Let me just state, before I go on, that I have an irrational fear of death. I pretty much see it as the end of the line, and it terrifies me that I have a shelf life that there’s nothing I can do about it. Because of this, I have grown to be scared of things that I used to be fine about when I was a kid. Like flying. Turbulence is a white-knuckle experience, without fail, and can bring me to tears. And Space, because I can’t deal with not knowing where everything ends. And my health.
I have, on more occasions that I care to admit, worn my heart rate monitor to bed because I had convinced myself that my heartbeat was irregular, and that I would have a heart attack in the middle of the night. It’s reassuring to be able to see that it’s normal (for me), and I can start to relax and go to sleep. I get paranoid whenever my body does weird stuff: heart palpitations, tingles, strange pains that occur anywhere (even if they last less than a second and never appear again), feeling faint – this list continues ad nauseam. It’s a really, really, really annoying thing to deal with sometimes, though I can tolerate it more now that I seem to have stopped getting panic attacks regularly. That made things like going to watch a film pretty much futile, because I’d spend half the time in the bathroom analyzing my pupils with my fingers glued to my neck checking my pulse like a moron. Basically, irrational freak outs are a thing with me, but I would rather look like a lunatic than worry about my imminent death.
During the Highland Fling, there were moments where I felt I would have welcomed death. My fingers were swollen to the point that they resembled link sausages, my ankle felt like it was being stabbed, the blisters on my feet were getting blisters, and at one point I was shin deep in cow shit asking myself why I thought this was a reasonable idea and stating, clearly and resolutely, “Never again.” But finally crossing that line, totally buzzing despite it being several hours after the fastest runners had come through, was enough to change that, “Never again,” to, “Maybe.”
Let’s rewind to Friday. After I finished work, I dragged all of my kit, in the pouring rain, to Aberdeen train station, where I boarded my train to Glasgow. I was soggy, the train was packed, I spent the entire journey worrying about my suitcase falling on my head. It was a less than fabulous experience. My friend, Grant, met me at the station, and we got a taxi back to his (via the shop for some supplies). And then we ordered a colossal amount of pizza, and watched a couple of episodes of ‘Freaks and Geeks’, which I had never heard of before, and probably would never have watched thanks to the title alone had Grant not convinced me that it is, in fact, a fabulous representation of what high school was like in the 90’s. I eventually got to sleep sometime after 11pm, with my alarm set for 3:30. In the morning.
I had arranged to share a taxi to Milgavie, about 10 miles north of Glasgow city centre, with two fellow runners, Belo and Maja, who were running the race while on holiday from Slovakia. The forecast for the day was abysmal, and as I watched the trees get battered by rain and wind outside as I got dressed, my heart sank. Thankfully, the rain had dwindled to a drizzle by the time I got a text from Belo saying they were on their way, and I lugged my belongings downstairs (Grant lives on the 7 millionth floor) to wait. The taxi arrived at about 4:20am, and about 20 minutes later we were at Milgavie train station to register.
To everyone’s relief, the drizzle was as bad as it got, and by about 5:30, the sky was overcast, but the rain had cleared. I had handed over my kit bag for the finish line, and stripped down to what I considered to be suitable layers for the day (gloves that could withstand -30 C temperatures, and my tornado-proof hiking jacket), feeling a tad overdressed next to some of the runners in lycra short shorts and a vest top, but whatever, I’m Texan.
As well as my kit bag, I had also handed over my drop bags, which was arguably as big a deal as turning up to the start line for me. Knowing I would not be breaking any course records is nothing new – I’m not the fastest runner, and I’ve only managed to ‘win’ a prize for finishing first female once. During a charity event’s inaugural run. Dressed as Santa. I’m pretty competitive when I know I have a chance of winning something, so when I found out there was a competition for the best drop bag at the first main check point, Balmaha, I basically devoted the week in the lead-up to the Fling to the creation of my drop bag. Because there was an actual chance I could win something! 4 rolls of duct tape, an empty coffee jar, a small cardboard box, 3 toilet roll tubes, and a packet of Sharpies later, I had created my masterpiece:
I gingerly handed over my entry to one of the marshalls, and set about finding some familiar faces, the first being Rhona and Graeme next to their ‘ultravan’. Graeme was marshalling, so he was busy collecting in drop bags, while Rhona and I went in search of some of the other ladies we were planning on running with. We found Iona and Jemma, who were sweeping the first half of the race and wished us good luck, then listened to the race director, ‘Johnny Fling’, brief us from the kit truck.
Finally, with about 7 minutes before the race start, we stumbled upon Kate, Vicky, Tracey, and some other Stonehaven runners, managing a quick photo.
A few of us, being Fling virgins, had decided to run as a group, and we made nervous/excited chatter until we heard the horn go off signalling the start. We shuffled forwards under a bridge, beeping over the starting mats and heading straight up some stairs, before veering left towards the start of the West Highland Way.
I was under the impression that the first 12ish miles to Drymen were flat, but I quickly understood that to mean ‘flat’. As in, undulating, but no really steep ascents. That part was nice, and we happily bumbled along as a group, chatting about quitting jobs, weddings, and selling and buying houses. A couple of miles before Drymen, I realized, to my horror, that I needed the toilet. In more than a 30-seconds-by-the-side-of-the-road kind of way. Sadly, the queue for the single porta loo at Drymen was substantial, and I was convinced to hold on until Balmaha for some respite. And so we continued.
Rhona and I pulled ahead a little before Balmaha as there was a bathroom break by a couple of our group, and I was getting cold standing around. Besides – none of us were planning on bombing through the checkpoint, so we intended to meet each other there. Just after 19 miles, and we turned a corner into the check point. The atmosphere was amazing (thank you marshalls!), and Graeme handed my my drop bag, telling me, “You’ve won!” I was confused for a moment until I realized he meant the drop bag competition (my brain was clearly not firing on all cylinders), and that was just the pick-me-up I needed after 7 miles of churning bowels. Vicky, Tracey, and Kate were only a couple of minutes behind us, and once we had all refilled our camelbaks and taken on the food we wanted, we set off towards Rowardennan.
Thankfully, a little after the Balmaha checkpoint there are some fancy public toilets. As Rhona and I were a little ahead of the others, I took the necessary decision to seek sweet relief in the luxurious cubicle (plumbing, toilet seat, loo roll, AND a hook for my camelbak), and though an incomplete evacuation, it was enough to help me feel like I wasn’t going to soil myself. I vocalized my pleasure to the group as I returned, and we set off again.
This part of the course was a little bit more technical than the start, and it was a nice distraction having to concentrate on where your feet were going. Before I knew it, we were coming into Inversnaid.
As Rhona and I had been a little ahead for the last while, I had forgotten, in the absense of task master Vicky, to take on food at regular intervals, and I had started to feel dizzy, nauseous, and tired. I started cranking up the food intake, and thankfully after about half an hour I started to feel a bit more human, but I felt like I’d gone from feeling fine, to struggling in the space of a couple of miles.
From here, things get a bit blurry. I know the lochside leg was slow and there was quite a bit of clambering over slippery rocks. Though I did crack my bad ankle on a rock, and Kate had a nasty looking fall, thankfully none of us suffered the same fate as one poor woman who fell and smashed her jaw in five places and had to be taken to hospital for surgery (though I hear she still ran the 5 miles to the next checkpoint after her extreme tumble). Rhona went ahead on her own, and that’s the last we saw of her until the end.
The four of us kept each other going, our main mission to get to Bein Glas before the 5:30 pm cut-off, which we managed with plenty of time to spare. From there, we consoled ourselves that there were ‘only’ 12 miles left. I’m so glad I didn’t extensively study the course elevation profile before, because if I knew what was to come I might have cried. From about 45 miles, every time I tried to run, my ankle was screaming at me, and eventually I told Vicky that I was pretty sure I’d have to walk my way in.
I think Vicky was suffering a bit as well, so Kate and Tracey went on ahead, and Vicky and I resorted to speed-walking. We went through the infamous Cow Poo Alley (which was ripe thanks to all the recent rain), and at one point I was shin deep in muck. We met an impass in the trail at one point due to a herd of unfriendly looking cows, and opted to climb up the hill and around them as a detour. And about 4 miles from the end, my bowels felt as though they would erupt, so I sent Vicky ahead a few paces, and went scurrying into the woods for my first ever al fresco crap. It was definitely a low point in my life.
At this stage I had thrown all my toys out of the pram and was sulkily wading through the streams instead of nimbly prancing over the rocks to keep my feet dry. After all, I had a thick, creamy layer of cow shit to wash off. My Garmin, which is a dirty fucking liar, beeped for mile 53, but there was no end in sight. Despite my inner tantrums, Vicky and I managed to stay cheerful by chatting all the way to Tyndnrum, finally being encouraged by the marshalls shouting, “only 600 metres to go!”. Vicky and I had made a pact to run across the line, and as soon as we saw the red carpet laid out for us, we picked up to a trot, and finished as we’d started – chatting and smiling:
After having the chip cut off from my ankle, getting my medal, tech shirt, and goody bag (complete with bottle of fizz!), I made my way into a heated marquee and had a seat with some amazing lentil soup.
Before long, I was being presented with my prize for the winning drop bag, which is WAY more than I was expecting, and I did wonder how I would manage to cart everything upstairs to my apartment when I got home the next day (thankfully Ian was in). I didn’t really get a chance to explore the Scottish hamper until I got back to Aberdeen, and it was better than Christmas. Everything on that table? Currently on my living room floor. Apart from wee Nessie – that’s in bed with the stuffed huskies I couldn’t bear to part with after pulling them behind me at Loch Ness last year.
After hobbling off the podium, Graeme and Vicky’s husband, Ian, helped collect my bags, and Jemma and Iona helped me take my stuff to the bed and breakfast (Oh my god, thank you so much!), where I showered and put on some clean clothes, before heading with Kate and her husband, Ali, up to the hall for some food.
After nearly falling asleep into our dinner, we said goodnight, and I slept like a baby. Until my work alarm, which I had forgotten to disable, woke me up. Thanks, idiot me.
Despite the pain of the last 7-8 miles, I can honestly say I had a great experience. The course was more challenging than I was expecting, and it’s always nerve-wracking running in unknown territory (for me, anything over 33 miles), but the whole event was so well organized, and all the helpers and runners were on top form. Free booze at the end also helps soften the blow. Commiserations to any of the runners who had to DNF, despite putting in a tough slog, but there’s always next year.
Considering on Saturday I probably would have been willing to break my own legs to have a legitimate reason not to run this ever again, I’m rather disconcerted that I am genuinely considering returning in 2015.*
*To defend my title, obviously.