Active Root Ambassador Romain is a keen runner to say the least. Not only does he compete in ultra races, he is also Assistant Manager at specialist running shop Run4It Dundee. There really isn't anything Romain doesn't know about running!
In our latest blog post, Romain talks about his experience at the Highland Fling last April, including his vital race strategy, key points on the route and reflecting upon your own personal achievements.
Running ultras is an adventure. It's a real buzz. I like to think that life is about emotions, and ultras will fill you with different ones. The common question I get from my friends or family is "how can you run this far ? How can you enjoy this ?". Yes, it is a process, it takes time but once you're hooked, you're hooked for good.
Emotions. I was full of enthusiasm and eagerness when I ran the Highland Fling last April, a 53 miles race on the West Highland Way. A few days before the race, I took a step back to think about what I and 800 other runners were about to do : run 53 miles in less than 15 hours. Wow.
There are so many races world and so many incredible athletes nowadays that we tend not to pride ourselves of our own performance. It has always been my dream to run long distances. I was about to do it, which made me feel strong.
Strong. Not in a cocky way, but more like I am glad to be able to make the most out of my body and the physical abilities that have been given to us. It is well-known that you'll walk some parts of the ultras (depending on the distance, the elevation gain, …). The Fling was my 5th ultra, my longest one, but I wanted to race it. I was not going to win it (if only !!), but I wanted to RUN it, the whole way. I've always found incredible to be able to push and keep running even after 40, 45, 50 miles. So I was going for it. I'm a competitor as well, I wanted to set myself a goal (and quite a fast one). I wanted to do a decent time, so my plan was 9 hours. This would be a real performance for me.
Performance. It is not about winning but about giving the best you can.
I've never felt this good during a race than during the Fling. I knew what I had to do, I had a bit of a race strategy. I knew my splits at each CP and how to manage my pace. Even if I was buzzing on the starting line, I managed to avoid the most common mistake: starting too fast ! I knew I could keep a good pace for a long distance, so I had to be steady. My goal was to still have fresh legs at Rowardennan (mile 27, halfway).
The race. The first part taking us to Drymen was nice, some road sections but we knew that the nicest part was to come. I arrived at Drymen in 1h48, on track with my splits. Some runners started a bit too quick, as I already started to pass a few. The path going to Conic Hill took us on a plateau with a really nice view. The weather was great, sun and no wind : the perfect conditions to enjoy the day. I was feeling great, nothing could be more ideal.
The climb to the top of Conic Hill went very well. A lot of runners were walking it, I chose to run it. I passed a few more, and when I reached the top I felt very good, my legs were light, my breath was calm and the downhill was ahead ! I freed my legs and had a blast on the downhill, passing more people and enjoying the technical bits. I arrived at Balmaha, refilled my bottles and ate half a banana. It was like I've just started the race : my pace did not drop and it felt easy to keep this speed.
This part on the Loch side, taking us to Rowardennan, was great. The view was stunning and the atmosphere was great. I was kind of expecting the moment when I'll feel tired or that I'll feel heavy legs. But it did not happen. I arrived in Rowardennan in 4h18, just a bit slower than my prediction. However, I was still feeling like I've just ran 10k. So I kept pushing.
If you've walked or ran the WHW, you must know that the 'Rowardennan to Beinglas Farm' leg is tough. Wet, rocky, muddy, it slows you down. Fortunately, during the race, between Rowardennan and Inversnaid, we took what they call the 'High road'. When I recceed this part a few weeks before the race, I took the 'Low road' : a tougher and more technical trail next to the Loch. It felt easier compared to what I was expecting. A bit more climb but a wide and even trail which makes it easier to run. Again, I pushed and I was counting down the miles left to go : I was still going at a good speed. I arrived in Inversnaid in 5h35ish... still on track for a 9h finish ! I took 2-3 mn at the checkpoint to refill my bottles and eat a bit, and I left. I was buzzing ! Everything was going according to my plan. Only 11k to go to Beinglas Farm, the last CP before the finish, and the hardest part of the race.
Unfortunately, like most of the runners, I struggled on this section. Legs were fine but I just felt a general fatigue. This section breaks your pace, your need to use your hands at some point and it is rocky and wet so you need to watch your steps. I was running and I was still able to pass a few runners, but my speed dropped. Those 11k were long, and I arrived in Beinglas 15mn slower than I wanted (in 7h15). I had 1h45 to cover the last 12 miles : challenging ! I knew it would be hard, so from then I chose not to think about it and to just give everything I could.
This last section is undulating, no steep hills but after 41 miles, it makes you climb enough to add more fatigue. I walked some of the climbs but I was pushing myself to run the flatter parts. I knew I was not going to make 9h, I was too slow on the climbs. But no disappointment, I was still enjoying it. The last 7km were a mental game : your body wants to take minutes (I mean hours!) to rest but your mind wants to keep going. So you keep running, what's 7km after 48 miles ?! And there's a downhill ahead , YEAH ! And it's flat until the finish ! I pushed in the last downhill and when I arrived to the road crossing 5k before the finish, there was a lot of trafic on the road : me and 2 other runners waited at least 3-4mn before we were able to cross the road. I was feeling the pressure of the invisible clock ticking. It gave me the boost I needed to keep a decent pace. I was silently counting down the distance left at every km.
5, 4, 3. I was trying to hear the bagpipes or any sound coming from the finish line. Nothing. "Come on, push !", I was telling myself.
2, 1. Still no sound. And I reached the 53 miles mark. And then I recognized where I was : the gate I've seen so many times in the Fling videos. I knew I was close.
Last push. I caught sight of the piper, and I smiled. Some walkers were cheering me on, and I saw the finishing line on my left. One last turn and it's the red carpet. This famous red carpet. The atmosphere on the finishing line was incredible. It felt like I was winning the race, the speaker said my name and everybody was clapping hands, cheering me for the last 50m. What a finish. What a race.
The crazy thing about the finish is that straight after crossing the finish line, I was already looking forward to the next one. I had such a blast, I felt so good and was so proud of what I achieved that I already had in mind the next ultra. 9H45 of running, even though it was 45mn slower than I wanted is still a cracking time for me. The atmosphere, the organization, the route make this race one of the best in Scotland (if not the best).