Cape Wrath Ultra, race report
8 Days, 400km, 11,000m ascent
The waiting around was killing me, 2 weeks of resting meant I was itching to run, I had arrived early at registration on Saturday so I had all afternoon to sit and wait, chatting nervously with a few other racers before the briefing, then dinner and back to the house to wait, pretend to sleep, up early to eat, final kit check and wait some more.
Bags checked in and over on the little ferry to the start at Camusnagaul where we were met by a piper and tea and biscuits in the village hall as we waited for 2 other boat loads to be ferried across. I went for a warm up just for something to do, then team photos and finally the wait was over. 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 the 2018 Cape Wrath Ultra was finally underway.
So much of what was about to happen over the next 8 days was unknown, the longest events I have done previously had been 2 or 3 days and I had only run 60km once in my life, I would be doing it 3 times this week. Over the winter and building for the race I had run more miles than ever before, but would it be enough. Would I get through the week without injury and what would my pace be like compared with the other 173 runners? The unknown is exactly what motivated me to sign up for this massive event, but it was killing me, I just wanted to get on with it and find out!
Day 1 is described as a warm up, a chance to ease yourself into the event and get a feel of what is to come. I knew I had to go steady on the pace and not overdo it, but that is easier said than done with a 10k flat road section to start. After 5 mins or so I relaxed and found my own pace as we made our way along the coast and turned up into Cona Glen. After finding myself just behind the lead group I was steadily being passed my others, but I was fairly relaxed about that and did my own thing, chatting with a few folk as we went. After the col we hit some rough but runnable singletrack, spurred on by the enjoyment of technical running and by passing a few folk I was moving quickly, although carefully, knowing a slip here could easily end my race.
This became a theme for the first 4 days, knowing I was quicker than most on the technical descents I saw them as a chance to gain back some time I would lose on the flatter sections and amongst the grind and hard work, these were the fun bits. Unsurprisingly this came back to bite me in the second half of the race.
Lesson 1. You can’t go full gas down 1000’s of meters of descent for 8 days in a row without hurting yourself! I need to be relaxed that my natural advantage in the technical terrain will come through, so taking it easy down hill is still quick, but also a relative rest. Don’t overdo it and lose this advantage to injury.
Arriving at camp we were straight into the routine. Tea and cake whilst I did my 10 minutes of cold water therapy for the legs in the river, then a 4 hour eating competition, cake, chips, cheese, coleslaw, beans and soup to keep you going until dinner. Given the remote nature of the campsites and the facilities available the quality of the food was really excellent, as was the enthusiasm, support and general camaraderie of all of the support team, many of whom were volunteers. I really can’t thank them enough for keeping up morale through the week.
Day 2 came as a fairly rude awakening for a lot of people on the event, 57km though Knoydart in some fairly ‘Scottish” weather, with drizzle and low cloud for most of the day. Depending on your experience, the terrain is either, fairly runnable mountain paths, with a few boggy bits and a couple of steeper climbs, or totally un-runnable, rocky bog. Fortunately I was in the first group, and after setting off towards the back of the pack, enjoyed steadily passing most of the field.
Not being able to see the mountain summits added to the almost oppressive atmosphere of wildness, the rough and rocky nature of the terrain as we squeezed between the raging river and the slopes of Ben Aden was described by one runner as passing through the gates of Mordor!
Camp routine was made more challenging by the wet weather, the first task on arrival was mopping up the puddles in the tents, then arranging washing lines in a futile attempt to dry kit for the next day. Promises of an improving forecast were very welcome, 8 days of living like this would make for an extremely wearing experience.
Day 3 started dry and bright to raise everyones spirits on what is advertised as the hardest day. A few km short of being the longest day is boasts over 2400m ascent and includes some rough ground. After a sensible start my enthusiasm (and ego) got the better of me as I found myself overtaking Rob Barnes (the super speedy winner of the event) across the rough ground as we skirted the Forcan ridge and descended rough singletrack towards Sheil bridge. As soon as we hit good tracks he disappeared leaving me to resume my more conservative strategy for the day. Slow and steady was the mantra for the middle part of the day, enjoying the scenery as we passed the Falls of Glomach and headed into increasingly remote terrain towards Moal-Bhuidhe bothy and Ben Dronaig. Still feeling strong towards the end meant I gave it a big push up and over the final climb and was whooping all the way down the steep descent into camp feeling strong.
Up into 5th place overall, but a note in my diary of simply ‘achilles sore’ hints at the start of things to come.
Day 4 takes us from Lair by Lochcarron through the Torridon hills, around the back of Being Eighe to Kinlochewe. After a slower start as my sore ankle warmed up I was surprised to still be feeling fairly fit. At 32km this is a short day and is an area I know extremely well and have walked and run most of the trails before. Feeling a strange sense of duty to make an effort on ‘home trails’ I again kept pace with Rob on the long climb into Coire Lair before leaving him for dust on the descent. For the next few hours I was on full-gas, back in more familiar territory in terms of terrain and also distance, knowing exactly how hard I could push and get away with it. On the descent to Glen Torridon I was flying past people as if my life depended on it and kept running for most of the climb round to the waterfalls at Core Mhic Fhearchair. From here you leave any sign of a track and traverse some incredibly beautiful but brutally rough terrain, following short sections of deer tracks though moraine and boulders, this felt like a classic hard leg on the Lamm and I was loving it. As I passed Jamie Ramsay (who finished 3rd) he said “you can’t train for this in London” and he is right!
Starting to feel the effects of my effort on the rocky track towards Kinlochewe I eased off, but still finished a good 20 minutes faster than everyone else today. My own personal glory of a stage win and a hugely satisfying day made this a high point of the week, but I knew I would pay for it in the days to come.
Lesson 2: When you find yourself saying ‘I’ll pay for that tomorrow” you have overdone it, and yes, you will.
I think it is fair to say that on day 5 the wheels fell off! Within an hour of arriving at camp on day 4 I was hobbling, with both ankles complaining about the punishment they had received, and icing them in buckets of cold water in the evening and then again in the morning hadn’t made a huge difference. It was also the first really hot day of the week, without a cloud in the sky.
As I had on previous mornings I started out with one of my tent-mates, Rainer from Germany who was going well, just behind me in the standings. Within 50 meters I had to tell him to leave me as it was obvious that I wouldn’t be running much today! As I passed through the village there was a large group of competitors who had retired for various reasons waiting for the bus back to Inverness, their event over. Hobbling past them I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before I was joining them.
I walked the 2 kilometres to the end of the tarmac and then managed to break into a very slow shuffle along the smooth track towards the Heights of Kinlochewe, not only was I in pain but the energy tanks were empty, I had nothing left. This was going to be a long hard day.
Fortunately I was prepared for this, I had no expectation of getting through the event having 8 easy days. In fact I would have been disappointed if I had. It was not a nice rambling holiday I had signed up for, but a proper challenge, one that I didn’t know if I could complete. It was a slight disappointment that the struggle I was having was with injury rather than pure fatigue, and that I was having it with 4 days still to go, but I was psychologically ready for it and told myself to enjoy the challenge.
I would love to say that the stunning scenery of passing through the Fisherfields took my mind off the suffering but no, this was about putting your head down and grinding through the day. The river pools and lochains tempting you in for a swim were just another challenge to get past without stopping.
After a hard day you appreciate small luxuries all the more, so it is hard to overstate how much being handed a Calippo ice lolly at the finish line meant to me that day!
Day 6 is the longest day at 72km so I set out pretty early. I had lost an hour over my nearest rivals yesterday and my ankles weren’t going to get any better, so in terms of racing, the pressure was off. It felt a bit of a shame not to be feeling competitive but I was in survival mode, now all that mattered was surviving and getting to Cape Wrath.
After walking the fist 2km of tarmac again I was able to get into a steady trot and wasn’t feeling too bad.
Throughout the week there were times where you would find yourself in sync with another runner and share some chat for a while before one of you would slowly stretch ahead, either not to be seen again for the day, or to meet up again an hour or two later as your paces matched again. What struck me all week was the variety of people who were taking part in the event. The Cape Wrath Ultra is properly hard, with 5 days being true ‘ultra marathons’ over mountainous and often rough terrain. You might expect therefore that it would be full of elite and experienced runners, but in many ways that couldn’t be further from the case. Only a handful of competitors had ever done a comparable event, with past male and female winners of the Dragon’s Back race and Spine race doing well. For almost everyone that I chatted to, this was the biggest challenge of its kind that they had ever done. People came from all over the world, attracted by the immense personal challenge and the mind-blowing scenery of northern Scotland. Everyone had their own personal reason for being there and some could explain it better than others, but the determination and positivity was universal.
I was fortunate to me moving relatively well so most days I was in camp by 6pm, having started between 8 and 9. This gave me time to recover, eat well, organise my kit and get a reasonable amount of sleep. The people who absolutely impressed me the most were the folk at the bottom of the table, who day after day would be up at 5 to be away by 7, then working hard all day to push on and make the time cut-offs along route. The final cut-off is 11pm each night back at camp. This meant that some people were doing multiple 15 hour days through the week, with minimal recovery. The slowest finisher took 91 hours to my 53 and their achievement is immense. Chapeau!
Lesson 3: It is a cliche, but with the right attitude and preparation anyone can complete the Cape Wrath Ultra.
So day 6 went on a bit, and the 30 odd km of flat track running in the middle weren’t the highlight of my week, but crossing the col below Conival brought us back into proper mountain terrain and down to Inchnadamph where I did my first ever mountain marathon in 2006, getting disqualified for punching the wrong control within 20 minutes of starting, with eyes on stalks and completely out of our depths. I chuckled along to myself thinking about how far I’d come in the 12 years.
Beginning day 7 I was surprised to still be in 7th place, showing that it wasn’t just me that was suffering with injury and fatigue. Those who were still running strongly were doing so because they had been conservative early on, leaving me with a small buffer to play with. Still I knew that if I was going to hold on to a top 10 finish I was going to have to work for it.
I started early again, paced by Mark from Aberdeen who was feeling fresh after missing a couple of days to allow an injury to ease up. We took it steady up the first big climb of the day, making good time, but were forced to stop for a minute at the col by the view opening up below us, with low cloud blowing in over the col and some of the most impressive scenery of the 8 days, it was worth a quick pause before the tricky descent into Glen Coul.
The rough terrain was really taking its toll on my ankle so I was pretty relieved to make it onto the better tracks at Glendubh. Around here I was passed by Lee, who was rapidly climbing up into the top 10. This gave me a bit of a kick up the arse to get on with it and I upped the work rate a bit, working hard from here right to the end.
Thinking about the whole route still to come was always fairly overwhelming, but breaking the route down into smaller sections meant that I only ever focussed on the next landmark and worked towards that.
Lesson 4: Patience is everything, you will get there in time, the pain will stop, all in good time.
The final 20km of day 7 were probably the hardest of the race for me, with a cross country section along the shores of Loch a’ Garbh-bhaid Mor threatening to break me completely. A hint of a track with boulders, bogs and off-camber heather made a mockery of any attempts to go faster. I was focussing on maintaining my work rate, but working hard to achieve around 4 km/h wasn’t good for morale! The relief of finishing this section was quickly tempered by the sign at the end of the road saying “Kinlochbervie 5”. In 30 degree heat at the end of a very long week this felt like the longest, hilliest, hardest 5 miles of my life. Cursing my competitive ambition that stopped me popping in to the old schoolhouse cafe, advertising ice cream and cold drinks, I finally crested the last hill and got the best view of the day, a field full of big blue tents!
Throughout the week I was amazed by what the mind and body can do. For the second half of the race, the walk to breakfast felt like a scene from a zombie apocalypse movie, with runners groaning as the slowly shuffled up the hill towards the food tent, only to be walking and running 60-70km with a smile on their face a couple of hours later.
Day 8 was no different for me, with the 30 meters to the portaloo taking me at least 10 minutes on my fist lap. I had dropped to 8th overnight but my top 10 position meant I wasn’t allowed to start before 8.45. The organisers not wanting fast runners to get to Cape Wrath before them, not much chance of that by the look of me! Fortunately this gave me plenty of time to emerge from my zombie state a bit, even getting my painful walking stage out of the way with a short shuffle up and down the road before setting off.
I had lost a place overnight to Oliver who was finishing well despite painful blisters. He had 10 minutes on me, but wanting to savour the last day and enjoy the views I suggested a gentlemen’s agreement that we wouldn’t race each other. This went out of the window in the first 5 minutes as Thomas from Denmark came flying past me. At the speed he was going I could easily lose my hour advantage to him, and with Lee hot on his heals this was no easy day, but a final full on day of racing.
The transformation from zombie back to runner was complete and it was very satisfying to finish the race feeling like I could properly run again. I actually enjoyed the track to Sandwood bay, and the hard going on the soft sand was worth it for the amazing views. From there the trails ended and it was up and down endless small grassy peaks towards the cape. Soon after Sandwood bay one of these peaks revealed a long awaited view; a small white lighthouse in the distance. A devious quirk of the landscape means that this is the only view you get of it until you round the final bend and it is there, 100 meters ahead of you.
For 8 days I had been thinking about a clever answer to the often asked question of “why are we doing this to ourselves?”. The truth is that I am sure we all have different reasons and we are unlikely to really understand them ourselves. Lots of other people were talking about an opportunity to push themselves and see what they are capable of.
For final few kilometres I was reflecting on some hard and painful days and wondering why after all of that I felt the need to be working at full gas, right to the line. I think the truth is, I have a fairly good idea what I am capable of. I have had enough opportunities in life to see what happens when I get close to the limit and I have definitely been passed that limit a few times and failed at things. So I don’t do it to find out what I am capable of, but to enjoy the satisfaction that comes with really working hard and pushing yourself, which is not something I have to do all that often.
It is not terribly profound I know, and it serves no tangible practical purpose, but the evidence from the 170 odd runners I met this week would back up my theory that..
Lesson 5: Running a really long way makes you a better person!
An incredible adventure, made all the better for the people I shared it with along the way. I have raised my own expectations of what I can do in this kind of event and once I can walk again thoughts will inevitably turn to next year…. Dragon's Back 2019, the event I thought was way too hard for me to ever be able to enter!!!
Massive thanks to Shane and his team at Ourea events for a super slick event, and having the vision and ambition to put on what is really a ridiculous event!