexico I’ll be pacing my neighbour James for the last 30 miles of the Thames Path 100, so sometime in early February we’ll probably run the last 30 miles of the course into Oxford to familiarise ourselves (well me anyway) with the course, as it will probably be dark when I’ll be running it in the early hours of the morning (unless James is really really fast!).

‘Why are you running in those funny shoes?’

‘Why are you running in those funny shoes?’.

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Now if only I had £1 for every time someone asked me that, or else stood just beyond my peripheral vision (or so they thought) at a race start and pointed at my feet. My journey to ‘barefoot’ or ‘minimalist’ shoes started whilst on holiday in Vermont, USA in August 2010. We were on a family hike through woods that brought you out at the top of a ski lift that was closed for the summer. As we started to descend I saw a family group still ascending the mountain but didn’t pay much attention. A few minutes later it was pointed out to me that the kids were not wearing any shoes or boots and that their Mother had some of those toe shoes things on. Toe shoes, what are they I asked my Wife, who then explained she had read an article in the scientific journal Nature about barefoot running and a new type of shoe that had pockets for each toe. ‘It’s supposed to be better for you, something about normal running shoes distorting how your body would naturally run, which results in injuries” she said.

I was now curious and once back at the house we were renting (which fortunately had WiFi) I began surfing these shoes and the Harvard scientist (Prof Daniel Lieberman) who published the paper in Nature. I also nagged my Wife to get me the full paper from Nature.

Crouched over my little iPod Touch I read and read, watched interviews with Daniel Lieberman on YouTube and was, ok I admit it, probably a bit obsessive for a few days. By the time we were due to spend our last 3 days holiday in Boston I had already found out where the nearest store was that sold these Vibram Five Fingers things (CitySports).

On the evening before I intended to visit the store I planned a nice stroll around Boston that just happened to go past the store (so I knew where to go as I would only have an hour tomorrow).

They day arrived and I headed down to the store, Amex card in hand. Wow, it was a huge store covering all sports…. and over by the running shoes a display stand of Vibrams. After 20 minutes with a knowledgeable assistant I walked out with a pair of Vibram Bikilas and a book titled ‘Born To Run’ that I had never heard of, but was strongly recommended to read. Between them, those 2 items have had a tremendous impact on my life as a runner.

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Fast forward 19 months and I have met 2 key characters from the book (Barefoot Ted and Caballo Blanco) and have been running in Barefoot Ted’s ‘Luna Sandals’ for over a year (I love them).

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Even my office shoes are Vivobarefoot ‘barefoot’ shoes as I found that it accelerated my transition from normal running shoes and enabled me to run a half marathon 2 months after first switching to Vibrams.

I’m now training for 2 ultras in 2012 (50 & 69 miles) and will enter the Copper Canyons Ultra Marathon (the race featured in ‘Born to Run’) in 2013.

Here’s a video about the Copper Canyons Ultra Marathon, the scenery is stunning and running it will definitely be an item to tick off my “bucket list”.

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So basically, that’s why I wear those funny shoes!

Hello world!

Well here it is, my first ever blog on my weekly efforts to get out running, despite the challenges of the British weather.

Quite how often I manage to update this will remain to be seen, but hopefully it will get done when my technology is transferring my dismally slow time details to Garmin’s website for the entertainment of all.

We will see.

Peter