Not many people take up ultra running in their sixties but my mum, Ais North, has never stuck to the rules. Last week she tackled her biggest race yet, the Hoka Highland Fling.
This is her story.
I didn’t feel at all confident when I stood at the start of the Fling Race in Milngavie Scotland on 29 April.
53 miles of terrain that was hilly, technical and long, stretched patiently in front of me. My winter training had not gone well and I felt sluggish and slow. My right glute was also painfully taunting me with the expectation of failure. This was not going to be easy. Who did I think I was, aged 66 and competing with these experienced and younger trail ultra-runners?
It was the cut off times that caused me to fear the Fling. I’d have to race at more than two minutes per mile faster than my previous two attempts at ultra-running. And that was a big ask.
Oddly I didn’t have the butterflies I usually have and when the gun went off I trotted slowly behind the others out of the built-up area and into Mugdock Park. Runners swarmed past but I plodded gently enjoying the rhythm that my heart set me.
I found this section of the Fling fairly straight forward, not flat but gently rolling countryside. Before I realised it, I was just outside Drymen with10 miles done and soon to be at the checkpoint. I couldn’t believe my time was over 30 minutes faster than I had anticipated.
I grabbed my bottle and banana from my husband Geoff and with a cheery wave I set off for Conic Hill.
The path on this next stretch goes through gorse bushes and trees on a wide path before leading you gently upwards to Conic Hill. It was an ascent that slowed me down to a walk, then a plod. As I reached the summit a cheery photographer stood snapping everyone
“66 and not out!” I shouted merrily as I passed him.
I’m very comfortable on the downhill thanks to some advice from the Run Experience and its awesome community, so I enjoyed the speedy bit. I reached the cut-off with 36 minutes to spare.
The next part of the race is a little blurry. I’d been hydrating and fuelling up to this point but I was not that hungry when I bit into my Marmite sandwich. I began to feel tired and although the early part of this section to Inversnaid wasn’t too bad, the most technical stretch was still to come.
There were rocks, boulders, tree roots and damp terrain. I was on my own a lot with the occasional relay runner passing me or slowing to walk up a hill with me.
Around this point I caught up with a few runners and followed them over a stony path, eventually overtaking and leading about five runners to the other side of this section about three miles out of Beinglas. But they eventually overtook me. I just couldn’t keep my legs turning over fast enough to keep with them.
Defying my expectations, I made it to Beinglas and the cut-off with 22 minutes to spare. This was the first time it started to sink in that I might actually finish this.
Geoff was there and as usual cheered me up. I had thought that there was an A82 cut-off at 8:30pm and I was about ready to quit at Beinglas. I felt so worn out after the last section, but one of the volunteers said “no – get going – this next bit’s not so bad – you’re going to make it”.
All the volunteers are amazing on this race and I must thank those who refilled my bottles and rushed me out the other side with food from my drop-bag and words of encouragement. It is amazing how a positive word fuels your heart and your legs and speeds you on.
As I set off again I realised I was going to make it to the finish and collect my ‘Fling Bling’.
I welled up inside – “just keep it together you’ve still got 13 miles to go”, my inner voice chimed as I kissed Geoff goodbye and ran, yes, ran off.
Geoff, my most loyal supporter. Taken on the recce run the day before
13 miles is still 13 miles and I was tired and alone. It was pouring with rain so my positive spirit was dampened somewhat and I just kept thinking “not another bloody hill”.
The odd runner passed me silently, I even passed a runner and a number of walkers, but it was a slow, cold and damp slog and even the amusement of cow poo alley and the odd cuckoo sound did not lift my mood. My fear of the A82 cut-off loomed large, and my watch told me I still had a long way to go, and my legs were saying you won’t make it. Two guys passed me – “only Crianlarich hill left and then you’re almost there”.
Ah, Crianlarich, the hill you should keep something in the tank for.
It was hard, but as I reached the summit and began to descend a couple of ladies caught up with me. Michelle, who opened her heart and her Haribo and shared both. She admitted to being so emotional and could not believe she was going to finish, then Shelley appeared. How strange we had spoken briefly in the start pen and now here we were a mile from the A82 and together again, running at a similar pace downhill towards the cut-off with 28 minutes to spare.
We raced over the road – only three miles left, a mere dog dawdle that I normally walk in under an hour. I might just make the 15 hours and even though I was guaranteed a finisher’s place I thought it would be cool to finish on time. Michelle jogged, Shelley and I walked fast.
That last mile – so long and hard. Until you see the end and then somehow the red carpet rolls up and pushes you on and into a jog, then a run and the finish line which I crossed at 15:00:38 which was 2.55 minutes / mile faster than the previous ultras on terrain that was so much harder.
I DID IT.
In spite of my negative thoughts before the race, being a few decades older than many of the runners and gruelling terrain, I managed to reach the looming cut-off times and collect my medal.
It just goes to prove that even when you say you can’t, you can.
Congratulations to all the runners and respect to the four other women in the over 60’s category who stormed over the finish line ahead of me. They all prove that there is still so much you can achieve as an older runner!
Celebrating with my sister Louise, my friends Anne and Greg and my mum, Heather with my bottle of Fling Fizz!
I’m fundraising again for Friends of Charing Cross Hospital – to buy much needed items for hospital, patients, staff and community. If you could spare a few pennies we would be very grateful. I’m running a 100 mile race (in under 30 hours) the Liverpool to Manchester Ultra Double (#L2MUltraDouble) on 27 May. If you would like to support me on this ultra you can do so here. Thank you