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Highland Fling - Robbie Dunlop

The route

For those unfamiliar with this one, the Highland Fling Race is a point-to-point trail ultramarathon along the southern 53 miles, with 7000ft of vertical gain, of Scotland’s iconic West Highland Way.

The route runs through the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park from Milngavie, along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond and into some dramatic highland scenery, towards Tyndrum and onto the races iconic red carpet finish line!

The background

This year's race was run as part of my build up towards returning to attempt the completion of the full West Highland Way Race (96 miles) this coming June. That said, my pre-race plan was always to race hard and hopefully benefit from the super compensation gains…after some well-earned rest! I also had the added pressure of returning to the race as Scottish Ultra Trail Champion, after winning the Cateran Trail Race in May of last year (sorry, that sounds a bit braggy).

The success of this year’s efforts would simply not have happened if the second half of last year hadn’t been such a challenging one, both in a running sense and personally. I DNF’d the West Highland Way Race five weeks after my running ‘career’ high of winning the Scots Champs. A viral bug my daughter, Maisie, had so lovingly shared with me in the week leading up to the race left me fatigued and lacking in the physical and mental capacities required to attempt travelling 96 miles on foot. The DNF hit me hard. I had completed the race for the first time in 2022 and had held private aspirations of bettering both my time (16h 9m) and finishing position (2nd).

A summer spent running sporadically, wallowing in self-pity, and taking some purposeful time off from training did me the world of good. When I think back now, I definitely fell into the trap of associating my running performances with my feelings of self-worth. Winning = all good, I’m really acing life right now! DNF = you’re such a let down, people expected more from you. That kind of nonsense.

Initially, I had decided that I wasn’t going to run any ultramarathon in 2024. Then my stance changed to just definitely not running the West Highland Way Race. But this was all turned on it’s head when in the late autumn, my mum died. She was one of my biggest supporters, always encouraging me to ‘just go for it’. Always the first to text me and tell me when entries to races had opened and phoning me to talk about the names on the entry list that she’d been searching up. There waiting at the end of the red carpet to cheer me home during the 2022 edition of this race, she was very much in my thoughts in the closing miles on Saturday as I raced towards the finish line. My mum had an affinity with the West Highland Way after hiking it with friends and had expressed that I’d regret it (she knew me well) if I didn’t stick my name down for the race ballot. It goes without saying, my race entries had a huge amount of emotion attached to them this year!

The build up

I travelled up to the By The Way Hostel in Tyndrum on Friday afternoon. The hostel dramatically transforms itself over race weekend from West Highland Way accommodation to race HQ. I took this time to myself to unwind, go for a short walk along the last mile of the course and do some final kit checks and drop bag packing.

A few other people, who were there to volunteer at the race, began to arrive whilst I was having my dinner and, as it turned out they were well toured runners, it was nice to reminisce about another favourite race of mine – The Tour of Fife! An extremely early night was required as the bus to Milngavie left at 3:45am on Saturday morning. Thankfully, I managed a bit of shut eye. I don’t know if others find this but the night before a key race is usually a nightmare for me.

Arriving at the start, the first thing that struck me was how cold it was. I had only planned to wear a t-shirt, gloves and a buff. Luckily, I was able to keep myself wrapped up in my jackets right up until the start of the race as I had bumped into a friend, who offered to take my things up to the finish line for me. Sometimes it’s the little things. Registration, handing over drop bags filled with sugary goods and a toilet trip all seemed to pass by in a flash. John Duncan, the commander-in-chief of this fantastic race, ran through the race briefing, finishing with an almighty DING-DING! I positioned myself a few rows back from the front so as to not get carried away in the first 100 meters. The countdown started…

The race

The unofficial race from Milgnavie to Drymen isn’t real. I know this because in 2022, I raced the first 13 miles of the course incredibly quickly and also suffered incredibly quickly for it. I was nearly 5 minutes slower this year, according to my Strava data, and in 7th position. I felt fresh, strong and enjoyed lots of good conversation with a few of the runners. It can be challenging to consume lots of calories and water during these early stages of ultramarathons, but my previous experience meant I didn’t overlook my nutrition. Aiming to consume between 70 – 90 grams of carbohydrates every hour, I got to work almost as soon as the race began. This year, my nutrition plan consisted of luchos dilitos guava bars, torq or velofotre energy gels and tailwind. I also supplemented my sodium intake by taking 2x salt tablets every hour (I’ll need to alter this strategy next time as my cramping suggests I would benefit from a higher hourly dose…I must be more of a salty sweater than I had first thought!).

For me, the first real highlight of the route is the beautiful views of Loch Lomond as the route passes over Conic Hill. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the person dressed as a dinosaur we had passed on route to Conic though. It was on this ascent that the group I was running in began to break up. I dibbed my timer at the Balmaha checkpoint, used my fancy little tailwind filter to replenish my hydration and picked up my gels. I was in such a hurry to get back on the trail that I entertained the volunteers with a series of bodily movements, trying to work out which direction to go, that would be fit for a Monty Python sketch. A few laughs later, I was guided in the right direction and left believing I was in either 3rd or 4th position. This error is important because I then spent the next 21 miles believing I was chasing down places.

The lochside section of the West Highland Way is one that splits opinions. Some enjoy it’s boulders and gnarly tree roots, whilst some absolutely despise it. I fall into the former. For me, there’s only about a mile of this section, just north of Inversnaid, where the under footing is fairly challenging and it can be difficult to run with any rhythm. I had travelled through to recce this section, including running some of it at a hard effort, a month before the race, so it was fresh in my mind what to expect.

After reaching the Rowardennan checkpoint, I had a caffeine gel and made my first strategic move of the race. Up until this point, I was running alongside another runner and enjoying the company but knew that if I could make a move that meant he lost sight of me amongst the winding trails and boulder strewn lochside, it could play into my hands from a psychological point of view. My efforts paid off and I even managed to get into the top ten on a few extended Strava segments, which is kind of crazy considering I was running a 53 mile race.

Now feeling the benefits of the two caffeine gels I’d taken, I felt like I was really motoring along. Then my left hamstring twinged, twinged again, then finally went into full on cramp mode. I tried not to panic as I’ve suffered from bad cramping during my races before. Easier said than done when you’re in the midst of a competitive race though. I quickly drank the entire soft flask I had (500ml) and took two salt tablets. This wasn’t part of my plan but I knew that there would be an opportunity for me to fill my flask again from one of the faster flowing streams on the lochside, As a result, I ran the gnarly Inversnaid to Beinglas section a little slower than I’d hoped. Nothing dramatic in the grand scheme of things but mentally I needed to reset a little and find my forward moving rhythm once again. Due to me focusing so heavily on my hydration and cramping challenges, I found myself moving well again without feeling like I was working hard to do so. This despite reaching mile 40 of the race. The unexplained mysteries of the mind.

For those of you that know me or see a few of my runs on Strava, you’ll know I do most of my training runs on my own. I still don’t really understand why no none wants to meet me for a run in Camperdown at 5am on a cold and wet, winters morning. Joking aside, I think that these solitary morning runs and time spent within my own head is mental training for moments like these in races. When things get really tough and everything begins to hurt, a lot. There comes a time in every ultramarathon when the legs can become quite uncooperative and you’re willing yourself towards the finish line. Between miles 40 – 50, I was having to really focus on keeping things really simple. Relentless forward progress. Just keep moving. Eat, drink and put one foot in front of the other.

The route climbs towards Bogle Glen (Crianlarich) at miles 45 – 47 and I was finding it quite soul destroying. You can see quite clearly how far you still have to run to reach the final checkpoint and as part of my positive psychological strategy, I wasn’t going to look behind to see if I was being chased down. It felt like I was in no mans land. I was passing lots of walkers on this section, who were amazing at stepping to the side and cheering me on. One couple shouted that I was in 2nd place, to which I corrected them (or so I thought), that I was in 3rd position. I had purposely not asked at the previous Beinglas checkpoint about my position or how far ahead anyone was. I reached the final checkpoint, chugged down half a soft flask filled with flat cola and asked for the first time how far behind I was.

I can’t really put in to words how I felt over the final 6 miles of the race. It was strange knowing that, barring injury, I was going to medal again at the Scottish Ultra Trail Championships. The checkpoint team had informed me that I was in fact second and had been for most of the race. I had looked back down the trail for the first time and couldn’t see any runners, knowing I had a view of nearly 2 miles, the sense of relief was huge. I thought about how amazing it was going to complete the medal rainbow (bronze, gold and now silver in the last three years) but mostly I thought about my mum. I pictured her being at the finish line and enjoyed flashbacks of the embraces and smiles we shared two years earlier. It gave the me the firepower I needed to really get moving towards the red carpet.

Passing the pipers and turning the corner into the finishing straight, I was really overcome with emotion. The noise was incredible. One of those moments when you’re not really sure what actually happened. I’m glad there are a few photos as it really is all a blur. I was high fiving everyone and had the cheesiest of grins on my face. I crossed the finish line in a time of 7:15:24. The 13th quickest time of the race and faster than the winning time in 2022 (the race wasn’t held last year). Beaten by a truly remarkable run of 6:50:26, the second fastest time ever run on the course, I have no complaints about not defending my title. Pre-race, I would have considered any time that dipped under 7:30 to have been an achievement that I would have been delighted with. To finish in the time I did, feeling the way I did throughout most of the race, has me really excited about future potential gains in my race performances over ultra-distances. Overall, I couldn’t be happier with how the day panned out…though there is definitely room for future improvement…

Post-race thoughts

Training went really well in the lead up to this race. I’ve been incredibly consistent and fortunate to avoid any niggles from December – April. Family commitments have meant that I’ve made alterations to my training over the years to ensure it doesn’t encroach on this time. My wife, Louise, is also such a fantastic support for me and, without sounding too cheesy, I wouldn’t be able to fit in the training schedule without her. Behind every success is hard work and an incredible support network! I can’t wait for Louise and Maisie to be part of my support team for the West Highland Way Race in June.

A few changes I made to my training that I think are worth noting are that I consistently included harder training (speed sessions) into my weekly mileage. Nothing crazy but at least one threshold type session every week, maybe two if the legs felt fresh. I don’t get too concerned about the number of reps, minutes run or length of rest, I just try to make things progressive overall but if my legs aren’t feeling fresh, I’ll adapt and remove reps or shorten the length of reps if needed. I’ve been guilty of training through some fatigue in the past but I’ve become much more attune to my body’s needs over the years. If I it was only one session per week, I wasn’t getting stressed about it. I completed most of these sessions on the treadmill at a local gym. Ironically, I have the grit and determination to run long distances but I find running at speed during speed sessions mentally challenging. Sticking the treadmill onto my pre-planned speed and plugging away just seems to work for me.

Additionally, I spent a lot more time using the treadmill to run uphill only, adding more weekly vertical gain to my training, without damaging my muscles constantly running downhill. I would fire up Netflix or the likes and run uphill, for up to two hours at a time. I haven’t crunched the numbers but I was hitting numbers over 10,000ft most weeks, it’s surely been part of the improvement gained I’ve made.

Mileage wise, I was running less than in ’22 and ’23. Not by much, maybe 5 - 10 miles, on average per week. The magic number that seemed to work for me, accounting for family, work and fatigue was 70 miles per week. Between 9 – 11 hours of training. I peaked at 80 miles around five weeks out from the race and, for the first time, performed a longer taper into the event. I’ve tried a few different methods over the years, from three weeks, two weeks and even none at all (not recommended!). I dropped around 8 - 10% of my overall mileage for the weeks following my mileage peak. I did this for three weeks, resulting in me dropping to around 60% of my highest mileage week the week before the race. My speed sessions also dropped in terms of time at intensity. For race week, I’ve followed the same structure for a few years now – a few 30-minute shake out runs, a run that includes one or two short efforts, a rest day during which I carb load and a final shake out run the day before the race. I of the believe that less is definitely more during that last week leading up to a race.

The week after the race has and will include lots of rest, eating as healthy as possible to help the muscles and body recover and trying to stretch out any tightness. I’ve rushed back after longer efforts in the past but I have no plans to run until the weekend. The West Highland Way race is in eight weeks time so I need to balance recovery with re-building. I have a few recce runs on the second half of the route planned for late May, which will be a big aerobic stimulus ahead of the race. No need to do anything crazy in between.

I’ve not deep dived into all the stats or science around my nutrition, the specific speed sessions I did each week or long runs etc. but if anyone has an ultra-distance race in the calendar this year or would like any advice (more just my thoughts on things really!) then please don’t hesitate to get in touch. All my training is on Strava but as you’ll quickly notice, it isn’t anything special or different, it’s all about the consistency.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading.

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