I had not intended to enter the 2018 Fling, with the West Highland Way race in the same year. Back in 2016 it took me 6 weeks to recover enough to even want to run again. I was scared I could not recover in time for the WHWrace, just 8 weeks later. Neil my Chief Crewman, however, advised I run the Fling as my longest training run for the WHWrace. Against my better judgment, I entered and got a ballot place. So the race was not a race, but a dress rehearsal for June 23rd. I am so glad I listened to Neil.
This year my training had been perfect for the Fling and I felt so ready for it. Then, 4 weeks out from the race, things got a bit hectic and I was travelling a lot. I lost sleep, training was not my highest priority and fell apart, as did eating well. I got pretty run down. I was back in Cambridge for a week and despite sleeping 8-9hours for a few nights I could not shake a deep fatigue that had settled in. Those who know my past will understand why this feeling scares me, a lot. Max helped to dispel my paranoia and we headed to Scotland. The day before the Fling it became apparent I was unwell; I could not keep warm and was extremely tired. I spent Friday on the sofa under blankets with Kirsty’s hot water bottle. Despite this, I could not help getting carried away in all the excitement for the next day as competitors and volunteers began to arrive. I met some WHWrace runners who had plenty of advice. I hung on their every word.
I was asleep by 9pm but woke at 11pm and I could not sleep again. At 2.30am Max made us breakfast and we caught the bus to Milngavie for the 6am race start. My tummy was in a terrible way! However, it was all great training for the WHWrace! No sleep and 53 miles of running on the course – perfect!
Max was in the first start wave so we kissed goodbye with the barrier between us as Johnny Fling and Jez Bragg counted down from 10. The horn went and I watched Max run off under the Milngavie rail-bridge. I joined the front of the final wave, observing the contrast between the runners in Max’s wave and those in mine. The front-runners were all in dark, serious colours of red, black and grey, and mostly lean men, quiet in anticipation. In my wave it was mostly women, of all ages and sizes, kitted out in bright colours with kilts and tutus dancing and singing as the count down begun. Someone behind me tells their friend ‘these are the real tough runners’ and I feel proud of where I belong in this race, firmly a back of the pack runner. By the time we are under the arches and on the Way, we are introducing ourselves and making friends.
I dropped right back to be one of the last runners as I was struggling with pace and brutally aware that I needed to finish as if to go on. I met another WHWrace hopeful and everyone was in a bonnie mood. The morning was perfect, cool, windless and sunny. The first views after Carbeth were breathtaking. You could see the route laid out in front of us crystal clear, Conic hill in the distance and the summit of Ben Lomond beyond. I wondered if the snow topped peaks behind that were Ben Vorlich or Ben Lui.
Heading into Drymen I caught up with a group and one of the women says to me ‘you are from Cambridge, you told me that.’ A statement that must be true, but I cannot remember telling her! From then on throughout the race I would hear a holler ‘Cambridge!’ and turn round to a group of smiles. I ran with Jen, Fiona, John and Jan all the way to Inversnaid and their banter kept us all laughing and indifferent to time. I saw familiar faces at every checkpoint, Michelle and Carla at Drymen, Donna at Balmaha and Neil was waiting to see me in at Rowerdennen. He tells me I had arrived within 30seconds of my predicted time! By Inversnaid I was feeling a lot better, my unwellness from the day before had lifted and I pushed on.
The Inversnaid checkpoint was good fun! Firstly, I finally met John Kynatson in person, which I had been looking forward to (John has been interviewing me for the WHWrace podcasts). John introduced me to his wife as ‘this is Stacey, you may sometimes hear her voice coming from my basement.’ I have a double take, but John is oblivious to anything odd in that statement. I also saw Martyn, which was wonderful as I have not seen him since near the end of the Fling 2016. It was talking to Martyn after his WHWrace that inspired me to enter myself. While talking to the two of them another runner I had met the day before came bounding over full of excitement to loudly proclaim that he was quitting. We all stare at him startled, for this is a huge decision to make and not one that normally comes with enthusiasm. Without thinking I tell him not to mention the ‘Q’ word and get moving to Beinglas. I am not sure if he finished, but I hope that he did. Upon opening my drop bag I was disappointed to find a peanut butter and jam sandwich, and not the cheese and pickle I was craving. Martyn came to the rescue and asks if I want mature or mild cheddar. I just stare at him. He tells me he is utterly serious. Loaded up with cheese and bottles filled with Active Root (OMG this stuff is AMAZING!!!) I headed off towards Beinglas.
On the training run a month earlier, I had finally made peace with the technical lochside portion of the course and thoroughly enjoyed it this time round. It is a beautiful and wild section that takes a lot of focus to move over. It was brilliant fun and I stopped now and again to watch water falling from rocks above my head or to look out through tree roots at the still Loch surface. Coming off the lochside, Ben Lui stood ahead in the distance with rain falling on its top. The sun shone all day on us.
I mentally struggle with the last section into Beinglas and the road out up to the river crossing so I promised myself some iPod time once I made the checkpoint. I was quite close to the cutoff at Beinglas and Neil was there waiting. He may have been a bit anxious, as he was pretty insistent I could not use the loo until after I had crossed the timing mat. I am so grateful to Neil for being out there checking on me, I felt very looked after and I am so comforted to know he will be there in June.
Along the river and out towards cow poo alley I had my music on loud and let my mind switch off. I entered a point where my brain began to fail to distinguish feelings of euphoria and suffering, it was only the pain in my legs that kept me grounded. I had slowed a lot to stare blissfully at the mountains so turned off the music and got moving. I met a lady from St Albans (near my birth town, Watford, but posher) and it was quite comforting to hear a southern accent, even if it was more upper class than mine. I enjoyed listening to her perfect home county accent as she waded undeterred shin deep through cow shit.
Out into the Roller-coaster forest I met Chris, who was a WHWrace finisher and another hopeful for this year. He was moving slower than me, but I wanted to hear his stories. We walked together up to the red carpet where I told him to run ahead so he could have his own photo finish. Walking with Chris was probably one of the best things I could have done that day. Taking the last 6 miles slow meant I did not trash my already trashed ankles and legs more than I needed to so I could recover well and get training again. Also, Chris told the WHWrace for what it was. He told me about the realities of sleep deprivation, and its impact on your crew. About midges and food and what had made people DNF. About the importance of stories when you can no longer talk. It was what I didn’t want to hear, but what I needed to hear and exactly when I needed to hear it, after 52miles and over 14hours on my feet.
The finish was not like 2016 for me. This fling had been amazing, I had so much fun and I really mean that. I was so happy to be out there, talking to everyone and hearing their stories (more people than I have mentioned here and I am grateful to have met all of them). I took it slow and easy and never stressed. I waited at checkpoints to make sure my friends had made the cutoffs (so pleased when I found out Kirsten had made all of them!), enjoyed the scenery and catching up with people I had not seen in years. The community is outstanding. But it was not hard, I had not endured or struggled, I felt tired, cold and a bit sore, but I was fine. I felt underserving of the calls of encouragement from onlookers as we neared the finish. I was fine. This was a huge win for me. However, Chris’s words rung in my ears and I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of 44 more miles. I went to bed thinking I should quit and drop out. By morning I felt fine with very little pain and in a better mental state, excited again at the prospect of the entire West Highland Way.
A huge thank you and congratulations to John Duncan and Noanie Sam Heffron, and every volunteer and sponsor for pulling off such an incredible event and its devoted following in the Scottish Ultra running community.
Finally, a special thank you to Liz Bennett in Cambridge for sponsoring me in the lead up to the WHWrace. She has gone above and beyond to keep me injury free.