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From the handbook of ‘worst things that could happen when you’re really, really tired in a race’

by Editor
Wednesday 29th April 2015

Race report: inov-8 athlete Ben Abdelnoor reports from a tough day out at the Hoka Highland Fling - April 25, 2015

Photo: Perfect weather for ultra running

A little background of my lead up to this race; I only decided to run the Highland Fling four days prior to the start. That’s not an excuse, but an indication of my naivety and lack of planning, mentally more than physically, going into this event. I’d flown out to Turkey the weekend before the Fling to compete in a 50-mile race. However, a combination of heat, incompetence, a gung ho attitude and an inability to know how to pace myself meant I flunked out at 26 miles. I returned to the UK with my tail firmly between my legs and a stubborn determination to tuck that little DNF into bed…

And so I found myself walking to work on the Tuesday before the Highland Fling making a begging phone call to the race organiser, Johnny 'Fling' Duncan: “Please, please can I have my place back that I said I didn’t want?”

Which in turn led to the three of us – myself, my girlfriend Britta and Border Collie, Rook – finding ourselves bedding down in the campervan on a drizzly Friday evening, on a surprisingly pleasant and accommodating patch of waste ground on the outskirts of Glasgow. Our choice of location put us opposite the race registration pub and a McDonalds, in the suburb of Milngavie. For your information, McDonalds opens at 5am, serves tea and has clean toilet facilities!

53 miles is a long way to run. I had never run that far. I didn’t realise quite how much you can think about when you’re in your own little world. I’m not generally a chatty person in a race – I like to save my energies for running – but it does help to pass the time. Alternatively, the amount of conversations, discussions, arguments and stories that went on in my head for those eight-plus hours would make some interesting reading; mostly dull waffle, but I found out I can easily sustain a three-way conversation with myself when I’m on my own…

Once the race got under way I settled in with a group of half a dozen runners, a couple of whom were aiming for sub-10 hours. Initially this gave me some cause for concern as I was aiming for a sub-8 hour time. But apparently over such a long distance, and so early on, it was not something to worry about. This was confirmed as I went through the first checkpoint at Drymen (13 miles) after around 90 minutes, only a couple of minutes behind schedule.

Catching a competitor in front I asked what he thought of a sub-8 hour schedule, “Fine, so long as you can sustain this pace throughout.” I thought that was a sound idea and one I could stick to. The next section involved forest roads and a steady climb up the side of Conic Hill, a welcome relief from the flat early section along road, footpath and old railway lines. The next checkpoint was at Balmaha, which was the first of four drop-bag collection points. At each collection point I’d packed a couple of gels, a soft flask of Coca-Cola and a couple of mini Mars bars.

Hoka Highland Fling - April 25, 2015

Photo: Coming into the Balmaha checkpoint

I think it’s worth a mention that all the drop-bag stations were incredibly efficient. Throwing my labelled bags into the back of various vehicles – each boot stuffed with hundreds of drop-bags – at the Milngavie train station where the race began, it was akin to how I imagined a low budget airline would handle and return, or not, your luggage. But I was proved totally wrong. Each time I arrived at a checkpoint a marshal would be opening my drop-bag, asking me whether I needed help, taking my litter, filling my water bottle and getting me on my way.

I don’t really remember the exact order of events between Balmaha (20 miles) and Bein Glas (40 miles). I remember enjoying some stunning views across Loch Lomond in what turned out to be a glorious day of warm sunshine and a light breeze, whilst higher up freshly fallen snow graced the upper reaches of the Highland summits. I thought the Loch shore would be busy with day-trippers and walkers, but in fact I passed very few hikers and enjoyed some peace and tranquillity far from the busy western shore road. I know that my muscles were progressively tightening in my legs, particularly my hip flexors and hip adductors, although I never actually cramped up completely. I know that there was a wonderfully enjoyable technical section of gnarly tree roots, steep pitched paths and some slippery trail making a particularly interesting hour or so. I know I went through Rowardennan (27 Miles) in three hours 30 minutes, still on target for a sub-8 hour time. I also know that after Rowardennan I put my headphones in and, listening to something loud, decided I was invincible. I know I also went steadily downhill from somewhere beyond Inversnaid at 34 miles. Not downhill in the literal sense, downhill in the really, really bad sense.

Hoka Highland Fling - April 25, 2015

Photo: Looking back at the Bein Glas checkpoint

The outcome of all this rambling is that I arrived at the final checkpoint at Bein Glas (41 miles) feeling dreadful. I had known I was slowing, but despite this I hadn’t seen another competitor for some time. At the Bein Glas checkpoint I was in no rush. I still had a small margin of safety for a sub-8 hour finish, so I sat in one of the deckchairs whilst my water was refilled. “The next couple of hours are going to be hellish,” I commented to Britta. It was 12 miles and I knew I’d be doing it at a shuffle. Somehow getting to the finish in the scheduled sub-2 hours seemed unlikely. “You looked absolutely awful,” Britta told me when we were driving home, “I thought you were going to drop out.” I pulled myself out of the chair and set off at what I hoped was more than a shuffle. Within minutes someone caught me up, “Are you doing the relay?” I asked. “Solo, same as you, I’ve just got a second wind,” he replied. “Oh, just go away and leave me alone, you nerdy little ultra-runner,” was what I wanted to say – instead I told him I was super-impressed, which I was. Truly, I was impressed, and not just a little envious of his situation. This happened three more times over the course of the final dozen miles, except this time I kept my mouth shut about asking about relay runners, and simply admired their ability to pace themselves so steadily, and run so strongly.

The final scenario is from the handbook of ‘worst things that could happen when you’re really, really tired in a race’. I reached a road crossing and, in my head thought I’d about 4 or 5 miles to go. “Nope, just two miles to go,” said the marshals at the road crossing. The relief! The elation! It was too good to be true, surely? But it was true; half a mile further on I asked a runner coming towards me how far to the finish. He paused, squinted as if in contemplation, and confidently announced, “Mile and a half.” Fantastic, I can do this I thought and on I pushed… for half a mile, then what felt like a mile, still no sign of the finish (another runner went past, obviously sprinting for this imminent finish line), and then what felt like another half mile. Until eventually, I saw another runner coming towards me. ‘I’ll ask him’, I thought, ‘If only to hear those beautiful words, “200 yards to go”, or something like that.’ “How far to go mate?” “Oh, not more than two miles. Yeah, two miles, at most.” I could have strangled him. Was everyone out to deceive and disappoint me?! Sadly, he was telling the truth. Luckily for him I was too tired to do any strangling.

Hoka Highland Fling - April 25, 2015

Photo: Ben finishes with a wry smile

I’ve learnt a lot from the Highland Fling. Yes, I did finish (in 8 hours 12 minutes) and I was pleased to do so, but it really wasn’t very pretty. I suffered badly for the final 3 hours, and I hadn’t wanted to suffer like that – no one should. I also knew I never wanted to do it again. Or anything like it.

On the drive home to Ambleside from Tyndrum, Britta commented that she’d like to run the Fling next year. I said I’d only be too keen to support. But, you know what? A couple of days later, and I’m thinking, ‘You know, I could go back next year, wiser and stronger, and really do it justice…’

Hoka Highland Fling - April 25, 2015

Photo: The top three finishers of the 2015 Hoka Highland Fling (l-r) - In thrird, Donald Campbell (07:17:28), in second place Paul Navesey (07:06:44) and the winner Matthew Laye (07:04:07)

To find out more about the Hoka Highland Fling check out: www.highlandflingrace.org


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