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.
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.
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+
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+
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.
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…