Going from fun weekly training runs with Peninsula Trail Runners to an 8 day 400km race (with over 11,200m of elevation) through the rugged Scottish Highlands was a big step up for me and I felt both excited & slightly terrified (ok a lot terrified) by the prospect. The chance of failure was high. Having grown up in Scotland I knew that traversing rough exposed mountainous terrain (Fort William to Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point on the British mainland) in potentially very bad weather was not going to be a doddle. I was just hoping to get to the start line feeling healthy and reasonable fit. I am proud that I managed to finish this epic race although there were times during the race where that outcome did not look likely. Some reflections on my race experience are provided below for those interested or those crazy enough to contemplate entering the next edition of this race in 2020.
The daily highlight videos are worth checking out and provide a glimpse of what each day’s stage was like. http://www.capewrathultra.com/media/films/2018-daily-highlight-videos/
Instagram (search “CapeWrathultra”) has some great photos of the event too.
Considering the extent of my trail running experience was events 50km or less, I knew the CWU was going to be a massive challenge. I was determined to give it a good crack though so I signed up with the hope that 12 months of training would be enough to get me through this adventure. The 12 months passed in a flash (without nearly as much training as I had hoped) and before I knew it I was on the train from Glasgow to Fort William with some fellow competitors feeling super excited. The registration and pre-race dinner was a good opportunity to meet fellow racers (26 different countries represented and included a few Aussies). I was allocated tent #22 along with Andy Hewatt (who many of you know) and 6 others – great to spend some time with Andy. He had just completed the non-stop 190 mile Northern Traverse in England so I was feeling a bit out of my league amongst such ultra legends.
Ourea Events who ran the event were very professional and slick operators – massive logistical challenge to host this race so hats off to them for doing such a good job. They were a fun crew but strict with enforcing race rules and cut-off times, etc. A 3 strikes and you are out policy was also in play (strikes issued for not having mandatory kit at daily kit checks, pinching breakfast food to use as your daily hill food, etc). The event team set-up tents and provided breakfast and dinner but the focus was on racers looking after themselves (no outside assistance allowed). The all veggie food provided was surprisingly good although the boiled eggs, baked beans & other veggie offerings created an often unpleasant odour in the tents and around camp!
The race started on Sunday 21 May after a short ferry trip across the Loch Linnhe to the sounds of a lone bagpiper – quite emotional and motivational. Off we went (all 177 of us) full of anticipation of what was to come. Fort William had turned on some chilly weather for day 1 and the forecast was worse for day 2. The Race Director had warned that day 1 (37km) was an easy training run compared to day 2. As per the forecast, day 2 was really tough (cold, wet and lots of marshy peat bog) – spent the whole time looking at my feet, falling over or watching other people fall over. I soon realised that this race was going to be about survival and self-preservation. Apart from a wee navigational error that saw me climb a steep section of the wrong mountain, I was still standing at the end of day 2 even if feeling a bit daunted as day 3 was apparently even more difficult (68km). Harder than day 2 – feck! Thankfully, day 3 turned out to be much more fun and the sudden improvement in weather had a lot to do with it (dry & sunny weather for the rest of the race too – so grateful). I ran well for most of day 3 then started to feel a wee niggle in my right knee so I took it real easy over the last big climb and descent of that day. A bit of tape from the medics that night fixed me up. I was feeling pretty shattered at the end of day 3 but pleased that I had made it this far. Quite a few people missed the 11pm cut-off on day 3 which reflects how tough the course was considering they started at 7am that day.
Hopefully people enjoyed the dot watching from back home via the GPS tracker live website and witnessed the challenge for racers trying to keep on course. Friends & family were also able to send Ultra Mail messages via the website, which were delivered to tents and this was just awesome to receive at the end of a tough day although I was too shattered to read the day 3 messages until the next morning. Having enough time before you crashed to squeeze in dinner, attending to trashed feet, unpacking kit bag, setting up bedding, washing body in river/loch, preparing next day’s running kit / day food, visit to medics tent, etc was a real challenge (particularly if you came into camp late in the evening). A special thanks to friends and family & those PTR crew that sent me messages – it meant a lot. Helped get me through the race for sure.
Days 4 & 5 were the most scenic (through Torridon and Fisherfield) and were magical except perhaps when I disappeared down a large gap between giant rocks while traversing a boulder field on day 4. I was still having a lot of fun but at the end of day 5, my left ankle & foot had ballooned in size (hadn’t noticed until I took my shoe off). My race was over for sure – that evening I had to cut off my 2XU calf sleeves as no way I get could them off over this new left cankle. I went to sleep that night resigned to the fact that my race was over (no major regrets though as I had given the race my best shot). The rest of my body was in great shape and I still felt mentally pretty good. My tent mate Rob saw my ankle early the next morning and mentioned that another racer had a similar injury and was carrying on, which made me feel that another trip to the Medics tent was worthwhile. It turns out that unless you had a broken leg the Medics would simply tape you up (or just tell you how to do it) & send you on your way. I left that medic tent feeling slightly shocked and telling myself to harden up! Back to my tent to pack up my gear, grab some food, get to the start line to collect my GPS tracker and head off into the mountain again.
My wife had sent me an Ultra Mail message on day 4 or 5 which really struck home & became my new mantra: “You’ve got this. You’ve trained your whole life for this”. I thought yes, all the trail running I’ve done in my life has led me to finishing this one race in my home country. Funny how a few words can really focus your mind. Even 6 weeks on from the event, I still feel emotional thinking about this time, reading this message and all the other supportive messages. The other great motivator later in the race was seeing how gutted fellow racers were when they had to DNF (either through injury or not making one of the daily cut-off times). Several of these people had become friends and it was difficult to witness and I realised very quickly that I did not want to feel like that. Approximately 40% of the field did not complete this race.
Although my left ankle was very swollen and hurting badly the rest of my body was feeling really strong (no hip pain which I had been expecting) and it was frustrating that I had to power walk from day 6 onwards (I knew I could run strongly if not for the injured ankle). Day 6 was so runnable and at 72km I knew it was going to be a long day in the sun walking/hobbling as fast as I could. Day 6, 7 & 8 were a struggle but the desire to finish was apparently stronger than any concern about long term effects from this injury. And the medics had just sent me on my way each day so the injury couldn’t have been that bad! Getting to that lighthouse at the finish of day 8 and savouring the cold beer was such a great feeling – cherished memories.
I also have my most coveted finishers medal to date (it’s a serious bit of bling). Hoping to be back running with the awesome PTR crew before the end of July.
Photo credit: Jimmy Hyland/JHP Visual gallery for some of the images below.