By definition trail running involves moving oneself unassisted across any surface that is not tar. Because of this definition using distance alone becomes almost meaningless when comparing different trail runs. Words such as technical, ascent and altitude help describe the difficulties and challenge of a trail run, but even they cannot fully describe the experience. There is only one way to find out… and that is to run it.
It is this aspect of trail running that makes it so appealing. For me, trail running is more about adventure and discovery than simply running a set number of kilometres as fast as I can. In 2004, I ran my first trail run – the 50km Mont-Aux-Sources Challenge. The next 14 years would see me travel the length and breadth of South Africa in search of new adventures and new wildernesses to explore. Soon I was on a plane to other continents to experience their trails and wilderness, absorbed and captivated by novelty, remoteness and challenge. And so, it was that on the 20 May this year I found myself at the starting line of the Cape Wrath Ultra.
The Cape Wrath Ultra is no ordinary trail run. It doesn’t conform to the various categories of trail running that have emerged to help make sense of the multitude of terrains and distances on offer. It’s multi-day like Marathon Des Sables, but instead it makes the participants run for 8 consecutive days without a rest day. It traverses the entire length of the west highlands of Scotland, starting in Fort William and ending at mainland Britain’s north-western most point – Cape Wrath – covering a total distance of 400km with 11,200m altitude gain. The organisers prefer to call the event an “expedition” rather than a race, given magnitude of every aspect of this event.
How does one prepare for such an expedition? Slowly and carefully and with the help of professionals. It made no difference that I am a veteran of 21 Comrades (including 6 silvers), 3 Canadian Death Races (125km mountain run), 6 Skyruns (all sub 20hrs), 10 Mont-Aux-Sources, 2 Cederberg 100km’s and 6 Wild Coast Ultras (6-days, 300km) amongst other trail ultras. This was new ground literally and figuratively and I needed help. I asked Coach Neville to look after my training and used the services of a condition coach for twice weekly weight and resistance training. It was November 2017 and the journey had started. For 6 months I sacrificed work, family and indulgent pleasure to focus on my training. I followed my coaches’ advice with care, but the road (or should that be trail) was not all smooth riding. Because of my years of racing (28 years) my legs hurt during the early build-up phase until they reached a level of conditioning that allowed me to run continuously for more than 4/5 hours. Eventually at the peak of my training Coach Neville had me running for 8hrs one Saturday. Then disaster struck… the week before the Two Oceans Ultra I picked up a small chest infection. I took antibiotics and against my doctor’s advice ran the Ultra. Two days later I had full blown bronchitis. It would take 2 more courses of increasingly stronger antibiotics to rid my chest of the bugs. I was behind on my training program. Coach Neville adjusted and we recovered to complete my final big weeks of training.
In addition to training we (myself and my partner Karoline Hanks) also had to prepare our gear for this race. The organisers had included various mandatory items that had us scouring the shelves of Cape Union Mart. They included:
- Tick removal device (Scottish Highlands has many ticks, some which carry Lime disease)
- Blister treatment kit (including scalpel blades)
- Survival bag (not the same as a space blanket)
- Waterproof pen (for writing on a map in the pouring rain)
- Waterproof trousers (with taped seams)
- Midge head net (mosquito head net is NOT sufficient)
- Kinesiology tape
- 80 litre dry bag for carrying all your gear
Thankfully we didn’t have to carry all our gear with us each day. We were allowed 2 bags. An 80-litre dry bag for our camp gear and a regular trail running pack for our daily provisions and compulsory running gear. The camp bag was transported by the organisers each day between the overnight camps as we progressed northwards to what seemed like the end of the earth.
So back to the start of the Cape Wrath Ultra on the banks of Loch Linnhe on an overcast day outside Fort William. Day 1 was a warm-up day at only 37km. All 177 participants were ferried across Loch Linnhe to the start, where we were welcomed by a ruddy-faced Scottish piper. For a 400km journey, the start was furious, a price that many runners would pay for over the next 7 days. We finished Day 1 in the rain, and so began the daily camp routine. Find tent; remove dirty clothes; find river; wash muddy shoes; clean self; dress warmly; eat; drink; eat some more; rest; charge phone (battery pack or solar panels if sunny); prepare for next day; eat dinner; sleep; wake up; dress; eat; pack bag; start running.
It rained the whole of Day 2 – a 57km day with 4 major climbs through some of the remotest wilderness in all of Scotland. The drop-out was massive. Many runners suffered hypothermia and were forced to quit, but extracting them from the course was no easy feat. For some runners, the only way for the organisers to get to them was to use a boat to extract them from a remote sea Loch. When Karoline and I went to sleep that night at 9pm, we were the only runners in our 8-person tent. Four we would never see again – they dropped out and the remaining two only arrived in camp at 11pm. The demands of that single day would eventually force their withdrawal in the days to come, such was the impact of the cumulative fatigue of this event.
Thankfully for us warm-blooded South African’s Day 3 brought with it glorious sunshine which was to last for the rest of the event. Even the many Scots running the race remarked at the good fortune of so many consecutive days without rain. Notwithstanding the clear skies we were to enjoy, we came to appreciate what water means to Scotland. The country, and the highlands in particular, is awash with so much pure, clean mountain water. In the 8 days of running we crossed over 100 major rivers and countless streams. Our feet were constantly wet but at least we didn’t have to carry much water, because there was always a stream crossing your path just when you needed it. For every river, there was a Loch (lake) at the end of it. Every glen (valley) had at least one Loch. All the water made the ground soft and forgiving which suited my old legs and allowed me to push the downs a lot harder. It also made for mud and bogs. One soon learned how to identify a bog by the type of vegetation that prefers to grow on its surface. The learning curve was as steep as the depth one would disappear into a bog – often waist deep. Thankfully Karoline and I had done our homework and made sure our shoes had the right tread and grip to deal with the slippery mud and boggy moorlands. In total, we spent 38% running single track, 30% double track, 12% road and 20% trackless (that’s 80km over nothing more than rocks, tussocks, bogs and mud). For a trail runner, it was simply glorious…
The route was not marked, and the organisers gave runners two options to find their way:
- 1:30 000 scale map with the optimum route indicated on the map
- A GPS file containing waypoints indicating the optimum route
Karoline and I used the GPS option as we both love self-navigation courses and are comfortable using a handheld GPS. This strategy paid dividends on a number of occasions when we would find ourselves on the opposite side of a glen to other runners who had not read their maps carefully enough. Below is a summary of mine and Karoline’s times and positions for each day. Karoline finished 3rd lady, while I was 6th overall:
The organisation of the event was nothing short of spectacular. The event crew numbered 70 people, majority of which volunteers, all supporting 177 starters and 110 finishers (a 62% success rate). Every day for 7 consecutive days, the entire camp comprising 24 eight-person tents, 16 mobile toilets, kitchen, medical and race HQ tents, generators and catering equipment plus a dining marque large enough to host 150 people on tables and chairs was de-constructed, moved to a new location and re-erected all before the first runner arrived in camp. Food was served on a continuous basis from the arrival of the first finisher until 11pm every night. Breakfast started at 6am lasting until the last runner departed at 9am. The food was always hot and there was always hot water for tea and coffee.
Washing and cleaning a muddy, sweaty body was a slightly different matter. The overnight camps were positioned close to a flowing river. Runners would wade into the near freezing waters of the river and proceed to squat, kneel or sit in the water while bracing its cold and proceeded to wash as quickly as possible. Short haired individuals blessed their good fortune. In general, this daily ritual was embraced by most runners with the usual social boundaries discarded in favour of pragmatism, expedience and cleanliness.
If cleanliness was important to most, foot care was essential for everyone. The ruggedness of the terrain, long distances covered and the constant wet feet meant increased susceptibility to blisters. Many a fit and capable runner was reduced to a hobble because he or she invariably failed to adequately manage their feet. This meant running in the correct sized shoe, with no foot movement within the shoe, when descending a steep technical pass. This also meant using preventative strapping of certain areas of one’s feet – notably the big toe, to avoid any potential rubbing, no matter how minimal and slight. Eventually even the tiniest irritation will lead to a blister over 400 mountainous kilometres. As part of our daily routine, Karoline and I would tape our big toes plus a few of the minor ones, each and every morning using kinesiology tape. Neither of us suffered a single blister which gave us the freedom to run and enjoy the experience.
The start each day was staggered with the slower runners starting just after 7am, to give them maximum time and opportunity to complete the daily distance before the 11pm cut-off – northern Scotland enjoys wonderful daylight (weather permitting) until 11pm in mid-summer. The rest of the field were allowed to select their preferred starting time up until 9am when the race leaders would depart. Each day Karoline and I would choose a start time between 8 and 8:30am, which allowed us to sleep a little longer, avoid the early morning breakfast queues and enjoy a quiet cup of tea before setting off. This feature of the event brought runners into greater contact with each other, as each day the faster runners would slowly work their way through the field, greeting and encouraging runners as they passed. For Karoline and I we would mark our progress each day by the time when we passed certain noteworthy and memorable individuals, and they in turn would remark how fast or slow we were that day. On one particular day, I caught up with a group of slower runners and decided to rest a while; walking, chatting and generally just enjoying the freedom of the beautiful surrounds without care or responsibility. When I next checked my GPS I found that we had missed a fork in the trail and were now on the wrong side of a glen. I immediately plunged off the trail bounding across the heather to rectify my mistake. When I reunited with the correct trail, I looked back at where I’d come from to see the entire side of the valley full of runners clambering down the side of the mountain following my lead – I felt like the Pied Piper.
So how does the Cape Wrath Ultra compare to the closest possible comparison – Marathon des Sables. Those participants who had done both, agreed that the Cape Wrath Ultra was a lot tougher. No rest day and more mountain running and altitude gain placed the Cape Wrath Ultra in its own league of toughness.
Not only did we finish but we completed the Cape Wrath Ultra proud of our achievements in this foreign, unforgiving wilderness. Our preparation had been perfect and we got stronger as the event progressed, evidenced by our progressively improving position in the overall rankings.
The event is the brainchild of Ourea Events, a UK based trail and mountain running event company headed up by softly spoken, mountain runner and explorer, Shane Ohly. The inaugural event took place in 2016 and is run every two years, so if you’re interested in the Cape Wrath Ultra, you will have to be patient because the next running of this expedition will only be in May 2020 – but rest assured this event it worth waiting for.
Looking back down the course over Loch Glencoul on Day 7.
Tent life was fine when the weather played its part and one could open doors and dry clothes on a farmer’s wall. Oh, and that hill in the background was how we finished Day 5, running straight down.
Filippo, in his element on a trackless section approaching a descent into a landscape of lochs
Day 7 camp – Kinlochbervie – with the colourful array of runners’ dry-bags neatly arranged on the grass
The Loch Linnhe ferry taking runners to the start of Day 1. The impending weather would break later that day into rain lasting 36 hours
Day 1 camp – Glenfinnan. The train viaduct in the background made famous by the Harry Potter movies
Filippo cresting another climb on Day 4
The falls of Glomach – another spectacular waterfall runners pass on day 4