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Mark’s first Highland Fling ultra race

Written by Fiona

May 19 2017

Mark Hutchison decided to take on the Highland Fling 2017. The ultra trail running race is 53 miles from Milngavie, north of Glasgow, to Tyndrum.

I asked him to tell me about his training, the build up, the race and what’s next.

Mark, 34, and his wife Donna live in Coatbridge with their two young boys, Luke and Adam. He needed to fit his training around his work and family life.

He came to ultra running via track running, then 5ks, 10ks, marathons and an Ironman Triathlon.

Mark and Donna with their sons.

Intro to trail running

Last Year, Mark competed in the Highland Fling as part of a relay team. His section was 16 miles from Drymen to Rowardennan and including Conic Hill.

He reveals that he underestimated the effort required to run this section. He says: “I set off from Drymen full of energy, enthusiasm and with a hydration pack on my back. I was looking forward to what lay ahead. I thought: ‘It’s only 16 miles, so how tough can it be?’

“Yet just a few miles in and I was feeling it in my legs. It was a warm day and I soon found myself at the foot of Conic Hill. Recalling the profile, I thought that once I got over it I would be on the home straight.

“I walked and ran where I could and soon was on the long downhill section. My legs were not used to all the downhill running, so by the bottom of Conic I was fairly shattered and after looking at my watch, I discovered I had another nine miles to go.

“Suffice to say I found it very tough and I had never been so happy to see a finish line and my team mate, Paul, who was doing the next leg.”

The start of his own ultra

His relay experience started Mark thinking about doing a solo Highland Fling. He was one of those fortunate to gain entry. While 1,200 people signed up for the Fling 2017, only 1,000 places were available.

He looked for a training plan on-line and found a 50-mile programme.

Race number.

Training for the Fling

At first Mark though the plan was easy enough to follow. There were five runs each week and two rest days. The programme was two hard weeks and one easy week with a combination of hills, speed and distance.

Mark also scheduled a few races so he could test his fitness and gear.

Because the Highland Fling takes place in April, much of the training needs to be done in the harsh Scottish winter months. Mark decided to boost his motivation by joining a Fling training weekend in November.

He says: “I thought it would be a good way to do some training and learn from like-minded people.

“The plan was to run from Tyndrum to Beinglas Farm and back again, which was around 24 miles. It was a cold day and there was plenty of ice and snow on the ground. I had all my kit and food required, or so I thought.

“We set off at a gentle pace, talking but my feet were sore. I was wearing Salomon Speed Cross 4 SG trainers and it seems they are not suitable for somebody my weight on the rough terrain. I could feel every stone and bump under my feet.

“I managed to get to nine miles and felt that was enough for me. I turned back and plodded to Tyndrum.”

Following his run Mark learn two pieces of invaluable advice. To wear Hoka Mafate Speed 2s for running and to fuel with Tailwind Berry flavour Nutrition fuel.

Mark says: “The shoes are amazing for me, cushioned and grippy, while the Tailwind gives me that prolonged boost and keeps me alert. I swear by them now.”

After finishing the Kielder 50k.

After finishing the D33 Ultra

Mark also ran the D33 Ultra and Kielder 50k events and followed these with some tough back-to-back sessions.

Apart from suffering a fall in the D33, both events went to plan. Mark also learned a lot from racing. He says: “For example, don’t put salt caps in your shorts pocket when it’s raining as they will dissolve (oops) and I learned not to be too consumed by finishing quickly, as time on your feet can be more beneficial when your real aim is a longer race.

“I tried a few different snack types and used my tried-and-tested Tailwind. I finished each race and felt I had plenty left in me so I took that as a real positive that my training was going to plan.”

Mark adds: “I felt like my plan was coming together and I was ticking off the miles. During the week, I wasn’t getting in enough of the tougher miles on the hills, but at the weekend, I was running on the West Highland Way and doing all the proper out and back sessions.

“I ran the Beinglas to Rowardennan section five times in both directions pre- race. I am sure that could be a form of torture but I needed to prove to myself that I could do these tough sections, especially since people kept saying this section was awful.”

With 720 miles of running under his belt, it was time for Mark to taper.

Mark’s Highland Fling race

Mark decided he would be happy with a finish time of 10 to 12 hours. He arrived at Milngavie for 5.30am with four drop bags. Each drop bag contained the following:

Mark’s four drop bags.

2 x 500ml bottles of tailwind, a banana, a chai charge bar, a protein bar, custard pot, 2 x SIS energy gels and a pork pie/sausage roll. His final bag had a protein gel (lifesaver) and salt and vinegar crisps.

The race started at 6am. Mark says: “The tannoy was playing music and I heard one of my favourite songs, Wild Mountain Thyme. I had tears in my eyes because I couldn’t believe I was about to set off on the race that I had dreamed of a whole year.”

Mark set off at a steady pace. He reports that he felt strong and had no pains or strains anywhere. He arrived at Drymen (12 miles) feeling fresh but knowing that the next section was the one he had struggled with in the relay in 2016.

He followed his plan to drink 500ml of fluid every hour and have at least one salt cap and one energy gel.

Running well.

He says: “I found myself at the foot of Conic Hill. It was a clear day and I started the climb. As I approached the summit at around 300 metres, there was a cameraman. What a place to put a camera, right at the very top of the climb before the brow of the hill! I smiled and I started my descent to the first check point, Balmaha at 19 miles.

“I had no intention of stopping for long, so I grabbed my bag, changed my bottles and took on the food I manage. I had no appetite for any solids so I tried my chai charge, nope, pork pie, nope and protein bar, nope. I felt ok though so I carried on.”

Mark reveals that the miles went by quite quickly and he enjoyed the ups and downs of the route to Rowardennan, where he still felt good.

Again he could not stomach any food and headed off again a few gels in hand. He says: “At this point I didn’t want to focus on what I couldn’t do, just what I could.”

Disappointment at Beinglas

He says: “I still felt good. My legs were strong, I had no blisters and my plan was on track although I had fallen about 20 minutes behind my planned arrival time of 4hours 40 mins to Rowardennan.

“Inversnaid quickly arrived with another drop bag but again I could eat nothing.

“Along the way, I was chatted to the odd person here and there and while I found I was overtaking some runners, others were overtaking me. I thought about Donna and the kids waiting for me at Beinglas farm – or so I thought – and this gave me a boost.

“Annoyingly I felt I was putting in more effort but getting slower. I had said to my friends and family that if I could get to Beinglas at 41 miles I would have the mental strength to finish.

“I reached Beinglas an hour behind schedule and Donna wasn’t there. We made a mistake with the parking pass and Donna couldn’t get in. My phone beeped explaining the situation.

“I told her not to worry and I would see her at Tyndrum. Again, I could eat no food, just gels. I had to put the fact that I couldn’t see my family out of my head and focus on finishing.”

The wheels come off

Mark reports that he had forgotten just how much climbing there was in this section. He says: “My legs and feet felt great but my body was beginning to get tired. I kept looking at my watch and thinking, ‘What time am I going to do?’

“Then as I reached mile 47, the wheels came off. It was my first bonk and it was a major one. I started seeing little white dots when I blinked and I gone from a 13-minute mile to a 30-minute mile.

“What was going to be an 11:30 finish became a 12:30 finish or worse.

“I was wobbling with a little over six miles to go when a lifesaver came to the rescue. I remembered I had kept a protein SIS gel for emergencies. It was thick, sugary and felt filling. I followed that with half a bottle of Tailwind.

“Boom! I was back in the race. I was still on a big hill, but the mile had reduced to 19 minutes, from 30 minutes. I took the next two miles easy and all of a sudden I had my legs back. I had three miles to go and I was on cloud nine because I knew I would finish.

“I was going to see my beautiful wife and kids and I was going to see and sprint up that red carpet.”

Mark’s last three miles were paced at 9:30, 10:07 and 9:20 and he managed to overtake plenty of people.

The red carpet at the finish of the Highland Fling.

The final miles

He says: “On the final stretch I could hear the bagpipes, I could see the silver barriers with the big left turn that would take me on to the finishing straight. There it was, that red carpet. Joy!

“As I started my sprint, I could see Donna and the boys. I gave them a huge cuddle and crossed the finish line. I had done it. I had achieved my goal. The clock said 11 hours 55 minutes.

Mark is delighted to finish the Fling.

Sub-12 hours.

Post race observations

Mark says: “Apart from the usual photos, medal, t-shirt, Champagne etc, it is hard to put into words how good it feels to take a plan, stick to it for six months and then achieve your goal.

“I had so much help and support from the ultra running community, aside from my wife and kids.

“I genuinely felt strong during and after the race. My legs were great and I felt I could have run another 20 or so miles with some decent food in me. I need to figure out my fuelling. Maybe this was a one off, but I will need to research this more.

“I need to run more hills. I struggle to get motivated doing hill reps on my own and it was the biggest gap in my training.

“I am a big fearty running downhill. Maybe with stronger legs I will get better at that but I have never been a very technical runner.

“Recovery is important and I have run only five miles in the last two weeks and enjoyed one hike but now I am ready to start training again for the Devil o’ the Highlands.”

Next year Mark hopes to gain entry to the West Highland Way Race, running the full 95 miles on the long-distance trail form Milngavie to Fort William.

Mark’s ultra running kit

All kitted out for ultra running.

Jacket: Salomon Bonatti wp

Shoes: Hoka Mafate Speed 2.

T shirt: Salomon Agile 1/2 zip.

Shorts: Salomon Twin Expo Compression

Calf Guards: Salomon S-lab comp.

Socks: Injinji trail 2.0.

Boxers: Saxx Endurance 2.0.

Hydration Vest: Salomon S-lab 5adv.

  • Mark extends his thanks to his family, John Duncan, Naonie and the whole ultra running community.

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