Our Online News Ed Rhalou runs 53 miles along the West Highland Way and survives to tell the tale.
After a year of plotting, four months of dedicated training and 16 neurotic blog posts, last weekend I finally took on the Hoka Highland Fling. Having decided long ago that I am a flame-haired ultra warrior queen capable of conquering any distance with ease, it was time to put my imagination into action and demonstrate my true mettle.
Since entering the race, a lot of people have asked me why I was so determined to run such a long distance and what motivated me to take on one of the toughest courses in the country. Aside from confirming my warrior queen status and fulfilling a secret desire to push my body to its limits, one of the main reasons I ran The Fling was revenge. I really wanted to piss my ex-boyfriend off; he DNFed the race a couple of years ago. Running an ultra in the highlands may sound like an excessive way to prove a point, but as a bloodthirsty ultra warrior queen, dabbling in a little revenge comes with the territory. I knew in my heart I could run it; I just needed to convince my body to do the same. It’s amazing how a drop of vengeance can propel a girl to achieve her ultra marathon dreams.
With 53 miles of trail and 7,500 feet of elevation along the West Highland Way in Scotland, the Fling sounded like the perfect place to prove I possess true grit. Following 16 weeks of training on London roads and limited experience grappling with the Highlands, what’s the worst that can happen?
My brilliant friend Ed, who I met thanks to this blog, kindly agreed to accompany me on our quest for adventure. Armed with some brightly coloured sportswear, a bag of flapjacks and a ferocious thirst for revenge, last Saturday we set off for our first foray into serious ultra running. At 6am on a damp Saturday in April, 650-something runners gathered for battle in a car park in Milngavie just outside Glasgow to collectively push our bodies to the extreme and begin our search for spiritual enlightenment.
Milngavie – Drymen – 13 miles
Admittedly after getting up at 4am to start the race, I don’t remember much about the first 13 miles between the start and Drymen. I know we deliberately started incredibly slowly and let the majority of the running field pass us by. I also recall being serenaded by a gypsy violinist and a bongo player in a field of cowpats, and forcing myself to consume flapjacks when all I wanted to do was sleep.
Drymen – Balmaha – 20 miles
After Drymen which was a water-only checkpoint, with tired legs and weary hearts, we began the climb up Conic Hill into the unexpected sunshine. As the path ascended up and up into the endless blue sky I wondered on more than one occasion if I was capable of completing this mammoth task. I was already completely knackered and jacked up on painkillers and we weren’t even halfway. Would I make it to the finish line? After all my fighting talk, I suddenly wasn’t sure.
Just when I thought my legs couldn’t carry me another step, I spied a familiar bearded goat in the distance and my heart surged with joy. My friend Graham Kelly was waiting to greet us with hugs and smiles near the crest of the hill. This was the first point in the race I realised the power of healing hugs and continued to manhandle random strangers for the rest of the day. When you’re stripped bare and fighting to survive, human contact is invaluable and a familiar face can carry you for 20 miles.
Balmaha – Rowardennan – 27 miles
After finally scaling the beast of a hill we were rewarded with the first drop bag checkpoint at Balmaha. Manned by my friend Karen, who doled out excellent hugs, I praised the gods of running for giving me the foresight to pack Jaffa cakes and cold pizza. At all the aid stations the extremely efficient volunteers refilled my water and fussed over me and really made the race. I am so grateful to have met such warm-hearted and kind people along the way. (Sorry for being a bit handsy. Ultra running really brings out my burning desire for physical contact).
As we rounded Loch Lomond the importance of good nutrition kicked in. Running an ultra really breaks it down. It’s quite a primitive experience and I suddenly felt very in touch with the earth and my basic needs. It was interesting to feel the instant reward of eating real food and notice how my body responded to fuel. Despite exhaustion and a desperate need to rest, I forced myself to keep eating and this paid off. However this meant that most of my panoramic race photos include a fierce warrior queen bravely clutching a slice of cold pizza and an M&S brie and grape sandwich.
Rowardennan – Inversnaid – 34 miles
53 miles is a long time to spend with anyone and on several occasions my new friendship with Ed was tested. We were both tired but Ed clearly had the edge and I was anxious that I was holding him back. My fingers swelled up like sausages (running is a glamorous business) and I was struggling, so I told him on multiple occasions to piss off and win the race, but he refused and stuck resolutely by my side for the entire day. He didn’t even complain when I sang the chicken song, stopped holding in my farts and started hallucinating. Ed is a kind, funny, tough and relentlessly positive chap and I owe him the world. If he rang me tomorrow and told me he’d accidentally committed a murder, I would help him bury the body with no questions asked.
The route along the loch was beautiful with gentle undulating trails alongside the glistening water and lush forest trails luring us further and further into the heart of the race. By the time we made it to halfway, after a few wobbles I officially decided I was going to succeed. Aided by a morning of force feeding and a batch of magical caffeine gels, at about mile 30 I suddenly started to feel really high and this was when the race started.
Inversnaid – Beinglas – 41 miles
The section between Inversnaid and Beinglas was completely bonkers and would be enough to put most sane people off the race, but this was easily my favourite part of the day. Clambering over rocks, hopping over roots and wading through streams was hard going on exhausted legs, but I loved it and we were rewarded for our efforts with some truly sublime and majestic views. The route was a roller coaster of mud coated hills, lush woodland and verdant undergrowth and despite being utterly unprepared, I loved every minute of it. It was also a huge relief to make the cut off time that had been hovering above me all day and despite the creeping pain in my legs I surged forward like a warrior in battle.
Beinglas to Tyndrum – 53 miles
The final stretch of the race from Beinglas to Tyndrum was easily the toughest section, with endless rolling hills threatening to rip my knackered legs from their sockets and the sun quickly fading from the sky. But thanks to another surprise appearance by my friend Graham and the desperate need for a beer, we persevered. Having switched to energy gels and mind control, we started to pick off weary runners and make serious progress towards the finish line. As we finally turned the corner through the woodland I could see the crowds and hear the piper playing on the wind.
After 14+ hours on our feet we hobbled down the red carpet through a sea of flags and smiling faces into the arms of Ed’s lovely wife Emily and the tears came. Enveloped by a sea of sweaty runners drinking beer and preparing for the ceilidh, my friend Rhona steered me towards a warm seat and a sense of calm descended upon my shoulders.
Tired, hungry and utterly exhausted, I realised why I put myself through this magical, horrific ordeal. I may be resilient, independent and brimming with vengeance, but even the fiercest warriors need love too. They say the greatest revenge is success, but perhaps true enlightenment comes from admitting you are vulnerable and opening up your heart. I couldn’t have done the Hoka Highland Fling without the support and encouragement of the brilliant volunteers, my amazing friends, my family and fellow runners. But most of all I would never have even considered it had I not met the aforementioned ex-boyfriend who is an intrepid adventurer. I will always be grateful for the gift he gave me: beautiful Scotland.
Sometimes it’s OK to admit you can’t fight every battle on your own and you need a little help. Thank you all so much for being there for me when I needed you the most. Same time next year?