The Hoka Highland Fling 2014: A Sweepers Perspective

It’s Friday evening and Jemma and I are enjoying a lovely dinner and a few relaxed drinks at my parents house in Clachan of Campsie. Normally the night before a race I’m quite highly strung and can’t unwind but this was different. We had the privilege of being part of this years Hoka Highland Fling, but we didn’t have the stresses of having to race it – we would just be tagging along at the back and making sure everyone got to the next check point in one piece. Awesome.

Although we were only sweeping half the course, we still had a good 27 miles to cover and could potentially have been out there for 7-8 hours (going by last years splits) so we weren’t taking any chances and we packed enough food to last us a good month or so.

We didn't take all of it, but going to the supermarket on an empty stomach is clearly a bad idea Jemma.... :)
We didn’t take all of it, but going to the supermarket on an empty stomach is clearly a bad idea Jemma…. 🙂

Cars in Rowardennan, bags packed, kit all ready and my wonderful mother willing to get up at the crack of dawn to drive us over to Milngavie, I sleepily headed off to bed and quickly fell asleep with the wonderful peace and quiet of the countryside around me….

…only to be woken at about 3am by something that sounded like a freight train trundling by! I looked out the window and saw the trees across the lane swaying feet in either direction and rain bouncing off everything around. This was not a good sign. Could I manage the distance in this type of weather again?!.

I eventually crawled out from under the duvet around 4.15am and willed the rain to have gone off before we left the house at around 5.30am. The fact I was about to run 27 miles still hadn’t hit me. It was just another early start for another wee run. Or something like that!

Wrapped up and ready to go.
Wrapped up and ready to go.

I ended up wearing a vest, 2 long-sleeved tops, my waterproof jacket, 2 buffs, shorts, long socks and gloves. I was NOT going to be cold on this run, that was for sure!

The rain had let up a bit and by the time we arrived at Milngavie train station at 5.40am it had gone of completely. The forecast was for a dry start and then drizzle throughout the day. Not perfect but it could be so much worse I guess! We found a marshal who agreed to take our luggage up to Rowardennan (thank you so much!), dropped off our over sized drop bag (as I discovered during Glen Ogle, you never know what you’ll want to eat until the time comes, so pack one of everything!) and then heard someone shouting my name. It was Rhona and Rachel who were both raring to go. We wished them good luck and then took a step to the side to watch the runners assemble for their 6am start. What a sight it was. A car park full of runners – close to a thousand of them, all ready to tackle this beast of a 53 mile monster. The horn went and they were off, leaving the car park feeling eerily quiet for the next wee while…

All ready to run to Tyndrum?
All ready to run to Tyndrum?

Come 7am and it was our turn to start with the relays. The plan was to take it easy and keep a bit of a gap between us and the last runner but as always I got a bit carried away and Jemma had to reel me in once or twice. We had a bit of a stop-start first few miles, picking up litter and route signs and trying not to run too close to the runner ahead of us. I was enjoying myself immensely. I’ve never run parts of the WHW before so to put it all together all the way up to Rowardennan was amazing and just so beautiful. Of course there was time for posing….

Leaving Milngavie. The silly pictures pretty much started straight away!
Leaving Milngavie. The silly pictures pretty much started straight away!



Our relay runner got into Drymen just before the 3 hour mark and in the time it took Jemma to empty the route signs out of her bag the next runner had sprinted off. The pace stepped up a bit and we found ourselves galloping up a hill behind her. Pretty sore on already tired legs! As we came to a road crossing I noticed our runner heading up the hill, following the Rob Roy way. I tried shouting after her but I imagine she was too in the zone to hear me and I ended up full on sprinting up a hill after her! (I must point out that this is where I found out the whistle on my camelbak is totally useless. Will take a proper one next time!) This was the only part of the race where the route wasn’t clearly marked and I can only assume a marker or 2 had gone missing as every other crossing was so obvious. I’m not saying sabotage in any way… or am I…? I can only hope we didn’t lose any other runners at this point as by now there was quite a gap between our runner and the one in front. After we had pointed her back in the right direction we began our ascent over Conic Hill. Everything I’ve previously read about it popped into my head and I imagined the worst, but I actually really enjoyed it! Does this mean that hill reps in training are actually working??! On the way back down we came across and injured runner who was hobbling down, wincing with every step. Her support was on their way but by this point we were so far behind the previous runner we were being called by the next check point to find out where we were! We passed through Balmaha after about 4 and a half hours and gave ourselves a mental pat on the back for managing to still feel awesome. After packing all that amazing food into our drop bag, the only thing I fancied when we got there was chocolate milk. With that in one hand and a packet of Hula Hoops in the other, we bounced out of the check point determined to try and catch up with another runner. After another 15 minutes or so of running we decided to call ahead to the next check point and let them know we had had some issues and that we may be some time.

Jemma running up Conic hill!
Jemma running up Conic hill!
Sweeping from afar...
Sweeping from afar…
Bounding along the beach at Milarrochy. Having just too much fun!
Bounding along the beach at Milarrochy. Having just too much fun!

The route between Balmaha and Rowardennan is quite technical in places, but so much fun. I have ran this stretch many a time before with my dog and know it pretty well, so I knew what was ahead and enjoyed every step. I felt one small blister appearing under my toe from when my feet had got wet and my sock was rubbing, but apart from that I felt surprisingly good! I can’t even begin to think how I’d feel if I’d run the whole course though. I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to find out next year….

Hills after 24 miles....
Hills after 24 miles….


I bounded in to Rowardennan and passed over my first aid kit to the next bunch of sweepers who said the last runner had left a good 20-30 minutes before. They had their work cut out catching up with them then!! After stretching off we made our way up to Tyndrum to get showered changed and ready to cheer in our friends who were brave enough to tackle to whole course. They all ran extremely well – 53 miles in under 15 hours? You’re all my heroes! We had a quick catch up and then decided we were too tired to go to the ceilidh and just needed some food and to head home.

I’m hoping I’m strong enough and fit enough to join these amazing people on the start line next year. I’ll tackle the CS40 in September first and see how my body responds to that and decide if I’m ready or not. If not I’ll definitely be back to help out again as this is just such an amazing event which is just going from strength to strength. Well done everyone, you’re awesome!!

I'll be rocking this hoodie for months to come.
I’ll be rocking this hoodie for months to come.

And the training cycle goes round and round…..

With my energy levels having returned to normal, I’m glad to be back and training with gusto once more. The Strathearn marathon is a mere 7 and a half weeks away and my training is pretty much going to plan. I say pretty much as you always need to make exceptions for unplanned nights out, injuries and the odd bad day at work that can only be sorted with a couch, mind numbing television and a nice glass of your favourite Sauvignon blanc….

However, with tired blood a thing of the past (fingers crossed!) and muscles nearly back to the tip-top condition they were in at the end of last year, the runs are getting longer, much more comfortable and I find myself even wanting to incorporate hills into the equation.

This weeks training has gone something like this:

Sunday – 11 miles (of wind, rain, hills and lots of swear words)
Monday – 5 miles on road
Tuesday – 6.5 miles of “undulations”
Wednesday – rest
Thursday – club training – intervals and a few hills (7.5 miles)
Friday – weights
Saturday – 20 miles

If all goes to plan tomorrow I’ll have clocked about 48 miles this week and come tomorrow evening I can happily kick my shoes off, take the weight off my weary feet and enjoy my long lie the following morning. This will be the most miles I have covered in a week in a long, long time. I have my training schedule stuck to my fridge with my weekly mileage targets highlighted on it and every time I see it I feel an urge just to put my trainers on and get out that second. Obviously not always possible as usually when I see it I’m either on my way to work or on my way to bed… but at least I have to running bug back. I WANT to run again.

Spring running. It's just too cute!!
Spring running. It’s just too cute!!

The first race on my schedule (and the first I will get to properly race this year after my failure to function properly at Devilla in February!) is the Loch Leven half marathon on the 10th of May. Not only will it let me try out my racing legs for the first time this year but it also ties very nicely into my training programme. I’ll just have to make sure I haven’t pushed too hard during the week and that I’ve got something left in the tank come race day! I’m not going out with too much of a target in mind. As long as I have a comfortable race and I come in fairly close to my PB I’ll be happy. But you never know what will happen on race day, so I won’t count my chickens and all that. I’m getting nervous just thinking about it just now. The last time I raced with any speed in my legs at all was at the end of November at the Hartley Cup Relays and even then I was still a bit zapped post Ultra!

However that said, I need to get my head back in the racing game and learn to push myself – comfort should no longer be an option. I could easily bash out mile after mile at a steady pace and go on like that until the cows come home, but as soon as I take it up a notch things start to hurt and I pull back. Where’s that going to get me? I need to learn to focus more at races. This shouldn’t be comfortable and if I’ve got enough left for a sprint finish then I haven’t been trying hard enough earlier on in the race. Training needs to go up a notch and the miles need to be banked week in, week out. NO EXCUSES!! (Except for the odd wine/flake on the couch/bad day etc., etc….)

There's always time for a treat after clocking up the miles!
There’s always time for a treat after clocking up the miles!

After the Loch Leven half, Jemma (my new sister-in-law to be!!) and I will be travelling down to Campbeltown to take part in one of the most scenic half marathons in the county – the Mull of Kintyre half. This is going to be a run to enjoy myself on, rather than a race, in part because some of it is on sand (not that I’m trying to get the excuses in early or anything!) and also because I want to take in some of the views and remember this race. I’m sure there’s a reason it sells out in 10 days or less and has been voted “most scenic half marathon in the UK” for the last 4 years. No point in travelling over 150 miles just to get out of breath and come home again. In this case, it’s NOT all about the racing…

In June I will meet my nemesis once more – the marathon. This time I will be tackling the Strathearn marathon, surrounded by my friends and team mates as I battle to get closer to the 4 hour marathon mark. Sub 4? Who knows, again I’m not going to count my chickens, but I know I have it in me to get much closer to the 4 hour mark for 26.2 miles. Again, it’s all in the training and I will be rambling on about my marathon training in more detail as the weeks go on and we get ever closer to the event.

My new post training fuel.  Absolutely delicious!!
My new post training fuel. Absolutely delicious!!
Remember to treat yourself lots after long mileage... it's well deserved!
Remember to treat yourself lots after long mileage… it’s well deserved!

The biggest goal of the year (so far!) is the Clyde Stride 40 mile Ultra marathon in September and my main aim for this race is to try and run the whole way. In preparation for this I will be doing many, MANY long slow runs where I really dial back the pace and just keep going for as long as I can. I can’t imagine what 40 miles will feel like quite yet, but I’m sure after clocking hundreds and hundreds of miles in the lead up to it I’ll have a fair idea of the fatigue and stiffness that I may endure on the way! When I tell people that’s my next goal many of them just laugh. I’m so glad I have my running community for support and advice. I never laugh at anyone’s dreams. What gives me the right to? I’d never, ever do a bungee jump or a sky dive, or paraglide off the side of a mountain because that’s just not me. But if someone else wants to do it, by all means go for it! Tell me about your adventures afterwards and I’ll listen. One thing you’ll never hear me say is “pfffft, why on earth would you want to do that?!? That’s just stupid!” Each to their own…

So as the evenings get longer and as my motivation to go out and run as soon as I finish work returns, I feel I’m in a for a good summer of training. Next Saturday I will be making my way with hundreds of others to the start line of the Highland Fling – a 53 mile Ultra marathon that takes place on the first half of the West Highland Way. I still don’t feel ready to take part in this event so this year Jemma and I will be sweeping the first half of the race from Milngavie to Rowardennan. Of course we’ll have jelly babies and treats galore, so look out for us and hopefully we’ll spur you on and push you along if need be. I’m really looking forward to meeting more members of the Ultra running community whose blogs I have been reading or who I have met through twitter/facebook over the past few years. I’m so excited and honoured to be given a role in this great event and also can’t wait for a wee knees up at the Ceilidh afterwards (that’s if any of you can still move…)

See you at the finish line!

More sushi please!!
More sushi please!!

When you can’t quite make it to the start line….

This Sunday coming is the day I should be running my first marathon of the year. A race I entered almost as soon as it was open with high hopes of a distance PB and a more comfortable run that my last attempt, which was at the Loch Ness Marathon back in September last year. The Lochaber marathon is an out and back race on a relatively flat route and after the ups and downs and inbetweens of Loch Ness, I had really been looking forward to see what I was capable of. But after my rather shaky start to the year, I made the heart wrenching decision to pull out. I knew it was the right decision as I hadn’t been able to train properly, but the stubborn part of me was very reluctant to accept I wasn’t capable of doing it. In the state I was in I would have been lucky to complete the first 10k of it!

However, now that race day looms and I’m feeling much better and have a good few miles clocked in my fresh legs, I’m inwardly very jealous of everyone going up to the race. I know I’m still nowhere near marathon ready but now that I’m running well again, part of me wishes I’d still given it a go. The very silly part of me of course – I know I’d do more damage than good running on untrained legs, but still….. you know how it is.

The past few weeks have seen my return to running with a grin on my face. Not just a grin, but an elated , Cheshire cat type beam from ear to ear.

And, well whatever this is…

Black top on the right. Captions welcome...
Black top on the right. Captions welcome…

The above was taken at our club time trail on Tuesday. A 3 mile sprint around the Gartmorn dam, a beautiful – if somewhat muddy, circular loop where our club does loads of training. My splits for which were all under 8 minutes and my overall time being 22:35. I couldn’t be happier with that time, and if that’s how I’m starting my comeback I’m hoping at the next time trial I can slash at least another 30 seconds off that!

My giving it my all, Scott just having a leisurely jog. It's not fair....
My giving it my all, Scott just having a leisurely jog. It’s not fair….
Ruuuuuuuuuunn!! Pics - Richard O'Grady
Pics – Richard O’Grady

Thursdays training was one of my favourite pyramid set – 3 mins, 4 mins, 5 mins, 6 mins, 5 mins, 4 mins, 3 mins, following the old wagon way down to Tillicoultry and then, yep you guessed it, back UP again. I felt like I had so much power during this session which is something I haven’t felt since the beginning of December. I even managed a sprint up the last hill in the last minute of the last set – something I couldn’t have even dreamed of a few weeks ago!

So now the countdown is on until my next few events. Starting with sweeping the first 2 legs of the Hoka Highland Fling in 3 weeks – something that has just been finalised tonight and I couldn’t be more excited about! Then I have the Loch Leven Half at the beginning of May which is a race that I HAVE to run this year as it was my first ever DNS last year. Following that Jemma and I are running the Mull of Kintyre half at the end of May – one of the most beautiful in the U.K and then, in 10 weeks time, it’s marathon time again. The Strathearn marathon which will now be my first marathon of the year and my now ‘A’ race of the year. Training is well under way and if I manage to run it like I’m running just now, I’ll be elated and have a fantastic race.

Bring on the hours of running ahead.