Cape Wrath Ultra – Part Three

This third and final post will end on a cheery note that will make you feel all warm and lovely inside. But it kicks off with a more serious observation. Bear with me.

Feet

Even the best prepared sometimes fail and some DNFs are due to sheer bad luck. But I am convinced that you can whittle down the seemingly random impact of luck by doing your homework. You do make your own luck. If even the best prepared sometimes fail, it doesn’t seem to happen to them very often and, when it does, it’s not their fault.

As the name of this blog suggests, to complete a mammoth ultra without a DNF is a fantastic achievement and a noble goal in itself. And being obsessed with your feet is a huge part of the game plan towards achieving such a goal. I turned up in Scotland with the healed remnants of a tiny benign blister that I hadn’t even noticed at the time back home in Sweden. And I left Scotland with one blister that I picked up after the race while shopping with my wife in Glasgow. My feet and ankles were swollen to elephant proportions after the ultra (which is normal) and didn’t fit properly in the blue suede shoes (no joke!) I was wearing that day. So that’s my own fault.

But think about it: I managed to run 400km across unforgiving mountainous terrain without picking up a single blister. Have I got magic feet? No. Was I lucky? Well, maybe part of this was down to luck. But I reiterate that you make your own luck and I am convinced that the luck factor can be massively tweaked in your favour. And when it comes to your feet, what decides your fate above all else is blindingly obvious: how serious you are about foot care. Who else is supposed to know your feet better than you? Nobody else is responsible for them. The medics certainly aren’t.

I treated my feet like royalty and my toes like ten little princes and princesses. When I was running, I stopped at the first sign of anything odd, anything that felt hot. I would repeatedly take my shoes and socks off and spend what felt like ages inspecting, fiddling, washing, adjusting. If you’ve read Part Two you’ll know that, back in camp, my feet received my immediate attention. In short, I was paranoid about blisters and I reckon rightly so.

But foot care during my eight days of stumbling across the Highlands was only a tiny part of it. I was equally obsessed during the weeks, months, the entire year ahead of the race. I read and re-read “Fixing Your Feet” by John Vonhof. I practised taping. Over the past few years I had experimented with a variety of socks and shoes and knew exactly what worked for my feet. I had run races in such horrible conditions that my feet were pretty much underwater for over 100km and close to 24 hours. And, true to Vonhof’s mantra, I learnt that what works for you may not work for me, and what works today may not work tomorrow. That’s why this entry about feet aims simply to underline just how important foot care is, but steers clear of attempting to give any advice on the specifics.

fixfeet

I’ve been frustrated by what I’m going to say next for some time so it’s good to get this taboo off my chest. I’ve seen a sobering number of foot-related DNFs at every single biggie I have run in. And I’m going to put my neck out by saying that much of this strikes me as, well, avoidable. I don’t understand how so many people manage to accumulate so many excruciating and at times dangerously infected blisters. It is genuinely baffling. It’s as if they’ve set out on a mission to pick up as many as possible.

Ahead of the Cape Wrath Ultra, the race organisers were banging on about the importance of foot care in the months leading up to it, linking to foot care articles and even putting out videos teaching runners how to tape feet. Yet people were still retiring after relatively short distances with mangled feet, mumbling comments about excruciating pain and, in some cases, proudly showing off the source of their failures to all and sundry. As someone who is wiser than me pointed out, can you imagine DNFing after collapsing through fatigue or dehydration because you didn’t bother to eat and drink? You certainly wouldn’t be proud about it. It should be no different with foot care.

It is a myth that blisters are an inevitable factor in ultras. For anyone reading this who is planning on entering the next Cape Wrath Ultra, Dragon’s Back or indeed any ultra or multi-stage race, learn to worship and pamper your feet. Lovingly twiddle your toes and you’ll be twiddling those odds in your favour. And for those who think blisters are badges of honour to be proud of, what have you been smoking?

I broke the foot omerta for two reasons: I’ve been silent for too long and it’s got too much and, above all, because someone reading this might just spare themselves future pain and disappointment. My intention is not to point fingers or bruise egos but I fear that discussing this taboo is going to lead to a tsunami of opinion about how I’m wrong or how you can still end up with fifty blisters despite doing everything right. To those people, I’ll throw back some words of wisdom from Vonhof:

The answer is sometimes simple and easy. Other times, it’s complex. People tell me they never blistered before today, or they blistered in a new area, or had problems with their toes, or something else. Or they tell me they worked hard to rid their feet of calluses and now something happened and their feet are trashed. Some tell of bad blisters deep underneath calluses. Or bad toe blisters. Never mind the problem. The question is always the same, ”What changed?”

victorinox
The Victorinox Rambler is a spectacular knife for ultra-related surgery. It’s tiny, much smaller than the typical Swiss Army knife, and I’ve naughtily carried it onto flights. A small but sharp blade, a pair of toe-chopping scissors, tweezers, and… a bottle opener!

Food

One thing I really underestimated in the build-up to Cape Wrath was the huge role that food would play. So I’ll briefly talk about how I could have improved my nutrition strategy in terms of what I took with me into the hills, my thoughts about the meals back at camp, and the holiness of chips.

Hill food

If the whole foot care thing worked well for me, my food plans weren’t quite as earth-shattering. Although I’d brought a mix of typical ultra runner energy stuff such as Clif Bloks and Clif Bars as well as some junk calories in the form of wine gums and the like, I also planned on eating “proper” meals, albeit freeze-dried from Expedition Foods which, unlike most, don’t need hot water to rehydrate decently. I knew that this would be a bit of an unorthodox strategy but I’ve found that I tend to crave actual salty, savoury food and in quite big portions.

I can’t knock Expedition Foods. Their meals taste great, they rehydrate quickly and I had no issues with nausea or an upset stomach. The only problem is that even if I’m never at the front of the pack trying to be as speedy as possible, it does take a while to munch your way through a 1000kcal meal. There is something to be said for a constant sort of drip-feeding of food rather than big meals. So, in retrospect, I should have gone a bit more mainstream and just settled for way more trail mix, sweets, nuts etc.

Meals in camp

First off, if you really like proper coffee and cringe at the thought of instant stuff, bring an AeroPress and some of Ethiopia’s finest!

The meals back at camp were spectacular considering the logistics involved. Fully vegetarian and even the carnivores seemed fine with that. There was plenty of variety for breakfast: either cooked, cereal, DIY porridge or a bit of everything. People tended to suffer from “cooked breakfast fatigue” after too many days in a row of them, but there were alternatives. One thing to consider is alternating breakfasts from the start between cooked on one day and porridge/cereal/toast the next. For dinner, it might be worth bringing your own Tabasco or similar if you want to spice things up although be wary of the impact this might have later on. Sporks are rubbish so use actual cutlery. Get a really big bowl (I brought along an aluminium 1.5l Trangia bowl from my stove which worked really well). You’ve either got water or diluted squash to drink so consider bringing your own concentrate if you want some flavour.

Chips

It would be unforgivable of me not to pay tribute to the divine status of chips. Provided you were back early enough (generally before dinner which started being served at 6pm) you had a big serving of chips to look forward to. I’d heard of this mystical phenomenon before but never could I have imagined how much of my mind was occupied by the thought of chips on some of the final stretches. Chips, loads of salt, loads of vinegar and a fat splodge of mayonnaise. Perfection.

 

Folk

If the status of chips was holy, then the people who fried them were high priests. Ali, Mikk, Sandra, Sammy and Tim were all archbishops in the Church of Chips. By the end of the ultra, my positive feelings for this crew were so powerful that I found these feelings almost overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting to feel such warmth towards people I had only met a few days before. I missed the chips but I missed the people even more. And this of course extends to both the wider event team who took care of us with such compassion both in camp and out in the mountains. Just looking at their faces in pictures during the weeks after brought me close to tears. I also know that, quite unfairly, there were plenty of people dealing with admin and logistics who, because of the back-office nature of their contribution, never got as much direct attention and praise. I could write page after page of loving words to describe just how magnificent this collective of individuals were but it still wouldn’t do them justice.

Back in the real world of humans treating each other terribly, I miss how everyone was so kind to each other. I genuinely miss that concern and consideration we all had for each other. And the realisation that this incredible camaraderie only exists in such a concentrated form within the artificial confines of a prolonged running event has made me fairly low in the weeks after the event. It’s hard to describe, partly a sort of hippy sentimentality along the lines of “why can’t we all just get along?” combined with the sad truth that nobody else around me really, genuinely understands what it was like to have run across the Highlands in the company of such amazing people.

Being physically and mentally strong enough to undertake such a challenge and then get to the end of it is a privilege – although not for the reasons I originally thought. I used to think that it was something about proving to yourself and to others how tough you are. But I now understand that this is missing the point. Sure, breaking personal boundaries is a great thing to do. But I’ve also come to realise that it gives you a ticket into an elite world of lunatics who treat each other with kindness. Where who you are, what you do, where you’ve come from mean very little. Your gender, sexuality, all that kind of stuff. Nobody cares. That ticket lets you enter a place where all those onion skins of nonsense get peeled away. You are emotionally naked and so are the people around you.

It was hard to see it at the time but, hidden away deep in the glens, that odd society of stinking, hobbling runners represented a utopia.

2018-05-27 07.50.39
Morning of the final day. I started out barely able to walk. But I knew by then that it was in the bag.

Finally, a word of thanks to Marcus Scotney whose engaged and dedicated coaching ensured that I turned up in Fort William with a fighting chance of success. And to my wife Lisa for taking care of the kids and everyday life while I was out in the hills weekend after weekend. And to the both of you for putting up with my incessant moaning.

Cape Wrath Ultra 2018

400km, 11 000m+, eight days

did not dnf

Cape Wrath Ultra – Part Two

I promised in the last post that Part Two would involve a discussion of what went well versus not so well for me. But before I move on to that, there’s one more bit of the race that I wanted to get off my chest.

“Attacking Rocks is Futile”: Day Seven, Inchnadamph to Kinlochbervie, 61km / 1600m+

2018-06-20 21.22.21 (1)
The bit where I had a temper tantrum, attacking Scotland with my poles. And then I found a pub.

If you’ve read Part One then you’ll know that, because I thought I could pull off running like a Kenyan, I was hurting quite badly from halfway through Day Six until, well, a couple of weeks after the race. I already suspected that, sandwiched between the longest day and the final supposed victory lap to the lighthouse, Day Seven would be a death-or-glory affair. And it lived up to this assumption.

The weather was good, the views were stunning as usual but with 61km the day wasn’t that much shorter than the day before. The issue for me was that going downhill was awkward and painful. The nature of much of the tussocky ground underfoot meant that I couldn’t just gently plonk a foot down – I had to be pretty confident with my footing which involved actually putting weight on my knee. Anyhow, I was determined to get to the end in time and hopefully in one piece. I was making decent progress although it was frustrating to be slower than people who I usually tended to match in pace. A good example of this was a new pal of mine, James, an ex-Commando with serious form for Munro bagging and generally bulldozing through awful terrain. My only advantage over his much stronger climbing ability and general hardness was my ability to run when the terrain was actually runnable (i.e. not very often). My running superpower is letting rip and flying on runnable downhills. But no chance of that here. Being left to my fate as he sped off from the cairn on Ben Dreavie roughly halfway through the day was particularly annoying as it wouldn’t have been an issue had I been more careful and not screwed myself up the day before. And, after a week of baked beans and veggie bangers, I had learnt that it wasn’t good to be behind him. Even the bracing winds of the Highlands struggled to shift his noxious wake away from my delicate nostrils. Even those ahead weren’t immune: once or twice I could identify him approaching from astern, foghorning his arrival across the glens like a randy stag. In fairness to him though, everyone seemed equally guilty of rocket-propelling themselves across the Highlands.

2018-05-26 14.49.14
Summit of Ben Dreavie

I’ve noticed an interesting thing that happens in any race I’m in. The worst period seems to come in the third quarter: you’ve over halfway, you’ve covered a lot of miles already and think it should soon be over, but there’s still loads to go. And so it was on this day. On top of the knee pain, one major spanner in the works was that this period involved dealing with what felt like an eternal non-track that perilously ran up a sort of half-cliff along the shores of a long loch.

Our Harvey maps showed a staggered dashed line for this bit which, according to them, denotes an “intermittent track”. Don’t believe Harvey whoever he or she is. There were plenty of times when I was standing on such tracks, double-checking my nav and GPS, looking at my feet and the track ahead in disbelief and trying to work out how anybody could call it a track or if if I was just losing my mind. They are genuinely intermittent in the sense that you might experience a couple of yards of passable terrain before you abruptly find yourself half-drowning in something organic and wet. In a nutshell, these “Harvey tracks” as I like to call them are easily distinguished from other tracks by their lack of typical tracky features. The track running along the edge of this loch was one such track.

I’m in pain, I’m on a trackless track and trying not to fall off the side of whatever crap I’m hobbling across into the loch below. I’m slipping, falling over, tumbling pretty much every other step. And it just goes on and on and on.

The whole thing is just getting a bit much now.

I lose it.

An inner rage erupts. I start screaming and swearing at everything. I’m in tears. I start bashing a trekking pole against a bit of Scotland. Mainly I swear. I feel really sorry for myself, that I’ve somehow been cheated or deceived, that nobody told me about this, that it’s someone else’s fault.

It continues this way for what feels like a long time.

And then, my friends, like a mirage, I get to the checkpoint.

And there’s a pub.

Now it’s not one of those quaint country pubs with a thatched roof, ten real ales straight from the keg and a bunch of West Country types with mutton chops drinking scrumpy down the skittles lane. But I’m not fussy. I have a Guinness and justify my choice because I’ve stayed well-hydrated throughout the day, it’s full of nutrients (don’t pregnant women get prescribed it in Ireland or something?) and it’s not very strong stuff. And it was worth it. I’m not the only runner in the pub either. Not the first, not the last. The owners probably sold up with the day’s takings and went to Vegas.

The final last push from the pub to the camp for the night is a couple of miles on asphalt. After so much wilderness, the slap-slap of road running feels strange and not in a nice way. The road seems to go on forever but, with some rare mobile coverage, I ring my wife in Sweden and get her to talk at me for half an hour until the job’s done.

I’m in a lot of pain, the blue fairy dust tape from the medics has made no difference whatsoever, but I know that even if I have to drag my body to the lighthouse the next day, I’ll get there in time. So this was the first part where I allowed myself the luxury of thinking that the medal was in the bag. That says something about the brutal psychology involved in this.

In the last post I wrote how if at any point you feel like everything is going your way, you can rest assured that the feeling won’t last. Well, the opposite is also true. For hours that day I just wanted to crawl into a hole. And, instead of a hole, I found a pub. Massive cognitive dissonance. Also utterly fantastic.

So there you have it, the three times during Cape Wrath when I really had to dig deep, rummage about and see if anything useful turned up:

  • Highland realisation on Day Two. Realising that I had signed up for more than just a parkrun. Plenty of time for overwhelming self-doubt.
  • When the wheels started to wobble on Day Six. Realising that not sticking to the plan by running like an idiot is a really bad idea. And that I would be punished for this error of judgement.
  • Learning on Day Seven that attacking rocks is futile. Being put in a situation where every part of me, including all my vanities and façades, had been peeled away like onion skins. And finding that all that was left of me was a small child having a temper tantrum at Scotland.

My goal was to not DNF. I surpassed that goal, placing in the top half overall. This result was beyond what I was hoping for.

***

Being competent at multi-stage endurance events involves so much more than physical ability. What follows is so overwhelmingly important, such a deciding factor, that I’ll spend the rest of this post discussing it.

So. You’ve put in hundreds of hours in the hills and trails, away from family and friends, sometimes in atrocious weather. Your legs have accumulated thousands of miles of experience. You’ve realised that this game requires more than “just a pair of running shoes” and have become an expert on hundreds of different bits of kit. Your credit cards are in danger of melting, you’ve re-mortgaged your home and you’re feeding your kids potatoes for dinner. You can tell your Injinjis from your Hokas from your OMMs from your Clifs. It looks like Salomon got drunk and puked clothes all over you. You’re all set.

Or are you?

There’s one skill which, although you can practice it by running other ultras and multi-stages, is still a bit of an unknown commodity until you’re actually up there for real. Because there’s no adequate dress rehearsal for something this big. And, ironically, it’s a skill that is both mission critical but that people often seem to overlook. It is…

Admin

I’m not a fast runner. I’m not a mountaineer. I can just about tell the difference between a Munro and a loch. And I can at times be quite lazy which is probably why I run ultras; to keep me on the straight and narrow. But admin is one thing that I’ve taught myself to be fairly good at.

Granted, some level of physical ability is required to complete something like Cape Wrath within the cut-offs and end up with a medal. But I would argue that an equally vital factor is the ability to take care of your body, your mind, your kit, to have a checklist constantly running through your head of things you need to sort out. And, as an ironic twist, the more tired, miserable, depressed and in pain you are, the more critical this ability to stay switched on becomes. When you’re in that state, it likely determines whether you succeed or fail at least as much as how physically fit you are. The slower you were in the mountains, the later you get back to camp… which means the less time you have to prepare for the next day’s onslaught meaning less time to eat, sleep and recover. And the knock-on effect of this can be dire: being late to leave camp due to avoidable faffing about meant less time to get to the checkpoints. Similarly, being slower than expected because you were unable to properly rest and refuel also means less time to get to the checkpoints.

Being good at admin is a ninja skill well worth picking up.

Doctors talk of the cascade effect where one unanticipated event triggers off an ever-worsening series of events. I’ve been running all my life but I’ve only been in the ultra game for a few years. Yet I’ve already seen a good number of DNFs in people who were physically more than capable enough but who got timed out due to the elusive admin factor. The thing is that it’s seldom identified for what it is. “I missed a cut off” isn’t telling the whole story and raising the root cause (which may be “I missed a cut off because I left camp way too late because it took ages to sort my feet out as well as the nuclear ball chafing which have both worsened overnight as I was too knackered to do it then as all I wanted was chips…”)

I remember being cold, wet, hungry and fed up by the end of Day Two. Pretty miserable. Everyone was soggy and had a thousand-yard stare like those soldiers in Vietnam films (especially Apocalypse Now which is basically a Cape Wrath documentary but with guns and set in a jungle). I too just wanted to head straight to the food tent when I blipped in for the day to answer the siren call of the chip fryer. But I had a sort of mantra in my head, an inner voice shouting “FEET, FEET, FEET” which dictated that I sort my trotters out before I did anything else and that the food could wait half an hour. So the checklist in my head (if you’re a proper running weirdo I’ve written it up at the bottom of this post) was making sure I changed, cleaned up, got warm and dry, sorted my feet out, got things ready for the night and the next day.

My military experience is only slightly above zero but I know enough to remember that this issue of admin was so important that it was almost holy. It wasn’t good to pick up a reputation as a soldier who couldn’t sort themselves out because they were “crap at personal admin”. If not sorting your feet out in the Highlands means a DNF and feeling sorry for yourself, then not sorting your rifle out in some scary faraway sandpit could potentially mean a whole different type of game over for you and your friends. The reason I say this is that there’s no harm in having that sort of military mindset here. You’re doing the ultra to enjoy yourself, push yourself and so on. But above all you’re also presumably doing it because you want to get to the end, climb up onto that stage and get the medal.

There are plenty of ways to DNF through sheer bad luck. Some very competent people who have all my respect didn’t make it to the lighthouse through no fault of their own. And this is heartbreaking to witness, even more so to endure. There’s no guarantee of success no matter how hard you train and prepare. That just gives you all the more reason to do all you can to nudge the odds in your favour. And to get good at admin, it means cultivating a bit of self-discipline. It’s an elusive thing. But, to anyone reading this who is thinking of giving something like Cape Wrath a go, you’d be a fool not to want to do yourself the favour of being on top of things.

I want to end on a cheerier note though. I don’t make my bed in the morning. I should clean our home far more often. And not let the washing pile up. But in Scotland I was more switched on because I had to be. It actually mattered. And I was grateful that I’d practised these skills on some other multi-day events.

Moral of the story? Self-discipline can be trained, get on top of your admin and put your feet at the top of that admin list…

(For those of you who were up in Scotland with me, forgive me for banging on a bit and preaching to the converted. But there may be some rookies out there reading this who can save themselves an avoidable early bus ride home. I think you get what I mean.)

Coming up next: feet, food and folk.

Carl’s ultimate “so you survived the mountains, you’re back at camp and don’t know what to do with your putrid carcass” admin checklist for the DNDNF wannabe:

  1. head straight to tent with water and gear, no lingering, socialising, heavy petting
  2. get naked, try not to bend over in close proximity to tentmates
  3. wash if possible, get over your fear of cold water, head to nearest loch, make hole in ice if needed
  4. put clean, warm, dry clothes on
  5. commence foot repair and don’t do anything else until that’s done
  6. do not do anything else until point 5 is complete
  7. how are your feet doing?
  8. do you see a pattern here?
  9. resupply race vest with next day’s nutrition
  10. lay out next day’s running gear
  11. get bed ready for the night
  12. time to party and eat chips!

Cape Wrath Ultra – Part One

400km, 11 000m+, eight days

did not dnf

This is the first of an undecided number of entries on what is hands down the hardest thing I have ever attempted in my life.

I’m going to assume that you already know enough about the Cape Wrath Ultra to know that it is difficult. They call it Scotland’s Marathon des Sables but those who have done both don’t think the comparison does it justice. Held every other year, eight days across the Highlands averaging over a marathon a day, 400km in total, 11 000m ascent. This time around, 177 started in Fort William of whom 110 finished having fully completed the race. I was one of them. With thousands of kilometres in my legs from over a year specifically training for it, this is a result I worked hard to achieve and that I am immensely proud of.

It took its toll though. It has taken me weeks to get to the point where I can write about it. Physically and mentally exhausted afterwards, I found that I couldn’t convert my feelings into words. I was like one of those tacky snow globes that had just been violently shaken and needed time to settle down. After weeks of soreness, I’m physically on the mend and can now gently resume training for my next completely unnecessary challenge: a 100-miler in a hot desert somewhere in Arizona this autumn. But the thing is that, although I know that Cape Wrath has profoundly affected me on a deeper level, I don’t think I fully understand quite how at the moment.

2018-05-23 13.33.52.jpg

Here I am standing in a silly karate pose with the famous Triple Buttress at serving as a far more dignified backdrop. This was roughly halfway into Day Four. Beinn Eighe is a complex mountain massif in Torridon and two of its summits are Munros higher than 3,000 feet. With only 35km to run, Day Four was far shorter than most of the other days so I had assumed beforehand that it would serve as a sort of relaxing interlude sandwiched between much harder and longer days. But this was a mistake. 35km isn’t far off a marathon. And most marathons don’t feature 1,400m ascent across at times arduous, trackless terrain.

2018-06-20 21.20.42 (1)
Beinn Eighe and then a really long annoying trackless bit to the east.

Within a few minutes of leaving this photo opportunity, we were confronted by miles of extremely technical scrambling and arduous trackless terrain. And that pretty much sums up the entire race: if at any point you feel like everything is going your way, you can rest assured that the feeling won’t last and that you’ll soon have to dig deep to keep going.

There are already plenty of fantastic articles and blog entries by fellow runners that do a great job of describing the topography of the course across its eight days. So, instead of giving a chronological account from start to finish, I thought that I’d pick out some of what I thought were particularly powerful moments of the race and explain how they affected me. In the next post, I’ll discuss what worked well and not so well for me in the hope it’ll help someone else out in the future. And in the post after that, I’ll probably talk about how I trained for it (and, again, what I’d do differently if I ran it again) as well as wider “life lessons” to be learnt from something this huge. But now back to the hills…

“Highland Realisation” or “When Scotland got a bit too Mel Gibson for my liking”: Day Two, Glenfinnan to Kinloch Hourn through Knoydart, 57km / 1800m+

2018-06-20 21.19.31 (2)
Wet Wet Wet and just as rubbish as their music.

We were blessed with dry, sunny and spectacularly un-Scottish weather for almost all of the race but Day Two was an exception to this. It rained a lot and it was chilly, there were plenty of sections with exposed rocks which became horribly slippery, my otherwise reliable waterproofs gave up on me by the end, and the wind chill from some of the passes left me feeling pretty sorry for myself and questioning my future in the race. On the second of eight days. With hundreds of rivers to cross, it was a given that our feet were almost always wet throughout the race. But on that day I actually started worrying that I would end up with macerated hands. So Day Two gave us all a Eureka moment, a sort of “yep, this is definitely serious stuff, we’re actually running over some pretty gnarly terrain and things could easily go sour” sort of awakening. Day Two was a shocker because it was unexpected. Scary red SOS buttons were pushed on satellite trackers, mountain rescue were scrambled.

Both Cape Wrath and its Welsh sister race the Dragon’s Back have historically been blessed with uncharacteristically good weather. And, as the race director Shane Ohly is quick to point out, it is only a matter of time before they have a race with prolongued spells of bad weather. When that inevitably happens, there won’t be more than a handful still hobbling onwards by the end of it. Having a bit of honest mountain weather on Day Two felt like Scotland’s way of firing a warning shot, that nature was telling us all that she could have us all for breakfast any time she liked. Had the rain continued into the latter days, I really don’t know if I would have managed to make it to the end. The prospect of everything staying wet for eight days, wet tents, wet sleeping bags, wet everything on top of the actual running across Scotland bit… it doesn’t bear thinking about. Even with near-perfect weather I was regularly at my physical and mental limit.

I had overlooked Day Two for some reason, possibly because it wasn’t supposed to be too hard or long, possibly because it didn’t look too bad on the map. But it was still hard and, with the foul weather, I was given a serious wake-up call which in retrospect was probably a good thing. I started to appreciate that, if I wanted to be there at the end without DNFing due to getting disqualified, missing the cut-offs, retiring through injury, losing a leg or falling off a cliff, I had to up my game and be dead serious both out in the mountains and back in camp. This wasn’t a parkrun.

“When the Wheels Started to Wobble”: Day Six, From Inverbroom to Inchnadamph, entering Assynt, 72km / 1400m+

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The bit where I thought I would try for a sub-2hr marathon.

The race website describes Day Six as “escalating into some very remote and rough high ground, but is preceded by significant distances on double tracks in the glens, and through prime salmon fishing country. Day 6 is the longest day, but for all those that have made it this far, this day will unlikely defeat you.” I reckon this description from the event website was fairly accurate and, as I knew that it started flattish before ending on a bumpier note, I only have myself to blame for what happened.

I was flying along at the start. As a mid-packer, I was always keen to get away fairly early in the morning each day so that I had more time back at camp in the evening to prepare, eat, drink and sleep. For the first half or so, I was pretty much on my own. I think I was the first or second person in the entire pack for much of it. And I was having a great day. After a rough trackless start which I covered unusually strongly, I got to a spectacularly fast and runnable double track skirting a gorgeous loch. And that’s where I decided to let rip. I ran like a Kenyan. In my head at least, I was smashing it (although there’s a video clip taken from a bothy where I run past looking a lot more ploddy). So everything was great. I was in the zone. I was, dare I say, experiencing flow. I even had a powerful sort of Zen-like moment of bliss, of sort of understanding the universe, which is hard to put into words but felt real enough. This was Buddhist monk stuff. But I was to encounter an issue later on that day…

You see, Day Six had a sting in its tail. It was silly of me to think that the whole day would be this runnable as there were lots more contour lines on the map later on and, besides, I shouldn’t have needed a map to remember that the Highlands don’t stay flat for long. As I had been rocketing along the flat bits, there wasn’t much left to give towards the end. But the real issue was that my right knee was starting to hurt. This wasn’t a general soreness and it was a bit worrying that it was one specific knee rather than both knees simultaneously moaning which I wouldn’t have fretted about as much. So this was like an unfamiliar red warning light sort of pain. I hadn’t experienced it before but noticed that it hurt more on the downs than the ups. There wasn’t much to do but keep going, run/walk where possible, hobble on the downs and use my poles to shift as much weight as possible away from my legs. From that point until I got to the end of Day Eight, I was in pain and my progress slowed considerably.

I should know more about physiology than I do so, beyond knowing that it was probably due to me being silly and setting off too fast, I didn’t really understand what the source of this problem was. More importantly, I didn’t know if there was potential for me to properly screw up my knee. I even started to balance the risk of further lasting damage by continuing, versus the horror of a DNF and no medal. I was a bit wary of the medical tent in the same way that really old people don’t like hospitals. But I went to see them in the camp that evening. They had a poke about and did the classic “compare one body part with the other body part”, didn’t find anything obviously wrong, then got rid of me by offering to apply some blue kinesiotape which they said “works really well as it contains magical fairy dust”. This is a nice way of saying that it is snake oil (which I still reckon it is) but I quite liked it as having a blue smiley on my hurty knee made me look more athletic and tough in the photos. Judge for yourself.

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Sandwood Bay on the final day.

The reason for the knee issue turned out to be a tired, fatigued and generally fed up quadriceps that I had pushed too far. It had decided that enough was enough. And when that happened, the tendons connecting it to the front of the knee had caused havoc by pulling at the kneecap. As both my coach and an orthopaedic doctor back in Sweden already knew but I was finding hard to believe because of the pain, it was nothing serious and the pain slowly subsided over the course of three weeks.

The lesson here is to stick to your strategy. I had decided to be conservative from the start and my foray into East African marathon running in the middle of the Highlands wasn’t part of the plan. It was avoidable, I didn’t gain any advantage from it and just ended up hurting for weeks after. On the flip side, I did get to feel like I was the Dalai Lama for a few minutes.

To be continued…

Swedish Alpine Ultra, 107km

sau

107km, 2000m+, 4 UTMB

did not dnf!

Offering spectacular scenery in the Abisko National Park deep inside the Arctic Circle, the Swedish Alpine Ultra (SAU) shuns large crowds and traffic jams, corporate sponsorship and commercial interests, and excessive nannying of its runners. Instead, those who are fortunate enough to get to the start are offered a low-key ultra which is all about getting back to basics with a focus on self-sufficiency in the wilderness. Although fell cabins are spread out every ten miles or so along the course, there are no roads. Thus, if you hurt yourself, the only way to DNF is by helicopter rescue or crawling to the finish line or back the way you came. This isn’t one of those ultras where you earn a belt buckle by doing a couple of flat loops of paved road with cheerleaders shoving bananas in your face every hour. The man behind SAU, Roland Engström, deserves respect for keeping it the way it is and, if you ask him nicely, he’ll even tell you what provoked him to set up this gig.

SAU is a project of love. There is no profit in this event. But there’s also much beyond the actual race to the finish line. Great lodging and food is offered at both ends. The start is in Nikkaluokta, home to Sámi settlements for thousands of years, and the finish in Abisko is world-famous as a spot to see the winter Northern Lights and one of Sweden’s most cherished fell stations. And there’s a very special feeling of comradeship between those who take part. Nobody is better or worse than anyone else and, along with rookies like me, the event seems to attract repeat offenders. Everyone is genuinely lovely and the nights before and after the race give ample opportunity to chat and get to know the crowd a bit.

I started training for this roughly half a year before and had run about 1,000km during that period. Although I’d done a fair bit of hill work in places like the Peak District and Black Forest, my longest run had only been a 50km out and back trail in relatively flat Uppsala so I wasn’t entirely sure how I would cope with more than double the distance as well as mountains. Judith, a fellow trail runner from Uppsala, had joined me on quite a few of my longer runs and, as she had managed to bag a place at the last minute, we decided to run the whole race together. Our strategy was conservative: take time to eat and drink properly and, above all, start walking the ups and tricky bits before we thought we needed to.

Actually travelling to the start in Nikkaluokta is an adventure in itself which is often overlooked or otherwise taken for granted by Swedes. Sure, you can fly to Stockholm and connect onto a domestic flight to the nearby town of Kiruna. But the only proper way to get there is by taking the sleeper train. In this sense I feel privileged as I only needed to cycle ten minutes from my home to the station. (It’s worth noting that if you time your flight into Stockholm Arlanda right, you can stroll to the airport station after landing and catch the same direct train.) After dumping my bag on my berth, I got cozy in the bistro wagon and carbo-loaded on overpriced Norrlands Guld. I always seem to have issues sleeping soundly on trains but these berths were actually comfortable. Take the train if you can and certainly before some bureaucrat decides to take it away against all common sense: sleeper trains are an endangered species.

On arrival in Kiruna the next day, a bus was waiting to drive us the hour or so to Nikkaluokta. We were too early to check in to our cabins but I found someone else’s bed to snooze and drool onto in the hours before a pre-race briefing (which dramatically took place in a church) and a dinner of moose and potatoes. And then we all went to bed.

Race Day

No crappy distorted music with awful aerobics session to pump us up, no air horn, no starting gun, not even a whistle. Just Roland with half a dozen stopwatches around his neck counting down “three, two, one, go” in such a faint voice that I wasn’t even sure if we had started or not.

Although there are no checkpoints as such (there’s not really any way of cheating by taking shortcuts on this course), most runners seem to psychologically break the course down into a number of stages based on the fell stations and cabins along the way. I’ve given each of the stages a keyword highlighted in bold which sums up my thoughts about them…

1/7 Nikkaluokta – Kebnekaise (19km)

Notes from the SAU website: “Not particularly technical. Relatively straightforward, rocky in places. There is decking and bridges where needed.”

About ten minutes into the race my feet got drenched and stayed wet for the rest of the course. I accepted early on that people weren’t joking when they said that we should expect a lot of water. Lots of time spent wading across swollen rivers later on. And much of the decking which is there to keep you above flooded areas was itself submerged due to snow melting late in the season and excessive rainfall over the previous days. Don’t bother with Gore-Tex. It’ll just keep the water in your shoes. Instead, try to have shoes that are good at squishing out excess water. And just accept that your feet will be wet for a long time. Luckily the water is so icy cold that you won’t have any sensation in your feet. Fantastic!

2/7 Kebnekaise – Singi (14km)

“Relatively straightforward stretch even here. Worth noting are the boulder fields: the small rocks tend to wobble which can cause nasty falls and sprains.”

Being brazen enough to attempt running across these fields strikes me as particularly mad. Stage 2 taught me that it was arrogant to assume that the entirety of the course could be “runnable” and that time and speed predictions are a fool’s game. I suppose I could have attempted to run across this minefield of wet, slippery, round, football-sized rocks, but I have kids to take care of. It was my first crack at this sort of thing so I chose to play it safe.

3/7 Singi – Sälka (12km)

“Simple stretch.”

…although this was also where I stopped by a cabin only to happen upon Andreas, a fellow runner who had fallen over, dislocated his shoulder which had popped back in, then fallen over again, dislocated his shoulder again, and was now in such horrible pain that a helicopter was on its way to him. I was there long enough to see the helicopter land and the doctor and pilot nonchalantly chat with those kindly people who man these cabins whilst violently shoving his shoulder. A running joke for 2017 is that Andreas actually won the race, just not entirely by foot: after a casevac to a regional hospital in Gällivare, he then got a taxi for the 220km journey to Abisko. I hope I haven’t misrepresented this story but, in any case, this stage introduced me to the perils of falling over. I was to fall over many more times before the race was done. The more tired I got, the lazier my brain became, the less I lifted my feet off the ground, and the more it felt like my feet were a sort of black hole magnetically sucking all manner of roots, rocks and debris towards them.

4/7 Sälka – Tjäktja (12km)

“Beautiful nature to be surrounded by. Poor markings up to the Tjäktja pass but easy enough if you aim for the cross at the top. Wind shelter and WC at the summit.”

Stage 4 taught me that snow is bad. There was so much horrible, slippery and unrunnable snow. It sapped so much energy and was just completely pointless. I hated it. I hated the horrible scramble on all fours up to the summit of the Tjäktja pass. It was rubbish. Stopping at the wind shelter at the top, I swallowed my first painkiller.

5/7 Tjäktja – Alesjaure (13km)

“Very rocky on the way down from the summit. Be observant about which path to take a couple of kilometres down as there’s a risk you’ll miss the path. You’ll see the Alesjaure cabins from a long way away”

I was cold and miserable. I couldn’t feel my fingers as my gloves were too thin. I wasn’t anticipating having to become an overclocked goat and use my hands as extra feet in order to summit a mountain pass. But at least it was downhill, although not in the sort of “Woohoo! I’m flying down this hill and I’m amazing!” kind of way. More of a “I’m such a moron and can’t feel my balls” kind of way. But it was true that I could see the cabins from a long way away. And it felt that they never actually got any closer. They were a long way away for a long time. I felt sorry for myself at this point. Stage 5 was my Kurt Cobain moment, so to speak, and I entered some sort of depression. But I was eating well, drinking plenty of water and still managing my body and expectations well. Although I still couldn’t feel my balls, I wasn’t too concerned since I already have two kids and don’t need any more.

6/7 Alesjaure – Abiskojaure (21km)

All I really remember from this bit was the Alesjaure cabin where I drank some sort of broth consisting of half a stock cube in water, ate lots of sour cream crisps (or chips if you’re linguistically deranged), and running for a long time by the side of a lake. I was starting to get a bit fed up with the fact that I was still running. I was actually doing a lot more running than I had anticipated. I was walking the hard bits but had established a new rule that I was under no circumstances to walk on decking or the rare smooth patches. And then I invented an irritating mantra: “The more you run, the sooner it’s over…” It was stupid in its obviousness but I repeated it loudly for a couple of hours and it seemed to help somehow. I think this was the part where I started seeing things, mistaking bushes for backpacks. But there was simultaneously a growing awareness that I was actually getting closer to the finish. Stage 6 saw my earlier depression lifted by a sense of optimism. It dawned on me that, provided I continued to play the game conservatively, to not smash myself up tripping over a rock in my confused state, I would get this done.

7/7 Abiskojaure – Abisko (15km)

The last couple of hours felt like a lifetime but they were strangely not the hardest. I felt remarkably good physically and mentally, I was still managing to run in a respectable fashion, I was doing alright. The last bit felt like a glorious motorway compared to the hundred of so kilometres behind me. Hardly anything for me to trip over! This was were our conservative strategy really paid dividends. Sure, I was getting fatigued and starting to mildly hallucinate, but I wasn’t really suffering. This final stage involved just ticking over and putting one foot in front of the other. And eventually I stepped over the finish line at around 3am, collapsed into a chair and started to cry.

Silvrback blog image

Post-race, kit, food

I had spent part of the earlier stage taking to a lovely couple called Tua and Ingemar and now found them warming up in the sauna. With no respect for decorum, Tua borrowed my cherished Swiss Army knife to perform surgery on her feet in the sauna.* I had sleep issues for a couple of nights after the race, was extremely stiff and sore but mentally felt like I was on a huge high for a long time afterwards.

My feet were not far off becoming macerated by the constant submersion but they were miraculously blister-free. This I suspect was due to the combination of shoes and socks: Hoka One One Mafate Speed 2 and Injinji. My only gripe with the Hokas is that they could do with a bit more reinforcement at the front: it’s not nice playing football with rocks. I also wish that I’d packed thicker gloves. I hadn’t anticipated having to use my hands to scramble up the snowy Tjäktja pass and felt myself cold and exposed at its summit. Navigation is relatively straightforward and a map and compass is sufficient (provided, of course, that you know what you’re doing with them). But it was good having the route uploaded as a GPX file onto my Suunto Ambit 3 and being able to glance at my wrist if I was at a junction and not completely sure of what path to take. I had a battery pack and cable for both watch and mobile phone which served as a camera (bear in mind that there is no mobile coverage for 99% of the course). I never needed my headlamp as the sun never really set. It was good having sunglasses to avoid the glare of running on the snowy parts.

As for nutrition, I knew that I wanted “proper food” and tried to steer clear of gels and the like. (I’ve always preferred salt over sugar anyway.) And it turned out that this was a smart move as I didn’t suffer from the nausea or stomach upsets I’m normally plagued with during marathons. I actually enjoyed chewing my way through a kilo or two of Swedish meatballs and pytt i panna even if it weighed me down to start with. As for hydration, a great beauty of this race is that the water throughout the course is so naturally pure and plentiful that you don’t need much more than a cup with you.

victorinox

*The Victorinox Rambler is a spectacular knife for ultra-related surgery. It’s tiny, much smaller than the typical Swiss Army knife, and I’ve naughtily carried it onto flights. A small but sharp blade, a pair of toe-chopping scissors, tweezers, and… a bottle opener!

Finally…

Hikers normally take a week to cover this route. It took me just over 19 hours to run it and I was delighted to have not only reached the finish line but come in under 24 hours. This year’s winners, brothers Jonas and Tobias Johansson, came in under 12 hours which is a course record, incredible and also recklessly fast. They have all my respect. I hope I’ve managed to give a decent description of the terrain and practicalities of this race. But there is no way I can adequately describe the pride and sense of achievement I experienced at having completed it. You’ll have to do it yourself to find out.