Arriving in Fort William for the 2021 Cape Wrath Ultra was a strange experience, at first I thought it was just because it was so long since I had last raced due to covid, but then I realised, this would be the first race that I had ever done twice!
I don’t do hundreds of races, but when I do, it is definitely the adventure of uncertainty and new terrain that appeals to me. For many years I raced the LAMM every year, but the nature of a mountain marathon means that it is a new area and new course every year, so it always feels different and exciting. I did start the Scottish Islands Peaks Race twice, but the first event ended with a helicopter ride to hospital after a slip on Mull, so that doesn’t really count either!
Why then would the Cape Wrath Ultra be the first event that I have come back to? In 2018 I had had an amazing, full on experience. I was blown away by the quality of the route, how the geography changes every day, getting more spectacular as you head north. I had met some great people but I also had one of the most mentally challenging weeks of my life. After day 4 I was pretty well broken, tendonitis in one achilles and both shins as well as ligament damage in one ankle left me reduced to a painful hobble each morning. The mental challenge of getting moving each day made the final completion of the event hugely rewarding. It was however not an experience I would be rushing to repeat.
The 2018 event marked a big turning point in my running, I entered the event at the same time that I founded Trail Running Scotland and it was a huge step up for me in terms of challenge, having never raced more than a 2 day event, and having only ever run 60k once in my life before. It showed me what was possible and opened the door to the Dragon’s Back Race in 2019 and my Cairngorm Parkrun in 2020.
My motivation therefore in 2021 wasn’t about the unknown of could I complete the event, but it was more directly personal. How much difference had 3 years of consistent running and better informed preparation made? I believed I should be able to prepare in such a way that I could run the week well and perform rather than just survive, but there was only one way to find out.
The 2021 starters
Whilst all of our lives have been disrupted over the past 18 months, I am very conscious that from a preparation perspective, I was lucky. Enforced time off work gave me opportunities for uninterrupted training months that I never normally get. Based in Aviemore I was also still able to access rough and hilly terrain right from the door, essential for an event like this.
Over the last few years I’ve become more confident that I can deal with the distances involved in the CWU, so my preparation was more focussed on performing well. My main weakness is always my speed, rather than endurance. Over the winter I built up from 5k, to 10k then half and marathon pbs. Including a fair amount of road mileage due to the snowy trails. As the snow melted I added the hills, with intervals on steep climbs and longer days in the mountains. Along side all of the running training I had a consistent programme of strength and conditioning. The crux of CWU is staying injury free which with 8 days of such punishing terrain needs a lot of specific work.
I added two quite different preparation events, 2 days on the Skye Trail in May and a Charlie Ramsey’s round in June. Both of these gave me confidence as I finished them both feeling strong, maybe I could push a bit harder?
Enjoying myself on day 1
Strategy and goals
Looking at the entry list before the event, my expectation was 100% that the race would see an all female podium, with GB Ultra team member Sally Fawcett, Dragon’s Back winner Lisa Watson and general trail/mountain legend Sabrina Verjee fighting it out for the top. In a way that was good for me, it stopped me thinking about racing anyone and forced me to think about myself. My only goal for the week was to run well each day, stay injury free and see how much I could improve on my 2018 time over the 8 days. As I have done more of these longer events I’ve learnt the fairly obvious lessons about pacing the hard way. This time I was focussed on the processes involved in getting through each day well rather than thinking about any potential outcomes.
The 8 days
It is fair to say that the event started better for me than I could have possibly hoped and got a little bit better every day!
It was clear from the first few km of the race, as we ran along the road towards Cona Glen that whatever happened in terms of racing, we would be in for a really friendly and sociable week. As the lead group of 6 ran down the road chatting it would have been very easy to forget you were in a race at all. I’ve never been anywhere near the front of a race before so I can’t compare, I don’t know if it is just the nature of such a long event, or if such strong female influence at the front made a difference. From the first km to the last, the atmosphere was great. No posturing or mind games, just a group of runners out to enjoy themselves, doing their best but happy to support others and see them run well.
Keeping up with Sally on day 6
Taking a bit of a lead over the first couple of days, I then ran a few bits of the following days with the female leaders, Sally and Lisa. It was great to have some company, but it also took the stress out of it for me knowing how they were going. Every day I expected them to put their stamp on the race and leave me for dust, but the further through the week we got the less likely this became.
I always thought day 6 would be the tipping point for me. With 30km of very runnable track in the middle of the day it was definitely an opportunity for some of the better runners in the field to take back some time. It was therefore a great relief to feel strong up over the first hill. A lot of rough hill running terrain here worked to my advantage and I was then able to pace most of the track section with Sally and Lisa. Reaching the top of the final climb of the day with Sally, the realisation hit that unless something went badly wrong, I should finish the week on top. The buzz from this thought (combined with a really strong caffeine gel!) had me running like the wind down the last descent to Inchnadamph, the most fun I had all week!
Running hard to Inchnadamph
Given my lead starting day 8, I could have taken it easy, but somehow that didn’t feel right. My goal for the week was always about putting together my best possible 8 days of running, so I should continue to give it my best. My fastest 5km of the week was leaving Kinlochbervie and I’m not sure I could have run that day any faster if I was fresh. A hugely satisfying way to finish the week and it will take a while longer yet until I can really believe what just happened!
This was always going to be an unusual event in many ways, postponements and international restrictions meaning we started with less than 90 participants. Over the course of the week you get plenty of time to get to know each other, either out on the trails or at the overnight camps. The nature of the intense shared experience quickly brings everyone together and by day 8, those who are left feel a strong bond. It was great to share the week with you all and a real pleasure to see the different reactions as people crossed the line.
This year was also a first for me in that I had helped coach a few of the runners taking part. Knowing the work that they had put in, it was hugely satisfying to see them all finish. Michael with his unwavering, solid pace and Selina and Catherine with an inspiring display of stoic determination.
At the finish with Catherine and Selina
I’d also like to make a special mention for those who finished as the slowest in the race. The last finisher spent nearly 36 hours more than I did out on the course over the 8 days! That is truly staggering. The extra time on your feet is huge, but more importantly, that is 36 hours less time for recovery, eating, sleeping and faffing with kit. I have no doubt that this event is harder for the slower finishers, you have my upmost respect!
A tourist asking me if I was ok as I stood up to my waist in the river by the camp at Glenfinnan. I couldn’t begin to explain what I was up to so just smiled and said “yes thanks, you?”
Several sea eagle sightings during the week. I’m not sure if the 2 circling above camp on night 2 were looking for stragglers!
Arriving in camp on day 5 to find a midge free zone!
That descent down to Inchnadamph
Daily messages from the outside world, a motivating mix of encouragement and abuse!
Unexpectedly seeing Laura and Reiff (Wife & dog) waiting at the end of the road at Rhiconich on day 7.
Thanks to the team at Ourea Events and all of the volunteers who made the event possible.