When I originally entered the Hoka Highland Fling - a 53 mile race on the West Highland Way in Scotland, I had planned on running with Kez, my ultra-running Siberian Husky. Circumstances then changed, training didn't go as planned and it ended up being a last minute decision to still run the 'Fling, but flying up instead of driving. Sadly there were no seats available for Kez on the plane from London, so I would be running solo with my partner Ian supporting me and following the race by car.
6am start from Milngavie railway station and as I stood waiting on the start line I felt an immense feeling of serenity. No worries, no stress just running for the next 9 hours or so. I did not fear what lay ahead as I was just about to do something that I had dreamed of for years.
The first section of the Hoka Highland Fling passes through Mugdock Country Park heading towards Drymen and Checkpoint 1 (12.6m). After Drymen the trail heads through Garadhban Forest and up and over Conic Hill before descending down into Balamaha and the foot of Loch Lomond, where Checkpoint 2 (19.8m) was located. The trail then follows a loch-side path to Rowardennan and Checkpoint 3 (27.2m). Checkpoint 4 (34.3m) was further up the loch at Inversnaid and the final Checkpoint 5 (40.9m) was at Beinglas Farm, just beyond the end of Loch Lomond and across the river from one of my most favourite pubs, the Drovers Inn. After the final checkpoint it was a final sprint to Tyndrum and a well-earned beer....
I trotted along the first section watching many runners disappearing into the distance, keen to get going, some perhaps a little too enthusiastically. I held back and contained my enthusiasm as is my way. My only frustration on that first section was the number of gates that had to be opened and closed, so much stopping and starting when all I wanted to do was run. I was quite rightly punished for grumbling about this fact as I ran straight into a piece of metal on one of the gates, resulting in a rather large bruise on my right quad which had me limping for a few minutes!
As we headed up Conic Hill I had that amazing feeling one gets when truly inspired. I felt an energy like no other. My heart beat strongly and my mind soared high into the sky as goose-bumps travelled across my skin. I ran all the way up the hill feeling strong and determined. I hate walking and my body does not cope well with walking, it prefers to run albeit at a very slow pace. The view at the top was breath taking and well worth the exertion. I relaxed on the descent, and tried to admire the view around me whist being careful where I put my feet. I panicked at one point, remembering my fall on Diamond Mountain which resulted in a chipped bone in my elbow and a DNF in a race. My nerve held strong and I made it safely to the bottom, before dropping my Mini Cheddars in a little stream and having to fish them out - thankfully the sealed pack ensured that they floated and were still edible!
Heading out of Balmaha I started feeling rather unwell after a couple of miles. I dug deep for as long as I could, but there was no way I could make it to the next checkpoint or even to the safety of heavy woodland.
Embarrassed and feeling humiliated, I just stood there and suddenly remembered that I had now run further than any other run this year. At just over 20 miles I was now in the unknown with regards to my fitness. The mind demons hurtled into my head and tears rolled down my face. I had reached the end, I was no longer an ultra-runner and it was time to quit. Runners ran past me as I stood there not knowing what to do next. How could I get to the next checkpoint and the sanctuary of Ian? Eventually my rational mind kicked in and I got moving again. Walking became jogging and then jogging became running. Over the next few miles I dug as deep as I could and tried to remember what it was like to be tough.
Just before I reached that checkpoint and the sanctuary that I craved, the real me kicked in - the fighter and tenacious being that I can be. I reached Ian and instead of sobbing into his arms I summarised my plight and then got on my way as he reminded me of Paula's famous stop and just how inspirational a person she is!
I had always believed that my lack of ideal training for this event would be overcome with the immense inspiration and motivation that I could absorb from my surroundings and convert into energy. Well, I was right. For the next 15 miles I danced along the West Highland Way. I flew over the ground with such enthusiasm and determination. I leapt from rock to rock, pretending I was a little Rock Hopping Penguin. I sometimes got it wrong and hit my head hard on an overhead branch I failed to see, plus turned my ankles a few times, but nothing more than a minor tweak - runnable after a few squeaks.
Once out of the treacherous rocky section alongside Loch Lomond we took to the hills again and my body grew wings as I flew down the hills and dug deep on the up hills. My legs felt strong and I was back where I wanted to be.
As I approached Tyndrum I felt immense relief that I was going to finish. The piper by the side of the track was a delight to see and hear and as I ran down the finishing straight to the sight of a row of flags flapping in the wind and a huge archway proclaiming the end of the race I finally accepted that I am now and forever an ultra-runner. The good with the bad - that is what happens when one runs long distances. You have to dig deep and question who you are and why you do what you do.
Congratulations to the winners of the 2013 Hoka Highland Fling - Lee Kemp in a course record time of 7:02:50 and Tracy Dean in 9:12:21. The Scottish Champions were Matt Williamson (7:21:51) and Fionna Cameron (9:13:35). For more information on the Hoka Highland Fling, visit the event website.