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+

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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!

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